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Local authorities have become local Government agents, both under this and the previous Administration. They simply deliver Government policy with little room for fiscal or regulatory manoeuvre. Many people who operate at that level wonder why they bother, as they are simply carrying out Government wishes. The so-called regional
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dimension must be given prominence. Hon. Members have referred to “the region”, but in my part of the world there is not a region of the south-west. A south-west zone has been created by the Government for bureaucratic convenience and benefit. A region implies some kind of internal integrity and community of interest. There is none in that area. I can see the administrative attraction for the Government, but it makes no sense to people in the area.

If the Government want to achieve something bold, ambitious, creative and sustainable in local government, they must learn to let go. In a place like Cornwall, we could do something bold and ambitious, and establish a single directly elected body for Cornwall—we will not call it an assembly at this stage; we will just call it a body for Cornwall—which could draw down powers. We are keen and ambitious. We have objective 1 funding and it has worked well when we undertake projects ourselves, working in partnership, without too much Government interference. We have struggled only when there has been Government interference.

I hope the Government will recognise that in the local government Bill they should enable people to come together, and not prescribe too much. In the Bill they should not tell local authorities how to elect their executive or how to go about certain types of elections or configurations within local government. People on the ground are grown up enough to come up with their own solutions and do not need to be told by central Government. I hope the Government will take an enabling role.

When the Government introduce planning legislation, as is proposed in the Queen’s Speech, I hope they will recognise that they must devolve more to local authorities, particularly the ability to use effective tools for the delivery of affordable housing. In the past 30 years my area has seen a higher rate of housing growth than almost anywhere else in the country, yet the mismatch between the level of local earnings and house prices is among the highest, if not the highest, in the country, and the social housing problems are among the worst, if not the worst, in the country. Building houses is not the answer. A much more sophisticated solution is needed.

The Government must recognise the fundamental truism that planning is fuelled by greed, rather than by need. In my area people hold on to land because they want to turn a field from £3,000 an acre to £1 million an acre. That is natural human frailty and I do not criticise them for it. I understand the motivation for it, but how will we ever build affordable housing with land prices like that? That value is not created through some skill on the part of the landowner or through their endeavour. It is given to them when a planning authority signs an agreement to it.

The motivation has gone the wrong way. How can we develop an intermediate market in those circumstances? The Government must make a distinction between fettered and unfettered planning permissions, and clamp down on the unfettered. It is the hope of unfettered planning permissions that is holding back any possibility of meeting the need for affordable housing in such an area. I hope the Government will bear that in mind when they present
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their proposals for a review. They must be bold and also give local authorities the tools to deliver affordable housing.

The Government can achieve that in two ways—first, by distinguishing more clearly and giving local authorities the powers to clamp down on unfettered permissions, to fetter permissions with section 106 agreements, covenants and other means, and to work with registered social landlords and others to achieve affordable housing. Secondly, the Government need to recognise the characteristics of the housing market. I did a survey of estate agents in my area the other day which shows that five times as many properties have been sold to second home buyers as to first-time buyers. Some estate agents told me that 65 per cent. of their properties sold last year went to second home purchasers and 0 per cent. to first-time purchasers. That is not because there is no one who wants those properties. It is because there is no chance of them ever getting those properties.

The Government need to grasp the issue by the throat. They should give local authorities the tools to distinguish permanent and non-permanent uses—people using the property for permanent residential use, and those using it for investment and recreational purposes. That can be done through a change in the use class order.

We are not debating House of Lords reform today, but I want to make the point that we should really consider that subject under the heading of “effective scrutiny”, because the purpose is not only to reform the House of Lords but to achieve effective scrutiny in Parliament. We should first ask ourselves what we want a second Chamber for. We do not want it to be simply a mirror image of this Chamber. We need a second Chamber that is able to engage in effective scrutiny, revision and sober second thought. That means that we need to do something a great deal more interesting than many of the proposals for various levels of directly elected Members in the second Chamber.

