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As my noble friend Lord Rosser said, the Secretary of State for Local Government, Eric Pickles, has not made a good start. He has acquiesced in £1.2 billion of the early cuts falling to his department and has then imposed them on councils unfairly, hitting the hardest-pressed communities most. Included is the funding for Connecting Communities and the Working Neighbourhoods Fund, focused on community-led approaches and capacity-building. In his passion for localism, the Secretary of State has by diktat stopped councils choosing whether to trial different ways of managing waste recycling by stopping "pay as you
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The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, touched on council tax freezes. Implementing a council tax freeze in 2011-12 is all very well, but we shall have to see the detail of how it will work in practice. Does the Minister accept that council tax is effectively being set from a desk in Whitehall? If so, it is hardly a spur to localism. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, spoke about local government finance, an intractable issue. We shall have to see what comes from the review of local government finance. The first one that I can remember was the Layfield commission in 1976, which I read avidly. I do not think that I have read avidly everything that has followed that, but I shall try to do so this time.
The Secretary of State is obviously warming to his theme of controlling from the centre in his latest announcement of a crackdown on newspapers produced by local councils. This is notwithstanding the fact that, as the LGA has made clear, most council publications are distributed only a handful of times a year and are not significant competitors for advertising revenue. They are an effective means of keeping residents informed about the services on offer where they live and how they might get involved.
The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, among others, referred to issues around directly elected mayors. As we have heard, there are proposals for the creation of directly elected mayors in the 12 largest cities in England, subject to confirmatory referendums. Opportunities already exist of course for bringing forward proposals for a referendum on a mayor, and presumably these will be retained. The Minister may wish to confirm this. It would seem that implementation of the proposal for directly elected mayors will test how localist the agenda truly is. Perhaps the Minister will tell us how the Government have defined the "12 largest cities", what powers the elected mayor will have, whether there will be a standard model, whether the provisions will apply automatically to the designated cities or whether the onus will be on them to come forward if they wish to avail themselves of the opportunity.
Residents are to be given the power to instigate local referendums on any issue and the power to veto excessive tax increases. What safeguards are proposed in respect of the former to prevent the rich and powerful pursuing their prejudices? And I speak as someone who was living and working in San Francisco when Proposition 13 was on the ballot paper. Why are there no rights for people to veto excessive cutting of services to keep council tax low? Will a power of general competence in practice add much to the well-being power?
The coalition Government's proposals to scale back RDAs-referred to by the noble Lords, Lord Wei and Lord Taylor-at a time when economic recovery is still fragile, do not seem to be well placed. Instead, as we have heard, they plan to replace them with local enterprise partnerships, bringing together business and local authorities to establish local accountability. RDAs have acted as key drivers for regional economies since 1999. Free from short-term political considerations, they have taken strategic economic decisions that have
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We have heard again today about plans to scrap regional spatial strategies and to devolve powers to local authorities. We have also heard from the Chancellor about incentives being offered to encourage households to give the go-ahead for controversial building projects. The LGA has made an urgent plea for clarity about how all this is to work in practice. It is not easy to see how the sum total of decisions, particularly on housing at local, even sub-regional, level, will be consistent with our national housing needs, let alone how it will work for particularly disadvantaged communities such as the Traveller community to which my noble friend Lady Whitaker referred. This has the smack of pandering to nimbyism, but next week's debate will give us an opportunity to probe this in more depth.
This has been a useful canter around a subject which will no doubt occupy much of our time in the upcoming months. We believe that the next great challenge for the reform of public services is the way in which local public services are delivered. This transformation is already under way and we want it to succeed.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Hanham): My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, for introducing a fantastically interesting debate. It has not always been confined to one particular subject. Most speeches have been pretty wide-ranging and quite a lot have been quite philosophical on the subject, but that is what makes this House so good-that we manage to get a touch of everything, as well as a few acerbic asides, quite properly, from shadow Ministers opposite. The noble Baroness has done us very well, and her introduction of the subject was quite masterly. It was wide-ranging and measured and brought out most of the things that people have wanted to concentrate on since. So I thank her very much for that. We have also had three very inspired maiden speeches and we will clearly have a great deal to hear and learn from those who have just joined us. We look forward to hearing further contributions from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby, and the noble Lords, Lord Knight and Lord McAvoy.
A great deal of knowledge has been shown today by noble Lords in their contributions. In introducing my side to this, I should like to say that devolving
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The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister have made it clear that the days of big Government are over and that the previous Government's centralised, top-down approach, which has not proved to be totally successful, is going to be reversed. We believe that the state has intruded too far into people's lives over recent years and that the time has come to give them more control over their own lives. It is time for a fundamental shift of power away from Westminster. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby has raised the enormously important point as to what devolution will do to enhance communities. Our answer would be to say that it will bring more involvement. As I think we would all recognise, an enormous number of small organisations and individual people work at local level. The right reverend Prelate described clearly, as did other noble Lords, the importance of what happens in small communities. It was very relevant when he said that there were 100 nationalities in the small area of 15,000 people and, I guess, 100 organisations all working with them to try to make things work for them. All those should have an even greater role and a greater say in how people's lives are helped.
