Previous Section Index Home Page

12 Dec 2006 : Column 829

The system envisaged by the Bill will be bureaucratic and, as the right hon. Gentleman was forced to concede, less democratic. It was he who asked why there was no definition of “strategic” in the Bill. We are assured by the Minister that we will have a definition before Committee stage. Why can we not have it now, when we are voting on Second Reading this evening? Why is the definition being kept covert, just as the Mayor will exercise his powers in secret?

The hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush and the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich both said that they wanted clarity. The Opposition want clarity, not least about Labour Members’ position on how the Mayor should exercise his powers.

Tom Brake: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Michael Gove: No, thank you. When I want clarity I will not go to the Liberal Democrats for it. I have been disappointed there often enough.

The hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush recalled that in his area he opposed a planning application on Goldhawk road, even though the Mayor was in favour of it, yet he now wants to give the Mayor the power to override the people whom he represents, and even though he knows that the Mayor made the wrong decision in the past.

The hon. Member for Hendon discussed the Vauxhall tower scheme. He backed the Mayor’s decision to say yes to that scheme, but as the hon. Member for Vauxhall pointed out, every party in Lambeth opposed the scheme. Why? Because it did not provide enough affordable housing units at the time. The hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush says that the key thing that Labour wants to do is to increase the delivery of affordable housing. The Mayor frustrated that in connection with that planning application, so as the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich can see, the Mayor’s intervention is not always on the side of delivering more housing. Often, it is on the side of frustrating it.

At the heart of this confused Bill lies a philosophical—indeed, an ideological—cleavage at the heart of the Department sponsoring it. We have, in the shape of the Minister for Housing and Planning, the voice of central control, and we have, in the shape of the Secretary of State, the sometimes muted voice of localism. In the course of her remarks today, the Minister said that the Bill was about allowing the Mayor to do his job. The Mayor will be best placed to intervene, she said. But the Secretary of State, speaking in Lewisham, said:

That shows a clear split between the instinctive devolver and the clunking-fist centraliser.

That is not the first time that the Minister and the Secretary of State have been divided. As I have pointed out, the Bill is about delivering housing, which is where they are philosophically divided. The Minister for Housing and Planning has said:

12 Dec 2006 : Column 830

Those are admirable sentiments. However, the Secretary of State has been reported as urging local residents in her constituency to

after she blocked plans for 1,700 new homes. The chairman of her council’s planning committee has said:

The nimby Secretary of State and the pro-development Minister are once again responsible for introducing confused and incoherent legislation. With such a divided Department, is it any wonder that we have such a confused Bill?

Yvette Cooper: Will the hon. Gentleman put his hand on his heart and tell us that he agrees with the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) about the need to build 200,000 homes, and about where they should be built? The hon. Member for Meriden says that she has not said that, but the hon. Gentleman has.

Michael Gove: I am as one with the leader of our Communities and Local Government team. On every aspect of housing and planning policy we present a coherent and united front, which is, sadly, unlike the Minister and the Secretary of State. The Minister’s embarrassment at again having been exposed as taking a different line from her boss drove her to the Dispatch Box, but her attack has misfired.

Tom Brake: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Michael Gove: No, thank you. I realise that, as a Liberal Democrat, the hon. Gentleman is an expert in different lines, but I will not give way at this point.

We will shortly hear from the Minister for London, and I hope that we shall hear some clarity from him. I sympathise with him on being moved from the Department for Communities and Local Government to the Department of Trade and Industry—which, I have read, the Chancellor of the Exchequer now wants to get rid of. As a housing spokesman, I sympathise with his living in a condemned building, but given that he is condemning thousands of post offices to closure, I suspect that that sympathy may be limited.

We will oppose this legislation, because we believe in genuine devolution and do not want to support a power grab from local communities. We believe in genuine accountability and power exercised at the most appropriate level. The Bill will give the Mayor of London power without accountability, the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.

9.43 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Jim Fitzpatrick): I am pleased to have the chance to close this Second Reading debate. I begin by thanking all those hon. Members who contributed to our lively debate, which includes more than the previous contribution.

