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Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): Like many hon. Members, I have puzzled about why the Conservatives decided to oppose this excellent Bill tonight, and I have come up with an explanation, which I shall advance later. However, I might excuse the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), as I got the—perhaps entirely erroneous—impression that he was winking at us while making his introductory remarks and that, in fact, he did not believe a word that he was saying. I might be entirely wrong about that.

This weekend, I spoke to residents of the Saltmead estate in my constituency. Although it is a well-appointed estate, the residents expressed considerable concern about graffiti, fly-posting, litter and other problems. If I told them that there was a Bill before Parliament that could make a real difference but that the Conservatives in the House of Commons argued that there was too much emphasis on urban areas so they would oppose it, they would not believe me. Residents around Gover road want a cutway and bridge closed or gated under the new legislation. The council thinks it does not have the powers to do that, even though the cutway and bridge seem to serve the sole function of enabling people to cause damage and run off undetected. If I told the residents that there was a Bill that would allow legal gating of that cutway and bridge, but that the Conservatives opposed it because they were worried about producer responsibility for chewing gum manufacturers, they would again not believe me.

Some have characterised the Bill as a number of disconnected measures, but it is a deeply connected Bill. It is about liveability—the ability of communities to live well on the basis of shared respect for their environment and for the circumstances in which they live. All of us hear in our surgeries about how our constituents' lives are being made hell by noise, graffiti or antisocial behaviour, and how their community is, as they see it, being degraded by fly-tipping, litter, abandoned cars and so on. Each act is carried out, often with no thought, by individuals who take the rights that they gain from living in a community but who, for some reason, decide on the occasion of their act that the responsibility that goes with it is not for them. Or they think that one such act—one van load of waste tipped in a field, one car abandoned in a car park, one tag on a wall announcing, "KBK kicks butt"—will make no difference, but it does.

I liken that sort of behaviour to irresponsible driving. We all drive—or at least, most of us do—on the same side of the road not only for our own safety, but for the benefit and mutual convenience of others. We do not consider that the nanny state has forced us all to drive on the correct side of the road and—with some exceptions—we do not think that a brief episode of driving on the wrong side of the road will go unnoticed. It does not, and it causes disproportionate disruption to
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all the other considerate behaviour on the road, so it is not surprising that it is an offence. Environmental crime should be an offence for the same reason.

Whether one calls it social capital or, as some have, the neighbourly society, it is a method—in this Bill, a positive one—of maintaining and strengthening the cohesion of society and liveability for the whole neighbourhood. The signals given by abandoned vehicles, fly-tipping, graffiti and litter are that that cohesion is falling away—that it does not really matter, that people can get away with worse and that there are no real responsibilities to be contemplated. I was interested to read a little while ago a statement that seemed to sum up that view, which said:

That quote is drawn from a speech made to the Centre for Policy Studies by the shadow Chancellor, the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin). It is clear that senior Conservatives will the end, but not the means. Do they support the view set out by the shadow Chancellor that there is a connection, that there is a cycle and that communities must be able to support themselves and to expect that, when they are attacked, they can defend themselves? That is the essence of the Bill.

Significantly—at this point, I offer my promised explanation—it is local councils, parish councils and town councils that are the subject of the powers and measures set out in the Bill. The police will have powers to confiscate fly-tippers' vans—an imaginative measure—but waste authorities will have new powers to manage recycling, and district councils will have powers to remove abandoned vehicles quickly and effectively and to deal with fly-posting. Local government bodies will, among other things, be able to restore errant shopping trolleys to their rightful location—a measure that Southampton city council tried, but was unable, to implement under section 5 of the Local Government Act 2000.

The end, if we order the means of getting to the end, is an issue about the public role. It is about the community and public space—roads, public buildings, parks and common lands and the space in which the public move and enjoy interaction with others. If we will the end, it is that public space that is the area in which society works well or does not work well. We have to will the end through public measures and the efforts of public authorities through which the liveability of communities thrives or declines.

I am minded of the call for minimal government that we have heard yet again from the Opposition. On every occasion their recourse is to the market. Their definition of politics is essentially about the private individual in his or her private sphere. In an intervention, the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) bewailed the idea in the Bill that section 32 of the 1990 legislation should be turned off so that local authorities would not be forced to put out waste disposal contracts to third party companies.

The explanation is that public authorities acting together, acting imaginatively and bringing forward new ways of thinking about waste disposal, is an
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infinitely superior way of going forward as compared with the straitjacket that was imposed by the 1990 legislation. I would like other sections of the 1990 legislation, especially those relating to variable charges for local authorities in terms of collecting waste, also to be turned off. Perhaps that is another matter.

The issue of the private individual in his or her private sphere is perhaps at the heart of the opposition to the Bill. However, the Bill lies at the opposite of all that. It looks instead further to empower the community in the shape of its elected local organisations. That is not just to hold the line but to move forward the liveability of communities. That in reality is the common sense of community. People know that their lives can be greatly enriched by co-operation with their neighbours and by the shared sense of what their community is. They know also that that fragile enterprise is potentially prey to the actions of perhaps one or two who free ride on that community's efforts and actions. They want the measures that are set out in the Bill and they know that the market will not produce them for them.

