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26 Feb 2010 : Column 585

Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill

Second Reading

11.31 am

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I have great pleasure in presenting this Bill which, as the House will note, is a short amendment to the Sustainable Communities Act 2007. That Act, and therefore this amendment to it, is the product of an extraordinary grass-roots movement that brought together two significant forces, both of which are as relevant today as they were three years ago: a concern that the sustainability of town and country life was being imperilled by myriad changes, gradually leading to a loss of facilities, large and small; and a sense of frustration that people were powerless to do anything to change the situation. This short Bill builds on both those sentiments.

I wish to outline briefly what the Bill is about and then remind the House of the forces that brought the 2007 Act into being. I hope to demonstrate what has happened since then: how early progress in implementing the provisions is encouraging and why, therefore, this short amending Bill is helpful and timely. I then propose to look in rather more detail at this Bill's provisions and I shall, of course, be pleased to respond to concerns or queries from the House about them.

My first task is to acknowledge that I stand on the shoulders of a number of giants who were responsible for the passing of the original legislation and who remain in close contact with the process of carrying out its intentions. At grass-roots level, Local Works remains the driving force of the campaign to revitalise local community through this effort in what might be termed "the new democracy". The House should acknowledge an extraordinary coalition of interests that has come together to support Local Works. The coalition includes the Federation of Small Businesses, the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the National Federation of SubPostmasters, Age Concern, Help the Aged, the Woodland Trust, the National Federation of Women's Institutes and the Campaign for Real Ale, to name just a few. Any idea or concept that can bring together so many people, not simply to pursue an abstract ideal, but to make something work in practice, has to be worthy of serious recognition.

Local Works sees its manifestation around the parliamentary estate mostly in the person of Ron Bailey, who is known to many of us. His hard work and his knowledge of parliamentary procedure are of immense benefit to us all, and I am very grateful for his help in putting together the background work for today's Second Reading debate. May I also acknowledge the help and support that some of the original parliamentary drivers of the legislation have given? In particular, I should mention my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd), and the hon. Members for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) and for Stroud (Mr. Drew). That powerful all-party coalition has also sponsored my Bill-their names are among others-so the House can see instantly that the Bill has attracted the all-party backing that was crucial to the passage of the Sustainable Communities Bill.

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Once again, the leadership and efforts of Local Works have inspired an early-day motion. Early-day motion 143 has attracted some 348 signatures, which constitutes more than 50 per cent. of the Members of the House and a significantly higher proportion of Back Benchers, as can be seen once Government Members who are not able to sign such early-day motions are taken out of the equation. The motion reads as follows:

This Bill builds on that early-day motion, which is well supported by Members of all parties.

The 2007 Act, which the Bill seeks to amend, had its Second Reading debate in this House on 19 January 2007. In moving that the Bill be read a Second time, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood said:

As the House of Commons Library research paper helpfully reminds us:

That brief précis can do little justice to an extraordinary series of meetings that had taken place around the country and engaged the interest of Members of Parliament of all parties. They found a vibrancy in both defending local communities and challenging the forces that had changed them, in some cases radically, which people feared they were powerless to stand against. While recognising the institutions of democracy in this country upon which we all rely, particularly local and national Government, the campaign expressed an unease that the modern working of these institutions seemed to leave communities and people behind. What was needed was a new way of engaging with them, which would not circumvent their democratic powers or those of local authorities, but would complement them by suggesting a radical process for the presentation and consideration of ideas.

On 12 July 2007, Lord Marlesford said, in moving that the Bill be read a Second time in the other place, that

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The principal aim of the Act therefore was to promote the sustainability of local communities, which meant encouraging the improvement of economic, social or environmental well-being. The mechanism of delivery would be for local communities to work with their local authorities, following the invitation of the Secretary of State, to make proposals that would contribute to promoting local community sustainability. These proposals, which, by definition, would be drawn from a wide range of groups and organisations interacting with their local councils in an innovative way that is typically described by many of us who are involved as bottom-up rather than top-down, would go on to be evaluated by a selector. That selector became the Local Government Association, which would use its skills, expertise and experience to draw up a shortlist of proposals to offer to the Secretary of State. It would then be the Secretary of State's job to come back to explain what he or she would like done with the proposals and how they might be implemented.

