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1 Jun 2009 : Column 122

The Bill may well be, as the hon. Gentleman said, the first Bill that the House is considering after the Telegraph apocalypse, as he put it, but it does not set out to answer all the questions that have been raised about our politics over the past two to three weeks. It is not constitutional reform legislation, but it sets out a series of sensible, useful steps to improve the way that local authorities can respond to their residents and the ways in which they can work together. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier, the Bill is important at the moment because we are trying to ensure that people’s anger is answered in some way—modestly, in this Bill—through practical changes that both allow them to see more decisions taken within their reach and give them greater influence over and information about such decisions, not just by local authorities but by other agencies in their area. That is what the Bill sets out to do.

I commented earlier on the high quality of most contributions, but I was really disappointed by the contribution of the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) from the Opposition Front Bench, and by that of her hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) just now. She either misreads or misrepresents the Bill’s content, because her case against it is confused and her alternative proposals are incoherent at best. She says that much of the Bill is based on best practice and plain common sense, and she is right. The point of the legislation, and the reason it is needed, is that we want all local authorities to do what the best already do. We want them to do so on petitions; by involving people in local decisions not just by councils, but by other local agencies; through a framework, so that those local authorities that want to formalise collaboration with neighbouring local authorities to tackle the economic challenges that go beyond the boundaries of their own area can do so; and by undertaking local economic assessments systematically in every major area.

The hon. Lady became most confused when she moved on to discuss the regions. She said to the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) that if his local authority wanted an RDA, it could have one. Then she said that the Opposition would get rid of the whole regional tier. This is not, as she suggests, a Government or a Bill with an obsession about regionalisation; the legislation is a recognition that it is necessary to do some things beyond the boundaries of single local authorities, because the alternative, as in the past, is that decisions are taken and things are done by Whitehall.

We have regional economies of about 5 million people, and they are as big as some European Union member states. In that respect, our economy in Yorkshire is bigger than those of Norway, of Singapore and of Ireland, so if we do not have serious economic plans in our regions, we will lose out on important inward investment. We need such a policy in all regions, because in the early ’80s and ’90s too much was centred on the greater south-east, while London overlooked the potential and problems of the north and midlands.

When we consider the big economic shocks that our country has faced in recent years, such as Longbridge, the Selby pit closures, foot and mouth and the summer floods, we see that the RDAs have proved that they can respond more rapidly than Whitehall and with more clout than any single local council. The alternative to regional level action and plans is either national decisions
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taken by people in London without the necessary local knowledge, or big councils holding sway, which means that smaller cities and towns lose out.

Martin Horwood: The Minister cites the regional authorities’ response to the floods, but they responded to the 2007 floods in Gloucestershire by increasing the allocations in flood-risk and floodplain areas. Was that sensible?

John Healey: I was talking about the response to those floods by the regional development agencies, which the Opposition want to abolish. Let me tell the hon. Gentleman that, in Yorkshire, 24 hours after the floods hit, a scheme to support small businesses was up and running and a two-page application form had been prepared and, within seven days, the first payment had been made to businesses that needed help—regional development agencies responding more quickly than Whitehall could, and with more clout and more sway than a single region or council.

I come to the speech of the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) and I shall tackle the question of petitions, because several Members from both sides have raised it. Fewer than one third of local authorities guarantee a response to petitions, and that is why we want to bring all authorities up to the level of the best. The Bill will ensure, for the first time ever, that when people sign a local petition, they will have a right to a public response. We know that petitions are popular; 90 per cent. of people think that councils should take petitions into account and 84 per cent. say that they would be more likely to sign a petition if a response was guaranteed. When the Local Government Association says that only a third of councils will guarantee a response— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. There are far too many private conversations going on; that is discourteous to the Minister, who is addressing the House.

John Healey: I am grateful for that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as I am trying to respond to points made by hon. Members who have sat through the whole debate.

Given that a third of councils do not respond to petitions and that even fewer local authorities make information about how they handle petitions publicly available, we need to make sure that all measure up to the best. That is what the Bill does.

