Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill [ Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:30 pm on 1st June 2009.

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Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 4:30 pm, 1st June 2009

The right hon. Gentleman is very knowledgeable about local government, and we have debated revaluation many times. He will know that one purpose for which revaluations are prescribed in legislation is to deal with regional differences in house price increases. The reality of the sad point that we have reached in the housing crisis is that the degree of regional variation is not marked, so the case for a revaluation is not there.

There is exactly the same problem with business rates. There is something slightly surreal about debating a Bill at a time of economic crisis that has the words "Economic Development" in its title but that does nothing to address business rates. Our country's recovery from recession will be determined by how well our businesses compete with those from overseas. Instead of giving them a helping hand, the Treasury has given them a smack in the teeth by increasing business rates above inflation and pushing ahead with business rate revaluation. Those things are conspiring to undermine businesses at a time when we need to help them. Deferring an above-inflation business rate increase is no panacea, because it will still have to be paid. Anyone running or working in a business whose amount of work is shrinking exists in a world of anxiety, and any small business looking for comfort in the Bill will not find any.

The situation is similar for port-related businesses. I had to suppress some shock at the difficulty we had in trying to get an amendment about port taxes in order in the other place. Colleagues might imagine that if there is one virtue in such a convoluted Bill title, it is that it provides an opportunity to debate almost anything. However, that does not seem to include port taxes, despite the fact that they clearly come under the aegis of local democracy and play an undeniable role in economic development. Port businesses have had a huge unexpected tax rise, backdated to 2005, at a time when recession is biting. It simply defies belief that the Government will not give any quarter. No impact assessment was done; there was no consultation; and businesses are casually being handed debts that, in many cases, will make them balance-sheet insolvent.

Those are big, urgent, immediate issues, which are at the front of people's minds. Does the Secretary of State understand how people will look at this Bill? They will read it, listen to the debate and think that politicians are from another planet. How ironic that no more than eight hours after the Prime Minister told Radio 4:

"Power must be more accountable to the people who elect MPs and councillors", we have a Bill that does exactly the opposite. The Prime Minister held forth this morning about listeners feeling powerless and politics not being sufficiently accountable. If the Bill is supposed to be the solution, God help us. Let us face it, people are fed up. They are fed up with the recession and the pain it brings; they are fed up with MPs; and they are fed up with the Government. The Bill should have been a chance to begin to put things right and make politics relevant again. Instead, I fear that it will do the opposite.

When I meet voters, they are beside themselves with frustration about the imposition of unsustainable numbers of houses on their communities. Mums in the playground are really angry that a mobile phone mast has gone up right next door to the school, despite Government recommendations that it should not. I understand that the silent majority seek a silent revolution. They want politics to change, but, far from delivering that, the Bill serves up more of the same. It has been cobbled together to fill the parliamentary programme and give Ministers more levers to pull. The Bill is about keeping control over councils via the statute book, because the Government cannot do it through the ballot box. People deserve better than that.

The political landscape has changed beyond recognition since the Bill was in another place. The public's fury over expenses is not only about money, but a reflex against the entire nature of our broken politics—the top-down, centrally imposed decision making and the inflexible, insensitive bureaucracy that bosses people about from day to day. Supporting the Bill would send a clear message that we are not listening to the electorate. Unless we discharge real power, the current animosity between the public and Parliament will simply turn into a long goodbye.

The Prime Minister got one thing right when he said that recent events had exposed a big need for a real change in our politics, but he got it wrong when he suggested that he and his Government were the right people to deliver it. The Bill makes it abundantly clear that a public hungry for change in politics will get that only through a change of Government.

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