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22 Jan 2007 : Column 1163

Mrs. Spelman: The Chancellor is not sympathetic to localism; that stands to reason as he has spent the best part of 10 years waiting to get his hands on the levers of power so he is determined not to let any of it go. That distrust of localism is laid bare in this Bill. It is a Bill that short-changes councils and communities alike, and it is with regret that I am unable to support it.

4.34 pm

Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan) (Lab): I welcome this very important Bill, which marks a significant shift in the balance of power from central Government to local government. That is hugely important in terms of the way that our people look at government, both local and central.

The Bill is clearly only the first part of the changes that have to be made in the relationship between central and local government. The second will come with the publication of Sir Michael Lyons’ report and the Government’s response to it, and the comprehensive spending review will also have a massive part to play. It is right that that should happen, because this is about governance, administration and the delivery of public services; it is not, at the moment, about the quantum of those public services. However, the two are intertwined: we cannot talk about governance without referring to the resources given to local authorities—and, indeed, vice versa.

If the resources are to match the Government’s aspirations in the Bill, Sir Michael Lyons must address a number of issues in his report, including the ability to raise money from the council tax or its successor—if a successor is indeed proposed. Some 90 per cent. of my authority’s houses are in band A or B, which clearly reflects the nature of the borough’s economy. Other councils have few, if any, houses in those bands, which reflects their ability to raise money and the economic activity within those areas. That point has to be taken account of in the way that the council tax is raised.

However, local authorities’ ability to raise money from other sources must also be taken into account. I read recently in the Evening Standard that Westminster city council can raise £25 million from parking charges alone. Other London boroughs can raise only £1 million, and some even less. If the way in which central Government grant is calculated cannot take such differences into account, we will be unable to achieve a fair system for local government.

Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. My local council, Wandsworth, has a much lower grant than average; however, last year, the Audit Commission said that it delivered the best value for money of any council. Does he agree that another criterion that national Government should consider is indeed the value for money delivered by local councils?

Mr. Turner: The hon. Lady mentions value for money, but the important point is that when central Government give resources to local authorities, such decisions should be based on need, an issue to which I shall return.

Sir Michael Lyons also has to ensure that the formula that distributes the central grant reflects the
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needs of the given area. I understand that fairness is a moveable feast, but importantly, the formula surely has to be based on measures of need. The Bill’s thrust is joint working between not just local government but other agencies, particularly the primary care trusts.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. He will know that, according to a number of indices, the borough of Stockport is considered very prosperous. However, the two Stockport wards that are in my constituency share many of the same characteristics as the five wards in the borough of Tameside and the neighbouring city of Manchester. Yet, as a result of their being in the borough of Stockport, we are at the back of the queue for much of the funding, including Building Schools for the Future Programme funding. Does my hon. Friend think that that issue also needs to be addressed?

Mr. Turner: Indeed I do. My hon. Friend raises a very important issue but if my reading of the Bill is right, it can be addressed through the overview and scrutiny committees. Local ward councillors in areas of deprivation within broad council areas that have a reasonable level of resources will be able to take such matters to those committees and make sure that the needs of their areas are addressed by councils.

We have to take into account that not only are some local authorities underfunded, but so are some primary care trusts. If PCTs are substantially underfunded and cover the same area—I see that the Secretary of State is looking at me askance, but I assure her that my local PCT is some £11 million away from its target, and will still be so at the end of the comprehensive spending review. That is a substantial amount of money, and when one adds in the fact that the local authority area I represent is also well off the target that the Government have set, we have a double whammy. The Bill refers to relating the local authority, the PCT and other agencies together, so the amount of funding they all receive will be important if we are to ensure that the governance arrangements deliver for the people of the borough.

I said earlier that the definition of “fair” is debateable and a moveable feast. However, it is not an abstract concept. On the contrary, it is very real and it will be a huge task to ensure that we have the ability to tackle deprivation. We have heard talk of a north-south divide, or a Labour-Conservative divide, but that is not the case. I recognise that there are many areas in the south of England, especially in some of our coastal towns, which have areas of great deprivation. They deserve the resources to tackle that. There are also many areas in need in Conservative council areas and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) suggested, in Liberal Democrat council areas. It is important that we recognise that any definition of fairness has to be about tackling deprivation, on the basis of need, and we need a system of local government finance and other Government finance, when it is devolved, that recognises that.

Daniel Kawczynski: The hon. Gentleman says that the issue has not split people along party lines, but I
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can tell him that it has. On my council, every Labour borough and county councillor voted for a unitary authority, and they all voted against the people of Shrewsbury having a referendum.

Mr. Turner: I am not quite sure where the hon. Gentleman is coming from—[Hon. Members: “Shrewsbury!”] I will rephrase that. I am not quite sure where he is coming from intellectually. I know where he is coming from geographically. I was talking about the amount of money that local government and other bodies get in grant from the Government; I was not talking about what form of government we should have. I will come on to that issue if the hon. Gentleman will hold his water, as they say in Scotland, and he may have another opportunity to intervene.

