New Clause 29 — Reduction of regulatory burdens

Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 1:31 pm on 17 May 2007.

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'(1) The Secretary of State must—

(a) for the period of one year, beginning with the commencement of this Act, and

(b) for each year thereafter,

prepare a report on progress during the period to reduce the number of local improvement targets, plans and other regulatory burdens in the responsible authority's area.

(2) A report under this section must (in particular) deal with—

(a) ring fenced grants and funding;

(b) the volume of guidance;

(c) approval processes.

(3) The Secretary of State must lay before Parliament each report he prepares under this section.'.— [Andrew Stunell.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 30— National Partnership Scheme

'(1) The Secretary of State shall, within one year of the coming into force of this Act, establish a body ("the Steering Group") to draw up a National Partnership Scheme ("the Scheme") between local government and national government, having regard to the European Charter of Local Self Government.

(2) The Steering Group shall comprise an equality of membership from central and local government, with an independent chair.

(3) The Scheme must set out recommendations about the respective powers and duties of local and central government in respect of (but not limited to) community engagement and participation, service delivery, finance and functions, and may set out such other matters as the Steering Group determines.

(4) The Scheme must include timetabled proposals for the transfer of functions and funding from central to local government where such transfer will—

(a) be efficient and convenient, or

(b) enhance local democratic accountability.'.

New clause 35— Local Government Act 2003: amendment

'Section 99 of the Local Government Act 2003 (c. 26) (categorisation of English local authorities by reference to performance) is hereby repealed.'.

Government amendments Nos. 20 to 22.

Amendment No. 254, in clause 80, page 55, line 10, at end insert—

'(m) a registered social landlord which lets or owns houses in the area of the responsible local authority and which has been notified in writing by the responsible local authority that it is a partner authority.'.

Amendment No. 257, page 55, line 10, at end insert—

'(m) Regional Offender Managers;

(n) Probation Trusts and providers of probation services'.

Government amendments Nos. 23 to 25.

Amendment No. 255, page 55, line 32, at end insert—

'(4A) In this section, "house", "let" and "registered social landlord" have the same meanings as in Part 1 of the Housing Act 1996.'.

Government amendments Nos. 26 to 28.

Amendment No. 253, in clause 81, page 56, line 13, after 'area', insert

', including targets relating to energy efficiency standards and microgeneration, as defined by section 82 of the Energy Act 2004 (c. 20) in buildings in new developments,'.

Amendment No. 171, page 56, line 17, at end insert—

'(1A) In this Chapter "national improvement target" means a national target for improvement designated by the Secretary of State in respect of which there shall be a maximum number of 35.'.

Amendment No. 156, in clause 82, page 56, line 40, after 'authority', insert—

'(ia) other non-statutory partners to the local area agreement;'.

Amendment No. 248, page 56, line 41, at end insert '; and

(iii) recognised trades unions.'.

Amendment No. 172, page 57, line 3, leave out 'and'.

Amendment No. 173, page 57, line 4, at end insert—

'(iii) the comprehensive area assessment which shall be phased in to coincide with the commencement date for this Chapter.'.

Government amendment No. 92.

Amendment No. 174, in clause 83, page 57, line 20,at end insert

'only in respect of national improvement targets,'.

Amendment No. 175, in clause 85, page 57, line 38, leave out 'local' and insert 'national'.

Amendment No. 176, page 57, line 42, leave out 'local' and insert 'national'.

Amendment No. 177, in clause 86, page 58,line 16, leave out 'local' and insert 'national'.

Amendment No. 178, page 58, line 27, leave out 'or'.

Amendment No. 179, page 58, line 28, leave out subsection (b).

Amendment No. 180, page 58, line 31, at end insert—

'(7) The responsible local authority may in its absolute discretion, with the consent of each person to whom the target in question relates, change, remove or revise a local improvement target.'.

Amendment No. 195, in clause 87, page 58, line 39, leave out 'all' and insert 'either'.

Amendment No. 181, age 58, line 40, after 'to', insert 'national'.

Amendment No. 182, page 58, line 41, after 'of', insert 'national'.

Amendment No. 183, page 58, line 42, leave out subsection (c).

Amendment No. 184, page 59, line 2, after 'a', insert 'national'.

Amendment No. 185, page 59, line 5, leave out subsection (b).

Amendment No. 158, page 59, line 9, after 'authority', insert—

'(ia) other non-statutory partners to the local area agreement, and'.

Amendment No. 186, page 59, line 12, after 'of', insert 'national'.

Amendment No. 187, page 59, line 12, leave out ', or additional local improvement targets,'.

Amendment No. 188, page 59, line 20, after 'of', insert 'national'.

Amendment No. 189, page 59, line 20, leave out ', or additional local improvement targets,'.

Government amendment No. 93.

Amendment No. 190, in clause 88, page 59, line 42, after 'a', insert 'national'.

Amendment No. 191, in clause 89, page 60, line 8, leave out 'local' and insert 'national'.

Government amendment No. 94.

Amendment No. 157, in clause 90, page 60, line 34, after 'authority', insert

', other non-statutory partners to the local area agreement and'.

Government amendment No. 95.

Amendment No. 192, in clause 92, page 62, line 5, at beginning insert 'national'.

Amendment No. 194, in page 90, line 9, leave out clause 127.

Government amendment No. 55.

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

The new clause is simple and straightforward and should be added to the Bill. The Government have repeatedly said that the torrent of targets, plans, guidance notes and approvals should be throttled back, and they have stated clearly that the Bill will do that by relieving local government of the burden of bureaucracy, red tape and financial costs and allowing it to get on with the business for which it was elected.

The new clause provides a way of measuring and taking stock of the Government's performance. Just in case their rebuttal is that it may be perverse to add yet another target to their work load when we are arguing for the reduction of targets, I simply point out that given the burden they are taking from local government and from themselves, a small diversion to measure it would not go amiss.

I draw the attention of the House to some of the views of Sir Michael Lyons in his recent report to the Government. He said:

"Over the 1980s and 1990s, there has been an increasing centralisation across a range of local public has also inhibited the ability of local government to respond to local needs and preferences, and to manage financial pressures...The weight of central controls—both formal and informal—can lead to local choices being crowded can stifle innovation and experiment, both of which are promoted by decentralisation."

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government)

Does my hon. Friend agree that Sir Michael's contention about greater centralisation is reinforced by the answer to a parliamentary question I received recently, which reveals that the ring-fencing of local government budgets has risen from £1.6 billion in 1997 to £7.2 billion in 2005?

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

My hon. Friend is right—or rather the statistics from the Department for Communities and Local Government are right. The Government are more and more prescriptive about how local government should spend the money it receives.

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

Obviously, I was aware of the answer given to Tom Brake, which I considered carefully. Those figures included the dedicated schools budget, so that should be borne in mind when making a like-for-like comparison. They also showed that the recent trend is in the opposite direction.

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

The Minister makes a case, but it is not a particularly good one because many local authorities believe that the prescriptive way that school funding is allocated is not good either.

I want to draw the Minister's attention to a briefing I received from the Local Government Association, which notes that the Audit Commission recently informed councils that an additional 54 performance indicators on economic regeneration should be collected "on a voluntary basis". What is a council supposed to do when the Audit Commission says that it must collect a further 54 indicators on a voluntary basis? That is a weird sort of voluntarism. We are told that additional customer satisfaction indicators are being developed and that as neighbourhood performance management develops, indicators will have to be translated to lower levels, resulting in more data to collect.

The new clause would monitor the Government's good intentions and would enable us to hear from them precisely how well they are doing—in the context not just of the point my hon. Friend Tom Brake drew to the attention of the House, nor of the LGA's report that more and more indicators seem to be required every day, but of the rumours that reach us on the civil service grapevine. We know that a number of Departments meet the DCLG's challenge to reduce their indicators and targets for local government by asking their staff to turn the indicators into sub-targets and sub-sub-targets; so there is a higher order target with, beneath it, exactly the same requirements as before—except that they are not called targets. We need to assess whether the Government's intentions as a whole—not just the Minister's good intentions—actually produce results.

In Committee, the Minister affected to be somewhat heartbroken when we showed occasional signs of distrust at his protestations of good will and innocence. However, there are many local government doubting Thomases out there. Over at least 20 years, they have been trained to doubt by the actions of different Governments at the expense of local government. The Minister has only to accept the new clause and he will allay their doubts and fears. Let us make it transparent that the targets are being reduced. Let us see the tide turn and watch as the burden is lifted year by year.

On Second Reading, the Secretary of State set out her stall. On targets, she said:

"There are currently up to 1,200. We envisage reducing that to 200 indicators, with around 35 targets, plus the existing statutory education and child care targets."—[ Hansard, 22 January 2007; Vol. 455, c. 1155.]

The new clause is designed to restore trust in the Government's commitment on targets, to cut bureaucracy and to give the Secretary of State something to boast about every year when she publishes her annual report. It follows that we will also support new clause 35, which reflects the same way of thinking. I seek your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on whether it is in order for me to comment on the other new clauses and amendments in the group.

Mr. Deputy Speaker):

Order. It is perfectly in order for the hon. Gentleman to comment on any of the amendments or new clauses that Mr. Speaker has grouped with the hon. Gentleman's new clause.

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

Thank you very much, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In that case, I draw the House's attention to the further new clause standing in my name and that of my hon. Friends: new clause 30 on the national partnership scheme. My colleagues and I raised this matter twice in Committee, in different contexts. We are raising it again because of its tremendous importance to building a strong, healthy democracy in our country. We have an over-centralised country. It is a monolithic state with a one-size-fits-all approach to Government and local government. That issue relates strongly to the issue of targets. It is assumed that if something works in Northumberland it should work in Hackney, if it works in Hackney it should work in Plymouth, and if it works in Plymouth it should work in Braintree. Wherever one goes, the situation is supposed to be the same. We do not believe that that is the right approach for central Government to take and we want to see a much more decentralised state in the future.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

Apropos of the hon. Gentleman's last comments, is it not important for the Government to try to ensure universality and equity across the country in the provision of services? Sometimes that might be at the expense of local freedom, but equity is important too.

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

It is certainly right that there should be fair shares. I accept that. However, what many people find difficult to accept is the assumption that the way services are delivered, the volume of services, and even the price of services should be set by central diktat or regulation or be the subject of targets. The hon. Gentleman is not wrong, but there is always a tension between making sure that every person in the country gets exactly the same thing and allowing personal freedom and community choice some rein.

