Lisa Nandy (Wigan) (Lab): I initiated the debate because libraries are under threat. In the Wigan borough where I live, the library service faces a £1.1 million reduction and the 18 libraries in the borough all consequently have an uncertain future. Nationally the picture is even bleaker. An estimated 400 libraries have closed or are under threat of closure, and some predict that by the time the process is finished the number will run into the thousands. I am pleased that so many hon. Members are here for the debate, but I suspect that it is because many of them are also concerned about the libraries in their area. That should trouble us all.
The Government appear to have abdicated all responsibility for the matter. Time and again I have listened to Ministers, when questioned by hon. Members on both sides of the House, saying that local authorities bear legal responsibility for library provision. The Minister pledged, in the debate on the subject obtained by the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), that he would
"stand shoulder to shoulder with local authorities"-[Official Report, 7 September 2010; Vol. 515, c. 72WH.]
to protect library services. He must have been as surprised as I was to see that my local authority took a hit of £55 million in the spending settlement, front-loaded, thus allowing no time to find the Government's much lauded efficiency savings. As a result the local authority is in no position to protect anything but the most essential services, such as child protection and care for the elderly. Urging local authorities to take responsibility for libraries while slashing their budgets is condemning libraries to closure. To suggest otherwise is disingenuous.
Mel Stride (Central Devon) (Con): I welcome the fact that the hon. Lady has secured the debate, because like her I believe that libraries are extremely important. Does she applaud the Government, as I do, for the future libraries programme? It is considering the future of libraries, involving communities more in how they should be shaped, whether through the use of technology, as community centres or by facilitating transactions and access to local services. Does she see that as a positive thing that the Government are doing as a commitment to libraries?
Lisa Nandy: I do not welcome the future libraries programme when the libraries in my area have, it seems, no future, because of the incredible reduction in the council budget. I shall talk later about ways in which libraries can be improved and about work that is happening. However, I urge the hon. Gentleman to understand that libraries cost money to run and cannot simply be run by volunteers on thin air.
We all know the value of libraries. That is not in dispute. It is clear that they have a particular impact for the disadvantaged. Catch22, a charity that works with young people, sent me in advance of the debate compelling evidence of the value of libraries for young homeless people in my Wigan constituency, particularly in relation to the internet. One in five people still does not have access to the internet. At a time when six people are chasing every job in Wigan, taking away internet access does not just feel like a kick in the teeth-it is a kick in the teeth. Catch22 sent me the story of Sam, aged 20, who said:
"My life is made more difficult by not having access to the internet or a PC...It seems that everything now requires the internet; often other organisations tell me to look online to find information. This includes the Job Centre, Housing Benefit, choice based lettings, Sure Start, health information. On occasions when I have not had enough phone credit to contact an agency by phone, they have suggested that I email them. If I can't afford credit for my phone what makes them think I can afford the internet? I do not see how I will be able to save up to buy a PC in the foreseeable future as it is difficult to manage on benefits. I do want to better myself, but it is all a struggle."
Mr Andrew Smith (Oxford East) (Lab): I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this enormously important debate. Further to her last point, does she agree that libraries are a sanctuary and haven for many young people where they can do their homework when they do not have the right conditions at home and the school library is not open? To deprive them of that, especially in the most disadvantaged communities, as Oxfordshire county council proposes to do with its closure of libraries in Blackbird Leys and Littlemore, as well as in Bury Knowle and Old Marston, is a disgrace.
Lisa Nandy: I agree with my right hon. Friend and know, having worked with many disadvantaged young people in the Oxford area, that people often make the mistake of thinking that Oxford is an entirely affluent area when in fact there are significant pockets of disadvantage. I am sure that libraries are a huge asset to those young people in trying to better themselves.
Libraries also obviously provide clear benefits for older people, children and single parents, but they are not merely havens for those groups. They are the heart and soul of communities. I shall not bore hon. Members with my love of libraries, which I expect is the same as theirs, forged since early childhood. I shall not explain how I have kept libraries going in my area by paying fines over years; they can rest assured that I have done my bit. The women from Standish library who are running a campaign to save it came to my surgery and explained eloquently why it is the heart and soul of the community and how it brings people together. They told me that removing the library would be like ripping the heart out of their community. That is why campaigns are springing up around the country and it is why the people of this country fought so hard in the first place for free public libraries to be established. We should pause to recognise what a struggle that was.
The Public Libraries Act 1850 was much disputed. It was a huge victory and marked a clear step forward in the advancement of working people. It was part of an era of enlightenment and social progress. It is a bitter irony that the Liberals fought for those libraries against their Tory counterparts, and that today we witness the spectacle of a Tory-Liberal coalition presiding over the unravelling of that landmark legislation.
In the north-west, that history could not be more important. Manchester central reference library was the first free public library to be established under the Act. Salford colleagues would probably remind me that Salford managed to establish a free public library under an earlier museums Act, but Manchester's was the first free public library to be funded by public subscription under the 1850 Act.
"I call it an arsenal for books are weapons whether for war or self defence."
Incidentally, Charles Dickens also attended the opening of that library, and talked passionately about the advancement of working people, and the step that had been taken. It was in Chethams around the corner, the first free library in the English-speaking world, that Marx and Engels researched the "Communist Manifesto". I appreciate that that argument might not appeal to the Minister, but it is important to note that the history of working struggle was rooted in one of the first free libraries in the world. Free public libraries marked a huge advance towards a better, more enlightened society. We have continued to build on that legislation and progress ever since.
Now the Government seem hell-bent on unravelling 160 years of progress, but I want to tell Ministers that the evidence suggests that once those libraries are gone, they are gone for ever. Ministers should think carefully before they take such a step.
Guto Bebb (Aberconwy) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing an important debate, although I am slightly disappointed that it has immediately become very partisan. In Aberconwy the library service faces cuts, but they have been happening since 2006. Indeed, the local authority has commented on a severe lack of investment in the past 10 years. How does she square that with her comments about the current proposals, or with her accusations against the coalition?
Mr Andrew Smith: To return to the point made by the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb), does my hon. Friend agree that the strength of the huge community campaign that is growing up around the country-more than 300 people met in Oxford town hall last week-is that it is non-partisan in the sense that the campaign supporters include many Liberal Democrats, Conservatives, Greens and others, as well as Labour supporters, who are appalled at what the coalition Government are doing?
Lisa Nandy: That is also the case in my constituency. Those people are all united in a desire to protect their library services. They do not care whether a Conservative, Liberal or Labour Government are doing this; they value their libraries and want to see them protected.
The argument that library use has declined has been much overstated. Last year, 83 million children's books were issued by libraries across the country, just 10% fewer than a decade earlier. If we consider the pressures that libraries are under-from cheaper books, online texts and different forms of borrowing-it is not their decline that is remarkable but their very survival.
In my Wigan constituency, library usage is up by a phenomenal 17% in six years as a result of the investment programme under the stewardship of Rodney Hill, the director of our culture and leisure trust, who himself used to be a librarian and who understands only too well the value of libraries.
Alison McGovern (Wirral South) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. On the question of library usage, is she surprised to learn that at Bromborough and Eastham libraries in my constituency, the reading groups have waiting lists?
Yvonne Fovargue (Makerfield) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. In the borough of Wigan, which I also represent, there have been concerted campaigns, such as Bookstart, to encourage people to use libraries. People are already taking ownership of their libraries. When the residents of Ashton heard that their library was under threat, they almost immediately set up an online petition to prevent it from being taken away.
I gave the example of my Wigan borough, because it shows that libraries can continue to improve and to be relevant, but they need investment. In researching this debate, I was pleased to see that web hits on libraries nationally are up by 4%, which shows that libraries are starting to adapt to changing usage and that they can be a success. I say to the Minister that library usage is undeniably changing, so by all means let us debate the future and the improvement of such services, but let us not pretend that libraries can be run on thin air and that this Government are presiding over anything other than the unravelling of one of the great steps forward in civilised society.
I have heard a great deal of talk about volunteers, and the hon. Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride) has asked me about them. Coming from the charity sector, I am well aware of the value of volunteers, but we cannot run a service on volunteers alone. We need infrastructure and paid staff. To suggest that volunteers can take the place of skilled librarians is an insult and not something with which I want to be associated.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport (Mr Edward Vaizey): Does the hon. Lady have a specific reference to someone saying that volunteers should take the place of librarians?
Lisa Nandy: I have heard a great deal of talk in this debate about the use of volunteers. I am interested to know whether other hon. Members share my sentiment about the use of volunteers. I presume that the Minister is dissociating himself from the view, and I am grateful to him for that, because it is insulting to skilled librarians to suggest that they can be replaced simply by volunteers.
Lisa Nandy: In conclusion, this is a test of whether this Government value not just libraries but communities. If the Minister takes this step, there will be no way back for generations. I urge him to ensure that libraries are protected. If he will not, I urge communities to make themselves heard on the national day of action on 5 February.
Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) on securing this 90-minute debate. She referred to the fact that earlier in the parliamentary Session, I had a Westminster Hall debate on the future provision of library services. I am delighted to see so many hon. Members here today to debate this important subject.
Libraries face challenging times. First, the funding of library services is not a statutory requirement. There are certain rules, criteria and aspirations that councils should change, but when facing challenging budgets and the need to make efficiency savings or cuts, they often see libraries as a relatively soft target. When I visited libraries across the country in my role as lead member for libraries on Swindon borough council, I found all too often that officers and councillors did not use the libraries themselves and so did not appreciate their value to local communities.
We must acknowledge falling usage. Five years ago, 48% of adults visited libraries compared with 39.4% now. Such a fall is against a backdrop of increased reading, particularly among children, so the decline in visits is a worrying trend. Plenty of surveys have been commissioned and much money has been spent on asking people how they would like to see their library service improved rather than on actually improving it. The surveys have showed that the public want good choice, convenient opening hours and a pleasant environment. That sounds obvious, but all too often local authorities do not embrace such factors. I will briefly touch on each of them and on how local authorities can embrace the new opportunities that present themselves.
Let me first turn to good choice. When I was preparing for my Westminster Hall debate, the fact that staggered me the most was that only 7.5% of a library budget is spent on book stock. Too much is spent on the corporate structure, different layers of managers and the bureaucracy of categorising and labelling books. We do not have a universal system. Imagine Amazon getting different
towns to categorise the same books; it is madness. That money should be released back into the local libraries. It should be given to local library managers, who understand their own individual communities, to spend on books to get people back in. We would not see a commercial bookshop spending only 7.5% of its turnover on books. We should also allow residents to have a greater say on the books that are stocked. When we opened our new £10 million central library-unlike many public sector projects, I am pleased to say that it was delivered on time and on budget-we allowed local residents to choose the book stock. Unsurprisingly, those same residents came to take out those books after it opened.
