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8.24 pm

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): I was a London assembly member for five years, along with five other colleagues in the House who are, or were, assembly members. I stood shoulder to shoulder with Mayor Livingstone in favour of the first tranche of the congestion charge and against the Government on the public-private partnership. On the day after we were first elected to the GLA, he came into the room where we were meeting to have a chat. There was much bonhomie and a lot of hope in those early days, but even then the Mayor struck a note of warning when he said, “There’s only one vote, and it’s mine.” That it was, and it has continued in that way—and the Bill extends his vote even further. In those days, the Mayor could only direct refusal. Since then, the mayoral nose has been poked into several places where it was not needed, not wanted or, more importantly, not strategic. His power was meant to be used only for strategic sites, strategic sizes of building or strategic locations. Decisions were made against the wishes of local people and of the local planning authority and were often overturned on appeal. I could not agree more with the remarks of the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), who is no longer in her place.

Although I agreed with the Mayor on congestion charging and against the PPP, he is not perfect in every way. I am worried about the planning changes proposed in part 7. I might have more confidence in the extension of his powers in relation to strategic planning decisions if it were at least to be done with proper scrutiny. In the London assembly, members frequently raised the issue of the Mayor meeting developers in
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private. Who knows what went on behind closed doors and what influence they were able to bring to bear? It was not right then, and there is no clarity about the proposed decision-making process to assuage my concern about it now. As many right hon. and hon. Members have said, the definition of “strategic” is very important as we try to support what we can of the Bill.

In my constituency, as in that of the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), we are desperately short of housing. Hornsey and Wood Green is no different from Islington, North in that respect. There is a dichotomy as regards not only the way in which the Mayor’s powers are used but the way in which his influence is used. Developers already use every word in favour of their development that falls from his mouth; they go to him to gain credibility. Their developments are not always about providing social or affordable housing—more often than not they are luxury housing crammed into tiny spaces between gardens, and the Mayor’s name should never be mentioned in relation to them. In cases in my constituency that have gone to appeal, fancy lawyers have used the Mayor’s words or letters of support to get legitimate decisions of the local authority overturned. What the Mayor wants might be different from what he should have. In development control, there needs to be clear and consistent separation of those formulating planning strategies and those who make decisions on the ground, unless exceptional and defined circumstances arise. That is a genuine worry.

Extending the Mayor’s powers to direct determination and approval of planning applications represents the removal of powers from local authorities upwards. It undermines not only local involvement but the role that the public are allowed to play in discussions about planning decisions. I was pleased that the Minister said that the Government are now moving at least towards consideration after the local authority has made an initial determination, but what role will local people play when the Mayor makes the determination? It is vital that local people have a role.

In my constituency, we have already felt the Mayor’s heavy hand on a range of planning applications. Although we are desperate for social and affordable housing, some of the ugly and hostile tower blocks that get planning approval are unacceptable for human habitation. The Mayor’s response to those who fight for their local area, sustainable development and infrastructure—schools, transport and health facilities that match the increased density—is schoolboy name calling.

I gave evidence relatively recently to yet another planning inquiry—the third since I became a Member of Parliament—into another thoughtless, ugly and anonymous block. In just over a year and a half, I have participated in three such inquiries. The crux of the matter is that if those developments were well designed, attractive, with proper space, somewhere for children to play and proper health, education and transport facilities, they would not run into the hail of protest that regularly greets such proposals. They would not blight the environment or the aspirations of those who will live there for decades to come.

We desperately need housing, but most of the worst housing is thrust on the most deprived areas and we do not need built-in deprivation for the future. People come to my surgery crying because they live in
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overcrowded conditions or because a bedroom of 8 ft by 6 ft, which is the minimum standard—developers appear always to go for the minimum standard in social housing—was fine for a baby but what was to be done when the baby became a hulking great teenage boy? He could not do his homework in the room and hung out in the street instead. One thus builds in future problems and it is no use alleviating the present pressure in boroughs or constituencies such as Hornsey and Wood Green if one simply stores up problems for the future.

I am sure that any hon. Member who has a constituency like mine will recognise and understand the problems that I have outlined. My fear is that the Mayor will be torn between delivering his London plan, which is vital for London, and the experience on the ground. My experience so far of the Mayor’s interference is that he rides roughshod over local decisions and that the promised infrastructure—schools, health facilities and transport—does not arrive. The promises remain warm words. Without the infrastructure, there is a lack of social cohesion. When people scrabble over scarce public resources and battles take place about the entitlement of the already-heres against the needs of newcomers, all sorts of problems arise between people. We fear that from the Mayor’s decision making when he has no grasp of the local position.

Michael Gove: Given the powerful indictment that the hon. Lady is making of the Bill, I presume that she will join us in opposing it.