At the moment, there is no doubt that in comparison with western Europe, and even more so with our friends across the ocean in the United States, we have an excessively centralised country. I have sometimes used the example of Hampshire in this country and New Hampshire in the United States. The population of New Hampshire in the United States is less than the population of Hampshire in the United Kingdom, yet New Hampshire can set its own laws and taxes and can even set and vary its own criminal code up to and including the death penalty. I want to reassure hon. Members that I am not suggesting that Hampshire county councillors should have the liberty to impose the death penalty, although perhaps they would want that.

A flourishing local democracy is the way to get community and individual engagement with our society. One of the strongest factors in people's failure to participate in democracy at a local level is that they think that it does not make any difference what they do or how they vote because councillors cannot do anything. I have to say that councillors tend to reinforce that view, because if things go wrong in their area, they always say, "It's because the Government have stopped us." We need to get out of having local government in victim mode and we need to restore powers to our local communities.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Labour, Greenwich and Woolwich

I share the hon. Gentleman's objective—and that of the Government—of giving greater discretion and autonomy to local government. That is clearly a desirable objective and I am pleased that we are moving down that route. However, I can see a problem with his new clause. He has stressed that it is inappropriate to set national targets and expect them to apply across the country because different circumstances will apply in different locations. Does he accept that, as part of a proportionate system of regulation, in some areas it might be appropriate to have rather more in the way of regulatory requirements and indicators of performance? I was conscious of that when I was responsible for improvements in local authorities. In certain areas, which we were doing badly, there was clearly a need for more focus in order to get an improvement. If he agrees with what I have said, how is that compatible with a system that simply seeks to reduce the total number of targets across the country, regardless of local variations?

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government) 1:45, 17 May 2007

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his contribution, which sounded just like the comments of local government Ministers and former local government Ministers through the ages. Obviously, if one is in the middle and wants to see changes at the periphery, the best way of doing that is to order people to make those changes, but that is the opposite of what a localist approach should be. New clause 30 is not specifically related to the issue of the number of targets; it is about defining the boundaries between central Government decision taking and local democracy's decision taking. The new clause is about setting up a mechanism for establishing where those boundaries should be—on an equal partnership basis between local and national representatives—and about presenting a report that would lead to a much clearer line being drawn. That would prevent some of the interference, perhaps in both directions, that is such a bind to our democratic system.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Labour, Greenwich and Woolwich

The hon. Gentleman said that his measure was not simply about the number of targets, plans or other regulatory burdens. However, his new clause requires the Secretary of State to

"prepare a report on progress during the period to reduce the number of local improvement targets, plans and other regulatory burdens".

That is the measure that he is adopting. How can that be compatible with the more proportionate approach that I suggested might be appropriate?

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

The right hon. Gentleman is quoting from new clause 29. I am more than happy to respond, although at the moment I am speaking about new clause 30. On the point that he has just raised, of course the reduction in regulation should be proportionate to the risks and benefits. It is certainly not our view that we should simply look at an alphabetical list and leave the top 35 targets and cross the rest off. There has to be discussion and negotiation about what is needed and what is not needed, and about what targets should be decided at a much more local level. In Committee, the Minister correctly argued that in some cases it would be right for partnerships of local authorities and other public bodies in an area to decide what targets should be. I would have thought that the right hon. Gentleman would think that that was desirable.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

Does my hon. Friend believe that part of the problem is the fact that many local authorities are at a loss to understand why the targets are being set and what the end result will be if the targets are not met? The Government do not clarify what they expect and what the punishment is, or what the carrot will be. If there is to be a change, there needs to be greater co-operation between central Government and local government in evolving a set of targets that are both realistic and clearly defined, with a mechanism to give to those who achieve the target whatever end result the Government have in mind.

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

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend. Many people in local government find it difficult to understand the purpose of the targets they are asked to meet. Officers know that they have to meet the targets, because if they do not it would be difficult to go to another local authority and say, "Please can I have a job? I never met any of my targets in my last job." If one is a councillor, it is difficult not to work towards achieving targets, because the council will be slagged off in the press for not having the right number of stars. Councils might even be penalised in terms of grants and freedoms. This morning, I met a group of councillors from a number of local authorities who made the point quite strongly that when the whole performance culture was introduced, a clear signal was given that those who achieved the targets would get extra power, responsibility and freedom. They said that now that they face the next generation of targets, they cannot see why they should try hard to meet them because they did not get anything worth while when they met the original targets— [Interruption.] The Minister will no doubt have the opportunity to explain not only what councils have had, but what they will get as the number of targets shrinks and they focus more accurately on things that matter.

New clause 30 would simply set up a mechanism for developing a proper relationship—a constitutional relationship, if you like—between local government and central Government. It could lead on to measures of decentralisation—indeed, it points in that direction—such as a cull of the quangos that take up so much of central Government spending. My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington referred to a parliamentary question that he had asked about ring-fencing of funding for local authorities. Another aspect of the issue is the huge amount of spending from central Government that used to be channelled through local authorities, which had some discretion over its use, but is now spent by quangos of one sort or another. The Learning and Skills Council is often cited as an example.

We have been moved to bring the proposal back to the House for yet another go because we are not at all persuaded that the Government understand the need to set that constitutional framework and to protect both central Government and local government from all the distrust and misinterpretation in the current relationship. If the Minister rejects the new clause, what exactly does he propose instead? Are the Government really serious about the good intentions that have appeared time and again in his comments and those of the Secretary of State for a while?

I do not know whether amendment No. 253 will be pressed, but my hon. Friends and I certainly support the intentions of the Bill, which are the genesis of that amendment. If the opportunity arises, we will support it.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Labour, Greenwich and Woolwich

Given the grouping of the amendments, I shall not follow the specific issues raised by Andrew Stunell. Instead, I shall focus on my amendment No. 254, which deals with the inclusion of registered social landlords in the list of organisations that local authorities are required to consult as part of the preparation of a local area agreement.

Local area agreements are a very important part of the current local government agenda. They are a vehicle for enabling greater discretion to be devolved to a local level and, above all, for ensuring closer co-operation between a local authority and its partners in the area. That is the way forward for local government in ensuring more joined-up delivery of services and better planning, bringing together the range of organisations that contribute to a huge variety of services and strategies that impact on the local community. I strongly support local area agreements and had the privilege of introducing the concept when I was Minister with responsibility for local government.

I welcome the measures in the Bill that define more precisely the range of bodies that need to be consulted as part of the preparation of a local area agreement, but I am surprised that registered social landlords are not included, because they are hugely important to the delivery of one of the most important services to local communities—housing. They are responsible for about half the total social housing stock in the country; they are developing and improving large numbers of homes in almost every area of the country; and they have a crucial role to play as partners in a variety of initiatives that will affect local communities, not only in the provision of housing and regeneration but in other areas. I have noticed the participation of registered social landlords in my own area in various measures designed to reduce crime, to work more closely with the police and to improve health outcomes. They have an integral role to play in many different areas, and it is curious that they are not listed.

I can understand the argument, which my hon. Friend the Minister will probably use, that registered social landlords are not an authority. They are, in essence, individual bodies that do not have a statutory existence, so they should not be defined as an authority. However, given the huge range of bodies listed and the wide variety of services included, it seems odd that there is no reference to registered social landlords. I understand that this issue was raised in Committee, and I hope that my hon. Friend will give it some further thought. If he cannot accept the amendment to include registered social landlords in the list of bodies that must be consulted, I hope that some thought will be given to how local authorities will be advised to ensure that registered social landlords are not left out of an inclusive approach to better and more joined-up service delivery, to which they have a large contribution to make. I sincerely hope that my hon. Friend will give the amendment sympathetic consideration, even if he is not able to accept it.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

Given the wide-ranging nature of the first group of amendments, I shall not follow the remarks of Mr. Raynsford, although I will touch on the changes being made to the partnerships included in local area agreements.

May I say to the right hon. Gentleman how welcome it is, when I am running the London marathon, that he is always there, outside his constituency office in Greenwich, cheering on the runners? He has done that for many years; it is always a welcome moment, although I wish that next time he will have some alcohol available as I run past.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

For my hon. Friend and me. I enjoy that contact with the right hon. Gentleman and I thank him for his support.

This is an opportunity to discuss a number of matters relating to the Bill, and I will not go on too long because time is limited and there is a lot to cover. Something has been missing, however, from the comments of Ministers, whom I welcome back to their places—we will enjoy this afternoon's proceedings, as we enjoyed the Committee—and those of Andrew Stunell. I have been thinking about what it is and I have realised that this is the first opportunity we have had to discuss local government in detail since the local government elections the other week. We need to root this debate firmly in the context of what the public think about the local government performance of our respective parties.

I thought that it might assist the House if I reminded it that the Conservative party gained 39 councils at those elections and now holds 165. There were 911 councillor gains, and we now hold 5,315 council seats across the country. Labour lost eight councils and 505 councillors. The Liberal Democrats lost four councils and 246 councillors. The Conservative party is therefore the party of local government—full stop. The remarks that my colleagues and I make are bolstered by public confidence in our recent performance.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

The hon. Gentleman omitted to mention the fact that in our own county of Bedfordshire, Labour regained control of Luton. I am sure that he was as pleased with that as I was.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

I note the hon. Gentleman's comment. What happened was balanced by the fact that I lost the only Labour councillor in my constituency, so I now have none. It was a bit of a topsy-turvy night for his party, but more turvy than topsy.

Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham

My hon. Friend will know that we made big gains in Shropshire, where we were all campaigning vehemently against a unitary authority. The Government said that they would take note of the outcome of the elections. I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that it is important that the Government take that on board.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. We have had an amusing little diversion, but perhaps we can return strictly to the terms of the many amendments before us.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

Indeed. I am grateful for your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friend speaks well, and it is not the first time the people of his constituency have spoken about organisational arrangements. We will debate those arrangements later, and I do indeed share his hope that the Minister will listen to what the people have said—it covers a broad measure of public opinion, which he ought to take into account.

To speak more directly to the amendments in the group, I welcome, and thank the Minister for, the changes proposed in the Government amendments, especially those relating to the addition of national health service trusts and public health bodies. Hon. Members on both sides of the Committee expressed the wish that those bodies be added to the list of partners in local area agreements. We think that the amendments make that list more complete. The Minister has responded to our concerns and honoured the pledge he made in Committee, which we appreciate.

Amendment No. 257, which stands in my name and those of my hon. Friend Mrs. Spelman and other colleagues, proposes the possible addition of probation trusts. The Local Government Association would welcome the opportunity to include those trusts. It believes:

"A duty to cooperate on all offender management and probation services would help move reducing re-offending closer to the mainstream of local partnership activity."

