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I do not come from the north-east; I come from the diametrically opposite end of the country. I come from the far west of Cornwall—the bottom left-hand corner, as it were. If the Government said to Cornwall, “We’ll offer you regional government based on these boundaries, these powers and this timetable. Now this is the question: do you want it or not?”, I am afraid that a lot of people would be rather sceptical and would think there was a centrally driven agenda. The Government have retreated into a rather unhappy netherworld, having established Regional Select Committees, for which there is no cross-party consensus or support. Those Committees are a means of replacing the unelected regional assemblies,
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which the Government are to abolish; that is about as far as they have managed to go in the devolution of regional powers.

In some senses, in some parts of Government there is a passion genuinely to deliver regional powers—there is recognition that the state is far too centralised. I hope that the Government will open the issue up again, and not come at it from the angle of believing that they can control the agenda in the way they have done. They should set a menu of powers and allow local authorities themselves to decide, perhaps in the same way that they are enabling that to happen through the multi-area agreements. However, I do not think those agreements go far enough, or will in any sense deliver what I believe the Government should deliver.

The Government should allow communities to come together to draw up their own plans for devolved regional settlement, for taking powers away from the quangos, and for allowing decisions instead to be taken by directly elected representatives of local communities, who can shape and steer the ways their communities develop. If the Government were to allow that to happen, it would be easier to recognise that local government itself could be developed following the same principle—the principle that decentralisation is not just a process but is about letting go rather than holding on to the agenda. I hope that that is what the Government will do.

As the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), knows full well, Cornwall county council and the six district and borough councils in Cornwall went through a painful process, which involved a lot of recriminatory and unsatisfactory debate of the kind that I described to him a moment or two ago, in the lead-up to the establishment of a single unitary authority. Elections to that authority take place tomorrow.

Cornwall put forward two possible patterns for the delivery of a single unitary authority, which I know the Government considered carefully. One proposal was for a single unitary authority with 18 local delivery areas or community networks; the other proposal was for six local delivery areas, reflecting the existing six districts. Both were unitary options. They seemed to be in conflict with each other, but in many senses they were similar bids.

When it came to a decision on the option that the Government went along with, which was the county council’s version of the single unitary authority, the debate was not very satisfactory. Many people in Cornwall felt that there was insufficient consultation. Those who were unsuccessful at the district level, if I may say so, engaged in a recriminatory political campaign to try to stop the initiative going through.

Many of us felt that the process may be worth pursuing if the Government were prepared to give Cornwall some real decision-making powers, but as the negotiation went on it became clear that the Government would not offer Cornwall any meaningful additional powers. It would be the same, but larger, agent of central Government as before, when there were seven authorities. That was a great disappointment.

In the vote on the order last year, I voted, with great regret, against the proposal. I felt that it should be taken away and worked on again, with the Government contributing a great deal more to the process of establishing
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a stronger tier of government in Cornwall. However, the decision is taken not in Cornwall but in Parliament, and Parliament saw to it that the order went through, so the unitary authority is being set up. As the Minister knows, it has established its interim board, which has been in operation since 1 April, and the first elections for 123 members will take place tomorrow.

In spite of having been opposed to it, I want to ensure that the council is a great success. The Government need to recognise that, underlying a rather frustrated local government sector in Cornwall and a rather disenchanted electorate—we will see by Friday evening what result they produce for us—there is great ambition for Cornwall. In any area there is the silliness of the extreme fringes, but Cornwall, with its own language, history and strong constitutional status on account of the Duchy, has strong arguments to promote its diversity and cultural strength. It is a case not of Cornwall wanting to cut itself off from the rest of the country and to become rather nationalistic and narrow, but of Cornwall wanting to enter into the celebration of diversity in the UK and the wider world, but it can do that only from a position of strength, not if it has little latitude to take decisions.

Cornwall’s great ambition is to be the United Kingdom’s green peninsula. We already have more wind turbines, the Government support the wave hub experiment off the north coast of my constituency. and in Cornwall there are some excellent companies operating in the geothermal and renewables sectors. In Cornwall, there is a lot of imaginative thinking and there are many excellent people to drive that agenda in the county itself. There is a real passion and ambition to champion social justice and to create the conditions for a more equal society. There is an ambition also to put our young people at the centre of policy making, but it is currently difficult to do so given the resources that are available and the way policy is directed from the centre. The careers service and other services are not under local control.

There is an ambition to build a powerful brand for Cornwall, but that is difficult when the regional development agency covers the Government zone of the south-west, stretching from the constituency of the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) down to my constituency, which includes the Isles of Scilly. The south-west, as a Government zone, really has no brand. There are many lovely places in it, and it is worth their establishing their own brands, but there is no such thing as that south-west. It has been difficult to generate any enthusiasm or support from the regional development agency for something that it fears is about promoting a brand within the brand that it wants to create for that invented region.