As for convenient opening hours, libraries must embrace the mentality of the retail sector. We opened the new North Swindon library on a Sunday. It is next to one of the largest Asda/Wal-Marts in the country and so Sunday is one of its busiest days. Moreover, the new central library is open on a Sunday. A community library should always match the footfall of the local area. Self-service equipment inside new facilities that are not traditional libraries also provide a good opportunity to improve services. For example, I have visited leisure centres and community centres that have installed self-service equipment. Such facilities offer an extension of the mobile library service project in the sense that they are taking books out to the community. Such facilities should not necessarily replace traditional libraries in an area, but if there is no library and there is not enough money to provide one, they can help.
Self-service equipment often costs only £5,000. If a mobile library service is already touring in similar areas, it does not take too much to replenish the stock. All too often, existing community libraries are open for limited hours-in many cases it can be between eight or 10 hours -so volunteers can step in and help to ensure that that facility is open for longer. Users who rely and appreciate the expertise and skills of the traditional core staff can still go to the library in the hours that already exist. If volunteers wish to open beyond those core hours, then more power to them, and such action is certainly something that the big society should embrace.
On the importance of having a pleasant environment, another challenge for libraries is that as much development has taken place in this country over the years, all too often libraries have been overlooked for section 106 contributions. If hon. Members look back at the history of many of their community libraries, they will struggle to remember the last time that they received a lick of paint or a modernisation. Too many libraries are not meeting customer expectations. I am delighted that in my constituency section 106 money was used to rebuild the Highworth library and it has just been announced that Moredon community library will have a major refurbishment on the back of a 350-house development just down the road. Those are the types of opportunities that local authorities should embrace and we as politicians should lobby to ensure that libraries are considered seriously where section 106 money is available.
We should also look to combine facilities. There is a very big national campaign for libraries. The right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) talked about the 300 people who came to an event at Oxford town hall. We have had similar experiences in my constituency. There was a threat of closure to the Old Town library and my hon. Friend the Minister came to visit Swindon
during the campaign against that threat. The Old Town library was a very poor facility with limited opening hours and falling usage, but the local community passionately supported it. When I was still the lead member on the council for libraries, I challenged that community to get behind their local library and boy, they did so in droves. In the end, a compromise-
Alison McGovern: The hon. Gentleman is making a compelling case for a good future for libraries, and I am pleased to hear about the changes that he has described. What impact does he feel the current financial settlement that local authorities are dealing with, including the speed and depth of the reduction in their funding, will have on the ability of people doing the job that he used to do-being a lead member on the local council for libraries-to deliver the type of vision that he is outlining?
Justin Tomlinson: The obvious answer is that it is a challenge, not only for libraries but for any service. However, we are in the reality that we are-we have to tackle the public deficit. I do not want to get all political, but I think that any debate that we attend in Westminster Hall will show that all services face similar pressures. That is why libraries must look in particular at their corporate structures and at the fact that they are only spending 7.5% of their budget on book stock. It does not take a brain surgeon to realise that money is not being efficiently spent right across library services, so there is still a challenge ahead.
I was talking about the threat of closure to the Old Town library in Swindon. This is what we did. About 400 metres up the road, we had a relatively new and refurbished arts centre, called the Old Town arts centre, with a 200-seat theatre in wonderful condition. So we moved the Old Town library into the arts centre, and we transferred the core 18 hours of service that already existed in the old library, so that if people liked that traditional service they could go along to the arts centre in those core times. However, there was a much larger and more pleasant library environment at the arts centre. Also, because the arts centre was manned for 40 hours a week with box office staff, the self-service library machines could be left on and if anybody had a problem using them the box office staff could step in and say, "This is how you use this facility." So the opening times for the library went from 18 to 40 hours. In addition, every time that there is an evening show at the arts centre, the theatregoers, if they are so inclined, can use the self-service machine, so sometimes we are looking at an extension of opening times from 18 hours to 60 hours.
Obviously, the usage of that library has increased-by 24%-and membership has increased by 193%. The arts centre café had kept opening and closing, because it did not have sufficient footfall in the daytime to make it viable, but it is now viable and the arts centre itself is now selling more tickets, because people come in to the library to take out a book of their choice, they see that the show that evening has not sold out and that it is their particular choice, and so they go and buy a ticket for it. It is an absolute win-win situation, and in these times of challenging costs the council has saved itself quite a lot of money, because it is paying for one building rather than two.
Furthermore, when we built the new Central library in Swindon we made sure that the opening hours were tied up with the footfall, which hon. Members have already discussed. Again, we ensured that there was a café environment at the heart of the library, so that people did not just pop in, grab their book and leave. Instead, people spend time using the café and the library as an enjoyable environment. We also created the library so that it could be opened in part, because I have seen some fantastic new flagship central libraries being opened across the country that have then proved to be simply too expensive to open for long hours. I went to one that had cost £15 million but it was only open for four hours on a Saturday in a town centre, which was dreadful. So, within the new Central library in Swindon an express zone has been built, so that at the non-peak times a chunk of the library can remain open, matching the available budget. Also, within the library there are areas for cultural events to take place, such as readings by authors and poets, and meetings involving different groups, because libraries should be a focal point for local communities.
To summarise now, I will talk about some of the opportunities for libraries. Many people have already mentioned volunteers, and they have an important role to play. It is right to say that volunteers cannot simply replace all traditional library staff. However, the best model is one where existing core library staff are transferred, so that those people who rely on an excellent library service in core hours can still go at those times. Nevertheless, we should not then lock the library doors for the rest of the week. We should empower local communities to take over the running of local libraries at those times.
Yvonne Fovargue: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that his view of libraries, where the librarians are actually in the library and simply giving out information and books, is rather narrow? I went to an excellent event run by local librarians for young children, where the librarians showed children books. The enthusiasm of those children and the professionalism of the library staff were unparalleled. Those children were then motivated by the visit of those librarians to go to their local libraries.
Justin Tomlinson: The hon. Lady must have spectacular mind-reading abilities, because that is my very next point. By empowering local librarians to run their local libraries and to participate in their local communities, libraries should be looking beyond their traditional facilities and urging their staff to go out into their local communities to encourage people, particularly young children, to embrace the wonderful services and facilities that are available in the libraries themselves. Part of that process involves reducing the corporate structure and trusting local librarians to understand their communities. We all represent very different communities with different challenges, and library services should be tailored on a localised library-by-library basis to suit local demands. So I agree 100% with the hon. Lady's comments.
The final point about volunteers is that where there is no alternative but to close a library-I am not advocating the closure of libraries, but when there is a "last chance saloon" situation-there are examples of volunteers stepping in and local authorities should be willing, at the very least, to say, "We will hand you that facility." A good example of that process in the South Swindon constituency is the Walcot library. The local council decided that it was no longer viable, in part because the
Parks library, which was not too far down the road, had been refurbished on the back of section 106 money. However, the local community took over the Walcot library, and the library is now partly a charity shop, partly a community facility and partly a library, which is far better than having no library service at all.
I have already talked about extending self-service, both into non-core library buildings and within library buildings. I repeat that there is a need to refocus library budgets on book stock. The fact that only 7.5% of library budgets is currently being spent on book stock is simply unacceptable.
Moreover, as politicians we are always talking about empowering local people, but if we are going to empower local people we need to pass on local information and engage with local residents, and in turn local residents need to register their views. Where better to do all that than in a local community library? People can pop in, look at the notice board, see the latest grand scheme that elected politicians or communities have put forward and register their comments. There are many examples of such schemes. In my constituency, there is the "Connecting People, Connecting Places" scheme, which the council has introduced. Although the council is trying to push that scheme, it must understand that the best way to deliver it is through libraries.
Another point is that where there are facilities that are only open for eight or 10 hours, surely we should open them up to other community groups, whether they are youth clubs or different local organisations that can use the building in which the facilities are situated. The council has already paid the rent and the rates, and these days most bookshelves are on wheels. Consequently, if a youth club wants to attend a community facility in the evening, it does not take much to move the bookshelves to the edges of a room and the youth club can take on that facility and use it. It is a crying shame that local authorities and local council tax payers are paying for these wonderful buildings to be shut for the vast majority of the week.
My final point is that it is essential that local authorities do not sleepwalk into a situation where our much-loved libraries experience a steady and continual decline. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister, because he is a passionate advocate of libraries. We just need to convince all local authorities of all political parties that they need to make libraries a priority.
Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Kilburn) (Lab):
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak, Mr. Turner. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) on securing this important debate and on making such a cracking speech, which encapsulated the central arguments that are facing every single constituency in this country at the moment where there are people who are passionately concerned about the possible loss of their local library. I equally congratulate the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) on a splendid speech, detailing-in no small degree-the
kinds of changes that have already taken place within my constituency and other constituencies to improve our library services, so that they actively engage with the local community and become part of it in ways that are both imaginative and innovative.
However, the bottom line is that none of those improvements can be developed and none of our libraries can advance without some financial support, and this issue is going to spread beyond libraries. People in my constituency are concerned about not only the threat to local libraries, but the threat of closure of sports facilities. This is an example of what the Government have touted as central and essential to the big society: localism. Yet, when one looks at the local reaction, constituents' opinions are being ignored. My constituents are being ignored because my local authority simply does not have the money, however much the amount needed might be reduced by the engagement of volunteers and more imaginative opening hours.
As an aside, many of the libraries in my constituency are housed in historic buildings. Kensal Rise library, which is under serious threat, began part of its collection with a donation by Mark Twain of his own books. That gives an idea of how old the building is, and as we all know, older buildings are much more difficult to maintain.
There are legal issues involved in the opening and the public use of libraries, and it is not possible to provide that use without some financial support. It is fantasy on the part of the Government to sit there and say, "Well, this is a choice for local authorities. They have to balance their budgets. We've given them money in real terms," when the Government know absolutely that the authorities have not been given money in real terms to support the services that are central to local communities.
In my constituency, thank heavens there has been an election and the political colour of the council has changed. For the five years up to 2010, the budget, which was very generously donated to local authorities by the Labour Government, was balanced by a Lib Dem-Conservative council in my constituency. Well, if Liberal Democrats and Conservatives are supposedly much better at balancing their budgets than a Labour Government are, where has the money suddenly gone? Why are all the community facilities upon which constituencies such as mine will increasingly depend, under threat?
There is an irony in the Government's failure to think their own policies through. We are entering an era of something called welfare to work, and while no one argues with the pressing need to get people off welfare and into work, the Department for Work and Pensions says that it expects the majority of first contacts with those who are looking for work to be via the internet. My hon. Friend pointed out that that already happens in her constituency, as it does in mine. For young people who are looking for work, are very confused by the benefits system and have no computer access of their own, the local library is the first port of call, because the equipment and the information are there, and highly skilled and highly trained people can help them. With the best will in the world, in many instances volunteers will not be able to provide the multifarious layers of expertise and information that our libraries are capable of furnishing at the moment. I am not going to stand here and pretend that this is very often the case, but it is certainly the case at the moment that we value things
only when we think we are going to lose them, and when it comes to things such as local libraries, this has certainly been the case for many years. People suddenly think, "My goodness, we might be losing this but it's so valuable for our community."