I hope the Minister will take that into account.

We tabled amendments Nos. 156 to 158 in response to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations' plea that there be a specific requirement to engage properly with non-statutory partners. We discussed in Committee whether such bodies were covered by the catch-all provision that such parties as the local authority thought fit should be consulted but, for reasons that have previously been set out, the NCVO believes that ensuring that local authorities engage and consult properly with non-statutory partners would strengthen local area agreements. In its briefing, the NCVO says:

"Whilst there are many examples of local authorities working effectively with the voluntary and community sector there are also many examples of local authorities refusing to engage and consult properly."

Although we do not intend to press the amendments, I would appreciate it if the Minister considered the matter further as the Bill passes from this to another place.

If the hon. Member for Hazel Grove divides the House on new clause 29, we will support it. The relationship between central and local government and the increasing burden imposed by central Government over the years through targets, quotas, ring-fencing and the like formed much of the background to our debates in Committee and, indeed, to the interesting evidence sessions that preceded those debates, which were the first to be held on a Public Bill. I remind the Minister of the comments made by Simon Milton, who gave evidence in the first evidence session as a representative of the LGA. He commented on an amendment that we tabled in Committee and have tabled again on report. Amendment No. 171, as it now is, proposes an upper limit on the number of targets. Simon Milton said:

"We would like to see an upper limit expressed in the Bill, because there is a tendency, we suspect, despite the best wishes of Ministers at the Department for Communities and Local Government, to have target-creep over time. Therefore, we would rather have an upper limit in the Bill." ——[Official Report, Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Public Bill Committee, 30 January 2007; c. 24.]

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government) 2:00, 17 May 2007

Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the rumours that I have heard about civil servants actively seeking to create sub-targets to bypass any limit that might be set?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

I am not, but I am not surprised to hear that. The danger is that we can set formal limits, then along come sub-clauses A, B and C and, before we know where we are, there are new targets. I think that is what Simon Milton meant when he talked about "target-creep" and it is what we have in mind when we attempt to ensure that the Minister sticks to the Department's first belief expressed in the White Paper—that there should be a maximum number of, say, 35 targets for local area agreements, rather than the unlimited number that became the norm as the Bill proceeded.

In that spirit, although we will not press amendment No. 171, we shall support new clause 29 as a symbol of the concerns of Conservative MPs and local government representatives throughout the country. The serious part of the earlier amusing diversion was to remind the House that, in terms of the number of councils and the number of seats held, the Conservative party represents more than all the other parties combined, including independents and others. When colleagues around the country speak of their concern about the burden imposed on them by central Government, they are speaking from a position of knowledge and significant authority. Taking new clause 29 as a symbol of the concerns expressed by local government about targets, burdens, regulatory creep and so on, we think it important to have a Division so that we can show our concern and, in so doing, express the hope that, as the Bill passes from this place to another, the Minister will consider further the legitimate concerns of local government representatives across the country and do more to address them.

We are well aware of the burden and impact of the targets. They imply a lack of trust that those working at local level will do their job. That affects government across the board. The misery of the Secretary of State for Health yesterday has surely been compounded by the fact that what the Government sought to do in medical training reflects their sense of not quite trusting the senior people who have been in charge of training over the years and their desire to impose a bureaucratic system instead. The stories heard over the weekend about the police chasing up insignificant offences to reach targets is a further symbol of what happens when people become motivated solely by mechanistic targets, rather than being allowed the discretion they need as professionals to judge what is important in a community.

Our aim is to attack the Government's desire to work in a centralised, directive manner in relation to local government, and we have picked new clause 29 as a symbol of that. The Minister should not mistake the fact that many of the amendments tabled reflect the concern that there is too much national and not enough local, and too much determination to make decisions centrally in Whitehall rather than rely on local government expertise and what local people think to inform decisions. That is why we want to vote in support of the new clause.

We are also interested in amendment No. 253, which stands in the name of Mr. Caton and to which several of my hon. Friends have put their name. It represents an important extension of the sense of local government devolution. The Minister knows that in Committee we discussed the relationship between this Bill and the Sustainable Communities Bill—a private Member's Bill. We believe that the latter represents genuine devolution of power, whereas the Government's Bill does not go as far as the Government think it does. Representatives of Unlock Democracy gave evidence to the Public Bill Committee. Peter Facey said:

"The Bill devolves power by giving powers to parish councils, and in relation to byelaws, and that is to be welcomed. However, with respect to the powers of Westminster, and in most policy areas, it reorganises the powers of local government and gives local government the ability to administer things better, but it does not actually shift power significantly downwards to local authorities or communities." —[Official Report, Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Public Bill Committee, 1 February 2007; c. 69.]

We have previously debated the fact that we do not think that the Bill does what the Minister thinks it does. Amendment No. 253 provides an imaginative way for the Government to demonstrate that they really do believe in local community power by giving local authorities the ability to encourage more powerful energy conservation targets for new buildings in their area—targets that go beyond the national targets. The Government could extend discretion to the local level, enabling local people to express opinions on the vital issues of climate change and conservation.

We should bear in mind the strictures of the Minister's colleague, the Minister for Housing and Planning. When we discussed home information packs yesterday, she made the point that our lack of support for the Government's proposals on HIPs was in contrast to what we believe about energy conservation. I now put the same point to the Minister for Local Government: if he does not support amendment No. 253, which his colleague, the hon. Member for Gower, tabled, it calls into question the Government's commitment to energy conservation and the like, and rather undermines the next Prime Minister's attempt to establish eco-homes. The Chancellor is going around the country talking vehemently about the environment, which he did not start to do until very recently. We will be very interested to hear the Minister's response on amendment No. 253, which we want to be accepted.

The amendments deal with a variety of concerns about the powers of local councils and communities and their entitlement to more of a say and to be included. We welcome the extension of partnership, through local area agreements, to the bodies that have been mentioned, but we want it to be extended further. The Government have sought a couple of new powers. In Government amendments Nos. 93 and 94, there is a power to "vary or revoke" directions that was not included in the original Bill. I should be interested to know in what circumstances that power might be used. When the Minister gets a chance to reply, perhaps he will explain what is behind those powers, and say why they were introduced at this stage of the Bill, and not earlier.

I shall conclude my remarks on this group of amendments in order to give others the chance to speak. I remind the Minister that there are amendments in the group that we could have pressed to a Division, but for reasons of time, we will not do so. We back new clause 29; we see it as a symbol of the feeling in the House that although the Government believe that their centralist, directive power is being devolved in the Bill, the process has probably not gone far enough. On behalf of local government, we would like it to go much further. As I say, we will use that new clause as a symbol of the House's concern, and of the strength of the feeling among Conservative authorities and others outside the House that more needs to be done to demonstrate that the Government are truly devolutionist, and not centralist. Frankly, we just do not think that they can demonstrate that.

Photo of Martin Caton Martin Caton Labour, Gower

I rise to speak to amendment No. 253, which is in my name and that of 80 other Members from across the House. As has already been mentioned, the amendment is really the progeny of a private Member's Bill that I introduced in the Chamber on 19 January, the Local Planning Authorities (Energy and Energy Efficiency) Bill, which, coincidentally, will return to the Order Paper tomorrow. That Bill is about enabling local authorities better to contribute to tackling the problem of climate change using planning policy. If enacted, it would allow councils, if they so chose, to set higher standards for energy efficiency in their development plans than those laid down in building regulations, and it would allow them to make provision for sustainable energy and microgeneration requirements in the same document. An early-day motion supporting the Bill has now been signed by 302 Members of the House.

Sadly, my Bill failed to find favour with the Government. In a number of meetings with Ministers, and in correspondence with me and other Members, we have been assured that the Government are sympathetic to its objectives, but we have been told that they will not give it a fair wind because they are consulting on their draft planning policy statement on climate change, and they think that it would be inappropriate to prejudge the outcome of that process by endorsing, implicitly or explicitly, my Bill. Secondly, they think that the subject would be better dealt with in Government legislation, rather than in a private Member's Bill.

The consultation period on the draft planning policy statement ended on 8 March, and Ministers have had a fair amount of time in which to consider the responses. We now have the opportunity in the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill to deal with the central issue in Government legislation, and that is what my amendment is intended to achieve. In part 5, chapter 1, which is on local area agreements, clause 81 deals with local improvement targets. My amendment specifies that energy efficiency and sustainable energy targets can be included in local agreements.

As with my private Member's Bill, my amendment is about empowering local councils to meet the challenge of climate change, but it is also about encouraging them to act now; that is important. The clearest message to come out of the Stern review is the absolute need for urgency. We cannot afford to wait. The amendment is intended to give all local councils a green light, in every sense, to follow the lead of places such as Woking and Merton and set high environmental standards for new developments, both residential and non-residential.

I welcome the policy of all new homes being zero carbon by 2016, and I welcome the Chancellor's proposals for new eco-communities, but to turn those concepts into reality, we need many more examples—and soon—of low and zero-carbon homes to add to the very small number of experimental buildings that exist or are about to be constructed. One way—perhaps the best way—of achieving that goal is to enable and encourage local authorities to set high standards for energy efficiency and sustainable energy generation. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government said that she wants

"to see a scale of new development which will deliver economies of scale and bring down costs of environmental technologies".

If the amendment were to become part of the Bill, and then the Act, it would help to stimulate exactly that scale of new development.

At the moment, there is a great deal of uncertainty in the local government family about whether local government can set the sorts of standards that I am proposing. Some councils have been allowed to specify high standards for energy efficiency and sustainable energy, but others have been slapped down by Government inspectors when they have tried to do exactly the same thing. For example, Reading was allowed to specify thermal performance requirements that were at least 12 per cent. higher than those required by building regulations. Cambridge, on the other hand, was made to water down its planning policy, which required large developers to provide evidence of how they had minimised energy consumption, maximised energy efficiency and considered the feasibility of using combined heat and power systems, even though that is surely exactly what we should be asking of developers in the face of the threat of global warming. However, the Government inspector said the policy was

"unreasonable to the extent that it imposes more onerous requirement than the building Regulations".

Cambridge is set to increase its housing stock by 40 per cent. in the next 15 years. What impact has the inspector's decision had on carbon dioxide emissions in that city?

Similarly, in its core strategy and rural issues plan, Bedford borough council wanted to reduce CO2 emissions by 10 per cent. more than the amount set out in building regulations for certain developments. The Government office for the east of England ruled that out on the grounds that the current planning system

"does not permit the setting of energy efficiency standards."

At present, there is inconsistency and incoherence, resulting in inertia. We need clarity and positive encouragement to meet the highest feasible environmental standards. That is what the amendment is about.

