Motion to Take Note
My Lords, first I declare my vice-presidency of the Local Government Association, and perhaps I may thank in advance those who are taking part in the debate and say that I am looking forward particularly to hearing the three maiden speeches. My purpose today is to enable us to discuss local democracy, its condition and its importance. I hope that we will be able to assess what is happening to it in practice and what we can do to enhance it.
I am becoming increasingly concerned that under the guise of devolution, be it devolution to the nations or devolution within England, we are actually seeing a creeping centralisation which is disempowering people and their elected representatives at a local level. I was struck while reading the Scottish edition of the Times on Monday that there is a row taking place in Scotland between the Scottish Finance Secretary and the Scottish local authorities over who is responsible for deciding levels of council tax across Scotland. The president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities said that the financial constraints imposed by the freezing of council tax required by the Scottish Government were,
“an affront to local democracy”.
This difference of opinion is but one aspect of the difficulty we face right across the UK. Who is in charge of making decisions, not least decisions on levels of taxation? This is a pressing issue which I will return to at the end of my speech.
Two weeks ago, this House passed the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill. It is a welcome Act because it enables decentralisation and devolution from Whitehall and Westminster to take place in England. It could herald a significant shift in power, but it will succeed only if it is used as a means of encouraging greater public participation. A few years ago, shortly after the Prime Minister announced the arrival of the big society, I attended a seminar on the thinking behind it in the Cabinet Office. On the face of it, the big society is a good thing. If it engages more people in more activities in the voluntary and the third sector, and across public life, that must be welcomed.
In the course of this seminar, I was surprised to hear from a senior civil servant that the future was all about little platoons. Power would be devolved from government, be it national or local government, to groups of people who would have responsibilities for given areas of policy and its implementation at a local level. Hence, in health, education and local enterprise partnerships, for example, power would reside with small groups of people who would derive their ultimate authority from Whitehall.
The concept of the little platoon comes from Edmund Burke, who said that,
“to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed toward a love to our country and to mankind”.
But, of course, for Edmund Burke, the little platoons reflected one social group, not something that could be joined. Burke’s concept, updated to reflect today’s civil society, has led to lots of little platoons being created. It is time we assessed the policy more closely in the context of what is happening to local government and its elected members whose powers are gradually being eroded.
At the seminar I attended on the big society, I questioned what would happen when these little platoons bumped into each other, which inevitably they would. I recall this causing much merriment. I found myself wondering who would provide the necessary strategic leadership, the co-ordination, the review and the scrutiny of all these independent bodies—and, in truth, I am still wondering. A platoon is normally composed of between 15 and 30 people. In contrast to many elected bodies, that is not many, but at least it has the advantage of being more than a single person—which takes me to the rise of the commissioner.
I want to look first at schools. The last five years have seen a dramatic change in the schools system, with the creation of academies and free schools. Some of it has been an improvement, some of it has not. The DfE has confirmed that of the 20 biggest academy chains, only three perform above the national average when assessed using added value. On the other hand, almost half of councils perform above the national average. Because of that, some 16 months ago the Government appointed eight regional schools commissioners in England to hold academies to account. But their remit is too widely spread geographically and their role is not understood by the general public. Commissioners handle only academic standards of course and not matters of strategic planning, finance and safeguarding. Nevertheless, they are very important.
Last Saturday, I noted in my local morning paper, the Journal, an article with the headline, “The most powerful schools chief you may never have heard of”. The article explained how a single person was accountable for decisions affecting 257 secondary and primary academies in the north-east of England and Cumbria. Since the Government’s desire is that many more schools should become academies, this could mean that a single person will end up with a huge degree of power over local educational provision.
Where does this leave local education authorities? The answer is that they are becoming an endangered species. To whom is a commissioner accountable? Certainly not to parents, since PTA UK, the body representing parent-teacher associations, complained to the House of Commons Education Select Committee recently that just 10% of parents knew about regional schools commissioners, who are formally, of course, civil servants responsible directly to Whitehall.
Further, the responsibilities of regional schools commissioners were expanded a few months ago to include responsibility for assessing and improving the conversion of underperforming maintained schools into academies and deciding on their sponsors. In this, they are advised by a head teacher board of between six and eight people—in practice, a little platoon. Of those six or eight people, four are elected by academy heads. However, once those elections have been held, the regional schools commissioner has the power to appoint replacements on behalf of the Secretary of State and no further elections are required. In addition, these regional schools commissioners will have a performance measure for their own performance on how many schools they convert to academies. As an example of a centralising structure with inadequate local accountability and power residing in Whitehall, this is hard to better.
We should be grateful to the chair of the Education Select Committee in the other place, Neil Carmichael, who said in a report on regional schools commissioners published last week that regional schools commissioners,
“are a product of the department’s ‘acting first, thinking later’ approach”,
and that the DfE needs to establish “a more coherent system” and “proper accountability for schools”. I agree. It is to the council that parents go when there are issues that they wish to raise. Councils are the elected local bodies and they have a responsibility for educational standards. Why, given their good record, are they being denied the power to do so in the case of academies?
I move next to police and crime commissioners, which are another example of acting first and thinking afterwards. Because it was rushed legislation, abolishing police authorities in the process, the general public did not understand what problem they were supposed to solve at the ballot box. The consequence was a 15% turnout—hardly a democratic mandate for those who topped the poll. Following the passage of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, we will now face, before long, elections for mayors of combined authorities. Those who top the poll will have a democratic mandate in the sense that they will be elected, but I worry about turnout levels. Unless national and local government act to explain to the general public what is happening and why it matters, I fear a low turnout for these posts as well. That would not be good for local democracy, when those elected will have enormous powers over such matters as economic development and regeneration, transport, strategic planning and housing, policing, fire and rescue, and aspects of health and social care—all this without anything like the scrutiny system provided in London by the GLA.
With colleagues, I suggested in Committee on the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill that we should elect members of the combined authorities by proportional representation. This was not supported generally in your Lordships’ House, but I still feel that we may need to revisit this matter before too long. Combined authorities will have huge powers, and they will need to engage with and be accountable to the general public. I doubt that the general public will put up with less.
During the passage of the Bill, I explained my concerns about the creation of one-party states, in which a first past the post electoral system denies plurality in representation. Council leaders, members of the combined authority and an elected mayor could all be members of the same political party, with every possibility that they will have absolute power on substantially less than 50% of the vote. I do not think that this is healthy for democratic accountability. I wonder why it is that we are so reluctant in England to learn from the Scottish experience, where proportional representation has been in existence for local elections for many years. For that matter, can we not learn from Scotland of the advantages of votes at 16, which has had a dramatic effect on the general engagement of young people in politics?
I am grateful to the House of Lords Library for its briefing for this debate, and for the inclusion in it of the Hansard Society’s 2015 Audit of Political Engagement. It is instructive reading. We learn from it that just 20% of people say that they feel at least some influence over local decision-making. This figure has declined six percentage points in the last year. It is possible that it is a statistical blip, but I suspect that it may not be; and anyway, we cannot disregard the fact that it is the lowest level recorded in the audit series.
There are similar concerns about the declining numbers registered to vote and whether people feel certain that they would vote at an election, even if registered. But it is the first one which, in a local context, gives cause for concern. It is incumbent on us to do more to engage people with voting. They need to feel that their vote could make a difference. So what can we do? Proportional representation would help, because it would make every vote equally important and avoid the low turnout caused by safe seats. It would limit the emergence of a one-party state. Devolving more powers over taxation would help. When I see reducing government contributions to council spending and reduced allocations by other departments—for example, culture and transport—I think that we have to empower local government to devise other means of raising income beyond the conventional council tax and business rates. A further devolution, closer to neighbourhoods, would help. Such devolution is currently weak, in the sense that not all areas have parish or town councils, and some of those that do could benefit from enhanced powers. Neighbourhood planning may be well developed in some areas but is not in enough places.
I mentioned earlier the discussion in Scotland about who controls the level of council tax. I am grateful to the Library brief for reminding us that in March 2015 the then Secretary of State in DCLG, in reviewing DCLG achievements since 2010, said:
“The Labour Government increased taxes by stealth, forcing councils to hike council tax and charges. We have stood up for hard-working people”.
We may be forgiven a wry smile about that, as it becomes increasingly clear that while the central government grant will be held down over the life of this Parliament, the expectation is that council tax will rise significantly to meet the rise in bills, perhaps by as much as 20% or even more.
I conclude from all of this that we urgently need a constitutional convention on local democracy. It could look at the implementation of the Localism Act and assess what is missing. It could include the centralising tendency in local government itself to concentrate power in the hands of a few leading councillors, rather than to spread it through committee structures and thus involve a broader range of people. But it needs to go further. It needs to address the critical questions around who is responsible for what and in terms that the general public can engage with. For that reason, the convention proposal matters. It could look at all aspects of local funding as well—the level of resources, including the equalisation of resources in the face of 100% devolution of business rates, which may benefit some areas to the detriment of others. Inevitably, it will need to look at structures, not least because of the new tier being introduced through combined authorities.
