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House of Commons

Friday 19 January 2007

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means took the Chair as Deputy Speaker, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Orders of the Day

Sustainable Communities Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

9.34 am

Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill will make the Government more responsive to an issue that arouses genuine passion and concern—the problem of community decline in Britain. It will push the Government to go further in giving real power to local authorities and the people whom they serve. That is the only path to delivering sustainable communities that will stand the test of time.

The Bill is tenacious—in various forms, it has fought for life for more than five years. It is therefore right to start by paying tribute to the work of hon. Members who sponsored and supported its previous incarnations. I am thinking in particular of the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) of the Liberal Democrats, the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) of the Labour party and my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), who is sitting alongside me.

I also wish to place on record my respect for the campaign group, Local Works, which has built and held together an extraordinary coalition to support the Bill. The breadth of that coalition is amazing. Any Bill that unites the Campaign for Real Ale and the National Federation of Women’s Institutes must be worth considering. The Bill’s principles unite 72 other national organisations, 300 local organisations, 1,000 parish councils, nearly 100 local authorities, the Conservative party, the Liberal Democrats and last, but by no means least, 170 Labour Members of Parliament who signed early-day motion 641 in the previous Session. I am told that, since then, the proportion of Labour Members of Parliament who have expressed support for the principles of the Bill has risen to more than 50 per cent. Out of respect for the strong cross-party support for the measure, I weighted the list of sponsors to reflect the balance of hon. Members in the House.

A sensible Minister would consider seriously any Bill that can forge such consensus, and I believe that we are dealing today with a sensible Minister—the Minister for Local Government. Time will tell. He should be encouraged to resist the predictable frogs’ chorus of
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opposition from Department officials suffering from not-invented-here syndrome. He should be in no doubt about the chord that the measure and the principles behind it has struck with the public we serve. Twenty thousand people have signed up to the Local Works campaign. Hon. Members who have taken part in the more than 70 public meetings throughout the country will testify that they have been packed and vociferous in their support for the measure.

What drives the rainbow coalition? It is common concern about what appears to be remorseless community decline in Britain and what that means for quality of life. The decline is well documented, not least through the incisive work of the New Economics Foundation and the all-party group on small shops. It is driven by the loss of key local services—often the hubs of the community. The statistics are stark. In the past decade, we have lost a fifth of our post office network, a quarter of our local grocery stores, a quarter of our bank branch network and more than 30,000 independent community retailers—the people who can often brighten our day with their enthusiasm and passion for the management of their business and their willingness to help others.

The decline affects not only the high street but the quality of our public spaces. According to English Heritage, 40 per cent. of urban parks are in decline, with only 18 per cent. considered to be in good condition. Spending on community halls has also suffered a dramatic decline in real terms in the past 25 years. However, hon. Members do not need statistics or third-party reports to grasp that problem. Most of us have all the evidence that we need in our constituencies.

In Ruislip and Northwood, we are fighting a constant battle to try to preserve the identity and character of places such as Harefield and Eastcote in the face of enormous pressure. Those open spaces are under threat from the planning regime. Local shopping parades struggle with the challenge of big, uniform warehouses, squatting on a ring road that is choked with traffic. Local service providers are under constant budget pressure, without the flexibility to respond if they do not comply with national targets.

Yet I suspect that we are the lucky ones. Across Britain, people living in many town centres and small rural towns and villages feel that the guts of their community have been ripped out. It is not enough for us in this place to say, “Oh well, that’s the market working” because, in some cases, such as post offices, public policy has been a driver. We are confronted with growing evidence of the genuine social cost that the market trend imposes on us. It is a cost to the communities in which we live and that we hope to pass on to others as vibrant places to live, work and raise children. It is also a cost on our ability to deal with some themes that should concern us nationally. I should like to concentrate briefly on four of them.

