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8 Sep 2010 : Column 114WHcontinued
Gavin Williamson (South Staffordshire) (Con): I want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) for securing this debate today.
I think that many if not all of us in Westminster Hall today have had to deal with the very difficult problem of Gypsy and Traveller sites. It is an absolutely critical issue in South Staffordshire. Only last weekend, in the village of Coven Heath we had an illegal invasion of a field, involving nine caravans. I can see an application going in to make that site permanent in the very near future.
South Staffordshire already has to carry a great burden in terms of providing accommodation for Gypsy and Traveller sites. From 2007 until today, 30 pitches have been granted planning permission in South Staffordshire for Gypsy and Traveller sites. Every single one of those 30 pitches was rejected by local people and local councillors, but they were forced on them by the last Labour Government. That is an utter and total disgrace.
It does not stop there. We already have three applications involving another 16 pitches that are going to the planning inspectors at Bristol. Because of the last Labour Government's idea that there should be one law for the settled community and a different law for the Gypsy and Traveller community, there is every chance that those applications could get passed, too. What is even worse is that it does not stop there. Another 13 pitches have already been applied for that are due to go to planning.
Through their famous circular on Gypsy and Traveller caravan sites-ODPM 01/2006-the last Government have created an imbalance in the law, which discriminates against every person in this country who is not a Gypsy or a Traveller. I know that it has been announced that that circular will be changed, but I urge the Minister to ensure that it is changed swiftly.
The Government have announced that the regional spatial strategies are going to be abolished-
George Hollingbery (Meon Valley) (Con): They have been abolished.
Gavin Williamson: I am told by my hon. Friend that they have been abolished, but we know that the Gypsy Traveller accommodation assessments are being used to get these sites passed on appeal. I urge the Minister to do all he can to ensure that they are scrapped.
The Gypsy and Traveller accommodation assessment for the west midlands was pulled together by Salford university, which went around the west midlands and decided that, if there were 40 encampments in a district, it therefore needed another 40, and if a district had one encampment, it needed one extra. That is incompetent. My daughter of five could have done a better and more worthwhile report than Salford university's. I urge the Minister to freeze every single planning application until new rules are drawn up. This Government have signalled their intention of dealing with the problem. I demand of the Minister not just to talk but to do.
Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on securing this important debate. I have been moved to contribute by a recent situation in my constituency involving incidents in Southwold and, subsequently, Brampton. When I voiced my concern and my support for the local permanent community, I was accused of racism. As a consequence, I feel strongly that many of the viewpoints being expressed today are not about racism but about fairness, being seen to be fair and having a law that backs those who want to be fair.
The situation that I am going to describe is not too different from many others. Some hon. Members may have been on holiday to Southwold; the last Prime Minister certainly visited once. Those who have can imagine the surprise when a sudden development happened on the common. It was, I think, no coincidence that it happened at the weekend, when access to lawyers and councils was an issue, or that when the community were approached, they said, "We're only coming here on our holidays; we'll move off in a week." My retaliation was, "Well, why don't you pay to go down to the Caravan Club site rather than encroaching on the common?" It is a fine piece of open land that exists for the enjoyment of all the community and visitors.
Concerns were also expressed-I did not see this myself, so I cannot categorically affirm it-that a scrap metal business was being developed, which suggested that the encampment was not going to be temporary. There were concerns about what would happen further along the line. I believe that the community kept their word and moved on, but only a few miles down the road to Brampton, which is also in my constituency. Again, similar issues gave rise to a need for intervention.
We all know that police are reluctant to intervene. To some extent, I do not blame them, because of the cost and the resources required and the possible issues involved in moving on families. Councils and trustees of commons up and down the country must face legal costs every time the situation arises, which is not fair either.
I do not think I am alone in thinking of examples-perhaps not in Suffolk but in Hampshire, where I used to live-of the temporary, almost semi-permanent sites of more traditional Traveller communities. I can think of one on the Harroway near Whitchurch and another on the way to Hurstbourne Tarrant where people have taken up a sort of residence set away at the side of the road, deliberately not trying to create an effective empire with a number of permanent pitches.
The unfairness of retrospective planning has been discussed extensively. I support the new Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in tearing up some of the nonsense that came before us under the last Government, recognising that councils may wish to provide sites appropriately and giving them financial incentives to do so, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire mentioned. It irritates me that people are often buying agricultural land at cheap rates. Once planning permission is obtained, of course, we all know that the value increases astronomically.
I am not attacking transient communities. They are a welcome part of society. Everyone in society makes choices about how we live, but we must also accept the responsibilities that go with those choices. We should also be considering not only our own solutions but other countries'. I find it ironic that the landmark ruling in 2000 giving Irish Travellers ethnic status does not apply in Ireland, which has made a different decision about how to categorise them that does not afford them protection under the Race Relations Act 2000 or subsequent legislation.
It is not racist to be concerned about unauthorised development. It is not racist to press for fairness for our constituents. It is not racist to say that the law of the land should be respected or that wilful trespass should be dealt with promptly and effectively, without costing a small number of local taxpayers a fortune. I welcome the actions thus far and look forward to seeing more.
Heather Wheeler (South Derbyshire) (Con): I am grateful to you, Mrs Brooke, for calling me so early in the debate, and to my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) for securing it. It is hugely important to the situation in South Derbyshire. Since February alone, we have had 24 illegal incursions, in a district with authorised sites. That is why it is so galling for the people and voters of South Derbyshire. When we do the right thing, we are taken for mugs. Frankly, we are fed up. We will not put up with it any more, and nor will our voters. I assure the Minister that there will be civil disobedience over the issue.
I am grateful for the strong messages issued by the Department for Communities and Local Government. We have finally won our appeal with the inspectors against illegal encampments and planning permission. It is the first that I have known in all my time in politics in South Derbyshire, which I assure hon. Members is a long time. We have an achievement, so I thank the new Government.
For goodness' sake, when councils do the right thing and authorise encampments, can we please push forward with eliminating the John Prescott 21-day rule? It requires public authorities to go through a long process of sorting out whether there are human rights implications and goodness knows what else for these people, and it does not apply to anybody in our settled communities. It is complete nonsense.
We have good police action in Derbyshire, where we seek to assist private landowners to go down the 24-hour bailiff route to remove people where-I say this again-vacancies are available on authorised sites. But when the land is owned by the authority, Severn Trent, the Highways Agency or similar, there is still the nonsense
of having to do the dance of the John Prescott 21-day rule. Will the Minister assure us as much as he can today, and later in writing, that that rule will be scrapped?
We are delighted by the strong ruling to get rid of the regional spatial strategy and the pitches rule. It assisted enormously when we wrote to the Planning Inspectorate and helped us fight off the latest planning inquiry. That was the first one ever. I wrote the strongest letter I have ever written in my life. The language was not particularly parliamentary, but it got the point through and we won. Will the Minister please carry on with the issue and ensure that it is sorted out? My electorate expect it to happen in the coming Session, and I look to him to see it through.
Damian Collins (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): Like my hon. Friends, I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) for securing this debate. He said in his opening remarks that he wanted to focus on three aspects of the issue. I will make a few remarks about the first aspect, trespass and occupation, based on incidents in my constituency, although I do not claim that we have had the same number of incidents as the constituencies of other Members who have spoken.
I wanted to highlight the fact that some small groups of Travelling communities are clever in exploiting tactically chosen sites. The ownership of the land might be disputed, it might take some time to find out who is responsible and a lot of time is wasted before an enforcement notice is made.
We have had particular problems with this in Folkestone, where a single group of Travellers have moved between different sites. They have been able to stay at sites for several months. Recently, a community spent three months on a piece of land backing on to a residential community in Birkdale drive in the Park Farm area of Folkestone before an enforcement notice was made. That was largely because of a dispute between Kent Highway Services and the Highways Agency as to which of them was responsible for the site. It turned out that the Highways Agency believed that it had transferred ownership to Kent Highway Services, but there was no record of any such transfer, and the community stayed on the site during the to-ing and fro-ing.
I have every sympathy for the district commander of the local police, who was keeping a careful eye on the site, but who was powerless to do anything until the enforcement order was made. Even then, when the dispute had been resolved, and Kent Highway Services agreed to go to court to try to get the enforcement notice-it was still not clear whether it owned the land-it took time to get court time and to get the notice granted. Residents felt that no one was really doing anything to resolve their plight. The Travellers cleverly exploited the ambiguity to enable them to stay, and they have moved from site to site doing the same thing.
My constituents' question is whether we could look at the law on trespass, alongside some of the other points that have been raised, and which I know the Department is considering. If Travellers have gained access to a site, and it is clear that they do not own the land and have made no efforts to establish contact with
the landowners or do not know who they are, there should be some obligation on them to prove that they have a right to be there. It should not just be for the public authorities to prove that the Travellers do not have the right to be there, particularly when the process might take quite a long time, and it is clear that we are dealing not with a temporary encampment, but with a permanent occupation of the land until an enforcement notice has been granted.
In the example that I gave, the Travellers made no attempt to create an illegal, permanent camp or to alter the land in any way; they were simply going to stay on the land for as long as they could, until they were moved on. However, they did that in the full knowledge that that could take quite some time, and there was nothing that the resident community could do while we were going through the relevant processes. I would be grateful if the Government looked at the issue and gave us some advice as to whether we can simplify or revise the law. Could some consideration be given to the databases and the land registry for the ownership of public land where land is passed between public bodies and there may be some confusion as to who is the responsible party?
Annette Brooke (in the Chair): Order. There is considerable time until the winding-up speeches at 3.40 pm. Two people are standing at the moment, and others who wish to speak should indicate that they want to do so.
Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I will try not to fill the long period that you described between now and the winding-up speeches, Mrs Brooke. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on raising this issue, which I have heard debated four or five times in this Chamber in the past five years or so. That, along with the number of my hon. Friends seeking to speak in the debate, demonstrates what an extremely important issue it is. Indeed, it affects communities across the whole of England, and those hon. Members here today probably represent only a small number of those on both sides of the House who have significant worries about the issue.
My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) raised the particularly interesting topic of trespass. As far as I can recall, the issue was dealt with quite well in one of the last Acts passed by the previous Conservative Government in 1997, which made some efforts towards putting the point right. Although the legislation no doubt needs improving, the basic machinery is there. With the exception of my hon. Friend, however, all the others who have spoken in the debate have addressed the identical problem of people of one sort or another-I will come back to who they are-illegally occupying a vacant site, of which they have taken ownership, nearly always on a bank holiday Monday. Within a few days, they insert hard standing.
The interesting point about trespass is that there is no criminal trespass law on which we can rely in relation to public authority land. We are looking for our new coalition Government to bring forward from our manifesto a new intentional criminal trespass
law that will allow us to have the same rights for public authority land as for private authority land. That would be a major development, and I thank my hon. Friend for allowing me to mention it.
Mr Gray: My hon. Friend makes a similar point to my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe. Both my hon. Friends are quite right, although their point is not absolutely central to the topic of today's debate, which is the illegal occupation of land owned by Gypsies, Travellers and others.
As I said, the pattern we see is a similar one, and many people have described it in the debate. People move on to land, often on a bank holiday weekend. Before anybody knows what is happening, hard standing has gone down, toilet blocks have been erected and gardens have been put in. Often, little bungalows-we are not talking about caravans-are established in a very short time, as I have seen in Minety in my constituency. I have eight or 10 illegal Gypsy encampments in my constituency, including at Calcutt park, near Cricklade, and various other places. In a short time, something that looks for all the world like a village has been established. There are wheelie bins at the end of the drive, electricity has been laid on and these people have established something that no one else would be allowed to establish.
I will not bore hon. Members by repeating what a number of my hon. Friends have eloquently described. However, I want to address the reason why such developments are allowed to occur. My hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) referred to the way in which the noble Lord Prescott-what a noble Lord he is-introduced planning circular 01/06. Hon. Members will recall that the circular told planning inspectors that where local authorities are not able to demonstrate that there is adequate provision for Gypsies and Travellers elsewhere in their area, there should be a presumption in favour of illegal Gypsy and Traveller encampments. That has meant-I have had several such cases in my constituency-that where the planning inspector sits on an appeal, the law requires him to say that unless the local authority can demonstrate that there is adequate provision elsewhere, he must give the Gypsies and Travellers permission for their illegal encampment. I do not blame the inspectors; they have no other option but to do that, because that is what the single planning note requires them to do.
Leaving aside the two-tier planning system that such an arrangement implies-I will come back to that in a second-there are several specific problems associated with the circular. First, it does not stipulate who Gypsies and Travellers are. No distinction is made under law between hippies, new age travellers, people who are homeless, traditional Romanies, of whom there are many in my constituency, Irish Travellers, Roma and people coming in from France. Indeed, the French Government recently expelled a large number of Roma, and there is nothing to prevent them from coming here and declaring themselves to be Gypsies or Travellers. There is therefore no definition in the law to distinguish between those people.
As another speaker mentioned a moment ago, when the Gypsy and Traveller assessments were made under the regional spatial strategy-I am glad that that document
is now defunct-local authorities were required to assess how many Travellers there were in their area and what provision there was for them. However, there is no way of doing that. By definition, these people are Travellers. Are we talking about the Travellers resident in the county of Wiltshire, the south-west of England, the west of England, Wessex, England or what? There is no scientific way of assessing who these people are, because, by definition, they do not live in one place. A very large number of the Travellers in my constituency come from Ireland. Others come from the continent of Europe.
Incidentally, one interesting side issue is that the Irish and the Romanies will not live on the same site. The site at Thingley junction in my constituency has vacancies, but it is occupied by Irish Travellers. The Romanies, perfectly reasonably, say that they do not want to go there, because the two groups do not like each other. I am just not certain, however, that society has a duty to provide for people who do not happen to like each other. If somebody came to my constituency surgery and said, "I want a council house, but I'm not going to live in that council estate full of Irish people, because I don't want to live with the Irish," I would say, "I'm extremely sorry about that madam, but you're jolly well going to have to put up with it." The same applies in this case.
As I said, we do not know who these people are. By definition, they are Travellers. The Traveller population in the United Kingdom has been increasing exponentially over the past 30 or 40 years, and I will come back to that in one second. Asking a local authority whether it has enough provision for these people is an impossible question to answer. It cannot, by definition, say, "Yes, we do."
Gavin Williamson: I am not sure whether my hon. Friend has witnessed a similar situation in Wiltshire, but a number of Gypsies and Travellers in South Staffordshire have successfully applied for planning permission and obtained established sites. I then notice in the local newspaper that those sites are being commercially marketed to people who are not Gypsies and Travellers. People are exploiting the law for personal profit.
Mr Gray: I noticed that episode when it was recently mentioned in the newspapers, but that has not been my experience. All the illegally occupied sites in my constituency, and I think throughout the west country, have gone on to be fully occupied by Gypsies and Travellers. I have not seen any being sold on, although I suppose there is no reason why they should not be. However, I have my doubts about whether a local authority would give planning permission to a settled person to take over a Gypsy encampment afterwards. I certainly recommend that it should not.
The numbers are extremely interesting. When I was special adviser to the then Secretary of State for the Environment we had the great joy of repealing the legislation that required local authorities to make provision for Gypsies and Travellers in their counties. We did so because when the Labour Government passed the provisions there were, from memory, 3,500 illegally parked caravans in England. In 1996, by the time we had repealed them, there were 6,000 illegally parked caravans, so the illegals had more or less doubled. That was in addition to the 7,000 pitches that local authorities had by then provided. Those authorities had provided
twice as many pitches as they were required to under the Act, and a further 6,000 were illegally parked. That total of 13,000 caravans in England has now become 18,355, according to a recent survey. The number went from 3,500 to 18,500 in as many years.
David Tredinnick: My hon. Friend touches on an important point, which can perhaps be illustrated by a comparison with road building. When an extra lane is put on a motorway it does not solve the problem; it just brings in another lane's worth of traffic.
Mr Gray: My hon. Friend is right. It is what I would describe as a Parkinson's law of Gypsy caravans. No matter how many sites are provided for them, more appear. That takes us back to the original question of the definition of what those people are. Who are Gypsies? What are Romanies? What definition do we have under the law? The answer is none at all: the more sites are provided, the more people appear to fill them.
I therefore do not subscribe at all to the underlying principle behind planning policy guidance note 01/06 that somehow a local authority must demonstrate that it has made adequate provision. It is not possible for a local authority to demonstrate that. No matter how many sites it provides, it is perfectly possible for the Gypsy and Traveller community to say that there are not enough. Indeed, there seems to be a moth-to-a-flame attraction: the more sites are provided in a county, the more Gypsies and Travellers appear to try to fill them. Wiltshire and the west country as a whole seem to be a bit of a hot spot for that.
That seems to me to be completely wrong, and the Government have indicated their intention to address the situation. We must do so by abolishing Lord Prescott's planning guidance note and the regional spatial strategy and by telling local authorities exactly what they are told in relation to homeless people from the settled community: the rule for the settled community is that if someone needs a council house they go to see the local authority or-too often-their MP, or a housing association. To get a house one must demonstrate need, in a certain prioritised way, and a local connection. If someone came to my constituency surgery and said, "Hello; I come from Inverness and I am homeless. I want you to get in touch with the local authority and get me a council house," I would say, "I'm awfully sorry. You must get back to Inverness and get your council house there. You aren't going to get one in Wiltshire because we demand a local connection." Precisely the same applies to the Gypsy community. They are very nice people. A number are close friends of mine. Those who live in Wiltshire have a right to proper Gypsy encampments there. However, those who come to Wiltshire from elsewhere have no right to demand that the people of Wiltshire should pay for sites to accommodate them. Exactly the same rules should apply to them as to anyone else with regard to planning and housing.
An example from my constituency, which I think is an outrage, highlights what has gone wrong with our planning process. A very nice lady came to see me. She had an organic farm in the village of Box in my constituency. She had a caravan, in which she lived, in the centre of the organic farm, which was about 15 acres. Rather bizarrely, the local authority looked at the profitability of the organic farm and concluded that it was not profitable and was not a going concern, and that she
could not make it a going concern. Had it been profitable my constituent would have been allowed to carry on living in the caravan. That in itself is bizarre. She was required to leave the caravan, although, incidentally, she was allowed to leave it for chickens. It could remain where it was as long as she did not live in it. Fine so far.
Next door, just down the road, is an entirely vacant field that was bought at a very high price by a group of Travellers. They moved on to the site and are in the same position as the non-Traveller organic farmer. They went to appeal and said, "We are Gypsies" and the inspector was required by law to give them permission to remain in the field, adjacent to the one from which someone from the settled community had been removed. That seems to me to be disgraceful. There is no reason why any group in society-white, black, green, gay, straight, Chinese or anything you like-should have different planning rules from those affecting anyone else. There should be one law for one, and one law for all.
George Hollingbery: I am curious about the example that my hon. Friend has raised, and the more general implications. He has rightly said that there is no formal legal mechanism for assessing whether someone is a Gypsy or a Traveller, yet local authorities regularly make such assessments. Does he have any experience of how local authorities make the decision? Perhaps the Minister will elucidate the matter and tell us how local authorities can make a better job of assessing who is, or is not, qualified under the Human Rights Act 1998 or other legislation.
