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We are not saying that there is not participation at the moment, but the proposals provide a way of formalising that and allowing best practice to be shared. In my constituency, there is an urban regeneration company called CPR Regeneration. It has done lots of excellent consultation with local communities on plans, but the problem is that it is seen as separate from the other processes that are going on in the community and there is no feedback. Probably it errs on the consultative side, rather than the participatory side. So, although there is brilliant evidence of best practice that can be taken forward,
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there are still real ways in which that can be extended. A key issue is that the Bill would mean that the budget—much of which is not funded by local government—and how it relates to the rest of local spending would be much more transparent.

That brings me to what I see as the most important point of accountability: the fact that the Bill seeks to provide greater transparency in Government spending in any local area. The regeneration company that I referred to earlier is spending millions of pounds in the area. That is excellent and it is helping to regenerate the area, but there is no clear sense of how that relates not only to other local government spending in the area, but to wider national Government spending. There is no sense of relative priorities. People have no opportunity to ask, “If I were given the choice to order my priorities, would I put these particular issues of regeneration above other things?” That adds to the sense of powerlessness.

In Cornwall, there are more than 100 area-based initiatives—they are directly funded Government initiatives—many of which will have their own secretarial support, which will be replicated time and again all over the constituency. The initiatives are targeted like a laser on specific issues, so it is difficult to see what they are trying to achieve in the ranking of local community priorities, although obviously a lot of the intentions are good. I will give an example.

Redruth is a deprived town in my constituency. I had a meeting with the chamber of commerce two weeks ago. Over the past six months, there has been a huge amount of work. I am not sure whether that is through the market and coastal towns initiative or a local heritage scheme. There has been massive refurbishment of the car park and the replacement of all the paving stones with granite, at the cost of tens of thousands of pounds, in order to beautify the area. In itself, that is not a bad thing. Redruth is a former mining town and it is not a pretty coastal town, so perhaps that will help.

There is a problem, however. The town does not have any multiples. Virtually all the retail outlets in the town centre are independent traders. In the past six months, five shops have closed. So, we have a town centre that has a refurbished car park and granite paving slabs, but, unfortunately, fewer and fewer shops. I am sure that that issue is replicated across the country. If they had had the opportunity, the people in that community might have said, “We’d like to see some support going into our local shops so that when people come to the town they will visit the shops.” We know that people do not come to visit nice pavements. The pavements might make their visit more pleasant when they get there, but, if there are no shops, people are not going to visit the town in the first place. All that money is being spent and the chamber of commerce, a key community group, has no opportunity to raise those concerns. Priorities are being misdirected, even if that is well intentioned. I am sure that there are examples of that all over the country.

To conclude, the Bill is about empowering local communities and complementing and extending the White Paper. It is about supporting communities that we all feel passionately about, in terms of the environment, social exclusion and the economy. It makes the most of what communities already do. There are hundreds of thousands of people who are
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passionate about their communities and who want to see services restored and extended, but they have no opportunity to have their voices heard. That is what the Bill is about. If the Government are serious about extending democratic accountability, I hope that they will support the Bill today, in broad terms at least. I hope that they will not be minded to halt its progress and will allow it to go into Committee.

10.44 am

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): I am here to support the Bill. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) chose to use his opportunity in coming first in the ballot for private Members’ Bills to introduce the Bill. I congratulate him, my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) on the way in which they have worked together to make this a cross-party Bill that enjoys support from a wide cross-section of people from many different communities, with widely differing political backgrounds.

I have received representations, both formal and informal, from town and community councils in my constituency—Llanelli town council, Llanedi community council, Llannon community council, Pembrey and Burry Port and the communities represented on Llanelli rural council—asking me to support the Bill. Town and community councils in Wales are the closest level of elected government to their communities and they reflect the strong feelings of local people, who want their communities to thrive. The councils are concerned about the decline in local services and, in particular, the loss of local shops. They feel that post offices, community pharmacies and village and town centres are continually under threat from powers that seem to be beyond their control. They welcome the opportunity that the Bill provides to have their views and community issues heard at a higher level, rather than having things from outside imposed on communities. For that reason, I am keen to support the Bill. I hope that, whatever doubts the Minister might have about particular details, which I am sure we can discuss further in Committee, he will support the Bill and enable it to go into Committee. That will enable us to look at the practicalities of making it a usable and practical Bill that can be implemented.

10.47 am

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I am delighted to support the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd). I have already signed early-day motion 468 in support of the principle of sustainable communities, as have many hon. Members from both sides of the House. I have received a number of representations from local authorities and parish councils in my West Sussex constituency, giving their strong support to the principle that they should have more of a say in decisions that affect them. I am sure that the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) is right that communities wish to be heard, but they do not just wish to be heard; they wish to have a say.