It has already been touched on that libraries provide services for the whole age range, from the very young to the very old. I remember that when I was a child we were not allowed to speak in a public library-it was a silent place-and it is fascinating to see that now there are special areas for children. Children are having stories read to them, and we have heard from the hon. Gentleman about local poetry readings. That is very big in my constituency, because I am fortunate to have a lot of poets there-quite apart from authors-who are very well recognised around the world. The central issue here is that if the Government are genuine in their talk of a big society, of localism and of passing power down to local people to make the decisions, they have to acknowledge that at the moment their stringent slashing of funding to local authorities-
Mel Stride: I realise our economic inheritance has been skated around very diplomatically in this debate, but it now needs to be raised. I understand that the hon. Lady's argument is that there should be more funding and resources for libraries. We inherited a debt the interest alone on which is £43 billion a year-more than we spend on the education budget. For there to be more resources, would the hon. Lady increase the deficit, or cut expenditure elsewhere-in which case where? Or would she raise taxes and, if so, which ones?
Glenda Jackson: First, I would nail this gothic novel that runs through the Conservative-Lib Dem Government and has been expounded by all their adherents, that our present economic difficulties are the exclusive responsibility of the previous Labour Government, who spent excessively. Nothing could be further from the truth. The whole world went through a major economic crisis because the present Government's friends-the bankers, whom I have not noticed taking any major cuts under this Government-threw the whole world's economic structure into parlous peril.
What I am talking about is what this Government purport to be a basic principle: localism, in which it is the voice of local people that is overwhelmingly heard. The point that I was making before I gave way to the hon. Gentleman was that that voice cannot be heard if central Government stifle it and put a gag around it, as they are doing. It is an offence to us all to pretend to local people that they can have the same level of the services upon which they depend when there are massive cuts in the financial support for those services. It is equally an insult to all our intelligences to presuppose that volunteers-the charitable sector-will be able to take up the slack and continue to provide the services.
In concert with my hon. Friend, who was fortunate to secure this debate, it seems to me that the number of right hon. and hon. Members hoping to participate today is an indication of how important the issue is throughout the country, and the Government really should think about it again about.
Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), and I agree entirely that libraries are, and should be, the heart and soul of our communities. I also agree with the point that volunteers provide an add-on, and we have to take on board the differences between our communities which mean that the services that volunteers can contribute will differ greatly from one community to another.
I have a distinct sense of déjà vu. Just four years ago I spoke in the House, to a Labour Minister at that time, about Dorset county council's plans to close 13 libraries. The 13 libraries were saved after a long battle, with reduced opening hours at most libraries in the county, and new friends groups set up and existing ones strengthened. Usage at all those libraries has gone up over the four years. The current county council proposal is that funding will cease for up to 20 communities where there is currently a library-20 out of 34 libraries. Originally, those communities were asked to come up with a business plan, by May this year, on how the community could run the library, and yet very few details have been provided on what, if anything, the county council will contribute. A book fund is, of course, vital, and if there is no centralised book fund can a community actually say that it has a library? I do not think so.
Given the scale of things, Dorset county council has had a relatively good settlement. It is still not good for the county, but these are local choices. The council has made a decision to spend £1 million on a new library in Dorchester, which cannot be accessed easily from places in my community that might lose their libraries. Interestingly, in one of its reports, Dorset library service states that its vision is of a
"dynamic library service fostering the joy of reading, learning and a love of knowledge to enhance lives and build communities".
Could we possibly disagree with that? No, we could not, but I hope that most of us would disagree with the closure of 20 libraries. Dorset county council's own equality impact assessment talks about the impact on older people and children, and on people in rural communities. It also talks about providing mobile library services, but they are not a real substitute where children's gaining a joy of reading and learning is concerned. Equally, the council's report accepts that there is a risk that the reconfigured service will be deemed not to comply with the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964, which requires library authorities to provide a comprehensive and efficient service. I ask the Minister to monitor closely what is happening in Dorset. We have been here before, and we had the support of the previous Minister.
In my constituency, it is proposed to seize the funding of four libraries. I use all of them for my surgeries, so I declare an interest. For the most part, they are in quite large communities rather than small villages; one is in a large village, and the others are for the most part in built-up urban areas. Those libraries are used, and there are plenty of potential users. Two of the libraries are now co-located with children's centres, which is excellent. Parents come in to see the health visitor and then sign up their baby for a library membership card. We need those services and have been working on them for the
past four years, but now libraries are the first thing to be cut, because that is seen as an easy option, even though they are important for our children.
In the limited time available, I will concentrate on children. Our Government are committed to raising children's reading standards. The introduction of a standardised test is being discussed, although I have some doubts whether test results should be published. We want to equip our children with the skills that they need for later life. Surely we must build on the use of libraries. The Bookstart scheme was saved recently. I know that authors made many representations. I say this to them: a child gets a book at 11. It is great that one book will go into a household without many books, but children must have libraries to go with it. Libraries are the complement to the Bookstart scheme, so I hope that those authors will come along to Dorset to argue for the survival of our libraries.
Dorset has a high proportion of older people, and the importance of libraries to older people cannot be overemphasised. Libraries allow them to get out of the house and engage in activities. The number of book and reading clubs has grown enormously, which is excellent. As has been said, there are lots of innovative ways to get more people into libraries, and communities are willing to play their part, but that part must be reasonable and must be backed not by expensive offices at county hall but by skilled librarians and other staff. I want efficiency and joint use, and I want to work with the excellent friends groups within the county council to retain a dynamic library service, but we need a bit of help from the Minister, whom I commend for his commitment to the country's library service.
Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) on obtaining this extremely important debate and on how she presented her case. I will not repeat everything that has been said about the value of libraries, but I agree with the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), particularly about libraries' value to older people-they help get them out of the house-and to children. In my rather deprived constituency, libraries are critical to the future of children and young people and help supplement their education.
Lewisham council is in a somewhat different position from some of the councils discussed today. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander), who, like me, has supported saving our libraries, would be here if she were not on a Standing Committee. Lewisham council has 12 libraries, which it has worked hard to reorganise and bring up to date. From 2005-06 to 2009-10, Lewisham invested £6.5 million in capital expenditure on libraries. It also entered into partnerships with Croydon and Bromley councils in order to negotiate jointly new e-book and e-audiobook services. The consequences have been increased library use, increased opening hours and general huge success.
In a constant drive for efficiency, Lewisham has also developed new models. We acquired three additional community libraries over those years. One, at the Pepys resource centre in my constituency, is run by ECO Computer Systems in partnership with Hyde Housing
and is supported by local volunteers and, crucially, by the council's library and information service, which supports new facilities by providing up-to-date stock, delivering professional advice, organising activities and promotions, training partner organisations and offering technical services such as access to online resources.
Lewisham was a beacon Labour council that innovated, widened participation and met the needs of the most vulnerable in the community while reducing costs wherever possible. However, the Tory-led Government have changed all that. Last autumn, like so many other councils, Lewisham was forced to propose closing five libraries as part of the programme of cuts imposed by central Government. Understandably, that led to public outcry with protests and marches as Lewisham council undertook a wide-ranging consultation on how best to meet the Government's demands. As in all other local authorities in the country, most of the budget was devoted to social care, so it was obvious that our libraries could not be shielded. My bottom line was that we must keep the buildings for community use. The last thing we need in Deptford is another betting shop.
The council agreed to consult further and draw on the experience of the three new libraries. The community response has been amazing. People are determined to keep their library service. Local Labour councillors and community activists are working with people who have never before stepped forward to find a solution to the problem.
Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con): My library service faces severe cuts; eight libraries will be largely turned over to volunteers. The right hon. Lady touches on something that my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) mentioned. Does she not agree that it is incumbent on every local authority to consider its entire property estate to see whether it can combine services in one building in order to reduce maintenance and running costs?
Joan Ruddock: Of course. There is no doubt about it. One of the new libraries that I mentioned does exactly that. My council, under a Labour Government, did everything as Labour dictated in order to make the best use of community facilities and become as efficient as possible. That is why we were awarded beacon status.
The community members coming forward are ambitious. They want longer opening hours and further innovations. I am confident that New Cross and Crofton Park libraries in my constituency will be saved. They will certainly have my continued support. The council has received 10 expressions of interest from organisations wishing to take on one or more of the library buildings and run library services from them. It seems like a great success in the making, but we must remember that front-line library jobs will be lost, perhaps forever. Most importantly, community effort can be maintained only with council support and council tax payers' money. The installation of self-issue technology will be essential to the operation of the libraries, and that is likely to cost about £59,000 per building. The council's outreach unit will probably be required to contribute more than 100 hours a week to servicing the outreach offer.
The cost of Lewisham's service was already the lowest in inner London, and the cuts will bring it down to just over £14 per resident. Thanks to the Labour Government's
investment, a new library is due to open in Deptford later this year. But what lies ahead? The cuts being imposed by this Government on Lewisham are already destroying other services. The Deptford job centre has been closed and a second employment advice service, Opening Doors, faces closure as a direct result of the cuts in Government grant. As my hon. Friends the Members for Wigan and for Hampstead and Kilburn (Glenda Jackson) have pointed out, it is the young and the unemployed in particular who need library services if they are ever to stand a chance of getting a job and a future career in the present climate.
I am proud of the way in which my community is endeavouring to meet the challenge of library closures, and I hope that the new ways of working will help us meet other challenges, too. However, let no one be in any doubt that this is not a panacea. None of us is going to become a volunteer brain surgeon very soon, and I doubt and would be surprised if many of us would volunteer to change incontinence pads. Whatever we may learn and/or achieve with our libraries in Lewisham, we will still face a Government who are bent on destroying our communities and their prospects.
Guto Bebb (Aberconwy) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I will be brief. I note that I am the only representative of a Welsh constituency present. I am surprised by the stories that Opposition Members have been telling about the land of milk and honey that existed in this country before 2010. The library service in my constituency of Aberconwy in north Wales has been under constant threat of closure for the past five or six years, a period in which we have had a Labour-led Assembly Government and a local authority led by either the Labour party or Plaid Cymru in coalition with Labour.
My point about partisanship is important, because the campaigns undertaken in my constituency to protect library services have been led not by political parties, but by communities. They are concerned about the future of the library service because they understand, as does the rest of Wales, how important libraries are. After all, not many countries can claim to have a pop group such as the Manic Street Preachers, who sang about libraries giving us power. Indeed, that lyric is now in place above Cardiff city library, so we take our libraries seriously in Wales. The libraries in Wales grew from the slate quarrymen of north Wales and the miners of south Wales-they grew from a feeling of society. I am astounded at the lack of confidence expressed by some hon. Members at the inability of our communities to contribute to the protection of library services.
My constituency of Aberconwy faces a threat to many rural libraries. There is no doubt that people in those communities would much rather ensure that the future of those libraries is fully funded and fully staffed from the local authority. However, we also understand that, over the past five years, despite repeated attempts to persuade the local authority and the Welsh Assembly to fund those libraries properly, that has not happened. We therefore face a challenge, and that challenge is to make the most of the resources available to us. I am confident that, if the rural communities in my constituency
-places such as Llanrwst and towns such as Llanfairfechan, which are pretty far from the main, central library in Llandudno-are forced to choose, they will work as a community to ensure that they protect the libraries. After all, even though the Welsh Assembly has said that the local library service in Conwy is underperforming, it is still a fact that, in an area with a population of less than 100,000, there were 500,000 visits to libraries in Conwy last year and more than 500,000 books were lent. Most importantly, there were 90,000 hours of internet use.