I disagree with members of my own Front Bench on this issue, but I believe that if we genuinely want to achieve a second Chamber that is neither a lapdog nor a logjam Chamber—depending on its complexion in relation to that of this House and of the Government—we need to consider ways of ensuring that we have a Chamber that, while not based on patronage, has Members who can provide effective scrutiny, revision and sober second thought without the tribalism that we get in this Chamber.

I hope that the Government will reflect on today’s debate. It has raised a number of challenging issues, and the Government really need to be bold in many areas. However, they also need to understand the underlying theme of much of the debate, which is that they need to take an enlightened approach and lay off the controlling approach that they have adopted over the past nine years.

9.1 pm

Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab): I should like to make some observations about the Government’s approach to local government, and in particular to unitary, most-purpose strategic councils in areas currently served by the two-tier county and district council
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system. I am pleased that the Government are opening the door on this debate, as flagged up in the local government White Paper, and by the promise of legislation and the “Invitation to councils in England” document issued last month. All this is taking place in the context of the long-awaited Lyons review on the future of local government, including how best it should be funded.

I have been campaigning in support of the unitary principle for some time, because I believe that the present two-tier structure in Bedfordshire is not working. Bedfordshire county council has a poor record as the third-highest taxing and the second-worst performing council in England. Social services there have been in special measures for a long time and education outcomes at GCSE and A-level are below those of its statistical neighbours. In June this year, the Audit Commission reported that the county council was performing badly with regard to the supporting people programme, and concern has also been expressed about the Bedfordshire youth service.

Bedfordshire is in the lowest quartile in the national assessment of road and footpath conditions, which I believe is related to the inability of a two-tier system to deliver, with the county and the districts blaming each other. Most importantly of all, the system has failed to address the continuing economic relative underperformance of the area. Although average incomes assessed on a household basis are above the national average, they are below it when assessed on a workplace basis. The range of local jobs and skills is also narrow, so people have to commute out of the county to access better paid, higher skilled jobs. For too long, that situation has masked the weakness of the local economy. I believe that the local councils have a duty to address that but, although they all have their own economic development departments, there has not been a proactive common approach to build on Bedfordshire’s strong locational advantages, located as it is between London and the south-east, the midlands and the east of England. Another strategic weakness is the failure to address and make the case for east-west rail and to deal with the very poor record on recycling that we unfortunately have.

I have come to the conclusion, based on a number of years of considering such matters as a local resident as well as a representative, that although structural change does not guarantee success, on balance a single council would be more likely to deliver than two, wherever one happened to live in Bedfordshire. It would have one set of managers and councillors, and clear accountability and responsibility. Rather than arguing for one part of what I believe to be a weak structure to take over the other—either county or district—I believe that having two unitary authorities in Bedfordshire, one centred in Dunstable and the other in Bedford, is the way forward. I have not found many people who disagree about the principle, but of course there will be many points of view about the details of the territory and the geography.

What is to be done? We have a window of opportunity—the Government’s document, “Invitations to councils in England”, calls it a “short window”. The Government acknowledge that in two-tier areas local government faces challenges that can make it harder to achieve strong leadership and
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clear accountability, and that in some areas councils work together and try to do so effectively. However, they also acknowledge that even in those areas more should be attempted and done and that in two-tier areas the status quo is not an option. That sounds like an invitation to consider the unitary route and to volunteer to opt into it, but if one reads the document from beginning to end it is clear that that is not the case.

I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has come in at this timely moment towards the end of the debate, as I have to say that the Government’s approach thus far seems to be sadly over-cautious. Councils bidding for unitary status must present an outline business case by 25 January next year. If the criteria are met, the Government will put the proposals through a 12-week public consultation exercise, as stated in paragraph 5.10 of the document. However, it also states, at paragraph 5.17, that proposals will be prioritised if more than eight councils put forward business plans that meet the criteria and that, if that is so, they will be prioritised before the stage 2 public consultation exercise is launched. In other words, the priority attributed will be flagged up and known by all in the area where the consultation is taking place.

