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Department for Communities and Local Government — Central and Local Government

Part of Estimates Day — [1st Allotted Day] — Vote on Account, 2010-11 — Department for Business, Innovation and Skills – in the House of Commons at 5:08 pm on 10th December 2009.

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Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud 5:08 pm, 10th December 2009

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I do not wish to cast aspersions or try in any way to wish even more problems on Stroud district council, even though it is run by those with a different political persuasion from mine, but I should say that the groupings on that council have that problem. The Conservative group is split according to who has got a position and who has not. This is a worrying development and we need to see it as a whole, because it causes great disillusion among the local populous when they see that people apparently get elected because of the associated money. I regret that we have seen that happen. Local government could revisit the issue and do something about it. It does not have to have this system imposed on it, and it might feel that it wants anything but that.

The point about the public service ethos is referred to in the Library debate paper, and from memory, I think it is in the very good report from the Communities and Local Government Committee. It concerns the payment not only of councillors but of staff. We are now completely out of kilter with what some chief executives and senior council officials are paid, and that needs to be revisited quickly. If we must navel gaze at our own situations, it is only right and proper, in the light of the bonus culture, that others should re-examine what they can expect, morally as well as financially. Some of the salaries that are now being paid have achieved the opposite of what I would have liked-they have destroyed the public service ethos, rather than supporting it.

My hon. Friend Lyn Brown would be staggered if I did not take this opportunity to mention the Sustainable Communities Act 2007. Some of us feel that it is a move in the right direction, because it is about re-introducing localism. I caught the end of what my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West said, and we need to recognise that we cannot isolate local government from other aspects of the statutory and voluntary sectors. It is only right that the Sustainable Communities Act should be linked in with what the Government are doing with Total Place, which I find very exciting, to try to find an overall approach to the way in which we govern local areas. That must make its way through the morass of difficulties, which we all know about. If we can get it right, we will get a much clearer system for the accountability of local decision making, which can be made properly accountable, rather than being seen as local administration.

I welcome the efforts that are being made. I know that the Secretary of State makes many speeches nowadays about our planning and consideration of local spending reports. We can argue about how that is being done and whether it is being done quickly enough, but if the work of Tim Berners-Lee and Professor Nigel Shadbolt can be applied so that we can track funding appropriately and begin to share it in a different way, money can be saved. I am not interested in saving-I am interested in much more effective and efficient use of service provision. If we can do that, that will be very exciting. I think Alistair Burt has chosen the "sustainable communities Act mark 2" as his private Member's Bill. I shall be a sponsor of it, as I think he has stolen the Bill that I promoted. I am only too happy to lend it to him.

I want to make two more points, and then I shall not detain the House any longer. It is about time that we took a grown-up approach to moving forward the structure of local government. I ask those who think that it is quaint to have three-tier local authorities and who have moved to unitary authorities in their own area to please revisit the issue. We should have a structure that is fit for purpose for the 21st century.

We need some form of regional government in this country. It can either be unaccountable-as it was under the last Conservative Government-or it can be made more accountable. I have enjoyed being on the South West Regional Select Committee. It is a lonely existence, particularly because if I go out of the room, the whole Committee is disallowed because it becomes inquorate. We need to recognise that some form of regional accountability and scrutiny is necessary, and those Select Committees have, in their short existence, already done some invaluable work.

We need to move forward. We need clarity about proper strategic local government delivery, which I hope can be done through unitary authorities. If Cornwall can do it, please can Gloucestershire follow suit one day? We are so far out of the loop now and so far behind the times that it is just embarrassing. That would give greater powers to parish and town councils, which can be the delivery arm in many respects, and that would differ from the situation at the moment in which we are squabbling over who repairs the pavements. If hon. Members can explain who has responsibility to any member of the public, they are a better person than me, because all three layers of government squabble over a number of responsibilities, and that is not a happy situation.

During the summer recess and beyond, I conducted a survey on some of the reforms proposed by the Wright Committee-I was glad to have been elected to serve as one of its members. One of the questions in "Up for Debate", as we called the survey, asked whether the general public wanted local government to get more power and funding. That question produced one of the most disappointing responses, because there was strong opposition to giving more power and funding to local government, but that shows how far we have to go to rebuild local populaces' trust in their local government. We received 7,000 replies to the survey, so we heard from a fairly good cross-section of the Stroud constituency, but the results show that local government is unpopular and not trusted. Although it is easy, as I suggested at the start of my speech, to blame the centre for that, local government must do a lot more in its own right to rebuild trust. I hope that the Committee's report and what happens on the back of our debate will go some way towards achieving that.

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