In conclusion, the Government need to think very carefully now about how to move ahead. It is one thing to devolve in principle through legislation but another to get Whitehall joined up at a local level. That of course is why local democracy matters. I am confident that local government is up for the challenge. A convention would move us to the next stage. The work of the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, in his enquiry into devolution for the whole UK will be highly relevant.
I look forward to hearing all the other contributions to this debate, either on matters I have raised or on the many related matters. I thank those contributors again for their participation. I beg to move.
My Lords, I very much look forward to hearing the three maiden speeches today, in particular that of the noble Lord, Lord Porter, who is my successor but five as chairman of the Local Government Association. I refer to my interests in the register.
Local democracy and local government are two sides of the same coin. As we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, local government’s role has been steadily eroded. In the field of education to which he referred, in the 1980s further education was in effect stripped of all local council involvement. Latterly, under the coalition, the growth of academies and free schools has resulted in the ridiculous position where councils cannot now build new schools to meet growing needs, but must facilitate other accountable bodies doing so, even to the extent of providing them with land on demand. Local councils have not controlled schools for decades, but now their role in support and oversight is minimal. Ultimate power resides with the Secretary of State to an unprecedented degree. The position in housing is similar, being further promoted, as we discussed on Tuesday. The objective is to reduce councils’ role in this key area of public policy and provision to the bare minimum. The same applies to planning.
Massive cuts in local government funding, to which the Liberal Democrats were party in the coalition, continue—a position made worse by a deeply unfair system of distributing support. Newcastle alone will lose £32 million next year, and by 2020 will have suffered a 60% cut in a decade. Much the same position can be found among other councils, including those whose former leaders will speak in this debate. Revenue support grant disappears and it is entirely unclear whether and how the impact on local areas with lower business rate potential will be softened.
But finance is not the only problem. Last March, Eric Pickles—he was not then Sir Eric Pickles, though some of us have thought him benighted for quite a long time—while talking of an allegedly fundamental shift of power from Westminster to people, promoting democratic engagement and giving new powers to councils, boasted of capping council tax increases and creating a new “army of armchair auditors” by enhancing rights to inspect council accounts. He claimed, risibly, that funding cuts were applied fairly and lauded the regressive localisation of council tax. Laughably, he also cited the support given to the Royal Wedding, Diamond Jubilee and VE Day by cutting red tape on street parties.
In reality, from libraries and museums, the maintenance of parks and open spaces, to critical, but less visible, services such as social care and public health, councils of all political colours and none are facing unprecedented pressures. Despite local government being the most efficient part of the public sector, councils cannot balance the books without ever deeper cuts.
Ministers boast that satisfaction rates remain high, but polls are worthless unless they also tell us what people know. In a Newcastle survey, streets and open spaces came top in people’s priorities, but children’s services were at the bottom because, like social care for adults or the mentally ill, they are invisible—at least, until some crisis occurs. Devolution is welcome, as the noble Lord pointed out, but there are caveats, including the requirement to have elected mayors in combined authorities.
Crucially, finance is fundamental. Having the power to determine local priorities and be flexible in the use of resources across traditional service and policy boundaries is welcome in principle, but much depends on the quantum available. This is particularly relevant in the complex area of health and social care funding, but also in other areas such as further education, training and skills, let alone infrastructure investment and support for the local economy. What steps do the Government propose to ensure that the needs of those areas—including rural areas—with the greatest need for investment will actually be met? I must repeat my concern that in this context, as in others, the Government may pass the buck without passing the bucks.
Finally, how will the Government ensure that all relevant departments and agencies, at both national and local level, buy into this agenda? Will they look again at restoring regional offices, which are capable of ensuring a cross-departmental approach close to where decisions are made? And will they match this with a cross-departmental body in Whitehall working with local government to ensure that local democracy is preserved and enhanced?
My Lords, I am delighted to make my maiden speech on this vital topic.
It is, by definition, an honour to join this House, and I do so with some trepidation. In my 18 years at the other end, I observed that every MP would claim to be an expert, at least to the extent of knowing the place names in their constituencies. But here in this House the expertise is of an altogether different order. From athletes to zoologists, only the best qualified will do for this place. That is daunting for a newcomer with very modest claims to academic brilliance, professional expertise or worldly success, made all the more so by the fact that the two speakers who excellently introduced this debate are former distinguished leaders of Newcastle City Council. The best I can say is that I may be the only Member of your Lordships’ House who has served on three different local authorities—district, county, and metropolitan borough—and then gone on to serve as a junior Minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government. I hope that justifies my contribution today.
First, I must thank my noble friends Lady Maddock and Lord Greaves, who introduced me to the House, and extend those thanks also to the House officers, attendants and doorkeepers who have since been so helpful. I particularly mention the doorkeeper who was so patient with my nine year-old nephew as he attempted to start his new career as a paparazzo in the Robing Room.
As a Minister, I built on my earlier Private Member’s Bill, which became the Sustainable and Secure Buildings Act 2004, to take the green agenda for the built environment another overdue step forward—something I intend to take up again in your Lordships’ House. Today, though, I speak as one of the Ministers who, in 2012, steered the Localism Act on to the statute book in the other place. That Act was the first serious devolution of central government powers to councils and local communities in England for decades, and it began to reverse what had become an ever tighter Whitehall management of every detail of local service delivery, local taxation and local administration.
It had a bad press at the time from some in local government who regarded it as either a pointless series of gimmicks, or a cynical distraction at a time of shrinking local resources. I would say that those critics were wrong and I hope that today’s debate will underline how vital it still is for central government to give local government the right to get it wrong. Devolution means diversity and, sometimes, that means accepting small local mistakes in place of big national mistakes.
I draw a parallel between the Localism Act 2011 and the impact of the Education Bill, which was published by a former coalition Government in wartime 1943, at what was certainly not a propitious moment: the war’s outcome was uncertain and its end far off. Nevertheless, what became the 1944 Education Act shaped our schools and education system for a quarter of a century and laid foundations that we can still see all around us. The Localism Act did not come at the most propitious time either, but it is already making profound, long-term changes to central-local relationships—most visibly through city deals—and changing the relationship between councils and their local communities, too; neighbourhood plans and assets of community value are two examples.
As we have already heard from the noble Lords who have spoken so far, there is very much more to do to strengthen local democracy and build resilient local communities. This House has serious work to do during its consideration of the Housing and Planning Bill to hold this Government to account and prevent them backsliding on localism, let alone inducing them to go forward. I hope to contribute to that work and to press the case for vibrant local democracy and empowered local communities. I very much look forward to helping to demonstrate just how important and valuable an effective revising House of Lords can be.
My Lords, unusually, I have the privilege of paying tribute to the excellent maiden speech that we have just heard from my noble friend Lord Stunell. I first met him more than 50 years ago, when we were both at the University of Manchester. He then really came to my notice some time later when he was leader of the Liberals for Cheshire County Council and I ran the Liberal councillors support organisation, which was based in Hebden Bridge. In 1981, Cheshire became one of the first big authorities to go to no overall control and my noble friend and the great Cheshire clerk—the chief executive, I think he called himself—Robin Wendt, were largely responsible for the Cheshire agreement, which became a template for larger authorities that went under no overall control and, indeed, smaller authorities such as my own. There are noble Lords in this House who no doubt grasped a copy of the agreement and read it when their own authority went to no overall control—the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, is smiling at me.
Andrew then moved, and he took over my job when he moved to Hazel Grove. In 1997 he became MP for Hazel Grove and played a very distinguished role as MP until May last year. He played an important role in the negotiations in the merger between the Liberal Party and the SDP to form the Liberal Democrats and he was one of the negotiators of the coalition agreement. In the current condition of your Lordships’ House and its relations with other places and with the present Government, it may well be that his negotiating skills will come in useful to noble Lords before very long. Regardless of all that, my noble friend is, I am sure, extremely welcome in this House and we all look forward to his future contributions.
That leaves me two minutes to cover local democracy, so I will just read out some headlines, really. I could talk for two days, never mind two minutes, but never mind. First, local democracy is not the same as decentralisation, not the same as local administration, not even the same as elected local government, although elected local government is an extremely important part of it. My second statement is that local democracy and local government should follow the geography, and local geography varies enormously from place to place. In particular, I stress the importance of towns. When I say towns, I am not talking only about big cities but about towns, which historically have formed the basis not just of civic administration, but civic society—towns and very often the areas of countryside which surround them. There are too many towns in this country today which are downplayed and ignored because we have followed the mantra of size.
