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The assemblys scrutiny role underlies all its work: it will be consulted on all strategies, and have the power to propose amendments.[ Official Report, 14 December 1998; Vol. 322, c. 627.]
It is a shame that that got lost somewhere in the subsequent passage of the Bill. It is not often that I say that the Deputy Prime Minister was right, but he was on that occasion. The subsequent climbdownhow and why it happened I know notwas a mistake. I hope that the Government will take the opportunity to go back to their original 1998 thinking and give the assembly the power to amend mayoral strategies. That would concentrate the mayors mind and significantly improve democratic accountability in London, which we all want.
The mayor eventually gave way and allowed planning decisions to be taken in public, but that happened only because of the pressure exerted by the assembly and its committees over six years. That proves that rigorous and powerful scrutiny improves decision making, rather than hindering it, and that is also true of Select Committees in the House. I hope that the Government will take that message on board and that the detail of the legislation will reflect it, because there is still an opportunity to improve the proposals on Londons governance and to make the settlement work better.
I welcome the Governments new approach on local democracy because I believe that greater council independence will provide significant benefits to my constituents. The White Paper shows that the Government fully appreciate the essential role that local councils play and acknowledge the enormous progress that has been made by leading local authorities in recent years. The Government are listening to local councils and their proposals are working with the grain of the best of local governance.
Although my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government published the new local government White Paper only recently, I, like many hon. Members on both sides of the House, am keen to play a full role in the long-term
debate that will accompany these long-term reforms. When the House has the opportunity to discuss foreign affairs and international development, hon. Members recognise the importance of clear and transparent governance and democracy. I, like others, strongly believe that democracy and sustainable, meaningful economic development go hand in hand. Such arguments have just as much relevance to local governance as they do to foreign governance. I hope that the arguments will be integral to the local government Bill that was announced in Her Majestys Gracious Speech.
This country has been a champion of democratic rights for a long time, but for many years our commitment on the international stage has not been matched locally. Fifty years after the end of empire, no one thinks that our diverse world should be run from the White House, yet successive Governments have thought for too long that they can run a diverse country from Whitehall. Thankfully, both attitudes and economic realities have changed. The rapid onset of globalisation means that our local economies must be hugely varied and based on similarly varied skills bases.
Brighton and Hoves economy is no different. Although Brighton and Hove was once seen simply as a pair of seaside townsa holiday retreat for workers in British industryit is now a city that is recognised for its creative economy as much as its tourist economy. Brighton and Hove city council now needs the independence to take full advantage of its emerging place in the world. The changes that Brighton and Hove has experienced over the past 10 years, led by its culturally and socially diverse population, must be reflected in modern and effective local governance. For example, training programmes should be directed locally, rather than centrally, and local colleges should work closely with local employers even more than they do now to determine the needs of the local economy.
Democracy and economic success are very much related, and I welcome all attempts to provide the people of Brighton and Hove with the democratic tools that they need to aid the economic success of the city and the wider region that depends on it. The democratic control of budgets is of key importance. Brighton and Hove council, like all councils, needs more control over transport and training budgets, for example. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) said, it should also be able to raise extra local money, if that is what is needed. That would allow the council to take more decisions on local priorities, such as whether to spend more on community policing or free bus transport.
I realise that we must move carefully. Councils must prove their democratic credentials to the residents whom they serve before greater economic and fiscal devolution occurs. Council performance is important and should be proved, but I hope that the reforms that the Government will introduce will allow such scrutiny to be conducted by residents and their representatives, rather than central Government Departments or regional offices.
Local government has an extremely important role to play. Brighton and Hove council ensures that the
schools that my children and younger constituents attend are striving for even higher standards. It ensures that our rubbish is collected, that our streets are safe and clean and that ever more household waste is recycled. Councils provide health and leisure services and help families to access the essential services that they require.
The success of recent years has been down to increased money and investment. Essential performance targets that have been set by central Government have successfully ensured that the new money was well spent. In addition, strategic capabilities have been enhanced. Our hard-working local councillors and officers have been given new responsibilities to work in collaboration and partnership with outside bodies and to improve housing, recreational space and schools. I am confident that they are ready and fit to take full advantage of their skills.
Targets were important to ensure that money was spent not only well, but in the right areas, but the new performance framework proposed in the White Paper shows that the strategy is changing. Brighton and Hove council faces new, complex problems, and it feels that it has the capacity to respond to them in a long-term and strategic manner. Central Government must continue to set minimum standards, but I want Brighton and Hove city council to have the freedom to use its experience and skill base to tackle the complex policy issues that affect local residents without central Government direction.
Like many areas of the country, we have pockets of deprivation. Employment rates have of course greatly improved, but work remains to be done in areas in which unemployment continues to exist. It is at the local and regional level that strategic economic policies can best tackle such problems. Different councils and areas have different needs. It is right that the number of central targets should be reduced to around 200, but it is also important that councils are given greater freedom to achieve, through collaboration, the goals that local residents want.
