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Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): As possibly the last speaker this evening to make a maiden speech, I pay tribute to all hon. Members who have made their maiden speeches today. They have been interesting, principled and often humorous. I should also like to extend my sympathies to those who still wait.
I am grateful for the opportunity to make my maiden speech on the day that we discuss home affairs and communities because I believe that campaigning on local issues that are dear to the hearts of Solihull people has got me here today. Indeed, I am immensely grateful for being here at all, having overturned a majority of more than 9,400 votes and won by the slender majority of only 279. I am the first ever Liberal Democrat to have the honour of representing the people of Solihull, and the first ever woman Liberal Democrat to be elected to the House from the west midlands. That is a great honour, and a responsibility that I do not take lightly.
While I am personally very grateful to be here, I am also mindful of the fact that the majority of the constituents of Solihull did not vote for me. Indeed, as a proportion of the electorate, even fewer electors voted for this Government. In the interests of fairness and the desire for every voter to feel that their vote counts, I am disappointed that no time in this parliamentary Session has been allocated to discuss the issue of fair votes.
It is appropriate on this occasion for me to mention my predecessor, Mr. John Taylor, who served the people of Solihull in this place for 22 years. Before that, he was a Member of the European Parliament, and prior to that he was a local councillor. That is a fantastic record of service to his community and I am sure that all Members will join me in wishing Mr. Taylor a happy and healthy retirement in his beloved Solihull. Indeed, only three Members have served the people of Solihull in Parliament since the borough was created in 1945, serving an average of 20 years each. I hope that I can also look forward to a long term of service, although 20 years could, in all probability, qualify me for the exalted position of Mother of the House.
Home affairs and communities are hugely important to the people of Solihull. Our motto is "Urbs in Rure", which, for the non-classically trained such as myself,
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means "town in the country". Solihull sits on the south-east boundary between Birmingham and the Warwickshire countryside. Some people, particularly in the west midlands, have an image of Solihull as a place where posh people live. It is a much sought-after place to live, but I can tell the House that there is a lot more to Solihull than being posh. Within the constituency, there are the strong communities of Shirley, to the west, and Olton, Lyndon and Elmdon to the north. At its heart is SilhillSolihull's people as a whole are sometimes referred to as Silhilliansand St. Alphege, which was named after a local nobleman who refused to allow a ransom to be paid after he was kidnapped. He was beaten to death with mutton bones by his kidnappers.
So, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you can see that the people of Solihull do not like to be messed with. They also care passionately about their environment. I have mentioned our motto, "Urbs in Rure". A key issue in Solihulland, I am sure, elsewhereis the continuing urbanisation of our increasingly few green spaces. In a nutshell, there is too much urbs and not enough rure. Parkland throughout the borough is being sold off for development to fund capital projects and regeneration. What right has a local authority to sell off our children's green heritage? When that green space has gone, it has gone for ever. That is not all. Our lovely old, sometimes historic, buildings are also falling into the hands of developers who seem to capitalise on every inch to erect blocks of luxury flats, which are destroying the very character of our communities, and the very quality that makes people proud to be Silhillians.
Faced with these developers, our local council is hamstrung by central Government's planning guidance rules, which do little to provide the starter homes in Solihull that would enable our children to stay in our community when they grow up. If our local council turns a developer's application down, it runs the risk of being taken to court and not only having the decision reversed but having to pay the developer's costs as well as its own, which simply adds insult to injury. People feel powerless, and they are. Successive Conservative and Labour Governments have stripped local authorities of many of their powers to make decisions for their communities. We want communities to have as much power as possible to make decisions for themselves.
If I can achieve one thing for the people of Solihull, it will be to help to restore the balance and give local people more of a say, particularly in the planning decisions that shape their environment and ultimately their lives.
Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con):
By my calculation, we have had 15 maiden speeches this evening, to most of which I have had the privilege of listening. It would take up most of my allocated time were I to comment on all of them, and in order not to show too much favouritism towards one Member or another, I shall not do so. I want to compliment all of you, however, on the confidence with which you have spoken, and the speed with which you have taken to the task. I have checked with one of my hon. Friends and calculated that when we entered Parliament we did not manage to make our maiden speeches until at least July. I commend you all highly. I congratulate particularly
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my new neighbour, the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt), on making her maiden speech this evening, and thank her for paying tribute to my colleague, John Taylor. I am sure that when he reads Hansard he will appreciate the reference to his 22-year record in this place.
I was just about to say that the tone of new hon. Members' speeches was rather better than the intemperate tone adopted by the Home Secretary in his outburst at the start of this debate, which showed little evidence of the respect which the Prime Minister has commended to all of us as parliamentarians.
Let me start by congratulating the Minister of Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Miliband), on his promotion to the Cabinet. I wonder whether there could be two of us shadowing the Deputy Prime Minister now. I had to seek a little clarification of the roles of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of Communities and Local Government, and fortuitously, this evening, I have received a letter from the Prime Minister containing a press notice explaining the Deputy Prime Minister's new roles. Apparently, he will have a diplomatic role representing the UK abroad and a formal role promoting the interests of the north across Government. That press notice, however, is dated 6 May, and my understanding from press reports this afternoon is that the responsibility for local elections has in fact passed today to the Department for Constitutional Affairs. So rather than an Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, perhaps we have an office of diminishing responsibilities.
