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5.33 pm

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con): When I came to the Chamber, I was delighted to see so many London Members, and I thought that we were going to have a constructive discussion. I am sad, therefore, that it has become partisan early in our proceedings. I was sad, too, given the nature of the proposals introduced by the Minister in her combative way, and the changes to the draft statutory instrument—so far, we have not had the pleasure of seeing them—that we will not be able to take advantage of the new Public Bill Committee proceedings when the Bill goes into Committee. Ostensibly, that is because Second Reading takes place today, and not after 1 January. There has been a great deal of consultation. Clearly, if consultation is still ongoing, there are still issues that need to be sorted. This would seem the most appropriate Bill to undergo the Public Bill procedure first so that evidence can be taken. I hope, therefore, that at the end of the debate, the usual channels will take note of the fact that numerous aspects of the Bill would benefit from evidence-taking, and that the Minister who replies will generously allow the Public Bill Committee process to take place for the very first time.

There is great controversy over the Bill. The Mayor, for one, is unhappy. He is spending £80,000 of taxpayers’ money to tell us so. The assembly is unhappy, the boroughs are unhappy, the residents associations and the amenities societies are unhappy, most London council tax payers are unhappy, clearly the Opposition are not happy, and one or two Labour Members may have questions that they would like to have answered.

We listened to the Minister proclaiming that the Bill is all about the Government giving power from the centre to the Mayor. I cannot disagree. The unelected London Housing Board is being given to the Mayor. The Mayor is getting power to make planning decisions, as the Minister said at great length. Learning and skills are being ceded to the Mayor, so far without parliamentary approval. The Mayor is getting some responsibility for, but no power over, public health.

The Government are giving the Mayor a housing strategy which has statutory force. The Secretary of State must be consulted and can direct changes. London boroughs will not be similarly consulted and they are the ones that have to deliver. If a borough’s housing policy is not in general conformity with the Mayor’s, he can direct that the borough change it. Boroughs could find it hard to deliver local strategies if the Mayor’s spending priorities differ and resources are not made available. That concentrates too much power and influence in the hands not just of the Mayor, but of central Government.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): Will the hon. Lady comment on the remarks of Steve Norris, the former Conservative mayoral candidate, in the summer? He said:

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Does the hon. Lady agree with the former mayoral candidate who stood twice, or with somebody else, bearing in mind that the Conservatives cannot find a candidate this time round—perhaps Nick Ferrari?

Mrs. Lait: The hon. Gentleman is too used to his Friday time-wasting to contribute sensibly to today’s debate. We all agree that London needs more housing and more affordable housing. Indeed, contrary to what the Minister let us believe, it is primarily the London boroughs run by the Conservatives that are delivering more than their housing target, and it is primarily the Labour-run boroughs that are not.

Mr. Andrew Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): If Conservative boroughs are so good at delivering affordable housing, will the hon. Lady condemn the borough of Bromley, of which she may have some knowledge, which bid for 43 units of affordable housing in the current two-year Housing Corporation cycle, as against more than 1,500 units for some Labour authorities in London—43 units for one of the largest boroughs in London?

Mrs. Lait: The hon. Gentleman may care to note that Bromley has produced 124 per cent. of its housing target, considerably more than Labour-run boroughs, which are running at 55 per cent.

Mr. Raynsford: Having quoted the figure of 100 per cent. or so for Bromley’s target, which was a relatively low figure, will the hon. Lady give the figure for Greenwich, which has not only exceeded its target by twice the level of Bromley, but currently has the best record of building houses in London and is a Labour-controlled borough?

