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Parts 4 to 6 of the Bill, which relate to local authority economic assessments, regional strategies and economic prosperity boards, give me grave cause for concern. I do
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not understand how the Government can claim the proposals are, in any way, shape or form, bottom-up—I was amazed that the Secretary of State used such language to describe them on the Floor of the House. Regional strategies will be established under the Bill by merging regional economic strategies and regional spatial strategies. However, the structure that we already have is too large and ridiculously unwieldy. The problem is not that there are two regional strategies, but that the regional level is completely inappropriate for such decision making. It is worrying that the proposals are hugely dependent on the Secretary of State, given that there will be reserved powers and the Secretary of State will have a role in specifying what goes into the single regional strategy. I worry that there will be more diktat from on high, rather than decision making at even a regional level.

Many aspects of Government policy have been reviewed in the light of the unexpected economic circumstances that we face, so I cannot for the life of me understand why Ministers refuse to say that we need to review the regional spatial strategy in such circumstances. To make the south-west regional spatial strategy stack up economically, it was based on growth of 3 per cent. a year. That does not reflect reality, and it goes to show that the proposals are completely out of touch with what is happening on the ground, let alone what people want. There is no alternative but to start again by coming forward with a process that is based on local community need, instead of the Secretary of State repeatedly imposing views that bear no relation to that need.

Mrs. Spelman: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way, although I am conscious that Front Benchers have absorbed quite a lot of our time. Does she accept that although local authorities were asked to set out the number of houses that they genuinely believed were needed and sustainable, a pencil was put through those figures for the regional spatial strategy and the numbers were doubled or tripled arbitrarily, which shows what is fundamentally wrong with the RSS?

Julia Goldsworthy: Yes. Having attended several Westminster Hall debates on the issue, I could bore for most parts of England about the ineffectiveness of the process. Even the process of deciding where houses are allocated bears no relation to the needs of communities. There is no way of dealing with the needs of more rural areas, where the growth of some villages might increase the sustainability of the community more than in-filling every available space in an urban area. What is even more galling in my constituency is that some of the areas for which thousands of houses are proposed were not even passed though in a car. Given that it is difficult to understand the impact of proposals when policy is set regionally, it is even more difficult to understand how the Secretary of State can increase numbers at the stroke of a pen. It would be preferable to have a radical review, get rid of the existing system, and start with a clean slate. The Bill provides an opportunity to do that, so I hope that we will be able to have a more fundamental debate.

The proposals on leaders’ boards and economic prosperity boards give us an insight into the Government’s concept of democratic accountability. The Government’s view is that we need to replace the unaccountable,
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remote and unelected regional assemblies with leaders’ boards, which will be not directly accountable, just as far away and not directly elected. Basically, we are to have another top-down arrangement. The set-up will still leave smaller authorities feeling that their voice will not be heard, and we still do not really know quite how the arrangements will fit in with the Regional Select Committees, which are also supposed to provide scrutiny at a regional level.

Instead of tinkering, and rearranging the deckchairs on a regional policy that is clearly sinking, we need to look much more widely at Government policy. Questions should be posed, asking the regional development agencies to justify their existence. I do not see any reason why a lot of their powers should not be pushed down to a much lower level. I have another example, from the debate in the Lords, of how the Government seem to think that the accountability process works. It just amazed me. Baroness Andrews, who speaks for the Government, used the word “accountability” when justifying why not to push down powers. She said, in response to a question, that a “deliberate decision” was taken to set up leaders’ boards and to leave the decision-making powers where they were in order to

Most people would think that the accountability should flow from the people at the bottom, rather than from the decisions at the top. The way to get better accountability is to do anything possible to get resources and decision making closer to the people affected. Only the fag-end of a Labour Government could come up with such rhetoric in desperation.

Let me draw on my experiences of the accountability and accessibility of the regional development agencies. I get letters about once a month from my local RDA telling me how difficult its funding situation is, and how it is having to review its programmes because it is not sure that it can deliver everything that it initially thought that it could. When all of Cornwall’s MPs wrote to the RDA to say that we were very worried about that, given the impact that it could have on regional funding and big regeneration projects, we did not even get an answer, let alone an offer of a date on which to meet. In terms of having open and accountable organisations, a lot of people think that the current set-up leaves an awful lot to be desired, and we Liberal Democrats will certainly make the most of any opportunity to re-open that debate that is presented by the Bill.

Exactly the same is true of the economic prosperity boards. Once again, there are the same concerns. Functions currently undertaken by locally accountable bodies are to be transferred to a new quango that individuals and businesses will have to get their heads around. It will not be closer to the people, and, again, there is no guarantee that everybody on the board will be directly elected. The Government should pay heed to the concerns of the CBI, which said that it already finds it very difficult to engage with regional bodies, and was worried about additional responsibilities being transferred to the board.

