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From my partys perspective, the important thing is that local authorities represent the residential community. They are elected by the residential community, so it is crucial that the local authority is well represented on
the board. It is the levying authority or part of the group of levying authorities and will have consulted its electorate and been elected on a platform to deliver projects such as those that may be proposed. That is a safeguard, but schedule 1 also sets out that a third of the board could be appointed by the levying authority so, for example, if the project was specifically relevant to an area where there was an active residents association, I can see no reason why someone from that association could not be co-opted to the board to represent the voice of the residents, as the hon. Gentleman suggests.
As I was saying, it is necessary to reassure the business community that its voice matters not just in putting together the proposal and signing up to it, but in the ongoing delivery of it. The board would be an additional means of fostering positive relations between local authorities and the local business community. Those relationships are undoubtedly much stronger, but the fact that all hon. Members have been lobbied by business organisations about the Bill proves that there are still issues to be overcome.
One of the matters raised time and again by businesses is, sadly, concerns about the delivery of certain local projects. The new clause would help to reassure businesses that its voice would be heard and would be central to the delivery of the BID. If the business community had any concerns about business rate supplements being levied for purposes not entirely set out in the prospectusI am sure the Minister will tell me that that is not possible and that there are safeguards in place to protect against thatit would be reassured by having its representatives at the heart of the process.
In the debate on the programme motion, we heard from the Minister that we had excellent evidence sessions. He is right. Hon. Members in all parts of the Committee agreed that one of the most important contributions was that of Dr. Julie Grail from British BIDs. In her evidence to us at our second sitting on Tuesday 20 January she said:
With regard to the business rate supplement, we have heard a lot today about concern with the ballot...it is not just about the ballot... it is about managing the relationship going forward. One huge value that we have seen coming out of BIDs is that it has truly brought together local government and the business community. A danger about the business rates supplement is that it could rip it apart again. [ Official Report, Business Rate Supplements Public Bill Committee, 20 January 2009; c. 46, Q199.]
Of course, that is not the intention, but there clearly are concerns in the business community about that. We have a model in BIDs showing how positive relationships can be fostered and can deliver projects that respond to local need and ensure that everybody has a say in their ongoing management. If there was that model and it was successful for the local sorts of projects that bids deliver, we could adapt it to cover some of the bigger schemes that affect a wider area and which, it is hoped, the BRS could play a part in delivering.
According to the evidence from the head of the CBIs property group, if the business community were not consulted about a scheme, there would be considerable business unrest. The CBI stressed that it was imperative that businesses got the opportunity to work with local authorities to deliver real economic benefit to an area. A project delivery board would be exactly such an opportunity.
As I said, the new schedule sets out in a little more detail our initial thoughts about how the project delivery board might be formed and how it might operate. One concern that I am sure we all share is that we could create a body that does the same as other bodies, and duplicateswith all the waste of officers and business peoples valuable time and the costs that that would involve. We have therefore, for example, said that board members should not get any form of salary. That is the tone that we are trying to set: the board would be focused on delivery and would not necessarily have to meet regularly. It would, however, be a mechanism to ensure that everybody was involved in delivering what I hope would be exciting projects that would greatly improve areas, with benefits for residents and the business community.
Amendment 1 seeks to remove clause 19, which deals with when a levying authority has not given notice to a billing authority before the start of the financial year. The issue came up briefly in Committee. There is concern that billing authorities might have to respond very quickly. That could be an extra burden on them and cause problems for businesses and local authorities as they react. The amendment is to test the Ministers view on the issue. Surely things should be done in good time for the billing authorityin other words, by the start of the financial year so that the bills can go out together and there is no need for supplementary billing or recall of any bills. The business community would certainly welcome that. I am sure that the billing authorities, as distinct from the levying authorities, would also welcome it.
I am sure that the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) will correct me if I am wrong about his amendment 16, which seeks to define and contain how money raised by the BRS is spent and to make sure that that happens according to the prospectus and that there is no prospect of its being used for other purposes. Furthermore, if a governing body were set up along the lines that I set out in new clause 1, the amendment says that the business community should be involved and sets out how that should happen. Amendment 16 is on lines similar to those of new clause 1, although I think that our new clause, which sets up a project delivery board, is a clearer and, I hope, more defined way of doing things.
New clause 1 would improve the Bill in respect of the crucial element of business involvement. There is support in the country for the concept of a business rate supplement delivering an important local project, as long as everybody is clear about what the money is being spent on and everybody is signed up and willing to participate and has a continuing voice in the delivery of the project. I look forward to what the Minister has to say on the new clause, but I should say that I am minded to press it to a vote, should the Minister not agree to it.
Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con):
I have much sympathy with many of the remarks of the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson). We debated the issue in detail in Committee and it goes to the heart of how we make the Bill work. My hon. Friends and I make no bones about our position on the Bill in principle: we think it a mistake to use the Bill to impose burdens on businesses, with the exception of Crossrail, in the current climate. That said, if the numbers are against us,
let us see what can be done to make the arrangement work better. That is why we are interested in the hon. Gentlemans proposal.
In Committee, I thought that the Government were not uninterested either; the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), replied in a constructive way, saying that he and his officials would consider the issue. The hon. Member for North Cornwall referred to the powerful evidence of Dr. Grail, whom Committee members from all parties regarded as one of the most impressive of a strong team of witnesses. I hope that the Department will find a way of taking the issue on board.
Furthermore, there is logic to the proposals, which go right the way back to the Lyons review, which was one of the drivers of the original proposal. It made a point about the importance of securing legitimacy and support from the business community. That works in two ways. The first, to which we shall come later, is the opportunity for businesses to have a genuine say by means of a ballot. The second, every bit as important, is the thought that even if there is a ballotand I hope that there will bethings should not just stop there. Business has to have an ongoing involvement. There is a compelling logic to that; businesses have perhaps the largest stake in the success of a BRS scheme. They are ultimately the potential beneficiaries, but they are footing the bill at the same time. Furthermore, they are likely to have local and sectoral knowledge to bring to the discussion.
Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that if something was going wrong with a project, the local businesses, because of their nature, would be the first to realise it? Involving local businesses could benefit the project.
Robert Neill: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, who makes a powerful point. I was a member of a local authority for 16 years and I worked well with excellent local authority officers. However, the fact is that the business man can bring an additional dimension that neither I as an elected member nor the officers were always in a position to bring. If the BRS or business improvement districts are to work on the basis of genuine collaboration between the local authority as a governing body and the business community, having that ongoing and structurally assured involvement is important.
Often the business person will spot something because of the nature of the culture that they are in; it might not be spotted by the elected officers who work in the administrative culture. That hugely powerful point should be taken on board. That is why we tabled amendment 16, which covers much the same ground as new clause 1, although there is an additional factor that I shall come to. Like the approach adopted by the hon. Member for North Cornwall, my approach will be influenced by what Ministers say they have been able to do to take the issue forward.
The point of difference between me and the hon. Gentleman is that his new clause might be a little too prescriptive in specifying the form of delivery vehicle that there must be. In some cases, the project delivery board might be the right vehicle; I can, however, think of some BRS schemes for which it might not be appropriate. That is why, both here and in Committee, I have deliberately cast my amendment in broader terms so that before a
decision is madeand before the businesses vote, as I hope they wouldthe prospectus will set out how that ongoing involvement will take place. That will vary and should have the opportunity to do so, according to the nature of the scheme and the scale, place and sector involved. The point is that the information should be set out before the die is cast and the commitment to the BRS scheme is made. Sometimes, it may be done along the lines of the delivery board model, but not always, which is why I would like greater flexibility.
The other matter that I have added to the original amendment that I tabled in Committee relates to strengthening the requirements on the provision of financial informationan issue that became apparent during the evidence given to the Committee by several people. That provision would introduce an obligation to spell out clearly the moneys that are to be raised in pursuance of the BRS, and what they will be expended on.
There was some debate in Committee about the definition of the purposes that BRS could be used for. We debated whether it was appropriate to go down the route of defining by exception, which is more or less the scheme adopted in the Bill. It says that the BRS cannot be used for X, Y or Zbroadly, other types of local servicebut is otherwise silent about its application. The view of the bulk of the business community is that we should specify the categories of project that the moneys can be used for. The amendment would attempt to offer a middle way, and if we believe in localism and a ballot on such matters, the prospectus should set out exactly how people will be told, before they decide, what money is being raised and what it will be expended upon.
An ongoing, iterative process would be involved so that, unlike the current arrangement, it would not just be a question of giving a broad-brush outline of what the project would be, and how much the overall budget would be, including certain other budget heads. I am talking about a more iterative processalmost a report backto keep in touch with the community on what the money had been spent on so far, and what had been raised. It is like the requirement on the board of a company to produce annual accounts. There would be an obligation to provide regular updating, which is in everybodys interest, not least the proponents of the BRS scheme because it is desirable to have the confidence of the business community, and of council tax payers and residents.
I do not have a firm view on whether we will press these matters to a vote, but we hope for a positive response from the Minister, and our judgment will be largely coloured by that. I hope that he accepts that these are serious issuesI am sure that he and his colleagues do sowhich have not been introduced in a partisan manner, but rather as a result of the evidence that we heard in Committee.
Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab):
I shall make a few brief comments, particularly on new clause 1, because I want to save most of my remarks for the later group dealing with ballots. I pursued an argument in Committee about the changes in local government during the past 15 or 20 years, and the lack of trust. I am not sure whether the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) trusts his Liberal Democrat-run councils,
but I trust my Labour council to make the right decisions. It is a Labour council that has this year again had a four-star rating, and it has done remarkable work on regeneration and economic delivery in the borough of Halton and working more widely with Merseyside and Cheshire.
The new clause is over-prescriptive in telling local government what it should do. If I were to criticise what this Government have done over the past 12 years, I would say that we have sometimes been a bit over-prescriptive about local government. My right hon. Friend the Minister, dare I say it, took a different view in a number of areas about trusting local government and giving it some say in decisions. It is fine to legislate, and there must be safeguards; one of the safeguards in the Bill is that the Secretary of State can intervene if the procedures laid down in it are not being followed.
I feel that there is an in-built distrust of local government in this House, however, and a lack of willingness to give it more freedom to get on and deliver what many local authorities are already delivering through their tremendous economic development and regeneration policies. I believe that the new clause is over-prescriptive, and we should trust local government more. In these difficult economic times, I do not believe for one moment that local government will do something stupid such as putting businesses and jobs at risk in its own area. I do not think that that will happen.
Dan Rogerson: I was at great pains to say earlier that the relationship between business and local government has improved hugely over the past couple of decades, and that is absolutely rightI remember the hon. Gentleman making that point in Committee. However, we heard evidence in Committee from organisations such as British BIDs to say that the business improvement districts process, through continuing such engagement in a more formalised and recognised way, has been a positive step. The new clause seeks a similar mechanism for the BRS. Although there is a positive relationship in general, when we are talking specifically about an extra levy of cash on business for a specific project, business organisations, and BIDs, which represent everyone involved in those processes, feel that that is a positive model to use.
Derek Twigg: I do not disagree with the hon. Gentlemans comments on what was said during the hearings; powerful representations were made. Lessons have been learned from that process, and the way in which local government has responded, working through partnership and co-operation for the benefit of a particular area, has borne that out. That shows that local government is in such a mindset, and we come down to a particular principle.
I shall finish on that point. In many areas, local government is responsible for leading regeneration and economic development. It has come a long way during the past 15 or 20 years and we should trust it more. The new clause and some of the comments made by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) go against that grain, and I fundamentally believe that we should give local government more freedom. We shall no doubt come later to differences as far as
Crossrail is concernedwhat we want to allow for it, and what we do in the rest of the country. I believe, however, that we must give local authorities more freedom to get on and work locally. Lots of organisations are working together already, and there are already forums for such decisions to be taken by working in partnership. To be prescriptive about the type of forum concerned is the wrong way to go about things.
Robert Neill: Given the hon. Gentlemans point about the forums and procedures that exist to allow bodies to work together, what is his objection, as far as amendment 16 is concerned, to saying that the prospectus should set out how such working together should take place? Amendment 16 is not trying to prescribe a particular model; it is just saying that the information should be set out.
Derek Twigg: The hon. Gentleman makes my point for me. Why should we do that? In most areasnot every areathese forums already exist, or such co-operation is taking place, so I do not accept what he says. I genuinely believe that we would be telling local government how best to run its local area. I strongly feel that local government should be given the freedom to get on and deliver what is important, working with all the partners in the local area to deliver the sort of improvements that we all want.
Mr. Mark Field: The Minister will be aware from previous debates on this matter that I have perhaps a little more sympathy than one or two of my colleagues for the whole principle of business rate supplements. This is not the ideal year for the Bill. Had it been introduced a few years ago, those in my party might not have had the many understandable concerns that we have expressed, representing business interests, given the real financial and economic problems that are facing our businesses.
I fully support my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) in speaking to amendment 16, so I must express some opposition to the comments made by the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg). I worry that the credibility of BRS schemes is crucial. There is a risk of such schemes, particularly the longer ones, seeming to be at quite a distance from the local authority. During what might be a 10 or 12-year schemea bigger type of regeneration project perhapsa range of different councillors may be involved. A certain political party will be in office when a BRS scheme is put into place, and by the time it comes to fruition a different one might be in office. It is therefore all the more important that we have an ongoing input from business in the way that we have set out.
I agree with a number of the comments that have been made, although I have some sympathy with what the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) proposed. The notion of having a project delivery board, in the way he sets out, would be over-prescriptive and highly unwieldy. It would detract from what we are trying to achieve. The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I consider the proposal in the context of Crossrail. How on earth could we have a project delivery board that would avoid being anything more than an extra layer of bureaucracy that left us open to a lot of confusion, if it were given a project of such size that it took into account the views of people from 33 different boroughs?
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