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12 Dec 2006 : Column 796

Several hon. Members rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. We have approximately two hours for Back-Bench contributions and several Members wish to catch my eye. I leave it to hon. Members to do the mathematical calculations for themselves.

7.30 pm

Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): I start with a plea. The Bill that became the Greater London Authority Act 1999 was the second longest Bill in the history of Parliament, exceeded only by a Finance Bill. It had 26 Committee sittings, with the Committee stage lasting two and a half months. As the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), who has just left the Chamber, reminded us, there were more than 1,000 amendments. That Bill received intense scrutiny in Committee, but when it came back to the House on Report, vast chunks of it were replaced without any debate whatsoever. Vast chunks of the Bill were then replaced in the Lords, and most of the Lords amendments that this House considered went through without debate because of a guillotine. Those amendments included measures on revenue-raising powers. I sincerely hope that this Greater London Authority Bill has a happier passage through the House.

Conservative Members supported the Third Reading of the Greater London Authority Bill of 1999, but we tabled a reasoned amendment in which we accepted the principle of the authority, but expressed our reservations about the congestion charge, the nature of the assembly and the imbalance with the boroughs. As we come to review the workings of the 1999 Act, it seems we did not make a bad judgment at the time. The assembly’s operations are restricted and the congestion charge has had its problems. This Bill will diminish the boroughs’ powers even further.

A voice for London is a good thing. The Mayor should speak for this major city on the world stage. However, the voice that we have at present has tarnished the image of London. The position of Mayor is one of not just responsibility, but integrity. The cheeky chappie stuff only goes so far; frankly we do not need the Nazi jibes, the scuffles outside parties and the cheap stunts, such as the trip to Venezuela where the Mayor was rebuffed to the embarrassment of the people of London. The people of London want a well run authority with no gimmicks. They want jobs, homes and security.

The Bill addresses the question of homes. As you will have been able to tell by the number of interventions, Madam Deputy Speaker, many hon. Members have spoken about the interaction between planning and housing, although I will not go into that matter in great depth, especially bearing in mind your strictures. However, I have reached the conclusion that as the Mayor gets more and more powers to set the level of affordable housing, developers will become more and more wary about the number of houses that they build. In my constituency, I believe that too many one-bedroom flats and insufficient three-bedroom family houses have been built, but that should be a matter for Croydon council to decide.

My second conclusion about the planning and development powers in the Bill is that if the Mayor is to
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have an even greater say on major developments, the borough of Croydon, which has several major developments in the pipeline, will find that developers will bypass the council and go straight to the Mayor. That will create a weakness in the system and diminish the powers of the authority. My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) ably showed up the flaws in the Bill in her opening speech.

I am still not sure of the direction in which the Government want the GLA to go. The right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), who cleverly took the 1999 Bill through the House—I was the Opposition spokesman at the time—said that there would not be a GLC mark II. However, it is looking increasingly like that. After 10 years of Labour, London has the only regional government that has got off the ground. Part of the motive was to give back a voice to the people of London, but a lot of it was to correct the imbalanceof devolution to Scotland and Wales and the embarrassment of the unanswered West Lothian question.

There is a hotch-potch of responsibilities at present. The Government do not want London to have the same sort of powers as Scotland and Wales, but they do not want power to go down to the boroughs. Let me pick up a point made by the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) when he intervened about what my former colleague Steve Norris has said. In a way, Steve Norris is right. The Mayor wants more powers. We should give powers to either the boroughs, or the Mayor, but we should not have a rag-bag in the middle with the powers divided. The right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich talked about the question of devolved powers or strategic powers. I do not think that the right balance has been achieved. The Bill misses many opportunities. Making the Mayor more accountable for his strategies should be at the heart of the Bill.

The assembly could effectively be reformed. Proportional representation has led to weaknesses in the way in which it operates. The assembly’s only serious power is the ability to veto the budget, but two thirds of assembly members are needed to do so. As the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington said, the Mayor can thus get his budget through the assembly by using a one third blocking minority, which is most of the Labour group and the odd Green —[ Interruption. ] A very odd Green. The combination of that blocking minority and proportional representation means that the Mayor is largely unfettered.

