Designation of key route network roads
w(1) A CCA may designate a highway or proposed highway in its area as a key route network road, or remove its designation as a key route network road, with the consent of—
(a) each constituent council in whose area the highway or proposed highway is, and
(b) in the case of a mayoral CCA, the mayor.
(2) The Secretary of State may designate a highway or proposed highway in the area of a CCA as a key route network road, or remove its designation as a key route network road, if requested to do so by—
(a) the CCA,
(b) the mayor (if any) of the CCA, or
(c) a constituent council.
(3) A designation or removal under this section must be in writing and must state when it comes into effect.
(4) The Secretary of State must send a copy of a designation or removal under subsection (2) to the CCA in question at least 7 days before the date on which it comes into effect.
(5) A CCA must publish each designation or removal under this section of a key route network road within its area before the date on which it comes into effect.
(6) A CCA that has key route network roads in its area must keep a list or map (or both) accessible to the public showing those roads.
(7) The requirements in section 20(11) and section 27(11)(a) do not apply to provision under section 20(1) and section 27(1) contained in the same instrument so far as that provision—
(a) confers a power of direction on an existing mayoral CCA regarding the exercise of an eligible power in respect of key route network roads in the area of that CCA,
(b) provides for that power of direction to be exercisable only by the mayor of the CCA, and
(c) is made with the consent of the mayor after the mayor has consulted the constituent councils.
(8) When a mayor consents under subsection (7)(c), the mayor must give the Secretary of State—
(a) a statement by the mayor that all of the constituent councils agree to the making of the regulations, or
(b) if the mayor is unable to make that statement, the reasons why the mayor considers the regulations should be made even though not all of the constituent councils agree to them being made.
(9) In this section—
“eligible power” has the meaning given by section 20(2);
“key route network road” means a highway or proposed highway designated for the time being under this section as a key route network road;
“proposed highway” means land on which, in accordance with plans made by a highway authority, that authority are for the time being constructing or intending to construct a highway shown in the plans.”
This new clause provides for designation of “key route network roads” in CCAs and makes provision about consent requirements for regulations that both confer a power of direction concerning such roads and make the power exercisable only by the mayor. It will be inserted after clause 21.—(Dehenna Davison.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Government new clause 62—Functions in respect of key route network roads.
Government new clause 65—Participation of police and crime commissioners at certain local authority committees.
New clause 1—Power to provide for an elected mayor—
(1) Part 1A of the Local Government Act 2000 is amended as follows.
(2) After section 9K insert—
“9KA Power to provide for an elected mayor
(1) The Secretary of State may by regulations provide for there to be a mayor of a local authority.
(2) Before making regulations under subsection (1), the Secretary of State must publish a report which contains—
(a) an assessment of why it is in the interests of economy, efficiency, effectiveness or public safety for the regulations to be made, and
(b) a description of any public consultation the Secretary of State has carried out on the proposal for the regulations to be made.””
This new clause would allow the Secretary of State to provide for there to be a mayor of any local authority if they deem appropriate.
New clause 2—Resignation requirements for MPs serving as elected mayors—
“(1) The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 is amended in accordance with subsection.
(2) In section 67 (Disqualification of person holding office as police and crime commissioner), leave out paragraph (a).
(4) In Part 3 (Other Disqualifying Offices), at the appropriate place insert—
‘Mayor who is to exercise the functions of police and crime commissioner’”.
This new clause would allow an MP who is elected as a mayor who is to exercise the functions of a police and crime commissioner to remain as an MP until the next parliamentary election.
New clause 4—Housing Act 1985—
“In section 618 of the Housing Act 1985 (The Common Council of the City of London), omit subsections (3) and (4).”
This new clause would correct a disparity which applies uniquely to Members of the City of London’s Common Council in relation to their ability to discuss or vote on local authority matters relating to land, for example housing, by removing a prohibition on participating on such matters.
New clause 7—Council tax: properties of multiple occupancy—
“(1) The Local Government Finance Act 1992 is amended as follows.
(2) In section 3 (meaning of “dwelling”), after subsection (4A), insert—
‘(4B) Subject to subsection (6) below, the following property is not a dwelling—
(a) a room or bedroom subject to a tenancy agreement that does not contain bathroom and cooking facilities within its physical curtilage;
(b) a room or bedroom subject to a tenancy agreement which includes bathroom facilities but does not include cooking facilities within its physical curtilage;
(c) any rooms or bedrooms within a licensed House of Multiple Occupancy; and
(d) any room which is not in law a self-contained unit regardless of any clause, term or condition of any contract, license of agreement conferring a right to occupy that room.’”
This new clause is intended to prevent the imposition of Council Tax individually on tenants of a room in a house with shared facilities, or in a licensed House of Multiple Occupancy.
New clause 41—Duty to provide sufficient resources to Combined Authorities and Combined County Authorities—
“(1) This section applies where the Government has committed funding to a Combined Authority or a Combined County Authority in order to deliver a specific project.
(2) The Secretary of State must provide commensurate financial resources to a Combined Authority or a Combined County Authority to enable the delivery of the project mentioned in subsection (1) as agreed in full.
(3) The Secretary of States must, by regulations, amend the value of this funding to reflect inflation.”
This new clause would commit the Government to fully funding combined authority and combined county authority projects they have committed to in the case that costs rise due to inflation.
New clause 45—Local authorities to be allowed to choose their own voting system—
“(1) The Secretary of State must by regulations provide that local authorities may choose the voting system used for local elections in their areas.
(2) When determining whether to seek to introduce a new voting system a local authority must have regard to the benefits of reinvigorating local democracy in its area.
(3) Regulations under this section must provide that local authorities may choose to elect councillors—
(a) by thirds, or
(b) on an all-out basis.
(4) Regulations under this section must provide that local authorities may choose to elect councillors using—
(b) alternative vote;
(c) supplementary vote;
(e) the additional member system;
(f) any other system that may be prescribed in the regulations.
