Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: I beg to move that the House do now resume. I suggest that the Committee stage begin again not before 8.40 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.

Local Authority Duties

7.40 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Tanworth rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what progress they have made on plans, referred to in paragraph 8.8 of the White Paper Modern Local Government: In Touch with the People, to introduce a new duty on local authorities to promote the economic, social and environmental well-being of their area and accompanying powers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I begin by declaring an interest in that I am honorary president of the Local Government Association. I also want to remind your Lordships of a report of the 1995-96 Select Committee on Central and Local Government Relations that I had the honour to chair. That report argued that, just as there had been a shift in the role of local government from being service providers to being enablers, so local

5 Jul 1999 : Column 659

authorities should be encouraged and helped to play their proper role as democratic community leaders in the complex world of local governance.

Therefore, it was good to read in paragraph 8.8 of Cmd. 4014 that:

    "The Government intends to introduce legislation to place on councils a duty to promote the economic, social and environmental well-being of their areas and to strengthen councils' powers to enter into partnerships". That new duty was to enshrine in law the role of the council as the elected leader of the local community, required to produce a strategic plan for the locality and free to enter into partnerships with other bodies. In other words, the council was to take a comprehensive overview of the needs and priorities of its local area and communities in a way that other more specialised and non-elected bodies cannot.

That White Paper was published a year ago, in July 1998, and the new duty still does not figure in either the Local Government Bill, which is to have its Third Reading in the House next week, or so far in the draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill, currently being examined by a Joint Committee of both Houses.

I want to stress briefly why I believe that that new duty is so necessary, particularly as I believe that some noble Lords fear that it would open the door to allow local authorities to interfere in the activities of local partners or to force others to work with councils when they do not wish to do so. That is not the intention of the Government. The Local Government Association agrees with the Government that safeguards would be necessary to prevent local authorities unduly impinging on the work of other bodies or prejudicing the latter's statutory functions.

Local authorities are, however, governed by the doctrine of vires and must produce specific statutory authority for their actions. They are not like private individuals who are free to do anything that is not specifically forbidden. Local authorities are unable to act unless given specific authority to do so, with only one limited exception under Section 137 of the Local Government Act 1972.

As a consequence, there are already specific examples where local authorities wish to enter into partnerships or commercial activities which all concerned agreed to be desirable and sensible but which were thought that the action would be open to legal challenge over the authority's right to proceed. Those range from matters like the Hertfordshire County Council's plan to set up a company to run its old people's homes and to access private capital, to enable it to improve its facilities, to the way in which the Local Authorities (Goods and Services) Act inhibits partnership dealings such that the local authority hedge-cutter is not legally entitled to cut a privately owned hedge even if the owner wants him to do so and is willing to pay for the service.

These days we hear much talk of the so-called wicked issues where one agency, acting alone, will not produce effective solutions to deep-rooted problems and of the need for greater cohesion and coherence at the local

5 Jul 1999 : Column 660

level for all those whose parallel activities can affect local communities: councils, other public bodies, businesses and voluntary organisations.

The proposed new duty and powers would help to strengthen partnership working in key areas and would also provide an overall framework within which councils would have to perform all their existing functions. So in taking planning decisions, for example, councils would have to consider the likely effects of a decision against the three objectives--economic, social and environmental--and if necessary strike a balance to ensure that the overall well-being of their area is achieved.

Above all, the new duty would remove uncertainties about local government's legitimacy in community leadership and community planning and would encourage local authorities to think and work in a more innovative and experimental way, freeing them to develop partnership solutions, operating across organisational boundaries.

I believe--I hope rightly--that that is also the wish of the Government. I hope when the Minister replies to this debate that he will be able to tell the House that the few clauses needed to give effect to the proposed new duty will be included in the draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill with which it is so closely linked, as new political structures need to be developed with the community leadership role firmly in mind, or failing that, that it will find some other place in the next legislative programme.

7.48 p.m.

Baroness Goudie: My Lords, the Labour Party manifesto, on which this Labour Government were elected, committed us to place on councils a duty to promote the economic, social and environmental well-being of an area. The Government have set about doing just that.

The Greater London Authority Bill defines the principal purposes of the new authority as promoting in Greater London economic development, wealth creation, social development and the improvement of the environment. In furthering any of those principal purposes, the authority will be required to consider the effect that that may have on the remaining purpose or purposes, in so far as that is practicable, and, over a period of time, to secure a reasonable balance between furthering each of those principal purposes. In particular, it must contribute to the achievement of sustainable development.

