Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

There needs to be a balance of all the methods I have described. The ballot box is not always perfect. We on these Benches argue that there is a difficulty when first-past-the-post electoral systems result in fiefdoms, which can result in unresponsive government. The public have reacted by electing far more local authorities which are now in no overall political control, but the Government are making it quite difficult to manage those politically. I do not intend to rerun the debates we had on the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill but there is a danger that the current models imposed on local authorities deny the plurality that the voters have chosen. If they want a council run by a number of political groups, it is the business of Government not to get in the way of the councils running themselves. I genuinely believe that local democracy works best when it is truly local. Evidence from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, among others, has shown that relationships are closer between smaller organisations and communities. The larger organisations become, the harder it is to keep that closeness.

I recognise that there is a difficult balance to be struck as regards obtaining efficiency, economies of scale and capacity for a strategic role. All those tend to gravitate towards larger units, not just for local authorities but for all sorts of other public bodies. Yet we know that the public would rather have a council that is close by, where they feel that they know the people involved, and where they can go to the town hall rather than have a huge modern, PFI-built structure on the edge of town that nobody can get to. Telling them that they can send an e-mail is still not the way to involve many people. We need to do an awful lot more to develop situations that work in particular areas where smaller councils can work together to provide strategic services but still be small enough to keep the local link. At the same time large councils can be helped to develop governance mechanisms that keep them close to the people they represent. The concept that these solutions should be developed locally is key.

As I said, this is not just a local authority problem. I often hear how consolidation in the housing association sector means that housing associations, which are becoming ever larger, are losing much of the local link with the residents that was a key part in the decision to move to a housing association in the first place. It is a great pity if tenants feel that they are losing that involvement.

It seems to me that what is absolutely key, regardless of which method of participation or involvement brings people in, is genuine accountability. People want to

10 Jan 2008 : Column 1017

know to whom they should be talking, whether anybody will listen and, most importantly, whether anything will get done as a result. There is much evidence to show that there is virtually a systemic failure to bring the results of complaints and consultation exercises into decision-making. That has led to real cynicism about local governance. People will not get involved if they think that it will not make any difference. That has been exacerbated by the huge number of local bodies which now operate. Most areas have a real alphabet soup of public bodies providing services, giving grants and performing other functions. All that makes it very difficult for citizens to work their way through the system.

I know that the Government have rather belatedly recognised that and by forming local strategic partnerships are making an attempt to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. However, there are dangers in that. There is a danger of having too much closed door decision-making. There may be more people behind the closed door but it may still be a closed door. Taxpayers’ money is involved here. If we are to ensure that people do not become cynical where taxpayers’ money is being spent, they need to be able to see what is happening. I have seen two reports recently from local press organisations, which say they believe that under new executive arrangements local councils are much less transparent than they used to be. The press feel that they are not able to do the job they used to do in reporting to the citizens in their areas.

It seems to us that council leadership is absolutely essential because when it comes to the crunch they are the only people who can be booted out. They are the only people who can be held accountable by the local population. There is a major challenge as regards how we ensure that these networks are genuinely open to everyone. We have to accept that many people will choose never to get involved. Rowntree estimates that about 50 per cent of the population in a given area are not involved and do not want to be, and we have to accept that. However, that still leaves a lot of scope for work. As my noble friend Lady Hamwee, said, the methods we use to consult, the location and design of buildings, and whether people are contactable by e-mail are not rocket science but they are very important in terms of whether people feel there is a point in getting involved.

But ultimately the key to this is that central government have to deal with the paradox that on the one hand they seek to maintain central control, particularly financial, but at the same time they put duties on local authorities to consult residents and users. If community involvement is to be genuine, local bodies must have genuine autonomy. They need to be free from targets, ring-fenced grants, inspections, public service agreements, capping and the whole centralist paraphernalia. Until they are genuinely autonomous and can respond to the communities, Government face an uphill struggle.

4.15 pm

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, for my premature jump; it was quite inadvertent. I am

10 Jan 2008 : Column 1018

most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for introducing this interesting debate on community empowerment and local democratic structures. There is absolutely nothing new about this. All that has changed is the terminology and the way in which it is undertaken.

