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1 Jun 2009 : Column 29

The new duty to promote democracy means that councils must explain their functions and decision-making processes. The Bill also introduces a duty for local authorities to respond to petitions, which is a fairly straightforward way of trying to ensure that issues that people are concerned about locally are discussed. The review of evidence, which I talked about earlier, also confirms that when petitions are taken seriously and people feel that they will be acted on, they will have a significant influence in getting more people involved.

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): Does the Secretary of State not understand that the real problem with councils explaining themselves is the sheer complexity of the environment in which they already operate? It is difficult for those of us who interact daily with councils to understand, but the Bill will make the situation more complicated and more difficult to explain, and therefore less democratic.

Hazel Blears: If someone has a problem with litter and graffiti on their street, the Bill requires the council to respond to their petition. I do not see how that makes the situation any more complex; in fact, I think it makes getting something done about the problem much more simple and straightforward.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I agree with the Secretary of State that petitions and large-scale participation by the public are welcome. She must therefore welcome the more than 28,000 submissions to the east of England regional strategy, of which nearly 27,000 turned out to be objections, and the 35,000 submissions to the strategy for the south-west, of which I would guess more than 30,000 will turn out to be objections. Is she satisfied that enough changes will be made, as far as she is able to make them, as a result of those thousands of objections, and that the Bill reflects a move towards more accountability by regional bodies, not less?

Hazel Blears: The hon. Gentleman has been an effective advocate in relation to some of the spatial strategies. He will know that we have looked very carefully indeed at the representations and that significant changes have been made as a result. I hope he will give us credit for that. It is important that people take part and feel that some things do change. It is my experience that people do not expect everything to change as a result of their representations, but they want to see that they have made a difference. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that that is exactly the procedure adopted in the spatial strategies.

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Hazel Blears: I am going to make a little progress; otherwise I will take up everybody else’s time.

The best councils already take account of petitions—I think that about a third of councils have a formal scheme in place for doing that—and we now expect all authorities to follow suit. If enough people sign a petition, this will trigger a debate, guaranteeing that elected representatives discuss the issues that are of concern at local level. Amendments in the other place have made the petitions scheme much less prescriptive than was originally proposed, which will help authorities to set the parameters around the petitions duty.

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The Bill also extends the existing duty on local authorities to involve local people to a whole range of other organisations, including Jobcentre Plus, police authorities, the Environment Agency, probation trusts and other providers of services. They, too, will have to involve local people. Eventually, we shall have an integrated system in which involving people is done as a matter of course, rather than being somehow out of the ordinary.

Julia Goldsworthy: Will that duty to participate also extend to partnership organisations, such as local strategic partnerships in which a number of organisations make decisions about public resources, as well as the statutory authorities that the Secretary of State has already mentioned? Such organisations often do not meet in public.

Hazel Blears: All the partnership organisations should certainly be under a responsibility to involve local people. Those organisations are spending public money and our intention is to move towards a system in which community engagement with decision making on the totality of public expenditure by local authorities, the health service and the police is fundamental to ensuring that the best possible decisions are taken.

The Bill goes on to enable the Secretary of State to fund the National Tenant Voice, which will be a powerful advocate on behalf of tenants. I think that there are about 4 million people in social housing, and they need a strong voice. This measure will ensure that they are heard at the highest level, and that they will be involved in shaping the policy that affects them. It will complement the work of the new Tenant Services Authority.

I should like to mention an excellent example from my own neighbourhood. An arm’s length management organisation called Salix Homes has a scrutiny panel of about 30 local tenants, known as senators. I think that this has been the first scrutiny work of this kind in the country. The panel makes recommendations and its views are fed into the housing association, which makes changes on the basis of what its tenants have said is important. That scrutiny is driving continual improvement and excellent services, and it is really making a difference.

Clauses 30 and 31 will strengthen overview and scrutiny arrangements in local authorities, making them clearer, easier to understand and more effective and, I hope, making it easier for residents to get involved. I am always conscious of complexity, but if we can make the scrutiny arrangements simpler, people will feel that it is worth while their getting involved and making a difference.

Councils with responsibilities for local area agreements will have a duty to designate an officer with specific responsibility for scrutiny—many places already do this, but, unfortunately, not everywhere does—so that there is a person who is responsible for ensuring that there is a better way for the public to get involved. Local authorities will also be able to set up joint overview and scrutiny committees. For example, a range of district councils could come together to be more effective. Those committees will have a greater remit, and will be able to review issues affecting a whole range of residents.