The third thing I want to say concerns the involvement of people in these communities. The Government, and too many people in local government now, concentrate exclusively on what is thought to be most efficient in delivering services. I want to see a return to community politics and local civic society in their full senses. We have seen, as my noble friend Lord Shipley said in his excellent speech, a trend to concentration, to centralisation, to combination—the latest buzz phrase—and to the Führer-prinzip of strong leadership. What we need is good leadership, democratic decision-making and full deliberation and discussion within communities and local authorities which are truly representative.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, on his excellent maiden speech and I look forward to listening to other maiden speeches later. What right does a bishop have to say anything about local democracy? Let me give some quick history. I was a curate in Wandsworth in the 1980s when the borough became either a cause celebre or something else, depending on how you thought about it. I then moved to the London Borough of Newham and experienced a democratically elected autocracy that avoided dictatorship because of the extremely fine leadership of Stephen Timms, who now, of course, serves as an MP in the other place. I then moved to the London Borough of Waltham Forest and worked both as team rector and as area dean on issues of social cohesion, through creating an interfaith project and through working on children’s and young people’s issues and on housing and homelessness.
When I became a bishop I went down to Southampton and worked with the City of Southampton and with Hampshire County Council and experienced the joys of trying to help differently led authorities talk to each other. I then became the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham and experienced the joys of working both with the City of Nottingham and the county of Nottingham, and I am delighted to say I shared a part in helping them to take on a living wage. There, I experienced the delights of discovering that, even if authorities are led by the same party, they do not always talk to each other.
Now I am in Durham, in the north-east, and I work with seven local authorities, plus the many town and parish councils. I was at the induction of a new vicar the other night and was delighted that the town mayor was there to represent the local community and that two parish councillors were there because of the history of the local church working with the parish council on local matters. All this experience has taught me the huge value of local democracy and why it matters at every level. I echo the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, about the importance of town and parish councils in this whole process.
I want to talk a little about Durham County Council, not because I am favouring it over any of the others I work with but because of its work on area action partnerships. A little over six years ago, Durham County Council, working with local partners including the church, set about establishing local area action partnerships to give local communities across the county a much greater say in how their areas were run and to enable local community action. The partnerships act as a local complement to the local authority.
Over the years, 14 area action partnerships have become a vital and valued feature of local community governance in the county, fully supported by the local authority. The council actually devolved £27.6 million to the area and neighbourhood budgets that are administered by the area action partnerships. They have used that money to support more than 3,200 projects, engaging people in local community action, ranging from job creation and environmental projects to activities for the young and the elderly to help for those affected by poverty and welfare reform. These partnerships bring together local communities, voluntary organisations, the business community and local elected officials from the county and town and parish councils. No one group dominates, and several partnerships have independent chairs.
The approach developed in Durham has attracted international attention for the way it has engaged and empowered local people. It has particularly developed pioneering work on participatory budgeting, which has given local communities a direct say in how public money from the council, the police and crime commissioner, the NHS and others is spent in their areas. In doing so, they have stimulated and promoted local community action as local groups and organisations have come forward with proposals and projects, which are then put to a public vote to decide which are funded. These local area action partnerships are a fine example, I believe.
In conclusion, I commend my own town council in Bishop Auckland for the way in which it is engaging with the extraordinary regeneration that is taking place around Auckland Castle and with the development of a new art museum. The town council has played a critical role in this alongside the county council, and it is to be commended highly for its work.
My experience says that local democracy matters enormously. It works best not only when it liaises upwards to national and regional government but when it engages very well with the local voluntary organisations and civic society because then the local people own it.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. It is somewhat with a sense of trepidation that I speak from these Benches for the first time. When introduced to your Lordships’ House, my daughter Gemma observed that it was the first time she had ever seen me looking nervous. Today will be the second. This has not been helped by finding out at 7 pm last night that my 10-minute speech had to be cut to four minutes.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Peers from all sides of the House for their kind welcome, advice and support. I also thank my two supporters—my noble friends Lord Taylor of Holbeach and Lord Feldman of Elstree—and David Cameron for appointing me. I also thank the staff and officers of this House for their support, ensuring that I have not taken too many wrong turns—in all senses of the words.
I have been advised by a number of your Lordships to be brief, something that I would normally be able to achieve—why use 10 words when two will do?—and to be non-controversial, which I hope to achieve with considerable effort, and to say something about myself. I must advise that, if I am to succeed at the first two, the third is a subject usually to be avoided.
However, Members will know from the register that I am chairman of the Local Government Association, chairman of the Conservative Councillors’ Association and leader of South Holland District Council, a position to which I was first elected in 2003. It is from the latter of these that I have taken my territorial designation. Spalding is the main town of South Holland, and South Holland is the best district in Lincolnshire, as I am sure my noble friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach will attest to.
I know that your Lordships will all be thinking that I do not sound like a Lincolnshire yellow-belly, and your Lordships will be right. Along with my wife and two young children, I moved to South Holland in 1986 via Peterborough and Stevenage, having been born in Walthamstow. I have no doubt that, without the support of the people of Spalding and South Holland and the dedication and hard work of the members and staff of the council, and those at the LGA, I would not be standing before this House today.
It has been a very long journey from my childhood council house to your Lordships’ upper House, and I hope that this will allow me to play an active, informed and passionate role in helping this and future Governments shape a better life for everyone lucky enough to live in this great country.
Turning to today’s debate, I feel that it is a great honour to be giving my maiden speech in a debate on local democracy, and I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, on securing it. Local democracy is a subject that I am involved with on a daily basis and that I am passionate about. This comes from my desire to get things done for local people and communities, to improve things for people and generally to make a positive difference. I know that this desire is shared by all parts of the House, with many knowledgeable and experienced Peers sitting on both sides of the Chamber.
We all know that empowering people at a local level is good for our democracy and for our economy. It improves services and saves money, and that is good news. Who would have thought, a year or two ago, that we would see devolution deals agreed with central government or that councils would be able to keep the money that they raise from business rates? These are major achievements, and we should not underestimate the scale of such changes.
The Cities and Local Government Devolution Act is a positive step to give areas the range of powers they need to create jobs, build homes, strengthen communities and protect the vulnerable. This is critical, as it allows local leaders to start delivering on the devolution deals that can unlock growth and improve public services in their areas. Through their proposals for devolution in England, the Government have already recognised the principle that national prosperity can be enhanced by vibrant local democracy, as councils work with residents and businesses in their communities to provide the services that people need and expect.
In conclusion, I am proud to come from a district council and to be the first LGA chairman to do so, but most of all I am proud to represent local people.
My Lords, it is with the greatest possible pleasure that I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, on his maiden speech, and I also look forward to the maiden speech from the noble Baroness to follow, but I particularly congratulate my noble friend Lord Porter of Spalding. Those of us in local government know how difficult it is for—I do not mean this in a disparaging way—a district councillor to rise to become the national spokesman of local government. He has an outstanding record as a practical leader of local government in his area. He is even an enthusiast for weekly bin collections, which would have pleased our former selector and which actually pleases me. He has been crowned, as he said, by election as chairman of the LGA. Those of us in local government are quite a hard-bitten lot, so getting to the top of the LGA—I see the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, nodding—inspires some respect across local government. Having heard my noble friend speak today, I know that he will win the respect of this House, and it certainly helps that our Chief Whip is the king of the bulb fields. We so enjoyed hearing from my noble friend today and we look forward to hearing from him much more in the future.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, for introducing this debate. I am sorry that the time is so brief. I enjoyed being number three to him and the noble Lord, Lord Tope, so often when we were in coalition. I thought that they were the Hutton and Washbrook of local government debates. I rather agreed with a great deal of his analysis today, though I stopped short when he got on to PR, which—he will forgive me for saying—I will listen to with a straight face when that principle actually applies to the numbers in this House from those Benches. However, it was a very interesting analysis. What the noble Lord says is challenging about centralisation and what I call the trend potentially for the prefecturisation of Britain.
The theme on which I wish to concentrate is simply the word “trust”. We all know that there is a problem of trust in politics. Communication by tweet, spin, email and so on has replaced the good old-fashioned face-to-face contact. Trust in politicians and the centre has declined, and we need to rebuild it. It is extremely difficult for central government to do that, but good local government, in my submission, is uniquely qualified to do so with its intimacy, its flexibility, its street presence and—to pick up on what my noble friend said—its ability to get things done. We can do things in local councils that Whitehall would churn over for years. Central government, for all its merits, can offer only one national answer to a problem; councils can offer infinite variety and responses not only across council areas but within them. I believe that councillors and councils deserve to be trusted but too often, for all the good things that my noble friend has mentioned, we are not heard. Functions are taken away and councillors’ voices are dismissed. Trust must come from central government as well as from the people.
Every day, when I and the dedicated people who work in my council go in to work, we go in to serve, to create and, yes, to do things—to be good public servants at the most active interface that there is between public and government. That deserves trust and respect. If I would ask one thing of every Government I have ever known, sadly, whether they be Labour, coalition or Conservative, it would be: please just trust local democracy a lot more. Maybe they could even listen to us a little more and regulate us a little less. That way, we might find that local government could help to bridge the gulf of trust that now exists between the public and those who govern.
