Sustainable Communities

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:33 pm on 11th March 2010.

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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.