We also have an opportunity to rediscover the distinctiveness of Cornwall, to build on the cultural and environmental strengths of the county, to be outward-facing not inward-looking and to develop our communications and maritime industries. When the Government look at transport both in Cornwall and, strategically, within the RDA zone, they see the area as some kind of landlocked appendage and worry how much tarmac there is and whether the roads and the rail services are adequate, as if all communications in Cornwall travel just east to west. In fact, Cornwall is almost surrounded by sea
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and, seen from a much wider perspective, faces out to a much wider world. It has maritime connections, is three miles from the busiest shipping lane in the world, has the second-largest natural harbour in Europe, at Falmouth, and so on. All that potential is being ignored, and Cornwall is simply seen as a pleasant holiday destination.

Cornwall should have the power to shape those matters and its own future. After all, who should decide how many homes are built in Cornwall? The hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) mentioned planning powers, and I know that they are highly contentious both in the House and in local authorities. The Government want to develop 3 million homes by 2020, but Cornwall has undergone such development. We have not tried to resist it, because the county is one of the fastest growing places in the country. It has had the third fastest housing development since the early 1960s. In the past 40 years, Cornwall has more than doubled its housing stock, yet over that period the housing problems of local people have become, if anything, far worse. Simply building houses—heaping up thousands of houses—is not the answer. As far as the plans for Cornwall are concerned, the decisions are taken outside the county. The south-west assembly, as it called itself before it was abolished, was engaged in the process of deciding what the regional spatial strategy should look like. It came up with a figure, which was then overruled by the Secretary of State; one wonders why it bothered in the first place.

Cornwall now has to have 70,000 houses during the 16 or 17 remaining years of the plan. However, having experienced the highest housing growth anywhere within the Government zone, and very high housing growth in the context of the UK overall, we in Cornwall know that simply adding all those houses will not address housing need. We need to establish policies that enable local authorities—in Cornwall’s case, the local authority—and local communities to drive a development process that meets local social housing need.

In my part of the world, a large proportion of properties are second homes; 10 per cent. in Penwith district are, for example. I have nothing against the people who own those homes, but they clearly have an impact on local people’s ability to purchase a property locally. Just last year, I did a survey of estate agents in my constituency, and it showed that three times as many properties were sold to second-home buyers as to first-time buyers. That is the pattern in the housing market of my area. As I have said, simply building more houses is not the answer. People who want to buy second homes will clearly be better able to buy those houses than local people on local wages—in Cornwall, we have the lowest wages in the country. We have to do something rather more sophisticated than simply dumping 70,000 houses in Cornwall. The four western districts of the county are already among the four most densely populated rural districts in the Government zone, so it is not as if a wealth of development land available is available.

Who should decide how many homes should be built in Cornwall? Should it be a Government quango or people elected to the local authority? If we ask people there, they will say, “We want a say on this matter.” I am talking about Cornwall, but if people in any community are asked whether a Government board or people who represent the local community should decide whether 15 per cent. of money spent on elective surgical work
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should be diverted to private hospitals rather than NHS hospitals, the answer will be clear. People believe that decisions about their local NHS should be made by local people, not by a process that comes down from central Government.

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): I am listening with considerable interest to the hon. Gentleman’s reasonable and measured analysis of the situation, particularly in Cornwall. I generally agree that it is important that as much as possible should be devolved to local councils and communities, but does the hon. Gentleman not think that there is inevitably a tendency for local county councils to say, “Not in my back yard”—particularly when it comes to issues such as housing? There needs to be another regional tier, below central Government, that tells local councils that they are obliged to play their part in providing land for housing, although they may wish to say that they do not want that housing in their areas.

Andrew George: That is a fair point. The nub of the issue, however, relates to the blunt instrument of simply dumping housing numbers, irrespective of local circumstances or the failure of a policy of simply putting market housing in an area, a policy which has clearly failed to deliver the goods. If the local authority were to allow very high numbers of people on to local housing waiting lists but fail to address, through developments, an unmet demand within the local community for housing, that would clearly be a dereliction of its duties. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is a role for central Government in bringing pressure to bear on local authorities that fail to address those issues. We know that merely saying in Cornwall’s case, “You must find the land for 70,000 houses,” will not in itself deal with the problem that we are all most concerned about—those in the community who are inadequately housed or not housed. The failure lies in using the blunt instrument of high housing numbers.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I am sorry to have missed some of the debate, but I have been in Select Committee.

Is not the provision of public housing the best way for central Government, and indeed regional government, to play a part? All the evidence shows that the right relationship between public housing and private housing leads to a much better housing model. What has been seriously wrong for the past 20 years is the belief that the private market can do it all. That approach has failed, and until we get back to proper public housing provision, it will continue to fail. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?

Andrew George: I do, to a certain extent. Certainly, in my own part of the world the best social housing, for want of a better expression, in terms of affordability, comprises the houses that were built by local authorities in the 1930s and 1940s. If there is any clear preference among local people when they are looking for housing, we generally find that it is centred on those estates. In some cases, those properties have gone through various modernisation programmes. They provide housing for local people that is not only decent but decently spaced, of a reasonable size and with reasonable gardens. Since
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that time, we have built at a much higher density. Before I became a Member of Parliament in 1997, I worked in the charitable sector to meet local housing need. I am not opposed to achieving that by deploying the talents and abilities available in the housing association and charitable housing sectors. That diversity can address housing needs. I agree that there are many lessons we can learn from the activities of the past and what local authorities were able to achieve.

