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7.36 pm

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): As was said by the hon. Members for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) and for Billericay (Mr. Baron) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Patrick Hall), it is important that the health aspects of the Bill are examined in close detail. The House of Commons annunciator indicates that we are debating the Local Government etc. Bill. I hope that the “etc.” part does not disappear off the radar entirely, and that in Committee Ministers will respond to the points that have been made in the debate.

We have heard contributions from Members in all parties who have vast experience of local government. I hope that Ministers will regard the debate as work in progress. If we get the Bill right, it should encourage people to stand in local government elections and to want to bring about change locally. That means that we need the right local government structures. I think back to my time as a Lambeth councillor and remember reading reports from the 19th century about the medical officer for health and the sanitary officers, the importance of bringing together health, social services and local government, and all that municipal government at that time was able to contribute.

I cannot help but agree with many of the earlier comments—that is the problem with speaking so late in a debate on the Floor of the House. The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) spoke about the Lyons review. Over the coming months local government leaders will have to deal with the implementation of equal pay, the extra resources that that will require, and issues relating to local government pensions, which may involve more money for local government. It is strange that, having waited so long for the White Paper, we are holding the debate without having had the benefit of the Lyons review and a clear idea of future local government finance. It is important to link local government funding with the way in which people who are elected to be strategic leaders respond to what local communities and people want. Local government must be fit for purpose.

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The deadline for submissions of 25 January has been mentioned. Perhaps that should be re-examined if everybody everywhere in the country is expected to make proposals having had the benefit of our Second Reading debate.

Our debate takes place against the background of the Labour Government’s good record on local government. They have achieved much, especially after previous Conservative Governments cut so much local government funding. I stress to my hon. Friends on the Front Bench that I genuinely appreciate all that the Government have done for local government. However, it is now more important than ever that we get the Bill right.

Not least among the Government’s achievements is the promotion of the duty of well-being, which provides huge opportunities. That will now apply to parish councils, too. The abolition of surcharges also made a big difference, as did the huge increase in funding settlements to which I referred earlier. Extra money for neighbourhood renewal is another achievement. For councils such as Stoke-on-Trent, where deprivation stretches throughout the city, the extra neighbourhood renewal money has made a genuine difference.

We talk so much in this place about the fight for democracy internationally, but I am concerned to ensure that local people can take up the fight for local democracy and play the vital part that so many of our constituents want them to play, and take local authorities forward. I know many councillors—I am sure that some will follow this evening’s debate with bated breath—who want to play a strategic role in local government. They do not believe that they were elected simply to be glorified social workers. They believe that their role is to have an input into policy making so that they can deliver the policies that emerge from the council. As we heard earlier, if people cannot deliver, they will not be interested in standing a second or a third time for local government.

We all want well managed local services and we want people to be engaged. We must take seriously the warning signs in many parts of the country, including mine, where the turnout for local elections has been poor. The Bill provides an opportunity to re-engage with local communities and it is therefore more important than ever to get it right.

I should like the Government to consider the Bill’s effect on local party politics. We have heard a great deal about party funding and the way in which we engage with our party members. However, many long-standing members of my party—and, I am sure, of other parties—feel that their introduction to party politics was through their part in local government. That has a bearing on the funding of party politics, and it is important that we ensure that the new models for elected mayors do not lose the accountability that local government has developed through its close link with local party politics. I urge Ministers to take that on board.

I was pleased to hear the Secretary of State’s opening comments about sustainable communities. Given that we will consider the climate change Bill soon, it is important for many of its provisions to relate to local government powers and the duty of well-being. All the targets that local area agreements set should link what
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needs to be done nationally with the way in which our counterparts in local government can take forward the agenda of tackling global warming by interpreting national policy locally. I should like to hear more about the way in which what happens in local government will link to the climate change measure and other Government decisions, not least that about the new combined body that will incorporate English Partnerships and Housing Market Renewal. That will have major implications for local councillors, who work through local area agreements and local strategic partnerships to deliver their agenda on regeneration, if they cannot link what happens locally with national Government targets. I hope that the Government will take account of changing national structures and the implications for what happens locally.

It is important that the local development frameworks and local strategic partnerships are linked to local councillors. In my local authority, I have been appalled by the lack of a seamless link between the local strategic partnership and elected council representatives. It is almost as if a parallel bureaucracy has been set up. I do not believe that that was the Government’s intention. We should consider carefully the way in which we take policies further in the light of the Bill’s new powers and the reorganised structures for local government.

The Secretary of State spoke a little about the local development framework. We should consider that carefully. In my area, it has been delayed. None the less, decisions from the local planning department are being determined by planning inspectors in Whitehall. Without the local planning framework and the local development framework, we cannot get the whole policy together. Ministers must take account of that.

