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No major economy is cutting its deficit at the reckless pace being followed by the UK. The Tory-led coalition's plans to tackle the deficit, which go too far and too fast, are not only avoidable; they are downright dangerous. However, nowhere are they going as far and as fast as in local government. We should consider the depth and speed of the cuts, and the fact that the Government are in denial about the impact of their choices.
The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government was so keen to curry favour with the Prime Minister and to become a member of the Chancellor's star chamber that he signed up to huge front-loaded cuts for local councils without putting up a proper fight. As a result, town halls throughout the country will lose an average of 27% of funding over the next four years, compared with an average of 11% for Whitehall. The Government have also chosen to front-load the cuts, so that the heaviest reductions will fall in the coming financial year. Councils have only until April to decide where to reduce spending. Coventry and many west midlands authorities face cuts to their formula grants of above 10%. With the added pressure of the loss of specific grants and the removal of ring-fencing, those councils must find spending reductions of more than £200 million in 2011-12.
It is a problem not only in the west midlands. The Association of North East Councils, a cross-party group, has said that the Government's proposed local government cuts are "undeliverable" for some councils; and the president of the Society of District Council Treasurers has called the front-loading "disastrous". The Secretary of State has not been willing to admit that the cuts are front-loaded; nevertheless, it is clearly another choice that was made by the Government.
Many authorities will be forced into taking damaging crisis measures. The hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) is absolutely wrong: it is not true to say that local government was expecting the scale and speed of the cuts now being imposed upon it. Local government faces much deeper and faster cuts than expected, and they will come about in a few months' time. Indeed, the Conservative chair of the Local Government Association said precisely that. That gives councils no time for innovation or to think of efficient solutions. Instead, there will be huge job losses and cuts to front-line services; and voluntary organisations funded by councils in the midlands will also face cuts.
Why is local government taking a 27% front-loaded cut, when Whitehall faces an average cut of 11%? Did the Government consult local authorities on the front-loading and other aspects of those cuts, and what steps did the Government take to satisfy themselves that the proposals were reasonable and workable? I suggest that the Government are in denial on all fronts.
The impact of the cuts is clear. The Local Government Association has calculated that 140,000 jobs will be lost in 2011-12. The Government deny that-or do they think that, as in the 1980s, unemployment is a price worth paying? The LGA said that councils will need about £2 billion for redundancy. The Government deny that, and have set aside £200 million to meet the cost of those job cuts. The Government have no idea of the cost of the redundancies, nor of the human cost of rising unemployment. The private sector, too, will be hit hard. For every job lost in local government in the west midlands, one job will go in the private sector.
"But what I can tell you is any cabinet minister if I win the election, if we win the election, who comes to me and says, 'Here are my plans' and they involve frontline reductions, they'll be sent straight back to their department to go away and think again."
I would like to know the precise nature of discussions between the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and the Prime Minister. However, it is clear from what is happening in the west midlands that front-line services will be hit-and hit hard.
Birmingham city council, which is run by Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, has already announced measures to restrict social care funding to those assessed as "critical", the highest level at which eligibility is set. Those people with substantial or moderate needs will instead be signposted to private and voluntary sector providers.
In Birmingham, children's social care services are likely to see cuts of £10 million in 2011-12 and £16 million in 2014-15. Youth services will be slashed to save £3 million in the next financial year, and up to £4 million in the following year. Those cuts are just part of the £170 million that will be taken out of Birmingham city council's budget. Much-needed services to the people of Birmingham will be lost.
The leader of Coventry city council has described the cuts as hideous, saying that the people of Coventry are paying the price for the bankers' follies. My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) was right to say that the cuts are not just restricted to local government. He pointed to the impact they will have on the west midlands police service. Up to 2,400 jobs are set to go, with more than 1,000 officers going over the next 12 months.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) rightly said, the proposals are grotesquely unfair. There are many criticisms one can make of them, but the strongest must be that they have a disproportionate impact on deprived areas and on vulnerable people. In his statement to the House, the Secretary of State said that he sought to achieve
"a fair and sustainable settlement for local government...that is fair between different parts of the country."-[Official Report, 13 December 2010; Vol. 520, c. 679.]
Yet data from the Department for Communities and Local Government demonstrate exactly the reverse. Even on the Government's own measure of revenue spending power, the west midlands is being hit disproportionately hard compared with the leafy shires of Surrey and the Bracknells and Wokinghams of this world. Data from the House of Commons Library make that absolutely clear. They show that the most deprived authorities in shire districts will receive an 8.5% cut to their revenue spending power, while the least deprived face only a 4.9% cut. Wokingham borough council, the least deprived unitary authority in England, will have a cut to its revenue spending power of just 0.6%. The Government have chosen to hit hardest the regions that are already hard hit, and that includes the midlands.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) was right to say that the city of Birmingham, which is the 10th most deprived authority in Britain, faces cuts on a huge scale-£170 million next
year. Yet, Solihull, right next door and ranked 199th in the deprivation index, will see a cut of less than half that, at 3.5%.
We all agree on the need to cut the deficit-of that there is no doubt-but there is an alternative to the speed, extent and distribution of these cuts to local government budgets over the next four years. The cuts are too deep and too quick. They will have a devastating impact on communities all around the country, with the most dramatic impact being felt in the west midlands. The Government have failed to listen to the concerns expressed by the communities and local authorities of the west midlands. The Opposition are determined to speak up for the communities and councils of the west midlands, and we call on the Government to rethink these cuts before lasting damage is done to the very fabric of our society and the most vulnerable within our communities.
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 congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) on securing the debate; I know that he takes great interest in local government affairs.
Some serious and interesting points have been made today, but let us start with the reality, which is that the damage was done by the incompetence of the previous Government. It is a bit rich, therefore, for the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) to end on the note that he did, but it is a pretty good starting point for me.
There will always be disagreements between hon. Members over the cause of the recession, but the truth is that this Government are picking up the tab for what went wrong under their predecessor's watch. It does not advance some of the detailed technical arguments that I shall come to later, to go into denial about that or to try to say that the situation is entirely the result of something that blew in from north America thanks to the bankers. That is not the reality, and the public do not believe that. We need to deal with that legacy; that is a fact of life. I am sure that, in reflective moments, Labour Members recognise that as well, because those who served under the previous Government know that that Government intended to make very significant reductions because they had to, and because we cannot sustainably continue with a deficit of £156 billion, and interest payments of £120 million a day; that simply is not viable. That is money that will not be available for any kind of public service because it is going to pay the debt charges. That is why the coalition has had to tackle the problem swiftly and head on.
