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I shall conclude my remarks on this group of amendments in order to give others the chance to speak. I remind the Minister that there are amendments in the group that we could have pressed to a Division, but for reasons of time, we will not do so. We back new clause 29; we see it as a symbol of the feeling in the House that although the Government believe that their centralist, directive power is being devolved in the Bill, the process has probably not gone far enough. On behalf of local government, we would
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like it to go much further. As I say, we will use that new clause as a symbol of the House’s concern, and of the strength of the feeling among Conservative authorities and others outside the House that more needs to be done to demonstrate that the Government are truly devolutionist, and not centralist. Frankly, we just do not think that they can demonstrate that.

Mr. Martin Caton (Gower) (Lab): I rise to speak to amendment No. 253, which is in my name and that of 80 other Members from across the House. As has already been mentioned, the amendment is really the progeny of a private Member’s Bill that I introduced in the Chamber on 19 January, the Local Planning Authorities (Energy and Energy Efficiency) Bill, which, coincidentally, will return to the Order Paper tomorrow. That Bill is about enabling local authorities better to contribute to tackling the problem of climate change using planning policy. If enacted, it would allow councils, if they so chose, to set higher standards for energy efficiency in their development plans than those laid down in building regulations, and it would allow them to make provision for sustainable energy and microgeneration requirements in the same document. An early-day motion supporting the Bill has now been signed by 302 Members of the House.

2.15 pm

Sadly, my Bill failed to find favour with the Government. In a number of meetings with Ministers, and in correspondence with me and other Members, we have been assured that the Government are sympathetic to its objectives, but we have been told that they will not give it a fair wind because they are consulting on their draft planning policy statement on climate change, and they think that it would be inappropriate to prejudge the outcome of that process by endorsing, implicitly or explicitly, my Bill. Secondly, they think that the subject would be better dealt with in Government legislation, rather than in a private Member’s Bill.

The consultation period on the draft planning policy statement ended on 8 March, and Ministers have had a fair amount of time in which to consider the responses. We now have the opportunity in the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill to deal with the central issue in Government legislation, and that is what my amendment is intended to achieve. In part 5, chapter 1, which is on local area agreements, clause 81 deals with local improvement targets. My amendment specifies that energy efficiency and sustainable energy targets can be included in local agreements.

As with my private Member’s Bill, my amendment is about empowering local councils to meet the challenge of climate change, but it is also about encouraging them to act now; that is important. The clearest message to come out of the Stern review is the absolute need for urgency. We cannot afford to wait. The amendment is intended to give all local councils a green light, in every sense, to follow the lead of places such as Woking and Merton and set high environmental standards for new developments, both residential and non-residential.

I welcome the policy of all new homes being zero carbon by 2016, and I welcome the Chancellor’s proposals for new eco-communities, but to turn those
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concepts into reality, we need many more examples—and soon—of low and zero-carbon homes to add to the very small number of experimental buildings that exist or are about to be constructed. One way—perhaps the best way—of achieving that goal is to enable and encourage local authorities to set high standards for energy efficiency and sustainable energy generation. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government said that she wants

If the amendment were to become part of the Bill, and then the Act, it would help to stimulate exactly that scale of new development.

At the moment, there is a great deal of uncertainty in the local government family about whether local government can set the sorts of standards that I am proposing. Some councils have been allowed to specify high standards for energy efficiency and sustainable energy, but others have been slapped down by Government inspectors when they have tried to do exactly the same thing. For example, Reading was allowed to specify thermal performance requirements that were at least 12 per cent. higher than those required by building regulations. Cambridge, on the other hand, was made to water down its planning policy, which required large developers to provide evidence of how they had minimised energy consumption, maximised energy efficiency and considered the feasibility of using combined heat and power systems, even though that is surely exactly what we should be asking of developers in the face of the threat of global warming. However, the Government inspector said the policy was

Cambridge is set to increase its housing stock by 40 per cent. in the next 15 years. What impact has the inspector’s decision had on carbon dioxide emissions in that city?

Similarly, in its core strategy and rural issues plan, Bedford borough council wanted to reduce CO2 emissions by 10 per cent. more than the amount set out in building regulations for certain developments. The Government office for the east of England ruled that out on the grounds that the current planning system

At present, there is inconsistency and incoherence, resulting in inertia. We need clarity and positive encouragement to meet the highest feasible environmental standards. That is what the amendment is about.

Although clause 81 deals with targets in local area agreements, the only way that I can envisage targets on energy efficiency and low-carbon energy sources being met is through planning policy, and through the development plan process in particular.

Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab): I am following my hon. Friend’s points carefully, and I certainly agree with the thrust of what he is saying, but does he not agree that the best way to achieve higher standards nationally is to amend and improve building regulations?

