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To begin with, I anticipate that Ministers will set a fairly narrowly circumscribed area in which local authorities can control spending, and will reserve a large part to Ministers and agencies by widely defining what is “of primarily national significance”. Over time, local communities will demand an ever greater say, and Ministers of all Governments will come under increasing pressure to narrow the scope of what is defined as “of primarily national significance” and hence to enlarge the scope of local authority power. We
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shall see a gradual shift in the balance of power in local area agreements. If the hon. Member for Caerphilly were serious about the remarks he made in the first, and rather interesting, 10 minutes of his long speech, he would see that as the kind of progress that a certain strand of democratic socialism, which I admire, advocated years back. If he had not spent so much time occupying the House, I would cite for him some of the words that carry those connotations.

My second point in anticipation of the Minister’s remarks—indeed, my last in that connection—is that I anticipate that he will advert to the possibility of an unwieldy bureaucracy. Why do I anticipate that? I have heard from a number of Members who appear to be involved in an activity—or an operation, as I believe my friends the Whips call it—with regard to the phrase “unwieldy bureaucracy”. I take it that somebody has drafted that brilliant and coruscating phrase. We heard the interesting observation that what would make the bureaucracy so unwieldy was the need for the Minister to consider many plans and for the local authority to develop large plans.

When one pauses to think about that, Mr. Deputy Speaker—as no doubt you did, because we had a long time to do so—one realises that such an observation must have come from somebody having drafted the phrase before reading the Bill rather than afterwards, because under the Bill no local authority has to produce any plan at all. It is entirely open to local authorities to do nothing whatever by way of producing plans. If local communities do not want to act, they do not have to do so. No bureaucracy will be imposed locally. It is entirely open to the Minister not to veto a single plan; indeed, in many instances, I hope that that would be the case.

Shona McIsaac: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Letwin: I will in a moment.

It is open to the Minister not to spend any time at all vetoing plans. There is no need for bureaucracy.

Mr. Dismore: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Letwin: With some hesitation, I may in due course give way to the hon. Gentleman, but only after I have completed my point and responded to his hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac).

It is entirely open to local authorities and to Ministers to make the provisions unbureaucratic simply by not taking actions of the kind that they are given the right, but not the duty, to take. However, in addition, if both parties to the transaction intend in a grown-up way to make the Bill work—I hope that if it were law, they would—there is no need for them to engage in vast bureaucracy, because the process is fairly simple. The local spending allocation description that the Government give will show for the first time—an amazing fact—what is being spent in each locality and on what by each Government agency. It will not take a long time for people locally to decide that much of that is fine, so they will have to focus only on the bits that they do not think are the highest priorities. Reaching a decision about how those highest priorities can be
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established is not an immensely bureaucratic process, unless people want to make it so.

Similarly, the Minister who approaches the measure in a sensible frame of mind will say to himself or herself, “In principle, local authorities are asked to make these decisions under the Bill. In principle, I don’t want to prevent a single one of them from doing so. Is there any here that have failed to consult their local population, have such a slim democratic mandate or are so manifestly lunatic that I have to take the political and parliamentary risk of going before Parliament and trying to explain my reasons for rejecting the local voice?” I hope that in general, year on year, Ministers would not veto a single plan under the Bill. In those circumstances, it cannot be claimed that there will be a vast bureaucracy.

Shona McIsaac: I am a little concerned about something that the right hon. Gentleman just said and I would like him to clarify it. He said that there would be no obligation on the local authority to do anything and that that is why there would not be increased bureaucracy. In that case, how can a community trigger action? How can people ensure that their voice will not be ignored? I may have misinterpreted what he said, but it gave me some cause for concern.

Mr. Letwin: I have a horrible shock for the hon. Lady. If local people see that their local council, unlike the one next door, has taken no action and is not trying to reorder priorities, they have a thing called the ballot box at which they can vote for a different set of councillors, who will take action. That is exactly what we are trying to engender: the ability of local people, by electing local councillors and responding to the consultation when they get it, to have an effect. If the local council observes that the Government’s priorities, through their agencies and Departments, are perfect locally, the councillors will suffer no consequences at the ballot box from doing nothing, because the electors will thank them. However, if all the electors would like to see x and the councillors do not achieve x, because they do not take any action, they will be thrashed at the ballot box, and good luck to the electors.

Andrew Gwynne: I have three examples in the Stockport part of my constituency of where the council has ignored the views of the local community: on a village green application, on a proposal to build a new primary school on a former landfill site and over the closure of the local swimming baths. That has left the community of Reddish feeling as though its views are completely ignored and it is an irrelevant part of the borough of Stockport. Unfortunately, the ballot box is not the answer, because the councillors in that part of Reddish support the local community. It is the Liberal Democrat council that has done all that. People are completely disaffected and cannot change the situation.