Reference was made to the country's credit rating. I suspect that if the coalition Government had not come up with clear, credible proposals that the international markets knew would get a grip on the deficit, our rating would not have been as secure as all of us wish it to be. There is no pleasure in doing this; our economic inheritance necessitates this action. Denying that gets no one anywhere. It is fine for the Opposition to criticise; that is what happens. None the less, one hears very little apart from the words, "It needn't be so far or so fast." When one seeks anything more specific than that, very little is
forthcoming. We are doing the job. I understand why the Opposition will be carping from the sidelines, but they are not putting forward a convincing argument.
Let me deal with the specific points that have been raised. First, there is the question about the nature of the settlement itself. When Opposition Members attack my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, it is the highest compliment that they can pay him because it shows that he has got them rattled. Perhaps that is because he has more experience and understanding of local government than many people in this House put together. The reality is that we have sought, within the difficult financial constraints, to produce a settlement that does reflect a fair balance.
Let us look at what we have sought to do in some important material matters that were referred to. The question of dependency was raised by a number of hon. Members. The introduction of the differential bands for the floor damping was specifically intended to reflect differing levels of dependency. Some local authorities are significantly more dependent on central Government grants than others. It was this Government who, for the first time ever, introduced the refinement of differential bands to reflect that. I know some criticism was made of the whole question of damping. With respect to the hon. Member for Coventry South, it is not a new concept. As a local authority leader many years ago, I used to argue the toss about damping with Ministers. I know that it has changed over the years, but the concept is not new. We have inherited two things-a financial crisis and a commitment to pass down much more power, including financial power, to local authorities. We also have a local government formula that has been in place for many years but is rather creaking at the seams.
That is why, regarding the future, we decided that it was appropriate that although the comprehensive spending review period runs for four years, we would have a two-year settlement to deal with the immediate issues and after that we would institute a comprehensive resource review of local government. That review starts this month and I anticipate that hon. Members will be able to see the consultation document very shortly. The review will enable us to take an overall view of how we resource local government. That issue has been kicked around for a long time and we need to come to a view on it. So the review will enable us to address some of the points that have been raised in this debate.
Against that background, the Government have recognised that there needs to be a change. We have to deal with that change, but we also have to deal with the immediate needs and the immediate financial pressures. That is what we have endeavoured to do.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I want to put two points to him. First, if he is saying that the formula as it stands is unfair, why is he imposing the greatest cuts in the early stages rather than phasing them in with the changes to the formula that he
is talking about? Secondly, does he believe that it is fair that Wokingham will receive a cut in its spending power of £4.46 per person when Birmingham will receive an equivalent cut of more than £100? Is that fair-yes or no?
Robert Neill: The hon. Gentleman raises two points that I was about to come on to. First, I was setting the context. We all accept that a system that has worked but that has come to a point where it needs change must be readdressed, so I hope that Opposition Members will support the local government resource review and the alternative means by which, for example, we can enable local authorities to keep much more of the product of the business rate that they raise, in the same way that we want to give them much more flexibility. Indeed, we have already given them much more flexibility by significantly reducing the amount of grant that is ring-fenced, so that even within the tight settlement that we have at the moment they can move money around to reflect their priorities.
Secondly, however, the hon. Gentleman makes an error when he makes the comparisons that he did. That is because another part of what we have sought to achieve is to recognise not only that dependency upon a grant varies but that the formula grant is, of course, not the whole picture. That is why we use the concept of spending power, which the Local Government Association raised with us, because councils also have reserves and the ability-within some constraint-to raise council tax. Council tax doubled under the previous Government; there is a limit to how much more one can expect people to pay, so we do not want to encourage council tax rises.
The hon. Gentleman forgets something when he looks at the amount of settlement that is received by local authorities; in fact, the amount of settlement is very instructive. He quotes figures about certain authorities because it suits the purpose of his argument. For example, he refers to Wokingham. Actually, let us make the comparison between Wokingham and Birmingham. Birmingham receives formula grant of £663 per head; Wokingham receives formula grant of £125 per head. So Wokingham gets something like a quarter of the support from central Government that Birmingham gets. That is a reflection of the fact that there may well be greater needs in Birmingham, but the suggestion that that element of need is ignored in the system is inaccurate, because we must look at not only the changes within the grant but where we are starting from. That is one of the points that has not been mentioned in this debate.
In the context that the hon. Gentleman refers to, it is also very significant that it was this Government, in refining the formula after consultation with local government, that actually increased the weighting given to what is called the relative needs element of the formula. That is the element that reflects greater pressures, elements of deprivation and other demands. So we as a Government-as a coalition-increased that weighting to 83%, which is more than it had previously been. That change was made to assist councils that are under pressure.
It was also this Government that set up for some authorities-generally including those in the west midlands -a transitional grant to cushion the loss of the working neighbourhood fund. The working neighbourhood fund was set up by the previous Government as a three-year
fund and they were going to end it in May 2011 anyway. As far as we know, they were not planning any transition arrangement. To alleviate the difficulties for local authorities that are under pressure, this Government made available moneys even in difficult times to put in place transitional funding.
So, with respect, there is a little bit of protesting too much by Opposition Members that this Government have not recognised the difficulties that local authorities in the west midlands face. We have tried, within the constraints that we inherited, to do something about those difficulties.
The right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) referred to the specific representations that have been made about the damping formula. Perhaps I can take those representations on board. We have received a number of representations about the formula. The consultation period has not yet closed; I think it closes next Monday. Therefore, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will understand why I cannot say today what our response to that consultation is. I am aware of the suggestions that have been made. We will give a proper response to the consultation, but it is obviously right and correct that I do not make any response to the number of local authorities that have written in until we have had all of the material from the consultation process in.
Mr Robinson: The Minister has confirmed that the discussions are taking place. Of course we understand why he cannot necessarily tell us today about those discussions. However, can he just assure us about what he has just said, namely that the consultation will be taken seriously and that we will, in due course, receive a reply to the specific points made by the city council in Coventry? I am sure that such a reply would be well received.
