Sustainable Communities

– in the House of Commons at 3:56 pm on 11th March 2010.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.- (Lyn Brown.)

Photo of Adam Afriyie Adam Afriyie Shadow Minister (Science and Innovation) 4:04 pm, 11th March 2010

I rise to speak about the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 and the impact it might well be having on Windsor fire services and their evolution. The Berkshire fire authority has been using a piece of software to calculate where it ought to have fire stations around Berkshire. This magical piece of software, so much cheaper than the democratic process, has decided that it ought to close Windsor fire service and perhaps locate services to Wokingham, under the model that has been designed. More coverage seems to be needed in suburban developments in Wokingham and elsewhere in the county.

Far be it from us in the House of Commons to challenge the wisdom of magical software-even though I spent 20 years in the industry! Indeed, the day may come-although I hope not-when all of us in the House will be replaced by automated devices. And I am not just referring to the House of Commons-it might even happen in the European Commission.

There are obvious flaws, however, in the software's reckoning. Newly developed areas need more fire cover, that is for sure, but they also contain low-density housing. The main risk is from domestic fires and road incidents, and because such houses will be new, many of the more modern fire and safety regulations will be enforced in those properties, and potential victims will be limited to individual households or vehicles.

Windsor is much more vulnerable, in many ways. It is vulnerable to air traffic incidents. We are under the Heathrow flight path, and with the burgeoning number of flights from that airport-under the Government, it has risen to 480,000 a year-there is a danger of an air incident. The boundaries of my constituency are only yards from Heathrow's northern runway and the flight path crosses directly over the town. It is not the noise disturbance that is relevant but the danger of an incident occurring nearby-there have been many such incidents over the past couple of decades, which may have had an impact.

Windsor is also vulnerable to terrorist attack. The royal family are often resident, there are two army barracks in the town and the units within those barracks regularly rotate to Afghanistan, so there could be some tensions there making our area a particular target. We also have 12,000 domestic properties at risk of flooding from the Thames. The lower Thames works have taken place as far as the constituency, but do not protect areas in the lower part of the constituency and further on down to the Thames itself via Teddington. So there are risks of flooding that have not necessarily been mitigated by the previous works on the river.

Not only is Windsor more vulnerable to such incidents, but single incidents could be far more catastrophic because there are lots of people living close together. Windsor is full of multiple occupancy buildings. We have many hotels, boarding schools, guest houses and dwellings converted to multiple flats. Windsor has 8 million visitors, 750,000 of whom stay overnight in the town. Furthermore, the local economy sustains 7,000 registered businesses-twice as many as Reading, which has a footprint that is five times larger.

There are also irreplaceable elements of our national heritage. Windsor contains nine historic parks and gardens, 17 scheduled ancient monuments and no fewer than 941 listed buildings. One of those buildings is Windsor castle-but no one thought to programme the terrible fire in 1992 into this new piece of software. The Windsor castle fire may as well never have happened for all the impact it is having on the policy in Berkshire.

As I said before, it might be right to increase cover in other parts of the constituency and county, but it is not sensible to reduce Windsor fire cover further. A major incident is more likely there, and is more likely to be highly lethal-to say nothing of the disruption to the national heritage.

The software decided that Windsor could be covered from Slough's fire station, but there are three problems with that. First, Slough fire station is the busiest station in east Berkshire. Indeed, I would argue that Slough was already overburdened with incidents. The second problem is that even if the fire station in Slough is available, its response times will be three to 10 times longer than Windsor fire station's. The difference between three minutes to attend a fire and 10 or 12 minutes can be a matter of life and death. Thirdly, the calculations for attendance times from Slough apply to good conditions on the roads. The route from Slough fire station to Windsor passes through the junction 6 interchange on the M4. In bad traffic the roundabout and the roads on both sides become badly congested, as anyone who uses the M4 will testify. If a major incident occurred in Windsor during peak traffic-for instance, a collision between junctions 6 and 7 on a Friday evening-critical time, and possibly lives, could be lost.

Those are the reasons why my constituency has rallied behind the outstanding campaign run by Michael Rowley of the Windsor branch of the Fire Brigades Union. He has set up a website, windsorfirestation.co.uk, and I am pleased to say that even our party leader came down to visit Windsor fire station to meet red watch and green watch and show his support for keeping the fire station open 24 hours a day. As a result, the fire authority agreed not to shut our fire station completely, but to shut it for only 12 hours a day, which was a great victory for the campaign. However, the closure of the station overnight remains unacceptable to Windsor residents. The royal borough of Windsor and Maidenhead is a Conservative council-not that that is particularly relevant: the points I am making apply to all councils-but all parties on the council are united on this matter. We are not talking about a party political issue at all; in fact, there is an active local campaign, involving local activists, local residents, the political parties and councillors, to keep the fire station open 24 hours a day.