Mr Gray: I am afraid that my hon. Friend and I will not agree on this issue. I take the view that it is not up to local authorities to decide who is a Gypsy, who is a Romany, who is an Irish Traveller, who is a dropout, who is a hippy and who is a settled person. Every human being, of every kind, whatever their colour, race, background or class may be, should be treated identically by the local authority, which does not need guidelines about what to do. The same applies with respect to the Human Rights Act, about which some hon. Members in the Chamber have reservations. I do not think that it should come into the consideration of whether land should be set aside for Travellers or anyone else. The Act is about human rights, but the issue that we are talking about is planning, and I do not think that Travellers or anyone else should be given preference over the settled community merely because they are Travellers. What a perfect definition of racism that is-for a local authority to say "We are required to do something for you, not because you are a good man, or a bad man, but because you claim to be some kind of Romany, Irish, Roma, Gypsy or who knows what. You claim you are that, and therefore I must do something for you that I will not do for someone else." That seems to me to be unacceptable in 21st-century Britain and I hope that the new Secretary of State will do away with it.
Andrew George (St Ives) (LD):
I apologise to the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) for missing the opening speeches; I was detained on other business. I intervene on the eloquent speech of the hon. Member for North Wiltshire) to ask whether he is denying the existence of Travelling people as a community in the UK. If so, presumably he would disagree with the approach
that I believe the Government have retained, that local authorities should, wherever possible, find and provide sufficient official sites to meet the needs of the Travelling community. If that were done, we would not be debating the issue of illegal encampments because sufficient pitches would be available for those in need.
Mr Gray: The hon. Gentleman and I have crossed swords for many years on many subjects. He was late for the debate and I am not sure whether he missed any of my speech as well; I certainly was not denying the existence of the Travelling community. Quite the opposite. I said at the beginning of my speech that I felt strongly that the Travelling community had a perfect right to be Travellers; good luck to them. That is fine. It is not my way of life. I cannot stand camping at all. However, if they want to be Travellers, that is fine. It is right that the local authority should make suitable provision for the Travelling community, as it does for the settled community. It is right to do that for the local Travelling community, but I see no reason to do so for the wider Travelling community. I certainly do not deny its existence, nor the state's responsibility to make proper provision for it. It is right to do that, but we are discussing the means by which that happens, not whether it should happen.
I welcome the stricter stance taken by the incoming Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and the abolition of the regional spatial strategy, which is the document behind much of what we are debating. I hope that as part of what happens we shall do away with the Gypsy and Traveller assessments, which were flawed, to say the least, whoever did them-Salford technical college or anyone else. I call on the Secretary of State to stipulate that the planning status of Gypsies and Travellers is precisely identical to the planning status of everyone else-indeed, their rights in every other respect should be identical to everyone else's. I also call on him to introduce stronger enforcement powers, so that when these outrages occur, local authorities have the power to go on to these sites and deal with these people as they would anyone else. I very much welcome the fact that he has stipulated in his general approach to planning that the people who decide whether or not these things occur, whether with regard to Gypsies or to houses, should be local councillors who are answerable to local people. They should make up their mind about how such things happen; it should not be down to Lord Prescott or his successors in the DCLG.
Annette Brooke (in the Chair): I call Mr Ollerenshaw. I remind you that the wind-ups will start at 3.40 pm.
Eric Ollerenshaw (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Con):
I will try to be brief, Mrs Brooke, so that other hon. Members may contribute. Thank you for calling me. My comments may seem repetitive to the Minister, but I am told that repetition sometimes helps when dealing with Ministers. The huge number of hon. Members present should demonstrate to him how much of a national problem the issue is, although the Labour party does not seem to be aware of that. I congratulate
my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on initiating the debate and on how he has balanced his comments. All hon. Members recognise their obligations to the Traveller community, as they do in respect of every other community in Great Britain. No one would wish to detract from that, and I congratulate hon. Members on how they have dealt with the matter.
The focus of the debate has moved geographically; I think my seat, Lancaster and Fleetwood, is the most northern one represented by hon. Members here. That surely proves the national scale of the problem. I first became aware of the matter that I wish to raise on the evening of 6 November 2009, which happened to be a Friday. At 6 o'clock on a Friday evening, council offices and the planning department shut down.
I was informed by the residents of a small hamlet called Preesall Hill-just 50 or 60 houses-that a triangular piece of land surrounded by roads was suddenly covered in Travellers. They told me that hardcore was being moved in, electricity was being supplied and boarding was being put up. That development went on all over the weekend, when no one could get to the council. I would like to repeat the reference to the word "wilful." My hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire made a significant point about that, and we hope that the Minister will reply to it. If anything can be called wilful, the actions that I have described must fall into that category.
On Monday, the police were called, so they were diverted from other matters. The council was also called-everyone and his aunt were called to consider the matter. It was then discovered that the Travellers had actually bought the land, which posed the council with another problem. The council sought an injunction-in the end, it had to seek three injunctions-to call for a retrospective planning application. By that stage, some of the Travellers' children were going to the small village school, on which there was also an impact. So, the impacts were starting to add up. The people living in Preesall were saying, "What is going wrong around here? Who can get away with this?" Other hon. Members have mentioned similar responses.
On 2 September last week, the matter finally got to planning-by the way, when it first went to planning, not enough information was supplied, so it had to be deferred. As I say, the matter got to planning on 2 September and there were all the relevant reports-ecology, engineering, highways and so on. The land had been designated as countryside by the local Wyre district plan, and was actually a field. The difference with this case is that a company called Green Planning Solutions turned up at the planning. Its website states:
"we specialise in winning planning permission on difficult sites, usually rural locations including the green belt."
Meanwhile, a Preesall action group of concerned neighbours had been set up and people who were in the process of selling their properties were unable to do so. People who have jobs and other things to do were taking action to try to restore their community. To be fair to those people, they were also trying to establish some sort of relationship with the Travellers who were by that time arguing that they needed a permanent pitch. By the way, twice over the past 12 months, the Travellers have disappeared somewhere for three months, so they must have sites in other places.
I return to when the matter got to planning. At the meeting, a Mr Green-who apparently runs Green Planning Solutions, which advertises in the way I have described-boasted to the Wyre planning committee that he usually wins most of his cases. He said that 47% of his cases go to appeal and that he usually wins 94% of those. Apparently, he warned the council that if it dared to appeal, it would cost the council and taxpayers dear.
Heather Wheeler: I hesitate to interrupt because my hon. Friend is in mid-flow and, as ever, he is excellent to listen to. What I find absolutely galling-this may help other hon. Members in this Chamber-is that we have had five planning permissions go through under which Travellers have now got authorised sites, but the Travellers are not there. Where are they? Why do they need those sites? They have got them, apparently, only because of need, but they have not been on them for 12 months. Lancaster and Fleetwood should get on with it. This is just outrageous.
Eric Ollerenshaw: Thank you, Derbyshire. I totally agree-whether Travellers want permanent or non-permanent sites. I should also compliment my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) as he has some history on this matter. The point about the definition of Travellers and so on was really pertinent.
In the case that I have mentioned, the Travellers are obviously waiting to see whether there will be an appeal. Nothing has changed on the site, and they are assuming that there will be an appeal, which will lead to costs for a small district council. Meanwhile, Mr Green has boasted that he wins most of his appeals. What does that say to people who pay their rates and do the usual law-abiding thing? As all hon. Members have said, all they want is fairness and for local councils to have the ability and powers to deal with the issues that affect them and their residents.
Annette Brooke (in the Chair): I thank the large number of contributors. Everyone has been fairly brief, which has been very helpful. I call Mr Gordon Marsden.
Mr Gordon Marsden (Blackpool South) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on a crisp and temperate presentation of the issues that not only he but other hon. Members in the Chamber have encountered. I was particularly interested in his strong focus on the issue of unauthorised occupation-that matter has come across strongly today. Some of the difficulties surrounding that issue are very different from those surrounding the debate about the need for authorised sites, which again has been robust. I shall try to bring out some of those issues in my remarks.
I start by mentioning some of the facts and the chronology of what the previous Government did-or, indeed, attempted to do-regarding some of the matters raised. I understand that some Conservative Members may not be aware of those points. That is not surprising, given that a "year zero" approach seems to have been adopted by the Department for Communities and Local Government website; all reference to what was done in
the six months before the election has been removed. However, with your permission, Mrs Brooke, I shall touch on some of the things that were done in that period.
In March 2010, DCLG launched guidance that was sent to police, local authorities and other agencies. That guidance focused particularly on adopting a multi-agency approach to helping communities tackle the problems of antisocial behaviour on Travellers' sites, including the use of antisocial behaviour orders and acceptable behaviour contracts. I shall return to those important points.
In introducing that document, my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham), the then Secretary of State, said:
"local councils and the police have strong powers and tools to crack down on anti-social behaviour-and I expect them to be used to the full. This guidance will help ensure that the local agencies understand the powers available to them."
The Home Secretary at that time, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), said-it is important to make this point because various hon. Members have mentioned it-
"The Gypsy and Traveller community is treated no differently than the rest of the community. Perpetrators of crime and antisocial behaviour will be punished and, where appropriate, taken through the criminal courts and jailed."
From the Opposition's point of view, I would like to emphasise that that principle, elucidated by the former Home Secretary, stands four-square.
In addition to that, on the question of unauthorised developments, a statutory instrument was laid before Parliament on 9 March 2010, which reduced the period of appeal against refusal of an unauthorised development from six months to 28 days. That reduced the ability for the time frame to be exploited where unauthorised developments are in situ.
