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Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I had not intended to enter the debate, but having heard the arguments previously and not being entirely convinced, I, like any other council leader, have a great deal of
For that reason, I believe that the issue should be dealt with in the form of guidance. I say that as the leader of an authority which has a best-value pilot status. During the past 18 months we have systematically worked through our services and through the process of review--to a degree, screening--beginning to look at ways in which we can train procurement processes and acquire new and different services by putting sustainability into our thinking.
It did not require legislation for us to do that. Perhaps it required a nudge and a wink from central government that that was what they wanted. But we got there before and earlier in any event. I believe that that is the most practical way to deal with the matter and we can take the issue further when the Government construct guidance and talk to the Local Government Association and other external expert bodies. We shall therefore get the guidance, support and back-up right so that sustainability begins to have a practical effect rather than being seen as a token gesture or motion described on the face of the legislation.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, I expect that Members on the Liberal Democrat Benches are inured to the fact that I shall say that I have considerable sympathy with what they are intending to do but I cannot believe that the legislation is appropriate to their sustainability argument.
Clearly, local authorities must put sustainability as part of their strategy, but they must also turn it into reality in relation to particular policies, projects and service delivery. We have emphasised that the Bill is about how local authorities are managed and not about the outcome of that management. It is clear from government policy, and the policy of most local authorities, that sustainability is not only increasingly important but probably the most important aspect of their activity. An authority is neither effective nor efficient if it conducts policies which do not deliver sustainability. Actually, sustainability is a bigger issue than how and to what outcome one delivers. Any best-value authority which failed to take into account sustainability could not be said to be meeting the best value criteria.
On the other hand, it is important that we turn sustainability into something clearer than merely writing it as an additional criterion in the Bill in a list of aspects which are well understood. We need to make sustainability understood at various different levels. There are many points at which best value and
We are urging best value authorities to draw up Local Agenda 21 strategies which, as the noble Baroness said, have sustainability at their heart. We are altering the planning system in order that sustainability is more maintained in that area. We are working with the Audit Commission and others to identify clear performance indicators which tackle this cost-cutting issue of sustainability and which can be included explicitly in the best value suite.
So we are taking all kinds of measures to put the practical indicators and measures of sustainability into the best value regime. In terms of the legislation, we believe that the principles are best dealt with through the promotion of economical, social and environmental well-being at the local level in recognition of local authorities' community leadership role.
We have done this with the Greater London Authority Bill where contributing towards sustainable development is contained within the principal purpose of the GLA to promote social and economic development and environmental improvement for London. We are considering how best to apply similar provisions to local authorities in England and Wales. That relates to the point raised by my noble friend Lord Bassam; namely, that it is our intention to bring forward legislation as parliamentary time permits, as they say, and to ensure that that does happen, but not in a Bill which is primarily about the management systems of local authorities. As I have already mentioned, we also have the opportunity to discuss well-being in your Lordships' House next week.
We therefore concur with the remarks of a number of noble Lords in relation to sustainability. However, we do not believe it is appropriate to write it in this way into the Bill. We already have in train a number of developments in association with local authorities which will give meaning and reality to sustainability criteria, sustainability indicators and measures which will help to make a reality of this dimension of best value. Introducing this new element at this stage would dilute the focus of the management systems. However, the Government are certainly committed to introducing it as an overall concept. We are trying to develop the tools to turn it into a reality. I therefore hope the noble Baroness will not consider it necessary to pursue her amendment in this context.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. I am fairly new to your Lordships' House and as yet I am not inured to the disappointment of never seeing anything go through. I hope that I shall always continue to live in hope.
The Minister referred to the duty to promote social, economic and environmental well-being as that upon which we should pin our hopes to see sustainability duties introduced in a different form. However, as he indicated, it does not seem as if parliamentary time will allow for that either this year or next. Much as we may debate it next week, and I am sure the debate will be interesting, that does not mean that it will be on the statute book in the near future. I am sure the Minister knows more about that than I do. I would not wish to depend upon that to see a greater promotion of environmental well-being.
The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, referred to the fact that in tune with government thinking, the best authorities--of which, of course, his is one--are piloting best value. The Minister also referred to that. I remind the House that best value is intended to address the problems of the worst authorities; those which are not able to address the issues of sustainability or virtually anything else. It is to those authorities that we should be sending a message to put it at the heart of their delivery, not to the splendid authorities which have been chosen as best value pilots.
The Minister said that sustainability was a most important aspect of local authority service. I thoroughly agree. However, when we go out to our communities and involve them in community planning, how seriously can we ask them to take the question of sustainability? How seriously can we expect them to regard that as a duty to put first if local authorities do not have it as one of their basic duties?
I disagree with the Minister when he states that the Bill is fundamentally about how local authorities are managed; it is about more than that. It is about how their policies are developed and their priorities driven. If it was only a question of management, we would leave it mostly to the officers. We would not have councillors undergoing a massive training exercise with the Improvement and Development Agency making every effort to make councillors better at developing policy and priorities. I do not accept that the Bill is only about management. If we do not put sustainability on to the face of the Bill we shall be guilty of not thinking that it is fundamentally the most important aspect of local authority service. With all due regard for the wish of the Minister that we do not pursue the matter further, I should like to seek the opinion of the House.
Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.