Anyone who listened to the debate from the outset and heard the references to Stoke-on-Trent will probably realise that one of my main reasons for wishing to speak briefly is to flag up the position there. The Local Government Act 2000 gave us a referendum, which provided the option of an unelected council manager and an elected mayor. Together, they would form the council executive. However, the Act did not provide for subsequent legislation or regulation to enable us to hold a further referendum and thus provide a constitutional basis for the people of Stoke-on-Trent to make an informed decision about the system of local government that best suits our needs. If that happened, we could reach agreement about the system with which we would proceed for the May 2009 elections.

Stoke-on-Trent is the only council in the country that has a system of an unelected council manager and elected mayor. Everybody, from all the political parties to the council manager and the elected mayor, has impressed on the Stoke-on-Trent Members of Parliament that they want the Bill to provide for the further regulation that should have been included in a previous measure. The Minister for Local Government is not on the Treasury Bench at the moment, but I am sure that he takes a keen interest in the debate. I pay tribute to him for following up the many parliamentary questions, letters and debates to try to ensure that we get it right. I am pleased that the Government have now made an announcement to the effect that, as soon as this Bill is enacted, we will have a constitutional
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basis for the further referendum, although we will have to wait a little longer for it than we had originally hoped. That means that, by 2009, we will be where we want to be, and we will be able to elect the new system of local government that we want for Stoke-on-Trent.

I hope more than anything that that assurance will give everyone in Stoke-on-Trent who is involved in running our city, in the regeneration debate and in neighbourhood renewal the confidence and certainty that the issue is to be resolved. They will therefore no longer have to put all their energy into worrying about that, and will instead be able to get on with taking advantage of all the Government funding available to deal with the deprivation and problems that we have in Stoke-on-Trent. We need to get on with the job of governing now, not to be sidetracked, and we need to ensure that that moves further forward.

I am pleased that the Government have made their statement in time for this debate. However, it would be helpful if it could be followed up, in a letter if not in the Minister’s closing speech, or perhaps at the meeting with Ministers on 31 January that the people of Stoke-on-Trent have asked for. May we have an ongoing dialogue with the Government about what will fit us best, and about how we can ensure that government works locally? We need to ask questions about the role of local councillors and MPs alongside our elected mayor and council manager, and about the independent commission that the Government are considering.

We need to ask how we can achieve flexibility, and take the opportunity to participate in the city-region debate. I was interested in what my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) said earlier about areas such as ours that are surrounded by a large hinterland. We need to take part in the city-region debate and ask how Stoke-on-Trent can work collaboratively with other local authorities in the area.

I want to make two brief final points. Part 9 of the Bill relates to the conduct of local authority members in respect of ethical standards. Will the Minister look again at the question of how it is okay for someone on the sex offenders register to be elected as a local councillor?

I should perhaps declare an interest when making my final point, as I am a vice-president of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health. The institute is excited that we have finally put public health on the agenda, and welcomes the proposed duty to co-operate between councils and primary care trusts and to include all their work in the scope of local strategic partnerships.

I look forward to having an ongoing dialogue with Ministers as the legislation goes forward, because I am not altogether convinced that the three options—of which Stoke-on-Trent will be able to take advantage, along with every other council in the country, when the time comes—do not need a little tweaking in order to provide the best local government structures for the people who so richly deserve them.

7.53 pm

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): It is a delight to follow the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Joan Walley). I want to look at the local government
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reorganisation that is proposed in the Bill. Like many other Members, I welcome some of the measures that apparently seek to give greater freedoms to local communities and to remove what we all hate most in local government, namely, targets and red tape. They cause sclerosis at local government level, as I and many other Members who have served in local government know, and they leave communities feeling that local government is just a mouthpiece for central Government diktats. I raised this issue earlier, and I know that other hon. Members share my frustration. Consultation often pays lip service to local views, with the outcome already having been determined by some central Government bean counter. It seems to me that the Government ask a question, and if they do not like the answer, they keep asking it until they get the right one.

The other main driver that worries many in local government is the fact that they have little control over the purse strings. The thumbscrew approach to local government finance causes deep unhappiness, involving too many levers which mean that local authorities cannot deliver what local people want. I raised this issue during our deliberations on the Sustainable Communities Bill. If people have no control over the finances of their local council and over what their council can do, they have no real power at all.

Too often, the Government appear to pay lip service to localism while allowing more and more important issues, such as planning, to be decided at regional level. Many Members on both sides of the House have great difficulty in accepting the regional approach. That approach causes intense annoyance in constituencies such as St. Albans, and is a prime example of the Government not listening. For example, I happened to have the delight of attending the east of England draft planning review recently. Such events are familiar to many in the Chamber who take a keen interest in local government. They tend to go like this: Hertfordshire proposes a draft housing figure of 66,000, which we believe we can deliver, but we are told to go away and come up with a figure that is more in line with central Government thinking. The council then reluctantly proposes 72,000 homes with no green belt encroachments. However, we are told that we should come up with an even better figure, and advised that 79,000 might be nearer the mark, although it would involve some green belt encroachments. Then, because our answer is obviously still not quite right, we are informed in the review that we are likely to have 83,200 homes.