That did not come out of the blue; it was based on the findings of the Briscoe report, which was set up in 2007 and revised in 2009. It is worth noting that that was regarded as a priority by DCLG Ministers, which is why it reached the statute book before the wash-up and Dissolution. That was because of the importance of the need to reduce the period of uncertainty for local residents after local authorities refuse a planning application. In addition to those enforcement measures, the previous Government continued to support local councils in their bids to establish authorised Traveller sites, and £32 million was pledged from the Homes and Communities Agency budget as part of the site grant for 2010-11.
I have mentioned the difference between authorised and unauthorised sites. Although I appreciate that in some circumstances there can be significant problems with authorised sites, I believe that the development of authorised sites helps to combat the problem. To be fair, the current Government believe that as well, but the question of where the money will come from is another matter. On that main point, however, there is a consensus between the Opposition and the Government. There is evidence that the creation of authorised sites saves councils significant amounts of money. Once Bristol city council invested in a transit site, for example, having relied on enforcement action before, it reduced its related annual costs from £200,000 to £5,000.
The previous Government also intended to amend the Mobile Homes Act 1983 to give improved security and right of tenure to Gypsies and Travellers on official sites. Unfortunately, as the present Government were kind enough to acknowledge in a statement to the House on 27 July, there was no parliamentary time to debate those statutory instruments before the general election. They do, however, relate to the application of the 1983 Act. The Minister will no doubt remark that the Government intend to make a decision on section 318 in due course, in the context of the wider strategy. There is no difference between the policies of the previous and current Governments.
I now turn to what the current Government have said and done since taking office. In May 2010, as part of the first round of spending cuts, the Homes and Communities Agency ended the Gypsy and Traveller programme grants for the creation of authorised sites. As far as I am aware, the regional spatial strategies have been revoked but not yet formally abolished. Their formal abolition will no doubt be presented later in the year as part of the decentralisation and localism Bill that the Government are promising-or threatening us with. That removed the obligation for local authorities to identify sites that could be used for authorised Travellers. However, nature abhors a vacuum, and I suspect that that will be the case if there is no formula whatever.
On the point about returning to regional spatial strategies, there will be no formula whatever for dealing with what will be a continuing problem. I put it to Members and the Minister that without some form of overarching framework there is a danger that local authorities will pass the parcel and try to shift the onus of provision on to neighbouring authorities, which will be doing likewise.
Mr Gray: Why should there be an overarching vision? Surely it should be for local authorities to decide what provision they make for Gypsies and Travellers in their areas. Why should anyone else decide that?
Mr Marsden: I would not accuse the hon. Gentleman of nimbyism, but I think that such action is common sense. Indeed, in his eloquent contribution he explained that Travellers move around a lot. Simply playing pass the parcel with those people is no mechanism for dealing with them, and I find the idea that it is rather bemusing.
Andrew George: I wish to elaborate on the issue that the hon. Gentleman is addressing. It is clear from many studies that authorised sites are far better for community relations within an area, and for the health and welfare of Travellers, than unauthorised sites. In areas where the Travelling community clearly needs an authorised site, but where the local authority refuses to provide it, how would a Government ensure that that need is met? That is the crux of the problem.
Mr Marsden: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. He is absolutely right; it is for the Government to decide how to deal with that conundrum. My point is that one cannot just assume that the problem will go away, so it needs to be addressed.
In his policy announcement in August, the Secretary of State talked about liberating local authorities from Whitehall control, but he did not offer any clear substance or resources with which councils could act on his guidance. It is all very well talking about improving security of tenure for Travellers on local authority sites, but what local authority sites are likely to exist when funding is cut and obligations are removed? Surely that will lead to a growth in unauthorised sites and the associated costs of enforcement.
The Secretary of State also announced that Traveller sites would be delivered as part of the new homes bonus scheme, but the details of that scheme will be set out in a public consultation later this year. Concerns have already been expressed about how the new homes bonus scheme will operate. I invite the Minister to elucidate further how the funding for Traveller sites might be delivered under the scheme.
A lot of strong rhetoric has been used in relation to planning circulars 01/06 and 04/07. Given the subject, I understand that but the Government have made no concrete announcements on how enforcement powers will be increased. Again, further announcements are to be made in due course. Once again-I am afraid that this has been a characteristic of DCLG Ministers since they took office-rhetoric and talk of abolition has come before any thoughtful addressing of new structures and guidance.
I invite the Minister to say a little more on the matter and on antisocial behaviour and acceptable behaviour contracts. We believe that those remain an important tool for preventing antisocial behaviour on Traveller sites. However, the Government, and the Home Secretary in particular, have talked about their desire to move beyond ASBOs and acceptable behaviour contracts. Would the Minister state what consultations DCLG Ministers will have with the Home Secretary before they spell out some of those changes in chapter and verse in the decentralisation and localism Bill?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Andrew Stunell): I congratulate you, Mrs Brooke, on chairing the debate today and my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on his measured introduction to what is undoubtedly a difficult issue for many Members. Eleven other Members have also made speeches and a few more have intervened in the debate, so I hope that they will forgive me if I do not respond to every point that was made.
The Government share the concern that has been expressed today about unauthorised Traveller encampments and developments and their effect on local communities. The record will show some strong stories from across England. The Government want to see fair play and everyone treated equally and even-handedly, whatever community they come from or lifestyle they choose to pursue. We certainly will not allow a small minority of Travellers to set up unauthorised encampments and developments to create resentment and give other Gypsies and Travellers a bad name, worsening community cohesion along the way.
It is worth putting on the record the fact that 80% of Gypsy and Traveller families-those who are on the move and not already in bricks and mortar-are on
authorised public or authorised private sites and therefore outside the scope of the complaints and discussions that we have heard today. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] I am pleased to hear hon. Friends acknowledge that reality. We must be careful not to demonise the community because of some bad behaviour by some bad apples, whether they are Gypsies, Travellers or individuals from any other community.
About 13% of Gypsy and Traveller families are on their own land, but unauthorised sites. About half as many again are trespassing and encamping on land that they do not even own. We want to ensure that we provide stronger enforcement powers for local authorities to tackle such unauthorised sites and encampments. We want to limit the opportunities for retrospective planning applications. I fully share the frustration and anger that has been expressed in the debate about how those applications can be manipulated in such cases.
I am sure that hon. Members who have recently joined the House will find, as their in-trays get fuller, that they get complaints of a similar kind about retrospective planning applications of all sorts, not simply about Gypsies and Travellers. The localism Bill will be taking a completely fresh look at planning legislation and will include specific provisions about that. I hope that hon. Members understand that I am not in a position to spell the provisions out in detail.
We want to incentivise local authorities to provide appropriate sites. The hon. Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden), the Labour spokesman, suggested that we were speaking far too often before we had worked out the detail, but then he was pressing me to speak before we had the detail. I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that the detail is being worked out but, as with so many other things, as a junior Minister I must say, "Await the Chancellor's statement on 20 October."
Mr Marsden: I do not expect the Minister to have every dot and comma to hand-the devil is indeed in the detail, and he does not want to be tackling the devil until he needs to. However, I gently point out the issue about the regional spatial strategy. The Secretary of State set out his intention in a five-line letter, causing considerable concern-and, in some cases, hilarity-among the planning departments of various local councils as to its legal force.
Andrew Stunell: For every sign of distress, I saw 10 signs of joy.
I want to make the point that we are also committed to addressing the discrimination and poor social outcomes experienced by Traveller communities. Some of those issues have been mentioned-schooling, health and the security of their living accommodation. In the longer term, we want to see a plan, policy or strategy that can deliver the Travelling community authorised sites, where they can live in harmony with the settled community and with the access to health and education that everyone else has and is entitled to.
As the hon. Member for East Hampshire said when introducing the debate, some of the figures are dramatically bad-length of life, maternal and child mortality, educational attainment-and ought to fill us with despair and a determination to do something about the situation.
Let me come back to the core of what has been said today. We have already written to local authorities, reminding them to be alert to the particular risks of unauthorised development over bank holidays and to be ready to respond to that. The revocation of regional strategies means that the decision making about housing of all types, including Traveller sites, will come back to local communities. We have announced our intention to revoke circular 01/2006 and to bring local authority Traveller sites into the Mobile Homes Act 1983, which was on the verge of happening before the general election, as the hon. Member for Blackpool South correctly pointed out. We believe that it is right that that should go ahead.
I have been asked to give more detail about the New Homes Bonus scheme, but I must hold back and refer hon. Members, once again, to the statement on 20 October. However, the work is there and everything is ready.
I now turn to exactly what the problem is. Under the previous Government, the number of caravans on unauthorised developments increased from 887 in 1997 to 2,395 in 2010. My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) drew attention to that-the problem has not been getting smaller. The problem is not a reducing, residual one, but a continuing and, in some ways, growing one. We will ensure that the planning laws provide fairness between the settled and Travelling communities.
Andrew George: Given the vacuum following the removal of the RSS requirements and the Minister's statement that local authorities must now provide adequately for the Travelling community in their own areas, what do the Government propose if the need is clear but the local authority is unable or refuses to ensure such provision? How can the need be met in order to avoid circumstances in which such illegal and unauthorised encampments occur?
Andrew Stunell: I am not announcing the details of the Government's policy on Gypsies and Travellers in today's debate-I cannot pre-empt such an announcement. However, we are looking at such matters carefully, with some policies to be made explicit in the localism Bill, together with what we are doing about planning powers and enforcement, and some policies from other directions, as we work through the implications of providing incentives for local authorities to provide sites where needed.
Gavin Williamson: I asked a brief question in my speech about Gypsy and Traveller accommodation needs assessments. When considering appeals, are the planning inspectors to disregard totally the flawed GTAAs?