Mrs. Lait: First, I said that some London boroughs were the worst deliverers. Secondly, I applaud the right hon. Gentleman, as I have on many occasions, for his work in advising Broomleigh, which is a very successful housing association, on becoming the arm of Bromley council housing. However, Broomleigh is a member of Affinity Sutton. When Affinity Sutton applied to provide a lot of affordable housing in the borough of Sutton—as the right hon. Gentleman knows, the “Sutton” in Affinity Sutton does not refer to the borough of Sutton—the Mayor called in the plan and delayed the delivery of that social housing for 11 months, which gives me no confidence whatsoever that the new planning powers for the Mayor will do anything other than add yet more delay to the delivery of affordable and social housing throughout London.

Mr. Slaughter: I rise again only because Bromley is obviously the object of great pride. However, 124 per cent. of not very much is not very much, so perhaps the hon. Lady will comment on capacity, which is more
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relevant. Bromley has been building affordable housing at 3.5 per cent. of capacity compared with, for example, Labour-controlled Hammersmith and Fulham, where the figure is 99.3 per cent.

Mrs. Lait: I would be happy to welcome the hon. Gentleman to the borough of Bromley, where I would show him our affordable housing. I would also be happy for him to meet our local planners, who are struggling with a Government instruction that housing in Bromley should be doubled in density. I would then be very happy to introduce him to some of my residents, who must deal with the subsequent problems. That is not a constructive way in which to look at housing across London, when the boroughs, which are responsible to the electorate, know what people need and want. I have heard enough from the hon. Gentleman.

We believe that the boroughs should have rights equal to the Secretary of State’s in consultation and that those boroughs that are delivering their housing targets should not have to put up with interference by the Mayor, who will not necessarily have the interests and concerns of local people at the very heart of his policy.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): Like me, my hon. Friend knows that the needs of the outer-London boroughs are different from those of the inner-London boroughs, whether those needs concern housing, education, environmental matters or the whole range of services. Does she think that the Mayor understands that?

Mrs. Lait: If any of us thought that the Mayor understood that, we would not oppose this Bill.

We note that the Bill cedes the power to the Mayor to take final decisions on strategic planning applications. The Government have done away with the roles of the planning inspectorate and the Secretary of State. We have been assured that the Minister will publish the draft statutory instrument setting out the details of the Mayor’s new powers over planning at about the time when the Committee proceedings start. As that statutory instrument appears to be changing day by day, we hope that it will be available at the beginning of the Committee stage, which is yet another reason why we believe that the Committee should take evidence.

On the basis of what we know so far, there are still many objections to the Mayor having that power, many of which have been voiced by my hon. Friends. We recognise that the Mayor already has the right of refusal. Indeed, he has called in 54 applications from my borough, Bromley, of which he has commented on only a few. However, these new plans give the Mayor the right to call in anything of “strategic importance”. It is crucial that “strategic” be technically and closely defined, because one person’s simple plan can be strategic to somebody else. In February 2006, in response to the ODPM’s original consultation paper, the Mayor identified some 25 schemes where he might have used the power to take over an application, suggesting that perhaps five schemes a year would come under his new power, and the Minister acknowledged that. The statutory instrument needs to
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make absolutely clear the criteria that will give him precisely that ability—no more, no less; otherwise the capacity for mischief and capriciousness is infinite.

The proposal also gives the Mayor power over negotiating section 106 agreements, which are often the only direct benefit to a community from new building: a doctor’s surgery, roads, schools or shops—the infrastructure needed to ensure that a development will be sustainable. Give that power to the Mayor, and the benefit could be used to finance one of his pet projects in another borough entirely, leaving local people without any gain from the new development. I hope that the statutory instrument will make it clear to the Mayor that boroughs can keep the section 106 money.

The SI must also make it clear that, as the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) said, the Mayor must be transparent and open in any decision on planning applications. During the planning process in the boroughs, objectors have the right to voice their objections. They should have equal rights in front of the Mayor. I understand that he is reluctant to listen to them, possibly on the grounds that he should be spending his time ensuring that the things for which he is currently responsible are working properly, such as transport, the Olympics and tackling crime—or perhaps he wants to spend more time developing London’s foreign policy, with further visits to Venezuela and Cuba.

