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Lord Bradshaw: I declare an interest as an Oxfordshire county councillor. County councils are, in most places in the country, the absolute epitome of democracy. There are high turnouts in county council elections, even in the years when there is no parliamentary election coincident with them. Admittedly, turnout was more than 80 per cent last year but normally it is well over 60 per cent in the county I represent, which is higher than in very many elections. Usually, the results of those elections are fairly proportional across a county, as between parties, which is not the case at parliamentary elections.
Most county councillors are known to a high proportion of their electors. Most of my colleagues attend meetings of parish councils once a month, and some attend as many as 13 or 14 of these meetings each month. There they give their reports and they hear questions and comments from members of the public assembled there. On planning matters, large numbers will often attend.
County councillors represent and serve people, and reflect their views in the council chamber, on structure plan working parties, and are well aware of housing pressures, educational difficulties, school and social services problems and matters affecting the police, the fire service and the libraries, to name some of their responsibilities.
I acknowledge that there is some place for a regional spatial strategythere has to be one below central government. However, my main point is that I sincerely believe that the severing of the link between the electorate and those responsible for the structure plan will be a problem for the Governmentand I strike a note of great caution here. We often make unpalatable decisions which we can sell to the electors because we know who they are; we can talk about trade-offs and everybody takes a share of what is unpleasant because they can see fairness within the county. However, the Government run the risk that taking those decisions away from the county will leave local people alienated and disaffected because they will see results and decisions being imposed on them by an unelected regional assembly to which, in most cases, they have no sense of belonging.
Lord Waddington: My support for the amendment should certainly not be taken as support for elected regional assemblies. To my mind there is absolutely nothing whatever to be said for them. I have always suspected that the Minister agrees with me, but because of the position in which he sits he cannot say so. Elected regional assemblies at best will be an expensive waste of time and at worst will hasten the Balkanisation of Great Britain.
The amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, is very useful, if only because it is a timely reminder of the sharp practice in which the Government are indulging. I believe that all along the Government's plan has been to give regional bodies powers that they should not have anyway, and then to plead that now that those bodies have the powers, there is deficit of democratic accountability, so we must have regional assemblies. That is the argument behind all that they have been advancing. Therefore, the obvious course is not to have regional assemblies, but to try to demolish the bureaucracies that at present are being created in regional government up and down the country.
In the regions, which are completely artificial creations and which in no way reflect natural loyalties or communities of interest, regional bureaucracies are already blossoming and one has only to read the Guardian to see the non-jobs that are being advertised for them. I have invited noble Lords before to take an interest in what is going on in the government office of the East Midlands. As long ago as 2002 that government office was advertising for the post of director of infrastructure and community affairs. The fatuous job description said:
The passage of the Bill will perform a useful purpose if it reminds people of what lies behind it and the link between this Bill and the Government's plans for regional assemblies. The passage of the Bill will perform a useful purpose if it wakes people up to the fact that the Government's plans for the regions do not involve devolving power from central government to the regions; they involve robbing existing authorities like the county councils of powers such as planning powers. In other words, powers that have been part of our local government structure for generations will be taken away from authorities. That structure is well known to people and they can relate to it. I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, on the fact that our local authorities are well respected and work extremely well as democratically elected bodies. Powers will be taken away from those well respected bodies and given to new authorities that will be more remote from the people. What good will come of that? I can see no good whatever coming from that.
Baroness Scott of Needham Market: I declare an interest as a county councillor in Suffolk and I inform the Committee that I have been a local authority member since 1991, involved both at district council level with development control and with the more strategic planning functions at county council level.
I support my noble friend Lady Hamwee. I should be grateful to the Minister if he could address a practical issue that has caused me some concern. In the east of England we are, by the Government's own calculations, at least seven or eight years from an elected regional assembly, assuming that the people of the east of England want such a body, which is open to question. At the moment there is an embryonic planning function at regional level but because it is a very small operation and because there is no real elected or effective regional body, there is a very small staff and, in the main, the technical advice for the regional planning function comes from the county council.
I believe that the diminution of the county council's role to that of an advisory body, although it is now to be statutory, will have two effects. First, I believe that it will lead to a massive haemorrhaging of experienced planning staff from county councils who will be able to see their future role disappearing and therefore they will move away. Secondly, and more worryingly, county councils with a lot of pressure on their budgets will simply lower the level of resource that they put into what now is to be simply an advisory function. If that happens we shall have the worst of both worlds: we shall have an emasculated county council planning function but no robust regional planning function to
Viscount Ullswater: I support the amendment moved very ably by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. I declare an interest: I am a local councillor on the Borough Council of King's Lynn and West Norfolk, although I am not a member of the Development Control Board.
I support the amendment for three reasons. First, planning is very prescriptive and therefore should take place as close as possible to the local area. The Bill replaces local plans, which have been developed very well since being introduced by the previous government. It gives developers and local people much more certainty of what would receive permission. That, in turn, leads to the speeding up of the planning process and allows many more decisions to be delegated to the officers of the council if the application falls within the guidelines. The local plans work well; they deliver the right kind of targets; and they are updated constantly by local people subject to the planning guidelines handed down by regional planning guidance or by the Secretary of State.
The new development framework, as proposed in the Bill, which is to be made up of local development documents, is the old development plans with a nasty new twist, which is that the Secretary of State is to be given powers to intervene in the preparation stage in a way that is wholly unjustified. What right has the Secretary of State to direct the local planning authority to make amendments to the scheme as he thinks fit?
My second reason is that the introduction of a regional spatial strategy is, as the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, has just mentioned, an attempt to give legitimacy to the shadow regional planning bodies that currently exist, without any form of authority, but which still wield power. The problem of giving power but no democratic legitimacy is that it creates huge resentment in the tiers below. At Second Reading the Minister said:
Norfolk is designated to produce more than 10 per cent of its energy requirements by renewable resources, excluding what might be generated out at sea. It will require a veritable forest of wind turbines to generate that amount of energy. Without the consent of local people, that will be deeply resented.
Thirdly, in attempting to reform local government, the previous Conservative government tried to do away with many counties and local authorities and replace them with unitary authorities. I am sure that the Minister will recall that. There was an outcry from almost every part of the country, and different solutions had to be found. It would be wrong to go down the route that the Government propose without the consent of the people in the form of a referendum. Let us trust the people for a change.
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