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Mr. Raynsford: It has been my experience over quite a few years that the Opposition make a huge fuss at the start of the Committee stage about the inadequate timetable and we then find that we end the Committee stage within the timetable agreed. I will not make any forecasts, but the particular point has merit and is straightforward. I gather the Government were sympathetic to it and intended to include it in another Bill, so I hope that it can be easily drafted, agreed and incorporated into the Bill without taking very much time from other matters.

Chapter 4 of part 1 deals with the National Tenant Voice. This is an important provision arising from the Cave review. The review led to the establishment of a new regulator for social housing, the Tenant Services Authority, which is now successfully set up, but it is not the same as providing a national voice for tenants, as highlighted by Cave. Cave recommended that the National Consumer Council might perform that role, but following consultation with tenants and existing tenant representative organisations, a clear consensus emerged on the need for an independent body. Clauses 25 and 26 provide for this. I understand that the plan is that the new body will be set up and running by the end of the year, and I hope the Minister will be able to confirm at the end of the debate that that timetable will be met.

On chapter 6, I welcome the overdue amendments to the unduly restrictive rules on politically restricted posts in local government. There is no question but that it is right to maintain the principle of political impartiality among senior officers of local authorities, but the salary-related restrictions were clearly drawing the net far too wide, and it is right that they should be amended.

Part 2 concerns scrutiny and audit functions. The extension of formal scrutiny structures to local government under the Local Government Act 2000 was an important reform and has led to significant advances in the quality and transparency of decision making in local government. However, it is probably fair to say that the impact of scrutiny across the whole local government family remains patchy. The Government’s commitment in the 2008 White Paper to enhancing the powers of scrutiny bodies and raising their visibility was therefore welcome. The relevant clauses in the Bill are rather modest by comparison with those ambitious objectives, but they are nevertheless a helpful step in the right direction.

Having a designated scrutiny officer in every authority is a step forward, but it will not result in substantial advances in scrutiny if local authorities go no further. All the evidence—the Centre for Public Scrutiny monitors the issue annually—suggests that the resources available to support scrutiny functions remain limited in most authorities. If authorities are to go beyond their current level of scrutiny and ensure that it is more effective in future, the ambitions spelled out in the White Paper to raise the visibility and to enhance the resources available for scrutiny will have to be put into practice. More will be required than just the clauses in the Bill, welcome as they are.

Time does not permit me to comment on parts 3 to 6 of the Bill, but they establish the local authority boundary commission and set out new powers and responsibilities in respect of economic development and planning, which I broadly welcome.

Part 7 gives statutory backing to the important concept of multi-area agreements. The aim of MAAs is to achieve better co-ordinated activity between a number
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of neighbouring authorities. I have taken a close interest in the evolution of MAAs, because of the intrinsic merit in getting authorities to work together across a wider area, and because my constituency includes one of the five Olympic boroughs—Greenwich, Newham, Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest—where work is taking place to work up a multi-area agreement. That MAA has the prospect of ensuring significant improvements across all five boroughs in the run-up to, and aftermath of, 2012; of making the most of the historic opportunity to host the Olympic games; and of ensuring that the local community as a whole secures some lasting benefits—one important legacy issue that is sometimes overlooked.

The five-borough MAA focuses on three themes that encapsulate economic, social and environmental concerns. First, there is employment—ensuring that the substantial opportunities of building the Olympic venues and hosting the 2012 events are taken in order to reduce the unacceptably high levels of unemployment and joblessness in east and south-east London. Secondly, there is housing—ensuring that the serious problems of poor housing, overcrowding and homelessness which have traditionally blighted all five boroughs are addressed more effectively. That goes far further than just the creation of an exemplary Olympic village to house the athletes in 2012; it means providing sustainable communities with homes for sale and rent after the games. Added impetus will be required throughout all five boroughs to tackle the range of housing problems from which they suffer, and I welcome the MAA’s co-ordinated approach. The third theme is the public realm—recognising the importance of securing real improvements to key public areas throughout the five boroughs, given that they will be the focus of much international attention in just over three years’ time.

In my constituency, there are the obvious challenges of enhancing the two key town centres of Greenwich and Woolwich and, in particular, of securing an appropriate transformation of Cutty Sark gardens. The gardens are the setting for the historic sailing ship, which is undergoing restoration, and the entry point from the river to the world heritage site and Greenwich park, one of the principal and most attractive Olympic sites. I welcome the Bill’s provisions that codify arrangements for multi-area agreements, and I look forward to seeing the positive impact that an MAA can have on Olympic boroughs in east and south-east London.

Part 8 deals with construction contracts. The provisions are essentially tidying-up measures to improve the provisions that were introduced a decade ago under the Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Act 1996. They are none the worse for being tidying-up measures, however, and the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) was wide of the mark when she described them rather dismissively as simply inappropriate in the current economic circumstances. These matters have been discussed within the construction industry for years; they are important and necessary reforms. I regret the Opposition’s churlish view towards them, given that the origin of the provisions, the 1996 Act, was introduced by a Conservative Government, with strong support from the Opposition, who in turn, when they came into government, enacted the regulations that gave effect to the powers under
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discussion. It was a bipartisan approach to construction industry reform, and it was based on Sir Michael Latham’s report, which made some sensible recommendations for ending the unduly adversarial and litigious culture that had historically been a bugbear of the industry.