I struggled when I heard the Minister say earlier that local people should shape the places where they lived and have a greater say in the places where they lived and the services that they received. That is not happening now, but if I honestly believed that the Bill would deliver that, it would have my support. However, I do not believe that it will. There is strong opposition to the ratcheting up of housing totals, and fury at the whole rigmarole of councils being asked what they would like to deliver, only for the plans to be revised centrally. Unanimous local opposition to them seems to have no effect and falls on deaf ears. The Government do not allow local people to make those decisions, and the Bill will certainly not change that.

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I wonder whether there will be a shift towards a unitary approach, with the scrapping of the existing tiers of local government. The proposals ring alarm bells for me. Indeed, I would be grateful if the Minister could tell me whether we are going to have district elections in 2007. This is a contentious issue, and perhaps it involves a thought in process in the Minister’s mind. Perhaps if she gives it greater thought this evening, we shall be all the wiser.

I am extremely concerned that the Government acknowledge in their own review that, despite the Local Government Acts of 1999, 2000 and 2003,

So we are going to get a bit more restructuring, because it has obviously proved so wonderful—according to the Government’s own assessment of the situation—that we need more of it. However, the proposals in the Bill, although quite radical, will achieve little more than moving the deckchairs around on the Titanic. If we have problems in local government, altering the structure without altering the emphasis on delivering localism will not achieve much at all.

Consequently, I have little faith in clauses 1 to 30, which propose to give the Secretary of State the power to implement structural changes to local government in England so that areas with a two-tier arrangement can easily be reorganised into a single unitary tier, but also scrapped altogether if the arrangement does not meet with the Secretary of State’s approval. This will be a win-win situation for the Secretary of State, and a lose-lose situation for local authorities and local people. If people feel divorced from decision making, subjected to imposed housing quotas, stifled or driven by targets and deprived of funding, and if they get even less funding if they do not comply, how can they think that things are decided locally, and why would they have any more confidence in a Government who give more power to the Secretary of State to decide that, if they do not like the system, they can scrap it altogether?

The local government restructuring will be a costly exercise. As my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) pointed out, research by Professor Mike Chisholm of Cambridge university suggests a transitional cost of £121 per person. Given that my council tax payers do not like paying for local government, and prefer to pay for services, not bean counters, the prospect of having to pay £121—perhaps more, as I have never known a Government figure that does not rise—will fill them with dismay. It will hit those on fixed incomes and pensioners the hardest. What are they getting for that £121? They will not get a better service; they will get a more divorced service, and people whom they do not recognise, do not know and cannot talk to, unlike their local councillors. Having been a local councillor, I know that people can ring up local councillors and talk to them; they are accountable and known. The higher up the decision making is, the less accountability there is, and the less empowered people feel when they are fed up with what their local councils do.

If the Government are hoping for savings, they should heed Professor Chisholm’s warning:

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That is not just transitional costs; it is ongoing costs. As someone who has a two-tier authority, I do not welcome even more costs. As the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government admitted in 2006, the Government reorganisation is generally “a great distraction”. My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden touched on that point. Many Members will be wondering what we are being distracted from. Partly, perhaps, the intention is to further the Government’s creeping programme of regionalisation—regions by the back door. I hate to keep referring to the draft east of England plan review, but Mr. Tim Frehey, head of development of infrastructure for the east of England, explained that we would have regional targets on carbon dioxide emissions, and that we would have great control over housing totals. However, the beleaguered St. Alban’s and Decorum officer who attended the meeting, Mr. John Chapman, said that we would have “no choice” over housing totals. My local council wants to ensure that local people are listened to. The thread for the regions is becoming stronger and stronger, and local democracy is diminished as a result.

The housing totals debacle is a barometer of this Government’s approach to regionalism: if one alters the structure, one eventually gets the right answer. The district and the county said no, so the exercise had to be done again. Perhaps I will be called a cynic, but it seems that if the district and county say no, scrapping the district and county is the way to get the right answer: a resounding yes for the Government’s housing totals.

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): Like the Greater London council.

Anne Main: I note the hon. Gentleman’s comment from a sedentary position: not having been a member of the GLC, I would not know.

Given the Government’s propensity to trample over local opinion, clause 8(2)(a) contains a worrying phrase:

That prompts the question of what is local. As we have regional targets left, right and centre, I would dispute that “local” means my district. It also prompts the question of what is effective and convenient and for whom; I would suggest that it is not for my constituents, but possibly, for regional or even national government. I do not believe that the needs of my constituents are at the heart of the Bill. This Bill has far-reaching implications and I look forward to debate it in Committee.

Briefly, as I am conscious that other Members wish to contribute to the debate, I shall address the apparent democratic deficit for health in the Bill. That issue has been raised by many Members, and concerns were expressed about inspections with LINKs, to which the Minister responded that people were entitled to do reviews. If reviews and inspections are similar, I do not know why we need a change of words. If they are not similar, it is a definite change of emphasis, which I do not welcome.

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