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"The Act has created an excitement: our members want more-but unless we name a date a 'second round' of suggestions then we fear that the usual cynicism will take over."
Anne Milton (Guildford) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is rare to see "councils" and "enthusiasm" in the same sentence? This is a fantastic opportunity to see the resurgence of some enthusiasm, and to see local councils enthused by the measures before us. It is an opportunity that must not be missed.
Mr. Newmark: Notwithstanding the continual enthusiasm of Braintree district council, I accept my hon. Friend's point that we need to build on the enthusiasm that the original Act kicked off. No doubt people will be enthused even more by this amending Bill.
Today's Bill enables the Secretary of State to publish regulations on the proposals embedded in the 2007 Act. That includes such prescriptive measures as engagement with parish and town councils, petitions and the form, content and timing of proposals. The former is particularly pertinent to my constituency of Braintree, which has a number of excellent and active parish and town councils.
Following the initial hype and fervour around the 2007 Act, a few town and parish councils have voiced disillusionment. Although the LGA has found that in a number of cases the parish or town council is acting as the driving force behind the proposal, some, after being heavily involved in the long campaign to bring the initial Act to fruition, are feeling neglected and omitted from the process of decision making and the provisions of the Act.
Given the excellent organisational structures of our parish and town councils and their ability to canvass and reflect local opinion, I agree with the principle, enshrined in today's Bill, that they could be given a more explicit and mandatory role in the chain of local decision making. The citizens' panels that the Act requires, to reach out to and involve electors in the ideas of action to put to the Secretary of State, provide an obvious means through which to insert the representation
of parish and town councils. As Great Bardfield and Finchingfield parish councils point out, powers that have already been devolved to parish councils have proved to be cost-effective and to work well.
However, I recognise the LGA's concern that that would risk establishing a parallel Sustainable Communities Act-lite process whereby the consultation requirements are simply that only the members of parish or town councils are heard. That, of course, would be inimical to the spirit of local democracy. A more durable solution may be to ensure the representation of such councils on the citizens' panels while still providing scope for the voices of those not involved with such councils.
Given the current levels of disillusionment and disengagement from politics, we should do all we can to get everyone involved in democracy; my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell) has been an extraordinary advocate of that. Exclusion is simply not an option if we want to give people a real sense of ownership of the whole process.
Mr. Carswell: My hon. Friend has spoken eloquently about the need to restore faith in our democracy. Does he agree that that extends to not seeking deliberately to talk out items on the agenda that are of interest to millions of voters?
Mr. Newmark: I have no idea what my hon. Friend is talking about, unless he is referring to his own Bill. Earlier this week, I had a discussion in the Tea Room about this Bill. I stressed how strongly I felt about it, and my hon. Friend gave me some advice.
I am pleased that the messages I am getting in my constituency are that parish and town councils want to be involved. Why not make use of them and hear their ideas? The 2007 Act took us from a process of Whitehall consultation to local participation. Today's Bill could go a step further and make the Act a truly enabling one. A good example of the need for parish and town councils to have a firm footing in creating sustainable communities relates to planning. I know that both Cressing and Black Notley parish councils in my constituency find that a particular frustration. As the representatives of the local community, those councils seek to promote the common good. They are often a good judge of which planning applications would promote the sustainability of Cressing and Black Notley, yet they feel that inappropriate applications are receiving the go-ahead from those who do not truly understand what villages need in order to prosper. Castle Hedingham parish council has gone to great lengths to produce
a village design statement, outlining the types of developments that would fit in with and enhance the community. Yet such councils are frustrated and feel that local knowledge carries little weight.
That is indicative of a broader, serious problem in our country. Whether it is building new housing developments or giving the green light to new business parks or leisure facilities, the whole planning process can be divisive and frustrating, with developers, residents, councils and all interested parties fighting it out and things either never getting built or causing massive resentment when they are. Let us imagine giving local people real control over the look, shape, feel and character of the community and letting them decide how many houses they wanted built or whether they wanted a new park or playground. If those proposals were within the letter of the Act and could support local economies or the environmental aspect of sustainable communities, the potential for change would be enormous.
My constituents are fortunate that both Essex county council and Braintree district council support the 2007 Act, but many others are not so lucky. Indeed, when I checked the Local Works website, I was surprised to see that swathes of the country have still not opted in to the Act. I am surprised by that, because councils have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Despite pressures from residents and parish and town councils, some local authorities and county councils remain resistant to change. What about the local people in those areas? Under the Act as it stands, they have no form of redress and depend on the whims of their local authority or county council to get their voices and proposals heard. The Bill would give the Secretary of State the option of prescribing a mechanism whereby residents could petition their local authority to take up the Act. Although we currently seem to have no clearer proposal than that, I know from various petitions in my constituency that they can often serve to invigorate local residents even more. Surely that is yet another positive step forward for local democracy and political engagement.
I have one concern about the Bill, which is the absence of a mechanism to force the Government to publish full local spending reports. Although I recognise that that absence may have been necessary both for brevity and to gain cross-party support, I hope that we can return to the matter at a later date.
