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Alistair Burt: The inspector turns down local feelings expressed by a local planning decision on the grounds of numbers to which the local authority has not had the
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opportunity to object, let alone control. The numbers are decided by others, so everybody involved in the process feels dissatisfied, not least—on some occasions—Gypsies and Travellers themselves, because they do not get the opportunity to put their case locally. An opportunity for the communities to come closer together is missed in the process of making such decisions regionally.

I have given two examples, and I cannot believe that the Bill proposes to compound the problem by taking planning powers away from regional assemblies and the regional spatial strategy, and giving them to regional development agencies. I do not know anyone in an RDA who wants these powers. The role is totally unnecessary and not connected to their core activities. They know that their future is under question anyway, and this is the last thing that they want. I wish that the Government had listened and made a different decision.

I agree with the point made by the Campaign to Protect Rural England and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which want to ensure that regional strategies do not have the concentration on economics that the Bill will give them. It sets great store by regional economic development without a necessary and similar interest in biodiversity and the environment. I prefer the alternative—local economies working together in a voluntary capacity, recognising the need to work together without a supervening structure being imposed on them. That is a difficult concept for Labour Members to grasp, but I hope that they will recognise those environmental needs when they get the chance.

On part 4 of the Bill, I wish to say a word on behalf of town and parish councils in relation to their involvement in the local authority economic assessment. I am blessed in North-East Bedfordshire with 54 parish councils and five town councils in Arlesey, Biggleswade, Sandy, Potton and Stotfold. They are staffed by people who work incredibly hard for their local area, and their local knowledge is second to none. I hope that the Bill will properly recognise their role. I do not want a shopping list of authorities that are statutory consultees. That was originally in the Bill, but it has been shelved, and that is a good thing. However, it would be nice to have a recognition from the Minister that should these local authority economic assessments come to pass, proper acknowledgement will be made of the work of parish and town councils. I strongly support their continuing development and the work that they do.

This has been an interesting debate, and some of the messages from it will resonate with the public when they realise that we are at last getting to grips with some of their frustrations. There are many things that will not be the same again after the last few weeks, but one of them must be that when the public tell us about nonsensical things, we deal with them. Several such things have been identified in this debate by my hon. Friends and one or two others. The Bill provides an opportunity for the Minister to stand at the Dispatch Box and say, “We get it. We are not taking forward this Bill, we have heard what’s been said and we know we can do better, especially if we let the other side take over in government as soon as possible.”

9.24 pm

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): I did not intend to speak in this debate, until it became clear that the Government were making what can only be said to
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be a wholly unacceptable proposition. I ask the House to consider clause 2, entitled “Democratic arrangements of connected authorities”, which includes the phrase:

and the second of the matters that the authority has a duty to promote is

Subsection (3) lists those authorities, and they include the strategic health authority. How can any organisation explain the democratic arrangements of a strategic health authority? There are no democratic arrangements of a strategic health authority. In my constituency, the strategic health authority has just told my constituents that if they are going to have a heart attack they had better move somewhere else. They are going to be transported from Leiston or Felixstowe all the way across the countryside as far as the no doubt excellent hospital on the other side of Cambridge. That is a journey of more than 100 miles and they will be given 90 minutes in which to do it on the A14, which is often closed.

When the health authority was asked whether the public could comment, the only person who supported it was the hon. Member for Ipswich (Chris Mole), who seemed to say that whatever it said was perfectly all right. There was no public inquiry; there was no opportunity for the public to make any comment at all.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. Did the right hon. Gentleman inform the hon. Member for Ipswich (Chris Mole) that he was going to make those comments?

Mr. Gummer: I am very sorry. I see that the hon. Gentleman is in the House at the moment, and it is therefore normally acceptable to mention what is in the public domain. It is in the public domain that the hon. Gentleman said that, and I therefore think it reasonable to mention it, as he is in the House. I would not have mentioned had he not been here.

For Suffolk county council to teach the people of Suffolk about the democratic methods of the strategic health authority would be impossible. Why do we have a Bill before us that it is impossible to carry through? What happens if I bring a case against Suffolk county council for not informing me of the democratic arrangements of the strategic health authority? The council has an absolute answer in law—it can say that it has no democratic system. It can say that of a series of other authorities listed in the subsection. Primary care trusts are among those authorities listed—no primary care trust has any democratic relationship with the public at all. What could the council say about a local probation board or a probation trust? What could it say about an integrated transport authority, a waste disposal authority, a joint waste disposal authority or a national park authority, which is specifically set up to avoid local people running that part of the country?

