Andrew George (St Ives, Liberal Democrat)
May I say how pleased I am to have secured the debate and what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir? As you know, the purpose of the debate is to advance the cause for localism still further, which is something the coalition Government are clearly very committed to doing during their period in office.
Of course, the principle of localism is simply that decisions should be taken in the areas that are affected, rather than outside. It is clear from a whole raft of Government statements—quite apart from the coalition agreement—that there is a commitment variously to turn the world or at least the Government upside down, so that local communities can drive decision making. That principle is absolutely correct and should be driven through all Departments, not just the one responding today.
The purpose of the debate is also to advance the cause for sustainable communities, or the sustainability of those communities, particularly in terms of their economic and environmental sustainability. I know that those who wish to speak in the debate will address those points, particularly perhaps in relation to their area.
I take this opportunity to issue a warm welcome to the Minister. He has a clear philosophical commitment to localism and has made much admired statements on the issue so far. We were perhaps on the opposite side of the fence when the first draft of the national planning policy framework came out; there were certainly some robust exchanges. I think that he knew I was taking a critical line towards him and his approach in the Government on the issue. I congratulate him on demonstrating clearly both his capacity and that of the Government genuinely to consult, listen and respond to the issues that were raised. I congratulate him on the outcome of that particular process; his approach was much appreciated.
I will primarily concentrate on the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 and the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Act 2010. It is worth congratulating the midwives who brought through those measures, as they are occasionally forgotten. I would particularly like to mention the first version of the legislation. My colleague Sue Doughty, the former MP for Guildford, was the first to propose the provisions in the 2001 parliamentary session. Of course, that was very ably taken up by Mr Hurd—now the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office—with the support of David Drew and Julia Goldsworthy. However, it is the hon. Gentleman’s private Member’s Bill that deserves honourable mention, as that is why we are here today. Following its implementation, Alistair Burt, now the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, introduced the amendment Act in 2010.
As the Minister knows, I have a number of questions to which I would very much appreciate him responding. The first and perhaps most important question, which I have raised on the Floor of the House and in other ways—the Minister is well aware I am going to ask it
today—is about the much awaited and anticipated publication of the regulations underpinning the Acts. Following the consultation that the Minister launched in March last year, which was completed in June, there has probably been much discussion and consideration behind the scenes about how the regulations will be introduced.
I have had some assurance that the regulations will be brought forward and that they will reflect the need for local authorities and the Secretary of State to show evidence that they are attempting to reach an agreement rather than simply addressing the issues behind closed doors and coming out with results. It is important to address transparency and to ensure that there is clear evidence of the attempt to try to reach agreement.
There is a limit on the time within which local communities and their supporting local authorities can submit bids to the selector, which is currently the Local Government Association. We hope that that might be drawn a little wider, perhaps to include representatives from parish town councils through the National Association of Local Councils, and Local Works, which is a campaign body supported by a large number of non-governmental organisations and which should be congratulated on its contribution to this important measure. Perhaps it could be involved in the selector process as well.
I very much hope that the Minister will respond to that point later. Given that we have some time for the debate, rather than me waiting in anticipation until the 80th or 90th minute of the debate to know what the answer to my question is, the Minister may wish to take the opportunity to intervene now.
Greg Clark (Minister of State (Decentralisation), Communities and Local Government; Tunbridge Wells, Conservative)
Obviously the constraints of the debate mean that I speak at the very end, but given the interest in the topic I can tell my hon. Friend and hon. Members that I have, indeed, today signed the regulations, which will come into force before the summer recess. Each of the points that my hon. Friend has raised will find expression in what I have to say later. He knows that I have been a long-term enthusiast for the measures, and I will obviously set out in more detail the particular responses when I speak later.
Andrew George (St Ives, Liberal Democrat)
As the Minister knows, because I have given him a note in advance, I would also like to probe just how far we can take the matter. I am very ambitious to push localism as hard and fast as we possibly can, within reason. As someone who must declare an interest as chairman of the Grocery Market Action Group, there is one initiative that I have always been very keen to advance. The group is comprised of NGOs, including the National Farmers Union, Friends of the Earth, ActionAid and others, who have been submitting evidence to the Competition Commission’s inquiry into both the practices and role of supermarkets in planning and how they behave within the grocery supply chain. I have taken a great interest in that issue.
The Minister will be aware of one matter that I have always been greatly concerned about. Even after we have effectively addressed the issues of town centre first,
needs test or other methods, how can we at least ensure that where communities believe an out-of-town supermarket might have a detrimental impact on a town centre, the planning process can properly scrutinise that and reflect on it? When supermarkets are built and developed, how do we ensure that they do not simply exert an unfair squeeze—a bit like a python—on that town centre? One way that is done, almost with the collusion of Government, is through the business rating system, which never properly reflects the massive advantage for out-of-town supermarkets of free car parking spaces, which enable them to inflict unfair competition—certainly a very uneven playing field—on town centres. I therefore support the case for a supplementary business rate that could be hypothecated to benefit town centres, because the rating system does not properly reflect the impact of such unfair competition.
Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry, DUP)
In recent days in Northern Ireland, the Finance Minister introduced a small business rate relief that is designed to take a similar line to the one advocated by the hon. Gentleman. Does he agree that the measure is needed right across the United Kingdom so that small, indigenous city centre traders can see that there is some prospect of the level playing field to which he just alluded? Trade has been going to the edge of town and out of town almost relentlessly over the past 20 years.
Andrew George (St Ives, Liberal Democrat)
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I congratulate Northern Ireland on a welcome initiative that addresses the problem that I have described. The coalition Government are providing business rate relief to in-town shops and stores. That is clearly welcome, particularly when it benefits smaller, independent stores.
I have a lot of evidence to show that the business rating system does not properly reflect the commercial value of the availability of free parking in out-of-town retail sites. It is right that local communities are encouraged to bring forward proposals with the support of their local authorities. Such income—for example, by providing free first-hour or discounted parking for loyal town centre shoppers—would relieve some pressure. In many town centres, certainly in my part of the world, parking charges, which local authorities say they levy to meet the costs of running car parks, have increased significantly.