The communities that I represent fully understand that, despite five or six years of campaigning against the decisions made by a Labour-led local authority and Assembly, they will have to continue to fight in order to try to ensure a prosperous future for their libraries.
Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): I know from my experience in north Yorkshire that local communities are coming together and are excited about the opportunities provided by changes to library use. What does my hon. Friend have to say about the opportunities for libraries in rural areas to become hubs for internet usage by their local communities? It is a good opportunity for libraries to grow the range of their services.
Guto Bebb: I concur with those comments. I recently attended a town council meeting in Llanfairfechan that was held to try to ensure a future for the local library. One of the key issues at stake is that the internet services in that library are heavily used by local people who would not otherwise have access to the internet. Therefore, the provision of other services in libraries, and combining them with those offered by the local authority, offer a way forward. We thoroughly appreciate that libraries have to move forward.
I am surprised that this debate has been so partisan. Ultimately, we have seen an ongoing threat to libraries over a long period. If that was not the case in England, it was definitely the case in Wales. We, as communities, have to take responsibility for the services that we want. We should try to ensure that funding continues to be provided to ensure that we have a selection that appeals to people. We need a professionally led service, but the comments that have been made about the bureaucracy, the different labelling, the central cost and so on need to be taken on board.
Ultimately, however, the big difference between the coalition in Westminster and the Labour-led coalition in Cardiff is simple. The Minister has stated time and again that local authorities and communities should make decisions about the future of library services. That is in complete contrast with the Labour-led Welsh Assembly, which has basically told Conwy council to modernise-in Wales, modernise means "close things"-or it will take over the service. I commend the approach of our coalition Government and can only say that people in my constituency would be delighted if the Welsh Assembly Government took the same approach.
Alison McGovern (Wirral South) (Lab):
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) on securing this debate. I have been struck by the remarks of all the hon. Members who have spoken so
far about how passionate we are about library services. In some sense, there is a shared vision that library services are part of our future and not a thing of the past.
A recent ten-minute rule Bill of mine argued that the 1964 Act, which covers library services, should be extended to cover related cultural services as well. That set down a marker and said that not only are cultural services important, but that the Act-limited though it is, and which protects library services-is important and that we should all stand up for it. During that debate, I explained that part of the reason why I am so passionate about libraries is because libraries were not always free in Liverpool. My grandfather used to steal books from Liverpool central library, but I have checked with my dad and apparently he put them back. It is good to use this opportunity to restore the reputation of the McGovern family.
I have two brief points that build on those that have already been made, and I hope that the Minister will respond to them. My first point is on the situation in which local authorities find themselves and how they might go about supporting libraries in difficult times. My second is on the role of the professional librarian and how we can support them and ask them to go further in what they do.
On local authorities, it was great to hear the comments of the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson). I did not know that he was previously a leading member, but it is always important to hear from those who have been local authority members. I was a local councillor in the London borough of Southwark, and I learned a great deal from that experience. One thing that I learned is that the best way to make decisions is to consult widely, listen, marshal a great deal of research and think about a vision for the service that fits the needs of the locality. Never mind what central Government say, in dealing with a community, a town centre area or similar, we must ask what they need. We need to think hard about that, which is what the best local authorities do.
Unfortunately, local authorities face a crisis. If we think of local government as another Whitehall Department, it is the one that is under the most financial pressure, because it is being asked to make the deepest cuts and to deliver them in the shortest possible time. How will any leading member of a local authority have the time to do the work that I have just described in terms of understanding the picture of a locality and talking to community groups, especially in areas in which there is poverty? Those of us who have worked with communities that suffer great poverty know that one has to expend a lot of time getting to know people and understanding the issues. I am sure that that experience cuts across the Chamber.
That all takes time, effort and resources, which are three things that local authorities do not have. Local authorities are being forced to look at libraries from the wrong end of the policy telescope. Instead of working out how to deliver a long-term vision and to stack up the financial business plan behind that-either from co-location or from involving the private or voluntary sector-they are being forced to cut first and deal with a vision for the service after. Local authorities are being forced to say, "What can we possibly afford? Okay, well that is what we have to give people." They do not really
have a choice here. As much as it is wonderful to hear comments about the different ways in which we can do things-I absolutely support that-we must be real about the situation that local authorities are in.
I accept the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), who is very experienced at working with local authorities. We cannot say that local authorities are in position to do the kind of visionary job that we want them to when they are facing such severe cuts. One thing that the Government have done regarding the role of professional librarians, for which I give them credit, is to re-establish that it is important for politicians to assert trust in the professional. They have talked about trusting GPs and teachers, and they are right to do so. So let us start talking about trusting librarians.
Anne Marie Morris (Newton Abbot) (Con): Does the hon. Lady agree that although the professional librarian is clearly a very important part of the make-up of the library service, the volunteer also plays a considerable part? As a result of reading the transcript of the debate, I would not want volunteers to feel undervalued because, at the end of the day, there are 17,000 people across the library service who give their free time and spend 500,000 million hours every year working in the service. Without them, some of the smaller rural libraries in particular would not survive. In Ipplepen in my part of the world, the old library has been closed and, without those volunteers, we would not be considering moving back to a new library resource in the local village hall.
Alison McGovern: Of course, volunteers are important. In fact, last Friday in my constituency, I met a volunteer archivist from Bromborough who does an amazing job. However, if she were here, she would say that, without a library service underpinning that work, it is impossible for volunteers to get the platform on which they need to stand to do the job they want to do. It is chutzpah to imagine that we can substitute volunteers for professionals rather than seeing them as an addition, as the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) has said. That is what most volunteers themselves think that they ought to be. For example, the charity Volunteer Reading Help makes great play of the fact that it provides additional services to schools.
I shall move on, so that I do not take up too much time. We need to trust the professional librarian. In such difficult times, local authorities ought to listen to librarians. In my experience, the librarians that service my constituency in the areas of Heswall, Bromborough, Eastham and Bebington have been incredibly creative in getting other services-for example, the university of the third age-to use their buildings. The poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, has not once but twice visited Bromborough to encourage a love of poetry and reading. We want to support that kind of creativity but, at the end of the day, that takes a budget. I have already made comments about that. We need to say to local authorities that where they are looking to provide a better service, they must trust the professional librarians they have and encourage them to support volunteers. They should maintain the vision of the public library that hon. Members here today hold so dear and enable those professional librarians to do the job that they are qualified to do.
Anne Marie Morris (Newton Abbot) (Con): I will be brief, because I am sure that you will want to start the winding-up speeches fairly soon, Mr Turner. This has been a valuable and interesting debate. We all feel passionately about the future of the library service in all its different guises. The situation that we are discussing is as much an opportunity as a threat. We could debate for hours why we are in the economic climate in which we find ourselves, but the reality is that we are where we are, and we need to find a way forward.
We need to recognise that how people use libraries has begun to change and consider what we can do to respond. A sensible way forward is to try to identify those buildings, including the library, that are used for a number of community purposes. Such an approach would mean that we are more likely to keep library facilities than lose them. If we simply looked at the status quo, libraries would close day in and day out.
However, another challenge that the Minister might like to consider is that of e-books, which have been briefly mentioned. The trend towards the use of e-books is increasing. Amazon says-admittedly, we are talking about buying rather than borrowing-that it sells twice as many e-books as hard copy books. What are the implications of that for the library service? What innovative ideas can it come up with that will enable people to access those sorts of books? If we think about the matter, it is a no-brainer. There are 1 million free books on Kindle, which we ought to try to make available to local people. Kindle has another 500,000 books available to buy. The cost of a Kindle book is usually 50% or two thirds less than the hard copy. The issue is a challenge that we must face head on.
I am pleased that Devon county council has been chosen as one of the pilot areas for the future libraries programme, and it is healthy to start looking at what we should be doing on that. We need to draw a distinction between what we do in our towns and what we do in our villages. In Newton Abbot, I am lucky that £2.8 million has been spent on a state-of-the-art library. However, it is not only a library, because it will also provide adult learning and an opportunity for adults who want to know how to spend their care budgets to talk to a professional about how they can do that. Such an approach will provide an opportunity for children to link together and for individuals to take what looking at books is about to an educational level rather than them simply having an informative role. That is where the opportunity is.
As I have said, I will not make a long contribution. First, we need to look at the better use of buildings, which I am pleased to see we are doing. In rural communities, having one or two buildings rather than five or six-if an area is lucky enough to have that number-is the right way forward. Secondly, we need to consider how to move libraries from being knowledge based, which was where they started, to being education and community based. Thirdly, we need to consider the challenge of technology and how libraries can address that.
Mr Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab):
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy)
on securing an important debate. In the time I have, I want to focus on a number of points relating to Hartlepool's library provision. In our town, we are fortunate to have well used and much loved library provision. We have the central library in York road, Owton Manor, Foggy Furze, Seaton Carew, West View, Throston and the Headland, as well as mobile libraries serving communities that do not have ready access to fixed branch library provision. We also have a home library service that provides for people aged over 80 or with a disability to be regularly given books based upon their knowledge and preferences.
I want to focus on two things. First-this has been touched on already-libraries make an enormous contribution to instilling a love of learning among young people through working in partnership with nurseries, schools, Sure Start and children's centres. Fifteen years ago, Hartlepool children were well below the national average in GCSE attainment, but they are now well above the national average. The high quality provision that we have in libraries, coupled with investment from the previous Government, has played an important part in that.
At the other end of the age spectrum, good quality library provision can save money with regard to social care and NHS services for the older population. For example, the home library service involves people going into homes and talking to people, which reduces an older person's sense of isolation. Such a service can pre-empt problems and provide early intervention, so that more expensive and traumatic treatments from the NHS and social care are avoided.
I do not blame local politicians for the choices that will have to be made; I blame central Government. Hartlepool borough council faces cuts of 30% in its £90 million budget in the next four years. When people are dealing with social care budgets or child protection, it is easy to see library provision as a soft target. As I have said, I blame central Government, and I ask the Minister to think again. Foggy Furze library in my constituency is due to close next month, and the merging of Throston library with the community centre has also been proposed. We face big cuts to a high-quality and much-loved service. I ask the Minister to use his powers in government to ensure that libraries are helped as much as possible and that Hartlepool's excellent service is both retained and enhanced.
Gloria De Piero (Ashfield) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) on securing this important and timely debate. Her fears for the future of the nation's libraries are shared throughout the country by people of all parties and none, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) pointed out when talking about the protests in his constituency. Libraries are popular: my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) discussed the popularity of libraries in his constituency, and my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) talked about waiting lists for reading groups. The hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) also said that library usage was up in her constituency.
I shall start my winding-up speech by focusing on the social progress and advancement for working people that libraries provide. That was alluded to by my hon.
