Local Government and Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 4:45 pm on 8th November 2007.

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Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham 4:45 pm, 8th November 2007

The Queen's Speech contains radical proposals on families, climate change, housing and local government. I want to focus on local government and the empowerment of local communities so it is fitting that I follow Mr. Hurd. I congratulate him on his success in bringing in the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 and on the prospect of its enactment.

Many communities feel a sense of detachment, and in this place and elsewhere politicians have debated how we can get our local communities to re-engage with the democratic process. Part of the difficulty is that people can perceive the problems with their communities—they live with them every day—but there is a disconnection between the solutions and their enactment. When people express concern to us about local community issues, we as politicians need to engage them in the implementation of the solutions.

As a Member who works with the local community to try to deal with some of the problems, I feel frustrated that I have no decision-making powers to will people the resources to carry out the changes they want. People in my community propose excellent projects that would make a huge difference, but those projects fall by the wayside because there are neither the resources nor the capacity, through statutory or other bodies, to support such schemes into fruition.

If we are to engage with local communities, we need to bring about change in the way that local government and other local statutory bodies work. For that, we need flexibility so I welcome the consultation document produced by the Department for Communities and Local Government—the action plan for empowering local communities—which states that there will be a reduction in the number of targets set locally to allow local authorities more flexibility.

Most of the Members who have spoken in the debate have a local government background, so we know that by the time a local authority receives its rate support grant and other funding 99 per cent. of the money has already been spent on all the statutory functions of local government, such as schools, social services or support for children in care. There is little flexibility in the budget to meet the challenging demands that will come from the empowerment of local communities.

I urge the Government to consider targeting those powers so that it is not just the sharp-elbowed, well-educated communities that come first and get what they want, but the most deprived and challenged communities are helped to engage in improving the quality of life in their area. If the engagement and empowerment of local communities is to work, the process has to drill down to them, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government said. People are already engaged—they know what is wrong in their communities—and we have to find mechanisms to encourage them and give them a supporting hand to take things to the next stage. Quite often other communities with the wherewithal jump to the front of the queue before the deprived communities get a chance. That is where we must make a difference.

I welcome the measures on the empowerment of local councillors; I would have welcomed them when I was a local councillor. However, they might provide an opportunity for people to make trouble just to make a name for themselves. We must be careful to ensure that the councillors empowered to work up projects in their local communities are not just politically motivated and that they are genuinely of the community and for the community. For example, it is easy to organise a petition for speed humps in a road, to demand that the road humps are put in place and then to complain about the council if that is not done. I am sure that we have all been guilty of doing something similar in the past. However, is that community empowerment or is community empowerment about enabling the parents who are concerned about the lack of facilities for young people to come forward to say that something should be done about that? The latter is the real change that we need.

I very much welcome the idea of transferring assets but not the idea of the well heeled, well-educated sections of the community coming forward to elbow their way to taking over the running of services in their area. Real changes must take place in the communities where the changes are most needed. However, there is a great deal of good will towards the idea of people coming forward to participate and we must provide the basics so that local people can be empowered to take over the running of local assets and services for themselves. The schemes must be sustainable.

Neighbourhood renewal will come to an end at the end of March next year. I have chaired a local neighbourhood renewal project and, through talking to the local community and challenging the local authority to respond to the issues that have been put on the agenda by the local community and not by officers from the local authority, we have actually managed to implement some enormous changes. We now have an adult learning centre at a local school in which £1.5 million has been invested to make it fully accessible to the disabled. The school has been expanded further by introducing a children's centre. The seedcorn money for that came from decisions that were made at the local neighbourhood renewal panel and that money set everything in train. Ideas came from the local school with the support of the local community and the arguments were put forward at the neighbourhood renewal panel. Therefore, the decisions were made by local people. Similarly with neighbourhood wardens, and the initiative that we took with Charlton Athletic football club that has brought youth work on to the estates, it has all come about as the result of community initiatives—people becoming involved, perceiving a problem and identifying what they would like to do to solve it.

We need to find the resources to enable people to become involved. The key to change is having the resources and the local community having the power to take decisions about those resources without the decisions being made for it. Having the decisions taken elsewhere leads to disengagement. Instead, those who perceive the problem should be part of finding its solution.

If we are to empower local communities, we should also empower the tenants to decide who should be their landlord. If we talk about empowering local communities, we are not consistent if we continue to deny local tenants the opportunity to remain council tenants if that is their wish. Any future arrangements for the financing of housing should include that option. Tenants should not be forced down the route of becoming an arm's length management organisation or any other body that is at arm's length from the local authority. However, if that happens and difficulties arise, the assumption should be that the housing returns to the control of the local authority and does not pass into the private sector or anywhere else.

In the few minutes that I have left, I would like to discuss planning. Several Members have said that the crisis in housing has grown despite the Government's efforts over the past 10 years. In a report that was published in June, the Royal Town Planning Institute indicated that a start date was awaited for the building programmes for 225,000 homes on 14,000 acres of land, although planning permission for the homes had been given. I recently met the private company that has just taken on responsibility for developing the Kidbrooke area. We are going to knock down 1,900 homes on an estate and replace them with 4,400 homes, and we are about a third to half way through decanting the estate. The private company will submit a planning application in the new year to start the first phase of the development. When I asked how long the company would be on site from beginning to end, I was told that it would take 10 to 15 years to build 4,400 homes. It cannot be right that it will take that long to implement such a development.

Given that the RTPI indicates that 225,000 homes are awaiting building start dates, we will have to set timetables for the implementation of planning applications because we will otherwise not meet the targets that we are setting ourselves. I am absolutely sick and tired of three generations of a family who live in the same home coming to see me in my surgery when I know that there is little that I can do to help them to find housing. The problem is that we are not building homes quickly enough. The planning permission is in place, but the development is not happening.

I welcome the Government's proposals for trying to streamline some of the processes involved in public inquiries. It might be fine strategically if they are going to set a national plan for three nuclear power stations and then leave the planning commission to sort that out. However, with regard to the Thames Gateway bridge, if it were said, "We need a bridge in east London," and that was left to an inquiry, that would not be acceptable.

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