I also welcome the strengthening of local councils through local area agreement, which recognises, at last, the primacy of the council as the only democratically elected institution in the local authority area. That is very important. We have had a long process, started by the Conservatives when they were in government, of moving towards quangos, and that has been to some degree continued by this Government. However, we will at last have a way to reverse that trend and make the democratic process more important.

Robert Neill: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point and I have some sympathy with his desire to recognise the primacy of elected local authorities. Against that background, does he agree that it is especially disappointing that the Bill does not include a requirement for NHS foundation trusts and health trusts to be members of the local area agreements and under a duty to co-operate? Those of us who have been involved in local government know that it is essential to include those health bodies so that we have the integrated service—especially closer co-operation between health and social services departments—that we need.

Mr. Turner: I very much agree that that is essential. A few weeks ago, I had one of my regular meetings with representatives from my local authority, PCT, acute hospital trust and local improvement finance trust. In fact, the LIFT programme in my area is the best in the country. We talk about various issues, and local MPs are involved in the discussions. I therefore agree with the thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s question, but remind him that the Bill will enable the Secretary of State to add other organisations to the list of those that must take part in LAAs. I hope that the list will include the organisations to which he referred.

The best councils, such as my own in Wigan, engage strongly with other agencies, and with both the private and voluntary sectors—

Andrew Gwynne: Hah!

Mr. Turner: My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish gave a little laugh at that, but I remind him that Wigan is one of only two councils to get four stars. I can therefore say, honestly and without a shadow of a doubt, that Wigan has been independently
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assessed to be one of the best councils in the country. I am glad to place that on record yet again in this House.

Wigan is able to engage with agencies and bodies in the private and voluntary sectors because it is recognised to be a good authority: for their part, those other bodies acknowledge that they get added value out of its involvement. Giving local authorities a statutory leadership role in their communities will cement the engagement process in those areas where it is already evident, and ensure that other parts of the country begin to move in that direction. The Bill will mean that a council will become, not the top dog locally, but rather a leader of equals—the primus inter pares.

I especially welcome the proposed change to the system of targets. The White Paper proposed that many targets should be scrapped and only a small number retained, and I understand from my discussions with Ministers that that is still the intention. Even more important is the fact that the targets will not be set by central Government; instead, they will be put in place through the LAAs, following discussion with local authorities. The targets that are set will therefore be relevant to each authority—Wigan’s targets will be different from Wycombe’s, and Cambridge’s from Camberley’s—and must reflect the needs and priorities of the elected representatives serving each community.

I turn now to the involvement of the community. That is a very important aspect of the Bill, because we must ensure that the people whom we govern are involved in the governing process so that councils can deliver services in a better way. In addition, councillors’ ability to refer matters to the overview and scrutiny committee will greatly strengthen their role as advocates and leaders in their community.

Moreover, the ability of council leaders to devolve resources to ward councillors will enhance that role, and Wigan, where a substantial amount of money is already devolved to each councillor, offers an example of how important and effective that can be. I live in Wigan Central ward, which is represented by three excellent councillors. They recognised that putting gates across alleys was very important in areas of terraced houses because unrestricted access to the alleys behind those houses leads to burglary and other nefarious activity. The system of gates that the councillors have put in place has greatly enhanced security, and made people feel much better about where they live. I pay tribute to Councillors Halliwell, Willis and Shaw for what they have done in that regard.

However, the proposals in the Bill carry some dangers. For instance, community capacity is not equally spread. When I was a local authority representative for the Norley ward, I represented people who were not as able as people from more middle-class areas to express themselves and make their voices heard. It is important that we take that into account, so that the Bill does not become a nimby’s charter, nor a vehicle for the articulate to override the wishes of the majority. We need safeguards to ensure that the Opposition, of whichever party, do not abuse the process and that they use the measure properly.

I want to talk about unitary authorities, of which I have some experience. I was a local councillor when Greater Manchester was a two-tier authority and a
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councillor in Wigan when it was a unitary authority. I was also a council officer in a district council. All my experience, both as a councillor and an officer, shows that unitary authorities serve the people much better than the two-tier system. They do so because there is clarity of responsibility between the electorate and the local authority; people do not have to go to their county council with inquiries about housing or getting their bins emptied, which is the difficulty in two-tier authorities.

In unitary authorities, there is clarity about resources. The fairly small district council in which I worked was full of excellent people; they were dedicated local government officers but they had neither the financial nor the intellectual resources of a unitary council. When I was chairman of the highways and works committee of Wigan council, we had a difficulty with our local building department. We resolved that difficulty only because we were a large unitary authority, with the financial resources and intellectual capacity to bring to bear on the issue. That could not have happened in the district council for which I worked.

The role of the Conservative party has been appalling. I understand that the Conservative Opposition have refused to allow Conservative-controlled local authorities to enter discussions about setting up unitary authorities, even when the authorities want to do so because they recognise that it is the best deal for their area. That is disgraceful.

