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11.5 am

Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): I begin by congratulating the Bill’s sponsors. As has been pointed out, an impressive cross-party coalition has apparently been assembled, and that is complemented by the fact that an early-day motion on the subject has been tabled, and has attracted a large body of support. That is not surprising, because many of us—even those of us who will not support the Bill this morning and have not signed the early-day motion—have a great deal of sympathy with the sound principles in the Bill.

When any of us think about the problems facing our constituencies, we recognise the danger presented by the scenario of ghost town Britain. Like many hon. Members present, I have been impressed by the written representations that I have received, both from within and outside my constituency. I refer in particular to the letter from the National Pensioners Convention, the letter from Help the Aged, which has been circulated to all Members, and the letter circulated by the Campaign for Real Ale—a campaign that is close to many Members’ hearts, as I know only too well. In addition, expert material has been circulated by Local Works, the campaign for the Sustainable Communities Bill.

Many of the arguments that have been put forward are powerful, but to gain a true appreciation of the legislation before us, it is necessary to go beyond the pamphlets and the good intentions of the letters, and to study the Bill in detail. Before I do so, I point out that when I leave the Chamber today, I will go back to my constituency, like all Members. I will return to Caerphilly to chair a public meeting on the regeneration of Caerphilly town. Caerphilly is one of the communities that has benefited from the general improvement in the prosperity of the country; for example, it has a relatively good record on job creation. However, the town—an old, former mining community—is in need of regeneration. As is the case for so many communities in Britain, in Caerphilly, there have been out-of-town developments, and estates have grown up outside it, but not in the heart of the town. I am pleased to say that the local authority has mobilised private and public money, and a plan is being put forward by the local authority, with the support of the local community, to regenerate the town, but although work is going on, regeneration is still a concern for many of us.

Mr. Kevan Jones: My hon. Friend’s constituency produces very fine cheese, too. My constituency is
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similar to his, as it contains former mining villages. Some of the problems in those former mining communities need large solutions, and require difficult and tough decisions that sometimes divide the local community. Does he share my concern about the Bill, which is that although it is well intentioned, it comes down to the idea—we have heard this from many Members—that everyone will somehow come to a consensus and agree? However, on occasions, the fabric and grit of local politics is disagreement, and tough decisions have to be taken.

Mr. David: My hon. Friend makes a good point. Politics is not always about people coming together and agreeing, and a common strategy being worked out. It is often about discourse, dispute and creating a dialogue between people, out of which ideas emerge and change comes about. It is often about creating change, and not simply basing the way forward on a common denominator. I shall return to that later.

My constituency offers a microcosm of the problems faced elsewhere. In Caerphilly town centre, many shops have closed over the years, and charity shops have opened in their place. Senior citizens, in particular, are alienated from the community in which they grew up, and antisocial behaviour has increased. Members on both sides of the House are acutely concerned about those serious issues, but are those shared concerns addressed effectively and successfully by the Bill? At the beginning of my speech, I referred to the Bill’s cross-party support, and I believe that the Conservative party has published a version of the measure in its pamphlet, “The Permissive State: How to Achieve Local Social Responsibility”. It is an important step forward in the development of Conservative philosophy, but we shall have to see whether it is genuine, well thought-out and supported by members from all parts of the party. Nevertheless, such publications are now seeing the light of the day, which was not the case only a short time ago.

It is important to acknowledge that there is a strand of democratic socialism that has always advocated local empowerment and devolution and has had reservations about a caricature of socialism based on centralisation, state control and old-style Morrisonian nationalisation. As a Welshman, inevitably I must refer to Aneurin Bevan. If anyone wants a clear, coherent statement of democratic socialism based on the empowerment of ordinary people, I suggest that they read his book, “In Place of Fear”, which is an eloquent statement of socialism. May I suggest, too, as we are discussing Wales and Caerphilly, that Members dip into Hansard and read the contributions of Ness Edwards, who was Member of Parliament for Caerphilly from 1939 to 1968. [ Interruption. ] Yes, I have written a book about him, which Members may wish to read. A copy is available in the House of Commons Library.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Would my hon. Friend identify the author of that book?

Mr. David: I repeat that I wrote it myself.

Mr. Dismore: How much is it?

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Mr. David: It is only £7.50, and a bargain at the price.

Mr. Dismore: Is it cheap on Amazon?

Mr. David: No, it is not, but if my hon. Friend has a word with me after the debate, I am sure that I can arrange for a copy to be sent to him, signed and dated by the author.

