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20 Oct 2006 : Column 1178

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon also made some pertinent points about the Standards Board for England. If you will allow me within the remit of this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker—he raised the issue, not me—I shall point out that I intend to publish the new draft code of practice in the next few weeks and to comment further on the board’s modus operandi following my speech to its annual conference in Birmingham this Monday. Go to www.dclg/philwoolas/—or something like that.

Mrs. Lait: Required reading.

Mr. Woolas: Required reading by me, yes.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) spoke well and gave principled and practical reasons why he thought the Bill was, in his words, unnecessary. He did the House a service by pointing out that although it is right not to live in the past, it is useful to draw lessons from the past where relevant. It is the case that, as a proportion of new houses, more houses were built in gardens in the 1980s than are built in gardens now. That is a fact, and facts are stubborn things.

The question was asked whether the Bill complies with the Human Rights Act 1998. I take guidance from you on these matters, Madam Deputy Speaker. The rules of the House are that Government Bills must get the certificate, as it were, prior to coming before the House. Of course, private Members’ Bills are open to examination by the relevant Committee. Common sense dictates that as a private Member’s Bill progresses through the House, that would have to be considered. When I voted for the Human Rights Act, however, I was more worried about Nazi persecution than about some of the matters that are assigned to the Act in public debate. I think that I best not go further into that subject.

How could I neglect to mention the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), who made a thoughtful speech? As hon. Members will know, his constituency is one of the most beautiful in the country, so he is familiar with preservation of green spaces, parks and so on. He raised some interesting points from a non-partisan angle.

The hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) spoke well and with knowledge. He made the important point that a scout hut or some other such public amenity being built in a park would have to be considered in a completely different category from, say, an Asda supermarket. That point reflects the difficulties of drawing the boundaries, whether in law or planning guidance. Were there to be a referendum in his constituency on whether the council should be allowed to grant planning application for a scout hut, my guess is that the turnout would be low and that the result would be an overwhelming yes. He also drew our attention to the potential paradoxes or dilemmas relating to local authorities making planning applications for their own buildings. He indicated that he thought that his civic building was not exactly one for the world heritage list. I invite him to the north-west of England to see our beautiful Victorian buildings. He does, however, make a good point.

The hon. Gentleman also made a plea for the unitaries not to be forgotten. It is important to note
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that the designated title of unitary council does not include all those that in common language are described as unitaries, such as metropolitan boroughs. As the Minister for Local Government, I am well aware of that category of councils properly called unitaries. I have a little reminder in my notebook not to forget them. How could I, given their prominence and importance in our public life? I therefore genuinely thank him for his thoughtful comments.

The hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) spoke well too, and posed some dilemmas to the House. He said—I think I quote him accurately—that “local people know best” for their area, and that there was a case for parishes having planning powers. Parishes, of course, are statutory consultees but have no powers. One could make a case for localised decisions at parish level. However, as was said by one of Oldham’s Conservative councillors—we still have one or two, or one, I think, at the moment—with regard to Liberal Democrat policies for my area, we all know that Liberal Democrats have a policy for every street but none for the borough. That is the problem with localism taken too far. Were planning left entirely to local authorities, I doubt whether the United Kingdom would ever have had an airport, a railway or any other parts of our infrastructure.

Philip Davies: I tried to make clear that I was referring to residential developments in particular. I recognised that other matters require some kind of central control. I agree with my colleague in Oldham about the Liberal Democrats’ policies, but in planning matters, surely what is right for one area may not be right for another, and what is right for one part of the district may not be right for another part of that district. With planning, surely localism is a good thing.

Mr. Woolas: Of course I understand the hon. Gentleman’s argument, and to be fair, I must admit that he did mention residential planning in his speech. However, his comments prompt a question to which I shall return later, and which is also relevant to what was said by the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait).

If residential planning were to be restricted to local authority areas, I do not see how a case could be put for housing development that would meet the demands of the country. In both regions and sub-regions, it would be necessary to find some measure of inter-local authority understanding and agreement; otherwise chaos would ensue.

Mrs. Lait: When recommending more housing and planning powers for regional assemblies and the Mayor of London, the Minister should perhaps take account of the informal arrangements that are developing among local authorities to enable them to control the agenda rather than accepting it from central Government.

