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8 Nov 2007 : Column 285

Andrew Stunell: My hon. Friend makes an important point: how do we strike the balance between the requirements of local communities and those of our country as a whole? The planning reform Bill must address that. My party will examine whether it does so, and if so, how. There ought to be a greater element of local self-determination in such matters.

Tom Brake: Does my hon. Friend agree that getting that balance correct would involve ensuring that certain issues are addressed? There was an application to convert a shop into a takeaway in the Parade, in Benyon road. The community and local councillors did not want that. A reformed planning Bill would ensure that that local decision was kept local—instead of being passed on to an inspector in Bristol who found against the wishes of the local community and councillors.

Andrew Stunell: That intervention brings me neatly on to consideration of what is wrong with the planning system at the macro-level. All sorts of decisions—my hon. Friend has just produced an example of one—finish up on the Secretary of State’s desk. It is unimaginable to me that the Secretary of State would, in signing off the inspector’s report, have particular regard to the circumstances of a takeaway in Carshalton and Wallington. There is something wrong there.

Mr. Mark Field: Is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that a Liberal Democrat Government would prevent any appeal beyond the local government level? There are local issues that all of us feel strongly about, but is he seriously suggesting that the whole system should be log-jammed by a local district council wishing to ensure that there are no further developments?

Andrew Stunell: Having listened to the comments from the Conservative Front Bench, I was under the impression that that was the policy that the Conservatives were advocating. The hon. Gentleman might wish to come back on that point.

We have published proposals to increase the amount of housing. Clearly, it is not a practical or feasible option to give every street the right to veto any development that might take place there, but we also need to avoid sending too many decisions to the top level of the planning system—the Secretary of State’s desk. I noted a phrase that the right hon. Lady used. She said that the Government were going to drill down into pockets of deprivation—but I think that they are more likely to drill down into pockets. My point, however, is that there is a network that can take decision making by the Secretary of State down to absurdly low levels.

What does the Bill propose in relation to major strategic developments? The present system is not satisfactory. It takes forever, and in many cases it seems to be a charade, in which the result produced at the end is exactly the same as the initial proposal. I do not generally advocate a return to Victorian values, but—

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): I understand the frustration with the time that the current planning process takes, particularly when it goes to inquiry. However, the hon. Gentleman made the sweeping statement that the current
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system does not work, and there was an implication that it is undemocratic. Let me point to the outcome—twice now—of public inquiries relating to the east London river crossing and Thames Gateway bridge. Two planning inspectors turned down those major planning applications, in support of what the local community had been asking for—so the system does work sometimes.

Andrew Stunell: I do not pretend to be an expert, and nor do I want to offer an opinion about that crossing, which I know has serious problems, but I do know that the two local authorities concerned and the elected Mayor approved the project. There was a conflict at that point, and perhaps those local authorities were not representative of the views of their communities; the hon. Gentleman clearly believes that to be the case.

I was about to talk about Victorian values, because we should look back to the era of the railway developments of the 19th century. More miles of railway were developed in 50 years then than miles of motorway were built in the last 50 years of the 20th century, and the Secretary of State had nothing at all to do with it. This House did, however; railway Bills cluttered up the House’s time in that era.

The Secretary of State is currently too often the arbiter of major infrastructure projects, and saying that he or she is democratically accountable to this House is only a fig leaf. Frequently, the lengthy preliminaries of reports and inquiries serve only to validate a decision that has already been taken. We will examine closely what the Government are now proposing. It is one thing to streamline the process, but it is another thing to ignore the evidence completely and override the clear wishes of the local community.

I put the following point to the Secretary of State when the White Paper was first presented to the House: if there is to be an independent commission, it is important for it to be genuinely independent, so that it can contradict the intention of the Secretary of State, and if it does so, the Secretary of State will leave it at that. If not, it will simply be another link in a lengthy chain of decision making, and will not improve the situation one bit.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): The debate on planning has so far largely focused on housing. Will the hon. Gentleman say something about the effect of planning on renewable energy development? Does he think, for example, that too many wind farms are stuck in the planning system, and if so, does he have a solution?

Andrew Stunell: Yes, I do think that, and I also think that if we ever reach the point where the current Government, or our next Government, approve a high-speed rail link to the north of England we shall face the same problem. There are national and strategic proposals that must be decided at a national and strategic level—I am quite willing to say that. However, it is still very important for that element of democratic accountability to be there not just in a notional sense, but in a real and effective sense.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): Does my hon. Friend agree that, strangely, among the issues that land on the desk of, and are decided by, the
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Secretary of State in Westminster are applications for energy generation over 50 MW in Wales? Under the new proposals, a commission for England and Wales will take those decisions, rather than a Welsh Assembly body.