Friend the Member for Wigan and by the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb). People have spoken passionately in favour of libraries because they facilitate social mobility. The Victorian pioneers who began the public library service were not a bunch of crazed public spenders. Many were hard-nosed men of industry who realised just how vital it was for both the economic and the moral health of their communities that ordinary men and women had the opportunity to learn from the great books and journals that were accessible for the first time to those without means. They gave that opportunity for self-improvement to so many.
"It shall be the duty of every library authority to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons desiring to make use thereof".
Whose Government passed that legislation? None other than that of the 14th Earl of Home, better known as the Conservative Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home. That was the age of one-nation conservatism, when even the Tory party believed in something real called society.
Let us talk about the people whom libraries serve. They serve millions of mums, such as those in my constituency who tell me that their youngsters cannot get through the contents of the local library's children's section fast enough. These mums are desperate to give their kids a head start through good reading skills and an understanding of the world gained through books.
Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): We have heard about libraries as a leisure activity for people in their later years and as places housing computers, but does my hon. Friend agree that there are still communities for whom libraries are a window for their young people on the world of books and learning? I was brought up in a household in which there was one book-the "Encyclopaedia Britannica". When I had just turned five, my mother took me to the library. She did not read, but she understood the importance of reading. We need to preserve libraries for communities in our cities and rural areas, where libraries give children their first introduction to the world of books and learning.
Gloria De Piero: My hon. Friend makes a good point about social progress, social mobility and advancement. Some of the mums whom I speak to do not have much money, so without easy access to a local library, their kids simply would not have books at home. Some of the mums are better off, but even those on middle incomes tell me that they cannot afford to keep up with their kids' appetite for new books. The Minister can no doubt pop on to Amazon with his gold card whenever he likes, but that option is not open to millions of our fellow citizens, especially at a time when the cuts and tax hikes of the Government of whom he is a member are hitting family budgets throughout the land.
It is not just mums who are served by libraries. They also serve people seeking work and those looking for a better job. Jobseekers have told me that many big employers now advertise online only. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan has said, more than one in four households are not online, and the lowest earners are the least likely
to have internet access at home. Without access to the internet at their local library, they would struggle to find out about vacancies.
Those seeking new skills rely on their libraries, too. The actor Chris Gascoyne, who is from my constituency of Ashfield and is now a leading light in "Coronation Street", told me quite plainly that much of the reason why he has become a successful actor is that he fell in love with the library in Sutton in Ashfield. If people slash the library, they are slashing routes into the world of work. How much of a false economy is that?
I have not mentioned the battalions of school kids who rely on their local library to do homework, to study for exams and to help to guarantee their future success, as alluded to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock). No one is saying that the library service cannot modernise and that it should not continually look for ways of achieving more bang for its buck. However, I am sometimes confused when I read speeches given by the Minister, because whenever he is in front of an audience that cares about libraries, he says that he will
"do my best to be a champion for libraries as your minister."
"keep emphasising the importance of libraries".
"Libraries offer opportunities and sustainable solutions-they are not a service that is simply an easy cut in tough times."
I do not know whether those words will reassure the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) or whether he shares my fear that they are warm words, which, as always, are charmingly spoken but which mean absolutely nothing when they come up against the reality of the pernicious local government settlement that is threatening libraries up and down the country. News is coming in from all over the country of threats to libraries. According to media reports, more than 400 libraries and 50-plus mobile libraries are currently under threat or have recently closed, and those are only the figures from half the local authorities that have done their settlements. I apologise for not having exact figures, but despite my repeated pleas to the Minister in written questions, he has not given me an exact figure.
Where libraries are not closing, they are reducing the service. Where I live in Nottinghamshire, the Conservatives reign supreme on the county council. They propose to reduce the budget for buying new books from £1.6 million to just £400,000-a cut of 75%. The average age of a book in a Nottinghamshire library will go from 5.4 years to 21.5 years, so when people sit in Notting Hill discussing the Booker shortlist, it will be two decades before those titles reach Sutton in Ashfield. What is the reason for that? The Conservative leader of the county council has summed it up. It is
"to meet the challenges of the financial settlement for local government".
If any part of my constituency reminds the world of the power of literature, it is the town of Eastwood, where my home is and where the adolescent D. H. Lawrence would borrow books on Thursday evenings from the lending library at the Mechanics institute, yet even there, where there is positive proof of the power of
social mobility, the Conservative council is proposing to cut library opening hours by 40%. I feel sorry for budding Lawrences among today's residents of Eastwood.
The Minister often says, "Not me, guv."-he might put it more elegantly than that. He has written to every local authority, reminding them of their statutory duty on libraries, but he knows that such a letter is not worth the paper that it is printed on when his ministerial colleagues are ensuring that local councils simply do not have the cash to maintain, never mind improve, their library service. He will not get away with it, because voters throughout Britain can see that this good-value service on which they rely is under threat directly because of the coalition's policies, and when they look for the fingerprints on the murder weapon-as Agatha Christie, one of library users' favourites, might have put it-they will see that the Lib Dems' paws are all over it.
I hope that every local Lib Dem councillor realises that there is no point in rushing out a petition to save their local library when their MPs in Westminster are standing by as the service is slashed. As the Minister said on the radio on Wednesday, "You have to elect councillors who believe in libraries and you have to campaign in your local area to get councils to back their library service." Exactly, but there is only one party whose record in government locally and nationally shows that it can be trusted to protect our libraries, and I am proud to say that it is my party.
There can be no better indictment of the present Government's hypocrisy than their treatment of Britain's libraries. They spill out warm words of support while starving libraries of the cash that they need to continue. They pretend that these huge savings can be made without taking books off the shelves or turning the lights out as libraries close, although the Minister and his colleagues know that that simply is not the case.
It is time for the Minister to come clean. Will he accept that he is not a champion for libraries and that he is responsible for a reduction in services? Will he tell us whether he warned the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury during the spending round that the cuts to local authorities would put them under pressure to reduce library provision? Will he tell us just how far he thinks library services can be cut while the law is fulfilled? Will he guarantee that the 1964 Act will remain in place for the lifetime of this Parliament? Finally, does he accept that librarians, such as the ones whose expertise we, as MPs, are lucky enough to draw on in the House of Commons, require special skills, or does he have plans for the House of Commons Library service to be staffed by volunteers? There are many questions for the Minister, and I hope that he will now provide some answers.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport (Mr Edward Vaizey): I am grateful to serve under your chairmanship for what I think is the first time, Mr Turner. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) on calling this important debate.
I thank hon. Members for some extremely valuable contributions. I thank not only the hon. Member for Wigan, but my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), who showed how a go-ahead and visionary local authority can adapt its library authority. The hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Glenda Jackson) gave an impassioned defence of her local library service and called for more Government spending as we tackle the deficit. The hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) rightly said that her county council is making the decisions, some of which she disagrees with, and she is perfectly within her rights, as the local Member, to do so. The right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) gave an inspired review of what is happening in Lewisham and said the changes there are a great success in the making.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) reminded us that local authority library services are often debated and that the debate about the future of local libraries did not begin on 6 May 2010. The hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), who has introduced a ten-minute rule Bill, reminded us again of her passion for libraries. My hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) mentioned e-books, which are very important indeed. There are complicated issues surrounding e-books, not least to do with the future of this country's publishing, which is our most important and successful creative industry. The hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) ended the Back-Bench contributions by making an impassioned plea for me to intervene in the library service in his area.
The Labour party spokesman, the hon. Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero) made a wonderfully engaging speech, which ended with a series of questions for me, but let me also ask her a few questions. I would hate to think that her speech shared the same motivation as that by the hon. Member for Wigan, who revealed what was behind her speech in replying to an intervention when she said that "this is all politics". The hon. Member for Ashfield asked whether I would guarantee the future of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964. Yes, unlike the previous Labour Government, who showed rank hypocrisy in publishing a document on the modernisation of the library service just as they were running out of time. Their Minister with responsibility for libraries published a document asking whether we still need a statutory library service. If Labour had been re-elected, it would have got rid of the statutory library service, but Opposition Members now shed tears for the library service. When I campaigned against the closures proposed by the Labour council in the Wirral, where were Opposition Members? Again, rank hypocrisy.
Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: The hon. Lady has had a chance to speak. I have been sitting here, but I have not had a chance to speak. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on the way in which he is approaching the subject, but I tell him that Gloucestershire has received the worst local authority settlement in the country. Seven of the eight libraries in my area face the prospect of being cut to volunteer-only services. Will my hon. Friend's officials work with Gloucestershire county council to make sure that it is given every possible support? Even a volunteer library requires seed corn to keep it going. Incidentally, this is not only about libraries being cut to volunteer services, because Gloucestershire's mobile library service is being cut altogether.
Mr Vaizey: I will certainly give my hon. Friend that commitment. I will explain exactly what the Government are doing in a minute. First, however, given that this is all politics, let me perhaps correct some of the impressions given by Opposition Members. The hon. Member for Wigan opened by saying that libraries in her local authority had no future.
Alison McGovern: I feel driven to intervene because the Minister mentioned Wirral, which is where my constituency is situated. Will he tell us why, if Labour is not committed to the 1964 Act, a Labour Secretary of State used it to inquire into what was happening in Wirral?
Every local library is different, but there is a lot of good news on local libraries. For example, Wigan will potentially be part of the Greater Manchester future libraries pilot project, which has already identified 15% savings if the authorities involved work together. Despite the fact that the hon. Member for Wigan said that her libraries have no future, £1.5 million has been invested-
The number of visitors to libraries in Wigan has risen by 13%. Tower Hamlets closed libraries, but it did so with a strategic vision, re-engineering them and turning them into idea stores. Calling libraries idea stores upset some traditionalists, but visits to idea stores have gone through the roof. Despite reducing its budget, Hillingdon has kept all its libraries open and refurbished them under the inspired leadership of Councillor Henry Higgins. This week, I met representatives of Havering, which is pioneering signing up kids and babies to libraries. The London Libraries Consortium-12 authorities working across London-has already made enough savings to increase opening hours substantially. Swindon, which I visited in opposition-I invited a prominent library campaigner to visit Old Town library with me, but he told me he was too busy-has invested £10 million in a central library and has moved the Old Town library to
an arts centre, where there have been more visits. Lancashire has pioneered the "Get it Loud in Libraries" scheme. What happens also depends on how people go about things. The local authority in Leeds is closing libraries, but it is doing so in a strategic way and bringing the local population with it.
I have not sat back. My first speech as a Minister was on libraries, when I communicated my passion and support for libraries. I said it was right-I think it is right-that local library users challenge a local authority that is planning to close libraries. My first executive action as a Minister was to set up the future libraries programme, because I felt passionately in opposition that much of the innovation in good library authorities was not being communicated to many authorities that were perhaps not so innovative and which did not have such a go-ahead approach. After the debate, I will meet some of the local authorities involved in the 10 pilot projects. I also made sure that the Local Government Association was involved in the project from the start, because libraries are a local authority service.
I recently wrote to every local authority in the country-there are 151 library authorities, and I have gone on record as saying that that is too many and that people should be thinking about cross-border working and mergers to reduce overhead costs-to remind them of the statutory duty, which still exists thanks to the election of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition Government and despite Labour's plans to get rid of it.
