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9.13 pm

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Con): First, I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests. I am a member of the GLA, and have a particular interest in clause 1, which deals with compensation for retiring GLA members.

It is important to be positive in this debate, and to recognise the GLA’s success. By bringing consistent strategies together with different partners, it has secured a great deal for London. The GLA has been able to represent London’s interests, through its ability to pose questions to the Mayor for two and half hours every month—a grilling longer than anything faced by many Ministers. In addition, the Mayor is represented as an advocate for London, and that is another reason to commend the GLA on its work.

The hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) was right to say that the Bill is very timid. There should be a much more significant improvement in the powers coming down from Government to the GLA. In parallel legislation, it is very disappointing that the Learning and Skills Council responsibility has not been passed to the Mayor, given that the London Development Agency, as part of the regional development agency family, has been a principal deliverer under the GLA.

It strikes me that there is much talk of cognisance of health inequalities in relation to the proposed legislation, but the Mayor is not given the power to deliver directly on health issues. I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) said about the obvious clash between the role the Mayor will be given and the continuing role of NHS London. The GLA should be the place for the strategic health authority. Perhaps the Government could have been even more radical and given PCT powers to successful and well performing councils, and therefore improved democratic accountability in relation to health.

I know that funding flows are likely to be increased in relation to the various granting that takes place from the Government office for London, but I would have
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thought that it would be worth while to give to the GLA some of the crime and disorder grants that GOL currently provides. That would fit in much more appropriately with the policing powers that are there. All that would leave GOL as a small strategic unit with important roles in areas such as resilience and in relation to being a gateway to Government.

There is a lack of a radical approach to the assembly. As other Members suggested, the two-thirds rule has left the assembly as a toothless wonder. One example of real action would be to require the assembly—within the resources provided—to set up a budget and performance office. That would work much more effectively in analysing the performance of the GLA as a whole. In many ways, the assembly benefited from what has already been described in the debate as a generous settlement by the Mayor when it was set up. In many ways, it has been placed in a gilded cage. There is a certain sense of bedevilment about the Mayor, and perhaps even the Government, in terms of having a separate budget for the assembly, which will show just how expensive a project it is. If there were an obligation on the assembly to direct its resources towards a budget performance office, that would be good news.

There also could have been powers for a call-in provision for looking at some of the mayoral decisions, as is provided for in local government. Perhaps we could have looked at the idea of separate billing for the GLA tax. That would go down extremely well with local boroughs that feel that their lower increases in tax are hidden by the GLA’s large increases. It was announced today that there will be another 5.6 per cent. increase above the capping level that the Mayor is proposing.

Tom Brake: The hon. Gentleman mentioned that he is a member of the GLA. He will no doubt have received a copy of the briefing from the chairman of the London assembly, Councillor Brian Coleman. Indeed, he may have written part of it. The briefing states:


The executive summary is congratulatory, or flattering, about the Bill. Is the hon. Gentleman comfortable with the decision that has been taken by colleagues on his Front Bench to vote against the Bill today?

Mr. Pelling: Yes, I am, because I support the approach of the chair of the assembly, which is to be positive about London government. I will vote against the Bill because it does not go far enough and shows a lack of logic in the support that is given to London’s governance.

Finally, perhaps one other small change could have been proposed in the Bill. Thought should be given to the term of the next Mayor of London, which will finish shortly before the Olympic games. Some consideration might be given to that next term finishing in the autumn of 2012, rather than just before the Olympic games take place.

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9.19 pm

Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): Various myths about the Bill have been put around by both the Government and the Mayor of London. In my view, the Bill is not a devolutionary measure. Almost all the new powers will come from the London boroughs, not the Government.

I represent a part of London in which the Mayor is deeply unpopular, although I do not have sufficient time to go through the reasons why. I have always believed that when considering such constitutional changes, it is important to try to separate the personality and the position. In that regard, it is slightly unfortunate that we are talking about a new set of powers when we have had only one Mayor so far. Without having seen Mayors with different personalities and from different political parties over a period of time, it is difficult to determine how the mayoral position will work. It would have been more helpful if the debate had been held in four years’ time. Although my view on constitutional change is that personality should be slightly divorced from position, it is, unfortunately, rather difficult to do so. The Evening Standard, London’s major print media, has said that the debate is about whether people are for or against “More powers for Ken”.

The launch of the consultation in November 2005, which led to the Bill, has been an example of poor government. The process straddled either side of the May borough council elections. If Labour had won dozens of London councils in May, I cannot imagine that the Government would be proposing to shift powers from the boroughs, most of which were run by relatively new Labour authorities, to the present Mayor of London, who is largely out of sync with the Labour leadership. To a large extent, the Bill is a result of headlines such as that in the Evening Standard on 5 May: “Blue is the colour—jubilant Tories crush Labour in London.” Given the timing of the Bill, one cannot help but think that there is a connection. The huge movement of powers from the London boroughs is a blatant attempt to override the results of May’s elections and to deny local democratic choice on matters such as housing and planning.