Andrew Stunell: My hon. Friend tempts me into some very difficult territory. I will listen carefully to his further representations on that point.

The problem with the Queen’s Speech is not just what is in it, but what is not in it. Chief among those absences is the lack of a single equalities Bill. Discrimination law in this country is in a mess, and we need that Bill to protect people regardless of their race, disability, sexual orientation, religion or gender identity. It is a great pity, and I very much regret that such a Bill will not come forward in this parliamentary Session. I hope that behind the scenes there will be some action to kick it forward promptly. However, if there is to be a delay, the Secretary of State could take advantage of that setback to consider including within that Bill the outlawing of discrimination on the ground of caste, as well. Some of us attended a conference in this place yesterday, hosted by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), at which we heard testimonies to the pervasive way in which this blatant discrimination has crept into British public services. This is a real and substantial issue, and it now falls to the Secretary of State, on behalf of the Government, to take it up.

In the Queen’s Speech the Government have flunked the housing question, blocked the planning issue, stumped local government and run away from equality. Neither they nor the Conservatives have any answers to the key issues of fair local taxation, local empowerment and Britain’s housing crisis. The Liberal Democrats will, accordingly, vote against the Queen’s Speech.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. Before I call the next speaker I remind the House that Mr. Speaker has placed a 12-minute limit on all Back-Bench speeches, and it applies from now on.

12.52 pm

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): Debates on Queen’s Speeches always involve a wide range of subjects, and this is perhaps a good opportunity for Members to assess—to audit, even—what is happening not only in their own constituencies but within Parliament. On looking back at the changes that have taken place in Crewe and Nantwich in the past 10 years, I can see exactly why we should be positive and welcome the workmanlike terms of this Queen’s Speech. New schools have been built in my constituency, including three new primary schools, one of which was custom-built in an area that was previously unable to get any assistance. Not one but three new health centres have been built, in which we are able to offer an enormous range of primary health care services. There has also been an explosion of university places. I am amused to think that within a very short period, Crewe and Nantwich will undoubtedly be known as a university town. I imagine that within the next 300 years, ours shall be regarded as the doyenne of
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those establishments, far outflanking those newcomers that claim credit for their students’ background, general development and education.

When I look back at the positive and useful things that have happened, it is important—indeed, essential—to relate them to the future. The future in Crewe and Nantwich is going to be sparkling and happy. Our unemployment has virtually disappeared and we are building new houses at an incredible rate, but we still have exactly the problems associated with deprivation that one of my hon. Friends identified earlier. We have all the deprivation factors that destroy lives, although happily, only within a very small area. For example, there are children who do not seem to benefit from Sure Start services or from the imaginative range of health and education services that could transform their future, and parents who are still unable to find anywhere decent to live.

In conducting the “audit” to which I referred, perhaps we in this House could ask that housing associations be looked at closely. Those who persuaded local authorities to hand over their housing stock by advancing the argument that they would be able, through a housing association, to get all their repairs done, get all their buildings brought up to first-class status and achieve a truly high-class level of housing perhaps need to do some persuading that that is actually happening. Indeed, some housing authorities, struggling as they are to change people’s circumstances, still have a vast backlog of repairs. They are finding it virtually impossible to rehouse people who would have been on the old housing authority lists—both young, small families and those who want to change their accommodation. The flexibility within the housing stock seems to have disappeared, and we do not yet seem able to address those problems.

We must consider not only education and housing but transport, which is my field. To me, transport is a vital issue. For example, we are demanding a sparkling new station at Crewe, which will be the gateway to the north-west. We want either a proper development of the Victorian buildings or a genuinely new, architect-designed, superb station. Not only are all those things possible; we shall insist on their being created.

However, the reality is that in order to push such change and to hold together the myriad streams needed for funding and development, we need a sound, carefully researched and defensible local authority structure. The Government decided—one understands why—that the changes in local authorities were such that we should not only seriously look at the whole question of restructuring, but ask where we can make serious advances. Those of us who know that there is increasing demand in Whitehall for shared services and for reorganising not only the number of jobs, but where they are and how they are done, recognise that local government cannot expect to escape that. However, it is essential that we do not make changes that, far from providing bigger sums of money, better planning and more imaginative schemes, go back two or three steps by splitting local authorities, making many of them unviable and difficult to support. I am afraid that we in Cheshire are in danger of doing that.

