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In addition, £2 million has been provided by the former Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Department of Health to turn around my local council. Subsequently, the council achieved its two-star rating in December last year and the Government have begun to give it more autonomy. I congratulate the local council, its officers and councillors and the Government officers who helped the council to achieve that. Direct intervention in the administration has at last ended, but the idea that Government support has
ended is wrong, as Government policy continues to underpin the improvements.
I should like to draw out from that experience a few points about local government reorganisation, as the possibility of more unitary authorities is now on the cards. We had a brief debate earlier about the most appropriate size of unitary authorities. From my experience as a councillor involved in the reorganisation of Berkshire county council and from my involvement with Swindon borough council, I believe that the most important thing is not necessarily the size of the local authority, but the understanding, vision and capacity of its members and officers, plus the support and advice that authorities are given by the Government and other supporting agencies.
The circumstances of the reorganisation are also important. Berkshires splitting into six unitary authorities was very different from Swindons becoming a unitary authority after leaving an existing, but smaller, Wiltshire county council. It was different in Berkshire because the county council was no more, whereas Wiltshire county council remained and Swindon borough council, as a unitary authority, got a pretty raw deal under the reorganisation. I hope that the Secretary of State will reflect on the lessons learned from the 1990s reorganisations and apply them to any future reorganisations. I also hope that councillors and officers will reflect on those lessons. Discussions can be acrimonious, but I hope that they will not adversely affect peoples transfer to new unitary authorities.
To come back to discussing Swindon, I was pleased to learn today that the town falls within one of the successful pathfinder areas for primary schools, which means that it will receive an additional capital grant of £6.5 million in April 2008. I thank the Minister for Schools for the record investment in Swindon schools.
Nevertheless, Swindon borough council is still claiming that it needs to sell off much-loved capital assets, such as Lower Shaw farm, which is a community resource that local people value. I am very concerned about the sell-off of the farm. It is run by the Lower Shaw Farm Association and is a thriving educational and recreational centre. It was a dairy farm initially bought by the then Thamesdown borough council, but in the scheme of things, it was not required for development. It was later agreed by council membersthis was minutedthat the Lower Shaw farm should be
retained in perpetuity as a centre for educational and recreational activities appropriate to its natural environment, its unique setting, and its founding spirit.
During the past 20 years, the associations work has developed and expanded. Its important role in Swindon was recognised in 2002 when Lower Shaw farm was the first winner of the local Agenda 21 quality of life award for
boosting awareness and interest in sustainability.
Indeed, right hon. and hon. Members have appeared at the farm, during the literature festival, for example, and on other courses, and some of them know it well. Its activities have grown to include up to 24 structured residential courses and recreational events in all sorts of spheres. It is a beacon of excellencenot just educationally, as it also a beacon of environmental and local government excellence. That is why I am raising the issue in todays debate.
I do not understand why a local council is claiming that it has to apply best value rules and therefore sell it to the highest bidder. I do not understand why the council is seeking to close down something with such a proven track record, with all its facilities and expertise in matters educational, cultural and environmental. It could be a flagship project for Swindon if only the local Conservative administration were prepared to support it instead of attempting to close it. It was championing environmental issues such as recycling and composting 20 years ago, when they were perceived as cranky. Now that they are in the mainstream, we should not consider closing such a placeit is a green lung in west Swindonand concreting over it, as is proposed.
I hope that you will indulge me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and allow me to speak about something that is not part of todays debate but will feature on another day of our Queens Speech debate. As hon. Members know, the Farepak problem emanates from my constituency. I want to speak about that because of the announcement in the Queens Speech of a consumers redress Bill. Farepaks bankruptcy blights the Christmas of perhaps 500,000 decent people, many of whom have been saving since January, and it casts a shadow over the beginning of the season of good will.
protect the rights of consumers, bringing forward proposals to strengthen and streamline consumer advocacy,
especially in the light of problems such as Farepak. However, we also need to fulfil an unwritten commitment, which, I believe, exists between the Government and the Farepak savers, who trusted the advice of hon. Members to save and avoid debt, yet have not been rewarded. Indeed, they have been punished for saving.
Given that consumers have to use all the information available to them to make decisions about where to buy their goods or put their savings, the Farepak customers could not have known what the parent company was up to. We understand now that the parent company was removing money from Farepak and using it to prop up others in its family of companies. My constituents could not possibly have known that. They invested their money, as did constituents throughout the country, and were badly let down.
It has been said that the consumers redress Bill will cover doorstep selling. We need to be careful about that. Of course, people who sell on the doorstep and are employed by companies need to have rigorous measures applied to their work. However, some of the Farepak agents were working on behalf of the company to collect money on the doorstep from their friends and neighbours. We must be careful about the strictures and restrictions that we apply to their behaviour, and our support for or condemnation of them. Those agents feel guilty because they collected the money from their friends and neighbours. I do not want a Bill to place such people in a more vulnerable position in future.
