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For the past 18 months, there has been a hosepipe ban in my constituency, which may be lifted this winterafter the rain over the weekend, it should be lifted pretty soonbut we cannot provide the amount of water that our existing homes already use. If hundreds and hundreds of new homes are built every year, those problems will become even worse. The great irony is that the people who do not want those new houses to be built will be the
ones who have to pay for the investment in the water system to supply them with water, even though that will take many decades to carry out.
Flooding links closely with water supply. We have heard reference already in the debate to the number of houses that are planned to be built on floodplains. The Environment Agency says that 34,000 of the new houses planned will be built on floodplains. Some 30 per cent. of the houses planned for the south-east will need to be built on them. Almost exactly six years ago, Uckfield in my constituency experienced a terrible flood, yet six years later, we have not seen one penny piece spent by the Government on flood defences to stop it happening again. The former Minister, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), pledged that things would be done and the Prime Minister had a reception in Downing street to tell local authority leaders that he would personally ensure that flood defences would be put in place. Six years on, as I say, nothing has been done. If we are continuing to build on floodplains, it is ridiculous that steps are not first taken to prevent flooding from happening as it has in the past.
We should also consider further investment in our transport infrastructure. Road traffic is expected to increase in the south-east by 25 per cent. between 2000 and 2010. In East Sussex, we have not a single motorway and only eight miles of dual carriageway, so if the Government impose the expected volume of housing on the area, it will lead to massive pressure on our already overburdened roads. More importantly, it will lead to massive pressure on some of the most environmentally special parts of this country. The areas of outstanding natural beauty of Ashdown forest, High Weald and the south downs surely need to be preserved as special places for our childrenand subsequently for their children, grandchildren and beyondbut if too little attention is paid to the infrastructure, it will be difficult to invest in those areas.
As a result of massively improved rail services provided by Southern, we have seen a significant increase in rail traffic in the south-east, but we are already seeing huge overcrowding. Without further investment in the railway lines and rolling stock, that situation will simply get worse.
There is a very clear message in all this: the south-east is expected to take all the pain of the new housing, but not to get any of the gain of investment in the infrastructure. The Government should therefore introduce an infrastructure audit Bill to assess the needs for health provision, water, sewerage and flood prevention and to ensure that there is sufficient capacity in our schools and in our road and rail services. We face a massive imbalance and the measures proposed in the Queens Speech will not address it adequately. I hope that the Minister will take that into account and examine what can be done to ensure that, if we must have the housing growth that he plans to force on us, the infrastructure will be in place to support it.
Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab):
I would like to return to issues relating to local government and begin by warmly welcoming the positive commitment
to the revitalisation of local democracy that was so evident in the Secretary of States introductory speech. I welcome and pay tribute to the substantial increases for the funding of local government that the Government have delivered in recent years and the considerable improvement in local services that has come about as a result of those increases. I also welcome the Governments evident commitment in the Queens Speech and the previously published White Paper to rejuvenating local government.
Butand there is a but in all thiswelcome as those steps are, we should recognise that they are unlikely of themselves to repair the centralisation of recent decades, which has so substantially undermined local democracy. They are unlikely to restore the standing of local government in the public eye and unlikely by themselves to restore the morale of demoralised elected members and officers in many parts of local government. Measures in the White Paper and Queens Speech are also unlikely to deal with the fundamental issue of local government finance. We shall have to wait for the Lyons review for that essential measure, and only when we get that review [Interruption.]
Mr. Mark Field: I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman in mid sentence, but does he not believe that those two aspects are inextricably linked? Is not the lack of financial autonomy in local government one of the main reasons why morale is so low and why it is so difficult to attract high-calibre councillors to serve?
Sir Peter Soulsby: They are inextricably linked but that is not a reason for not welcoming the steps that are being taken. There are further steps to take beyond that, and fundamental among them is the reform of local government finance. I look forward to the publication of the Lyons review. I hope that measures flow from it to ensure that a far greater proportion of local government revenue is raised locally and that we thereby enable the restoration of the credibility of local democracy. I hope that its standing with local people will be increased when local elected representatives are truly accountable for all aspects of the work of the local authority, including raising revenue.
Few in local government would not acknowledge that it is in a pretty poor state. Declining turn-outs at local elections are only one of the more obvious symptoms of the poor state of local democracy. Equally disturbing is the difficulty of all parties in many parts of the country in getting credible candidates to put themselves forward as councillors. That is hardly surprising. If it is possible for someone to serve the community by being appointed to an NHS trust, being on the management committee of a local community association or sitting on the board of a regeneration partnership, why should people put themselves through the process of joining a party, getting selected, knocking on doors and delivering leaflets, when all that they might expect to get is blame for inadequate services and council tax bills over which they have little or no control, and the ability to sit on under-resourced scrutiny committees that are often little regarded?
