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There is one area, however, where the Government have already moved swiftly to respond to local community energy, and it is, of course, in the field of education. Along with health provision, this is an area where the intrusion of the previous Government has been most resented, and least productive. I am delighted that my right honourable friend Michael Gove has moved swiftly to introduce the legislation which will allow more schools to move to independence as academies-and I pay tribute to the previous Government for introducing the academies programme.
I am also absolutely delighted that my right honourable friend has introduced the freedom for groups of parents and teachers to set up and run schools for their pupils and children, free from government control, though not of accountability to those who fund them through taxation. This has released the energy of thousands of schools and communities. More than 1,700 schools have expressed an interest in becoming independent academies, answering to parents and students, and more than 700 groups of parents and teachers have expressed a wish to set up and run their own schools. What more powerful demonstration could we have of the huge wave of public willingness-and, indeed, public wish-to manage their own affairs without state intervention? I know that many noble Lords from all sides of the House have already become involved in discussions with their local communities about these plans and, like me, have been moved by the enthusiasm and excitement that this proposal has aroused.
Critics say that only the middle classes will involve themselves in this kind of initiative. This astonishes me, both for its ignorance and its arrogance. Years of working in education with some of the most deprived in our society have demonstrated to me time and again that parents from the poorer communities care every bit as much as middle-class parents about their children's education and welfare. They have every bit as much energy and will to help, are as or more resourceful, and often enjoy a stronger sense of community within the boundaries of a council estate than those who live behind the closed front doors of their detached houses. This is a reform which reaches into the instincts and ambitions of all classes.
There are few areas of social life more central to us all than education, and the example of what has begun to happen in this area of the public services must serve as a template for what could be done in other areas such as health, social care and housing. I am so pleased that education is leading the way. I hope that we shall see in the coming years other public services such as the police, neighbourhood security, health and care provision gradually moving back into the control of the local community. It is in this way that the public services can be truly "owned" by those who understand local needs, and who use them and take a pride in what we can, together with our neighbours, accomplish in building the rich society we all so wish to see. I beg to move.
Baroness Whitaker: My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, is to be congratulated on securing a debate on such a key topic so early in the Session, and I, too, look forward to the three maiden speeches, made by my two new noble friends and by the right reverend Prelate.
That is good stuff. Following through the idea of "free, fair and responsible", the section on equalities also has fine words, though not many, about children held back because of their social background. Later on there is mention of tackling health inequalities; disadvantaged pupils; bullying, which the programme is against; and neighbourhood groups, which it is for. Local communities are right where all these things happen and perhaps the Government are arguing that only they, local communities, can make them really happen.
I shall focus on Gypsies and Travellers because they are particularly at risk from all the disadvantages that the programme refers to, primarily because of the lack of one basic attribute of living in a community-a secure home in which to bring up a family. They are also at risk because of the attitudes of other communities in their locality. Gypsy and Traveller children are not, by and large, free to fulfil their potential. I have been told that the Government have abolished the separate fund for the Gypsy and Traveller education unit, thus risking discriminating against people who are different from the settled community.
The last Parliament passed a law which granted equal security of tenure on caravan sites with other mobile-home dwellers, but that needed a statutory instrument to bring it into force and this was not finished before the Dissolution. So I asked during the debate on the gracious Speech when this legal obligation would be carried out. The noble Baroness replying wrote back to me very promptly, and I suspect that the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, might have had a hand in the reply, so I pass on the compliment to her for its speed. What it said was not so clear, though:
I was also surprised that the spending cuts for the Homes and Communities Agency seem to have ended the grants for new sites and refurbishment for Gypsies and Travellers. I am told that in our country there are only 3,729 caravans on unauthorised sites-one square mile if they are all put together. Yet from the disruption and concern caused by those unauthorised sites, you would think that it was a really intractable problem. I
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I understand that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has written to councils to say that they can disregard housing targets. If this is true, it has been done before Parliament has been asked to abolish the regional spatial strategies that it made legal; so Mr Pickles again seems to be flouting Parliament. Now it also seems that Mr Pickles wants to return trespass to being a criminal offence, rather than a civil one. It all seems to be going one way: departing from fairness, preventing one community from being free and giving incentives to all communities to behave irresponsibly. When he was the shadow Minister for Planning, Mr Bob Neill proposed central funding for councils to build authorised sites. What has happened to that fair policy?
Localism is admirable, but I am sure that the noble Baroness will agree that it needs to be fair. When the whole community shows outcomes in health, maternal mortality and educational attainment so dramatically worse, and their basic security of a place to live is so markedly less, than that of the settled population, we must recognise that something unfair is going on. The causes may be multiple, but that does not absolve society and the state of responsibility. It does not absolve local communities of responsibility, although they may need help in exercising it.
