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On the real problem of aviation taxation, it would be most fair to tax proportionately more those who fly most often. We should also invest a lot more money in research to minimise emissions, and not only in the fields of energy conservation and electricity generation, but of transport, including aviation. In the whole
climate change debate, behavioural change and technological advance are often presentedespecially in the United Statesas alternative ways of addressing the challenge, whereas the reality is that we clearly need both. The Government should continue to press very hard for action jointly with other countries. There is clearly an imperative for concerted international action, which must fulfil the requirement set out by the Chancellor that the burden of climate change should not be allowed to fall on the poorest people in the poorest countries.
The Stern report has important key messages for international collective action, including what Sir Nicholas calls the urgent challenge of a transparent and comparable carbon price, and building on the institutions of the Kyoto protocol. The challenge is to put in place an effective cap on greenhouse gases, while minimising the distortion and bureaucracy that the system and its policing might impose. The further development of cap-and-trade arrangements for CO2 and other greenhouse gases looks to me like the best way of doing that. One of my constituents, Mr. Oliver Tickell, has developed a scheme for combining a global cap on emissions under the United Nations framework with an ascending auction of global emission rights. He has set it out clearly on a website called Kyoto2.org, and I commend it to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and other colleagues.
So I greatly welcome the Governments commitment to the climate change Bill. Along with tax measures, public spending and international initiatives, it can be a decisive step toward a sustainable environment. One striking thing about the Stern report was not just its setting out the appalling economic cost of failing to tackle climate change but the, by comparison, relatively modest cost of doing something about it, so long as we take the right action now. I look forward to a Bill with the ambition, reach and powerful measures needed to do just that.
Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): I listened carefully to what the Secretary of State had to say as she introduced the debate today, and she painted a rosy picture of benign change by a Labour Government since 1997 with further benign change to follow. For those of us who are perhaps a little closer to the grassroots, it was not a picture that we could recognise.
Local democracy in this country is in disarray. Public participation in elections is at its lowest level ever. The scope for independence for local councils to meet the needs of their communities has been more restricted by this Government than by any previous Government. Not surprisingly, the diversity of provision and the innovation of thought that should be the hallmark of local government have been diminished in that time.
The communities that local democracy serves are under strain. The Secretary of State acknowledged that there are major problems in many different aspects of the provision of housing. We could easily add transport, pollution and the wellbeing and cohesion of communities.
I turn to the issue of the Queens Speech and the Bills that relate to the Secretary of States Department. It is disappointing that the local government Bill does not
include the measures needed to plug the gaps and remedy those deficiencies. That is not to say that the White Paper and the Bill do not include some measures that the Liberal Democrats welcome and support. We favour reform of the Standards Board for England and its operation. We also support local councillors regaining the powers to stick up for local residents and communities on key issues such as planning and licensing. It is good that councillors should have further powers to hold to account other public bodies that deliver services to their communities.
However, the Secretary of State should take a careful look at the totality of her proposals for increasing powers. She wishes to increase the powers of parishes, ward councillors and council leaders. In democracies, power can be neither created nor destroyed: it can only be redistributed. If one strengthens the power of all three, the question is where the extra power will come from. The Bill singularly fails to say what extra resources will be made available to local government to deliver the enhanced power for each of those layers. Until the Secretary of State answers that question, it will be difficult to take her Bill seriously.
John Bercow: The antidote to voter disengagement is not to rush headlong towards the structural fetishism that seems now to besot the Government. They seem hell bent on a process of massive local government reform at a cost that they will not calculate, for a benefit that they cannot quantify and at a risk to local cohesion that they dare not admit.
Andrew Stunell: I broadly agree with the hon. Gentleman. In particular, I am sure that we do not want any fetishism in the Bill. However, there are plenty of measures in the Bill that are worse, and plenty that could be included to make it better.
I was about to say that a commendable feature of the Bill is that the change that the Secretary of State is permitting is based on the voluntary principle. It will be open to local authorities to apply for a change in their status in the two-tier areas. However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that across the country that is triggering a huge waste of effort by local authorities with ambitions that far exceed their capacity to deliver. By 25 January, the Secretary of State will have a desk groaning with applications from completely unsuitable sources, as wellno doubtas one or two perfect little gems that she will approve. It might have been better if she had been able to indicate to local councils that they should not waste their money on such frivolous projects.
Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab): I am surprised at the hon. Gentlemans choice of language. Is he saying that the proposals that local councils have been invited to submit should be dismissed in advance, before there has been local choice about a better way forward? Is that really the position of the Liberal Democrats?
I already have on my desk a number of glossy brochures from various local authoritiesnot yet including Bedford, although I look forward to receiving one. I would very much prefer local authorities to have the freedom to decide their arrangements, for both internal leadership and the
partnerships they choose to make with other local authorities, but when we know from reading the White Paper that only a small, limited number of councils will obtain the magic badge they seek, it makes little sense to throw open the competition. It is a bit like bidding for the lottery, where for every bid accepted 19 are rejected, but in this case money from the public purse is being wasted.
