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Two of the happiest times of my life were in 1977 and 1981. “What happened then?”, I hear noble Lords cry—although not very loudly. The Silver Jubilee was

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in 1977 and the marriage of Charles and Diana was in 1981. In 1977, I said to my constituents, “I want to come to all the street parties”, and I was invited to 82 on the same day. I had a good agent, who, with his wife, my wife and I, divided the parties up. The people were happy—not delirious, except when it got very late—and they enjoyed themselves. The British people are very good at responding to causes.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, referred to agitation and argument. In Enfield, there is a proposition to close the A&E unit of Chase Farm Hospital and I have taken part in marches against this. On the right issue, there will be a response of that kind from people. These opportunities are given to us and the Government are carefully studying them. In the Elevate report and the report that we are debating, there is no question of looking for a quick fix. It will not come. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, nods his head because his experience is the same as mine. You have to be in this for the long haul. It is not an issue that will win medals or decorations; it has to give you satisfaction.

I ask the Minister and her colleagues to continue doing these things. When I look at the changes during my life between what I knew and now, there is no comparison. Today, the population shops by car. When I think of the size of the corner shops and the Co-ops that I used to know and today’s supermarkets, it is a different world. I enjoy the new world and I do not say anything against it, but we must understand that the problems that the Government and communities are facing are very real and earnest. So, my tuppenceworth to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, is that I am very grateful that the repertory company has been assembled and we will continue to perform as well as we can until the next time.

3.39 pm

The Lord Bishop of Ely: My Lords, I am very honoured to make a contribution to this debate. I am told that your Lordships’ House is a place of welcome and hospitality, and I have found it so. I come from a rural and a farming background. I am proud to say that my family, despite all the things that have happened in the past few years, are still farming. All my ministry has been spent in small country parishes and I bring that experience to this House. In addition, I have spent 15 years at the National Agricultural Centre and with the Royal Agricultural Society dealing in a sense with the socio-economic issues that underline the report. The diocese I now serve comprises Cambridgeshire and west Norfolk. Ely looks out on some of the most fertile and consequently the most expensive land in England. A third of it is below sea level; part of the diocese is at 25 feet below sea level, so there are issues there that the House could address at some stage.

Like the previous speaker, I welcome the report, not least for the range of issues that it raises—localism and the devolution of responsibility to local people is of the greatest importance. The concerns of rural areas were once much higher on the agenda than they are today. It is now almost forgotten that the

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post-war Mansholt plan of 1947, the foundation document of the common agricultural policy, was conceived of by virtually all the contributors as a social document. It said a lot about agriculture, but it was basically a social document and the countries that read it that way—France and Germany particularly—have therefore made great progress in those areas.

Those who live in rural areas suffer from being on the margins. In recent years that has been exacerbated by planning policies and social policies based on the concept of city regions, which is an American concept, and central place theory. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, mentions community. “Community” is a central word but it is difficult to define. It can apply equally to the European Community and to a small religious house. A former academic colleague listed 94 definitions of community—that was of undoubted academic interest but not of a great deal of practical help as we looked at the problems of rural areas. In reality, community is known by its absence—we know when it is not present, but it is difficult to define by its presence.

Endless government and other documents have spoken about the ideal size of rural settlements. I like the definition of a Fenland parishioner in the area that I now serve. She said that such a settlement has to be large enough for a good deal to be going on and small enough so that she misses none of it. The whole of the eastern region is experiencing extraordinary population growth, the fastest of any part of the country. Cambridgeshire is a region that is growing enormously and many people are responding to the challenges that that throws up.

It is constantly brought home to those of us who live there that while it is easy to build houses, creating community is significantly more difficult, so much so that people are leaving the new settlements—Cambourne and so on—around Cambridge at a much faster rate than had been anticipated, and there is a danger of them acquiring a reputation for simply being acres of housing with no meaningful community. Whether good or bad local government happens in that area, that is not in a sense the point. The point is the indefinable sense of community in those places, which does not depend on the frequency of rubbish collections or the availability of children’s playgrounds. Once again we can be trapped into believing that what we cannot measure does not exist.

