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The question that Eric would have asked of the Bill is “Why is it essential?” The answer is, quite simply, “Because there is no coherent Government strategy to deal with the problem.” Yes, there have been plenty of
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programmes and initiatives and plenty of documents with the word “sustainable” written on them, but they do not hang together in a coherent and focused whole.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I sat through many of the late Eric Forth’s speeches, as he sat through many of mine. I think that the question he would have asked first is “What is the price tag attached to this Bill?” What estimate has the hon. Gentleman made of the cost of the additional bureaucracy that the Bill would create, which would have to be met by the council tax payer and the central Government taxpayer?

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): It will take fewer than 62,000 letters.

Mr. Hurd: I am not tempted to pursue the line of inquiry recommended to me. The short answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is this. The additional cost of the national allocation plans for which clause 2 provides will fall entirely to the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the day. As for the community spending plans, they are all about the opportunity to redirect pots of money. I will deal with the bureaucracy issue later, as I suspect that the Minister may wish to raise it.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): I was very fond of Eric Forth, but I was not fond of the way in which he often talked out very good Bills—it seems that I want to have my cake and eat it—and I do not like that attitude on either side of the House. I have come here today to support the hon. Gentleman’s Bill, but I urge him to be even-handed politically. This is not about one Government or one term of government; the ravaging of our communities has taken place over 30 or 40 years, and in my constituency much of it happened during the Thatcher years. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will keep the political balance right, because although there is something very wrong with the way in which our communities are being undermined, it is not a purely political matter. I hope that he will keep an all-party coalition behind him.

Mr. Hurd: I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he has said. I am sorry if I have given any such impression, for it would be entirely counter to my interests and instincts. I know that what is distinctive about the Bill is the cross-party consensus behind it. The hon. Gentleman’s point about a long-term trend is well founded: we are talking about a trend that goes back over 20 or 25 years and spans various Governments.

Let me return to why the Bill is essential. Its premise is that there is no coherent strategy at present, and that one is required. There have been plenty of initiatives, as I said earlier, but the whole approach has been undermined by a key failing, which has been identified by Professor Anne Hill of the London School of Economics in a document published by the Government’s own Sustainable Development Commission. She wrote of the Deputy Prime Minister’s sustainable communities five-year plan:

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The Bill is required because existing laws and mechanisms are not adequate.

It is not clear that either the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, which we will debate on Monday, or the Lyons review will give the issue of community decline enough prominence. The Lyons report will focus primarily on the financing of local government, while the Bill is essentially about its governance—although, as the Minister will undoubtedly tell us, bits of it take us further down the path of devolving power and improving local accountability.

My Bill does not contradict Government legislation; it complements the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill by giving prominence to the issue of sustainable communities. It will give real teeth to local area agreements, and will push the Government further in the direction of devolution in which they need to travel in order to make a real difference.

The Bill specifies four necessary steps. First, it requires central Government to give more priority to the promotion of sustainable communities, and makes them accountable for delivering a long-term action plan in support of that aim. It requires them to draw up that plan in a different, bottom-up way, with the real participation of communities and residents acting through their local authorities. Secondly, it will give local authorities the right to demand and receive a breakdown of central Government spending on local services in their areas. I emphasise the distinction between the money that is already passed to local government and the money spent by central Government directly through Departments and through their network of agencies and quangos in the communities that we represent.

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that that spending would include area-based initiatives, which are directly funded and are not directly reflected in local government spending?

Mr. Hurd: I thank the hon. Lady for her helpful intervention. I am happy to confirm that important point. We are talking about money spent by central Government through their network in our communities. At present that money is invisible to us: it is extraordinarily hard to obtain proper information on how it is being spent.

As I have said, the Bill will give local authorities the right to demand and receive a breakdown of spending on local services in their areas. The Secretary of State will be required to secure approval in Parliament for his or her definition of the services that can be carved out as “of primarily national significance”. The move towards greater transparency is radical, but surely it is time to demand more transparency when it comes to the money that central Government are spending in our areas. Today it is invisible to the communities that are supposed to benefit from it. Without transparency, there can be little accountability. That must change,
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particularly at a time when, as we all know, people feel that they are being fully taxed and are asking “Where has the money gone?” It is time to show us the money.

The third step in the Bill will give local authorities the right to go back to the Government with an alternative spending plan for the community allocations identified in an earlier clause.

Anne Milton (Guildford) (Con): My hon. Friend mentioned participation; that is the key element of the Bill. Many communities are consulted—consultation goes on across the public sector—but participation is the key. Until local people feel that they are participating, the disillusionment will remain.