My Lords, those who have known me only in your Lordships’ House may be surprised that I am participating in this debate because, since I came into it in 1997, I have really involved myself in only the arcane world of BIS and the Treasury. My background, however, was in local government. I was a local councillor in Richmond, the borough of the noble Lord, Lord True, from 1974 to 1998. Indeed, from 1983 to 1998, when the Liberal Democrats ran Richmond Council, I was the deputy leader. I now sit on the advisory board of an organisation called GovernUp, which was established by Nick Herbert and John Healey in another place on a cross-party basis to look at the way government is run. One of the drivers for the creation of GovernUp was that, for the first time in many decades, we have three political parties that have recently participated in government, so a cross-party organisation can call on that degree of joint expertise.
Clearly, the issues raised by my noble friend Lord Shipley in this welcome debate are fundamental to how our government is run. The experienced councillors in your Lordships’ House will remember the changes in local government funding since I first became a member of Richmond Council in 1974. Then, 75% of the council’s revenue was raised locally by a combination of rates and business rates. The overwhelming balance was funded by a mechanism which recycled the City of Westminster’s extensive business rates revenue. By the time I left, a long time later in 1998—by my arithmetic, that is 24 years later—only 25% was raised locally by the borough and the balance came from central government. That has been a fundamental shift in the way local government is funded. I know the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, would suggest that this was all done by the Tory Government, but my experience was that, irrespective of whether it was Labour or the Conservatives who controlled central government, it was the centre that imposed the restrictions that we have on local government.
We clearly have the absolute iron grip of the Treasury. We all know—the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, was quite right in saying this—that the cuts imposed on local government by the Treasury are always, in percentage terms, greater than the cuts imposed on central government because central government can then blame local government for the destruction of services. The local government situation is made even worse by ministerial control. In 1974, when I first became a councillor, local government, having raised its money, could spend it in any way it wanted. That is no longer the case: huge areas of expenditure are ring-fenced and, even worse, Ministers interfere at the detailed level in all sorts of decisions, of which interference in the planning system is but one.
What should we do? My noble friend Lord Shipley, quite correctly, raised significant reservations and concerns about recent legislation. As a Liberal Democrat, your Lordships would expect me to say that the solution is regional government with devolved taxation powers. Even an optimist will recognise that that is not going to happen in the short term. As my noble friend Lord Shipley indicated, now is surely the time for a complete cross-party review—he described it as a constitutional convention—to determine where government powers are best exercised. I am very mindful of the words of the noble Lord, Lord Birt, who is not in his place, when he said we should not assume that the answer is always to devolve more powers in a knee-jerk response. We need to look at every power to decide where it is best exercised. All my experience, both in local government and centrally, tells me that Room 101 Whitehall does not always know best.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, for bringing this debate. We have already heard two fine maiden speeches and I am very much looking forward to a third, from the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Bybrook. The central thrust of the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, was that if we are serious about local democracy, we need to take the devolution agenda seriously. I want to talk about the importance of local government’s role in sustaining vigorous and strategically co-ordinated local advice services for enabling access to public services, so I hope I am very much on the same page as the noble Lord.
For a while this morning, I felt a bit out of place among all these luminaries of local government, but then I recalled that I actually once worked in local government—in the GLC, no less. My interest here, which I declare, comes from chairing my eponymous commission on the future of social welfare advice services such as Citizens Advice, law centres and other advice bodies.
Local authorities are closer to social problems than Whitehall, and so are often better placed to design responses to those problems. Local government is also often better placed to join up public services and ensure that they are managed and delivered in an integrated way from a one-stop shop, so to speak, that enables users to access the right help and support in the community from different sources, whether that comes from social care, health, benefits, housing, education and skills, or the justice system.
As the LGA argues, by planning public services locally, it is possible to focus on prevention and to take the needs of the local economy into account. I therefore applaud the work of the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, on city deals, regeneration and other initiatives which attempt to bring local public and voluntary sectors together into effective delivery structures for their area, based on the needs of that area. This builds on my noble friend Lord Bichard’s work on place-based or community budgeting. It needs local leadership to take this forward: creative local solutions cannot just be imposed.
However, I have concerns for some areas of universal service provision and for the role of the voluntary sector in spreading learning about what works nationally. As many council leaders have said, austerity often presents local councils with choices they would rather not have to make. In particular, have the Government assessed the implications of halving the revenue support grant for discretionary services that do not have statutory protection but are still regarded by the public in most communities as essential, not just optional extras?
Advice agencies have lost legal aid funding, the lottery’s advice services transition fund has been wound up and the Government have withdrawn as a public funder in other areas of welfare advice. To a large extent, advice agencies exist now only by dint of local authorities’ good will for the work they do. However, good will alone towards the voluntary sector is not a sustainable funding model. We have seen relentless cuts in different networks of local charities that work with the most vulnerable groups at risk of exclusion, such as young people, ex-offenders and adults with learning difficulties. This is now cutting into mainstream services. For example, Citizens Advice Newcastle could face closure as the city council winds down its funding. Social welfare advice on the problems of everyday life—debt, benefits, housing or employment—is a vital tool in addressing the complex clusters of problems experienced by troubled families, persistent offenders and disadvantaged young people in marginal communities. Not only do these problems disrupt everyday life, they undermine social cohesion and militate against efforts to build resilient, self-sufficient and sustainable communities. Advice offers a universal approach that can support hard-working families in avoiding problems in the first place or dealing with them as early as possible. It helps ensure correct entitlement to benefits and eases the transitions around welfare reform, resolving problems without resort to lawyers or the courts.
Part of the devolution debate must therefore be about asking how these services can be maintained by local government when they are strictly discretionary. The DCLG and the LGA should encourage local strategies to maximise local sources of funding and provision, drawing on resources across a range of national programmes—for example, troubled families, universal credit support, the better care fund and the Money Advice Service, as well as Big Lottery projects, working in partnership with privately paid-for legal services, legal expenses insurance and pro bono provision. This would reserve scarce and valuable resources for those least able to help themselves and most likely to become a continuing burden.
Other resources that could be tapped might include housing associations, clinical commissioning groups, charities, the Big Lottery Fund, lawyer fund generation schemes and trusts and foundations. In some areas, it might even be possible to see devolution going further. Rather than letting—
I am on my last sentence. Rather than letting the MoJ cut legal aid endlessly by taking areas of law out scope, why not devolve what remains of the budget to local commissioners to determine the priorities in their area without such restrictions, and get more bang for our buck by joining it up with other funding?
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Shipley for this debate and congratulate my noble friend Lord Stunell and the noble Lord, Lord Porter, on their excellent maiden speeches. My contribution is going to be rather different. Like the noble Lord, Lord Low, I cannot claim to be a luminary of local government.
I want to draw attention to a very important sector of local democracy, the cultural one, and to the urban regeneration it brings and the growth in local economies through the creative industries and tourism, but also to the more intangible. Arts and culture are not an add-on but, as the chair of Arts Council England, Sir Peter Bazalgette, says, they,
“are integral to our communities, our education, our health and wellbeing and our national standing”.
They broaden understanding of the world we inhabit and, so importantly in these troubled times, they further people’s understanding of the multicultural mixture we have always been, which so enriches our nation. While they are not a substitute for front-line services, they are an important partner in helping and supporting the lonely, the elderly and those suffering mental health problems and in the rehabilitation of prisoners. As Penny Holbrook of Birmingham City Council said recently,
“Arts are essential not just for the local economy but also for the soul”.
We on these Benches welcome the recent settlement received by the DCMS, as did the LGA, although it pointed out that:
“Councils will want to work with Government and their partners to maximise this contribution within the context of the funding pressures facing local government”.
There is a problem at local authority level, where budgets face further significant reductions; we have already seen that in certain parts of the country disproportionate cuts, in our view, have been inflicted by local government on arts and culture. We have all read and heard about closures. Does the Minister agree that it would be useful if local authorities could be required to publish their per-head spend on culture and the arts? Does he also agree that, as recent LGA and Arts Council research has shown, putting money into the creative sector is an investment rather than simply subsidy, and that local government should keep faith with culture?
I have seen the success of this at first hand. I am a trustee of the Lowry in Salford, where I sit alongside Salford councillors, and where local government investment in and support for culture and cultural institutions have brought huge benefits. The Lowry has been a great and successful catalyst for the regeneration of Salford Quays, leading to the move there by the BBC, the development of MediaCity and the consequent expansion of the local economy. The end of last year saw the opening of University Technical College, which is committed to serving the local community and to local skills development.
We all recognise that times are tough and that the creative sector must respond creatively to the challenges faced by the removal of funding, and in large part it is. ACE is using its funds to help organisations to make their business models more sustainable and there is increased use of crowdfunding and philanthropy, helped by a match-funding scheme introduced by the coalition. However, does the Minister agree with the importance of investing part of this money in teaching fundraising skills, since most SMEs have no experience of this? Does he also agree, as the Warwick commission recommends, that:
“Well-resourced organisations in receipt of public investment”—
I am thinking of London ones and others—
“should be required to work together with LEPs and local government and to partner, mentor and support smaller local creative and cultural businesses and enterprises”?