Secondary, if not primary, legislation will be required. None the less, dialogue between local communities, their supporting local authorities, the selector and the Secretary of State should be encouraged, and a cap lifted on initiatives that local communities should be encouraged to advance. Under a previous round, Exeter made a proposal that was rejected on the grounds that it was beyond the remit of the scheme. However, I urge the Government to encourage that type of initiative.
Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire, Conservative)
In my constituency supermarkets have developed in at least two towns, and the local authority demanded huge investment in transport infrastructure, which has completely ruined the town centres and is massively damaging. Far better than insisting on making supermarkets pay for something is to have the money invested in a way that genuinely benefits town centre traders. An element of free parking is a terrific idea, as my hon. Friend says, and I make this intervention to support him.
Andrew George (St Ives, Liberal Democrat)
I am very grateful. The New Economics Foundation report into ghost towns has been a persistent theme and originally provided the stimulus for the Sustainable Communities Act 2007. The impact of development, commercial pressures, planning restrictions and the business rating system, which seems to advantage out-of-town retail, was creating and still creates in many parts of the country—including mine—relative ghost towns. I am sure that many right hon. and hon. Members can identify such areas in their own constituencies and wish to resist them.
It is worth moving away from the conceptual to the practical and to look at ways the 2007 Act can enable local communities to bring forward initiatives. I thought to list the kinds of scheme that I hope local communities will feel encouraged to propose for their areas. It is not a restrictive list, but simply a stimulus for other people’s creativity. It includes proposals to require full planning permission before any facility, such as a shop or a pub, is demolished; to empower licensing authorities to decide and to set a cap on the number of bookmakers premises, for example, that are allowed to open up in a particular neighbourhood, town or local parade; to introduce automatic statutory allotment status for appropriate sites after an agreed period, which, because of the difficulties of managing the limitation on allotments, should apply to both local authority and privately owned sites; to create a mechanism, either through legislation or a framework, that legally binds energy suppliers and generators to partner local authorities, or other local partners, to accelerate community-wide renewable energy programmes; to establish local appeal boards to determine planning appeals on minor applications; and to place a tax on the purchase of plastic bags by retailers to reduce local waste and improve the community’s environment.
I have long argued that we should change the use-class system to differentiate between residential properties and properties that are used only on occasion—properties that are in non-permanent residential use or, in other words, second homes. If it were possible to have a byelaw in one planning locality that enabled such a distinction to be made, that local authority may wish to put a cap on the number of second homes in their area. Because of the impact that that has on the sustainability of communities in areas such as my constituency, there is a strong argument to support such a measure.
The Minister has heard that I am looking in the regulations for things that strengthen, rather than weaken, the 2007 Act, and therefore emphasise transparency and the evidence that the Secretary of State, through the selector, is engaged in and trying hard to reach agreement on. We need evidence of that. I hope the Minister will say that a time limit will be put on the period within which the Secretary of State has to respond to such proposals. Obviously, there must a commitment to transparency.
Engaging with the National Association of Local Councils and putting parish and town councils in the centre place, where they should be, follows the logic of the Government’s rhetoric. If we are turning the world and the Government upside down, we are saying that, because parish and town councils are closest to the people—more accessible to people on the ground, in their street and in their village, and so on—they are the highest tier of government. I hope that that perception
will be reflected in their being given, as far as possible within the sustainable communities concept, enhanced status and access and a role to play. I hope that Local Works will be encouraged to take that role, as well.
I mentioned retail and parking space, and although I do not wish to detain the House too long, I shall expand a little, using examples from my area. The impact of out-of-town supermarkets clearly is having a hollowing-out effect on the town centres of Helston and Penzance in my constituency. I recently received a letter from Jason Crow, one of my constituents—I have corresponded with the Minister about it, as well—specifically about Helston, which has four superstores around it, all of which have free parking, at a time when Cornwall council is significantly increasing short-term and long-term parking charges in the town. Mr Crow says:
“it is as if the shop owners are being deliberately driven out.”
Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, Conservative)
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a dilemma? Although I agree with him on supporting shop owners and keeping them afloat in such areas, does he agree that, given the option, shoppers would sometimes prefer to go to a supermarket? Should our interest be concentrated on the shopper or the shopkeeper?
Andrew George (St Ives, Liberal Democrat)
We should consider the sustainability of the community as well as the convenience of the shopper. Yes, people make their own decision, of their own free will, about which shop to go to and in which location they shop, but a clear impediment to and discouragement of people using town centres is the difficulty and expense of getting into them. That needs to be addressed. It is so much easier to drive into a whacking great car park in an out-of-town retail centre that people say, “I only want to get a few things. We’ll go in there, otherwise I’ll be hours trying to get something from town.” People’s choice about where to shop is not a result of the product or poor service in the town centre; it is a simple matter of having an uneven and unfair playing field. Perhaps there is something that the community and the Government can do to even that playing field, and that is all I am arguing for. Other than that, the town centres are competing in the same commercial space in the same way and one has to take one’s hat off to the supermarkets, because they do a good job at promoting themselves and advancing their cause.
Mr Crow continues:
“I know some would argue it’s retail evolution, with the superstores’ growth grabbing more and more local trade, but we’re also dangerously close in my view to losing the few individual specialist shops remaining, which provide diversity and bring in the tourism.”
That is true in my part of the world, as well. Another of my constituents, Mr Don Briggs, has compared in-town and out-of-town rating levels. To quote one example of many, he checked the Tesco valuations in Penzance and found that the zone A rate for the Tesco Express, which in the centre of town, is £550 per square metre, but the main rate for the our-of-town Tesco superstore is £210 per square metre. He has compared figures across the whole of Cornwall and finds that the story in Penzance is repeated time and again. We end up with an unfair difference—an uneven playing field—between in-town and out-of-town stores. We should address that.