Although clause 81 deals with targets in local area agreements, the only way that I can envisage targets on energy efficiency and low-carbon energy sources being met is through planning policy, and through the development plan process in particular.

Photo of Patrick Hall Patrick Hall Labour, Bedford 2:15, 17 May 2007

I am following my hon. Friend's points carefully, and I certainly agree with the thrust of what he is saying, but does he not agree that the best way to achieve higher standards nationally is to amend and improve building regulations?

Photo of Martin Caton Martin Caton Labour, Gower

I agree that that is part of the answer, and the Government have a good programme leading up to 2016, but we can go further. Empowering local authorities to use the development plan process will give us the threat of good examples, as it were, and will allow us to move faster. As I just explained, some local authorities have been permitted to move faster, but others have been slapped down. Surely that inconsistency is absolute nonsense. If there are examples where local authorities have moved ahead, and it has not deterred house building in their area or had any other effect, I suggest that others could be doing so, too, and we could be moving faster.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Labour, Greenwich and Woolwich

Does my hon. Friend recognise that for those involved in the manufacture of building materials and those planning the construction process, it is vital to have clarity some years in advance regarding the standards that will be sought, so that the production lines can be put in place to make the products that will deliver the higher standards? The construction industry is saying that the lack of clarity that would result from my hon. Friend's proposal that local authorities have the freedom to set separate standards in separate areas would inhibit that process. Will he recognise that a balance must be struck between this perfectly proper aspiration to raise standards, and the maintenance of a nationally coherent framework that allows the industry to respond effectively?

Photo of Martin Caton Martin Caton Labour, Gower

That is certainly what the Home Builders Federation is saying. When I introduced my private Member's Bill, the HBF was the only organisation that contacted me to oppose it. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Local Government Association, the Welsh Local Government Association and the various environmental groups all supported it. However, there is some substance in my right hon. Friend's argument. In my discussions with Ministers, I suggested that we establish parameters, so that everybody knows what they are doing. We have already set higher standards in social housing, so it is perfectly possible to do it, but I accept the point that we should not necessarily have a free-for-all.

Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Minister (Energy), Trade & Industry

I thank the hon. Gentleman—he is my hon. Friend on this matter—for giving way and I apologise for not being here at the start of his contribution, although I am sure that I agreed with every word of it.

Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Minister (Energy), Trade & Industry

I heard that bit and it was very good. Does he agree that another answer to what Mr. Raynsford said is that if the public sector is setting higher standards—indeed, the Chancellor is requiring much higher standards in his eco-cities—the argument that the industry needs one standard cannot possibly be right, because there are already two?

Photo of Martin Caton Martin Caton Labour, Gower

That is absolutely right.

As for the consultation on the planning policy statement on planning and climate change, to which I referred earlier, we still do not know what position the Government are taking after considering all the responses, but I hope that Ministers will give weight to the issues raised by organisations such as the Association for the Conservation of Energy, which drew attention to serious weaknesses in the draft planning policy statement that, if unchanged, would effectively deter councils from trying to achieve better environmental standards. For instance, paragraph 31 of the draft PPS says:

"Planning Authorities should not need to devise their own standards for the environmental performance of individual buildings as these are set out nationally through the Building Regulations".

That is the wrong approach. Building regulations should be minimum standards. Ministers have said that they believe that building regulations should be minimum standards, yet paragraph 31 implies that in fact, the Government believe that—most of the time, at least—they should be maximum standards. Councils should be free to go for higher standards; indeed, at this time they should be encouraged to do so.

On top of this, the draft PPS sets four hurdles for councils to jump before they can set even limited higher standards. They must identify local developments or site opportunities, ruling out authority-wide policies, as in Reading; they must set out their local approach in advance in a development plan document; they have to estimate the cost to possible developers; and the content of the local development documents and the reasoning for it have to be approved by a Government inspector.

I was vice-chair of a planning committee in a previous life and I am sure that, faced with these hurdles, very few local authorities will try for higher standards. The development plan process is tortuous enough, without extra complications. A fairer, simpler, far better and more effective approach is that taken in my amendment. It recognises the vital part that councils can and should play in limiting their local carbon footprints. It seeks to free them to do that and encourages them to act. I hope that in responding, my hon. Friend the Minister will recognise its merits.

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I very much welcome amendment No. 253, tabled by Mr. Caton, which deals with a very important issue. Many Conservative Members have much sympathy for it, and I hope that we will have the opportunity to express that in due course. Having said that, I want briefly to discuss some of the other matters dealt with in this tranche of amendments and new clauses.

Many people are concerned that we have missed an opportunity to state a broad overview of the basis of the relationship between national and local government. Of course, the United Kingdom does not have a written constitution, but in most of our continental EU partner countries, there is such a formal statement of competencies, rights and responsibilities, and a measure of respect for the competencies on each side. It would perhaps have been a good idea to take that approach, in a different way, in the Bill, as was suggested by the Local Government Association and the Local Government Information Unit. I hope that Ministers will reflect on whether something can be done to set out such a statement.

The reason for taking such an approach was highlighted by my hon. Friend Alistair Burt when he raised the issue of targets and centralism. I was in France the other Sunday for the second round of the French presidential elections. [Interruption.] I was very happy with the outcome, and I had the chance to catch up with a number of friends in local government in France. The point that struck many of us in our discussions, and which struck me during my time as a member of the Committee of the Regions, is that there is often a marked correlation between participation in democracy at local level and local authorities' room for manoeuvre and local discretion. It is clear across the EU that the more local discretion that is given to local authorities—including, often, fiscal devolution—the larger the turnouts at elections and the healthier the state of local democracy. Despite what has been said, the Bill does not go far enough in that direction. That is why it is very important that we deal with the targets issue.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for mentioning this, but was it not a Conservative Government who took away the local business rate and centralised it?

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Yes, I am grateful for the history lesson—and some of us learn from history, which is why many Conservatives argue that the business rate should be returned to local authorities. That was my view and it always has been.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

While we are having the history lesson, would my hon. Friend like to remind the House that because of the appalling behaviour of councils such as Newcastle, John Lewis paid four times the price per square foot in council tax in Newcastle than it did in Oxford street, and that something had to be done because members of the Labour party were milking the public?

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I understand my right hon. Friend's point, and I am now led to conclude that I was right to adopt my old careers master's advice to become a lawyer, rather than a history professor. However, in the light of a changed set of circumstances, it is my and many others' view that the business rate can now be returned to local authorities—along with the safeguards that can sensibly be put in place in order to avoid the abuse that my right hon. Friend refers to, and which I witnessed as a London borough councillor at that time.

The targets issue is important, because micro-management through targets undermines local government's degree of discretion. I take France as an example because it is the European country that I know best. Not only are major towns there able to raise much more of their revenue locally, but they are much freer from interference by central Government in how they deliver services. I accept the need for equity on a national basis, but often that is effectively traded off against the greater ability to choose local solutions to meet local problems and local issues. Not enough attention is paid to that.

The police are a particularly good example, referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire. I serve on the Metropolitan Police Authority, and when I talk to police officers of all ranks in my constituency and elsewhere in Greater London, when I talk to our partners in the crime and disorder reduction partnership locally, and when I talk to people in our police and community consultative groups, it is a recurrent theme that we have far too many centrally imposed targets. Very often these are targets for crimes, for example, which are not the top priority in our local borough, but they have to be fitted into a national template. That diverts attention from dealing with local policing issues. The same applies in a number of other areas.

A reduction in targets, as we propose in our amendments, seems not only to be right philosophically, but to go with the grain of the evidence on the ground. That is why in our amendment No. 180, which deals with locally determined improvement targets, we seek to give greater flexibility to make changes and amendments to those targets to reflect the changing situation on the ground.

On local area agreements, I am grateful to Ministers for having taken on board a number of points that were raised in Committee. I hope, and I reinforce as strongly as I can the message of my hon. Friend, that they will look again at the issue of probation trusts. All of us who have been involved in local government consider that important. In Bromley, as the London assembly and Metropolitan Police Authority member, I serve on the local crime and disorder reduction partnership, of which the probation service is a part. We are anxious to have the ability to involve the probation service much more widely in the overall local area agreements. I am glad to see that the Minister for Local Government seems to respond with some sympathy to that remark. That would build on the best practice in a number of places.

The same applies to the voluntary sector. Our umbrella voluntary sector organisation, Community Links Bromley, is a valuable part of our local strategic partnership. I should like to make more progress in finding ways in which it can be linked into the local area agreements. It contributes a great deal and where there is good working, we ought to be able to encourage that and facilitate it.

A practical and sensible set of issues is raised by the Local Government Information Unit in the briefing that a number of Members will have seen. Not only should there be a statutory obligation to co-operate, but we should be able to deliver that in practice. Fortunately, in my borough people co-operate willingly and well, but the experience of many of us shows that in London and elsewhere the level of co-operation is patchy.

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Conservative, Enfield, Southgate 2:30, 17 May 2007

Will the statutory duty to co-operate deliver what everyone wants to achieve? The example of primary care trusts appears in the commentary on the Bill. Withdrawal from the local area agreements due to a lack of funding is a problem that we face in Enfield, where the primary care trust has withdrawn a vital part of the area agreement concerning alcohol services and rehabilitation, and £80,000 has been withdrawn from alcohol screening in local accident and emergency units. Will the London health economy be able to deliver, given the problems with top-slicing of funding?

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

My hon. Friend raises a hugely important point. Although we have not yet reached the degree of crisis that exists in Enfield, the risk applies right across London boroughs, particularly those in outer London, where I regret to say that the health economy is strained and also, for reasons that we have discussed in the Chamber, the financial settlements to local government have been hugely constrained, so any withdrawal puts the whole of service provision into considerable jeopardy. We need to consider that.

It is interesting that we have some evidence of the extent to which the duty to co-operate works in practice from the audit of crime and disorder reduction partnerships carried out by the Audit Commission. In its 2002 report, its last work on the subject, the Audit Commission noted that

"co-operation across the country was variable from probation services, health and fire services, though all of these are covered by a statutory duty to co-operate".

That did not always work on the ground. In the past, I have found that one or two of those services in my locality were not co-operating to the degree that we all wished. We were able to fix it, but it would be better if we had more tools to ensure that delivery.

It is also interesting to see a Home Office document, "Making Partnerships Work", which again highlighted concerns at the CDRP level about failure to achieve co-operation in practice on multi-agency agreements, even though those agreements had been made through the statutory partnerships. That comes close to the point raised by my hon. Friend Mr. Burrowes. Clear areas of concern are flagged up by such empirical evidence as we have.