To conclude, does the Minister agree that public investment in the arts at both national and local levels is returned many times over and in so many ways? Does he also agree with the sentiment expressed by the Prime Minister in his life chances speech:
“Our museums, theatres and galleries, our exhibitions, artists and musicians, they are truly the jewel in our country’s crown. And culture should never be a privilege; it is a birth right that belongs to us all”?
We must ensure that it is a birth right that all receive.
My Lords, it is a great honour to be with your Lordships today and to be making my maiden speech. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, for his debate. The welcome I have received from your Lordships but, more importantly, from the staff of the House, the doorkeepers, the clerks, the security and the staff of the dining rooms has been exemplary. Their guidance and support has been invaluable in my first few weeks. I also thank my supporters for their help and assistance; my noble friends Lord King of Bridgwater and Lord Dobbs have been great friends and a great support to me, and I cannot forget my noble friend Lady Seccombe, who has guided me through the first few weeks in the House.
In my life before the House I have had two careers. The first I doubt will be of very much interest to your Lordships—certainly milking cows and lambing ewes are fairly irrelevant to most of the debate at hand. However, my second career is in local government as a district and a county councillor, and I have been the leader of Wiltshire Council, a large, rural unitary authority, since 2009 and its inception.
I should like to speak today about how local government plays a strong role in one particular issue for Wiltshire. Wiltshire is home to the beating heart of the British Army, as many commentators like to inform me. It is currently home to around 14,000 soldiers and their families, primarily based in and around the Salisbury Plain training area or at the technical training college at Lyneham. When I started at the council, we would not know on a weekly basis how many forces families were in the county. We would have new children showing up and leaving local schools unannounced. The provision of effective support for forces personnel has therefore been a long-term driver of my career. I assure noble Lords that things are much improved, due in no small part to the excellent partnership working between local agencies and the military.
Under the Army basing programme, we are expecting an additional number of troops—approximately 4,000—with more than 3,000 dependants to arrive, and be based permanently, in Wiltshire between now and 2020. These unique local circumstances require a unique local solution, and providing services for forces personnel and their families is therefore of the utmost importance to us in Wiltshire.
The unlimited commitment of our forces is vital to our national security. It is our absolute duty to ensure that they have our full support and that their families are looked after, particularly in their absence. We cannot continue to allow a situation where forces children do not match the educational attainment of children outside the forces.
Having taken great steps in enshrining the Armed Forces covenant in law, I am delighted at the further commitment to create a comprehensive family strategy for the Armed Forces, and particularly the commitments to do more on spousal employment, healthcare and children’s education. In Wiltshire we can play a part in these areas but we need a national strategy with a full understanding of what forces families require and the assurance of the necessary resources.
Noble Lords may wonder about the relevance of what I have said to local governance but it is very simple. Our military/civilian integration works only because we have strong democratic leadership locally which can work to provide a solution to this very unique local matter.
My Lords, it is a great privilege on behalf of the House to welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, and to thank her for an expert and excellent speech—a great harbinger of what she will bring to the House.
I feel connected with all the maiden speeches today. I was once Bishop of Grantham and worked with great joy in the area of South Holland, where the noble Lord, Lord Porter, was leader of the district council, and I had the privilege of serving with the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, on a Select Committee, so it is good to welcome both of them too.
Besides being the leader of a unitary authority, the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, is of course experienced as the chair of an education committee, as the member of a learning and skills council in Wiltshire and Swindon, and as a member of the Court of the University of Bath. She also sits on the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board. She brings enormous wisdom to this area but I want her to hang on to the milking of cows. Her farming background gives her an earthiness that will be very valuable in earthing us with that kind of wisdom, and I welcome her to the House.
I want to make it clear that I believe passionately in local democracy. Before the last election I published a small book called The Word on the Street, which tried to see how the English parish might provide a space for what the noble Lord, Lord True, called “trust”, to be developed through the small platoons that the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, talked about at a very basic level, rekindling interest in local issues and local politics.
However, today I want to challenge us to think about the problems and complexities of local democracy, especially in a digital age. One issue is that of scale. Noble Lords will know that Thomas Hobbes traces the history of politics from tribes, to towns, to states. Now, it is global. Given the communications world we live in, it is very hard to reverse that trajectory, so even if you live in a small place, your mind is full of things from all over the world and all the big issues.
I am privileged to sit with the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, on the group looking at models of devolution. I am very converted to the importance of cities and mayors. I went to a conference in Rome with 133 mayors from all over the world. It was very powerful to see how cities provide a place where, in the 21st century, power and participation can work together. The mayor can be a figure to appeal to people, to get investment, to talk about the value of contributing to social welfare and taxation, and to achieve great things. It was a very impressive conference. The Mayor of Stockholm said, “The world is knocking on cities’ doors. They are crossroads for faiths and cultures”. A mayor from Sicily said, “The city is the laboratory of the human journey”. They are the spaces in the 21st century—not nations, or further down the chain—for power and participation to mix creatively.
One of our problems is that although the city can bring together complexity, size and identity, as we have seen in our debates about cities and local government legislation, most of our country does not fit into that pattern of being in a city in that sense. As the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said about geography, there are serious issues about rural areas and other kinds of regions that do not have that easy, significant sense of solidarity that a city can provide for its citizens.
Turning to another important area, as we know in the church, and as is true here in Parliament, people do not want to be represented; they simply want a framework within which they can complain. There is a terrible negativity about the practice of politics. That is enhanced and amplified by the world wide web. People want, to use the jargon, resonance and not substance. But local resonance is a very pathetic little sound that is not a good ingredient of a healthy politics. Keane might talk about monitory democracy and the moments of oversight, but in a complex world where the scale is large, there is a serious issue about where spaces exist for reflection and light and not just sounding off in small corners in a negative way.
I end with three brief questions for the Minister. First, how can the Government encourage local democracy not just to be a site for negativity and complaint, but to bring people positively into the bigger picture? How can subsidiarity go back up the chain? The Government have a role there through the signals they give and the way they handle democracy at the top level. Secondly, how can we develop regions for political coherence and identity that are of substance and not just resonance? Lastly, how can we develop not just cities but rural areas too?
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Shipley for initiating this debate and congratulate those noble Lords who have made their maiden speeches.
Over the last 15 years, we have witnessed the steady erosion of local democracy, with decisions being taken by fewer and fewer people and being centralised. We need to strengthen local democracy and bring it closer to local people, and we need to ensure that there are always checks and balances.
I agree with my noble friend Lord Greaves that, over the last 15 to 20 years, local democracy has evolved piecemeal. It perhaps started with the Blair Government, when the idea was to modernise local government with the so-called cabinet system. It sounded very good: the cabinet would make the decisions and the back-benchers would scrutinise them. However, in reality, the back-benchers did not have any power at all. They could not vote on any issue that they felt strongly about, with the exception of the budget. There might have been an issue in their ward that they felt absolutely passionately about; they might have scrutinised it to death and found that what was happening was wrong. But the cabinet could override them and they could not even put their hands up to make a point and vote against it. That is not the best way to bring local democracy close to people.
At the same time, the Labour Government dabbled with the notion of elected mayors. This seemed to be another way of taking local democracy away from people. Elected mayors would be all powerful and represent their communities. The Government at the time said that there should be referendums, and the coalition Government and the current Government carried on with the notion of city mayors. In my city of Liverpool, initially, the opposition at the time, the Labour Party, were opposed to an elected mayor for Liverpool. They came to power and some sort of deal was stitched up whereby we had a city mayor. There was no referendum—the people could not decide. There was no local democracy and so we now have a city mayor.
I am concerned about the current situation in Liverpool because the all-powerful city mayor has abolished the mayoral scrutiny committee and the overview and scrutiny committee. How can you have an elected mayor with no scrutiny at all? It is little wonder that people are concerned about the decisions that are being made. The city mayor—again with no scrutiny—can decide, say, to abolish bus lanes, with no scrutiny of whether it was the right decision. The city mayor can decide to sell off parkland with no scrutiny of whether that should happen. In any devolved system there has to be scrutiny and checks and balances. They are absolutely essential to our democratic system.
We have now moved on to metro mayors. It is a good idea to have someone standing up and speaking for their city region—but, again, the system needs to be rooted in a democratic setting. It should not be a cabinet of political self-interests.
The idea behind police and crime commissioners was that local people could vote for the person they wanted to be in the post. However, under the new system of metro mayors, the elected mayor may decide that he or she will take on those responsibilities or give the position to someone else. We need to make sure that there is independent scrutiny of metro mayors. It should not be beholden on the mayor to decide whom he or she wants to carry out that scrutiny.