(5) Regulations under this section may make provision about—
(a) how a local authority may go about seeking to change its voting system,
(b) the decision-making process for such a change,
(c) consultation, and
(d) requirements relating to approval by the local electorate.”
This new clause would enable local authorities to choose what voting system they use for local elections.
New clause 46—Review into business rates system—
“(1) The Chancellor of the Exchequer must undertake a review of the business rates system.
(2) The review must consider the extent to which the business rates system—
(a) is achieving its objectives,
(b) is conducive to the achievement of the levelling-up and regeneration objectives of this Act.
(3) The review must consider whether alternatives of local business taxation would be more likely to achieve the objectives in subsections (2)(a) and (b).
(4) The review must in particular consider the effects of business rates and alternative local business taxation systems on—
(a) high streets, and
(b) rural areas.
(5) The review must consider the merits of devolving more control over local business taxation to local authorities.
(6) The Chancellor of the Exchequer must lay a report of the review before parliament before the end of the period of one year beginning with the day on which this Act is passed.”
This new clause would require the Secretary of State to review the business rates system.
New clause 70—Duties in connection with the European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities—
“(1) The Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 is amended in accordance with subsection (2).
(2) In section 16 (Power to transfer etc public authority functions to certain local authorities), after subsection (1) insert—
‘(1A) In deciding how and whether to exercise his power under section 16(1), the Secretary of State must have regard to the existence, within a local authority area, of a national minority as defined by the European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.’”
New clause 71—Extending level 3 devolution deals—
“(1) The Secretary of State must, by regulations, make provision for local authorities to be granted a Level 3 devolution deal, without the requirement for a directly-elected leader across the entire authority.
(2) When making regulations under subsection (1), the Secretary of State must have regard to the benefits of such a devolution arrangement given any existence, within a local authority area, of a national minority, as defined by the European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.”
New clause 34—Review of compulsory purchase powers—
“(1) The Secretary of State must undertake a review of whether the powers of compulsory purchase available to—
(a) local authorities, and
(b) the Secretary of State are adequate to meet the objectives of this Act.
(2) In undertaking the review the Secretary of State must, in particular, consider—
(a) whether existing statutory time limits for compulsory purchase action are appropriate,
(b) other means of accelerating compulsory purchase action with particular reference to properties to which subsection (3) applies, and
(c) the adequacy of compulsory purchase powers in relation to properties to which subsection (3) applies.
(3) This subsection applies to—
(a) properties that have been unoccupied for a prolonged period (with reference to the vacancy condition in section 152), and
(b) buildings of local public importance such as hotels and high street properties.”
This new clause would require the Government to review powers of compulsory purchase and whether they are adequate to meet its levelling-up and regeneration objectives.
New clause 74—Commencement of Section 81 of the Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Act—
“The Secretary of State must, by regulations, bring into force the provisions in Section 81 of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 no later than 31st December 2022”
New clause 75—Review of the effectiveness of the Housing First Scheme—
(1) The Secretary of State must establish an annual review of His Majesty’s Government’s progress on reducing homelessness.
(2) The review must include an assessment of—
(a) whether the Housing First scheme is achieving its objectives,
(b) the support provided to local authorities to meet their homelessness duties,
(c) the merits of ensuring that local authorities have at least one provider of the Housing First model, and
(d) the Government’s progress towards ending rough sleeping.
(3) The Secretary of State must prepare reports on these reviews in accordance with this section.
(4) The first report under subsection (3) must be laid before each House of Parliament before the end of a period of one year beginning on the day when this Act was passed.
(5) After a report has been laid before Parliament under subsection (4), the Secretary of State must publish it as soon as is reasonably practicable.”
New clause 76—Publication of the Consultation on the Vagrancy Act—
“(1) The Secretary of State must, before the end of 2022, publish a report setting out the results of the Review of the Vagrancy Act: consultation on effective replacement.
(2) he report under subsection (1) must, in particular, set out—
(a) how to replace the offences in the Vagrancy Act which prohibit begging and rough sleeping in an appropriate way that prioritises getting individuals into support, and
(b) the Government’s legislative plan to support these changes.
(3) The Secretary of State must lay a copy of the report in subsection (1) before both Houses of Parliament.”
New clause 82—Standards Board for England—
“(1) There is to be a body corporate known as the Standards Board for England (“the Standards Board”).
(2) The Standards Board is to consist of not less than three members appointed by the Secretary of State.
(3) In exercising its functions the Standards Board must have regard to the need to promote and maintain high standards of conduct by members and co-opted members of local authorities in England.
(4) The Secretary of State must by regulations make further provision about the Standards Board.
(5) Regulations under this section must provide for—
(a) a code of conduct of behaviour for members and co-opted members of local authorities in England,
(b) the making of complaints to the Standards Board a member or co-opted member has failed to comply with that code of conduct,
(c) the independent handling of such complaints in the first instance by the Standards Board,
(d) the functions of ethical standards officers,
(e) investigations and reports by such officers,
(f) the role of monitoring officers of local authorities in such complaints,
(g) the referral of cases to the adjudication panel for England for determination,
(h) about independent determination by the adjudication panel its issuing of sanctions,
(i) appeal by the complainant to the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman,
(j) appeal by the member or co-opted member subject to the complaint to the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, and
(k) the governance of the Standards Board.
(6) In making regulations under this section the Secretary of State must have regard to the content of Chapter II (investigations etc: England) of Part III (conduct of local government members and employees) of the Local Government Act 2000, prior to the repeal of that Chapter.
(7) The Standards Board—
(a) must appoint employees known as ethical standards officers,
(b) may issue guidance to local authorities in England on matters relating to the conduct of members and co-opted members of such authorities,
(c) may issue guidance to local authorities in England in relation to the qualifications or experience which monitoring officers should possess, and
(d) may arrange for any such guidance to be made public.”
