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To argue that the White Paper is a damp squib that does nothing for local people, however, is completely and utterly wrong. The White Paper slashes targets, and moves to a new inspection regime, away from a rolling programme everywhere to proportionate, targeted, risk-based inspection. It is devolutionary on byelaws, on which the hon. Lady has changed her mind just this morning. It is devolutionary on single- member wards, all-out elections, parish councils and, yes, the standards regime for local councillors. It gives new flexibility over funding [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) will listen for a moment, he will learn that, currently, £520 million flows through the local area agreement. In future, the figure could be up to £4.7 billion.
The hon. Lady asked about city regions and the regional agenda. What matters to us is not trying to scrape together £21 billion of unfunded tax cuts, but securing the right powers at the right levels. That is why we consider these issues seriously. The hon. Lady argues for more devolution in housing. We know what Tory devolution means: it means not building the homes that people need.
The White Paper sets out a Labour view of devolution. It means central and local government working together to set minimum standards, but also to deliver local services, better places, more involved citizens and more prosperous local communities. Our proposals stand in stark contrast to the legacy of neglect and cuts that we inherited from the Conservative party. We now know what Tory devolution means: not fairness for all, but a free-for-all.
Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): The Liberal Democrats welcome the White Paper, and I am pleased that the Secretary of State came to the House to make her statement. Nevertheless, the White Paper represents a significant missed opportunity.
Does the Secretary of State share our view that local communities are too often cut out of decision makingthat they are too often forced to accept the standards and prescriptions of central Government, and that their voice is not being heard? Does she agree that public alienation, anger and apathy are all fuelled by a sense of disconnection from local government and from decision making? Despite all her head-scratching, the White Paper does not convince me that she agrees with that analysis.
The White Paper does not propose the fair votes that are essential for democratic renewal. It does not propose abolition of the council tax and the introduction of a fair tax based on ability to pay. It will not return the business rate to the control of local government, which is essential to freedom of decision making. Perhaps above all, it will not return the powers and the billions of pounds that central Government and quangos hold on behalf of local government, which prevents local government from making decisions. Sadly, much of what it does propose has more to do with administrative convenience than with democratic accountability. It has more to do with the fleeting fashions in No. 10 than with community engagement.
Whatever persuaded the Secretary of State to cut out community choice from the executive mayoral system? After 34 referendums and 22 rejections, with only 12 mayors accepted by the public and with four of the 12 who have been voted into office facing recall action by outraged local communities, could it just be that the Prime Minister went to the Secretary of State and said We do not want local choice on mayoral executives: just get on with it? Does that not make a complete mockery of the Secretary of States mantra about community choice? The only choice that the public did have and the only choice that they were exercisingto say We do not want mayorsis to be taken away from them.
In the media this morning, I heard the Secretary of State make much of the new powers for councils, parish and district, to make byelaws. That is good, but I wonder whether she has noted that they already have those powers under the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005.
There are some genuinely good things in the White Paper. The proposal to reform the Standards Board and its code is long overdue. The only point that I would make is that the Secretary of State could have done it without a White Paper, months and months ago. We also welcome the restoration of local councillors right to defend their local communities when planning and licensing decisions are made. We agree with the Secretary of State that the current rules are absurd and grossly anti-democratic. Will she undertake to bolt that provision on to some piece of legislationany piece of legislationvery soon, and to bring back common sense before the new year?
Councils are to be invited to volunteer to convert to unitary status. How will the Secretary of State judge who volunteered and who was bounced? Will the public have a voice in the changes? Does she expect them to cost more money? If she feels the need to cap expenditure and the number of people involvedwhich I understand is proposed in the White Paperand if, as I suspect, the local community will not be asked to endorse the changes, what exactly will be her criteria for approving them?
One of the most talked-up parts of the White Paper was the part relating to city regions. My question to the Secretary of State is simple: what happened to it? If the mayors are in because of No 10, city regions seem to be out because of No. 11. What exactly has the city regions project to do with the Treasury, and how has the Secretary of State let the Treasury get its hands on it?
The Liberal Democrats look forward to helping the Government to improve the White Paper drastically and dramatically, and to restore and rebuild local democracy. We await the Secretary of States answers with interest.
Ruth Kelly: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman welcomes many of the proposals in the White Paper, even if he too believes that it should really have been a local government White Paper on council tax and property finance reform. We know what his party says about those issues, and I do not think that it has much popular support, but no doubt we shall debate them in the House in due course.
In fact, I largely agree with the hon. Gentlemans analysis. While local public service standards and their delivery have improved significantly over the past nine years, expectations have also risen, and the former have not kept pace with the latter. Citizens now want a voice when it comes to the delivery of local public services, and expect their views to be taken into account. We need to reconnect them with public service delivery, and many of the proposals in the White Paper are designed to do just that.
