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Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:35 pm on 10th January 2005.

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Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 9:35 pm, 10th January 2005

This excellent debate has illustrated why crime, disorder and local environmental issues are central and linked themes for this Government, for the Labour party nationally and locally, and for Labour MPs. The issues are inextricably linked and matter enormously to people in every part of the country, as has been illustrated by all the contributions from Labour Members to today's debate.

I am extremely disappointed that both the hon. Members for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) and for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh)—the hon. Lady is marginally more enthusiastic about the proposals than her hon. Friend—have missed an opportunity to rise above petty point scoring on an issue that is important to their constituents as well as to ours. The most absurd thing came at the end of the hon. Lady's speech when she tried to justify a so-called reasoned amendment, which looks as if it was written at a fairly exciting point during the office party, by saying that we should have more consultation. I had honestly expected some criticism from the Opposition over the fact that we have spent the past two years exhaustively consulting not just local authorities but everyone about the need to tackle the local environment and how to do that best. I was going to reply that it was that exhaustive consultation that had led us to such strong and vigorous proposals. The hon. Lady has missed an own goal. I feel compelled to answer the criticism that she could not even manage to make.

The Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill shows the strategic, cross-Government approach that we are taking on local environmental issues that affect the quality of people's lives. The Bill tackles the important link between the state of the local environment, antisocial behaviour and fear of crime. Neglecting the local environment creates unease and a sense that "nobody cares around here", which can lead to escalating problems of antisocial behaviour. People want to live in communities that are not blighted by litter, graffiti, fly-posters and burnt-out cars. Most people mention the state of their own neighbourhood when asked what is most important to them about the environment. People do care.

A few months ago, I joined Councillor Paul Murphy, the cabinet member of Manchester city council responsible for the environment, on day 99 of Manchester's 100 days' clean-up. I have undertaken environmental work with young people, and a couple of days seem quite long. Ten days sounds very long; 100 days seems courageous in the extreme. What did I find when I visited Manchester on day 99? Did I find exhausted staff and people who were demoralised by having bitten off more than they could chew? No, I found councillors and officers exhilarated by the exponential growth in community involvement—the engagement of local communities, the increasing activity as people realised that they had time to get involved and that the issue was being taken seriously by a strong local authority.

That visit also helped to form our view on the graffiti and fly-posting measures in the Bill. I commend Manchester and a number of other major cities, including Nottingham and Cardiff, which have taken a grip on the issue. We have tried to put together legislation that will help them go further in their aspirations to govern clean cities.

My comments are of course informed by events in my constituency in Cardiff, just as the contributions of my hon. Friends have been informed by those in their constituencies. I pay tribute to Linda Thorne, for instance, who was the deputy leader of the council until last year. She took enormous care in driving forward environmental improvement in the partnership approach. Councillor Clarissa Holland, in the ward of Splott, has worked with the citizens of Bayside. They have been affected by the ingress of youngsters from outside the area who have done an enormous amount of damage to the local community. The people of Splott made use of antisocial behaviour orders and exclusion orders, working with the police and the local authority. When I spoke to them a few weeks ago, they paid tribute to the difference that our measures had made by enabling the police and the local authority to improve their quality of life.

Like Manchester's 100 days, the Bill is about empowering local communities to take ownership of their environment and therefore their future. That is why the speech of my hon. Friend Paddy Tipping was so telling when he illustrated, with the specific requests of his constituents, why it is so important that the Bill receive a ringing endorsement on Second Reading. Would it could be the case across all parties. It is sad that the Conservatives cannot see the importance of the measure.

My hon. Friend made the link to crime and antisocial behaviour. He rightly said that the Bill is a cornerstone for building better sustainable communities. He also rightly said that no one organisation or one Department can build cleaner, safer and greener communities. For that reason, I am happy to pay tribute to ministerial colleagues and officials at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Home Office and to others who have helped to create the joined-up approach and the contents of the Bill.

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments on my role in the creation of crime reduction partnerships. I regularly hear from senior police officers about the importance of that measure. Linking environmental degradation to crime and disorder will be equally important and help us to tackle all those issues.

My hon. Friend Mr. Foster gave specific examples of how badly designed footpath and lane access allows local people to become the victims of abuse. I can happily explain how we expect the measure to work. We expect local authorities to start by trying prevention. A variety of measures could be taken, such as local and community action to clean up a footpath, to improve lighting or to use sightlines. It could be a case of examining why there is a problem in the first place. There are other approaches as well, including the use of exclusion orders or antisocial behaviour orders.

Abusive play was a challenge in the Bayside example. Good people were affected by environmental damage linked to crime, and the exclusion order worked. All those approaches, including the engagement of a local neighbourhood watch, may make a difference and make closing off an alley unnecessary. There is no universal answer—no panacea or magic wand—to the problem, but we are giving a range of practical powers. When measures have been insufficient in local circumstances, and several hon. Friends gave examples of that, the local authority and the police, with the local community, will be able to use what is the right option locally. We are removing the constraints on solving the problems.

All contributions by Labour Members were based on experience back home in the constituency, as is my approach. That was in stark contrast to the speech by the hon. Member for South Suffolk.