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The City of London has spoken of its concern that the new powers will add new layers of decision making and delays with no discernable benefit to London’s economy or prosperity. The Government, in their own consultation, had to admit that most of those who were asked support no, or minimal, changes to the planning regime.

There we have it: London councils do not want this, London businesses do not want it and Londoners themselves do not want it. The only people who want those changes are Ministers who are keen to lavish powers on Labour’s prodigal son.

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that perhaps the real reason for the Government’s lack of action is their unwillingness to tackle the overblown Government office for London, which has grown in size and increased bureaucracy in London? Instead of achieving proper devolution and cutting GOL down, they prefer to suck up power from the boroughs.

Mrs. Spelman: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I agree with him, because the concept of Government offices was to provide a one-stop shop for the far-flung regions of the country to save them an unnecessary trip to the capital to engage with representatives of different Departments. That makes a lot of sense in places such as the north-west, the north-east and even where I hail from, the west midlands, but for London it is difficult to understand.

Furthermore, we learn that the Government are eager to install parish councils across the capital. There are already a host of thriving residents’ associations, properly constituted, and societies across London. They have rights to consultation with borough councils and are highly regarded by the communities they serve. Why do the Government want to bureaucratise and politicise those voluntary bodies? Is it because they are beyond the reach of the Standards Board? Alternatively, is it because, by going down the parish route, Londoners can be hit with a precept on their council tax, which is not currently the case? If so, Londoners will have to budget hard over the next few years if they are to meet the combined cost of a looming revaluation, a levy for the Olympics and now a precept for parishes.

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): The hon. Lady is scaremongering. If she looks at the detail in the White Paper, she will see that it is about giving options to local communities, not imposing. She has missed the point.

Mrs. Spelman: I am sure, Mr. Speaker, that you have not missed the point. Unless I am very much mistaken, in other parts of the country a parish council comes with a parish precept. Therefore, if a parish council is
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being proposed, surely, unless London is being treated differently, a precept would follow. I do not call that scaremongering. The Chancellor seems to be the only person who still believes that the streets of London are paved with gold.

The Queen’s Speech also contains provisions for planning reform. Despite only two years having passed since the Government’s last attempt at planning reform, we still have the worst of all worlds—a centralised planning system that pays little heed to the wishes of local government and, at the same time, delivers nothing like the number of houses needed. It was disingenuous of the Secretary of State to talk about giving more opportunity to people to own their own home at a time when the prospect of getting on the housing ladder is further and further away for a whole generation of young people. The reason for that is the top-down, centrally imposed planning system created by the Chancellor and Deputy Prime Minister.

As the House will appreciate, it is difficult to comment with certainty at this stage, as any planning legislation will be informed by the Treasury-commissioned Barker review, but we have several concerns. It is reported that the Treasury wants to amend the planning regulations so that controls on out-of-town shopping centres are weakened. Those regulations were originally put in place by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) specifically to address the risk of high streets and urban communities becoming ghost towns. We are committed to retaining that protection so that truly sustainable communities, both economically and environmentally, can be delivered. The Opposition have made a firm pledge by signing up to the new sustainable communities Bill in conjunction with the pressure group Local Works. The test for the Government, however, will be whether the Department for Communities and Local Government will capitulate to the Treasury and remove that planning protection.

The Government have also made clear their determination to push ahead with a new land development tax. We have long campaigned for infrastructure to match development, but, so far, that campaign has fallen on deaf ears, leaving communities with insufficient doctors, dentists, school places and transport links. Let us take the example of Milton Keynes. The people of Milton Keynes are right when they call for more infrastructure before expansion. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) on his I before E—infrastructure before expansion—campaign. That campaign is more justified than ever now that Virgin Trains has cut its commuter services to and from Milton Keynes.

The Government have treated infrastructure as an afterthought, much as they regard the environment. That is not just my opinion—I am paraphrasing what the Environmental Audit Committee said in its report in the first Session last year:

The report also refers to the Government

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The Government see land development tax as the solution to infrastructure needs. But, if you will forgive me for being sceptical, Mr. Speaker, it will be collected centrally, and there is no guarantee that it will get back down to the local community to provide what is needed. Instead, there is every chance that it will be swallowed up in the Chancellor’s economic black hole. There is also a real danger that it will serve as a deterrent to regeneration of areas that need regeneration desperately. Ultimately, it will add to the cost of buying a new home at a time when first-time buyers are already despairing of their chances of ever being able to buy their own homes.

Mr. Sheerman: The hon. Lady quoted the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer). Many of us strongly believe in the eco-park solution to the problem of regeneration. I understand that the right hon. Gentleman was very much in favour of the environmental park at Ince Marshes, but was asked to keep quiet about it by the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), who, in true nimby style, did not want to see an innovative environmental solution near his constituency.