Andrew Stunell: The Secretary of State has made it clear that we are repealing circular 01/2006. I hope that the hon. Gentleman feels that that is the answer he needs. If I have missed a point, he can write to me and we can explore the issue in a little more depth.
In the course of preparing for the debate, I had the opportunity to speak to the assistant chief constable of Warwickshire, who holds the Gypsy and Traveller portfolio for the Association of Chief Police Officers. He takes responsibility across England for the police approach. His views were clear. Of course it is right that there should be strong enforcement and that the existing law
should be followed through-and promptly. There should not be long delays while sites that should never have been there in the first place get unofficially authorised, as outlined so eloquently today.
However, as a senior police officer speaking on behalf of ACPO, he was also clear that the policing of such issues cannot be tackled solely by increasingly rigorous enforcement. We must tackle the underlying conditions of deprivation and alienation that beset the issue. That is why, as well as following through on what the Secretary of State has already announced and on all the other work to ensure fair treatment for both the settled and the Gypsy and Traveller communities, we are also making sure that we tackle the underlying issues of disadvantage.
I was asked one or two specific questions and, for the most part, I hope that I have dealt with them. I have tackled and explained retrospective planning permission, which will be dealt with in the localism Bill. As far as treating planning applications equally is concerned-some examples were given by the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson)-we will have guidance and a light touch, rather than a prescriptive national code overruling local common sense.
I noted a point made by the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins). He wanted to know whether we could have a proper land register of public land and assets. Oh, how I wish we could, and how I wish it was possible to settle all such questions. Hopefully, local authorities of all sorts, and the Government, will become more alert to what they own, why they own it and whether they need to, thus proceeding towards a more rational estate.
Zac Goldsmith (Richmond Park) (Con): I appreciate this opportunity to speak about direct democracy, and I thank the Minister for attending the debate.
In recent years, we have undeniably seen a mass disengagement from the political process. The figures speak for themselves: former allegiance to political parties has plummeted over the past 15 to 20 years, and turnout at elections has followed a similar trajectory. I believe that the last three general elections had the lowest turnout of any since the second world war, so much so that the Commission on Parliament in the Public Eye said two years ago that no Government could now claim democratic legitimacy. Therefore, it is heartening that the coalition Government have embarked on a programme of reform.
However, whatever changes are brought in, it is key that they are real, not synthetic, and that, at their heart, they have a commitment to reducing radically the distance between people and power. I shall focus on two areas-the recall mechanism and local referendums-and others may add to them.
The new Government have already promised to bring in a recall initiative which, theoretically, would allow voters to get rid of MPs mid-term, or between elections, as happens in several different countries, including Switzerland. Some states in the United States of America have the same mechanism and right. However, the measures proposed by the Government fall far short of genuine recall.
The terms of reference are to be restricted to serious wrongdoing which, as far as I know, has yet to be defined properly. However, even with a definition, it will be for a parliamentary sub-committee-the Committee on Standards and Privileges-to determine whether an MP qualifies for such treatment. Instead of handing power down to voters, which is the whole point of a recall initiative, we would see power handed up to a small group of MPs. That is not by any stretch or interpretation a true recall mechanism. Ironically, it could actually aggregate even more power at the top by handing a tiny group at Westminster the power to rid Parliament of difficult, troublesome MPs.
True recall allows people to sack their representatives, for whatever reason, if a majority have lost confidence in them, and it certainly is not subject to approval by a central authority. The right should exist not just in respect of MPs but at every level: councillors, the Greater London authority, mayors, mayoral candidates, representatives and so on. This country could not be further from that at present.
I accept that this does not happen in practice, but, theoretically, it is possible for a new MP to jet off to the Bahamas the day after the election, delegate all their parliamentary and constituency work to a team of people employed at public expense and return four or five years down the line, probably to be booted out in the next election. It is likely that they would be deselected by their local party; if not, they would have the Whip removed by the central party. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the local people who put them in position would not be represented at all during the entire lifetime of the Parliament. True recall would change all that,
and would make politics much less remote and much more responsive. I urge the Minister to look again seriously at the Government's plans.
My second and final point, before I hand over, relates to local referendums. This, too, is something that the coalition Government have promised to facilitate. In my view, such referendums are absolutely key. If people have pulled away from politics-I do not believe that anyone can really argue with that-it is not because of a lack of interest in politics. Millions and millions of people around the country have signed up to pressure groups, a million people marched against the war in Iraq, and half a million people marched against the ban on hunting. We have endless examples of a very political population.
The reason why people are pulling away from the political process is that it has become far too remote, and that is true at every level of political activity. It is true at the level of the European Union, as has been debated ad nauseam in Parliament itself. It is certainly almost inconceivable to ordinary people that they could influence any decision made at any level in the EU.
Nationally, the equation is only marginally more favourable. In real terms, in the 1,500 or so days between general elections, people are denied any meaningful access to the decision-making process. Local authorities, meanwhile, have been almost completely stripped of their powers; in effect, they have been neutered. There is very little their local electors would expect them to do that they can do.
Direct democracy would provide a direct answer. It is a simple concept: it would allow people to intervene on any local issue at a time of their choosing. Assuming that they have majority support, decisions could be challenged and new ideas could be proposed. The direction of local political activity would be determined by the people most likely to be affected by those decisions.
The Government have said that they will introduce local referendums, but the details remain unknown. They mostly relate to the mechanics: how referendums would be triggered, on what issues could they be triggered, and so on. The really big issue is whether the results of referendums would be binding. It would be a huge mistake if, as some people fear, the proposal is simply to give people the power to force their representatives to debate an issue.
There is an argument that councils would feel obliged to adhere to the results of a local referendum held in their area, but, in reality, that is merely a far-flung hope. We can all reel off endless examples of local authorities ignoring local opinion, hiding behind bureaucratic procedure and so on. In reality, non-binding referendums would be an expensive gesture. We would almost be better off without them, and I say that as someone who is passionately committed to introducing them.
George Hollingbery (Meon Valley) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. Would he agree that a corollary of having binding referendums is a requirement that the decisions that voters attempt to influence are those that the people on whom they are binding can indeed influence? He referred to the impotence of local government. Would it not be an absolute requirement of binding local referendums that there should be a great deal more flexibility for local governments to fund themselves and spend as they wish?
Zac Goldsmith: I strongly agree with everything that my hon. Friend just said. I am thrilled that the coalition Government have already begun a programme of radical decentralisation. I believe that 1,200 targets were imposed on local government in the past 13 years-the figure may be slightly out, but it is thereabouts. The effect is that local authorities cannot do the things the electorate expect them to do. That means they often hide behind that ambiguity when it comes to unpopular decisions, but also that they often get the blame for bad decisions when the fault lies with central Government. I absolutely accept that both processes need to happen at the same time.
Shortly before the election, a major part of the coalition Government-the Conservative party-invited people to join the British Government. It was a message that went down well in some quarters, and one that I certainly welcomed. If we do not introduce binding referendums, we will undermine the very core of our message. It would be almost an insult to voters, who would be told, in effect, that they are not to be trusted with taking decisions that directly affect their lives.
I have set out provisions for genuine recall in my recall of elected representatives Bill, and for binding local referendums in my local referendums Bill. I shall publish them soon, and I hope that Members will support them. More importantly, I hope that the Government will incorporate them in forthcoming legislation.
Mr Douglas Carswell (Clacton) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) on securing this debate. It is fundamentally important that we consider ways to revive our moribund democracy. I would go so far as to say that, if one good thing came out of the previous, rotten Parliament, it was a recognition that there is something profoundly wrong with our democratic system and that we need change.
It is not surprising that our democratic system is not working, given that seven out of 10 constituencies are safe seats-one-party fiefdoms-which makes Members of Parliament inwardly accountable and inwardly responsive to party Whips, rather than outwardly responsive to the people. Direct democracy can help us change that in two or three key ways and I am pleased that the Government are toying with some ideas. However, with respect, I fear that Sir Humphrey Appleby and the powers that be in Whitehall fear the full implications of direct democracy and are already trying to water down some of the radical intentions of the coalition agenda.
Open primaries are the most significant way that we can make democracy outwardly accountable and responsive. Instead of leaving it to the party machines and hierarchies in London to decide who gets to be a Member of this legislature, we can have open primaries to throw open the question, particularly in safe seats. If Senator John McCain, a well-known national figure in the United States who has stood for the office of President, is forced to contest the nomination to be the Republican candidate in his home state, Tory, Labour and Liberal MPs in safe seats should be subject to the same process.
We must ensure that open primaries are not open caucuses. They must be full elections involving the entire constituency, rather than just matters of sectional, self-selecting self-interest. We must overcome the problem
of the cost. In this country we have had three open primaries: in Totnes and Gosport, and for the Mayor of London. The cost was prohibitive in other constituencies. We must, without resorting to state subsidy, taxpayer-funded politics or, heaven forbid, giving the party chairman the power to decide where open primaries should be held, find a way of allowing people to have a say about who gets to be the candidate in their constituency. A simple way to do that is to piggyback primaries on to pre-existing local ballots and allow people to petition their returning officers to trigger the process.
I hope that the Government listen and get this right, because if they get it wrong it will mean strengthening the power of the big corporate party hierarchies in London, rather than opening up democracy to local people.
The Government need to get two other things right. People should be allowed a direct say in law-making. Rather than contracting out the process to a professional caste of politicians and a priesthood of party managers, we should allow people a direct say. I am delighted that the Government are toying with the idea of a great repeal Bill-a freedom Bill-written by the people. However, I fear that they are not running this project as a wiki Bill, like the wiki Bill on Wikiversity, which is run completely as a crowd-sourced, open-source project. Instead, they are running it as a Government-owned online consultation. The difference is that, if something is genuinely crowd-sourced and the people are allowed a say, it tends to be pretty optimistic and liberal and is not dominated by demands to legalise cannabis, for example. There tends to be a much more angry and illiberal exchange in respect of a project on a Government-owned website. I hope that the Government amend the online architecture of their freedom Bill proposal, replace it with what is available free on the Wikiversity site and try to introduce the latter to the House.