Mr. Woolas: I understand the hon. Lady’s point, but there is a contradiction at the heart of it. She criticises the regional assembly as she sees it, and then refers to national impositions. She cannot have it both ways.

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The Leader of the Opposition recently delivered some heavy criticism of the Government’s policy on housing and the provision of new homes. He said:

He went on to say:

The shadow Chancellor has said:

It seems to be that there is one message on one platform, and another message on the other platform. You cannot have your cake and eat it.

Mrs. Lait: I do not wish to turn this into a dialogue, but I do not think that the two are at all contradictory. If the central Government diktats on housing density were removed, local people would be quite responsible enough, and sufficiently involved in their own areas, to make their own decisions. They do not need the decisions to be made by central Government. Local authorities are capable of providing housing for their own people.

Mr. Woolas: I am confident that when the Deputy Prime Minister announced the new policy on increasing density—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I have allowed some leeway, but the Bill does not cover housing density to this extent.

Mr. Woolas: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Perhaps I can make my point in commenting on specific clauses in the Bill, as this is directly relevant to them.

I was responding to the remarks of the hon. Member for Shipley, who said that there should not be reams of bureaucracy coming down from Whitehall.

Philip Davies: Hear, hear.

Mr. Woolas: I think we can all sign up to that. [Hon. Members: “Can we quote you?”] Hon. Members can more than quote me, as I have said it before.

The hon. Gentleman said that these matters should be left to the local authority. That, of course, is precisely the point made by the hon. Member for Solihull. She does not want to leave the sale of parkland in her borough to the local authority; as she explained so eloquently in her speech, she wants to do the opposite, and take power away from the authority. The hon. Member for Shipley says that he wants to devolve power to local authorities. The message seems to be, “We’ll devolve power as long as we agree with the decisions that are then taken.” I therefore take it that if Bradford metropolitan borough—for that fine city covers his constituency—decided that it was happy for every garden in the borough of Bradford to have a house built in the back yard, and perhaps some flats as well, he would not oppose that because he would see it is as being a sensible decision by a Conservative-led council.

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Philip Davies: I believe in local democracy. If a local authority were to decide that, it would face the consequences at the following local elections. Bradford council is, fortunately, led by a Conservative administration that would not make such a stupid decision, and would be more likely to turn down such proposals. I would certainly prefer a local authority to make the decisions as to how many houses should be built in the local area rather than the unelected, unaccountable regional assembly that dictates how many have to be built in Bradford.

Mr. Woolas: I will ensure that the Conservative association in Solihull has a copy of the hon. Gentleman’s comments. He said that if electors do not like an administration’s policies, they can change it at the next election. The logical implication is that he profoundly disagrees with what is being done in Solihull and is calling on its electors to change their administration at the next election. Does that not mean that he is calling for a Labour vote in Solihull? I shall leave that question hanging in the air.

The Government are sympathetic towards some aspects of the Bill. Its intention—I think that there is consensus in the House on this—is to give people locally more control over their neighbourhood and more of a say in how it is run. The Government are committed to ensuring that all communities have access to good quality green space, parks and open land. However, it will be no surprise that we do not think that this Bill is the right way to go about achieving those aims. Accordingly, we cannot support it.

Before I explain the reasons for that, it is worth considering the context in which we discuss the Bill. Parks and open spaces are much more dynamic and flexible in supporting community life and cohesion than they have been for some time. Our research shows, not surprisingly, that 91 per cent. of people say that they improve their quality of life. I commend to the House a recent production of the BBC programme “Gardeners’ World”, which examined in some depth the improvement—its word, not mine—that has taken place in parks and gardens as a result of the policies that the Government have adopted.

As Members of Parliament, we all share the idea that our parks and open spaces have a glorious tradition and heritage. I personally believe that we forgot their importance and value towards the end of the last century. One of the most damaging aspects of imposing the policy of compulsory competitive tendering on local councils was its impact on our parks. I never disagreed with the competitive tendering part; it was the compulsory element that was damaging. In relation to parks, it made people consider the price, not the quality. As a result of that policy, people could cut the grass without tending the flowers or painting the railings, and they could keep the gates locked all day. We have successfully turned the policy round, and made good progress.

The Public Accounts Committee acknowledged that

That follows a continuing commitment, which acknowledges the value of good-quality parks and open spaces, and has tried to understand the causes of their decline by establishing the urban green spaces taskforce.

