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Mr. Dobson: If it is of any help to the hon. Gentleman, I might point out in fairness that, at the time Henry George was advocating the system, Winston Churchill supported it.

Mr. Rendel: In practice I believe that we have now finished the point about site valuation; we are not debating it today, and it is a pity to waste the House's time any further on it. We need to discuss the Bill.

I should welcome an intervention from the Minister of State or the Secretary of State to answer my last important point--that, last year, the Secretary of State said that the amount of discretionary relief that local authorities would have to pay would not be included in the current capping limits. Is that true of this new relief as well?

Mr. Gummer: The hon. Gentleman will be happy to know that it is true. I might add that the Liberal Democrat policy on site valuation rating is whatever a particular Liberal Democrat's constituent wants to hear. That is how all Liberal Democrat policies are put across to the public.

Mr. Rendel: That was not worth responding to.

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I am glad to have the Secretary of State's commitment on my point about capping; he did not give it in his initial remarks, and it has been worrying some local authorities.

How will the changes be paid for? The Government estimate that the changes under the Bill will cost about £22 million across the three countries. Where will that money come from? It presumably means that the amount collected in the form of the UBR will fall; hence the amount passed to local authorities from the UBR will fall to the same extent. Will the Government therefore increase the revenue support grant by £22 million to make up the difference? That will be critical to local authorities. I should like a ministerial assurance on that point, because it is important to know where the money is to come from.

The Government have said that they want to offer relief to rural communities without penalising local authorities in general, but until we have an assurance that the money will not come from local authorities' own resources, we cannot make a serious judgment whether the Government's commitment not to penalise them holds true.

As for parish reviews, dealt with in part II, I want to make a quick point about clause 20, which deals with unitary counties and which I assume was introduced chiefly for the sake of the Isle of Wight.

Mr. Barry Field: Hear, hear.

Mr. Rendel: I am glad to see the hon. Gentleman in his place; I expect he will have more to say later.

Mr. Field: Sit down and shut up, then.

Mr. Rendel: Perhaps, if the hon. Gentleman stops intervening, he will get a chance to speak.

Although the provision seems to answer the problem with differing timings of parish and other elections in the English counties, it does not meet the point about unitary districts, which face a similar problem. I hope that the Secretary of State will use the powers given him in the Local Government Finance Act 1992 to end the problem of parish and unitary district elections that are not synchronised, thereby saving possible expense.

The trouble with the way parishing is carried out is that it takes far too long, and that the system itself includes a presumption against parishing.

The Government now seem to recognise the important role of community councils, which is good news, but the Bill does not go far enough. There should be a presumption in the Bill in favour of parishing. District councils should be under a duty to review parish council arrangements cyclically, perhaps every four years. There has been a resistance to parishing by some councillors and officers.

Perhaps they are concerned to retain their own power. The Secretary of State referred to subsidiarity, so I hope that he agrees that it is important to try to ensure that parishing takes place wherever possible, and that we should devolve power downwards to the parishes that are then created. The Liberal Democrats have frequently made proposals to that effect, only to find ourselves firmly opposed, often by Labour and Conservative councillors.

There is a question about whether the Secretary of State should be the final authority, and he will know that the Lords have recently recommended that there should be

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some type of Standing Committee of the House to deal with such issues of local affairs. The Secretary of State should certainly review that recommendation as a serious possibility.

Perhaps the most important criticism of this part of the Bill is what it leaves out--all those living in metropolitan areas and London boroughs, who do not currently benefit from the decentralisation of power. Those living in the cities have just as much need of community leadership as those living in rural areas. It seems that the Government have left them out and are unconcerned about local democracy in urban Britain. Although I welcome the increase in consultation between the layers of local government that the Secretary of State has promised us, it would also be welcome to see some increase in consultation between central Government and local authorities.

In part III, the Government refer to what powers local authorities should exercise--always a difficult subject. To allow parishes simply to set the time on the public clocks is obviously not sufficient, and does not amount to democratic responsiveness. The Bill is a classic example of legislation from a party that has a centralising tendency and is desperately struggling with the need to find out how it can devolve some powers under the principles of subsidiarity. I welcome, however, the signs of positive thinking. The proposed role of parish councils in relation to transport, traffic calming and particularly crime prevention is welcome.