The measures that have been introduced so far have had a positive impact, and in the construction industry there are few people who would not agree with that. However, inevitably, the practical experience of the past 10 years shows the need for some fine tuning, and, over the past three years, the industry has discussed changes to the adjudication procedures and payment arrangements to try to achieve those improvements. The relevant clauses in the Bill are the product of compromise and, inevitably, do not please all parties, so we will be, and already have been, deluged with pressure for change from different parts of the construction industry. The contractors regard some of the provisions on payment as unduly prescriptive and bureaucratic; the subcontractors do not think that they go far enough. My judgment is that the measures are broadly right. They are a compromise and represent a consensus, but they seek to build on the successful reform that was introduced a decade ago, and they should help to improve the industry culture even further and ensure that the old adversarial and litigious ways are left behind.

This is an important Bill that contains a range of useful measures and deserves to progress through the House. I regret some of the omissions, but, for all that, I believe that it will bring significant benefits to several different policy areas, and I am happy to give it my support.

6.16 pm

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests as a columnist for the Local Government Chronicle.

It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford). He talked about the black hole into which the Lyons report has fallen, but I think that Sir Michael himself has fallen into something fairly akin to a black hole, too, given that he is chairman of the BBC Trust. He has had a number of incarnations, and, no doubt, that is not the final one.

We lack another report today: the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government has written a rather hard-hitting report on relations between central and local government—more hard-hitting than I expected, quite frankly. It is a pity that we do not have the benefit of the advice of its members today, but there is a direct clash between this debate and a meeting of the Committee. The Government will have been aware of that, and it just shows that although we talk about joined-up government, sometimes very close parts are not joined up, so it is not surprising that the more remote parts are never joined up.

I want to step back and see, strategically, where the legislation fits with the decade-long struggle by the Government to find good answers to two related questions. First, what institutions and agencies are necessary to deliver growth and meet the needs and aspirations of a growing population at the level below national Government? In what body can we place our confidence to deliver those things—to devise some form of regional architecture,
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which is the Government’s preference? Secondly, what mechanisms will make the institutions on which we decide accountable? It has been a long and troubled journey, and it still has no destination in sight—perhaps because the destination does not exist. Indeed, it may be sensible to think of a different journey or agenda, because we have been going round in circles, and we are nowhere near a sensible safe haven.

The Bill represents a further attempt to answer those questions, but the Government’s answer is wrong for three reasons. The most substantial reason is that, yet again, the Government have succumbed to their obsession with capacity—size matters, and they have to have scale. We saw it with the failed attempt to merge the police forces and with the mergers of the PCTs. Wherever we look, we find that the Government want bigger scale. However, we lose identity, accountability and flexibility through such measures.

The regional development agencies are to be enlarged with huge new powers, and there will be a vast regional machine, but the irony is that, in a funny old way, the Government have failed their own test. We can argue about whether the old RDAs were good, bad or indifferent—I think that they fall into all three categories—but they were never given one key instrument of economic development, which is skills. Instead, we had the Learning and Skills Council. The hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer), a former leader of Manchester city council, made some remarks about the LSC’s expertise in budgetary control, but, given that people wanted a regional structure whose principal target was economic development, it seems ironic that an effective skills base, which every single business tells us every single day is the most important thing, was never part of the agency’s remit. The LSC is, of course, disappearing and giving way to a different body, so the relevant organisations will still not be brought together under one roof.

Accountability through the advisory leaders’ board is also wrong. I never thought that I would see a college of cardinals raised from the ranks of local government leaders. I hope that the wonderful people selected to sit and advise have cloaks, hats and a special uniform; at one time, the Leader of the House referred to people running the quangos at regional level as hugely powerful. Such people are too remote from the citizen. The means by which a citizen can register their views—a common theme today—are suffocated by that form of bureaucracy. The leader of Leeds, Wakefield or Bradford council will not be susceptible to the individually expressed views of the citizen however many petitions or texts they receive, because the bureaucratic haze is too impenetrable for the necessary process of give and take.

The Bill fails to follow the logic of the Government’s sub-regional strategy, which involves their broadly sensible steps towards creating city regions. A huge regional machine is being imposed, yet at the same time the Government are discussing the notion of the large city state, which has a lot going for it and is the one sensible thing that they have suggested. Furthermore, an enormous amount has happened without a legal framework to compel people to do what they find easier to do through voluntary agreement.

The RDAs are a mixed bag. During my ministerial career, I was dealing with City Challenge and the regeneration bodies, and I was always queasy about the intellectual validity of claims about jobs having been safeguarded or created. How on earth would that be
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judged? We constantly see statistics about virtuous activity. I do not care whether PricewaterhouseCoopers has done a report, because it is almost impossible to apply intellectual rigour to such statistics.

