Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Queen’s Speech

Debate (5th Day)

4.26 pm

Moved on Wednesday 3 December by Lord Falconer of Thoroton

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Andrews): My Lords, it is a pleasure to open today’s debate on the gracious Speech. I am particularly pleased that I am able to share the task with my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath.

The issues that we are debating today—help with housing, effective transport systems, regeneration, a stronger voice for local people and democracy, and protecting and enhancing our natural environment—all help us to build the future strength and sustainability of our economy and communities.

10 Dec 2008 : Column 399

In this speech, I am bound to frame the Government’s Bills in a wider context because this debate comes at a time of exceptional circumstances, which demand exceptional measures. The challenges facing the Government are clear: to provide real help for people in tough times; to support strong, resilient communities; to continue to plan for the long term by creating more sustainable communities; and to prepare people and businesses so that they are best positioned to take advantage when the upturn comes.

The legislative programme announced in the gracious Speech and the housing measures announced last week, together with the package of measures which the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced in last month’s Pre-Budget Report, show the Government’s absolute determination to respond effectively, flexibly and fairly to these rapidly changing circumstances.

At the heart of these issues sits housing. Thanks to the fact that last year, with strong support from this House, we created the Homes and Communities Agency, we are now better placed to take forward the conversations with industry and local authorities that are necessary.

As we all know, strong communities are built on the foundation of quality and security of our homes. These are testing times for families. We have to ensure that they have a roof over their heads, and that is the first step to helping them to weather the storm.

The Government have already taken swift and significant measures to address the challenges that face the housing market and homeowners. In September, we set out a £1 billion package designed to provide immediate help to improve the advice available to people facing repossession, to provide help for more first-time buyers and to speed up the construction of 5,500 more social homes.

In the Pre-Budget Report, we went further still. As part of the broader fiscal stimulus package, we are bringing forward a further £775 million of housing and regeneration investment, including £575 million to provide additional support for social rented homes. In addition, last week we announced a new scheme to ensure that hard-working people who suffer a loss of income have the option of staying in their homes.

Under the home owner mortgage support scheme, households that experience a redundancy or significant loss of income because of the downturn will be able to defer a proportion of their interest payments on their mortgage for up to two years. The Government will guarantee lenders that they will get back the payments in return for participating in the scheme. This is in addition to support available to out-of-work and vulnerable households through the recently expanded support for mortgage interest and mortgage rescue schemes. More than 60 local councils will be putting their mortgage rescue schemes on a fast track, giving a lifeline as early as this month to families having trouble meeting the mortgage through no fault of their own. We are supporting free and impartial debt advice through increased government funding. All this will help not only people facing uncertainty and hardship today but will mean that everyone from developers to local authorities are better placed to respond to the opportunities that are there even today, and certainly in the future.

10 Dec 2008 : Column 400

Bringing forward investment in housing is good not just for tenants and home buyers; it provides work for construction firms in leaner times, which is essential for the country in the long term. It is important to be clear that after this downturn the country will still need new homes to be built on a scale that we have not seen for a generation. If those homes are to be built, we need a construction industry that is ready to get moving as soon as the market picks up. That is why our Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill will inter alia improve legislation on commercial contracts, provide a fairer system for construction companies and ensure that they get a decent cash flow. That will make a particularly big difference to small and medium construction companies, which provide local jobs and deliver a vital service to local businesses and home owners.

Decent, affordable housing is at the heart of building stronger, fairer and more prosperous communities. There is a direct link to be made between the connection people feel to their communities and how far they feel that can influence change and impress their views and concerns on local government for a thriving, confident economy. People are more resilient when they feel they belong and can play a full part in communities that are strong and sustainable. In difficult times, in particular, people want to know that they are being treated fairly.

Last week the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government published Fair Rules for Strong Communities. The Prime Minister put it best when he said:

“Stronger communities, quite simply, will help our country come through these times faster and stronger”.

That means that we must have rules that are not only fair but are seen to be fair by everyone: those on welfare, in the criminal justice system, in the immigration system and young people. Fairness means ensuring that local leaders have the freedom, powers and ability to lead their communities forward. Local people have a right to know how their local council works and how to get involved in what happens in the local community. In difficult times there is also a greater need for certainty as well as flexibility that can generate innovation and creativity. That is what we try to provide for local government.

