Sustainable Communities Bill

Oral Answers to Questions — Communities and Local Government – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 27th March 2007.

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Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (Local Government & Community Cohesion), Department for Communities and Local Government

The Sustainable Communities Bill is, of course, a private Member's Bill. I understand that representatives of the Bill's supporters recently met the Local Government Association to discuss it, as I will shortly.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The Minister will be aware that more than 400 Members from both sides of the House, including not only the whole Conservative party but half the parliamentary Labour party, are supporting the Bill. Can he explain why the Secretary of State is the only Member to have refused to have local meetings in her constituency, having turned down a whole range of possible dates? Is not that very worrying? Can he give the House an absolute assurance that the Government will do nothing to block or impede the Bill when it returns to the House?

Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (Local Government & Community Cohesion), Department for Communities and Local Government

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has met the supporters of the Bill, as have I. Indeed, last night we had a very interesting and successful rally about the themes of the Bill in Central Hall, Westminster, at which Mr. Cameron spoke. I was able to point out to him and to others that the Government are supportive of the goals of the Bill, as I told the House when it was debated. However, whatever its virtues, those who claim that it will solve every problem in their constituencies are sadly mistaken.

Photo of Alan Simpson Alan Simpson Labour, Nottingham South

One of the great attractions of such legislation is that it would give local authorities in the UK the same powers and entitlements that they have in other parts of Europe—in France, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands and Italy—including the right to set energy generating and water recycling standards so as to exceed national targets rather than follow them. Will the Minister look again at the proposals that are being made for policy planning guidelines to give UK local authorities the same across-the-board entitlements as their counterparts in Europe?

Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (Local Government & Community Cohesion), Department for Communities and Local Government

My hon. Friend will know that we have our goal of zero carbon homes. We will indeed be considering the points that he raises. Many of the measures already contained in legislation before the House move towards substantial powers being held locally, particularly through the local area agreement process. I am pleased to tell the House that by the end of this week every local authority in England will have a local area agreement.

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government)

Given that the Prime Minister wrote to the Secretary of State on 9 May last year charging her with providing radical devolution to local communities, can the Minister explain why he has such a hang-up about the Sustainable Communities Bill, which would do precisely that? Can he now throw his weight, and get his Department to throw its weight, behind the Bill and set local authorities free to achieve what the Prime Minister wanted the Secretary of State to achieve?

Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (Local Government & Community Cohesion), Department for Communities and Local Government

The measures that the Government have brought before the House on sustainable communities strategies, local development frameworks, local area agreements and the new statutory framework move the relationship substantially from the centre to local areas. As regards the Sustainable Communities Bill, my colleagues and I will make it better and make it workable. I would have thought that that would be welcomed by Members, such as the hon. Gentleman, who are supporting it. It would not be right or responsible for a Government to agree to pass a Bill in the knowledge that their legal advisers and parliamentary counsel had pointed out deficiencies in it. That is why I am adopting the approach of tabling amendments, as the hon. Gentleman will know if he is following the debate.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

I congratulate my hon. Friend on what he said last night. Does he agree that the best way to scrutinise the Bill properly is to get it into Committee? There have been many negotiations behind the scenes and I greatly appreciate what my hon. Friend has done to make that happen. However, we need the Bill to come into Committee so that we can properly discuss how to move forward with that important measure.

Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (Local Government & Community Cohesion), Department for Communities and Local Government

My hon. Friend is right. Of course, the measure is a private Member's Bill and its promoter, Mr. Hurd, who cannot be here today, is entering into constructive discussions with the Department and me about the way in which we can ensure that its goals and objectives are met in a manner that improves existing legislation and the measure. However, the Bill is the property of the House.

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Shadow Secretary of State (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister)

Last night, we all enjoyed the Minister's company before a rally of more than 1,000 people. However, the campaigners were disappointed to hear his view that the Sustainable Communities Bill is superfluous because its spirit and letter are covered by other Government measures. Where, in legislation, is the requirement to publish in full all the taxpayers' money spent in a locality and the discretion for local authorities to spend it as they see fit?

Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (Local Government & Community Cohesion), Department for Communities and Local Government

The hon. Lady does not accurately reflect my comments at the rally last night. I did not use the word "superfluous" and it is wrong to try to portray the Government's attitude in that way. It is also wrong to tell constituents and the public in general that passing the Bill, virtuous though it is, will stop every pub, shop and post office closing and bring nirvana to our constituencies. It will not. It is, frankly, misleading to suggest that. I agreed with one thing—I emphasise "one"—that the right hon. Member for Witney said, which is that it is no good people saying one thing and doing another. I would have thought that the party of the free market wanted a level playing field, not the use of planning laws for centralised control—