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Richard Younger-Ross: My understanding is that local authorities may, especially in respect of complex developments that require compulsory purchase orders, allow consents to run to five years or longer. Would not strong guidance[Interruption.] Is the hon. Gentleman listening? Would not strong Government guidance be better than the provisions of his amendment?
Mr. Clifton-Brown: I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for the discourtesy of talking to the Minister. I chided the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) for doing exactly the same thing. The Minister for Housing and Planning was giving me some guidanceand very useful it was too. Bearing in mind his strictures, and in view of the fact that I have dealt with the matter expeditiously, no doubt the Minister replying will accede to my amendments Nos. 81 and 82.
Yvette Cooper: I shall deal first with the issues around retrospective planning applications. As I said in Committee, we are keen to look further at those issues, especially in the context of the enforcement review. We have asked officials to prioritise consideration of the points made by hon. Members in Committee. We have to recognise that a wide range of cases is involved: there are cases in which someone simply did not realise that they needed planning permission, for example, to extend a wall; there are cases in which someone is fully aware and is deliberately abusing the system; there are cases in which there is simply a difference of view. Hon. Members mentioned the shark, which I really liked, having passed it on a bus on many occasions.
If someone has not applied for planning permission, a wide range of enforcement actions can be taken, including enforcement notices, stop notices, and injunctions. In many cases, those powers are sufficient and the retrospective application is dealt with perfectly properly, with the planning application granted or not granted, as the case may be. Cases were cited in Committee and in the House today in whichadmittedly after some months have passed and local people have become concerned about the time the case has takenthe application has been turned down and the builders obliged to pull down the building. Hon. Members have spoken about cases that have caused concern, but the rate of success of retrospective planning applications is slightly lower than that of applications submitted in advance.
We recognise that we have to consider the matter further, but we should also recognise that retrospective planning applications are an important part of the planning system. Those who responded to the planning enforcement review were strongly of the view that the retrospective planning system should be continued, although, as I said, there are issues of enforcement that have to be examined.
Clause 43 enables a local planning authority to decline to determine an application if a similar application has been refused within the previous two years, or if a similar application is still under consideration. We acknowledge the concerns that have been expressed; nevertheless, the local planning authority has discretion to decline to determine a further application. We shall issue guidance to stress that we expect local planning authorities to use the power only if they think that the applicant intends to exert unfair pressure; otherwise, if a genuine attempt is being made to take account of objections, the application should be determined. Equally, the Bill provides flexibility to extend the time periods applicable to complex regenerations, so that developers have sufficient time to commence work. I ask the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) to withdraw the motion.
Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): The use of the council tax as a top-up fee for local government funding has run its course. Even ignoring the democratic arguments, there is now an overwhelming case for a fundamental reform of the local and national Government relationship. This is my contribution to the big conversation, which is needed on the topic ahead of the third term.
I welcome the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Phil Hope), to the Front Bench. This is the first time that I have had the pleasure of having an Adjournment debate with him. We go back some time. I remember when we were twinned before the 1997 general election. I always knew that my hon. Friend had a great future ahead of him, and he is proving that as he makes a great impact in his ministerial position.
The Government are to be commended for their open-mindedness in looking at local income tax and other forms of local government funding. While important in itself, it will be even more significant as the trigger for the next serious step to democratic reform in the United Kingdom. Most western democracies have guaranteed local government independence, backed up by a constitutional guarantee. For that to work in the UK would require not only powers, but financial autonomy, to be devolved to local government.
The appalling turnouts for modern elections underline the fact that it is time either to create genuine democratic local government or to stop the pretence and wind it up. In the debate on local income tax we should stake a claim for nothing less than constitutionally independent local government for the whole of the United Kingdom. That is a concept that would sustain local government and its financing long into the future and end the annual begging-bowl round that so humiliates both the central Government giver and the local government receiver.
Given the reduction of local government over recent decades to little more than an agent of central Government, this proposal would amount to the largest denationalisation ever undertaken in the UK, and the restoration to the public of their ownership of their own local government. The centralisers in British politics have had their day. Over the past 40 years, whatever success they have had nationally, they have delivered neither economic nor social progress at the local level. We see short-term finance, interference, distortion of local priorities, people spending much of their time bidding or working to protect the future of their own jobs, and a plethora of schemes and bodies to circumvent local democratic decision making, barely understood by anyone but a new cadre of local professionals.
Virtually every nation and every business has concluded that the current economic complexities are way beyond the capacities of a command economy. They speak, and deliver on, the language of decentralisation, devolution, local budget holding, participation, and team working. Yet the way we in the UK govern ourselves seems to be stuck, Brezhnev-like, in command politics. That is seen at its starkest and its
Free local democracy will provide more diversity and independence in our political system, which will lead to more creativity, sensitivity and innovation throughout our society and economy. Merely to remove some of the worst excesses of centralism, such as ending the capping of local spending, democratising quangos and releasing capital receipts, welcome as those steps are, is not enough. We need to put local independence beyond the reach of central Government and to admit that the man in Whitehall does not know best, even if, in my case, he is a Labour man.