When a reorganisation of local government in Cheshire was originally suggested, I looked carefully at both sets of figures. I had no particular animus toward
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one set or the other, because frankly, like Members of all political parties, I had councillors on both sides of the argument. I looked carefully at the proposed split and I must confess that I assumed—wrongly—that once the Government had looked at the economics of it, they would not argue the case any further. Splitting Cheshire into two unitary authorities would cost more than £100 million, and the new authorities would run out of reserves in their first year of operation. Many of the things that are essential to me, such as planning the new education and transport services, would rely on two authorities that might be—perhaps inevitably would be—under different forms of political control. Those authorities would have to be prepared to vire money from their own budget into the budget next door, which is controlled by their opponents. I have great faith in human nature, but I find that an unlikely scenario and one that causes me considerable difficulty.

The financial case for a single Cheshire unitary authority is proven. It meets the Government’s affordability criteria, generating a surplus of £58 million over the five-year payback period. It can be demonstrated because it relates not to the existing county, but to a new idea of a county region responding to the flows across Cheshire, connecting with Liverpool in one direction, Manchester in another, the potteries in a third, and north Wales and Shrewsbury in a fourth, so that ours is a most flexible and increasingly imaginative area. If we were to go ahead with splitting Cheshire in the way that has been suggested, worrying things would happen.

Although four districts asked for this split, their own advisers, Deloitte, examined the affordability material and assessed 78 per cent. of the categories of cost as being above normal risk. That led the Conservative-controlled authority that had originally asked for this to say that it was giving the information to the Department, but that it did not now support the idea. That is mildly worrying. Furthermore, three sets of figures have been submitted on this bid, but totally different assessments have been made each time and they have been found to be seriously wanting in a number of fields. I do not have the time to set those out today. The reality is that the political argument—this is not party political—for this change is not proven.

There is an appetite for unitary government in Cheshire, and the Government are right to identify it. The two unitary authorities idea lacks credibility and stakeholder support. The letter that the Secretary of State sent demonstrated that it would be supported only if the facts and figures added up and were plainly and clearly demonstrable. They are not, and the case is clearly made the other way.

Those who support local government and who want to see it leading in those fields that are most important, supporting the work of the Labour Government and providing the sort of leadership that only locally elected people can provide, know that local authorities must themselves be viable if they are able to fulfil that role and must have the support of the people who elected them. I am sure that the Secretary of State will understand that that is not the case in respect of the proposal for Cheshire to be divided from top to bottom. I know that she will reconsider the figures when they are presented to her.

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1.3 pm

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): One of the delights of this debate is that one can range widely over the body politic. If you will forgive me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will not, within the rules of the House, confine myself to discussing local government.

The Queen’s Speech is an opportunity for the Government to set out their stall and their vision. One does not need to be particularly parti pris to come to the conclusion that there is a certain lack of momentum at the moment—I put it no more strongly than that—which is not surprising when a Government have been in power for 10 years. This sort of phase in history has happened before. We can think of Eden following the exciting period of the Churchill Government, of Douglas-Home following Macmillan, of Callaghan following Wilson, and lastly of Major following Thatcher. It may be right that we go through this sort of period when a Government feel that they must consolidate and they do not have any burning ambition to change things because they have been in power for a number of years. The trouble is that a Government who do not wish to change events often are the victim of events—that was the case for the Callaghan, Major and Eden Governments. That is a real danger for this Government. Many people have been disappointed with politics in recent weeks and have started to ask where the beef is, what this Government are about and what their great vision is.

I, along with colleagues who represent Lincolnshire constituencies, talked to the Conservative group on Lincolnshire county council last week. That group had great worries about the lack of direction that it was receiving from the Government. In a sense, the Government started off with a series of reforms. In education, they abolished grant-maintained schools. They went in one direction and they have now rowed back with academies. They made a series of reforms of the health service. They rolled out all that health policy and have rowed back again with foundation hospitals.

We have also had all this debate about reorganisation. Councillors in Lincolnshire and, I suspect, elsewhere want a degree of stability. The French, German and American political systems do not have constant reorganisations. Lincolnshire does not want or need any other reorganisation. Logically and intellectually, I favour the unitary system, but there is no point throwing all these chairs up in the air, abolishing the district councils in Lincolnshire and elsewhere, abolishing the county councils and starting from scratch, because we will not solve our problems by such reorganisation.

Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman represents a fairly rural area, as do I. Does he agree that rural communities sense a degree of drift by the Government? Having endured a difficult economic situation, made worse by the recent outbreaks of various diseases, the rural community does not feel very supported by the Government. It feels that they are potentially willing to allow the small communities, which are still very dependent on agriculture, to go into terminal decline. Does he agree that we want a clearer strategy and more positive focus on supporting our rural communities in Wales, and indeed in England?

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