I, like local residents, am disappointed that the Government have backtracked on a vital part of the 2007 Act, and I hope that the Minister will address it. It is the section that requires the amount of Government expenditure in each area to be made public. They have taken a decidedly minimalist approach to the concept of, and commitment to, local spending reports as originally agreed in Parliament. The then Minister promised that the Government would publish a local breakdown of spending and proposed spending by all public bodies, but they have broken that promise and substantially watered down the Act. Rather than a full breakdown, local spending reports currently contain only information about local bodies.
Mr. Stewart Jackson:
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Does he deprecate, as I do, the fact that when the Government had the opportunity to address the issue of local spending reports in the later stages of debates on the Local Democracy, Economic
Development and Construction Act 2009 a few months ago, they chose not to include a provision that would have ameliorated the concerns that he mentions?
Mr. Newmark: Again I concur with my hon. Friend, and perhaps the Minister might address that point. I shall press on, because I appreciate the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich, who I am sure is keen that we ultimately move on to his Bill, notwithstanding the importance of this one.
If we are to restore faith in politics, now more than ever we need greater transparency in public expenditure. We need to be able to see how politicians and organisations that rely on public funds are spending taxpayers' hard-earned money, and, if necessary, challenge it.
Everyone in this House ought to be able to recognise that the days when taxpayer-funded organisations could keep their accounts under wraps are well behind us. The last year in Parliament has taught all MPs a painful lesson in transparency, but we need to reflect that in legislation that has implications throughout and beyond Whitehall. The LGA agrees. It remains wholly unconvinced by the arguments that full local spending reports are simply too expensive and that they would be of no benefit. We understand the need to approach the matter in a way that ensures value for money, but expecting basic figures on public expenditure is not an unreasonable request.
However, the Bill is about not only the principle of transparency, important though that is, but about efficiency. As I have stressed, local communities are best placed to understand what they need for sustainability. If they can easily scrutinise the costs and details of current projects, they can quickly deduce whether there is a cheaper or more efficient option. If communities and councils can look at the streams of funding in their areas, they can identify duplication and scope for greater co-ordination, and where resources could be more effectively deployed in another way. Put simply, by lifting the lid on public spending, we stand to get better outcomes in how taxpayers' money is spent.
I recognise the concerns of both the LGA and some hon. Members that some proposals in the Bill lack clarity. However, I remind them that it is a short, amending Bill, designed to nuance the Sustainable Communities Act rather than create a new one. The prescriptive powers that the Bill would grant to the Secretary of State give a large degree of wiggle room, which is exactly what the 2007 Act needs. It is comparatively new legislation, so we are still at the early stages of the process, and proposals for implementation are still not finalised. To rush ahead with too many specific clauses, without learning what is going right and what is going wrong with the process, might be impetuous.
I support the Bill. We have the opportunity to show the country that "bottom up" is more than just a fashionable term for politicians to tack on to concepts-it can be one of the most important weapons in a local community's arsenal and serve the greater good of so many of our constituents, as I have seen in my constituency. The Act has enormous transformative potential and radical implications for the decision-making process in this country if local people choose to use it.
This is why I believe in the importance of the Bill. First, it will extend the time for proposals to be submitted under the 2007 Act, and secondly, it will add some
important nuances to what is already an historic measure. A key criterion on which to judge the Bill will is whether it offers the opportunity for local people to have their voices heard. If it does that, it will have done a good job. The words of support that I have received from residents and councils, along with the relative consensus in the House today, are encouraging.
All here today recognise the opportunity the Bill offers truly to engage people on how public money is spent and how public services are delivered in their areas. If we miss this opportunity today, I fear we will not only set back the cause of local democracy a few steps, but squander a lot of public support and good will. Today we have a clear decision to make, which is eloquently summed up by Local Works:
"We believe that we (civil society and politicians) now have a choice: we can support this Bill and give this new shoot of increased involvement a boost; or we can reject it and risk that shoot withering on the vine."
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I have always been a great supporter of my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) and I hope that if his speech achieves nothing else, it will gain promotion for him in an incoming Conservative Government. He has served the Conservative Front Bench's purposes well today by ensuring that the amount of time available to discuss the Lisbon Treaty (Referendum) Bill and the European Union Membership (Referendum) Bill will be greatly curtailed. We have five hours for debate on Fridays and my hon. Friend has spoken for one of those hours. In so doing, he has ensured-as far as I am concerned-that it will not be possible for this Bill to go through all its stages today, if that were ever a serious proposition-
Mr. Chope: No, I will not, because he has already spoken for an hour and I wish to make a few brief remarks. It will not be possible for this Bill to go through all its stages today because so much time has been taken up already. If the Bill is as simple as its promoters suggest, I am surprised that it took more than half an hour for my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) to introduce it and more than an hour for my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree to explain why it would be such a good idea.