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Mr. Caton: I agree that that is part of the answer, and the Government have a good programme leading up to 2016, but we can go further. Empowering local authorities to use the development plan process will give us the threat of good examples, as it were, and will allow us to move faster. As I just explained, some local authorities have been permitted to move faster, but others have been slapped down. Surely that inconsistency is absolute nonsense. If there are examples where local authorities have moved ahead, and it has not deterred house building in their area or had any other effect, I suggest that others could be doing so, too, and we could be moving faster.

Mr. Raynsford: Does my hon. Friend recognise that for those involved in the manufacture of building materials and those planning the construction process, it is vital to have clarity some years in advance regarding the standards that will be sought, so that the production lines can be put in place to make the products that will deliver the higher standards? The construction industry is saying that the lack of clarity that would result from my hon. Friend’s proposal that local authorities have the freedom to set separate standards in separate areas would inhibit that process. Will he recognise that a balance must be struck between this perfectly proper aspiration to raise standards, and the maintenance of a nationally coherent framework that allows the industry to respond effectively?

Mr. Caton: That is certainly what the Home Builders Federation is saying. When I introduced my private Member’s Bill, the HBF was the only organisation that contacted me to oppose it. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Local Government Association, the Welsh Local Government Association and the various environmental groups all supported it. However, there is some substance in my right hon. Friend’s argument. In my discussions with Ministers, I suggested that we establish parameters, so that everybody knows what they are doing. We have already set higher standards in social housing, so it is perfectly possible to do it, but I accept the point that we should not necessarily have a free-for-all.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): I thank the hon. Gentleman—he is my hon. Friend on this matter—for giving way and I apologise for not being here at the start of his contribution, although I am sure that I agreed with every word of it.

Mr. Woolas: He attacked Cambridge.

David Howarth: I heard that bit and it was very good. Does he agree that another answer to what the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) said is that if the public sector is setting higher standards—indeed, the Chancellor is requiring much higher standards in his eco-cities—the argument that the industry needs one standard cannot possibly be right, because there are already two?

Mr. Caton: That is absolutely right.

As for the consultation on the planning policy statement on planning and climate change, to which I
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referred earlier, we still do not know what position the Government are taking after considering all the responses, but I hope that Ministers will give weight to the issues raised by organisations such as the Association for the Conservation of Energy, which drew attention to serious weaknesses in the draft planning policy statement that, if unchanged, would effectively deter councils from trying to achieve better environmental standards. For instance, paragraph 31 of the draft PPS says:

That is the wrong approach. Building regulations should be minimum standards. Ministers have said that they believe that building regulations should be minimum standards, yet paragraph 31 implies that in fact, the Government believe that—most of the time, at least—they should be maximum standards. Councils should be free to go for higher standards; indeed, at this time they should be encouraged to do so.

On top of this, the draft PPS sets four hurdles for councils to jump before they can set even limited higher standards. They must identify local developments or site opportunities, ruling out authority-wide policies, as in Reading; they must set out their local approach in advance in a development plan document; they have to estimate the cost to possible developers; and the content of the local development documents and the reasoning for it have to be approved by a Government inspector.

I was vice-chair of a planning committee in a previous life and I am sure that, faced with these hurdles, very few local authorities will try for higher standards. The development plan process is tortuous enough, without extra complications. A fairer, simpler, far better and more effective approach is that taken in my amendment. It recognises the vital part that councils can and should play in limiting their local carbon footprints. It seeks to free them to do that and encourages them to act. I hope that in responding, my hon. Friend the Minister will recognise its merits.

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): I very much welcome amendment No. 253, tabled by the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Caton), which deals with a very important issue. Many Conservative Members have much sympathy for it, and I hope that we will have the opportunity to express that in due course. Having said that, I want briefly to discuss some of the other matters dealt with in this tranche of amendments and new clauses.

Many people are concerned that we have missed an opportunity to state a broad overview of the basis of the relationship between national and local government. Of course, the United Kingdom does not have a written constitution, but in most of our continental EU partner countries, there is such a formal statement of competencies, rights and responsibilities, and a measure of respect for the competencies on each side. It would perhaps have been a good idea to take that approach, in a different way, in the Bill, as was suggested by the Local Government
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Association and the Local Government Information Unit. I hope that Ministers will reflect on whether something can be done to set out such a statement.

The reason for taking such an approach was highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) when he raised the issue of targets and centralism. I was in France the other Sunday for the second round of the French presidential elections. [Interruption.] I was very happy with the outcome, and I had the chance to catch up with a number of friends in local government in France. The point that struck many of us in our discussions, and which struck me during my time as a member of the Committee of the Regions, is that there is often a marked correlation between participation in democracy at local level and local authorities’ room for manoeuvre and local discretion. It is clear across the EU that the more local discretion that is given to local authorities—including, often, fiscal devolution—the larger the turnouts at elections and the healthier the state of local democracy. Despite what has been said, the Bill does not go far enough in that direction. That is why it is very important that we deal with the targets issue.