Mrs. Spelman: I cannot comment on the specific case, but it gives me an opportunity to make clear how strongly my party is committed to regeneration. Members expressed scepticism when I said where I would like to see the many new homes that we want to be built. I have described to the House at length the scope that I envisage for regeneration of the near-city zone around the central business districts of many of Britain’s towns and cities, and the opportunity that that presents for the provision of affordable near-city living.

No one could argue that there are no problems with the planning system, but the proposals that we have seen so far focus on raising money for the Treasury rather than ensuring that more of the right homes are built in the right places. That is because there has been no mention of giving people more say in the kind of development that takes place in their neighbourhoods. Localism goes out of the back door when the Treasury comes in at the front. That is the tragedy of this Queen's Speech. Despite calls from all parts of the House for more localism, there is virtually nothing in the proposed Bills to deliver it.

If the Government were serious about localism, they would abolish unelected regional assemblies as we have pledged to. Any talk of localism from the Government will mean very little until those unelected regional assemblies—the costly and unaccountable brainchild of the Deputy Prime Minister—are scrapped. They are unpopular and anti-democratic, and for as long as they remain in place, people will know that when it comes to localism, the Government are all talk. Similarly, if the Government were serious about reinvigorating local democracy, they would abolish the Standards Board, as we have pledged to. If they really want to be radical and devolutionary, the Government should take on board the ideas set out in our document “The Permissive State”. It proposes both total transparency in regard to the amount of central Government
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spending in local areas, and much more discretion for councils when it comes to how the money is used.

Therein lies the difference. Conservative Members have come up with a genuinely localist idea for how to achieve a real step change in where decisions are made. We have literally put our money where our mouth is, whereas in the Queen's Speech the Government merely pay lip service to localism. The planning legislation looks like a sell-out to the Treasury, the Greater London authority Bill looks like a sop to the Mayor, and the local government Bill looks like a watered-down compromise between the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Deputy Prime Minister.

This is the Queen's Speech of an interregnum. It is clearer than ever that the only way in which to deliver real change in local government is to start with one major change in the government of our nation.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I must inform the House that Back-Bench speeches will be limited to 15 minutes.

3.24 pm

Mr. Andrew Smith (Oxford, East) (Lab): I want to focus on climate change, which was barely mentioned by the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman). There are other measures that I especially welcome in the legislative programme, such as the concessionary bus travel Bill and the Northern Ireland Bills, but given that this is a local government debate, I want to say something about a specific provision in the local government Bill. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be able to guess what it is. Indeed, I thank her for listening to the representations that I and others have made and for agreeing to give councils in county areas the opportunity to bid for unitary status.

I have long been an enthusiastic advocate of unitary local government, especially in my own city of Oxford. I have never seen the point of two tiers of local government where one will do perfectly well. I believe that reform will cut unnecessary duplication, confusion and waste, but the crucial reason why I believe that single-tier local government is best is that it gives people a clear understanding of who is responsible for what, and that has to be the cornerstone of democratic accountability.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend accept that there is no more obvious example of the chaos that two-tier causes than waste? We have waste disposal authorities in the counties and waste collection in the districts. That just does not work. Please may we have a unitary system as a matter of urgency?

Mr. Smith: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. The other thing people wonder about locally is why some neighbouring towns—Reading, Swindon and Milton Keynes—are judged fully capable of running their own affairs but places such as Oxford are not. I know that that feeling is shared in many other towns and cities, notably Exeter, Ipswich and Norwich.

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Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): My right hon. Friend mentioned Swindon. Unitary authorities are good. They are welcome, but some of them, including Swindon, had difficulties when they were set up. Swindon received £2 million of Government money to get it out of its difficulties. We need unitary authorities but they must not base themselves on the old county authority model, which is where the Swindon model went wrong in the first place. Does he agree that authorities have to find their own way through?

Mr. Smith: I look forward to Oxford having the opportunity to find its own way through. If we are to rebuild the standing of local government and to empower local people through their councils in the way my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government wants, having a coherent and comprehensible structure for those councils is surely a necessary condition, so I welcome her commitment.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Smith: I will make some progress, if I may.

I look forward not only to the Secretary of State providing the opportunity to secure unitary status for Oxford and other places that want it, but to getting approval of those changes, so that the city can again run its own affairs across the board of local government responsibilities.

John Bercow: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Smith: I am going to move on. Time is limited, as the hon. Gentleman knows.

I have commended the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government for listening. May I do the same for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and say that the inclusion in the Gracious Speech of the climate change Bill is very welcome news? As he will be aware from the volume of letters and e-mails that I take up with him, there was a particularly strong demand for a climate change Bill from me and my constituents.