Dan Rogerson: My hon. Friend makes a good point about the current level of accountability, but there is also the question of the level of awareness. She mentions
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the CBI; at least it knows that such bodies exist, and roughly what their functions are. Most of my constituents do not have a clue what many of the organisations are, so to create further bodies with new titles, and new and crucial responsibilities, at a time when constituents want to know that they can go to their elected representatives and ask them to justify spending decisions, is completely ludicrous and will only make the situation worse.

Julia Goldsworthy: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I have already been inundated with representations from businesses and individuals who have heard a snippet on the national news about a proposal that they think might help them, but who then find it difficult to find out what the initiative is. Once they investigate it, they usually find out that they are not eligible anyway.

Of course, the economic prosperity boards are useful as forums for debate, and if some local authorities, or groupings of local authorities, wish to participate, as the local government innovation unit pointed out, they will have the opportunity to debate the evolving city regions agenda. If that agenda is about transferring more powers and responsibilities to areas that are economically and geographically coherent, of course it is a good thing, but there needs to be consistency, because there is no Government thought process on what the rural equivalent of a city region is. I represent a series of market towns, and there is more economic coherence among the market towns in Cornwall than there would be in the area covered by the single economic strategy, which would stretch from Swindon to Gloucester and down to the Isles of Scilly. The rigidity of many of the proposals, and the fact that they are compulsory for so many authorities, will be their undoing.

Dr. Whitehead: I have a minor, modest intervention to make. Is it not the case that economic prosperity board areas seek not to be defined by city regions? They do not necessarily seek to be defined as large conurbations with a number of satellites around them, either. Instead, they can, on a voluntary basis, involve a number of authorities that wish to work together from an economic development point of view. Indeed, to refer to the hon. Lady’s exact point, such authorities may have considerable coherence, even though they are not based on a city region.

Julia Goldsworthy: As I said, the economic prosperity boards could be useful forums for debate, but what worries me, looking at the number of powers that the Secretary of State reserves on the issue, is the extent to which the measures are voluntary. Instead of the Bill setting councils free, a lot of what we see in it looks like a below-the-radar move in favour of unitary authorities across the board. What we should favour is real diversity in local government structures, whether we are talking about the cabinet system, a mixture of unitary authorities or multi-tiered layers of authorities. Instead, we have top-down imposed structures, a one-size-fits-all approach and an approach that seems to want to create more quangos and more bureaucracy for everybody—and all that is being done in the name of local democracy and democratic accountability, whereas what underlies all of it is administrative convenience.

No consideration is being given to how it all looks to, or how things will work for, the person on the receiving end of the services. If the Government were serious
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about closing the accountability gap at the regional or any other level, they would have opened up the question of the allocation of resources. So much of the communities empowerment White Paper was about requiring local authorities to push down resources to the community level. There was nothing about the Government being required to push down resources to the local authority level. Let us look at other legislation that has tried to open up that question, such as the Sustainable Communities Act 2007. In that primary legislation, the Government said that local spending reports would be produced so that, for the first time, people would know not just exactly what their council spent, but what all the quangos in their area spent. That has been completely whitewashed, and proposals are being pushed further and further down the line, so that people will still find it difficult to understand what public money is being spent in their area.

As the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley said, we also need a much clearer link between the money that is raised locally and the money that is spent locally. That means a debate about how councils raise money, as well as how they spend it. That means reopening the issue of council tax. I was interested to hear what the hon. Member for Meriden had to say about revaluation, because my understanding is that the Conservative party would not abolish the council tax. As the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) said, we will be left with a Government who are looking either to revalue and continue with the council tax, or to continue with a basis for the valuation of properties that is 30 years out of date. It is just not intellectually coherent to hold that position: one either has to say, “We will support the council tax, and I’m afraid that at some point, that will mean revaluation,” or one has to start looking for other systems of local government finance.

Other questions could have been dealt with in the Bill, such as localising business rates to provide people with a clearer link between the money raised and the money spent locally. There was an opportunity in the Bill to create accountability in areas where there is none, particularly at the regional level, where I am really worried that what we will have will be even more of a dog’s breakfast than what we have now. We should have had options that were flexible, and that local authorities could have tailored to their needs. Those are the kind of things that would have helped to restore faith in local democracy. Instead, we have rigid, compulsory requirements. What the Government just do not get is how it all looks from the public’s point of view. The Bill should be about engaging people, not “building the right architecture”. None of what I have seen bodes well for the Bill, but what is of more concern for Government Members is that I do not think it bodes well for any of their wider plans, or their professed commitment to wider democratic renewal.