Although this is not my party’s policy, I have always favoured an assembly that represents the 33 London boroughs. Such an assembly would build better bridges with the boroughs than the existing structure. The GLA sits aloofly above the boroughs, looking down on them, which was also a weakness of the old GLC. I know that my proposal is not popular with the assembly. I do not intend to be critical, but I think that direct or indirect elections on a borough basis would improve relations. Accountability would also be improved, because assembly members would be elected by the people of the boroughs.

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There is no way in which a Mayor who is out of control can be constrained. The leader of an authority can be removed by his group. The First Ministers of Scotland and Wales can be removed, as can Prime Ministers. However, even if every psychiatrist in Harley street declared the Mayor of London to be criminally insane, there would be absolutely nothing that anyone could do about it. One of the weaknesses of the Bill is the lack of provision for a recall petition, as it is called in the United States. Under such a system, an agreed number of signatures would result in a referendum on the status of the Mayor and his record would be put to the test.

There is a muddle of merging the powers of the executive and the legislature. Prime Ministers, First Ministers, MPs and councillors are all elected for a term of office in a legislature. However, if they move to the executive from the legislature, their roles in the executive are dependent on others. In countries in which the executive and the legislature are separate, checks and balances are installed in the system. For example, the mayor of New York can be removed by the Governor of New York, under certain criteria. The mayor of Paris can be removed by an Order in Council, under certain criteria. In my judgment, such a thing should be possible in London.

Mr. Dismore: Surely the people who should remove the Mayor, if they want to, are the people of London, through the ballot box. Is it not part of the Conservatives’ problem that they have never yet found a candidate to stand who could beat Ken Livingstone?

Richard Ottaway: I am not sure what point the hon. Gentleman is making. The point is made that the ballot box provides accountability, and so it does, but I ask this quite genuinely: what happens if the Mayor goes bananas two years into his term of office, and sits there like some manic creature? That is a serious problem to consider, and powers ought to be put in the legislation to enable us to remove the Mayor, if we should want to do so.

We opposed the congestion charge when it was debated in Committee, but I recognise that things have moved on. We have to address the problem of congestion, and there are a number of ways of dealing with it: we could close the roads, physically limit the number of cars going into London, or introduce road pricing. However, we Opposition Members have to accept that the die is cast—contracts have been signed, all the equipment is in place, and the scheme is about to expand to west London in a few weeks’ time, so, in truth, there is no going back on it. Road pricing is to be introduced on motorways, too.

However, there is an important point to make. It is proposed that there should be a £25 charge for cars that emit a certain amount of CO2. I am glad we have moved away from making attacks on 4x4 cars, because plenty of cars with two-wheel drives emit more CO2 than many with four-wheel drives. Such exercises are not cases of joined-up government. Will the Mayor set the same CO2 emissions targets as, say, Richmond upon Thames council is to set, in order to restrict parking arrangements in Richmond? If cars are to be regulated according to their CO2 emissions, the matter should be dealt with nationally; otherwise, there will be
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a patchwork of restraint. The hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) made a point about Kennington earlier, in a devastating intervention on the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington. People on one side of Kennington might emit the same amount of CO2 as those the other side of Kennington, but on one side, a person will have to pay £25 to drive a car, and on the other side, it will be free. In truth, such a scheme would be nothing but gesture politics.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) raised a point about consultation. A consultation was conducted on whether or not to extend the congestion charge zone to west London, and 70 or 80 per cent. of people said that they were against it. The Mayor then ignored that consultation, but the question is whether that is right. What is the point of spending public money on a consultation exercise if there is a cavalier disregard for it? Indeed, there was never any intention of acting on what was suggested in the consultation, and the Minister only holds consultations because he is obliged to do so under legislation. There is a simple remedy for that: we should insert a one-line clause, saying that he should have due regard to any consultation. That would oblige him to take account of the people of London. The legislation could be improved, and my party’s Front-Bench team are right to oppose it tonight. I wish my colleagues who are to serve on the Committee well in improving the Bill.