The three-year local government settlement provides local government with the stability that it needs to plan ahead sensibly. That sits alongside the flexibility and the need to respond to local pressures that are now framed by one of the most successful innovations in local government in recent years—the local area agreements. Fairness must be driven deep into the way we treat the people we live alongside. This Government have done a great deal to promote equal rights, in partnership with noble Lords across this Chamber, and the noble Lord, Lord Lester, in particular.

Ensuring that everyone can play their full part in society is even more important in difficult economic times. We need to ensure that no talents are wasted through discrimination of any kind. I know that there will welcome for the fact that the Government are bringing forward a Bill that takes the next steps necessary to promote equality, to fight discrimination in all its

10 Dec 2008 : Column 401

forms, including age discrimination, and to introduce transparency in the workplace, which is the key to tackling the gender pay gap.

Just as we are committed to fair treatment, we are committed to the right of people to have a fair say. That brings me to the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill. I am afraid that I cannot shorten the Title of the Bill so noble Lords will have to bear with me. That Bill makes the link between the need to open up opportunities for people to know about, become involved in and influence local government policy, and the need for local government to have a more strategic opportunity to build stronger regional and local economies. The Bill is based on evidence and ammunition provided in part by the Jane Roberts commission, on the evidence set out in our own White Paper, Communities in Control, and its recommendations, and on a consultation process on the subnational review. We have taken local government and its partners with us at every stage. This is about giving local government additional tools so that people, no matter where they live, can have fair and equal access to, for example, more information, an equal voice and the right to a response.

A major concern in this House is that turnout in local elections hovers around 35 per cent. How do we overcome that? There is a strong body of evidence suggesting that a lack of public information and awareness about how to get involved is a major barrier to participation. The Bill introduces a new duty on local councils to promote democracy by taking practical action to inform local people, not just about what the council and councillors do, but about how to get involved, not just in local government but, for example, as school governors or members of a foundation trust. The evidence is clear: the more people feel involved, the more likely they are to feel satisfied, the better the services will be and the more confident the community. That is why the Bill also extends the duty to involve to 11 new bodies including the Homes and Communities Agency and the Environment Agency.

The Bill also introduces a new duty on local councils to respond to petitions. Petitions are a familiar part of the local government landscape, but currently less than a third of local authorities guarantee a response to them. Why should people living in one area know they can expect a response while the next-door authority cannot even be bothered? People deserve a proper response to their views on local issues, which is why this step is necessary.

One group that has often been left out is tenants who have often lacked the resources and expertise to ensure that their interests can be represented at a national level. I am delighted that in the Bill we are fulfilling the commitment we made last year to establish the new national tenant voice, ensuring that tenants’ views and interests are represented.

At this time, when small and large businesses are facing major challenges and when we know that the strength of our economy is dependent on the ability of our very diverse regions to plan proactively, it is right that we should strengthen our regional response. We have some outstanding examples of how the regional

10 Dec 2008 : Column 402

development agencies are taking forward the proposition of bringing together activity and effort. For example, Yorkshire Forward’s renaissance towns and cities programme is about involving the community in regeneration and encouraging communities to form town teams made of public architects, town planners and consultants to decide what they want to take ownership of development. The objective is to ensure that towns and cities are well designed, connected, accessible and are good for families and business.

At the moment, we have far too many conversations going on in different places about what each region needs to plan properly for a strong economy. We have a conversation about housing, there is one about transport there, somewhere else there is one about spatial planning and somewhere else again there is one about economic development. The Bill will therefore introduce a duty on local authorities and regional development agencies to work together to draft a single strategy for their region. This is a practical measure that has widespread support and will ensure that the direction and priorities set are being designed by those best placed to make those judgments. It will establish a full partnership with local authorities themselves, which will have a full role in developing and signing-off regional strategies. However, we also want local authorities to have more purchase on local economic development so the Bill introduces a duty on upper-tier and unitary local authorities to assess the economic conditions in their area and opens up new opportunities for councils to build on the work that is now in place to promote cross-boundary and subregional working. For example, housing, skills, investment, and transport are not confined to single local authorities. Increasingly, regions as diverse as Manchester and Hampshire are showing that things are better done in greater, stronger partnership and the Bill responds to that.