Comments have been made about policies that have already been put forward or implemented. The department and the Secretary of State have already taken a number of pretty bold steps, with the scrapping of the home information packs and the CCA, along with the proposed bins tax. That may not be the most important thing, but it is certainly something that will have a local effect. We have given councils and communities the power to prevent garden-grabbing, which was becoming a serious issue in a lot of places.
Localism is the watchword, and the commitment to devolving power is real-not just a mantra but a practical demonstration by central government in areas such as housing policy, which we may not have discussed very much today or heard very much about, because we will have a debate on it next week, when I hope some noble Lords who are here today will take part. There will be a choice of local governance. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that I shall touch on local mayors again in a few moments. This brings back in one of the elements for which both she and I fought very hard when it was taken out-that is, the committee system, which will become part of the governance again, if local councils want it. It is not being forced on them, but it is there if it is considered a suitable way in which a council should operate. Perhaps we did not fight quite hard enough-I understand that we lost it-but it has now come back.
There will be a role for social enterprises, charities and voluntary groups to play in delivering public services. I declare a former interest as the immediate past president of Volunteering England. I recognise clearly how much voluntary work is done and how many people give time, effort and commitment to volunteering. They do it for nothing and are prepared to give that time, which gives an enormous strength to our communities. However, they also have within those volunteering organisations powers to deliver services and the ability to be sensitive. Quite often, such organisations are the ones that can provide a service much better than a local authority does, as they are much more sensitive to people's requirements. The fact that they will now have the opportunity to have an even greater role is extremely important.
We touched briefly on the election of a representative as a police commissioner, although we have not discussed it much, and a planning system responsive to local needs. There will be a wider involvement of local people in developing policies at local level and their implementation. We have supported this by a new approach to transparency and accountability and by publishing information on the internet so that people can see what local government is doing, where its contracts are going and what it is spending its money on.
The right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, in particular talked about the untapped energy of communities. I feel that very strongly and, from the speeches we have heard today, I think that everybody here feels that there is a surge of energy that can be harnessed at local level and which is often just something that has been provided by local people themselves. They have not been asked to do it, but they do it because they recognise that it is required. If we can get that energy focused even more into local areas, nothing but good will come from that. The netting or welding together of local communities is really important. We live in towns and the country with a diversity of community, and it is very important that we all live in harmony. The more say people have in how they live, the better.
I almost decided that I was not going to say anything at all after I heard the speech of my noble friend Lord Wei, who described the big society far better than I shall ever be able to. Mind you, perhaps he ought to be able to, as he is working at it every day of the week. He gave a wide-ranging view of what the big society-if we have to have a term for it-is all about, highlighting the relationship between government and the enabling bodies that will help people take greater control of their own lives. Again, our vision of the big society is no mantra but a real and radical new approach to redefining the relationship between the citizen and the state. My noble friend will no doubt develop that even further, and I hope that we hear more from him in future. To echo a sentiment expressed by my noble friend to this House in his maiden speech, which was widely regarded at the time, I am under no illusion that our new approach does not present some great challenges.
A number of questions were raised. I am sure that I will not adequately answer all of them, but I will try to pick up some of the points that were put forward.
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Now, I appear to have lost all the bits of paper that I had. I said yesterday that I was never going to have another piece of paper in my hand again, because I could never find what I wanted to talk about subsequently, but I did not live up to my own assertion. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, made some pretty astounding comments, if I may say so-it may be that he was getting back at me for yesterday-about the reduction in costs and the grant to local government which has come about this year. I shall exchange the slight acerbity, if I may, by reminding the House that we have been left to deal with one of the biggest deficits ever known in this country and that local government had to take its cut within that. However, unlike other settlements, each local authority has, this time, had to make or will have to make reductions across the board of 1.5 per cent to 2 per cent. That has not been true in other settlements, where there has been a wide variety in the percentages and where cities have done better than the country, with much feeling of unfairness. Here, at least, everybody knows the amount that they will have and knows that that is what every other local council in the country is having to deal with. I hope that the noble Lord will accept that.
Because my time will run out, I shall just touch on Total Place. Whatever noble Lords call it, Total Place is the coming together of many bodies and elements, not only within a local area but with the advantage of being able to spill across boundaries. I have not heard that anybody wanted to throw out the name, but I do not think that there is any disagreement about the value of Total Place and what it can do. It is an experiment which has been worth having and I am sure that it will be built on. Local enterprise partnerships are not too far away from it; they have the same intention, which is to bring together business, the health service, local authorities and the voluntary sector, to be able to spend money and provide services by working together in a way that is very relevant to the local area. It is not uncommon for local authorities to work with businesses and the health service, but it has not always been very easy. There have been barriers and I hope that Total Place has begun to demonstrate that those can be put aside. I have no doubt that that programme will be there in one way or another.