Robert Neill: Certainly I can do that and I hope that in the future, when we have the local government resource review, Coventry city council and other interested local authorities will put forward views about how we can take the new system forward.
The Government are making the best of the difficult hand that we have inherited. However, we have done so with a determination to pass down more flexibility to local authorities. The number of separate grants has been greatly reduced-from 90 to about 10-and considerably more money has been rolled into the formula grant, which is generally regarded as being more equitable in its distributional effects than the various specific
grants that had existed previously. We have also increased the weighting given to a needs formula.
Of course I accept that regeneration is important for the west midlands in particular. It is worth remembering, however, that outside the limited area of formula grant the Government are in fact spending very considerable sums of money to support regeneration, and that money includes money that will benefit the west midlands. More than £20 billion is being provided to support regeneration, including regeneration of housing, which is important in the region. We are honouring existing Homes and Communities Agency contracts and existing regional development agency contracts, investing some £4.5 billion to deliver new affordable homes. In addition, there is £1.4 billion from the regional growth fund, which we are seeking to align with a similar sum in the European regional development fund. There is also investment in transport, including some £750 million for High Speed 2, which will have a particular impact on regeneration by speeding up journey times to Birmingham and the west Midlands.
So I think it is fair to say that the Government are putting in money to try to assist the councils in the west midlands and we are seeking to do so in a way that will encourage private sector investment. That is why the RDAs, which many of us believed had become unduly cumbersome although others may not agree, are being replaced by local enterprise partnerships that genuinely have private sector businesses working with local councils. It is also why we are committed to a new homes bonus, to encourage private sector investment in house building, and to the review of local government resource, which will actually make it worth while for councils such as Birmingham and Coventry that have a good history in relation to business, industry and commerce to grow their tax base once again.
So the Government are adopting a very positive approach. First, the settlement deals with difficult immediate issues. We have endeavoured to be fair and we believe that the settlement is fair and progressive, for the reasons that I have set out. Secondly, there is a plan that goes beyond the settlement, with the review of local government resource, which is consistent with both the current requirements and our commitment to localism. Of course, we will be entrenching that commitment when we introduce the Localism Bill for its Second Reading in the House next Monday.
John Pugh (Southport) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke. Few things are as beguiling as an anoraky discussion about IT on a wet Wednesday afternoon; I am sure that we are all looking forward to it.
I want to add to an improving narrative about the Government and IT, which are not normally considered a good combination; in fact, some would argue that a successful Government IT project is some sort of oxymoron. None the less, the Government are committed to saving money by advancing IT applications. They must save money, and that is one sensible way, on the face of it, to do so. Developing better applications, better use and better value in IT is part of the efficiency agenda that the Government are destined to follow.
That might seem in some ways to be a triumph of hope over experience, but IT is recommended primarily because it offers hope. It offers the hope of speeding up processes or eliminating manual processes, and the opportunity to reduce costs, especially-and, perhaps, regrettably-manpower costs. Those are real benefits in the long term. Unfortunately, the procurer-in this case, the Government-must shell out quite a lot of money in the short term. They must pay up and hope that they get results, and we are all aware of the disasters that occur when they do not.
I encountered a number of those disasters during the previous Parliament through my work on the Select Committee on Public Accounts. Nearly every Department can list one. I do not want to embarrass particular Departments, but I will cite a few. The Lorenzo patient administration software, which I saw demonstrated over the road in Richmond house, has not been implemented anywhere so far, although it was developed at appreciable cost. The Libra project, which affected the Ministry of Justice and the courts, went from £146 million to £232 million. A Department for Transport project ended up unexpectedly spitting out messages in German. The Ministry of Defence, which excels everybody in this respect, developed an infrastructure system that went from £2.3 billion to about £7 billion. I could add other examples with which we are all familiar through our casework: the Child Support Agency, tax credits, the Rural Payments Agency and so on.
I am extremely grateful for some of those illustrations, which were provided to me by the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon), who is something of an expert in the field and who is currently producing a book on why Government IT projects fail. I am sure that it will be available in all good bookshops and via Amazon. From what I have seen of it, it will be a forensic and rattling good read.
However, even the hon. Member for South Norfolk, with his expertise, accepts that there are mitigating factors. Even in the private sector, IT projects are not guaranteed to work. Sainsbury's had to write off a scheme developed at the cost of £260 million because its failure to operate properly was affecting the company's share price. The London stock exchange had a heck of a problem over many years developing some of its IT systems, presumably to the detriment of many traders.
Against that, one could say that there are many instances in which the Government are successful, but they are never noticed because they are never of any interest to the press. "Another successful Government IT project accomplished" will never be a headline anywhere. However, I can think of things that we use daily that work satisfactorily that were developed by the Government or Government agencies. I use an Oyster card regularly, for instance. The congestion charge is extraordinarily efficient; sometimes, regrettably, too efficient as far as some of us are concerned. The passport office's renewal service is good, and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency system for renewing car tax is exemplary as a development of Government via the internet.
There are quiet signs-the Minister will wish to draw attention to them-that the Government have improved incrementally, and maybe substantially, even in the short time that they have been the Government. I believe that it is now common practice to deal with major suppliers, at any rate, as a Government, rather than allowing Departments to be picked off one by one by clever salesmen from software companies and the big IT firms. That is a laudable development, and one modelled on what happens in private enterprise. There are also various hurdles to get over. If some permanent secretary in some Department outside the Cabinet Office thinks that he has an IT project that will run, work and do the trick, he must now satisfy the Cabinet Office that that is actually the case. Such vetting and approval is surely a development that we want to encourage.
Getting things right is a hard art to acquire, and we as a Government and a country might not quite be there. The net effect is that some of the softer savings that we seek-those that are not publicly contentious and do not involve cutting services-will not be secured unless we drill down hard into that area and anatomise what goes wrong.
There are two schools of thought about what goes wrong. One school blames Government procurement: the specification fails, the tendering process is inadequate or civil servants are being suckered by streetwise corporates or conned by the consultants whom they often rope in to advise them. Essentially, they are being sold a pup and getting the wrong thing out of the box. The other school of thought-there is a lot to it-is that it is not the procurement and tendering that are going wrong so much as project management by Government. People talk about deficiencies in client-side expertise in managing, developing and evolving IT projects and about the Government's relatively poor understanding of software development, saying that there are few experts in the civil service with a thorough grasp of it.