At all levels of society we see power being taken away from local people. I shall end where my noble friend Lord Shipley started, on the issue of education. Parents should be at the heart of our education system. We have seen Governments slowly strangling local education authorities, first by denying them resources and now by saying that all schools will be academies and that they will have no part in the system. Academy chains do not have any democratic input; they are not allowed to be scrutinised. In fact, one academy chain has abolished governing bodies—an absolute nonsense—and we have unelected regional officials making the decisions that local councillors and local people should make.
My Lords, I want to take up the theme raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby about healthy democracy. We are talking about local democracy and we all recognise, as Tip O’Neill once said, “All politics is local”, and that when you stand on a person’s doorstep they will start with talking about street cleaning, car parking, whatever, even if—as I remember on one wonderful occasion in Hull—a minute and a half later they are talking about the US invasion of Iraq. That is where you start with politics. If we do not have that sense of connection between the average citizen and some form of government on the things that he or she cares most about, then we have lost a sense of democratic citizenship and democratic participation. We all know what people care about most immediately: their schools, their parks, their social care, their housing—social housing is an important part of the community, certainly in my part of Bradford—and the police. These are all the things that local democracy and local government used to be about.
We all recognise that over the past 30 years, but starting in the 1970s, the pursuit of efficiency and centralisation has sharply reduced the number of councils and the whole network of local representation, so that we now have across Bradford and Leeds wards that represent what were originally urban district councils. There are 15,000 voters per ward in Leeds and 12,000 per ward in Bradford, often with four or five distinct and different communities within the same ward. Someone I know as Councillor Margaret Eaton, whom we all know as the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, represents four entirely distinct and different villages in her ward, and I admire how she does it. Her ward is next door to the ward in which I live, but Saltaire is a very different community from Shipley, although in the same ward. It does not make for a sense of connection between the average, not particularly politically engaged, citizen and any sense of government.
The push for efficiency has now led us to directly elected mayors, where the idea is that we will have rich businessmen who will become managers—the Michael Bloomberg effect. If we actually had business leaders like him in the regions and the towns, it would be easier. Ten years ago, Saltaire had two local companies with local leadership. One company has sold off most of its sections to an American company, while the other has just been taken over by an American company. Surprise, surprise, the Saltaire Festival is desperately short of money this year, because local business is not there to provide that sort of support. I think that, by and large, the Conservatives think that what you want in the Mayor of London is to have been educated at one particular school and no other experience is needed, but we do not have the regional sort of people who are likely to fill the role. There are tremendous problems.
In the north, where I do my politics, the alienation among ordinary people, particularly in the big estates across Bradford, is severe. There is declining turnout, declining party membership and declining trust. There is also a declining sense of community to link people with London and any connection with that power and accountability. There is also a sense that the Government are selling the people a pup called the northern powerhouse, while actually disproportionate cuts are being imposed on local government across the north. The Barnett formula helps Scotland and Wales, but there is no sense of transparency about the distribution of funds to local authorities across England, which makes the cynicism even worse.
Certainly we need town councils and town mayors to help us in this regard, but if we are going to deal with the resentment and alienation against London, against the rich and against distant people in power who decide what is going to affect our lives but against whom we have no comeback and no sense of accountability, we need to think carefully about how that is done before people move outside the system. UKIP and Respect have their appeal to the alienated—both have substantial support in different communities in the north—and if people do not like them, it shall come down to riots. Thankfully, we have had only one serious riot in Bradford in the past six or seven years, although there have been serious riots in London. We need to think hard about how to reconnect our poorer citizens and those in the towns, cities and villages outside London more directly with a sense of democracy and citizenship.
My Lords, we have had an excellent debate and I am delighted that so many participants on all sides have taken up my noble friend Lord Shipley’s challenge to reach beyond the concept of “local administration” to “local democracy”; they are not identical. And not least I welcome the contributions from the three maiden speakers, to which I will return in a moment. All three were not only thoughtful, but very thought provoking.
What is particularly striking has been the breadth of experience in local government that exists within your Lordships’ House, and in particular, I would like to claim, on these Benches. Over the years, Liberal Democrats built up their parliamentary presence by really getting to the heart of local communities and building a base in local councils. We led the argument during the last Parliament for a general power of competence to be introduced so that, instead of waiting for permission, councils could do anything they wished for their communities, within the law.
During my experience as a Member of Parliament, I was very appreciative of the contribution of town and parish councils, which has also been a thread today from a number of Members on all sides of your Lordships’ House, including my noble friend Lord Greaves and, in particular, the Bishops, who I thought were extremely interesting. The genuine subsidiarity of trying to take decisions as close as possible to the people who are going to be affected by them goes right down to the lowest level of devolution. I will come back to that theme in a moment.
The general power in the Localism Act, which, as we know, my noble friend Lord Stunell had such a very important role in developing, was a real step forward in the coalition Government. It was one of the few decentralising moves by any Government over the last 50 years. Listening to a number of my colleagues today, I remember that I was elected a county councillor more than 50 years ago. Over that half-century, all Governments have tended to centralise. It was real step forward when the previous Government went in the opposite direction. The recent experience of others in the House has demonstrated that we are in danger now of slipping back on the objectives of that Act. I was very taken with the concept, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord True, of the prefecture approach—I fear that all Governments tend to slip back into that.
As we have heard so much during the debate, the coalition’s intention was to give councillors and councils power and responsibility for the destiny of their areas, along with full accountability to local people, but now the trend seems to be for responsibility without power and power without accountability. Local government has been known to be the best part of the state when it comes to finding savings. It did so in droves following the 2010 election, assisting the coalition in rescuing the ailing public finances it inherited from the previous Administration. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, said earlier that local councils found £20 billion in savings during that period.
My colleagues and I have argued that those cuts should have been back-loaded so that transition in terms of staff and other resources should be best managed. The then Secretary of State, Eric Pickles, was adamant that the savings must be front-loaded, meaning that big, in-year cuts were made at local level. It is testament to the leadership of local authorities of all parties that they managed to do this without making substantial cuts to front-line services. I think, now, that the Government have pricked up their ears to the sound of pips squeaking in local authorities. It is not reasonable to expect this level of governance to take on more responsibility and, at the same time, to manage disproportionately large cuts on a far greater scale than central government departments.
I am very struck with the contribution that the noble Lord, Lord Porter of Spalding, made not only today but also in the leadership of the LGA. In recent months and years, it has been remarkable that the local government community, through the LGA, has spoken with one voice and has said very clearly to Ministers that, for councils,
“there is limited scope to keep protecting services by making further efficiency savings”.
I look forward very much to hearing the Minister’s response to that. I hope that he will go back and reflect on today’s debate with the Secretary of State for Local Government and with the Treasury. That is what local government, across parties, now expect of him.
What about what central government expects of local government? It is telling, is it not, that not a single one of the Whitehall devolution deals is with a two-tier area? It makes me think that there was some worth in the pain that we went through in my county of Cornwall in 2008, when we created the unitary authority out of six districts and one county. Liberal Democrats argued—it was not popular—that moving to one layer would mean a fairer hearing for Cornwall, from the then Labour Government, in getting a devolution settlement. Of course, we still support a full Cornish assembly for the Duchy.
However, if it is this Government’s view that no two-tier authority can be trusted with devolution, they will find a great deal of offence taken in the local government community. I was very interested in the contributions of the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, from Wiltshire, and the noble Lord, Lord Porter, from Lincolnshire, both of whom have a direct interest in what is going to be available from Whitehall in terms of devolution to counties like theirs. Ministers need to explain and justify what exactly their position is. If they are dead set on pricing two-tier councils out of our local government structure, let them say so and we can have a debate.
Whatever the outcome, I would hope that we could agree across the House that devolution to local government should always mean more accountability and not less. That is why I think that my noble friends Lord Shipley and Lord Storey were absolutely right to question the move towards elected city and metro mayors. That would seem to be centralisation without effective accountability. Even in London we have better mechanisms for holding the mayor to account than is likely to be the case in the new combined authorities.
I do not have a problem with a patchwork of devolution. Inevitably, some areas will want to take more and would be capable of doing so. But Liberal Democrats have long argued for an overarching framework, conferring rights to a set range of powers, to be enshrined in a devolution-enabling Act. This is the way forward for English devolution, which we recommended in response to the coalition Government’s White Paper, The Implications of Devolution for England, followed by discussions led by the noble Lord, Lord Hague.
At the time of that White Paper, there were many calls—they still exist today—not least from the LGA for a full constitutional convention. We have heard it echoed again in today’s debate. There were calls to bring together all the issues of English governance and the relationship of the different parts of the United Kingdom. I would still welcome such an initiative. The work that has been led by the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, which again was referred to by the right reverend Prelate, would effectively feed into that convention. It could enshrine the vital principle of subsidiarity, to which I referred earlier, in every part of our constitutional arrangements. It is in the relationship between Westminster, the devolved institutions and local government in England, and the relationship between devolved institutions and lower levels of government within Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
I have tended to concentrate on England and Cornwall, but Scotland is very interesting in this context. Over the past seven years, in Scotland the SNP Government have systematically and categorically stripped powers away from local councils north of the border. Indeed, the 32 Scottish councils now set their council tax rate—the most fundamental of local decisions—at the behest of Scottish Ministers. If that is not centralisation, I do not know what is.