The new Government lost no time in bringing out their Green Paper, Modernising Local Government: Local Democracy and Community Leadership. That sought views on the implications of a duty to promote economic, social and environmental well-being. The Green Paper made the very valid points that such a duty would spur local authorities more widely to follow the practices of the best in their leadership of their local communities; and would go a long way to remove uncertainty as to the extent of their powers. Removing uncertainty is most important.

5 Jul 1999 : Column 661

The Green Paper also sought views on the need to replace Section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972. This of course is the subsidiary power which allows authorities to do anything incidental, conducive or calculated to facilitate the discharge of their functions. The Green Paper made the valid points that shortcomings have been identified by a number of prominent court cases in recent years and that confidence has been undermined, in particular in relation to co-operation and partnership activities.

The Green Paper rightly pointed out that a notable area of difficulty arises from the concept that only one incidental action is allowed, thus creating the position that a series of linked actions becomes unlawful by virtue of being "incidental to the incidental". The Green Paper concluded that, to remove such basic uncertainty, the Government were inclined to replace Section 111 with a new, broader power. This would in particular enable participation in the establishment of joint arrangements. I welcome this approach.

Then last July came the White Paper. Paragraph 8.8 states that the Government intend to introduce legislation to place on councils a duty not only to promote the economic, social and environmental well-being of their areas, but also to strengthen council powers to enter into partnerships. There is reference to a new legal framework, but no express reference to Section 111. Indeed, the Greater London Authority Bill contains a provision in the same terms as Section 111. I hope that the Minister will be able to inform us of the current state of the Government's thinking on revamping Section 111.

Much uncertainty has been removed by the Local Government (Contracts) Act 1997, which the present Parliament fast-tracked. It effectively addressed the problem of the "incidental to the incidental". It gave a much needed impetus to the private finance initiative. But uncertainties remain. The 1997 Act deals only with long-term contracts--those intended to operate for at least five years.

Due regard should be paid to the fact that local authorities consist of representatives elected by the public on a wide franchise for comparatively short periods. If they are regarded as mere creatures of specific statutes, with unsatisfactory subsidiary powers, they will not be able to provide civic leadership and act, innovate and integrate on behalf of their local communities. I therefore support the Government's approach and am delighted that it has already been partly implemented.

7.52 p.m.

Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, I welcome the opportunity provided by this debate and thank the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, for asking the Unstarred Question. I welcome it not least because it occasioned me to read the White Paper published a year ago.

The White Paper, Modern Local Government: In Touch with the People, is beautifully produced and readable, but it is full of wish-lists which have not been costed and which could have the unwelcome effect of

5 Jul 1999 : Column 662

raising expectations at a local level. The section entitled "Promoting the well-being of communities" certainly falls into that category. Practically every single one of the statements, suggestions and strategy proposals looks fine on paper but begs a significant number of questions.

The last thing I want to be is a "Jeremiah"--a prophet of doom--and certainly I subscribe to the overall wish that local authorities should be in touch with the inhabitants of their areas. But the ambitious White Paper would generate huge demands for massive additional resources, both in the financial and in the skills area.

"Blue skies" planning used to have a devoted following--often described as "shoot for the sun and you might reach the moon". But in an age when expectations are constantly being raised to giddy heights, the non-fulfilment of expectations comes as a rude shock. That, in essence, is my health warning; now to the proposals contained in Chapter 8.

Although the Unstarred Question deals specifically with paragraph 8.8 there are other issues raised in the chapter which impinge upon the successful achievement of the promotion of economic, social and environmental well-being of an area. The White Paper, quite rightly, emphasises the need for leadership. Sadly, leaders are in very short supply. We can debate for hours on whether leaders are born or made, and I do not have very firm views on that, but I have very firm views on the fact that leadership can take a long time to develop. Some people are flexible enough to grasp the opportunities when placed in a leadership position, but I fear they are the exception.

In my experience, both as an erstwhile local authority chief officer and more recently having involvement with my own district council on a matter of liaison between the council and the local doctors on the matter of finding an alternative site for a surgery, I can say that "leadership" qualities are not in great supply. This is not to cast aspersions on the calibre of the staff employed but rather reflects the uneasy relationship that exists between the permanent staff and the elected members. Risk taking is not encouraged; time horizons differ greatly, and training for staff seems to concentrate more on servicing the endless committees rather than on originating ideas. There are, of course, exceptions--probably in every local authority--but the demands of this White Paper call for a very large number of high calibre staff with strong leadership qualities.