Lynne Featherstone: The hon. Gentleman is wrong. I am trying to support the Bill, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) said, we do not support the planning provisions and we will try to amend them in Committee. I am discussing genuine problems in Hornsey and Wood Green. It is easy for the hon. Member for Islington, North to laugh but I am trying to deal with real people who come to my surgery with genuine problems. It is not even a political matter for me; it is about the human condition and human need.

Simon Hughes: I am in the slightly strange position of having tried to be the Mayor but none the less representing City hall and all who work in it because they are in my constituency. My hon. Friend is right that there is a strategic case for more powers coming from the Government to London, but there are genuine fears in my borough, as in hers, that a partisan Mayor makes partisan decisions and punishes people who do not support him in borough X or borough Y. That is the first problem. Secondly, if one overrides local decisions about the location of the required housing, what would motivate people to be councillors and active citizens when, at the end of the day, all the activity simply results in someone saying, “I’m sorry but we’re going to overturn the decision and the housing will go where we want it, not where you as a community decide that you have to put it to meet your needs”?

Lynne Featherstone: Of course, my hon. Friend is right. I am trying to say that ordinary people suffer the consequences of lowest common denominator development. Neither the developer nor the Mayor has
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to live in those little boxes or suffer the pressures that they create. The Committee might therefore consider introducing a developer’s report card, which would be published. Tenants of buildings with a mayoral granting of application could be interviewed one, two, five and 10 years after they had moved in. The scores that they gave could be published and considered when determining whether that developer’s applications should be granted in future.

In a review of the Mayor’s positive directions, let us examine whether conditions attached to developments that get the go-ahead are enforced. When permission is given, or when local wishes are overturned on appeal—possibly with the Mayor’s name used in vain to support the application—the council must enforce a decision on an application that it originally rejected. It might be better if Mayor Livingstone were responsible for the enforcement and its costs, not the council—in the case of Hornsey and Wood Green, a Labour council. It is not therefore a partisan matter; the Mayor has no such regrets about overturning decisions when it suits.

Let us have a right of appeal for ordinary people. Such safeguards might be of real use in ensuring that developers cannot get away with the worst possible conditions and the Mayor cannot run roughshod over local concerns without any consequences. When conditions are attached at mayoral level, the Mayor should be responsible for dealing with them and subject to punitive arrangements if he does not do so.

There is already a presumption in favour of development, and poor old local people have the deck stacked against them. Unless qualifying criteria hold the Mayor in check, the proposal could make the position worse. Developers will always seek to maximise their profits and the number of units for which they apply. That, along with pressure from the London Mayor in relation to the London plan and Government policy, makes it hard for local authorities to stand up for local people. Unless hundreds of people are involved in a campaign, it is hard to reject an application.

Justine Greening: The hon. Lady is making an impassioned speech, but if she feels so strongly about such a huge issue, will not she back up her words on behalf of her constituents with action and join us in the Lobby to make a real point and force the Government to listen?

Lynne Featherstone: We are in favour of devolution, but I am arguing for better devolution. The breadth of the Bill, and the intention behind it, is correct. If I cannot argue passionately that one element of the Bill needs to be changed in Committee, what is the point of debate? I will not join the hon. Lady in the Lobby. I am trying to make my remarks brief, but not succeeding.

As the hon. Member for Islington, North said—or perhaps the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), I cannot quite remember—it is always the most deprived areas that get dumped on the most. The people who live in those areas do not have the same ability to fight or to hire advice as the articulate middle classes, who are much more able to withstand the ravages of the Mayor. In those areas, we see badly designed, cramped, mainly single aspect flats opening on to internal corridors and overlooking each other.

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I have nothing against appropriate increased density if the buildings are designed well, the space is adequate and the infrastructure can support the increased numbers—God knows, Hornsey and Wood Green is desperate for housing. However, experience has taught me that the reality is often a far cry from the promises made and conditions imposed under the section 106 agreement, to which the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) referred, on development for local people.

If the Bill is to progress, absolute safeguards will be needed on standards of provision for local people, not just promises and warm words. No development should take place unless proper transport, school places and health facilities are provided. A promise that never arrives is not good enough. Without such safeguards, pressure and tensions will build up as people are piled on top of each other. That will result not only in crime and disorder, antisocial behaviour and failure at school, but built-in life deprivation. In Committee, the Liberal Democrats will try hard to persuade the Government to introduce safeguards.

8.39 pm

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): I have enjoyed the debate, and I do not want to denigrate earlier speakers, but as I listened I could not help but think—as an old hand—how much wittier and more informed it would have been if our old friend Tony Banks had been able to contribute, with his great knowledge of the subject.

Let me say a word about the contributions from the Opposition. Leading for the Conservatives, the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) called for more accountability and transparency; but—again, as an old hand—I well remember that when the Tories were in power there were more quangos, and less and less democratic accountability. Local government was shackled. The Tories even abolished the Greater London council, and where they replaced its roles they were performed by quangos.