This new clause seeks to reinstate the Standards Board for England, which was abolished by the Localism Act 2011, but with the removal of referral to standards committees and the addition of appeal to the Local Government Ombudsman.
New clause 84—Levelling-up mission: adult literacy—
“(1) Each statement of levelling-up missions must include an objective relating to reducing geographical disparities in adult literacy.
(2) In pursuance of the objective in subsection (1), the Secretary of State must, during each mission period, review adult literacy levels in the UK, to inform measures with the purpose of reducing geographical disparities in adult literacy and eradicating illiteracy in adults.
(3) The findings of any review under this section must be published in a report, which must be laid before Parliament.
(4) When a report under this section is laid before Parliament, the government must also publish a strategy setting out steps it intends to take to improve levels of adult literacy and eradicate illiteracy in the UK.”
This new clause would require the government to include the reducing of geographical disparities in adult literacy as one of its levelling up missions, and it would require them, during each mission period, to review levels of adult literacy in the UK, publish the findings of that review and set out a strategy to improve levels of adult literacy and eradicate illiteracy in the UK.
Amendment 8, in clause 1, page 1, line 14, at end insert—
“(c) the independent body that His Majesty’s Government proposes to use to evaluate progress in delivering those levelling-up missions (‘the independent evaluating body’).”
This amendment would place a responsibility on the Government to commission an independent body to scrutinise their progress against levelling-up missions.
Amendment 9, page 1, line 14, at end insert—
“(c) the resources made available by His Majesty’s Government to nations, regions, sub-regions and local areas in order to level-up.”
This amendment would place a responsibility on the Government to publish the resources made available to communities in order to level-up.
Amendment 71, page 1, line 14, at end insert—
“(c) details of how His Majesty’s Government will ensure that the levelling-up missions are aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal to end hunger and ensure access by all people, in particular the poor and people in vulnerable situations, including infants, to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round.”
This amendment would require that levelling-up missions align with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal to end hunger and ensure access by all people to safe and nutritious food.
Amendment 69, page 1, line 14, at end insert—
“(2A) The first statement of levelling-up missions must include a requirement that by 2030 the number of people successfully completing high-quality skills training will have significantly increased in every area of the UK.
(2B) For the purposes of subsection (2A), ‘high-quality skills training’ must include training for the purpose of proactively supporting workers in high-carbon industries wishing to transition to careers in the green energy sector, with cross-sector recognition of skills and regardless of their current contract status.”
Amendment 70, page 1, line 14, at end insert—
“(2A) The first statement of levelling-up missions must include a mission to expand public access to waterways, woodlands, Green Belt and grasslands and reduce geographical inequalities in access to open access land.
(2B) In this section, “waterways” includes any river, stream, lake, pond, canal or other waterway physically capable of navigation, and any such river banks or land adjacent as necessary for the act of navigation and for other purposes incidental to navigation or to bathe.
(2C) A levelling-up mission under this section must be accompanied by a statement of the Government’s legislative plan to support the mission, including proposals to amend the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000.”
Amendment 72, page 2, line 3, at end insert—
“(3A) The mission progress methodology and metrics must include the following indicators—
(a) prevalence of undernourishment in the population, and
(b) prevalence of moderate or severe food insecurity in the population, based on the Food Insecurity Experience Scale (FIES).”
This amendment would require that the mission progress methodology and metrics include the prevalence of under-nourishment and the prevalence of food insecurity in the population.
Amendment 10, page 2, line 6, at end insert—
“(4A) A statement of levelling-up missions must be accompanied by an action plan which sets out details of how His Majesty’s Government intends to deliver these missions by the target date.”
This amendment would require the Government to publish an action plan alongside a statement of levelling-up missions which sets out how they will deliver the missions.
Amendment 11, in clause 2, page 3, line 7, leave out subsections (4) and (5).
This amendment would remove the provision allowing the Secretary of State to discontinue a levelling-up mission.
Amendment 12, in clause 3, page 3, line 28, leave out “120” and insert “30”.
This amendment would reduce the period of time by which a report under section 2 must be laid before each House of Parliament to 30 days.
Amendment 13, page 3, line 32, leave out “120” and insert “30”.
See explanatory statement to Amendment 12
Amendment 14, page 4, line 2, leave out clause 4.
This amendment would remove the provision allowing a Minister to make changes to mission progress methodology and metrics or target dates.
Amendment 64, in clause 4, page 4, line 18, leave out from “which” to end of line 19 and insert—
“both conditions in subsection (4) have been met.
(4) The conditions are that—
(a) the House of Commons,
(b) the House of Lords have passed a Motion in the form in subsection (5).
(5) The form of the Motion is—
That this House approves the revisions to the levelling-up mission progress methodology and metrics or target date made under section 4 of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act 2022 and laid before Parliament on [date].”
Amendment 15, in clause 5, page 5, line 18, at end insert—
“(ca) state whether the independent evaluating body considers that pursuing the levelling-up missions in that statement is effectively contributing to the reduction of geographical disparities in the United Kingdom,”
This amendment would require the report on a review of statements of levelling-up missions to include the assessment of the independent evaluating body.
Amendment 16, page 6, line 5, leave out from “which” to end of subsection (11) and insert—
“both conditions in subsection (12) have been met.
(12) The conditions are that—
(a) the House of Commons, and
(b) the House of Lords has passed a Motion of the form in subsection (13).
(13) The form of the Motion is—
That this House approves the revisions to the statement of levelling-up missions made under section 5 of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act 2022 and laid before Parliament on [date].”
This amendment would require both Houses of Parliament to approve revisions to the statement of levelling-up missions to be approved by both Houses of Parliament before they have effect.
Amendment 17, page 12, line 24, leave out clause 16.
Government amendments 29, 45 and 46.
Amendment 18, in clause 52, page 45, line 16, leave out “may” and insert—
“must, within 6 months of the day on which this Act is passed,”.
This amendment would require the Secretary of State to produce guidance on the establishment and operation of CCAs within 6 months of this Act receiving Royal Assent.