Negotiations with the fire authority and a judicial review have so far proved fruitless, so the royal borough's outstanding council leader, David Burbage, turned to the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 to see whether that could do the trick. The original intention of the 2007 Act was to provide a mechanism to shift power between levels of local government in an area, provided that there is firm support from the local community. Under the SCA, the royal borough applied to take over fire responsibility for the borough from the county fire authority, and was even prepared to pay whatever extra it might take to keep the Windsor fire station open. It was therefore not a matter of resources; it was a matter of the will of the people in the area. The royal borough expects that it could run a fire service more cheaply because it is a much bigger authority than the fire service and could easily incorporate the personnel, recruitment, and health and safety systems at a lower cost, potentially, than that which the existing fire authority pays.

However, in practice, if the authority assumed responsibility for the Windsor fire service, it would probably seek tender from neighbouring fire services. That could easily mean Berkshire fire service being contracted back to run fire cover in Windsor and Maidenhead, but on terms that kept Windsor fire station fully operational. Two former chief fire officers helped to draft a proposal, and there was extensive consultation. The results were pretty clear: local people and the various bodies consulted supported the idea. When presented with a range of options, two thirds of respondents preferred the service to be managed by the local authority, while only 12 per cent. chose to keep the service with the Berkshire fire and rescue service. However, the fact that local residents want Windsor to keep its fire station open overnight-local activists, local councillors, local voluntary workers and the local faith community all want it, and I have been campaigning for it for the past four or five years-counted for nothing with the Local Government Association.

As an official selector under the SCA, the Local Government Association turned down the application, saying that it was unviable and unsustainable. I would argue that that decision was highly questionable. We are not convinced that the process was conducted in a thorough fashion. It has been suggested that, as the application by the royal borough of Windsor and Maidenhead had already passed, it ought to have been happy with what it had been given.

There are several smaller fire authorities in existence that are perfectly viable, sustainable and highly graded. The LGA's argument-it was not a big argument; it was almost a one-liner-was that the Windsor and Maidenhead fire service was too small to be manageable or viable, but those other small fire authorities have been highly graded. An example is the Isle of Wight. No one would suggest that that fire service is unviable or unsustainable. So the case that ours was too small does not really hold water. Neither does the argument that the rest of Berkshire would be too small without Windsor being part of it.

Section 2 of the SCA specifically enables transfers of responsibilities between public authorities. There is therefore a suspicion that the LGA made a political decision, in order to avoid upsetting vested public sector interests. If that is the case, it is deeply worrying. The use of the SCA is perceived as a threat to those in locally appointed quangos such as combined fire, police and transport authorities, as they could lose their jobs to elected councils. Those bodies are often officer-led, remote and unresponsive to the electorate. The public have negligible influence or scrutiny over them, and they tend to be fairly unpopular. That is why my party is committed to introducing directly elected police chiefs, who would be more responsive to local people. It might be relevant, therefore, that the LGA has no fewer than 31 fire authorities as members, one of which is Berkshire. Fire authorities form a significant block of stakeholders and fee payers in the LGA.

The LGA's decision also seems to depend on a narrow interpretation of the SCA. The intention of the SCA was purely to enable the level of local services to be determined by local people. The transfer of responsibilities between levels is clearly empowered by section 2. The Windsor case becomes even stronger for those who followed the Bill's passage through Parliament. My hon. Friend Mr. Hurd, who introduced the Bill, said that he was planning to use it to enable Northwood police station to stay open longer hours. The Minister who saw the Bill through from the Government Benches, Mr. Woolas, talked about an elected council using the threat of an SCA application to bring police authorities round to its point of view. A clause that would have justified the LGA's interpretation, by denying a council the ability to make applications regarding services of a "wider or national significance", was struck down in Committee and did not appear in the Act.

It would seem that it was not our borough's application that was unsustainable but the fire authority's case against it. It cannot be right that local democracy, empowered under the SCA, should be thwarted by a public sector cartel. The LGA has effectively blocked the will of the people without giving a clear explanation. If the decision is allowed to stand, I fear that the SCA might be a busted flush, at least in regard to major extensions of democratic control.