The first half of the Bill finishes with clauses to establish a new, impartial and independent local government boundary commission for England. This was recommended by the Committee on Standards in Public Life to enable the Electoral Commission to concentrate on its core
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duty of electoral registration, rather than having to deal with boundary issues. I hope that that provision will be welcome.

Let me turn now to the second half of the Bill, with its emphasis on promoting economic recovery and growth. We all know that national prosperity depends very much on what happens at local and regional level. In the new economy, an ability to have clear vision and leadership in our regions and at sub-regional level will be fundamental to success. It is essential that local and regional leaders put in place the right strategies, and that they have the right powers, frameworks and investment to drive opportunities in the new economy.

Our review of sub-national economic development and regeneration recognised the importance of local authorities in a significantly different way from what had been the case in the past. That is particularly important in tough economic times, so we need to ensure that the framework and the powers are rightly held at each level of government—local, regional and national.

The Bill places a duty on local authorities to assess the economic conditions in their area, looking at factors such as employment, jobs, skills, enterprise, the number of start-up businesses in particular areas and so forth. If they have such information through the assessment, they will be much better able to provide the economic leadership that will stimulate and promote growth. Many councils have a really good understanding of their local economy; not all do, however, and we want to bring them all up to the level of the best.

The next clauses introduce the single and integrated regional strategy that I have talked about for each English region outside London. It involves a much more co-ordinated approach, bringing together issues such as housing, transport, skills and planning that go across local authority areas. If we are to provide the right framework, particularly for inward investment, our pitch to the people who we want to invest has to say that there are good offers around planning and transport that are fundamental to driving economic regeneration.

Martin Horwood: The less integrated approach that we have had to date has taken about five years to move from initial consultations through to draft proposals on changes to the regional strategy in the south-west—and it is still not complete. How long, then, does the Secretary of State think the more integrated version will take?

Hazel Blears: It will be an awful lot faster than the previous process, and I say that to the hon. Gentleman for this reason. In the past, we had spatial strategies that often used a different evidence base from the economic strategies, which meant that there were inherent tensions in the system that pulled against each other rather than pushing us towards a much more integrated approach. The fact that the strategy will need to be signed off by the leaders’ board and the regional development agency provides an incentive for them to ensure that everything comes through quickly, while at the same time taking into account the environmental and community issues that my hon. Friends have raised. We will have integrated strategies that will help to drive forward economic development as well.

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Mr. Drew: Will my right hon. Friend include an explicit definition of sustainable development in the Bill? Many definitions are floating around in different legislative measures, but surely this is the Bill in which to lay to rest any uncertainty about the need for all development to be sustainable. Does she agree that we should put that at the heart of the Bill?

Hazel Blears: If development is not sustainable, it will not be the kind of development that will drive economic prosperity or quality of life, which are absolutely at the heart of this Bill. Whether it be housing development, jobs or industry, sustainability has to be built into it from the beginning; that is one of the lessons we have learned in reflecting on the different strategies we developed previously. As I said, they clashed with each other, whereas we are now developing an integrated approach, which I know my hon. Friend feels so strongly about.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): When someone embarks on a strategy, how do they know whether it is going to be sustainable?

Hazel Blears: We could probably embark on an interesting philosophical discussion and I am always keen to explore these issues with the right hon. Gentleman, who has a great deal of experience in this area. There are principles of sustainability that apply to the environment, climate change and creating the kind of community that is not just about building houses, but the schools, transport, shops and facilities that go with them. These principles of sustainable development are now, I think, fairly well established, which means that we should not be creating the kind of communities that we unfortunately saw in the 1960s and 1970s, which were not good places for people to live, work or bring up their families in. The whole point of these strategies is to create sustainable places in which people want to live, work and bring up their families. It is not such an arcane discussion as we might have had a few years ago, because those principles are, as I say, pretty well established now.

Mr. Kilfoyle: The Secretary of State is being very patient with us. I have nothing against regional strategies; indeed, quite the reverse, having seen what the other lot did for many years. Having a partnership to decide the regional strategy is one thing, but is it not the case that the regional development agency effectively holds a gun to the elected members’ heads simply by virtue of the fact that it controls the funding? The RDA certainly has the upper hand in determining the important outcomes from the strategy.

Hazel Blears: I would say that the position is almost exactly the reverse. Although the regional development agency has the RDA funds, local authorities also hold a huge amount of resource in the form of their normal funding, the working neighbourhoods fund or the future jobs fund, which I announced last week along with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. It gives local authorities £1 billion with which to create 150,000 jobs over the next two years. Make no mistake: local authorities are not in the weak, supplicant position of simply having to go along with what the RDA says. This has to be a genuine equal partnership, and local authorities are increasingly becoming powerful economic players for their own regions and communities.