In rural areas few would deny the importance of voluntary organisations, and I pay tribute to all those who support them—the large army of volunteers themselves and those who argue their case in central and local government. I speak with personal experience as I served as a commissioner on the Rural Development Commission for 10 years until it ended in 1999. The Commission for Rural Communities—the new body that has taken over its work—together with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Arthur Rank Centre at Stoneleigh have all recently published papers which point to the significance of churches and faith communities in the development of what is now called social capital, but we would understand as local community. In this we recognise the way in which communities are created and sustained, and the clergy find that they recognise their roles and functions, the work of their buildings

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and of their congregations in the new and unfamiliar terminology of social capital, anchor organisations and so on.

I welcome this report and the good things that no doubt will flow from it. I hope that the single reference to rural communities in the 12 examples that have been given in the report does not indicate a disposition to ignore that part of the country, where 20 per cent of the population live. I hope that the role of voluntary organisations in urban and rural areas will be deeply understood, well resourced and widely recognised.

3.45 pm

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, the right reverend Prelate mentioned the welcome that all new Peers receive in this House. The happy task of giving the formal welcome now falls to me. It is a pity that the House is a little thin, although the right reverend Prelate will come to recognise that that happens on a Thursday afternoon. It is a shame that more of our colleagues were not here to listen to his maiden speech. However, they will get the opportunity to hear him speak in the future.

I knew that the right reverend Prelate must be a good egg when he chose to make his maiden speech in this debate. I knew no more about him than that until I discovered when I arrived here just before we started that I was to follow him. I see that his background before theology was in anthropology. I can tell him that that will come in handy here. His CV lists his non-political career. I have to say that I think that the Church of England manages a fair bit of politics. It is not, as my noble friend said, all tea on the vicarage lawn, so that will be great experience.

I have always thought that those on the Bishops’ Benches start with something of an advantage in two ways. I cannot say that I detected it in this case, but making a maiden speech might not feel like an easy thing to do. However, most of us arrive with no experience at all of speaking in rather august surroundings, sometimes to a few people and sometimes to a great many. I have always rather envied the Bishops their experience. Also, more seriously, they have a deep understanding of people’s lives, which can sometimes be missed in the speed of life in London and in Parliament. However much we disparage the ivory tower and say that we get out of it, it can be a problem. In his speech today, the right reverend Prelate has clearly demonstrated what he and his colleagues bring to us in that regard, so I am very happy to welcome him on behalf of the House.

My noble friend Lord Greaves said that his credentials include experience in the youth and student movement of our party. He did not share with the House the fact that he was asked by Jeremy Thorpe to get involved with and to keep an eye on that radical firebrand Graham Tope. They have both done a great deal in their communities to bring forward the issues that we are debating today. “Doing community engagement” are the words of the action plan, and I share with my noble friend a wish to use not just plain English, but good English. What probably most divides those of us on these Benches from noble Lords in the other two parties is what we see as legitimising a local authority

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and a local authority’s government. They see it as giving power from central government to a local authority; we understand the formal legislative position, but for us the underlying philosophy is that the power comes from the people within the local authority area as a part of the governance arrangements as well as being its citizens. The language, as I and my noble friend have said, is important.

Pictures are important, too. Whoever chose the picture accompanying the Secretary of State’s foreword to this document had a sense of mischief. I am not sure whether the Secretary of State is heading a football or is about to be knocked out by it. I see from the Minister’s face that she thinks that a little more proofreading in its widest sense might not go amiss sometimes. Still on the theme of language, I had thought that the term “citizen” featured nowhere in this paper. However, just before I came to Westminster, I found it in a paragraph about activists.

Whatever the language, it has a hollow ring if it is only words. Local government throughout the country needs to be seen as powerful and local authorities need to be seen as autonomous; if they are not, everything else about empowerment is, at best, on a very insecure base. I am talking about things such as local income tax, ring-fenced grants and so on. Local authorities need to send out the unspoken message that they are open to ideas, to discussion and to involvement. Without this, there is a degree of cynicism that is difficult to overcome. That is not to be taken in any way as opposing the role of the community. I agree with other noble Lords that there is what one might sum up as a question mark over what is meant by community. I particularly liked the notion that one sometimes knows it by its absence. A structure without firm foundations will be very flimsy.