First, there is the cost to our quality of life, which is felt particularly by elderly people, who tend to be less mobile and rely more heavily on local services, such as the shop on the corner or the community pharmacy. It is no surprise that both Age Concern and Help the Aged are vociferous supporters of the Bill. The latter put it well:

The growing risk of street crime is also of concern. In my constituency, the once vibrant shopping parade in Northwood Hills is struggling to avoid a spiral of decline. As leases come up for renewal, independent shops give way to fast food outlets, which bring litter and attract yobs who intimidate and vandalise. As a result, resources are diverted, not least from the police, residents get disillusioned and the circle and cycle of decline continues.

Secondly, there is a cost to our economy, as the loss of community retailers means that less money is circulating around local producers. Small businesses rely heavily on post offices and local bank branches for the management of their cash flow. That ought to be a real concern for central Government, because the vibrancy of the small business sector matters hugely at the national level. Small businesses employ half the work force in the country. Under normal conditions, they should be the engine of growth and innovation in the economy. Declining high streets and the concentration of retail power appear to be working against their interests. Community decline therefore carries a big cost to our quality of life and to our economy.

Thirdly, there is the cost to the environment, local and global. The local cost of community decline can be found in dirty streets, badly maintained parks and children’s playgrounds covered in graffiti—in my constituency, often on the morning after having been set up. The global cost stems from our increased dependence on the car and our difficulty in meeting targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Minister should need no reminding that carbon dioxide emissions have risen in this country since 1997, and that transport is widely recognised to be the problem sector. It represents 20 per cent. of emissions and is the only sector whose emissions are growing. About two thirds of transport emissions come from motor vehicles. Those emissions have grown by 8 per cent. between 1990 and 2000 and the Government forecast that they will grow by another 8 per cent. between 2000 and 2010. We have an urgent imperative to control those emissions.

The path to reducing emissions does not lie simply in encouraging us to drive cleaner cars. We need to consider how land and space can be used more intelligently to reduce our need to travel. What we are allowing to happen flies in the face of that. With the loss of local amenities, we are having to travel more. The average person now travels a staggering 893 miles a year to shop for food, which is itself now travelling ridiculous distances to reach the supermarket.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a crossover between such environmental concerns and concerns about social exclusion? People in small rural communities are obliged to drive to get to essential services, but those who do not have access to cars, and
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who do not have public transport available, certainly in areas such as mine, are socially excluded and do not have access to the services that they need.

Mr. Hurd: The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely important point well. The issue of public transport and rural services has been extensively debated in the House without, as far as I can see, any satisfactory response from the Government.

With regard to the pressure to travel more, let me give one example that brings home the impact on emissions. Transport 2000 and the Campaign for Community Banking Services have calculated that the decision to close just one bank branch in Shepshed near Loughborough resulted in an additional 1.4 million road miles per year being travelled by the residents of Shepshed, and more than 500 extra tonnes of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere. If we are serious about tackling greenhouse gas emissions, we cannot afford to be complacent in the face of such trends.

Fourthly, there is the cost to our democratic health. With the sense of community decline and loss of identity comes a sense of disillusion about our ability to shape what is important to our quality of life.

Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): As the Bill applies to Wales as well as England, has the hon. Gentleman had any consultation with the Welsh Assembly Government or with anyone in Wales at all?

Mr. Hurd: I have not done so personally, but supporters of the campaign have discussed the matter extensively and the treatment of Wales is made explicit in the Bill. I would be delighted to hear further interventions from the hon. Gentleman, or possibly a speech, later. [Interruption.] Some reservations have been expressed from those on the Benches behind me on that last point.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): I assure the hon. Gentleman that I have been contacted by a large number of constituents—as, I am sure, have Welsh Members on both sides of the House—who support his Bill and wish it well.

Mr. Hurd: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention. He reminds me that I spoke to the people of Wales this morning on BBC Radio Essex— [Interruption.] And BBC Radio Wales. It was clear from the programme that the problems tackled by the Bill are felt keenly in Wales, where community decline is a real issue.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): May I give the hon. Gentleman some good news? Councillor Catherine Hoyle put a motion before Chorley borough council supporting you and your objectives—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. It is Friday morning, but the hon. Gentleman should still use the correct parliamentary language.

Mr. Hoyle: I just want to let you know that— [Laughter.]