At any one time, local authorities are considering their plans, and almost every library closure that has been mentioned today is a proposal-these things are being consulted on. In Oxfordshire, in my own backyard, the proposals will undergo a three-month consultation. In response to my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), let me say that the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council-I pay tribute to Roy Clare, who is a fantastic leader of that organisation-is working with authorities to show them ways of moving forward without necessarily closing all the proposed libraries.
No hon. Member can say with all honesty that no library should ever close in any local authority area. We need a strategic vision. The good thing that came out of the Wirral inquiry, apart from the fact that the Wirral's libraries were saved, was that the Charteris report now provides local authorities with clear guidelines on how they should reorganise their library service, if that is what they want to do.
Some 75% of children and 40% of adults visit libraries. Unlike the hon. Member for Wigan, who introduced the debate, I think that libraries have a future. We talked about the potential closure of the Kensal Rise library, which was opened by Mark Twain, and despite the best efforts of Opposition Members, I have to say that the death of libraries has been greatly exaggerated. It is up to local communities, working with local councillors, to keep our libraries open, with volunteers supplementing and working with librarians, rather than replacing them. All of us who care about libraries must work passionately to save this service and make it as effective as possible, instead of spreading pointless scare stories.
Richard Harrington (Watford) (Con): I have an interest to declare, which is in my entry in the Register of Members' Financial Interests, because I have for many years been a director of a company involved in, among other things, the development of housing, although I have no active involvement in the company. I thank Mr Speaker for selecting my debate; it is much appreciated.
Housing is on the mind of most Members of Parliament, as much of our correspondence relates to it. I am pleased to see the Minister for Housing and Local Government here; I am sure that he will, as a Watford grammar school boy and former Watford resident-he has gone on to greater things and places-find some of the points I shall make very relevant to that place.
Housing has the attention of the media, and a recent article in The Guardian, following an interview with the Minister, was headed "Minister pledges an end to the housing price rollercoaster", which I was pleased to read. However, for people who are struggling to get on the first rung of the ladder, things have never been more difficult. In my constituency in 1996, the average price of a house was more than £73,000. By last year, notwithstanding some reductions in prices, it had reached £234,000. It is easy to see how difficult the situation is for first-time buyers whose average age, calculated locally, has risen to 37 years old. I was delighted that it was announced in the comprehensive spending review that the Government will increase housing supply
"by reforming the planning system so it is more efficient, effective and supportive of economic development."
It is fashionable to place the blame for the current situation on the recession and the banks, but I believe that for many years, from before the recession, there has been a consistent structural problem-a fundamental demand for housing which greatly outstrips the supply. Only an increase in supply will meet demand, tackle the problem effectively and create greater opportunities for first-time buyers.
Mr Lee Scott (Ilford North) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining the debate. Does he agree that while the blame does not rest totally with banks, they are making things increasingly difficult for first-time buyers and, indeed, for other people who want to move home?
The demand side of the equation is clear. Short-term economic factors may have reduced it, but the fundamentals are as bullish as ever. The south-east, according to all the research that I have seen, is expected to continue the population growth trend, and despite all the incentives that the Government may provide for a change in regional preferences I think that the trend is unstoppable. Without going into too much detail, the factors include migration, the social trend towards more households following divorces, the population getting older and the
great predilection for living in small households. Above all, I do not think that anyone can say that the demand side will change much.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Mr Scott) mentioned lending. At the moment, one of the biggest obstacles is the decline in lending. The figures show that the contraction in UK mortgage lending since 2007 has been the most severe on record. In 2008 and 2009, about 500,000 loans were granted for house purchase. That is a lower figure than for any year since 1974.
Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Is he as concerned as I am that the review being undertaken by the Financial Services Authority may not only stifle mainstream mortgage products but prevent the development of new products for intermediate housing, such as do-it-yourself, shared ownership and key worker schemes?
Richard Harrington: My hon. Friend makes a valid point on a subject that I intended to mention later. The Financial Services Authority is reviewing the mortgage market and, from all the indications that we have received, it intends to bring in, with the intention of protecting the consumer, various restrictions, such as appraising customers and reducing the type of mortgage available, that will significantly reduce the supply. I know that Ministers are aware of that, and I hope that they will bring as much pressure to bear on the FSA as they can. It is fair to say that the lending side is definitely a short-term constraint, but for the purpose of this debate, I will put it to one side. However, I am not trying to reduce its validity.
The core of my argument concerns the supply side of housing-the availability of land with planning permission to build social and private houses. Although I fully support the Localism Bill and its core values of local people and their representatives being responsible for their own actions, I believe that in respect of planning, it could significantly adversely affect the supply of land for housing. If the incentives on offer do not outweigh the anti-development sentiments of residents and their elected representatives, we are in real trouble.
Indeed, the Localism Bill will liberate local communities from stifling Labour targets, especially the well-intentioned but misdirected regional spatial strategies, because it is clear that they have not worked. New homes are being built at the slowest rate since the war.
Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman not acknowledge that since the Secretary of State's letter went out saying that people could ignore the RSS and everything attached to it, planning applications, and therefore the build for housing, has actually gone off a cliff?
Watford, like many constituencies in the south-east, is badly in need of housing supply; there is no dispute over that. Even during this recession, there has not been an overhang of unsold properties. If development does not come to such regions, a whole generation of people may find themselves priced out of the market for years to come.
The Localism Bill fails to address a serious issue with regard to policy and planning. A YouGov survey, commissioned by the New Homes Marketing Board, revealed that more than eight out of 10 people believe that Britain needs more housing for sale and rent, especially for first-time buyers. That is very much like a "hands up all those who are against sin" argument. The survey also showed that far fewer people-just about 50%-welcome the construction of more homes in their immediate neighbourhoods. Such a view is significantly understated, because when I send out surveys to my local residents, stopping nearby developments comes back as an important priority.
Mel Stride (Central Devon) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Like him, I believe that this is an extremely important subject, particularly in the south-west where affordable housing is a real issue. As I understand his argument, he is suggesting that incentives may not always work as a driver of development. Equally, however, does he accept that to go back to the regional spatial strategy scenario that we had under the previous Government, in which top-down diktat told local communities the amount of development that they could have and where it would be, would be a severely retrograde step?
Richard Harrington: I agree totally with the Minister with responsibility for planning that we should not return to Stalinist central diktat. My argument will hopefully show that that there are more tools in the box other than just the financial incentives that the Government have bravely introduced as a core of our policy. I am very much against central targets because they have not worked, not to mention the issue of morality or believing in local government, which I do.
I agree that the Localism Bill has great potential to free local communities to decide for themselves the housing that they need. However, we must acknowledge that the other side of that coin: the Bill will empower those people who are opposed to development in all its forms, so there are two sides to the measure.
We have to do as much as we can to ensure that new homes are built, but there will always be people who oppose development. Sometimes, what is needed to meet the needs of the larger community can be stifled by those who, understandably, have their own personal interests at heart. It is not simply a hypothetical question. The issue has arisen in several places around the country, following the letter from the Secretary of State. Although regional spatial strategies were clearly not successful, evidence of nimbyism has also appeared, with the recent departure of those strategies. I will give some examples that right hon. and hon. Members may find of interest. In Bath, for instance, the number of homes to be built around the area has been cut by nearly 50% under the
city's draft core strategy. Previous targets proposed by the South West Regional Assembly envisaged more than 21,000 homes being built during the next 20 years, but that figure will now be cut to 11,000. North Somerset is cutting its target for new homes from 26,000 to 13,000.
Andrew Griffiths (Burton) (Con): My hon. Friend cites a number of targets, saying that one region wanted 21,000 new homes and another region wanted more. However, the reality is that those targets were fantasy targets. Those new homes were not built. We can set targets as high as we like for the building of property, but under the old regime-under the failed Labour policies-houses were not built and, more importantly, the local communities that had those targets forced on them were very upset about it.
Richard Harrington: I cannot dispute the validity of what my hon. Friend says, as I am very familiar with his constituency and with my own. The demand for housing in Watford is significantly greater than demand in Burton, but both constituencies offer an illustration of how the RSS and those targets do not work. I am giving examples. My hon. Friend may say that the targets were fanciful, but they were aspirations. Now no-one will say that these new targets will be reached, because my hon. Friend's argument is the same as my own-there is always a presumption against development locally. There are councillors who are elected, one after the other, on anti-development platforms. They come from all parties; I am not picking out one particular party in that respect. However, the fact is that targets have been reduced all over the place, in St Albans, in Wiltshire-I could go on, as I have a list of quite a few areas.
Stephen Lloyd (Eastbourne) (LD): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way; he has been very patient in allowing us all to intervene, which I appreciate. Does he agree that a measure that will help people to find homes is another change that the coalition Government are introducing, thereby moving to a default situation where it is easier for people in receipt of housing benefit to opt for it to be given directly to the landlord rather than having it go via the tenant?
I know that my hon. Friend is talking about property sales, but does he agree that that change is another example of the coalition Government being practical and pragmatic, making it easier for people to have their own houses, even if in this instance they are rented houses.
Richard Harrington: I agree with my hon. Friend, except to say that he says that I am talking particularly about private housing. That is true, but in fact it is really the overall supply of housing that I am interested in and for whatever purposes, whether it is housing for private tenants or for social tenants, shared ownership or outright freehold ownership. I think that the principle is the same; we are talking about supply. However, I totally support that measure on rent that the coalition has introduced.
The core of the Government's strategy is the new homes bonus, which was introduced as an incentive for councils to build. It may well succeed-I hope that it
does-but I have spoken to a number of people in the industry. My right hon. Friend the Minister might say that they have vested interests as planning officers, house builders and so on, but whatever their other interests, they certainly have an interest in supply. Their concern is that the bonus will not be sufficient in itself to encourage councils to build.
If a development of new houses is opposed by local residents, local councillors elected on a non-development ticket are unlikely to take action on an issue that might work against them at election time. I do not believe that five or six years of council tax will be a convincing enough reward. I say that not to discount the scheme but to raise obvious concerns to Ministers that other weapons, tools and policies might be needed as well.
My right hon. Friend the Minister believes that residents and their representatives will change their views because of the benefits that their communities will receive from the new homes bonus. He regularly cites a large brownfield site in his constituency of Welwyn Hatfield where the new homes bonus-the money that the council will receive for a housing development on that site-will pay for a renewal of the whole town centre. I can see that-after he mentioned it to me at a meeting in Hatfield, I went to visit the site, and I accept that it is a compelling argument-but most developments are much more controversial than that. In Watford and, I suspect, many other constituencies, the available development land comprises many small sites for which the NHB money would not make a sufficient difference to the community coffers to provide any incentive, although I can certainly see how the big flagship schemes would do so.
I am not negative about the new homes bonus, and I hope that what I am saying will not be interpreted as such. I just do not believe that it will necessarily be enough. I have positive suggestions to make. Some simple considerations might do much to ensure what we want and what the Minister has declared many times that he wants: an increased supply of land with planning permission.