I, too, welcome the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely. I am a fellow East Anglian, born, bred and raised in East Anglia. As he is from Ely, he may think that Essex is not a part of East Anglia—it is a rather urban type of existence there—but I assure him that I have a great deal in common with him in what he was saying. I thought his comments on the need to develop community in relation to new developments, particularly large-scale ones, were interesting and helpful.

All of us who have been involved in this for a long time—I cannot begin to approach the depth of experience of the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton—have different perspectives on the subject. Perhaps I might be allowed a couple of reminiscences to show how hot community involvement can be. I well remember an occasion when we were consulting on education reorganisation, which, curiously enough, was required by Harold Wilson’s Government back in the late 1960s. We, a Conservative education authority, proposed to a district in a Labour authority a very Labour form of reorganisation. It was a new town where the population had stopped growing. All of a sudden, the school populations began to drop and something had to be done, but we did not like the idea of closing schools. I shall not bore the House with the detail, but we held a series of meetings in the town. One night, six of us went to chair the meetings and about 400 or 500 people attended each one. That is real community involvement. People felt passionate about the issue, which was exacerbated for political reasons. Another point you need to bear in mind on community involvement is whom you are talking to. In that instance, we were Conservatives and they were socialists, but they would have fought us whatever we proposed. That is the way life is sometimes.

Another example of real empowerment arose in a different town, where there was a similar series of meetings. The one that I chaired was going extremely well. There were about 600 people in the school sports hall on a bitterly cold night. The meeting could have gone on all night, but after an hour and a half the school caretaker, a very wise man, simply turned off the heating. That is real empowerment. The meeting came to a sensible conclusion and closed at a reasonable hour. That is community involvement.

We should recognise that this has gone on over a long time. Of course, its nature has changed, but to have community involvement you need an issue. The idea that people will keep coming out to chew the fat over minor changes in their community on a monthly or even a quarterly basis is just unreal. They simply will not. There are too many other distractions in life nowadays.

I am afraid that my view is that community interest has diminished. The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, talked about community leadership and accountability. Not least of the difficulties that we have in dealing with this

10 Jan 2008 : Column 1019

subject relates to the fact that ‘when I began’ local authorities held virtually absolute power. It did not matter whether it was a county, district or parish council; their powers were defined. They had an annual budget that was in their absolute control and the result was that, when a particular issue arose, the community knew precisely whom to go to and who was responsible.

I talked to my local county council before this debate, which said that it is now subject to approximately 200 separate targets or standards set by central government or often arising from European initiatives, especially on the environment. Councils must follow set rules. Then there is the financial aspect. Because of the changes in local finance arrangements over the years, the vast proportion of the money comes from central government, which has a dramatic effect on how rates move. A shift in local government resources up or down is greatly multiplied at the ratepayer level. That is the reality of life and it diminishes the authority of members of the councils in the eyes of the public. There is no longer the clarity of responsibility that used to exist.

I accept that it is necessary to have clearly defined standards on the environment, but the micromanagement of the economy of local authorities has not helped their standing, although they can take decisions that matter—I pay tribute to those who take on that responsibility—and they do an extremely good job in increasingly difficult circumstances. We need to recognise the enormous contribution that local authorities make to British society, which benefits hugely from the voluntary sector—in this sense, local government is a voluntary sector—where people do everything they possibly can, generally successfully, to make the system work effectively in the interests of their community. I pay serious tribute to the people who do that.

I do not think that there will ever be an ideal situation—a sort of Utopia or community where everybody feels properly involved in everything. Society moves on. We are having a good debate this afternoon, but if I may be allowed to say it—this is not meant to be an acid comment, as I am one of them—we are a group of relatively aged people. I suspect that if we talked to the young they would think that we were having a wonderful waffle about something that does not really matter. If we want to communicate with them, we probably need to do it on the internet, which leads us into the business of community petitions and so on, in which some people will get interested.

Young people may listen to this discussion on community and all the rest of it, but unless a particular issue catches their imagination or interest they will not get involved; they have other interests. One of the issues with which we should concern ourselves relates to—I will not say the alienation of the younger generation, because that implies antagonism—the fact that, in my experience, younger generations are reluctant to get involved in public life in the way that was quite usual when I started.