Over the years, there has certainly been appreciable evidence of inadequate cost control and checking, as well as evidence that during the course of a project, Ministers or civil servants often suggest some innovation that ends up costing far more than expected. A classic and highly publicised instance was when the Government asked Boeing to improve the avionics of helicopters. The net effect was a price tag that they could not bear at the time, so we ended up with grounded helicopters, largely because we did not understand what we were asking Boeing for and because the company was certainly not prepared to be thoroughly transparent about what costs might be incurred. Strangely, on that occasion, the MOD did not have the money.
I can think of other instances. EDS was almost taken to court by the Government for the failure of the tax credit system, but part of the problem was obviously the previous Government's haste to get it up and running, even though EDS genuinely mentioned the problems that it could see. Despite the Government's bluster about their intention to take EDS to court, they never actually did, ending in a settlement that was more favourable to EDS than some people might have expected given the debacle. That leads one to believe that EDS was not solely to blame for how the project evolved. There is also evidence that in the process of developing the system for the Rural Payments Agency, in particular, civil servants-perhaps the people one expects to monitor the process-took their eye off the ball.
We are therefore torn between two different diagnoses of the ill. It could be procurement; it could be project management. I suggest that they are two sides of the same coin. It might be genuinely insufficiently appreciated how different IT procurement is from other sorts of procurement with which Government are familiar, such as office furniture, tarmac and trains, although even trains have a software dimension nowadays. There is a failure to appreciate that what the Government are ultimately buying is not just things but new ways of doing things. I genuinely think that it is easy for Government to get the procurement of things almost right. I say "almost right"; we MPs are familiar with the printers procured for us by the House. I dare say the House got a good price for the printers, but replacement cartridges cost way over the odds. I must say that that does not seem to be an excellent form of procurement. Equally, there are countless incidents of Government simply not acknowledging that they will have to pay huge amounts in licence fees as part and parcel of what they are ordering, and that often leads to new deals with the companies when Government are alerted to the fact and they simply end up bearing the costs.
With regard to IT hardware procurement, the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office recommended some time ago that it would be sensible for all Government Departments to refresh their hardware every three years and that to leave it longer would be detrimental to true value. In a sense, even that advice is dated. I still work daily with a Power Mac that I ordered in 2001, so its lifespan is already three times longer than the NAO recommends. Therefore, I am not convinced that there is not an art to ordering hardware successfully, but I think that the chances of Government getting that bit right are higher than their chances of getting the new work processes and software processes right.
There are certain implications of Government buying new ways of doing things, rather than simply buying things. To raise a negative point, and one that is not implied, the solution that is often advocated is that we need ever more detailed and expensive tendering processes and more consultant advice. We certainly do not want sloppy tendering or a lack of clarity on objectives, but the problem will not be resolved by having greater detail in the specifications. That is not the answer, unless the name of the game is simply to mind one's back and prove that one has covered all the bases.
Prolonged over-specification does not seem to be the route out of the problem. Why is that? One thing that it does is put off small suppliers that cannot bear the cost or time constraints of a long tendering process and so
cannot stay the pace. One consoling point about the demise of Building Schools for the Future is that its tendering process often excluded many capable and competent people and small and medium-sized enterprises. They might have had a real future role, but they were simply excluded by the nature of the tendering process because they could not match certain preordained criteria.
Another unhelpful consequence of over-specification is that it discourages innovative approaches. I spoke recently with representatives of a computer company that does a lot of business with Government, and they said that they are sometimes hampered not only by the fact that they have a well-defined tendering process, but by the OJEC-Official Journal of the European Community-regulations. They said that Government sometimes interpret those regulations as meaning that they are obliged to tell a company's competitors if it suggests a new way that it can do what the Government want it to do that is different from what was set out in the original tender, and that is a distinct commercial disadvantage that companies would not welcome.
Over-specification also often leads to the development of complex and expensive bespoke solutions to problems that could otherwise be solved by adapting off-the-peg solutions. I do not want to mention it because it is a sad business, but the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority had to develop a new expenses system for MPs even though there are probably many available commercially that would have been adequate. I will give another example in which we are perhaps guilty of reinventing the wheel in order to protect our own interests. If a Member wants to look up what they have said in a debate, they can go to Hansard's search engine, which presumably was specially commissioned, where they will find a rather dismal process. If I try in a week's time to find what I said about IT, I will probably receive a message telling me that there are no matching criteria, or something like that. Instead, I will go to a commercially-developed website, TheyWorkForYou, which will take me straight to the Hansard pages that the Hansard search engine would not bring me to.
There is much to be said for Government simply making themselves open to a sensible counter offer when there is something out there that meets their needs, rather than demanding bespoke alternatives at every point and turn, because that plays to the big players, and we see evidence of that in Connecting for Health. Highly detailed criteria and inflexibility in the tendering process also rules out the kind of procurement, which works well in the private sector, whereby companies are approached not by individual big companies, but by consortiums that have a variety of skills and can operate in a fluid market.
Another route that we do not want or need to go down in order to find new ways of doing things successfully, which is what software procurement is really about, is having a new army of software programmers and geeks employed by the civil service. Essentially, we need better project managers who can understand the end-user experience, iron out unnecessary complexity and comprehend the implications of changes that are demanded. We need project managers who understand not only the technical implications of project change, but its human aspects. The classic example of failure to do so is the tax credit system, which was developed by a firm that had no familiarity with the circumstances and life conditions of the people who would be applying for tax credits.
I think that there is a route through, but it is not a command and control model. I suggest-I am sure that the Minister is inclined to agree with me-that any successful negotiation of IT and software matters must be a type of conversation, with an acceptance that product delivery requires refinement, hand holding and long-term maintenance. Therefore, we need to get smarter and recognise that it is a specific type of process.
There is a remaining issue that I will try to address in the minutes I have left-I want to leave the Minister 10 minutes in which to respond to the debate. Even if we accept that there is a new way of doing things, that the Cabinet Office will wise up to it and that computer procurement is more like a conversation than an adversarial game, we must recognise that sometimes even conversations turn sour and we end up with ineffectual and underperforming suppliers that are overly costly. What then can Government do? The normal response would be to think that such suppliers should be shown the door, notwithstanding the complication that might ensue for maintenance and further development.
