Previous Section Index Home Page

On amendment (c) to new clause 4, we believe that subsection (4)(a)(ii) should be removed because it undermines what we are trying to achieve. We should send a strong signal that the Bill should promote best practice in engaging with local communities and in the process of consultation with communities. I believe that the Minister accepts the concept of community panels. Sub-paragraph (ii) of subsection (4) undermines that concept and may leave too much space for local authorities to avoid setting up the panels and to engage in more traditional consultation processes of meeting in the town hall or issuing a questionnaire. In our experience, those processes are rather debased in terms of public trust. Traditional public consultation is often perceived as a sham. The Bill intends to send a strong signal that there is something different about the new process of
15 Jun 2007 : Column 1017
engagement and consultation. If that explanation is clear, I hope that the Minister will not divide the House on those amendments.

Mr. Greg Knight: I want to speak briefly about amendment No. 43, which would leave out paragraph (j) of the schedule. The schedule may not survive the Bill’s passing into law, but I would like to tease out of my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) his reason for believing that paragraph (j) is essential. It covers

I know that my hon. Friend, together with my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) are on the energetic wing of our party when it comes to climate change issues, whereas my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) and I are somewhere between my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood and Lord Lawson of Blaby on these matters.

12.45 pm

Having established our respective positions, it is fair to say that the Bill is primarily about making local communities sustainable, not about greenhouse gas emissions, which is a global issue and is more properly addressed in any climate change legislation. My concern is that almost any activity that helps make a community sustainable will increase CO2 emissions—employment, commerce, construction, farming and transport, for example.

Martin Horwood: Does the right hon. Gentleman not see the connection, for instance, between encouraging renewable sources of energy at local level and sustainability on a global scale? The two are intimately connected.

Mr. Knight: I do see that and I will come on to that very issue in a few moments, if I may.

It seems to me that the particular requirement in the Bill could be used against the local food economy. When I started to investigate the impact of food on the environment, I thought that I would find myself concentrating on the issue of food miles, but it appears that transport is a tiny component of agriculture’s worldwide contribution to greenhouse gas emissions—and the main culprit is in the fields chewing cud. It turns out that livestock, predominantly cattle, are responsible for about 18 per cent. of the total of all emissions. A fifth of all our emissions—more than the emissions produced by the poor old tax-clobbered motorist—are due to cattle. About 70 per cent. of all agricultural land is used to raise animals and that amounts to about a third of the land surface of the planet. What is more, more than a third of all our cereal production goes to feed those animals. A recent UN report estimated that 160 millions tonnes of carbon dioxide are associated with the fossil fuels emitted by cattle.

Martin Horwood: I am awaiting with great anticipation the right hon. Gentleman’s endorsement of vegetarianism; otherwise, what solution is he suggesting to deal with the problem presented by the cows and how would he prevent emissions of methane?

15 Jun 2007 : Column 1018

Mr. Knight: I am not a vegetarian and I am not advising the House to go vegan, although I presume from the hon. Gentleman’s intervention that that is what he would like me to do. We are able to tackle some issues—home insulation, for example—without destroying people’s lifestyle. Emissions from homes and factories account for about a third of the present total, so we could eat into a whole third without affecting local communities, without changing the way people go about their business and without destroying the sustainability of local communities.

It is not just a matter of carbon dioxide, as animals produce other gases, but I do not want to go any further into that now. This is not a debate on agriculture. I would, however, like my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood further to consider the particular provision in the schedule. It could be used by some people to close local businesses or it could be used against the activities of local farmers and others. I feel that it sits uneasily with a Bill that is trying to promote sustainable communities. My view is that this issue should be left to be dealt with comprehensively by a climate change Bill.

Julia Goldsworthy: Following on from the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), we need to ensure that local services remain available at the community level. If we want to cut down on people’s car miles, the easiest way is to ensure that they have access to local services. There are therefore measures that can simultaneously benefit the environment and the sustainability of the local community.

I shall not dwell on new clause 1, as it was extensively debated in the earlier string of amendments. New clause 3 is obviously welcome because it underlines parliamentary accountability in the working of the Bill. I shall thus comment briefly on new clauses 2 and 4 and the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd).

We must remember that the body that will put forward the list of proposals will be the Local Government Association. That filter will represent an important safeguard and it will not be the case that an irresponsible local council will be able to go directly to the Secretary of State with proposals that do not make sense or that have a clear political motive. The LGA is duty bound to represent the views of all of its members, and that is an important safeguard that will mitigate the need for the inclusion of “if any” in the clause as drafted. I hope that the Minister will think about that again.