The Government talked about a right of popular initiative, meaning that, instead of leaving it to the Sir Humphrey Applebys and a few Ministers to decide the legislative agenda of the Commons, we should give the people a say. There was a wonderful proposal for a threshold mechanism, under which, if a proposal got a certain number of signatures it would be introduced or at least given time and MPs would be forced to debate and vote on it. I ask the architects of this proposal in Whitehall, again, to be cautious about allowing thresholds for this popular initiative. A far better way of ensuring that the outcome is liberal and inclusive-sunshine politics, rather than reactionary, angry and sectional politics-is to ensure that different proposals have to compete for Floor time in the House of Commons, rather than having to pass a certain threshold. If we allow the threshold mechanism to be used, we would be asking for proposals that, as a liberal, I would feel uncomfortable supporting.
I hope the Government listen to these concerns and ensure that, through the mechanisms they introduce, direct democracy means more liberalism, rather than reactionary illiberalism.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Mark Harper):
I am grateful for your chairmanship of this debate, Mrs Brooke. I thank my hon. Friend the Member
for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) for calling the debate and my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell) for chipping in with his thoughts on direct democracy.
My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park correctly set out some of the problems that we face, including public engagement with Parliament. Some issues with the previous Parliament that my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton highlighted are well known, which is why political and constitutional reform is one of this Government's central features. We need to ensure that people are properly engaged with Parliament and politics-those are not always the same thing-and that we do a much better job than the previous Government did.
Let me respond to the two things that my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park mentioned: recall and local referendums. I will come to the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton later. The prominence given to recall by all three major political parties at the general election reflected its importance. There was consensus among all those parties, particularly off the back of the expenses scandal, that we needed to do something to deal with that issue.
Under the Government's proposal, which my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park does not think goes far enough, the recall mechanism would be set in motion only if there were, effectively, a trigger-if an MP were engaged in serious wrongdoing. At that point, if 10% of constituents signed a petition, a by-election would be triggered in which the individual would be able to stand and defend their record. Effectively, that would put the decision in the hands of the people.
We decided to do that to deal with specific issues in the previous Parliament, because members of the public were rightly saying, in respect of matters raised with an MP early in the Parliament, "We've got an MP who's been judged to have fallen below the standards we expected, but they can continue sitting in Parliament, taking their salary for the rest of the Parliament and there's nothing we can do about it."
My hon. Friend thinks that we should go further. We balanced that right because we do not want this mechanism used as a political tool by political opponents, with Members of Parliament consistently being faced with a recall challenge based on nothing more than the fact that people disagree with them.
Mr Carswell: I respect the Minister's statement that it is important that we should not have a system that allows vexatious attempts against good, legitimately elected MPs, but will he consider the example of Winchester in 1997, when a vexatious attempt was made by the Tories to trigger a judicially sanctioned recall election because they felt that they had lost, unfairly, by two votes? They went on to lose that election by more than 20,000 votes. Surely, we should trust the people, who have pretty good judgment to decide what is and is not a legitimate complaint against a Member of Parliament.
Mr Harper: I remember that well, as I suspect my hon. Friend does. I went tramping round the streets of Winchester in that rather thankless by-election.
In his article in the press, my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park mentioned the Californian recall system, through which every governor since Ronald Reagan
in 1968 has faced a recall petition. Clearly, most of those petitions were not successful. The state of California is of a significant size, compared with the United Kingdom, and it takes a fair amount of organisation and initiative to even get a recall petition sorted out.
Given the size of a parliamentary constituency and that most hon. Members face significant blocks of Opposition voters, recall could easily turn into a tool used by our political opponents. I will explain in a moment why I think that that would be particularly bad, and I will try to do so in a way that my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton will find appealing.
Zac Goldsmith: I understand that recall has been successful only once in California, despite all those attempts, precisely for the reasons mentioned by my hon. Friend during his intervention.
Mr Harper: That is right. I hinted at that in my remarks. Let me mention one reason why recall would not be a good idea. My hon. Friend the Member for Clacton wants legislators and those in positions of power to be fearless and to put forward bold ideas-to be able to come up with challenging ideas, demonstrate them and argue for them in public. I think that I have characterised some of his views correctly. Under the recall system that we are talking about, legislators could be subject to recall by their constituents at any moment. If that fact were held over MPs, it would drive away any opportunity to set out bold or challenging ideas that took a while to deliver.
If someone had an idea involving a tough and difficult period with a payback taking some time to come to fruition, and if there were a recall petition hanging over them that could be triggered for political reasons, I suspect that they would be off. People who wanted to bring forward bold and radical ideas would be deterred, and the proposal would have the opposite effect.
Mr Carswell: I do not wish to labour the point, but under our proposal, recall would be a two-stage process. The people, rather than a committee of grandees in this place, would decide in a vote whether there should be a recall, and there would then be a by-election. I would rather face the judgment of the good people of my constituency than a committee of grandees in Whitehall.
Mr Harper: I understand why my hon. Friend might think that, but Members of Parliament might feel constant pressure. There is always a challenge in politics when putting forward bold ideas and having time to allow them to come to fruition before facing people's judgment.
Those of us in the business of putting forward such ideas, whether in Government or outside, must make a judgment, and the Government's view is that it would not be sensible if a recall could be triggered at any time without there having been serious wrongdoing. We have set out what we want to do, and triggering a recall on serious wrongdoing was a policy proposed in the manifestos of all three major parties at the last election. My hon. Friends the Members for Richmond Park and for Clacton still have some way to go to persuade the Government to change position.
I turn to local government. Reference was made to whether recall should apply to other elected officials. Clearly, we want high standards of behaviour from
local councillors, as well as from Members of Parliament. We have announced that we will replace the existing standards regime, which is centralist and leads to vexatious complaints. We are working closely with colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government and local colleagues to decide what sort of regime will replace that. My hon. Friends had a meeting with the Minister with responsibility for decentralisation earlier this week, and I know that he will welcome any ideas about what that regime should look like.
Zac Goldsmith: I understand what has been said about the need for politicians to be able to make bold statements and to think outside the box, but the recall process would necessarily take many months. The right to trigger a recall would have to be activated and in turn, if that were successful, it would lead to a by-election in which the same candidate-the person who had been recalled-could stand. The process would be lengthy, and the time would give any challenged MP, local councillor, MEP and so on an opportunity to sell their ideas to the electorate. If they failed, they would lose their job, and that would be a consequence of democracy.
I am sure that every hon. Member here can think of individual local councillors who waste public money and deliver almost nothing. There must be a mechanism that allows local people who feel under-represented by councillors in safe wards, and who are given a limited menu of options at elections, to assert themselves and to ensure that they are properly represented. I again urge the Minister to consider including councillors in the recall mechanism.
Mr Harper: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's clarification.
Esther McVey (Wirral West) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) for this debate. Engagement with the public is vital, particularly now. We need to know that we can hold our elected representatives to account. In respect of the recall mechanism and direct democracy, is there not a need for greater sanctions within the establishment as a whole so that the public can see what goes on in the House and in their councils, and whether they are being correctly dealt with internally, as well as externally?
Mr Harper: My hon. Friend raises a good point. I referred to the standards regime and one reason why we will sweep that away is that we do not believe that it works adequately. The Secretary of State said that if councillors are guilty of illegality, sanctions and a system exist to deal with that. If they are guilty of political foolishness, the ultimate sanction is that electors can throw them out. That is why we will change the conduct regime, and we are considering how to do so. I am not sure what my hon. Friend is proposing on specifics, but that is why we will change the system.
In the few minutes remaining, I want to touch on the local referendum issue, which is a little closer to what my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park was talking about. We want to give citizens much more say in terms of local referendums than at the moment. We have made a commitment to give local residents the power to trigger local referendums on local issues. That was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Meon
Valley (George Hollingbery). The issue must be local and the local authority must be able to do something about it.
We intend to include the necessary legal provisions as part of the Decentralism and Localism Bill, which was announced in the Queen's Speech. That work will be taken forward by the Minister with responsibility for decentralisation. The measures will set out the nature of local referendums and whether and in what circumstances they will be binding.
My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park touched on the extent to which authorities will be bound by the decision. This is a significant step forward. At the moment, local authorities can have referendums, but they, not local people, decide whether to have them. Clearly, my hon. Friend will engage in that debate and consider the Government's proposals when they are published later this autumn.
Something else that we will do-this was set out in the coalition programme for government, and my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton touched on it-is to ensure that any petition that secures 100,000 signatures will be eligible for debate in Parliament. The petition with the most signatures will enable members of the public to table a Bill that will be debated and voted on in the House.
I listened carefully to what my hon. Friend said about how we should deal with the details of that proposal to ensure-this will be music to the ears of the Deputy Prime Minister-that measures that are brought forward are liberal rather than illiberal. We will announce details of that proposal in due course; they are currently being worked on. I will share the views of my hon. Friend with the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the House. We will think about them as we develop our proposals. That is a positive step forward.
My hon. Friend knows that the coalition Government's programme includes a commitment for open primaries. I heard what he said about how he would like them to operate, and I have taken careful note of that. I will pass
on to the Deputy Prime Minister his thoughts about how the debate on what is in the freedom or great repeal bill could be more liberal than the way in which the Government are undertaking it.