The changes in local governance that the Government introduced to give greater clarity to decision making, especially the separation of the executive from the scrutiny
functions and to ensure accountability, have, in many places, made decision making more opaque and less accountable. That is largely due to the fact that the scrutiny process has been under-resourced and often perceived as an inadequate answer to the question, Now that weve set up a cabinet, what are we going to do with the rest of the members?
Similarly, I greatly regret that the Government have not been bolder before now in pressing forward with providing genuine incentives to local communities to establish directly elected mayors, as was the original intention. Of course, the experience of directly elected mayors is mixed but, in the comparatively few local authorities that have adopted the system, there are some positive examples of elected mayors making a genuine difference to their communities. I have no doubt that, at least in cities such as Leicester, which I represent, an elected mayor is the only structure of governance that provides both the possibility of dynamic leadership and a clear role for other members to whom the leader is accountable.
As I have said, I welcome many of the suggested likely proposals, which were presaged in the White Paper. I welcome the reduction in the number of national performance indicators and the perverse targets and results that they often produce. I welcome the independent review of the barriers to becoming elected members of local authorities and the prospect of empowering local authority leaders through four-year terms. However, I fear that, welcome though that step is and useful though it might be, it could prove a poor substitute for directly elected mayors.
I look forward to the Bill that will follow, but if the Government are to continue the process of restoring the credibility of local democracy, we need genuine devolution from the centre, delegation of operational policy to local government and its partners and greater accountability of local quangos to democratic local government.
Andrew Gwynne: My hon. Friend will be aware that, before arms length companies and trusts were set up to run council services, those decisions were taken by council committees and the papers were available to the public to scrutinise. Does he agree that those trusts and arms length companies should release the same information that the local authority was obliged to release before they were set up?
Sir Peter Soulsby: Certainly, having served for thirty years as a member of a local authority, the requirement that we had during that time to make available to the public the information and papers on which we took our decisions is one that I would like to see mirrored as a requirement on the currently significantly unaccountable local bodies and quangos that, as I said earlier, ought to be and must be made accountable to local democratic institutions and councils.
In looking to the future, above all, the level of trust in local government needs to be restored, both at a local level and in relation to trust shown by central Government. There needs to be a clear constitutional settlement that guarantees the role and the legitimacy of local government.
I want to make two final points. The first is specific to cities such as Leicester and the other is more general.
Leicester and a number of other cities have tightly constrained boundaries, many of them dating back up to a centurysome even longer than that. Those tightly constrained boundaries make it difficult for the urban core authorities to deal effectively with the problems of the conurbation of which they are a part. Many of the solutions to the problemsthis is particularly evident in transport, but it is also true of other fields of responsibilityare outside their boundaries and therefore outside their control. It is not sufficient to hope that voluntary agreement with surrounding areas, which often have no ownership of the problems and no incentive to co-operate in finding solutions, will be enough. I hope that the Government will agree that areas such as Leicester, and other areas up and down the country where the local authority is at the heart of an urban area, need the powers to require the co-operation of their neighbours in addressing the problems of their conurbation.
My second point is more general and I touched on it earlier. In many parts of the United Kingdom, all parties face a real challenge in attracting and retaining councillors of calibre. The role of the elected councillor needs to be reformed. I am pleased by what the Government are saying about that, but they will need to go further. The role of the elected councillor needs to be more than just trying to find something to do so that those who are not in an executive position will not get in the way of decision making.
That is also a challenge for the Local Government Association and for the political parties to promote and develop the value of serving a local community through being one of its democratically elected representatives. If we are to make a reality of the regeneration of local democracy, local people need to feel that it is worth while subjecting themselves to an election and all that follows. They need to feel that it is a job worth doing at the end of the process. The White Paper and the Bill that I hope will follow it appear to be steps in the right direction, but we will still need the Lyons review, which will hopefully provide the impetus for further steps in the regeneration of local government. Even after that, there will be much more to do to restore local democratic government to its full health.
Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I wish to speak about the aspects of the Queens Speech relating to climate change and local government. I have some knowledge of local government in Essex and I suspect that my experiences are similar to those throughout the rest of the country.