For example, the best-value duty on local authorities will be reformed. Information will have to be given to local people. They will have to be consulted about local public service delivery, and will have to be involved in the making of choices. We are reviewing community ownership and the management of assets so that local communities will have the opportunity to take a direct interest in the provision of local public services. For instance, when a town hall is not being used adequately, their views about what should happen to it should be taken properly into consideration.
The White Paper will give communities a right to be heard, which I think is an important step. If the local ward councillor cannot get something sorted out on the ground, overview and scrutiny committees will be reformed to become mini-Select Committees. They will be able to take up local issues and call for evidence, not just from local authorities but from other local service partners. Primary care trusts, Jobcentre Plus and all the other agencies that work to provide services in an area will have to give evidence, respond formally in due course, and take recommendations into account.
Perhaps Labour Members should not be too surprised that the party of the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) has some difficulty in accepting the notion of strong leadership. Of course, in this instance I am talking about strong leadership at local level. The hon. Gentleman argues that local people will no longer have a say. That is not the case at all. When the hon. Gentleman reads the details of the proposals carefully, he will see that local people will have to be consulted if a council decides to adopt a mayoral model. However, we will ensure that council leaders, where they are adopted, also have visible strong leadership.
The hon. Gentleman asked about unitary authorities. I think that we have got the balance right, avoiding any huge distraction of local councils so that they can get on with the job of delivering better public services for their people. But when there is real willingness and local support, and when councils meet the strict criteria set out alongside the White Paper in the invitation to bid for unitary status, we will consider bids properly, and a small number of councils will be given the opportunity to move to unitary status. We will, of course, make our judgment on the basis of value for money. We must decide whether the councils are providing strong leadership and responding to citizen and community concerns. I think all Members would agree that such criteria are important.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about the city region agenda. The White Paper sets out a clear direction for city regions. We want to support strong, voluntary boards of leaders and we want city regions to lead economic development in their areas. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has already
set out his plans to devolve greater control over buses. We are consulting on the development of city development companies; we are backing skills and employment boards; we are taking forward discussions on multi-area agreements; and, in the run-up to the comprehensive spending review, we are looking seriously into devolving even more powers to city regions.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will, on reflection, accept that the White Paper represents a serious step forward, with deregulation, devolution and a reconstitution of the relationship between central and local government.
Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): I warmly welcome my right hon. Friends statement, particularly her evident commitment to further empowerment and renewal of local democracy, improved accountability, improved leadership in local communities and the strengthening of the councillors role. As we look forward to the Bill to follow, will the Secretary of State look closely into the needs of urban areasparticularly citieswhere the boundaries are drawn far too tightly to enable them to address the problems of conurbations and their communities? I suggest that the prospect of voluntary agreements might not be adequate to deal with the real problems in those areas.
Ruth Kelly: I thank my hon. Friendhaving previously led Leicester city council, he has considerable experience to draw onfor his comments. He is right that we need to examine how urban areas function economically and provide them with the necessary tools and powers. Sometimes, that might mean cross-boundary working, and multi-area agreements should be supported where appropriate. There might also have to be a boundary reviewanother option that is always available. Furthermore, looking into economic incentives for development is part of Kate Barkers current work on reform of the land use planning system.
Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): Frankly, that was rather like watching the spectacle of an elephant giving birth to a mouse. Local government will be very disappointed by the Secretary of States statement. My concern relates to funding and whether she can provide any hope to the people of Northamptonshire. The Government recognise that the county is underfunded as a result of the current formula. The former Minister with responsibility for local government acknowledged that, but said that it would take 20 years to put right. Will the Minister comment on that and include a proposal in the Bill to relieve the people of Northamptonshire of their great burden of underfunding?
The hon. Gentleman has clearly not read the comments of his local government colleagues and has failed to recognise the cross-party support within local government for the proposals I have set out today. He mentions Northamptonshire, but he well knows that the county has received above-inflation, real-terms increases in funding over the past nine years. In addition, my hon. Friend the Minister for Local
Government has been discussing the position with the council and I am sure that those discussions will continue.
Mr. Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): In welcoming todays statement, may I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the progress madein the year and a day that has elapsed since she presented the education White Paperdown the devolutionary route for local government? She will appreciate that the detail of the White Paper and the extent to which there is buy-in across the whole of Government are crucial to implementation. I hope that she can assure us that all Government Departments will support greater devolution of powers and exhibit more trust in local government.
Ruth Kelly: I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments. I know how personally committed he is to this agenda and I am well aware of the good work he did as Minister with responsibility for local government. He is right to say that the White Paper will succeed if it has the support of all Whitehall Departments. It does. There is a cross-Government commitment to this agenda. The fact that about 35 targets for local areas must be agreed through local area agreements will impose huge self-discipline on central Government to set down only what they really care about. If local government agrees with the agenda and the targets, it should be allowed to set its own ambitions to lead the area. I think that that is the right way forward. We now have a powerful opportunity to allow local leaders to do precisely what they were elected to doto lead their towns, cities and local areas into the future.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Having heard what the Secretary of State said on the Today programme and her statement to the House, may I ask her why, if she truly believes in local government and local choice, she is seeking to impose a certain formula for leadership? Is she not aware that many local people have no time at all for the mayoral concept and that many local councils believe that recent changes have emasculated the participation of ordinary councillors in their councils deliberations?