Let me turn to the document. Without poring over it in tedious detail, I am sure that the Minister will have lapped up every single word. He will have noticed that, like the report by the Communities and Local Government Committee, “The Balance of Power”, it lists the extent of the constraints that are placed on local government—for example, the tendency to legislate as a first response; the detailed descriptions associated with legislation; and the proliferation of targets and performance measures, which although reduced have been consolidated. It shows that for 80 per cent. of the time that local authorities spent on performance reporting, they were reporting upwards to Government rather than to the local electorate. There is also the role of inspectorates, backed up by the threat of intervention by central Government.

There is a classic example of that in my constituency on the Isles of Scilly. There are various requirements from inspectorates in respect of a number of the statutory duties performed by the council of the Isles of Scilly, which provides services to 2,000 people on the five inhabited islands. The cost of the best-value analyses that inspectorates require, for example on grave digging, street lighting or trading standards services, is often greater than the cost of providing the service itself. That shows the rather bizarre circumstances in which local authorities sometimes find themselves.

There is the centralisation of financial arrangements and controls, the movement of functions away from local authorities to local appointed boards or quangos accountable to central Government and the proliferation of requirements on local authorities to submit plans to central Government. All those things put constraints on local authorities, and the only thing that local authorities get back is the opportunity to enter into a competition for central Government funding to deliver what should be core public services. Those services could include early years support through Sure Start, economic development through the market and coastal towns initiative, or community cohesion and development through the neighbourhoods for change programme, the parish path partnership or the play pathfinders scheme. That is not an attack on the current Government, because the same approach was taken by the previous one as well, but all those things are constraints on local authorities and a way of making them dance and pirouette for money to deliver what should be core services in any case.

I want to get across to the Minister my commitment to the principle set out in the Communities and Local Government Committee report, in which I had a hand. In paragraph 4 of our conclusions and recommendations, we advanced the principle that

in other words, the subsidiarity principle. Local authorities taking such decisions should, of course, be able to
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demonstrate that where there is a spill-over impact on other areas, they have taken reasonable steps to take account of that impact. That principle—that decisions affecting one area and no other should be taken in that area—is clearly not being delivered through the Government’s attitude to local government. It has also failed to be delivered within local government itself.

Although the Select Committee recognised that the Government were trying to roll out powers of well-being, for example, and that local authorities needed to use some of the powers that were available to them, many authorities do not feel that they are sufficient. They see them as rather woolly and ephemeral to what they are trying to achieve. One of our main points was that there was

A comparison of what is available to local authorities in Britain with the European norm shows the need for some constitutional protection and greater financial autonomy and for central Government intervention to be kept in check.

Sadly, I could not get the Select Committee to agree with me about trying to ensure that the Government had a statutory duty to report back to local government annually about what they had done across all Departments to achieve their stated objective of delivering more power to local people through a devolution settlement. I hope that the Under-Secretary will reflect on the points in the Select Committee report and my essay.

I have not given the Under-Secretary notice of my next point and will therefore understand if he writes to me about it. One of my constituents has raised an issue with me on behalf of the Henry Spink Foundation. The Spink family, who live in my constituency, have campaigned for disabled children and adults and their carers for many years. When disabled children and their families have to move from one local authority to another, they often find that the care package that has been agreed with one local authority cannot easily be transferred to another. The Henry Spink Foundation rightly wants to establish at least greater understanding and communication between local authorities to ensure that there is a floor below which services cannot fall. It wants pragmatic and cost-neutral reforms, which, it believes, will genuinely improve the lives of thousands of severely disabled children and adults and their carers throughout the UK. That would involve creating an independent social services tribunal, which would follow the tribunal model in other sectors, establishing an ombudsman for disability, as is found in other European Union countries, and reforming local authority regulations so that care assessments and support packages for children and adults become easily portable between one local authority and another.

I am interested in the Under-Secretary’s comments about the interplay between where the Government state they wish to be and the Sustainable Communities
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Act 2007, which is relatively untested. In debates before the 2007 Act was passed, people cited the need to address some of the challenges that many local communities face, especially in sustaining town centres—for example, out-of-town supermarkets have an impact on town centres. The Government have been notified that many local authorities want, through the processes that the 2007 Act established, to explore the possibility of getting a more even playing field on, for example, subsidised parking. Parking is available at almost no cost—with no business rates levied—to the supermarkets, which gives them a massive advantage over their town centre competitors, whose customers have to pay prices, which are often high, for parking or face the problems of yellow lines, traffic wardens and so on.

Overall, I know that the Minister is delighted that we have had so much time to debate the issue, and I am pleased as well. I hope that he will take this opportunity to respond to many of the issues that I raised with him in advance. I hope that Cornwall and many other areas now have an opportunity to look with greater optimism to a future in which local authorities will be genuine power brokers in their local communities that can shape the future not only of their public services, which are their responsibility, but of the communities that they serve. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about enabling councils—not only in Cornwall, but across the country—to deliver a more devolved settlement and about having far better councils in future.

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