It is notable that when the GLA was created in 2000, Labour controlled 18 of the 32 London boroughs—just more than half. Today, it controls just eight, or a quarter. Moreover, when one looks at the three layers of government in London, it is the London Mayor who has the most questionable democratic mandate. Turnout in London in the 2005 general election was 58 per cent. The turnout for the 2006 borough elections was 38 per cent. The Mayor was elected in the election with the lowest turnout of the three. The Member who was elected with a share of registered electors nearest to that of the Mayor was the Minister with responsibility for London, the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick). The Bill takes away powers from those with a stronger and more legitimate electoral mandate and gives it to those with a weaker mandate.

My hon. Friends have spoken eloquently about planning. However, a specific point must be made about those who are in charge of regeneration. I strongly object to the same person or committee being responsible for
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both regeneration and planning decisions. I have direct experience of that. In the last eight years of Labour’s control of Hammersmith and Fulham council, the cabinet member for regeneration was also on the planning committee. She was so influential that the administration majority on the planning committee would follow almost her every move.

Why is that important? It is like merging the Executive and the judiciary. Planning is a quasi-judicial function, while regeneration is an executive function. It is extremely difficult to envisage how the Mayor could combine his existing role of promoting economic and social development and that of making decisions on individual planning applications to such an extent.

As I said in an earlier intervention, the Bill misses an opportunity by not fixing the grave problem caused by the Mayor’s powers on consultation. The Mayor carries out an enormous number of consultations, which gives rise both to poor government and to expensive government. It is poor government to ignore routinely the results of consultations, as the Mayor does, and it is expensive government when those consultations simply add to the cost of a scheme. For example, part of the reason why the costs of the west London tram have escalated is the extensive consultation on it.

There are various reasons why the Bill should be opposed. I look forward to its being opposed, or at least amended in Committee.

9.24 pm

Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate, at long last. I have two regrets: the first is that I do not have more time to speak before handing over to the Minister for his closing remarks, and the second is that I am the sole Member representing Wandsworth residents to make any substantive contribution in this debate.

This is an important Bill for London as a whole, and I want to add my voice to those of hon. Members from all parties who have tonight expressed concerns about the changes to the planning process. Like many Londoners, when I first saw the proposals in the Bill, I wondered why on earth the Mayor wanted more powers, when so many current problems fall within his remit. I only have to come to work every day on the District line to experience one of them. I notice that many male hon. Members extolled the virtues of the congestion charge, but from a female perspective, one of its downsides is that now that it has priced women off the roads, it is not much fun going home late at night after a late vote.

On the planning issues, I have genuine concerns about the transferral of powers from London boroughs to the Mayor. Ironically, planning is the one local authority process in which many local residents will ever get involved, and they do so because planning issues are important to them. The impact of planning is felt strongly locally, not only outside the borough, but right at home.

I have another concern about giving the Mayor more powers, because London is a dynamic city that changes all the time. We heard my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) say that it
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had been several years since the Mayor had the chance to visit his part of London. In many respects, that is understandable, as there are 30-plus London boroughs—in fact, the City of London makes it 33. My concern is that the Mayor will simply not have the local knowledge base that he needs to enable him to take an informed decision, when he is presented with a matter on which he will have to take a view.

We risk undermining one of the best processes used by residents, by tinkering with it in a fundamental way. Increasingly, in this internet age, Londoners are using the internet to input into the planning process in a way that is easier than ever before. It worries me that we are proposing to take those powers further away from local communities. A huge regeneration project is taking place in my constituency in Roehampton, and if we can make sure that it works for our local community, it will be extremely welcome. It causes me concern that at a time when we are encouraging residents to say what they want, so that we can make the regeneration exactly right for my area, we may bring about a situation in which the Mayor can torpedo such plans for some ulterior motive that may or may not be in the best interest of local residents. It should be up to us to take a view on what we think is best for us, locally.

There is a danger that we will give the Mayor a planning sledgehammer, which he may use unwittingly and inappropriately. I urge Ministers to pause for thought. Much concern has been expressed about the planning aspects of the Bill, and it is unusual how cross-party that concern is. I urge the Minister to pause and think about the matter when the Bill is in Committee, and to really consider whether its provisions are the best way of approaching the subject.

9.28 pm

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening) who, as ever, spoke with commendable pithiness and authority. We have had a lively and well-informed debate, and I pay tribute to all hon. Members who spoke. From among Labour Members, we heard contributions from the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) and the hon. Members for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen), for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), and for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush (Mr. Slaughter). All of them found flaws in the legislation, save the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush. I am sure that he will find his reward in heaven, or after a change of party leadership—whichever he reaches first.

I particularly single out the speech made by the hon. Member for Vauxhall, who drew attention to several key flaws in the Bill, specifically as it relates to the Mayor’s planning powers and the way in which it would rob local councils of real accountability. It would give the Mayor power over section 106 moneys—a power that he could use in a way that would penalise local communities and rob them of the resources that they need when they embrace development.