Mr. Letwin: The hon. Gentleman makes a serious point in that there are cases in which particular groups of people in particular places feel that they are disfranchised if the government that is dealing with them spans a large area and makes decisions that go
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against their area. However, he therefore ought to agree with me that the progress that we ought to make is gradually to decrease and localise the level at which such decisions are made. The point that I was making earlier is that the Bill goes some of the way towards that. It gives the power of the ballot box at one level, but we hope that there will eventually be a level that means that, in very small areas, people have considerably more direct control. I do not think that he and I disagree about the direction of movement. All that he is pointing out is that, immediately, the measure may not move all the way that we can go. If the council that he described acted in the way that he described in all parts of its district, it would get unelected. That is at least an advance on a central Government who can act against the views of an entire district or borough and yet not get unelected because they are acting in a way that pleases other people in other places.

Mr. Dismore rose—

Mr. Letwin: I will now, with hesitation, give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Dismore: I want to return to the point about clause 6. I think that the right hon. Gentleman was advancing the suggestion that, in effect, the Secretary of State becomes a mere cipher or rubber stamp. Obviously, if the Bill goes forward, we would like to see consensus and agreement, but there will be occasions when that does not happen. If the Secretary of State simply approves plans by rubber stamping them, without proper consideration, what about the people who are disfranchised, as suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne)? They will be able to have the Secretary of State’s decision judicially reviewed, because it was not considered and discussed properly. Equally, because there is no mechanism in clause 6, the only remedy if a plan is refused would be for the local authority to seek a judicial review of the Secretary of State’s decision.

Mr. Letwin: Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman has not taken advice about the Bill. The Bill has been drafted to provide a presumption that the Secretary of State will approve plans. It has been so drafted precisely to prevent the circumstances that he alludes to. The Secretary of State will not be challengeable, except under circumstances where he rejects a plan. Then he will have to show that his reasons were reasonable in a Wednesbury sense.

My last point is addressed to the Minister for Local Government’s heart as well as his head, although despite the fact that he has huge significance to the Bill, he is not the ultimate arbiter. Through him, I want to address the person whom we all imagine will become our next Prime Minister, our Chancellor, whose statement about all this has been cited during the debate.

The Chancellor says that he is in favour of localism. Let us give him the benefit of the doubt and take that statement at face value. The Bill would create, in parallel with, and complementary to, the Government’s legislation, a real transfer of power. That would involve an attitude of mind or emotion of trust, because local communities would have to be trusted to make
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decisions that might be feared by central Government as not those they would make. A genuine localist—someone who is genuinely committed to conveying social responsibility for a good deal of decision making to the local level—will be willing to trust that, although local people will not always make such decisions perfectly, they will by and large take them in their own best interests. The Bill presents nothing to fear for a Chancellor, Prime Minister or Government who are genuinely inclined to trust local people and to convey social responsibility to them.

I hope that the Minister will make it clear to those in government who make the final judgment that the Bill is such a test and that there is considerable cross-party support for such a shift in the balance of power. It would be hugely in the interest of not only later Governments, but this Government, for them to accept and support the Bill. If decisions are taken locally and if power increases locally, people will generally get something that is more like what they want, and the person or persons whom they will thank, oddly enough, will be the very Government who gave them that power. Let Ministers consider the Bill not as a threat, but as an opportunity.

12.31 pm

Ms Celia Barlow (Hove) (Lab): The United Kingdom is a nation of rich diversity. We can be proud that its regions, towns and cities have their own specific characteristics. Our diversity, while we maintain our United Kingdom, defines us as a nation. However, the growing trend of globalisation presents us with many local and national challenges. It is at a local level that a true sense of community can best be achieved.

Community is the bedrock on which our society is formed and we carry forward that principle with every policy that we make. We remain the only people who are true to the principle of inclusion: the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. In the modern world, a sense of community is more important than ever in our society. A strong sense of local community is also essential to tackle the problems of social exclusion. The Government can be proud of their achievements in that area. We have retained our commitment to it, despite the Opposition’s claims that such interest in the well-being of our society is merely a gimmick designed to grab short-term headlines. Since 1997, we have consistently moved the problems of social exclusion further up the political agenda. It is only due to our Government that we now have a Minister for Social Exclusion, which shows that we have a modern Government working with the needs of a modern society.

Our Government have already done much to develop the idea of community in our society. Since 1997, local government has received a 39 per cent. real-terms increase in investment, the result of which can be seen throughout my constituency through the renewal of children’s play areas, the relaying of pavements to increase accessibility to our footpaths for the disabled, and the development of an efficient environmentally friendly bus service throughout the whole constituency. Such efforts and commitments made by Labour councils and our Labour Government will enable communities to be sustainable in the years and decades to come.

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Andrew Gwynne: This point ties in with the response that I received from the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin). Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the best examples of community involvement is the development of real and meaningful area committees? The borough of Tameside—I declare an interest as a member of the council—has introduced district assemblies covering the former townships and given them meaningful budgets. The Denton and Audenshaw district assembly has a budget of more than £1 million to spend on parks, environmental improvements and road and pavement improvements, and that makes a difference.