The 2007 Act was introduced when our great friend Eric Forth was very active on Fridays, and he shared the concern of many of us that it would not achieve much. I am sure that he will be looking down on our proceedings today and saying, "Well, I told you so." The original objectives of the Act included halting the decline in the number of corner shops, banks, grocers, post offices and pubs. Two and half years later, we have seen a substantial and continuing reduction in the number of those businesses. The Government have not even decided on any of the proposals that were made by individuals-perhaps naive individuals-who thought that the 2007 Act would actually give them an opportunity to contribute to significant change for their local communities.
The Act has been a complete failure. Hon. Members have suggested that it has been a success, but they are living in a completely different world from the one in which I-and, suspect most of my constituents-live. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire gave some examples. He said that a Wiltshire librarian had put forward a proposal to increase the tax on chewing-gum. However, action could have been taken much more quickly if the librarian had communicated with the local Member of Parliament, who could have tabled an amendment to the Finance Bill and we could have had a debate on the issue. Similarly, a proposal from Hackney suggested changing the planning rules relating to betting shops. It so happens that a private Bill on London local authorities is going through the House at the moment, and it would have been open to Hackney council to include that proposal in that so that we could debate it. The Second Reading of that Bill is coming up soon. Those two examples are of suggestions that could have been implemented more quickly through a direct relationship with Members of Parliament.
My hon. Friend also cited the further example of Liverpool city council trying to restrict the closure of post offices. That has not achieved anything. The only success that I am aware of was in Essex, and in that case the county council took direct action in defiance of the Government. The Government say that they support the Act, but people are given an incentive not to pay their road tax renewal at the post office but to do it online, because they are then entered into a prize draw for some foreign-manufactured car. That is meant to be an incentive not to use the local post office, and it is supported by the Government. It is ludicrous that the Government are promoting and encouraging that by giving people financial incentives not to use local post offices, while purporting to be interested in sustainable communities. The whole thing does not add up; the whole thing is a complete farce.
As my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire made clear in his extensive speech, the 2007 Act received Royal Assent on 23 October 2007, but it took almost a year for the Secretary of State to invite local authorities to make their submissions. Conveniently, the deadline was nine months later-they had to make their submissions by 31 July last year-and as of today not a single decision has been taken. Indeed, the Bill before us today is a recipe for further delay by the Government, because clause 1 would enable the Secretary of State to say, "Well, although I have all these shortlisted proposals put forward on a particular basis, we are now changing the basis on which I should assess them, and I can now decide, not whether to implement them, but whether to implement them in whole or in part." That introduces a completely new dimension that was not available to the local authorities when they decided which proposals to put forward, and neither was it available to the people when they came forward with the proposals in the first place.
It is not surprising that people are cynical, because they are being misled into thinking that the way to make change in this country is to go down the route suggested in the Bill. However, change is really made through direct engagement with Members of Parliament and the Government. I shall give a few examples. When I was involved in local government politics in Wandsworth, we were fed up with the Inner London Education
Authority: we thought that we would have a sustainable community in Wandsworth if we abolished it. We did not go namby pambying around trying to get people to make submissions under something like the 2007 Act; we engaged in direct action. We held public meetings, engaged the people and lobbied the Conservative Government strongly for its abolition. That was achieved and since then things have got a lot better in Wandsworth as a result, and many more people now stay there to enable their children to go to good-quality local schools.
Something similar happened when the people of Wandsworth, and a lot of other people in Greater London, decided that they would like to abolish the Greater London Council. Pressure was put on the Government, and the changes were made. Another example: a lot of people thought it extremely frustrating that their local councils were not prepared to engage in competitive tendering. There was a strong lobby of Parliament, including early-day motions with more than 200 signatures, and eventually a Conservative Government decided to legislate requiring local authorities to engage in competitive tendering-and that is what they did. As a result, the costs of local government were reduced.
Mr. Jackson: Obviously, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend's long service in local government and to the House. Surely, however, he is not suggesting that local spending reports and compulsory competitive tendering are mutually exclusive. In fact, the greater transparency brought about by local spending reports would assist local people at all levels in understanding the tendering process and the services provided by local councils.
Mr. Chope: I do not think that there is anything that a council cannot do already in terms of a local spending report-whatever that might mean. We must trust local authorities to do their work. We do not want to encourage them to waste a lot of time with bureaucracy or trying to make proposals that are then sat on by the Government. That raises local expectations and increases cynicism about the whole electoral process.
I shall not speak at greater length. However, I put down a marker that I think that the Bill is far from perfect, despite the enthusiasm of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire. I think that it seeks to change after the event the basis on which people made their submissions under the original Act. If one goes through the detail of the Bill, one finds that, frankly, it contains a whole lot of top-down mandatory requirements, coupled with vague propositions and superfluous requirements. In short, it is bad legislation, and it should not go on the statute book, or indeed go any further, without substantial amendment. I hope that there will be an opportunity to consider the Bill further in Committee and that the points that I have put forward will be expanded on by others with similar concerns about its content.
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