I know that the Minister will say that it is difficult to advance the case today—he is not going to collapse and say, “Let’s go and achieve this as quickly as possible.” However, I believe it has the support of many Members—not all, I acknowledge—in all the parties across Parliament. This is not a party political issue, and it concerns many right hon. and hon. Members. I hope that the Minister will at least keep the door open to advancing the case, so that we can explore ways of evening things out. Finally—I am sorry to have detained hon. Members for so long—I look forward to seeing the regulations, when they are published, and to further promoting sustainable communities.
Virendra Sharma (Ealing, Southall, Labour)
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this important debate, and I congratulate Andrew George on securing it. I agree with his shopping list.
I regard this as a local issue. I served as a local councillor in Ealing for nearly 28 years, so I will be in a better position if I mention some local examples—that is where the future lies in respect of how the changes should come about—and reflect on them.
I have been an enthusiastic supporter of the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 during my time in Parliament and a life-long supporter of the principle of bottom-up political engagement by local communities. Community engagement by Members of Parliament is a critical part of building sustainable communities and is central to everything that I try to do in my constituency. I am particularly proud of the active participation of so many of my constituents and local community organisations in the local community and public affairs.
During the riots of last summer, law-abiding Southall residents protected their places of worship and businesses against lawless thugs, when police resources were stretched to the limit. In Hanwell, the local traders’ association has joined the council-backed social enterprise—Accession—to open a community shop that is providing real work experience in a busy retail environment for adults with learning difficulties. Active citizens are the lifeblood of our country and our communities. The Sustainable Communities Act provides a groundbreaking mechanism for local people working together to demand that Government remove barriers to help solve problems at the grass roots. Bottom-up solutions are always much better and potentially more successful than Whitehall, top-down diktats.
Sustainable communities require legal powers, a joined-up approach and financial resources from the Government. I should like to highlight a problem, referred to in the media as “beds in sheds”, that illustrates such needs. The problem of illegal garden outbuildings being used for housing is significant in my constituency of Ealing, Southall and in other constituencies. Many of the outbuildings are poorly constructed, have poor or no utility provision and are dangerous to the occupants. The need to tackle such abuse of vulnerable people by rogue landlords is urgent, but the work is particularly challenging because so many agencies are involved: the council, the police, the fire brigade and the UK Border Agency. They are all trying to resolve the problem, each with their own financial and organisational resources.
Ealing council has allocated £250,000 to strengthening its planning enforcement team and is working with all other agencies to resolve the problem. The lack of legal powers for council enforcement officers to enter such properties without notice is, however, hampering any initiatives, so financial resources are not being used to best effect. The lack of such powers means that rogue landlords are being given 24 hours’ notice of an inspection by local authority enforcement officers and they obviously use that tip-off to remove any evidence of human habitation in outbuildings.
Under the current law, if a planning breach is detected and a notice served but the landlord then rectifies the breach, the council cannot prosecute that individual. Even if the council gets a case to court, the fines are so low that they do not act as a deterrent to rogue landlords—they make much more from extortionate rents in a couple of months than paying the fine costs them, so the financial risk is worth taking.
The Government have belatedly given Ealing council and other councils that are tackling such problems necessary but insufficient financial resources and extra legal powers, and a Total Place, multi-agency approach is required to get a proper grip. This is an example of a local solution, on the ground, that could improve many people’s lives, and it is being demanded by my constituents. Localism can work, but it needs resources, a multi-agency approach and legal powers.
I welcome the Government’s commitment to the principles of the Sustainable Communities Act and of localism, but I reiterate that devolving power to local communities needs to be accompanied by sufficient resources and a lack of bureaucracy. The delays in the Government responding to previous community proposals under the Sustainable Communities Act and the delay in enacting the regulations under the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Act 2010 diminish ordinary people’s engagement in improving their communities. That cannot be allowed to happen, and I hope that the application of pressure through this debate will result in the Minister moving things forward rapidly.
Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border, Conservative)
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir, and fantastic to speak in the debate. Thank you for calling me.
A common theme in our debate on sustainable communities appears to be the old Britain. I am surrounded by my hon. Friends the Members for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) and for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), and my hon. Friend Andrew George in west Cornwall introduced the debate, so as a representative of Cumbria I would like to speak together with them for the Brythonic peoples of Britain.
There is something a little bizarre about the whole notion of the sustainable community, which is a horrible combination of double jargon. The very word “sustainable” drags in six different directions. When we talk about sustainable growth, we seem to be talking about environmental projects. When we talk about sustainable infrastructure, we seem to be talking about no ongoing financing. When we talk about a sustainable facility, we seem to be talking about no Government investment.
When we talk about sustainable infrastructure, such as broadband, we seem to mean something that does not involve volunteers. The worst example, of course, is sustainable farming, in the name of which we see again and again in our communities farmers being paid Government subsidies not to farm, so that a time will come when the sheep have left the hillsides, the subsidy stops and the sustainable farming is neither sustainable nor farming at all.
I shall not discuss the variability in the notion of sustainable community, except to say—moving from the facetious to the serious—why the debate is so important. This is perhaps the most important problem facing Britain today, and it is a problem of trust. When polled, 87% of British people say that politics is broken and 84% say that society is broken. Every single one of us in the Chamber has the experience of sitting down, perhaps at a dinner party, and trying to make polite conversation with the people next to us as it gradually emerges, once they have discovered we are a politician, that they think that we are indeed a liar and a thief. We know the gentle politeness with which, after the first course, they ask, “Is it really true that you have a subsidised bar? Would you mind explaining exactly the nature of your expenses?” Then, as we move on to the dessert course, they ask, “What do you think about all these professional politicians? Don’t you think that people with experience should come back into politics?”
All that is a sign of a big problem, which is the gap between local people, local communities—the ground—and us. It is a problem that we ought to be able to solve, because this is our moment and this is the right country in which to solve it. This is our moment because we have never before in this country had so many educated, confident people able to challenge Government in every way. Britain is also a country with a very strong and deep tradition of local democracy, which we talked about incessantly through the 18th and 19th centuries. Now, however, we find ourselves in a position where France, which we always saw as a hyper-centralised country, is well ahead of us in terms of decentralisation and local government.
