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6.11 pm

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I do not intend to detain the House for long, but may I first congratulate the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on securing this Adjournment debate? It is about a vital issue that affects all our communities, including those in my part of the world, and clearly in his too. I commend him for that.

I also commend the hon. Gentleman on his speech, which was extremely thoughtful, thought provoking and interesting. He hit the nail on the head many times in talking about the issues that local people are concerned about. There is genuine concern about the relationship between central Government, regional government and local government.

However, one thing that the hon. Gentleman did not touch on, but which may be a fruitful topic for another time, is—to go further down the line—the role of parish councils and where they fit in. Local residents often see parish councils as expensive talking shops, but if they were given the powers that in my opinion they deserve, we could have genuinely local decision making and they would become more much powerful in the local communities that they serve. However, that debate is probably best left for another occasion.

I was particularly struck by the hon. Gentleman’s opening comments about how the relationship between local government and national Government has become more centralised, but not just under this Government, although the situation has got worse. He was right that that has happened under successive Governments of all political persuasions. Let me consider briefly why that might be the case. When a party is in government and people wish to protest about what that Government are doing, they often do so in local elections, which means
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that the political make-up of local government is often very different from that of central Government. Not wishing to give up their political power, central Government therefore decide to centralise powers, so that their political opponents cannot have them locally. We need a change of culture in central Government, so that they are more relaxed about people from different political parties having local control, because at the end of the day, that is what local democracy is all about. If people decide that they want a party in power locally that differs from the Government of the day, so be it. That is what local democracy is all about. Central Government should be much more relaxed about that and not try to keep all the power for themselves.

In my intervention on the hon. Gentleman, I touched on planning. In my part of the world, planning is the most emotive issue, in respect of the power of local authorities, and it is probably the one that exercises people more than any other. I have great sympathy for local councillors, because they are often put in an invidious position. They get the blame for decisions that are nominally taken locally, but they have little responsibility in shaping the outcome, because those decisions are actually made at a higher level, whether it be at the regional or central Government level. Councillors are put in an extremely difficult position. I would like much more power to be given to local government, which does matter to people. People identify with their local authority and their local area, and they respect that institution. We should be much more relaxed about giving local authorities far more power to determine what are clearly local matters.

No local matter is more important than planning. My constituents are sick to the back teeth of seeing more and more completely unwanted developments going up. Those developments change the nature of the villages, but people feel that they have absolutely no control over the decisions involved. They also feel that the local authority has little control over them. This problem manifests itself in different ways. Sometimes it is about garden developments. I have seen the nature of villages in my constituency change as a result of houses being crammed into every possible part of the village, often in people’s gardens. However, local people find that the biggest handicap they face in dealing with the matter is not the local authority, which is often sympathetic to their concerns.

The problem is often that the sites are designated as brownfield sites, rather than greenfield sites, and that the planning laws are stacked against those who object to the proposals. A local authority might decide that a piece of land forms an important part of the green belt, or that it is of local significance and should be left alone, only to have a planning inspector overrule that decision and put the area into a development plan against the wishes not only of the local people but of the local authority. The land is then developed even though no one in the local area wants that to happen. Such decisions should be made at local level.

I listened with interest to the intervention by the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby), who was a distinguished local government leader. I certainly respect his experience in these matters, but I am not sure that I entirely agree with the premise of his argument. He suggested that these matters often had to be decided at a higher level because local authorities were full of
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nimbys and if the decisions were left to them, nothing would ever get built. Perhaps I am simplifying his argument slightly, but that seemed to be the thrust of it. I do not accept his point. If we believe that there is a need for more housing, presumably that need is expressed by local communities themselves. Presumably, people are saying that their daughters, sons and grandchildren cannot find anywhere to live and that more housing is therefore needed. The Government are for ever telling us that we need more housing because all these different categories of people are finding it difficult to get on to the housing ladder. If that is the case, surely local government is just as capable as central Government of responding to those local needs.

Sir Peter Soulsby: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is somewhat simplifying the point that I made earlier. I merely pointed out that the voices that he is talking about are far too easily drowned out by those who wish to oppose housing development in certain areas. I would argue strongly that it is legitimate for central Government to set housing targets to reflect the needs of people throughout the country, and that there needs to be something in between those national targets and the local tendency to say no. I would argue that that makes the case for an effective regional tier in spatial planning.

Philip Davies: I respect the hon. Gentleman’s position, but I happen not to agree with him. Those decisions should be taken locally. It is for local people to decide those matters. That is the whole nature of local government.

Andrew George: What I did not go on to say in response to the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) was that we need to recognise the possible need for outside intervention in some cases involving diversity and discrimination. An example would be the provision of Gypsy and Traveller sites. Does the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) agree that, in cases where there might be perceived discrimination, a local authority should be encouraged to address certain needs or achieve certain targets and, if it failed, it should be required to do so?

