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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)




  1. Minister, could I welcome you back to the Committee. We are here to look at the question of public spaces. Could I ask to introduce your team?

  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Sally Keeble, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State with responsibility for housing, planning and regeneration, who also chaired the Urban Green Spaces Task Force; Joyce Bridges, who is the Director of the Urban Policy Unit; and Peter Matthew, who is also of the Urban Policy Unit and head of the secretariat that supported the Urban Green Spaces Task Force.

  2. Can I just point out to you that when we saw you last you did promise that we would be able to have a look at this Cross Cutting Review on approval of public spaces, which you seemed to think you were in charge of!
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I initially said yes; I then thought about it in the next 25 seconds and said I would need to take advice; I then took advice and what I have been told is that the Cross Cutting Reviews are not being disclosed to select committees—there is a whole range of them going on—because they are, in effect, advice and discussion during the process of the Spending Review. If I had given it you then I would have been breaking with what the pattern across government was in relation to cross cutters. I am sorry about that.

Mrs Dunwoody

  3. You are not telling anybody? You are quite consistent about it—you are not telling anybody?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I am telling everybody, but in terms of the Cross Cutting Reviews, they are not being disclosed to select committees while the process of formulating cross cutting is going on.


  4. You precised it for us, although I gather you took out all the useful information when you precised it. Yes, we are grateful for the precis. I also understand that, after we have had the spending round, the document will be published so that we will be able to see then whether you were promoted or relegated as far as this is concerned?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) A document will be published. There have been two reports already in relation to the Spending Review. What is published at the end of the Spending Review I am not quite sure what form it will be in; but subsequent in September, as indicated, or in the autumn, there will be a publication about the action plan which will also come out of the cross cutter.

  5. Is there anything you would like to say to the Committee?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Thank you very much for the opportunity to take part in this session on the Green Spaces Task Force and Public Space Cross Cutting Review. The work of the Task Force and the Cross Cutting Review both reflect the importance that the Government attaches to high quality public and open spaces. Survey evidence shows that the condition of people's neighbourhoods and local environment is a major local priority. Our streets and public spaces are something that we all experience everyday—on our way to work, school, shops, or for recreation and fun. If it is dirty, or if it feels unsafe, then people's quality of life is severely affected. But our public space agenda is not just about improving the local environment—there is an increasing appreciation that the quality of the public space has a much wider influence on issues at the macro level. There is a strong economic case for ensuring that attention is paid to the quality of public space locally—nobody wants to work or visit the shops in dirty, neglected areas and, consequently, few businesses, whether large or small, will want to invest in areas where the quality of public space has been allowed to deteriorate. This also contributes to people's decisions about where they live and whether to stay in urban areas. But despite the social and economic importance of high quality public space, other evidence indicates an overall decline in the quality of much of public space. The work of the Cross Cutting Review and Urban Green Spaces Task Force has identified a number of reasons as to why this is the case: the need for political leadership and priority for these issues centrally and locally; insufficient data, measures and targets on the quality of public space; diverse and fragmented responsibilities; insufficient and fragmented resources; and complex and unclear powers and legislation. It is now our job in central Government to drive forward the public space agenda, giving it the high level political leadership it needs, and developing a framework to support those organisations (chiefly local authorities) that manage the public space. Government is already doing a lot in this area—such as the Street Crime Initiative, Home Zones, Neighbourhood Wardens—and this needs to be drawn more closely together. This is one of the things that the Cross Cutting Review and the Task Force has looked to achieve. As you will have seen, the Urban Green Spaces Task Force Report makes a number of recommendations, which we are looking at closely. We will publish our formal response to that in the summer. Coming out of the Cross Cutting Review, we have already embarked on a review of the responsibilities and powers of local authorities to deal with public space nuisance. I expect a consultation paper on that review to be published in the autumn. I have also asked for a full report on our public space strategy also to be published in the autumn—building on the work already done by the Cross Cutting Review and the Task Force. This work continues to be a Cross Cutting exercise. Officials from a number of departments will be working up the specific recommendations for the report. For example, DEFRA officials are already working on a review of legislation. Although I cannot, at this point, say a great deal about the specific recommendations coming out of the Cross Cutting Review, I think there is an increasingly high priority to this issue in terms of our commitment to improve the quality of our public spaces, and I very much welcome the opportunity to discuss them today.