What-if anything-tends to happen depends to some extent on Government's command over the whole process. If they are looking at a very proprietary solution, such as some quirky software over which a firm has sole and patented control, the options are dramatically reduced. Government can start the project again, which would be expensive and embarrassing, or they can continue to pay up and hope that the costs do not rack up too high, or they can just abandon a particular project and hope that everyone quietly forgets about it. There are incidents of that happening, such as Fujitsu's withdrawal from Connecting for Health. I suggest that it is in Government's interests, in most of their procurement, to insist on open standards, although not necessarily open-source software. As a powerful customer, that is exactly what they need to do.
I will make a brief comment on open source, which is something of an enthusiasm of mine and had the Chancellor's backing back in 2009. I think that there are real merits in overcoming the Government's aversion to open source and recognising that it has advanced, that it is producing some very sophisticated SMEs and that it is not comprised entirely of bearded men in pullovers working in garages. There is a widespread belief that it represents a substantial challenge to some proprietary brands of software, and many of the big companies try to stifle open-source encroachment in the public sector.
"We need to move in the direction of what are known as 'open standards'-in effect, creating a common language for government IT. This technical change is crucial because it allows different types of software and systems to work side by side in government. At a stroke it means big projects can be split into smaller elements, which can be delivered by different suppliers and then bolted together."
"When it comes to IT, big is not beautiful".
"Agile, modern technology can transform public services and relieve taxpayers of bloated budgets".
There is an overwhelming case for open standards, if not open source, as the Chancellor suggests. If we despair of a construction firm that is not building things properly, we can get in another firm that understands bricks. In mission-critical IT, projects need to be similarly resilient. If that does not mean open source, it certainly means open standards.
To conclude, the Government are moving in the right direction. They are trying to get the boring bit of government right, and that is important-we all subscribe to that-and the Cabinet Office has tried hard to embrace and spread good practice. I would like to hear from the Minister that that will be pushed further and faster, and with more success, because, if we are to believe the Chancellor, the savings would be substantial.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Nick Hurd): I welcome you to the Chair, Mrs Brooke. This is the first time I have served under your chairmanship, and it is a real pleasure. I do not know whether you count yourself as one of life's anoraks. I do not, but I thoroughly enjoyed that speech by the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh). I congratulate him on securing this debate and, if I may say so, on the elegant way in which he plugged the forthcoming book by my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon), with whom he served on the Public Accounts Committee.
It is one of the oddities of this place that the Minister for Civil Society should find himself responding to a debate on cost reduction in information and communications technology procurement, but that is my fate as the junior Minister in the Cabinet Office. I should start with an apology to the hon. Member for Southport: this is not my area of day-to-day responsibility, so I am a fish out of water here, but I shall flap to the best of my abilities for the next eight minutes or so. I take this opportunity to reassure him that the Cabinet Office takes seriously the opportunity he has identified to find substantial savings and efficiencies, and better ways for the Government to commission, procure and manage ICT. I shall focus more on procurement, because that is where the Cabinet Office is in a leadership role and where it is particularly focused at present.
The hon. Gentleman was clear about the context in which this debate takes place, including the overriding priority to control the deficit. He will know from his experience on the Public Accounts Committee that there clearly is considerable scope to make savings on ICT, and we are focusing on that. Specifically, there has been a review of major programmes, the introduction of the ICT moratorium and a new, rigorous approval process for procuring consultants and contractors. We expect that up to £1 billion might be saved through the moratoriums in this financial year, if current buying behaviour continues.
In addition to those short-term measures, the Government are committed to delivering sustainable reductions in ICT expenditure-both the cost of goods and services, and the cost of procurement-through the following key initiatives, which are being incorporated. The first one involves managing the Government's strategic suppliers on a consolidated basis from the centre as the Crown, not from individual Departments-an opportunity that the hon. Gentleman identified. We expect that
work to deliver up to £800 million of savings through renegotiating and de-scoping existing contracts with the Government's top suppliers.
The second initiative involves centralising the procurement of commonly used goods and services, including ICT commodities, to standardise specifications and aggregate the Government's expenditure more effectively than in the past. That will deliver significant sustainable cost reductions from the existing baseline of £13 billion over the next four years and, in doing so, build on the recommendations made in the Green review.
The third initiative involves streamlining the current process used to source from and contract with suppliers through the application of industry best practice-in this case, "lean" techniques, which have identified the potential to reduce procurement and sourcing project times from an astonishing 85 weeks to 27 weeks, depending on the size, complexity and risk of the procurement, while ensuring compliance with European Union directives.
The fourth initiative involves introducing new spending controls, including a moratorium on any new ICT spend with a value of £1 million or more, and a review of all major projects, a number of which are IT-based. So far, we have reviewed more than 300 Government ICT projects worth nearly £3 billion, and have recommended that more than £1 billion of expenditure be stopped or curtailed. We estimate that the review of major projects has saved £400 million this year. Those are all serious numbers.
We are also developing a strategy that increases the agility of public sector ICT in supporting policy delivery, that achieves greater value for money, that enables effective and efficient digital services and that empowers the big society through greater collaboration and transparency, which is a theme the hon. Gentleman discussed.
Let me elaborate further on each of the initiatives. First, on managing the Government's strategic suppliers as the Crown rather than as individual Departments, one of the first actions that we took as a new Government was to announce saving targets of £6.2 billion for this financial year. A key part of that involves working with our leading suppliers, including ICT suppliers, to reform our commercial relationships and try to eliminate waste while protecting the fundamental services that we need to provide.
We are driving down the cost of Government IT contracts by negotiating directly with suppliers to achieve cost reductions and efficiency savings in our contracts. As I said, those renegotiation activities are expected to yield £800 million of in-year savings and substantial future savings. In addition, we are commencing reviews
of large contracts with more than £100 million remaining contract value to identify further potential savings opportunities.
Secondly, on centralisation of the procurement of commonly used goods and services, we know that the Government buy the same commodity many times but at different price points. We are working to eradicate duplication, apply common specifications, and leverage the Government's considerable collective buying power more effectively. We are creating a new centralised procurement operating model, and that capability will be mandated across all Government Departments. That transformation of how the Government procure common goods and services through centralised category management is targeted to deliver significant sustainable cost reductions in the region of 25% from the existing baseline of £13 billion.
