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Mrs. Spelman: My right hon. Friend highlights a problem that is part of the general frustration felt by the public, which we parliamentarians share. Through the guillotining and timetabling of Bills, we have seen an
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awful lot of legislation not scrutinised properly in this place and then seen it prove to be undeliverable or unworkable in practice, so he is absolutely right to point out that the time constraint is likely to cause more problems of that kind. I add to that the fact that 170 amendments were introduced in the House of Lords, so one has to ask oneself how well prepared it was in the first place and how much work hon. Members will have to do on it in this place.

Similarly, why do measures on petition-handling and involvement in public authority functions need to be prescribed from the centre? Why not let councils get on with it themselves? If we really want a Bill that deals with petitions, let us start by getting our own House in order, literally. The Scottish Parliament really impressed me with the way in which its petitions are used to shape legislation. That contrasts sharply with the way in which petitions seem to have such a limited effect here in Westminster. How many petitions have hon. Members seen disappear into the green baize purse on the back of the Speaker’s Chair to which there is never any reply? I certainly find that disempowering, and I am sure that those who sign them do, too, but that is a bigger debate for another day.

The problem with prescribing processes, such as those for petition-handling by councils, in tiny detail by statute is that one ends up creating an expensive new compliance industry, with town hall officials chasing targets and ticking boxes. The same applies to the requirements for economic assessments in part 4 of the Bill. Is the Secretary of State honestly trying to tell me that she thinks that local authorities do not already carry out local economic assessments? At best, that is a textbook example of what my noble Friend Baroness Warsi described in another place as “prescriptive overdrive”. At worst, it is an example of Ministers using legislation to strengthen Whitehall’s whip hand over the town hall. I did not hear an answer to the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) about what happens when authorities do not carry out the new duties that the Secretary of State has in mind.

By seeking to codify, monitor and sanction areas of activity where local authorities have been creating successful new ways of doing things, the Government are regressing further and further into defensive, top-down centralising. How telling is it that in its original form, the Bill gave the Secretary of State the power to change any economic assessment with which she disagrees? That gives the lie to the phrase, “Whitehall knows best.” How on earth does that stack up with devolving more power to local communities? It does not.

Mr. Kilfoyle: The hon. Lady rightly emphasises the prescriptive nature of parts of the Bill. She implies, in her critique, a need for devolution down to a local level. I want to hear what her party proposes in terms of devolving real power down to a local level.

Mrs. Spelman: Unless I am very much mistaken, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) has serious misgivings about the accretion of power at the regional level to quangos in his area. I can tell him that that would go under a future Conservative Government.

In large part, this is a Bill about taking power away from communities and their elected representatives. For evidence of that, we need look no further than the way in which it entrenches the role of unelected, unpopular
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and unaccountable regional government. I do not understand why the Government are so determined to undermine local democracy through their obsession with regionalism. The one region that was given a say on regional government voted by a majority of 80:20 against it, yet it was ignored and regional government has been steamrollered out across the country ever since.

Regional government is an albatross around the neck of local councils, and it is time that the whole costly and needless project was ditched. Can the Secretary of State understand why those untouchable regional monoliths are so disliked? They are outmoded and unwanted. Until a Bill comes before the House pledging their abolition, they will continue to be the Achilles heel of local government. Lord Judd gave the game away when he said this in another place:

There we have it—regional autonomy. That surely explains why, rather than aborting regional government, part 5 transfers planning powers from regional assemblies to regional development agencies. In short, it transfers powers from one unaccountable quango to another.

I am at a loss to reconcile that with the stated aim of the Bill, which is to empower local government and communities. Regional government has been tried and tested, and it has been found wanting by every reasonable measure. The Bill should abolish regional housing and planning at a stroke. Colleagues will know from their own experience that more often than not, when people have a complaint about the scale and location of new development, the new development originated in the region. With no regard for the local environment, the infrastructure or sustainability, housing targets are forced on communities, leaving them and their elected representatives powerless.

Is it any wonder that planning has become so controversial and new development is constantly met with such hostility? As the Campaign to Protect Rural England has put it:

There must be a better way to get the new housing that we need.

Julia Goldsworthy: A number of amendments were tabled by the Conservatives in the Lords to withdraw from the regional spatial strategy and to push power and resources down to local authority level. Is the hon. Lady embarrassed that more Liberal Democrats than Conservatives turned out to support those amendments? How will she ensure that there is the same enthusiasm on the Back Benches as she is describing on the Front Bench?

Mrs. Spelman: I am rarely embarrassed by Liberal Democrats; usually, the most I feel is sorry for them. The strong proposals that we made in our green paper on the shift of power back to the local level is not matched in any concrete way by anything the Liberal Democrats have proposed to return power to the local level.