Philip Davies: To be perfectly honest, I am not sure that I would, because my experience of things like Gypsy sites is that they are often a menace in local areas. I believe that it is incumbent on local agencies—whether it be the police, local authorities or whatever—to do something about it when these problems arise. Far too often, local authorities feel powerless to do anything about them because—whether they need to or not—they hide behind the fact that they have all these responsibilities that they cannot do anything about. That gives a bad deal to local people and it is not very good for local democracy.

I think that issues around Gypsy sites are very much local issues that should be dealt with by local authorities. I do not think that it should be farmed out to a central Government who might well be imposing something on local people that they do not want and should not have to put up with. Let us not pussyfoot around this. I know from my experience that some Gypsy sites have caused massive problems to local residents and local businesses, and I think local authorities have a duty to deal with those things. They should not pass them up to anyone else.

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I do not want to speak for long. I just want to touch on regional government because I think this is the issue that is now making people extremely concerned. We now often have local government being trumped by regional government, particularly in relation to planning, where we have seen regional assemblies dictating to local authorities how many houses should be built in their area, which to my mind should be a very local decision. It should have nothing to do with an unelected, unaccountable Government quango, which should not be able to dictate to an elected local authority how many houses should be built in the area. The local authority should decide that, based on the needs of the local community, what it can take and the infrastructure implications. Far too often, these decisions are made and local people feel powerless to do anything about them because of the very nature of regional government.

We know how unpopular regional government is because, to their credit, the Government offered the people of the north-east a referendum on regional government, and the people of the north-east, who are a very proud people—it is a very proud region, as are Yorkshire and Cornwall—clearly did not want regional government. They made that abundantly clear. It seems to me that the lesson the Government took from the north-east referendum was a perverse one because they seem to have decided that because the people of the north-east did not want an elected regional assembly, they must want an unelected regional assembly. It seems to me that only this Government could come to that particular conclusion based on the result of the referendum. What was abundantly clear to everybody else—apart, it seems, from the Government—was that the people were trying to say that they did not want regional government in any shape or form and that they wanted the powers to be decided at a local level. Regional government has far too much power; it is unelected and unaccountable.

The Government’s late response to all this has been to abolish regional assemblies, which I absolutely and wholeheartedly support. They should never have been set up in the first place, but, to give credit where credit is due, the Government decided to abolish them. What did they then do? Did they give these powers to the local authorities and say, “We realise that regional government is not what people want; it should be decided at a local level”? No. What they did was give these planning powers to regional development agencies.

It is difficult to think of a worse outcome than regional assemblies, but the Government have managed to stumble across what is perhaps the only one that could be worse. To speak up for regional assemblies, I must say that, at least, they had people on them; they were not elected to that particular role, but they were elected in some form or other—they were probably council leaders and things like that so they had at least some democratic accountability. The Government have actually replaced the regional assemblies with the only body it is possible to think of with even less legitimacy—regional development agencies. The problem is not solved; to my mind, it has got even worse.

Until we have the courage of our convictions and give these powers to democratically elected people locally, people will always feel that they are powerless to do anything about what is probably the most important
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thing of all in their local community, which is deciding the level and appropriateness of housing developments in local areas. I think that the Government really have to accept that, whether it be a regional development agency or a regional assembly, people do not want these great regions.

The RDAs are spending huge quantities of taxpayers’ money. Yorkshire Forward, the Yorkshire version, has a budget of something like £330 million a year to spend. Who is it accountable to? Nobody. Who is it elected by? Nobody. If it has any accountability at all, it is to the regional Minister. Therefore, we end up with the terrible situation in which it becomes the personal fiefdom of the regional Minister and pursues their pet projects, which are probably based more on political expediency than on the good of the region as a whole. In the modern day, that is no way to allocate hundreds of millions of pounds of public money.

Sir Peter Soulsby: The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful case for the accountability of the regional development agencies, and one that has been accepted on both sides of the House; indeed, it was accepted by the Modernisation Committee when it made the recommendation for Regional Select Committees. The logic of his argument is that he and Members of the other minority parties ought to end their boycott of Regional Select Committees and come and join us in holding regional development agencies to account and filling the accountability gap that certainly exists.

Philip Davies: If the hon. Gentleman thinks the solution is Regional Select Committees, he misunderstands the problem. The problem is that these people are getting huge amounts of money, and it could be done far more democratically. Being hauled over the coals once or twice a year by a Regional Select Committee does not make regional development agencies democratic. That does not fill the democratic deficit. The solution is far more fundamental: to scrap regional government once and for all. Nobody wants it—it is a huge Government quango and bureaucracy. It would be good to have more local power.

My final point is on funding. Many Members on both sides of the House feel that capping council tax increases denies local accountability. Many take the view that that should be a local decision, and if people want to vote for a council that puts up council tax by 10 per cent., so be it. A council can stand or fall by that decision at the next local election. I have a lot of sympathy for that view of localness.