I commend the Bill. I hope that those who vote against it will think long and hard when they talk about the community and its rights and responsibilities. They will have failed their own communities just as if they had gone out and dumped a car or plonked a pile of rubbish in a lay-by.

8.37 pm

Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble) (Lab): I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this debate. Having listened earlier to the statement from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister about the Indian ocean disaster and the earlier questions and answers on Iraq, many of us could be forgiven for thinking that we are dealing with an unimportant area of public concern. However, Labour Members, especially those who have served as local councillors, know that many of the issues dealt with by the Bill are at the heart of people's concerns. I welcome the Bill especially because it has the support of the Local Government Association. Many of the Bill's provisions stem directly from the concerns of those who have the responsibility of running local authorities at district, council or parish level.

Many of the measures set out in the Bill build on legislation that is already in place. Part of the problem, which many of us recognise, is that existing powers are difficult to operate and implement. If, through the Bill, their implementation can be speeded and made easier, and in many instances significantly strengthened, we shall be doing a good job of work.

Why is the Bill important now? Why is it not, as the Conservatives say, a measure only for urban areas? The headlines in the press would have us think that graffiti, litter and abandoned vehicles are all about run-down urban areas. My constituency is semi-rural with an unemployment rate of 1 per cent. South Ribble borough council in my constituency recently conducted a survey and discovered that the vast majority of its residents thought that South Ribble was a good place to live. It has good schools, low unemployment, nice housing and good health services. However, 24 per cent. of local residents thought that clean streets and litter were a high priority—only 1 per cent. less than the 25 per
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cent. who thought that crime and disorder was the most important issue. Crime and disorder, litter, clean streets and the environment are important in a constituency such as mine because issues that were of concern years ago have been dealt with. Residents have good schools and jobs, and we have low unemployment, interest rates and inflation. South Ribble is a nice place to live. However, when I knock on people's doors or meet them at coffee mornings, they talk to me about things that matter in their immediate neighbourhood. For example, they are worried about the ginnel in Penwortham that local youths use when going to and from school. It is covered in graffiti and terribly unpleasant, and a lady has been to see me regularly over the past seven years to try to get it cleaned up. The existing powers, however, make it difficult to deal with the problem properly.

My constituents are worried about cars that are abandoned in rural areas and not cleared away quickly enough. They are worried about litter, not just in town centres but in otherwise pleasant neighbourhoods. Sometimes, people allow their property or land to become an unsightly mess covered in litter or graffiti. No one seems to have the power to do anything about that—the argument is that it is private land or property so, unless it is a health hazard, nothing can be done. However, under the Bill, local authorities will be able to tackle the problem. Residents in the area who care about their homes and gardens and look after them, and who do not repair their vehicles on the street leaving oil everywhere, do not want their neighbourhood to depreciate in value or look a mess because one or two people fail to look after their properties and act as good neighbours. If the Bill makes it easier to deal with some of those problems, we should support it.

These are not simply issues for urban areas—all of them are raised in the 11 villages in my constituency time after time. When I write my weekly column for the rural issue of the free paper in my area, I will take great delight explaining to residents that the Bill is opposed by the Conservative party. I am sure that my probable Conservative opponent in the general election will be questioned about whether she supports her Front-Bench spokesmen, who continue to oppose the Bill.

I welcome the proposal to introduce greater powers to gate alleys. Lancashire county council has lobbied me for the past two years to try to secure powers to gate alleys throughout the county. It is a major issue in many Lancashire towns and I am glad that the Bill tackles it. I listened with interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Claire Ward), who talked about the problems of footpaths on an estate. Before I came to the House, I was a councillor for 10 years in Preston and one of my biggest bugbears was an estate with lots of little footpaths. The residents agreed that some of them should be closed to make the area more secure and safe, but every time that we tried to do something about it the ramblers and other organisations lodged an objection, so we did not succeed. If the Bill allows us to tackle the problem, that will be an important step forward.

I welcome the measures in the Bill for greater involvement of parish and town councils because such councils are often underestimated. When I was first elected and came into contact with parish councils, having previously represented an urban non-parished
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area, I was struck by the great range of activity and inactivity among parish councils. The best ones seek to represent and shape the lives of their local communities. They are proactive. They do not simply do the minimum. They look at ways in which they can make a difference. Several of the parish councils in my area—Hesketh Bank, Becconsall, Tarleton and North Meols in particular—are putting together village design plans with a vision of how their communities will develop. They are just the sort of parish councils that will want to take up some of the powers in the Bill to develop and lead their communities. That is as it should be.

I welcome much in the Bill. It will be a major step forward. It may seem trivial to some, but the fact that the powers were suggested by local authorities that have to deal with the problems at grassroots level means that there is a strong possibility that the Bill will improve the situation. If I have one concern—I should like my right hon. Friend to consider this—it is whether there will be sufficient resources for the measures in the Bill to be fully implemented by local authorities, and whether the Department should monitor the extent to which local authorities make use of the powers when the Bill is enacted, to ensure that we have got it right. There is little use in us here in Parliament passing good legislation that gives powers to make things happen if those who have been given the powers fail to use them.

8.47 pm

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