Previous Section Index Home Page

Waste disposal is by far the most difficult aspect of the Bill for the Government to deal with. The Mayor wants a single waste disposal authority for London,
12 Dec 2006 : Column 770
and is so determined to get it that he is spending some £80,000 of London taxpayer’s money to hire parliamentary lobbyists and agents to get the Government to cave in. I freely admit, however, that the issue is not easy for the Government to resolve. In north London, as we heard from the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), waste disposal arrangements are not working, while in south London they are. London councils believe that the Government’s proposed waste and recycling forum should be set up as soon as possible and be a partnership between the boroughs and the Mayor, with at least 50 per cent. borough membership. The Government have missed a trick, however, by not including water as well as waste disposal in the proposal. The disagreements over the issue should be aired at evidence-taking sessions by the Bill Committee to reach a balanced conclusion and amend the Bill if necessary.

We are rather puzzled by the handover to the Mayor of responsibility for public health. Clearly, the Government feel in something of a quandary, as the Bill envisages that as a double-hatted appointment for the current regional director of public health. Undoubtedly, it will be great fun for the Mayor to devise a health inequalities policy for London, but what will happen if his ideas are in direct contravention of the director’s? Who will have the final say? Who will have control of the money to put any strategy into practice? What will be the involvement of the primary care trusts, as they, along with the hospitals, will have to act on vaccination campaigns, for instance? This matter should be another candidate for evidence-giving to allow the Committee to tease out exactly what power and responsibility the Mayor would have.

There are a number of proposals about the Assembly itself that are more about process, which will doubtless be of great interest to the Committee, but I would just like to draw the House’s attention to concerns that the head of paid service will take over responsibility for hiring some staff. We do not see the need for that change. We know that the City of London still has concerns and will be seeking reassurances about the City of London museum, a national museum of which I am particularly fond and which has done a magnificent job of uncovering and displaying some of London’s real treasures. I am sure that the Committee will be interested in ensuring that those concerns are explored and met.

As the Minister said, the Government have devolved to the Mayor two further strategies: on climate change mitigation and energy; and on adaptation to climate change. In both, the Secretary of State retains some limited powers of direction, but again, the only involvement of the London boroughs is by consultation. The boroughs will almost certainly have to implement some of the strategies. Why do the boroughs have no real involvement? That is not devolution of power; it leaves the most responsive level of local government in London helpless.

Then there is the dog that did not bark. Why is the Government office for London not being disbanded? It spends huge sums of money in London. It has increased its staff since the office of the London Mayor was established. It has parallel responsibility with the Mayor over some functions. Why is that the case? Why are the Government not doing away with it?

We are faced with a Bill to amend the powers of the Mayor and Greater London authority that is
12 Dec 2006 : Column 771
incoherent and inconsistent. Simple matters that should be in the Bill have been left out. The Bill does not simplify where it could do so. The rights of Londoners to be properly represented on pan-London bodies have been ignored. By transferring some powers to the Mayor from the Government, the Bill has achieved a huge power grab away from the London boroughs.

I am left with the suspicion that the Bill is the price that the Government had to pay to get Ken Livingstone back into the Labour fold before the last mayoral election. However, the proposals do not even satisfy him. They satisfy no one. Furthermore, we cannot use the new powers of the Public Bill Committee to examine whether the proposals are correct. I will invite my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote against the Bill tonight, because London and Londoners deserve better.

6.4 pm

Mr. Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): Almost 10 years ago, I was given the considerable honour and responsibility of developing detailed proposals for the restoration of city-wide government in London, and of subsequently guiding the legislation through the House and overseeing its implementation. At the time, I was surprised at the confused and incoherent stance of the Conservative party on the issue. Of course, it could be excused its state at that time. It had suffered a massive election defeat and was shell-shocked by the total repudiation of its position on London and the clear support of Londoners, which was reinforced in a referendum a year later in every London borough, for the restoration of a city-wide authority on the new basis.