I turn to the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer). For a long time, he has been an advocate of local government and a critic of central Government. He took the Government to task by saying that they had been very centralised since 1997. That is a fair characterisation of the early days but in the past few years, as local government has got so much better, we can point to the first ever three-year funding settlement and the cutting of a lot of the funding strings; the removal of many of the reporting requirements and targets; and local area agreements, which are put in place and negotiated with local areas. Furthermore, there have been above-inflation increases in the central
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Government grants to local government each and every year since 1997. As my hon. Friend will remember, that is absolutely in contrast to the years before 1997, when local government funding was cut.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) generally supported the Bill, and I welcome that. He especially welcomed the formalisation of multi-area agreements, saying that they would particularly help Olympic boroughs such as his; he was right about that. He spoke about electronic payments from parish councils and promised to move amendments and initiate a debate on that issue. If he decides to do that, I shall ensure that we take a close look at his proposals.

The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) is right that multi-area agreements and leaders’ boards are a challenge to direct accountability. The challenge is this: how do we deal with a situation in which there is no directly elected sub-regional or regional government—an idea that ended with the result of the referendum on an elected assembly for the north-east? How do we set up a system in which directly elected representatives can operate and take decisions with implications beyond the boundaries of their own local authority areas? There is no easy answer, but what if some functions are needed at that level and if those functions need to be more open and responsive, and capable of better scrutiny and of being held more publicly to account? In that case, elected council leaders, working through a leaders’ board, multi-area agreements in which councils voluntarily sign up to collaborate together, and Regional Select Committees, set up by the House, must be part of the answer.

Mr. Swire: Will the Minister give way?

John Healey: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman and then finish off.

Mr. Swire: Elected regional assemblies, the brainwave of the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott)—if that is not an oxymoron—have been abandoned. Is it not time for the Government to admit that tampering with local authority organisation is over and to abandon ideas to force counties such as Devon into a unitary authority? The preferred option is to have enhanced working between the district councils and the existing county councils.

John Healey: I knew that I would regret giving way to the hon. Gentleman. His point relates to a debate for the future, after the boundary committee for England reports in mid-July. The hon. Gentleman knows as well as I and the rest of the House do that his point has nothing to do with the Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) immediately “got” the purpose of the Bill and explained clearly how the local authorities in his area, through the Partnership for Urban South Hampshire, are working together to benefit the wider area and need and want a way of formalising the framework within which they can do that. The Bill gives them that opportunity.

The right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) described to the House an area in his constituency known as Lilley Bottom; I am glad that he
1 Jun 2009 : Column 125
did not mix geography with anatomy as he did so. As he will know, his serious point still has to be tested by inspectors, and that does not allow Ministers to comment at this stage. Just to be clear, local councils do not have specific powers to fulfil their house building targets by seeking planning permission to build in the territory of other local authorities, but we do support councils when they look to prepare joint plans and joint initiatives and decide between them how best to accommodate their housing needs.

Mr. Lilley rose—

John Healey: I will give way one last time, and then, if the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I want to respond to other hon. Members—and right hon. Members; Privy Counsellors, therefore—who have contributed to the debate.

Mr. Lilley: I am extremely grateful to the Minister for giving way and for responding to my point. Is he saying that if a council seeks planning permission in another area without the agreement to which he referred, any houses that it builds will therefore not count towards its housing target?

John Healey: No, I am saying that councils do not have specific powers to do that. If the right hon. Gentleman consults the record, he will see that that is exactly what I said.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill) is most generous in his blandishments, and he is very good at them. I will have further discussions with the County Councils Network, and meet it if he wishes me to do so, but I cannot promise to change the view that I have taken because there is a very strong case for not making the change that he is looking for.

My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) is a lifelong committee man, not only on local authorities, with their five or six-hour sittings, as he explained to us, but at the TUC when he worked there. He shared some serious reflections about people often not knowing who does what in a council or what is the distinction between a councillor and an MP. The Bill will help to deal with that problem.

In response to the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff), I hope that his Front Benchers heard his defence of RDAs and the valuable role that they play. His Select Committee’s report was very good, and I recommend it to the House, particularly as an endorsement of strong support for a level of governance between central Government and local authorities. I will endeavour to get him a response before we start the Committee proceedings on the Bill.

Some have argued that now is the wrong time to produce the sort of local democratic moves that we have produced in this Bill, but it is precisely at times such as this that these measures are needed. It is now more important than ever to get people more involved in their communities, their local authorities and the other agencies that provide services in their area. People simply will not understand the opposition of the Opposition to these modest and measured steps. Nor will they understand their plans to abolish regional development agencies, regional planning, and regional government offices—in fact, anything that happens to have the
1 Jun 2009 : Column 126
prefix “regional” attached to its name. I have to say to the hon. Member for Meriden that if nothing is done above the level of the local council and there is no legal framework for that, we will fail to provide the housing, renewable energy, transport investment, widespread regeneration and business support that this country needs. Her opposition to the Bill does not have the support of her own Tory colleagues in local government, and she should not command the backing of this House. I commend the Bill to the House and urge Members to give it a Second Reading.

Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The House divided: Ayes 276, Noes 154.

Division No. 141]
[9.59 pm


Abbott, Ms Diane
Ainger, Nick
Alexander, rh Mr. Douglas
Allen, Mr. Graham
Anderson, Mr. David
Armstrong, rh Hilary
Atkins, Charlotte
Austin, Mr. Ian
Bailey, Mr. Adrian
Baird, Vera
Balls, rh Ed
Barlow, Ms Celia
Battle, rh John
Bayley, Hugh
Beckett, rh Margaret
Begg, Miss Anne
Bell, Sir Stuart
Benn, rh Hilary
Benton, Mr. Joe
Berry, Roger
Betts, Mr. Clive
Blackman, Liz
Blackman-Woods, Dr. Roberta
Blears, rh Hazel
Blizzard, Mr. Bob
Blunkett, rh Mr. David
Borrow, Mr. David S.
Bradshaw, Mr. Ben
Brennan, Kevin
Brown, Lyn
Brown, rh Mr. Nicholas
Brown, Mr. Russell
Browne, rh Des
Bryant, Chris
Buck, Ms Karen
Burden, Richard
Burgon, Colin
Burnham, rh Andy
Butler, Ms Dawn
Caborn, rh Mr. Richard
Cairns, David
Campbell, Mr. Alan
Caton, Mr. Martin
Cawsey, Mr. Ian
Clapham, Mr. Michael
Clark, Paul
Clarke, rh Mr. Charles
Clarke, rh Mr. Tom
Clwyd, rh Ann
Coaker, Mr. Vernon
Coffey, Ann
Cohen, Harry
Connarty, Michael
Cooper, Rosie
Crausby, Mr. David
Creagh, Mary
Cruddas, Jon
Cryer, Mrs. Ann
Cummings, John
Cunningham, Mr. Jim
Cunningham, Tony
Davidson, Mr. Ian
Davies, Mr. Dai
Davies, Mr. Quentin
Dean, Mrs. Janet
Denham, rh Mr. John
Devine, Mr. Jim
Dhanda, Mr. Parmjit
Dismore, Mr. Andrew
Dobbin, Jim
Dobson, rh Frank
Donohoe, Mr. Brian H.
Dowd, Jim
Drew, Mr. David
Eagle, Angela
Eagle, Maria
Efford, Clive
Ellman, Mrs. Louise
Engel, Natascha
Ennis, Jeff
Fisher, Mark
Fitzpatrick, Jim
Flello, Mr. Robert
Flint, rh Caroline
Follett, Barbara
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings and Rye)
Francis, Dr. Hywel
Gapes, Mike
Gardiner, Barry
George, rh Mr. Bruce
Gerrard, Mr. Neil
Gilroy, Linda
Godsiff, Mr. Roger
Goodman, Helen
Griffith, Nia
Griffiths, Nigel
Grogan, Mr. John
Gwynne, Andrew
Hall, Mr. Mike
Hamilton, Mr. David
Hamilton, Mr. Fabian
Hanson, rh Mr. David
Harris, Mr. Tom

