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I completely agree with my hon. Friend and I wonder whether we are seeing joined-up government. What is worse than the pointless spending of that money is the fact that we are doing it to the detriment of those families. I appreciate that this is a slogan, but it means a great deal and many hon. Members of all persuasions could sign up to the idea that any social policy should be considered through the prism of whether it is giving "a hand up or a handout". If the Government discharge homeless people into the private sector, they will be giving them a handout that will keep their aspirations low, because those people will know that they can never afford to go into work. Professor John Hills calculated that a couple with two children
and a private rent of £120 a week would be only £23 a week better off if their earnings rose from £100 a week to £400 a week. That cap on aspiration will not only force people to stay down but will make them risk-averse. Would a single mum with two or three children who pays rent of £1,000 a month take a job that she might not be able to manage, or do the extra hours that might make her children's care collapse, if it meant she would then have to give up that job, go back on to housing benefit and experience the delay that we all know happens with benefit assessments?
I ask Government Members to consider whether that is what they want to do to the most vulnerable families. Does it help to have taxpayers paying more in housing benefit and to alienate more families? Our job should be to encourage, and perhaps sometimes to force, people to work if they can, but this measure will prevent that from happening to hundreds of families.
Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): In my maiden speech last May I spoke about the important principle that where services are delivered mainly locally, they should be decided mainly locally, so I strongly welcome the Bill. I was a councillor for 13 years before coming to this place, the last seven of which I was leader of West Sussex county council, so I have seen at first hand the top-down, centralised control from Whitehall that the Labour party exerted. It was determined to treat every part of the country the same from the City of Westminster to the county of West Sussex and from the one end of the country in Cumbria to the other in Cornwall, and its demand for compliance stifled localism and local communities.
James Morris (Halesowen and Rowley Regis) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the general power of competence in the Bill, which has been much derided by the Opposition, signals that local government will no longer be an arm of central Government but will be able to pursue and develop its own policies and services?
Henry Smith: My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. That is precisely what the Bill does and that is why the reforms represent a radical change. It is interesting that the two parties of the coalition Government are coming together not only in the national interest but in the local interest on principles of individuality, community, libertarianism, greater accountability and democracy.
In my experience as a local authority leader, three things got in the way of true local government, and our role was more about local administration than government. The first of those things was the local government finance system, and I am delighted that there will now be a chance for referendums on council tax and that there will be a greater link between local taxation and local representation.
Henry Smith: We are about to do just that in the Bill. The Government have not waited for legislation and have already un-ring-fenced a lot of the budgets that were constraining local authorities' ability to spend money according to local priorities.
The second thing that has kept down local governments in the past 13 years-and, to be fair, in previous times as well-is the seeping of authority and power from directly elected local government, often to regional and unelected quangos. Again, I am delighted that the coalition Government have made an early start in that respect as well.
The thing that I particularly want to highlight as having stifled local government's ability to represent the needs of local communities is the unbearable regulation and the bureaucratic tick-box exercise that local government was forced to go through. When I was a local authority leader, I asked my officers to put an audit code next to every item of expenditure that related to that bureaucratic tick-box exercise and at the end of the financial year I was astounded and shocked to see that my local authority had spent more than £1 million just on going through an unnecessary exercise that often had little relevance to the needs of my local community. Not one penny of that £1 million went to provide a book in one of our libraries. [ Interruption. ] My Conservative local authority has just opened a new library and I am delighted about that. Not one penny of that £1 million went to provide a personal computer on a desk in one of our schools or to provide a home care package for a vulnerable or elderly individual. Not one penny of it was spent on fire service call-outs or any other front-line service that the local authority for which I was responsible wanted to deliver.
The Bill represents a radical shift and a turning around of priorities. Instead of top-down, Whitehall control, there will be bottom-up control whereby individuals, local communities and democratically elected and accountable local government can provide those services. Where government is more transparent and more accountable at all levels, it is more efficient. Given the disastrous economic situation we have been bequeathed by the previous Government, that is something we need to achieve.
One issue that I would like Ministers to clarify is the way in which European Union fines for air pollution, for example, may be divided up. My constituency and local authority include Gatwick airport-the nation's second-largest airport and the world's busiest one-runway, two-terminal airport-as well as a significant section of the M23. As a former local authority leader, I am once bitten, twice shy when it comes to local government formulae and I am interested to know how the formula for dividing such fines will operate so that it does not militate against local authorities with national assets such as airports and other facilities in their area.
Broadly, the Bill is to be greatly welcomed. It has often been said that when this country gave up its empire, Whitehall, in an effort to find things to do, simply turned its attention inwards and decided that instead of administering Nigeria or India it had better administer Norwich or Ipswich. The Bill represents, for the first time, a freeing up of control and greater self-determination for our local communities in the same way as other nations achieved self-determination at the end of the British empire. I appreciate having had the House's time, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Pat Glass (North West Durham) (Lab): Having been a parish councillor until a few weeks ago, I welcome those parts of the Bill that seek to reduce centralisation and strengthen local democracy, but the Government appear to give with one hand and take away with the other. To give powers to local government with one hand and slash budgets, through the local government settlement, with the other is disingenuous and simply will not deliver localism in any form that I understand. I welcome the excellent sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart)-he is no longer in his place-who chairs the all-party group on town and parish councils, of which I am the vice-chair.
On the very day that the coalition announced the deepest cuts in local government history, which will result in an estimated 140,000 public sector job losses in one year alone, they also announced the Localism Bill. Forgive me, but the cynic in me finds a sad but strong link between the two. My concern is that the big society Localism Bill is simply a cover for thousands of job losses. My local authority, Durham county council, is being forced to axe 1,600 jobs and make £100 million of savings over the next four years, and my local police authority is having to cut 80 jobs this year.
The Secretary of State rather smugly told us earlier today that Durham county council has £80 million in reserves. He knows well that for a county the size of Durham, that is not an unreasonably sized reserve. He knows that local authorities are under a legal duty to hold back a percentage of reserves for emergencies and, therefore, are not free to spend that money on front-line jobs. He is also aware that, if Durham county council spent that element of its reserves which it can spend, it can spend it only once, yet it has cuts to make next year, the year after and the year after that. He should also be aware that that element of the £80 million reserve that it can spend will largely fund redundancies this year.
Nicky Morgan (Loughborough) (Con): Perhaps the hon. Lady can help me with a little point I am confused about. The leader of her party said over the weekend that had Labour won the election there would have been cuts to local government finance, and in the amendment to the motion her party confirms its commitment to localism and devolution. Are we not just arguing about semantics, because hon. Members on both sides of the House appear to agree on localism, devolution and cuts to local government finance? Where does she think the cuts would have fallen had there been a Labour Government?
Pat Glass: The hon. Lady has obviously read my mind. The leader of Durham county council has told me that, had the reductions in grant funding been limited to the level that Labour would have made, all the cuts to the council could have come from existing back-office services without hitting front-line services. However, cuts of the magnitude and scale of those proposed by the Government simply cannot come from anything other than front-line services. Front-line services will be hit, and hit hard.
In answer to the point about Labour's policy, one of the key points is that we would not have front-loaded the cuts. Salford city council has two to
three months in which to deal with £47 million of cuts and is struggling, and I am sure that Durham county council is in a similar boat. I am sure my hon. Friend agrees that it is impossible to make structural changes that can help with that situation.
Pat Glass: Yes, I agree. The Association of North East Local Councils has issued figures that show clearly that the pound per person cut in spending power for those who live in the north-east will be significantly higher this year and in the following three years than it will be for those in the south-east. We have already heard today that in Hartlepool the cut per person will be £113. In the Lib Dem-led local authority of Newcastle, the figure is £99 per person, and for those who live in Durham it will be £70 per person. However, those who live in the deprived community of Richmond upon Thames will be hit by a massive cut of £5 per person, and those who live in Buckinghamshire, that well known centre of deprivation and poverty, will be hit by a cut of £4 per person. Sadly, those who reside in deepest poverty-ridden Surrey will find their council spending cut by a crippling £2 per person. How is that fair, and how will that support localism? It is Robin Hood in reverse; it is unashamedly taking from the poor to give to the rich. It is not fair and not progressive. Quite frankly, it is not fooling anyone.
My community already organises and runs many local projects, but it cannot do it alone. The voters of North West Durham, and voters generally, are already working out that the big society is nothing but a big sham. Public and community services simply cannot run on empty. They need investment and support as well as reform. People are realising that the only real choice they are being given is to run services themselves or watch them be cut to shreds. It is all very well in theory to say that local services should be delivered by local citizens, which I agree with, but what happens when those vital services fail?
Services such as talking books are vital to the elderly and the visually impaired, and the careline services are vital to the elderly and disabled. What happens if those services fail or those volunteering to run them simply walk away, get another job or move elsewhere? Such services cannot be left to God and good neighbours. There must be safeguards for when things do not work out.
I welcome parts of the Bill, but I have real concerns about other parts. It could result in a postcode lottery, with some communities able to support a higher level of social services than others, and the poorest and most vulnerable in challenged communities being left to fend for themselves.
Who will be the localists running the big society? They will be those with the time and money to get involved. Wealthier and more middle-class members of society will run services on behalf of the less well-off or the less able. What will happen to the concepts of fairness, entitlement, inclusion and standards? We have already witnessed in some Sure Start centres what happens when more middle class parents get involved: the families that those services are targeted to support-the disadvantaged-are simply overwhelmed, turned off or stay away. That is the danger of having a wealthy, middle class volunteer running vital public services targeted at the most disadvantaged.
There are things in the Bill that I approve of, but they are masked by a Government who are using them as cover for massive public sector cuts, the dismantling of local democracy and a methodology for shifting resources from the poor to the sharp-elbowed better-off.
Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): There speaks the authentic dinosaur aspect of the Labour party-class war. The view of the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) is that those who want to do the best for their local community are middle class and sharp elbowed. It is sad that the Opposition amendment is so churlish, so grudging and lacking in any coherent alternative. Within its historical context, the Bill is both radical and transformative of local government, and I think that it stands comparison with some of the greatest legislation of the past 200 years, including the Municipal Corporations Act 1835, the Public Health Acts 1872 and 1875, and the Housing Act 1980, as it will make significant changes in the balance between local government and central Government. It is a reversal of Labour's ratcheting, centralising tendency, which we have seen with the tsars, the guidance, the strategy, the inspections and the audits, which have traduced the best aspects of local government over the years.