How shall we address that? We have begun, but we have not gone far enough or been ambitious enough. The tone of Government is beginning to change: under the banner of things such as the big society, we see individual examples up and down the country of civil servants checking themselves, rethinking and considering ways in which they can respond to local communities. We see it in the construction of the infrastructure for sustainable communities: in rural areas, that means investment in broadband, for example, which allows people in a remote area to continue to operate and to flourish. They can get health and education services, or run businesses down broadband; perhaps more important for our purposes today, they can challenge their representatives and organise themselves down broadband. Thus local communities are allowed a political and democratic voice through technology.
The problem is that we have not gone far enough. Sometimes I think we need to be more decisive and spend more money, to answer Mr Sharma. We could spend more money in reference to splendid ideas such as, for example, National Citizen Service. That is a great idea to get a lot of young people and volunteers involved, but what have we got after two years? A very good project, but still
only a few thousand people. The coalition Government are only in power until 2015, and if we are serious about getting National Citizen Service going, we should be aiming to have 70% or 80% of 16-years-olds going through the scheme by 2015. We should be putting the money behind it.
Sometimes it will be a question of challenging the structures of late capitalism, which is to say we need to challenge the structures of big business, and sometimes even the structures of big charities. An odd phenomenon of the modern world is that we sit in our local areas, and not only are supermarkets rolling into local communities and kicking out small shops, but major national and international charities that have 600 or so people sitting in their donor proposal writing departments in London are rolling into local areas and destroying local volunteer networks.
Solving those problems is not simply a matter of putting a little pressure on a local council or calling an official to account. We have to address the fundamental structures of procurement, the fundamental structures of financing and the structures of law. Again and again, we get caught up in state aid regulations in a way that we do not need to be, with small projects of £17,000 enmeshed in state aid regulations. We also need to take a different attitude to risk. If we are serious about working with local communities, we have to overcome some of our anxieties about accountability, predictability and transparency, and find ways of taking risk, trusting people and delegating to people.
A small example to illustrate how that is going wrong in my area in Cumbria relates to the bugbear with which I began: broadband. A classic example of local community activity is to be found in Mallerstang, a remote and beautiful valley, where the local community organised itself to get fibreoptic cables to every home. If the community had not done its work, that project would have cost hundreds of thousands of pounds, but because the local organisers signed up 100% of the people in the area for the service, because they found a way of digging the fibre trenches themselves, and because they negotiated with the supplier, the total cost to the Government will be £17,000. That is a very small amount of money to fire up a whole valley, yet somehow the Government have not yet got the money to the people. The last time I spoke to an official, that official suggested that British Telecom could make a charitable contribution of the money, because it was too complicated to get through the procurement and state aid regulations. As long as those attitudes and blocks remain, such fantastic opportunities for community action will never be realised. It we could use it on a national scale, that type of action could save us hundreds of millions of pounds and bring superfast broadband into communities—but only if the Government are as aggressive and flexible as they need to be.
This is not a question of attitude, of tone or of money; it is a question of the constitution. I pay tribute to the Minister who, above all, has expressed philosophically and consistently why that matters, why the dignity of the citizen matters, and why local communities matter. I think all of us in the Chamber would agree that if we are looking for one big constitutional change in this country, it is not tinkering with what happens here in Parliament, but changing what happens locally.
It is very disappointing that we did not get as many elected mayors as we wanted. Philosophically, the Minister will disagree with the idea of imposing a centralised solution on local communities, but I am beginning to believe that one of the triumphs of the French commune system was Napoleon himself, and that if we truly want local democracy in this country, we need to go for it and to impose locally elected mayors on communities—force communities to be free, and force them to vote for their own local representatives.
When we are not being attacked at ghastly dinner parties, we are often praised in our local areas for being good local constituency MPs. That peculiar paradox—that everyone hates politicians in general, but quite likes their local MP—explains the vacuum at the heart of our constitution and the vacuum of local democracy. If we can address that, if we can get sustainable communities in place, and if we can aggressively address finance, law and procurement in our constitution, we can turn our benighted subjects into citizens.
Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and North Poole, Liberal Democrat)
You will excuse me, Mr Weir, for not standing up. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I start by congratulating my hon. Friend Andrew George. I am not sure whether I should be congratulating him on securing the debate today, or the Minister on signing the regulations today. If I make it a tie, perhaps both will be kind to me. None the less, it is important that we are having this debate today and that, at long last, the regulations are in motion. I hope that the date of their publication—before the summer recess—is firm, as further slippage would be unfortunate.
I reflect on the contribution made by my good friend Sue Doughty in 2002, and all the work that has been done since. Like many other hon. Members, I spent more Fridays in London than I might have chosen to get this important legislation through. The number of hon. Members who have been committed to the whole process is significant.
On the idea of community, we have heard three very impressive speeches today, and I concur with much of what has been said. I have to say that I would not want to force communities to have a mayor, or force anything else on them, but I take on board some of the interesting comments made by my hon. Friend Rory Stewart.
I want to focus my remarks right down at community level. I am sure we all have our experiences from celebrating the jubilee such a short time ago. If ever there was absolute evidence of strong community feeling, we saw it then, whether we attended a street party and the community was along that particular street; whether we attended a party in a park which attracted people living on several nearby roads; or whether a village or even a whole small town came together. As well as signing the regulations today, the Minister must be committed to sorting out the time limits as we go through the process. There are many stories about people becoming disenchanted, having put their ideas forward and then having to wait a year or more to see whether they will progress. We should make the most of the enormous impetus that has just been given to community and
pulling together, and act now. At the many community events I attended, people were saying, “We should do this again next year.” There was a real feeling that we can move forward and do all sorts of things.