When I started, the average age of council members came down by some months because of my intervention, but coming to the council with me were a number of young people of similar age. Now when I look at my local authority, young people are a rarity, as they are

10 Jan 2008 : Column 1020

in voluntary work. That is immensely sad. I do not know what we are going to do about that. It is an issue that has nothing to do with politics and something to do with the way we lead our lives.

The uncertainty introduced by increasing central government intervention in local government has made matters worse. Another aspect that still causes me some concern, inevitably, is that for 40 years there has been no sense of constitutional stability for local government to rely on. Forty years covers a great many Governments of different political persuasions, so this is not a party-political issue. The structure of local government has not been stable for that length of time and is still not stable. There are still rumbles around the country over whether you should have this sort of organisation or that sort of organisation and so on. Everybody feels this uncertainty. We have a regional structure that was first to be made democratic and now is not to be. The regional assemblies are to go altogether and we will have regional development agencies. They, of course, have taken some authority away from county councils and, to some degree, unitary authorities. We are still in a state of flux.

If I have a final message, it is that my contacts across the spectrum of local government all say, “Please, if we could just leave things alone for a few years, we might be able to make them work”. That will be real community government, because people will know where they stand. You cannot expect good communities— I go back to the words of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely—to come together and work together in a really effective way without some degree of stability. That is a particular problem when we are developing new communities and we have to face it. People need stability if they are to be able to work together.

4.27 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Andrews): My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for giving us the opportunity to debate a very important topic. There is no one in this House who could have opened this debate or steered it implicitly like the noble Lord, for all the reasons colleagues on his Benches have made clear. The noble Lord has written a book; we are still leafing through the index to some extent. I am grateful for the breadth of his introduction because we have had a very thoughtful debate, as much about the context in which we conduct community policies as the policies themselves.

It is a very useful and welcome opportunity for me to talk about what the Government are doing. Before I do so, I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely on his maiden speech. We are a small but very distinguished group in the Chamber this afternoon. The right reverend Prelate, having chosen to join us, has added lustre to the company. It was extremely significant that he spoke from his experience as somebody who knows—and, indeed, has written widely about—the rural community. I hope I can give him every assurance that the rural community is important to everything we say in the document and our policies. How could it be otherwise? The right reverend Prelate

10 Jan 2008 : Column 1021

has worked to address isolation and bring people in from the margins, as he described it, through his position as chair of the Cambridgeshire branch of Action with Communities in Rural England. There is some excellent social enterprise work being done by the Ferry Project in Wisbech and the Huntingdonshire Youth Bank, which puts money directly into the hands of young people for them to decide how to spend it. That is the sort of example which might reassure the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, about young people’s involvement in a range of voluntary organisations and their willingness to take responsibility and power.

I am grateful for the support I detected for the action plan. I hope to prove that it is both a plan and full of action which will be taken. I very much agree with much of what has been said this afternoon. Noble Lords are absolutely right in their critique of language; the language in this field is very difficult indeed. I agree that “community empowerment” is a clumsy term. I wish there was something that we could all agree on which would mean everything that we would want it to mean. It is difficult to find a word that does that. We talk about community involvement and influence. Wherever possible, we should always use the simplest and most direct and common language. We really must address this, and I promise to do so. It is quite a well known term but we will go on looking for words which mean “enabling the people to become involved and influence the services and places they live in the best possible way”. That is ultimately what we are talking about.

Making this connection with the wider community will be a defining mark of this Government, making going beyond the town hall a clear priority and making practical propositions. That is one of the things that make it different and new. We are looking at a set of practical propositions in our action plan. I would not say that they are processes; they are new tools. Some are not that new, because they have been used and developed by the best councils, but bringing them together in a strategy plan is new.

We have heard different versions of the personal journeys that noble Lords have made this afternoon, including, I am pleased to say, from my noble friend Lord Graham. They have been reflected by the Government’s journey because things have changed from the days of mass protests, when getting involved meant going to a meeting. It is not like that any more and we must recognise and address that. Since 2000, we have been engaged on a genuine journey of devolution which started with Scotland and Wales and ended up before Christmas, via the local government White Paper and the Governance of Britain Green Paper, with a concordat between central and local government which consolidated that relationship. It was very seriously negotiated and not something where it was said “Let’s do that because it’ll look good” at all. It said, for the first time, that local and central government have a responsibility to use taxpayers’ money well, devolve power and engage and empower communities and individual citizens at local and national levels in debate, decision making, and shaping and delivering services. That is quite simple language.