The Minister for Local Government will have to make a very good case to explain how, in a Government Bill, a series of statements are made to ask authorities to carry out duties that are impossible. I have sat in this House for more than 30 years and I have to say to the Secretary of State that I have never come across a Bill in all those years that lays on authorities duties that are of their nature impossible. I hope she will come to this
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House and explain how a county council can give to the public information about the democratic accountability of a strategic health authority. Those of us who now know that we will be subject to decisions without any kind of discussion—without the county council being allowed even to use the strategic committee to object, because the Government chose to pass those arrangements at a time when there was purdah—will want to ask the Secretary of State how she dares to put in the Bill something that it is impossible to carry through.

When the Government introduce a Bill, I suggest that the House always look at their words particularly carefully. If they use the words “local democracy”, they mean that the measure is neither local nor democratic. It is rather like the climate change levy, which does nothing to combat climate change, although anyone who opposes it is supposed to be insufficiently enthusiastic about fighting climate change. Similarly, if anyone opposes this local democracy Bill, the Government will say that they are not keen on local democracy. In fact, anyone who votes for the Bill is not keen on local democracy, for it has nothing to do with local democracy, but a great deal to do with reinforcing the removal of democratic control over local decisions and laying impossible demands upon local authorities. I look forward to hearing the Minister for Local Government’s explanation of what he would say if he were the leader of my county council and he was asked the simple question, “What is the democratic arrangement by which the strategic health authority operates?”

9.31 pm

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) has just made a brief speech combining deep local feeling with an expert reading of aspects of the Bill. His speech was entirely appropriate because we have had an expert, well-informed and wide-ranging debate since 3.30 pm, as no statement preceded it. I have been in the Chamber since then, so I have heard all the speeches and I intend to comment on them all in some detail, as they deserve.

I must flesh out the context in which the Bill is set, but before I do even that, I shall make one simple point. The Secretary of State, as ever, gave a bouncy, feisty and energetic speech enthusiastically backing the Bill—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I am glad that Labour Members are cheering, because not one single speech by another Labour Member enthusiastically supported the Bill at all. As I was in the Chamber, unlike some Members on the Treasury Bench, I took a careful note of what was said.

The right hon. Member for Streatham (Keith Hill) made a powerful speech about one particular point. He said, “I was wrong,” and, as he pointed out, it is seldom that a Member is gracious enough to admit that. I hope that the Minister for Local Government listened to him carefully and that he might give him a place on the Public Bill Committee.

The right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) came the nearest to defending the Bill, although he said that he did not give it an “unqualified welcome”—I wrote that bit down especially carefully. On the provision for petitions, he said, “Probably the less said about that the better,” and that was almost as enthusiastic as Labour Members got.

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The hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) said rather hesitantly that the Bill should get further consideration, which was very generous of him. He then referred to Enver Hoxha-ist appellations in relation to regional authorities— [ Interruption. ] Perhaps Labour Members are more familiar with Marxist terminology than I am. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will be able to serve on the Committee and improve the Bill.

The most profound speech made by a Labour Member was that of the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer), who spoke early in our debate. He was entirely within his rights to be critical about what happened in local government in the 1980s, but he was honest enough to note that there has been “increasing centralisation” under this Government. He gave a masterly and philosophically rigorous analysis of the Bill and concluded that it was a lost opportunity. I hope that the House listened to him carefully and that he too will serve on the Public Bill Committee.

As my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) noted, the Bill comes at a moment of crisis for our democracy in general, and the House in particular. It is no exaggeration to say that a hurricane has swept through the House of Commons in recent weeks. Of course, it is in the nature of hurricanes to devastate the guilty and the innocent alike. I guess that not a single Member here in the Chamber tonight will have been unaffected by the events of recent weeks. Some will now leave the House at the next election. Most of us here this evening have been subject to media attention that has been not entirely complimentary; I put it no stronger than that. We are to lose a Speaker. Seldom, if ever, during the long procession of history has the reputation of this House stood so low.

Ultimately, the crisis is not about us, or the reputation of 650 or so individual Members of Parliament. It is not even about the reputation of this House as a corporate body. It is about much more. It is about a damaged political system that mirrors our damaged economy. We are in crisis because the whole system is in crisis. If people believe that their elected representatives, whether Members of Parliament or local councillors, are powerless, and that real power lies elsewhere—in the European Union, with an over-mighty Executive, with unelected regional assemblies, or with unaccountable quangos set up by this Government—those representatives will fall into contempt, and they will come to be seen as all the same. In a key respect, they will indeed be all the same: they will, as the saying has it, be in office but not in power.