Perhaps I am too naive. I start by assuming that all local authorities are doing the right thing and that they have that inclusiveness. Well, I know I am naive. I was shocked to learn from the document that in only 28 per cent of local authorities are petitions given an automatic response—whatever “automatic” means. I find that almost unbelievable. So perhaps processes and structures are needed. But I find the whole agenda, as put forward by the Government, too process-driven. The quicker we move from prescribed, discrete procedures to a culture where individuals who are elected—or who, as officers, are appointed—quite naturally involve local people, the better.

I know that making the cultural shift is not always easy. It is now almost 10 years since I was an elected councillor, and local government has changed enormously in that time. But there are still some common principles. In 1983, when my group took over the administration of my local authority, I became chair of the planning committee. We changed the procedures almost overnight to involve those who were affected by planning applications as well as those involved in the whole area of forward planning. I did not at the time recognise how difficult I was making life for the officers by imposing these new ideas on them. Perhaps it is unfair to say “imposing”—they did not resist them. But it was a real difficulty for them to be thrown, with no experience or training, into what they perceived as very difficult environments, in meetings that went

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from being 20 minutes in private to being four or five hours in public, facing local people. For some people, a big cultural shift needs to be made.

Involving local people well is time consuming. Unless you provide feedback—I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for using a word that he will hate as much as I do—and unless it is an iterative process, it is not good enough. Moreover, none of this comes cheap, if we are to do it well.

Perhaps almost the hardest thing is to get to the point where those involved have a shared understanding of the problems that they are seeking to solve. Some of that is about language. Recently, having received a letter about a consultation about a controlled parking zone—in suburban London, that is about as contentious as you can get—I noted that my neighbour’s response was about something different; he wanted to raise the configuration of the road. He was not wrong, but that is not the focus of the consultation and it is irrelevant to that issue, so he will be disappointed. People are not starting from a common base.

The mechanisms for communication are changing. This morning, I was at a meeting with the London boroughs and the London Civic Forum discussing the proposed budget of the Mayor of London for next year. The chair of the civic forum reminded us that printed communication is on its way to being obsolete and that new media,

—I quote him—are what one needs to focus on. The website facilitates communication, which comes to us as a “letter from your constituent”. I do not know whether this will get me a mention on the website. It has a lot of information and very good links. The e-mails that I get as a Member of the London Assembly, which is London’s strategic government and which has a rather particular role, are almost invariably about things over which the GLA has little influence, let alone direct power. People who are using the facility express their frustration and I feel embarrassed that the answers often have to go back, as nicely and helpfully as possible, saying, “This is not something for us”. The bureaucracy and the demarcations must make citizens’ eyes glaze over. Until you get a common foundation of understanding about how our governance works, a lot of frustration will be caused.

Communication, as ever, is the best foundation for involvement and access. Another item that came up this morning was how well in many parts of London safer neighbourhoods policing, which is very local policing, is working, because people know whom to contact and they can see what is going on.

The document recognises the dangers of raising expectations. At this point, I will mention another document, the consultation on petitions, which the Government have just published. I fear that the danger of raised expectations does not seem to be acknowledged. I find what is proposed in that document, which I know comes from the Act that the repertory company recently worked its way through, rather disingenuous and rigid. It provides something of a gift to opposition parties on local authorities. Many of us will know how easy it is to get signatures to petitions.

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Empowerment is a big subject. I have not mentioned community leadership or distinguishing devolution from subsidiarity. We could talk about all sorts of areas of community activity, such as sports and the arts, which would take us on to funding. Perhaps one should ask the repertory company mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Graham, whether this is high drama, tragedy, or farce. One of the actions in the action plan is to open up direct dialogue with local activists. Action 15 states:

I should like to recommend some community activists—elected councillors. From what we have heard, the councillors in Pendle are well qualified.

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, I have one interest to declare. Oh, I beg the noble Baroness’s pardon.

