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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 peoples anger is answered in some waymodestly, in this Billthrough 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 Bills 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
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 helpregional 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. ]
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
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 governmentan 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: Elected regional assemblies, the brainwave of the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott)if that is not an oxymoronhave 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
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.
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. Membersand right hon. Members; Privy Counsellors, thereforewho 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?
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 Committees 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 officesin fact, anything that happens to have the
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.
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