The Bill has a coherent philosophy, because in the aspects that speak to the big society it tackles something that Labour never did-the issue of capital inadequacy and capital inequality. Labour presided over a widening of the gap between the richest and poorest 10% in its 13 years in power, because it did nothing about the ownership of capital, which the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), the expert on Engels, no doubt knows much about.
The Bill also puts forward a significant commitment to mutualism at the same time as it heralds a civic renewal of local government through our commitment to localism. The New Local Government Network-I have the privilege of serving on its management body-sets some key challenges for the legislation. Is it about a coherent localism, and will it link together coherently as a strategy for policy making and political decision making for citizens? Yes, it is coherent as a philosophy because within the context of GP commissioning, the integration of public health, local enterprise partnerships, directly elected police commissioners, and school and welfare reform, it sits as a coherent strategy for the future.
Hazel Blears: Does the hon. Gentleman support limiting the expressions of interest to be made by communities to run services to organisations that have a social purpose? Does he also support the regulations not being changed in future by the Secretary of State to include commercial organisations that would seek to make a profit?
Mr Jackson: The big society is about empowering local people to make decisions at local level. It should be seen not as lots of disparate, discrete initiatives at local level, but within the context of the Bill's provisions. I see the general power of competence, for example, as a key unlocking a huge amount of progressive development by local authorities. The New Local Government Network specifically praised the general power of competence and said:
"This represents both a significant philosophical shift towards local democracy and a practical transfer of power to the local level."
The other important issue-unfortunately, one cannot look in detail at the 406 pages of the Bill and its 201 clauses and 24 schedules in five minutes-is whether it is permissive, as opposed to prescriptive, as an approach to local government? On any objective test it is an extremely permissive piece of legislation. The general power of competence will give local authorities autonomy by unlocking accelerated development zones, tax increment financing, asset-backed vehicles and real estate investment trusts.
Dr Whitehead: In his exposition of the overall coherence of the Bill, is the hon. Gentleman in favour of stripping out of the Bill as it progresses through the House those 126 clauses whereby the Secretary of State can remove the powers that have been put into the Bill, if he so requires?
Mr Jackson: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. The TaxPayers' Alliance, in its publication in March 2010 entitled "The fiscal and economic case for localism", speaks to an issue that unites the whole House-the fact that we are too centralised in the power balance between central and local government. Clearly, that is the case. The UK has one of the most centralised systems of government, taxation and spending in the western world. Less than 20% of our revenue is raised locally, as opposed to a G7 average of 60%.
An econometric study in Germany found that Government efficiency increased in direct proportion to decentralisation and could drive it up by up to 10%. That would release in this country the equivalent of £70 billion. The Spanish institute of fiscal studies found that fiscal decentralisation could boost growth in the economy by 0.5%. The Bill speaks to that concern. If Opposition Members ask me whether we are going far enough in fiscal autonomy and decentralisation, the answer is no, but the Bill is a bigger and better start than what went on before.
Opposition Members will notice that we have been consistent from the publication of the control shift document in February 2009, which is the theoretical and philosophical basis for the Bill. We have been pushing the concept of localism. When I served on the Public Bill Committee with the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) two years ago, we did not oppose multi-area agreements or leaders boards because we believed in localism.
The Bill is coherent, although I have two caveats. One is about shadow elected mayors, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins), who is not in his place at present. I have concerns also about councils' culpability for the payment of EU fines. There will no doubt be contentious debate about that in Committee.
The Bill stands comparison with our party's historical commitment to civic renewal and civic pride, a golden thread which runs from Disraeli through to Joseph Chamberlain in Birmingham, Macmillan and the house building of the post-war Conservative Governments to this Bill. That is why I will vote for it later tonight.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): To describe the Bill as one of the great historical Bills put before the House is to take historical hyperbole to new heights. It is ludicrous. There are more than 100 caveats on the powers that are devolved to local government, and the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members who keep on about the joy that they have from the freedom for their local authorities will be back in the Chamber in two or three years complaining that the fire standards are worse in Dorset than they are in Warwickshire, that homeless people are more generously treated than they are in Bristol and so on.
National Government have a responsibility to ensure that there are some national standards in what is done. It is important that Government Members understand that. In addition, since 80% of all local government expenditure comes directly from central Government, the freedoms associated with the Bill are more than a little bit limited.
Hazel Blears: My hon. Friend makes a good point about the possible inequity of services in different parts of the country. Is he aware that, as a result of the cuts to local government funding currently taking place, in many areas social care is being denied to people with moderate needs and going only to those with critical care needs? Does he regard that as a good effect of localism?
Jeremy Corbyn: That is an effect of localism. That is why national standards, particularly in areas such as social care, access to pre-school education, and education in general, are so important for everyone in our society. People should be cautious of what they wish for from the Bill.
The Secretary of State, introducing the Bill in a particularly inept and rather unsensible speech, went on to describe how Islington was not going to develop a nuclear bomb. That got a good laugh, I am sure, but it was a particularly silly thing to say. His Government are cutting £300 million from Islington's budget over the next four years. We are one of the poorest boroughs in London and we come in the top eight poorest communities in the whole country, with high levels of homelessness, high levels of dependency and relatively high levels of unemployment. A newly elected Labour local authority has taken over from the Liberal Democrats, who spent most of their time in control of Islington council on a fire sale of valuable local authority properties. So they have form in how they behave towards local government and local authorities.
My main concern in respect of the Bill and in general is about housing. The legislation enacted at the time of the first world war, and the Public Health and National Health Service Acts of the post-war Labour Government have done more than anything else in this country to
eliminate bad housing and homelessness. The Bill destroys that thread of public provision of good quality housing at an economic and affordable rent. Instead, it requires local authorities to force people into unregulated, expensive, badly managed, badly maintained housing provided by private sector landlords.
Jeremy Corbyn: I understand what the hon. Gentleman says. He was not in the previous Parliament. I was one of those who frequently demanded much more building of council housing. In the latter days of the Labour Government, more council housing was being built, and is still being built in my borough. To be fair, the Government inherited a massive bill for unrepaired estates and bad community areas, and put a great deal of money into the decent homes standard. The Labour Government should be commended for that.
The Bill undermines the principle of public provision of housing for those in desperate housing need. Instead, as I said, it requires local authorities to put people into the private sector. Imagine the situation when a homeless family appears before the local housing authority, which fulfils its duty by encouraging the family to accept a two-year, or perhaps shorter, tenancy in a private sector flat. That is the end of its responsibility. If, at the end of that minimal period, the landlord increases the rent to an astronomical level, that family will become homeless as a result of being unable to afford it, and then, according to my reading of the clauses, they will not be eligible for any further assistance from the local housing authority.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) talked about rising homelessness, which is a major concern and, I think, one of the consequences of the Bill, so I urge Government Members to think very carefully about that. We have a whole generation of children growing up in inner-city areas, often in overcrowded council accommodation and sometimes in overcrowded housing association accommodation. Increasingly, however, they are in very expensive private rented accommodation, paid for by housing benefit, where the landlords do not do the repairs and there is no security of tenure. Those families are the most vulnerable people.
What is the effect on those children of sharing a bedroom with three or four siblings, of heating that does not work, of windows that are not repaired, of a gas cooker that is dangerous and of a fridge that does not work? They grow up with a sense of shame, cannot bring friends home and do not grow up the same as all the other children in their school. We have a national responsibility and duty to invest more money in housing with economical, responsible and affordable rents, and that is best achieved by investing in council housing, which has done so well for so very long in this country.
My final point on housing is that we spend billions of pounds of housing benefit on subsidising the private rented sector. The Government's solution is to cap and limit housing benefit, thereby forcing people out of what they describe as the "high-cost areas," such as those that my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney
North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) and I represent. The people being forced out will move somewhere else, and as a result communities will be damaged. Other countries regulate, control and operate the private sector far better, far more efficiently and far more humanely. It works in Germany and, to some extent, in the United States, so why can we not do it here? We cannot because of the Secretary of State and his Ministers' obsession with market solutions to all problems. There are no market solutions for homelessness; there is social intervention, community investment and public operation. That is what can deal with homelessness, and that is what can lift the life chances and opportunities of some of the poorest and most vulnerable children in our community.
Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): I welcome the Bill as a catalyst to support, release and empower the vibrant and often untapped resources in our local communities. In recent years, many individuals and community groups have been hindered in making valuable contributions to community life by impenetrable bureaucracy and the centralised setting of priorities, or simply by a sense of disconnect between what happens in the confines of the town hall and the rest of the community. The Bill seeks to bridge that gap, and I believe that it will succeed, provided that the determination and vigour with which it has been introduced into the House is matched by similar determination and vigour to make it happen. We should be realistic about the cultural change needed to make this a reality.
I spent six years as a local councillor before arriving in this House, during which I was amazed to discover such things as the fact that the local area plan contained approximately 40 targets, but only seven of them were locally determined-the rest were centrally set. Those were six years during which I witnessed continual frustration on the part of community groups, who had much to offer but struggled to have their voice heard. One such group runs The Oaks community centre in my former ward of Penketh. The group converted a school into an excellent all-age community centre, which is popular and in daily use, but it has told me that it has struggled to obtain even the tiniest degree of public funding or support, while two other local authority community halls in the same ward have languished under-used and largely unloved-expensive capital resources, the poor use of which a community right-to-buy bid, provided for in the Bill, could have addressed.
I recall residents feeling almost a sense of grief when their historic primary school building was demolished in order to be replaced by a modern box. A local referendum, the power for which is provided in the Bill, could well have allowed those residents to have their voice heard. As it was, a local petition against the demolition, signed by thousands of residents, was all too easily dismissed, and, as if to add insult to injury, as a local councillor I was unable to vote on the issue because I had previously spoken to some of the residents about how to make their voice heard. The revision in the Bill of the rule on pre-determination is much needed.
I am fortunate now to represent a constituency with a high degree of community participation. The Congleton Partnership, for example, is an impressive, well-organised and visionary group, working to ensure the sustainability
and success of Congleton as a vibrant market town. Provisions in the Bill will, I hope, pave the way for the Congleton Partnership to make an even greater impact.
Provisions enabling groups such as Crossroads Care Cheshire East, of which I am a patron, to express an interest in running such services, as part of the adult social care service in which it has developed real expertise, could contribute considerably to resolving one of the local authority's key challenges and, at the same time, enable Crossroads Care to fulfil its aspiration to grow its services substantially.
Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): I am sure the hon. Lady is right that many excellent local community groups would like to fulfil a greater role in supporting their local communities, but does she not accept that, where those groups do not exist or cannot take on such additional responsibilities, the Bill's problem is that it creates a real gap in provision in some communities?
Fiona Bruce: I have confidence in my local authority's ability to make discerning decisions about the services required and, wherever possible, to take advantage of the excellent professional expertise that many local organisations and community groups now offer.
David Rutley: My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I know that she is very involved with the Crossroads Care charity and does an incredible amount of work in Congleton. In Macclesfield, the Bollington leisure centre is owned and run by the community, the Gawsworth village shop is owned by the community and the successful treacle market is run by the community. Is not that the way forward, rather than looking to state-based solutions every time, as the Opposition suggest?
The Bill sends out a signal to residents, community groups and local businesses that their views and contributions really matter-indeed, that they are invaluable if we are to enjoy the kind of local communities in which so many people whom we represent want to live. There is no other way for society to flourish, and everyone's contribution matters. No insignificant person has ever been born. It is a signal that local residents need and, I believe, deserve to hear today.
I am particularly encouraged to see in the Bill the community right to challenge. The very fact of its inclusion will promote improved dialogue between residents' groups and the local authorities that represent them. They includes groups such as Alsager Sports Partnership, representing a swathe of local residents most keen to have their voice heard about the use of the former Manchester Metropolitan university campus in my constituency as a community sports facility. The power to instigate a local referendum might also enable such a group to highlight the high level of public support for that proposal.
Small shops are essential to thriving communities. People want and value a busy high street and local employment, with the colour and character that they bring, together with the individual service and valued customer relationships that they provide. The measure enabling a local authority to demonstrate its local
community's support for such enterprises by providing a business-rate free period or discount is most welcome, especially at a time of such economic challenge for many local businesses.
As I said at the outset, this Bill is most importantly a catalyst. The proposals within it for greater public participation in local democracy, the expenditure of funds to be more representative of local priorities, and the release of the immense and often untapped contributions that voluntary, faith and community groups make in even greater measure than they already do, will happen only if we make them happen-if we, as elected representatives at national level, together with our colleague councillors and officers at local level, have a determination to communicate the provisions in the Bill and the opportunities that it offers clearly, effectively and convincingly to residents, businesses and community groups. We must work practically with them to make localism happen and to ensure that the signal in the Bill saying "You matter" is sent out to local residents, so that an opportunity to make a positive difference in our local communities is offered to all. Then people will see that under these proposals, real localism is there for the taking. In voting for the Bill, let us commit ourselves-
Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): When the Secretary of State introduced the Second Reading of this illuminatingly entitled Bill, I was reminded of Humpty Dumpty's phrase in "Through the Looking-Glass":
"When I use a word...it means just what I choose it to mean -neither more nor less."
For the avoidance of doubt, I do not wish in any way to associate the Secretary of State with Humpty Dumpty, nor to suggest that the word "localism" is capable of as many meanings as one wishes to put on it. However, the Bill's title-incidentally, this is the first time that I have come across a Bill named after a tendency-suggests to me that it is intended, to some extent, to persuade people that opposition to it is fruitless, because if one is not in favour of localism, one must be in favour of centralism, and that is a bad thing.
I am very much in favour of, and have long proposed, localism and decentralisation from central Government and to local government. However, it has to mean something. The Bill contains several things that are very much along the lines of the move towards localism and devolving power from central to local government, but for those on both sides of the House and Governments of both colours, current and previous, there has always been a tension between the extent to which power can properly be devolved from the centre and the wish of the centre to hold on to elements of reserved powers or financial control. This Bill departs not a whit from that dilemma, and that is not only because it includes 126 powers that the Secretary of State can use in order to remove its potential effects. Localism, at its heart, must have about it the idea of agency-that is, the agency of a local aim or project to achieve its end. In this context, that is akin to the consideration of whether one can dine at the Ritz
or dine in the shop doorway next to it. If one does not have the agency to afford to dine at the Ritz, one dines in the shop doorway.
Mr David Ward (Bradford East) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is possible that those on both sides of the House are right and wrong, in that some communities will flourish and fly with new-found freedoms and rights, while others without resources, leadership capacity and social capital may be left untouched and probably further behind?
Dr Whitehead: I do agree with that difference. Also, however, if the agency is not there in order to make those changes, if there is not the necessary financial devolution, and if there is the current extent of cuts to local government services, then many of the aims and wishes for devolution of power to local government are meaningless. The Bill provides for no financial devolution away from the current system of considerable centralism as regards council tax raising, and the Secretary of State has the power to change any figures that the local authority comes up with in the way that it defines council tax.
Localism means ensuring that decisions are made at the right level. Under the Bill, there appear to be two types of decision on planning-the neighbourhood decision or the national decision, with nothing in between. The truth about localism is that decisions do not always have to be taken at the very lowest level, but they should be taken at the appropriate level. I, for one, want to live in a sustainable community. I want my waste to be dealt with efficiently and my transport to be run efficiently. All those things involve decisions planning and operation that are larger than local. Bearing in mind that the regional spatial plans and the national plans have been removed for everything but national infrastructure proposals, unless the Bill contains effective measures that enable effective co-operation to take place between local authorities, that gap will exist, and I am afraid that people will come to regret it in future years.
Barry Gardiner: Does my hon. Friend agree that in order to resolve that issue it is important that the Bill should have a presumption in favour of sustainable development within the national planning framework?
Dr Whitehead: Indeed, I completely agree. There should be such a presumption in the Bill and there should be considerable strengthening of the requirement to co-operate between local authorities, because the requirement in the Bill merely means that people have to talk to each other a bit.
If we are really localists in what we are doing, it is essential to get the different levels of planning right. It is not just about a neighbourhood decision or a national decision, but about getting the decision right in terms of what it means. If we come back to this House in a few years' time having not built the houses and not given ourselves sufficient capacity to deal with this new era of waste and resource management, and if we have found that some of the decisions that we have taken at very local level mean that we have moved away from our climate change targets instead of making the necessary concerted effort to move towards them, we will seriously live to regret that gap in the Bill.
At the very least, we should ensure that this Bill is not enacted until a national planning framework is in place and the national planning statements have been discussed and sorted out by this House. The Bill must sit in a proper framework that means that local, regional and national planning work together for the benefit of the people who stand to gain most at local level.
Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire) (Con): The lovely English countryside of my home county of Northamptonshire was the scene of many battles during the English civil war. Over the past 13 years, it has felt embattled by the previous Government, with the regional spatial strategy determining, top down, the number of houses and where they should be. I have knocked on so many doors where people have told me the horrors of being stuck in their houses, with traffic gridlocked, unable to get out or to get their children to school. I even had a pregnant lady tell me that she would not be allocated a midwife because there was not enough infrastructure in place to provide the basic core services. All that is top down, with no possibility of local communities having a say in what goes on in their area. I applaud the Bill, and I am very glad that we have brought it to the Chamber at an early opportunity. I welcome the fact that Front Benchers have been to my constituency to try to explain to people how it will work and give them back some say over their own lives.
I will use my few minutes to focus on one aspect of the Bill: wind farms. They are dealt with in the Bill almost by default. I will focus on wind farms because they are causing great unhappiness in many communities across the country. I recognise that the Government are committed to solving the big problem of the energy gap that will open up in the last part of the next decade, thanks to the failure of the previous Government to deal with the need for new energy sources. I recognise that we will have to use renewable energy as a key part of providing for our energy needs in the late '20s, but we must allow local communities a say over where the wind farms should be sited.
Andrea Leadsom: Yes, I was coming to precisely that point. In the Bill, onshore wind farms of less than 50 MW capacity will become part of neighbourhood plans. Communities will have a say over the siting of wind farms, and over whether they are willing to have a wind farm in some of the sensitive sites for which developers are putting in applications. I intend to table an amendment to propose that the capacity of onshore wind farms that fall within neighbourhood plans be increased to 100 MW, in line with offshore wind farms, to avoid the consequence that developers might make applications for ever larger wind farms in the hope of circumventing communities and neighbourhood plans.
I would be grateful to the Minister for confirmation that my understanding of the Bill is correct and for a better understanding of the appeal process. If a local community does not have a wind farm as part of its neighbourhood plan, will the Secretary of State be able
to overturn the plan on appeal from a developer, or will communities really be empowered to determine whether they are willing to have a wind farm in their vicinity? I urge the Government to consider the ten-minute rule Bill that was introduced by the hon. Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), which I supported, and the Bill introduced in the other place. They both proposed a minimum distance from communities. All those points will serve to provide far greater local say over the siting of wind farms.
In summary, I welcome the Localism Bill. It is a huge opportunity for communities finally to have a say over what happens. At the end of the day, people have only their lives, their communities and their families. If they are unable, as has been the case for the past 10 years, to determine what goes on on their doorstep, it is a very bad day for democracy. The Bill seeks to change and transform that in one major and important piece of legislation, and it must be welcomed by the whole Chamber.
Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): The Bill draws two important aspirations of the Government into conflict. The Government have said that they want to be the most decentralising Government ever, and that they want to be the greenest. Those two aspirations are difficult to reconcile. To meet the renewables obligation and keep the lights on in the United Kingdom, the Government will have to deliver £200 billion of investment in energy infrastructure in just nine years. To meet their obligations under the waste directive, they will have to deliver up to £20 billion of investment in plant and equipment for new waste and recycling infrastructure in the same period.
Of course, it is right that local people have a say in local planning issues. However, the flaw in the Bill is that it peddles a myth that thousands of decisions taken by atomised local communities up and down the country will somehow amount to a coherent vision for the national and regional infrastructure that we all require. There is a false parallel between the responsibilities of elected parish councillors and Government Ministers. Parish councillors and the people who may constitute neighbourhood forums have an obligation to secure the best outcomes for their local community. Their vision is rightly limited to the immediate boundaries of their neighbourhood; so should be their powers also. Clause 90 specifies a duty on local councils to co-operate on the planning of sustainable development. I welcome that, but there is no obligation on them to co-operate positively so as to bring about sustainable development infrastructure.
The Government must take a wider purview. To relinquish that responsibility is not to devolve decisions about strategic infrastructure to local neighbourhoods, but to ensure that no one takes those decisions. It is not devolution of power, but abrogation of responsibility. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) spoke eloquently of the inequalities that may result in housing and the provision of other services across the country as a result of the Bill.