The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked some specific questions. I may already have answered her starting question about governance. A question was also raised about elected mayors, who are not a new thing; they have been in for some time now. What is being put forward at present, with the suggestion that in each major city there should now be a mayor, is a new experiment in government-except that we have had it in London now for some time. It is worth seeing that put out on a wider basis and, as has already been said, that will ultimately have to be confirmed by a referendum on whether the local people want it. This is not something for everybody to be worrying about too much, but it is there.
The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, also raised a question about the review of local government finance. Yes, that will happen in the autumn; we are looking to do that then, and the general power of competence is there. But there have already been announcements about the de-ring-fencing of grants, so local government will have a greater control already over its finances.
On education, briefly, the academies are also not new but are being expanded and extended in their numbers. However, they will not push aside the local education authorities' interest in other schools that are left with them. Standards will, we hope, be raised by both, with the academies having the freedoms to ensure that their children have a high standard of education.
The council tax freeze is indeed being implemented this year to help people because of the general financial situation. Local authorities can make their own decisions about the amount of council tax but if they go above a certain level, they will have to pay for it themselves.
I hope that I have covered most of the points that were raised. If I have not, I will have Hansard scoured tomorrow and make sure that letters go to where there have been specific questions. I am grateful to everybody who has taken part in this debate today.
Baroness Perry of Southwark: My Lords, it remains only for me to thank all noble Lords who have taken part in what has been a very useful debate. It has allowed us to air a lot of important issues that will no doubt occupy us in the months ahead. I add my congratulations to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby and the noble Lords, Lord McAvoy and Lord Knight, who in different ways gave a foreshadowing of how important their future contributions will be to the House. It was also a particular pleasure to hear that we have so many stout advocates of local government among our number. The debate certainly brought them out, like the first birds of spring, to warn that they will be defending and advocating the role of local government, which is also very dear to my heart. I thank again all noble Lords who have taken part and beg leave to withdraw the Motion.
Lord Howe of Aberavon: My Lords, I have to confess that when I decided to draw attention in the Motion to changing hazards and opportunities, I owed a good deal to some extremely useful work undertaken by Chatham House in recent months under the twin titles of Playing to its Strengths:Rethinking the UK's Role in a Changing World and Organizing for Influence:United Kingdom Foreign Policy in an Age of Uncertainty. They are two shrewd and perceptive documents, which prompted me to think about what changes exactly there have been in the more than 30 years since I first had to venture on to the world stage-for the first four years, rather to my surprise, as Chancellor of the Exchequer and subsequently as Foreign Secretary. It is now, astonishingly, no less than 20 years since I attended the last of 11 world economic summits. After such a lapse, I wonder whether I have any right to talk here at all.
There have been some powerful and substantial changes in the agenda, starting with the economic changes. It is remarkable, looking back to 1979, to reflect that the overwhelming problem then was inflation worldwide, our own running at the modest rate of 23 per cent, compared to the central problem today of worldwide indebtedness and the continuing risk of recession. There is just one economic problem that has remained constant, which is the struggle against protectionism, as the Prime Minister pointed out in his statement at the G8 and G20 summits. He emphasised that success in concluding the Doha trade negotiations, which have now been running for some eight years, could add no less than $170 billion to the world economy. It really is time that, somehow, the leaders of the world were able to tie to the mast the protectionists who continue to dominate the outcome of these important summit meetings.
There has, of course, been one big change-the structural shift in the global economy and, in particular, the shift of the centres of gravity in more than one way. Those shifts in economic importance have led to shifts in political importance as well. We have had two debates about them in the past couple of weeks-one about Latin America and one about China-so they have been discussed to some extent already.
What about the foreign policy agenda? In my first term in office, the topics on our agenda were clearly identifiable. There was one group of items left over from our imperial history: Zimbabwe, Hong Kong, Gibraltar and the Falklands. One must even count the Northern Irish problem in that category. Meanwhile, the big picture was dominated on the one hand by the seemingly endless problems of the Cold War and on the other by apartheid and the eternal Middle East problem. I remember being rather dismayed when I was first instructed to go to the Middle East for some days. I took off from Gatwick Airport on a Sunday afternoon, having by chance that morning read the
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Today, much less is predictable. The inevitable stock of surprise in foreign policy is extended almost everywhere by the resurgence of the risk of terrorism in almost every part of the world. The Middle East conflict is to be echoed on one level by the relationship between Israel and Iran and on a closer level within Palestine itself. I do not intend to devote great detail to that now. Similar problems could arise between the two Koreas. They have never taken advantage of Deng Xiaoping's wise advice of "one country, two systems". Another potential hazard lurks in Taiwan, where a democratically delivered change of Government could lead to a fundamental change in attitudes. There is, in several unpredictable settings, a range of nuclear risks.
How can we best tackle this unpredictable agenda? Certainly, we are far too small to act on our own in almost every case that I have mentioned and we must not be led to think otherwise by that glorious picture display in the Royal Gallery, which reminds us of Britain's successful past. We can be effective only if we are successful in persuading others to work with us in the pursuit of shared goals. However, we must not underestimate our own standing because of such changes. We are still-and can remain-one of the 10 largest economies in the world. However, to borrow a compact phrase from Chatham House, if we are to influence events sufficiently,
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