7.43 pm

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): I shall be brief. Reference has been made to the fact that we used to have great London debates on policing, and it is true that whenever we discuss London, there is far more yah-boo and there are far more party political interventions than in other debates. I am slightly concerned, because really the issue is what we, collectively—particularly us London MPs, who are proud to represent the city—think is best for London, and how we think it should be governed. Difficult as it is, we should all start from the premise of deciding whether a measure is the right thing to do, whatever the politics of the Mayor. Sometimes, for us Labour Members, things are shaped by the fact that we have a Labour Mayor. Obviously, if there were a Conservative or a Liberal Democrat Mayor, which is highly unlikely, the chances are that some of us might think slightly differently about things.

I agree with a great deal of what is in the Bill, and given that we now have a Mayor, and given how the system works, I am happy for the Mayor to have certain powers. For example, he has been given powers on the museum of London. One of the most successful aspects of the Greater London council was its arts policy. The South Bank centre is in my constituency, and in theory it is run by the Arts Council and others, but it is actually an incredibly undemocratic body. The South Bank centre is one of London’s big, cultural centres, and I should have thought that if the Mayor is to have a cultural policy, he should have more involvement in that, so that it is not run by people who are not necessarily accountable in any way to anyone—certainly to no one in the local community.

My concerns about the Bill relate to its planning aspects, and many of the provisions may be changed,
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including perhaps the technical details, in Committee. However, the way in which we define “strategic” is of concern to me. That word can mean so many different things to different people. It is important that the Committee should have an absolute definition of what we mean by “strategic”, as has been promised by the Minister. If the Mayor himself decides what is strategic, most of the north of my constituency will presumably be seen as strategic, because it is along the river and is in central London. I do not see why the residents and the community in areas along the north of the river in my constituency should be treated any differently, in terms of their involvement in what will happen there, simply because their area has been defined as a strategic area of London.

Similarly, Waterloo station has been defined as an area in which it is likely that a cluster of tall buildings will be built, but an active local community lives there, and it must have some say in that. If there are to be bigger developments—I know that it will mean that there will be section 106 money, so we will get more affordable housing—it is crucial that we be clear about what we mean by “strategic”, and that we define it narrowly. The Mayor already has vast planning powers, and effectively those powers are not scrutinised. That is why I want to go back to the issue of transparency.

No matter how hard Greater London assembly members work, the membership does not have any teeth. It does not really have anything other than being able to say to the Mayor, “We don’t like this.” If the Mayor does not like what they say, he simply says, “Well, tough.” If the Mayor is to be the planning authority, we must be able to deal with him in the same way as we deal with other planning authorities. At the moment, when it comes to how we will deal with the strategic decisions—the Minister may be able to respond to this point in his closing remarks—the public will not be entitled to make direct representations; they will have to make them to their local authority. No doubt, it will almost always be the case that the officers of that local authority will pass on to the Mayor whatever they want to pass on, wrapped up in some kind of misleading report, as we often see that in planning committees. The public will not be able to speak, the decision will not be taken in a public arena, and the report on which the decision will be based will not be challengeable. The considerations that will accompany the report at the point at which the decision is made will not be known. That, to me, means that it is not transparent.

The decision-maker, although accountable every four years, is not accountable in the way we all think of accountability. That is not to say that that is wrong in running a big city such as London, but we must be aware that if that is the case, we have to build in some safeguards; otherwise, the public will not feel that the system is fair. The idea seems to be that we will take critical decisions about major developments in central London, on London’s future, without Londoners having direct access to those decisions. The Mayor’s decisions should be based on published reports, which are open to scrutiny. Unless we deal with that in Committee, there will be serious problems with the way in which the measure operates. Will the Minister confirm whether the Government still propose that the Mayor should be able to take over the handling of applications on which he has not made any public
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statements of support or opposition? It would be incredibly difficult for the Mayor to make a decision on any tall tower blocks in London, because he has repeatedly said that he wants to see tower blocks in different parts of the capital. In all honesty, how can he be seen to take an independent view if he has said such things?