It is crucial that PPS 3, which is under consideration, preserves the obligation of local planning authorities to maintain a five-year housing land supply and to take a five-year view. Although the process is made cumbersome by a lack of nationally accepted guidance on how to calculate land supply-it is a matter beyond my intellectual capacity as a Member of Parliament-I am sure that there are many professional people on different sides of the argument who have views. The implementation of such a measure-not a target, but a measure-would at least ensure an impartial intermediary. I suggest that the Government convene an advisory committee drawn from leading planners, housing and economic experts, Government and local government to draw up a suggested standard methodology for calculating land supply figures. I repeat that it would not be a return to the over-centralised approach of the past, but it could be a sensible way to ensure that best practice is captured so that local councils make informed decisions.
Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con):
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way in this important debate. I understand the thrust of his argument, having represented
a new-build area as a councillor for 10 years while the number of houses rose from 1,800 to 8,000. However, does he agree that solutions to housing pressures must not come at the cost of appropriate development? The high-density housing typical under the last Government, lacking open space and parking provision, simply stores up problems for the future.
Richard Harrington: I agree that a balance is needed. We have all seen such developments in our constituencies -high-density blocks of flats with no greenery, no surrounding area and no provision for infrastructure. Yes, I agree absolutely.
I am against the centralised approach of the past. I am asking only for effect to be given to a measure proposed in the open source planning document as well as the Government's Green Paper. We have to carefully monitor the incentives that we are introducing, such as the new homes bonus, to ensure that they in fact do what they are intended to do. If development targets continue to be halved by local authorities, surely we have to consider other ways to encourage the increase of supply that we all believe necessary. It would be much better if the powers were put in place now, rather than when the problem manifests itself, when it might be too late.
It is very clear to me that the Bill must contain a presumption in favour of sustainable development, so that if the local community has not drawn up its own plan for development, businesses can get involved. The economy is a very important reason for increasing the supply and taking the initiative, but obviously it would have to be proved that the proposals were sustainable. I am most impressed by the presumption in favour of sustainable development. It was one of the most far-sighted proposals in last year's "Open Source Planning" Green Paper, and was reaffirmed with even more vigour in the local growth White Paper later in the year. It is really important that it is brought into effect as soon as possible.
In the Minister's opinion, does the Bill remain in step with the White Paper statement about its three functions? The White Paper states that those functions are to allow people to shape their own communities-which I think it clearly does; to provide sufficient housing to meet demand; and to support economic development. I am not sure whether the new homes bonus is enough in respect of the second and third functions, and I think
that the Government should create a back-up plan to ensure that development continues.
I should like to take this opportunity briefly to consider shared ownership schemes, which are a very important way of increasing home ownership, and of helping the demand and supply sides to meet. On 21 October, I submitted a written question to the Minister for Housing and Local Government about the Government's plans to increase shared ownership and low-cost home ownership schemes, which, as I have seen in my constituency, are a very affordable and attractive prospect at the present time. The response was very positive:
"We announced in the spending review almost £4.5 billion investment...a new delivery model is expected to deliver up to 155,000 new affordable homes".-[Official Report, 2 November 2010; Vol. 517, c. 671W.]
To the best of my knowledge, the details that we have been promised have not yet arrived, and I encourage the Minister to give us some information on that. I very much support what the Government are trying to do with shared ownership, and would like to see progress on that as soon as possible.
Paul Uppal (Wolverhampton South West) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. I have been involved in property for about 20 years, and so this is an area that has concerned and perplexed me many times.
I understand the premise of my hon. Friend's argument this morning, and have no issue with that; he is wholly correct. On the supply side, however, and particularly in terms of demand, in the UK we suffer from an exceptionally large number of people who aspire to own their own homes, compared with our continental neighbours in Germany and France, where there are much higher levels of renting. I have found that institutional investors often look for avenues through which they can get into the residential market, particularly from a letting perspective, and they have often approached Governments regarding the best way to do that. One area that is particularly talked about is the shared ownership vehicle. I do not know whether my hon. Friend, or the Minister later, will be able to comment on that, but I echo the sentiment of shared ownership as a way of solving the problem-not wholly, but certainly helping.
Richard Harrington: My hon. Friend has made an important point about the vehicles that can be used, and I am sure that the Minister will comment on that. I very much supported the introduction of the real estate investment trusts scheme into this field, but my argument today is about the supply of land for housing development, some of which-a greater percentage, I hope-will be for shared ownership; some of it will be for private ownership and private tenants, and the different forms of social housing. I do not think that my hon. Friend's point, valid though it is, is relevant to that argument.
I remind hon. Members that the lack of accessible housing for first-time buyers is not just a housing issue, or something to do with the idea that an Englishman's home is his castle, and people's desire for their own home. It has serious ramifications for the future of Watford, as for many other places. To use Watford as my example, as I should and must, it has for a long time been a popular place for young professionals, people working in and opening new businesses, and families
seeking a first step on the property ladder. It is quite near London, and a lot cheaper, and it is a nice place to live. I say that in my capacity as honorary president of the Watford tourist board-but it is a nice place, and people enjoy going there. It is close to London without London prices. However, I have a significant fear that without housing supply at reasonable prices, which is a function of supply-we know that the demand will always be there, or I at least believe it will-the area will have difficulty in attracting young professionals, and attracting people to open or engage in businesses. That is the most significant aspect of what is a serious matter, with huge implications.
I support localism and I applaud the Government's efforts to introduce it throughout the country, but my central argument, which I hope the Minister will accept, is that it must be part of a balanced package. We must avoid any trap; for the last Government it was their obsession with centralism-the Stalinism that I mentioned before-but that must not be replaced by a similar obsession with localism as the only way to obtain housing supply.
Graham Jones: I thank the hon. Gentleman for obtaining the debate; it is a great debate, which is primarily about the south, and under-supply of housing, and I am happy to engage in it. To return to the point about the Labour Government being a centralising Government, could the hon. Gentleman tell me the difference between a supplementary planning document and the new neighbourhood development orders? If Labour were centralising, what was an SPD?
Richard Harrington: I do not think that it makes much difference to the argument. In practice there is not much of a difference; I understand there is one, realistically. I look forward to the Minister's comments and the contributions of colleagues. I feel I have made my point.
John Stevenson (Carlisle) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate, which is very useful. I agree with the general thrust of his argument that we need more supply, but he has not touched on the matter of empty properties, how we could bring them back on to the market, and whether there should be incentives to do that, which would increase supply.
Richard Harrington: That is a valuable point. In Watford there are several hundred empty properties. I keep an eye on that. To give credit to the local council, it is also trying. However, there is more to the question of empty properties than meets the eye. Some of them are transiently empty, not empty over the long term. Some are not in the condition that they should be, and some are in areas of town where people do not want to live. I had this very discussion outside the Chamber with my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths), who mentioned that it was a particular problem in his constituency. I do not make it out as of no consequence-it is important-but it is peripheral to the main argument. We shall not merely need 100 or 200 extra homes in our constituencies-which might or might not be obtained by making progress with empty properties. The question is the fundamental supply of new housing land.
Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Turner. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) on an excellent, well informed and intelligent contribution to an important debate. However, I fear I may unfortunately disagree with him on a practical and philosophical level.
Under the Labour Government the fewest houses since 1923 were built. Indeed, that Government tested to destruction the idea that centralised, top-down targets could be the way to engender growth in the provision of private sector, intermediate and social rented housing. Another issue, which has been disastrous in relation to social cohesion, is that, even the social housing that they did produce served, in a period of benign economic growth, to embed welfare dependency, to the extent that the number of people in social housing who are in paid work has shrunk every single year over the past 40 years or so. A mono-tenure culture in social housing cannot be right for the community, the economy or for our nation in general.
Mr Jackson: I will not at the present time, but I might give way to the hon. Gentleman later. I fear that the problem for my hon. Friend the Member for Watford is that he is looking through the wrong end of the telescope. The integral issue is mortgage availability and the fact that mortgage providers have failed to adapt and make progress in the market in terms of providing funding and mortgages to people.
Richard Harrington: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, particularly after I have spoken for 20 minutes. If the banks decided suddenly to lend twice as much money to people who want to purchase houses-we hope that it will happen, so let us pretend for a moment that it will-what effect does he think that would have on the supply of housing?
Mr Jackson: As a Christian, I hope that sinners will repent and that the retail banking sector will lend. I think, however, that the issues are much more integral and institutionalised, as my argument will make clear. I welcome the new homes bonus, although I am slightly concerned about its top-slicing element from year three, which could have an impact on the propensity of local authorities to develop its potential-remember that the scheme is about developing housing appropriate for a particular area.
The situation reminds me of the emperor's new clothes-no one quite knows on what evidential basis we are to decide how many houses are needed. Is it the 2004 Barker report? Is it the misguided views of the then Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prescott sustainable communities plan of 2003? We need to step back and carry out a full analysis of the demographic and social change. The hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) has made the point-quite astutely, though in a roundabout way-that this should not just be about the south-east and the east of England and London, but that we should spread our country's wealth through the housing market throughout the
UK. In fairness, we are looking at mechanisms such as the regional growth fund, sustainable transport funding and, of course, high-speed rail, which seeks to bridge the gap between the overheating of the south-east and other parts of the country-the north-east, the north-west and Yorkshire and Humberside. We need to have a much more existential approach to why we think we need more houses.
It is also important to think in terms of the operational capacity of planning departments. One would struggle to find many people who would admit that their local authority's planning department is completely fit for purpose. The huge bureaucracy and time lags drive local and bigger businesses and developers mad, because there is not a high degree of accountability in this often technical area for local councillors and residents and, in particular, for business. That causes an enormous and inordinate delay to the development of projects.
Graham Jones: Will the hon. Gentleman accept that it is the responsibility of local authorities to fund planning departments and that local councillors have decided that they are a low priority-ditto building control? Will he also accept that the previous Government introduced planning legislation that allowed local authorities to determine what they did and how they did it in their area, but that, because local authorities chose not to resource planning departments, it was left to top-down Government guidance and advice?
Mr Jackson: I do not agree with that comment at all. What happened under the previous Labour Government was that central Government decided that councillors were not qualified to decide how much residential development should take place in their area or to co-operate on infrastructure projects. That is something we have made changes to through the Localism Bill, which received its Second Reading last week. In many respects, the previous Government undermined the autonomy and authority of local councillors and planning departments, specifically by adopting a completely crazy top-down and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Watford said earlier, Stalinist approach to the regional spatial strategy. Of course, that did not work. It would have been great if it had actually worked, but-
Other operational issues stray into the area of regeneration. It is very difficult to put together a residential and commercial package for brownfield sites because of some of the institutional issues at which the Government need to look. One issue is that of European Commission procurement laws. If there is one thing guaranteed to scare planners off, it is the idea that it will take months and months to put together a package and that they must put the work involved-consultancy and other issues-out to European Commission procurement rules. As I said, that can cause massive delay in bringing forward good projects-for example, shopping centres with associated housing.
