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20 Oct 2006 : Column 1153

Mr. Woolas: Or the pension funds.

Mr. Dismore: Or the pension funds, as my hon. Friend the Minister says. I would have been happy with any of those possibilities when Lady Porter decided to sell those cemeteries for 15p, because I am sure that regardless of which permutation she chose—one, two, three or all of them—the result would have been the same: a massive rejection of the scheme. Nevertheless, Lady Porter forced that plan through against all common sense, leading to a huge asset-strip and the spending of more than £1 million by the council to reacquire them, less all the development land that was sold and redeveloped at a great profit by the developers—as explained at great length, and very entertainingly, by Andy Hosken in his book “Nothing Like a Dame: The Scandals of Shirley Porter” about the years of the Porter regime, in which I have a bit part.

Mr. Evans: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does. To be a bit irreverent, I could observe that in some elections even the dead vote; there have been cases of that happening. To return to the point, however, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that burial grounds cannot be disused: if there are bodies there, they are clearly being used, even though there might not be any fresh burials there. If there were any form of referendum, I suspect that whichever of the permutations mentioned was chosen, the people would vote against.

Mr. Dismore: I am grateful to my hon. Friend—

Andrew Miller: Hon. Friend?

Mr. Dismore: Hon. Friend in this context, as he agrees with me. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) for his contribution, and I invite him to disassociate himself from the Conservative Lady Porter regime of 1980s Westminster. So far, we have heard no condemnation of any of the activities of Lady Porter from Conservative Front Benchers at any stage. When the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) replies to the debate, she might like to put the record straight on the sale of the cemeteries and the new definition of her party’s policy that the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal has come up with, which I referred to earlier—and, indeed, on the housing policies, which might feature later in my speech.

Mr. Slaughter: My hon. Friend has drawn attention several times to the Porter regime, and I do not think he gives himself full credit. He played a great part in bringing down that regime. I recently read “The Westminster Whistleblowers: Shirley Porter, Homes for Votes and Scandal in Britain’s Rottenest Borough” by his former colleague Paul Dimoldenberg, and I recommend it to Conservative Members, because the points that my hon. Friend raises today about what is happening in Barnet suggest that the spirit of Lady Porter might be walking abroad in west London again—a matter I hope to turn to later.

Mr. Dismore: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, because I also get a mention in councillor Dimoldenberg’s book, to which he refers.
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One day there might be a third book on the subject, when I finally get round to writing my memoirs. I do not have much time for that at present, as I am representing my constituents in this House. However, we never know, and one day there might be a third version of the story.

I have explained my concerns about clause 1(1)(d). I also have concerns about subsection (1)(e), because the same argument as before arises: what is an “area” in this context? However, my main criticism of this provision is to do with the wording

and how we define that.

I gave the example of the RAF East Camp site in my constituency. It is now rather more grandiosely called Beaufort Park by its developers St. George—not that that stopped it being burned down in spectacular fashion earlier in the summer, when it was under development. It had become something of a nature reserve, primarily because it had been fenced off from the public for a long time. However, that is difficult to define. Obviously, we have the definition of a site of special scientific interest, and we have relatively small ones dotted around the country. Perhaps the best way of protecting such sites would be to say, “Well, that’s the threshold that should be applied.” We must have a reasonable balance. A relatively small piece of land can be designated as an SSSI, so if land needs to be protected under this provision, the definition ought to be cross-referred, and there is always the opportunity of applying for SSSI status or a similar classification.

At present this is vague, and it is difficult to say whether an area particularly benefits wildlife. We could say that any piece of green land benefits wildlife. If there is a blackbird pecking on it looking for a worm, it is benefiting that blackbird, but it might not be of general benefit.

Andrew Miller: Not to the worm.

Mr. Dismore: Yes, certainly not to the worm.

I shall now move on to subsection (2), and the discussions that we have been having about the issue of referendums and consultation. I mentioned earlier the sale of Westminster city council cemeteries. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston raised another such example. There is a major concern in that, if consultations are not properly done or defined, they can be rigged to produce the desired result. The best recent such example in my constituency was Barnet council’s decision to reopen Partingdale lane—a country lane that had been closed off at one end by the previous Labour administration, in accordance with the residents’ wishes. The council was determined to reopen the lane and had a fake consultation, which the residents challenged successfully through judicial review. A further, much wider consultation took place, which inevitably produced the result that the council wanted, because it was spread so wide that those most directly affected—those who actually lived there—were completely outvoted by those for whom the road might provide rather tenuous potential help with their transport links. So there is a real problem with how we define who should be consulted in a local referendum.