The important thing is what the Bill does not contain, and the disappointment for me and my Liberal Democrat colleagues is that there is no sign that it will deal with the issues that actually matter for local government. What will be their sources of revenue? What level of freedom will they have to take decisions on behalf of their local communities and, in particular, why does the Bill not contain a simple measure to return the national business rate to the power of local councils? Why does it not tackle the reform of the council tax? Why does it not deal with returning to the control and discretion of local authorities the huge sums of money being spent by quangos in each local authority area? Surely, that should have been in the Bill.
I was interested to hear what the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) had to say, which I would sum up as precisely nothing. The Conservatives introduced the poll tax and the council tax, and now they are introducing the too-early-to-say tax. The too-early-to-say policy is popular with them: whether it is housing, local government finance or Iraq, it is always too early to say.
The Liberal Democrats have made clear what we believe should be in the Billmeasures to return power and responsibility to local government. We shall follow those themes when the Bill is published and comes before the House.
The Secretary of State referred to the planning Bill. She might have spent a little more time explaining to the House in greater detail what she believes the balance should be between the protection of the environment and local communities on the one hand and the creation of wealthsometimes for only a limited number of peopleon the other. Her Bill threatens to upset that balance. As we understand it, the Bill will contain provisions to allow local decision making to be set aside in respect of major projects of so-called national importance, which might be the additional runways that are being discussed and the new terminalterminal 7at Heathrow. Some of my hon. Friends who represent constituencies adjacent to Heathrow are fairly well convinced that there is already a secret agreement to build a terminal 7. Will projects such as those be fast-tracked through the planning and inquiry system at the expense of local communities and the local environment?
Nuclear waste disposal is another key national strategic issue that may well bypass local communities as a result of the Bill. The Liberal Democrats believe that any change to planning legislation should increase local input, not reduce it, and we shall certainly make
that clear when the Bill is published. We believe that, whatever process is put in place to deal with such major national projects, it should be objective and thorough, and it should in no way return to the half-baked proposals that were floated three or four years ago for the House to be directly involved in manning the inquiries into such projects.
Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the length of the inquiry into terminal 5 at Heathrow airport was, to most minds, unacceptably long? How would he try to balance the national interest to ensure that we have proper infrastructure, whether airports or roads and the like, with the public interest locally? This is a much more complicated problem than he is perhaps giving it credit for. I am not necessarily suggesting that the Government are getting it right, but there surely needs to be a more open debate about ensuring that such projects are put in place much more quickly.
Andrew Stunell: The hon. Gentleman makes a valuable point. In fact, I wonder whether he has had a quick look at my notes, as I was about to say that it is crucial with such major projects that, first, we have an agreement on what are the national requirements and what constitutes a national interest. Secondly, we need properly to balance the factors that relate to the national interest with the legitimate concerns of local and regional communities. The test of any system that is introduced must be whether it is possible to get a refusal out of it. If one has a process that will produce only consent, it is not a balanced and objective process. It will simply involve consultation on a decision that has been taken already, without the opportunity for local and regional communities and others to take an active part in the decision-making process.
Mr. Sheerman: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we must consider the national interest, certainly with things such as energy and waste strategy? Is it not a fact that leaving the decisions on those two very important sectors has produced very worrying time lags in responding to real need? For example, it took 14 years to get planning permission for the Belvedere energy-from-waste scheme to serve London. Surely such a delay is nonsense. Perhaps it is also nonsense that Liberal Democrats throughout the country seem to oppose anything on a pragmatic basis, regardless of the national interest.
Andrew Stunell: The hon. Gentleman was doing quite well to begin with, but obviously he veered off at the end. The important point is to acknowledge that there must be a balance, and we must consider how the planning system might be sensibly modified to retain that balance, not simply to give all the power to the central decision takers. The hon. Gentleman hinted that he believes that we should return to some centrally planned industrial and commercial strategy, without the input of either regional or local factors, or indeed the consideration of the social and environmental needs of communities.
Dr. Whitehead: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will recall that the Stern report suggested that we have about 15 years or so to get the structures in place seriously to combat climate change in this country. How does he relate that observation, particularly in respect of national energy and waste requirements, to the idea of achieving a balance between local decision making and planning for the future of energy and waste? Does he think that one trumps the other or that both are important?
Andrew Stunell: It was said of Mussolini that he made the trains run on time. I have no doubt that, if we take much more centralised and dictatorial control in this country, we can deliver such projects faster. That is transparently the case. They will probably be cocked up, but they will be done faster. I fully accept that we need a balanced process. Indeed, I am simply saying that a balanced process is what we need, not one that is toppled over into central direction and control at the expense of the environment and society in which we live.
Robert Neill: In the interests of such balance, may I inform Government Members that the Belvedere incinerator, referred to in our debate, was opposed by Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative members of the local authority and by the Mayor of London? I wonder how that squares with devolution.