Therefore, local democracy across the whole United Kingdom is at risk. In England, it is at risk from swingeing cuts, which pile more responsibility for public finances on to local government than on any other part of the public sector. In Scotland, it is at risk from a nationalist party which sees the nation as the best and indeed the only level of governance, eschewing the benefits of subsidiarity and local control, just as they do with the increased influence and power which comes with membership of the United Kingdom.
I and my colleagues are not enjoying perhaps the best days at the moment, but ours is a party which always has built itself up, bottom up. We will rebuild again, working with local authorities and local communities which have so often relied on us to represent them. As we do that, we will play our part in rebuilding United Kingdom local democracy from the bottom up, too.
My Lords, as other noble Lords have done, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, on securing this debate. I also declare an interest as a local councillor in Lewisham.
We have heard three excellent maiden speeches: from the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Bybrook, who, as we have heard, is the leader of Wiltshire unitary council; from the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, who was a local councillor before being elected as MP for Hazel Grove in 1997 and served as a Minister in the coalition Government; and from the noble Lord, Lord Porter of Spalding, who is chair of the Local Government Association and the leader of South Holland District Council. He is one of a number of Peers who have held a senior position in the association and now serve in your Lordships’ House, including my noble friend Lord Beecham. It is good to have another Londoner in the House, although I am from the other side of the Thames. It is also good to have somebody from east Midlands local government. I lived in the east Midlands for many years. It is a great region and we need more local government figures from the east Midlands serving in your Lordships’ House.
I was first elected as a councillor in 1986 at the age of 23, representing the ward in Southwark that I grew up in. I now represent the ward of Crofton Park in Lewisham. Local government has changed considerably in those 30 years. Leaders and committee chairs have been replaced, as in Lewisham’s case, by a directly elected mayor. We have cabinets and portfolio holders, and scrutiny is the name of the game.
For better or worse, the new arrangements are creating two types of councillor: one who is the decision-maker as part of the cabinet structure; and one who is not part of that structure but is much more of a community facilitator or community champion. We will need to review this in the coming years, along with what has generally been a loss of power for local councillors, as referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley. The talk is often of localism and empowering communities, but the reality is the Housing and Planning Bill, with its 33 new powers for the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to issue directions and instructions to local authorities. The rhetoric is not always being matched by the actions.
I agree with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, regarding police and crime commissioners. It did not help that we held the elections in the middle of November, at extra cost to the taxpayer. Of course, it was the noble Lord’s party that worked with the Conservatives in the previous Parliament to deliver the policy in the first place. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby also made some excellent points on local government, the problem of ensuring real engagement and creating spaces for proper reflection.
I have always been a supporter of devolution of power to the lowest possible level. For me, devolution of power certainly does not mean from Whitehall to the town hall or the combined authority and no further than that. It is about empowering people and communities to engage together and take decisions, or have a real input into making the decisions that are being taken that affect them and their local community. It also does not mean imposing huge cuts in expenditure, the removal of revenue support grant funding and localising business rates, then telling local authorities to get on with it and blaming local politicians for the cuts made in Whitehall, which my noble friend Lord Beecham referred to.
Of course, the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party all promised devolution of powers in England, empowering local people and revitalising local democracy in their manifestos. Many of the commitments have a similar ring to them, though with a change in emphasis in some cases. All promised a transfer of power and I hope that we can all agree that that is both necessary and welcome. We are seeing the evolving combined authority model referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, which was discussed in the last Parliament under the coalition Government, being rolled out further with directly elected mayors at the helm. I wish this model of governance well and hope that it is a success, but we will have to see in the coming years whether it provides the devolution and engagement that is both necessary and desirable. However, I do not like the supplementary vote system for electing mayors, legislated for by my party. I have been to too many counts where this system is used and people do not use their second vote or they spoil their paper by putting their vote in the second box. The sooner we move to the full alternative vote for these elections and rank the candidates in order of preference, the better.
While on the subject of electoral reform, I have never been a supporter of PR, although I equally think that it is important that, in all our town halls, the party or parties in office can be effectively challenged by an effective opposition presence. For a variety of reasons, that is not happening in some places. That is not good for local democracy or local governance. Oppositions move motions; they make you justify your actions; they ask the questions that you do not want asked. An effective opposition makes for better local government by keeping the controlling group on their toes. It may be something that the noble Lord, Lord Porter of Spalding, takes away from this debate and talks about with his colleagues from the various political groups at the LGA to see whether anything can be done to ensure effective governance and effective oppositions in town halls up and down the country. I also ask the noble Viscount, Lord Younger of Leckie, what proposals the Government have to revitalise town halls and local democracy, where, in a number of councils, a viable number of opposition councillors are not returned. This is becoming more and more of a problem.
I agree with the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury, about the importance of the contribution of the arts and the huge benefits that they bring to the local economy. That is why I think that open data are really important. They must be clear and easily available on the council website and elsewhere, so that the public can see what the council is doing and judge it properly on its record. I have looked at many council websites and there are one or two good examples, but generally it is not great and there are some really awful ones that do not invite their citizens to interact with them, or publish vast amounts of data that they have about their performance. A proper standard of e-enabled council services, proper consultation and effective engagement with local people through a council portal is an absolute must. Will the noble Viscount tell the House what work the Government have done on this to help local authorities consult properly and engage more with their local communities using e-services?
I end my remarks by again thanking the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, for securing this debate and enabling us to raise these important issues.
My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to respond to what has been an interesting debate. In terms of its title it is not untypical of the type of debate for a Thursday sitting. It is clear that democracy is one of our fundamental values, along with the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. All noble Lords have consistently recognised and cherished these values in their remarks. However, we have focused primarily on one of the most important aspects, local democracy, which affects the day-to-day lives of people across the country in cities, towns and counties.
I will address some of the points—I hope all of them—raised by noble Lords, which were somewhat wide-ranging, from localism versus centralisation to a focus on voting systems. But first, I am particularly pleased to congratulate all Peers who have made maiden speeches today. In so doing, they have demonstrated a breadth of new experience, knowledge and understanding that will undoubtedly inform our debates.
My noble friend Lady Scott of Bybrook clearly has deep experience of democratic local government. I know that the people of Wiltshire, a county she led successfully for many years, have much to thank her for, not least for leading the creation of the unitary Wiltshire Council in 2009. I also feel sure that her former career of cattle husbandry may also be useful for this House in some respect. More seriously, she made some passionate points about the importance of looking after families of forces personnel. That is very much noted.
The wealth of experience brought by my noble friend Lord Porter of Spalding, both as leader of South Holland District Council and now in his role as the chairman of the Local Government Association, will also raise the bar in bringing experience of local leadership into this Chamber.
The noble Lord, Lord Stunell, has played an important part in shaping the democratic governance of our country. It is very much noted that he was a Minister in the coalition Government—in the DCLG, no less—and prior to this was a shadow spokesman for his party. I was particularly struck by the fact that he had served on no less than three local authority councils and had a say in the Localism Act.
UK local government has evolved over centuries, and with the enactment of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act, which received Royal Assent today, this evolution continues. I am conscious that many in the Chamber are experts in the development of local government and representative democracy, but I believe that it is worth considering briefly just how far this has come. No noble Lord touched on this aspect.
Various forms of local government existed in Saxon and medieval times, but it was hardly democratic. The structures that we recognise today evolved from the 19th century and the previous ad hoc system of parishes and boroughs. The Reform Act 1832, which swept away rotten boroughs for parliamentary purposes, was followed by the Municipal Corporations Act 1835, which first reorganised local governance along modern lines, providing for the election of mayors, aldermen and councillors on a vote of those who occupied property.
The Local Government Act 1888 established elected county councils. The Local Government Act 1894 completed the picture by creating elected urban, rural and parish councils. This demonstrated that both a Conservative Government in 1888, led by the Marquis of Salisbury, and a Liberal Government in 1894, were committed to building more democratic and robust local government. However, I can safely state that the noble Marquis’s understanding of democracy does not otherwise chime with ours today. He thought that those who had wealth should be given the opportunity to lead. He said:
“They have the leisure for the task and can give it the close attention and preparatory study which it needs’’.
Reverting to the development of democratic local governance, perhaps its most central aspect is that it was driven locally. The 19th century acts were a response to a great movement across the country. We are all familiar with the achievements in our great cities of Birmingham—with Joseph Chamberlain as mayor—and, indeed, of Manchester. We are seeing today the same spirit with the devolution deals that areas such as Greater Manchester and the West Midlands have agreed with the Government, which will see new, powerful mayors elected in May 2017.