Petty interference from the centre must be denied any legal or financial basis and that should be achieved in two ways. First, local authorities must be created in law as independent sovereign entities to guarantee their independence. They would then be able to undertake, as of right, all the duties for which they were elected locally and that are recognised as being local under subsidiaritya concept that will soon have legal force in the European constitution. They would include duties that are not prohibited by law, which would turn the present injunction saying that authorities are not allowed to do things that are not expressly allowed by law on its head. Local government, like any other public body, would have to perform its duties under a legitimate inspection regime, in the context of the European convention on human rights and, potentially, under a more comprehensive and up-to-date British Bill of Rights. It could, therefore, be held to account by any citizen if it were arbitrarily to breach such rights.
Additionally, the pull of centralism is so great that even a Government who had created independent local government might succumb to the temptation to meddle unless we were to ensure that such local rights were put constitutionally out of bounds. That could be achieved initially by this place passing a local government independence Bill that could be protected from easy repeal by including an amendment to the Parliament Act 1911 to allow a second Chamber to veto legislation threatening the rights of local government. In the longer term, such a fundamental bedrock of our democracy must be guaranteed by clauses in a written constitution for the United Kingdom.
Secondly, although we may return the ownership of local government to local people, we must also restore control to them. Political independence for councils would mean nothing without financial independence. The bulk of all local authority spendingmore than halfis provided by central Government and only a fractionone eighthis raised locally by council tax. Such dependency must end. Central Government must be removed from the financial equation locally and a radical new settlement on taxation must be implemented to achieve that.
Income tax is first collected from local taxpayers by the Inland Revenue and distributed back to the localities by central Government, but that essentially technical system of distribution has become politicised and arbitrary due to ministerial manipulation and the desire to impose central priorities. In future, I propose that the Inland Revenue should collect the same amount of
Central Government spending on local services in England and Wales is £54.6 billion and the income tax take for England and Wales is £109 billion. In effect, about 50 per cent. of the income tax take would become a local element and 50 per cent. would go to the Chancellor. That could be done via an independent commission that would be legally separate and dislocated from Whitehall. It would receive local government's slice of income tax directly from the Inland Revenue and be charged with distributing money to councils on the same basis as that currently used by the Government Department with responsibility for local government. There is no reason why most of the commission's members could not be elected councillors from all parties. Local government's national bodies have shown themselves to be mature and confident in their cross-party work and when co-operating among themselves, so there is no reason why such a commission could not perform that task. The amount of income tax raised for national and local expenditure would be clearly identified on everybody's payslip as national and local income tax to aid accountability. Although central Government would be legally excluded from tampering with the overwhelming bulk of local authorities' income, they could perform the function for which they are best suited by being free to assist councils with time-limited funding for specific problems, which is already done by the federal Government of the United States and the Governments of manyindeed, mostEuropean states.
Local councils, assured that the funding of most of their expenditure was secure, could then be free to raise the remaining part of their income from a menu of tax-raising revenue powers, ranging from property taxes to sales taxes. Decisions on local taxes and rates could be taken by local representatives, perhaps even endorsed in local referendums. My guess is that local authorities would mostly rely on their local income tax£54.6 billiona returned business rate of £16.3 billion and a property tax of £17.7 billion to meet their total current expenditure of £88.5 billion. However, this would be a matter entirely for them to decide. In a mature democracy local authorities would be confident and competent enough to raise and spend what they decide is appropriate, always needing to balance service delivery with revenue raising and being aware of the electoral consequences of no taxation without explanation.
Citizens, knowing what they pay and why they pay it and holding their own local representatives to account, would constitute a firmer discipline and a stronger bulwark against central interference than any statute that could be passed by this place. Local authorities already have a record of financial expertise and economic management that bears comparison with central Government, who so often wish to lecture them whatever political party that Government happen to represent.
As a constitutional safeguard, local authorities would be obliged to operate a balanced budget provision, a self-discipline operated by most American state governments. Annual income would have to match
Throwing away the crutch of central Government will be a frightening as well as exciting challenge. There will be nobody else to blame any more. However, devoted public service has always characterised local councillors of all parties, and they will respond to their liberty. Let local people decide on their spending, their services, their electoral system or the use of direct democracy. A thousand flowers are waiting to bloom locally, but not all of them to the liking of whichever political party is in control at the centre. We must be mature enough to accept that, alongside one council's initiative to create jobs or vocational training in schools, for example, another council may wish to reinstate grammar schools. Such diversity should be not centrally repressed but fought out nationally and locally in the melting pot of campaigns, the contest of ideas and the votes around local choices.
I have faith that my party's ideas would pass such tests, not least because they would deliver a tremendous revitalisation to our all-too-often moribund local politics. Returning real decision-making powers to local areas would give a much-needed stimulus to local political parties. Many individuals who have opted out of local politics would again be drawn back into public service. Once again, it would really matter who got elected locally and how well they were politically prepared and technically trained to handle the onerous duties and responsibilities of independent local government.
We would recreate that invaluable network of citizen politicians of all parties, in touch with their communities, close to their constituents, empowered and empowering their local areas. We all know that the current agency relationship between the centre and the localities cannot be sustained. Independence for local government and independence for people locally is an idea that could revitalise not only our politics but our local civic community. Now is the time for some bold leadership to release and return power back to where it belongsour local communities.