My final point picks up on the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley about local government and its scope. I hope that he will be pleased that, to promote devolution of power and greater financial autonomy, we have made a commitment to have a review of local government finance. That is a brave undertaking, given the history of local government finance reviews, but we want to do it because it is clear that unless local authorities are given more control over revenue and money, we cannot shift more power in that direction.
The Government have said that they will have a serious and wide-ranging examination of local government finance and its powers, I hope that my hon. Friend will welcome that. It is an important measure to give local authorities more power and responsibility, and will make the ability to have referendums and to engage local people in what local authorities do more meaningful. It is meaningless to have local referendums if the local authority cannot do much in response.
The coalition Government's package of political and constitutional measures that come under the heading of direct democracy, even if they do not go as far as my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park wants, are a step forward in reconnecting this House and this Parliament with the country and getting the public to feel that they have more ownership of how we do politics.
Zac Goldsmith: I want to ask on the record whether the Minister would be willing to come and meet the newly formed all-party group on direct democracy so that we can continue this discussion.
Mr Harper: I would be pleased to accept that invitation.
This has been a good debate, and has provided colleagues with the opportunity to make some good points. I am happy to continue it in a more informal setting so that we may continue to develop these ideas.
David Wright (Telford) (Lab): It is good to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Mrs Brooke. I am in the Chamber to talk about what I believe to be the most important issue in Parliament-my constituency. Of course, every hon. Member quite rightly thinks the same thing about their own constituency. As hon. Members will know, I represent the new town of Telford that was so designated in the 1960s and is one of the most successful new towns built post-world war two. The town comprises a mix of older communities on the east Shropshire coalfield such as Oakengates, Dawley and Madeley. In the 1960s, a number of new developments were created to infill the area between those towns. In many ways, the community is rooted in east Shropshire, although people have moved in, largely from the west midlands conurbation, when issues such as overcrowding and slum clearance were tackled during the 1960s.
There is a big challenge facing all new towns as a result of the fact that, because they were designated at a particular time, the fabric of the town ages over the same time period. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, significant parts of the new town estates in Telford needed to be regenerated. In addition, the older communities in our town also needed support and investment over time. Therefore, there is a mix of older towns that, as I have said, are focused around mining communities, engineering and heavy industry, much of which has now sadly gone. There are also new town estates that were designed in the 1960s and often based on the Radburn layout where non-traditional design patterns and architectural patterns were used to put housing estates together. That has thrown up a series of challenges that I will touch on in my speech.
I will now run through Telford geographically, going broadly from north to south, touching on the issues confronting each particular community. Before I do so, I will mention two key issues. First, housing has got to be the cornerstone of any regeneration activity. It was right for that to be the case when the new town was designated, and it is right for that to be the case now. There are a large number of people on the housing waiting list in Telford, with over 10,000 people seeking social housing. Over the past 20 to 30 years, we have not built enough social housing in the town and we must address that problem. I do not place blame on any particular Government; we must come together and acknowledge that we need more social and rented housing. That must be the cornerstone of our regeneration strategy.
Secondly, Building Schools for the Future is proving to be particularly successful in Telford, where the Minister will be pleased to know that the BSF programme is going ahead, largely because it has been well put together. The initial bid by the old council was good, as are the schemes being pursued by the existing council. It is a pleasure to say that I support the scheme and welcome the fact that it is continuing and that we will see over £100 million of investment in new schools across Telford. Some schools have already been rebuilt and are proving incredibly popular with pupils and parents. In many communities, those new schools will form the focal point of regeneration activity, which is why I am delighted
that the programme is going ahead and will be effective in towns such as Dawley and Stirchley, and right across the borough.
I would now like to canter through some of the local communities and mention one or two of the key issues and challenges facing them. My home town is Oakengates, which is one of the older communities in Telford. I shall begin by saying what an excellent job the chamber of trade is doing in trying to sustain and promote the local economy through its activities and its superb website, visitoakengates.com. I grew up in Oakengates, which has received investment over recent years. The theatre has been refurbished, and there has been a significant amount of housing-led regeneration on former industrial sites throughout the town. Partner agencies have come in, such as the Salvation Army, which redeveloped a new hall that is a fabulous facility. We have also seen investment through the primary care trust and with GPs in new surgeries. However, Oakengates faces continuing challenges that are the same as those confronting many towns. The street environment needs to be improved-I know that the council has been talking to the community about that. The town has serious parking problems, which are dangerous. We must redesign the centre of the town to make it more attractive to retailers and the public, and we must make parking safer.
There used to be a vibrant market, and there are still two or three stalls on market day, but there used to be a lot more. We need to see a revitalised market in Oakengates and in other towns across Telford. Perhaps the Government should go back to the drawing board and think again about how to promote markets, not just in Telford but across the UK, and what more we can do to support their establishment and survival.
In many ways, Oakengates is the centre of the night-time economy in Telford, and CCTV provision must be improved and enhanced. There is also an old, classic building called the Walker Tech. I know it well, but it has fallen into disrepair and is boarded up. It and must be brought back into use as quickly as possible. It is owned by a private developer who I hope we can encourage to bring the scheme forward. The Government must think about how they can encourage developers who own older, empty buildings to bring forward investment and bring classic old buildings, such as the Walker Tech, back into use.
Another area I want to mention is St Georges, which I also know well, as it is where I went to school. Continuing with my theme, there is another classic building in St Georges called the Gower street youth club. It was an old school building but it is now empty. It could be converted into flats to provide high-quality accommodation, but again, that scheme needs to be developed quickly. I gathered a petition of over 300 signatures from people in St Georges who want the building to be brought back into use. We must develop a strategy for new youth provision in St Georges. Regeneration is not only about bricks, mortar and fabric but about sustaining communities. As I have said, youth provision was taken away when the Gower street youth club was closed, and it has never been properly replaced. There are also significant parking issues in St Georges.
I will now briefly mention one of the new town areas-Hollinswood and Randlay. Hollinswood is a classic new town estate based almost on a Radburn-style layout with a road network that is different from a
traditional road layout. We need investment in the fabric and in things such as estate roads and footpaths. It is simple: often, regeneration is not about grandiose large schemes but about sustaining the investment that has already been made. In Hollinswood, we need investment in the local centre and in the general infrastructure of the estate.
To the council's credit, plans for the Randlay centre are extremely good, but we need to get on with them as quickly as possible. The community has been waiting for a long time to see the local centre in Randlay redeveloped. It is a partnership with the private sector; it is a good scheme and it should be moved forward as quickly as possible.
Dawley was the town on which the new town is based. It was called Dawley new town before being redesignated as Telford. Dawley is an old community that has undergone a lot of change. I welcome the investment in Dawley centre even though I have concerns and reservations about the new bandstand in the centre of the town and the reintroduction of traffic to the high street. However, I am open-minded and willing to be proved wrong about my concerns.
I very much welcome the investment going into Dawley, but we must do more, as we need a renewed drive against antisocial behaviour in the high street. I continue to raise that with the police, as it is an ongoing problem. Local residents constantly say to me that it is a serious issue, particularly at night. When they go in to use the town, there are gangs of young people concentrated in the town. We need to divert those people and give them something else to do, but we also need to crack down on antisocial behaviour, which is unacceptable. That must be a priority for the police in Dawley.
We also need the market back in the high street in Dawley on a Friday. Because of the street works, the market has been moved to the adjacent car park. We need to get the market back in the high street as quickly as we can, so that we can support local traders and continue to have a popular market in Dawley.
Stirchley is another new town estate, and is a good example of where Building Schools for the Future will sustain the area and help us to develop a new local centre with a focus. It is a good example of how investment through a project such as BSF can come together with a range of partners-the private sector, retailers and the health service-to remodel a local centre. I look forward to seeing exciting plans relating to Stirchley.
Brookside in my constituency is another new town area that needs investment. The local centre is a mess. The buildings are incredibly unattractive, and the street pattern has turned the area in on itself. It needs to be cleared and redeveloped, and we need to put together an exciting initiative, in partnership with the private sector, if that is to happen. There are serious street drinking problems outside that local centre, and the police need to deal with that effectively.
The Wrekin Housing Trust has been using people engaged in the future jobs fund to progress improvements on the estate. Unfortunately, that programme is coming to an end. More than 20 people have been involved. I would like to think that agencies could look again at
how we engage people, through schemes such as the future jobs fund or a replacement for it, to get people active, cleaning up neighbourhoods and receiving training as well. We need Government support to develop a major regeneration plan for the Brookside area.
One of the first major regeneration schemes that we pursued in Telford was at Woodside. I am very proud to have been involved in that project over the years, right from its start. We have done some fantastic work up there. We are now starting to see work progress on the local centre and on the area to the east of the estate, which needs to be redesigned. I would like to hear from the Minister today an ongoing commitment to Woodside. I am sure that he will be able to give one-I hope he will-because the project is the lynchpin of regeneration in southern Telford.
Similarly, I would like the Minister to give a commitment to further investment on Sutton Hill, which was the first new town estate to be built. It has major design and infrastructure needs. There is a big scheme on the anvil to redevelop the centre of the estate, alongside the investment that has been made in the children's centre and in the new school over recent years. There is a very positive agenda for Sutton Hill, but the local centre needs to be remodelled, and we have to examine the layout of the rest of the estate as well, because regeneration does not just involve the centre. We need to remodel the roadways and the neighbourhoods, because of the design of the estate.
I welcome the work that the police have done in recent weeks to tackle fire starting in Sutton Hill. Someone has been setting fire to vehicles and caravans there. The police have been working very hard on that, with information from the local community, and I very much welcome that. However, there are other issues of antisocial behaviour on Sutton Hill where, at night, young people gather and intimidate others. We need to think about how we police that area and, again, how we divert the people involved and make the environment safe.