For each category, there will be a single supply strategy that will deliver a centralised sourcing solution, so that central Government can significantly reduce their spend through aggregation, standardisation and rationalisation. Centralised category management teams will negotiate best-value contracts for central Government Departments based on volume-bound agreements.
John Pugh: The Minister mentioned a moratorium. Clearly, a moratorium by itself stops the spend and in doing so saves money, but advocates and supporters of a project who want it to go forward will say that, if it goes forward, it will save far more money than will be saved by virtue of the moratorium. How does the Cabinet Office in its approval mechanism make a judgment about a specific project? Does it take a broad view on how credible a project is or how secure the savings are, or is it simply the case that a certain number of projects need to be stopped in order to meet a certain figure?
In my last minute, I would like to expand a little on the third pillar of our approach, which involves improving procurement processes. We know that bid costs range from £20,000 to £200,000 for every month. We are determined to reduce that, and the 6,000 pages of guidance on procurement within Government. The "lean" study has set out the task ahead of us: to refine and introduce a lean, new procurement process.
The point of all that is to try to reassure the hon. Gentleman that the Government take extremely seriously the need and the opportunity to be more efficient in how they procure IT and manage it on an ongoing basis.
I am very pleased that I have secured this debate on the subject of planning, which is so important to my constituency and to those of many other hon. Members. I congratulate the Government on introducing the Localism Bill at this early opportunity, and I am delighted that the Bill will have its Second Reading on Monday. It will at last abolish the regional spatial strategies and the top-down housing targets implemented by the previous Government. The regional spatial strategy for the east midlands required nearly 40,000 houses to be built in Northampton borough and South Northants district. The figure was not derived from local housing need, but from the previous Government's determination to control house building from the centre, a policy that has been shown to be an abject failure. Under the Bill, planning for the needs of local communities will be returned to democratically elected councils that know, appreciate and understand the local area and the concerns of its residents.
I would like to bring to the Minister's attention four issues that are extremely important to my constituents. The first is the St Crispin and Upton development in Northampton, and in particular the building of the final 80 houses in a development of 3,600 houses that has taken 10 years. The second is the West Northamptonshire Development Corporation's role in planning. Thirdly, I want to raise a concern about the planning vacuum that we are in until the Localism Bill reaches the statute book, and fourthly, I want to raise the subject of wind farms and their inclusion in the Bill.
The St Crispin development is an excellent example of a development that was approved by an unelected body in the face of overwhelming objection from the local community. Despite the objections of more than 130 residents and many Northampton borough and South Northants councillors, the West Northamptonshire Development Corporation has approved the final stage of the redevelopment of the St Crispin hospital site, which will see a further 80 houses being built there. The major concern of residents is utterly genuine, yet it has been completely disregarded by the WNDC. Approval for the 80 houses should have been subject to the building of a new access road. The estate's existing roads are unsuitable for even the current level of traffic, with the main road through the area gridlocked twice a day at school drop-off and pick-up times. The congestion is a threat to the safety of schoolchildren needing to cross the road.
Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this excellent debate. I am sure that all of us here have similar issues. In my constituency there is the proposed Tadpole Farm development, and traffic concerns are a major issue. Too often developers ride roughshod over the concerns of residents. I therefore fully support this debate, and very much hope that local communities will be empowered to get appropriate development.
In the area, access to a residential nursing home and ambulance access to the local hospital are jeopardised by existing traffic problems, even without this yet further development. A relief road that was part of the original package for the estate has not been completed, and there does not appear to be any plan to do so, with continued protests from residents and councillors being ignored. I urge the Minister to consider calling in the application under the Secretary of State's powers, and to see for himself the shocking disregard for the community on the part of an unelected quango.
I turn now to the West Northamptonshire Development Corporation. It was set up by the previous Government to deliver the housing targets imposed by the regional spatial strategy, because the councils were not trusted to deliver them quickly enough. A minority of WNDC board members were elected councillors, but from across three planning authorities, so little democratic accountability has been the body's key feature. In the last financial year it spent £17.8 million and received a grant of £15.9 million from the Department for Communities and Local Government. I am sure that residents of South Northants do not feel that they have received value for money. I am delighted, therefore, that the WNDC will be disbanded in due course, but I urge the Minister to consider again whether he can do more to ensure that all planning powers are passed back to councils during 2011.
Although the Localism Bill is progressing though Parliament as quickly as possible, at present it is a set of intentions rather than a law, and this interim period before it finally appears on the statute book has created something of a planning vacuum in South Northamptonshire, which in turn is creating difficulty and worry for councillors and local residents alike. I have received a number of letters and e-mails from concerned members of our local planning committees, and I am very grateful for the prompt attention that the Minister has given them. The planning committee's members say that until the Bill becomes law, they are afraid to turn down applications for new housing developments on the grounds of the huge costs incurred by the taxpayer if their decisions are overturned on appeal. I should be grateful if the Minister would clarify for my constituents and councillors the precise process and timeline for moving from the old top-down housing targets to the new bottom-up community-driven plans. Between today and the date on which the Bill becomes law, how should planning committees deal with applications when there is mass local objection?
Karen Lumley (Redditch) (Con):
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this very important debate. I want to pick up on her point about wind farms, and to ask the Minister for some clarity on his Department's thinking on this issue. I understand that there is some tension between the need for renewable energy in the form of wind power and the placement of wind turbines, in rural communities where there seems to be ample space. I am finding that my constituents, especially
those within shouting distance of the planned wind farms, such as the one in the Lenches, are fighting a huge battle against both the planning process and the large companies proposing the plans. I am keen to know what the Minister's Department will do to remedy the conflict between renewable energy and local community choice.
Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this excellent debate, which is very timely, ahead of the Second Reading of the Localism Bill next week. I also thank the Minister for coming along.
My hon. Friend has already hit on the housing targets. Kirklees council in my patch is looking to impose 28,000 homes on an area that just does not have the infrastructure, so the debate is very timely indeed.
We are now talking about wind farms-we spoke about them earlier today. There really is a vacuum in planning strategy for wind farms. People in my community, in Birds Edge, Holmfirth and Scapegoat Hill, are opposing wind farms that are totally unsuitable, and unscrupulous people who do not fit into the local community are coming in just to make money. I am really looking forward to the inclusion of this matter in the Localism Bill.
Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, particularly on the comments that she has made about housing, with which I agree. I have a huge problem in my constituency, where Labour's local development framework is proposing a massive expansion of the town of Brigg.
