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Who will decide who appears to be appropriate? Will it be the local council or the local trust? If it is written into the Bill, there will be no ambiguity, and the people who deliver the service will be involved at all stages.

A consulted work force is a happy work force, even when faced with change. I represented social services in
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Newcastle long after John Lewis was no longer paying rates there. For 15 years, from 1990, I saw massive changes. Social workers moved from local government into the health service and home care workers competed with private firms that went into people’s houses at different times of day, with different people working there. Residential and day care services changed drastically. Yes, we tried to oppose the changes, but ultimately we had to work with them. Regular consultation and discussion, involving the work force and those who were being cared for, were key to that.

I make a plea to the Minister to insert into clause 82 words that would mean that recognised trade unions would be consulted at every level.

Mr. Gummer: I apologise to the House for not being present at the beginning of the debate. I had not intended to speak until I heard the intervention of the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), because he raised an important issue. I declare an interest as I chair a company that does some advisory work in the building industry. I therefore know a little about the building industry, and I must disagree with the right hon. Gentleman— with whom I normally agree.

The fact is that, last year, nearly half the houses built in Britain did not meet the building standards. We have a system that does not deliver even the pathetic standards that we currently have. The reason for that is that they are input, not output, standards. We must do something about that rapidly. It would be different if the Minister said to us, “Please do not do this. We really are going to raise standards. Rather than introducing prescriptive building regulations that will never work but will merely pile Ossa on Pelion and produce an impossible system, we will set output standards. That will mean that new houses must have a thermal efficiency of x, and we are determined that the standard will rise in five years’ time.” If we knew that the Government would do that, we could take the action that the right hon. Gentleman suggests, but I do not believe that the Government will do it, so I want progressive local government to force it out of them.

3 pm

The comparator is the United States of America. My praise for the USA is not always unalloyed, but it has got one thing right: its states have been forcing the federal Government into a more sensible position on climate change by taking steps themselves. That contrasts with the autocratic, centralising Government that we have in Britain today. Here, every power is brought up to the centre, often not for the reasons given by the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins)—with whom, surprisingly, I often agree, so I hope he will not mind my saying that.

I made the point about Newcastle because I believe that the business rate ought to return to local authorities, but let me remind the hon. Gentleman why the change took place. It was because of a mechanism that enabled local authorities to precept on the taxpayer. They did that in many areas, and as a result the people who paid the bills increasingly moved out of our great northern cities. It was the change that took place in the hon. Gentleman’s party—and I give all
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credit to his party—that provided an opportunity for the improved relationship between the centre and local authorities that exists today. In that sense we want to empower local authorities, and one way of empowering them is to make them proud of the standards that they set.

The right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich said that the construction industry could not manage that. The industry gives that same excuse in every circumstance: it is always “We cannot do this” and “We cannot do that”. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that in Kyoto the car manufacturing industry said that if we passed the protocol it would not be able to produce the vehicles that would fulfil its part of the bargain. Within six months, every car manufacturer in the United States had those vehicles on the market. I believe that the same is true of the construction industry. If it becomes clear that there is a movement throughout progressive local authorities, of all political parties, to raise the standards expected of buildings, the industry will say to the Government, “Please do not leave this to the local authorities; you must set the standards.” Then, at long last, we shall see proper pressure being exerted on Government.

Mr. Raynsford: If the situation were as the right hon. Gentleman has depicted it, his argument would have a great deal of force. As he will know, the House Builders Federation—which in the past has not been at the forefront in advocating higher standards—has committed itself to the Government’s target of reaching level 6 of the code for sustainable homes within 10 years. However, it has rightly added the caveat that meeting that objective will require certainty between now and then, rather than a proliferation of different requirements in different areas. The industry is committed, but it does not want a proliferation of targets that it cannot anticipate because they could change at any moment, destroying any chance of sensible forward planning.

Mr. Gummer: The right hon. Gentleman would have my entire support were it not for my belief that if we allow that cosy deal, not the industry but the Government will let people down. Of course, the right hon. Gentleman will not say that, but in 10 years of this Government there have been only a few pathetic improvements in the building regulations. Part L is a disgrace. [Interruption.] The Under-Secretary will not catch me out on part L. Let me point out that the Government initiated consultation on the new regulations for conservatories and extensions, received universal support for a raising of standards, and then not only refused to raise them but had the audacity to tell the public that they never meant to do so. So why the blazes did they initiate the consultation?

I heard the Under-Secretary’s colleague the Minister for Housing and Planning utter on the radio what I must describe as the nearest thing to a terminological inexactitude that I have ever heard from a Minister. She said that they had never intended it, yet there it was in a consultation documentation that suggested that the standards should be raised. I trust the right hon. Gentleman. If he told me it, I would have no doubt that we were moving in that direction. However, we have had 10 years of failure in doing what we need to
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do if we are to have any chance of meeting the climate change obligation. That is why I find the Government so difficult— they have all the right words but they do not actually do anything.