Chris Grayling

  6. Minister, welcome back. Can I lead you a little bit further on the Cross Cutting Review. We may not be able to see it but I am sure you can enlighten us a bit more on the detail of the content. Can you tell us a bit more about the issues that it has highlighted as being the most important, and about the strategy for tackling those issues?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) The main issue that the Cross Cutting Review is identifying is: what is the strategy which is required to improve the quality of public space. By "public space" it means streets, parks, rights of way, all areas, as it were, open to the public whether privately owned or in the hands of central or local government which form part of the local environment. The issues it is looking at are issues like: how do you provide the necessary political leadership at central and local government to raise the issue up the agenda? How do you bring together what are currently fragmented funding streams? How do you identify what is a good and what is a bad authority or body in relation to providing public space, both streets and parks? Also, what incentives you need to provide to increase performance. Those are the sorts of issues it is looking at—all with a view to increasing the quality of the public round.

  7. In terms of the response to you, you talked about cross departmental work taking place. Who is actually in overall charge of the response?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) The Minister responsible for the Cross Cutting Review is myself. A team based in the Treasury reports to me in relation to the Cross Cutting Review. There is an inter-departmental group of officials who support the work. Those officials come from the relevant departments; and the main relevant departments in terms of responsibility are DTLR, DEFRA and the Home Office.

  8. What difference are we likely to see between the green spaces work taking place in your Department by the Neighbourhood Renewal Unit and the Local and Regional Government Group?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) One of the purposes of the Cross Cutting Review is to try to join up all of the strands within central government (though not only central Government) that impact on the quality of public space, including green spaces. The Neighbourhood Renewal Unit and, obviously, local government have both got significant policy responsibilities in that respect.

  9. Within the broad range of areas that the Review is covering, can we talk a bit about public safety, and what specific conclusions you have reached, and what work is now taking place in that area?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) In terms of public safety, there are two separate issues. One of the reasons why some public spaces, whether it be streets or whether it be parks, are less used than they should be is because of people's fear of crime and fear of anti-social behaviour. There needs to be a coordinated response to try to reduce that aspect of the unsatisfactory nature of some public spaces and public streets. That requires coordinated activity between the Home Office, DTLR, local authorities and the police. Three particular things that are currently being done that are relevant to that are: first of all, neighbourhood wardens, which have a significant role to play in many places, and they are expanding throughout the country at the moment; secondly, the Community Safety Initiative which is being run from the Home Office, which seeks to deal with crime and anti-social behaviour; and, thirdly, issues around lighting, CCTV and other things that make people feel safe. Separately from that community safety issue there is the issue about danger to pedestrians from traffic, child pedestrian deaths, and that also is an issue that significantly impacts on the quality particularly of streets. Those two strands are being looked at.

  10. The Prime Minister has set out some fairly clear goals for tackling street crime in London and said it was going to be on the down by September. Has there been detailed work taking place behind the scenes as part of the work that you are discussing this morning that has helped him shape that view about future trends in street crime?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) The work that is being done in the Cross Cutting Review has focussed much more on anti-social behaviour. It knows what is going on in relation to the Home Office's Street Crime Initiative, although it is not restricted to the Home Office. The two strands have been dealt with separately, but they obviously feed into each other to some extent. It would be wrong to say that the Street Crime Initiative has informed a significant part of the Cross Cutting Review; but obviously what we learn from that will play a significant part in the outcome.

  11. Lastly, with the work you have been doing about public safety clearly there has been a lot of discussion and criticism levelled at the court system, the judicial system, in relation to the presence of anti-social behaviour in relation to public safety issues. Does the remit of the Cross Cutting Review go so far as to address the issue of the judicial response to anti-social behaviour problems?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) No, we have not looked in detail at how the courts deal with anti-social behaviour. We have looked at issues about neighbourhood wardens, about policing, about making sure that fragmented responsibilities get joined up; but we have not considered the precise functioning of the criminal justice system. There have got to be limits to make the process manageable.