From the Liberal Democrats, there were interesting speeches by the hon. Members for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), and for Hornsey and Wood
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Green (Lynne Featherstone). They rubbished a central plank of the legislation, but they nevertheless support the Bill. I thought that letting it be known that one opposes the central plank of a Government proposal but voting for it anyway was the prerogative of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but I am delighted that the Liberal Democrats have maintained their stance of organised hypocrisy.

I wish to single out my hon. Friends the Members for Orpington (Mr. Horam), for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway), for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling), for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett), for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott), for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), for Cities of London and Westminster, for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) and for Putney (Justine Greening), all of whom spoke with authority and passion. They were effective advocates for their communities, which the Bill will rob of the powers that local people want to be exercised locally. At the heart of the debate is the question of accountability and the principle of devolution. Our approach to the Bill is straightforward and coherent, unlike the Government’s. When the Government cede power to the Mayor of London—however inept some of the Bill’s provisions, that is what they are partly seeking to do—we will support them. When devolution occurs we are in favour, but unfortunately, much of the Bill is devoted to sucking power up from local councils and the boroughs that comprise London’s rich and diverse democratic culture. It is those provisions that we wholeheartedly oppose. Because much of the Bill depends on taking power up instead of devolving it down, the measure is not at all devolutionary.

The Minister for Housing and Planning said that the Bill would result in power being devolved to the boroughs, but there is not a single clause that devolves powers down to London boroughs, so she made a deliberately misleading attempt to sell a flawed measure. She said, too, that she was delighted that Greater London authority legislation had given London a Mayor who provided a strong voice for the city. It is remarkable that she should try to take the credit for that, as her party tried to strangle that voice by denying Mayor Livingstone the chance to be elected under a Labour banner, only to clasp him to its bosom once he had proved that he was a winner—a flip-flop typical of the Government’s approach to local government.

Tom Brake: On the subject of flip-flops, will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Michael Gove: The hon. Gentleman is an expert on flip-flops, but I think that we heard enough from him earlier.

At the centre of the Bill, as we acknowledge, are the questions of housing and planning. New housing powers are needed in London because there are problems with overcrowding and lack of supply, which were highlighted in my hon. Friends’ eloquent contributions. If we are to increase the housing supply in London, we must look at which boroughs have delivered on the ground and exceeded their housing target. Wandsworth has exceeded it by 168 per cent., Westminster by 124 per cent., Bromley by 124 per cent., and Bexley by 205 per cent. Those councils are all united by the fact that they are Conservative-controlled: they deliver housing, they exceed their targets, and they deliver for their voters.

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At the bottom of the league table, the councils that fail to deliver housing are Camden, which delivers only 90 per cent. of its targets, Barking, which delivers only 83 per cent., Merton, which delivers only 54 per cent., and Waltham Forest, which delivers only 45 per cent. All those councils are united by the fact that until recently they were Labour-led. There is a record of Labour failure to deliver housing to the people of London. The answer to the question of what we can do to increase housing supply in London is clear—vote Conservative.

The Bill’s planning powers were criticised by the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich, and by the hon. Member for Vauxhall, who rightly pointed out that the Mayor exercises his powers in secret and that there is a lack of transparency. As the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, there are serious questions about whether the extension of his powers will lead to a conflict of interest and allegations of impropriety. We have heard about the bureaucratic nature of the process.

The Minister said that the Mayor interfered in very few planning applications.

Sadly, the facts are different.

as Robert Burns pointed out—and the facts in this case show that the Mayor has intervened in planning applications 1,269 times. Excluding high days and holy days, he has intervened for every day that he has been in power. Under the current powers, he was not able to get his way, but the Minister wants the Mayor to have his way. She would open the door to the Mayor’s interfering in more and more decisions.

That interference would lead to the system becoming more bureaucratic and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) observed, that would lead to greater delays. Westminster council manages to process 75 per cent. of its planning applications within 13 weeks. The Government’s target is 60 per cent. of planning applications. Once again, a Conservative council is delivering a better service for its residents, and in consequence more housing. Under the provisions of the Bill, the Mayor would intervene nine weeks after the planning application was received—a recipe for further confusion, delay and bureaucracy, and the frustration of residents’ demand for speedy processing of planning applications and better housing.

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman is a logical man. Will he please address this issue: if he believes the new powers will cause delay in the delivery of new housing, will he explain how an intervention by the Mayor to require an authority that was going to refuse housing to agree it will delay the provision of housing?

Michael Gove: As I was explaining, the Mayor’s powers to intervene will spin out the process to an interminable extent. It is important that we recognise that the most effective way of delivering the local housing that Londoners need is through Conservative councils delivering in tune with their voters’ wishes. As the historical record shows, when Conservatives are in power planning applications are processed more quickly, and more housing is delivered. When Labour councils are in power, or when a Labour Mayor is in power, unfortunately the wishes of local people, and housing delivery, are frustrated.

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