The Lord Bishop of Derby: My Lords, I begin by thanking your Lordships very warmly for the quality and depth of the welcome that I have received. People who read Hansard may think that this is a purely formal convention, but I have been overwhelmed by the graciousness of your Lordships. I have been accosted in the bar and in corridors by people who want to shake my hand and say "welcome", and I am truly grateful for that-strangers who want to become friends. That is a very interesting notion of how we make a community in this place and what might lie behind some of this debate-strangers wanting to become friends. It is part of the gospel that I stand for as a priest-trying to encourage strangers to become friends with their maker and with each other-and I am very impressed with the evangelical fervour with which Members of this House have the desire to help strangers become friends. I thank noble Lords for their welcome.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark, whose place I take, had a long and distinguished service in this House, to which I pay tribute. I do not
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The diocese of Derby does not simply deal with interfaith matters. It is a very mixed diocese. There are great urban areas such as Derby and Chesterfield. There is the former coalmining district on our border with Nottinghamshire, where there is an urgent need for community regeneration; and there is the classic English scene of market towns and villages in the Peak District, one of the most visited areas of our country, where we face issues such as how communities survive in terms of affordable housing, and the future of farming.
It might be interesting for this debate to train a lens on one small part of our diocese and ask what it might mean to-as the noble Baroness said-return power to the people. What is community if it is not about helping strangers to become friends? What might that look like through the lens of one small part of our diocese? I refer noble Lords to a part of the diocese in the centre of Derby, in the inner city. This area covers 0.75 square miles and in it live 15,000 people of more than 100 nationalities. How do those strangers become friends? There are issues about housing, health and the environment. What will local enterprise partnerships and the devolution of planning and housing powers contribute to that scenario? If we ask the people in that 0.75 of a square mile what they desire to help strangers to become friends and grow community, they identify three things: they want community safety, because there is a high level of drug trading, drinking and prostitution; they want community cohesion, because the temptation of all these different national groups is to live in their own shell in a protective way; and they want an environment that is pleasant to live in and not dominated by graffiti, litter and poor housing.
So how can power be given to people in a small area such as that? There is, as the noble Baroness said, amazing energy and initiative there. There are 80 public buildings, and 66 organisations offering 212 types of activity and service. Sixty per cent of that local energy comes from the faith communities-half of it from the Christian churches. Despite all the challenges and problems in a small area such as that, the people have enormous energy and a desire to make community. It seems to me that the great challenge of this debate and the whole big society programme is how the devolution of power downwards, whether it is in planning, housing or local enterprise boards, can meet the energy, commitment and initiative coming upwards from people
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Lord Taylor of Warwick: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, for securing this debate, which is extremely well timed. I also congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby on his superb maiden speech. I am relieved to hear that his experiences of being accosted in this House have nevertheless been pleasant ones. He had a distinguished academic career at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. He has written several books, including one intriguingly entitled A Challenge to the Churches. His personal calling into the church began as a curate in Wolverhampton in 1976, and he eventually became the Bishop of Derby in 2005. We welcome him to this House. Clearly, by the quality of his speech today, he has much of value to contribute.
Local communities should be a voice, not an echo. They should have their own distinctive say in what happens to them locally and not be controlled by central government. There is simply no more life in the old dogma that Whitehall must control. Therefore, I am glad to see that the Government have already scrapped home information packs and intend to remove a layer of regional government which, frankly, was a barrier, not a boon, to local communities.
The relationship between local and central government turned into a sort of verbal volleyball until more power and control was sucked to the centre of Westminster. It is not that we are slow to learn; we are just too quick to forget. We forget that the small, the personal and the local work much more easily with the grain of human nature. The noble Baroness, Lady Perry, set out some superb examples of how local communities can work effectively.
I was born and raised in a place that many people call paradise-Birmingham, just off the M6 motorway, by the gasworks! But Birmingham is a prime example of a city where innovation thrived, through businessmen such as George Cadbury, and where political careers had their start, as in the cases of Joseph and Neville Chamberlain. We also produced Ozzy Osbourne, but that just goes to show what a diverse talent base the city has. In localities across Britain there is immense untapped human potential, but this is not fostered by target-driven, top-down government which is tied up with bureaucracy and wants to micromanage. It will be an encouragement to the new coalition Government to know that Birmingham, which is the largest council authority in Europe, has had a working Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition majority for more than six years.
A century ago, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, and Newcastle were the economic powerhouses of the world. Now they have only half the GDP per head of
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Since 1997, nearly 300 pieces of legislation have been enacted with the words "local government" in the title. It is said that democracy is free, but it is not cheap. Since 1997, the cost of monitoring local government has ballooned to £2 billion. We can learn lessons from abroad. Countries like Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland and America have a high level of devolved power over a host of public services. It cannot be a coincidence that the voter turnout in UK local elections is about 35 per cent, compared with 80 per cent in Sweden, 70 per cent in Germany and 60 per cent in France. We are reaching the stage, in the UK, where local people will be neither for nor against apathy.