Amendment 19, page 50, line 24, leave out clause 58.
This amendment would remove Clause 58, which allows an elected mayor to assume policing responsibilities without the consent of the combined authority.
Government amendments 47, 40 to 44, 1, 60, 51, 61 and 62.
It is a pleasure to be here for the next stage of this vital Bill. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently set out his guiding principles for the Bill: beauty, infrastructure, democracy, environment and neighbourhoods—or, for acronym fans, BIDEN. We want to ensure that people across the country have the opportunity to live and work in beautiful places, supported by the right infrastructure, with strong locally accountable leadership and with better access to an improved environment, all rooted in thriving neighbourhoods of which they can be proud. Regrettably, though, there are areas of the country that are long neglected and that will require a concerted effort from us all. We have to put an end to the shameful waste of potential that has held so many of our constituents and our country back for so long.
This is why the ambitions set out in the levelling up White Paper are so crucial. If we are going to achieve our ambitions, we have to be focused. That is why the first part of the Bill creates a self-renewing national focus on this endeavour, through the setting of and reporting on missions to level up. These missions, with their clear, measurable objectives, will drive the action needed to reduce geographic disparities. One such mission is our vision for devolution across England. This is why the Bill creates a new model for devolution: the combined county authority. It also improves existing models thought the combined authority and county deal models, making devolution easier to achieve, extend and deepen.
One of the disappointments with this Bill is that, although it extends the principle of combined authorities to county areas, it does not actually transfer any new powers to local government as a whole that are not currently available in some authorities. Could the Minister point out one place in the Bill where a new power that is currently not devolved to local government will be devolved after the Bill is passed?
The Chair of the Select Committee is a passionate campaigner on these issues. He will know that the Government are incredibly keen on empowering local areas to take on their own devolution deals, and that is why we are in the process of negotiating a large number of deals, including trailblazer deals with Greater Manchester and with the West Midlands, which I know Members right across the House are incredibly passionate about. We are looking at new powers and new funding to ensure that those devolution deals deliver for local people.
We are making it easier to achieve, to extend and to deepen devolution. At the same time, the Bill is making it easier for local authorities to regenerate their areas by providing them with new and improved tools for that purpose, including a new locally led model for urban development corporations, changes to ensure that any former development corporation can have conferred on it the functions most useful to its purpose, and improvement to the compulsory system to remove barriers so that authorities can assemble land, including brownfield land.
Often, when compulsory purchase powers are used by local authorities, the value of the site they are purchasing is enhanced because they are using those powers and the owner of the site gets a “hope value” addition to what they receive. Would the Minister consider ensuring that, where a CPO has been put in place, no extra value is generated for the owner because the CPO itself is operated or because it is part of a regeneration site as a whole?
I am happy to discuss that with the hon. Member in further detail following the debate today. It is certainly something that we are exploring behind the scenes with a view to taking action at a later date.
We are also looking at introducing discretion for local authorities to increase council tax on second homes and long-term empty homes, together with innovative high street rental auctions to tackle the damage that the gradual erosion of high street occupancy can cause.
Hon. Members will recall that the Government have already made provision for the full repeal of the Vagrancy Act 1824. As the Secretary of State has said, the Vagrancy Act is outdated and has to go. This Bill was introduced initially with a placeholder clause, allowing for a replacement to the Act to be added. During the passage of the Bill, however, we have listened to the depth of feeling from Members across the House, and particularly from my hon. Friend Nickie Aiken, who has campaigned passionately on this issue. After working with Members across the House and having reflected on the right approach to the replacement legislation, I have tabled amendments to remove the placeholder clause. I can commit to the House that the Government will not bring forward any amendments to the Bill on this subject. We will, though, be working with the Home Office to make sure that the police and others have the tools they need to protect communities and ensure that people feel safe.
I absolutely welcome the Government’s action on this. Does the Minister agree that the best way to deal with the street population is through proper outreach and not through criminalising their behaviour?
I completely agree with that sentiment. Any new legislation that may be introduced at a future date will not be looking to criminalise anyone for just being homeless. That is a firm commitment that I can make here today. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Let us look at the Government’s rough sleeping strategy as an example, and at the other ways we can outreach to ensure that those who find themselves homeless, often through no fault of their own, find the support they need to get back on their feet.
On vagrancy, my colleagues and I look forward to continuing to work with Members across the House on our goal of ending rough sleeping and ensuring that people in need receive appropriate support to help them move away from life on the streets for good.
Strengthening our communities also means strengthening local leadership. We all know from our constituencies that Whitehall, however well intentioned, cannot always understand a community as well as the local people who live and work within it, so our ambition is for local areas to determine their own futures, allowing local leaders to take charge and enable their communities to thrive. We therefore want to offer the option of a devolution deal with a directly elected leader to every part of England that wants one by 2030, creating clear local leadership and greater accountability for any new powers conferred on them.
Members will recall that the Bill puts in place a framework to achieve this by creating a new model of combined authority—a combined county authority—which is more suitable for areas outside urban centres. This means that areas and communities everywhere, not just in major cities, can benefit from bespoke devolution deals that work for them. Providing these opportunities for all communities across England will increase innovation and enhance local accountability. This in turn will lead to more co-ordinated decision making with greater flexibility over funding, all of which will empower areas to attract more inward investment.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have been grateful for the support that our reforms have attracted in our discussions with hon. Members and local areas, and Members will be aware that our devolution negotiations and conversations are continuing at pace. In the summer, we announced new devolution deals with York and North Yorkshire, and with parts of the east midlands: Derby, Derbyshire, Nottingham and Nottinghamshire. There are more deals to be signed soon. Implementation of the east midlands deal is dependent on provisions in this Bill gaining Royal Assent and coming into effect, but they will of course be subject to statutory processes, including parliamentary approval of secondary legislation on creating new institutions with the devolved powers. The invaluable feedback from our discussions so far has allowed us to table three amendments today to put some matters beyond doubt.