I am surprised that 10 years later, the Conservative party still seems confused and incoherent. It has made so little progress. When addressing the questions of how London should be governed, what the powers of the Mayor should be, and how the Mayor, assembly, boroughs and other structures in London should work together, it appears to be incapable of rising above the level of what even the most charitable observer would describe as nit-picking and visionless. At least it could claim, 10 years ago, that the GLA model was new: it was innovative and untested, and so I suppose that it could reserve judgment. Now, however, the GLA has been in existence for six years, and there is widespread agreement among informed commentators throughout London—including the business community, academics, people who care about London government and the public—that it has been an improvement.

A proper city-wide framework of government has been introduced, which London lacked between 1986 and 2000, and which London is very much the better for having had restored: witness our success in securing the Olympics, which would never have happened without a democratic city-wide authority, as anyone who understands how the International Olympic Committee takes decisions will verify.

Mr. Hands: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that although the new mayoral system has been in place for six years, one of its drawbacks has been that there has been only one incumbent? One of the great difficulties is to separate out debate about the powers
12 Dec 2006 : Column 772
and position of the Mayor from a discussion of the current incumbent. Would not it be more sensible to wait a little longer to see how the position beds in under a second incumbent?

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman seems incapable of understanding that in a democracy, the people decide who will be the incumbent of a particular post. The responsibility of Parliament is to create the structure and to decide whether it should be changed, but the electorate decide who should be Mayor. It would be preposterous to postpone any decision and action on improvements to the structure until another Mayor is elected at some future date. I have rarely heard a more bizarre proposition.

Mr. Dismore: Is not my right hon. Friend’s point reinforced by the fact that the Tories still have not been able to find anyone to stand for them in the mayoral election? Clearly, they are frit of Ken, and they expect him to win next time. We might wait an awfully long time before there is another incumbent—unless, perhaps, they put forward Nick Ferrari.

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point, but I do not intend to intrude on the private grief of the Conservative party on this issue.

There is, however, an obvious question: why should we consider changes to the Greater London Authority structure now? As I have stressed, the structure has generally worked well. There are, however, two reasons for changing it.

First, as is well understood, the GLA model was an innovative one, with a directly elected executive mayor for the first time in this country, a small scrutinising assembly, four functional bodies responsible, respectively, for transport, policing, economic development and fire and resilience, and a strategic remit unprecedented in British local government. Inevitably, with the passage of time, some of the initial decisions—for example, on the eligibility of members to serve on Transport for London—have appeared to be probably not optimal. Therefore, there is a case for change. With any innovative structure of such a nature, it is right that Parliament should have a chance to reconsider.

Secondly, the very success of the GLA has strengthened the case for devolving more powers to the Mayor. As a former local government Minister as well as a former London Minister, I am perfectly ready to admit that extracting powers from colleagues in other Departments to devolve to a new and untried model of city governance was not the easiest of tasks. My colleagues, who had spent 18 years in opposition, had only just managed to get their hands on the levers of power when along came another colleague saying that he wanted to take some of them away and devolve them to a new tier of government. Inevitably, it was not as full a package as might have been considered desirable. There was, for instance, a clear argument for an extension of the powers relating to housing.

Mr. Mark Field: I agree with much of the thrust of what the right hon. Gentleman has said. I certainly agree with the notion of greater devolution of Government power to the London Mayor. However, as was made clear by my hon. Friend the Member for
12 Dec 2006 : Column 773
Beckenham (Mrs. Lait), the fear is that devolution will go the other way. Surely we can support this devolution, provided that the Mayor and the GLA devolve some of their authority and responsibility to the 33 London boroughs.

Mr. Raynsford: I do not entirely agree with that. When we set up the structure for London governance, I was very clear that the Mayor and the GLA should have a strategic remit to deal with matters that should be dealt with at London-wide level, and that the boroughs should continue to be responsible for local service delivery, because they are best placed for that.

In the past, there was confusion between the strategic and operational functions of the Greater London council, and there was often conflict between the boroughs and the GLC. I am pleased to say that in general the new arrangements between the Mayor and the boroughs have worked reasonably well, although there have been some tensions, as there are bound to be between a strategic authority and more local operational authorities. I therefore do not consider it appropriate to talk of devolution from the one to the other. We should be talking about the proper definition of a strategic as opposed to a local service, and ensuring that wherever possible the balance remains correct.