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In 2003 my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister launched a sustainable communities plan that set out a new vision, which put communities at the heart of development. In that important speech, he gave parks, gardens and open spaces a central role. Through the plan, we have implemented a range of initiatives and brought new funding to the programme. That halted the decline of the green spaces and started to improve them, and has been a key factor in making our towns and cities better places to live. The recent “State of the Cities” report acknowledged that.

However, I am not complacent. We need to ensure that every community benefits from good-quality green spaces, and we therefore remain committed to following through our green spaces programme. We will respond to the Public Accounts Committee’s report in full in due course.

One of the great gifts of a park, whatever its nature, is that it extends its welcome to everyone, irrespective of who they are. We have all benefited from parks and we all understand their importance. I hope that in our debate, we will consider the full range of urban green spaces that planning policy guidance note 17 sets out. Several hon. Members have referred to that important document. It constitutes planning for open space, sport and recreation rather than some undefined notion of “parkland”. It recognises that different spaces have different functions. Although parks and open spaces lend themselves as subjects for community involvement and decisions at neighbourhood level, that should not be a replacement for council involvement.

As the hon. Member for Solihull said, many of the excellent parks groups were formed in the 1990s in response to the crisis that faced parks and open spaces. There are also the successfully established friends of parks groups, which my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon mentioned. They have made a big difference to the management of parks and improving what they can do. Although some groups go on to manage parks—I am sure that we all support local people taking over the running of a park—others have a consultative and advisory role. The green flag award scheme, which we support, backs that up and provides standards to which our parks and open spaces can aspire. In England, 409 green spaces hold the green flag award, and the number increases every year—a great achievement by our parks managers throughout the country, as the BBC programme, which featured the beautiful Alexandra park in the borough of Oldham, exemplified superbly.

There is also the green pennant award, which recognises community management and achievement. Those awards help to promote innovative ways in which to involve local communities in the design and management of public spaces.

In the past five years, a tremendous turnaround has taken place in the fortunes of parks in England. They are generally getting better. Local people recognise that and use them more. In many parts of our country, they are one of the—unfortunately few—areas where different groups of people meet and mix. That is welcome. All that is largely due to the commitment, investment and effort of central and local government,
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the professionals who work in the parks and their employees, who often dedicate their lives to nurturing their parks. We can all see the pride that they take in them.

I now turn to what we believe to be wrong with the implications—not the intentions—of the Bill. Clause 1 seeks to restrict the sale of parkland or other types of open space owned by local authorities. It would require a local authority to hold a referendum before making such a sale, which would depend on the outcome of the referendum. Under the Local Government Act 1972, local authorities may dispose of land in any manner they wish, but if they want to dispose of land that is used for public recreation or as a public garden, they must advertise their intentions in a local newspaper and consider any objections. Many hon. Members would probably say that that was welcome but insufficient, in terms of the input from local people.

That is why additional Government planning policies already provide robust protection for the open spaces that local communities need. These policies are set out in planning policy guidance note 17, introduced in 2002, which covers open space, sport and recreation. It states that existing open spaces and sports and recreational land should not be built on unless an assessment has been undertaken by the local authority that has clearly shown the open space or land to be surplus to the requirements of the local community. In undertaking that assessment, the local authority must take into account all the functions that that open space can perform. So the provisions in the Local Government Act 1972, together with the protection for open spaces provided by planning policies, are sufficient to ensure that the parkland that local communities need is not sold without account being taken of the needs and views of local people.

It might be helpful if I also mention the situation in relation to sports and recreation grounds owned by schools, because there is a different regime in place for them. I shall explain the background to this for the benefit of the House, because it is directly relevant to the debate. School playing fields are afforded particular protection by section 77 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, which empowers the Secretary of State for Education and Skills to protect school playing fields from disposal or change of use.

Local authorities require the prior consent of the Secretary of State before they can sell school playing fields, and I shall explain the context in which that is allowed. They would have to demonstrate that such sports facilities were surplus to the needs of the local community, which is a very hard test indeed. Furthermore, all proceeds from any such sale must be spent on new sports and educational facilities. That Act was backed up by further guidance in November 2004, which states that the sale of playing fields must be a last resort, if its purpose is to raise funds to improve other sports and educational facilities, and that the school must seek alternatives sources of funding.

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