The other issue, which was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson), is that of empty properties. I remain to be convinced that empty dwelling management orders were the right way to go about dealing with the matter. We really need to tackle the issue of empty properties. If we are going to develop on marginal sites-green belt sites and others-we should be able to satisfy ourselves that we have exhausted every other possibility of developing on brownfield sites. We also need to consider the whole area of brownfield remediation. That is an issue for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Treasury and the Department for Communities and Local Government.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Paul Uppal) made a very astute point about real estate investment trusts. That is a matter the Leader of the House was very keen to take forward when he was Housing Minister in 1996. Some pretty arcane legal and financial rules in the Treasury mean that it has not been possible to develop such a consumer friendly way of accessing private sector capital in the private rented sector. At the moment, such an approach is confined to the student market in university towns. However, we need to have a bigger philosophical debate on whether-I know it is heresy for any Conservative to say this-we have perhaps reached the limit of owner-occupation. If we consider comparative studies in Canada, Germany, Italy and France, people are happy to live in and pay rent for high-quality residential accommodation. We have not exhausted the possibilities of that here.
Richard Harrington: It is important that my hon. Friend accepts that although he might be right about housing penetration and such things, those matters are irrelevant to the core argument of the debate, which is that the supply of land is needed-whether it is for rental housing or any other form of housing.
Mr Jackson: My hon. Friend has a point. I should not mix my metaphors too much, but if the Government were taking the one-club golfer approach of only putting eggs in the basket of the new homes bonus-we will see from the regulations and secondary legislation how the details of that work out-I would accept the premise of his argument. However, the Government are also looking at community right to build and urban extensions to rural and semi-rural areas because people are very keen to save their post office, their bus service and their local shop. If we can envisage building 10, 15 or 20 houses, housing some key workers and some high-income people, which concurs with, for example, the Sustainable Communities Act 2007-that legislation was passed with cross-party support a few years ago-my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Local Government is absolutely right: people will want to do that. If we do that cumulatively across boroughs and districts, we will drive up housing numbers.
I am mindful of the time, so I will move to a conclusion. We desperately need Treasury buy-in in the housing market to support the new homes bonus and other initiatives such as asset-backed vehicles, in which private sector capital can be accessed for regeneration schemes, including housing; tax increment financing-not just in town centres for retail but for housing-related issues as well-and the important accelerated development zones.
I recognise my hon. Friend's very sincere concern for those young people who want to get on the housing ladder in Watford, and I see the same in my own
constituency. We must not ignore the disparity between the joint income of young couples and the amount that mortgages are proffered at by lenders. That gap is huge, and we need to work with the Treasury and the FSA on the matter. I know that our right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Local Government is battling hard to make the FSA understand the practical ramifications of restricting the mortgage market, which will be disastrous for the housing market.
Although I support the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Watford, the picture is technical and very complicated. What we do not want to see is the son of regional spatial strategy. Compulsion has failed, and there is no evidence to suggest that it will work in the future. We all hope that we can build more homes for constituents of all incomes. We all support do-it-yourself shared ownership and intermediate housing to get people on the housing ladder so that we can become a property-owning democracy again.
Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): Thank you, Mr Turner, for inviting me to speak in this Westminster Hall debate and for giving me the opportunity to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) on successfully securing this very important debate. I need to declare an interest. Before I was elected to this House, I ran and was a director of a communications company, which specifically dealt with issues of public consultation. I no longer have an executive role in that company. I hope that over the course of the past 20 years, I have gained some understanding of the market.
The ability to deliver development hinges on the cost of land-how much it costs a developer to buy so that they can develop it. Last week, we debated the Localism Bill. I was delighted to be able to support it because it is exactly the right road for us to go down. I tried, unsuccessfully, to speak in that debate. Had I done so, I would have reminded the House that when it comes to reforming planning legislation, every Government have always thought that they could speed up the process. Unfortunately, that never seems to have happened, and the process has got progressively slower. If we monitor the whole process now and find that it is slower, will the Minister ensure that we can revisit it and try to reform it?
The key issue for developers is the land and the ability to put together land sites and attract political commitment for development so that regeneration and investment can come forward. The previous Labour Government started off on the right foot. They talked about how important it was to encourage both commercial and housing development. Unfortunately, during the course of their 13 years in power, the process got slower and slower to the point that we were literally looking at only one issue, which was making sure that housing development came forward. In any approach that the Government may take, it is important that they include not only housing but commercial development.
As has been said, we are now building fewer homes than we were in the 1920s and 1930s. The previous Government's top-down approach has not been as successful as we would have liked it to have been. That is
why I feel that the coalition Government's proposals to introduce incentives so that local authorities can encourage development are incredibly important. I firmly support a carrot approach rather than the stick. It will encourage local authorities such as mine and that of the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) to bring brownfield sites back into use and fulfil their full economic potential.
In Plymouth, 38% of the local employed population works in the public sector. Although they do a good job, we have failed to ensure that we rebalance the economy, and we must try to do so. The largest private-sector employer is Babcock, at the dockyard, but that is of course public-sector employment by proxy. I am therefore keen to encourage more private investment in Plymouth. Just yesterday, the deputy leader of my council reminded me that Plymouth is open for business and can deliver. That is good news, but to achieve it in our part of the south-west, we must not only ensure that we have good transport and infrastructure, as my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) mentioned; we must ensure that we have a good skills base. If we are to attract inward investment, we need good infrastructure, a good skills base-people move where the jobs are-and the right general design for the area. Plymouth has a low-skills and low-wage economy. To rebalance it, we must ensure that we have the right conditions to attract inward investment.
Last Friday, Plymouth city council organised an event at which I spoke, as did the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View and, I am delighted to say, my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry). We considered the whole business of how to attract investment and so on, and we discussed affordable housing. My hon. Friend did an excellent job and spoke incredibly well. All the reports that I heard said that he certainly hit the issue. It was an opportunity to consider the regeneration that has taken place in Devonport, which we all found interesting and worthwhile.
Alison Seabeck: Will the hon. Gentleman at least acknowledge that the development in Devonport, which has been fantastic in turning that community around, was the result of investment by the last Labour Government?
Oliver Colvile: Yes. I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. That investment has continued, and it is impressive how the scheme is progressing. It is developing mixed communities with not only housing but business and commercial opportunities.
Plymouth has about 12,000 people, mainly single, sitting on the city council's housing waiting list. It has a significant population and a chronic shortage of affordable housing, and we must rebalance our public finances. Registered social landlords and housing associations will not necessarily have as much money available as they do at the moment, so we must consider other ways to develop an affordable housing market.
Many rural communities have decided to go down the route of creating community land trusts, and we should consider that for conurbations. I was elected on a campaign of saying to Ministers that Plymouth is not Portsmouth. We are not 20 minutes away from Bristol,
and we should not be ignored. We have a good story to tell. We would welcome a visit by the Minister to Plymouth, which is a happening place, as they say.
Mel Stride: Does my hon. Friend agree that in rural settings-particularly villages, where it is important that younger people can afford to stay in their communities in order to keep them vibrant and sustainable-land trusts could perhaps allow covenants to ensure that those who occupy the properties come from the local area and can stay there in perpetuity?
We have to look at an imaginative way of doing things, and I have one suggestion, which the Minister might like to take on board. Where we have community land trusts-where the local authority or the local community can own the land, and putting the housing, the bricks and the mortar on it is the least expensive aspect-we might look at returning to an old leasehold arrangement, under which developers could sell the building but hold on to the ownership of the land itself, which would mean that it remained in community use during the course of the leasehold.
I have two final points. If we are to do a significant amount of development and encourage inward investment, can we also make sure that we have good design? One big problem, which we have had in various parts of the country, is that we have not produced the design. Secondly, can we make sure that the local community gets involved? When I did some work in the royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea, I was struck by the fact that the local community was involved in the process of deciding what the master plan would look like. When the planning application was eventually submitted, it went through without touching the sides. My right hon. Friend the Minister has a civil servant in his Department who was very much involved in all that as the borough's director of planning, and that approach worked in a very big way. In this way, we can begin to undertake decent, sustainable development that combines housing and commercial opportunities that deliver employment.
Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) for securing the debate, which gives me the opportunity to raise issues that I did not have the time to raise during the Second Reading of the Localism Bill last week.
I make these comments having worked as a chartered surveyor for 27 years before arriving in the House. I am no longer practising and I have no ongoing consultancies. I have also been a district councillor and a county councillor. I support the Bill, although as my hon. Friend highlighted, some parts require further scrutiny.
A steady supply of sites needs to be made available for development so that we can not only build much-needed homes, but enable the construction industry to play its full role in securing the economic recovery. We need to ensure that the Localism Bill is a catalyst for growth and not an obstacle to it. Change is needed because the current system is not working. We are not building
enough houses. Patchy local plan coverage has helped to inflate residential land values, taking what were affordable homes out of the reach of so many. The country's infrastructure is also crumbling.
The Bill is radical and bold, and the Minister and his colleagues are to be congratulated on thinking outside the box, proposing a fundamental change in the way the planning system works and a move from a top-down to a bottom-up approach. There is a need to accept that the man from the Ministry does not know best, and there must be a shift of power and responsibility to individuals and local communities. They are, after all, the people who know their areas best.
I support the move towards local decision making, but decisions need to be made in a broad framework to ensure that sufficient land is available for development and to avoid piecemeal, unco-ordinated planning. I would like this framework to incorporate several features. First, we need to ensure that local decisions and local developments have regard to surrounding areas and fit into a countywide and regional framework. The regional spatial strategy was too rigid a straitjacket, but is local authorities' duty to co-operate, as proposed at present, sufficient to ensure an adequate strategic overview? This aspect of the Bill needs to be scrutinised further.
Secondly, to ensure that sufficient houses are built in a district, I propose that consideration be given to asking local planning authorities regularly to assess local housing need, which should be measured in the same way across the country. That will enable councils to monitor their success in providing for development land on which to build the new houses that are so badly needed. Thirdly, arrangements need to be put in place to speed up the whole planning process, including determining planning applications and preparing local plans. One of my complaints, in the past 10 to 15 years of working as a surveyor, is that the system has been getting slower and slower. I look forward to receiving details of how the Government intend to speed things up.
Finally, an issue that needs to be considered is whether the principle of sustainable development should be embedded in the Localism Bill, with the requirement for sustainable development explicitly stated. At present, it is proposed that the need to follow sustainable development principles will be implicit, because that will be included in the national planning framework. However, that has not yet been published, and for my part I believe that sustainability needs to be at the heart of the planning system.
I welcome the move towards neighbourhood planning, with communities being able to write their own neighbourhood development plans. That will give people a real say in how their neighbourhoods evolve, including what type of homes are built, and where they are built.
Graham Jones: For the third time I raise the point that under the previous Government, supplementary planning documents meant that, if local authorities wished, their planning departments could approach local communities to develop neighbourhood plans. That facility exists without neighbourhood development orders. I presume that the hon. Gentleman has served on a planning committee. Most of the powers in question exist and were delegated to local authorities. It is the failure of local authorities to develop supplementary planning documents that is the weakness.
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