The real question about part III is why the Government need to give parishes such powers now. It is, of course, because of the legal position of local authorities. Councils have to seek out the right to carry out duties of that sort each time that they come up with a good idea as to what they should be able to handle. My party believes that local councils should be accountable simply to their local population, not to the Secretary of State and not at all, except in the most exceptional circumstances, to Parliament.

In order to overcome the problem about what powers should be devolved downwards we need a proper Bill that gives back to local government the power of general competence, which it badly needs and deserves. If we were to replace this half-hearted effort at subsidiarity with a Bill that went full-heartedly for subsidiarity and gave local authorities the power of general competence, it would be a great improvement. I am happy to note that the Government are now thinking about a possible power of general competence and are willing to consult about it. They should, however, be moving much faster, and it is a great pity that they have missed their opportunity today.

6.32 pm

Mr. Michael Alison (Selby): It is one of the unexpected charms of our debates that occasionally they offer an opportunity to stray from the often rather boring highways of principle and generality, and suddenly focus on a good old solid object, something readily identifiable, something even photogenic. Such is the case in our debate for there has swum into our ken a magical piece of woodland in my constituency known as Hagg Wood, near the village of Dunnington, which is close to York.

Hagg Wood has acquired even greater significance, even notoriety, from the revelation by the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) that not only

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was he born and bred in the village of Dunnington, which is close to Hagg Wood, but that, since an early age, he has often wandered freely up and down its charming highways and byways, its footpaths and bridleways.

It is greatly to the credit of the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras that he was born and bred in that delightful village of Dunnington. In the spirit of bipartisan good will, it is very much to the credit of the village of Dunnington, which is very small, that it should have borne and bred a well-known national public figure. I hope that honours are even, in that context at any rate.

The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras and the hon. Member for York (Mr. Bayley) are deeply concerned that the rights of access enjoyed by them, myself and many others in the locality are about to be disallowed or overridden. Let me try to reassure them and my hon. Friends about that.

I should make it clear that the Church Commission should never be thought of as an object of suspicion or derision in the House, because it is a creature of Parliament. It is the repository of the charitable funds of the Church of England. It was set up by Parliament, and Madam Speaker is a prominent Church Commissioner. The Church Commission, with its distinguished basis and pedigree, is the owner of the freehold of the woodland, which is let on a 999-year lease to the Forestry Commission.

I hasten to reassure the hon. Members for Holborn and St. Pancras and for York, although that reassurance may be only temporary, that the woodland is not on the market, although the Forestry Commission had earlier considered the sale of its lease, and may do so again in the future. Even if the lease was sold--the Church Commissioners would derive no profit or advantage from that, because it would merely mean a transfer of the leaseholder--the public footpaths and bridleways that go through Hagg Wood would be fully protected. I can identify at least three of them on the map of it that I have before me. The hon. Members for Holborn and St. Pancras and for York would be able, whatever the sale and to whomever it was made, to exercise their right to walk on that land.

The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras asked a specific question about the benefit that the Church Commissioners might derive from the remission of rent and rate liabilities, which is a feature of the Bill. The Church Commissioners invariably require the licensee or leaseholder to meet the usual outgoings, including rates, rents and so on, as part of the licence or lease they offer. We therefore do not stand to be in prospect of any particular advantage. It would accrue to a licence holder, who would have to pay those rents and rates normally.

Having sketched in the background, and attempted to reassure the hon. Members for York and for Holborn and St. Pancras, I must point out that Hagg Wood is not and never has been subject to a so-called open access agreement under the terms of the leasehold held by the Forestry Commission. In principle, such an agreement means the complete and unregulated freedom to roam and ramble over field and forest, anywhere and everywhere, whenever and wherever any individual might choose so to ramble or roam.

Open access is not an appropriate form of freedom where productive enterprises--whether agriculture and farming or cultivating and growing timber--are carried on. Many of the Church Commissioners' woodlands are

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located in the middle of agricultural holdings, and access to those woods has to be gained across tenanted productive farm land. The reasonable interests, both agricultural and sporting, of our tenants must be protected and we have some weighty allies in our approach to that issue.

For example, the Council for the Protection of Rural England writes:


The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors goes even further, saying:


    "Many areas of the countryside are too sensitive to allow 'right to roam' to operate unconstrained. Reasons why public access is inappropriate include: crop damage, livestock disturbance, sporting activities, health and safety, protection of wildlife and landscape features."

I believe that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, thinking back on his experiences in Hagg wood, would understand the reasonableness of the provisos and caveats that people familiar with the countryside would want to make so as to protect many countryside features.


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