On wind farms, what we really need is clarity as to what the Localism Bill means for appeals. I have an application for a wind farm development in Flixborough Grange that has now been submitted for the third time, and I want to be able to go back to my constituents and tell them that once we get rid of Labour's planning system there will not be constant appeals to central Government, and we will have proper local decision makers. We really need clarity as to where the buck will stop on decisions about wind farms.
Andrea Leadsom: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and I continue to stress how much we all agree that renewables form part of the future for our energy security policy. I am well aware of the potential energy shortages in the latter part of this decade, a potential that was brought about by the previous Government's failure to prepare for the closure of elderly power stations and nuclear plants. A mix of energy resources, including renewables, is essential. However, it is unclear to me how big a part wind power can play in providing for our 21st-century energy needs.
Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): I want to raise a separate planning issue. In Wales, applications have been made for one or two sites that are owned by the local authority. Can attention be paid in the Localism Bill to applications when the authority is not only the applicant, but the judge and jury?
Andrea Leadsom: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Returning to my question to the Minister, I am unclear about how big a part wind power can play in providing for our 21st-century energy needs. Denmark, which is Europe's leading contributor to onshore wind farm development, and France have both changed their policies on wind farms, with Denmark stopping all further onshore wind developments. Recent press has highlighted how during cold weather, the efficiency of wind turbines can drop to negligible levels. During the latest cold snap, wind turbines that normally produce up to 5% of Britain's energy achieved only a miserable 0.2% at a time of greatest need.
Three picturesque villages in my constituency-Helmdon, Sulgrave and Greatworth-are dealing with the prospect of a wind farm in the middle of the three villages. The residents are open-minded, and many have said that they would accept the proposal if they could be convinced that it offers the right solution. However, Northamptonshire is one of the least windy counties in the country, and local calculations suggest that the output of the proposed turbines may be as little as 19% of capacity. It is worrying that the generosity of taxpayer-funded renewables obligation certificates means that even with so little energy production, the project is still worth while for the developers.
Craig Whittaker (Calder Valley) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate, Will the Minister respond to an ambiguity about the 50 MW output and neighbourhood plans? In Calder Valley, a plan is going through in Crook Hill, which is half in the Calder valley and half in Rochdale. If the two were combined, that would take the output well over the 50 MW limit for neighbourhood plans to have an input. Will the Minister clarify the position in that case, because many constituencies, such as Calder Valley, which have moorland around them, butt up to many other local authorities and local communities?
Andrea Leadsom: That is a good question, and it would be helpful to have a response from the Minister. Having read the Localism Bill in some detail, it seems that the new neighbourhood plans will include any generating plants of up to 50 MW capacity within their scope. I understand that that means that a community will be able to decide whether to include a wind farm of up to that size within its neighbourhood plan. I would be grateful for confirmation from my hon. Friend that that understanding is correct. I also understand that applications for generating plants of greater than 50 MW will be subject to determination by the Secretary of State as being nationally important. I would also appreciate confirmation that that is correct.
The Bill is not clear-not to me anyway. Specifically, I and my constituents would like to know whether wind farms that are turned down locally could in future be approved on appeal just as easily as has been shown to be the case recently. What reassurance can the Minister give me that the views of local communities really will count in future?
In conclusion, I welcome the Localism Bill, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for the support that he has given to my constituents, both in visiting us and in responding to questions. Northamptonshire was under siege by the previous Government¸ but I have great hopes of a bright future for my home county, where local communities will have a far greater say on planning developments and the focus will be on providing for local needs, not national diktat.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Robert Neill): It is a pleasure, Mrs Brooke, to come back for round 2 under your chairmanship this afternoon. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) on securing this debate on an important matter. She has attracted a not inconsiderable following for it, which is no surprise to those of us who know her, and she addressed the issue with her characteristic energy. These matters are significant and important, and I shall do my best in the time available to deal with the points that she and other hon. Friends raised.
I shall deal first with the St Crispins development to which my hon. Friend referred. I am sure she understands that generally, and consistent with the policy of the Localism Bill, it is not the Secretary of State's policy to interfere with the jurisdiction of local planning authorities, unless necessary. There is a long-established practice that Ministers do not comment on the merits or otherwise of individual planning applications, lest it constrain the Secretary of State in his functions should the case come before him at some time, in which case he must act quasi-judicially.
I understand, as my hon. Friend said, that the full application for 80 dwellings known as the St Crispins development was submitted after the change in departure regulations and the issue of circular 02/09. On its own, that scale of development would not normally be referred to the Secretary of State as a departure from the development plan. However, I understand that the west Northamptonshire development corporation took the view that it would be wise to refer to the Secretary of State its decision in principle to approve the application. Apparently that was because the application clearly forms part of a much larger scheme in the Upton Lodge master plan. I am sure my hon. Friend is familiar with that. The position now is that, because of that decision by the WNDC, Ministers will have to decide in due course whether that matter will be recovered and determined by the Secretary of State following a public inquiry conducted, of course, by an independent planning inspector.
Having set out why I cannot comment more, I hope I can talk generally about the criteria for dealing with such applications. The purpose of the Localism Bill is to reinforce that. Parliament has entrusted local planning authorities with responsibility for day-to-day planning
control in their local areas, and the Government's policy on call-in will be very selective. It is right that in almost all cases, the decision on whether an application should proceed is taken by the local planning authority. Its residents and citizens vote for it. In general, planning applications are called in only if they involve planning issues of more than local importance.
I accept that there are complications in my hon. Friend's part of the world because the west Northamptonshire development corporation is the decision-making authority in this case, but that authority, as with any other planning authority, must have regard to both the approved development plan and any material considerations. The same principle would apply to an inspector or the Secretary of State.
I understand why there may be a tendency for confusion between the role and purpose of the development corporation and another body-the west Northants joint planning unit. The WNDC was set up in 2004, and was given development control powers for certain types of development. A quinquennial review of all three urban development corporations, including the WNDC, concluded in January 2010. Following that review, the previous Administration decided to hand planning powers back to local authorities in a staged way, beginning in April 2011 with raising the threshold of applications dealt with by the WNDC to 200 houses and the return of mineral and waste applications to the county council. Similarly, the threshold for commercial applications will also be set up then.
