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The catchphrase “community call for action” sounds good and engaging, but will it involve the public? We must not ignore the fact that the public are engaged in
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the debate. I have held a number of public meetings about the North Circular road—about the continued blight caused by that congested road that goes through my constituency. There was also a recent public meeting against the closure of Southgate police station. I can think of another one that intended to stop back-land development at New River crescent involving a number of houses along our river path. There was also a recent campaign about the proliferation of mobile telephone masts. All such local issues have caught the imagination and concern of many of the public, who are engaged.

However, the public have a concern that the Bill does not address: they feel powerless to make changes in respect of such issues—issues that are of profound concern on their doorstep, and affect their lives. In the context of the North Circular road, they see Transport for London as unaccountable to them—it is unelected—and that other legislation is not providing more accountability. They see Transport for London setting targets and taking action that they have no real control over.

Communities see the Metropolitan Police Commissioner setting central targets for what are termed community assets, but they have no involvement in the decision as to whether they can keep their local police station. The Government set targets and guidelines for the density of back-land housing development; again, that is a case of second-guessing the local community. Similarly, the guidance on mobile phone masts makes little provision for consulting or involving local people.

Those are the issues that my constituents are banging on the door about and feel powerless to address, not the structural change that the Government are trying to make, or the mechanism of the “community call for action”. They are concerned that this is more than a structural change—that it is a substantive change not in the relationship within local government, but between central and local government. That concern is not being addressed; the Bill is silent on it.

On local area agreements, the Bill refers to local targets, but the hand of central Government remains heavy. Why should the Secretary of State be able to approve local targets? Local councils and their partners should be free to determine their own targets through their own measures, instead of the Secretary of State seeking to second-guess them. To what extent will the community call for action process involve young people? Will they really be able to call on councils to act? Where is the reference in the Bill to young people’s proper engagement in that process? They are concerned about their communities, but will they really be able to facilitate a call for action?

As I said in an intervention, crime and disorder is excluded from the community call for action process because it is dealt with in the Police and Justice Act 2006. However, what action should communities who are concerned about alcohol-related issues take, for example? Will such issues be dealt with properly? It is clear that they are not being dealt with properly now through the crime and disorder reduction partnerships. Will this bureaucratic model exclude such issues because they fall under the category of crime and disorder, and will that affect proper community engagement?

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I want to finish on the subject of patient and public involvement forums and LINKs. Constituents in my own forum have expressed grave concern about LINKs. They say that although the Government describe LINKs as expert panels, they are not taken seriously by local NHS organisations and carry little weight. My local forum has produced 18 reports, which have had a big impact and are well respected. In the last year, it has produced reports on the anticoagulation clinic, wards, catering services, the accident and emergency department and patients’ telephone services, and there are reports to come on blood-testing and stroke facilities, maternity and obstetric services, and pharmacy and cancer services—I could go on.

That is a vigorous and hard-working forum that feels that the proposed LINKs will not address these issues properly. It tells me that spot inspections of cleanliness and patient management are often far more effective than planned inspections by organisations such as the Healthcare Commission. I am concerned that the existing proper statutory duty to inspect will no longer exist, and that, as has been said, there will simply be a duty to observe, which comes with preconditions and caveats.

I finish by referring to part 11 and the duty to consult, which is to be changed. Will a duty to consult only on significant changes really deal with issues in my constituency such as the local baby clinic and developmental checks, which have been removed without proper consultation? The duty to consult has not been properly upheld. I would welcome the measure if it would firm up the process, but the concern is that it will not. The dead hand of Government is clear in this regard. The question of what is significant is determined by the Secretary of State. The White Paper was called “Our health, our care, our say”, and in Committee I will try to ensure that that phrase is not just words, but leads to action.

8.39 pm

Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I welcome the Bill and applaud the Government for introducing enabling legislation that allows local circumstances relating to restructuring to be taken into account. I shall give a completely opposite set of reasons why we should have a unitary county in Durham from those given by my hon. Friends the Members for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) and for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell), who are no longer in their places.

I know that not everyone will be pleased that the restructuring of councils is back on the agenda, and we should acknowledge that the Bill actually goes much further than that. I have previously been a member of a unitary authority and a district council, and I represent an area that now has a two-tier authority. Over the years I have developed strong views about the need for unitary councils. Therefore, I am pleased that the previous Secretary of State and the present ministerial team have listened to those who were saying that it should be possible to revisit the question of unitary status, and I thank them for bringing forward legislation that will enable that.