The Conservatives have form. Under the Local Government Act 1972, and against the wishes and advice of Redcliffe-Maud, the Conservative Government introduced the two-tier authority system, the residue of which is still with us. They have messed about with the system ever since and they are still doing so. They know that unitary authorities are right because whenever they are in government they move towards that system. They know that county councils are not necessarily the right thing.

Cumberland, Westmorland, West Riding, East Riding, Worcestershire, Herefordshire, Middlesex and Berkshire were all English counties abolished by the Conservatives. Lancashire, Cheshire, Yorkshire, Durham, Lincolnshire, Kent, Essex and Warwickshire were all butchered by the Conservatives, when great chunks of them were put into other areas. That is their form.

The Conservatives went even further. With no referendum and no reference whatever to people in Scotland, they got rid of every county—from Caithness to Kirkcudbright and from Berwickshire to the Western Isles. Every county was abolished and unitary authorities were imposed. In Wales, every county was abolished and unitary authorities were imposed. In Ireland, all six counties were abolished and unitary authorities put in their place.

The Conservatives know that unitary authorities are best, because when they are in power they set them up. Conservative Front-Benchers should let people decide in their own areas. They should not impose things on Conservative-controlled county and district councils; if people want a unitary authority, let them go for it. Conservatives should tell people that their experience is
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far better under unitary authorities—they know it, because they did it themselves—than under two-tier authorities.

I think that it is a good Bill. As ever, it could be improved, but I am sure that we will achieve that in Committee.

4.55 pm

Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): When we heard that a White Paper was on its way and would be followed by a Bill, some of us thought that it presented a real opportunity for local democracy. We thought that there was a chance to rebuild and restore local democracy, to make it more representative, to empower it, make it more responsive, effective and capable—and, of course, to provide the resources that it needs to deliver the services and responsibilities heaped on it. If local government had those foundations, we would be able to achieve a more equal partnership between local government and local democracy, and central Government and the democracy in this place—perhaps something closer to the balance achieved in the US, the Commonwealth countries or the EU’s larger countries, in which the proportion of spending and service delivery by local government is hugely higher than in the UK, particularly England.

We needed a more vigorous engagement and participation with communities and individuals—something that could have sprung from a White Paper and local government Bill. We needed more local services, tailored more accurately to the needs of local communities, delivered and designed by local people. That was the opportunity that we hoped for, and our colleagues in local government certainly hoped to see it as well—but the opportunity has been missed.

The Bill is a disappointment, not only because of what the Government have left out of it, but because of what they have put into it. They have certainly gone for quantity rather than quality, with 176 clauses and 15 schedules. Somewhere in all those provisions something has to come out right, but I am reminded of the mythical monkeys who set out to type Shakespeare. How long would it take them to achieve that, and how many failed attempts would be made on the way? It seems to me, having read the Bill, that we have much ado about nothing, but not too much of all’s well that ends well—

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): No decent monkey would put its name to this Bill.

Andrew Stunell: The hon. Gentleman, from a sedentary position, makes an important point.

What we have here is quantity not quality, and change not reform. Perhaps the classic example is what the Bill does to change the executive arrangements for the leadership of councils. It is interesting to note that the Audit Commission, having carefully looked at the performance of councils, has reported that—regardless of their governance arrangements—councils are improving their overall performance year by year. Whatever model is adopted, the average picture is that performance is improving. The idea that requiring councils to go for a strong leader or strong cabinet-type model will produce bigger and better improvements
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seems to fly in the face of both local government evidence and national Government evidence.

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): My hon. Friend will know that no serious research has been done on the existing executive arrangements, which have been in place for many years. The Government have neither commissioned research themselves nor encouraged external research.

Andrew Stunell: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have had informal discussions with the Audit Commission about how that might be done. One thing that is clear is that on the basis of the Government’s own system of measuring targets, inspections and performance, no discernible difference in the models can be determined. As to Cabinet government at the national level, we need reflect only on Iraq, the Home Office and the Child Support Agency to realise that that model does not always deliver effective leadership to point us in the right direction.

This Bill represents quantity not quality, change not reform, and busyness not effectiveness. There are dozens of botched proposals in it, and hon. Members on both sides of the House have already commented on some of them. I want to pick up some of the things that are missing from it, the first of which, clearly, is a strategic view of what local democracy is for, and how to make it more powerful and effective. The signs of it all going wrong were there, of course, with the White Paper, which was very much a delayed “five out of 10” effort, based on a compromise within the Government. It is not the Secretary of State’s fault—she inherited a dog and she has added the breakfast—but the framework for the Bill was flawed, and the Bill itself is flawed as well. There is no strategic view.

Secondly, the Bill has skipped the vital question of making local democracy more representative. The Secretary of State’s colleagues in Scotland, working with the Liberal Democrats, have introduced a fair voting system for local government, and it will be voted on and in place for the May elections this year. It is a great pity that such a provision has not found its way into her Bill for England. I will quote the Electoral Reform Society’s comments:

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