As the corporation was set up by a formal order, legislation will be required to make the changes. Subject to assurances that the local authorities have adequate capacity to operate their planning systems, we see no reason why the full transfer of powers should not be completed by April 2012, when we will be back to the normal situation of the local authority being the decision-making body. The joint planning unit was set up by statutory instrument, following agreement by the county council, Northampton borough council, Daventry district council, and South Northamptonshire district council to prepare a local development framework for their area, west Northamptonshire. That arrangement could be revoked by a constituent authority that requested the Secretary of State to use powers under section 31 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004.
My hon. Friend mentioned the wishes of her district council in South Northamptonshire to leave the joint planning unit, and my officials have sought views from the other local planning authorities involved. Once all their views are known, it will be necessary to assess the effects of dissolving the joint committee, or modifying it so that South Northamptonshire can sit outside the committee but still contribute to the joint planning of growth, particularly on the edge of Northampton. Although we seek to get rid of artificial structures, the Localism Bill will place an obligation on local authorities to collaborate on and co-ordinate spatial planning issues.
That is where are at the moment. The WNDC will be gone and its powers returned by April 2012. Because it was created through a different route, the position of the joint planning unit is slightly different and any change would require the views of the other authorities. We are seeking that, and I will obviously speak again to my hon. Friend once we have a clear view as to how other people will react and what is the best way forward.
Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) for securing this important debate. I am concerned about enforcement and appeals, and I am thinking about the transition from the existing planning regime to the new regime once the Localism Bill becomes an Act. Will the Minister comment on a situation where an appeal is made about a recent decision, and how that might be treated under the new planning regime?
Robert Neill: There is a legitimate role for an appeals process in a planning system. Planning decisions are matters of important public consideration, and in many circumstances affect proprietary rights. Our advice is that it is necessary to have an appeals process, and to ensure that the system is compliant with human rights legislation. We must have a planning system, and our desire is to avoid the system we have at the moment, whereby planning by appeal takes place almost automatically because local authorities are almost forced to refuse applications because they are grounded on the basis of the regional spatial strategies, which do not have regard to local needs. I want to get away from that. The scheme in the Localism Bill-it is too detailed for me to go through at this stage-involves front-loading the process to encourage much greater community involvement in the development of neighbourhood plans; and developments over a certain minimum threshold will require pre-application discussions. The best developers do that anyway, and that will provide a greater opportunity for issues to be thrashed out before the decision-making process, rather than being decided on appeal.
The Bill proposes to abolish the pre-determination rule. That rule is a considerable vice because it prevents local councillors from speaking out on behalf of their constituents for fear that they will be prevented from being involved in a decision. There will have to be an appeals process, but I hope that if we can reduce the volume of cases that go through it, and look at how to simplify it and make it more intelligible, that will deal with many of the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire.
Andrew Percy: I want to be clear about the issue of appeals. The local authorities of East Riding of Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire have hit their 2020 targets for renewable energy generation. I know that those targets have been removed, but we feel strongly that we already have our fair share of wind farms. What will be the situation with appeals? It is likely that our local authorities will want to continue to reject wind farms. We cannot front-load the system because we feel that we have already played our part. What will be the appeals process in such situations?
With respect to my hon. Friend, it is not realistic to spell out that degree of detail at this stage, but it will become apparent. Under both the current system and the new system proposed in the Bill, in which we want to place more weight on the view of the local authority, we are looking at the basis on which an appeal could override the view expressed in the local plan, and to what extent that would be the appropriate course. The local planning authority, be it the statutory planning authority or the neighbourhood plan that would become part of the local plan, has to be cognisant of and consistent with national planning policy. It is the
coalition's policy to support the development of wind farms where appropriate, but I accept that there is a concern to ensure that the community's views are properly articulated. That is why we will address those points about how to get the balance right, not just in the Bill but in parallel with the important reforms and the creation of a national planning priorities framework. That is an important point and I ask my hon. Friend to be patient. We will consult on the national planning framework, and I suspect that he and his constituents will want to have an input into the best means to deal with that issue.
Andrea Leadsom: Are the Government considering allowing appeals against approvals that have already been given? That would be the opposite of an appeal made by the developer, and could be an appeal by local residents who are unhappy with the decision already taken.
Robert Neill: A number of alternatives were posited on that matter, but there are complications to any significant reform of the appeals system. Our instinct is, first, to put the Localism Bill into practice, secondly, to get the national planning framework up and running, and then to look at the appropriate means of proceeding thereafter. Of course it would be appropriate for a neighbourhood plan to express a view about things such as wind farm development, subject to the 50 MW threshold that would turn a scheme into a nationally significant infrastructure project.
Guto Bebb (Aberconwy) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) on securing the debate. I represent the constituency of Aberconwy. It has one of the largest wind farms currently proposed, Gwynt y Môr, which is a £2.2 billion development. It was opposed by local residents and the local authority, but it was approved by the current leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), when he was Environment Minister. It is a strategic development, and I understand that under the Localism Bill it is likely that such a decision would be made at the centre rather than at local level.
Although the developers promised a significant community compensation package, because the plan was opposed by local residents and the local authority, when approval was given by central Government the compensation package was vastly reduced. Would that issue be addressed in the Localism Bill?
Robert Neill: It should be. We want to spell out with rather more precision exactly how local communities can benefit from the approval of wind farm development, where appropriate. There has been a lack of clarity about that until now. We also want to look more generally at how one can capture the benefit of what is called "planning gain" for communities within that context. There will be a hold for neighbourhoods in that regard, and they will be able to benefit in a more systematic and transparent way than they do at the moment. It will be possible for things such as wind farms to be dealt with in a neighbourhood plan. However, any such plan must be consistent with the overarching national policy that we intend to set out in the national planning priorities framework.
I hope that that has dealt with a number of the issues raised, although I have not been able to deal with every point made in the time available. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) raised a point about a multiplicity of applications, and I will have to return to him on that. To some degree, we must delve into the realms of case law when we get to that topic, and I do not want to commit myself to that on the hoof. However, from what I have heard, I suspect that there are likely to be a number of participants in the proceedings of the Localism Bill as it makes its way
through the House, and I welcome the interest shown by all my hon. Friends in that important matter.
I end by congratulating-and I think thanking-my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire. She has given me a busy time at the end of a Wednesday afternoon in dealing with the debate, and I will get back to her on any specific points that I have not been able to address.