Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Lord Whitty: My Lords, I reject the accusation made by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, that the Government have backed off from their commitment to sustainable development because it is central to much of what the Government are proposing in the Bill and more generally in their environmental and spatial planning approach.

As the noble Baroness so eloquently stated, local authorities should be committed to sustainability all the time. The aim of the strategic plans setting out local priorities and the actions needed to address them should be sustainable development, and we agree with that aim.

Under Clause 4 a local authority has power to prepare a strategy setting out how it and its partners will promote the economic, social and environmental wellbeing of their area. The strategy is not about any one of those factors, but it is about bringing them all together. We are not speaking of three strategies that overlap or which might be mutually incompatible. That is why the Bill repeals the reference to developing a separate economic development plan, because we want to approach these matters in a holistic way.

An authority that is developing a strategy under this power will need to set out how it and its partners will tackle those things together for the overall wellbeing of the community. That is the essence of sustainability and why sustainable development is written very firmly, as the noble Baroness has acknowledged, in Clauses 2 and 3. It is an indication that everything we do must have regard to sustainable development. The guidance on community strategies in this part of the Bill also emphasises that point.

However much the Government and others repeat the term "sustainable development", it is not as clearly understood as we would like. Unfortunately, contrary to the impressions of some people, the fact that the Government keep repeating something does not necessarily mean that it immediately achieves political and popular assent. Regrettable though that may be, the economic, social and environmental strategies have to be spelt out in the Bill. Mirroring the wording in Clause 2 also reinforces the point that this new wellbeing power will be an important tool in ensuring that we deliver sustainable growth in local authority areas.

We agree with what the noble Baroness is trying to achieve, namely bringing together the different areas of strategies holistically. The framework in Part I of

28 Feb 2000 : Column 368

the Bill emphasises the links between well-being and sustainable development. The noble Baroness referred to local Agenda 21 plans, and we must ensure that all local authorities implement those explicitly.

Since Committee stage, we have held discussions with the UK Round Table on sustainable development on these very issues. We are considering a number of suggestions that they have put to us, and we intend to bring forward proposals as soon as possible. However, deletion of the references to "economic, social and environmental" in this context, and replacing them by a simple reference to "sustainable development" we do not believe advances the prospect of local authorities genuinely putting sustainable development in the centre of their approach to community planning and the rest of the wellbeing power.

I agree with much of what the noble Baroness said, apart from her accusations that the Government have backed off. However, I do not believe that that simple deletion and replacement will achieve what she is seeking. I hope therefore that she will not pursue the matter.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, I agree with the Minister that people use this term in many ways, and it is mouthed as something that is bound to be good, but people mean different things at different times. Has the precise meaning of the phrase been tested in court yet?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, to my knowledge it has not. I shall check on that point and write to the noble Baroness if that is not the case.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I am pleased to hear that the Government are talking to the Round Table about a way of including what they and we would like to see in the Bill. At the moment there is only a power to produce such a plan, even if the words are interpreted in the way the Minister has interpreted them. It is not a duty.

I hope that it is not simply a question of it being difficult to draft or pressure of time, because I am aware of the reply of the Minister, Hilary Armstrong, to the Round Table on this matter, which was that it is simply not possible in the time available to consider the full extent of authorities' existing functions and the implications of the impacts of such legislation. It sounds as though the Government are now more interested in pursuing the objectives of the Round Table in implementing sustainable development, so I hope that the pressure of time on legislation will not be an impediment. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 5 [Power to amend or repeal enactments]:

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No.13.


    Page 3, line 12, at beginning insert--


("( ) A local authority may apply to the Secretary of State to amend, repeal, revoke or disapply an enactment (whenever passed or made) which it considers prevents or obstructs it from exercising its power under section 2(1).").

28 Feb 2000 : Column 369

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I will speak also to Amendment No.14, which is grouped with this amendment. Clause 5 gives the Secretary of State the power to amend or repeal enactments, when he "thinks" that an enactment may obstruct a local authority from exercising its wellbeing power.

I suggest that it is quite unlikely that the Secretary of State will wake up at three one morning and say to himself, "I must make a note in case I forget this when I wake up at the proper time, and I will write it down now, because it just occurs to me that such and such an enactment might obstruct a local authority from exercising its well-being power". The more likely scenario is that local authorities will realise the problems that confront them, and they will ask the Secretary of State to modify enactments or repeal them.

The Conservative Front Bench tabled a very similar amendment at the last stage of the Bill. The Minister explained that the Government envisaged a relatively informal procedure and that the matter would become an agenda item at the central local partnership meetings, and local government will therefore be able to look at the issues collectively. He stated that there is nothing in the legislation to prevent local authorities individually or as a group putting forward proposals that the Secretary of State should regulate or alter barriers, and he said that they were actively encouraged to do so. I do not quarrel with that statement.

The process described by the Minister should be made more transparent. The Bill should provide explicitly for a local authority to apply to the Secretary of State.

The second amendment is consequential, providing that, whether or not there has been an application by a local authority, the Secretary of State can take the steps that he thinks fit.

The amendments do not seek to alter the direction of the Bill but would merely facilitate proper transparency, which is a word that has already been used many times in debates on the Bill. I hope that it will be put into practice in this clause.

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, I was delighted to see, on my return from a few days' vacation last week, that the amendment had been tabled, since it spared me the bother of returning to this subject, which we debated at Committee stage, following an amendment that I put down in almost identical terms. Up to a point, the Minister gave a good response to that debate. None the less, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for raising the subject again.

One thought occurs to me in relation to the provision that we are debating. Clause 5 says:


    "If the Secretary of State thinks that an enactment (whenever passed or made) prevents or obstructs local authorities from exercising their power under section 2(1) he may by order amend, repeal, revoke or disapply that enactment".

Perhaps the Minister can give me the assurance that that applies to this Bill, as well as to all other Acts. It is quite clear from the drafting of this legislation that

28 Feb 2000 : Column 370

aspects of it are particularly designed, shall we say, to squeeze the freedom of action of local authorities in this regard. After a short while, I can imagine that the Secretary of State may face a queue of local authorities--or, indeed, as has been said, a series of pleas may be presented at the central, local partnership meeting-- requesting the release of aspects of this Bill. Therefore, I shall be glad to hear that this provision in Clause 5 also applies to the rest of the Bill.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, quite apart from the merits of the amendment, which seem to me to be considerable, can the Minister tell us why this clause says:


    "If the Secretary of State thinks that an enactment ... prevents or obstructs local authorities"?

The word "thinks" is very tentative. If the Minister was asked whether he considered that this Act obstructed local authorities and he was not sure, he would say, "I think so". Surely the Secretary of State would not take what is really quite drastic action unless he has considered it. The usual word in legislation for such a provision is "considers". The Minister ought to consider that, whatever he thinks.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page