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The Opposition parties have chosen to make the single issue of planningand, indeed, within that issue, the effect on housing developmenta cause célèbre, which distorts both the debate and the Bill. I
can only think that they have decided to do so, as my hon. Friend said, because political disagreement has been smuggled into the Bill under the guise of disagreement about the constitutional question of where power should lie.
Mrs. Villiers: The hon. Gentleman seeks to minimise the changes that the Bill would introduce by shifting planning powers from the boroughs to the Mayor. Does he accept that the Bill would allow Ken Livingstone to force more high-rise tower blocks on low-rise suburban environments?
Mr. Slaughter: No, I do not accept that that is the net effect. Indeed, that effect has been hugely exaggerated. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) expressed shock and horror about the transfer of powers to the Mayor, but derided the Mayors statement that 99 per cent. of decisions will stay with the boroughs. He cannot have it both ways. Strategic decisions are clearly major decisions, but they are a tiny minority of planning decisions. If one believesand I do not know whether the Opposition parties do soin a strategic authority for London and a democratically elected Mayor, with proper scrutiny by the assembly, surely that is the appropriate course to follow.
I return to the point that I was making a moment ago. I believe that opposition to the Bill comes down to disagreements not on planning matters in general, but on housing specifically, and arises from the nimby attitude constantly displayed by the Conservative and Liberal parties.
Simon Hughes: I deduce that the hon. Gentleman continues to believe that any development or redevelopment of more than 500 units will always have a strategic impact. That means that in any borough, by his definition, any major development will always be strategic and be able to be called in and decided by the Mayor.
Mr. Slaughter: I did not say always, but I do say likely. Given the housing pressures in London, which the hon. Gentleman, to give him credit, admits and given the huge levels of housing need which he, like me, must have in his constituency, we need to ensure that proper provision is made for affordable housing, both intermediate and social rented housing, in London. That is singularly not being delivered by many boroughs, including Liberal Democrat boroughs such as Islington and the Conservative boroughs to which I referred earlier.
I do not wish to take up a great deal of time as others wish to speak, but let me give an example that shows the crushing need for the powers to lie with a responsible authority, rather than with many of the borough councils. I had the pleasure this morning of attending the opening of a housing development in my constituencya development of 128 affordable homes, opened by the Countess of Wessex and including 21 homes run by the Sir Oswald Stoll Foundation for ex-servicemen who had previously been homeless. The
rest of the development is a mix of shared ownership and affordable homes run by Threshold Housing.
The scheme is a model development in every respect. It is built on derelict land in place of housing that had been demolished by a Conservative Government for a road widening scheme that was rightly withdrawn by a Labour Government. It is built to the highest environmental standards, with water drawn from a borehole deep in the earth, which also provided heating. It is environmentally self-sufficient, with internal gardens within the property. Some of the people to whom I spoke, who are residents of the housing, described it as more like a boutique hotel than social housing. I have no doubt that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) will visit it shortlythey always visit model housing developments in my constituencyand say how wonderful they are.
Needless to say, the development was commissioned and built under the guidance of a Labour council. That council is now a Conservative council. Two weeks ago, another scheme went before a Conservative-controlled planning committee. The scheme was exactly the same size, and the proposal was the samethat is, for 100 per cent. affordable housing. At the behest of the committee, the development is now 53 per cent. market housing and 43 per cent. shared ownership housing, but at a price out of the reach of any of my constituents.
The reason given for that is that there is too much social housing in the area. I need only say that the development is just off the Kings road on the Chelsea borders. Whatever one says about that area, I do not think one would say it was an area with an excess of social housing. If that is the cynical approach that is being taken by borough councils, particularly Conservative borough councils in London, there is an absolute and immediate need for a responsible authority
Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): Would the hon. Gentleman take exactly the same view, were there to be a Mayor of London of a different political persuasion and were his council once again to be Labour controlled? Would he be as comfortable with the new Mayor taking a contrary view?
Mr. Slaughter: I had thought of that perplexing problem. Were, God forbid, the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey in that position, or the car dealerwhose name escapes mewho was the other candidate last time, I am persuaded that there are sufficient safeguards through the intervention of the Secretary of State, who I feel certain will be a Labour Secretary of State in perpetuity. It would be unfortunate if all the ducks lined up in a row and we had a series of right-wing Conservative Administrations from top to bottom. I do not like even to contemplate that, so I shall end my comments.
If there were not a dereliction of responsibility, which is deliberate in many cases, on the part of Conservative councils across London, perhaps some of the powers would not be necessary. Often one reaps what one sows.