It is against that background that I hope that Ministers will consider sympathetically two suggestions by the Local Government Information Unit. First, the Bill should specify a minimum standard of 12 weeks for responding to consultation. That would apply the Cabinet Office guidelines to those partnerships. A partner that did not respond within those periods could be considered to have breached the duty to co-operate. That would give the provisions some teeth—something to pull people together and get them round the table.

Secondly, the Bill should identify a performance improvement process that could be triggered when there is a breakdown. We do not want to watch a train crash in slow motion—we want a practical means of taking matters forward. The Audit Commission will co-ordinate inspection in localities across its four inspectorate areas, so it would not be too difficult for it to co-ordinate information on breaches of duty to co-operate, which could be fed to the relevant inspectorate of the partner organisation. That would have the advantage of giving an incentive to partner organisations to co-operate, because if its own inspectorate was aware of failures on its part, that could be reflected in its performance assessment.

Those are two straightforward, practical and not in the least bit costly things that could be done to improve the working of local area agreements and other partnerships. I hope that Ministers will consider them sympathetically.

The broad issues raised in this part of the Bill are very significant, but they have been well outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire. I hope that the practical points that I have raised flesh out his principal argument.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

I shall speak briefly, because there is a lot of business to transact. First, I commend my hon. Friend Mr. Caton on his powerful and compelling speech. I am pleased to be one of those who signed his amendment and hope that the Government will recognise the strength of his argument.

I wish to speak to my amendment No. 248 to clause 42, which, in essence, would insert a requirement to consult trade unions in drawing up local area agreements. I should perhaps declare an interest. I am a former employee of Unison and in receipt of a Unison occupational pension, and the union principally affected by my amendment would be Unison.

The amendment is about modernising staff consultation arrangements to keep pace with changes to public services. The Government propose the extension and formalisation of local area agreements, which do indeed have the potential to become powerful tools for transforming local services and are a welcome step towards a more joined-up approach. However, the change from single to multi-agency planning means that current arrangements for consultation of the work force will become outdated. The existing arrangements giving a voice to employees are based on the Employment Relations Act 1999, which introduced statutory trade union recognition, and the Information and Consultation of Employees Regulations 2004—the ICE regulations—which followed the private Member's Bill that I introduced after the Vauxhall closure in Luton, and which called for consultation and information rights. I am pleased that the Government have finally recognised the value of that suggestion, although at the time they were unhappy about it and did not wish to support my Bill.

All the social partners, including the TUC and the CBI, signed up to the ICE regulations, recognising that consulting the work force was vital in order to achieve high-performance workplaces. However, both pieces of legislation apply only at the level of the individual employer. A consequence of introducing planning using local area agreements is that by the time consultation occurs at individual employer level, key decisions will already have been taken and staff will be faced with a fait accompli. Their contribution to the process will be hollow and meaningless.

To maintain the current level of consultation in practice, it is essential that the Bill require that recognised trade unions—the voice of the work force—be consulted when a local area agreement is being formulated. It already requires that local authorities consult partner authorities and

"such other persons as appear to be appropriate".

However, that is inadequate, as trade unions are clearly not partner authorities, and it is possible that some councils—no doubt particularly Conservative councils—will not deem the work force "appropriate" to consult, especially if their plans are controversial, and will not consult trade unions unless they are compelled by law to do so. Nor is it sufficient for the matter to be covered in statutory guidance, which could be revoked or altered if another party came to power. The provision should be on the face of the Bill.

The amendment would require recognised trade unions to be consulted as of right, and would maintain the good practice already in place. I urge my hon. Friends on the Front Bench to accept it and include it in the Bill.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

Let me start by dealing with some of the comments of Alistair Burt, who claimed to speak on behalf of his party as the party of local government. I have served in local authorities for 37 years, and the Labour and Conservative parties have made that claim many times. When in opposition, they claim to be the voice of reason and supporters of local government. Sadly, when they are in government, they spend the next four or five years doing all they can to harm local government.

The Conservatives ended their time in office by not being the party of local government. Their councillors and the number of councils that they controlled had been reduced dramatically. The cycle is there for all to see. If we were unfortunate enough to have another Conservative Government, I hope that they would live up to their promise to be the voice of local government, to defend and enhance it and give it the support that it deserves.

I also remind the hon. Gentleman that his party did not have anywhere near the success that it predicted in the city of Portsmouth. Indeed, the Conservatives barely held on to what they had. He should not be too quick to gloat and praise his colleagues, because the picture that he painted does not apply universally.

Photo of David Anderson David Anderson PPS (Bill Rammell, Minister of State), Department for Education and Skills

In Tory-free Gateshead, the Tories held on to what they had: they had nothing and they got nothing.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

They got no more than they deserved.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

It is difficult for the hon. Gentleman, try as he might, from a position of having lost 246 councillors on the night of the elections, to pick the odd hole in our performance. Yes, we might have gained one or two more seats than the 911 that we won. However, if I were him, I would accept that I had had a bad night and leave it at that.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

I was not defending my position but attacking the hon. Gentleman's holier-than-thou gloating, the like of which I have witnessed all too often as a member of local authorities.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

Fine. I only hope that that will translate into wholehearted support for local government and what it stands for—and I hope that Conservatives will start to relate to that when in office. For too long, I have seen Conservatives take office in local authorities, claiming that they will deliver all the benefits of reform at no cost, only to be disappointed in their own efforts at the end of their term, when they are wiped out at the following election.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

I shall give way later, if time permits. Others wish to speak and I want to deal with the amendments.

I wholeheartedly support the thrust of amendment No. 255. It is nonsense not to include social landlords in the consultation in local area agreements. Without them, many of the plans are pointless. There is not an area in the country that does not perceive the benefits of close involvement with social landlords, of working with them and including them. Registered social landlords should be part of the family that plans the future of our country. I hope that the Government will recognise the essential part that they play.

I understand, as did Mr. Raynsford when he presented the amendment, that the Government have a get-out clause, and could say, "They're not an authority, as such." However, in most areas, registered social landlords constitute the housing authority and will deliver the sort of houses that the Chancellor—the future leader of the Labour party and future Prime Minister—advocates now. Without their playing an active part in the planning process, we will lose out considerably. I hope that the Minister for Local Government sees merit in that argument. If the amendment were pushed to a Division, I would support it.

Again, I support the thrust of the argument of Mr. Caton, who tabled amendment No. 253. He talked a lot of sense about the way in which the planning system is in denial. One authority is saying one thing and another authority is saying another, and the planning inspectorate comes up with bizarre contradictions of policy and no clear thrust about how it should operate. I am unclear whether there is any mechanism to give the planning inspectorate some sort of direction on such issues. How can their decisions be so contrary, as they are, when in some instances neighbouring local authorities with very similar applications can end up being diametrically opposed to each other? It is a bizarre situation that needs to be tackled. I, for one, will be very disappointed if that amendment is not pressed to a vote.

I now come to the key debates about the main provision in the group—new clause 29. I have always been sceptical and reluctant to accept that targets are likely to enhance the relationship between central Government and local authorities. The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire was right to suggest that there was an element of distrust built into these targets, and that Governments of all persuasions were not prepared to give local authorities the necessary trust. I am at a loss to know whether Ministers seriously understand the cost to some local authorities of having to carry out the work necessary to meet those targets—particularly the cost of the central internal workings required for authorities to deliver. It is not untrue to say that some local authorities have had to reduce services in one area in order to pay the costs of producing the sort of data that Governments require them to produce to satisfy their targets. That is bizarre, to say the least, and the problem needs to be recognised.

Every time we set a target, a price is associated not just with delivering the target itself, but with having to prepare the data for the target to be properly assessed. How many targets are understood by the public? Could the Minister enlighten us about what his Department received in the way of public feedback on the targets set for local authorities and the costs to those authorities—ultimately, to the public themselves—in meeting them? What is the benefit to the individual when these targets are met in any one local authority, and what are the disadvantages? There is no clarity there at all.

If we must have a system of target setting, I believe that the Government must be far more transparent about how they arrive at the initial stages. As I said in my earlier intervention, they should clearly indicate to local authorities what the prize—in the sense of added power and added resource—for meeting the target will be. My knowledge of local authorities leads me to believe that even if the target is met, few additional resources will ever come along. There are plenty more responsibilities directed at authorities, but few of the necessary resources are ever made available—and if they are, they apply for a very limited period, after which the authority is expected to continue to pick up the tab. Targets are fine, but they have to be clearly recognised as delivering something worthwhile to the community. Far too many targets that have been, and continue to be, directed at local authorities have no clear purpose at all, least of all to the people who are supposed to benefit from them.

Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Minister (Energy), Trade & Industry 2:45, 17 May 2007

I rise briefly to speak in favour of amendment No. 253, mainly to put on the public record my thanks to Mr. Caton for his sterling work on this issue, seen both in today's amendment and in the private Member's Bill that he is promoting. The need for that amendment and that Bill arose originally from instances in my own constituency of Cambridge, which the hon. Gentleman accurately described in his speech.

I have heard only two arguments against the proposal. The first, put forward by Alistair Burt, is that it is better to act at national level than at local level. The second is the argument put forward by the former Minister, Mr. Raynsford, which is that what really matters is building houses, that to build houses requires one to think about the supply chain, and that house builders need a guarantee of volume in order to bring down the cost of housing. Both those arguments are incorrect.

The argument about national standards misses the point about how we set good national standards. Central Government are often not in a position to decide the best standard without first taking into account the experience of local government. The role of local government in putting forward new ideas and allowing experimentation in policy is crucial, and we should value that role. If local authorities are prepared to go further than the national standards to see what the effects might be, I believe that that is a good thing.

Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Minister (Energy), Trade & Industry


The argument about the supply chain misses the important point that there is a difference between what happens in the public sector and what happens in the private sector. In the public sector, very high standards—much higher than in the planning system—are already being set. All housing financed by the Housing Corporation has to follow environmental standards much higher than those that are standard in the planning system. That means that there are already two standards being used. If the argument about the need for a single standard were true, the Government would have a problem, because there are already two standards. My view is that it is perfectly plausible to have two standards.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

Is it not in ignorance of the way in which housing is built that the former Minister puts forward his view? Any house builder decides on what will be done in a particular area, usually within one local authority. It is perfectly easy for that builder to build to the higher standard that the hon. Gentleman is advocating.

Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Minister (Energy), Trade & Industry

Yes, the right hon. Gentleman is going further than I was, and making the very good point that builders can adapt to different standards in different areas and have always done so.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Labour, Greenwich and Woolwich

For the avoidance of any doubt, I should make clear my declared interest in the Register of Members' Interests as chairman of the Construction Industry Council.

The hon. Gentleman's argument fails to take into account the fact that there is a difference between operating to two standards—a national standard adopted by the building regulations and another set by the Housing Corporation for all registered social landlords—and the possibility of some 400 different standards being set by individual local authorities, which would create uncertainty about the long-term supply of materials that are critical to the ratcheting up of standards. If the hon. Gentleman talks to people who know what is required, they will tell him that the increase in standards necessary to achieve the very high targets at level 6 in the code for sustainable homes will not be achieved unless there is absolute commitment by the entire supply chain, including the producers of the materials. If those producers are uncertain about particular elements as a result of a plethora of different requirements in different areas, there is a risk that the higher standards will not be met. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that?

Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Minister (Energy), Trade & Industry

I am afraid that I do not. That would be an argument against having different standards—level 6, level 5, level 4 and so on—in the first place. Furthermore, everyone in the industry knows in which direction this is going. We are not talking about standards that will be lower than the national standards. We are talking about standards that will be higher, and aiming towards a point at which everyone knows we will arrive in the end. I do not see how the right hon. Gentleman's proposal would work in terms of the reality of the industry.

My final point is about the Chancellor of the Exchequer's proposal for eco-cities. It has been mentioned before, and I support it. An interesting aspect of the proposal for Oakington, near Cambridge, is that the site is in public ownership. It is partly owned by the Ministry of Defence. It is also out of town, several miles from Cambridge. Were one to choose an ideal site for an eco-city experiment, it would not be there; it would be much closer to the existing built-up area. An important part of making a zero-carbon community is transport, especially public transport, and although there are proposals for public transport links between Oakington and Cambridge, they are not of the highest possible quality; they would get people from Oakington to the edge of Cambridge but no further. In contrast, Cambridge city council was attempting to apply higher standards, similar to those in the Chancellor's eco-city proposal, to developments within the city, which would have been better, environmentally, than those at the Oakington site. One of the anomalies of the present situation is that central Government can randomly decide to go forward with such proposals at sites that may not be the best, while at the same time denying local government the right to do exactly the same at much better sites.

I hope that the Government will reconsider their view of the proposal, which has all-party support, and on which Mr. Caton has done a great deal of sterling work. It deserves support today.

Photo of David Anderson David Anderson PPS (Bill Rammell, Minister of State), Department for Education and Skills

I support the comments made earlier by my hon. Friend Kelvin Hopkins. The whole agenda is about the modernisation of public services, and it concentrates on structures. The truth, however, is that people, not structures, make changes. Whatever we decide in the next few days, we will be reliant on ordinary working people to implement the changes and make them work for the people who send us here. We hear regularly from the Government the mantra, "What matters is what works." It will not work if the work force is not consulted and does not have ownership of what is going on. If we ignore the work force, it will not support what we try to do.

We are looking for clarity in the Bill. It should say explicitly that recognised trade unions should be consulted—not, as it currently says,

"such other persons as be appropriate".

Who will decide who appears to be appropriate? Will it be the local council or the local trust? If it is written into the Bill, there will be no ambiguity, and the people who deliver the service will be involved at all stages.

A consulted work force is a happy work force, even when faced with change. I represented social services in Newcastle long after John Lewis was no longer paying rates there. For 15 years, from 1990, I saw massive changes. Social workers moved from local government into the health service and home care workers competed with private firms that went into people's houses at different times of day, with different people working there. Residential and day care services changed drastically. Yes, we tried to oppose the changes, but ultimately we had to work with them. Regular consultation and discussion, involving the work force and those who were being cared for, were key to that.

I make a plea to the Minister to insert into clause 82 words that would mean that recognised trade unions would be consulted at every level.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

I apologise to the House for not being present at the beginning of the debate. I had not intended to speak until I heard the intervention of Mr. Raynsford, because he raised an important issue. I declare an interest as I chair a company that does some advisory work in the building industry. I therefore know a little about the building industry, and I must disagree with the right hon. Gentleman— with whom I normally agree.

The fact is that, last year, nearly half the houses built in Britain did not meet the building standards. We have a system that does not deliver even the pathetic standards that we currently have. The reason for that is that they are input, not output, standards. We must do something about that rapidly. It would be different if the Minister said to us, "Please do not do this. We really are going to raise standards. Rather than introducing prescriptive building regulations that will never work but will merely pile Ossa on Pelion and produce an impossible system, we will set output standards. That will mean that new houses must have a thermal efficiency of x, and we are determined that the standard will rise in five years' time." If we knew that the Government would do that, we could take the action that the right hon. Gentleman suggests, but I do not believe that the Government will do it, so I want progressive local government to force it out of them.

The comparator is the United States of America. My praise for the USA is not always unalloyed, but it has got one thing right: its states have been forcing the federal Government into a more sensible position on climate change by taking steps themselves. That contrasts with the autocratic, centralising Government that we have in Britain today. Here, every power is brought up to the centre, often not for the reasons given by Kelvin Hopkins—with whom, surprisingly, I often agree, so I hope he will not mind my saying that.

I made the point about Newcastle because I believe that the business rate ought to return to local authorities, but let me remind the hon. Gentleman why the change took place. It was because of a mechanism that enabled local authorities to precept on the taxpayer. They did that in many areas, and as a result the people who paid the bills increasingly moved out of our great northern cities. It was the change that took place in the hon. Gentleman's party—and I give all credit to his party—that provided an opportunity for the improved relationship between the centre and local authorities that exists today. In that sense we want to empower local authorities, and one way of empowering them is to make them proud of the standards that they set.

The right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich said that the construction industry could not manage that. The industry gives that same excuse in every circumstance: it is always "We cannot do this" and "We cannot do that". I remind the right hon. Gentleman that in Kyoto the car manufacturing industry said that if we passed the protocol it would not be able to produce the vehicles that would fulfil its part of the bargain. Within six months, every car manufacturer in the United States had those vehicles on the market. I believe that the same is true of the construction industry. If it becomes clear that there is a movement throughout progressive local authorities, of all political parties, to raise the standards expected of buildings, the industry will say to the Government, "Please do not leave this to the local authorities; you must set the standards." Then, at long last, we shall see proper pressure being exerted on Government.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Labour, Greenwich and Woolwich 3:00, 17 May 2007

If the situation were as the right hon. Gentleman has depicted it, his argument would have a great deal of force. As he will know, the House Builders Federation—which in the past has not been at the forefront in advocating higher standards—has committed itself to the Government's target of reaching level 6 of the code for sustainable homes within 10 years. However, it has rightly added the caveat that meeting that objective will require certainty between now and then, rather than a proliferation of different requirements in different areas. The industry is committed, but it does not want a proliferation of targets that it cannot anticipate because they could change at any moment, destroying any chance of sensible forward planning.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

The right hon. Gentleman would have my entire support were it not for my belief that if we allow that cosy deal, not the industry but the Government will let people down. Of course, the right hon. Gentleman will not say that, but in 10 years of this Government there have been only a few pathetic improvements in the building regulations. Part L is a disgrace. [Interruption.] The Under-Secretary will not catch me out on part L. Let me point out that the Government initiated consultation on the new regulations for conservatories and extensions, received universal support for a raising of standards, and then not only refused to raise them but had the audacity to tell the public that they never meant to do so. So why the blazes did they initiate the consultation?

I heard the Under-Secretary's colleague the Minister for Housing and Planning utter on the radio what I must describe as the nearest thing to a terminological inexactitude that I have ever heard from a Minister. She said that they had never intended it, yet there it was in a consultation documentation that suggested that the standards should be raised. I trust the right hon. Gentleman. If he told me it, I would have no doubt that we were moving in that direction. However, we have had 10 years of failure in doing what we need to do if we are to have any chance of meeting the climate change obligation. That is why I find the Government so difficult— they have all the right words but they do not actually do anything.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Labour, Greenwich and Woolwich

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for saying that he would trust me, but I was actually the responsible Minister during most of those 10 years in which he said there had been no progress. Rather than no progress, there have been substantial improvements, twice in the energy efficiency regulations, once on access for disabled people—something on which his Government had failed to act, despite pressure for a long time—and in many other building regulations that have been significantly improved in the past few years.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

Yet 48 per cent. of the houses built last year did not meet the building regulations that the right hon. Gentleman had so substantially improved. I honour him for as much as he was able to do within a Government where doing is not a particularly popular activity. What he managed to do was remarkable. What is necessary now is a very large step forward. In order for me not to support the amendment, I want the Government to say that they will bring forward the agreement that the House Builders Federation says it is prepared to go along with—that in five years' time all houses will be built to eco-standard 6. We would change only 1 per cent. a year in that way but it would be hugely important.

I want the Government to say that they will start doing something serious about the retrofitting of present houses in order that we can do something about the matter. I respect the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich enormously and I say to him simply that we do not have the time to fiddle about with the buildings of this country, given the threat of climate change. We have to act now. One could make an excuse five or 10 years ago because we were not quite sure, but we cannot do so after Stern. It is surprising that, following Stern, the Government have not proposed a range of changes to the Bill that would push us forward in a major way.

It is because they have not done so that I am bound to support the amendment. Otherwise, the hope of the right hon. Gentleman will not be fulfilled. We need a Government who are pressed on all fronts to do what is necessary in the built environment to deal with the real challenge.

Photo of Neil Turner Neil Turner PPS (Rt Hon Ian McCartney, Minister of State), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, PPS (Rt Hon Ian McCartney, Minister of State), Department of Trade and Industry

I support Government amendments Nos. 26 to 28, which rightly recognise the role of transport in local area agreements. They relate particularly to London, but clause 55 relates to the passenger transport authorities in the metropolitan areas. They are vital, particularly in the Greater Manchester area and in the 10 districts that make up the Greater Manchester passenger transport authority. At the moment, we have tremendous plans to tackle congestion—guided busways that will come into Wigan borough through Leigh, congestion charges on major routes and the light rapid transit system within Greater Manchester.

One of the plethora of Acts passed by the Conservative Government ensured that those authorities with a large majority did not abuse that by putting all of their own members on to the joint boards such as the police, fire and passenger transport authorities. I accept that; it is absolutely right that there should be places on those authorities for opposition parties.