As I say, we have discussions under way at the moment and we are looking ahead to which new devolution deals we can start exploring. I am certainly happy to work with my hon. Friend to see if this is something we can deliver in his local area in Cumbria, too.
Our first amendment relates to clause 16, which allows the conferral of local authority functions, including those of county councils, unitary councils and district councils, on to a combined county authority, or CCA.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, because this is of seminal importance to all second-tier councils around the country. I therefore welcome Government amendment 29. Can she confirm, for the avoidance of any doubt, that this means, as the explanatory statement suggests, that there is no question of the functions of a district council in a two-tier area being handled by a combined county authority and that, although it says
“a CCA may make provision”,
a CCA cannot make provision where there is a second-tier council?
I can confirm that, and my hon. Friend pre-empts the next bit of my speech, which will hopefully provide some reassurance.
Clause 16 is essential to enable CCAs to be conferred with, for example, the economic development and regeneration functions of a council so that it can deliver them over a wider area, thus driving growth. Although it was never the Government’s intention, we have heard concerns from colleagues on both sides of the House, as well as from local authorities and the District Councils Network, that the clause could be used for the purpose of upward devolution. So there can be absolutely no doubt, we are explicitly precluding the conferral of two-tier district council functions on to a combined county authority. This amendment reflects the Government’s commitment that devolution legislation will not be used to reallocate functions between tiers of local government.
Government amendment 29 will still allow for combined county authorities to exercise functions with district councils concurrently or jointly, facilitating joint working on important issues where there is a local wish to do so. I hope that addresses the concern embodied in amendment 17, tabled in the name of Lisa Nandy, who is not currently in the Chamber.
Our second amendment provides for the effective co-ordination of highways infrastructure, to enable key route networks to operate effectively. Improving key route networks across towns and cities is a Government priority, and we want to facilitate the improvement of transport links as much as possible. The co-ordination of transport across the area of a combined authority or combined county authority is a tool that local leaders across the country have told us is valuable. We therefore propose an amendment to meet the commitment in the levelling-up White Paper to provide a new power of direction for Mayors and combined county authorities, to increase Mayors’ control over key route networks. This will enable them to better co-ordinate the delivery of highways infrastructure, which is needed for effective key route networks across the whole of their authority area.
Our third amendment is a small amendment to improve the partnership between police and crime commissioners and local leaders by clarifying legislation to ensure that PCCs can participate in local government committee meetings. Stronger partnership working between local leaders is central to the Government’s priority of ensuring that local voices are heard on important issues and that decision making is informed by a variety of perspectives in order to deliver our ambitions.
These three amendments add to the strong foundations the Bill already provides for devolution, by going further to solve the specific issues that areas face. In that spirit, I can announce that we will shortly be consulting on how houses in multiple occupation are valued for council tax purposes. The consultation, to be launched by January, will look at situations where individual tenants can, in certain circumstances, be landed with their own council tax bill and will consider whether the valuation process needs to change. Our clear intention is for HMOs to be classed as single dwellings, other than in exceptional circumstances.
It is important to look at the balance of council tax attributions for HMOs, but will the Minister confirm that any local authority that has such HMOs will have its council tax settlements adjusted, should a decision result in it making a net loss in such a situation?
We will be consulting on this as a matter of urgency, and I am happy to take this away and to work with my hon. Friend to make sure we find a settled solution that works for local authorities.
If regulation is required, the measure will allow that regulation to be in place before the Bill receives Royal Assent. I thank my hon. Friend Dame Caroline Dinenage and my right hon. Friend Penny Mordaunt for their campaign highlighting this issue, which I know affects other MPs. The Secretary of State and I look forward to meeting their local businessman, Mr Brewer, in the coming days.
Separately, I can confirm that, during the Bill’s passage in the other place, we intend to table amendments addressing circumstances in which authorities have to pay hope value when they compulsorily purchase land in an effort to regenerate their area.
Finally, we have also tabled amendments to make minor corrections and clarifications in support of high street rental auctions and compulsory purchase reforms. These amendments will ensure the policy objectives of these measures can be achieved in full.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way a second time. I thank her and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities team for listening so carefully to the concerns of Members on both sides of the House. What she says about new clause 7, tabled by my hon. Friend Dame Caroline Dinenage, is incredibly reassuring for people who are renting in HMOs. The ability to fine tune legislation is so precious.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his incredibly kind words.
I thank Members on both sides of the House for the constructive way in which they have engaged with this important Bill. I look forward to hearing their contributions to today’s debate, and I commend our amendments to the House.
It is a pleasure to speak for the Opposition in these proceedings.
The Public Bill Committee had 27 sittings over four months. The Government enjoyed it so much that they sent seven Ministers and three Whips to share the joy of line-by-line scrutiny. Which was my favourite? How could I choose between those 27 glorious sittings? They were very good debates, as the Minister said.
When it comes to levelling up, we have been clear from the outset that we feel the Bill is a missed opportunity. It ought to have been a chance for the Government finally to set out what their levelling-up agenda really is and what it means for the country. It was a chance to turn the rhetoric and all the press releases into reality. Instead of translating three years of promises into genuinely transformative change, we do not feel the Bill takes as much further forward. After the White Paper and now this Bill, we are still searching for the big, bold change for which the country is crying out and that the Government promised. The Bill has squandered that opportunity, and it seems those premises will be broken.
Levelling up is supposedly the defining mission of this Government but, after all the talk and all the promises, all they could muster was bolting a few clauses on to the front of a planning Bill. It serves no one to pretend that that is not the reality. Where is the plan to tackle entrenched regional inequalities? Where is the plan to unleash the wasted potential of our nations and regions? And where is the plan to get power out of Whitehall and into our towns, villages and communities?