Havard, Mr. Dai
Healey, rh John
Hepburn, Mr. Stephen
Heppell, Mr. John
Hesford, Stephen
Hewitt, rh Ms Patricia
Hill, rh Keith
Hood, Mr. Jim
Hoon, rh Mr. Geoffrey
Hope, Phil
Hopkins, Kelvin
Howarth, rh Mr. George
Howells, rh Dr. Kim
Hoyle, Mr. Lindsay
Hughes, rh Beverley
Humble, Mrs. Joan
Hutton, rh Mr. John
Iddon, Dr. Brian
Illsley, Mr. Eric
Ingram, rh Mr. Adam
Irranca-Davies, Huw
James, Mrs. Siân C.
Jenkins, Mr. Brian
Johnson, rh Alan
Johnson, Ms Diana R.
Jones, Mr. Kevan
Jones, Lynne
Jones, Mr. Martyn
Jowell, rh Tessa
Joyce, Mr. Eric
Keeble, Ms Sally
Keeley, Barbara
Keen, Alan
Keen, Ann
Kemp, Mr. Fraser
Khan, Mr. Sadiq
Kidney, Mr. David
Kilfoyle, Mr. Peter
Knight, rh Jim
Kumar, Dr. Ashok
Ladyman, Dr. Stephen
Lammy, rh Mr. David
Lazarowicz, Mark
Lepper, David
Levitt, Tom
Lewis, Mr. Ivan
Linton, Martin
Lloyd, Tony
Llwyd, Mr. Elfyn
Love, Mr. Andrew
Mackinlay, Andrew
MacShane, rh Mr. Denis
Mactaggart, Fiona
Malik, Mr. Shahid
Mann, John
Marris, Rob
Marsden, Mr. Gordon
Martlew, Mr. Eric
McAvoy, rh Mr. Thomas
McCabe, Steve
McCarthy, Kerry
McDonagh, Siobhain
McDonnell, John
McFadden, rh Mr. Pat
McFall, rh John
McGovern, Mr. Jim
McGuire, rh Mrs. Anne
McIsaac, Shona
McKechin, Ann
McNulty, rh Mr. Tony
Merron, Gillian
Michael, rh Alun
Miliband, rh David
Miller, Andrew
Moffatt, Laura
Mole, Chris
Moon, Mrs. Madeleine
Morgan, Julie
Morley, rh Mr. Elliot
Mullin, Mr. Chris
Murphy, Mr. Denis
Murphy, rh Mr. Jim
Murphy, rh Mr. Paul
Norris, Dan
O'Brien, Mr. Mike
O'Hara, Mr. Edward
Osborne, Sandra
Owen, Albert
Palmer, Dr. Nick
Pearson, Ian
Pelling, Mr. Andrew
Plaskitt, Mr. James
Pope, Mr. Greg
Pound, Stephen
Prentice, Mr. Gordon
Primarolo, rh Dawn
Prosser, Gwyn
Purchase, Mr. Ken
Purnell, rh James
Raynsford, rh Mr. Nick
Reed, Mr. Andy
Reed, Mr. Jamie
Reid, rh John
Robertson, John
Robinson, Mr. Geoffrey
Rooney, Mr. Terry
Roy, Mr. Frank
Roy, Lindsay
Ruane, Chris
Ruddock, Joan
Russell, Christine
Salter, Martin
Seabeck, Alison
Sharma, Mr. Virendra
Shaw, Jonathan
Sheerman, Mr. Barry
Sheridan, Jim
Simon, Mr. Siôn
Singh, Mr. Marsha
Skinner, Mr. Dennis
Slaughter, Mr. Andy
Smith, rh Mr. Andrew
Smith, Ms Angela C. (Sheffield, Hillsborough)
Smith, Angela E. (Basildon)
Smith, Geraldine
Smith, rh Jacqui
Snelgrove, Anne
Soulsby, Sir Peter
Southworth, Helen
Spellar, rh Mr. John
Starkey, Dr. Phyllis
Stewart, Ian
Stoate, Dr. Howard
Straw, rh Mr. Jack
Stringer, Graham
Stuart, Ms Gisela
Sutcliffe, Mr. Gerry
Tami, Mark
Taylor, Ms Dari
Taylor, David
Taylor, Dr. Richard
Thomas, Mr. Gareth
Timms, rh Mr. Stephen

Tipping, Paddy
Touhig, rh Mr. Don
Trickett, Jon
Turner, Dr. Desmond
Turner, Mr. Neil
Twigg, Derek
Ussher, Kitty
Vaz, rh Keith
Walley, Joan
Waltho, Lynda
Ward, Claire
Wareing, Mr. Robert N.
Watson, Mr. Tom
Watts, Mr. Dave
Whitehead, Dr. Alan
Wicks, rh Malcolm
Williams, rh Mr. Alan
Williams, Mrs. Betty
Williams, Hywel
Wilson, Phil
Winnick, Mr. David
Winterton, rh Ms Rosie
Wood, Mike
Woodward, rh Mr. Shaun
Woolas, Mr. Phil
Wright, Mr. Anthony
Wright, David
Wright, Mr. Iain
Wright, Dr. Tony
Wyatt, Derek
Tellers for the Ayes:

Helen Jones and
Ian Lucas

Afriyie, Adam
Ainsworth, Mr. Peter
Amess, Mr. David
Ancram, rh Mr. Michael
Arbuthnot, rh Mr. James
Atkinson, Mr. Peter
Bacon, Mr. Richard
Baldry, Tony
Barker, Gregory
Barrett, John
Beith, rh Sir Alan
Bellingham, Mr. Henry
Bercow, John
Beresford, Sir Paul
Binley, Mr. Brian
Blunt, Mr. Crispin
Boswell, Mr. Tim
Brady, Mr. Graham
Brazier, Mr. Julian
Brokenshire, James
Burns, Mr. Simon
Burrowes, Mr. David
Burt, Alistair
Carmichael, Mr. Alistair
Clark, Greg
Clarke, rh Mr. Kenneth
Cormack, Sir Patrick
Cox, Mr. Geoffrey
Curry, rh Mr. David
Davies, David T.C. (Monmouth)
Duddridge, James
Evans, Mr. Nigel
Evennett, Mr. David
Fabricant, Michael
Fallon, Mr. Michael
Field, Mr. Mark
Francois, Mr. Mark
Garnier, Mr. Edward
Gauke, Mr. David
Gibb, Mr. Nick
Gidley, Sandra
Gillan, Mrs. Cheryl
Goldsworthy, Julia
Goodman, Mr. Paul
Goodwill, Mr. Robert
Gove, Michael
Gray, Mr. James
Green, Damian
Greening, Justine
Grieve, Mr. Dominic
Gummer, rh Mr. John
Hammond, Mr. Philip
Hands, Mr. Greg
Harper, Mr. Mark
Harvey, Nick
Heathcoat-Amory, rh Mr. David
Hemming, John
Hendry, Charles
Herbert, Nick
Hoban, Mr. Mark
Hogg, rh Mr. Douglas
Hollobone, Mr. Philip
Holloway, Mr. Adam
Horam, Mr. John
Horwood, Martin
Howarth, Mr. Gerald
Howell, John
Hunt, Mr. Jeremy
Hurd, Mr. Nick
Jack, rh Mr. Michael
Jackson, Mr. Stewart
Jenkin, Mr. Bernard
Jones, Mr. David
Kawczynski, Daniel
Key, Robert
Knight, rh Mr. Greg
Lamb, Norman
Lancaster, Mr. Mark
Lansley, Mr. Andrew
Leech, Mr. John
Leigh, Mr. Edward
Letwin, rh Mr. Oliver
Lewis, Dr. Julian
Liddell-Grainger, Mr. Ian
Lidington, Mr. David
Lilley, rh Mr. Peter
Loughton, Tim
Luff, Peter
Main, Anne
Maples, Mr. John
Mates, rh Mr. Michael
Maude, rh Mr. Francis
May, rh Mrs. Theresa
McLoughlin, rh Mr. Patrick
Mercer, Patrick
Miller, Mrs. Maria
Milton, Anne
Moss, Mr. Malcolm
Murrison, Dr. Andrew
Newmark, Mr. Brooks
O'Brien, Mr. Stephen
Ottaway, Richard

Paice, Mr. James
Penning, Mike
Penrose, John
Pickles, Mr. Eric
Prisk, Mr. Mark
Pritchard, Mark
Pugh, Dr. John
Randall, Mr. John
Redwood, rh Mr. John
Rennie, Willie
Robathan, Mr. Andrew
Rogerson, Dan
Rosindell, Andrew
Ruffley, Mr. David
Russell, Bob
Sanders, Mr. Adrian
Scott, Mr. Lee
Simpson, Mr. Keith
Smith, Sir Robert
Soames, Mr. Nicholas
Spelman, Mrs. Caroline
Spicer, Sir Michael
Spink, Bob
Spring, Mr. Richard
Stanley, rh Sir John
Steen, Mr. Anthony
Stuart, Mr. Graham
Swayne, Mr. Desmond
Swire, Mr. Hugo
Syms, Mr. Robert
Taylor, David
Taylor, Mr. Ian
Taylor, Matthew
Thurso, John
Timpson, Mr. Edward
Turner, Mr. Andrew
Vaizey, Mr. Edward
Vara, Mr. Shailesh
Villiers, Mrs. Theresa
Walker, Mr. Charles
Wallace, Mr. Ben
Waterson, Mr. Nigel
Watkinson, Angela
Whittingdale, Mr. John
Wiggin, Bill
Williams, Mr. Roger
Wilson, Mr. Rob
Winterton, Ann
Winterton, Sir Nicholas
Wright, Jeremy
Yeo, Mr. Tim
Young, rh Sir George
Tellers for the Noes:

Mr. John Baron and
Mr. Philip Dunne
Question accordingly agreed to.
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