I ask my right hon. Friend to think again about that. To use the words of the document, the “short window of opportunity” for unitary proposals to go forward is, in my view, too short and too narrow. In fact, it may hardly be a window at all but more of a slit or crack through which the sunlight of unitary land just about manages to dash through into a darkened room where two-tier councils, even if they want to get out, will be bound in prison for ever. I hope that that is not the case. It will serve little purpose to invite councils to submit a business case given that only a handful are likely to go forward. If there are more—I am supposing for the sake of argument that there will be—they will be tagged with a lower priority and invited to take part in what will be seen as a wholly meaningless process of public consultation when everybody knows that because of the low-priority tag the Government will not let the proposal go forward, whatever the outcome of the three-month statutory consultation process. Such an approach would be wholly unproductive and would undermine people’s willingness to take an active interest in seeking improvements in their communities, which is what we would all like them to do—demonstrably, by turning out and voting in greater numbers at local council elections, never mind at general elections.

The Government should think carefully about how the proposals will pan out in practice in the months ahead. The case for unitary councils is strong in principle, and I have no doubt that through the invited business cases submitted over the next few weeks we will see not only good examples of in-principle arguments but place-specific details. Whatever I think, if local councils, residents, businesses and organisations up and down the land want to proceed in that way, invited by the Government, and if the business cases are robust and meet the criteria set out in the document by the Government, I cannot see any overriding justification for putting obstacles in the way of the progress implicit in those plans.

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I strongly urge it on the Government and my right hon. Friend that the invitation must be not only genuine but seen to be genuine by honouring the public consultation process untrammelled by a Government priority mark. That means that if more than eight proposals succeed in the process, they should all go ahead, preferably all at once, but if there are compelling reasons regarding public expenditure totals in a particular financial year, which need to be explained very thoroughly at the time, perhaps the proposals could be phased in over several years.

I cannot see how the goals of greater accountability, strong and strategic leadership, cost-effectiveness and neighbourhood empowerment can be properly met without a unitary structure. The “Invitation to councils in England” document devotes 11 pages to the unitary route and two pages to pioneering pathfinders for new two-tier models. Having read that information, which did not take much effort because there were only two pages, I found it unconvincing.

There is clearly no case for compulsion. I understand that the Local Government Association is concerned about that, and I do not think that anyone should be forced to go down the route of local government reorganisation. We experienced that in the 1990s and it did not work. However, if we are not going to go down the compulsion route, we must at least honour the implications of our invitation to councils to volunteer; I mean those councils that meet the tests having been invited to volunteer.

There is a need for greater imagination, courage and ambition in these matters from all those people, at all levels, who want a better future for local government. There will be plenty of ideas around the country; indeed, there already are, and there will be more. Soon, with the Lyons review, the Government’s response to it and a local government Bill, there will be a great deal to do. After all, local government is a crucial part of our national way of life. It should be strengthened, not weakened and confused. I know that the intention is to strengthen, but the message needs to be clearer.

I urge the Government to be bold and to go beyond the narrow chink of light offered thus far in the document and instead to throw open the door and window to all credible requests for unitary status that pass the test.

9.13 pm

Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): I am grateful for this opportunity to take part in this wide-ranging debate, and I shall take the liberty of widening it a stage further. One issue that the Secretary of State did not mention when she opened the debate and which was not significantly mentioned in the Queen’s Speech is that of drug and alcohol abuse, which is of profound concern to local communities and, indeed, local government.

Local government is at the forefront of seeking to deliver the Government’s strategy on drug and alcohol addiction. This subject could be raised in any of the debates on the Queen’s Speech, such as those on criminal justice, education, family, welfare, and foreign affairs and defence, but it is particularly relevant to this debate on local government and communities because
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it is there—through drug, alcohol and addiction teams—that we see what happens.

We see references to addiction in local area agreements, but do we see the outcome or delivery on meeting the needs of people out there? We can consider drugs, for example. In 1998, with great fanfare, the Government introduced the national drug strategy, with lots of money to boot, which considered four areas: young people, communities, treatment and availability. Now, significantly, young people are left out of that equation, as are communities. The strategy now consists simply of treatment and availability. In fact, the essence of the Government’s drugs strategy could be further reduced to “out of crime, into treatment”.

