Motion to Consider
My Lords, the order before us today will make amendments to the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007. The changes will make it easier to create new town and parish councils by improving the community governance review procedure.
Town and parish councils are a valuable part of our democracy and an important component of our vision for localism. Parish councils provide communities with a democratically accountable voice and a structure for taking community action. The Localism Act 2011 gives parish councils a range of powers, including neighbourhood planning, and we want to see parish councils take on a greater service delivery role for their local communities.
Many local communities clearly have a passion for placing power at a more localised level. However, the prospect of embarking on a lengthy process to realise that goal has discouraged many communities which wish to live in a parished area from exploring this opportunity. We are committed to working with local communities, councils at all levels, and representative bodies across the sector to explore measures to remove the obstacles that stifle the potential which exists for creating more new town and parish councils.
The legislation governing the community governance review procedure requires that every principal council conducts a review as it gives consideration to whether to create a new town or parish council. The proposals which I set out today will improve the experience for local communities, which will be better placed to achieve their vision of local governance at the grassroots level.
The draft legislative reform order was laid before Parliament on 11 December 2014 under the affirmative resolution procedure. The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee scrutinised the order on 21 January 2015 and raised it to the super-affirmative procedure. The chair of the committee, my noble friend Lady Thomas of Winchester, invited the Department for Communities and Local Government to submit further information. I am pleased that following the submission of further details, the committee confirmed its satisfaction that the order now meets the tests set out in the 2006 Act. I am grateful to the committee for its hard work in scrutinising this order.
Before getting into the details of the amendments to the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007, I will briefly explain the background to these measures. In 2011, the Open Public Services White Paper set out the policy objective of making it easier to set up new town and parish councils. This reflected the growing belief among local campaigners and the local government sector that under the current legislation, the process is too burdensome and bureaucratic for local citizens.
We undertook two government public consultations to consider these proposals. The first consultation was conducted from October 2012 until January 2013 and sought views on a wide range of measures to improve the governance review procedure, including the three specific measures set out in the proposals today. It has been particularly insightful to listen to the views of bodies such as the National Association of Local Councils, the Society of Local Council Clerks and the Local Government Association and to learn from the first-hand experiences of new and established town and parish councils which have gone through the review process. Respondents to the consultation were broadly in support of the three measures proposed. As a result, the Department for Communities and Local Government decided to proceed with plans to introduce the three key legislative measures.
In the second public consultation, conducted between March 2014 and May 2014, we gave specific consideration to the use of a legislative reform order as the mechanism for introducing the proposals. All those who responded to the consultation fully supported the specific use of the LRO. Today, I am asking noble Lords to support the introduction of measures that will help to deliver on the commitment first made in 2011. Introducing these changes will benefit local communities by giving them a greater say in how their local neighbourhood should be governed.
In summary, the new measures will, first, reduce the percentage of local government electors required to sign a community governance petition that will trigger a community governance review from 10% to 7.5%. This change will enable local campaigners to obtain the required number of the local electorates’ support more quickly, allowing for the voice of communities to be heard and for the review to be triggered within a shorter timeframe. Secondly, it will reduce the period allowed for the relevant local authority to conclude a community governance review from 12 months from the date the review begins to 12 months from the date of receipt of the petition or application. Introducing a clearly defined timeline will significantly reduce the financial and administrative burden currently being placed on local communities. It will also help local communities to campaign more effectively by reducing the costs associated with delivering local campaigns, including the cost of producing leaflets, circulating campaign material and hosting meetings.
Thirdly, it will allow those neighbourhood forums which have a neighbourhood development plan that has passed a referendum to trigger a community governance review without the need for a petition. This significant change recognises the important role that neighbourhood forums play in our local communities. The membership of forums reflects the different people who live in a local area. Allowing forums which have already received support for their plans through a referendum to trigger a review will avoid duplication and acknowledge the extensive work that they undertake to engage the wider community in the discussions about forming a new council. These three measures will foster collaborative working between local authorities and campaigners, and lead to greater local democracy.
In summing up, I emphasise that the proposed amendments to the legislation will be invaluable for local communities. The changes unlock the barriers within the current legislation, which will enable local citizens to realise the benefits to be gained from living in an area represented by a town or parish council. We are seeking to complete the process of parliamentary scrutiny and to bring these changes into force as soon as possible. I beg to move.
My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, outlined, this legislative reform order makes it easier to set up new town and parish councils. At present, a local authority or local campaigners petition the local authority to create a new town or parish council. A petition must meet the threshold of signatures to instigate a review. The local authority must then set the terms of reference, including the geographical area the review will cover. The review is completed within 12 months, and the final decision rests with the principal council.