Does my hon. Friend accept that the cumulative impact of the proposals on sustainability must inevitably be considered outside particular areas? Does he propose that a mechanism be placed in the Bill
to reconcile local decision making, the duty to co-operate and the cumulative impact of the developments on sustainability?
My hon. Friend the Member for Islington North made a powerful point about the inequalities that will accrue across the country, but my point is different. The failure of Government to take strategic decisions will not simply result in inequality, but will be to the detriment of us all. Regional strategies were abolished by the Secretary of State. A duty to co-operate is no substitute.
The national planning framework must provide a clear direction to councils to enable a network of energy and waste management sites and facilities. Such a direction should not be left to secondary legislation. The Government should introduce in the Bill a presumption in favour of sustainable development that accords with the national planning framework. The Bill will create uncertainty in the business plans of those who want to invest in our country's infrastructure. That will be as devastating a block on development as the increased voice for those whom outsiders sometimes call nimbys.
The Bill suggests that a neighbourhood forum could be constituted by as few as three individuals, and that such individuals need not live in the area. Does the Secretary of State not think that giving membership to those who merely want to live in the area is, even by his standards, a rather slack criterion?
Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): I recognise the hon. Gentleman's focus on and work for sustainable development, but does he not accept that local people are capable of making decisions about their own interest in and desire for sustainable development, consistent with the can-do approach of the Bill?
Barry Gardiner: Of course it is perfectly possible for individuals and local communities to consider sustainable development needs, but it is not possible, and indeed not right, that within our democratic structure those decisions should be devolved to such a level. We need strategic planning on a national basis, and that cannot be provided by parish councillors.
The delays of up to 12 months in even holding a referendum on planning issues will introduce a new blight of delay into the process. Such delays can be fatal to major development plans, yet a referendum could be triggered by just 5% of the local population. I pray that the dangers that I believe are inherent in the Bill will not come back to haunt the Government.
In six or seven years, as the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) said, 30% of our energy provision will come off stream, which is a large gap to fill. The Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), said earlier in Communities and Local Government questions that the Bill would be about enabling people to resist development in their area through the
neighbourhood plan. How sad, how tragic, that that is the Government's stated intention. I pray that they will not live to regret this Bill in government, because I pray that in six or seven years they will no longer be in office.
Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke) (Con): One of the messages that I hear on the doorstep is that for my constituents one of the biggest failures of the previous Administration was the culture of central Government control that they perpetuated. It was a restrictive and domineering culture that affected the local community detrimentally, with decisions being made in Westminster and Whitehall that bore no resemblance to local feeling and showed no understanding of it.
When the new Government pledged a fundamental shift of power from Westminster to local people in the coalition's programme for government, it was therefore very welcome indeed. The Government have since promoted decentralisation and democratic engagement, and the Bill will end the era of top-down government by giving new powers to local councils, communities, neighbourhoods and individuals.
My firm belief is that the Bill will be a landmark piece of legislation. It will remove the inflated power of central Government in local decisions and the top-down control of communities, and it will liberate local people by restoring their freedom to run their own lives and neighbourhoods in the way that they and the local community see fit.
The Bill will give control back to local people and communities. It will give our constituents the opportunity to hold their local authorities to account, and they will have the power to take over services through a new right to challenge. As a result, local people and communities will have a real say in their areas, a new right to bid to buy local assets and a new right to veto excessive council tax rises through a referendum.
My local council, South Gloucestershire council, is offering the community right to buy even before it has been implemented. It is giving the Save Conygre House campaign group, which is behind efforts to save the historic Conygre house, in Filton where I live, the time and space to build a business case for taking on the facility and making it a focal point for the Filton community. With this Bill, councils throughout the country will be encouraged to follow suit, which I know local communities will welcome with open arms. All the new measures can only be of benefit to our communities, and they will lead to a new era of public engagement in local government. The new rights will plant the seed of local commitment and responsibility for our local areas.
For councils, the Bill will fundamentally change the restrictions on their freedom and autonomy. It will devolve significant new powers to them, including new freedoms and flexibilities, and enable them to act in the interests of their local communities through a new general power of competence. Rather than needing to rely on specific powers, they will have the legal reassurance and confidence to innovate, drive down costs and deliver more efficient services.
It is clear that many councils have been calling for legislation such as this for many years. Back in 2009, South Gloucestershire council's Conservative cabinet used the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 to call on
the previous Government to scrap the regional spatial strategy, with its target of 32,800 houses for the district, and to call for small business rate relief to be paid automatically. The previous Government sat on the proposals, but the coalition Government have now confirmed to the council that both demands will be implemented through the current Bill.
I have long advocated the idea that large cities would benefit from elected mayors. I fully support the Government's pledge to introduce elected mayors for the 12 largest cities outside London, subject of course to local referendums and full scrutiny by elected councillors. I believe that elected mayors would boost democratic engagement, as has been demonstrated in the London mayoral elections. An elected mayor for a city such as Bristol would benefit local people, because that person would enhance the city's prestige and civic pride. The city would also benefit from the strong leadership that the position would enable its holder to enact, and from a clear demonstration that somebody was publicly in charge and taking responsibility. There would also be better clarity and accountability in decision making.
The reforms in the Bill will let councils and communities run their own affairs, which will serve to restore civic pride, democratic accountability and economic growth and build a stronger, fairer Britain. The Bill will mark the end of the era of big government and lay the foundations for the big society.
Oliver Colvile: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. When I intervened earlier, I should have declared an interest as per the Register of Members' Financial Interests. I wish to apologise profusely.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Thank you very much. You have corrected the record, and I sure that the House is grateful. That was not strictly a point of order, but I understand your need to get it on the record and thank you for doing so.
Mr Gordon Marsden (Blackpool South) (Lab): Members may be familiar with the old adage, "If wishes were horses, beggars would ride." The hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) talked about wind farms, and if all today's windy rhetoric were capable of carrying the Bill to successful fruition, it would do so.
I remind Members that localism is not just a waffly concept. It needs to be seen in practical terms. We talk about bottom-up government, but what does that mean and how does bottom-up activity happen? We talk about co-operation and collaboration, and I point out to the House, and particularly to Ministers, that a whole swathe of activity that is absolutely essential to the prosperity, growth and collaboration of local communities has been completely ignored in the Bill: that is economic growth and the co-operation and participation of business in the process.
I come from what I call a second-tier town, Blackpool, in a coastal area. Regional development agencies have not had a good press, certainly not from Ministers, but without them towns such as my own would not have got on to the first step in regeneration. Money was put into transport and the tower headland, and the local council imaginatively took over local assets such as the Winter Gardens.
We need proper mechanisms to replace the ability of the RDAs to work for economic growth and progress across parochial council boundaries. Sadly, the Government have so far been singularly inept in that regard. The local enterprise partnerships-the sickly infant that they have brought forward as part of the process of getting rid of the RDAs-have not even merited a mention in the Bill, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) emphasised. Members talk about generating growth and are rightly concerned about how small businesses can contribute, but their communities will suffer unless the voice of business is listened to and the matter is taken seriously and covered in the Bill.
I want to remind the House of what some organisations have said about the need for a greater emphasis in the Bill on powers to involve businesses in local projects. Part 5 of the Bill deals with planning and the duty to co-operate. The Federation of Small Businesses believes that LEPs could be an appropriate level for such involvement, but has concerns about their capacity to take on the roles currently proposed for them because of a lack of capacity and funding.
"We are disappointed that in the Bill there is no mention of LEPs"
"would be enhanced if the partnerships were given basic start up funding alongside statutory recognition of their basic roles in specific areas."
"are replaced with LEPs that are fully fit for purpose, with a strong business voice".
"The clause needs to be amended to include a stronger form of enforcement. It is within the scope of the Bill to amend this clause to grant Local Enterprise Partnerships a"
"scrutiny role over the duty".
The message to the Government is therefore loud and clear. They need to do something to make localism, and the dynamism that they want to release from it, a business fact on the ground. That should unite Members who represent rural, suburban and other areas. We have given the Government a lot of trouble and had some fun with them by describing the proposed process as Maoist and chaotic, but I remind the Minister and his colleagues of the words of Thomas Hobbes, who said that
"covenants, without the sword, are but words".
Alok Sharma (Reading West) (Con): Hon. Members on the Government side of the House campaigned vigorously for more localism in the years leading up to the general election. We campaigned for returning genuine power to our local communities, and for allowing local people to have a real say over how their communities look and feel. Promoting localism is in the DNA of this coalition Government and a key hallmark of the Bill is reversing Labour's 13 years of centralisation. This is a wide-ranging and ambitious Bill and I welcome it, but given the constraints on time this evening, I shall focus my remarks on the Bill's proposals to reform the planning system.
Alok Sharma: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Under the previous Conservative Government between 1979 and 1996, an average of 171,000 homes were built every year across England. By contrast, under Labour, with its top-down approach and targets, an average of only 145,000 homes were built each year between 1997 and 2009.
The problem with the current planning system is that it is not seen to be fair to local communities. It seeks to drown out their voices rather than to amplify them. Despite the clear wishes of local communities and local councils, the local view is that developers eventually ram through inappropriate developments on appeal.
The perception is that there is little upside for local communities in taking larger developments in their area. All such developments seem to offer is more traffic, more congestion, more pressure on local public services, the loss of valuable green spaces and amenities, and a detrimental impact on the local environment. Overall, the current planning system seems to lead, in many larger development proposals, to a gladiatorial contest, pitting local residents against the might and resources of developers.
Some of those who are opposed to localism will argue that the Bill will encourage nimbyism, but I could not disagree more with them. Let me give hon. Members a couple of recent examples from my constituency that demonstrate that communities are willing to accept new homes that fit into the local area.
The Bath road reservoir site is a 5.4 acre green lung in the centre of Reading. It is owned by Thames Water, which first tried to get planning permission to build on it 13 years ago. Three years ago, it resurrected its plans to develop the site and proposed a scale of development that was completely unacceptable to the local community and out of character with the local area. With the fantastic local campaigners of the Save the Bath Road Reservoir campaign group, I met the then chief executive of Thames Water. As part of our discussion, we suggested that it may want to consider a smaller and more appropriate development, but the local community's voice fell on deaf ears.
Thames Water submitted a planning application that did not have the support of the local community. The application was subsequently rejected by Reading borough council, but Thames Water appealed the decision. We found out last week that-thankfully-the appeal has been rejected. What was the result of the 13 years of time, effort and money spent by all parties involved? Zero new homes were built on the site. A more collaborative approach might well have delivered some housing.