When the then Secretary of State for the Environment set up the Banham commission in 1991-92, he clearly set out the reasons why two-tier
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authorities were not a good idea and the advantages of changing to unitary status. It is a pity that that Administration bottled out of rolling that change out across the country. Instead, they stopped as soon as they got into some difficulties in rural areas. It is not easy to establish unitary authorities in rural areas, but the Bill charts a way to do so.

It is worth briefly rehearsing the arguments against two-tier authorities. They can be very costly. We have seven districts in County Durham that duplicate several functions, but we need to recognise the lack of strategic leadership caused by small districts. Districts may also not be sufficiently local to have a real connection with people. That is not a point that has really been discussed today, but their boundaries are often very artificial. Perhaps most importantly, it is very confusing for local people who live under a two-tier structure, because they are often not clear about which council has responsibility for what.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con): Like the hon. Lady I have worked in a unitary authority, but I also respect democracy. Not so long ago, her electorate decided that it knew enough to want to retain a two-tier system. Does not the voice of the people count?

Dr. Blackman-Woods: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, but in the referendum on the regional assembly the people of Durham county voted for a unitary authority, so I am in fact taking note of what the people said—

Mr. Pickles: Two unitary authorities.

Alistair Burt: Yes, two.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. Interventions should be made in an orderly fashion, not from sedentary positions.

Dr. Blackman-Woods: I should point out to the hon. Gentlemen that the people voted in favour of one county unitary authority in County Durham.

Mr. Woolas: It may assist the House if I point out that Northumberland and Durham are separate counties.

Dr. Blackman-Woods: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, because it had not dawned on me that Opposition Members would not know the difference between Northumberland and Durham.

I am pleased that Durham has brought forward proposals for a unitary county and that it has a lot of local support for that. The legislation states that the council has to get local stakeholders on board, not that it has to achieve a consensus, which would be difficult in practice.

The leadership models outlined in the Bill provide a fair amount of variation and should allow local councils to come up with a model that reflects well the needs of local people. I have to tell my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) that I
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think that it should be an aspiration to have leaders in place for four years, so that they can stand on a manifesto and be judged against what they have delivered—or not—four years later. I hope that that provision remains in the Bill.

I appreciate that the Bill allows districts that want to work more effectively together to have pathfinder status. However, I am not sure how that will help local people who, as I have said, are often very confused about two-tier local government.

I began by saying that the Bill charts a way through the real difficulty associated with establishing unitary local government in rural areas. The unitary councils that it sets up will provide county-wide strategic planning, but the Bill also stands up for the needs of the large number of people who make up the wider community. That balance is very important if rural areas are to be able to challenge the city-region agenda, when that conflicts with their needs. For example, the regional spatial strategy in my area appears to acknowledge the needs of the two city-regions, but takes no note of the need to provide more housing or economic development in the county as a whole. I hope that a unitary authority will give the people of County Durham a stronger voice which will enable them to get that regional spatial strategy changed.

The balance to which I have referred can be achieved if we have stronger neighbourhood councils. They need powers in addition to the ones that they have already so that, when they demonstrate the necessary competence, they can deliver services at the neighbourhood level. That is very important, as people in Durham identify most with what happens at a very local level—that is, in their village or urban neighbourhood. They are concerned about matters such as parking, community halls and bus shelters, and councillors should have a budget for such things so that they can react quickly to local needs.

The Bill will allow us to achieve a better balance between neighbourhood communities and more strategic planning. I cannot understand how the Liberal Democrat spokesperson, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell), can say that the Bill will not improve local representation and accountability, given that many of its provisions are intended to strengthen parish councils, where that is appropriate, and to support what goes on at a neighbourhood level with new forms of neighbourhood councils. I am also pleased that the neighbourhood councils will be able to co-opt local people to join them—a system that could bring in much needed skills. However, we must look very carefully at whether that might erode the local democratic voice. Clearly, the power of co-option could be used only in very limited circumstances.

I am pleased that the Bill contains provisions in respect of the community call for action, which will strengthen the scrutiny applied to what is happening in local areas. Local councillors and others—including young people—must be able to bring forward matters for greater scrutiny in the council and get a report on what needs to be done. The Local Government Information Unit has said that the current community call for action does not go far enough, and that it should cover a much wider range of topics. That is worth considering, but the danger is that only the most articulate and organised voices will be heard. The
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regulations supporting the Bill will have to be very clear about how often a particular matter can be brought forward, and about the numbers of people involved.