I was making a serious point: Aneurin Bevan, Ness Edwards and other democratic socialists consistently argued that socialism is about the emancipation—an outdated but, nevertheless, accurate word—of ordinary people. It is about industrial democracy; it is about when people are engaged with their communities, as well as public accountability and involvement. In discussing the need to create a new kind of society in this country, much of the language has changed but, nevertheless, we all accept that what we want is not a top-down society or an intrusive state but a facilitating state framework that allows individuals to maximise their potential so that they are proactively involved in their communities. If that philosophy is our starting point, the question is how we turn it into reality.

Although the European Union is not popular, the cardinal principle of subsidiarity, that decisions should be taken at the most appropriate level, as close to the people as practicable, is accepted by many European societies and put into practice at local level. It is a strong principle, which motivates many of the Bill’s sponsors and, increasingly, the Government, but I am concerned about whether the measures in the Bill would put it into practice effectively. Many organisations have made representations to us, and we have received formal submissions expressing strong support for the measure, which they regard as a step forward. However, some organisations that studied the Bill concluded, like me, that although its intentions are good, it has significant weaknesses.

Julia Goldsworthy: If the hon. Gentleman is about to say that he does not support the Bill, can he explain why, in the last Parliament, he signed early-day motion 641 and issued a press release saying that he would do everything that he could to support it?

Mr. David: I do not know about the press release, but certainly, like most Members, I agree with the principles that have been established. However, when we look at the detail of the legislation, which was drafted only recently, we can see that it has profound weaknesses. The devil is in the detail, as the hon. Lady knows.

Ms Dawn Butler (Brent, South) (Lab): I, too, signed that early-day motion, but does my hon. Friend not agree that we should wait until Sir Michael Lyons, who is leading a high-level inquiry into local government reform, publishes his report before we approve hastily drafted legislation?

Mr. David: That is a very good point, and it takes me neatly to my next point. I have referred to the written submission on the Bill by the British Retail Consortium, which says:

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My hon. Friend’s intervention was accurate, because the BRC continues:

Those are not my words but the words of the British Retail Consortium. We must take a balanced view, and when we look at the detail of the Bill, rather than its fine principles, we cannot avoid the conclusion that there are many serious questions to be asked.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) (Con): Who exactly are the members of the British Retail Consortium?

Hon. Members: Tory backers.

Mr. David: It is not my intention to make partisan or sectarian points, as I wish to be fair and even-handed. I shall give the BRC the benefit of the doubt, as it has taken the trouble to study the Bill, and there is much to be said for the objective conclusion that it reached.

Mr. Letwin: To clarify the position, big supermarket chains and retailers with multiple outlets are members of the BRC. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that they are likely to be the main proponents of localism?

Mr. David: I will be fair. I quoted the example of Caerphilly earlier and I quote it again. Tesco, which I assume is a member of the British Retail Consortium, has been opening its 24-hour stores and is among those leading the way in the regeneration of communities. I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman tars all stores with the same brush. He should be far more nuanced.

Mr. Kevan Jones: It is strange to hear a member of the Tory Front-Bench team attacking multinationals, Tesco and the like. Does my hon. Friend agree that organisations such as Tesco and the Co-op are moving towards the support of smaller shops? In my community they are opening smaller shops, and bringing shops back to villages where there have been none for years.

Mr. David: I agree. That is the point that I was making with regard to Tesco, and it applies to other stores as well.

Let us be fair and even-handed. In its submission the Federation of Small Businesses has not given its support to the Bill. That is significant. That organisation, which is not always Labour supporting, has examined the Bill fairly and objectively and concluded that it is not the best way forward. So my concern is shared by many others.

Mr. Hurd: To clarify matters, I have met the head of policy at the Federation of Small Businesses and she
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has confirmed to me personally and in writing that the federation supports the principles of the Bill. Does it not cause the hon. Gentleman some concern that the reservations of the British Retail Consortium, which he placed before the House, seem to be restricted to the incremental bureaucracy that the Bill might impose on local government? Does he think that that is the biggest issue exercising minds around the boardroom at Tesco?

Mr. David: I shall respond first to the hon. Gentleman’s point about the Federation of Small Businesses. I assume that all hon. Members received e-mails yesterday from It is clear what the British Retail Consortium said. The detailed submission from the Federation of Small Businesses shows that it has studied the issue carefully. For me, and I am sure for the hon. Gentleman as well, if he is fair, the most striking point about the submission is that the federation has not endorsed the Bill. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to indicate to MPs at a crucial time—the eve of the Second Reading of the Bill—that the Federation of Small Businesses explicitly supported it. Significantly, it has not done so.