Some of the RDAs have not been too bad, although they were better at the beginning, when they were sharply focused on economic development. Since then, however, all sorts of peripheral tasks have been imposed on them—renaissance towns and the impedimenta of all sorts of mini-initiatives that have drained away their central role. There is certainly no evidence that the RDAs have narrowed regional economic disparities; in fact, there is significant evidence that such disparities have increased, as was inevitable.

I see nothing in the proposals that will make the citizen less convinced that planning is a top-down process. I am thinking especially of housing. We can all say sanctimoniously to our hearts’ content that we need more houses. However, as we all know, the one thing that unites most of our citizens is their opinion that new houses are not needed in their vicinity. Any plan to build 30-odd houses as an extension to an estate or in a field, no matter how unsightly, is bound to raise protest. The citizen should feel that the process is something other than a top-down one imposed on them. Craven, in my constituency, is part of the Leeds city region structure. As part of that, it accepted a programme that would have meant a relatively modest number of houses being built annually. However, the cumulative total looked big and Craven saw the nearest thing to a citizens’ revolt for a long time. The politicians responded to local pressure and backed away from the programme.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) that the Bill will push power upwards, not downwards. It will create a huge motor that will take decisions that are crucial to people’s lives, and that power will be exercised by a quango—with the ornament of the advisory cardinals who will sit and give their opinions. I see the merit in the local area and multi-area agreements, which I welcome. But however virtuous they may be, we still have to accept that to a significant extent the contracting parties are themselves not directly accountable. We are building structures without direct accountability. We can praise their administrative efficiency and capacity, but we must be careful before we lend ourselves to the notion that they are genuinely accountable.

The leaders’ board—this college of cardinals, this cosy coterie of local authority aldermen—will do nothing to make the citizen believe that their voice has been reinforced. We should bring back the term “alderman” for the people nominated to meet the regional development agency. I pass over the Regional Select Committees, which are largely phantom and certainly fugitive bodies, so ham-fistedly and belatedly, and with such obvious reluctance, were they introduced by the Government.

The Government will make a great deal of the bells and whistles of empowerment, such as petitions and the like. I say to Front Benchers from my party that I hope that under a future Conservative Government the citizen will not be subject to text messages on the progress of Bills. I do not wish a Government to intrude on my privacy to tell me about the progress of Government Bills, thank you very much. I am reluctant enough to text as it is, and my reluctance will be reinforced if I feel that the Government are to intrude on me by telling me about the progress of Bills, in most of which I will not
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have a huge residual interest. Those bells and whistles are at the margin. The central point is the accumulation and reinforcement of powers at the RDA level without effective scrutiny.

We have seen a lot of joint working, but like many colleagues I do not see why it has to have a mandatory, statutory and regulatory framework to work. When people feel the need to, they will work together. The Bill is packed full of things that would be much better left to people’s common sense and willingness to work together.

The economic prosperity boards have a wonderfully Stalinist ring about them—they have overtones of a Soviet plan for tractor widget manufacture in the 1930s. If we called them “economic recovery boards”, at least that would admit that we started from a point of recession rather than suggesting that we are building on unparalleled progress in prosperity. However, I am willing to be convinced. If, in Committee, good arguments are made for a statutory framework—and provided that people are to opt into it, rather than being required to become involved—I may be convinced. However, the incubus of the regional framework on top of the sub-regional strategy, to which I am attached, will be stultifying.

The dilemma at the heart of the Bill has not been mentioned, and it may be a psychological as well as a political dilemma. We all talk about devolution, localism and decentralisation, but we are often not terribly precise about what we mean by those three concepts or what the difference is between them; in fact, there is a significant difference between them. The real issue is where the balance lies between representative and direct democracy. I have heard the Secretary of State say that time has moved on from representative democracy and that we are now into direct democracy. That is a dangerous notion. Putting democracy into the hands of groups of citizens who have no responsibility beyond the subject in which they have passionate interest, who do not have to make the relevant choices and who inevitably become dependent on the Government for the stream of funding that enables them to carry on their activity, would be dangerous indeed. It is essential that we assert the clear primacy of representative institutions if our democracy is to be reinforced.

Graham Stringer: I agree with what the right hon. Gentleman is saying, but is he not in danger of taking the Government’s propaganda and rhetoric too seriously? There is no real direct democracy in the Bill; as the right hon. Gentleman has been saying, there is just a bit more centralisation. Is that not the case?

Mr. Curry: It may be. I occasionally make the perhaps naive mistake, after only 22 years in this place, of thinking that when the Secretary of State talks about a problem, she means to do something about it. I heard her say that the time of representative democracy was past, and direct democracy was now the thing of the future. I call for caution before we are seduced by that, because it simply is not the case. I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman, whose speech I agreed with almost entirely and very much enjoyed, that we have seen precious little in this regard. Everybody needs to make up their mind what they mean when they talk about localism and decentralisation. What decentralisation usually means is that the Government find a way of giving local government’s functions to somebody else.

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