My interest in the Bill is due to not only the facts that I enjoy the position of Minister for London, that I have been a Londoner for more than 30 years and that my constituency, Poplar and Canning Town, is at the
12 Dec 2006 : Column 831
heart of east London and docklands, but because, as a former employee of the Greater London council as a fireman—in gender-neutral language, a firefighter—I was very involved in the democracy for London campaign, which fought against the abolition of the GLC in the ’80s. I was also pleased to serve on the Greater London Authority Act 1999, which restored London’s government. It was very disappointing to hear that Conservative Members will vote against the Bill tonight—I was disappointed, but not surprised.

Many hon. Members have catalogued their attitude to strategic London government, and I shall try to respond to a number of those points. The hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) asked for an evidence-taking session before the Bill begins its parliamentary scrutiny. However, she knows that we had extensive consultation over many months on our manifesto proposals for additional powers and responsibilities. As my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning has outlined, further discussions are still taking place and reports will be given to the Committee in due course.

The hon. Lady raised specific points about mayoral planning powers. She said that the Mayor would not consult the boroughs on the London housing strategy. Section 41 of the Greater London Authority Act requires the Mayor to consult boroughs on drafts or revisions to his statutory strategies. On call-ins, the powers of the Secretary of State are unchanged. The Secretary of State will not have the power to overturn a decision by the Mayor to take over an application but will retain a power to call in the application for his or her own decision. The changes do not do away with the role of the planning inspectorate. Inspectors will continue to consider appeals where applications are refused by the Mayor or by the boroughs.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) drew on his considerable experience, especially from the passage of the original GLA Bill, on which he led. He effectively dispatched as nitpicking many of the points raised by Opposition Front Benchers. He perfectly described how and why the original proposals were so modest and why this Bill should be welcomed. He entertained us with his reference to the Tories’ disarray on the Bill and the similarity to their position in 1999—his own version of “Groundhog Day”.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) challenged the continuing existence of the Government office for London. GOL has an important role to play. It represents central Government across the capital, delivering polices and programmes for 10 Departments in a joined-up way—and it is here to stay. The recent review of the Government office network by the Treasury and the Department for Communities and Local Government confirmed the important role that it plays, but it needs to be leaner and more strategic. GOL is responding to that challenge. Its staff numbers have fallen by more than 27 per cent. since October 2004, and its budget has decreased. I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to its director, Liz Meek, and her colleagues for all that they do for London.

The hon. Gentleman repeated the inaccurate statistic that the Mayor has intervened in 1,200 planning applications. In reality, the Mayor has been referred about 300 applications a year under the current
12 Dec 2006 : Column 832
thresholds. That is in line with original expectations, and it does not mean that he has intervened. He has directed refusal in very few cases. GLA figures show that he did so in only four cases in 2004-05.

The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) raised health inequalities. Many of the determinants of poor health among Londoners are non-health issues such as poor housing and transport, emissions and accidents, which often have a disproportionate impact on disadvantaged and black and minority ethnic communities. The Mayor, working with the London strategic health authority, is best placed to tackle the health determinants within his control and to work with other stakeholders to identify and tackle lifestyle choices such as smoking and participation in sports. His role is to promote a reduction in health inequalities, not to take a direct role in the delivery of health services.

The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) alleged that section 106 moneys will be siphoned off by the Mayor. Section 106 rules clearly state that there must be a close relationship between the section 106 agreement and the proposed development and that the agreement is necessary for the development to proceed. We are clear that the boroughs should be fully involved in section 106 issues and propose that they will decide applications in the first instance and will be consulted by the Mayor when he takes on this responsibility.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) spoke about London’s housing problems and strongly supported the Government’s proposals to address those needs. The hon. Member for Orpington was not at all impressed and outlined his opposition.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), in one of his shorter contributions, began by suggesting a regular London Adjournment debate. I have personal sympathy with that idea. London’s contribution to the UK economy and London MPs’ understanding of the issues in the capital deserve greater attention. My hon. Friend also mentioned his opposition to our proposals on waste. My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning explained the reasons behind the proposals and I am sure that we shall revert to them in detail in Committee.

The hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) said that the requirement for 50 per cent. affordable housing puts developers off. The London plan states that the 50 per cent. affordable housing target is a strategic target for London as a whole. It does not require each housing proposal to achieve 50 per cent., and the individual circumstances of each site will be taken into account. He also said that the Mayor should not be allowed to discourage high carbon-emitting cars by using policies such as those of the London borough of Richmond. The Government welcome initiatives such as those undertaken by Richmond to limit emissions from cars. We encourage innovative local initiatives to tackle increasing emissions from road transport and believe that the Mayor has an important role to play in that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) asked why I nodded at her and at the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field). I was indicating my understanding of the
12 Dec 2006 : Column 833
points that they both made, not agreeing with either, let alone both of them. She asked several specific questions. She raised concerns that the Mayor would not be required to hear representations from those affected by development proposals. We will require the Mayor to hear representations from those directly affected by proposals and to prepare and publish a statement, setting out the way in which he will make decisions.