The official Opposition have pledged to abolish regional planning and housing, and instead give communities a real incentive to deliver the right kind of housing in the
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right places. Ask communities if they would like incremental growth in their towns and villages, and most would welcome it as a way of sustaining local services and delivering homes that their children can afford to buy and accommodation that their elderly can step down to so that they can live near their friends. But force massive new developments on those towns and villages, with no infrastructure and no regard for the character of the neighbourhood, and those communities will resist them at every opportunity. So let us get away from that top-down, centrally determined, regionally imposed approach. That is old politics.

Let us move from the stick to the carrot and look at what communities can reasonably absorb and what they will benefit from. Then let us give them clear incentives to deliver new housing, such as our proposal for matching council tax proceeds for every new house built for the first six years. That would give councils an immediate 100 per cent. increase in the amount of revenue generated by creating new homes. Responsible local authorities that currently have record housing waiting lists can be trusted to deliver the right homes that we need in the right places.

Kelvin Hopkins: As always, the Conservatives focus on owner-occupation. Last week, however, there was a report that 67 per cent. of young people have almost given up on the prospect of owning their own homes, especially as mortgages will be more restricted in future. Is it not a reality that, for most people, a decent home with a garden and proper bedrooms will mean a local authority home? If we are to house most of our population decently, we will have to recreate the local authority sector as it once was.

Mrs. Spelman: I hear the hon. Gentleman, but I have said nothing about tenure, and from evidence we all know that mixing tenure is the right way forward. He spoke with a misty-eyed nostalgia for the 1970s, I think, when the rate of social house building was significantly higher. But how comfortable does he feel about representing a party that for the past 12 years has built social housing at half the rate of the previous Conservative Administration? That point requires some careful thought.

It is depressing that a Bill with “Local Democracy” in its title contains almost nothing about freeing up and empowering councils. The Government’s distrust of democracy is such that the Bill’s only gesture towards local involvement is a leaders’ board. However, the board will have no right of veto, and, as a former party chairman, I can tell the House that a board’s right of veto is often what gives it real teeth.

Ms Dari Taylor: I am listening with great care to the hon. Lady, and I hope that she will reciprocate. She was right to say that the northern region rejected the whole concept of a regional assembly, but she was quite wrong to state that local governments and local councils do not work together. In the sub-region of the Tees, we work together effectively on housing and spatial issues, because the distinctions between Middlesbrough, Stockton, Redcar and south Cleveland are indecipherable. Joint working by councils is greatly valued, so to knock it or to understate its value is not appropriate.

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Mrs. Spelman: The hon. Lady perhaps misunderstood me, because at no point did I say that local authorities do not work together; in fact, I encourage them to do so. However, we should not be prescriptive about which local authorities work together. I accept that in the north-east, which is one of the smaller regions, most local authorities feel a sense of identity with the area, but I hate to tell the hon. Lady that some parts of the country feel that they do not fit in very well with the artificial regions that her Government have created.

If one speaks to voters in Banbury, one finds that they remain completely nonplussed by the suggestion that, according to the Government’s artificial regions, they are part of the south-east. They do not feel part of the south-east. Similarly, people in Gloucestershire feel a long way from Cornwall, so we should question the artificiality of the over-prescriptive requirements for local authorities to work in certain regions, and certain regions alone. It is better to allow local authorities to cluster and work together in the groups that they recognise as most practical and effective, and with which voters identify.

Sir Paul Beresford: The previous intervention backs up my hon. Friend’s point, because some local authorities have worked together for 20, 30, 40 or 50 years. When the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) was a union official, keeping a close eye on a local authority with which I had some links, there was close co-operation between four local authorities of a mixed political complexion. If Red Ted Knight—that name might ring a bell among historians—and I could work together successfully in a unit of four, anybody can.

Mrs. Spelman: My hon. Friend has real hands-on experience of running a local authority, and there is the proof that it is perfectly possible to work together in groups across the political divide. Indeed, in the west midlands area, to which my constituency belongs, the seven metropolitan authorities have always worked together, whatever the political complexion of their leadership. I am confident that if we allow local authorities to choose the clusters to which they want to belong, they will come up with the right solution.

Hazel Blears: Does the hon. Lady not accept that the Bill is based entirely on the premise that such organisations of local authorities will be voluntary? Every single bit—whether multi-area agreements, economic prosperity boards or integrated authorities—is bottom-up, rather than being imposed from the top. The Bill is about whether people in a local authority want to work with their neighbours in exactly the way described by the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford).

Mrs. Spelman: I thank the Secretary of State. The point is, however, that the artificial regions created by her Government are fixed. [Interruption.] They may not be fixed in the Bill, but they are part of what she calls the “architecture” within which local authorities will work. I shall be delighted if she joins my call for the abolition of those artificial regions; that would be popular with the public.