I have mentioned a number of new town estates, and one of the big issues on those estates is empty homes, which are often owned by private landlords, who perhaps own one, two or three properties. They are very often absentee landlords who do not look after their properties. The Government need to re-examine how to secure possession of those empty homes, which are owned by a single landlord or small groups of landlords, because they drag an area down very quickly and a whole street can be blighted if one property is empty.
Madeley is a good example of how the private sector can lead regeneration. The scheme in Madeley is excellent, and I congratulate Tesco on the fantastic job that is has done there. The centre has been completely revitalised through a good partnership with Tesco, involving investment in the local street scene, rather than an out-of-town store. Tesco deserves some credit for that.
I now want to discuss Telford town centre, where there are a number of key private sector interests and where the local authority, too, has its offices. There is a real opportunity to transform the environment and create a lively centre with high-quality shopping, entertainment and office and residential development. My concern is that the partners are not producing a comprehensive vision for the area because the owners of
the shopping centre-Hark Group Ltd-and the local authority seem to be at odds over the best way to proceed.
The council sold its Malinslee House headquarters to Asda, which is moving out of the shopping centre. I disagreed with that decision, as the original plans for the redevelopment of the Telford centre envisaged the Malinslee House site as a mix of residential, office and small retail units. In my view, that is still the best use of the site. That said, local government means just that-government, not administration. The council has taken its decision democratically, which is fair enough. However, I am concerned that an application by Hark to create a new supermarket and a range of smaller shops and restaurants on the Red Oak car park site has been with the council for some nine months. That application must be determined as soon as possible. Hark invested £450 million when it purchased the Telford shopping centre, and that scheme could provide 400 jobs that the town desperately needs.
I welcome the initiative in the town centre to redevelop the Southwater area, and the council and the Southwater Event Group seem to be working well together. The Telford international centre is, by the nature of its name, a venue of international quality, and we need to support it fully. There is a real opportunity to transform the environment and we should grasp it.
Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on initiating this important debate. He is a fair-minded Member of the House, so will he congratulate Conservative-controlled Telford and Wrekin council on the regeneration partnerships that it has already formed and the regeneration not only of wards in his constituency, but of market towns in other parts of the borough? Also, will he put on the record his support for the formation of a local enterprise partnership with Shropshire council and other stakeholders in the county and in the borough, devolving powers from Advantage West Midlands to ensure that rural areas and places such as Telford and Wrekin-urban areas-receive more funding, rather than just urban areas in Birmingham?
David Wright: It is good to see my hon. Friend, as I shall call him, here this afternoon. There has been a good record, under both the Labour Administration and the Conservative Administration we have now, of putting together partnerships. Woodside was put together under the Labour Administration and has been very successful. Other partnerships put together by the Conservative-controlled council have also been successful. I do not think there is a need for us to divide up on that. We have a good record over a number of decades of putting together regeneration programmes, which is positive. We are meeting about the local enterprise structures in the next two or three weeks, and I shall be keen to see what the council is proposing on that score.
I am conscious of the time and I wanted to secure from the Minister a commitment to the regeneration programmes that we currently have in Telford through a confirmation from him that existing funding is safe, that schemes will be completed and that budgets through the local government settlement and through the Homes and Communities Agency will be protected. I would like to think that he will agree to commit the HCA to
work with the local community on the creation of new regeneration plans for areas such as Brookside, and that he will look positively on proposals that may be made to extend the scope of regeneration activity under way or planned in areas such as Sutton Hill.
Finally, will the Minister take another look at some of the housing issues? Housing will be a central element of our plans to regenerate the town. Will he consider any proposals that may be made to develop more social housing in the town and will he take another look-a serious look-at empty homes and their impact, not just in Telford but throughout the country?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Robert Neill): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Brooke. I join in the congratulations to the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright) on securing the debate, which he has made full use of on behalf of his constituents. In addition, I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), who is also interested in this issue. It is an important one, and I appreciate the way in which the hon. Gentleman put his case.
Regeneration is something to which the Government are absolutely committed, and I was interested and pleased to learn about Telford and Wrekin's ambitious regeneration agenda and the projects and programmes that were mentioned, including the multi-million pound borough town initiative. That tailored approach to meeting the needs of six individual and distinctively different towns demonstrates the importance of local understanding in developing successful regeneration programmes.
Local people have not only the knowledge but, more importantly, a vested interest in the best sense of that phrase in driving forward the changes needed to improve their communities and areas. That is why the Government are committed to devolving power to neighbourhoods, scrapping regional planning and allowing communities and local councils such as Telford and Wrekin to have much greater control and power over their own destiny. By removing the regional tier of government and abolishing the regional development agencies, neighbourhoods-and their councils and partners, as we heard-will finally be at the very heart of regeneration.
I am conscious, however, that no two areas are the same and that each has its own priorities and faces its own challenges. That was amply demonstrated by the hon. Gentleman. That is why we invited local authorities and business leaders to form local enterprise partnerships. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman looks forward to finding out the details. My hon. Friend is right that there is a bid from the local authorities and the business community in the Marches to join local authorities in forming exactly such a partnership, with interventions focusing on enterprise, employment, planning and housing, transport and infrastructure, education and skills, sustainability and strategic leadership. I know that the bid picks up on a number of those factors, including housing, education and skills, which were referred to during the debate.
Those partnerships are key regeneration vehicles. They will empower local areas to provide the strategic leadership needed to drive economic growth and enterprise and to meet local priorities. It will give local authorities, businesses
and the voluntary sector the opportunity to join in rationalising existing arrangements and focus economic activity at the local level. Those reforms, together with the new general power of competence, will make it easier for local authorities to bring about real change and drive forward the regeneration that their communities want.
Alongside that more permissive neighbourhood-based approach to delivering regeneration, we are developing a new way of thinking. We need to get away from the idea that things can be fixed only through Government intervention. The Government are not always needed to fix things. We need to get into the habit of finding local solutions to local problems, driven by local people. However, that does not mean that the Government are entirely out of the picture; of course we have a responsibility to provide communities with the right incentives, tools and information that they need if we want them to participate actively in the regeneration and economic growth of their local areas.
That is why, in addition to the introduction of local enterprise partnerships, the Government are establishing a £1 billion regional growth fund to provide support for projects that offer significant potential for sustainable economic growth that can create new private sector employment. As hon. Members know, the fund will operate for two years and will play a central role in rebalancing the economy in those regions where, historically, there may have been some reliance on public sector spending. Proposals for that could come from both private and public bodies-and, I hope, private-public partnerships. I am sure that local enterprise partnerships will play a key role in that process.
I am conscious that the spending review dominates a great deal of thinking at this time. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I cannot pre-empt its results.
Mark Pritchard: The local enterprise partnership submission to the Government from Shropshire, Telford, Wrekin, Herefordshire, the Marches and business partners makes various recommendations and requests. One relates to the Homes and Communities Agency, which has significant assets in Telford and Wrekin. I hope that the Government will look carefully and favourably on allowing HCA assets to come to the LEP in order that regeneration can take place locally.
Robert Neill: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I am aware of that ambition, and Ministers in my Department and in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will want to consider the bid carefully. I am glad that the LEPs are ambitious in such matters. We will obviously need to consider the detail of the bid, which was received only recently. I am sure that the growth of LEPs, together with the regional grown fund, will be of benefit for exactly that sort of consideration.
I am well aware of the hon. Gentleman's interest in housing and housing growth in Telford. He spoke of the shortage of affordable housing in the borough. Areas such as Telford, where there appears to be a recognition
of the need for housing and a willingness to grow, are precisely the areas that will stand to benefit from the Government's new homes bonus scheme, particularly in relation to the need for social or other affordable housing. Funding at 125% will be a particular incentive for such authorities. I am sure that that will be a material benefit.
I understand that Telford was one of the first authorities in the west midlands to develop a local investment plan with the HCA, in which it set out its key housing priorities for the next three years. As we have heard, it is focusing on town centre renaissance and regeneration, including the projects referred to by the hon. Gentleman, and the establishment of a housing and regeneration partnership board with the borough council and the HCA-another good example of community working.
In relation to the specifics of Woodside raised by the hon. Gentleman, I am aware that Telford and Wrekin council is currently working out proposals for the next phase of the project, including the provision of affordable homes, open space and the remodelling of existing areas. We will of course consider those proposals with interest. I hope that the levers that we have will encourage the council. Similarly, in relation to Sutton Hill, the first phase is under way, focusing on the local centre benefiting from HCA investment, match-funded by the local authority, and the strategy for future phases is being considering further by Telford and Wrekin council. Again, we look forward to seeing its proposals.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned empty housing; he made a fair point. It is still a problem in various parts of the country, and local authorities have a key role in identifying empty homes and working with owners to bring them back into use. The Government have given a commitment to explore a range of measures to bring empty homes back into use, and we began the process in the summer and autumn as outlined in the Department for Communities and Local Government's structural reform plan. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have seen that plan; it is available on the website. Again, the power of general competence gives a further potential lever for local authorities to use in that regard.
I turn to the question of markets. As a local councillor, I had a spell as chairman of my borough council's markets committee. It was a fascinating period of my political life. Markets make an important contribution to the local economy. We are alert to the matter, and my fellow Minister, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell), is working on the matter and will shortly be issuing further proposals. We hope to work with the market and retail sectors, giving advice and support for existing markets and encouraging new ones. The Government can work with the retail sector to encourage such things. The hon. Gentleman has made a timely intervention on that topic, and we are endeavouring to take it on board.
I look forward in due course to finding out more about Telford. I have done my best to deal with the points raised by the hon. Gentleman, and I am grateful to him for having drawn those points to our attention.