My hon. Friend also said that the Mayor should not be able to table the schemes for tall buildings because he said that he was in favour of them generally. There is no inherent conflict, but each planning application must be judged on its merits. I agree that the Mayor must act and be seen to act in a way that does not prejudge the outcome of an application. He will need to take particular care about his public statements and behaviour in relation to planning applications, especially when one of his functional bodies has an interest in an application. We will encourage the GLA standards committee to draw up a code of conduct to cover the Mayor’s new role in planning applications.

The hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) was disappointed that I laughed when he dismissed my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning and my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich as technocrats who had no passion while praising the opening speech of the hon. Member for Beckenham. All I can say is that we must have been in different Chambers. However, I meant no offence—it was an involuntary guffaw of disbelief.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) outlined the history of London government and the Conservative party’s disappointing record over the decades. He also raised his concern about housing needs in the capital and reserve powers for the Secretary of State.

London is of national importance in housing and has an impact on the wider south-east. Almost half the national affordable housing programme in England is spent in London. It is therefore only sensible that the Mayor’s powers are subject to the Secretary of State’s reserved powers and that his housing strategy and recommendations on funding must be consistent with national policies. The provisions go well beyond those that we have devolved to the regional assemblies, reflecting the capital’s unique structure.

Jeremy Corbyn: Will my hon. Friend be cautious and not keep using the word “affordable” about housing? People in much of inner London cannot afford to buy anything and it is therefore much better if he uses expressions such as “social housing” or “housing for controlled rent.”

Jim Fitzpatrick: I thank my hon. Friend for his advice. I did not realise that I had used the word as often as he implies, but I take his point.

The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) mentioned local involvement in consultation, which my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall also raised. The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green and my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) spoke passionately about housing, but my hon. Friend had much greater
12 Dec 2006 : Column 834
confidence in our determination to make progress and in the Mayor and the boroughs to deliver.

In shorter contributions than they had perhaps prepared, the hon. Members for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott), for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), for Cities of London and Westminster, for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling), for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) and for Putney (Justine Greening) relevantly raised housing, health, accountability and scrutiny, mayoral powers and the boroughs, the timidity of the Bill, skills and training, crime reduction partnerships and the congestion charge. The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst sadly managed to drag in the problems of West Ham United. I suggest to him that, by the time we successfully conclude Committee proceedings, he and I will happily be singing, “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” together again. It is instructive, however, that the two London assembly members who sit on the Conservative Benches have indicated that they are voting against the Bill as it does not go far enough and is not bold enough, in contrast to their right hon. and hon. Friends who all believe that it goes too far. I suggest that those two hon. Gentlemen are going in the wrong direction and should join us in the Lobby tonight.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), winding up for the Opposition, raised the issue of flip-flops: a fair point. Given the recent policy reverses from the Conservative party, it was made with the authority of real experience. He spoke of the failure in housing policy, which, I would point out, goes back decades. It is a policy failure that we are now starting to put right.

The question of the GLA’s budget was raised by several Members. In 2006-07, 73 per cent. of the GLA precept went to the Metropolitan Police Authority. The precept also contributes to other key London services, such as fire and emergency planning. Only 3 per cent. goes to fund the core GLA, while 7 per cent. goes to fund the Olympics. The GLA precept has helped to fund a substantial increase in the number of police officers since the creation of the GLA: 5,658 more, a 22.7 per cent. increase between March 2001 and March 2006. That compares with an increase of about 10 per cent. for all other forces in England and Wales. It also supports the roll-out of neighbourhood policing across the capital: three quarters of the policing precept increase for 2006-07 is related to neighbourhood policing.

Furthermore, the Mayor does not have an unfettered power in setting the precept. The assembly has the power to amend the precept by a two thirds majority, which has provided an important constraint on the Mayor’s ability to set the GLA group budget. As the House knows, the Government are prepared to take capping action to deal with excessive council tax increases. We would take such action in relation to all authorities if necessary, including the GLA.

Next Section Index Home Page