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By putting a particular provision into the Bill, the Government are putting it into law. We should be extremely wary about allowing a measure to be introduced that has an implicit elephant definitionin other words, we know it when we see itwhich is to be determined by consulting people who are approached when order-making powers are being prepared. That is not the way in which to proceed. It causes too many problems. The Minister says that he thinks he is on safe territory. My point is that the territory is not defined. This needs to be pursued. Having said that, I listened with great care to what the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, and my noble friend Lady Carnegy of Lour said, and I see that certain points in my amendment need to be addressed. Therefore, I shall not pursue it now, but there is a case for returning to it to ensure that what the Government are putting into the Bill, which I welcome, is taken further so we know what it actually means. For the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Andrews): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on the future of local government. The Statement is as follows:Local authorities and the services they provide in partnership with others are hugely important to the health and strength of our communities and country. They help to determine the quality of our everyday livesthe schools our children attend, the cleanliness and safety of our neighbourhoods, the health of families, the ease with which we can travel, and the leisure activities we enjoy. Many of the biggest social advances in recent generations were led by local government and its leaders. They have served their communities well. But, in 1997, this Government inherited public services and institutions that were rundown, demoralised and starved of cash and resources. We responded with significant investment to expand capacity, and by setting a strong direction nationally.Combined with the hard work and commitment of local councillors, the local government workforce and other partners, this has led to real improvements in local public service delivery. For the next phase of reform, we need to respond to new challenges. The increasing complexity and diversity of thesefrom climate change to tackling deep-rooted social exclusiondemand more flexibility at the local level. Expectations of citizens are rising fast. They rightly want more choice over the services they receive, more influence over those who provide them and higher service standards.The White Paper that I am publishing today proposes that local authorities and other public service providers have the freedom and powers they need to meet the needs of their communities and to be more clearly accountable for doing so. Communities must also have a bigger say in the issues that matter to them most. We therefore propose a new settlement with local government, communities and citizens. We will give local authorities a stronger role in leading their communities and bringing services together to address local needs and problems. Central government will play their part in guaranteeing minimum standards and setting overall national goals, but we will step back and allow more freedom and flexibility at the local level. In exchange, we expect to see more accountability to local citizens, stronger local leadership, better and more efficient services and a readiness to support tougher intervention when things go wrong.The White Paper sets out how we intend to achieve this rebalancing between central government, local government and local people. At present, there are as many as 1,200 national targets and indicators for a local area. In future, we will
Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made by the Secretary of State in the other place a short time ago. I declare that I am an elected member of a local council. In doing that, I join the Minister in acknowledging the enormous amount of workI probably take myself out of this commentthat local councillors do and their commitment to their communities. As with all
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The first aspect that I would like to test with the Minister is the relationship that the White Paper will have with legislation in the next Session. Will that be with or without the influence of the Lyons report? That is where the meat of change will lie. Fiddling around with the organisation of a local governments internal arrangements is a minor part of the changes that the Government will presumably have to make. Is it intended that any legislation emanating from this White Paper will encompass the Lyons recommendations? How can anything relevant to local government be decided in the absence of consideration of its financing? Has Lyons effectively been kicked into touch at this time? As we have always expected, the solutions to the questions raised are likely to be far more radical than perhaps the Government wish to contemplate. Will the legislation include any provisions that are required to implement the changes to the Mayor for Londons powers?
It is hard to give a very warm welcome to what has come forward today. All parties subscribe to the theory of localism, but each seems to have a slightly different view of what that means. There may be aspects in this White Paperwhen I have a chance to read iton which we will agree with the Government and which we think are worth having. But devolving powers to the lowest level of democratic government from central government and returning the powers that have been given to the undemocratic regions does not seem to be part of what is on offer here. What devolvement of powers does the Minister believe will come from these proposals, particularly in relation to transport, planning and economic development? At the moment, it seemsthis is very cursoryas if devolvement is restricted to enabling a few parish councils to make a few more by-laws.
What has happened to the good intentions from the statements made in the past by the Prime Minister, by the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, and by the Secretary of State, Ruth Kelly, on devolution? Have they got lost in and during the interregnum of the transfer of power at the highest levels in government? What is happening with the Barker report? Will any of her recommendations that need to come forward in legislation be included in the next Session?
As I have said, I have not seen the full proposals so it is hard to know quite what the fine words mean or what relevance they have to the electorate in general. The main thrust seems to be that the Government are trying to devise a new settlement with local government, communities and citizens, which is how it is put. The only welcome proposals to aid that are a promise by the Government to reduce 1,200 targets down to 200 indicators and 35 targets. What of scrutiny by external inspectors? Where will they play a role in this, or are they to be abolished? What
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We would all welcome more support for the democratic leadership of councils. But does the White Paper give any more detail on what would be involved in, for example, a directly elected executive of councillors? Would a leader have to be previously selected or elected by colleagues and then go to the electorate with a full slate of executive members? How would they be selected? How would they be put forward for election? Would they have to be elected as councillors first? If not, how would they be chosen? I hope that there is more clarity than is currently available.
Can the Minister give us some idea of how it is envisaged that the role of back-bench councillorsthose who actually represent their communitieswill be strengthened? How will they be engaged in the business of the council, or will they remain as they arelargely outside the administration of and decision-making on policy and practice? I am delighted to know that the White Paper gives councillors their voice back on planning and licensing issues. That disgraceful lapse was brought about by this Government. We had long arguments during the debates on the Licensing Bill when we put forward the view that the councillors democratic voice would be taken out, but we were completely pooh-poohed. The same thing has happened with planning. I am delighted that at last the Government have realised that this is a role for councillors. It is a disgrace that councillors have not been allowed to speak and that, when they have spoken, they have been threatened with the Standards Board. I very much hope that the White Paper makes it clear that their role is at the centre of these issues and that they are not to be precluded from them. Also, how will the proposals for the community call for action work?