In addition to local residents, activists, politicians and elected officials, an array of local celebrities has also been campaigning for Windsor fire station. This shows the strength of feeling on the issue. I would like to press the Government to confirm that transfers of responsibility from appointed, single-purpose authorities to democratically elected councils are encompassed by the Act, where appropriate. Was it the intention that the Act would enable such transfers of powers in regard to fire and police services, as well as other, similar public services?

I would like to reopen the question of the Local Government Association remaining as the selector under the Sustainable Communities Act 2007. How can an organisation paid to protect the interests of 31 fire authorities credibly stand in judgment over bids to secede from those same authorities? There is a vested interest at stake there, which I do not think would be allowed in any other area of public life. I respectfully urge the Government to restore faith in the SCA by considering what other bodies could fulfil the selector role more credibly than the LGA, the current occupant. How might this change take place? What powers do the Government have under the SCA to appoint a different selector?

If the selector had clearly laid out the reasons for the rejection of the royal borough's bid to take over the fire services and had provided a reasoned argument to explain why it considered the bid unviable or unsustainable, there would have been more understanding of the position adopted. At the moment, it seems to be a peremptory dismissal, without deep or thorough consideration, which does not bode well, especially if other selectors were to operate in the same way.

Local people were prepared to pay a bit more to keep the fire service open overnight in Windsor, yet bizarrely, even on that basis, the LGA still rejected the bid. It shows that the decision was not to do with money or resources; there is something else going on, which makes me worry that the SCA may not be fulfilling its original objectives.

Perhaps some software could be found to do the job of changing the selector-although I do not hold out great hopes on that. If the Minister cannot satisfy Windsor by asking the selector to give a clear and reasoned answer as to why it rejected the bid, or if she is not prepared to look at changing the selector, this issue is not going to go away. Windsor and its fire service will be the first of many subjects of complaint received in the House that, despite the aim of the SCA-and, I would argue, of the Government-to allow authorities to transfer powers between them, that aim has not been brought about in reality.

Let me summarise the two main points. First, what is the path to follow in order to change the selector? Secondly, will the Minister apply pressure to ensure that we get a reasoned argument in the public domain explaining why the LGA rejected the application? That is the only way to avoid casting aspersions on the LGA's motives, as it seems it is inevitably attracted by decisions that appear both perverse and irrational. I shall conclude my remarks there and I very much look forward to hearing the Minister's response.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud 4:23 pm, 11th March 2010

I shall be brief, but the Local Government Association asked me to say a few words. I was the best apologist that it could get, given the absence of my co-conspirators the hon. Members for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) and for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy), who did so much to get the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 on to the statute book. I cannot and would not want to discuss the Windsor fire station in any detail, just as, presumably, Adam Afriyie would not want to discuss the fire stations in my constituency. However, I want to express some sympathy for the LGA, given the circumstances with which it has been wrestling.

It seems rather bizarre that the LGA should be criticised for what it did not let through. Some of us would argue that it let an awful lot through in the first round of bids, and the Government are currently trying to wrestle with all that the LGA agreed to in its capacity as selector. I want to discuss why we ended up choosing the LGA as the selector, given all its possible faults, and to suggest that we stay with it for the time being. During the passage of the Bill that became the Sustainable Communities Act 2007, we discussed which organisation would be the appropriate selector. We considered creating a new selector, but ultimately we opted for the LGA because it was a representative body of local government and we felt it would best reflect what local government wanted, given that local government had been a driver for the Act.

As my hon. Friend the Minister knows, this week we have been wrestling with the Bill that will enhance the 2007 Act-the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill, which we hope will become law and which includes parish and town councils. I declare an interest, as I always do: I am still a town councillor. The position was always going to be a bit rough and ready, at least for the first year, because of the number of bids received. The Minister will give more details, but many hundreds of bids must have been received, given that so far the LGA has sent some 190 on to be distilled and assessed.

As the hon. Member for Windsor said, we need to open up other parts of the statutory sector and even parts of the non-statutory sector, and to try to persuade them to think in different ways-which chimes with the Government's approach in Total Place-so that, hopefully, we can save money and do things better. However, that will not be easy.

I know that the LGA has been trying to contact the hon. Gentleman. I ask him not to beat up the messenger. We are trying to convey the message, and there are bound to be some disappointed parties.