I recognise that it is still early days, with the White Paper only recently published, but it is in the long-term interest of our local authorities that they understand the direction in which they are heading on performance targets. I welcome the call for local councils to involve and consult the users of their services and to provide better information to residents about the quality of local services. However, I would like the range and detail of these local targets to be decided locally. This would require continued pressure in central Government to reduce bureaucratic controls. I welcome the slashing of the 1,000 indicators on which local government has to report. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has cut back the weeds, but she and her Cabinet colleagues must ensure that they do not grow back again.
As with many cities, Brighton and Hoves political boundaries do not match its economic influence. If councils are to be given new, real powers to affect their residents economic course, they will also require the power to branch out into neighbouring areas and to form wider strategic regional partnerships. For that reason, I welcome the proposed Sussex improvement partnership, which will involve all local authorities in
Sussex. Such a wider partnership is essential to deliver strategic thinking. I hope that the Department for Communities and Local Government will approve initial funding for the partnership with all speed.
The Government have already devolved a lot to the English regions, with different regional agencies taking decisions on public transport, training, planning and economic development. However, it is now important to allow Brighton and Hove council, working in partnership, to bring greater democratic accountability to the process. I want constituents locally elected councillors to have a bigger role in communicating local priorities to the unelected members of the South East England development agency. Regional bodies and local democrats need the incentives and tools to work hand in hand, and to do so in different ways in different places and situations.
Brighton and Hove shares many goals with various towns along the Sussex coast, but it has important links with London, too. The ability to democratise regional strategic planning will allow Hove and Portslade to take full advantage of their place in Britain and the world. As transport has improved, larger numbers of people are choosing to live in my constituency but work in London. If we are to take advantage of that, we will require better and more sustainable transport planning at the local and regional level, and the people who are most affected should have a democratic say on which transport solutions work best.
I want structures that reward Brighton and Hove city council for taking great strides in job creation, in attracting new businesses and in training both young and older people. Those changes require environmental considerations to be taken into account, and such considerations are well championed at local and regional level within the essential national framework. Brighton and Hove was granted Fairtrade city status in 2004, and I want the city to build on that achievement.
Greater use of local area agreements and multi-area agreements will help Hove and Portslade to benefit from their place in the city and in the wider south-east. Multi-area agreements will allow Brighton and Hove city council to reach out and form strategic regional partnerships with those councils that want the same. We do not need a one size fits all policy. Greater council freedom and greater local democratic transparency can create the political areas that local people want, and from which they will most benefit.
I would very much welcome the further use of local area agreements to simplify funding streams. Financial planning would obviously be smoother if councils had greater control of their funding. The Lyons inquirys interim report, published in December 2005, expressed interest in using a more contractual approach to central-local relations, so that local authorities had greater flexibility over their funding. Local area agreements are beneficial but they do not provide a strong enough local economic framework for devolved local economic development. If, instead of the fourth block of local area agreements, there was a contractual approach, it would clarify the integral role of local authorities in their regional economies.
Such changes could not have been considered in 1997, when so much targeted investment was required to improve local services after two devastating
recessions. However, the changes discussed in the White Paper are not short-term changes that we can make now, while the British economy is doing so well, but reverse in future. While conditions are right, we should take the opportunity to strengthen local democracies and economies for the long term. The changes must be made, so that my constituents can respond to the winds of economic change in future.
Ken Livingstones reign as London Mayor has shown us how powerful leaders can regenerate neighbourhoods, shape their cities and provide a focal point in crises and in celebrations. Local control is needed if we are to solve the different problems that each area presents, and if we are to foster economic clusters and specialisms. Sir Michael Lyonss statement last month demonstrates his approval for greater decentralisation. We have to wait for the publication of his inquiry, but his statement was encouraging to those people who want local decision making to be enhanced. Leadership and the structure of councils will, of course, need to be reformed in many ways to allow for greater democratic scrutiny by the public. More power for councils will require greater transparency and public scrutiny. Targets are effective in the short term, but it must be local people who check their councillors and council leaders in the long term.
The Government are right to say that good and accountable leadership is essential for our cities and localities, but I do not want them to think that strong leadership is always the same as good leadership. Following a referendum in 2001, Brighton and Hove opted to use the reformed committee system, rather than to have a leader and cabinet, but the White Paper suggests that that model will no longer be available to it. As the councils capacity has expanded, that leadership model has remained strong, stable and accountable.
I seek reassurance from the Secretary of State that the local government Bill will give councils the appropriate flexibility in arranging their governance structures. In particular, the best elements of the committee systemit allows wide consultation, member involvement, and detailed policy examinationshould not be forgotten in the drive for clearer and more accountable leadership. Every council should serve its community. I understand the Governments goals in proposing leadership models, but they must understand the necessity for governance arrangements that are appropriate for each area.
