Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80 - 99)

TUESDAY 20 NOVEMBER 2001

LORD FALCONER OF THOROTON QC, MIKE GAHAGAN, JOYCE BRIDGES AND MIKE ASH

Chairman

  80. It would be even better to write to us about the specific disagreements.  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I might not do that, but can I write about the specific agreements in relation to that? I think that the critical point is that it indicates an importance being attached to urban issues in government.

Mrs Dunwoody

  81. What, the two meetings since the last election? I would not have thought it was a very urgent committee, but perhaps I am mistaken.  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) No. I think the importance of it is that people come together at ministerial level, which means that, before they come together, each of the departments have to discuss with each other about the specific issues that are going to be agreed—

  82. Your department is complaining at the length of time the planning system is taking.  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Yes.

  83. You are saying that local authorities are not doing their job properly.  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Yes.

  84. You are saying that even one planning application has to engage with the population, although we do not seem to be defining "engagement" very closely, and yet, when it comes to the point, your overall, over-arching, dynamic strategic group has met twice since the last election.  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I do not think that the critical thing is necessarily the number of meetings that the Cabinet Subcommittee has. I think the critical thing is the extent to which there is real engagement across—

  85. And you are going to write to us and tell us what the real engagement has produced?  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) No, I was going to write and tell you what had been discussed at the two meetings, that was the question that you—

  86. Just the agenda, not the conclusions?  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Just the conclusions in relation to it, yes, because it seems to me that the critical thing is, is government really working across the piece to try to deliver better results in urban areas and I think that they are. I think, for example, that there are lots and lots of things like local government governance issues, like better public space, like regeneration, like urban regeneration companies. There is a whole range of things that have been introduced which are designed to try and improve the environment in urban areas and they do connect because, if they do not connect, then they will not get the results that we are after.

Mr Cummings

  87. Can you tell the Committee about the role of the urban sounding board and how it will monitor progress in implementing the Urban White Paper.  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) The purpose of the urban sounding board is to provide people who are not members of government or are officials in the Civil Service with whom one can have a completely open discussion about what we should be doing in relation to improving urban areas. We had a meeting yesterday of the urban sounding board and we discussed in effect two things, one of which was what steps should be taken in relation to improving public space and a Professor Gehl from Denmark spoke to us about what he had achieved in the work that he had done and then there was a wide-ranging discussion about how you could seek to translate the successes he had had into our experience here, and then we had a discussion, two outsiders started the discussion off, about how you improve community engagement in people looking at what they want to do with their urban areas.

  88. What happens when the public do not want to be engaged?  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Nobody is forcing them.

  89. It seems to be an integral part of your overall strategy and my experience in dealing locally with planning matters, community groups, focus groups and you name them we have them, is that it is very, very difficult to get them to come and deliberate on matters to which you have just referred. It appears to be a integral part of your thinking, so what happens when they do not materialise?  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) They very frequently do not materialise, you are absolutely right; they very frequently find the whole process tedious, off-putting and, what is more, they find that their involvement in the process had no effect on the result. People will engage in trying to influence decisions if they think that what they do does influence decisions. The message that was coming across loud and clear from the urban sounding board and is one that should be reflected in the planning reforms is that the earlier that you engage people in the process, the more they feel that their voice is heard.

  Mrs Dunwoody: Sounds like the Labour party policy!

Mr Cummings

  90. Will the urban sounding board publish a regular progress report?  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I think we need to discuss with the urban sounding board what is the right way for it to express its view. The main purpose of the urban sounding board is for there to be a dialogue between government and outside advisers and people who know and have experience of the particular issues, so that can inform government policy. It is in effect to try and widen the range of views that get reflected. I think that we do need a process whereby the urban sounding board expresses its views from time to time in a public way so that people know what the advice is.

  91. I am always very keen to engage the public at all possible levels but at times I think we are in danger of smothering them.  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I can see force in relation to that but I think the right thing to do, whether it be in relation to planning, whether it be in relation to trying to reach decisions about what happens in an urban area, the processes by which the public are engaged are ones that are easy for them to participate in and demonstrably produce results, ie their engagement comes out with some result. There is a great debate going on at the moment in the Aylesbury Estate down in North Peckham about what the Aylesbury Estate should now look like and there is a long process going on in which the community are engaged in looking at plans, deciding what it is like, deciding what it should be like. It is a difficult process but, if you went down there, you would see real engagement on the part of the people involved in reaching decisions about what they want their environment to look like. That really works because it is right at the earliest possible stage in what is going on and they can see the people who will be involved, it is a new deal for communities area and there is a stock transfer proposed. Both the New Deal for Communities board and the Shadow Stock Transfer Board are engaged in the process, so what is happening is that the residents are talking to people a long time before the actual changes occur, they are seeing plans being produced, and then they are saying, "We do not like that" or "We do like that" and then they are seeing new plans coming at the next meeting or some months later, so they are actually seeing their voice being reflected in what happens.

Mrs Dunwoody

  92. Have you ever been to a public meeting at which the general public were asked down to discuss stock transfer, which after all is vital to their homes of the future?  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I have been at meetings where stock transfer has been discussed with members of the public.

  93. No, a public meeting. Do you know how many people respond to those?  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) It depends. Very, very few sometimes but sometimes there are quite a lot.

Chairman

  94. Can I just take you back to the sounding board. It is very convenient that you had a meeting yesterday but are you expecting to have another one before Easter?  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Yes, I am having one in the middle of January.

Mr Betts

  95. You promised that an urban summit will be taking place in 2002; is that going to happen?  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Yes, it is.

  96. I suppose there is a suspicion that it might turn out to be PR exercise or talking shop. Is it going to have any clear objectives or any independent analysis that progress has been made since last year?  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) The purpose of the urban summit in the autumn of next year is to identify what progress has been made since the Urban White Paper was produced, to bring good practice to the attention of those who are attending the urban summit, to identify international experience where we can benefit from it and to seek to agree proposals for the way forward. So, it will monitor or express views on what has been done since the Urban White Paper at the end of 2000.

  97. Will there be any independent analysis?  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) The people who will be coming to the urban summit will not just be officials or ministers, they will be both representatives of government but outsiders as well and we will be seeking people to give their views on what has happened, not just subjective views but also, as it were, views based upon detailed research and what has happened since the Urban White Paper.

Dr Pugh

  98. Could I ask you about the urban policy unit within your department. Who is in it?  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I am sorry, just picking up Clive's point, Joyce Bridges from the urban policy unit has just passed me a note saying that we have just let an independent research contract which will assess progress in the 24 towns and cities with which we have established a particular relationship to see how the ideas of the Urban White Paper are going on. We identified a month or two ago 24 towns and cities that we would work with because it is helpful to have actual places where one can see what progress has actually been made.

  99. Can you clarify the exact role of the unit? Who is in it? What does it do? Is it a high powered unit or is it simply a small advisory body?  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) The Urban Policy Unit was set up after the Urban White Paper. It is a very well equipped unit. It is in the DTLR but it has responsibility for urban policy right across the piece. Its obligation is in effect to deliver the vision in the Urban White Paper.


 
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