Part 1 of the Bill establishes the levelling-up missions and the rules for reporting progress made against them. The missions are an area of consensus. Who in this House does not want to see a reduction in the disparities in healthy life expectancy, regional investment and educational outcomes? The problem is that, although the Government set out their supposed policy programme to deliver on these missions in their White Paper, it is in reality a mishmash of activity, much of which is already happening. We seek to improve this with amendment 10, as the missions should be accompanied by a full action plan setting out the activity taking place and how it will contribute to delivering the missions. I would hope that the Government already have such action plans, if levelling up really is such a totemic priority, but I fear they do not, because levelling up is not a priority.
The hon. Gentleman has mentioned a couple of times the important question of levelling up across the country. Does he accept that, under the last Labour Government, one of the biggest challenges for many of us was that, although huge amounts of money were funnelled into metropolitan cities, smaller cities in counties around the country completely missed out? A huge amount of progressive work has been done by this Government to ensure that constituencies such as mine in Gloucester do not miss out on the levelling-up programme.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that, when we talk about levelling up, it should never be north versus south or London versus the rest of the UK, and that it should recognise that, across all communities, there are challenges and areas that need support. I think that is an area of consensus.
I stress that the hon. Gentleman is talking about the previous Labour Government, not the last Labour Government. I was at secondary school for much of that period, and I am not sure that relitigating it would advance this debate. I do not see that huge progressive changes have come through in the intervening 12 years, as he sees it, and I do not see them on the horizon either. Conservative Members may disagree with me on this point, which is fine, but if the Government are so sure of their case that this Bill will be very impactful, where is the impact assessment? Its publication is long overdue, and the stream of Ministers who came through the Committee all promised to publish it. It was signed off by the Regulatory Policy Committee on
We recognise that progress will not always be linear, and there will be times when reports—certainly the annual reports—into the missions may show a lack of progress or a need to operate differently. That will be challenging for the Government of the day, but it is an important part of the process, because that is how we will generate change. At the moment, however, the Bill states that these reports must be published within 120 days. There will be situations where the Government are not delivering on a mission and change is badly needed, but the report will be nearly a third of a year into the next year. We think that that is too late to generate meaningful change, so we seek with amendments 12 and 13 to reduce that to 30 days. I cannot believe that that is not sufficient. Surely, the reports are developed during the year, and a month ought to be enough to finish them off.
This is another key point of difference, because the sad reality is that rather than learning and reacting year by year to ensure that progress is made, the Government have an alternative plan. When they fail, they will simply change the mission, the methodology or the metrics. As set out in clause 4, they want to mark their own homework. With this clause, they are saying the quiet part out loud: that they will not deliver on these aims, and when they do not, they will just change them. That will not do. This was a serious promise made to the British public, and it ought to be kept. That is why we think that, as set out in amendment 14, this entire clause should be deleted. That is mirrored in amendment 11, where we have sought to remove the Secretary of State’s ability to discontinue a levelling-up mission. This is at best a ministerial convenience, but in reality a political crutch.
I listened carefully to the case made by the Minister—she is the Minister twice removed—for including these provisions, namely that unforeseeable events might mean that the Government of the day need such flexibility. I think that that is questionable, at best, but in the spirit of cross-party co-operation we have tabled amendment 64 as a compromise. That would mean that in genuinely unforeseen circumstances, Ministers could change the missions and their metrics, with the consent of a majority of this place and the other place. I would hope that that offers a happy medium. If the Government are not minded to accept the amendment, it tells us everything about the extent of their commitment to this agenda.
What we want the Government to do, and what they should want to do themselves, is to build confidence in their plans and their commitment to those plans, as set out in Amendment 8. Such Office for Budget Responsibility-style external, high-quality scrutiny would give the Government a real chance to demonstrate that their efforts are working and to help them change course where they are not. Similarly, amendment 15 would give this body the opportunity to comment on whether the levelling-up missions themselves are contributing to reducing geographical disparities. I think that that would be a real asset to the Government.
Resources are at the heart of the matter, and we want the Government to put to one side the rather bizarre spin that we saw at Monday’s departmental questions and be honest about the resources available for levelling-up, as we have suggested in amendment 9. This matters more than ever, which brings me to new clause 41. The Government’s inflation crisis is a serious risk to levelling-up as currently constituted and funded. The successful bids for round 1 of the levelling-up fund were announced more than a year ago, and the bids were designed a significant period of time before that. Clearly, much has changed since then. The previous Secretary of State confirmed to me in his single appearance at departmental questions that these bids can be downgraded to account for extra cost, and that is a serious concern. Local communities have entered into commitments in good faith, and expectations have been built up. They should not be hindered by the damage this Government have done to our economy; that is not good enough.
Similarly, round 2 bids were submitted before the Government drove the nation’s finances into a ditch at the mini-Budget. Either those bids will be downgraded, or fewer of them will be successful. I asked the Minister on Monday during departmental questions which it would be, but I did not get an answer. We should get that answer today, or—even better—the Government should accept new clause 41.
Finally on part 1, we welcome new clause 84, tabled by my hon. Friend Margaret Greenwood. Literacy really ought to be at the heart of all we do.
I move now to provisions, amendments and clauses relating to part 2. Part 2 establishes combined county authorities. We are supportive of structures that allow for the greater devolution of power and resources from Whitehall to town hall. We also agree that it is desirable for there to be alignment with combined authorities more generally. Our concern in Committee was that we believe that these bodies and entities should receive powers from the centre, rather than absorbing powers from councils. That is why we tabled amendment 17. In line with what the Minister has said and what was set out in Friday’s written ministerial statement, we welcome Government amendment 29, which renders ours unnecessary. We are grateful that the Government have listened and moved on this point.
We do, however, want the establishment of CCAs to be as swift and painless as possible, and we have been told that Ministers intend to use guidance to ensure that that is the case. We think that that must happen promptly, and our amendment 18 calls for it to happen within six months. That is probably a reasonable timeframe, because we suspect that it has already been drafted. If that timeframe is not desirable, will the Minister at least say when she anticipates the production of the guidance?
