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Clause 5 requires the Government to implement a set of regulations that must be followed in regard to approaching councils for proposals on improving local sustainability and in drawing up a shortlist of those
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Clause 6 requires the Government or the person they see fit to appoint to provide local spending reports that give a detailed breakdown of all the money spent by the Government and their agencies in local government areas. The purpose of the clause is simply to open up the books and for the first time enable both local authorities and communities to have a clear picture of how government money is spent in their area. That will enable greater transparency and accountability at the local level and also enable councils to identify areas where a transfer of function in Clause 2 would be most appropriate in promoting local sustainability. Prior to the production of any local spending reports the Government must first consult any persons or bodies that are likely to be affected by the compiling of the reports.
Clause 7 deals with sustainable community strategy. For the purposes of standardising all legislation that deals with local communities and sustainability, this clause enables the Government to amend current and any possible future legislation that makes reference to a term community strategy so that it can be amended to be sustainable community strategy.
Clause 9 provides for money to be made available from Parliament for the Government to fulfil their obligations under the Bill. Clause 10 sets out the Short Title. The Act will be known as the Sustainable Communities Act 2007. It also defines the geographical and political extent of the Act. The Act does not extend to Scotland and Northern Ireland for the obvious reason that for a Bill that so clearly proposes the devolution of power it would be inappropriate to extend that to Scotland and Northern Ireland, which already have their devolved rights.
I entirely agree with that and I suggest that the Bill is based on a philosophy that is now accepted by the three main political parties in Britain. The Bill may
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Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, on bringing forward the Bill for consideration today, and I am pleased that the debate on this important legislation is being kicked off by two Peers from the beautiful county of Suffolk, which has the sort of communities that would benefit enormously from these provisions. I also congratulate the Local Works campaign on the sterling job that is has done not only on producing the legislation but on the campaign that led up to it. When I first read the Bill I was concerned that it might be rather technocratic and wondered whether people in communities would get behind it and understand what we are seeking to achieve. However, I have been pleasantly surprised by the number of local meetings across the country, the attendance at the rally here and the wide range of interest groups that have put their weight behind the Bill. I am glad that my initial misgivings were proved wrong. We on these Benches certainly give the Bill our wholehearted support.
The fact that there are sometimes successful campaigns against the closure or the opening of a supermarket should not cloud the fact that one of the fundamental problems facing society is a sense of powerlessness. People feel that decisions about their lives are taken in a way that they do not understand or have no opportunity to influence. People feel a huge sense of frustration when time and again they come up against a system that provides no accountability or recourse and when they cannot voice their concerns with confidence that someone will listen and take them on board.
We support the Bill because it puts people first and gives them a bigger say in what happens. It does so in three ways. First, it helps to identify and tackle community decline, promoting greater social, economic and environmental sustainability in communities. Secondly, it actively encourages participation by communities in the decisions affecting them. Finally, it provides accountability in areas where there has previously not been enough democratic accountability.
I particularly welcome the fact that the Bill helps to provide a framework within which groups that do not always have the strongest voice can make their voices heard. Too often it is a minority of very loud people in a community who get their way, rather than the majority, who find it difficult to fight their way through the system. The Bills potential merit is its holistic approach to community involvement. Closures of schools, post offices and family farms are part of an interrelated package. Campaigns against the loss of services such as a village school, for example, are often not formed exclusively of the immediate beneficiaries of the service. Even when people do not have children in the local primary school, it is evident that if the demographics of the area change, then the shop could close, public
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The Bills important aspect, particularly as it relates to the local government Bill going through your Lordships House at the moment, is that it puts the duty on central government to help local areas, whereas the local government Bill is very much about how local councils have to adhere to the policies and practices put forward by central government. There is a tendency among central governments of all kinds to adhere to one-size-fits-all and not always to understand that, although there are times when a policy may well have the effect which they desire in one area, the law of unintended consequences will always kick in and result in things going badly wrong somewhere else.
Local spending reports are one of the most important parts of the Bill. At present there is no sense of relative priorities in areasfunding streams are split up and managed in different ways; some are more or less accountable. People very rarely have the chance to say, What would my priorities be for my area? If I could put all this together and think about how the money is spent, how would I do it?. If the information in the local spending reports helps to provide them with the information to do that, that can only be welcomed.
The Bill is about empowering local communities and complementing and extending what the Government were intending to do in their White Paper. It is about supporting communities. Communities are something that we all feel passionately about, whether in terms of the environment, social exclusion or the economy. There are hundreds and thousands of people who are passionate about their communities and who want their services restored and extended, but they have not had a chance to have their voices heard. That is what the Bill is about and that is why we shall support it from these Benches.