The Bill could enable communities to take more action to preserve services such as post offices and
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village shops and the vitality of their high streets. What is powerful and lies at the heart of the Bill is what my hon. Friend described as the empowerment of citizens and communities. Without doubt there is a feeling of disconnection, even in places that are relatively close to London, such as those in my constituency. West Sussex is hardly a great distance from our capital, but people feel that decisions are being taken over their lives about which they have little say at all. The south-east makes a huge net contribution of £11 billion to central Government. People feel not only that they quite often do not receive a fair share in return, which is another issue, but that the decisions are removed from them.

Let me give three examples. My constituency could be seriously affected by proposals to downgrade the only three acute hospitals in West Sussex. All three are threatened with the removal of their accident and emergency departments or maternity services. That has caused outrage in West Sussex. Some 250,000 people have signed petitions against the proposal and 25,000 have marched against it. However, who will ultimately take such decisions, and what real say will the community have about the proposals? The Government tell us that such decisions are not a matter for them and that they will be taken locally, but it is clear that decisions will be taken by a newly constituted, wholly unelected primary care trust.

At a recent meeting that I and other West Sussex Conservative Members had with the newly constituted primary care trust, we asked the directors exactly whom they were representing. We asked whether they were taking orders from central Government on dealing with deficits and reconfiguring care, or whether they were taking decisions that they believed to be in the interests of the community.

Mr. Kevan Jones: I share some of the hon. Gentleman’s frustrations and irritations about primary care trusts and have signed an early-day motion in support of abolishing the NHS independent appointments commission for that exact reason. However, will he say which measure in the Bill would give local people a direct say in hospital closures? Would not the ultimate conclusion of his approach be a type of communalism, as in France, or a communist system whereby everyone would have a vote on every single service in the national health service?

Nick Herbert: The hon. Gentleman will have read the Bill, as I have. Clause 1(2) states that sustainability may be promoted by

One of the problems that has arisen over the years of centralisation—I am happy to concede that that did not begin under this Government, but has been fostered for a decade and more—is that people have increasingly found that they have no say over the way in which services are delivered in their communities.

Mr. Dismore: I am extremely worried about what the hon. Gentleman is saying. We are hampered by the fact that the Bill has no explanatory notes, although quite a lot of campaign material has been published in support of it. Clause 4(3) would give the Secretary of State the
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power to set matters of “national significance”, yet all the briefing material suggests that the NHS would be excluded from the terms of the Bill. Is he saying that all that briefing material is wrong and that the Bill would apply to NHS decisions?

Nick Herbert: I am not saying that at all. I am addressing the principle of the sustainability of local communities. If the Bill receives its Second Reading—I hope that the hon. Gentleman will allow that to happen—we will be able to debate the extent to which that principle should apply to the delivery of services, including in the national health service.

Anne Milton: Does my hon. Friend agree that, regardless of whether decisions on local NHS services could be included within the Bill’s remit, one of the reasons why it has such fantastic cross-party support is that the public’s appetite for local decision making has never been greater? The threats of closures and the downgrading of acute services, such as at the Royal Surrey County hospital in Guildford, have heightened the public’s concern about local services and their understanding that they need local NHS services if they are to have the sustainable communities that they so badly want.

Nick Herbert: I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. It is interesting that although the concept of patient choice is being promoted strongly, not least by the Government, people will feel that that concept is meaningless if they are not allowed to choose the hospitals that they wish to retain.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood cited the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who said last year that

Such rhetoric is easy, but the Chancellor has also said that the patient cannot be sovereign in the national health service. If the patient cannot be sovereign, who is? The Chancellor has also proposed that health care decisions should be administered by a quango—not the people at all.

My second example relates to planning. My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) said that a regional assembly is affecting planning decisions in his constituency. The south-east has the same problem, with the South East England regional assembly and its associated boards taking decisions on such things as roads. I am trying to persuade the assembly and board that they should introduce a bypass in Arundel, which has been promised by successive Governments but not delivered. However, it is difficult for me to make my voice heard because the unelected assembly and board are not answerable to the local community. When I asked for a meeting with the Minister of State, Department for Transport, the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), I was told that he would not be willing to see me until he had taken regional advice. The region tells me that it is unwilling to offer advice to the Minister because it is not certain whether it will be overturned. Such a system creates a vortex whereby local people are entirely shut out from a decision that directly affects them. More importantly, people are not
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being properly represented because quangos that are not answerable to local communities have been set up.