Ms Barlow: I agree with my hon. Friend, and I congratulate his local authority on the measures that he mentions. My local authority has many vibrant neighbourhood community action teams and organisations. Their efforts and Government commitment will ensure the sustainability of communities for years and decades to come.

In my constituency, which includes Hove and Portslade, there are several areas where the local high street is the centre point for community activity. The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) spoke of the importance of local shops, and in my constituency the people who run our local shops not only provide a valuable service to those who do not have the means to travel far, but are considered friends by their customers.

Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend have the problem that I have in my constituency, where there is enormous concern to retain independently owned shops, particularly food shops, on the high street? The problem is not that the shopping street is run down; on the contrary, it is one of the best and most popular shopping streets in London. However, it is so popular, particularly in the evening because of its wine bars, that rents have gone up by so much that they often risk squeezing out the independently owned food shops that attract people to it. We are in danger of losing cheese shops and fishmongers—the very shops that draw people to the area. We need powers that enable the local community to counteract that, and to give priority to independent shops, including food shops.

Ms Barlow: I agree with my hon. Friend. Although our high streets in Hove and Portslade are extremely vibrant and are frequented by many local people, it has been a great struggle for some of our shopkeepers to keep up, and I pay tribute to them for doing so, despite the influx of supermarkets into some areas.

Our local retail outlets mean that fewer car journeys are needed, and they reinforce our sense of community. I applaud the Bill’s emphasis on the need to sustain local shops. To people who live in an ethnically diverse constituency such as mine, the benefits of establishing a strong local community are obvious. We owe it to future generations to ensure that, in decades to come, they, too, have a community of which they can be proud. It is essential that we maintain a sense of community in our towns and cities on a social level, but that sense of community has a real and measurable benefit to our environment, too. How are we to
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persuade people to leave their cars at home if their local community cannot provide them with the daily necessities?

Brighton and Hove city council has done much to promote the concept of sustainable community. Events as diverse as Pride and the older people’s conference, both held in the past year, are shining examples of a local authority in touch with the people whom it represents. An ever-expanding cycling network enables residents to enjoy more choice in their means of transportation, and they are aided this year by Brighton and Hove’s new status as a Cycling England city.

In many cases, a sustainable community means a sustainable environment. With the growing challenges of the environment, particularly climate change and energy efficiency, it is more important than ever for our local authorities to adapt and tailor their services to the needs of their region. Brighton and Hove’s Labour-led city council is already combining the principles of environmental awareness and sustainable community with the implementation in 2006 of “neighbourhood action on climate change” courses, a pilot community learning initiative. Brighton and Hove city council has provided adult learning courses to local residents on climate change issues and the need to develop renewable energy technologies locally. Jointly developed with the university of Brighton as a community-university partnership project, the courses have led to a proactive neighbourhood engagement project with a community association that is developing proposals for energy-efficient lighting for poorly lit public pathways on a local estate. Funding has been secured for that, too, and incorporation of renewable energy technologies in community buildings is being considered.

The adult learning programme has been developed for other neighbourhood renewal areas in the city. By working hand in hand with local people, the local authority can deliver the best, most efficient service for them. As well as taking into consideration the region’s environmental needs, any new building development must take account of social needs. All large developments must provide 40 per cent. affordable housing, which helps to maintain a healthy balance in the local population, and they are strongly encouraged to include facilities for everyone in the local community.

Mr. Pelling: What does this have to do with the Bill?

Ms Barlow: Those initiatives have everything to do with the Bill. I accept that the hon. Gentleman is anxious to speak on behalf of his constituents, and I assure him that I shall be brief.

Ms Butler: Does my hon. Friend agree that councils do not necessarily need action plans to begin to regenerate their communities? The previous Labour administration in Brent began a regeneration of Wembley that created thousands of jobs in the area, so action can extend beyond the action plans cited by the Bill.

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Ms Barlow: I agree, and I congratulate that administration on its initiative. An example in my constituency is the Frank Gehry-designed King Alfred development, in which affordable housing is accompanied by a sports hall and swimming pool, with energy requirements met by combined heat and power. In fact, most of the five sustainability indicators in the Bill have already been addressed in my constituency with local procurement, as well as recycling and congestion measures. I believe that the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) is sincere in his ambitions, as I have the honour of serving with him on the Environmental Audit Committee but, in its current form, the Bill could increase the bureaucratic burden, not just on local authorities but on central Government. I fear that his proposal that Whitehall should draw up an individual action plan for each region would decrease local autonomy, so I urge him to reconsider it.

One of my concerns was highlighted by the exchanges between the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs and my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones). Despite the Bill’s lengthy history, it still contains dangerous ambiguities that must be ironed out in Committee, should it proceed that far. For example, what exactly is the meaning of

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