As this debate is about localism, I shall refer to my constituency, which is interesting in that it is diverse but does not have a big town centre: it is composed of small market towns, district shopping centres and villages. There are some interesting aspects: for example, one district shopping centre and its neighbourhood put in a bid for Mary Portas money. I do not know how many local district shopping centres entered the bidding process, but I thought it was an ambitious thing to do, given the number of bids that would be successful. In itself, the bidding process was useful in bringing together ideas from the local community. Some communities will not get their neighbourhood plans off the ground. I think there is a hierarchy of what people might do, and that is where the Sustainable Communities Act comes in, because it may not be a formal neighbourhood plan that takes matters forward, but initiatives under that legislation.
In district shopping centres, there are of course the same issues of use. My local shopping centre has many takeaways. My community obviously enjoys having takeaways or there would not be so many, but they affect the sustainability of the rest of the shopping centre, as do betting shops and some other uses. I feel that we need the hierarchy. I know the Minister is looking at use classes, and I hope that he will tell us today how the Localism Act 2011, “town centre first” policies, aspects of the national planning policy framework and the neighbourhood plans will all pull together as we move forward with the Sustainable Communities Act.
I want to make a brief reference to parish councils, of which there are several in my constituency. I have received representations from some parishes, along the lines of, “Why aren’t we getting on with this?” or “Why isn’t it confirmed that we will be part of this process?” I hope that the Minister will answer firmly today. To give a small example—to contrast with the much bigger issue of broadband, which is important—one of my villages wanted to adopt a roundabout and attract sponsorship, so that the roundabout would be attractive. Five years later the villagers have abandoned the attempt, because the county council made it so difficult. It is incredible to me that they were unable to do something so simple—something that towns throughout the country do—but one obstacle after another was put in their way. I am sure that all hon. Members have many such examples.
Let us be truly visionary. Let us have the whole picture of how the Localism Act 2011 will work and how everything will slot into it, and give communities their say and the power to do what they want to do. It may be something as small as adopting a roundabout or gaining right to put up sign posts without county council interference, or it may involve the bigger issues of true sustainability, improving our quality of life and ensuring that the next generation has a good community to grow up in and develop further.
John Pugh (Southport, Liberal Democrat)
I congratulate my hon. Friend Andrew George on introducing the debate, and on his persistence, which I
regard as entirely responsible for the fact that the Minister has published the regulations today. I am sure there can be no other explanation.
I have always been a warm supporter of the original legislation in all its incarnations, and have done my share of Fridays. I have been lobbied on the subject by my local newsagents and sub-postmasters, and by the New Economics Foundation; and I accept the principle of locally driven initiatives with proper community buy-in. I have done my share of community campaigning, and once owned the domain name nogo2tesco, when my local Tesco wanted to extend its non-food range, appreciably to the detriment of my local town centre. I have been there and got the T-shirt, in a way, and I accept that the idea is good. I recognise, however, that it has been largely killed by the process.
I visited a website—it might have been Local Works, but I apologise if it was not—which offered a diagram explaining how the legislation works. I cannot help thinking that if a diagram is needed to explain legislation, its supporters are in some sense doomed. There are an awful lot of filters to go through before anyone can secure the new power so widely promised in the legislation. By the time people get to the end of the process, they have forgotten why they started; it is so long and convoluted. That reflects central Government nervousness about localism at the time of the legislation. Central Government are always happy to talk the talk, but are more concerned about what might happen if they walk the walk. That is an endemic feature; it is in the DNA of Government and probably also the civil service that advises them. We talk about community empowerment, which is a bit of a cliché; we talk about powers of general competence, autonomy and localism. We even passed the Localism Act 2011. However, in the end, any power bequeathed to local government is regarded by central Government with slight anxiety.
Offsetting that, at the moment, and hopefully leading central Government down a different track, is another anxiety, which is both complement and antidote. The anxiety is about what we see around us—or think we see: the corrosion of communities and the creation generally of a more anomic, impersonal environment, where the citizens of our land move and have their being. We regret that, and think that things are not as they should be. We also couple it—I am sure that the Minister does—with the belief that something can be done about it, and that that needs to be locally driven, within a proper national framework that provides the appropriate levers.
Generally, we also believe that what happens must be sustainable, although, as Rory Stewart said, we are not all clear about what we mean by “sustainable”. Clearly we do not mean something that we think should be sustained—something that, nostalgically, we still want, such as steam engines. I think what we probably mean is that we want something that will work, last and survive. There are people in this land who think that the high street can work, last and survive, despite changes in shopping habits, and that so can the local pub and possibly even the local post office. People want them to survive, because they see them as defining features of the area.
The issue, however, is not what we want but whether we can bring about what we think we want. Are there sufficient ideas around, that will produce the outcome
that people seem to hanker after; and are powers needed to ensure that we get the result we want? I am not certain that we are particularly clear about either of those questions. I think that we accept that any local power in this country, which is a non-federal state, is given by central Government to local government. I think that the Government are, generally speaking, ruminating on that. I hope that they are not ruminating on the imposition of mayors on communities that may not want them. Frankly, at the dinner parties I go to, people have never expressed an overwhelming demand for that. However, if we consider the Portas review, among other things, we see that the Government’s acceptance of certain proposals is based not on a clear understanding of what to do to revive the high street, but on wanting a variety of projects to proceed, so that it can be seen whether any are successful and worth implementing.
John Pugh (Southport, Liberal Democrat)
Probably because there is an element of democracy in my nature, and I think that wherever possible, and all things being equal, people should be asked whether they want things, rather than having them imposed on them.
It is not clear to me that, as a political class, we have clear convictions yet—we may be struggling towards them—about what is possible or desirable and, in the long term, achievable. After all, we are not talking about the collapse of the retail sector. People get their shopping and alcohol, and they have their mail delivered. However, the way people get those things is affected by changes in their habits, and so on. My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives mentioned specialist shops, and I am keen on their establishment, but we must recognise the fact that now a specialist shop means one that is on the internet, thus acquiring a wider clientele than it would ordinarily do where it was originally established.