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I am also concerned about the possibility of referendums serving to undermine, rather than strengthen, local democracy. There is certainly a need for much better and more effective consultation on the part of local authorities, but I question whether referendums are the best way of doing it. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley came up with a whole series of very interesting suggestions, but I should be concerned if such referendums were linked to local government elections or, indeed, any other elections. There is always the risk that a single issue, which might not be fundamental to the governance of the local or wider area, could become dominant, to the extent that the election becomes a single-issue campaign.

Mr. Evans: The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting point, but I recall that as we approached the European elections, the Prime Minister gave us a referendum on the constitution in order that he could separate out that issue and that people could vote on the constitution. He felt that without such a referendum his own chances might be damaged. As it was, it did not really matter, because he did very poorly in the European elections. However, my point is that a referendum can actually strengthen democracy by separating out the issue in question.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. That is taking us far too wide of the Bill.

Mr. Dismore: The hon. Gentleman is making my point, which is that we should separate out such issues rather than put them together. I thought that originally he was arguing the opposite, but there we are.

Mr. Evans: If local elections take place and there is a referendum on the issue in question, that strengthens local democracy, because people have a specific say and they can vote whichever way they like for political parties.

Mr. Dismore: Accepting your constraints, Mr. Deputy Speaker, we are probably straying a little beyond the terms of the Bill. The hon. Gentleman and I may have to differ, although it is probably a question of horses for courses, according to the nature and scale of the issue to be consulted on.

I am also concerned about the issue of referendum participation rates, which was raised by the hon. Member for Ribble Valley. In my local government area, the electorate is some 350,000. If only 5 per cent. of the electorate turn out at a referendum—whether or not it is linked to a local authority or other election—because only 5 per cent. are affected by the issue in question, we are talking about an enormously expensive operation for a very limited benefit. Moreover, what will it tell people at the end of the process? The hon. Gentleman hit on an idea when he talked about the experience of California, where a proposition can be put on the ballot paper, but only after it has been petitioned by a certain threshold of local government electors. Perhaps that is the way forward. The presenting of a petition by a certain percentage of electors in a ward, constituency or borough is a possible way of triggering a referendum. We certainly need some form of threshold.

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James Duddridge: Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the criticism of the Californian system? Sometimes, there are as many as 200 propositions, and even though two might be contradictory, both get passed. Often, the budget is completely confined by the propositions, which makes California ungovernable.

Mr. Dismore: The hon. Gentleman predicts my very next question, which is, how does one have such a system without undermining the whole democratic process itself? If we are to have the occasional referendum on whether a particular piece of land should be sold, that is one thing. I am certainly not advocating the extension of the California system in its entirety, whereby every issue under the sun would be balloted at a local election or otherwise. We are talking about a relatively limited issue, but I should be concerned if the decision to hold a referendum on the disposal of land became a Trojan horse for referendums on a whole batch of other issues as well. In my view, that would certainly undermine the whole principle of representative government on which our constitution is based.

I question whether clause 2 is really necessary. In my area, various friends’ groups maintain and try to improve parks. Establishing a parkland association seems an extremely bureaucratic and formalised way of proceeding. How does the hon. Member for Solihull expect a local authority to ensure that an association is properly representative of the local community?

Lorely Burt: The clause states that a local authority “may” establish a parkland association. I took on board the point made earlier by the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), who referred to top-down and bottom-up approaches. As far as our group is concerned, a bottom-up approach is generally preferable.

Mr. Dismore: I hear what the hon. Lady says, but clause 2(2) also imposes a duty on a local authority in terms of the representative nature of an association. I suspect that no local authority would adopt that permissive power, because it would create far more problems than it would be worth. However, in a given area—we all have such areas—two or three local people might be very exercised about a particular issue, while others might be half-interested and most not interested at all. The latter group might be rather more representative of the community, by definition, than those who have taken a specific interest. It would be very difficult to ensure that such an association was appropriately diverse in ethnicity, age, occupation, interest and so on, particularly in a very diverse multicultural constituency such as mine, where a plethora of different groups and interests would need to be represented. So such a way forward is rather a pious hope.