However, I am glad that the Government intend to introduce a Bill to crack down on those who rip off vulnerable people in our communities. I hope that it closes the loophole that allowed Farepak savers to lose so much. I hope that the proposals will protect people who save with similar companies next year. They start
saving in January; if we do not introduce a measure quickly, I fear that others may be in a vulnerable position this time next year.
The measures in the Queens Speech will continue the transformation of my constituents lives. The Bills that I have mentioned include some radical proposals, which will make life better for my constituents. There are other proposals on security, which reflect the enormous changes in our lives since 1997, and ensure that we will be better protected and live safer lives locally, nationally and internationally.
There will be Bills on concessionary bus travel and on pension reform. There is even the Digital Switchover (Disclosure of Information) Bill, which will ensure that all our constituents can watch their televisions in the safety and happiness of their homes.
Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): I hope that the hon. Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove) will forgive me if I take a slightly different view of the Queens Speech. The debate has been wide-ranging and I hope that previous speakers will forgive me if I do not pursue the cloned hybrid element of it but concentrate instead on the Mayor of London. I think that that will be a change.
The proposals for enhancing the role of the Mayor of London will be spread over several Bills. I shall not, therefore, attempt to make a Second Reading speech, but I want to discuss the various proposals in a joined-up way. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling), I continue to serve on the London assembly. Indeed, we have been in harness together for the past six years. Like him, I previously spent some time as a London borough councillor. I am not sure what that says about our social lives before we became Members of Parliament but it has perhaps given us some idea of the practical problems of London governance.
I was recently the deputy chairman of the commission on London governance, which was set up jointly by the London assembly and the London boroughs on a cross-party basis to examine the way in which we take forward the London governance settlement. Against that background, the Governments proposals are disappointing and constitute a missed opportunity.
Like my hon. Friends the Members for Croydon, Central and for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field), I have no problem with enhancing the power of the Mayor of London as a strategic authority. A devolved settlement is now accepted politics and I, for one, am glad of that. There is an opportunity to make that work betterthat was the position that I always adopted as leader of the Conservative group on the London assembly. We now want to consider practical measures for achieving that. Sadly, the Governments proposals fail to take advantage of the opportunity in two important ways.
They fail to tackle a proper balance between central Government, the Greater London authority and the
London boroughsthe three key players in governing London. The proposals, though welcome in some ways, do not go far enough in taking power from central Government and devolving it to London government. I shall give two specific examples.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central said, the proposals for the learning and skills councils are welcome as far as they go. However, from what we hear of the draft Bill, we are likely to face a convoluted method of placing the Mayor of London in a leading role in the learning and skills councils because it is proposed to make them fit the national template. That is a mistake. There is no reason why London, with a system of devolved government, needs the same template for the operation of learning and skills councils. I would be happy to give the Mayor much more direct control through the London Development Agencythe obvious linking pointover such matters.
The Government could have gone further on health. I am glad that we now have a single strategic health authority for London. That makes sense. However, we could do more to give the Mayor and the Greater London authority, which have democratic legitimacy, a greater role in the development of health policy in London and the scrutiny of the working of the health service. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) is not present because I agree with his point about the democratic deficit in the health service. Primary care trusts are an obvious example.
Tom Brake: In my constituency, our acute trust and the PCT may be about to close the accident and emergency department at St. Helier hospital, and there is no democratic accountability in that decision. Local councillors can perhaps review a decision but, in practice, they have no power to influence it.
Robert Neill: The hon. Gentleman is right. For that reason, the London government commission suggested in our final report that London borough councils should be given much stronger powers to scrutinise the work of the PCTs and acute trusts in their areas. Indeed, if we were sensible, we would look to remove the obstacles that currently prevent successfully performing London boroughs from taking on some of the commissioning role of the PCTs. That would make for a much better fit between the provider and democratic accountability.
It is a shame that the Government are still too wedded to a single national template for the way in which the service is delivered. At the strategic and regional level, it seems right to give the Mayor of London greater input into the development of health policy. Having a health inequalities strategy is a step in the right direction, but I see no reason why the Mayor should not have a much closer involvement in the development of public health policy in London and the key appointments in the public health field. I do not see why the London assembly should not have a proper, statutory role in the scrutiny of the work of the strategic health authority in London. All those things would make good sense in the London governance context, but the Government have not gone that far.
The obvious area where the Government have ducked an issue is in relation to the Government office for London. That has been referred to by my hon. Friends and I will not repeat their points. However, it seems peculiar that we have a situation in which the number of civil servants in GOL has risen since we have had a Greater London authority. By the time we have added up the numbers in GOL and the numbers that the Mayor has recruited, we have something like double the number of bureaucrats looking after London matters that we had before. That does not make sense. The missed opportunity has been to fail to take this chance to slim down GOL and transfer many of the programmes that it administers to the Mayor directly or to the functional bodiesin some cases to the police authority, in others to the London Development Agency, and in some cases even to the London boroughs themselves. To slim GOL down, it need not follow the same pattern as Government offices elsewhere in the country, because we have a different governance structure in London. That is a serious missed opportunity.