The case for devolution and localism has gained ground over the last 10 years, and the recent local government White Paper argued the case forcefully. It is perfectly proper now to suggest that more power should be given to the Mayor than was proposed in 1997. The next question that arises is this: is the current package the right one? Are the new powers that the Bill proposes for the Mayor and the assembly appropriate? Are the changes to the GLA’s procedures correct, and do they ensure a proper balance between the interests of the Mayor and those of the assembly?

My answer is that the Bill’s proposals go very much in the right direction, and are appropriate. I will be happy to support those proposals in the Lobbies if the Opposition are unwise enough to repeat their gross misjudgment of nine years ago, when they voted against the restoration of city-wide governance in London. However, my support is not entirely unqualified. I feel that some aspects should be given more detailed consideration during the Bill’s passage.

Richard Ottaway: The right hon. Gentleman has just repeated the Minister’s allegation that the Conservatives voted against that measure. He knows full well that the Conservative party supported it on Third Reading.

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman is trying very hard, but he remembers the position. The incoherence of the Opposition tonight is just as it was 10 years ago, when individual Members adopted totally different positions, and the party adopted different positions between Second and Third Reading. Conservative Members advanced some extraordinary propositions. I seem to recall the proposal that there should be a Mayor but no assembly. The Liberal Democrats were equally foolish, proposing an assembly without a Mayor. The Opposition Benches were not a happy sight nine years ago, and I am afraid they look equally troubled tonight.

12 Dec 2006 : Column 774

Mr. Burrowes: The right hon. Gentleman is about to reveal his reservations about the Bill. May I help him on his way? Does he share my concern about staffing powers? Let us suppose that the Mayor wished to appoint a legion of Venezuelan pigeon advisers to his team. The only check on that would be the head of paid service, who is appointed by the Mayor. Is there not a danger that the check and balance that exists while the assembly retains staffing powers will be removed?

Mr. Raynsford: That rather farcical illustration was of about the same calibre as the hon. Gentleman’s earlier intervention, in which he seemed to suggest that there was a potential risk of section 106 powers being taken from boroughs and used by the Mayor. As he will know, the Bill would give the Mayor power to intervene to direct acceptance where a borough was going to refuse permission. Where are the section 106 sums that can come only with the granting of planning permission?

Mr. Burrowes rose—

Mr. Raynsford: No, I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman. He should think rather harder about logic before making further interventions.

The first of my reservations concerns powers. I believe that, broadly, the Government have made the correct judgments about the areas in which the Mayor’s powers should be enhanced. As I have said, I think it absolutely right for the Mayor to receive the strategic and financial roles of the London housing board, and to be able to play a much more positive role than has been possible in the past.

Jeremy Corbyn: Does my right hon. Friend not agree that there are too many reserved powers for the Secretary of State in respect of housing, and that the Mayor should have more totally devolved powers to ensure that London’s social housing needs can be met?

Mr. Raynsford: No, I do not agree with that. I believe that there is a balance between the powers that should be exercised at local level, at regional level and at national level. Getting that balance right is always difficult and there will always be tensions, but it is important that there should be a national overview of housing policy and measures to ensure that there is adequate provision in areas where otherwise there would probably be none, because of the resistance of some sections of the population and some political parties. The Government must be able to insist that housing needs are met. I do not agree with removing the reserved powers, but I am strongly in favour of giving the Mayor a much stronger role.

In the context of the skills and training agenda, I think it right for there to be more integration between the GLA’s role in economic development and the hugely important challenges for training. I therefore support the measures in the parallel Further Education and Training Bill. As for health, there is obvious merit in designating the regional director for public health as the Mayor’s adviser, and giving the Mayor an explicit remit to tackle health inequalities.

12 Dec 2006 : Column 775

When it comes to planning, I think—as I said earlier in an intervention—that there is a real difficulty of definition. I support the case for enabling the Mayor to ensure greater compliance with the London plan throughout Greater London. That includes both a stronger say in whether borough development plans conform with the London plan and, in limited circumstances, giving the Mayor power to direct approval of a development proposal of strategic importance which clearly conforms with the London plan.