The process of legislative reform continued through the 20th century and into the 21st century. It supported the creation of nine unitary councils, including Wiltshire Council, which I have mentioned already. The question of unitary local government remains a live issue today—in particular, whether there should be more unitary councils. I realise that there are different views on this—often locally, and we have also heard some today in this House.
Let me be clear on the Government’s view. We believe that where an area wishes to adopt unitary structures, it should be able to do so. The Cities and Local Government Devolution Act enables fast-track unitarisation if that is wanted locally. The Secretary of State has made it clear that in exercising these powers he will maintain the preference he has shown to date for consensus in an area. This Act, which has benefited greatly from scrutiny by noble Lords, continues the process of reform. As my noble friend Lord Porter said, it enables devolution of powers and budgets to areas and democratic governance with strong and accountable mayoral leadership, exercising wide-ranging powers that were once firmly under Whitehall’s thumb. The noble Lord, Lord Razzall, said very succinctly that Whitehall does not always know best, and that is correct.
Democracy is something we all understand but which is hard to define—perhaps the subject of another debate—because it comes in a variety of forms. While institutions were established after the Second World War to protect and promote our core values, including democracy, they rightly did not provide a precise and universal definition of democracy. But I believe we should recognise that democracy, whether national or local, is intensely practical. Its essential characteristics are the participation of people and the institutions in which that participation can occur.
The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, clearly agrees about the importance of local participation. The fundamental form of participation is, of course, voting. Equally important is the participation of those who stand for elected office, including those who represent and serve their communities. I will say more about that in a moment and address the points made by the noble Lords, Lord Shipley and Lord Tyler. There is also a range of mechanisms today by which people can participate in local democratic public life.
Of course, the coalition Government led the way in strengthening local participation and direct accountability. It legislated to allow people to use social media: to film, tweet and blog council meetings. This is improving town hall transparency and local accountability. My noble friend Lord True struck a cautionary note, however, by saying that trust—that is, the trust of councillors—goes hand and hand with this, which is an important point. With greater power comes greater responsibility and the need for trust.
I turn now to local democratic institutions, which provide the framework in which democratic participation can operate effectively. This country has a long tradition of representative democratic local government, centring on councils with elected members, and, more recently, directly elected mayors. It is through these democratic local governance institutions that decisions are taken to shape our cities, towns and counties; strong and transparent local leadership can promote the economic growth of areas; and effective public services can be delivered, supporting an area’s economic, social and environmental well-being.
I will address a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, about his concern that there is a danger that too much localism and too many disjointed groups could be confusing. He asked who was in charge of the little platoons. That caused me to have a little smile, because my maiden speech six years ago focused on the big society and little platoons. There is really no simple answer to this question, though, because the great variety of little platoons are communities, and those within them are taking action for the community’s benefit. In all cases the key principles, whatever the precise arrangements, are openness, transparency and public accountability.
That leads nicely to the interesting comments made by the right reverend Prelates. I will pick up what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham said in his gentle trot—if I may put it that way—around the country. He has clearly had much experience of working with local authorities. He pointed out the importance of local democracy, in particular focusing on the value of parish councils. I was particularly struck by his focus on community action partnerships and how it is important that there did not necessarily need to be a clear leader: they all worked symbiotically together, supported by the local authority. I was struck by the 3,200 projects that he mentioned. His comments were supported by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby, who also believed passionately in local democracy and supported the concept of local mayors. I picked up his point that there can be too much negativity at times.
The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, focused on financial pressures. I want to address directly the question of funding. He said that local authorities were facing unprecedented financial pressures and that local democracy was being eroded. Councils have indeed worked hard over the past five years to deliver a better deal for local taxpayers. Local government accounts for around a quarter of all public spending and every bit of the public sector must play its part in tackling the deficit, which is well known. However, devolution is giving local leaders sweeping new powers and millions of pounds of investment to boost local growth. In addition, by the end of this Parliament councils will keep 100% of local taxes, including all £26 billion from business rates.
A similar theme was raised by the noble Lords, Lord Low and Tyler, concerning the subject of local government funding. The noble Lord, Lord Low, asked whether the Government had assessed the effect of the reductions in funding on discretionary services. Local authorities have more spending power. It is set to be flat in cash from £44.5 billion in 2015-16 to £44.3 billion in 2019-20. Councils will have about £200 billion to spend on local services over this period. The Government have recently consulted on the proposed finance settlement and will carefully consider all responses received before taking final decisions, but these points were well made.
The noble Lord, Lord Stunell, raised the concern in his maiden speech that the Government might backslide out of commitments being made now on the devolution of powers to the combined authorities. But the deals that have been agreed with areas will also be enshrined in legislation that will come to this House. I hope that the noble Lord will be reassured that he will be able to continue to hold the Government to account in that respect.
The noble Lords, Lord Shipley and Lord Storey, raised the issue of education and the link to local authorities. The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, raised in particular the point about councils’ powers potentially being taken away. In discussions about the power that local people and communities might have, we should not necessarily equate local power with council powers. Power in local communities is not always about empowering councils. For example, successive Governments have sought to put decisions and power into schools themselves, with their governors taking responsibility. Regional education commissioners are not the people responsible for running schools, but, rather, part of the accountability mechanism for holding those responsible to account so that communities can have confidence in their schools and in those who run them.
I promised to turn to the subject of voting. The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, stated quite strongly his wish to move to a proportional system of voting. The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, raised the same subject. I took it as read that he was not exactly in favour of STV but was seeking change. After this debate I might seek clarification from him.
I would like to state that there should be a strong defence of first past the post. It is a well-established system. It provides a clear and well-understood link between constituents and their elected representatives. I believe that proportional representation weakens that link. Proportional systems more often lead to councils or, indeed, Parliament not having a clear majority party. The result is that the programme followed by the Executive—a coalition—is not something that anyone voted for: rather, it is often a mish-mash of policies hammered out behind closed doors, which I argue is hardly democratic.
As for the one-party state issue that was raised, ensuring that councils are truly open, transparent and accountable in their decision-making is the key point. This is something that the Conservative-led coalition Government vigorously acted on. This included legislating to make council meetings more open, by allowing citizen journalists to report on meetings by filming, tweeting or blogging.
The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, asked who was in charge of decisions on local taxation. It was the coalition Government who gave local people a direct local voice on the council tax in place of centralised capping. Where a council now wishes to set a council tax which could be considered excessive, it is no longer prevented from doing so by central capping: it can ask local people in a referendum if they wish to pay the council tax.
The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, asked whether powers were being centralised. This was also mentioned by the noble Lords, Lord Greaves and Lord Beecham. But I would argue that the Government’s policy is quite the opposite of shrinking the powers that local councils have. Our manifesto commitment is to devolve wide-ranging powers and budgets. The Cities and Local Government Devolution Act, which received Royal Assent today, as mentioned earlier, provides new powers for conferring on district and county councils and on combined authorities the powers of a new public authority, including those of Ministers and government departments. The devolution deals we have concluded with areas such as Greater Manchester, Cornwall, Teesside and the West Midlands demonstrate our commitment to devolving powers. In Greater Manchester, these include transport, responsibility for a franchised bus service and new housing powers. In Cornwall, further education, training and learning provision for adults will be reshaped, and there will be new powers for franchising bus services.
The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, referred to a need for a constitutional convention. This point has been raised in a variety of debates in recent months. As the noble Lord will be aware, the question of a constitutional convention was discussed during the passage through this House of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill. The Government’s position is that such a convention is alien to our tradition of taking a step-by-step approach to reform, is not necessary and would risk simply being a talking shop.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, made some interesting comments. She will know of my own personal interest in culture within this country, so I was particularly struck that she took a different tack in her remarks. I noted the points that she made about localism, the importance of culture, of the BBC’s Salford move and of UTCs, of which I am a passionate advocate. I agree with her that the creative industries remain an incredibly important part of our tradition. The birthright belongs to us, I think she said, and I agree with that.
I fear that I am running out of time. In concluding, I will sum up by making three key points at the end of this particularly interesting debate. I believe that the majority of speakers stressed that having a vibrant and effective local democracy was important for this country. Secondly, empowering local areas is about not just empowering councils; there needs to be devolution below councils. Finally, the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act represents a huge step change in local governance. I thank all noble Lords for their interesting comments.
Will the noble Viscount say something about the unfairness that will be created by allowing all councils to keep their business rates? There are huge pressures on local government and this risks making the situation much worse in some authorities. I think about my own authority of Lewisham and its obligations and about the rate base of other boroughs. The noble Viscount mentioned that he would address that.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply, which we will study with great care. Clearly, we have a lot of thinking to do on the issues, given the contributions that have been made from across your Lordships’ House. I thank all those who have participated, in particular those who made their maiden speeches today.
I have one comment on the Minister’s reply. He said that—I think I recall his wording correctly—with proportional representation people can get a Government they did not vote for. I remind him that the present Government are not supported by 63% of the general public and that on 37%, people have not got the Government they voted for—because they did not vote for them.