Mr. Raynsford: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for saying that he would trust me, but I was actually the responsible Minister during most of those 10 years in which he said there had been no progress. Rather than no progress, there have been substantial improvements, twice in the energy efficiency regulations, once on access for disabled people—something on which his Government had failed to act, despite pressure for a long time—and in many other building regulations that have been significantly improved in the past few years.

Mr. Gummer: Yet 48 per cent. of the houses built last year did not meet the building regulations that the right hon. Gentleman had so substantially improved. I honour him for as much as he was able to do within a Government where doing is not a particularly popular activity. What he managed to do was remarkable. What is necessary now is a very large step forward. In order for me not to support the amendment, I want the Government to say that they will bring forward the agreement that the House Builders Federation says it is prepared to go along with—that in five years’ time all houses will be built to eco-standard 6. We would change only 1 per cent. a year in that way but it would be hugely important.

I want the Government to say that they will start doing something serious about the retrofitting of present houses in order that we can do something about the matter. I respect the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich enormously and I say to him simply that we do not have the time to fiddle about with the buildings of this country, given the threat of climate change. We have to act now. One could make an excuse five or 10 years ago because we were not quite sure, but we cannot do so after Stern. It is surprising that, following Stern, the Government have not proposed a range of changes to the Bill that would push us forward in a major way.

It is because they have not done so that I am bound to support the amendment. Otherwise, the hope of the right hon. Gentleman will not be fulfilled. We need a Government who are pressed on all fronts to do what is necessary in the built environment to deal with the real challenge.

Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan) (Lab): I support Government amendments Nos. 26 to 28, which rightly recognise the role of transport in local area agreements. They relate particularly to London, but clause 55 relates to the passenger transport authorities in the metropolitan areas. They are vital, particularly in the Greater Manchester area and in the 10 districts that make up the Greater Manchester passenger transport authority. At the moment, we have tremendous plans to tackle congestion—guided busways that will come into Wigan borough through Leigh, congestion charges on major routes and the light rapid transit system within Greater Manchester.

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One of the plethora of Acts passed by the Conservative Government ensured that those authorities with a large majority did not abuse that by putting all of their own members on to the joint boards such as the police, fire and passenger transport authorities. I accept that; it is absolutely right that there should be places on those authorities for opposition parties.

In Greater Manchester, the passenger transport authority is about to be taken over by a Liberal Democrat group that has lost seats in the recent local elections and whose total representation of councillors amounts to just over 25 per cent. Yet because of deals that it is doing with the Conservative party and minor parties, it intends to take over the Greater Manchester PTA.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): May I declare an interest in that I am a member of Tameside metropolitan borough council? My hon. Friend’s point is correct. As nine out of the 10 constituent authorities in Greater Manchester are respecting the proportionality rule, it cannot be right for one council not to entertain the spirit of the rules establishing the PTA. Might an attempt be made to ensure that there is a spirit of co-operation through the local area agreements, as the PTA does not reflect either the political make-up of the 10 councils in Greater Manchester or the votes cast by the public in Greater Manchester on 3 May?

Mr. Turner: My hon. Friend anticipates the point I am about to make. As a result of the last local elections, 327 out of the 645 Greater Manchester councillors are Labour, 131 or 20 per cent. are Conservative and 162 or 25 per cent. are Liberal Democrats. Yet the Greater Manchester PTA is about to be taken over by the Liberal Democrats, even though they account for only 25 per cent. of councillors. That cannot be right. It will seriously undermine the ability of Greater Manchester PTA to work with the 10 districts to produce passenger transport arrangements that reflect not only the will of the councils, but the will of those who voted in May.

I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to examine whether, when the Bill moves on to the House of Lords, he might amend it so that the Liberals cannot subvert the democratic will of the people of Greater Manchester in this way, and so that we can have the progress that was agreed between the other two major parties in Greater Manchester in respect of essential transport measures. They should be included in our local area agreements so that we can have our busways, tramways and congestion charges, for which the vast majority of the people of Greater Manchester have voted. If we do not have them, the point of the elections will be lost.

At some point in the future we should also look into proportionality. I favour there being a strict basis for that, so that one in three councillors must be an opposition member even if one party has as much as 60, 70 or 80 per cent. of councillors. One third of representation should come from the opposition party, rather than the smaller proportion that it currently has. Perhaps we should take an overall look at proportionality.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will look into this issue closely and make sure that we are not put
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into the position that we appear to be about to be put into even though five of the Greater Manchester councils are Labour controlled, one is Conservative and only two are under Liberal Democrat control.

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): I apologise for not having been present for the opening of the debate.

I wish to speak briefly about my support for amendment No. 253, tabled by the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Caton), of which I am a sponsor. I am keen to do so because I endeavoured to introduce a similar measure last year when a private Member’s Bill on climate change was in Committee. Unfortunately, the Government voted it down and continue to set their face against empowering local communities to go further and faster than central Government have so far been prepared to allow them in requiring higher eco-standards in our homes.

I completely agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) that it would be far better if we were to concern ourselves with outcomes rather than standards that will never be enforced. However, in the absence of a wholesale review of the system—it is unlikely that we shall get one under this Government—if we are to make standards the benchmark by which we operate, we must empower local communities to make the decisions that are right for their new developments and give local people a sense of shared responsibility for eco-friendly developments in their communities.