We are becoming something of a market society, in which we judge everything by price. The battle that I see us having to reach sustainable communities cannot be pitched as one between nostalgia and market brutalism, because market brutalism will win. However, something called a sustainable community can be established, and it can work, deliver and progress. It is along the lines suggested by my hon. Friend, but it requires a positive political will, and realistic evidence-based policy to implement it, because if we are to produce the outcomes that many of us want, and avoid some of those that currently happen, we will need Government to engage with the topic further. I am sure that the Minister is only too keen to do that.
Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire, Conservative)
I congratulate Andrew George on securing the debate. The title tempted me to come and listen, but I had not intended to speak, and was not sure what the debate would be about, for very much the same reason given by my hon. Friend Rory Stewart—I did not
know what a sustainable community was likely to mean. I had not taken part in the preparation of the regulations, and was not fully aware of where we were on the matter. I think of a sustainable community not as an objective that is ever reached, or even, in a sense, as a noun, but more as a process. I do not think that anywhere is ever reached satisfactorily; if that happened there would be a process of reversing, because there are always tensions at delivery.
I decided to make my contribution quite late on. It was instigated by a couple of comments made by the hon. Member for St Ives, and because I want to talk a little about my personal experiences, which I think are relevant. I started my public life as a member of a community council because I happened to live on the right road. The person who lived in our road stepped down, and as it was automatically assumed that someone from each road had to sit on the community council, I was prevailed on to join.
Then, almost through a series of accidents, I finished up in this Chamber. I had a disagreement with a county councillor over the views of my community, which were being ignored—that is relevant to today’s debate—and I stood against him in the county council and became its chairman. I then became a member of a quango, and as a result of that I became a Member of the National Assembly, although I lost my seat in 2007. That was a great surprise to me and I was hugely disappointed. In 2010 I was elected to the House of Commons, which was an almost equally great surprise because I had not expected that either. Therefore, through a series of accidents I finished up in this debate talking about sustainable communities.
To me, the principle has always been the engagement of people—the citizens—with the bodies that are doing things to them, or, supposedly, for them. The coalition Government have taken a number of initiatives to tackle that general area, whether through the big society, which is an attempt to engage locally, or the Localism Act 2011. Such measures have underpinned the Government, although whether we have been sufficiently successful or strong is an area for debate.
I shall refer to two points that were raised by the hon. Member for St Ives, one of which I agree with—as I said in my intervention—and one of which I do not agree with because of my own experience, although I do not argue with the principle. I also want to comment on onshore wind—I guess one of the reasons I came to the debate was in the hope of a chance to intervene on that point. However, I will not speak excessively about it today.
The first point concerns the impact of large retailers on towns. The two main towns in my constituency got a new supermarket, and as always there was a desire by the local community to take advantage of that and make the supermarkets spend a lot of money to benefit the community. There is, however, a limit on how such money can be spent, and in both instances a huge amount was spent on a road system near the supermarket, but the design was something that would be suitable for a city. In both cases, that has completely destroyed the communities and has the added disbenefit in busy seasons of preventing people from passing through Welshpool or Newtown to get to the west coast. Both systems are absolute disasters.
We want to reach a position where, when local authorities decide on such big applications, any planning gain will be something that the community might want on a long-term basis. I do not know whether that is legally possible, although I think the hon. Member for St Ives may have been looking at the issue. Perhaps some sort of fund could be used to make it easier to park, or it could affect business rates or support the town centre itself. That would be a huge improvement.
Jim Shannon (Strangford, DUP)
I am sorry that I was not present at the beginning of the debate, but I have been following the thrust of the discussion. I have heard much talk about the issues surrounding urban development and sustainable communities, but I have heard nothing about the farming and rural communities. The hon. Gentleman comes from an area that represents both those communities, in particular the farmers. Does he agree that we should recognise the effect on sustainable development of farmers coming together in co-operatives with strength of supply, forcing large supermarkets to give better prices for their products? Does he think that should be a core part of Government policy?
Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire, Conservative)
I very much agree. I have been a farmer all my life, and I have been involved in many initiatives designed both to buy and sell produce. The hon. Gentleman’s point is very relevant.
Andrew George (St Ives, Liberal Democrat)
The hon. Gentleman mentioned what he described as planning gain. The problem with planning gain as opposed to the proposal that I was advancing earlier, is that a one-off planning gain—or planning bribe as I prefer to describe it—provides a one-off capital sum that will last only for a certain period. The impact of such initiatives needs to be sustainable over time, which is why my proposal seeks to address the problems of upward-only rent reviews and their impact on business rates in towns.
Michael Weir (Angus, Scottish National Party)
Before the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire resumes his contribution, perhaps he will bear in mind during his speech and in any interventions that I want to start the winding-up speeches by 3.40 pm.
Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire, Conservative)
That is very adequate, Mr Weir; I will not take any more interventions. I felt, however, that the thrust of the way I dealt with the issue was in some agreement with the hon. Member for St Ives. It is a complex way, although I am not quite sure what the legislation allows. I do not, however, think that a one-off investment that is in some way linked with a development is beneficial in the long term. We need much more flexibility.
My second point relates to planning permission for change of use. I admit that I used to be a supporter of that principle, but I chaired a planning committee for seven years; indeed, I was a Member of the National Assembly for Wales when the issue was considered by the committee that I was chairing. The development of such a process, however, becomes so complex that it is almost impossible to operate. In the end, we came to that position. Whenever such a proposal is advocated, we need to think it through. Inevitably a certain percentage of cases would be allowed, and there would be a database, so that when that percentage was crossed, there would be an element of dishonesty.
Finally, I want to say a brief word about onshore wind, although not in the same sense that I have sometimes contributed to that debate. In my constituency—I speak about mid-Wales—there is massive disengagement with the Government. By far the biggest issue that faces us is the development of onshore wind power on a very large scale; we are talking about another 600 turbines, 100 miles of cable, and a 400 kV line all the way into Shropshire. It is a devastating proposal, and if I called a meeting tomorrow, 2,000 people would probably come, just as 2,000 people came to Cardiff with me to demonstrate.