As for the Liberal Democrats, we heard a very righteous speech from the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), but it boiled down to “We will vote for the Bill on Second Reading, but we are likely to vote against it at a later stage”. How typical of the Liberal Democrats to wait for a later stage, when they can say “We supported it” or, if it suits them, “We opposed it”. The speeches of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats showed that they had one thing in common.

Tom Brake: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the purpose of a Committee stage is to try to improve the Bill? That is what the Liberal Democrats, and presumably he, will seek to achieve, and one of the improvements will clearly be the introduction of substantial changes to the planning proposals.

Harry Cohen: That is an example of the Liberal Democrats having something in common with the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats spoke of—in the hon. Gentleman’s words—the status quo: they favour the negative power that the Mayor already has. Despite the fine words of the hon. Gentleman’s colleague, the
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hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), who talked of the Mayor’s heavy hand intervening in planning matters in her constituency, she supports the status quo, which already gives him that power. It was a great inconsistency on her part.

Along with the Tories, the Liberal Democrats are supporting a deception of families in overcrowded housing in London. More than 150,000 households are in that position, and 62,000 are in temporary accommodation. By putting a block on the Mayor’s ability to go for the strategic approach and provide much more affordable housing, Opposition Members are damaging those people’s prospects of obtaining the housing that they need so much. That is the commonality between the Liberal Democrats and the Tories on this Bill.

Tom Brake: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. May I point out to him first that my local authority, which is controlled by the Liberal Democrats, is meeting the Mayor’s housing targets, and secondly that the effect of the Mayor’s intervention in my constituency has been to delay the provision of affordable housing rather than speed it up?

Harry Cohen: I am talking about the effect across London, not just in an individual borough. The point of the Bill is for the Mayor to speed up the provision of affordable housing, and to provide more of it. By putting a brake on that, Opposition Members are damaging those families in overcrowded conditions.

I know that the Bill is about the mayoralty and the Mayor’s role as an institution, but there have been some derogatory comments about the Mayor himself. The hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway), for instance, talked of the Mayor’s Venezuelan connection. The truth is, though, that the Mayor has a real record of achievement in London. He was very brave to introduce the congestion charge. There may still be congestion problems in London, but on the whole the charge is deemed to be a success. The Mayor has also invested a large amount in public transport and policing in London, which has benefited Londoners. I wanted to pick up those references to him as an individual, although I know we are talking about an institution.

Although the Bill gives the Mayor more powers, they are fairly limited in many ways, and some of them are also quite weak. There are quite a lot of checks, one of which is in the parallel Bill, the Further Education and Training Bill. We discussed that yesterday in the Work and Pensions Committee, as the hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening) said in an intervention. I have to say that the Learning and Skills Council has not been effective in upgrading the skills of Londoners and in meeting job market demands. Also, who is the LSC accountable to? It is better that it comes within the ambit of the Mayor. He will have an overall role—although a weak one—in bringing it together with bodies such as Jobcentre Plus, but he will not have what is needed: some carrots and sticks, for example to make employers do their job properly in respect of improving training. That is an example of a better power for the Mayor, but one that remains quite weak.

There are also the housing and planning functions; I want to discuss planning in particular. There are the
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waste management functions as well. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), and with other interventions including by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), that they are not really good enough for London in the current circumstances as there is a need to have much improved waste management. It is stated that other authorities will have to have a “general conformity” with the Mayor’s waste management strategy. What is a “general conformity”? Does that mean that they can ignore it if they wish? That is not good enough. There should be a control over disposal, and I favour a strategic waste management authority for London as a whole, under the Mayor.

One of the climate change powers is a duty to try to reduce carbon emissions. That is incredibly important, but just how far does it run? I hope that it runs a long way and that the Bill contains a lot of such powers for the Mayor, but I doubt that very much. I suggest that the Liberal Democrats and other Members explore that matter in Committee.

Reducing health inequalities and improving public health is an important role. The Mayor will appoint the regional public health director for London, but, again, the powers are quite weak as all the myriad authorities and health trusts will actually have control—and all of them will have their own public health authorities as well. The Mayor can play an important role on health, but I think that he will only really make an impact at the margins.

The museum of London role is also important, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) said, the Mayor should play a much bigger role in terms of arts and culture in London. That takes us back to Tony Banks, who made a big impact when he played that role for Londoners.

However, I want to talk about housing and planning in particular. Affordable housing is at the heart of this proposed legislation, and that is why I support it. I mentioned that there are a lot of people living in overcrowded and temporary homes, yet we will have population growth of 800,000 over the next 10 years so there is a great need to get on with building houses for families and others who need them. We must, however, be careful when we go on a big housing drive. We must not forget the need for quality—the properties that are built must be of good quality—and nor must we forget that London depends very much on its green spaces. If people are to have a decent environment to live in, the green spaces in many areas must be protected. Such considerations must be the counter to just pushing ahead—to the market approach to housing. They must be built into the plans as well.

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