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Given the economic assessment, the single strategy and the work of the local authority leaders’ boards and RDAs in driving it forward, I believe that something very interesting is emerging. This is not just about economic development at regional level; it is more and more about what happens at sub-regional level when local authorities form groups in order to drive change. Many authorities of all political persuasions are now choosing to enter into multi-area agreements, because they see the importance of collaboration between them on this economic agenda. Ten agreements involving 78 local authorities across the country and covering a quarter of the population have been signed from South Hampshire to South Yorkshire and everywhere in between.

Martin Horwood: Cheltenham, Gloucester and Tewkesbury are collaborating on a joint core strategy that will implement the regional spatial strategy that we expect to be finalised this year. Should they now stop that process and wait for the new integrated regional strategy? Will they not otherwise be developing the implementation of something that is already out of date?

Hazel Blears: I see no reason for those authorities simply to call a halt to their discussions and plans. It is not beyond the wit of people to adapt to the new statutory framework once it is in place. It would not be sensible for them to throw away all the work that they have already done, much of which can be drawn into the new single integrated strategy. That is a matter for negotiation between the leaders’ boards and the RDAs in their areas. I do not want people suddenly to decide, on an arbitrary date, that all their work has been pointless and that they will not do it any more. A great deal of it will have involved gathering evidence and coming up with policies that will be just as relevant in the future as they were in the past.

Peter Luff: Will the Secretary of State give way again?

Hazel Blears: In a moment. I want to finish what I was saying about the multi-area agreements. The fact that 10 have been signed, involving 78 local authorities, a quarter of the population and a number of different parties, suggests that people are seeing significant benefit in greater collaboration between local authorities, and I want to encourage them to do more of that. Many have told us that they want to put MAAs on to a statutory footing so that the authorities have more legal power to make a difference. The Bill makes it possible to set up MAAs on a statutory basis similar to that of the local area agreements, which are now beginning to integrate health, council, police and other services.

I hope Members agree that this is a coherent piece of architecture. Where statutory processes are operating, the centre will exercise less power and devolve more power to the people in local authorities who we all want to be able to make decisions.

Julia Goldsworthy: The Secretary of State has just described this as a much more coherent arrangement. I am sure that it is from the point of view of those sitting in Whitehall, but how coherent does she think it appears to those who are at the receiving end of public services in local communities? How effective does she think they consider these multi-area agreements to be?

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Hazel Blears: That is a fair question. So far the architecture has been designed to achieve system change, and it will not necessarily have an impact on people with specific requirements—for instance, those who want to know how to obtain funding for their local nursery or community allotment. The challenge for all of us, as politicians, is not just to bring about system change—although we must do that: we must make the system work—but to translate that into giving people opportunities to do what they want to do in order to make their communities better places in which to live. The community generally does not need to know the details of the MMA, the LLA and the comprehensive area assessment. That is for us to deal with. The challenge—and I take it as a personal challenge—is how the system can be made simpler and easier for people to handle from the inside. That is why there is a duty to promote democracy and to explain who makes the decisions, where people can have an input and how they can make a difference.

Peter Luff: On a point of detail about the sub-regional consideration of development issues in particular, recommendation 26 of the Business and Enterprise Committee’s fourth report of Session 2008-09 stated:

If there is no easier mechanism to withdraw, a disruptive member of an economic prosperity board could cause real difficulty to the EPB. We have not yet had the Government’s response to our report. What does the Secretary of State say about the mechanism by which a local authority that no longer wishes to co-operate with an EPB can withdraw?

Hazel Blears: Again, that is a fair question, because the whole purpose of moving to an EPB is that some continuity is provided and people sign up, even though they might be from different political parties, to a set of priorities for that community. Thus, this needs to involve some legal basis, and we need to think carefully about what a notice period might be and how people might withdraw. What we do not want is people in an EPB for six months and then out of it for six months—as has been said, we do not want a hokey-cokey approach. These are very serious matters relating to developing five-year or 10-year strategies on planning and transport—big strategic issues—so people have to be signed up for a reasonable period before they are able to withdraw. However, this is a matter that we will doubtless be able to explore, as was discussed in the report.

We now have MAAs and we will have EPBs; importantly, the EPBs can be joined up with integrated transport authorities, and there will then be a single body that can take a properly integrated approach both to economic development and to transport.

Mr. Garnier rose—

Andrew Mackinlay rose—

Hazel Blears: Goodness, I am spoilt for choice. I shall give way to my hon. Friend.

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