Andrew Gwynne: Does my hon. Friend agree that councillors who do their job properly should be able to deal with major problems arising in a ward or electoral division, and that the community call for action is very much a last resort, to be turned to when conventional mechanisms break down?

Dr. Blackman-Woods: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and hope that the process will be used most in the circumstances he describes.

I welcome the improvement in partnership working that the new local area agreements should bring about. It is important that they are used to bring the community and voluntary sectors on board. However, we may need to look at the list of things covered by LAAs, as they must be able to tackle some of the cross-cutting issues, such as climate change, local environmental matters and social inclusion, which it has been difficult for them to consider effectively. I also welcome the changes to best value and the rationalisation of inspection, which are much needed to reduce the bureaucratic burden on local authorities.

I should like my hon. Friend the Minister to give further consideration to one or two issues. Other Members have mentioned that all political parties have difficulty in attracting a wide range of people to be councillors. We shall have to tackle the difficult issue of remuneration for councillors, especially for members who become full-time members of a county council executive and whose remuneration should reflect that. We should take care not to be drawn by the Daily Mail hysteria on the subject; we need grown-up, rational discussion about how to include more people and involve them in local government. We also need to look into improving the skills base.

The Bill is likely to be judged against its objectives, which are to give local people more influence over the services and decisions that affect their communities, to provide more effective, cost-effective and strategic local government, and to bring on board citizen empowerment. I hope that the Bill will be judged on that.

I realise that other Members want to speak, but I want to raise one final issue. Standards need to be put back on the agenda. Most of the standards issues that come to my notice are petty and often personal and vindictive, yet there are huge matters to address. For example, the official website of the City of Durham council is full of statements from portfolio holders and the council leader; they are prominent on the web pages but it is hard to find information about council services. There seems to be no body that can look into such issues.

8.53 pm

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): I shall have to curtail my comments significantly, as we are coming to the end of the debate and I want to make sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and
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Chislehurst (Robert Neill) and my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne), have a chance to speak.

I want to give the Minister the result, hot off the press, of the referendum held in Shrewsbury on unitary authority status. It is with great honour that I announce that more than 27,000 people in my constituency voted in the referendum, which is great for democracy. People are interested in how their council works. I must tell the Minister that 67 per cent. of the people of Shrewsbury voted against a unitary authority—a majority of more than 10,000, which is even bigger than my parliamentary majority.

I campaigned hard against a unitary authority, so I am grateful to my constituents for rejecting the proposals. Ministers say that they will be open-minded and respect the wishes of the people. Well, people in Shrewsbury have spoken and I very much hope that the Minister will take their point of view on board.

I campaigned on the issue because I felt so desperately passionate about Shrewsbury and her identity. We have the lowest council tax in Shropshire and the council is rated excellent. In my estimation, we have the best chief executive in the whole of England, Mr. Robin Hooper—an excellent gentleman who does a tremendous job of providing services to Shrewsbury, despite the below inflation levels of increase in local government funding from the Government. In fact, Mr. Campbell, our finance director, informs me that this year our increase was only 1 per cent.—far less than the rate of inflation.

Because of my passion for Shrewsbury, I decided to call a meeting with the Minister for Local Government—I am pleased to see him in his place to listen to my speech—and I must say that he is a man of honour and principle. I would like to thank him for the help he gave me—a very rare thing among the Labour Government. This gentleman certainly deserves praise for all his help. However, he did say at the meetings that the Government would not be prescriptive. That word is indelibly printed on my mind—and I am pleased to see him moving his head. He told me that the Government would not be prescriptive. He told me that if all areas asked for unitary authorities, the Government would not be able to afford it. He acknowledged the huge cost of redundancies and gave me a commitment in last December’s meeting that the referendum would ultimately play a role in the Government’s decision.

I must say that Labour councillors tried to provide a different view of what I have said about my constituency. I am particularly upset with Councillor Alan Mosley, the socialist councillor from Castlefields, who has tried to imply in public meetings that I am somehow misleading my electorate about the Minister’s comments. I put on the record here in the House of Commons that I spoke the truth to my electorate when I assured them that the Minister for Local Government would not be prescriptive in this matter and that he would take the result of the referendum into account. Unless he intervenes on me, I take it as confirmation that my comments were correct. I ask the Minister to confirm the Government’s view on this matter—and I need a guarantee from him in his summing-up speech that the referendum result will be respected.

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