I move on to the remit of the regional development agencies. The transfer of planning powers is just the latest example of the mission creep that has led to
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RDAs being diverted from the vital task for which they were originally set up—stimulating business growth. In the depths of a recession, it surely makes no sense to saddle RDAs with regional planning, which is one of the most bureaucratic, time-consuming, controversial and unwieldy responsibilities.

RDAs should focus on one thing only—getting British business back on its feet. The best way to do that is to refocus them solely on economic development and let councils define how they work and what areas they cover. If the voters do not like it, they can express their view at the ballot box, which would give clarity and accountability. The current role of RDAs goes to the heart of the combined authorities and economic prosperity boards that are dealt with in part 6 of the Bill. So much of the detail is still unclear. Who will be on those bodies? Who will appoint them? When will the bodies come into being and how will they be funded? Critically, how will they work with the RDAs?

Martin Horwood: Will the hon. Lady clarify something? She has recommended a purely economic role for the regional development agencies. Is she planning to retain them?

Mrs. Spelman: The hon. Gentleman is a Liberal Democrat, so I do not blame him for not having read the Conservative party’s green paper “Control Shift”. Our position is genuinely localist. If the hon. Gentleman’s local authority in Cheltenham wanted a development agency, it could have one; it would, however, be accountable to the public for that decision. I encourage his local authority to group together with others to get critical mass. Economies of scale can be gained if local authorities work together in what I would describe as an economic partnership. I heartily commend the green paper to the hon. Gentleman; in fact, I have a copy at my disposal if he feels like briefing himself this evening about a better view of how to work with regional development agencies.

Andrew Mackinlay: I am being goaded by my party’s Front Benchers about this business of partnership. My case is this. I do not know whether anyone is aware of where Thurrock is, but it comes under the same region as Norwich and Walsingham—it could be the other side of the moon. Clearly, there needs to be collaboration along the Thames Gateway. About 10 Ministers ago, my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill) should have created a region for the north Thames corridor; which would have made economic and planning sense and involved collaboration with local authorities. Instead, we have the nonsense of Thurrock being in the same pot as Norwich and Walsingham, which is crackpot. We want to reduce the number of bodies and maximise collaboration. We want housing where it is necessary, rather than there being bodies discussing housing only to have their plans frustrated by the Department and by the regional bodies, which put 1,000 problems in the way—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. As the hon. Gentleman knows, interventions must be brief. I think that he got his point across.

Mrs. Spelman: Madam Deputy Speaker, you will agree with me, I think, that this afternoon is turning out to be interesting. I have probably heard more frank
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speaking from the Government Benches about this legislation than I have about any other Bill on which I have spoken for my party. Perhaps there has been an outbreak of frank political consensus, which would be welcome, on the right way forward, based on common sense. I am encouraged. The Secretary of State was gallant in taking as many interventions as she did; the number of interventions indicates that on both sides of the House we want the system to work better for the people who vote for us and for a political system that should serve them well. I take encouragement from the intervention made by the hon. Member for Thurrock.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): I am somewhat puzzled by the distinctions that the hon. Lady is drawing as regards voluntary arrangements. Several local authorities in my area—they are controlled not by one particular party, but by different parties—have signed up to a multi-area agreement on a voluntary basis. That greatly enhances their ability to deal with several issues of mutual interest, which is reflected in the arrangements in the Bill that will allow them to take such issues forward. Are those authorities wrong, or have they got it right in terms of things that they are doing that are in line with the Bill?

Mrs. Spelman: If the hon. Gentleman waits for a couple of minutes, I am about to discuss multi-area agreements.

The principle of authorities joining forces to deliver prosperity is a good one—that is not in dispute—and one that Conservative Members have always promoted, but for it to succeed, it cannot be buried under the morass of unaccountable regional government. These boards have the potential to flourish, but only if they are unfettered by regional boundaries and bureaucracy. It is exactly the same with multi-area agreements, which are mentioned in part 7. Yes, they are a good thing, and yes, councils should be entering into them where appropriate, but does the matter need to be prescribed in legislation? It makes sense for councils to work in that way. I am glad to see the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) nod his head a tiny bit in agreement. Will multi-area agreements ever fulfil their potential as drivers for cross-border working while they are in the shade of a regional edifice?

Having spent some time talking about the local government and economic development aspects of the Bill, I would turn to the construction aspect—if only the Bill had one! People in the construction industry must have thought that they had lost some of the Bill’s pages when they first read it—and, goodness me, it is long enough. When profits are in freefall and work has stopped on construction sites up and down the country, the Government have introduced only nit-picking details about contracts. The construction industry clearly feels that the Bill is an opportunity to help it, but where is the ambition and the imagination? Instead of setting out ideas to kick-start regeneration or deliver new infrastructure, the Bill is confined to what I call contractual etiquette. Frankly, the construction industry and the country deserve better.

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