In Greater Manchester, the passenger transport authority is about to be taken over by a Liberal Democrat group that has lost seats in the recent local elections and whose total representation of councillors amounts to just over 25 per cent. Yet because of deals that it is doing with the Conservative party and minor parties, it intends to take over the Greater Manchester PTA.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne PPS (Rt Hon Baroness Scotland of Asthal QC, Minister of State), Home Office

May I declare an interest in that I am a member of Tameside metropolitan borough council? My hon. Friend's point is correct. As nine out of the 10 constituent authorities in Greater Manchester are respecting the proportionality rule, it cannot be right for one council not to entertain the spirit of the rules establishing the PTA. Might an attempt be made to ensure that there is a spirit of co-operation through the local area agreements, as the PTA does not reflect either the political make-up of the 10 councils in Greater Manchester or the votes cast by the public in Greater Manchester on 3 May?

Photo of Neil Turner Neil Turner PPS (Rt Hon Ian McCartney, Minister of State), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, PPS (Rt Hon Ian McCartney, Minister of State), Department of Trade and Industry

My hon. Friend anticipates the point I am about to make. As a result of the last local elections, 327 out of the 645 Greater Manchester councillors are Labour, 131 or 20 per cent. are Conservative and 162 or 25 per cent. are Liberal Democrats. Yet the Greater Manchester PTA is about to be taken over by the Liberal Democrats, even though they account for only 25 per cent. of councillors. That cannot be right. It will seriously undermine the ability of Greater Manchester PTA to work with the 10 districts to produce passenger transport arrangements that reflect not only the will of the councils, but the will of those who voted in May.

I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to examine whether, when the Bill moves on to the House of Lords, he might amend it so that the Liberals cannot subvert the democratic will of the people of Greater Manchester in this way, and so that we can have the progress that was agreed between the other two major parties in Greater Manchester in respect of essential transport measures. They should be included in our local area agreements so that we can have our busways, tramways and congestion charges, for which the vast majority of the people of Greater Manchester have voted. If we do not have them, the point of the elections will be lost.

At some point in the future we should also look into proportionality. I favour there being a strict basis for that, so that one in three councillors must be an opposition member even if one party has as much as 60, 70 or 80 per cent. of councillors. One third of representation should come from the opposition party, rather than the smaller proportion that it currently has. Perhaps we should take an overall look at proportionality.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will look into this issue closely and make sure that we are not put into the position that we appear to be about to be put into even though five of the Greater Manchester councils are Labour controlled, one is Conservative and only two are under Liberal Democrat control.

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

I apologise for not having been present for the opening of the debate.

I wish to speak briefly about my support for amendment No. 253, tabled by Mr. Caton, of which I am a sponsor. I am keen to do so because I endeavoured to introduce a similar measure last year when a private Member's Bill on climate change was in Committee. Unfortunately, the Government voted it down and continue to set their face against empowering local communities to go further and faster than central Government have so far been prepared to allow them in requiring higher eco-standards in our homes.

I completely agree with my right hon. Friend Mr. Gummer that it would be far better if we were to concern ourselves with outcomes rather than standards that will never be enforced. However, in the absence of a wholesale review of the system—it is unlikely that we shall get one under this Government—if we are to make standards the benchmark by which we operate, we must empower local communities to make the decisions that are right for their new developments and give local people a sense of shared responsibility for eco-friendly developments in their communities.

All too often people ask, "Why are the Government not doing more on climate change to put the Prime Minister's fine words into action where I live? Why do we struggle to see any difference in the types of development that we see springing up? We see it on the television and we hear politicians talking about it at Westminster, but when we try to do something locally, it just does not happen."

This small, innocuous amendment would allow progressive councils of all colours—I readily accept that not just Conservative councils but others could take advantage of this measure—to do something outstanding. They want to set a new benchmark for eco-friendly homes, to put microgeneration into practice in their community and to encourage greater energy efficiency. They do not want to be lectured by the House Builders Federation or their lackeys.

We should listen to local people and empower local communities to do something about climate change.

Photo of Peter Soulsby Peter Soulsby Labour, Leicester South 3:15, 17 May 2007

I want to comment briefly on four amendments. First, I welcome the amendments in the name of my right hon. Friend Mr. Raynsford that recognise the role of registered social landlords. As he rightly pointed out, RSLs play an important part in the local scene in many areas and are often actively engaged in their local communities and local councils. The amendment would ensure that they were properly included in partnership working in their areas.

I must, however, fundamentally disagree with my right hon. Friend on amendment No. 253. The clause gives local councils and local communities the freedom to drive up standards in energy efficiency and microgeneration. I add my voice to those of people who feel that that is important. Local partnerships already exist in many areas and are committed to dealing with the climate change issues that challenge us all to drive standards up locally. They would warmly welcome that freedom, which could be built on. Others have referred to the United States, where local communities have led the field and induced national Government to follow.

Andrew Stunell introduced the two Liberal Democrat amendments. The mechanism proposed in new clause 30 on relations between central and local government is incredibly cumbersome. He described his approach as simple; I would say it was simplistic. It assumes that the wide range of contacts between central and local government—on community engagement, participation, service delivery and so on—can be brought together annually in a single grand scheme and subject to discussion in a single steering group. The relationships between central and local government are far more complex than the amendment implies and do not lend themselves to a single grand scheme that would seek annually to encompass all the complex relationships that exist.

Finally, although the new clause has received considerable attention from Members, I want to set it in the context of a warm welcome for the steps in the Bill that significantly reduce the burden on local government of targets and inspections. I warmly welcome the moves that the Government are taking to establish the Audit Commission as a gatekeeper for inspection, as well as the provisions that will get the Audit Commission, other inspectors and, indeed, the Government off the back of local government, enabling it get on with the job it was elected to do.

The Bill will result in a worthwhile and praiseworthy story for the Government to tell about reducing the burden of inspection on local government. The mechanism proposed in the new clause is likely to be both unnecessary and cumbersome, so when my hon. Friend the Minister responds to the debate I encourage him to consider whether there might be mechanisms for reporting the doubtless excellent progress that the Bill will ensure in reinvigorating and regenerating local government.

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

I sincerely thank Members on both sides of the House for contributing to our well-informed and constructive debate, which built on our discussions in Committee. With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall set out the context for part 5, as Mr. Hancock asked, which deals with the relationship between central and local government.

In the light of the Lyons report, my right hon. Friend Mr. Raynsford made, as we would expect, a wise comment about local government finance. He said that changing the financial relationship between central and local government finance is a marathon, not a sprint. That is equally true in changing the whole relationship; although we can change structures and statutory frameworks, as we are under the Bill, it is—as my hon. Friend Mr. Anderson said in relation to the trade union amendment—people, not structures, who change relationships.

We are trying to bring about a culture change in the mindset of central and local government, which is why I am keen to build political consensus in the Local Government Association and in the House, so I shall not respond to the party political points of Opposition Members. Suffice it to say that this year, like last year and the previous 10 to 15 years, discrepancies in local results are increasingly not following national trends; local factors are increasingly coming into play.

My second point is that the Government are criticised from all sides for the target regime—the performance regime under the best value programme and the comprehensive performance assessment. The Government's case is not that we feel it is right to reduce the number of targets because of mistakes in the past, but rather that local government performance has improved as a consequence of the performance regime, the significant extra resources provided for local government and the hard work and professionalism of local government staff and employees. That is not to say that public satisfaction with local government services, which is an entirely different point, has always improved—it varies from area to area—but objectively, as measured not by the Government but by the Audit Commission and others, the performance of local government has vastly improved.

The intervention strategies set up by my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich are used much less nowadays because of that success. The number of councils enjoying improved performance has increased remarkably. More than 100 councils are now members of the improvement partnership, which is for three and four-star councils. To go back to a party political point, it makes me laugh when Opposition spokesmen criticise the performance regime yet ensure that their leaflets include their councils' star ratings, which they pray in aid.

It is right to loosen and to devolve. That raises a central paradox that a number of the new clauses and amendments, welcome though they might be in principle, bring to light. If one accepts the premise of the Bill and its devolutionary approach—hon. Members on both sides might wish us to go faster—there is the question of whether one can support amendments that impose targets and provide standardisation across the country. As my hon. Friend Kelvin Hopkins said, there is a dichotomy between equity and devolution. Hon. Members—particularly Liberal Democrat Members—will just have to accept that. The challenge we face is how we square those circles.

It is incumbent on me to put on the record the purpose of the Government amendments and to respond to the debate. I think that the other place would require me to do that, as well, but I shall do so as briefly as possible. On the whole, the amendments respond to requests made in the Public Bill Committee and arise from commitments I have given. There is consensus and I thank Alistair Burt for welcoming the additions to the list, particularly in relation to the health service. Amendments Nos. 20 to 28 and amendment No. 55 will add a number of bodies to the list of partner authorities in clause 80.

Photo of Alison Seabeck Alison Seabeck PPS (Rt Hon Geoff Hoon, Minister of State), Foreign & Commonwealth Office

I know that my hon. Friend is in full flow, so I thank him for giving way. He mentioned the addition of partner authorities. Given the title of part 5—"Co-operation of English authorities with local partners, etc"—does he accept that it is incumbent on local authorities to work with their existing partners? Plymouth city council, which is now Conservative-led, has said that, within two weeks and without consulting local police, it will impose a curfew on all 16-year-olds.

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

My hon. Friend makes a valid point and rings a bell of warning about what might be going on in the local authorities of which the Conservatives strained to gain control. She made her point effectively. I shall watch with interest to see how the 16 and 17-year-olds vote in two years' time. I can imagine that the measure will be a good way of increasing youth turnout. I can guess which way those young people will vote—and it will not be for the party of the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire.

I was saying that the bodies will be subject to the duty to co-operate in determining targets in local area agreements. I fear that those are dry-sounding words, but that measure, along with clause 108, which covers the duty to involve, consult and inform, changes the statutory framework within which local government operates. That is a significant development. The consultation will have regard to local area agreements. Given that a local authority prepares not just an LAA but a sustainable community strategy, there is a relationship between the Bill that we are discussing and the Sustainable Communities Bill—a private Member's Bill that is in Committee at the moment.

Agreements and strategies will be crucial to capture the vision and agreed priorities in local areas, but it is the engagement and negotiation between local partners, and the way in which they put strategies and agreed targets at the heart of their business, that will make them a success. That is a rather long way of saying, "You can bring a horse to water, but you can't make it drink"—the proof of the pudding, in other words. [ Laughter. ] That is enough metaphors. I will stick to common sense ones in future, as the Committee asked.

The duty to co-operate to determine local improvement targets will ensure that all the key partners in an area take those obligations seriously. It is therefore important that the list is comprehensive in naming the main public sector bodies that deliver or co-ordinate local services. Amendments Nos. 20 to 28 and 55 reflect a number of commitments that I made in Committee to add further bodies to the list. They also deal with other bodies, which I shall briefly discuss.