I should like to introduce one more factor into the debate. The White Paper talked of allowing councils that already conduct elections by thirds to move to a system of all-out elections if they wished.
Anne Snelgrove: On that point, does my hon. Friend agree that on many of the issues that she so eloquently describes, such as the need to make local democracy more accountable, there will be improvement if we move to a system of elections by thirds?
I agree that elections by thirds have proved very successful for many councils, but it should be up to local authorities to choose the system that most suits them; they should not be pushed into one system or another once they have made their initial choice. Some local councils are being given the freedom
to decide what election systems they want, but we should not stop other councils from doing what they want. It is important for each local authority to use the arrangement that provides the best democratic scrutiny by local residents, for the benefit of local residents.
I am optimistic about the reforms outlined by the Government; they will assist them in their progress. I want to help them to deliver better transport and skills training for my constituents, and to deliver jobs and investment. Crucially, I want local people to re-engage with their council to shape their communities for the better. As I said at the beginning of my speech, democracy and development are natural partners. Through greater local democracy, my constituents will get the sustainable development that they want and deserve.
Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hove (Ms Barlow). Interestingly, early in her contribution, she welcomed a general theme in the Queens Speech, on which I hope that the Government will follow through: the removal of many of the indicators used by councils in best value analysis. My constituency covers west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, and many of the best value analyses carried out by the Council of the Isles of Scilly are more expensive than providing the service under analysis. We end up with a bizarre, unintended outcome, because we have applied metropolitan norms to councils, such as the Isles of Scilly council, that clearly do not fit those norms.
The debate was interesting in many ways. It started off with the predictable and tiresome tribalism that is inevitable during the opening exchanges in such debates, but interestingly, as the debate gathered pace, and as Back Benchers became more involved, a strong body of support emerged on the issue of climate change. I hope that the Government can work on that. Of course, there is debate about the style and regularity of targets, but I hope that when the Government introduce their climate change Bill we will build strong legislation on the consensus that has emerged today. I hope that we can concentrate on areas of agreement, rather than seeking to exaggerate disagreements which, on the evidence of todays debate, are few.
Many Members were disappointed that the Government did not express any intention to introduce a marine Bill in this Session. I had a discussion with the Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare last week, in which he saidI do not think that I am breaking any confidences, but if I am, he did not tell me that he was speaking to me in confidencethat the Government were mindful of elections to the devolved Administrations in Wales and Scotland. Bearing that in mind, it would not be appropriate to introduce proposals at this stage, but he said that the Government might introduce a White Paper in March or April next year. I am keen that they should do so, so that we can build on the strong cross-party consensus in favour of legislation and update the archaic regulations that fisheries committees and many other
bodies have to apply. That is an extremely important issue, so I hope that the Government will act speedily to introduce such a measure.
Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman elaborate further, and explain why the Minister thought it appropriate to defer the marine Bill until after elections to the devolved assemblies?
Andrew George: I do not wish to embarrass the Government or the Minister. I am sure that an explanation will be given later, and it is not for me to expand on the justification that the Minister gave. He simply suggested that the Bill would not receive sympathetic treatment if it were introduced now, and would be better received by the devolved Administrations if it were introduced later. The indications are that it will be introduced in the third Session of this Parliament, not the second Session. Obviously, I believe that to be regrettable.
We look forward to the introduction of the local government Bill. On the theme of local government reorganisation, I hope that the Government accept that they should play an enabling role, rather than a controlling one. They have plenty of experience showing that they do not gain anything by taking an over-prescriptive, micro-managing and controlling approach. Indeed, that has created serious problems, not only in local government but in the management of the health service and many other areas. I hope that the Government will learn from speakers of all parties in todays debate that they should play an enabling, not a controlling, role. They should get off local authorities backs, and they should not dictate or micro-manage their activities.
I trust that the Government have learned the lessons of the north-east referendum that took place little more than two years ago. I hope that the local government Bill will incorporate a strong dose of devolution, because the lesson of that referendum was that devolution and decentralisation are a process of letting go, not of holding on for dear life. I hope that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, whose South Shields constituency is in the north-east, accepts that interpretation of the problem. It was not a matter of the people of the north-east failing to welcome a devolved settlement, because the Government approached them with an offer on their own terms, within their boundaries and timetable. They virtually held a gun to their heads and said, Do you want it or not? Inevitably, in those circumstances, the people said no. If the Government had simply offered a menu of powers, giving the people of the north-eastor, indeed, of any other regionthe opportunity to make a business case and act on their own initiative, rather than having an agenda forced down their throat, the outcome would have been entirely different. I hope that the Government accept that.
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