4 pm

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Greaves for initiating this debate today. Tony Greaves, as most of us refer to him in our party, was one of the authors of community politics in the 1960s and beyond. He literally wrote the book regarding most of the campaigning techniques that political parties and other groups use today. They may have become more sophisticated, but the fundamentals were developed by Tony and his colleagues. We all owe him a huge debt of gratitude for what he has done.

I am also very pleased to have been here for the maiden speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely. The House will be very grateful not just for his comments today but for his rural perspective in future debates. I come from the neighbouring county of Suffolk and I know how difficult it is for rural communities to feel that politicians operating from London really understand their concerns. It seems ironic, incidentally, that a debate on involvement has attracted so few speakers. I found myself asking why this is. I came to the conclusion that the problem is that we are debating a document called The Action Plan for Community Empowerment. I am afraid to say to the Government that the term “action plan” has now become oxymoronic. It usually means that someone has gone away and thought about things and that nothing will be done. Community empowerment is seen by most people as meaningless jargon.

The fact that there are so few speakers in this debate demonstrates that the language we use is absolutely key if people are to get involved. If Members of your Lordships’ House cannot take an interest in such a debate, we really have our work cut out to expect people outside to engage in a debate that is couched in these sorts of terms. It emphasises what is seen as the divide in thinking between Whitehall and Westminster and the rest of world where we are seen as living in an ivory tower. That is something of a shame because every one of us here is a member of a number of communities. Everyone in the country belongs to a number of communities: where they happen to live, the places where they work, where they worship, or among people who share their interests.

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What differentiates each one of us is the strength of those ties, how much importance we each place on them, and how much time, effort and energy we are each prepared to put into that sense of community. That is where the comments of my noble friend Lord Greaves comments were absolutely right. It is not possible to legislate for that. It is not possible somehow to direct from above or even from a local authority that people must get involved in a particular way. This is something that people will choose to do if they think it is worth while. The question today is how government, central and local, and public bodies should behave and organise themselves in order to encourage the sense of community which already exists and further to encourage the development of community thinking and action where it does not.

The right reverend Prelate made a very interesting point when he said that community was often more noticeable in its absence. When I moved to Needham Market in the early 1980s, having spent my life moving around as a forces child and then as a forces wife, I certainly found that the sense of community just hit me because it was something I had never come across before. I found it hugely comforting. Becoming involved in community activities was what led me into politics. So there is a salutary lesson there for anyone. Nevertheless, I think you know community when you see it. It is what makes this sort of debate so difficult. I have a certain amount of sympathy with the Government when they are trying to produce documents such as this, because it is like trying to nail jelly to a wall. I recognise the difficulty but they, in turn, must recognise that there is a danger that in trying to pin too much down, you lose the sense of the very thing you are trying to create.

It is a fact of modern life that we are much less geographically rooted than we were. Much is made of how this country has one of the most flexible job markets in the world. That tends to mean that people move around and are therefore much less rooted. It is much harder to have a sense of community if you think you will be living somewhere for only two or three years and will then move on. The Government will have to think hard about that when it comes to providing new housing. As the right reverend Prelate so rightly said, we can build the houses but we cannot easily build the communities.

The noble Lord, Lord Graham, made some interesting points—with some of which I agreed—about how much has changed in recent years in the way in which people become involved. A whole industry has developed around the consumerist approach that links service users and their providers, using things such as surveys, feedback and complaint forms. This is relatively recent. There are much better networks now, much better ways in which interest groups organise themselves and have their say. That applies both locally and nationally. When I get a heavy postbag on a particular issue—at the moment it is the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill—I think it is fantastic that people take the time and trouble to put pen to paper or send an e-mail.

We have seen huge growth in what I think of as the participatory events. In addition to turning up to public meetings, people are involved in citizens’ juries

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and community workshops. A lot of exciting work is going on, and that is very new too. There are also the events that react to specific challenges. My noble friend Lord Greaves and the noble Lord, Lord Graham, talked about how people will come out of the woodwork when something really affects them, such as post office or hospital closures. But the act of voting is still the biggest way in which people are involved in their local community. Despite declining voter turn-out, more people turn out to vote than are involved in other areas. We should never forget that or denigrate the role of local elections.

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