Another critical aspect that has been touched on in the debate is bureaucracy. It is important to recognise that the process set out in the Bill is extremely cumbersome. The Secretary of State will be required to draw up an action plan for sustainable communities. Local authorities can make representations and will have to include all valid responses and comments on proposals not taken forward. The Secretary will then be required to provide an annual report on the progress in implementing the action plan, which in due course will be debated on the Floor of the House.

A local authority must comply with the publication requirements set out in the Bill, including placing advertisements in local papers and liaison with communities and various interested parties. Each local authority can ask for a local community account each fiscal year, which will set out the money to be spent on local services in the specific area from all Government Departments for the following four years. Local authorities will prepare a spending plan to show how money will be allocated locally. The Secretary of State has the power of approval over each and every local authority plan in a fixed three months. Individual attention would be given to each plan by central Government.

Mr. Jones: I refer to clause 6, dealing with approval of local spending plans. Subsection (1) states:

Does my hon. Friend agree that that provision goes against the tenor of the Bill, which is about giving local communities power over spending in those communities? The provision gives the Secretary of State power to override spending decisions that have been approved locally.

Mr. David: Precisely. My hon. Friend pre-empts my conclusion. That is one of the inherent contradictions in the small detail of the Bill. It talks the talk—the rhetoric is in place. We are all behind the idea of
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empowerment, devolution and involvement, but in the detail the Bill sets out an extremely bureaucratic and, yes, centralising proposal that will curb, stifle and thwart local empowerment and involvement.

Mr. Martin Caton (Gower) (Lab): My hon. Friend is making a powerful case about specific details in the Bill. Those should be addressed in Committee. If he supports the principle of the Bill but is concerned about the detail, should we not give the Bill a Second Reading and sort it out in Committee?

Mr. David: I shall come to the logic of that argument, which I do not accept for a very good reason.

Mr. Dismore: I have some sympathy with that argument, but it is our job on Second Reading to flag up shortcomings in the Bill so that they can be tackled in Committee, if the Bill gets that far. If the issues are not dealt with there, Report stage will inevitably be very long.

Mr. David: That is a fair point, although I do not intend to get side-tracked on parliamentary procedure. My argument is that there are fundamental weaknesses in the Bill. It is incumbent upon us to be aware of them, and I believe they are sufficiently profound for us not to give the Bill a Second Reading.

At the end of the bureaucratic process set out in the Bill, the Secretary of State must implement an approved local spending plan to which all Government Departments and agencies must adhere. If they do not allocate funds on that basis, the Secretary of State has the power to direct them to do so. That is not only excessively bureaucratic, but a recipe for creating conflict within Government. Yes, we are all in favour of dovetailing and ensuring that Government Departments work coherently together, but it is another matter entirely for one Department to have such control over the strategic priorities of other Departments without a fundamental review of how government is organised in this country. The Bill does not even begin to take us in that direction.

Mr. Drew: I am sorry to have missed the early part of my hon. Friend’s remarks, and I am sorry that he does not support all aspects of the Bill. To my mind, it is a misunderstanding to see it as a top-down measure. The Bill provides the framework, but it is up to local areas to decide their spending commitments, given that central Government decide how each local area is expected to perform. That is why we elect central Government. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Mr. David: That is not made at all clear in the Bill. Running through it is an extremely bureaucratic process, as I have outlined, and a naive belief that local empowerment is sufficient. We cannot ignore the existence of central Government, who are democratically elected and have a set of political priorities. There is a political process, as well as local empowerment.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Does my hon. Friend agree that the Bill also potentially dismisses democratically elected local government? One of the fundamental flaws in the
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Bill is the fact that it refers to approval of a spending plan but does not define what a sustainable community is. In my constituency, which has two major towns and a plethora of small villages and hamlets, defining what is a sustainable community would lead to a lot of competition between different areas.

Mr. David: My hon. Friend makes a good point that serves to reinforce the muddle that runs through the Bill. There is a contradiction between the good intentions and their practical implementation in terms of the reality of politics at a national and a local level.

I want to turn to a more specific concern about Wales, which is covered in clause 9. In essence, it says that the Bill would apply to England and Wales and that in its application to Wales it would have effect with certain modifications. The first modification is:

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