Mr. Mark Field: Without wishing to do the Minister’s work for him, I suspect that the provision refers to specific rather than general statements of support or otherwise. The position is similar for local councillors, as they are barred from making representations on behalf of residents associations if they serve on a committee considering a development in their ward. I therefore suspect that the provision deals with specific claims by the Mayor in favour of a development rather than the general statements which, as the hon. Lady points out, he has made about tall buildings.

Kate Hoey: The hon. Gentleman may be right, or he may be wrong. The Minister nodded at him, but he did so, too, when I raised the matter, so perhaps he can clarify at the end of our debate. The Mayor is not someone who fails to speak his mind, so he must be incredibly careful if the provision is accepted in its present form. We need to see the details to make sure that the huge power at his disposal will be properly exercised. I can speak only from my constituency experience, but the Mayor is happy to meet developers. Those meetings are not minuted, as the participants do not necessarily sit round the table—it is sofa diplomacy—and I am not sure that that is right. He meets representatives of community groups, but it very much depends on whether they succeed in gaining his ear. The special attention given to developers should not mean that people in the local community are ignored or pushed aside. Ultimately, if London is to be a cohesive city and if people are to believe that they have influence on the major planning decisions that affect their lives, they must believe that they can become involved. Unless the provision is changed to make clear the circumstances in which the Mayor can intervene and override local opinion, and when he cannot do so, I fear that we will be in great difficulty.

Justine Greening: The hon. Lady is making a compelling case, but does she agree that the increased uncertainty in the overall planning process could leave many residents who live close to controversial planning schemes at risk of blight for months or even years while disagreements between the Mayor and the local authority are resolved? The uncertainty about the Mayor’s attitude to major decisions could lead to more blight for residents.

Kate Hoey: That could happen, but it could be argued that by making an early intervention the Mayor could make a decision much more quickly.

Finally, in many local authorities, people who have lived in a community for many years may be affected by a development that has an impact on their general environment, yet section 106 applies not to that part of the borough but to another area, because it is the only place where affordable housing can be built. If the Mayor gets his hands on section 106, it is crucial that money is not taken away from boroughs such as mine
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that will be at the forefront of development, particularly along the river, and given to another part of London. That area may need affordable housing, but equally, such housing is needed by London overall. The relationship with local authority is crucial, and none of the proposals will work if the Mayor and local authorities fail to work together in a constructive manner.

Jeremy Corbyn: Does my hon. Friend not agree that it is essential that section 106 money be spent in a reasonable period after the planning agreement is made? It should not sit in a borough or anyone else’s coffers for years on end, with no benefit for anyone at all, except the authority that receives the interest charges.

Kate Hoey: I agree absolutely, because that happens in all our boroughs. It is important, too, that section 106 money is paid up front much more quickly.

I am aware that other hon. Members wish to speak, so I shall conclude. I support the Bill, but I hope that the Minister will take into account the genuine concerns on both sides of the House about the difficulty of planning, which divides communities and, in many cases, political parties in those communities. Mayoral involvement must be handled extremely carefully and with a great deal of understanding of the importance of planning to local communities.

7.56 pm

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): I am glad to be able to contribute to our debate on the Bill, and to raise the concerns of my constituents. I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), who highlighted her concerns in a measured and carefully reasoned speech.

I was disappointed by the opening performance of the Minister for Housing and Planning, and by the speech of my near neighbour, the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), as they both spoke as technocrats, without any passion or real interest in the views of the public locally—no “power to the people” on the Labour Benches. My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait), on the other hand, achieved a much better balance, as she highlighted the needs of London residents. [ Interruption. ] The Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick) may laugh—the debate will degenerate if he continues on that route—but my hon. Friend highlighted concerns about planning, as well as the importance of debating London issues. As the hon. Member for Vauxhall said, the debate must be conducted on a higher plain if we wish to try to look at the matter objectively, so Iwas disappointed by the partisan comments of the Minister.

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