New clause 4 contains the regulatory framework for the mechanism of how consultation and participation will work in relation to new clause 1. Amendment (a) to new clause 4 would ensure that it will be possible to recognise existing bodies instead of requiring additional bodies to be set up, so I hope that the Minister will not object to it.

Amendment (c) tries to deal with the issue of either/or. We need to ensure that there is a minimum standard of democratic right in this part of the Bill and remember the cynicism that exists. If a local council abuses the mechanisms that we are trying to create, the public will be well aware of that, and that provides democratic accountability. It is important that the Bill sends a clear signal that the public should be confident
15 Jun 2007 : Column 1019
that no Government will use the Bill to act in an unreasonable way. Our amendments are reasonable in terms of the democratic standard for participation rather than simple, qualitative consultation, and I hope that the Minister will consider them. We must also be realistic about the fact that the public are alert to the potential for abuse by local and central Government.

Philip Davies: I rise to touch briefly on some of the issues that have been mentioned. We had a long discussion earlier about why new clause 6 was better than new clause 1, and I do not intend to revisit it. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) raised the elephant in the room in relation to the Bill and new clause 1, and that is planning and where it fits into this issue.

In my constituency, the issue that undermines the sustainable community that we all wish to see is the planning regime and, for example, the infrastructure that is needed to support new development. That is a huge issue in many areas. I wonder whether the Minister could clarify where the regional assemblies fit in in relation to new clause 1. The functions currently performed by regional assemblies would be better dealt with at a local authority level, especially when it comes to how many houses local authorities have to build in their area. Whatever local control local authorities have over planning—and they do not have very much—is hindered in my area by the fact that the regional assembly is insisting that over the next 15 years Bradford council has to build some 15,000 houses, whether it likes it or not. That regional assembly is unelected, unaccountable and unnecessary. It has no popular support. There was no popular support for an elected assembly in the north-east, so there is certainly no popular support for an unelected and unaccountable regional assembly. I hope that Minister will explain where planning and the ability of local authorities to decide how many houses can be sustained in the local area fit into new clause 1.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): I am slightly puzzled by the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. If there is no support for an unelected regional assembly and he would not favour an elected assembly, how can strategic decisions for a region be taken democratically?

Philip Davies: My point relates to the amount of houses that should be built in a given local area. I believe—to be honest, I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman does not agree—that the decision on how many houses are sustainable in a given area and community should best be made by the local authority concerned and not by a regional assembly based in another part of the area.

Lynda Waltho: I am sorry—I do not know the political make-up of the assembly that the hon. Gentleman is referring to, but surely his local council has elected representatives on it.

Philip Davies: The point is that although there may well be such a representative, they can be outvoted, whereas if the issue is dealt with at a purely local level, a decision cannot be foisted on my local area and on Bradford that the people do not want, which is what happens at the moment. Housing developments in my
15 Jun 2007 : Column 1020
constituency have been insisted on by a combination of the regional assembly, which insisted on a particular number of houses being built, and a Government planning inspector who decided that the area was ripe for development—totally against the wishes of the community and of the local authority. If we are trying to encourage sustainable development, we should encourage the making of these decisions at a local level.

Mr. Drew: I refer the hon. Gentleman to paragraph 1(l) of the schedule, which clearly refers to

Indeed, that was an amendment that I was pleased to move in Committee, so the argument is made regarding sustainability of settlement and what can be achieved through this Bill. I therefore do not know why the hon. Gentleman has chosen to go on at such great length about regional assemblies at this point.

Philip Davies: The hon. Gentleman is ignoring the fact that regional assemblies currently decide how many houses have to be built in a local area, whether or not the authority in question wants them. That situation has to be dealt with. There is no point in saying that we are giving more powers to local people and local authorities on matters of sustainability, when the power to decide on one of the biggest sustainability issues in our local communities has been taken away from them and given to regional assemblies.

Mr. Woolas: I am sure, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you will not allow a debate on regional assemblies, but just to give the hon. Gentleman some reassurance, I point out that the Bill as drafted and before the House today includes regional assemblies within the list of bodies in respect of which a local authority can request a transfer of functions. So such a mechanism exists.

Philip Davies: I am incredibly grateful to the Minister for providing that clarification, which will certainly give people in Shipley and Bradford and members of Bradford council a lot of hope and encouragement when this Bill reaches the statute book.

I should point out in passing that I support the amendments—the “cheeky” amendments, as I think the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) described them—tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) and the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), which would delete the words “if any” from new clause 2 and insert “or recognise” after “establish” in new clause 4. I am sure that we do not want to create a new bureaucracy by establishing new bodies; rather, we should simply be recognising existing ones.