The Stern report, which the Chancellor of the Exchequer commissioned, is a fine and compelling work that provides strong economic arguments for the action that now needs to be taken. The challenge now is to bring forward equally strong measures to hit demanding targets, so that the United Kingdom is on track to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 60 per cent. by 2050. Those must include demanding interim targets on emissions reduction.

The way through the argument about annual targets is to avoid confusing how small a time period we break our target down into, and the frequency with which we assess progress against it. Of course, short-term fluctuations in the weather or in economic growth reduce the value of annual targets, and it makes sense to have interim targets, whether at given intervals, or rolling forward covering given spans of time—periods when variations in emissions caused by such fluctuations are likely to be smoothed out.

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We want to measure whether we are on track to hit the 60 per cent. target, not whether we happen to have had a particularly mild or cold winter, but none of that stops an assessment being made annually or even more frequently if we want it. Indeed such a report from the Secretary of State is required by law thanks to the excellent Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Act 2006 introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz).

Of course, there will be short-term fluctuations and an element of judgment involved in such an assessment. We need to concentrate not so much on the frequency of the target, but on the frequency—and, even more importantly, the objectivity and credibility—of the assessment of progress towards achieving it. What is most important is that measures are taken that succeed in reducing emissions, and that we transform our economy and society to reduce CO2 emissions to a sustainable level. Therefore, I welcome the Government’s proposal to establish an independent carbon committee to work with Government on emissions reduction and its measurement. It would also be a good idea to look at having independent assessment of the overall progress being made, perhaps by this body, or perhaps by another one with strong science credentials.

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, if there is to be an independent annual assessment, that will assume that there is an implicit annual target, and that it is therefore better to have that set out on the table than implied in the annual assessment?

Mr. Smith: I have just devoted quite some time to explaining—logically and persuasively, I thought—why that is not the case. Of course a judgment has to be made, and commentators, experts, the committee advising the Government and this House will make that judgment; it will be the stuff of the public debate on this important issue.

The need to combat climate change presents enormous opportunities, as well as challenges. In this country, there is terrific concern for the environment; that is the case not only among my constituents, who are assiduous in sending letters and e-mails making the case for action to me and to the Secretary of State, but across the United Kingdom. I always remember Tam Dalyell telling a Labour party conference debate on the environment that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds had more members than the Labour, Conservative, and Liberal Democrat parties put together. We also only have to look at how people take to recycling; they do so not because the Government tell them that it is a good thing, but because they know from their own values that wanton waste—of, for example, so much plastic and glass, with all the energy and resources that go into making them—is a bad thing. Most people care about their local environment, and about the planet, too: they care about poor people in poor countries; they care about the world’s ecosystems and flora and fauna; and they are distressed that human activity could drown whole coastal regions, condemn millions to drought and destroy wonderful
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animal species. Therefore, there is an opportunity to tap into, and mobilise, people’s genuine concern for their planet, and to show how the action that we can take together can make a real difference.

However, anyone who is serious about tackling the threat of climate change must also address the political challenges. There is a danger that the measures taken get seen as the conspiracy of a class, and a political elite, to pull up the ladder after the better-off have climbed it; that was, I think, Crosland’s prescient worry about environmentalism. That danger is greater when the main parties are in broad agreement about the overall direction of travel. Last week, I was at a meeting where someone pointed out that, after the publication of the Stern report, he looked at the BBC website and found that the comments calling for action to save the planet were greatly outnumbered by those of people who were worried that this could all be just a ruse to squeeze more tax out of them. In the press, the contrast between the reactions of the broadsheets and the tabloids told the same story.

A number of important implications follow from that. The measures taken must be seen to be fair: only a progressive political strategy will maintain a public consensus in support of the measures needed to tackle climate change. Flat-rate taxes and duties should be used cautiously and with overall fiscal neutrality, and we should examine carefully at every turn the impact of proposals on those on low and modest incomes, and mitigate adverse effects. We should also be wary of arguments in favour of taxing bad things to pay for good ones, because people are intuitively suspicious of arguments such as, “We are implementing this tax to change behaviour, but the money will still somehow magically be there when the behaviour has changed,” and because they will lead many to suspect that the real motive for the tax is not stopping the bad things, but funding what politicians think are the good things.

We should invest heavily in measures that help people on low incomes to cut their fuel costs—as this Government have been doing—extending further and accelerating cheap or free home insulation schemes, as well as more generally raising energy conservation standards in buildings. We should make it easier for people to make their own personal contribution to tackling climate change—for example by ensuring much clearer labelling on, and explanation of, the equivalent energy-saving light bulbs, so that they know which bulbs to choose. We should have either a ban on wasteful bulbs or a tax incentive to buy energy-efficient ones.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend agree that low-energy light bulbs and traditional filament bulbs should be treated in that way by the European waste electricity directive? At the moment, they are not.

Mr. Smith: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point on that very important issue.

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