A number of changes are proposed in this order, and it would be useful if the Minister will comment further on them, including the decision to reduce the proportion of people signing the petition to 7.5% and the consequent reductions in the other thresholds. Did the department consider the practicalities of having a percentage figure and a small, fixed figure for smaller authorities rather than the current scale?
In respect of reducing the 12-month period from when the review begins to when the petition is received, how much of a difference is there in reality? Will the Minister give the Grand Committee more evidence for the assertion that where a neighbourhood forum has been set up it can trigger a review? I am not sure how many neighbourhood forums have been set up in England. Can the Minister tell the Committee anything on that?
I am a local councillor in Lewisham in south London. I represent the ward of Crofton Park. We have just started the process of setting up a neighbourhood forum. If the forum gets off the ground, I am not clear whether we want to go the further stage and consider setting up a parish council. Setting up the forum is quite a challenge for local people.
I am aware that a new parish council in London—Queen’s Park, Westminster— was elected last May. Does the Minister have any assessment of how it is working? Particularly for London to get a parish council—the first one in 50 years—is interesting. If he has any comments on it, that would be helpful.
I again endorse what my noble friend has said. I have no objection in principle to the order, but I am wondering about the evidence base which underpins it. I have been looking across a few local authorities and a large number of parish and town councils have been created and boundary changes made over the years. What scale of problem is being addressed in terms of failure to reach the requirements of the present legislation in the number signing petitions and subsequently voting on a proposal? Have many failed on that account? It would be interesting to know that.
For that matter, is there a view about the turnout in subsequent elections for town and parish councils? Does it differ significantly from the admittedly not wonderful turnout in local elections generally? Certainly in my, now very long, experience of local government, one used to hear of parish councils in which it was pretty difficult to gauge the turnout because there was none. People were regularly returned unopposed. It would be interesting to find out whether that is still the case. I do not think we are quite going to reach Athenian democracy by virtue of the implementation of these measures. I do not necessarily object to them, but I would like a little more knowledge of the factual background to the proposals and whether they are likely to make any significant difference.
I thank noble Lords for their general support. I suppose that I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Beecham: “You want more?”. I hope that we can provide some more evidence on this, but I am genuinely grateful for the support because I think that we are all aligned to the principle of making things easier for our communities, and the order reflects that. The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, asked about the 7.5% threshold. We originally proposed 5% but, based on feedback that some felt that was too low, we amended the proposal to 7.5%, so that reflected the consultation.
The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, also asked about the number of neighbourhood forums. Forums have been set up across the country. There are many in London, including one in Lewisham, I believe. They are found across all our major cities, including Liverpool, Birmingham and Bristol. The noble Lord also asked about the 12 months. We believe that the introduction of the 12-month timeline will result in a more effective decision-making process and will give people certainty about the length of time that the review will take. DCLG’s informal consultations and the 2013 formal consultation have shown that local campaigners feel that they face unnecessary burdens as a result of the bureaucracy in the current process. I am sure that all of us who have served in local government can recount many occasions when that issue has been raised by residents.
The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, asked about the new council in Queen’s Park. The new Queen’s Park council has already delivered several community events, although these are very early days. It is important that it will reflect the views of local residents who, we feel, are better placed to take decisions and represent their area’s interests.
The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, talked about turnout, which is a very valid question to raise. As with all elections, turnout varies, but where the community understands that it has a stake, it is comparable to other tiers of local government. As a general point, I agree with the noble Lord. Having served in local government, I have always been concerned about the low turnout that we see on issues and in areas which impact communities more directly. It is incumbent on all of us from across the political spectrum to do more. I am sure that we all recall that the Scottish referendum showed that where the right message is put across and people’s interest is engaged, they turn out to vote in large numbers.
The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, also talked about the evidence base. At the moment, governance reviews can take up to 18 months. We believe that, based on that experience, the process will significantly reduce the time to give greater certainty to local projects. Part of the evidence base was the frustration that residents feel. We believe that shortening the period and reviewing the percentage will allow for quick and more efficient decisions based on local needs.
With those responses, I commend the order.
I was really looking for evidence of the failure of the present system to get the relevant numbers, not so much about the timescale, which I concede to be a problem, and it should be improved. Is there an estimate of the number of cases where people have come forward but have simply failed to get the level of support currently required, which is now to be changed? Where is the evidence that that will make a difference?
As I said earlier, if we are talking about lowering the threshold, that was reflected in the consultation where 5% was proposed. The consultation showed that reducing the threshold from 10% to 7.5% constituted a fairer reflection of what the respondents felt would be the appropriate trigger. However, we feel that lowering the threshold somewhat will allow residents to move forward more quickly.