A further radical part of the Act was to require transparency in detailing what public money came into a local area through the publication of local spending reports. That would enable the public to see at a glance exactly what was being spent in an area, what was committed and what might be deemed to be discretionary and could therefore be transferred to a different area of community priority. We will return to these local spending reports, perhaps, a little later.

It was a considerable success for my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood to get that Bill passed. It had initially met with some scepticism from the Government, but through the honest and patient work of the hon. Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth (Mr. Woolas), when he was at the Department for Communities and Local Government and, in particular, of his then Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown)-I am delighted to see her in her new place as a Whip on the Government Front Bench-a constructive relationship was formed that enabled the Government eventually to support that Bill once it had been through Committee and the process of refinement that that involves.

The practical impact of all that was that the right hon. Member for Salford (Hazel Blears), then the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, issued an invitation on 14 October 2008 to local authorities inviting them to make such proposals as were suggested in the Act. The process was thereby triggered and 100 local authorities submitted proposals in the first round. All in all, 301 proposals were submitted, and of these, 199 were shortlisted by the LGA in its role as selector. They are being considered by DCLG, but no decisions have yet been made.

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The bare figures are only one part of the story, however. A number of different sources provide testimony to the impact not only of the original campaign but of the Act on local communities that have been stimulated to take part in the process that originated in the legislation. I shall quote from some of them.

Councillor Keith Mitchell, chairman of the LGA selector panel, said after the first round:

Let me give one or two particular examples.

A Hackney resident was delighted to find, after he had worked with local residents groups and made a suggestion to Hackney council, that his proposal had been submitted to the LGA and shortlisted, and that it is now before the Secretary of State. His idea was subtly to change the planning rules for betting shops-Hackney currently has the highest concentration of betting shops in the country. A Wiltshire librarian, Mr. Brian Purvis, suggested increasing the tax on chewing gum to help to cover the expense of clearing it from the pavement. His proposal, one of 20 shortlisted by his county following the introduction of the Act, has reached the LGA's shortlist.

Evidence also shows that councils have made positive efforts in the first round to involve under-represented groups. For example, in Islington the proposals went to a newly formed panel for consideration. The panel included residents from groups with which councils had traditionally struggled to engage, as well as forum members of such groups. It included a blind resident, a resident with learning disabilities and a resident-with an interpreter-who spoke English as a second language. Another example was the "Making Chorley Smile" panel, which included a range of people of varying ages, gender, ethnicities, residence and employment status. Paul Scriven, the leader of Sheffield city council, said of the first draft proposals from Sheffield's citizens panel:

Let me give two or three more examples from different parts of the country. South Hams district council suggested that Government and local authority housing and planning requirements should be amended to allow private individuals and non-profit groups to build affordable homes for their own use. Teignbridge district council suggested that the Government should acknowledge the role of community land bank trusts and ensure involvement at a local level in future housing development. Liverpool city council suggested that post offices should not be closed until the local co-operative development office has been given the time and training budget to see whether an increase in capacity could result in local people taking over the management of the premises. Bearing in mind what my Front-Bench colleagues were saying last week about the co-operative principle, which
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I am delighted to see is alive and well on these Benches, the idea that groups of people can come together and put forward such a proposal seems a good thing.

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): May I give another excellent example of that? The Government sought to close a series of rural post offices in my constituency, but there was uproar in the local community. Essex county council was sensitive to the needs and demands of local people and gave the extra financial support that was needed for a short period of time effectively to give those post offices a second chance. The community said that they wanted to use them, so Essex county council said, "Okay, we will give you another x months." More people then went in and made a post office sustainable whereas it once had not been.

Alistair Burt: My hon. Friend cites an admirable example of local community involvement provoking a change to what might otherwise have happened. The Sustainable Communities Act has allowed more of that to be engendered around the country and has given people the sense that they have some power.