The population of Essex is greater than that of some European Union member states, but in terms of its local government, the county council is increasingly sucking up powers to the county hall in Chelmsford from the districts and boroughs of the county. The historical county has been dismembered on several occasions over the past 100 years or so. We now have what was left after metropolitan Essex went into London and Southend and Thurrock got unitary status, which happened more recently. However, one only needs to read last weeks LGC Local Government
Chronicle to find out Essex county councils agenda: to take as many powers as possible for county hall and, in effect, to make local councils, districts and boroughs little more than branch offices.
The county council happens to be Conservative controlled, but most of the districts and boroughs in Essex are also Conservative controlled, so this is not a party political matter, but rather a case of the county council wanting to run everything. In the past year or so, it has taken back all highways matters. Even potholes and street lights are thus no longer dealt with locally. In the case of Colchester, they are dealt with 35 miles away in Chelmsford. The article in LGC Local Government Chronicle, which included a quote by the leader of Essex county council, made it clear that that was just the start.
As far as my town is concerned, the county council has announced the closure of the local adult education centre at Grey Friars. It is kicking the Stepping Stones special needs childrens nursery out of the Wilson Marriage community centre and shutting the purpose-built Colchester branch of the Essex records office, which opened only 20 years ago. That is happening in Britains oldest recorded town. I thus listened with great interest to the official Conservative Front-Bench view on localism. I supported much of what the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) said, but then I related it to what was happening with Essex county council.
Mr. Mark Field: Without necessarily wishing to defend the Conservative-run county council in Chelmsford, does the hon. Gentleman not realise that there might be something of a power grab from many county councils that are worried about Government proposals for large-scale regional government? In many ways, the difficulties to which he refers could be a function of such uncertainty.
I simply feel that the affairs of my town are best looked after by locally elected borough councillors, not county councillors in Chelmsford, most of whom have no direct knowledge of Colchester. The only thing that unites the county of Essex is not the county councilas I said, it has been dismembered anywaybut the BBC Essex radio station and Essex county cricket club, when it is doing well. They unify Essex, not the make-believe county council.
I agreed with many points made by the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) about the lack of accountability and democratic control of increasing numbers of quangos and arms length bodies. The hon. Gentleman did not mention local strategic partnerships, which are even less accountable than quangos. The Government need to address the situation. Answers received to parliamentary questions in the past Session made it clear that members of local strategic partnerships are not governed by the same rules of engagement as democratically elected councillors. I have personal knowledge of cases in which confidential information is being shared with members of a local strategic partnershipperhaps not
all members, but certainly one or morebefore local, democratically elected councillors hear about it, and that is of grave concern. The Government need to address the issue of where they are going with local government and democratic accountability. Essex county council has ceased to be relevant and it ought to be abolished. There should be unitary authorities in those parts of Essex where that would make senseand if it makes sense for Southend, it makes sense for other places.
James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): As a Member of Parliament who represents Southend, which has a unitary authority, may I ask the hon. Gentleman what he thinks the minimum size of a viable unitary authority should be, and whether he truly believes that Colchester could reach that minimum size?
Bob Russell: I believe that Colchester and surrounding areas could reach that size. Colchester is bigger than Thurrock, and Basildon is bigger than Southend, so if Southend and Thurrock can have unitary authorities, Colchester and Basildon can, too.
Mr. Field: Does the hon. Gentlemans last point not sum up the precise problem? If we examine local authorities only in terms of the number of people who live there, we are taking the centralised approach of Whitehall knows best. Surely the real issue is whether there is a community of interest. A unitary authority could represent only a few hundred people, on that basis. It makes no difference whether Southend is bigger, smaller, or the same size as Basildon, or any other town.
Bob Russell: I am grateful for that intervention, but it was an intervention on my answer to a question about size asked by the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge). It is not size, but community of interest, that is important. Colchester, which is the principal town of Essex and certainly the most important town in north Essex, would be the focal point for Colchester and north Essex, in terms of community of interest. That is my point on local government; I shall now move on, Mr. Deputy Mayorsorry, I meant Mr. Deputy Speaker; that was a throw-back to long ago.
On the climate change Bill, provided that the Bill has substance, it will be welcome on both sides of the Chamber, as I cannot think of anybody who will vote against the concept of preventing climate change. However, the Government and Ministers must lead by example, and should practice what they preach. Towards the end of the last parliamentary Session, I tabled a parliamentary question for the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who is in the Chamber, replied on behalf of his boss and acknowledged that the Secretary of State had never, in connection with his ministerial duties,
used the London Underground, tram or light railway services or buses.
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