Mr. Hurd: I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention; it is important that I confirm that that is at the heart of the Bill. Its first step, as spelled out in clause 2, is the formulation of a national strategic plan, and what is different about that plan is that it must be seen to absorb bottom-up, community-driven recommendations and inputs. That must be part of the process, and there is a requirement on the Secretary of State to come to the House and explain why decisions have been taken—and why inputs have been rejected, if they have. There must be much stronger transparency and a much stronger sense of accountability.

Let me return to the allocation of money, because that is where real power flows. The Bill requires greater transparency. It requires central Government to show us what they are spending in our areas, and it gives our local authorities the right to absorb that information and to present alternative plans for the use of that money to the Secretary of State.

Members will be starting to think about how money could be redeployed in their constituencies, as I am in respect of mine. We might identify a piece of local spending—by the Environment Agency perhaps, or English Nature, or the Learning and Skills Council or the Government office for London—that we think is of dubious value set against the value of keeping a post office open in a village, for example, or, in my constituency, extending the opening hours of Northwood police station. The Bill would offer us an opportunity to step up and make the case for redeploying such funds, with a real chance of influencing decisions.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I warmly congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his speech, and on promoting this Bill. Will the process he is describing extend to health services? In my constituency, the centralisation of mental health and maternity services is, we estimate, leading to about an extra 4,000 journeys a year from Cheltenham to Gloucester and vice versa. That is taking the heart out of the community, increasing greenhouse gases and making services less local.

Mr. Hurd: I completely understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. The Bill is not prescriptive at this stage, and I anticipate that there would be quite a debate about where the line is drawn between investment in health services that is primarily of national significance—acute health care is a good example of that—and health care investment that is
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primarily of local significance. The Bill places a duty on the Secretary of State to make such definitions, and to make a case for them before the House and to win that case.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): I understand that my hon. Friend’s Bill is not prescriptive, but how permissive is it? For example, my constituents in Salisbury fail to understand why it is that while almost all our households are now recycling glass on a weekly basis and sorting out their rubbish, every day they see council trucks driving around and collecting all the glass from all the pubs, clubs, hotels and restaurants and then taking that straight to landfill sites. That should not happen. It happens because of the way that the rules are set up for recycling and charging. I would have thought that to address such matters should be permitted under the Bill; is that the case?

Mr. Hurd: To be honest, I will need to think that issue through more clearly. The value of the exercise in the Bill is that it creates a climate in which such issues can be discussed more transparently, with a much better chance of effecting change.

Once the local authorities have exercised their right—it is a right, not a duty—to receive explanations in respect of the money spent and to suggest to the Secretary of State alternative uses for it, step four of the Bill places a presumption on the Secretary of State to accept the local plan and requires him or her to publish any amendments, or any reasons for not accepting the plan. The Bill also requires regular reporting of the implementation of the plans. That is very important, and is of relevance to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton).

There are four simple steps: transparency, accountability, participation and accountability again. They are designed to give our constituents real influence over the future of our communities, without necessarily costing any more public money.

Mr. Dismore: I obviously support those sentiments behind the Bill, but I have concerns about some of the practicalities. My council—Barnet council—is Conservative-controlled. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] It is Conservative-controlled only for the time being. One of the wards in my constituency, Burnt Oak, is deprived; it has been consistently deprived, and even more so since the Conservatives took control of the council four and a half years ago. Money has been diverted from Burnt Oak to more affluent parts of the borough. What safeguards are there in the Bill to ensure that the most deprived and therefore less vociferous parts of a local government area—those areas that agitate less—are not deprived in favour of those who shout the loudest?

Mr. Hurd: I am now straining to retain cross-party consensus on the Bill as I am receiving a lecture on the reallocation of resources from a Member representing a party that forms a Government who could stand charged of that accusation on a wider scale. However, I shall restrain myself from pursuing that, and instead address the hon. Gentleman’s point by referring only to the Bill.

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The hon. Gentleman’s point will be legitimately addressed by some Government legislation that will be before us shortly on improving local accountability, but let me also explain how the Bill might help the ward he mentions. If the climate in which the decisions he refers to are taken is one of budget pressures—as I suspect it is—the Bill carries the opportunity for new resources to be sprung for local authorities if they can make the case that those resources can be better directed in the way that they suggest, rather than the way the money is currently used by central Government Departments or agencies.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his Bill, and I have attended the debate to support it. I have been approached by a number of traders in a parade in Honor Oak in my constituency. That parade suffers from all the multiple problems that he has described. Does he agree that those traders—and their customers, who are their greatest supporters—need to get together to create a local plan and to make demands, and that his Bill might give them the focus and ability to do that?