There are key issues to be considered. In our largest cities, I would support the policy of an elected mayor who can provide a city with strong leadership, but it should be for local people to decide in each case. Ideas either fly or die, but the office of an elected mayor has shown itself to be an effective model all over the world. It would be for local people to ensure that the chosen mayor is not a nightmare. Government need to give local communities a share in local growth. There should be financial incentives, such as reduced council tax, to local authorities which deliver the housing that local people need. Local councils should be able to retain the financial benefits arising from new business activities in their areas. They should also be given the power to levy business rate discounts. Local firms should have the power to challenge effectively any planned business rate increase.
In Germany, all council planning departments have incentives towards developing land for residential and commercial use. Last year, in this country, we completed just over 118,000 houses, the lowest level of house building since 1946. Germany seems to do it much better. So, not only did the Germans beat us in the World Cup, but they can also teach us a thing or two about local housing development.
The regional development agencies have spent more than £13 billion to date, but the Institute of Directors and other business bodies have complained that the RDAs lack both a prominent profile in their regions and have insufficient empathy with the needs of business. Some areas of the UK are clearly underperforming. That is bad for local people and for the national economy. I am encouraged to see that the Government intend to replace regional development agencies with local enterprise partnerships between local authorities and business.
I believe strongly that community and faith groups should be given the opportunity to bid to run local services, as they know what they want and are often better placed to do so than state bureaucracies. The
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Devolving power to local communities is the only way forward in these difficult economic times. Yes, it will put more responsibility on local leaders to innovate and to use their increased powers wisely, but they will become stronger for it.
Lord Knight of Weymouth: My Lords, it is a real privilege to speak in this House for the first time and to follow the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, and I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, on securing this important debate.
I note that other maiden speeches normally start with thanks, and I will come on to those. I also note that many have talked about their family associations with this place. I am afraid to tell your Lordships that, in the same way that I have not inherited Labour politics, I have no genetic links to your Lordships' House, but I am delighted to have the chance to take a title. There was much discussion on my Facebook page about what it should be. Someone congratulated me on gaining more titles this year than the England football team. Others suggested an association with my favourite football team, the Arsenal, but having closely studied the Code of Conduct I felt that "Knight of the Emirates" might give rise to the suspicion of sponsorship.
In keeping with a debate on localism, I am delighted to have a title from where I live, Weymouth-a town that I was so pleased to represent in the other place for nine years. I thank the electors of South Dorset not just for those wonderful years as their Labour voice in Parliament but for not renewing my contract in May, because otherwise I would not be here now. I also thank my staff, supporters, and most importantly my family. In the case of the latter, I do so more by way of apology for not being around to reciprocate the support they give me in my political career. Finally, let me thank the staff here as well as so many of your Lordships, such as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby. You have all made me most welcome.
I have wrestled with localism throughout my political career. As mayor of Frome in Somerset and as deputy leader of Mendip District Council, I developed a real appreciation of how much difference an active councillor can make, particularly working in harmony with like-minded comrades. Indeed in those days, especially in planning and economic development, I had more immediate power to influence people's day-to-day lives than I probably did last year when I served in the Cabinet. Localism is close to people, and at its best engages and empowers them, but centralism also has its merits.
Last year, I was responsible for a massive centralised delivery machine in the form of Jobcentre Plus-an executive agency that employs around 80,000 staff
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Given how necessary and fashionable it is now to talk about doing more for less, it is also worth saying that I had departmental responsibility for procurement. In common with my successor in the new Government, I continued with larger and better value-for-money contracts despite the conflict with localism.
I therefore counsel a pragmatic approach to this subject. Localism is not an ideology; nor should it be yet more government spin. Instead, it should be about delivering power to people to influence change as locally as is reasonably possible: what Sir John Major called subsidiarity. One of the few things that I did in the Department for Work and Pensions that is not now being undone by my successors is the introduction of local flexibility in Jobcentre Plus. Yes, it is a central organisation, but it has room for local managers to respond to local circumstances and find new ways of delivering the agreed outcomes.
In that, I built on my experience as Schools Minister for three years. In England, we have one of the most delegated schools systems in the world. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Baker of Dorking, who introduced the local management of schools. This has been extended and developed by successive Ministers, so that around 90 per cent of schools' funding goes to schools' budgets without touching the sides. This is unheard of elsewhere and with the consequence that 23,000 schools are all employers with the power to hire and fire. It is easier to hire than fire, but again this is very unusual internationally.
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