Lord Hurd of Westwell: My Lords, I join in thanking my noble friend Lord Marlesford and congratulating him on carrying the Bill into this House and submitting it to your Lordships. I declare a personal interest which has a tincture of family pride. I know that there are other familiesat least twowho can boast, as we can, of four generations in direct descent serving in another place, but I think that it is rare for a new Member of Parliament to steer a Private Members Bill through all its stages in the Commons in this way. Certainly neither my grandfather nor my father nor I ever attempted such a feat, so perhaps I am allowed humbly to congratulate the honourable Member for Ruislip-Northwood on what he has done so far.
This Bill fits into the pattern of localism which, as my noble friend says, now runs through the thinking of all our political parties. The Government have announced, as the noble Baroness has just reminded us, plans for giving local people greater say over local government spending. However, this is a complementary
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I would like to make two general points about this movement towards localism. I hope that the Government are gradually weaning themselves away from identifying localism with regions, and I hope that the definitions in the Bill may help them in this direction. I know the bureaucratic attractiveness of thinking in terms of regions, and I know the European dimension. However, in most of England, regions are still an artificial concept and will remain one, achieving neither recognition nor loyalty. They do not act as the stimulus for local energy, which is what this Bill and many other efforts are about.
Secondly, we need to accept a consequencethat greater local knowledge and influence over what happens, and how money is spent, will lead to a greater variety of practice and priorities. The fact that people receive different levels of service in different areas depending on where they live will in the end no longer be regarded as a reproacha postcode reproachbut as a justifiable fact, a necessary consequence of greater local democracy and a necessary incentive to experiment.
Having been Home Secretary and therefore in charge of perhaps the most naturally centralising of government departments, I have come to believe that experimentand that means local experimentis crucial. One consequence of this Bill may be increased local experiment in sector after sector. My caveata caveat that we must all haveis that this needs to be within a commitment to the values and integrity of one British nation, a commitment to values that must exist regardless of ethnic background or origin.
We all recognise and lament the fact that our democracy is going through an apathetic stage. However, there are reserves of enthusiasm and interest which derive not from our activities in this Palace but from the interest that both speakers have stressedan interest which naturally exists locally, for local thinking, local initiative and local decisions. Harnessing that interestwhich to some extent is still dormantto the cause of our general democracy is not just a good cause, it is an essential one.
Lord Cameron of Dillington: My Lords, as I rise to speak in support of the Bill, I must first declare an interest as chairman of the Somerset Strategic Partnership, which I hope will continue to play its part in reinvigorating the communities of Somerset. It will come as no surprise to noble Lords to learn that I support this Bill from the perspective of rural settlements, although I realise that it applies equally to urban communities.
The first aspect that pleases me about the Bill is that it defines sustainability as promoting the economic, social and environmental well-being of an area. All too often, sustainable development is assumed to be an environmental agenda which should take precedence over everything else, whereas in reality a sustainable community is one where family and friends support
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I probably could have declared an interest as a former chairman of the Countryside Agency, if being a former chairman of anything is reckoned to be an interest. I should say that the agency took a keen interest in and was a strong supporter of the rural sustainable development agenda. We tried to use the countryside to promote businesses there and to lift peoples lives. Above all, we tried to promote anything that encouraged community sustainability. We supported all sorts of community activities with grants. Quite often they were small payments, and we sought to make the application process a simple one. We devised and administered the local heritage initiative, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. We helped hundreds of communities create their own village greens using the New Opportunities Fund, and we had our own village grant scheme to help anyone do almost anything that brought people together. Actually, it was not quite as loose as that, but there is no doubt that the scheme was as much about promoting community working as it was about implementing the various projects being proposed. Creating pride of place within a community was very important to us.
I remember being heartened by the report of a schoolgirl from a very deprived and run-down former coal-mining village in County Durham. When asked why she was supporting a particular project that we were promoting, she said that she had been involved the year before in a school project to write a history of the parish, which we had also helped. She said, I used to think that my village wasand here she used a rather unparliamentary word which stems from a well-known firm of plumbers called Thomas Crapper and Companybut now I know it is not. I thought, Great. You beauty, that is exactly what it is all about. Her new pride of place led her to contribute to village life, and therefore we had been successful. It meant that she might not want to leave the village the moment she finished school, and that if she did leave she would be prepared to come back and start a family there, thus making a contribution. In that case, we had definitely achieved something.