The Mayor’s procedure when using his current powers does not fill anyone with confidence. In 2002, it was summarised in the High Court thus:

The chief planning officer of Harrow said:

Justine Greening: Does my hon. Friend agree that if the Mayor is so reluctant to listen to people in the Assembly he should try coming here every few weeks so that we could have London questions, just as we have Scottish and Welsh questions? Perhaps that would provide a better balance in ensuring that he is held accountable at least to somebody, if not his own Assembly members.

Mrs. Lait: My hon. Friend makes a valid point about the Assembly’s powers under the Greater London Authority Act 1999 in holding the Mayor to account. However, I do not think that any Labour Member would be prepared to give up his or her seat in order to welcome him back among the ranks of the parliamentary Labour party.

In 2002, the assembly’s own planning advisory committee said:

I understand that the Mayor has indicated that he might be prepared to consider holding his meetings in public. [Hon. Members: “Where?”] My hon. Friends may well ask. We would all like to know where and when the Mayor plans to hold his planning meetings in public, but if he continues to make those decisions behind closed doors, at the behest of advisers— however professional and skilled—and does not allow objections to be heard in open forum, only my learned friends will be the gainers. The Mayor would be judge and jury and his decisions would not be open to challenge. Surely the Minister can convince us that the statutory instrument will cover that. If it does not, that affords another opportunity for evidence-taking sessions to discuss the matter with the interested parties.

Delays are endemic in planning, and the Mayor’s current powers build in delay. A few days ago, the Barker review suggested methods—with which we may or may not agree—of speeding up planning decisions. It is unfortunate that Kate Barker did not consider the current position in London or the new proposals. The Government’s target is that 60 per cent. of major planning applications should be decided in 13 weeks. The Minister said that there could be changes to the terms of the statutory instrument, which might reduce the delay.

Will the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), who is to reply to the debate, confirm that the Mayor can no longer intervene just as a committee is about to meet to determine a planning application but after borough officers have recommended refusal? Will he also confirm that, if the Mayor wants to force changes to a proposed planning obligation, he can no longer take over a relevant planning application after the borough has granted planning permission but while the obligation is being negotiated? That matter is also fertile for evidence taking.

The two new powers on housing and planning remove powers from local communities and their elected representatives—those who know their areas and what the people want and need. Any London Member of Parliament knows that we already face a revolt over the Government-imposed targets for housing. The Government imply that they apply only to the leafy suburbs, but inner-city councillors or residents associations tell the same story. They know what their local people want and need because they live among them. By and large, they are not re-elected unless they deliver.

A recent opinion poll for London councils found that 54 per cent. of London residents oppose the Mayor’s having more planning powers, in contradiction to the opinion poll that the Mayor commissioned. He has the right to ask the questions, but the London councils’ opinion poll, which represents all the London boroughs, found that 54 per cent. of London residents opposed the Mayor’s having more planning powers and 75 per cent. believed that local councils should have them.

I shall advise my hon. Friends to vote against the Bill tonight on the basis of the provisions for housing and planning alone, because they constitute a naked grab of power away from locally elected authorities. Clearly,
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the Government do not believe in their rhetoric of devolution to local level. However, we do not object only to the powers on those two matters.

Some themes that run through the Bill and the Greater London Authority Act 1999 are inconsistent and need rationalising. The Mayor is obliged to produce a plethora of strategies, apart from those that he has devised off his own bat, and the Bill imposes more. I shall not weary the House with the detail, but boroughs are required to “have regard to” some, be “in conformity with” others and “in general conformity with” yet others.

The Mayor and the boroughs should work together in partnership. We believe that the boroughs are the genuine voice of local communities, and that they should be—and are—responsible to those communities for the policies that they implement. They should not be the resentful and unwilling processors of mayoral policies, with which they and their residents disagree. We will, therefore, try to amend the Bill so that the boroughs must “have regard to” the Mayor’s strategies. That will ensure that whoever is Mayor takes the London boroughs with him on his strategies, and that borough councillors feel that they own the ideas. Acceptance in local communities will be easier and the resentment that is building about centrally imposed plans and strategies will be reduced.