Let me digress for a moment before I come to the substance of the Bill. This has all posed serious issues for those of us in representative positions. We have taken it for granted for a long time that we do this job-people come to us, we make the decisions, we organise, we tell people what to do. When there is enormous trust and a clear bond between those who are elected and those who elect them, that is fine. However, experience in recent years has shown that that bond has been more difficult. We have seen the numbers of people voting at local council level decline steadily. We have had our own issues with the number of people voting in general elections in recent times and, of course, we have had the issues in relation to the authority of this House, which are too well known and painful to bear repeating. So to create a mechanism that encourages people to engage with their local authorities and with Government in a new way has been refreshing and exciting. My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) illustrates how something can happen as a result of that positive engagement, and this new Bill is coming along to keep that going. I shall return to that point in a moment.

I shall give one or two other examples of local authorities making use of the proposals under the Act. Hackney borough council suggested the introduction of wider powers for councils to reflect residents' views and influence the shape of local high streets, where the concentration of particular kinds of businesses can mean that the needs of local people are not met and local communities cease to be sustainable. Planning is an issue that has surely crossed all our desks at various times, when local communities seem, almost to a man and woman, to be against a particular proposal or have some particular idea, yet for some reason in planning law those views are not taken into account. Inspectors' decisions always seem to follow a line that the community cannot follow, and people wonder why their voice is the least heard voice in the entire process.

As a final example, the Bristol city council panel proposed amendments to the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 to support the employment in local
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authorities of young people and people with learning difficulties. Thus, a range of ideas has been presented under the original Act.

With all that in the pipeline, what need is there for the Bill? Successful though the previous Bill was in becoming an Act, there were one or two areas where, on reflection, more might have been done to fulfil the objectives behind the campaign and the Act. This Bill seeks to redress those omissions. Rather than wait for settled practice to surround the Act and an amendment to be made to it at a later stage, I, together with those who signed the early-day motion, which I remind the House is a majority of its Members, and campaigners outside believe it would be helpful to make changes now, before the procedures associated with the Act become set.

At this point I should mention a technical matter. The long title of the Bill needs a short amendment. The House will be aware that the purpose of the long title is to ensure that when the Bill is drawn up in more detail at a subsequent stage, all the various elements have been captured at the time of First Reading. What is unusual today is that I hope to take the Bill through all its stages in the Commons at one time. Accordingly, I wish to give notice that should the Bill go into Committee, I will move a short manuscript amendment which, I believe, is available on the Floor of the House. It proposes that in line 1 of the long title, the words from "2007" to the end of line 3 should be left out.

The amendment is designed with two aims-first, to remove the word "town", as legislation does not make specific mention of town councils. They are considered to be akin to parish councils, for which statutory definitions exist. Secondly, the amendment would knock out the word "expenditure", as there is no expenditure involved in the Bill. Both the Table Office and the Clerks have been informed of the proposed manuscript change.

The substance of this short Bill is twofold. The intention behind the original Act was not to engage the interest of the community for a one-off round of proposals, which would then be subjected to scrutiny and eventual decision. It was, rather, to involve the public in a process with their local authorities and government, but no specific provision was made in the original Bill for a continuing process, despite the intention. This Bill seeks to achieve that. It therefore requires the Secretary of State to specify the date on which an invitation to make new proposals by way of a second round should be issued. This notice must be given by 1 January 2011, as set out in clause 2(2).

We have got where we are today following negotiation with the Department for Communities and Local Government and with the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett), who is here today. I thank her and her officials who assisted her in arriving at this point. Those of us promoting the Bill have not got everything that we sought at the outset, but we have come to what we think is a realistic estimation of what can be achieved, and we are grateful to the Minister and her officials for assisting us to get to this stage.

We believe we have a clear understanding that under clause 2, where we suggest in proposed new section 5B the power to make new regulations, this will allow for further proposals to be made in future and those regulations will be used to create the continuing process that we are looking for, having got one new starting date included
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in the Bill. I am particularly encouraged by the comments made by the Secretary of State in the House on 26 January:

Although the Bill contains only the date for the second round, we fully envisage that proposals will come forward for future rounds through the regulations and that they will make provision for that.

In support of this part of the Bill, the Local Government Association says in its briefing for the debate:

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