The damage is that, to beef up the Mayors power, the Government compensate for that strategic failure, which would have represented proper devolution and proper localism, by seeking to suck up planning powers from the level of the London boroughs to the Mayor. That is not devolution or localism. It is a regional centralism, which is not good or healthy for democracy. The reasons given for that by the Mayorwe all understand why the Mayor seeks to push the envelope of his powers all the timefrankly do not stack up. As somebody who served as a member of the old Greater London council, albeit for a short while, I can say that my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central is right: tension between the GLC and the London boroughs was rife going back right to the beginning, because of the unsatisfactory overlap in relation to planning powers. That tension existed regardless of which party controlled the GLC or the boroughs. We are in danger of recreating that.
It would be much more sensible to encourage the Mayor to work in much closer partnership with the boroughs, rather than tending to dictate to them. I have looked at some of the analysis of some of the key strategic planning issues that the Mayor says that he wants to be able to take on board. One problem is that the Mayor himself has not been the best advocate for increasing his powers, given the way in which he exercises some of them. On some of the strategic issues, he has adopted a capricious and, frequently, contradictory approach to different planning applications. I will give a couple of quick examples.
The first relates to a mixed-use development in Kew Bridge road in Hounslow. The Mayor supported the development, but the borough council refused it. The Mayor supported the developers on appeal. The Secretary of State concluded that the borough was right to refuse the application. That was because the development was not a good design, it would harm a conservation area, a world heritage site and the setting of listed buildings, it would produce substandard units of accommodation, it would harm the living conditions of people nearby, and it conflicted not with only the boroughs unitary development plan, but the Mayors own London plan. The inspector found that
the Mayors evidence was wrong on that last point. The Mayor maintained that the development supported his London plan; the inspector said that it did not. That does not give one much confidence in the Mayors planning powers.
A similar example is a development in Hammersmith and Fulham, where, again, the Mayor supported a planning development that contravened two parts of his own London plan. The same happened in Greenwich, where the Mayor wanted a high-rise development that was adjacent to a world heritage site. Finally, in Southwark, the Mayor sought to oppose the London boroughs attempts to refuse a planning application, claiming that that would reduce not only the height of the building, which seems to be a bit of an obsession of his, but the number of units. In fact, the London borough of Southwark, left to its own devices, negotiated a scheme that produced more units than the Mayors would have done. The majority of those borough councils are Labour controlled, so I am not making a narrow partisan point. The fact is that the Mayor does not have a good track record on planning matters, which is why we have concerns and will want to return to the issue in the debate on the Bill.
The final element that I want to touch ontime pressesrelates to the other area where an opportunity has been missed. One point is the balance between central Government and GOL, the Mayor, and the boroughs. The other is the failure to address the balance between the Mayor and the assembly. The assembly has its own democratic legitimacy. It is elected by the same people as the Mayor on the same day. It has democratic rights too. There has been a failure to balance increased power going to the Mayor with the ability of the assembly to act as a proper check and balance. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central referred to the budget situation and I will not repeat what he said, but it is a key issue.
I recently led a delegation from the commission on London governance to New York, where we able to see how these things work at first hand. What my hon. Friend said is right. The city council in New York has considerably greater power in relation to the mayor of New York than the London assembly has in relation to the Mayor of London. Not only does the city council have the power to overturn the budget by a simple majority, it also has legislative power. The mayors strategiesto use the equivalent London wordin New York require a vote in their favour by the city council. We do not have that in London.
Those are significant powers, but they have never prevented New York from being regarded as a strong mayor model. It is sometimes argued that giving more power to the assembly would weaken the strong mayor model. The New York example clearly demonstrates that not to be the case. Neither Rudolph Giuliani, nor Michael Bloomberg have had any difficulty in getting their policies through and being strong mayors, despite the fact that, not only did they have that considerable power of the city council to deal with, but the city council was always dominated overwhelmingly by the opposing party. Giving the assembly more power is not a recipe for gridlock. I know that that is the propaganda that the Mayor of London puts out, but I hope that the Government will not buy that line when it comes to the detail of the legislation.
A key point that we need to look at is the mayoral strategies. The budget has been discussed. I am glad that the Government are proposing to strengthen the requirement for the Mayor to consult the assembly on his strategies and to give reasons where he differs, but they ought to go further. They should require the mayoral strategies to be approved by a vote in the assembly or, at the very least, they should give the assembly the power to amend the strategies in the same way as it can amend the budget. We can argue about the thresholds and so on, but the principle ought to be that, if the Mayors supply can be amended, why on earth can the strategies that give rise to the demands on his supply not be amended as well?
That was considered and, at one point, before the legislation came into force, it was the Governments intention. In 1998, on Second Reading of the Greater London Authority Bill, the Deputy Prime Minister said:
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