Amendments Nos. 20, 23 and 28 will add NHS trusts and foundation trusts to the list. In Committee, we enjoyed a good discussion on the merits of including those bodies in the duty to co-operate, and I made a commitment to do so through Government amendments. I made it clear, however, that by including them we did not wish to place on them, or the responsible local authorities, any unnecessary burdens, and I am satisfied that the amendments will not do so, but will instead ensure that NHS trusts and foundation trusts are involved in negotiations only where they operate hospitals, establishments or other facilities in the area covered by the LAA—what we refer to as the Great Ormond Street problem.

A further commitment that I made in Committee was to add Transport for London to the list of partner authorities, and that will be the effect of amendments Nos. 22 and 27. I made it clear that I consider that the duties of co-operation most sensibly rest on the Greater London authority's functional bodies—the Metropolitan Police Authority, the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, the London Development Agency and Transport for London—rather than on the authority itself, which of course has its own accountability function.

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst 3:30, 17 May 2007

I remember the discussion in Committee. The one concern that I am left with is the degree to which the Greater London assembly will properly scrutinise the work of the functional bodies when they are carrying out these arrangements. Assembly members have frequently encountered difficulty in getting as much information as they would wish from the Mayor's functional bodies. In particular, there are constraints on the summoning of the functional bodies' officials that do not apply to the summoning of GLA officials. Will the Minister look again at the matter to ensure greater transparency and accountability in the working of the arrangements?

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

I will of course do as the hon. Gentleman asks. We do not want to over-burden public authorities with scrutiny. We want the right and appropriate level of scrutiny, and the Bill talks about overview and scrutiny at some length.

The amendments that I have described so far will fulfil the commitments that I made to add bodies to the list. However, I wish to add several further bodies that we did not have the opportunity to discuss in Committee. Amendment No. 21 deals with the arrangements for joint waste authorities, which might in future be established under clause 165(1), while amendments Nos. 24, 25 and 55 will add the Arts Council and the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council to the list. The amendments will ensure that all the key bodies delivering or co-ordinating waste services and cultural resources in an area are fully involved in partnership working through the negotiation of LAAs and sustainable communities strategies.

Amendments Nos. 92 to 95 are technical measures that will permit the Secretary of State to vary or revoke a direction made under clauses 82 and 87, and to revoke a direction made under clause 91, about which the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire asked.

I turn now to the Opposition amendments, and in particular new clause 29. As my hon. Friend Sir Peter Soulsby said, the new clause would place a highly prescriptive, unnecessary and bureaucratic burden on the relationship between central and local government. It would require the Government to produce a report every year for each local authority responsible for producing an LAA. The report's objective would be to chart the Government's progress in delivering the greater devolution promised in the White Paper. Although of course I agree with the sentiment behind the new clause—the desire to hold the Government to account—there are far better mechanisms than this prescriptive proposal.

The new clause would ensure that information on the number of local improvement targets and ring-fenced grants and on the volume of guidance and the degree of approval processes was made available to localities area by area. However, the point that I emphasise—particularly to the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South, who raised this point and whose attention I hope to get—is that the 35 targets set under the new regime will vary from one local authority area to another. They are not national targets imposed on every council, but targets selected by the local authority in agreement with its partners. Placing a duty to co-operate on the partners, as the Bill does, is the right to way to deliver the changes.

A number of hon. Members on both sides of the House supported amendment No. 253. My hon. Friend Mr. Caton should be commended—and has been—for his work. I ask him to be patient slightly longer. We are debating a local government Bill. Although his proposals prompted a debate today, including a fascinating and revealing exchange between Mr. Gummer and my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich, they are in large part about planning as well as about the relationship between central and local government. Again, the paradox is that all the speakers who referred to the amendment welcomed the devolutionary approach, yet we are discussing the imposition of targets because they happen to be targets that we all like.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

Whatever is done, should we not recognise that we are a long way behind those on the continent of Europe in terms of the energy efficiency of homes in particular? Germany has 100 times more homes with solar heating panels on the roof than the UK has. Does my hon. Friend recognise that the Government must take a more forceful approach?

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

The proposition is that we are a long way behind our partners in Europe. I accept that. However, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor is significantly changing that, and we have started to discuss it.

Amendment No. 253 is, in principle, supported by the Government. We too feel that energy standards and microgeneration for new buildings are key to the long-term environmental development of our communities. That is why in the last Parliament we introduced the Bill that became the Energy Act 2004. We have also stated that the Government intend to legislate to set out clearly the role of local planning authorities in improving energy efficiency and tackling climate change. That will allow us to make legislative proposals in the light of the responses to the consultation on the planning policy statement and within the wider context of the measures that we will set out in the planning White Paper on continuing our reforms to the planning process. That will be done shortly. We are also committed to changing from the community strategies that the Local Government Act 2000 obliges local authorities to produce to the sustainable community strategies required by the Sustainable Communities Bill—a private Member's Bill currently in Committee.

Those three measures all reflect the growing importance of sustainable development issues and emphasise the leading role that local communities have in managing their environment. I hear the words of the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal about time, but the Government are making their proposals. We do not believe that it is right to bolt such measures on to the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill. We believe that our proposals, when hon. Members have seen them in the round, will be warmly welcomed—especially in the beautiful constituency of Gower, represented by my hon. Friend who made such a compelling case.

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

I hear what the Minister says, and we understand that he is in earnest, but we have heard it all before; we have heard it said that the Government are committed in principle but wish to shelve the measure before us. The fact is that he is talking about yet more iterative consultation, and there have been no guarantees. We legislators have the ability to make a difference today. We cannot hang around waiting for things to happen when it comes to climate change; we have to act now. There is a real imperative to make changes, and this afternoon is an opportunity to do so.

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

I have watched the hon. Gentleman's progress since the election with interest. He needs to learn that legislating is not writing press releases. He referred to my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich as a lackey of the building industry; my right hon. Friend wisely, and with typical generosity, did not respond to the accusation. My right hon. Friend made a point on behalf of people who know what they are talking about.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Opposition Whip (Commons)

What has that got to do with—

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

Let me finish my point before Opposition Whips start heckling, as they usually do when a point is made that they do not like. The commencement date for the Bill is next April. Gregory Barker does not know what the commencement date will be for the measures introduced under planning legislation. He misses the point of the code for sustainable homes, which is perhaps not the most advanced in Europe but which the environmental lobby recognises is one of the best. It is right that when we legislate we do so in the round. It is also contradictory for him to call for further and proper consultation and the involvement of communities, only to say that we should act today. Perhaps we should consult on what we propose; that is the spirit of the Sustainable Communities Bill, which he supported.

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

I really must make progress. The right hon. Gentleman has had his opportunity to speak, and there are a number of amendments to consider.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

I am grateful to the Minister; I know that he wants to move on, but I want to make an important point. Taking the personal exchanges out of the matter, am I right in thinking that the Minister does not intend to accept amendment No. 253 today? As my hon. Friend Gregory Barker said, that would be a further example of delay, delay, delay. The Minister has the opportunity to commit the Government to a measure to which an awful lot of Members have signed up. We should bear in mind the history: some time ago, the Government killed the Local Planning Authorities (Energy and Energy Efficiency) Bill, and the amendment reflects the substance of that Bill. Putting personalities aside, surely this is the opportunity to take a clear and definite step. I will be concerned if the Minister indicates that he will not accept the amendment.

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

The hon. Gentleman is a reasonable man, but on this occasion he has clearly not listened to my response on the amendment. It is a bit unfair to say that the Government are dragging their feet and not taking the opportunity before them, given that I have clearly outlined the measures that we propose to take, which include a commitment to legislation, as I have said. He is right that we are asking the House to resist the amendment if it is pushed to a Division, not because we disagree with its objective but because we want to get the measures right, using the proper processes. I do not think that he addressed the point—I apologise if he did—that planning policy and planning law is the other side of the coin.

Let me bring my remarks to a conclusion, because there are other amendments to discuss, and we have provided a generous amount of time to discuss the amendments.

My hon. Friend Mr. Turner mentioned Greater Manchester passenger transport authority and the commitment to balance and proportionality—principles that are sometimes found on leaflets, but sometimes not practised. I know that Liberal Democrat Members will listen carefully to this next point: my hon. Friend asked me to look into the Liberal Democrats' subversion of the democratic will of the people of Greater Manchester. I have devoted my political life to addressing that issue, so I certainly undertake to do as he says.

My hon. Friends the Members for Luton, North and for Blaydon asked about trade unions. They said that employees were key to the change, and they are. Let me make it perfectly clear that clause 108, which is the second pillar of the change to the statutory framework, applies to trade unions. We not only welcome employee involvement and consultation, but believe that it is essential to improve services. Our attitude is that if we want to improve services, it is best to ask the people who deliver them; that is a better way of doing things. So, again, the intention behind the amendment is covered.

I think that I have dealt with all the specific issues that were raised. We have other groups of amendments and new clauses to consider, so I ask the House to resist new clause 29 and I ask my hon. Friend the Member for Gower to consider withdrawing his amendment.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government) 3:45, 17 May 2007

There is much that we can welcome in what the Minister said, particularly the extension of the list of bodies to include NHS trusts and foundation trusts—they were serious omissions from the original Bill—and the Arts Council, museums, libraries and archives. However, given that such organisations were missed, I wonder whether in months to come we might find others that should have been included.

We had a passionate debate on amendment No. 253 and a number of Members made very strong cases, particularly Mr. Caton. If he presses the amendment to a vote, he will receive our support and he will also receive it if it appears in another place. I think that the Minister said that the Government were already working on this issue—or that the Chancellor is, at least, in the form of eco-homes. I remind the Minister that so far, the Chancellor has issued a press release, so there is still quite a lot of work to be done. [Interruption.] It was doubtless an important press release—but just a press release.

New clause 30 would establish within a year a representative body from local and central Government, which is surely achievable, even given the difficulties experienced in moving matters forward apace in this place. The Minister said that there were better ways of achieving a reduction in regulation than new clause 29, but he did not outline what they were. I certainly did not get from him today the sense of urgency that we, local councils and councillors feel about the need to reduce the regulatory burden quickly. On that basis, we will press new clause 29 to a vote.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 146, Noes 250.

Division number 114 Orders of the Day — New Clause 29 — Reduction of regulatory burdens

Aye: 146 MPs

No: 250 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name


No: A-Z by last name


Question accordingly negatived.