Photo of Adam Afriyie Adam Afriyie Shadow Minister (Science and Innovation)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his explanation of the appointment of the LGA. My primary complaint relates to the lack of a reasoned and logical response that could subsequently be considered. The argument made by local people was dismissed in a peremptory fashion, and there are strong suspicions that it had more to do with politicking and the LGA's protection of its own interests as appointees than with the democratic wishes of the people of Windsor.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

I agree, but the good thing is that it was not party political. For all sorts of reasons, the LGA's dominant influence at present is much more in tune with the thinking of the hon. Gentleman's party than with mine. However, as I have said, I have some sympathy for the LGA. I think that it would claim to have been overwhelmed with interest. All of us who sponsored the Bill thought it wonderful that there was so much interest out there, but mistakes were bound to be made-especially during the first year-and, more particularly, there was bound to be that overwhelming amount of interest, as a result of which the LGA has not been debriefing people. I did ask, and the Bill's three sponsors have had meetings with the LGA, which took us through the process and asked us to be sympathetic. It could not pretend that it would get things right during the first year, because of the number of inquiries that it was receiving.

I should like a process of distillation to govern the way in which the bids reach the LGA and then central Government, who are currently having to wrestle with 190 bids, all of which have merit but not all of which will contribute to the process of change. My first point is that this is work in progress and that legislation can never substitute for people getting on with one another and making things happen. Even Government Ministers cannot do it all by themselves and have to rely on a great deal of effort elsewhere. The second point is that I do not want to put off those who, in subsequent years, might want to make a bid. Perhaps more effort needs to go into how a bid is formulated. One of the criticisms has been of the degree to which the bids built a coalition of support. The hon. Gentleman said that a great deal of work went into building the consensus, something that may not have been true in terms of some of the other cases at which I have looked.

Photo of Joan Walley Joan Walley Labour, Stoke-on-Trent North

Given the interest that there will be in other local authorities around the country who want to build sustainable communities and will be working in partnership with residents, community organisations and the third sector, will my hon. Friend give the House an idea as to what the bids would look like if they were to be successful?

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

That is a hornet's nest. The bids were of every shape, size and dimension one could imagine. Some were quite narrowly focused-I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will help me out of the mess that I have created for myself-and would not have taken a lot of effort to introduce. Some were huge in their implications and would involve major expenditure changes on a local level, and even a national level, because of the implications. Having looked at the 190 bids, I was very partial to some myself. I might have shrugged my shoulders at some and said that people might like them but they would not be delivered in a month of Sundays. That includes those that were potentially in opposition to Government policy. That would cause some difficulties.

This is a learning process and we have not got it right yet. The LGA needs help, as do central Government, but there are some brilliant ideas out there. That was the whole point about the local works coalition bringing forward the idea. It said that it would allow a thousand flowers to bloom; it has, literally, allowed a thousand flowers to bloom. Many authorities that did not get involved in the first round are watching carefully. I urge them not to despair or to say that the Bill is another piece of useless Westminster pontificating that will make no difference to their lives.

The challenge is good and will make the LGA think again. It will make the Government and the sponsors think again, as they will be reading my remarks; they are not very good but they are defending the system that we put in place. The hon. Member for Windsor has done us a favour; he has referred to one of the bids that did not get through. I suspect a lot more will not get through, and central Government, through the Minister, must offer a defence. It will not be easy. That does not mean that what we are doing is wrong; it just has to be better and we must bring people in. I have tried to be an apologist for what we have done. We cannot pretend that we have got it right but the legislation is worthy and could allow for much better decision making at a local level.

Photo of Barbara Follett Barbara Follett Minister of State (the East of England), Regional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (the East of England), Department for Communities and Local Government 4:33 pm, 11th March 2010

I congratulate Adam Afriyie on securing the debate and thank my hon. Friend Mr. Drew for his timely and informative intervention.

I know that the hon. Gentleman has campaigned on this issue tirelessly. I pay tribute to him for representing his constituents so well. Our fire and rescue services have a vital role to play in the protection of our communities and we all owe the men and women in them a huge debt of gratitude. They do essential life-saving work, which we all value. My Department also values their work and has invested £1 billion in equipment and technology to ensure that the service is prepared to face 21st-century challenges such as terrorism, to which he referred.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's pride in Windsor's fire station and the service it provides. It exemplifies the Governments belief that local providers are the ones best placed make decisions about service provision in their areas. That has not always been so. Before 2003, fire and rescue authorities wishing to close a fire station or redeploy pumping appliances were obliged to seek the approval of the Secretary of State beforehand. My Government abolished this requirement when we introduced integrated risk management planning. That gave the Royal Berkshire fire and rescue service the freedom to consider changing the level of fire cover at Windsor fire station. Such changes are subject to full consultation with those affected, of course, and this has taken place in Windsor over the past few years, as the hon. Gentleman said. Although I completely understand why he is disappointed at the decision to reduce the level of service at Windsor fire station, I hope he will also understand why Ministers could not become directly involved.