Alongside these very small incentives for parish activity and innovative pilot schemes to help promote the delivery of local services by having joint outlets, mobile post offices and so on, we tried to encourage both market towns and parishes to think about what they wanted. They were to draw up plans to work out what they wanted their parish or town to be like in 10, 15 or 20 years time. Did they want a pub, a village school or a village shop, and what would they have to do to encourage that to happen, or to ensure that their public and private services survived? What mix of community did they want? Did they need some affordable housingthe answer to that question was
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I was sorry to see that the earlier intention of giving more direct control to parish councils got squeezed out in the Bills passage through the other place, and that it is now the principal councils that have control. However, I am glad that they are specifically obliged to have regard to parish plans. One of the biggest bugbears of parish councils is that, having gone through the often rigorous process of devising a parish plan, they then find that no one in authority pays any attention to it. As your Lordships will be aware, parish councils have all too little control over the future of their community, either in terms of planning decisions or meaningful spending powers. Anything Parliament can do to help in that respect is most welcome.
My own town of Ilminster in Somerset, for example, is furious that it appears to be in the process of almost being destroyed by a series of planning decisions that neither the town council, nor the chamber of commerce, was able to prevent. We should bear in mind that this town, in the old days, used to be its own urban district council. Unlike the town in Suffolk mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, a very large Tesco store is being built in our town, despite the fact that there is a Tesco only six or so miles away. To give Tesco its due, it wanted to put the store on the rural side of the town car park but the planners insisted that, for environmental reasonsthis is why, all too often, sustainability and the environment get muddled upit had to put the store in the town car park, which has now been moved to the outskirts of the town. Soon, anyone coming to shop in Ilminster will have to walk past the new Tesco to get to our shopsif they can be bothered; some of the shops are now nearly half a mile away. The situation has been made worse by making one of the main roads into the town a one-way street running out of town, so that most people parking and shopping have to go literally all round the houses to get home.
The decisions have not been easy. I highlight the problems of Ilminster only because there is no doubt that the concerns of the town were never properly heeded throughout the process. Residents now feel completely disillusioned with our local democracy and the planning system. I sincerely hope that this Bill will ameliorate that situation in future.
I hope that the Bill will have an easy passage through this House and that, if anything, more power will be given to parish councils to control their own future, rather than leaving it to the principal councils to dribble down favours that they might think the parishes should be allowed. I do not quite understand whether the local spending reports can now go down as low as to parish level, or whether they only apply to the principal council areas as a whole. Perhaps the Minister or the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, could respond to that. I believe that, with the possible formation of more unitary authorities, it will be particularly important for parishes to be able to grasp their own futures. I guess that it will all depend on the signals
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Lord Bruce-Lockhart: My Lords, first, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, and those in another place, who have brought the Bill forward. Having said that, in many ways I am dismayed that the Bill is necessary. That is a reflection of the imbalance of power in England between an increasingly centralised state on the one hand and, on the other, local people, local organisations and their local authorities. Of course, the Government must be able to set their own national priorities. In the local government White Paper, we have seen the emphasis on just 30 national outcomes; and that is right. But local authorities should be able to pick those up and drive them forward in the way they think fit. I accept also that local authorities must themselves devolveto community organisations, social enterprise and individuals. I support the noble Lord, Lord Cameron. Devolving to parish councils is extremely important.
However, the Bill would not be necessary in most of the other major democracies in the world. Devolution took place in France some 15 years ago. In the United States local authorities have responsibility for health, police and economic development. Tony Travers, professor at the London School of Economics, pointed out this week that England is now at the bottom of the list of OECD countries for the percentage of taxation raised and spent locally by local authorities.
We have been over these arguments a hundred times. In my last three years as chairman of the Local Government Association, I have discussed these issues probably once a week with the department responsible for local government. We all agree on the need for a devolutionary agenda, but I am dismayed that the action has not matched the rhetoric. We have agreed at all the meetings that the UK Government are now unique in the high degree of central control they exert over public services and local government in England. The Secretary of State talked about a new era, a tipping point of devolution. We all agree that this high degree of central control is holding back improvements in public services and in economic prosperity. We have agreed that it is wasting public money; I refer to the report to the Treasury by Sir Peter Gershon. It is holding back local choice. It is simply denying the ability of local democratic representatives to assess local need, to make local choices and to respond to those choices. It is also denying and eroding democracy itself.
The Local Government Association argued that there is a crisis of trust. Out on the street, both central and local government are simply not relevant to so many peoples lives. It is not a question of apathy as is sometimes said across Westminster and Whitehall. People are not apathetic. They care deeply about the issues that affect their everyday lives, but they are frustrated by a remote and unreachable Government. Therefore, we have to take government closer to peoples lives. In the absence of other devolution, the Bill will enable that to happen.
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