The Underwood road precinct site in Calcot in my constituency is another example. The site has lain derelict for many years. Local residents want it developed but it is the same story all over again. The developer refused to listen to the views of the local community and proposed a development on a scale completely out of keeping with the local area.
A hugely motivated local residents campaign group formed to oppose the inappropriate plans, and ultimately the planning application was rejected a few weeks ago by West Berkshire council. What was the sum total of all the work undertaken by the various parties? Zero new homes were built, and yet residents have been crying out for some appropriate development on that site.
Local communities recognise the need for more housing, but they want new houses to be built in a manner that is sustainable, that provides the infrastructure to support local residents and, above all, that gives them a real say in how their communities look and feel. I believe that the Bill goes a long way towards achieving those aims.
I welcome the abolition of regional strategies and the opportunity for local residents and communities to influence how their local area looks. I welcome neighbourhood planning, which will allow neighbourhood groups to turn a vision for their area into a framework with which developers and residents alike can feel comfortable.
I welcome the community infrastructure levy alongside the new homes bonus, which will allow residents who are directly affected by development to realise real improvements in their area to compensate for any effects of living alongside extra housing or other developments. I also welcome meaningful pre-application consultation, which will encourage a constructive dialogue between local communities and developers.
In conclusion, we need to trust local communities and let them take a lead in creating local neighbourhoods of which they can be proud. The Localism Bill provides the mechanism for just that, and I commend it to the House.
Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): Of course, I welcome the intention of the Bill-we are all in favour of more local autonomy-but I have struggled to make sense of it. The Bill is a hotch-potch of ideas and prejudices that in many cases pander to passing fashions.
I have one underlying and unifying concern. There seem to be insufficient guarantees within the Bill for the poorest and the weakest and those without a voice. They are not sufficiently protected, and I very much fear that unpopular causes and disadvantaged communities will be left behind.
I want to highlight two issues that cause me particular concern. The first relates to social housing, which the Government seem to see as a residual housing solution only, and not the bedrock of strong families and communities that it could be. Removing regional spatial strategies, limiting the length of social tenancies perhaps to two years only and requiring homeless people to take up accommodation in the private rented sector-accommodation that might be unstable or unsuitable for their family's needs, and accommodation from which they might be forced to move repeatedly-will be bad for communities, children and families, and many people will simply fail to put down roots. It makes more likely poorer outcomes for those families and communities, and I am at a loss to understand why a Government who have said they care about neighbourliness and community strength would want to go down this route.
Sheila Gilmore: Does it not strike my hon. Friend as odd that a Government who have said that above all else they want to encourage people back into employment are providing that someone who gets one of these desirable housing association properties and finds employment might lose their house? Will that not be a disincentive to finding employment?
Kate Green: My hon. Friend makes my next point: there is a complete lack of logic in people who better their circumstances by moving into employment running the risk of being moved out of their home. I cannot understand why Ministers feel that that supports their objectives and ambitions for increasing employment, and I hope that in responding to the debate the Minister will pick up on that point. I am also at a loss to understand what possible incentive there will be for people who think they might be in social tenancies for only a very short period either to maintain the quality of that housing-to care for it, keep it clean, well decorated and well maintained-or to participate in community activities, as the Government desire.
I also have questions about the proposals for the planning system. I want to question Ministers about the strength of their commitment and seriousness. I must warn them that local people are interpreting for themselves the references to considerable levels of influence and autonomy in making local decisions, and I want to know whether Ministers can guarantee-and intend-that level of influence and autonomy. I have an example of a
live issue in my constituency: an active local campaign group, the Breathe Clean Air Group, has been campaigning against the location of a wood incinerator, against which hundreds of residents marched to object only last weekend. Local campaigners are already pointing to the Localism Bill as a means to give them the ability to stand up to what they see as a large commercial interest. Will Ministers give us clarity and assurances about what exactly they mean when they say that local people will have a voice?
I consider the Bill to be poorly thought through and irresponsible, often reflecting only knee-jerk popularism and being in danger of raising false hopes. I am particularly concerned for people in Stretford and Urmston, who have lost out repeatedly in trying to ensure that under Tory-led Trafford council the poorest wards in my constituency are properly protected. I am very concerned that the Bill serves merely to legitimise such an approach.
Sheryll Murray (South East Cornwall) (Con): Power is when the buck stops with the individual. If we are to give our councillors a real say over planning applications, it is councillors who must take the final decision, not a planning inspectorate. At the moment, all too often, our planning authorities are seen as a hurdle that developers must jump over before the Government make the final decision on appeal. This must change for all except projects of wider significance, such as motorways and railways, if local councillors, as those who are accountable to the people, are to have real power in their local area.
We need to stop micro-managing councils through inspectorates on local issues such as supermarkets and housing developments. We must also give power to councillors to delegate planning decisions where appropriate. At the moment, such decisions are delegated mainly to officials. In Cornwall, officers make more than 90% of decisions. One key way of bringing back more accountability to many smaller planning applications is to make use of our tier 1 parish and town councils. They are as capable of making decisions as any other democratically elected councillors, although one would not believe it listening to Labour Members say that these poor people are not able to make decisions.
Oliver Colvile: Does my hon. Friend recognise that urban conurbations do not have the same opportunities to engage as parish and town councils? The Local Government Act 1972 allows for referendums in villages, but they would not necessarily be held in urban conurbations and cities such as Plymouth. Would it not be useful to include that in the Bill?
We have 213 parish councils in Cornwall that could be of great help to the planning process, both in statutory consultation on bigger applications and by taking decisions on smaller ones. Although planning documents, such as the structural plan, are important, local councillors should have the final say, case by case-for example, on unexpected proposals that will bring about genuine good for the area, such as an area of outstanding natural beauty suiting a particular tourism development. Councils would be in a much stronger position in the all-important initial negotiations with developers, ensuring the best deal possible for residents.
I welcome the proposal to give local people a real say on important issues through referendums. There are many controversial issues in Cornwall, such as parking costs, that might warrant giving local people a say. I am pleased that my local councillors have listened and realise that a one-size-fits-all solution will not work, because there is a big difference between the small, struggling town centre that is desperate to attract more people and the large city car park with access to department stores. We also have many villages that were built before the car was even invented, where residents rely on communal parking facilities because of the narrow roads and lack of on-street parking. Moreover, there are tourist towns where demand varies throughout the year. It is clear that more decisions need to be made at a local community level, and referendums can play their part in making the more difficult decisions where people need to be consulted.
I campaigned on the issue of weekly bin collections and am delighted with the Government's rhetoric. The last few weeks of bad weather have shown how essential this is. Local referendums would quickly show those who doubt the importance of this essential service.
Alison Seabeck: The hon. Lady is quite rightly talking about the importance of referendums to local communities, but if, as her colleagues on the Front Bench say, there should be a freeze on council tax, who will fund those referendums?
I strongly believe that we should have a referendum before any move to make weekly bin collections fortnightly. I hope that local councillors from all parties-although the Opposition seem reluctant to do this-will welcome referendums and give people their say when appropriate.
With greater power being given to councils, we must also ensure that they are in a position to act more appropriately. We have all heard about ridiculous rulings from over-zealous health and safety officers. We must give them, and the many other officers, the opportunity of better training, qualification and registration to ensure that common sense reigns.
Overall, I welcome the Bill and I look forward to giving powers from this place to our local councils and to the councillors who have been democratically elected to take them. That is why I will support the Bill tonight.
Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab):
Beware of Greeks bearing gifts-or perhaps it should be gifts of jars of pickles; I am not quite sure. In Scotland, we have more than three years' experience of what the end of ring-fencing means. Its end was welcomed by a lot of councils of various political persuasions, although I am glad that the Labour group on my own council did not fall into the trap of thinking that it would get more power as a result. That did not happen. At a time when a council tax freeze was being imposed on Scottish councils, taking away ring-fencing did not increase the freedom of local councils to make decisions; rather, it
reduced it. More importantly, it prevented some important policy initiatives from being pursued. An example is the Supporting People programme, which was funded to provide preventive services to help people to stay in their own homes for longer and to prevent new tenants from being evicted because they did not have enough support to learn how to budget and manage their tenancies.
Ending ring-fencing in a financial climate in which a Government's priority often has to be the statutory and crisis services has resulted in the slow-burn, long-term preventive work suffering. I predict that the same will happen up and down the country, especially as the past three years have been relatively benign in Scotland, compared with what is about to hit local authorities in England and, because of the Barnett consequentials, in Scotland.
We have also heard about the community right to buy, and, yes, we already have that in Scotland, as the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) pointed out. Without funds to buy, however, it becomes an empty gesture. A community group in my constituency is setting up a community development trust, and it is very keen to go ahead. It knows which buildings and facilities it would like to take over, but at the moment it has absolutely no hope of any funding to enable it even to get started. When I was down here last summer, I took the opportunity to visit Shoreditch community development trust, which I had heard a lot about. It has done some fantastic work, well in advance of the big society, but the crucial factor in getting it started was the £3.8 million of Government funding that enabled it to take the first steps towards acquiring facilities that it could use to lever in more investment and facilities. Without funding, these proposals could become an empty gesture.
On the housing provisions in the Bill, I have no objection to alternatives to traditional social housing if they constitute a genuine addition. If not, they will make the situation worse, not better. However, partly as a result of the Bill and partly through what has already been announced, the burden of paying for new housing is now going to fall on tenants, who will have to pay higher rents. They will also find it harder to get work, or might find that there is a disincentive to get work. There is a role for mid-market housing. We have some in my area, and there is a group of people who need and want it, but it is not a substitute for subsidised, low-cost housing.
Nor is it right that people who move into the new housing now being built should be expected to move on after only a short time. To those who say that that will apply only to new tenants and that it will not affect others, I say that this is just the start. Various Conservative think-tanks have made this proposal over the past few years, but when I told people in the housing movement about it before the election they just laughed and said it would never happen. People should not believe that this will stop at new tenants; before we know where we are, security of tenure will be gone.
George Hollingbery (Meon Valley) (Con):
First, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), the Chairman of the Select Committee, who made many reasonable points in his admirably non-partisan
contribution. I shall leave it to Front Benchers-it is probably politic to do so-to work out which ones were reasonable, and move swiftly on.
The Bill provides us with the opportunity to change things locally. It could re-engage civic society in a way that we have not seen for an awfully long time. For too long, local politicians-those closest to local people-have been regarded as empty vessels, simply resonating to the words of Whitehall. I really think that the Bill presents an opportunity to change that, which I greatly welcome.