I wish the Minister well, particularly in breaking down the silo mentality of Departments, which hinders regeneration. He could begin by simplifying the 48 different funding streams available for regeneration. He will have our support if he can encourage a more flexible approach.
Why, after eight years in power, have the Government suddenly decided to appoint a Minister of Communities? Could it be that after four weeks of real engagement with communities, the Government have discovered that communities feel ignored, dictated to and trampled on by their zeal for centralisation? In fairness, the word "communities" did come up in the previous Parliament, mostly in relation to the so-called sustainable communities plan. The sense of being dictated to, however, was nowhere more apparent than in that grand house-building scheme. I remember visiting the Essex village of Roydon, which is faced with a threefold increase in size as a result of a decision of the unelected East of England regional assembly, against the wishes of the villagers and their local representatives. This sense of disempowerment is undermining community spirit. The word "sustainable" has been tacked on to "communities", and it could not be further
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from the truth for a community that is certainly not being offered a threefold increase in its infrastructure to go with the imposition of new homes.
The mismatch between house building and the environment's capacity to cope with it is the main reason why the Conservative party opposed the sustainable communities plan. The one exception is the Thames Gateway project, most of which involves building on brownfield land. The Government's plans to concrete over the south-east of England are unsustainable, as the Environmental Audit Committee has made clear. I implore the Government, rather than simply imposing more and more housing demands on a part of the country that is already suffering in terms of both infrastructure and environment, to take a more holistic look at why we have migration to the south and east, and why we are not achieving more balanced economic growth across the country.
I speak, of course, as a midlands MP. Areas throughout the midlands and the north would embrace an opportunity for growth. Have we learned nothing from the 1960s demolition process that gave birth to concrete tower blocks? The Government plan to demolish no fewer than 400,000 Victorian terraces to combat crime.
It is not just the strategy that undermines communities, it is the use of regionalisation as a means of delivering it that is so damaging. The Deputy Prime Minister's obsession with regionalisation is deeply at odds with the needs of the community. Taking power away from local government and giving it to regional bodies further removed from the locality is deeply unpopular. Even after the resounding rejection of a north-east regional assembly last autumn, the Deputy Prime Minister said stubbornly that he was not giving up on the regional dimension, and he clearly meant it. Since November, we have seen more powers removed from local government and given to regional bodies. The matters over which they have control range from the critical, such as the soon-to-be-announced regional fire control rooms, to the bureaucratic, in the form of regional tobacco strategies. In addition we have regional waste incineration strategies, regional house-building targets, regional planning, regional housing boards and regional transport boards.
Bypassing local government means bypassing local people and local communities. Communities are strong when they feel empowered and safer when they feel stronger. The signs of the weakening of community safety are all around us. Graffiti, swearing in the street and vandalism are all symptomatic of a lack of consideration for others, but such actions often go well beyond lack of consideration. Late-night drunken behaviour has gone beyond being merely embarrassing. It is now sinister, intimidating and often violent, and it is commonplace. Bit by bit, we are surrendering our town centres to the yobs when night falls, and allowing them to become a social wasteland. I have a 14-year-old daughter, and the prospect of letting her go into the centre of Birmingham at night would fill me with trepidation.
A glance through some of the late-night CCTV footage in many of our town centres conjures up images not far short of that. For the first time there are now 1 million violent crimes a year, and half of them are alcohol-related. The financial cost is put at £12 billion a year; the social cost is almost incalculable.
My worry is that the Government have accelerated that trend with the rush to introduce late-night licences in existing pubs and bars, and the obstructions that they have created for communities seeking to oppose applications for new licences. I understand that a number of arguments can be advanced in favour of more flexibility on licensing hours, but the Government's approach involves an in-built presumption in favour of extended-licence applications and new applications. Not only is that unfair to the communities affected, but it defies the practical realities of how communities can serve the needs of 24-hour opening.
In London, for example, I am not convinced that we have the necessary public transport capacity to convey people safely to and from clubs and bars at all hours of the night. That is an issue especially for women. However, not all crime is alcohol derived. More and more is drug fuelled and many acts of yobbery are a symptom of boredom, a lack of social opportunity and a lack of self-respect. Often, that manifests itself on our housing estates and around urban shops.
There are myriad ways in which the construction of communities themselves can be instrumental in reducing crime. Much research has been undertaken to see how crime can be designed out of new housing estates, but the depressing truth is that the design of 21st century estates seems to have ignored the lessons of 1960s architecture, where rat runs and concealed areas create havens for crime. The research shows how simple things, ranging from the construction of cul-de-sacs to limit-escape routes to the provision of parking spaces outside people's homes so that owners can keep an eye on their cars, are all effective in developing safer communities.
The fact that the Queen's Speech puts the accent on safer communities is an admission that people do not feel safe in their homes and when they leave their homes. The Prime Minister acknowledged that and said that we need more visible uniformed individuals on the street, but he stopped short of saying police. Is that because the Government have run out of money to provide the real McCoybeat bobbies with the power of arrest? As the deputy chief constable of north Wales put it:
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