I know that some people are concerned about the implications of giving the Mayor power to direct approval, rather than just the current power to say no. Their argument hinges on the slightly suspect assumption that planning powers to refuse are acceptable because they are accompanied by a right of appeal to the Secretary of State, while powers to accept—which are not subject to such an appeal—should not be granted. In my view, it is right to permit the Mayor both to direct an acceptance and to direct a refusal, if there is clear evidence that the particular development application is clearly of strategic significance, and clearly not in conformity with the London plan. The definition must be drawn very carefully, however, to avoid the risk of mission creep, which I mentioned in an early intervention, and also the risk of conflict between the Mayor’s economic development objectives and financial interests, as well as planning interests. It is a question of propriety, and also of ensuring that decisions are made in a transparent way.

I am satisfied that the Government intend to achieve that, but it is a difficult definitional issue. I think we will all want to see the detailed proposals, in the form of a statutory instrument, before exercising a final judgment on whether the balance is right.

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): I apologise for not being in the Chamber at the beginning of the debate. I was stuck in Committee.

I acknowledge the right hon. Gentleman’s expertise in these matters, and have known of it for a long time. Does he accept that the logic of his argument should be that the thresholds for any matter that is referable to the Mayor should be raised rather than lowered, to ensure that they are truly strategic and to avoid any needless conflict between the strategic and the operational? Secondly, in terms of the general principle, if the Mayor is to be a planning authority, whether with positive or purely negative powers, on reflection after six years, can it possibly be desirable for a planning authority—in effect, a one-person planning authority—to be given those powers? Would it not be logical for us to look again at the requirement for the Mayor to consult the assembly and the boroughs, and at whether he should be obliged to make his planning decisions in public and in a more transparent fashion?

Mr. Raynsford: I support the hon. Gentleman’s concern about transparency—I was about to come to that—but I do not accept his view that there is something curious about a single-person planning authority. It is implicit in the structure of the Greater London authority that the Mayor is directly elected by the people of London and that he is the person
12 Dec 2006 : Column 776
responsible for the London plan. That defines the planning objectives for London, and it would be very odd indeed if it is said that the person elected by the people of London to do that were not able to discharge that role. Therefore, I think that there is a logical inconsistency in the hon. Gentleman’s position, although I agree that the Mayor must be seen to be acting transparently, and that becomes all the more important as we are now talking about his having the power to direct acceptance in certain cases, as well as the power to direct refusal.

Andrew Stunell: Does the right hon. Gentleman recall my intervention on the Minister asking to whom the Mayor would be accountable for decisions? A distinction has rightly been drawn between a decision to reject an application, which can subsequently be appealed under the current system, and a decision to accept an application, which is beyond appeal; there is no third-party right of appeal. Does the right hon. Gentleman not see that there is some difference there, and that the system that the Bill introduces should accommodate that difference and provide that accountability?

Mr. Raynsford: I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that that is absolutely implicit in the planning regime that applies to every local authority in the country, so unless he is proposing that local authorities should not be able to grant planning permission because their decisions are not subject to appeal, there is an inconsistency in his argument. All that is being proposed is an extension to the Mayor of the same power that can be exercised by an individual local authority when it considers a planning application. That change is to ensure that the Mayor has the ability to direct acceptance as well as refusal. I wholly agree with the hon. Gentleman about transparency, however, and I also wish to stress something that I said earlier: such a power of acceptance must be used in only a very limited number of strategic cases where it is clearly right that the decision be taken at the London-wide level, rather than a local level.

Harry Cohen: I hear what my right hon. Friend is saying, but the truth of the matter is that if the Mayor calls in a planning application and uses his positive powers there is no appeal right for anybody. Should some sort of appeal right not be built into such a system?

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend is taking me into different territory, which is a matter of planning policy generally. I have looked into this matter in considerable detail and I do not agree with the third-party right of appeal concept, which I think would be a disaster in planning decisions. It would clog up a system that is already proving difficult in some respects for developers to find their way through. I cannot be tempted down that particular byway.

Next Section Index Home Page