These possibilities are hardly confined to city regions. We also need to support strong communities nationwide in rural and urban areas. A fifth of the new affordable homes built in England by this Government have been in rural areas. We are boosting rural employment through the payment of £2.9 billion over the next five years to farmers in return for environmental land management. We are spending £90 million this year as part of a total programme of £600 million over the next seven years to help businesses and communities in rural England. The funding, which is available through the regional development agencies, will help businesses to work together more effectively, to modernise their premises, to increase the skills of their people and to add value to their products. It will also help to improve the quality of life in rural communities.

We are also monitoring food prices and looking at whether the price reductions that we are now seeing are being passed down to consumers, with farmers also receiving a fair price, and we will continue to bring public pressure to bear where appropriate. We are setting up a new council of food policy advisers with outside experts to help us to develop a sustainable, healthy and secure food supply.

A strong and effective transport system is also a major contribution to supporting a strong economy. In addition to our existing plans, we announced at the

10 Dec 2008 : Column 403

Pre-Budget Report that we would bring forward more than £1 billion of transport capital investment. This includes additional investment of £700 million next year to stimulate the economy. This investment will cut congestion and increase capacity on our roads and railways. We have also announced additional investment projects in future years that are worth £300 million in the delivery of improved routes to key UK ports and airports, such as Manchester.

Last week, in delivering a sustainable transport system, we set out our approach to tackling the country’s immediate transport problems and shaping our transport systems to meet the longer-term challenges that are critical to our prosperity and way of life. We have a long-term goal of doubling railway capacity, working to deliver 1,300 new passenger carriages, 150 station modernisations, and freight improvements by 2014. We are investing in the £15.9 billion Crossrail project, which, once built, will provide a boost of at least £20 billion to the UK economy as well as generating an extra 30,000 jobs. It will also help to secure London’s position as a world-leading financial centre by delivering a 10 per cent increase to the capital’s rail capacity when it opens in 2017.

At the same time, we are working hard to reduce the carbon footprint of domestic transport: for example, through the potential of low or zero-carbon vehicles and helping people reduce their need to travel. We certainly welcome the recent agreement in Europe on improving the fuel efficiency of new cars, which will require a significant increase in the rate of CO2 reductions.

The measures that we are announcing today will also make a vital contribution to our natural environment and how we manage our natural resources. The Marine and Coastal Access Bill will improve the way in which we manage our marine resources and will maximise the benefits that we get from them. No other country has attempted quite such an ambitious and wide-ranging structured approach to marine management. This builds on the Planning Act, which we debated only a few weeks ago, and together they will ensure a streamlined consenting process for all offshore infrastructure.

The draft floods and water Bill will improve flood risk management and the sustainability of our water resources, and will give effect to some of the conclusions drawn in the report by Sir Michael Pitt into the summer flooding in 2007. My noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath will say more about these measures later in our debate today.

In conclusion, I return to the themes that offer the greatest opportunity for our country successfully to manage the difficult times ahead: ensuring that people, families and communities make the right choices for them on the basis of knowledge and information, access and influence to what affects them; ensuring greater fairness, which stretches from the right of the individual to be treated equally to equal access to skills and jobs through strong local economies, underpinned by intelligent, far sighted and coherent regional strategies that make the most of local character and strengths; and ensuring the sustainable development and management of our wider environment to manage stress and prepare for the future. These are the building blocks of a stronger democracy. They are the tools

10 Dec 2008 : Column 404

that will enable us to face the future, with all its new and unpredictable challenges, with more confidence. Above all, they will sustain the spirit as well as the substance of our communities.

4.44 pm

Baroness Warsi: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, for opening the debate and I look forward to hearing your Lordships’ contributions. This broad debate covers many important areas, as the extensive speaking list shows. I shall spend most of my speech on the first two of the topics up for discussion; that is, local government and equality. I shall briefly touch on transport. I am sure that my noble friend Lord Taylor will give us the benefit of his experience on agriculture and the environment.