Ideally, all would-be councillors should be able to demonstrate strong leadership characteristics and leadership training should be high on the agenda for all officers and senior staff. In order to fulfil the proposals in the White Paper dealing with economic, social and environmental well-being, the following skills are essential: communication skills; strategic planning skills; promotional skills and mindsets that can be both flexible and pragmatic--open eyes, open ears and open minds. These skills are not in great over-supply and have seldom been required of local government employees, or indeed of elected members.

The greatest task facing local government in the fulfilling of the obligation to promote economic, social and environmental well-being is the development of

5 Jul 1999 : Column 663

strategic plans. Having spent a great part of my business career as a strategic planner, naturally I support the emphasis on that function in the White Paper. But strategic planning is a tedious, detailed, specialised exercise and I can already foresee problems of a most basic kind. Short-termism is a feature of most elected members, whereas strategic planning is by its nature long term in its work. How will that dilemma be addressed? The Government said in paragraph 8.14 that they,

    "will not impose on councils any particular approach to this task [the task of strategic planning]--councils will have flexibility over the precise nature, scope and coverage of the strategy, the level of detailed action it contains and over how they go about preparing it in partnership with other organisations, with the new Regional Development Agencies which themselves will be preparing an economic strategy for their region, and with local people".

Gosh! It really will be the heyday for strategic planners; I am afraid I was born too soon!

I have spent some time on this issue because in my opinion it is fundamental to the promotion of economic, social and environmental well-being. Before any progress can be made the plans will have to be drawn up. Before the plans are drawn up the staff will have to be trained in strategy planning. Before training in strategy planning is undertaken, serious attention will have to be paid to the selection and recruitment of people who can undertake such exercises--or indeed who want to. The last thing that is required is another case like that reported today where a local government employee was moved from one function to another without the necessary training and ended up bringing a successful case against the authority for stress. Financial resources are in short enough supply without having them used for payoffs in such cases.

Of course, there is one way of circumventing the problem; that is, to hire consultants. But I implore the Minister to give us the assurance that this will not be the case. The duties placed on local government are worthy but very onerous. I just wonder how they will be fulfilled. In my own area of West Sussex we have the county council, the district council and the town council. Who is going to be responsible for marshalling the ideas, the background data, the market studies and the business plans which are all a necessary part of the process leading to the promotion of economic, social and environmental well-being?

One thing this White Paper has been most successful in achieving is the interest created by it. All sections of the population firmly believe that they are going to be instrumental in developing the well-being of their area. But the "wish lists" are endless. For example, the town in which I live has a population of about 3,000. Various groups are looking at various aspects of the well-being of the town, and I was shown the deliberations of just one of those groups, the one dedicated to the needs of public transport. There are eight recommendations and were they to be accomplished it would certainly improve the provision of local transport. Nowhere, however, is there a single costing; nowhere is there any acknowledgement of the fact that most people are and will be wedded to their car; and even with the eight recommendations very little additional flexibility over and above the current situation would be provided.

5 Jul 1999 : Column 664

Yet--and this is a serious point--the people who spent time and energy drawing up this list really do have high expectations of their recommendations being met; in touch with the people, listening to the people. When this list goes to the district council I wonder what will happen. Even more, I wonder what will happen when the list goes to the county council. I think I know what will happen in the latter case. It will be dealt with by the new "Cabinet" which is to be introduced with effect from April 2000, but I fear that the inhabitants of my town will not have the response they either deserve or expect.

The last thing I want to do is appear to be destructively critical of the process and the proposals. I subscribe to the view that local government can and must be improved, but I plead for realism--not least in the allocation of resources and uprating of skills which these exercises will trigger.

7.59 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, like other noble Lords speaking in this debate I, too, welcome the opportunity provided for us by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Tanworth. I should like to declare an interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. As a member of the Joint Committee on the draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill, I must say that I have enjoyed hearing the debate on the overall vision of a modern local council that has been brought together in the Government's White Paper Modern Local Government: In Touch with the People.

