Draft Local Authorities (Conduct of Referendums) (England) Order 2001

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Mr. Waterson: Perhaps the Minister mistakenly turned over two pages at once, because his explanation of the regulations on alternative arrangements omitted any philosophical, theoretical or other justification for the largesse being heaped on shire districts with populations below 85,000. No one has ever tendered an explanation, although the Minister made a veiled reference to a deal with the Liberal Democrats, to which we shall return. What is the philosophical reasoning for the distinction?

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman participated in various discussions on the Local Government Bill, as did I, albeit in listening mode, and he is aware of the issues that were debated. It was argued that in some local authorities, especially smaller shire districts, there is a tradition of non-political involvement, so the move to executive arrangements would be unnecessary in some cases. In response to those requests, we said that we would require a modernised and streamlined facility to be introduced if executive arrangements were unnecessary. The regulations cover the Government's response to that debate. They apply only to shire districts, and the population limit of 85,000 makes it clear to which authorities they apply. They encompass the majority of authorities in the category that I described and which we have discussed. The hon. Gentleman knows as well as I that the regulations introduce the required fourth option or alternative option to those proposed for larger authorities. The Government are not saying what is best for those authorities; we are saying that the traditional committee system is not working as well as it should and that modernisation, streamlining and improvement is necessary. The option is being made available to small authorities as an alternative to executive models of management.

Mr. Waterson: This is a bit like pulling teeth. It sounds from what the Minister said that the key issue is streamlining and that the new option is not the best, but streamlining makes it all right. What about larger authorities such as Wiltshire, which have a streamlined committee system with scrutiny committees? Why should they be excluded because they do not fall within the 85,000 population limit or the definition of a shire country?

Mr. Ainsworth: It is wonderful to waltz round the dentist's room again while the hon. Gentleman attempts to pull my teeth instead of someone else's. The issues have been well debated. We do not intend to offer a fourth option of executive models to larger authorities such as county councils, unitary authorities and councils such as my own. We have made it clear that a change is necessary in the way in which local government is run.

Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme): I was press-ganged on to the Committee, but I am now delighted to be here. The referendum question to which my hon. Friend the Minister referred is covered by chapter 13.29, 30 and 31 of the draft guidance. If people in my constituency do not want a mayor to be in charge of council services, the question to be asked is in chapter 13.29. If they do not want a mayor to lead the council but want what we are already trying, the question is in chapter 13.31. If they want the council to elect a non-political mayor who acts in a similar way as the Queen and does good work, as Members of Parliament do, but without the political involvement, the draft guidance does not cover that and there is enormous confusion among my constituents. Will the Minister give an explanation?

Mr. Ainsworth: It should not do that. Without the expressed wish of the council or of 5 per cent. of the electorate in the petition, followed by a referendum supported by the electorate, my hon. Friend's authority will not be forced into having a mayor. If she means that her authority is putting in place executive arrangements for a cabinet with a leader, there is no requirement for a petition. My authority, like many others throughout the country, has moved to such an arrangement. There is nothing that would force Coventry city council to change the way that its lord mayor operates or presides over civic functions, or would force my hon. Friend's authority to prevent a mayor from carrying out such functions. Those functions are separate from the management of a council through a mayor with a council manager, a mayor, or a cabinet with a leader.

Mrs. Golding: If 5 per cent. of the electorate decides that it wants a referendum, no question can be put, under 13.31, on whether a non-political mayor should be retained. It is impossible for the local authority to add that in.

Mr. Ainsworth: The local authority will be able to say in a referendum what the fall-back position would be if the referendum were not successful. The position of the mayor in Newcastle-under-Lyme or the lord mayor in Coventry is unaffected, irrespective of how the referendum goes. There is therefore no need for it to be included in the referendum question. The confluence of the titles could cause confusion and we must ensure that that does not happen. We are talking about new arrangements for the management of the authority.