5.59 pm

Mr. Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): May I first draw attention to my interests, as recorded in the Register of Members’ Interests, and to my role as chairman of the Centre for Public Scrutiny? At the outset, I should make it clear that I welcome the Bill. I
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do not give it an unqualified welcome; indeed, there are some elements of the Bill by which I am not convinced, and there are some omissions from it that I regret. Despite that, the Bill contains a number of measures that will have a significant and positive impact locally, and that is certainly to be welcomed.

In their promotion of the Bill, the Government highlighted three principal sources: the Cave report of June 2007, which led to the recommendation for a tenant voice; the Councillors Commission of December 2007, which made some interesting proposals on enhancing the role of councillors and encouraging more people to stand as councillors; and the “Communities in control” White Paper of July 2008. But there is one glaring omission—the most important report published in recent years on local government, the Lyons report, published in March 2007 and so far not referred to in this debate.

The black hole into which the Lyons report has disappeared is wholly unjustified for an extremely thorough and serious review of local government. It is deeply regrettable that it has not been used by the Government as a source for sensible proposals on enhancing local democracy. The Lyons review is full of sensible and practical propositions that ought to be on the agenda. I regret the Government’s failure to implement Sir Michael’s recommendations, with one exception—the business rate supplement, which is being enacted as part of separate legislation that is currently in the other place. Although there is much in the Bill to be welcomed, there is a wider agenda that needs to be pursued if we are to see effective renewal of local democracy.

Turning from what is not in the Bill to its contents, part 1, chapter 1 is concerned with the promotion of public understanding of the functions of local authorities, the democratic processes and opportunities for the public to participate, and how that activity links with other local and national organisations. There has been real progress in recent years in securing better joint working between public authorities.

I look at my own local authority area and I see relations between the police and the local authority on an entirely different basis from what those of 15 years ago. I see specific initiatives, such as the violent and organised crime unit, which is jointly funded by the Metropolitan police and the local authority and which is doing extremely important work tackling some of the most serious challenges to law and order in our community. I look at the work between the local authority and the health commissioners and health providers, which is far more closely related than it was 15 years ago. We see the benefits of better joining up, and that agenda needs to be promoted and taken forward.

There is a risk, which is not in the Bill but it has been around, and the proposal has been advocated both by those on my party’s Front Bench and by the official Opposition—the risk of a proliferation of separate mandates. I am pleased that our Front-Bench team has backed away from the suggestion of having directly elected police commissioners, but I note that the Opposition are still committed to it. That is a recipe for separate mandates with silo mentalities and exactly the opposite of the joining up between the local authority and other public authorities in the area, which is an important part of the agenda set out in the Bill.

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Part 1, chapter 2 deals with petitions, and probably the less said about that, the better. Petitions provide one mechanism for citizens to highlight concerns, but one must question whether 11 clauses are necessary. It looks to me suspiciously like micro-management.

Andrew Mackinlay: May I invite my right hon. Friend to fast-forward to chapter 5, clause 28, on honorary titles? An absurd instrument is being put through the House of Commons that will clutter the statute book. It states that a local authority

This is the kind of nonsense that the House of Commons is getting into. We do not need a new statutory provision to provide for a casket. It is absurd. Who is the architect of this? Presumably the Minister or some faceless civil servant, wasting public money putting the clause in. It must mean that all the existing caskets and addresses are illicit—illegal. It is nonsense, isn’t it? I have never been a Minister and will never be one, but I would not put such crap in a Bill.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order.

Andrew Mackinlay: I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to withdraw that—

Andrew Mackinlay: I do. What I meant to say—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: That is very kind of the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Raynsford: I do not disagree with much of what my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) has said. However, I think the provision was inserted in the Bill in the other place, so he may have directed his fire at the wrong target.

Going back to petitions, we must question how it is that legislative space has been provided for a requirement that local authorities make provision for electronic petitions, when no space can apparently be found in the Bill, according to the National Association of Local Councils, for provisions to allow parish and town councils to make payments electronically. If ever there was a case for modernisation, it must surely be to end the archaic requirement that still apparently binds the 8,000 or so parish and town councils to make payments by cheque, each cheque bearing the signature of two signatories.

That was fine in 1894, when the requirement was introduced. It was probably still fine in 1972, when the legislation was last changed, but it is a bizarre anachronism in 2009. I understand that the Government were intending to revisit this in the promised community empowerment legislation, which was due to appear later this year, but as I understand that that Bill will not now be forthcoming, may I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench to accept amendments in Committee to enable parish councils to make payments electronically?

Peter Luff: The right hon. Gentleman makes a characteristically powerful point, but is he aware that with only two weeks in Committee, there will be no time for additions to the Bill? We will be hard pushed to scrutinise the existing provisions, without adding to them.

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