I turn now to clause 58 and our amendment 19. The clause looks quite docile but is hugely significant. We have been told throughout proceedings that the purpose of part 2 of the Bill is for CCAs to mirror combined authorities, but this provision changes the rules governing combined authorities, and we do not think it has a place in the Bill. Currently, an elected Mayor can assume the police and crime commissioner role for their combined authority area if there is coterminosity and, crucially, if there is local agreement amongst constituent authorities. The clause changes that and states that the Mayor can assume these powers unilaterally. That is a significant and wholly unnecessary change.
In reality, virtually all combined authority Mayors either have PCC powers already, or cannot have PCC powers because of their boundaries. There is a tiny third category—indeed, I can only think of the one case in the West Midlands—where the Mayor does not have PCC powers but could do. The intention of the clause seems to be to change that. Eighteen months ago, the public voted for a Conservative Mayor and a Labour police and crime commissioner. That was their right, and their judgment must be respected. This clause allows Ministers to overreach and let the Mayor change that. That is unacceptable. I hope the Minister will reflect on that and delete the clause, which is an outlier in this Bill.
We are supportive of new clause 71, which is in the name of George Eustice. It would mean that all areas, with or without a Mayor, could access tier 3 devolution deals. The Opposition believe that all communities should have access to the maximum devolution of power and that governance arrangements should reflect local wishes. Currently, the Government will only give maximum powers if in return communities accept a Mayor, which is the Government’s preferred model. We are proud of our country’s Mayors. A significant number—I dare say a majority—are Labour and Co-operative ones, and they are very good indeed. We believe that those structures should reflect the choice of the local community, as set out in the new clause. I hope the Minister will look kindly on it.
Accordingly, we cannot support new clause 1, which will give the Secretary of State the unilateral right to impose a Mayor on local authorities that they deem to be failing. That would be an inversion of devolution, and we cannot support it.
I move on to parts 7, 8 and 9, to which we offered a significant number of amendments in Committee. In general terms, we are supportive of the provisions contained in part 7 concerning compulsory purchase. We believe that they are sensible and proportionate measures that will give local authorities clearer, more efficient and more effective powers; greater confidence that they can acquire land by compulsion to support regeneration schemes; and greater certainty that land can be assembled and schemes delivered quickly through compulsory purchase.
We also supported the Government new clause tabled in Committee concerning compensation in relation to hope value, on the grounds that it would help to expedite development in cases where a certificate of appropriate alternative development is unlikely to be awarded, and it would make many more such developments financially viable. We are grateful to have heard from the Minister in her opening remarks about where the Government might go next with that. We do not feel that there is a pressing need for the statutory review of the powers proposed in new clause 34, but we take no issue with new clause 66, which represents a sensible consolidation and modernisation of compulsory purchase law along the lines suggested by the Law Commission.
On part 8, we are very pleased to see the Government bring forward proposals for high street rental auctions. Sites that lie vacant on our high streets pull the area down. We need to get these sites into use, and rental auctions are a good way to do so. In Committee, we felt that there were too many loopholes in this process, so we are pleased to see and support Government amendments 40 to 44, which tighten matters. In reality, we want to go much further. We want a proper community right to buy important assets, high street or otherwise. It was disappointing that the Government rejected it in Committee, but the next Labour Government will correct that. More generally, it is regrettable that the Bill does not say more about community power, and that the Government have resisted all our efforts to insert community power provisions into the Bill. We may need a general election before we can resolve that.
On part 9, if we are to have effective use of land across all communities, we need to know who owns it so that they can be supported to use it. In extremis, we can use powers under parts 7 and 8. In Committee, we put a number of questions to Ministers that we do not think have quite been addressed yet. We hope that they will be answered in closing, but in broad terms we support the provision.
Finally, I turn to clause 190, relating to the Government’s proposed reintroduction of the Vagrancy Act 1824, notwithstanding Parliament’s repeal of the Act during proceedings on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. Even by the low standards set by this Government this was a particularly shoddy affair. Putting aside the blatant disregard for this place, it shows a genuine lack of humanity and care for the most vulnerable. We are very pleased to see that efforts on both sides of the Chamber—I congratulate Nickie Aiken in this regard—have borne fruit and that the Government now seek to remove this provision with Government amendment 1, which of course we support. But I hope that the Secretary of State does not seek credit in having belatedly supported this amendment given that this is his own Bill—his own provision. Similarly, we debated this in Committee only five weeks ago and at that point the Minister defended its inclusion; what does that say about the Government’s judgment in this matter?
I have one final question for the Minister. Thursday’s business statement programmed in next Monday for the second part of remaining stages on this Bill. There are not many well-kept secrets in Westminster and it is not a well-kept secret that that is not going to happen. Surely the Government are not running scared of their own Back Benchers on this; what is going on? Can we have clarity from the Minister that the Bill is coming back next week, because these are important provisions. The Minister says that if they are held up, it will affect the roll-out of devolution, which will be very bad. I hope we will get some clarity that the Government will step up and deliver on the promises they have made.
This Bill is a missed opportunity. Today, as in Committee, we have sought to help the Government improve it. I fear once again for our prospects in this regard, but that is because this Government are interested in the politics of levelling up, not the delivery of it for all of our nations and regions. This Government will never level up, and they should get out of the way for one who will.
I rise to set out the case for new clauses 70 and 71 in my name with the support of my hon. Friend Derek Thomas as well as numerous other Members from all parts of the House, including several Liberal Democrats, among them its leader, about which I will say a little more later.