However, we cannot forget one important aspect: how things are paid for. My concern about going hell for leather for total localness relates to how local government is paid for. If not everybody pays council tax, there is a democratic problem. People might easily vote for high-spending local authorities knowing they will never have to pick up the tab. The only way to have a free-for-all in which local authorities can put up council tax by as much as they want, is to have a system in which everybody pays something. At least they are then in a position to decide whether they want to vote for the increase. But if council tax is put up, and the people voting for it are not paying it, there is a democratic problem. We should consider how to make local government totally accountable
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by having everyone contribute something towards it. That would make people much more responsive to what is going on in their local authority.

I hope the Minister accepts that people are sick to the back teeth of local government not having the powers they want it to have. Central Government interfere far too much in local decisions. Trusting local authorities to make decisions for their local community would be good not just for local areas, but for local government, as it would attract higher-calibre people who felt that their decisions would make a difference, and for central Government, as they would not be interfering in matters they should not be dealing with. They could then concentrate on sorting out the problems they should be dealing with.

6.29 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Sadiq Khan): Tempting as it is to spend the time responding to the interesting contribution of the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), I will try my best to respond to the 21-page essay, which I read late into this morning, and the 43-minute speech of the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George). If there is time, I will then respond to the interesting points made by the hon. Member for Shipley.

I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Ives on securing the debate. I was pleased that the House’s other business finished early, as it allowed the interventions and contributions of other hon. Members to be heard, and it gave him the flexibility to make his speech in a tempered and serious manner. I am pleased that he continues to show a keen interest in matters relating to the balance of powers between central and local government, and that the hon. Member for Shipley and my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) also contributed to the debate. The enthusiasm of the hon. Member for St. Ives for discussions on this topic knows no bounds, and I was delighted to observe from his request for the debate that his membership of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government had further fuelled his appetite.

The hon. Gentleman quoted extracts from the Select Committee’s recent report on the balance of powers between central and local government. I welcome his work and that of other members of the Committee. As he will know, we published an immediate response to the report. A detailed response will be produced in the not-too-distant future, but he will appreciate that for constitutional reasons none of the comments that I shall make today should be taken as a formal response.

Let me put into context some of the relationships between local and central Government before dealing with some of the points raised in his “essay”, as the hon. Member for St. Ives called it. The Government strongly believe that local authorities are best placed to know what their communities need. I was a councillor for 12 years. I am aware of the work done by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South in this context, and my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Chris Mole), the Whip, has been a distinguished council leader as well. The Government know of the huge contribution made by local authorities, which is why we have taken unprecedented steps to put much more power into the hands of local government.

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Keen historians will know—as will the hon. Member for St. Ives, who has been a Member of Parliament since 1997—that since that year local authorities have gained significant powers, responsibilities and financial freedoms from central Government to enable further devolution of decision making to local communities. I could not but agree with the opening observation by the hon. Member for Shipley that one of the reasons for central Government’s nervous relationship with local authorities might be their different politics. He will recall that one of the justifications given by a former Prime Minister—I am going back four Prime Ministers—for abolishing the Greater London council was her affection for the then leader of the GLC. The hon. Gentleman made a fair point, but I think that even he would have to accept that over the past 12 years an attempt has been made to reverse some of the removal of power that took place during the preceding period.

Key legislation over the past decade has brought about a new relationship between central and local government and between local government and local people. I shall say more about that shortly. It has led to a marked shift in the culture in local authorities, featuring a much stronger focus on performance management and effective leadership on delivery. In particular—as the hon. Gentleman will know—the 2006 local government White Paper signalled devolution of power from Whitehall to town halls, and from local authorities to local communities in England. It set out ways of giving local authorities and their partners more freedom and powers to meet the needs of their citizens and communities, and to enable those citizens and communities themselves to play their part in bringing about the changes they wanted. The hon. Member for Shipley mentioned some of the key changes produced by the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 following the White Paper.

The hon. Member for St. Ives spoke of the “control freakery” involved in a referendum that can lead to a negative vote. He will, of course, recall the vote in Wales which led to a Welsh Assembly, the vote in Scotland which led to the Scottish Parliament, and the vote in London which led to a Greater London Assembly and a Mayor of London. It is not always the case that local people vote against the regions in referendums.

Andrew George: The point I was making was that, for example in Scotland, the drive for the establishment of the Scottish Parliament was the result of the constitutional convention which was established there. It was driven from Scotland. I congratulate the Government on what they did in enabling that devolution, but the dynamics of the way it happened were different from those of the north-east referendum.

Mr. Khan: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. I am sure he would concede that there was also a Welsh experience and a London experience.

On the relationship between local and central Government, we cannot escape the issue of finance. In 2007, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government announced the first ever three-year local government finance settlement, which has given local government an extra £8.9 billion in comprehensive spending review 2007 and the flexibility to make longer-term plans and investments. That has been preserved in the recent Budget.

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