Tom Brake: I, too, start by thanking Ministers and the Labour Whip for the efficient manner in which matters have proceeded. We have had an entertaining, well-informed and reasonably non-partisan debate. There has been broad agreement on much that is in the Bill, whether climate change or health inequalities. The hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) succeeding in uniting all parties against her and the Mayors proposal on waste confirmation hearings.
On the London housing strategy, there was agreement between Liberal Democrat Members and the Government, in that it would be much more appropriate for many of the decisions currently taken by central Government to be taken by the Mayor. We are not trying to oppose devolutionary measures, although some will attempt to portray the way in which we are about to vote as being a vote against devolution. In the debates that took place eight or nine years ago, when my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) led for my party on these matters, it was clear that we supported the devolutionary proposals; in fact, we wanted the Government to go further.
It is because we support devolution that we will join the official Opposition in voting against the Billspecifically, because of our concern about two issues. The first of those is the budget, which we debated at length today and in Committee. The Minister is on the record as saying that the current arrangements are tried and tested. That may be so, but I am afraid that they have failed the test, hence the need to ensure that a simple majority of assembly members support the Mayors budget for it to be carried. Everyone outside this place will understand that; only people here, particularly Labour Members, fail to appreciate why normal members of the public find it hard to understand why it is appropriate to require a two-thirds majority of assembly members to block the Mayors budget.
An equally important issue is that of planning. When the Minister opened the debate, she had the honesty to say that although the Mayor intervenes in only a relatively small number of planning applications, they are, by definition, the largest and the most controversial.
Robert Neill: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the fundamental flaw in the Bill, and the reason why both our parties will vote against it, is that there is not enough devolution from central Government to the Mayor, that too much is taken from the boroughs and given to the Mayor, and that the assembly is not able sufficiently to hold the Mayor in check?
As my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey said, those two issues will not go away. I am afraid that they outweigh the more positive devolutionary aspects of the Bill and will determine how we vote tonight. We believe that the
planning proposals are a Trojan horse that will give the Mayor scope to indulge in his most interventionist fantasies, and he will not be able to resist the temptation to put his finger into every sizeable planning pie. We cannot therefore support the Bill on Third Reading and hope that common sense will prevail in another place.
Mr. Pelling: We have seen very little in the way of change during the process that has got the Bill to this stage. On Second Reading, I expressed great concern that this pusillanimous piece of legislation, which shows no confidence in Londons governance and offers very little in terms of any kind of devolutionary settlement, does not go far enough. That is why we will vote with enthusiasm against this legislation, as it shows no confidence in Londoners, London or its governance.
We made radical proposals for devolution in London. We suggested that, instead of quangos that are remote from the people of London, the Mayor should be the health authority. We suggested that there should be real and direct accountability on policing by making the Mayor the police authority and by making him directly accountable through questions from the assembly rather than the current ridiculously diffused process of accountability within Londons policing, which involves the Metropolitan Police Authority, the Metropolitan Police Service, the assembly budget committee, the Mayor and the Home Secretary.
Although it is not directly part of the Bill, we have also been most concerned about the way in which the Government have failed to have the self-confidence to give real power to the Mayor on the important issue of skills training. When there is such a huge level of worklessness in the London economy and when so many people are not properly trained to take advantage of one of the strongest periods of economic growth in Londons history, it is an indictment of the way in which the learning and skills councils have operated in London. The Government should have had the self-confidence to provide those powers to the Mayor in other legislation. Instead, powers are being taken up from a local level. Many local authorities are positive about providing for extra housing, for example.
Jim Fitzpatrick: Does not the hon. Gentleman accept that, under the chairmanship of the Mayor and the vice-chairmanship of Mr. Harvey McGrath, chief executive of the Man Group, the London learning and skills council has been restructured to make it more business-fronted and to ensure that skills investment in London is far more efficient? We have taken the opportunity to change the configuration of skills in London to ensure that young people coming out of our schools, colleges and universities are more business-facing and better able to ensure that London remains the premier financial centre in the world.
I am grateful for that intervention. The Minister has probably secured the best compromise possible with Department for Education and Skills officials. No doubt the DFES has resisted. Again, we shall have the diffusion of accountability. The Learning and Skills Council headquarters in Coventry will
continue to intervene. It would have been much better to have had LSC provision and powers within the mayoral office.
Returning to the localist point of view, I believe that local authorities such as mine in Croydon, which is very positive about building social housing and council housing, are best placed to react to the needs of the local electorate who are demanding that extra social housing and to deal with the housing crisis that has been imposed on London by this Government. Planning powers are being taken away from local authorities. They will not be able to pursue the exercise of their discretion in ensuring the maximum economic development within their own local economies.