Clause 3 gives rise to a very important issue that is at the heart of the debate surrounding development and affordable homes. In my area, one often finds on turning a street corner that the old houses have been knocked down and a block of flats has gone up. That happens far too much, particularly on the main roads in my constituency, and it seems to be a trend that is impossible to stop. We need to think about how we can
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protect back gardens from overdevelopment, but to be entirely prescriptive in the manner of the Bill is to over-egg the pudding, because the Bill provides none of the balance that might be needed in a particular area. I am with the hon. Member for Solihull, in that this issue has to be taken into account. However, the Bill gives no indication of the size of garden in question. In my area, gardens range from several acres, at the rich end of the constituency, to postage stamps at the poor end. Different considerations might well apply to those two extremes and to the range in between.

The development of back gardens is a major concern for residents of Mill Hill, in my constituency, where the big gardens and houses happen to be located. Some people have sold off their back gardens to developers, who have applied for planning consent to build four or five houses on that land. That raises access issues, as well as the question of overdevelopment. However, if what are virtually slum clearance projects relating to houses with very small back gardens were caught by the provision, that could work against the benefit that the hon. Member for Solihull is trying to achieve. Perhaps she therefore needs to think a little more about that, although the broad thrust of trying to protect back gardens and zoning them as greenfield sites is appropriate. We must do something to protect what is, certainly in my constituency, part of the green belt, even if it is not formally defined as such.

We must not, however, allow nimbyism to get in the way of trying to provide homes for people in our areas who need them. There is a desperate housing shortage in my constituency, which the London borough of Barnet seems to be doing very little to address. Its new housing strategy does not seem to put anything like sufficient emphasis on, for example, the need for social housing. In London, the purchase of what are termed affordable homes, even with the subsidised schemes available to buy properties, is still way beyond the means of many Londoners, including in my constituency. The only real hope of new housing for such people is social housing, which, unfortunately, the London borough of Barnet—completely wrongly, in my view—seems little concerned to provide. Whatever conditions and ideas are put forward on planning, we must make sure that they do not prevent people from having the housing that they desperately need.

Mr. Slaughter: My hon. Friend rightly cites Barnet and many other Conservative councils as taking that line, but is he aware that Liberal Democrat councils also tend to do so? For example, only 13 per cent. of all the units built by Islington council are affordable housing. I do not want to put words in my hon. Friend’s mouth, but is he implying that the spirit behind clause 3 is a Liberal Democrat view that development on brownfield sites and of affordable housing is not appropriate?

Mr. Dismore: I think that the hon. Member for Solihull can speak for herself about that, but my hon. Friend makes an important point about the Liberal Democrats’ interest in the need for social and affordable housing. The Lady Porter policy—perhaps my third reference to it today—of gerrymandering
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took place through the planning process as well as through housing allocation and the sale of council homes. I suspect that, in certain parts of London, we are seeing a resurgence not of Rachmanism but of Porterism in the way that housing is allocated and dealt with through the planning process.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman recognises that that subject would be better dealt with on another day.

Mr. Dismore: Of course, Mr. Speaker. I was just coming to the end of that point, as I realised that my digression through history and the byways and highways would make you somewhat unhappy, although, sadly, I think that it has some relevance to the modern world.

As we try to square the circle of protecting the green belt and providing the necessary housing, some of the suggestions to resolve development and zoning problems are becoming progressively wackier. The most bizarre suggestion came in the summer from the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), who said that we should reclaim and sell underwater land to developers, which would encompass

being built in the east Thames corridor. Venice is sinking, and the Tory party housing policy is also sinking fast if it is based on what he has in mind.

To return to the specifics of the Bill, the hon. Member for Solihull needs to think a little more about clause 3. I do not object to her intention to protect greenfield back gardens, but we need to be more precise about the language and thresholds used, and perhaps provide some countervailing argument in relation to housing need. As I said in my opening remarks, on the one hand she is trying to adopt a localising policy in relation to a referendum, while on the other the clause is very centralising, and contains no provision to take account of local circumstances and local needs. It is just too prescriptive. That brings me back to my earlier point that the Bill is a little too ambitious. I am not sure which hon. Gentleman initially proposed the Bill to deal just with this one issue; I spoke in support of that Bill in principle at the time, although with some reservations about the wording. To achieve the right balance, however, a self-contained Bill with more than one clause dealing with all the different aspects is required.

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