Ruth Kelly: I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. There are local choices about which model to adopt and councils will be able to choose a directly elected mayor only after full consultation with local people. I would like to see strong, visible leadership that can take an overview of the local area, plan for the future with confidence and take the necessary tough decisions. It will be properly accountable to citizens only if there is real citizen and community involvement. As part of the package of proposals that we are setting out today, we aim to ensure that citizens and community views are taken into account at every stage of development.
I also welcome the White Paper, which I believe represents the first seeds of a welcome U-turn, particularly in so far as the Secretary of State has made it clear that she wishes to re-empower councillors. Re-empowerment should become the watchword of whatever emerges from this exercise. All too often, our councillors have become no more than ciphers in the exercise of local government. A fuller U-turn would include the re-empowerment of housing committees, education committees and planning committees and I urge the Secretary of State to go the whole hog. Let us have local government that is truly meaningful.
Ruth Kelly: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments and hope that, after he has read the White Paper in full, he will be even more pleasantly surprised than he is now. He is absolutely right to talk about local councils and it is right that non-executive members should have a powerful role in their communities. In future, we want to encourage local authorities to provide small budgets for local councillors so that they can knock different public service providers heads together, get issues dealt with on the spot, refer an issue to the overview and scrutiny committee and secure a proper formal response. We want people who deliver public services to appear in person or deliver evidence in writing to committees and we want their recommendations to be taken into account. I believe that all this will revitalise local democracy and re-legitimise the role of the local political party. After publication of the White Paper, we need seriously to look into how to build capacity in local political parties so that the councillors of the future are of the very best calibre.
Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South) (LD): Having spent 36 years in local government, I welcome any attempt by any Government to give back to local government the role it deserves. The Secretary of State made some interesting points, but will she explain what powers she has to ensure that minimum standards are met, and who will set the criteria? Will she ensure that responsibility is backed up with resources, and will she give a commitment that objectors as well as the promoters of applications will have a right to appeal?
Ruth Kelly: The hon. Gentleman asks a series of questions and I shall try to deal with them. He is right to say that there will be minimum standards. There are key priorities that local authorities want to see achieved everywherefor example, children in care and care home standards. The important point is that we negotiate with each local area what its targets for improvement should be. If it is failing to achieve minimum standards, that should be one of its targets. If it is meeting minimum standards but has capacity to do more, we can agree with that local area and its local partners what the targets should be
Mr. Speaker: Order. It is not the place of the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) to shout across the Chamber at the Secretary of State. The hon. Lady should be quiet, or she will have to leave the Chamber.
Ruth Kelly: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. We should leave local government the space and flexibility it needs to deal with complex issues of concern to local citizens and communities. The hon. Gentleman is right: we should fund any new burdens and we have a principle in place under which we will give funding to local authorities for any new burden imposed by the Government. He is also right that the inspection regime will change. It will become risk based and proportionate, but on the 35 targets that we expect to be delivered at local level, we will have a tougher under-performance regime, because as part of this package of proposals and the deal with local government, we expect those minimum standards to be delivered.
Ms Diana R. Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, North) (Lab): Will the White Paper extend and strengthen the duties of local authorities and primary care trusts to promote public health in communities? In particular, I am interested in schemes such as the Eat Well, Do Well scheme in Hull, which is to be scrapped by the Liberal Democrat council but is doing an enormous amount to promote the health of our children.
Ruth Kelly: I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. All local partners will be asked to work to the same local objectives. That means in practice that where PCTs, social services and schools all have different agendas, they will in future be working to the same output objective. That will mean that an integrated personalised response can be delivered on the ground. We will expect partnerships for health and well-being to be in place up and down the country as a result of the proposals in the White Paper.
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): It is good to have a White Paper with the subtitle repentance that includes, not least, the dismantling to some extent of the new gendarmerie of control and inspection put together by this Government. But the White Paper is still a series of unresolved conflicts, as it is bound to be before we get the Lyons report and in the Blair-Brown interregnum. The White Paper is like a visit to a tapas bar, with a lot of little snacks, all of which are reasonably agreeable, but no decent meal in sight.
If city regions are central to the Governments thinkingas they should beare the Government willing to restructure some of the existing regional and sub-regional bodies, such as the learning and skills councils, the regional development agencies and the planning structures so that real levers of influence can be given to the city regions to influence their own fates and improve the lot of their citizens, especially in transport and skills, which are the crucial issues?
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