  12. But is that not a huge gap? If you have got a young person who is going round vandalising neighbourhoods and every now and again they are arrested and subjected to a caution or some other judicial slap on the wrist but end up with a sense that really nothing is happening about what they are doing so they carry on doing it—for all the things you could be doing here—surely the absence of that judicial dimension to your work could make what you are doing fairly futile?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) You are absolutely right to say that a small number of criminals in an area can have a devastating effect on a public space; but the criminal justice system has been looked at in other parts of the government and it is right, I think, that they are absolutely focussing on the issue about how you deal quickly with those sorts of persistent offender. We think it is right that they should deal with that work. You are absolutely right to say it can have a major effect on the public realm, but I do not think there is any problem about it being dealt with separately.

Mrs Ellman

  13. Could you give us any more examples of how fragmented responsibilities could become more joined up?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Fragmented responsibilities, for example, in relation to a city centre or a park, you could have the local authority responsible for the maintenance of the park or bits of the city centre, and the police responsible for dealing with crime and anti-social behaviour, and they do not adequately join up in the way they deal with those issues. You might have some bits of the city centre in private hands, other bits in local authority hands, and those two bits not joining up. Or you might have some parts of the park in the hands of educational establishments, some in the hands of a local authority, the police being responsible for ensuring there is not crime or anti-social behaviour there and, again, they do not join up.

  14. How are you going to get that joined up?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) First of all, we need to streamline the powers that people have, so that there is clarity about who is actually responsible and what powers they have. That has been dealt with by the legislative review that was announced a week or so ago that is going on under the auspices of DEFRA. Secondly, as the `Green Spaces Better Places' document suggests, one has to promote partnerships; one has to bring the people who do have responsibility together. That will become easier if each party involved knows who is legally responsible and what their actual powers are.


  15. Why is it DEFRA rather than your Department?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Because the powers issue we thought would focus in part, though not wholly, on issues like street cleanliness, litter, dog fouling, bylaws in relation to cleanliness, environmental cleanliness, and those were issues that DEFRA had significant responsibility for. It is not exclusively DEFRA because there are quite a number of Home Office regulations and there are some DTLR regulations as well; but this is a Cross Cutting Review, somebody has got to drive it forward and, in the context of the Cross Cutting Review, DEFRA looked the most suitable and were keen to do it.

Christine Russell

  16. Lord Falconer, can I ask you whether or not members of the Cross Cutting Review are concerned that in many parts of the country there does seem a reluctance on the part of local authorities and police to really promote anti-social behaviour orders in order to combat the yob culture that blights their communities?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Yes, we are. As I said in answer to Chris' question, one of the issues that makes parks/streets unuseable, unattractive places is the level of crime and anti-social behaviour. To free up those places for people we need to promote a sense that the streets are safer, the parks are safer, and they are more inclined to go. Yes, we are concerned about it. Yes, the Home Office and the police input in relation to this is absolutely vital to make it a success; but they are other ways—neighbourhood wardens etc—which play a part in this.

  17. Whose responsibility is it to actually encourage greater use of those Orders?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) It is central government responsibility. The Home Office is responsible for Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, but my Department is responsible for local government. My Department is responsible for the urban policies set out in the Urban White Paper; and one of the critical issues in the Urban White Paper, which we are following through in the Cross Cutting Review, is to make the public realm desirable and places that people want to go to. We have got a responsibility as well.

  18. Could I ask you a second point on the public safety issue. How helpful do you consider it would be, if this is a matter you have discussed, that the police—especially community safety officers—actually get involved with local authority planning departments when new developments are actually being planned? I know all the evidence shows that the more people there are on the streets the safer the streets are. So many problems have been created by muggers' alleyways and bad planning.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I think very, very much so. We have produced some guidance in relation to this to design out crime; but practical engagement between the local planning authority and the police would make a real difference.

  19. How willing are the police to get involved with that?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I think in principle the police are willing to address the issue of how you try to design out or reduce the prospect of crime. Whenever one goes to places where crime is prevalent in a particular geographical location and the police are there, they are very good at identifying what actually promotes crime—like dark alleyways, like places where you get away easily. I think they would be very keen to be engaged. It is an important issue, because the design of public spaces is just as important as how you manage them.


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