Local Communities — Debate
Baroness Hamwee (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, it is always a privilege and a pleasure to welcome new colleagues on behalf of the whole House, and I do so very warmly in the case of the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth. Few of us now have genetic links with this House; most of us are the objects of quite recent patronage. I see from the noble Lord's biography that he has a background in performance arts-I am not talking about the cabaret along the Corridor-and he is a great campaigner. He was the HouseMagazine campaigner of the year four years ago, and I am sure that he will be able to use this House as a platform for continued campaigning. He will be known nationally for his distinguished ministerial career. I, for one, was at least as impressed by his career in local government, holding senior positions at local level-doing, as he said local, real things. We look forward to hearing much more from him; I, for one, agreed with a great deal of what he just said.
I welcome this debate, and its title: not decentralisation, which is local administration of central government, but devolution-in other words, local government as we would wish it to be. What a challenging time to try to make these changes. Expectations have been raised, and local communities are more likely to have come up with ideas for spending than for saving, and will share those ideas through the social media to which the noble Lord just referred. That is a speedy-indeed, instant-mechanism for sharing. Competition for funds will be enormous. Agreeing and setting priorities are such important parts of politics and are what representative democracy is about, as well as exercising responsibility to hear those who are hard to hear, such as Travellers.
I acknowledge and applaud the recognition that real people, not just politicians, should have a real role in providing as well as using services. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Perry-to whom I am very grateful for introducing a topic very dear to my heart-I think that we must not lose sight of the importance of and the strains on the third sector. Local authorities have long depended very much on it. I ask-rhetorically perhaps-how should we assist strangers to become friendly competitors in this slightly changed world? How should we ensure the accountability of groups that will receive public money? In other words, what is the interface between localism and accountability?
There are two changes that would be most democratic and would give most power to local people. The first is electoral reform. It could be that only English local government will have a voting system that is not reformed although, ironically, it has the basic infrastructure of multimember wards that makes it most appropriate for reform. The second is meaningful local tax-raising powers. Central government has announced that council tax will be frozen next year, a decision that I suspect many local authorities would have taken for themselves. I hope that the Minister will explain to the House the thinking behind the announcement and the necessity to pre-empt local decisions.
Indeed, there are a number of matters on which I hope the Minister will give the context and detail of how they forward the devolution agenda. The first is the choice of democratic structure. It seems only two minutes ago that we were changing democratic structures, but it was in 2000. I was asked at the time how I came to a view about the correct population number for authorities to be able to retain the committee system, as I was leading a number of colleagues in resisting changes that were proposed. I have to say that it was a matter of horse trading. There was nothing technical about it. I hope that in future local authorities will not just have a straight choice between current structures and the old committee structures but will be allowed to find their own ways of combining the best features for themselves. However, it seems that there will be no choice if you are one of the 12 largest cities that are to have mayors, subject to a confirmatory referendum. I understand that it will be a negative referendum-in other words, a referendum not to have a mayor-which will be quite interesting to explain to voters. It will be a different sort of campaign. As I understand it, the current leader will become the shadow mayor as of May next year.
To go from perhaps the sublime to the gorblimey, we have heard that local authorities are going to have to collect refuse every week. Mr Clarke of the coalition Government yesterday showed that he is not driven by the Daily Mail, which was terrific to hear. I hope that on refuse collection, about which the press frequently writes rather alarmingly, local decisions on how to handle the arrangements can be allowed to stay in place-for instance, decisions about how best to increase rates of recycling.
Yesterday, someone said to me that we are no longer allowed to use the term "total place". I do not believe that the Government are in the business of throwing out the baby with the bath water. Whatever it is called, the substance is important, supported by area-based budgeting and the power of general competence, which we will welcome very much.
I turn to two areas which have already been mentioned. On planning, we need early clarity on how the reforms will work for local authorities and developers, which we know need certainty. On housing, I am delighted that community land trusts have already been mentioned. Citizen-led approaches fit perfectly with the local agenda. It seems that there is a willingness by some land owners to offer up land for CLTs, provided that they can be certain that affordability will be retained in perpetuity.
I am not sure whether the Government Office for London is sublime or gorblimey. It has long been argued that it is inappropriate to have a government office in London given that it has its elected city government. I hope that the Minister will tell us more about the dismantling of GOL. It seems that all civil servants are going back to their home departments. I hope that this is not a move upwards. I have heard that so far there will be savings of only about £15 million, which seems small. We look for bolder steps.
I should declare two interests which pull in slightly different directions. I am one of three co-presidents of London Councils and a past member and chair of the London Assembly. I welcome the dismantling, but it is not enough. I welcome more powers for the mayor, but they will not be enough. I do not have time to speak at length about the role of the London Assembly, but a new devolution settlement for London should be clear and rigorous about what should rest with the GLA and what should be devolved to the local level-to the boroughs, which are close to their communities. They have shown themselves to be capable of joint working where that is required. The London Assembly is a constituent part of the GLA, but it needs more powers. I suggest that the right to block mayoral policies and strategies by a two-thirds majority would be one of those.
Local government is where my heart is. This House is lucky to have a Minister whose heart I know is in the same place. We look forward to hearing from her and to her introduction of what I hope will be a devolution and not a decentralisation Bill in the autumn.