I have already commented on what I believe will be included in the planning Bill, so I shall say a little about what will not be in it. One obvious example is any commitment to supporting sustainable communities through the planning system. I know from my own experience in steering my Bill through the House that the London borough of Merton got what it wanted in respect of sustainable planning guidelines only when it threatened to take the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to the High Court. The reality is that the current Department for Communities and Local Government is not yet taking the sustainability of communities seriously. We believe that that matter should be included in the planning Bill.
We also believe that greater discretion should be given to local authorities on the policies that they introduce in respect of affordable housing. It has to be said that, despite the words of the Secretary of State, no commitment to tackle affordability can be seen in any of the Departments Bills. Indeed, she kept remarkably quiet about one particular aspect of affordabilitythe fact that, since 1997, which seems to be her benchmark year, the Government have disposed of 500,000 social housing units bought under the right to buy. My party and I do not have a problem with that, but we do have a problem with the fact that the money raised has not been reinvested in social housing. We find that while the housing stock has been reduced
by 500,000, council house waiting lists up and down the land have increased by 500,000. It is astonishing that a Labour Secretary of State, boasting of her Governments record, could stand before the House in a Queens Speech debate and say that she has no proposals to deal with that problem.
I turn now to the Mayors powers Bill. As I said before, powers cannot be created and destroyed, only redistributed. The hon. Member for Meriden put her finger on the problem of where the powers will come from. We understand that they will come primarily from the boroughs, and perhaps some will be taken away from the Greater London assemblys scrutiny role so that the Mayor can get on with things without having too close a look taken at what he is doing. If one thing is quite clear, it is that the powers will not come from the Government office for London. London can be regarded as the one devolved area in England, but even in London, the Government office spends £55 for every £45 that the Mayor and the assembly spend. Out of every £100, the devolved structures get only £45. We will therefore look at the Mayors powers Bill with an eagle eye to see how any transfer of powers from central Government to the devolved Administration can best be achieved.
I have already commented on the absence of any measures to deal with the affordability of housing. I was surprised that the Secretary of State had nothing to say about last weeks report that 40 per cent. of key worker homes built in London remain empty because the structure of the scheme makes them unaffordable and unsellable.
In passing, I simply comment that the Conservatives have a housing policy of sorts. I heard their housing spokesman speaking about the need for more bungalows and gardens that were not on green belt sites, green sites, brown sites or in back gardens. Multi-storey bungalows will presumably turn out to be the solution.
Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): I agree with the hon. Gentlemans comments about housing need but how do his words fit with Stockport councils crazy housing policy, which tries to prevent all new housing development in the borough of Stockport, puts up prices and shifts people out of Stockport into the neighbouring boroughs?
Andrew Stunell: The hon. Gentleman and I shared a train this morning and we also share a borough. Stockport borough is currently left with 11,000 council houses and has 7,000 families on the waiting list. Regional planning policy dictates the amount of home building in Stockport and sufficient permissions have been granted to reach the regional planning target. It therefore suffers the inverse problem of local authorities in the south-east, which write to meand doubtless other hon. Memberscomplaining that they are compelled to accept extra houses. Stockport cannot do that.
Let us consider the implementation of a measure that I steered through the House and is now the Sustainable and Secure Buildings Act 2004, the responsibility for which rests with the Secretary of State. If sustainability and climate change are to be taken seriously, it is astonishing that there are no
proposals to implement that Act. I hope that the right hon. Lady will ask someone in the Department what has happened to it and when it will come into force.
I am sure that the climate change Bill will feature in the second part of our debate today. I listened carefully to the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), who made some important points. We, too, welcome the climate change Bill but it is a pity that it will have no targets. What happens year by year needs to be monitored and matched with the intended performance for each year. One can call that setting targets or all sorts of different things but, unless we have them, we will be in the same position as we are with Kyoto. Year after year, the House and the Government contented themselves with saying, Were on track with Kyoto, but actually we are not. We need to have targets and the policies that are likely to achieve them quickly.
Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): Does my hon. Friend share my concern that, despite the Stern report and the appointment of a Minister to be specifically responsible for climate change, that Minister refuses to rule out a second runway at Birmingham international airport? That suggests that the Government will stick to their policy of predict and provide, despite Stern.
Andrew Stunell: My hon. Friend has applied the point that I made earlier about the planning Bill to a local matter. I am sure that she would be dismayed if that measure allowed the second runway to go ahead, fast-tracked through the planning system and overriding the wishes of local communities and possibly local authorities.
Sustainability is the thread that should run through the work of the two Departments that we are debating. It is disappointing to witness the slow progress so far and the slender signs of progress in the coming Session. We have seen the collapse in support and funding for British Waterways and the Environment Agency and the fiasco in the farm payments scheme. While we are talking about the Environment Agency, may I ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government what conversations she has had with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about her Departments intention to build 108,000 more houses on flood plains at a time when the funding for dealing with the problems on those flood plains is being cut? Of course, there is always a shortage of money and there always have to be priorities. We have a suggestion: let us restore some of the funding to British Waterways and the Environment Agency and save some of the £44 million spent on consultants fees by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs over the last three years.
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