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1 Jun 2009 : Column 72

This has been a long journey. We had the directly elected assemblies, which were shot down in the north-east, then we had the regional assemblies, which remained significantly toothless and anonymous, and now we have the wonderful notion of the board of leaders. If we draw the conclusion that we are heading towards the wrong destination, perhaps we need to change train. Perhaps we should look at different sorts of structures—the structures of representative democracy—and abandon the search for a regional promised land.

In the present world, we need to do two things, one of which we all agree on and one of which some of my colleagues are very uncomfortable about. First, we need to respond to the issues that can be dealt with only on an international scale, such as climate change and population movements that may follow it, the migration of economic power to Asia, and competitiveness; we can all list what they are. We saw the G20 began to move towards a G2 of America and China. We have to ask ourselves which forum will be able to represent our interest and the European interest as regards those global issues. Frankly, that means that we will have to shift some competence and power upwards. That may be a difficult lesson to learn, but it is none the less true. If we have to do that, because otherwise we will not have the capacity to make our voices heard, then we need also to push power downwards in the areas where it is practicable to do so and the citizen can really make decisions at the local level.

The background to that is the self-empowering citizenry. I am not a computer anorak; my children will testify that that statement has the ring of truth to it. Nevertheless, the internet has empowered the citizen and disempowered institutions—the Government are the most important of those—like no other invention since the printing press, and printing was limited to a very small circle until relatively recently in modern times. The internet means that in half a day any one of my constituents can become a bigger expert on a subject—with the exception of two or three subjects that I have spent my lifetime dealing with—than I can ever be. What we might describe as the sacerdotal role of the MP as somebody sent to London because they had access to the information needed to enable them to take decisions that the citizen was not in a position to take has disappeared out of the window. The citizen can take power, mobilise and do all sorts of things that were not possible in the past, while Governments are disempowered. As a Conservative, I am in favour of the disempowerment of Governments, which is a good way forward.

Mr. Raynsford: As always, the right hon. Gentleman is making an extremely interesting and provocative speech. He talked earlier about the choice between representative democracy and direct democracy. He made very clear his preference, which I strongly support, for a system of representative democracy. In his latest example, he is essentially saying that representative democracy has had its day because citizens will use the internet to insist on a form of direct democracy. How does he reconcile those two trends and ensure the triumph of representative democracy that we agree on?

Mr. Curry: First, we must, where possible, give competence to the people who are elected, so that the citizen knows that in voting for the council there is a
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choice of one set of rascals rather than the other set of rascals. If there is a competence there, the citizen is happy to make those choices. Secondly, the citizen will, in the first instance, use the internet as a tool for or against their own council, as we have all seen. We got very large quantities of e-mails about the Gurkhas because of the immediate pressure being put on the person representing those people. At the same time, people can send a fiery cross across the countryside to fight capitalism or mobilise against the G20. If we do not ensure that we safeguard representative democracy, we will allow the technology to become the servant of those who have given up on representative democracy. That is the most important thing.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): Because there is now a democratic deficit as regards those who are involved in representative democracy, does my right hon. Friend agree that instead of trying to extend the franchise to 16-year-olds, we should concentrate on trying to get those who are currently qualified to vote to engage better with our democratic process?

Mr. Curry: On the whole, I subscribe to that point of view. We see disaffection in all sorts of people. The contrivance of getting people to vote in Tesco, or whatever, has demonstrated that sometimes people’s determination not to vote is almost greater than people’s determination to vote.

I gave way twice in the course of my peroration, which was noble beyond the call of duty, so I will now try to perorate towards the end. The Bill will, in effect, spend two weeks in Committee. Having listened to what colleagues have said and read the thing myself, it seems that almost all the amendments could be aimed at deleting significant parts of it. If we did that and left just the bells and whistles, as I have described them, it would probably become an ineffective but entirely harmless Bill, whereas if we leave the bulk of it in place, I fear that it will become yet another oppressive instrument that militates against what we are all trying to do.

6.37 pm

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): I very much agree with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) said about the missing elements in our discussion of the Bill, including Lyons and several factors that go with that. His comments meshed closely with the thoughtful, as always, contribution by the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) about point at which we decide where representation should fall in local government and how we marry the notion of participation, or direct government, with representation, which is the way in which participation and its antinomies can be determined. We cannot just have the white noise of participation determining what happens, through the internet or otherwise, without a representative process that sorts out who gets what, where, how and when, and who does the thinking about that.