We are short of time, so I shall run through a number of the Bill's measures very quickly. Getting rid of the Standards Board for England has to be the right thing to do. It was a cipher for partisan activity in local politics and its passing will not be mourned by anybody. On predetermination, the most ludicrous situation existed, whereby people could be elected to champion a local cause yet not be able to take part in the decision. What an unbelievably crazy situation that was! I greatly welcome the board's passing.
Under new rules in the Bill, illegal occupation means that planning permission cannot be applied for. Again, that it is much to be welcomed. My local councillor points out that it is unlikely to lead to people being moved on any faster, but it will at least protect the land from being developed in the future. I think that that is also to be hugely welcomed.
Tenure reform was essential, and I believe that a change to a potential 80% of market rent in social housing is also very sensible for the simple reason that it is about recycling assets. It is about building more social housing; getting more income from people means more social housing being built in the future. That must be welcomed.
Finally, let me end with a few remarks on neighbourhood planning. I very much welcome the clauses on neighbourhood planning, which could seriously re-engage local people in deciding how their area looks and feels. I have some specific issues with the drafting. What is a neighbourhood forum? Who is in it? Who do they represent? Is it based on geography, is it a political group or is it a religious group? The Bill does not speak to that. At the moment, it requires only a constitution, three people and the interests of local people at heart. It does not refer to all local people, just local people. I think that those terms need to be pulled together and local councils need a better rubric against which to judge applications so that they can be rejected securely. The same applies to local areas. At the moment, a local area could be as small as a single street, which is not terribly helpful. I believe that that provision could be tightened.
Finally, a referendum to approve a neighbourhood plan or a neighbourhood development order will have no turnout restrictions. Where a small street has only 150 qualifying members, only 20 or 30 people might
need to turn out to approve a neighbourhood development order. We need to make absolutely sure that the Bill provides for consultation to be as wide and as in-depth as possible, which will not happen unless the orders are modified.
Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): It seems almost an exaggeration to call the Localism Bill a Bill. It is really 400 pages of the Secretary of State's incoherent streams of consciousness, largely unconnected and all focused on different parts of local government legislation. In so much as it is a Bill, it is a sham.
In the context of the massive cuts to local authority funding, it is disgraceful to suggest that local authorities now have more powers. Authorities know that the only power they have been given is the choice of what to cut. Whether they slash the voluntary sector or refuse collection, planning services or housing, the only authority that they will have is, as I say, the choice of what to cut. The poorest will be hit hardest by cuts to local authority spending-both because they use the services most and because the poorest councils have been the hardest hit.
Neil Carmichael: I should be fascinated to learn why Labour Members simply do not trust local people. In France and Holland there is strategic planning at one level, but at local level people have a huge amount of capacity and ability to shape their environment. I know France well, and I know Holland well. I have seen how the system works in those countries, and I do not understand why you do not believe that it can work here as well.
Toby Perkins: I do not know why you were the recipient of that attack, Madam Deputy Speaker, but, assuming that the hon. Gentleman was talking about the Labour Government, I think that he should have listened to what I was saying. What I was saying was that local authorities will not have the capacity to influence their areas when faced with spending cuts as great as those with which they have been hit at this point. That is the fundamental difference.
Sheila Gilmore: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is ridiculous to suggest that transferring the cost of new housing from the state to the tenant will give councils and housing associations more money with which to build houses?
Absolutely, but that is by no means the most ridiculous suggestion that we have heard today. According to the hon. Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery), there is to be an affordable housing boom. He believes that tons more houses will be built, although successive Conservative speakers have rejoiced in the
fact that local authorities will now be able to tell developers to clear off and prevent the increase in housing provision that we so clearly need.
In the face of a savage housing crisis, when local authorities are being hit by the toughest funding settlement in living memory, we are expecting the enactment of legislation which-as the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) made clear-ensures that, ultimately, those in the greatest need will bear the greatest burden of paying off the debt. What the hon. Gentleman said at Question Time at the beginning of the current Parliament is coming true, and the Bill is just one example of the way it will do so. We are seeing the Government abdicating all responsibility for housing targets. We are seeing-
We are seeing a Government who are no longer making housing provision a priority. Largely owing to the toxic legacy of a previous Tory Government, the last Labour Government spent their early years clearing up the disgraceful state of our social housing. As a result, so much money was invested in the decent homes programme that the housing shortage was allowed to become worse and worse. Only during the last three or four years could major social housing developments take place.
Brandon Lewis: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way so graciously, but, notwithstanding his comments about social housing, does he accept that, according to Shelter, seven of the top 10 providers in the country are Conservative-controlled councils?
"It is unbelievable that at a time when every two minutes someone faces the nightmare of losing their home, the government is proposing to reduce the rights of homeless people who approach their local authorities for help."
What I also understand about the housing crisis is that the state of the rebuilding programme that was beginning to be implemented is being fundamentally eroded by the Bill. The Government's policies are leading to confusion and chaos and, according to the National Housing Federation, to the loss of 160,000 desperately needed new homes.
During the final sitting of the Communities and Local Government Committee that I attended, we interviewed eight witnesses about the regional spatial
strategies. The opinions of those witnesses were diverse; some were deeply hostile, while others thought the measures were a step in the right direction. However, those eight people of different opinions were united on one thing: the strategies for house building proposed by this Government will, in fact, lead to a reduction in the number of houses being built, and to the homeless crisis getting worse.
These proposed Government policies have therefore united opposition from both ends of the spectrum of interested parties. Shelter says that the housing crisis will get worse and Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire chamber of commerce has written to me today saying that, while it welcomes the Minister's intent to simplify and speed up the planning system, it has significant concerns that the Bill as currently drafted will act as a barrier to development and economic growth. It is therefore a concern not only of those who are most concerned about the housing crisis, but of those who are interested in development and commerce, that under the nimbyish aspects of the Bill we will see a reduction in house building, even though the building of more houses is required to end the housing crisis.
This Bill is a shambolic cover-up. It will mainly devolve to local government responsibilities on what to cut and who to target. It is a missed opportunity that will do nothing to boost the morale of the beleaguered local government sector, and it will inevitably make the housing crisis worse.
Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South) (Con): I warmly welcome the Bill, and I should declare an interest: I am an elected parish councillor in Shenley Brook End and Tattenhoe parish council. I want to use that experience, and that of Milton Keynes more widely, to illustrate why the Bill's measures are welcome, necessary and, in many aspects, long overdue.
Milton Keynes is now pretty much at its planned size when it was designated a new town in 1967: it has now reached its proposed population of almost 250,000, and the initially outlined geographic boundaries. The debate in recent years has therefore been about how, when and where future development should take place. The policy of the previous Government could be defined as national selection and regional implementation, and under that, Milton Keynes was designated one of the areas of south-east growth. Tens of thousands of new houses were designated, not primarily because of Milton Keynes' needs, but because it was a comparatively easy place to build new homes. As a result, without proper thought or adequate infrastructure provision, large additional housing estates were bolted on around the outside of Milton Keynes, a place that was carefully designed and constructed. That led to many of the unique design aspects that have made Milton Keynes such a success being diminished, the primary example of which is the grid road system.
The Bill, however, will allow us to determine our own housing needs locally, and devise solutions locally. For the first time, Milton Keynes will have truly liberating powers to shape its own future. Having always had its growth determined by one Government quango or another, for the first time it will be local people who decide our destiny. If I may use an analogy from nature: for the first time the cub will be away from its mother and
making its own decisions. That will be powerful and liberating, and I hope it will rekindle a genuine local democracy, not just the party opinion poll contest that seemed to happen too often. I hope that there will be a robust debate about the future of Milton Keynes in terms of both the total strategic scope of future expansion and the detailed planning.
I particularly welcome the Bill's provisions for genuine community engagement in the shaping and the nature of new housing areas-the density of housing, how many parking places are needed, the green spaces, what shops and services are required. That all comes with this Bill. As I have mentioned, I serve as a parish councillor in one of the fast-growing parts of Milton Keynes.
Anne Marie Morris (Newton Abbot) (Con): I am delighted to hear my hon. Friend's comments about parish councils. In respect of some of the urban areas, is he as pleased as I am that the neighbourhood forums that are to be introduced will give them a voice too?
Iain Stewart: I am delighted to endorse that point, because I was going to mention the urban areas, as well as town councils. The Bill will benefit not only the new growing areas in Milton Keynes, but the existing historical areas. Milton Keynes was built around many historical towns and villages, and so its older parts will also benefit. That gives me the perfect opportunity to cite the example of local libraries. The right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), speaking from the Opposition Front Bench, seemed to allege that the Bill would do nothing for libraries and other local services that may be under threat, but that is not the case. In two parts of my constituency, Stony Stratford and Woburn Sands, the libraries are under threat and the town councils are putting forward exciting plans to take over the ownership and running of those vital local services. That is the kind of imaginative locally based solution that we need to protect the fabric and integrity of our local areas. I wished to discuss other parts of the Bill in detail, but time will preclude my doing so. Therefore, in the interests of letting other colleagues speak, I shall conclude my remarks at this point.
Eric Ollerenshaw (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Con): As others have, I shall declare my interest, which is in the book: I have reached the dizzy heights of honorary vice-president of the Local Government Association, after 21 years in local government. For the benefit of the Labour party, I should say that 17 of those years were spent in Britain's poorest borough and two were spent in control in a coalition with Labour-perhaps I should keep quiet about that.
I shall deal, first, with the key issue, about which we have heard lots of complaints. I was a councillor from 2000, so I saw how the previous Government interfered and controlled. That point has been demonstrated tremendously by other council leaders and councillors. I was going to make the fair point that this approach began even before then; it seems that Governments have done this for ever. As an old Labour councillor who first taught me said, "Eric, your party will need you when it is in opposition but watch out when it is in government because it tends to forget about local government." That has been a prescription in this country historically and there has been increasing centralisation.
That reached its apotheosis under the previous Government, who realised in their dying years that something was askew. When they carried out a survey in 2000, 60% of people said that they were satisfied with their local council, but after 11 years of Labour's strictures the corresponding figure in 2008 was 45%. To see what has been happening, those of us who care about local government have only to examine the number of people who vote, which has been decreasing and decreasing. Voters are not stupid. They have seen that the people they elect as local councillors have less and less power to do anything, so they wonder about the point of voting. I totally support getting rid of this predetermination business and the standards boards, and giving this general competence to councils. That might restore the connection between the electorate and the candidate who is campaigning on something, and that candidate's ability to get elected as a councillor and deliver some of what he promised. We might, thus, restore the trust that we used to have in local government.