My third example relates to the police. I became quite certain that the Bill represented a move in the right direction when I heard the Minister for Local Government this morning citing the police as an example of how additional devolution of budgets has been granted. I have been looking at police funding closely over the past year. It is clear that local communities have very little say over what happens to their local police force and the operation of community safety. Police authorities are almost entirely invisible from the local community and include unelected members. Community safety partnerships and crime and disorder reduction partnerships are completely invisible to local people. The constant refrain that I hear from local people—I am sure my hon. Friends and Labour Members hear this in equal measure—is that they do not feel able to influence the way in which policing operates in their communities. If the Minister was saying that there has been sufficient devolution of budgets to local communities and that communities really have a say on policing, he needs to think again.

Mr. Kevan Jones: May I offer the hon. Gentleman a little advice? He should have read the Bill before the debate because a lot of his speech has nothing to do with it, and he is perhaps harming the cause. Has he shared my experience that where police authorities have set up community forums—there are some good ones in my constituency in Durham—attendance is very poor? The attendance is large only when there is a problem in the community. Does that not put a huge question mark over the idea that everyone is eager to attend meetings to discuss all these issues?

Nick Herbert: I am sorry to have to disagree rather strongly with the hon. Gentleman, but that attitude is tantamount to saying that we should not bother to take account of people’s views. There is great dissatisfaction with policing in many communities. If people do not attend meetings, it is because they sense that the meetings are purposeless and because they are not properly consultative and give the public no real say on the improvement of policing or other services in their communities.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): May I give the hon. Gentleman a further example of good practice when consulting local people? Recently, Greater Manchester police have established in every ward in Tameside a PACT—police and communities together—meeting, which is open to the general public, in which ward councillors, the neighbourhood policing team, Tameside patrollers and home watch co-ordinators discuss the problems in the ward and put together an action plan. In the following month’s meeting, the police have to explain to the public exactly what they have done.

Nick Herbert: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s points, and he gives a good example of how answerability could be improved. I do not think that there is sufficient answerability. Over the past few years, the amount that local communities have had to find to support policing, through the council tax, has doubled, but they often do not feel that they are getting police
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officers in return. Communities in my constituency are angry about the fact that they had been promised police community support officers, but they are no longer to have them. There will always be difficult questions about resources, but the important principle is that, where possible, communities should be involved in decision making, so that they can share responsibility for the decisions taken, and so that there are transparent lines of funding. That does not exist at the moment, which exacerbates people’s feeling that the Government are removed from them and that, although decisions are not taken in their interests, they nevertheless continue to be taxed, which is an unfair bargain.

It is right in principle that decision making should be moved closer to the people, and that could well result in better decisions. It would also be an important part of the process of re-engaging the public in the democratic process, which is one of the Bill’s objectives. It is not sensible for us Members to lament, as we often do, the lack of political engagement without being serious about finding ways to improve it. The cause of localism is particularly important to me, not just because I think it right in principle that decisions should be taken locally, or because it will mean that better decisions are taken, but because I see it as a way of reinvigorating politics. The emasculation of local government and the removal of the control of services from the people has been one of the reasons people feel so let down by politics in its current form.

Mr. David: To return to a point that I made earlier, much of our debate today is genuine discussion of an issue on which there is consensus. Political parties have developed a philosophy in a certain way over the years, but they now want more popular participation and more localism. The hon. Gentleman is critical of the Government’s programme, but will he not at least accept that, through their legislative programme and their recently published White Paper on the subject, they are making progress in engaging people?

Nick Herbert: It is certainly important that consensus about the merits of localism is reached between the two sides of the House. I have said that I believe that the drift to centralism began under previous Governments; I do not believe that the blame can be laid solely at the current Government’s door. I understand the importance of cross-party support for the Bill, but I am seeking to examine whether the rhetoric is always matched by the reality. After all, in 1994, the Prime Minister himself said, in his acceptance speech as Labour party leader, that

Frankly, we would not be sitting here debating the Bill if we thought that that had happened in the past 12 years. Plainly, it has not.

To return to the example of the police, the Government have introduced measures such as the community call for action, which they now seek to extend to other public services. That is an attempt to give communities a say on policing, and to let them express their view when things go wrong. Really, those are bureaucratic measures of last resort, rather than measures offering the real devolution of power and budgets, enabling communities to feel that they have a
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say, and securing the engagement that the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David) seeks.

The Bill is right in principle, and I hope that we have the opportunity to debate its scope and precisely how it could achieve the important aim of the empowerment of citizens and communities. The tendency of the Executive will always be to accrue power, and in its long history the House has fought important battles to wrest that power away from them. The Bill is a small but important step in turning around the centralism that has characterised politics and the delivery of public services over a decade or more, and I hope that the commitment to localism that the Bill embodies will be picked up on both sides of the House.

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