The challenge for local government is twofold: first, to ensure effective decision-making and local leadership; and, secondly, to re-engage our communities so that we work better together and arrive at the best in local services. It is for this reason that I, too, welcome the opportunity this evening to discuss the advantages of including a duty of well-being in the Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill. Like many other local government leaders, I welcome the publication of the Bill as a draft. The unique recognition of local and central government's ability to work together, to learn from best practice across the country and also to challenge inertia has led to many councils, like mine, embracing the changes contained in it well ahead of the legislation. In fact, it sometimes seems like a race--an obstacle race--to see who gets to the "modernised council" finish line first.

Such competition is healthy and, perhaps, fun but it also needs to be balanced against the ability properly to hear and respond to suggestions for change and improvement. That is why I wish to speak this evening about the advantages of including the duty of well-being, alongside the proposals radically to change and improve political leadership.

The publication of the White Paper gave us a holistic vision of the role and place of local government. It was hoped that the six key areas of the White Paper--namely, new political structures, the ethical framework, best value, improving local financial accountability, promoting the well-being of communities and business rates--would be brought together in a cohesive and comprehensive local government Bill.

5 Jul 1999 : Column 665

However, and understandably, pressure on the parliamentary timetable has led to an incremental approach. The Minister has said in the past that that will perhaps be a 10-year programme. Councillors in my authority quickly organised to meet the overall vision of the modern council and identified the community councillor role as being crucial to delivering more effective consultation and involvement both from and within the community. Community leadership is very much at the heart of modern local government. The new duties and powers for community planning and social, economic and environmental well-being will bring to life this new and powerful role for all new councillors.

Recent elections have confirmed the other continuing source of concern. Fewer than one in four Britons voted in the European elections and 11 per cent fewer people voted in the English council elections than in those held four years ago. I hasten to add that that was not the case in Brighton and Hove, where we had a near 40 per cent turnout, though that is nothing really to be proud of. There have been many theories and proposed remedies for increasing voter turnout. Local government, the government closest to the people, is failing to make that link. Yet we provide vital services every day that people need to access.

The draft local government Bill offers local authorities the chance to develop a system of local governance that is clearly accountable for decisions and able to deliver dynamic leadership. The inclusion of the duty of well-being would add to the other vital components--the ability to develop a system of local governance that is responsive to people's needs and the ability to work together with a range of community stakeholders, including business and the voluntary sector, with a clear duty to secure social, economic and environmental well-being. This duty, as promised in the White Paper, would enshrine in law local authorities' role as the elected leaders of the local community, with a responsibility for the well-being and sustainable development of their area.

Now is the time for the inclusion of this duty. Councillors are moving away from committee structures and want to make better use of their time. This "freeing-up" of councillors' time is linked to the need to attract a wider range of people into becoming councillors. One attraction must be the ability to work closely with the community and represent its views on how local services should be provided. As well as supporting our councillors in this role, we need to ensure that their views are properly informed. The new duty would therefore act as a "power" within the council and as another effective check and balance in the new executive role.

I would go further and simply ask for the inclusion of the duty of well-being in the draft Bill. Community planning, effective consultation and the production of comprehensive strategies for the promotion of well-being will be a considerable challenge to authorities, not least because we are currently required to produce some 40 statutory or non-statutory plans on various aspects of our work.

5 Jul 1999 : Column 666

However, community planning has the potential to deliver significant benefits, including breaking down organisational barriers, contributing to democratic renewal and creating a shared appreciation of the needs of an area and the action required of the authority, its agencies and other groups. To me, this work is essential, not just desirable. It should be about delivering a better form of local government. It is also about engaging with our communities to tackle issues such as deprivation and social exclusion--issues that can only be resolved through effective inter-agency working and a real engagement with local communities.

In conclusion, I believe that the inclusion of the duty of well-being gives a clear message about the role of local government. It gives new and more powerful roles to community councillors and it will provide an incentive for greater involvement with a council which is seen as leading its community. In return, councils will see the benefits of greater co-ordination in planning and in the allocation of resources to meet local identified needs. This, in turn, will give confidence to local people to become more involved in planning local services and, therefore, will sustain interest and involvement.

Last week, the noble Lord, Lord Rogers of Riverside, produced his report on urban renaissance. In it he made over a hundred recommendations, perhaps the strongest and most persuasive of which was that the process of change locally should combine strength and democratic local leadership with an increased commitment to public participation. That observation and frequent references to the important roles that local government perform underline the case for having the power and the duty of general social economic and environmental well-being included early in legislation. We have it for London and I think that that must naturally follow for the rest of the country; indeed, local authorities will be the better for it.

8.6 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I hesitate to begin because I thought that there would be a speaker in the gap--

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page