Equally, we cannot say that we wish to devolve power right down to the local level—that we will get rid of regional authorities and so on, and that everything will come back to local authorities—while maintaining an undifferentiated form of taxation that increasingly ends up as a flat tax. Without any ability to vary such a tax, particularly locally, it increasingly has to be determined
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from the centre, which necessitates making up bogus valuations in order to make any sense of how people are taxed in the first place. I understand that the Conservatives said in their green paper on local government that they would devolve power down to local level, and at the same time keep the crude version of that tax in place and freeze it for two years. Under that proposal, no one would have the opportunity to exercise any financial discretion as regards how to go about that devolution and exercise the representative government function locally. There is nothing more centralising than a tax system over which no one has any discretionary control at local level, and in which decisions on how money will be organised locally end up entirely in the hands of central Government. We are not wholly at that point yet, but if we do not do something about the issue over a period of time, we will be.

We must recognise that if we are to maintain some form of council tax or similar system, it will require modernisation, uprating and revaluation to make it function. If we do not bring that about, we will surely have condemned our local government system. Whichever direction the rhetoric about localisation is pointing, we will in fact have secured a thoroughly centralised system with very little local discretion and variation.

Mr. Swire: In my constituency of East Devon, we have about 4,500 people on the waiting list for housing, yet we have to give about £5.5 million a year from rents to central Government, which is then redistributed nationally. If those rents were given back to East Devon, we could provide the housing that we so desperately need. Surely that would be localism at its best.

Dr. Whitehead: The hon. Gentleman has perhaps anticipated some of the comments that I was going to make about the level at which various local government services fall, which the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon referred to. In an ideal world for local government, we would get it right about where services, arrangements and activities fall in the sub-national spectrum.

It is fair to say that regardless of Government, for many years we in this country have made a real pig’s ear of working out where in sub-national government things should be dealt with. The truth of the matter is that local government, as we call it, is not just a number of local authorities, the boundaries of which have been determined by the local government boundary committee or, in the case of county councils, largely by the Plantagenets. Since the county boundaries were put in place, the black death and the industrial revolution have been and gone, and local government has come into its modern form. Aldermen have come and gone, and still we have counties based on the local government boundaries of 1383 or similar.

The reality of sub-national government and what people want from their local services is that those services work at different levels of sub-national determination. Sometimes they work within the local government boundaries as they are now, and those boundaries themselves appear to be rather centralising in the case of some services. Sometimes what we call local government services fall at neighbourhood level and sometimes into local government areas as we have currently decided them. Sometimes they fall at sub-regional level and sometimes at regional level.

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The issue to consider is not just the level at which services fall but at what point they should be accountable. Should we determine that at each level of sub-national services, there should be complete representative accountability for them? I have personally considered for a long time that a number of services and functions properly fall at regional level. The question is whether we have got the delineation of the regions right. I believe that the regions of England are based on those originally devised by a Conservative Prime Minister to relate to regional development in the European Union, after which they were declared to be “the regions”. The idea that democracy might conceivably be based on those regions is perhaps a problem for regional development.

Peter Luff: My understanding, from evidence that my Select Committee received during its consideration of the Bill, is that the regions have their origin in civil defence maps of the second world war. That cannot be the proper basis, particularly in a strange area such as the east, for economic and rent policies in the 21st century.

Dr. Whitehead: The hon. Gentleman’s journey of discovery goes back even further in history than my journey of understanding about how the regions of England, as they have been defined for a while, arose. Certainly the regions as we see them now were put into place as a response to what Brussels had to say about regional development in member states. They have solidified into the regions upon which democracy might conceivably be based.

My point is that whether or not one decides that one would have started out with those regional boundaries, there is a strong case for the functions that fall at regional level—the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon pointed to other functions that increasingly fall above national level, given the problems in the world—to have a democratic mandate related to them. A number of regional quangos have fallen outside the ambit of regional development agencies and the soon to be departed indirect regional assemblies. They could fruitfully be brought within the ambit of a directly elected regional tier of government.

There are further tiers of government. From a neighbourhood point of view, the district or unitary authority often looks distant, so our ideal is to devolve from that tier of local government to another tier, or to a neighbourhood administration that is appropriate for certain functions.

Mr. Swire: I am listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman is saying, and we are going through this argument at the moment in my own county of Devon. Among some people there is a desire to have unitary government and others, such as me, desire to retain the two-tier system, which serves us well with enhanced working. Although I agree that some things need to be done at a sub-regional level and others at a supranational level, surely the logical conclusion of what the hon. Gentleman says is that the best local democracy comes from retaining our district councils. They must surely be the most immediately accountable bodies available to local people.

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Dr. Whitehead: The conclusion that I was going to reach in my description of the journey of sub-national government in this country was to agree substantially with the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon that there is probably no exactly right formulation. Certainly district authorities perform a good function and provide good services in a number of circumstances.