A second theme that runs through the Bill and the original Act is the lack of coherent thought given to appointments to the various bodies for which the Mayor is responsible—or perhaps the appointments system reflects whatever paranoia either the Mayor or the Government suffered at the time. I hope that hon. Members will excuse me if I run through some of the variety of appointments.

The London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority is one of the least criticised of the functional bodies. It was put severely to the test on 7/7, when we were all exceedingly proud of the men and women on the front line, who put their lives at risk to deal with the crisis that engulfed our city that day. Of course, mistakes were made and lessons were learned. However, it is relevant to note that the membership of the board currently includes eight representatives from the boroughs. The Bill takes two borough representatives away to give the places to the Mayor to represent “other interests”—perhaps friends of Ken—but the saving grace are the many borough representatives, which ensures that decisions made by LFEPA are owned by the boroughs.

Let us consider Transport for London—the least responsive and most arrogant of all the functional bodies. Its board membership currently includes one elected politician—the Mayor. Lord Toby Harris—a friend of Ken—is a member. I hesitate to describe the rest of the board as “friends of Ken”, but it does not contain a single representative of the London boroughs. The Bill removes the current ban on political representatives on the board, for which I offer much thanks, but it would allow the Mayor to appoint an assembly member or a member of a London borough—doubtless a friend of Ken—and the Transport for London board will not be any more responsive to the travelling public across the capital. I, for one, would still have no confidence that Transport for London would care a jot more about my constituents than it does now, when it is about as responsive as a slug.

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Mr. Burrowes: I commend my hon. Friend for highlighting Transport for London’s lack of accountability. I want to draw attention to the north circular road, where my constituents have suffered blight for many years, especially owing to Transport for London’s inaction and despite a recent visit from the transport commissioners. My constituents feel that affairs on their doorstep are completely out of their control.

Mrs. Lait: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for backing me up with that specific information. We all have negative experiences of Transport for London and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who will pilot the Bill through Committee for the Opposition, has noted the point and will ensure that amendments are tabled to try to tackle it.

Let us consider the Metropolitan Police Authority. Yes, its composition mirrors that of other police authorities outside London, but the politicians are all from the assembly and, apart from the Conservatives and two Labour Members, who are directly elected by first past the post, the others are from the list system and have no responsibility to any constituents. There are no borough representatives. The Police and Justice Act 2006 has already given the Mayor power to chair or appoint the chairman of the Metropolitan Police Authority to “increase its democratic legitimacy.” I have slight difficulties with that. However, only those people in London who are represented by first-past-the-post assembly members have any direct contact with the Metropolitan Police Authority.

With the best will in the world, the London learning and skills councils have not covered themselves in glory, and we have no objection in principle to the Mayor taking skills under his wing—so long as he does not interfere in boroughs where learning and skills are being delivered effectively. I was concerned to learn last week that the Mayor had appointed the “shadow” learning and skills council for London when the Bill to bring about the change has not been debated in this House and is only in the process of going through the Lords. Such action takes it for granted that both Houses will not object to the proposals and is rather contemptuous of Parliament. There is not much point in the Government complaining that no one cares about Parliament when they clearly do not care much about it themselves. The appointments were definitely in the “friends of Ken” category. Apart from the Mayor himself, not a single elected politician was on it—a recipe for another arrogant and unresponsive board governing the vital skills that London will need to compete globally in the coming years.

Mr. Slaughter: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Lait: I have given way to the hon. Gentleman twice already. His interventions were pointless then, and this one would be pointless too.

We believe that Londoners should be represented on all the functional bodies by representatives from the boroughs, and we shall table amendments to that effect. I will now return to specific sections of the Bill.

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