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Community Life

Volume 760: debated on Wednesday 25 March 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will establish a Royal Commission to investigate threats to community life in the United Kingdom and their effects; and to recommend counter-measures.

My Lords, community life is alive and well. Strong communities are shaping their own destinies across England and we are supporting people in their efforts. The Government have given power to communities and they are seizing the opportunities offered. Fourteen hundred communities are shaping development in their area through neighbourhood planning, over 130,000 young people have delivered community projects through the National Citizen Service, and 800 multifaith Near Neighbours volunteering projects are happening across the country.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply, but if I may say so the Answer was extremely complacent. Most of the indicia of a vibrant society and community life are giving rather the opposite impression. I think of things such as loneliness, a lack of civic engagement and an increasing individualisation of life. Therefore, are we not overdue in looking at admittedly elusive and complex issues in a national and interdisciplinary way before the trends that seem obvious to many of us engulf us?

My Lords, my noble friend has a point about social capital, which has been in decline since the war, but this Government have been successful in many of their efforts to encourage people to engage in community life and indeed to combat the loneliness that afflicts so many people, particularly our elderly.

On planning and engaging with local government, communities are now far more involved in the destiny of neighbourhood planning. One hundred and thirty thousand young people are delivering community projects through the National Citizen Service, and this has resulted in 3 million volunteering hours. The Centre for Social Action has invested £40 million and has leveraged £27 million into 215 social action projects.

My Lords, I should like to ask about neighbourhood planning, but before I do that perhaps I may take the opportunity, on behalf of the Labour group, to pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, for his substantial input into our deliberations over a number of years. We wish him a long and happy retirement, doubtless in the company of some of his friends from the other end.

The noble Baroness referred to the new neighbourhood planning regime brought in by the Localism Act 2011. As regards the coverage of those neighbourhood plans, it is understood that three-quarters of them are concentrated in the south of England and only a third in urban areas. Little has been done to widen the remit of the plans and to encourage uptake in disadvantaged communities. What more do the Government propose to do to help disadvantaged communities to have their opportunities in this regard?

My Lords, 1,400 communities have been involved in neighbourhood planning, but I am afraid that I will have to get back to the noble Lord on where those communities lie. There is no doubt that for community cohesion, when neighbourhoods are involved in their own destiny, for example in planning, it leads to happier communities.

My Lords, community life struggles and suffers very much in rural areas as well as in urban areas. While welcoming the promise of a 95% rollout of superfast broadband, does the Minister appreciate that the other 5% represents more than 3 million people who are almost all in rural areas and will not have access to superfast broadband or, all too often, to post offices, gas supplies, public transport, local schools and so on? Is this not the time to have a royal commission?

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate is correct when he says that some of the infrastructure in rural communities, such as shops, schools, and post offices in particular, is their lifeblood. I commend the rural communities in, for example, Cumbria that have done their own social action project to make sure that broadband gets to their communities. The right reverend Prelate is right that the remaining 5% of the population do not have superfast broadband, but the Government are working on that.

My Lords, is it not right that we should move on from cohesion to the celebration of differences? The only way for many communities to feel included and not otherwise is if their different approaches are recognised, respected and accepted, rather than always trying to make a single society.

The noble Baroness makes a very good point. As communities we should celebrate what unites us and not what divides us. We should celebrate our differences as well as our similarities. I thank her for bringing that point forward. The Government have launched a number of projects that help to celebrate the fact that we are one community and are not separated by faith and other things. I saw an example of the Near Neighbours project in Rochdale, which is a very good example of the Church of England working with the neighbouring mosque. People, particularly the elderly, in those communities feel altogether safer and that they are in a better neighbourhood.

My Lords, I wonder whether other noble Lords find it as surprising as I do that the noble Baroness in her answers has not mentioned the big society, which was launched with such fanfare at the beginning of this Government and which promised to make the sort of contribution to community life that is contained in this Question.

My Lords, the big society is alive and well and living in a community near you. It is now so integrated that perhaps I forgot to mention it. Since 2010, volunteering has increased hugely from 66% in our communities to 74%. Particular mention should be made of the legacy of the Olympics, which generated 100,000 volunteers. Their talents and help are being harnessed in the Join In project.

I, too, pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Phillips of Sudbury. I had not realised that it would be the last time he would be on his feet here.

My Lords, no Conservative has yet taken part in these exchanges. I echo the thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury. Would it not help community cohesion if we enabled all our young people to go through a proper citizenship ceremony—I have advocated this many times before—where they acknowledge their rights and responsibilities as part of a united community, however disparate their faiths and other beliefs may be?

My Lords, I pay tribute to our young people. I sometimes think that they get a very bad press. I certainly speak for my children’s friends’ generation when I say that they have a far better sense of community spirit and social action than, say, I ever had.