Robert Neill: Does my hon. Friend agree that a good example of current mayoral policies producing a perverse result in housing is the insistence on basing densities on the number of dwellings rather than habitable rooms per hectare? That means that far too much affordable housing is in the form of one or two-bedroom flats rather than family housing, which outer London boroughs such as my hon. Friends and mine view as the crunch point of need.
Mr. Pelling: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that remotely set national and regional targets have led to London having the wrong type of housing. We have a superfluity of one and two-bedroom flats available for social housing, but what my constituency needs is family housing. I am sick and tired of Government Members trying to accuse Conservative councils of not being supportive of social housing when it is Labour that has led to a family living in a one-bedroom flat in my constituency facing the prospect of being re-housed only over a 10-year period. What we need from this Government is real confidence in London government, but the Bill does not provide it. It is not about devolution at all.
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): It is time that someone said a few words on behalf of long-suffering London taxpayers. Since the Mayor came into office, we have seen a surge in wasteful and unnecessary spendingspending on focus groups, research, consultancies, discussion documents, propaganda and advertisingin order to boost the role and image of the mayoralty at the taxpayers expense.
What disturbs me most about the issues that have emerged from the debate, and about what we see in the Bill, is that its provisions will result in a further step away from value for money and proper financial accountability in the government of London. As a Conservative party member, I am delighted, because that will make it so much easier for us to win the next mayoral election. The provisions are an open sesame to this Mayor to go on his rakes progress and to spend and spend and spend. He seems to have no sensitivity for how people are suffering from the extremely high tax impositions that he has already made, or for what is likely to happen when some of the scrutiny and powers to hold him in check are removed. It is absurd that a
properly elected GLA will be unable effectively to veto an inappropriate or excessively expensive budget.
We know that, last time around, the people of London were much more inclined to give Conservatives their votes for the Assembly in order to provide a check on the Mayor, because they knew his weakness only too well. The voters might now see that, as there is to be no check on the Mayor, it will be important to have a Mayor who understands that people find it difficult to earn the money that he wishes to take off them and that he should therefore spend less of it and spend it much more wisely.
The Government have a similar version of that overspending problem. They are always asking us where on earth we would make economies, and claiming that they spend the money so well. There is an economy that would be very easy to make, and it should be in the Bill. It would involve the abolition of the Government office for London. What is the point of this nasty, unnecessary, wasteful, spendthrift quango, when we are spending all this other moneyas national taxpayers and, for some of us, as London taxpayerson an elected Mayor, an elected Assembly which tries in part to control him, and on proper borough government?
My right hon. and hon. Friends who speak for London constituencies have made powerful points about how they believe that true democratic accountability should be devolved to, and rest with, borough government. I quite understand that. The City of London is a great place and it has its own mayor, who represents the City in a fine way. The City of Westminster, where I have a flat, has its own mayor and looks after the interests of Westminster residents very well, unlike quite a lot of the Labour boroughs one could mention. Those places do not need an elected Mayor coming in over their heads, not understanding their circumstances or their contract with their electors, to overrule and countermand their decisions.
It is particularly frustrating for a well-run Conservative borough that tries to keep its council tax down to find that a socking great surcharge has been placed on the bill by a Mayor who has no sense of propriety or value for money in these matters and who obviously does not think that he has to answer to the electors of such a borough because he is expecting to get his votes from somewhere else, where people might not be paying the same bill in the same way.
I know that it is late in the Bills progress through the Commons, but I think that, in the Labour partys interests, the Government should think again about this matter. The Bill will enable the Mayor to exercise powers that will probably embarrass the Government and the Labour party, as he realises just how much power he has been given. All of us who would like to see proper devolution, preferably taking powers away from government at all levels, so that families, individuals and businesses have more power, think that where government needs to have more power, it should be exercised at the lower levelthe borough levelrather than government of London or mayoral level. We would rather see that and that would make much more sense for the Labour party and for the Governments alleged aim of wanting true devolution.
The true unit of democracy in London is the borough. London was built up as a group of villages
and smaller settlements, loosely coming together in some kind of federation. However, much more important than the federal level is the individual borough, to which people feel their loyalty and used to pay most of their tax. In some boroughs, we are now getting to the ridiculous position where the Mayor might start to take more off people than the borough itself. The borough provides a wide range of important services, but what is the Mayor doing that we want? I cannot think of anything that the Mayor is doing that I, as a sometime Londoner, want, and I know that there are many other voters who feel the same about the Mayor. He is a luxury that we can scarce afford and the Bill will make him even less affordable.
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