I want to touch on the issues raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), who made a very valuable point. I mentioned earlier my concern about consensus in politics. We appear to have gone down a road whereby people’s ability to exercise free speech on certain subjects is being undermined, and there is no greater example of that at the moment than climate change. People have jumped on to that particular bandwagon with religious zeal,
15 Jun 2007 : Column 1021
rather than looking at the issue from a purely objective perspective. Of course we all care about the future of our planet and the legacy that we leave our children and grandchildren—nobody doubts the importance of that—but the question is how effective the measures taken are in tackling any problem that there may be. It is no good our trying to do something completely disproportionate that disproportionately affects our economy and the quality of life of the people of this country, with no overall benefit to the world as a whole, anyway.

1 pm

My right hon. Friend touches on an important point. We know that only 2 per cent. of the world’s carbon emissions are emitted from the UK. How much of the world’s carbon emissions are emitted from each of our local areas? A tiny fraction. We all want to encourage people to get involved in things such as recycling and helping the local environment. That is to be welcomed and happens in many of our local communities already. However, as he said, do we really want to encourage people who are motivated not by a belief in environmental issues but by wider anti-capitalist views to charge along with something that they have introduced on the basis of sustainable development, when we all know that the overall impact on global emissions will be tiny and worthless while China churns out new power stations week after week?

I hope that people will not use this popular Bill, which will be important for enhancing local accountability, to jump on a bandwagon that will make little difference to global warming and global carbon emissions. The Bill’s purpose, which I strongly support, is to enable local people, in their local community, to have a real say on the decisions that are taken on their behalf. I hope that it will not be used by people in the pursuit of objectives that are not consistent with that purpose, which will allow my local residents to have a greater say in decisions taken in their area.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. The hon. Gentleman was in danger of making a Third Reading speech, which is something that I shall bear in mind.

Mr. Woolas: I apologise for taking time to get to my feet, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I was taken by surprise. I was waiting to hear where we were going next. The hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) speaks his mind, and I congratulate him on that, although I am not sure what it had to do with the amendments.

I commented on the removal of “if any” and do not intend to oppose amendment (a) to new clause 2. The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) explained why we need it, especially as the drafting change requires co-operation in drawing up the shortlist of proposals. It gives us an opportunity to have a sensible and pragmatic approach. As for the panels, it is not desirable to say that there must be a panel if there is an alternative, but he wants to ensure that there is another way of going about things. Everyone who served on the Committee agreed and saw that as at the heart of the proposals. As I said, I
15 Jun 2007 : Column 1022
would prefer not to have those amendments, but I do not intend to delay the passing of the Bill on that basis.

The right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) put forward his argument on amendment No. 43. We are neutral on that. The Government see the benefits of including emissions in the Bill, but I had not thought of the point that he made. I pay a lot of attention to what he says, because my experience is that he makes thoughtful, and correct, amendments.

Mr. Greg Knight: I am grateful for the Minister’s response and for noting my comments. On that basis, and on the basis that he bears my comments in mind when he pursues the matter further, I shall not press my amendment to a Division.

Mr. Woolas: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that. I should mention that I visited his local authority area, and that the authority has helped the Government. It has taken great strides forward in involving local people and providing services at the local level—and it has done so on an all-party basis. The ideas that it, and particularly its leading councillors and chief executive, put forward were important in the formulation of our policy as set out in the local government White Paper. The East Riding of Yorkshire is one of the most beautiful parts of the country. The local authority has made tremendous improvements as a result of using new technology to service what is largely a rural area—in fact, almost all of it is rural.

The group of amendments under discussion includes many Government amendments that simply make drafting improvements, in particular changing “council” to “authority”, which I am told is important for the avoidance of doubt. I will not comment further on them.

The Bill is workable and there is consensus on it. It complements and adds to other legislation and policies. It is an important part of the architecture of measures in respect of local government. I think that all the questions on this group of amendments have now been answered.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 2

Decision on short-list

‘(1) Before inviting proposals under section [Proposals by local authorities], the Secretary of State must appoint a person (the “selector”) to consider the proposals and, in co-operation with the Secretary of State, draw up a short-list of proposals in accordance with regulations under section [Proposals: regulations].

(2) The selector must be a person who represents the interests of local authorities.

(3) On receiving the short-list from the selector, the Secretary of State must decide which, if any, of the proposals on the short-list should be implemented.

(4) Before making a decision under subsection (3) the Secretary of State must consult the selector and try to reach agreement.’.— [Mr. Woolas.]

Brought up, and read the First and Second time.

Amendment made: (a), in subsection (3), leave out ‘if any’.— [Mr. Hurd.]

Clause, as amended, added to the Bill.

15 Jun 2007 : Column 1023

New Clause 3

Action plans

Next Section Index Home Page