Ministers across the Dispatch Box from me know all that full well, even if they cannot or will not admit it. The Minister for Local Government will respond to the debate; I have been his opposite number many times, in proceedings on the Finance Bill and elsewhere. He is always very pleasant, rational and charming, and he always does the best possible job, as he will this evening, of defending the indefensible. They all know perfectly where their philosophy of big government, with its regional assemblies, development agencies and spatial strategies, and all the other things denounced so eloquently by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) in his characteristically energetic and uncontrollable
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way, has brought the country in general, and local government in particular. A single statistic illustrates the point. Turnout in last year’s council elections was 35 per cent. We all hope and pray that it will be better on Thursday, but we cannot be sure, let alone have complete confidence. Ministers know the consequences for their Government, for the Prime Minister and for themselves as it all goes wrong for them—as this dishevelled and demoralised Administration limps through to its fifth year, desperate to avoid the general election that the Prime Minister never had the courage to call.

The Bill gave the Ministers present perhaps the very last chance to fix our broken politics by radically redistributing power, by tearing up the culture of central control, box ticking and target meeting, and by restoring autonomy and control to local government, thus making space for the restoration of civic pride and confidence. Instead, far from striking the chains from local government, the Bill puts new ones in place. One would have thought that local councils and councillors could be trusted to promote democracy, and that if they did not, local people would be capable of electing new councillors who were—but apparently not, according to the Bill. According to the Government, local councillors simply are not up to it; they have to be managed and mollycoddled. They have to have it all set out in statute. A whole chapter of the Bill, chapter 1 of part 1, sets out for local authorities the means by which they must be organised and must promote democracy.

Again, one would have thought that local councillors could be trusted to respond to petitions, and that if they did not respond to them, local people would be capable of choosing new councillors who did—but again, apparently not. A whole section of the Bill has to set out, in black and white, instructions for local councillors in case they are not capable of responding to petitions themselves—all that in a Bill that has already had some 170 amendments, and that will not be considered for very long in Committee. As hon. Members will see if they care to flick through the Bill, it is full of more powers delegated to the Secretary of State, and more powers to be exercised by statutory instrument. Every single clause is full of such powers.

Let me turn briefly to some of the speeches. I very much enjoyed what the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) said about the expert tour made so briefly by planning bodies in his area; they spared five minutes for each place visited in Cheltenham. He put his experience vividly and well. I should also mention my hon. Friends the Members for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) and for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry). This last made a philosophical speech that tried to balance out where power should truly lie. They all contributed very well to the debate. Yet again, we heard a speech from the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich followed by one from my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon. They are capable of going round the music halls as a double act. They must sometimes feel that they have been joined at the hip.

The Bill could have been bold and done many good things. It could have empowered councils to set up new local housing trusts, giving local people the freedom to build the homes they want. It could have empowered
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councils to keep some of the proceeds of local growth, and it could have empowered councils by giving them a general power of competence—radical reform that would pave the way for the end of local administration and the revival of real local government.

As well as giving power to local councils, the Bill could have taken it away from central Government. It could have made a bonfire of diktats and controls. It could have scrapped capping, process targets and the imposition, whether they liked it or not, of the cabinet system on local councils. It could have scrapped altogether the reviled and discredited Standards Board. It could have scrapped the comprehensive area assessment and returned local government planning and housing powers where they belong—to local councils.

Unfortunately, the Bill does none of those things. It gave Ministers on the Treasury Bench a last chance to rise to the scale of the crisis that confronts them, and they have comprehensively failed to take it. There they sit, out of ideas, out of luck, out of time, and shortly to be out of office. I ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to join us in the Lobby tonight.

9.41 pm

The Minister for Local Government (John Healey): This has been a very good debate. It follows full proceedings in the other place, which were ably led from the Government Benches by Baroness Andrews and Lord Patel, with strong contributions from all parts of that House, as there have been tonight. There were strongly felt but reflective contributions from both sides of the Chamber this evening—expertise from local government and of local government within national Government.

I cannot recall a Bill that I have led or a debate to which I have responded in the House when quite so many Members on both sides with direct ministerial experience of the issues at the centre of the debate have contributed. I welcome that and encourage all to continue that debate with me and the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) in Committee. I look forward to that.

The Bill has two broad aims, both of which developed from earlier legislation and earlier policy statements that we have issued. The first broad aim is to continue the drive towards stronger local democracy, with more powers both for local authorities and for local people to hold their local authorities to account—principles set out in the White Paper, “Communities in control”. The second aim is to do more to promote economic recovery and long-term prosperity and economic development, implementing the proposals first set out in the sub-national review of economic development and regeneration.

As the Conservative chairman of the Local Government Association said, the Bill will give councillors the power to effect real economic change in their local areas. She was right about that. I was interested in the speech from the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt). He was right, and he was the only one to say this tonight: in the crisis that we face, political parties have an important role. While we look at the procedures of our own Parliament and at questions over the constitution and the political system for the future, we need political parties that are more active, particularly locally and we, as leading members of those parties, have a big part to play within our own parties.

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