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7 Jan 2003 : Column 76—continued

Mr. Patrick Hall : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Conservative spokesman's contention that a business improvement district would represent a city within the city wholly misses the point? If such a scheme

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were to go ahead, there would have to be a strong local partnership, and it is inconceivable that the local authority would not be part of that.

Mr. Davey: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. BIDs would provide the dynamic for engaging the business community with the local council to produce even stronger partnerships working for their area.

Of course, there are caveats. The additionality point is important: we want to make sure that extra money produces additional funding for additional services. I share the concern of the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish about whether property owners and landlords will have to pay the extra rate. Will they get the vote before the BID is set up? The Government need to clarify that. The Government need to ensure that they are fair in their treatment of different businesses in the community, and I hope that their guidelines will ensure that that happens.

I am proud that Kingston, the area that I represent, is to be a pilot for the whole of London. We are grateful for the London development agency's funding for us to develop our bid. Kingston is already a successful town.

Mr. Pickles: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davey: I hope that the hon. Gentleman is going to talk about the benefits and excellent progress in Kingston, so I will give way.

Mr. Pickles: Indeed, I once parked there.

The hon. Gentleman is very enthusiastic about business zones. Would he care to comment on research evidence on such zones between 1980 and 1990, which shows that they were no different from other areas in terms of progress and economic benefit, and in some cases the conditions in business zones were inferior to those without the zone?

Mr. Davey: One always has to be careful about interpreting such research. It may be that areas with a BID would have declined significantly without it. Without having read the research, I shall not take the hon. Gentleman's word for it. I would be grateful if he sent it to me, and I promise that I will look at it.

I was talking about the success of Kingston upon Thames. We have 18 million visitors a year, and in the south-east the town is second only to the west end as a favoured retail venue. We are taking that success further with the new Rotunda development, the Charter Quay development and the new theatre, which is to open in spring 2004. However, it would be sensible for Kingston to have a BID. We cannot be complacent and there are negative aspects to our town centre. It is dirty, and we suffer from graffiti, litter and chewing gum. Signage in the town needs to be better maintained.

Mr. Pickles: Chewing gum?

Mr. Davey: The hon. Gentleman worries about my point on chewing gum. If he takes a walk down Clarence street in Kingston, he will see that chewing gum litters the town and needs to be cleared up.

Mr. Pickles rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Although it may be interesting to hear the hon. Gentleman's comments, it would be appropriate for hon. Members to come to the subject of the debate.

Mr. Davey: I certainly intend to do that.

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Mr. Pickles: The hon. Gentleman really should look at the evidence for business zones, and perhaps speak to Lord Ashdown, because the zones are about much more than picking up chewing gum. They are far more fundamental to the economy than chewing gum.

Mr. Davey: The great benefit of these schemes is that businesses, working with their local community and local authority, can decide what is right for them. In Kingston we have the problem that our town centre is dirty, and it needs to be cleaned up. These proposals are exciting for Kingston and other towns, and they will improve partnership, reduce problems and lead to greater regeneration.

There are many other issues in the Bill on which we could comment tonight: the reforms to the housing revenue account, which are welcome; the proposals for the housing strategy; the reform of non-domestic rates, and the small business rate relief, which has much to recommend it. On the latter proposal, I simply ask whether it should be revenue neutral or whether the Exchequer should add more money. Should there be more local flexibility in that scheme? An allowance system might be a better, fairer and more efficient way to make sure that small businesses get more relief from non-domestic rates. There are welcome proposals for charging and trading regimes, although again the Government seem to have taken a narrow approach. We will consider all those matters in Committee.

Although the Bill is extremely welcome, it does not merit Ministers' rhetoric. When the Bill was first published, the Deputy Prime Minister talked about a historic change in the relationship between central and local government. I am afraid that this is rather a timid Bill that will not go down in history as making a major change to that relationship. The smile on the face of the Minister for Local Government and the Regions suggests that he, too, thinks that. However, the Bill contains welcome measures. We particularly welcome the prudential capital regime, and we hope that that at least will improve local government throughout the country.

6.47 pm

Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West): I want to offer some words of welcome to the Bill. It introduces significant new features for local councils and it makes a good move towards restoring confidence in the capacities of local government genuinely to serve local communities.

It was my privilege to serve in local government before I served in the House, and I emphasise the word Xprivilege". That was a great experience, and years later, I still feel that we must be careful not to turn local government into an arcane debate for archival accountancy types which fails to connect with local people's needs and interests. The Bill is part of the process of restoring the faith of people in local government and in the local political process.

In the 20th century, the great environmentalist Schumacher urged us to think global and act local. Our world is more complex now. It is increasingly interconnected, interdependent and vulnerable, and it is a world of increasing personal mobility in which we constantly have to rebuild local communities of diverse groups, ages and backgrounds. Perhaps we need to

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think and act globally and locally at the same time, realising that the two are inextricably connected. In other words, I suggest that, in the 21st century, the local is as significant as the global.

I passionately believe that restoring faith in the capacities of representative, democratic politics can come only from building from the base upwards. We must affirm and support efforts at the local level, and we must sustain active, progressive councils as the means of democratic participation and management of resources for the common good.

I want to raise four themes in the Bill: much-needed capacity building; match funding; the insensitive analysis of local needs to which the Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett) referred; and, to use his words, the league-table problem that can distort that analysis. The proposed new capital finance system, the financial management duties on the local authorities and the new powers to issue grant assistance are welcome but are only part of the process. As was said earlier, capital spending has a revenue impact. In practice, the Government have increased resources from the centre to localities, and have introduced myriad welcome initiatives, including the single regeneration budget, neighbourhood renewal funds, resources for anti-crime measures, and sure start projects to name but a few. All those initiatives from the centre address local issues, social exclusion and the need for local service provision. However, I suggest to my right hon. Friend the Minister that we need to look seriously at how top-down initiatives and resources can lock into local needs and engage local people. There is not a great yawning gap in resources but there is a lack of capacity in the local neighbourhood or at street level. There is no reaching up to the downward stream of initiatives—they are not rooted in the locality or bedded in for the long term.

We cannot assume that that amorphous, abstract and pliable noun Xthe community" exists at the local level. Communities are not innate organisations of people who have been thrown together by circumstance—they need to be patiently built and supported. In the past, we have paid far too little attention to the basic need to build communities, particularly in inner-city neighbourhoods such as that in which I live in inner-city Leeds.

I recall a letter from a constituent some years ago. He had moved into rented accommodation in a local terrace, and said that I had been his MP for about two years. In all that time, he had never been introduced to his next-door neighbour—what was I as his MP going to do about it? At the time, the Tories were in government, so I succumbed to the temptation to remind him that every single year under the Tories, local government budgets were reduced—they were cut again and again. As a result, the local Labour council could not afford to pay Xneighbourhood introducers" to help him to get to know his neighbours.

On reflection, local capacity building is what is needed—people working to connect people and build basic community organisations that are fully representative and supported and that can engage with top-down initiatives and resources. We need massive,

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sensible and proper investment in local capacity building to facilitate the gearing of top-down and bottom-up approaches. We cannot have joined-up government at any level if we do not facilitate the joining together of local people. Capacity building needs to be built into the Bill's budgetary approach.

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