The Minister naturally focused on local government. As she mentioned, this Session we will have the opportunity to consider the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill, which has already had its First Reading in your Lordships’ House. When the Government first gave notice that a Bill along these lines would be introduced, there seemed to be much more emphasis on community empowerment. After speaking with the Minister, I understand that the Government have chosen to drop some of the more controversial community empowerment elements but that they believe the gist remains much the same. The Government claim that the focus of the Bill is to,

At the same time, the Bill establishes even more remote quango-like bodies to take control of regional development.

I do not wish to stray into Second Reading territory, but I will say that it has not gone without note that this Bill, which has not only a long and disjointed name but a somewhat ramshackle air, has lots of motherhood and apple pie and a whole load of nothingness. It adds to the overall impression that not only have the Government run out of good ideas, they have no big vision for Britain and cannot bring the long-term change our country really needs.

The Government continue to cling to their belief that the unelected, unaccountable and inefficient regional bureaucracies can somehow empower communities and bring about the change that we need. The most significant element of this Bill seeks to transfer the functions of the ineffective and unaccountable regional assemblies to regional development agencies. But the musical chairs of passing their functions from one regional quango to another will do nothing to give local communities a greater say on where, for example, new homes should go, nor speed up the planning system.

This Government may claim to be committed to devolving power away from the centre and to local people but this is nothing more than hollow words. It is clear from this Bill that devolution to this Government is little more than a desire to have loyal political appointees at every level of government who are willing to carry out Whitehall’s commands. The Government introduced this regional bureaucracy and they should take the blame for its failure.

10 Dec 2008 : Column 405

This side of the House believes that, rather than passing the functions of the regional assemblies to another unelected and unaccountable regional quango, the first step should be to scrap the whole tier of regional planning which, on top of local and national planning policies, has created a quagmire of red tape and complexity. We believe in giving real power back to local people.

Despite housing supposedly being a priority for Her Majesty’s Government, the housing provisions in the draft legislative programme have been dropped from this Bill. This is a lost opportunity to introduce practical measures to help kick-start the housing market and protect families from having their houses repossessed. On transport, too, the Government fail to deliver the change that people really want. Their approach on transport appears to be directly opposed to their desire for more citizen involvement. For example, what role did local communities play in the recent decision to allow the expansion at Stansted? How well is Labour listening to those who oppose the third runway at Heathrow? How have the Government responded to the finding in a recent poll that only 4 per cent of businesses thought that the third runway at Heathrow would be of economic benefit to them?

Even on railways, the Government are trying to solve overcrowding by pricing people off the most popular routes and on to the roads. Then they seek to price people off the overcrowded roads with national road pricing and unpopular congestion charges. This is not a sustainable transport policy. By contrast, the Conservatives would seek to give the rail industry the freedom from micro-management it needs to invest in the network and develop the capacity needed for the ever-rising number of passengers. We would also seek to provide a high-speed rail link to replace domestic flights, deal with overcrowding, release capacity on existing lines, and aid the economic and social regeneration of the Midlands and the north. It will be a genuine low-carbon alternative.

The noble Baroness also made optimistic statements about equality, especially about the Bill that has been introduced for this Session, and I hope that it will indeed live up to her predictions. I am immensely proud that it was a Conservative Government who introduced the Sex Discrimination Act in 1986, the Race Relations (Remedies) Act in 1994, the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995, and the Employment Rights Act in 1996. Equality law currently involves nine pieces of legislation, more than 100 regulations and over 2,500 pages of guidance and codes of practice. Simplification will make it much easier for both employers and employees to understand their rights and responsibilities in this area.

But good words and positive noises will not achieve equality; therefore we will be looking carefully at the Bill to ensure that it is an effective and practical piece of legislation. In this important area I hope sincerely that this time the Government have not just indulged in another round of tweaking and targets that do nothing to address the root causes of the problem. It is clear, after all, that there is still a problem. Equal pay legislation was first introduced more than 35 years ago and there is still pay inequality between men and

10 Dec 2008 : Column 406

women, some unfortunately in our public bodies. While I welcome the Bill’s intention to increase transparency in public bodies and thus to highlight hidden inequality, I hope that the Government will lead by example by getting their own house in order. The failure of so many government departments to reach the targets last April does not give us much hope that the extension of the three current equality duties covering gender, disability and race will lead to any significant change.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page