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19 Nov 2002 : Column 535—continued

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): The Deputy Prime Minister says that we should trust the people. Will he confirm that even if every single person in Cheshire, Lancashire and Cumbria votes against a regional assembly and the abolition of their counties, those counties will be abolished and the regional assembly will be imposed if the people in Manchester and Merseyside vote for them?

The Deputy Prime Minister: We will provide the opportunity of a referendum if we decide that enough people want it. We will then give people an opportunity to decide not only whether they want regional government, but what kind of unitary government they want. In the circumstances, a two-tier system would be the only possibility. People would know that they would be voting for regional government alongside unitary government, which would leave out the counties. We would be abolishing a tier—a bit like the last Administration.

Mr. Bercow : May I ask the right hon. Gentleman to retrace his steps briefly? What assessment has he made

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of the impact of changes in the rules governing the use of capital receipts from the sale of council houses on the size of payments of interest on local authority debt?

The Deputy Prime Minister: That is an important question, to which the Select Committee addressed itself. It is a difficult one. We came to office saying that the receipts should be released to allow the refurbishment of housing. Owing to the debts incurred by some local authorities and the interest payments involved, we decided that the Treasury should provide more money and that some capital receipts should be retained. We did not take all the capital receipts. Money was made available to the Treasury, and all our actions were influenced by the level of interest and the level of Government debt. The Select Committee was anxious to achieve a balance between debts and capital asset receipts, especially in the context of housing. I realise that these are complex and difficult matters.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): May I return to the question of the regions? If the Government are so keen to set up regional assemblies, why do they not positively advocate that local people choose regions, rather than maintaining a studied neutrality?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I have never been accused of studied neutrality, particularly where local government is concerned. Perhaps my hon. Friend has not often listened to what I say. I clearly advocate the case, and I will do so during a referendum. Is that clear enough for my hon. Friend?

Mr. Prentice: No, it is not.

The Deputy Prime Minister: Good.

The Queen's Speech included the announcement of a Bill to reform the planning system. Despite past attempts to reform the planning system—I think all Governments have had a go at it from time to time—it is still too slow and inflexible. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) made a number of points about that. The planning process, along with the culture of planning itself, needs to change. Ninety per cent. of councils fail to meet the targets for dealing with planning applications, and 47 councils still have no up-to-date development plans. I know that that is sometimes to do with resources, and sometimes to do with personnel. That is why we have had to address ourselves to the requirement for resources that were often cut under the last Administration because of the lack of resources given to that Administration.

The planning Bill will establish the reforms needed to overhaul the system and increase effective community involvement. It will streamline the system and introduce a single level of plans, with strategic planning at regional level. It will also introduce business planning zones, and establish new processes to speed up the handling of applications for major infrastructure projects.

Reform of the planning system is urgent, and this Government recognise that it requires new and additional resources. We do not just say that something needs to be done; we provide the necessary resources. Our announcement in July of a #350 million investment

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in the planning system over the next three years is, I think, unprecedented. Furthermore, #50 million will be released to allow urgent work to start immediately. The extra money will go to authorities that demonstrate their commitment to high-quality planning. I will not hesitate to take action against authorities that are not performing adequately.

In future, the planning system will help to deliver priority services to our communities: new homes, new schools, new hospitals and a reliable, safe public transport system—all in a clean and safe environment.

Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): My right hon. Friend mentioned bringing the planning system closer to the community. I understand that the Bill envisages an improved role for town and parish councils. Does my right hon. Friend expect any resources to be provided for training and skills at that important level of local government?

The Deputy Prime Minister: We are concerned about the position at parish council level. I have always argued that parish councils could do a lot more about some of their own facilities: village hall developments and things like that. There is more to be done on that. There are pilot proposals on how that may operate and work. The more chance people have to make a decision that affects their communities and their lives, whether at parish or at urban level, the better. We are actively developing pilot proposals to achieve that.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): Will the Deputy Prime Minister consider, even at this late stage, the fact that he will be asking for regional plans only when regional assemblies have been given backing by the local electorate and that until such time as regional assemblies have been given that backing, the county structure plan will stay with elected county councillors?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman knows this but those bodies are staffed by an awful lot of Tory-elected councillors, as well as Labour-elected councillors, and I do not think that they have heard the message from here that they should not be co-operating. Even in Beverley, the leader of the council, Councillor Parnaby, sits on the assembly. We will give the opportunity for people to be elected to a body, a regional government, but in the meantime we think that regional assemblies have a role to play.

We have given resources to check what the RDAs are doing. They can play a part in regional planning. We think that they have a role to play and so, apparently, do many Tory councillors. Although they obviously hear a different view here, they are prepared to concentrate on what they do and get actively involved.

The House will agree that strong local government is essential for successful and thriving communities. Local government needs to deliver the quality of services that people expect and to have the resources for that. I have pointed out the greater importance we give to providing resources—as opposed to discovering in opposition that local authorities are important.

Much has been achieved. The average performance of 80 per cent. of all councils is improving and in many areas the gap between the best and worst councils is

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closing. We have strengthened the Audit Commission's role to produce comprehensive performance assessments for local authority activities. Those assessments will for the first time give us a baseline to judge each council's performance. We will reward the best, provide support, tackle weaknesses and intervene where necessary.

The local government Bill was published in draft in July and benefited from consultation and scrutiny by the Select Committee. I am grateful for what the Select Committee did in examining the Bill. I always have trouble with Select Committees; it goes with the job. They make criticisms—they are there to do that. Sometimes, I like a bit of praise, but you cannot ask for too much.

I have always been an advocate of the pre-scrutiny of Bills. It would be good if Bills were examined by a Select Committee before they came to the House. The Government may agree or disagree with the Select Committee; we may have another opinion, which is usually well founded. There is a lot of information and evidence, which I think has been cited by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden, and on which the House can make a judgment when the Bill comes before it.

Our response to the Select Committee was placed in the Library on, I think, 5 November. I am grateful for the work of the Select Committee. We have adopted its recommendations where possible, and rejected them where we disagree. I strongly reject the view that we have created more power in central Government or created more burdens for councils—the right hon. Member made the charge that we do not trust local government.

The Bill offers new flexibility and extends the freedoms available to local government. I believe that it will free successful councils to innovate and to make real improvements in local services and the quality of life in communities; there is considerable evidence to show that it will. New borrowing powers will give local authorities the option to fund capital projects where they have the means to pay back the borrowing. Local authorities will have the power to charge for discretionary services and will be able to trade in any service in which they have demonstrated a strong performance on delivery.

The Bill will give local authorities greater freedom, allowing them to end the 50 per cent. council tax discount for second homes and long-term homes: they will be allowed to reduce the discount to 10 per cent. That will give extra income to local authorities of approximately #65 million, which they will be able to use to improve local services.

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