As my hon. Friend said, the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 was designed to try to reawaken people's interest in democracy and politics at the local level by transferring some power. Under the Act, the Secretary of State sent out an invitation to local authorities to make proposals-local authorities act as the gatekeeper for proposals, because otherwise the Government would be in danger of being swamped. Local authorities were invited to make proposals that they believed would improve the sustainability-I should emphasise that word-of their local area, including the transfer of assets if they think it would achieve the outcome requested. However, each proposal had to be assessed on its own merits by the selector.

In its proposal, Windsor and Maidenhead asked if financial and operational responsibility for the local fire and rescue services could be transferred from the Royal Berkshire fire and rescue service to the royal borough of Windsor and Maidenhead by changing the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 to allow the royal borough to be made a fire authority scheme. The 2004 Act requires that, before any proposals to transfer functions are submitted, the local authority in question must consult the persons whose functions it could affect. Although I am not going to comment on the process the local authority went through before submitting its proposal, I should mention that the Royal Berkshire fire and rescue service did not feel that it had been adequately consulted, and that led it to submit an application for judicial review.

There was another obstacle to the proposal. As the chosen selector body under the 2007 Act, the LGA had a legal duty to submit a shortlist of proposals for the Secretary of State to consider, but it decided not to shortlist the one from Windsor and Maidenhead. It gave the reasons for this refusal. Members of the selector panel felt that the proposal would be very complex to implement and were concerned that the small size of the proposed authority would make it not viable. The panel also noted the impact that the proposal could have on the strategic role and service implications of the fire authority across the remaining county area. In addition, members of the selector panel expressed concern that the amount of resources available to the authority might not be sufficient to allow the authority to undertake the full range of responsibilities of a fire and rescue service. It specifically mentioned the impact on sustainability that the proposal could have in the surrounding areas, but the LGA did offer support to both the council and fire authority in attempting to reach a more satisfactory conclusion.

The selector's decision not to shortlist the proposal was obviously deeply disappointing to the hon. Gentleman and to the local authority concerned. However, the proposal was assessed by the selector on its merits and, I believe, the decision was even deferred by the panel so that it could consider the proposal in more detail.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the lack of a reasoned response. Minutes of the selector panel's discussions and the reason for its decisions are set out on the Local Government Association website. Indeed, the LGA sent him a letter today, outlining the process and offering once again to work with both the authority and the fire and rescue service to try to reach a satisfactory conclusion. I disagree with him on this point: the decision was not peremptory. The 2007 Act was working in that case.

As my hon. Friend said, the shortlist was very long. There were 199 proposals, which when disaggregated came to 242 separate asks of Government. It is this Minister who is trying to disentangle those asks, with the help of the LGA, which has put an enormous amount of work and effort into trying to process the proposals as fairly as possible.

I assure the hon. Member for Windsor that we intend to develop the 2007 Act. In fact, the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill, the private Member's Bill promoted by Alistair Burt, attempts to take forward the 2007 Act. It is hoped that the Bill will complete its passage through the House before Dissolution. The Government support the Bill because it will make the process more efficient and more responsive to the needs of local people. It will also allow us to capture and use the experience we have gained so far-experience such as that of the hon. Member for Windsor-to improve the procedure for the next round.

This is the first time such a large exercise has been undertaken and I know that lessons can be learned by all concerned, including the selector panel. That is why the amendment Bill is so valuable. It will give the hon. Gentleman and Windsor and Maidenhead council the opportunity to influence the future working of the 2007 Act.

Photo of Adam Afriyie Adam Afriyie Shadow Minister (Science and Innovation)

I thank the Minister for her careful and reasoned response. I am pleased that we are able to have the debate. If I understand correctly what she is saying, it would be possible for the royal borough of Windsor and Maidenhead to reapply in the next round, because that round might look different from the previous one. Have I heard her correctly?

Photo of Barbara Follett Barbara Follett Minister of State (the East of England), Regional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (the East of England), Department for Communities and Local Government

The hon. Gentleman has heard me correctly-as long as the myriad amendments tabled by Mr. Chope do not prevent the amendment Bill from going through the House.

The Government want an amended Sustainable Communities Act to be part of the architecture of local government. We want to give councils the chance to embrace all the opportunities the Act presents. I reassure the hon. Member for Windsor that there will be a second round, and that Windsor and Maidenhead will have a second chance to submit.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.