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I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this debate. Having listened earlier to the statement from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister about the Indian ocean disaster and the earlier questions and answers on Iraq, many of us could be forgiven for thinking that we are dealing with an unimportant area of public concern. However, Labour Members, especially those who have served as local councillors, know that many of the issues dealt with by the Bill are at the heart of people's concerns. I welcome the Bill especially because it has the support of the Local Government Association. Many of the Bill's provisions stem directly from the concerns of those who have the responsibility of running local authorities at district, council or parish level.
Many of the measures set out in the Bill build on legislation that is already in place. Part of the problem, which many of us recognise, is that existing powers are difficult to operate and implement. If, through the Bill, their implementation can be speeded and made easier, and in many instances significantly strengthened, we shall be doing a good job of work.
Why is the Bill important now? Why is it not, as the Conservatives say, a measure only for urban areas? The headlines in the press would have us think that graffiti, litter and abandoned vehicles are all about run-down urban areas. My constituency is semi-rural with an unemployment rate of 1 per cent. South Ribble borough council in my constituency recently conducted a survey and discovered that the vast majority of its residents thought that South Ribble was a good place to live. It has good schools, low unemployment, nice housing and good health services. However, 24 per cent. of local residents thought that clean streets and litter were a high priority—only 1 per cent. less than the 25 per cent. who thought that crime and disorder was the most important issue. Crime and disorder, litter, clean streets and the environment are important in a constituency such as mine because issues that were of concern years ago have been dealt with. Residents have good schools and jobs, and we have low unemployment, interest rates and inflation. South Ribble is a nice place to live. However, when I knock on people's doors or meet them at coffee mornings, they talk to me about things that matter in their immediate neighbourhood. For example, they are worried about the ginnel in Penwortham that local youths use when going to and from school. It is covered in graffiti and terribly unpleasant, and a lady has been to see me regularly over the past seven years to try to get it cleaned up. The existing powers, however, make it difficult to deal with the problem properly.
My constituents are worried about cars that are abandoned in rural areas and not cleared away quickly enough. They are worried about litter, not just in town centres but in otherwise pleasant neighbourhoods. Sometimes, people allow their property or land to become an unsightly mess covered in litter or graffiti. No one seems to have the power to do anything about that—the argument is that it is private land or property so, unless it is a health hazard, nothing can be done. However, under the Bill, local authorities will be able to tackle the problem. Residents in the area who care about their homes and gardens and look after them, and who do not repair their vehicles on the street leaving oil everywhere, do not want their neighbourhood to depreciate in value or look a mess because one or two people fail to look after their properties and act as good neighbours. If the Bill makes it easier to deal with some of those problems, we should support it.
These are not simply issues for urban areas—all of them are raised in the 11 villages in my constituency time after time. When I write my weekly column for the rural issue of the free paper in my area, I will take great delight explaining to residents that the Bill is opposed by the Conservative party. I am sure that my probable Conservative opponent in the general election will be questioned about whether she supports her Front-Bench spokesmen, who continue to oppose the Bill.
I welcome the proposal to introduce greater powers to gate alleys. Lancashire county council has lobbied me for the past two years to try to secure powers to gate alleys throughout the county. It is a major issue in many Lancashire towns and I am glad that the Bill tackles it. I listened with interest to my hon. Friend Claire Ward, who talked about the problems of footpaths on an estate. Before I came to the House, I was a councillor for 10 years in Preston and one of my biggest bugbears was an estate with lots of little footpaths. The residents agreed that some of them should be closed to make the area more secure and safe, but every time that we tried to do something about it the ramblers and other organisations lodged an objection, so we did not succeed. If the Bill allows us to tackle the problem, that will be an important step forward.
I welcome the measures in the Bill for greater involvement of parish and town councils because such councils are often underestimated. When I was first elected and came into contact with parish councils, having previously represented an urban non-parished area, I was struck by the great range of activity and inactivity among parish councils. The best ones seek to represent and shape the lives of their local communities. They are proactive. They do not simply do the minimum. They look at ways in which they can make a difference. Several of the parish councils in my area—Hesketh Bank, Becconsall, Tarleton and North Meols in particular—are putting together village design plans with a vision of how their communities will develop. They are just the sort of parish councils that will want to take up some of the powers in the Bill to develop and lead their communities. That is as it should be.
I welcome much in the Bill. It will be a major step forward. It may seem trivial to some, but the fact that the powers were suggested by local authorities that have to deal with the problems at grassroots level means that there is a strong possibility that the Bill will improve the situation. If I have one concern—I should like my right hon. Friend to consider this—it is whether there will be sufficient resources for the measures in the Bill to be fully implemented by local authorities, and whether the Department should monitor the extent to which local authorities make use of the powers when the Bill is enacted, to ensure that we have got it right. There is little use in us here in Parliament passing good legislation that gives powers to make things happen if those who have been given the powers fail to use them.