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Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I shall just give the hon. Gentleman a moment to reflect before he continues.

Mr. Hoyle: Just to let you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the Government Whips are not as effective as Mrs. Hoyle, so I will be supporting this important Bill.

Mr. Hurd: I am grateful to both the hon. Gentleman and Mrs. Hoyle for that intervention.

I want to return to the issue of popular disillusion about our ability to do anything about the problem. As a result—this point is reflected clearly in the Power inquiry set up in 2006—people are less likely to get involved in the community, let alone vote, and that is generally agreed to be a bad thing. The Bill attempts to do what the report calls

which is to give power to local communities and empower citizens.

Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): Will my hon. Friend confirm that his constituents find it bizarre that while councillors can oppose planning applications in which valued areas of their communities would be lost to garden-grabbing developments, that opposition founders on the national guidance implemented by inspectors? Does not that undermine their faith in the democratic system?

Mr. Hurd: I am delighted to take that intervention, not only because my hon. Friend is a well-known champion of localism and has probably done more than anyone in the House to throw a spotlight on the issue of garden grabbers, but because he raises a point that strikes a real chord in my constituency. Probably the single biggest issue in my constituency is the feeling of disconnection, and the sense that, whatever the local view on a controversial planning application, what drives the final decision is an inspector sitting in Bristol complying with national guidelines. Nothing makes the community feel more powerless to shape its environment than that.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): Will my hon. Friend comment on the role of regional assemblies in the planning process? In Bournemouth, that organisation, which is believed to be undemocratic and unaccountable, has told us to build 20,000 extra houses. That has no connection to Bournemouth’s needs and is not helping us to create a sustainable community.

Mr. Hurd rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am happy to allow the hon. Gentleman to respond to the intervention, but I do not want the debate to stray too far from the subject of the Bill.

Mr. Hurd: I respect your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) for his intervention, because it too strikes a strong chord in the context of the area in which I live. The role of regional assemblies in general is emotive, especially among Conservative
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Members, who have a completely different view of their purpose and legitimacy from Labour Members. The point of the Bill is to push power down to democratically accountable local authorities.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): My hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way. In dealing with the important subject of democratic health, he has said much about the needs of old people. Will he bear it in mind that young people also feel very detached from decisions made in their communities? There seems to be a common misconception that all that young people need is a skateboard park and a pat on the head, and they will be fine. Actually, they have some very smart ideas about how their communities can be made more receptive to them so that they will want to grow up in those communities and bring up their own families in them later.

Mr. Hurd: I am delighted by my hon. Friend’s intervention. If he pries into the innards of the Bill, he will see that at its heart are Government and local authority responsibilities to consult local communities, and that there is specific provision for consultation with younger people.

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Con): What is so potent and powerful about my hon. Friend’s Bill is that it will turn planning topsy-turvy in trying to prevent the introduction of irrelevant nationally or regionally set guidelines that will impose unnecessary housing on communities. What we need is family housing, not one-bedroom or two-bedroom units that often involve a huge intensification of land use in suburbs. We do need housing, and we may well see back gardens being used, but we do not want a huge change in the style of housing when communities do not need it. As I have said, what we need is more family housing, particularly in areas such as Greater London, parts of which my hon. Friend and I represent.

Mr. Hurd: I understand and respect my hon. Friend’s point. I should make it clear that the Bill is not at all prescriptive at this stage; it simply says that we need to give local communities more influence and power over what shapes them.

The Bill makes an honest and almost certainly imperfect attempt to address what I have tried to show is a real social problem—the cost attached to the decline of our communities. It combines two of the most pressing themes in politics today, the need to give people more power and the need to pay more attention to the protection of our environment. I believe that all three main parties subscribe to those priorities. The Bill tries to give them legislative shape, so that we can begin to deliver on them. Its purpose is not merely to send a message: we want to see it on the statute book. We must therefore answer the question that the late great Eric Forth would certainly have asked were he in his place today. [Hon. Members: “Oh, he is!”] I suspect that, in some form or other, he may be.

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