The people of mid-Wales feel that they cannot influence the Government and that no matter what they say or do, the Government have made up their mind and will find a way of getting round them. In one or two recent decisions, the inspector said that the view of local people counted, which was encouraging. However, in a community such as mine—indeed, wider than mine—and in many other parts of rural Britain, this is a very dominating issue. No matter what the Government do to persuade people that they can engage with the process and that the Government care about them, if the project goes forward in my area, people will for ever feel totally disengaged with the Government. They want to feel that they are part of those sustainable UK communities that we saw so brilliantly expressed during the jubilee.
Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham, Labour)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Weir. I congratulate Andrew George on securing this important debate and on the comprehensive nature of his introduction, which has led to an interesting exchange this afternoon. I thank my hon. Friend Mr Sharma, who demonstrated the importance of investing in truly local democracy if we are to tackle acute social problems that include substandard housing or rogue landlords.
I thought that Rory Stewart was going to treat us to a lecture on sustainable farming. That would have been very interesting, although apparently it will have to wait for another day. Instead, we heard about the importance of decentralisation.
The hon. Members for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), for Southport (John Pugh) and for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) spoke about the need actively to enable communities to regenerate and be sustainable, including by regenerating high streets. I want to come to some of those points myself.
For a community to be sustainable, it must have access to facilities such as schools, jobs, shops, green spaces and, increasingly, access to a low-carbon future. Clearly, however, no two communities are the same. Each faces different problems and has different priorities and circumstances. That is why communities themselves are most often best placed to identify the problems that they face and to work with others to find solutions. I believe that the Government know that. They have talked loudly and frequently about their desire to give more power to local people. In fact, the Prime Minister went so far as to say:
“Our future depends on putting more political responsibility in the hands of local people.”
The Minister will know that the Labour Government legislated for exactly that, with cross-party support, through the Sustainable Communities Act 2007, which put greater power in the hands of local communities to encourage economic, social and environmental well-being in their areas. I, too, pay tribute to the many midwives that the Act had. I will not repeat all the names given by the hon. Member for St Ives, but I want to add one—that of my hon. Friend Martin Caton, who did a lot of work on the regulations.
We then amended and strengthened the Act in 2010, so it is incredibly disappointing that progress on the Act has stalled, as the regulations that would allow the amended version to be implemented have not, until today, been forthcoming. It would be churlish not to thank the Minister for informing us that the regulations are—finally—on their way, but he will know that there has been growing anger and frustration at the Government’s failure to publish them. There are many written parliamentary question responses, letters and e-mails, dating from before November, promising time and again that the regulations would be published soon, very shortly or within weeks, but I will take the Minister at his word and expect them very soon indeed.
Perhaps the Minister would like to take some time this afternoon to explain to us why there has been the extraordinary delay in producing the regulations. After all, the consultation finished more than a year ago. Given the huge amount of work that has gone into producing other measures, such as the Localism Act 2011, that apparently are aimed at broadly the same goal, it is hard to understand why the regulations to support the Sustainable Communities Act could not have been forthcoming much sooner.
Many people and organisations have been frustrated by the delay. I have been contacted by organisations such as the Campaign for Real Ale, the Public and Commercial Services Union and Local Works and by a number of constituents. They want to know why, if the Government are so pro-localism, they have been so slow to move forward with the Act and put power into the hands of local communities. I therefore look forward to hearing the reasons for that extraordinary delay.
Labour supported the Sustainable Communities Bill in 2007 because it looked set to introduce bottom-up decision making and inspire more people to become involved in shaping the policies that affect them. We want to see that put into operation. Key to the 2007 Act was the compulsion for the relevant local authority and the Secretary of State to try to reach agreement on local people’s proposals. That, Local Works says, is what gives the Act teeth. Without a meaningful definition of reaching agreement, the Act risks becoming a glorified consultation process that may only compound frustration in some communities. Will the Minister give an assurance that, when published, the regulations will include the definition of reaching agreement given by my right hon. Friend Hazel Blears—a dialogue in which the final decision is to be taken together?
Will the Minister also give assurances that he will urgently consult on new regulations that will, in line with his speech to the House in March 2011, allow town and parish councils to submit suggestions and proposals
under the Act? Along with publishing the regulations, will the Minister write a memorandum of understanding between the Secretary of State and the selector to set a time limit on how long it takes for proposals to be dealt with and to ensure that the selection process is as transparent as possible? I should like to know whether the Minister plans to include Local Works as part of the selector.
Surely, the Sustainable Communities Act is one of the best ways to encourage sustainable communities. Does the Minister agree? Beyond that important Act, the Minister and his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government have been busy introducing a raft of other measures that I am sure he hoped would give power to local people, but I have a few concerns.
The national planning policy framework was touted as a way of engaging communities in planning and ensuring that they had a positive say on development in their area. Essential to that are neighbourhood planning forums and the plans that they produce, but a huge number of communities are likely to face significant problems in getting those groups off the ground. The Government have given funding of £20,000 to front-runner forums. I welcome that, but am very concerned about what will happen in the future, especially as we know that the Department itself has estimated that the plans could cost up to £63,000. I am concerned that that runs the risk of affluent communities being able to engage positively in the planning process, while disadvantaged communities cannot.
The Localism Act is designed to give local communities the power to bid for services or assets, but again it is not clear how they will achieve that or where the resources to enable them to do so will come from. I am worried that the Government are sometimes confusing giving responsibility to communities with devolving power to them. In addition, new duties are being placed on local authorities, while many are seeing their resources from central Government cut massively.
Another key part of sustainability is, of course, the environment. We are in the process of moving to a low-carbon economy, but we will achieve that goal only if all communities have access to renewable and low-carbon energy. This might be outside the Minister’s remit, but it would be useful to hear something about how he thinks all communities will be able to gain access to renewable energy sources and within a reasonable time frame.