Kelvin Hopkins: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for mentioning this, but was it not a Conservative Government who took away the local business rate and centralised it?

Robert Neill: Yes, I am grateful for the history lesson—and some of us learn from history, which is why many Conservatives argue that the business rate should be returned to local authorities. That was my view and it always has been.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): While we are having the history lesson, would my hon. Friend like to remind the House that because of the appalling behaviour of councils such as Newcastle, John Lewis paid four times the price per square foot in council tax in Newcastle than it did in Oxford street, and that something had to be done because members of the Labour party were milking the public?

Robert Neill: I understand my right hon. Friend’s point, and I am now led to conclude that I was right to adopt my old careers master’s advice to become a lawyer, rather than a history professor. However, in the light of a changed set of circumstances, it is my and many others’ view that the business rate can now be returned to local authorities—along with the safeguards that can sensibly be put in place in order to avoid the abuse that my right hon. Friend refers to, and which I witnessed as a London borough councillor at that time.

The targets issue is important, because micro-management through targets undermines local government’s degree of discretion. I take France as an example because it is the European country that I know best. Not only are major towns there able to raise much more of their revenue locally, but they are much freer from interference by central Government in how they deliver services. I accept the need for equity on a national basis, but often that is effectively traded off
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against the greater ability to choose local solutions to meet local problems and local issues. Not enough attention is paid to that.

The police are a particularly good example, referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire. I serve on the Metropolitan Police Authority, and when I talk to police officers of all ranks in my constituency and elsewhere in Greater London, when I talk to our partners in the crime and disorder reduction partnership locally, and when I talk to people in our police and community consultative groups, it is a recurrent theme that we have far too many centrally imposed targets. Very often these are targets for crimes, for example, which are not the top priority in our local borough, but they have to be fitted into a national template. That diverts attention from dealing with local policing issues. The same applies in a number of other areas.

A reduction in targets, as we propose in our amendments, seems not only to be right philosophically, but to go with the grain of the evidence on the ground. That is why in our amendment No. 180, which deals with locally determined improvement targets, we seek to give greater flexibility to make changes and amendments to those targets to reflect the changing situation on the ground.

2.30 pm

On local area agreements, I am grateful to Ministers for having taken on board a number of points that were raised in Committee. I hope, and I reinforce as strongly as I can the message of my hon. Friend, that they will look again at the issue of probation trusts. All of us who have been involved in local government consider that important. In Bromley, as the London assembly and Metropolitan Police Authority member, I serve on the local crime and disorder reduction partnership, of which the probation service is a part. We are anxious to have the ability to involve the probation service much more widely in the overall local area agreements. I am glad to see that the Minister for Local Government seems to respond with some sympathy to that remark. That would build on the best practice in a number of places.

The same applies to the voluntary sector. Our umbrella voluntary sector organisation, Community Links Bromley, is a valuable part of our local strategic partnership. I should like to make more progress in finding ways in which it can be linked into the local area agreements. It contributes a great deal and where there is good working, we ought to be able to encourage that and facilitate it.

A practical and sensible set of issues is raised by the Local Government Information Unit in the briefing that a number of Members will have seen. Not only should there be a statutory obligation to co-operate, but we should be able to deliver that in practice. Fortunately, in my borough people co-operate willingly and well, but the experience of many of us shows that in London and elsewhere the level of co-operation is patchy.

Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): Will the statutory duty to co-operate deliver what everyone wants to achieve? The example of primary care trusts appears in the commentary on the Bill. Withdrawal
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from the local area agreements due to a lack of funding is a problem that we face in Enfield, where the primary care trust has withdrawn a vital part of the area agreement concerning alcohol services and rehabilitation, and £80,000 has been withdrawn from alcohol screening in local accident and emergency units. Will the London health economy be able to deliver, given the problems with top-slicing of funding?

Robert Neill: My hon. Friend raises a hugely important point. Although we have not yet reached the degree of crisis that exists in Enfield, the risk applies right across London boroughs, particularly those in outer London, where I regret to say that the health economy is strained and also, for reasons that we have discussed in the Chamber, the financial settlements to local government have been hugely constrained, so any withdrawal puts the whole of service provision into considerable jeopardy. We need to consider that.

It is interesting that we have some evidence of the extent to which the duty to co-operate works in practice from the audit of crime and disorder reduction partnerships carried out by the Audit Commission. In its 2002 report, its last work on the subject, the Audit Commission noted that

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