I personally consider, certainly as far as the south of England is concerned, that the tier of local government that is potentially substantially redundant, if services fall at the proper level, is county councils. Other than the fact that a lot of people would be very upset for historical reasons, we could quite happily do without that tier in our local government dealings. When considering what should fall at what level of sub-national government, we would not seriously miss many things that have resided at county council level.

That brings me to some of the purposes of the Bill. I do not want to go through all the clauses because this is a Second Reading debate and we should examine whether the measure merits further consideration. I think that it does, because although it is by no means an overall solution to the problem of representation and where local government falls, it attempts to make clearer some reasonable working mechanisms for how specific local government functions fall, without necessarily leading us down the path of choice. It allows us to consider whether we need a representative level at every stage, and whether devices exist whereby we can ensure accountability, albeit indirect accountability. It also allows us to consider arrangements for local authorities, which are statutorily defined, to work together voluntarily to ensure that the functions that fall beyond them can be tackled and represented adequately.

A little example that springs to mind is local government working between Southampton, the area that I represent, and South Hampshire. Several clear local government functions go beyond the boundaries of Southampton. Yet, as things stand, we have a choice between their residing with the county council or the city’s attempting to lead the functions, with several other authorities, which may be more or less reluctant to have such leadership thrust upon them. Economic development and a range of other matters that relate to the sub-regional economic dimension clearly go beyond the local government boundaries of Southampton. They include transport, planning and housing as well as economic development considerations. Yet if one approached authorities outside Southampton and asked whether they wished to be ruled by Southampton for those functions, they would probably say no.

A much better way of ensuring that those functions are adequately covered is through co-operation between the authorities. That ensures accountability, and that the functions work at the right level in the sub-region and to the benefit of all the authorities in the area. That is beginning to happen with the Partnership for Urban South Hampshire, which was one of the first seven multiple area agreements to be signed last year. The authorities are of all parties and none—not one is currently a majority Labour authority; some are Conservative, some have no overall control and some are Liberal Democrat—but they increasingly work well together.

I agree about the Enver Hoxha-ist resonance of “economic prosperity areas”; the best appellation might be the subject of consideration in Committee. However,
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in practice, authorities that work as I described want a loose framework and arrangement for what they do and an understanding that they are there for the medium and long term—there is no foot-in, foot-out, “There one week, gone the next” attitude. They want a longish-term arrangement in which they can work together; a statutory recognition that they are working together; and the ability to build on that to increase function, finance and resource as the arrangement develops. That is a genuinely important step forward in the Bill. It provides a framework on a voluntary basis—no one has to do it and it does not rely simply on city regions: top-tier and lower-tier authorities can combine and a range of different arrangements can apply. The central arrangement is catching activities that go wider than one local authority.

The arrangement goes some way towards solving the region, sub-region, local dilemma and how we develop services. It begins to catch services at the right level and make them increasingly accountable. As the idea develops, I look forward to more functions coming under the scope of those arrangements from the top down rather than from the bottom up. However, as one of the Bill’s central themes, it has a great deal to commend it. For that reason alone, if not many others, I am happy to support this Second Reading.

6.55 pm

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): I draw the House’s attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Interests.

It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), and, indeed, a series of deeply thoughtful speeches, all of which expressed some concerns about whether the Bill will remedy the disparity between local authorities’ responsibilities and their accountability to the electorate, and whether it will accentuate rather than alleviate that division.

I begin by considering a narrower issue and by taking it for granted that the Bill’s three key objectives—promoting local democracy, encouraging co-operation between local authorities and facilitating regional planning—are a good thing. I want to draw attention to a phenomenon, which, if the measure does not tackle it, could undermine all three objectives. It is the increasing exploitation of a little known loophole, which allows one council to meet its housing targets by building houses in another local authority’s area. That threatens the first objective, since local democracy cannot properly operate without local accountability. If one council can meet its Government targets at the expense of the interests of residents in another area, to whom it is not accountable electorally, that is the antithesis of local democracy.

The loophole undermines the second objective—promoting co-operation through leaders’ boards and economic prosperity boards—because it is hard to envisage how local authorities will co-operate if one or more decide that they can meet their goals by invading their neighbours. That is a recipe for lack of co-operation rather than for facilitating it.

The same is true of facilitating regional planning and meeting housing targets, which are regional planning’s principal objective, if, once those targets are sub-aggregated to individual regions, houses are not built in areas where local authorities were told that there was a need and a duty to build them, but in someone else’s area—possibly even outside the region.

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