10 Jan 2008 : Column 1022

Behind and underneath all that is a set of problems which community engagement is designed to help us solve. Among them are the self-evident problems that noble Lords have addressed today in many different ways: the challenge of building trust and coherence in a complex, diverse and fragmented society, and in rural communities where isolation is often visible and yet invisible when one thinks about young people, for example. People who engage and are active in their communities build up what we call “social capital”, enabling them to build communities, connect, and do and change things together.

Secondly, there is the challenge of the democratic deficit. There is low participation in all forms of elections. The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, talked about the ageing of the councillors; the average is 58.3 years, and only 3.5 per cent of councillors are under 30. One of the paradoxes is that there is no shortage of interest in how local government spends its money or provides services. There is evidence to suggest that the action plan and its actions can be made successful because people want to be informed and involved. Some 71 per cent of non-voters said they were likely to get involved in a process where they decided how and where local money is spent, and 80 per cent of people agree that they would engage more if they had been aware of the opportunity to do so, and given help and advice. Yes, we have that hierarchy where 15 per cent are very active and 15 per cent do not know or want to be involved. Yet there is, as the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, said, great potential for bringing in the community bystanders, not giving them tasks but enabling them to discover what they can do to change their communities.

This is about designing, managing and changing policies and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, moving towards a shared understanding of where the problems are and so where the solutions are. One positive thing that takes us away from this suggestion that people will get involved only when they want to change or stop something is our experience in New Deal for Communities or our neighbourhood management. Ordinary people with skills they did not even know they had took on the responsibility for changing their communities, and have done so. We have seen, in those deprived and difficult communities, progress in the improvement of school standards, in the reduction of crime and in the improvement of housing and the environment. This has changed people’s perceptions about the places in which they live. That is positive community involvement.

I am sure the right reverend Prelate was right when he said that we recognise community when it is not there, but people I see when going to these communities are also very clear about what is changing and what is good about where they live. That is what we want to be able to spread. I note the assertion of the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, that nothing here is new. What is new about how we have approached this is that, first, involving people in helping find the solutions is now essential to what the Government are trying to do and the way they are trying to do it. I give all credit to the Secretary of State for making this a personal and political priority. It is certainly central to my department in the way we are trying to transform communities

10 Jan 2008 : Column 1023

and the way we provide housing and new communities. The right reverend Prelate was right; of course we must not just build houses, and we do not intend to. It is a challenge to build communities where they do not exist and to change communities that do. Yet it is community planning—master-planning with the community resource and infrastructure at its heart—that will help us get from the beginning a sense of what the community wants. That is what we are trying to do.

The second difference is that it is about direct levers. I will come on to illustrate that with a few examples. Thirdly, it is different because it is about the whole of Government. This is not something that the department which is called “Communities” has to deal with alone. We have to move this out across Whitehall. For example, in the youth action plan, the emphasis is put on young people making changes and giving them money as well as power to determine the sorts of facilities they want in their communities. There is the involvement of children in the children plan. The LINKs network in health is another radical change, going beyond the usual suspects to determine what is best in terms of social care. There is a sea change in the way the Government are drawing on these resources—because that is what they are.

The action plan is ambitious; it is a major plan. It starts with the need for cultural change, the duty to involve a radical step which requires local authorities to show that they have involved the community. We recently published draft statutory guidance on both that and local strategic partnerships, and community strategies in relation to that. We are now looking for the best ways of doing that. The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, referred to the 200 targets that are involved in many local authorities’ decisions at the moment. There used to be 1,200 targets and we have made a quite significant change there. We will be consulting on draft regulations soon and guidance on the duty in the Sustainable Communities Act. But we in the department are also wrestling with the problem of the particular form of communities. I absolutely take the point that there are many different definitions of community, as there are many different types of communities—whether ethnic communities, communities of interest, or whatever.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page