Mrs. Golding: I am still confused. Both 13.29 and 13.31 refer to a mayor—so how does one overcome the confusion in people's minds?

Mr. Ainsworth: That was the title used in the legislation to which the regulation is attached. Where an elected mayor is chosen, there will be a need for a separate chairman of the council who, to try to avoid confusion with the elected mayor, will not be called the mayor. The use of the title of lord mayor is unchanged because it is a separate title. The term of mayor is used in the relevant legislation because it was thought appropriate for someone taking over the leadership of a local authority. I am sorry that my hon. Friend thinks that that might cause confusion. I can hope only that we will minimise that possibility in any decision taken in her authority or anywhere else.

Mrs. Golding: Will the Minister clarify—

The Chairman: Order. This is the hon. Lady's fourth intervention. It would be better if she made a speech.

Mr. Ainsworth: I look forward to my hon. Friend's contribution.

I move on to special grant report No. 78. Life is tough for many people in our most deprived neighbourhoods. Families and individuals face a barrage of daily problems from poor housing and health to high crime rates, a lack of jobs and poor schools. These problems have become increasingly concentrated in individual neighbourhoods, creating pockets of deprivation and a widening gap between the poorest areas and the rest of the country.

The Government aim to reverse that trend through the national strategy for neighbourhood renewal. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister launched the action plan for change, ``A New Commitment to Neighbourhood Renewal'' at the Ocean estate in Stepney in January of this year. He set out the Government's vision to turn round the fortunes of the most deprived neighbourhoods in England.

The Government's vision is that no one should be seriously disadvantaged by where they live in 10 to 20 years time. Our ambitions are unashamedly long term because we recognise that it takes many years to reverse decades of decline. In the past, Government initiatives to revive deprived communities have all too often been short term in their focus and have yielded little sustainable change on the ground. We have already done a huge amount to help the poorest in society through measures such as the new deal, sure start and the minimum income guarantee for pensioners. The national strategy for neighbourhood renewal builds on such policies and sets in train immediate measures to kick-start the process of renewal in the most deprived neighbourhoods.

The national strategy is a fresh approach to revitalising deprived neighbourhoods. It puts in place all the building blocks to ensure that the Government, communities and public services work together on neighbourhood renewal.

Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): If the Minister is saying that a long-term strategy has been implemented, why has it taken him four years to come up with this strategy? If he is claiming some success with what the Government have done so far, how does he explain the figures released last week that show that the north-south divide is at its worst ever? People who live in London and the south-east are 59 per cent. better off than those in north-east, which is the poorest region, compared with 43 per cent. in 1989. That does not smack of success to date.

Mr. Ainsworth: There has undoubtedly been a growth of wealth in the country under this Administration, as against the previous Government, and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman recognises that. We have implemented several strategies, which I explained individually, that are designed to deal with some of the inequalities. Dealing with inequalities is not an alternative to economic success, but a complement to it.

Mr. Don Foster: The Minister made it clear that the neighbourhood renewal strategy is about targeting resources at the most deprived neighbourhoods, and if that is the case I, for one, welcome it. However, can he assure me that his Department intends to monitor precisely the correlation between funds made available under that scheme and levels of deprivation in the areas at which the money is targeted? There is no clear correlation between those two factors, which may be one reason for the difficulty raised by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton).

Mr. Ainsworth: I shall continue speaking to the proposition. How the areas concerned were identified and how the matter will be dealt with will become clear. I am sure, however, that the hon. Gentleman will contribute if he feels that those issues are not being addressed.

Mr. Curry: The Government are moving to regionalise their regeneration funding. They recently announced that there will be no new single regeneration budget on a national basis, but that the funds will go to regional development agencies. Can he assure us that they will at least continue to distribute the funds on the basis of competitive submissions bringing in private sector funding, and that the synergies that arise from that will not be lost owing to some cosy relationship between big city bosses and regional development agencies?

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