Mr. Hurd: That point crystallises problems in many Members’ constituencies. What the hon. Lady describes I recognise also in respect of Whitby road in South Ruislip; I can see the parade now, and I am thinking about the problems that it faces. Her instinct is entirely right: the Bill gives the people in such communities an opportunity, and an incentive, to get together and to make proposals to the local authority to address such problems. That opportunity does not exist under current legislation and mechanisms.

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): The Bill in many ways accepts what the Government have been trying to do with local strategic partnerships in identifying the funding for an area and getting the statutory agencies to work together, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of its great merits is that it brings democratic accountability into that process, which is key?

Mr. Hurd: The hon. Gentleman has hit the nail on the head, and it allows me to pass on to the next part of my speech, which is to address the Government’s response to the Bill.

At the heart of the Bill, I have tried to set out four simple steps designed to give our constituents real influence, but the Government have made it clear that they are not inclined to support the Bill. The Minister might argue that existing policy covers the bases—that local strategic partnerships and local area agreements are the vehicles for developing community strategies. Those mechanisms are good as far as they go, but they do not go far enough. In the conversations that I have had with local authorities, the same messages come through; I do not know whether other Members have received similar messages.

The pooled money in these agreements is small and it will remain small as part of the whole, even on Government expansion plans, which I am sure we will
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hear about. The amount of money spent in Kent is £8 billion. The amount of money that will be pooled under local area agreements is tiny. The majority of budgets are, and will still be, held separately; they are, effectively, badged and boxed in by central Government targets, and they are vulnerable to budget pressures.

Moreover, funding streams into local area agreements appear to be inconsistent. One authority told me that its 2008 funding turned out to be half what was allocated in 2006-07. It is difficult to plan against that background of inconsistency. Any reallocation of funding under existing arrangements is a zero-sum game with winners and losers sitting around the same table, where there is no clear leadership. This Bill would strengthen that process and those mechanisms in a number of ways.

Community action plans, local area agreements and local strategic partnerships would all be more effective if they were plugged into a national action plan that was itself created through a bottom-up process; if they had access to more resources that were not ring-fenced or vulnerable to budgetary pressure; if they were clearly led by democratically elected local authorities with greater power to decide and freedom to innovate; and if they were constructed with the full engagement of the communities which they are there to help. Last but not least, this Bill would make sure that the issue of sustainability was given the priority that it deserves in those discussions.

The Government may also try to argue that this Bill will place burdens on both local and central Government, which was the point I think that the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) was trying to make. The Bill may require additional resources in terms of management, be a pain in the neck for the bureaucrats and make Ministers’ lives a little harder, but that feels like a tiny downside against the upside of giving our constituents a real chance to influence the future of our communities. It will be rough and raw democracy. Sharp elbows will be needed, but that is surely a better direction in which to go than continuing further down the path of centralisation and “one size fits all”, when it so clearly does not.

Mr. Francois: I thank my hon. Friend for his courtesy in giving way; he is making a good speech on a good Bill and I am confident that my constituents will support him. I have read through it and it does not specify a particular level of resources one way or the other. What it does specify is that local people should have a genuine influence on how money is spent by the public sector in their name. This is my hon. Friend’s Bill, but if I have interpreted it correctly, its bottom line is that it gives ordinary people a genuine voice in how public money is spent. If I have indeed understood it correctly, I am delighted to support it.

Mr. Hurd: I thank my hon. Friend for that extremely helpful intervention. I am delighted to confirm that that is the Bill’s essence, and it encourages me that it has come through so clearly, despite the best efforts of the parliamentary draftsman.

The Government know that we have to change direction—or at least they say that they do. The
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Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs wrote the following recently in The Guardian:

He is right. The Chancellor of the Exchequer went even further. In his 2006 conference speech, he said:

So there we have it—from the next Labour leader, and possibly the one after that—localism is the future. Today, we have a Conservative MP adopting a Bill originally promoted by the Liberals and supported—in principle, at least—by half the parliamentary Labour party. It asks a very tough question of this or any Government: “How serious are you about giving power away?” Its premise is straightforward. If we accept that community decline is a fact and that it carries a significant and growing social risk, the only way effectively to manage that risk is to give local authorities and the people whom they serve real power. When it boils down to the fundamental question of who knows best, the unequivocal answer from this Bill is that local people know best.

After 20 years of centralisation of power, we must accept that it is time to turn the wheel back, to give residents more influence over how to build and improve their communities, and to see local government less as agents of central Government and more as instruments of local people. I think that the Government are serious about taking the first steps in this direction. This Bill urges them to be bolder, and I ask the House to support it.

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