The White Paper looks as if it might be a missed opportunity to truly strengthen local governmentthat will become more apparent as time goes onto devolve power properly to the local level and to rid us of the regional level, which was dreamt up by the Deputy Prime Minister and resoundingly defeated by the electorate. It is good that councillors should be able to decide when their elections should be and whether they should be annual or by thirds. It is time for that to be amended and I suspect that many councillors will want to go for the full four-year term.
What are the electorate to make of all this? They are reeling from extraordinary hikes in council tax, which, in the past five or six years, has risen astronomicallyall under this Government. The electorate are scared stiff of the revaluation of their properties for local tax purposes. They are now threatened with the Northern Ireland regime, which I hope will not come here, and the arrival of council tax inspectors marching all over their houses to check the amount of double glazing and the views from the windows. They are unable to find their way through the unfathomable processes that will keep elderly people in care without bankrupting them. It does not look as though this White Paper will help with that at all.
I hope that the process that will follow this Statementthat of legislationwill enable us to delve into some of these matters and to end up with proposals and powers that are really relevant to local communities and on which we can ultimately agree. That is what local government is about; it is about representation of its people. The more agreement that we can come to politically, the better that role can be fulfilled. I do not promise that it will be like that. I expect that there is more than meets the eye in this legislation. But, in the mean time, the curates egg is well and truly laid.
Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, we live in one of the most centralised states in western Europe and, after the effects of this White Paper have been felt, that will remain the case. This is a wasted opportunity. The White Paper has not been worth the wait of the many months that it has taken to get this far. It does nothing to address the increasingly unsustainable burden of council tax or to deal with the dominance of central government funding for local government services. That lack of local financial flexibility is at the core of the weakness of modern local government. The White Paper does nothing to return the powers of central government or quangos back to town halls.
The document is full of motherhood and apple pie, or as I have been taught to say in this new era of equalities, non gender-specific parenthood. The Government now claim that they have discovered localism and decentralisation. Of course we welcome their conversion to the idea, but we remain deeply sceptical about whether they have any real understanding of it. The implementation is via a zoo of acronyms and action plans, all of which have the capacity to blur genuine accountability.
The Government remain besotted with the notion of mayors. So far there have been 34 local referendums resulting in 22 rejections and 12 wins. That has been the choice of local communities. But Mr Blair wants mayors and so Mr Blair shall get mayors. We are going to get them through consultation now, not through referendums. If you do not want a mayor, you can have an enhanced leader. This is the imposition of the mayoral system by the back door, and I ask the noble Baroness why the Government are so determined to emasculate back-bench councillors in the same way as they have emasculated Back-Bench MPs. Vesting all executive power in an authority in one person is a highly dangerous move and should be resisted at all costs.
There is a proposal to allow some areas that have already expressed an interest to become unitary councils if they choose to do so, and we believe that this is a sensible way forward. But we would like to know what the triggers are for this and how consent will be determined. Who will have a vote in such a proposal and who will make the final decision?
The exact proposals for parishes are unclear, but giving very local communities more say in service delivery and local well-being is of course to be welcomed, provided that democratic accountability is not lost. A
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In passing, I should like to comment on the flow chart on page 37, which describes what will happen in a call to action. It has come straight from the Janet and John book of local government. For anyone who has spent time in local government, it is risible.
City regions are a case of the dog that has not barked in the night. We heard a lot about the idea in the Miliband era, but sadly it now seems to be rather silent. Several metropolitan areas are now ready for co-operative working, which they see as a way of unlocking devolved powers from Whitehall. So the crucial issues are the governance proposals that will be linked to the scheme: are they to have mayors; are councils to merge; and are we to have federated structures? More important, what powers would be on offer to those who choose to go down this route? If the scheme is linked to travel-to-work areas, existing council boundaries will be crossed and therefore local consent mechanisms are very important. Strengthening passenger transport authorities is to be welcomed in principle.
Members on these Benches regret that this White Paper has been published ahead of the Lyons review so that the issues of powers, finance and structures will not be considered together despite the fact that they are inextricably linked. We believe that the failure to link these important issues will probably ensure that, even by its own meagre objectives, this White Paper is doomed to fail.
Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I am grateful for the welcome given to the White Paper. I have sympathy with the pressures on Opposition Front Bench spokesmen who have to respond to a very detailed White Paper at short notice. I fully intend to make myself and officials widely available over the coming days and months so that we can sit down and discuss the detail as fully as possible because there is a great deal to consider and on which to take collective advice from the wisdom available around this Chamber. I am particularly pleased to see the noble Lord, Lord Bruce-Lockhart, in his place because I would like to say how much we have appreciated working with the Local Government Association. In response to the cynical voices on the Opposition Benches, I should point out that we have received a great deal of support from the LGA for what we have brought forward because it is very much in tune with what the association has been telling us would be right and proper for local authorities. The noble Lord, Lord Bruce-Lockhart, himself said this morning that these are significant changes.
In the time I have available, I shall address the major issues. There is no way that we would agree that this is a missed opportunity. This is a consensual paper and I look forward very much to it growing more
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The noble Baroness asked a number of questions about the sequence in which these things will be dealt with. I have spoken about Lyons, but Barker is of course another example. We will listen hard to what Kate Barker has to say about the ways in which we can improve the planning system, building on what we have done already and addressing the culture of change in planning so as to bring land allocation, land use, housing, employment and productivity closer togethercloser to the groundand make it more effective.
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