Perhaps that would help all the political parties here to encourage a few more people to come forward wanting to be councillors. Instead of being hide-bound by standards boards, legal officers and central and regional quangos, they would be able to get on and do something for their local area. In the historic town of Lancaster, which is part of my constituency, the Victorian local councillors put an enormous amount of money and energy into their own town. People could not even dream of doing that now, but that potential exists and is provided for in the Bill.
I am aware of the time available to me, but I wish to stress, as others have done, the importance of parishes, and not only rural ones. There are 17 such parishes in my constituency, as well as three town councils and one urban parish. They are desperate to have a say over the neighbourhood plans, to vote on what is in them and then to enjoy the benefits of them. Labour's amendment seeks simply to delay, as most of Labour's amendments have done lately. I have no idea whether or not the aim is to fill in blank pages, but my local councillors and parishes want no more delay on the power over retrospective planning.
The fact that Travellers can arrive at a site near Preesall on a bank holiday Monday with hard core all ready and mobile toilets and then apply for retrospective planning permissions suggests to me that they knew full well that that they could not get through the normal planning application procedure, which everybody else would have to follow. That poor area has now waited nine months for the planning appeal and the situation persists. That is why there is no time like the present to pass the Bill.
"would cause the planning functions of local authorities to become incoherent and ineffective".
We need only ask my electors whether, when they go to local planning committees, they find what is going on to be coherent. We need only ask any one of my parishes whether they find anything coherent or effective about the present planning position, which ignores every vote of that town or parish with impunity. My councils want this Bill passed, and they want it passed quickly, because it goes with the grain of their neighbourhoods and parishes.
In the short time available, I want to concentrate on part 5 of the Bill, which deals with planning. I welcome the proposals that will enable communities to put together neighbourhood development plans and orders. Since the debate started, I have received an e-mail from a resident of the village of Quorn in my constituency who says that an application has recently been made to redesignate land in the village to greenfield. That will mean that it cannot be used for allotments, which are desperately needed in the village. If neighbourhoods had the ability to put together a plan to designate how they would like local land to be used, that application could not have been made. I entirely agree with the comments that have just been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) -the Bill is needed and it is needed now.
We cannot possibly say that the current system is working in favour of residents and communities. Local councillors feel extremely frustrated. Too often, the only power that local communities have is to mount a vociferous no campaign. In his opening remarks, the Secretary of State talked about a confrontational and adversarial system and I am sure that we are all aware of that from our postbags and inboxes. I am sure that all hon. Members are aware of groups that have campaigned in their constituencies against proposed developments. In my constituency, I want to pay tribute to the Garendon Park countryside protection group, the Loughborough south-west action group and residents in Barrow, Hathern and Sileby.
If the planning system is not working, we must believe that there is an alternative. I agree with the comments made earlier-the difference between the Government and the Opposition is that we believe in the power of residents and communities to show common sense and to trust their judgment about what is best for their local areas. One example would be the Loughborough in bloom competition, which was led by the Loughborough Echo and supported by Charnwood council. It has transformed the way that Loughborough town centre looks and was entirely down to local groups and communities that joined the scheme year on year.
I can also cite the many neighbourhood plans and village design statements drafted by local residents. I firmly believe that residents will support development
as long as their views on the nature of that development are listened to. That is the frustration with the system at the moment-views are not heard. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) talked about the views of communities falling on deaf ears and that is how residents feel now.
I also believe that residents can and will work with local businesses and retailers to ensure that there is sufficient employment land available and that there are sustainable town and village centres.
Nicky Morgan: Absolutely, particularly in relation to my constituency, which includes a large town, a smaller town and various villages. The employers, businesses and retail industry are critical to the area's success and we must see that they are fully engaged with neighbourhood plans. I particularly welcome clause 102, which requires developers to consult local communities before submitting planning applications for certain developments.
Let me offer a few final thoughts so that colleagues will have time to make their points. First, there must be clarity around the decision-making process regarding the plan or order, and the process must be fair and transparent. It would be helpful to know at some point the grounds on which a local planning authority or examiner could turn down a plan or order. It would also be helpful to know who will bear the cost of preparing a plan.
There have been calls for a third-party right of appeal. According to the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the UK appeal system cost £25 million in 2007-08, when there were almost 23,000 appeals. I understand that the Government are keen to reduce dramatically the number of appeals by having more up-front agreement to plans and orders, but will Ministers keep this area under review so that we can see whether that works for residents in practice?
Last April, the Prime Minister issued an invitation to join the Government. Part 5 and other parts of the Bill show that that invitation has been issued, and I firmly believe that residents in Loughborough and elsewhere will accept it. I urge Members to support the Bill today.
Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con):
May I report the loud cheer from far-flung corners of Britain that accompanied the announcement of the Bill? To be honest, anything with the words decentralisation or localism in the title has generated significant enthusiasm. May I also report an even louder cheer from people in particularly isolated areas of Britain for whom the Bill is an important step forward? In those areas, political engagement is, perhaps, more important than anywhere else in the UK, and it is no surprise or coincidence that the turnout in general and local elections in those areas is somewhat higher than in their urban equivalents. That is despite the often considerable obstacles that people face at election time. It is not a coincidence that the areas to which I refer are the very epitome of the big society. They invented that
expression, its content and, indeed, its whole context long before hon. Members picked up on the theme, and they did so despite the previous Government rather than because of them. That is what makes engagement in this measure even more important.
It was probably a consequence of a decade or more of frustration and exasperation that led a number of people in rural communities to conclude that simply devolving power was not necessarily the same as improving services. It is important to stress that point and to address it in the legislation-and we are doing that, thank goodness! Anything in the Bill that restores confidence and leads to better representation has to be a good thing. Anything that restores better government has to be a good thing, because that will, in turn, lead to better services.
I shall stick to two subjects today, one of which is the provision for local communities to retain important services and the right to buy, which has been mentioned several times already. The background is simple and stark: 30,000 independent retailers have gone in the past 25 years; 20% of rural post offices have gone; one primary school a month has gone; banks and petrol stations have gone; and 39 pubs a week are going.
Mel Stride (Central Devon) (Con): My hon. Friend has, like me, a very rural constituency. Does he agree that it is vital that the Bill will allow small communities to have sustainable development that will support those post offices and the vital services to which he refers?
Simon Hart: My hon. Friend makes a good point. Those Members who were lucky enough to attend a recent Westminster Hall debate on the future of pubs will remember that a number of speakers from all parties and all quarters of the House championed the local pub. In doing so, they championed a lot more than the local pub: they championed anything that was the hub of the community. From speaker after speaker we heard that the issue was not just about buying beer and crisps, filling one's tank with petrol or buying stamps. It was about the crucial social function that those institutions provide, which are under threat and remain so. The Bill steps in the right direction to shore up those vital institutions by ensuring that, where possible and viable, local communities are enabled to get in the way of people who might have other, perhaps financially driven, motives with regard to those services. I think of the great Farmers Arms in Llanybri, a lovely pub representing a crucial part of my constituency, which at the moment is closed, despite the fact that a number of residents see it as viable and important, and want it retained for the good of the community.
Anne Marie Morris: I absolutely endorse what my hon. Friend is saying. Does he share my concern that we must ensure that there is little red tape, because if there is too much red tape the right to take over services will become meaningless?
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. Before the hon. Gentleman answers, may I remind the hon. Lady that she is not supposed to have her back to the Chair, that she is not supposed to stand when another Member is standing and that many other Members are trying to get into the debate? If she could remember those, that would be good.
Simon Hart: My hon. Friend makes a good point. If there is one thing that drives those of us on the Government Benches in almost every measure that we consider, it is how we can make life simpler and easier for people in business and for everyday families. That is one of the major distinctions between the Government and their predecessors.
I conclude by touching quickly on planning and housing. It seems to me that we have missed something rather simple during the debate: the findings of the Affordable Rural Housing Commission, which was set up by the previous Government, to their credit. The commission has recognised a number of the issues that have been raised today and that feature heavily in the proposals before us. It put its finger right on the points to which we are referring and highlighted the fact that although volume is important, particularly in rural communities, the issue is as much about location as it is about anything else.
The commission, on one hand, calls on planners to be more flexible when it comes to the views of local communities-the Bill helps us with that-and stresses the need to locate affordable houses where there is a demand and where there are jobs, and on the other it refers to the fact that planners need to be more rigid in ensuring that unscrupulous developers do not exploit the planning system for their own financial gain at the expense of the community.
It is sensible that the planning element of the Bill refers to the availability of jobs, recognises the significance of culture and, of course, highlights the importance of community, which lies at the heart of localism and of everybody who cares deeply about their rural community, for whatever reason.
If there was an election message delivered to us all, whatever part of Britain we represent and whatever our political persuasion, it was this: "Get the Government off my back-in practice, in principle and in spirit." I suggest that the Bill's proposals are the first major and important step towards that objective, and any reasonable-minded person in the House should embrace it warmly.
Angie Bray (Ealing Central and Acton) (Con): Broadly, I very much welcome the Bill, which will tackle the bureaucratic burden, raise local accountability and empower local communities to start taking control of their own lives again, all of which are laudable aims and, I believe, highly achievable. However, as a Member who represents a London constituency, it is right that I question how the Bill will in practice affect my constituents and their fellow Londoners.
One of the most obvious of the many improvements that the Bill will introduce, as so many of my colleagues have said, is the freeing up of local councillors to be able to speak their minds on important matters. I have always though it absolutely bizarre that they should be elected on the basis of having strong views on local matters and then not be allowed to be part of the decision-making process on those matters. This bit of common sense is welcome, and about time too.
I am delighted to have been reassured that the change in predetermination also applies to local ward councillors and their local licensing issues. So it should. It is important
that we put communities and their local ward councillors back at the centre of these important decisions. I am delighted to see us starting to unwind what I consider to be one of the worst legacies of the previous Labour Government-the rush to force late-night licences on us all. We need to move fast on this. Late-night licensing has proved to be a disaster for neighbourhoods throughout the land, causing them to be blighted by relentless noise and antisocial behaviour. Giving power back to neighbourhoods as well as to their local ward councillors to decide on important matters cannot happen too soon, allowing them to decide whether an area is appropriate for such premises, particularly where saturation may already have been reached. In my case, Ealing Broadway immediately springs to mind.