All too often people ask, “Why are the Government not doing more on climate change to put the Prime Minister’s fine words into action where I live? Why do we struggle to see any difference in the types of development that we see springing up? We see it on the television and we hear politicians talking about it at Westminster, but when we try to do something locally, it just does not happen.”

3.15 pm

This small, innocuous amendment would allow progressive councils of all colours—I readily accept that not just Conservative councils but others could take advantage of this measure—to do something outstanding. They want to set a new benchmark for eco-friendly homes, to put microgeneration into practice in their community and to encourage greater energy efficiency. They do not want to be lectured by the House Builders Federation or their lackeys.

We should listen to local people and empower local communities to do something about climate change.

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): I want to comment briefly on four amendments. First, I welcome the amendments in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) that recognise the role of registered social landlords. As he rightly pointed out, RSLs play an important part in the local scene in many areas and are often actively engaged in their local communities and local councils. The amendment would ensure that they were properly included in partnership working in their areas.

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I must, however, fundamentally disagree with my right hon. Friend on amendment No. 253. The clause gives local councils and local communities the freedom to drive up standards in energy efficiency and microgeneration. I add my voice to those of people who feel that that is important. Local partnerships already exist in many areas and are committed to dealing with the climate change issues that challenge us all to drive standards up locally. They would warmly welcome that freedom, which could be built on. Others have referred to the United States, where local communities have led the field and induced national Government to follow.

The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) introduced the two Liberal Democrat amendments. The mechanism proposed in new clause 30 on relations between central and local government is incredibly cumbersome. He described his approach as simple; I would say it was simplistic. It assumes that the wide range of contacts between central and local government—on community engagement, participation, service delivery and so on—can be brought together annually in a single grand scheme and subject to discussion in a single steering group. The relationships between central and local government are far more complex than the amendment implies and do not lend themselves to a single grand scheme that would seek annually to encompass all the complex relationships that exist.

Finally, although the new clause has received considerable attention from Members, I want to set it in the context of a warm welcome for the steps in the Bill that significantly reduce the burden on local government of targets and inspections. I warmly welcome the moves that the Government are taking to establish the Audit Commission as a gatekeeper for inspection, as well as the provisions that will get the Audit Commission, other inspectors and, indeed, the Government off the back of local government, enabling it get on with the job it was elected to do.

The Bill will result in a worthwhile and praiseworthy story for the Government to tell about reducing the burden of inspection on local government. The mechanism proposed in the new clause is likely to be both unnecessary and cumbersome, so when my hon. Friend the Minister responds to the debate I encourage him to consider whether there might be mechanisms for reporting the doubtless excellent progress that the Bill will ensure in reinvigorating and regenerating local government.

Mr. Woolas: I sincerely thank Members on both sides of the House for contributing to our well-informed and constructive debate, which built on our discussions in Committee. With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall set out the context for part 5, as the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) asked, which deals with the relationship between central and local government.

In the light of the Lyons report, my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) made, as we would expect, a wise comment about local government finance. He said that changing the financial relationship between central and local government finance is a marathon, not a sprint. That is equally true in changing the whole relationship; although we can change structures and statutory
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frameworks, as we are under the Bill, it is—as my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) said in relation to the trade union amendment—people, not structures, who change relationships.

We are trying to bring about a culture change in the mindset of central and local government, which is why I am keen to build political consensus in the Local Government Association and in the House, so I shall not respond to the party political points of Opposition Members. Suffice it to say that this year, like last year and the previous 10 to 15 years, discrepancies in local results are increasingly not following national trends; local factors are increasingly coming into play.

My second point is that the Government are criticised from all sides for the target regime—the performance regime under the best value programme and the comprehensive performance assessment. The Government’s case is not that we feel it is right to reduce the number of targets because of mistakes in the past, but rather that local government performance has improved as a consequence of the performance regime, the significant extra resources provided for local government and the hard work and professionalism of local government staff and employees. That is not to say that public satisfaction with local government services, which is an entirely different point, has always improved—it varies from area to area—but objectively, as measured not by the Government but by the Audit Commission and others, the performance of local government has vastly improved.

The intervention strategies set up by my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich are used much less nowadays because of that success. The number of councils enjoying improved performance has increased remarkably. More than 100 councils are now members of the improvement partnership, which is for three and four-star councils. To go back to a party political point, it makes me laugh when Opposition spokesmen criticise the performance regime yet ensure that their leaflets include their councils’ star ratings, which they pray in aid.

It is right to loosen and to devolve. That raises a central paradox that a number of the new clauses and amendments, welcome though they might be in principle, bring to light. If one accepts the premise of the Bill and its devolutionary approach—hon. Members on both sides might wish us to go faster—there is the question of whether one can support amendments that impose targets and provide standardisation across the country. As my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) said, there is a dichotomy between equity and devolution. Hon. Members—particularly Liberal Democrat Members—will just have to accept that. The challenge we face is how we square those circles.

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