The last issue that I want to raise has been mentioned by other hon. Members—the need for regeneration of our high streets. Again, it is important that we welcome the money that has gone into the Portas pilots, but clearly it is not enough and it will not help all communities, including some of the most needy, to regenerate their high streets. Are the Government doing any more thinking on how to ensure that all communities can regenerate their high streets? Finally, how will the Minister ensure that all communities can take full advantage of the Sustainable Communities Act once the regulations are published?
Greg Clark (Minister of State (Decentralisation), Communities and Local Government; Tunbridge Wells, Conservative)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I join the
congratulations to my hon. Friend Andrew George on securing the debate. I detect from the excellent speeches that we are a band of believers. It is a pleasure to be able to respond the debate and to speak again on one of the most important Acts of Parliament that we have passed in recent years. As was made clear by the references to the various midwives from all parties and of different vintages of parliamentarian, it very much reflects the view of the whole House of Commons representing our various constituencies. The legislation going on to the statute book was an early marker of the power of leadership for people in constituencies, beyond political parties.
I am delighted that so many Members contributed to the debate. It is good to see my hon. Friend Glyn Davies here. I know that he was to speak at the funeral of his neighbour and constituent, who he knew for 50 years. He has attended the debate to represent his constituents, and I am sure that members of his community will greatly respect the obligations that he has to the House. I offer my condolences and, I am sure, those of other Members to the family of his friend and constituent.
The ambitions of my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives are completely shared by the Government. The level of cross-party support for the Sustainable Communities Act has been striking. If I were to summarise the Act’s contribution, I would say that it established the principle that the right of initiative should not be held in monopoly by people in Westminster and Whitehall—that we should not be the only people who can propose changes to the way things are done, but that that right of initiative should increasingly, and perhaps more normally, come from people in communities, and we as parliamentarians and members of Governments should respond to the initiatives of people in communities.
Our role should be to be the midwives to good ideas that come from local level. It is extraordinary that for so many years—decades—it has been the almost unthinking assumption that ideas have to come from this place and are then visited upon our communities. The notion that Ministers in Whitehall or parliamentarians in Westminster have exclusive access to wisdom and sagacity when it comes to ideas is extraordinary. More than that, as was evident in the contributions today from representatives of almost every part of the United Kingdom, the idea that any place in the UK is in any sense identical to another is for the birds. It is the glory of this House that we represent places that are unique and have their own local character and civic and political traditions—every aspect of community life is reflected.
When people in communities are given the right of initiative, we should of course expect that they will want to do things their own way—differently from one another and from one place to another, and differently from how they have been done in the past. Traditionally, Government and, too often, local government have, first, been frightened of those differences and, secondly, tried to suppress and iron them out. They have tried to impose uniformity across the country, across counties or across districts, as though the differences were regrettable anomalies, rather than a reflection of different requirements and needs that should be positively encouraged.
The principle established in the Sustainable Communities Act—that every community in the country should have right of initiative, the right to be heard and the right to
address the Government directly and pitch its ideas to them, and that the Government should be under a legal duty to respond—is not only important in itself as a principle, but as the germ of an idea it has an even greater influence on our deliberations across the board. It has been seminal in the Government’s thinking on various reforms, such as the Localism Act 2011. Section 1 of that Act on the general power of competence reverses completely the old idea that local government exists to do what central Government require of it. That has changed and local government is free to do whatever it wants in pursuit of the service of local people, unless what it proposes is specifically prohibited by central Government. That seems to be the correct default position. The contributions of the debates over many years on the Sustainable Communities Bill and then Act were important in establishing that principle across Government.
John Pugh (Southport, Liberal Democrat)
On what central government may or may not prohibit, there is much Government thinking at the moment about making social services entitlements portable across local communities, no matter in which local community someone is resident. How do we manage that tension?
Greg Clark (Minister of State (Decentralisation), Communities and Local Government; Tunbridge Wells, Conservative)
I am not saying that there are no tensions, but rather than start from the position that nothing is possible that is not previously allowed, one should deal with each case and consider whether it may give rise to problems. That is exactly the philosophy and spirit of the Sustainable Communities Act. My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives offered many suggestions, all of which I accept it is our duty to consider. I hope that they will come through the procedure of the Sustainable Communities Act. That is the right approach. We have an obligation to consider such suggestions.
Let me say a little about the process and then I shall respond to some of the points made—I am conscious that I have very little time. I do not accept the admonishment of Roberta Blackman-Woods about the timeliness of the measure for two reasons. First, part of the frustration that many communities experienced during the early days of the 2007 Act was that, having responded to an invitation to submit proposals in October 2008, the previous Government did not respond at all before they left office. We inherited every one of the proposals made under that initial call for evidence. The previous Government took no action whatsoever and sat on them for nearly two years, but within six months we responded to all the proposals.
More than that, we have swept away the requirement to be forced to consider proposals from communities. We have now established a principle in my Department that any proposal from any member of the public or any community can be pitched to the Government, and we will consider it and it can be tracked in real time via the barrier busting service. There is a website—www.barrierbusting.communities.gov.uk—and since it was launched in December 2010, we have dealt with 258 cases that have come from it. With the regulations, we are talking about back-stop powers for people who are dissatisfied with the Government’s response.
I signed the regulations to bring these measures into effect today. It took a little time because the consultation revealed disagreement between the representatives of local councils and the representatives of community
groups, such as Local Works. I was keen that we should not take the lowest common denominator, but seek agreement, which we have been able to do on matters including, for example, the retention of the duty to seek agreement and the establishment of an advisory board to the selector. I fully expect Local Works to be part of that process and group. We have very much strengthened the regulations, and it was absolutely right to do so.
The regulations were signed today and will be formally laid before Parliament within a week—they need to be printed. They will come into force by
I am keen to see many applications. People should not wait to go through the formal process; if they want to pitch directly to the Government, they should. I hope and am confident that following the enactment of the regulations, the rights of every community in the country will be robustly enshrined.