I hope that the Minister will be able to provide me with further information on the difficult issue of local planning matters. I fully applaud the plans in the Bill to hand a bigger role in local housing strategies to neighbourhoods and to local residents. It ought to be a no-brainer that those who will live closest to the consequences of a new development have a say in whether and how it might go ahead. Given that most of us are aware of the urgent need for new housing, it makes sense to harness neighbourhoods to help provide for that through the good old-fashioned principle of enlightened self-interest-that is, by making sure that those neighbourhoods can also profit from new developments through benefits such as lower council taxes.
However, I need a little help. I am not quite sure how that is supposed to pan out in London, which I suspect is rather different from most other regions because of its extra tier of government based at city hall and headed by a Mayor with a variety of regional statutory duties. One of those is to provide a London plan. That, as some in the Chamber may know, is a massive undertaking in which the Mayor plans for many years ahead on the complete shape of London, including where housing is needed and how much of it, and where there should be industrial or business zones, entertainment zones and so on.
The plan is the basis on which all local development frameworks are based. Ealing, for instance, is expected to provide 14,000 houses by 2026. Where do the local residents come in? What say will they have about that strategy? I suspect that many local residents will be reluctant to support new housing, much as they know that it is important, because they have a concern, which I share, that too often not enough long-term thought is put into the sustainability of many of those large developments. There is a fear that too often planning committees are not asking the right questions, probably because they want the housing, regardless. We need to ensure that sustainable plans are part of the planning process and that neighbourhoods are properly convinced on the matter.
Finally, I hope to hear more about the Government's plans for local government funding and bringing back control of business rates to local authorities, allowing them to keep the revenue as well as to collect it. Handing back control would re-establish proper relationships between councils and their local business community, and would provide a useful local tool to help regenerate town centres such as Ealing and Acton.
I like the localism agenda. It is the right policy at the right time. There is far more that can and should be done in the name of localism, but this is a pretty good start. I shall certainly support the Bill.
Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con): At the outset I should state that before coming to this place I worked for 27 years as a chartered surveyor. I no longer practise and I have no consultancies. I have also been a district councillor and a county councillor.
I shall concentrate on the planning aspects of the Bill. I support the Bill, although there are areas that require further scrutiny. The Bill is radical and bold, and the Secretary of State and his team are to be applauded for thinking outside the box. Change is needed as the current system is not working. At a time when there is an urgent need to build more houses, we are building fewer than at any time since the war. Local development framework coverage is patchy. Only 15% of the country has an adopted core strategy. The country's infrastructure is crumbling. Our roads, drains and power supplies are in need of upgrading. The planning system provides one means of achieving that. The Bill proposes a fundamental change in how the planning system works, representing a move from a top-down to a bottom-up approach. There is a need to accept that the man from the Ministry does not know best, and there must be a shift in responsibility to individuals and local communities. They, after all, are the people who know their areas best.
I shall comment on various features of the framework in which the new approach to planning will operate. We need to consider whether the principle of sustainable development is embedded in the legislation, and whether the requirement for such development is explicitly stated. Currently, the proposal is that the need to follow sustainable principles will be implicit because it will be included in the national planning framework. That has not yet been published, however, and sustainability needs to be at the heart of the planning system.
There is a need to ensure that local decisions and developments have regard to surrounding districts and fit into a county-wide and regional framework. The regional spatial strategy was too rigid a straitjacket, but is the duty on local authorities to co-operate sufficient to ensure that an adequate strategic overview is taken? That requires further scrutiny. In East Anglia, SCEALA, the Standing Conference of East Anglian Local Authorities, did the job adequately in the 1980s. To ensure that sufficient houses are built in a district, consideration should be given to asking local planning authorities to assess local housing need regularly. In that way, they will be able to monitor their success in bringing forward land for development and land on which to build the new houses that are so badly needed.
One of my main complaints as a surveyor for the past 10 to 15 years was that the planning system was getting slower and slower. There is a need to speed up the whole process, both in determining planning applications and in preparing local plans, and I look forward to receiving details of how the Government are going to do that.
I welcome the move towards neighbourhood planning, which will give people a real say in how their neighbourhoods evolve, but I would be grateful if the
Minister took on board some observations. For neighbourhood planning to be successful, there is a need for capacity building in neighbourhoods and for communities to have access to advice, training and funding. With that in mind, the ending of planning aid this March appears short-sighted, so I would be grateful if consideration could be given either to reviewing that decision or to putting new arrangements in place. It is also important to ensure that all communities are able to participate, not just a few, so I would welcome further information on how neighbourhood planning will be promoted in those deprived areas where it is needed most.
There is a concern that some developers might hijack the system. For example, a food store might put forward in a particular neighbourhood an enticing planning-gain package that appeals to that community but has a negative knock-on effect on surrounding areas. How is it intended to guard against such scenarios? The Government should continue to promote the concept of the sustainable high street, and there should be sequential tests and economic development impacts.
Local planning authority costs should be taken into account, and I would be grateful if the Secretary of State confirmed that neighbourhood plans will apply not only to residential areas but to business districts.
Zac Goldsmith (Richmond Park) (Con): There is much to welcome in the Bill, which at its heart has a belief that no one is better placed to determine the shape and nature of a community than those who live in it. That is a giant step in the right direction.
The first time that I spoke in this Chamber was to ask the Secretary of State whether he intended to repeal the perverse rules that prevent local councillors from standing up for their constituents. We have already heard about them today: the rules of pre-determination. He answered positively, but when I went back to my constituents and relayed the answer I was met with a look of disbelief. People are naturally sceptical of all political promises, so I am thrilled to see the measure in the Bill. Local councillors will now be able to stand up for local residents, which is exactly why they are elected in the first place.
Another area that deserves a brief mention relates to the Bill's support for local shops and high streets. Small shops define communities; as they die off and are replaced by bland multiples and empty premises, communities themselves begin to erode. The Bill will help councils to buck those trends. Simplifying small business rate relief and giving local authorities powers to provide business rate discounts will clearly help, but as we move towards democratic decision making and new neighbourhood plans, I hope that local people and elected councillors will be able to decide for themselves how their high streets look, and not simply be forced to yield before every Tesco application. For many people, that will be the test for this Bill.
Control of the royal parks was going to be transferred from the Secretary of State to the Mayor of London, and I understand that there is still a strong possibility that the Government will introduce an amendment to continue with that plan. As the MP for the area with the biggest royal park, I want to put on record my strong support for this move.
Mr Raynsford: As a Member who also represents a constituency with a royal park, may I put it to the hon. Gentleman that this is a divisive proposition that will be strongly opposed by those of us who believe that the royal parks are well managed at the moment and that something that is not bust certainly should not be fiddled with?
Zac Goldsmith: I profoundly disagree. It makes perfect sense that whoever is responsible for the parks is accountable and answerable to London voters. Democratic accountability is the best, and probably the only, safeguard that we have against lunatic proposals of the sort that we saw last year. The right hon. Gentleman knows what I am talking about; I will not go into the details because of the time. I hope that it is not inappropriate for me to say that Members in the neighbouring constituencies of Twickenham, Kingston and Surbiton and Putney-they are all Ministers-are very much in favour of these proposals.
The central purpose of the Bill is to reinvigorate local communities and, in particular, local democracy. In this regard, the Bill could go much further. My party said before the election that we would enable people to instigate local referendums on local issues, and I believe that the Liberal Democrats said the same. However, other than on two or three specific issues such as elected mayors and council tax hikes, the referendums on offer are purely advisory and therefore have the status, in real terms, of the usual no-hope petition-although they are a hell of a lot more expensive. There is an argument, which I am sure will be repeated, that councils will necessarily feel obliged to adhere to the results of a referendum, but that is a hope, and one that many residents of local authorities around the country will regard as wholly unrealistic.
Non-binding referendums would be a damaging gesture. The only thing worse than not giving people a voice is the pretence that we are giving them a voice. That is not only disempowering but sends a message that when it comes to the crunch the Government simply do not trust people to make decisions for themselves. I strongly believe that if these referendums are non-binding, we would better off without them. I say that as a committed campaigner for direct democracy over very many years.
"Sometimes it is appropriate to nudge councils to do the right thing. This will be perhaps more of a shove than a nudge".-[ Official Report, 25 November 2010; Vol. 501, c. 437.]
I welcome the intention behind the Bill. Far too many people in this country feel as though they have no stake in their communities. They feel that they have no role in the decisions about their areas and that any attempt to challenge the status quo is doomed to failure, crushed
by big bureaucracy and even bigger government. This pervasive sense of disempowerment is the source of much disillusionment and distrust in the political process. As one of the oldest democracies in the world, the fact that we have brought this to pass through accumulative bureaucracies and centralisation is a disgrace, and it is to this Government's credit that they are choosing to break with the tradition set by the Labour party and try to use this Bill to devolve, rather than demand, power.
In my constituency, residents of north Oxford can testify only too well to the incredibly damaging effect of the current centralised planning system. In the face of massive and sustained local opposition, Oxford city council is persisting in its determination, under its core strategy proposals, to build 55,000 square metres of office space in north Oxford despite consensus among other public bodies that the local infrastructure will not sustain it. I pay tribute to local campaigners, particularly those at Engage Oxford, who have put their lives on hold to campaign against this unworkable programme.
I welcome the Bill because it will give those local campaigners the opportunity to have their voice heard. It is time that local campaigners and people had their voice heard and their concerns acted on.
Barbara Keeley (Worsley and Eccles South) (Lab): We have had a lively debate, with some 40 speakers. There is a clear division between the Government and the Opposition on the Bill, and some Government Members have expressed concerns. There have been some excellent speeches.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) put it well when he said that the Bill was a missed opportunity. He said that the general power of competence should sit within a constitutional framework -of course it should-and that there would be a void in the standards of conduct for councillors. He questioned the powers that the Secretary of State wants to take for himself, in particular the power to impose shadow mayors, which many hon. Members have spoken about. He said that the Bill signalled the end of the provision of social housing.
Similar concerns were raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), who said that the Bill was atrocious. My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) reminded us of the era of "Cathy Come Home". She said that her test was whether it was a hand up or a handout, and that the Bill failed the test. Similarly, the housing section of the Bill was the main concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn). Opposition Members think that the Bill has the potential to raise levels of homelessness, which is a serious concern. My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) feared that the disadvantaged had no voice and said the Bill was bad on many levels for the poorest in our communities.
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