Drugs are a large problem. In 2004, some 360,000 adult problem drug users were identified—a figure that, no doubt, was understated and is increasing. The Government’s strategy and the Queen’s Speech fail to address the need for those problem drug users to overcome their addictions and, just as importantly, the wider implications for their families and children. Too often, the associated victims of addiction are not taken into consideration, certainly not as part of the Government’s drugs strategy. In 2003, the “Hidden Harm” report recognised that there were 200,000 to 300,000 children of drug users in England and Wales, and yet the Government have still not implemented fully that report’s recommendations. Effectively, the Government want to protect society by introducing yet more legislation, rather than focusing on the individual concerned.

Ms Barlow: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government’s approach of combining prevention and treatment with better policing has had notable successes? For example, in my city of Brighton and Hove, a Government-funded initiative, Operation Reduction, has reduced burglary, robbery and car crime by between 29 and 45 per cent. in one year.

Mr. Burrowes: Certainly, there have been successes in crime reduction, but the hon. Lady makes my point: the focus of the Government’s drug strategy has been to use the criminal justice system and to enable addicts to receive treatment, rather than to consider the wider harms and impacts on the families of drugs addicts and those associated with them. The Government’s strategy has been top-down—removing the power from individuals, perceiving all drug addicts as a threat to society, and thus implementing an imbalanced drugs strategy. Addicts matter to the Government as offending reduction statistics, rather than in terms of their impact on the community and those closest to them, often their families. Change is needed, and the Government have not shown any sign of that in this Queen’s Speech or previously.

According to the Government’s approach, heroin addicts come into treatment centres, receive their methadone prescription and walk out of the front door again. The vital need to address the causes of their problems and concerns is not being tackled. The holistic approach to problem drug use is not being met. Sustained counselling and after care is needed, which is not part of the strategy.

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As the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) and my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) have mentioned, prisons are also an issue. The Government are losing the battle against drugs in prisons. It is a scandal that prisoners are suing the Prison Service for being put on drug-withdrawal programmes. My local prison, Pentonville, is overcrowded, lacks detoxification programmes and is now having to hive off prisoners to police stations. What possibility of proper rehabilitation exists there? Drug treatment and testing orders have had £53 million ploughed into them in pursuit of the Government’s primary aim to break the link between drug misuse and crime. Evidence suggests, however, that only one in five addicts are reducing offending, with one in nine stopping the use of opiates. Proportionately, young people, who were part of the strategy in the early days, hardly figure in the take-up of DTTOs.

Yet another drug policy failure is in the area of drug rehabilitation residential referrals. Over the years, referrals to residential units have decreased: 85 per cent. in 2005 and 80 per cent. this year. With pressures on local government social services budgets, many such departments are being forced almost to suspend the residential rehabilitation referral rate. There are limited places available now across the country, and there is a real risk that many will close. The Government seem reluctant to address the funding crisis in residential rehabilitation.

I want to emphasise my theme in relation to alcohol, relating to which there is a profound failure of Government strategy. There is no effective approach to tackle the alcohol abuse that we are seeing throughout our communities, particularly among young people. Drugs have been the policy attraction for the Government—that is where the funding has gone—but there is evidence of greater harm caused by alcohol abuse. There has been no significant expansion of services to tackle alcohol dependency, which probably affects six times as many people as dependency on illicit drugs.

As we know, alcohol abuse causes absenteeism and pressure on accident and emergency services. At my local hospital, Chase Farm, great pressure is caused by alcohol-related admissions. Rather than adopting the strategy of closing many accident and emergency hospitals such as Chase Farm, perhaps the Government could at an early stage have adopted an approach to deal with the real problems caused by alcohol-related admissions. Domestic abuse is particularly affected by alcohol addiction, as are children’s falling attainment levels, crime and many other problems. I could go on and on.

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