I was very pleased that the Chancellor made direct reference to Cornwall in the context of the next round of devolution deals in his autumn statement last week, but linked to the agreement is a more controversial decision about whether Cornwall should have a directly elected leader, or mayor. I can see both sides of the argument and am genuinely agnostic. On the one hand, having a directly elected mayor could create, in one individual, a powerful voice for Cornwall; it could strengthen the accountability to local people in a more direct way, rather than have a model that relies heavily on a council chief executive. On the other side of the argument, however, the idea of a single individual representing the whole of Cornwall unsettles some of our Cornish sensibilities. We have a motto in Cornwall, “One and all”, but can this Cornish mindset based around the idea of shared endeavour be properly represented in a “One for all” system of democratic accountability? In addition, if we were to have lots of councillors from one party but a directly elected leader from another, or indeed from no party at all, would that create tensions and undermine good governance? This is therefore a significant decision for our councillors in Cornwall, and it is essential that all parties allow their councillors a free vote on the issue so that the advantages and disadvantages can be debated openly ahead of a final collective decision.
My contention today is that, whatever Cornwall eventually decides to do by way of structure of governance, it should nevertheless be granted an ambitious tier 3 devolution agreement. If having a mayoral system is such a powerful idea, it will carry the day irrespective of whether the Government dangle new money and new powers as an incentive. If it turns out not to be a good idea, however, the problems created might be more expensive than the perceived benefits of the deal.
I know that the Government seek to bring more clarity and consistency to local government structure, and I completely understand, for what we have now is something of a hotchpotch. But there are powerful reasons, rooted in centuries of history, for treating Cornwall as a special case, for Cornwall has a distinct and subtly different place within the British constitution. The nature and origins of this Cornish particularism are often misunderstood and sometimes even mocked by people “up country,” as we say, who do not know what they are talking about, but Cornwall is different. It has a highly Unionist tendency, sealed through the Crown down the centuries. Its geography as a peninsula gives it a self-reliance, and with that a resilience. Cornwall can occasionally be somewhat aloof, but it is only ever hostile to other parts of the country when deliberately provoked. It is eternally proud of its distinctiveness.
Historically, during Anglo-Saxon times, Cornwall was named “West Wales” and the links with Wales go back a long way. As we were recently reminded after the passing of Her late Majesty the Queen, it is also a constitutional rule that the eldest son of the monarch automatically assumes the title of Duke of Cornwall, and that has been the case down the ages. While there has been a more recent convention that future kings should first become Prince of Wales, it has always been more than a convention—it has been a constitutional rule—that future kings must first be the Duke of Cornwall.
In addition, the Duchy of Cornwall performs some of the functions that elsewhere fall to the Crown Estate. Until the 1700s there was a Cornish Stannary Parliament that had the power to veto certain English tax laws in Cornwall as part of a constitutional settlement to accommodate tin mining interests. Indeed, an attempt to disregard that settlement led to the Cornish rebellion of 1497. Finally, Cornwall was the only Royalist enclave in the south-west during the civil war and, had the Royalists won, it is likely that Cornwall would have been granted an administrative status similar to that of Wales.
The Kilbrandon report in the early 1970s acknowledged the distinctiveness of Cornwall and its unique status within our constitution, and suggested that it should be regarded as a duchy rather than just a normal county of England. A decade ago, this unique constitutional position was given modern expression when the coalition Government gave Cornwall special recognition, with the Cornish being acknowledged as a national minority under the European framework convention, alongside the Welsh, the Irish and the Scottish. In the best Cornish tradition, securing this recognition was a team effort, with cross-party support both within the council in Cornwall and here in this House. In those days, half the Cornish MPs were Conservative and the other half Lib Dem, and for once we agreed. As I mentioned at the start of my speech, I am grateful for the support that the Liberal Democrats have given these amendments, and let me take this opportunity to acknowledge the work that their party did at the time to secure that recognition. In particular, I remember that the former Liberal Democrat MP Dan Rogerson campaigned on the issue for several years.
My amendments draw on that recognition given a decade ago. New clause 70 states that, when making decisions about devolution deals, the Government must give special consideration to areas that contain a national minority covered by the framework convention. New clause 71 goes further and would require the Government to provide for regulations to grant a tier 3 devolution deal to areas covered by that framework convention.
Accepting these amendments would enable the Government to demonstrate that they take their commitments to the framework convention seriously. It would, of course, make Cornwall a special and unique case, which the Minister’s officials might consider untidy, but it was ever thus; throughout history Cornwall has had a unique place within the British constitution, and it is only right that this Cornish exceptionalism should continue. I therefore commend these two new clauses to the House.
Because so much of the Bill focuses on England only, I will concentrate my remarks on amendment 14. The fact that this amendment has to be tabled at all shows that the Government cannot, and do not expect to, meet their own expectations raised in the Bill. There is nothing more dangerous than raising expectations that will not be met.
This is not just a Bill in the usual sense; levelling up is not a run-of-the-mill promise that can easily be broken and forgotten. According to the Government, the very concept of levelling up is a flagship policy—a policy designed to change the face of the UK, genuinely to seek to spread prosperity and opportunity, and to make our communities better right across the board. Anyone who has such expectations based on what the Government have said about the Bill and its aims will, I fear, be disappointed. The very fact that amendment 14 exists illustrates that they will be disappointed. It is not credible that a Government so in love with austerity can be trusted to level up in any meaningful and sustainable way. Growth in the UK has been fatally undermined by both incompetence and Brexit. That is why amendment 14 matters and why we in the SNP support it.
In the absence of growth and grown-up and frank conversations about the damage of Brexit, we have instead vague missions, with no real plans for delivery—missions that are, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, of dubious quality. Yet still the Government have reserved to themselves the power to change the goalposts. That demonstrates that the Government are not even clear about how they will measure the success or the progress of the very missions that they have set themselves.
An annual report can apparently make everything all right, but it simply will not be enough to keep the Government on track to achieve their objectives. There is also a lack of ownership and accountability for each of the 12 levelling-up missions by individual Government Departments. None of this is news to the Government, of course, which is why they have retained that authority to move the goalposts and change their own targets if they are not going to be met. This is like someone marking their own homework and reserving the right to change the pass mark of the test that they have set themselves. That does not sound like a Government who are confident about their own delivery, even though we are talking about a flagship policy.
Does the hon. Lady honestly think that there is something fundamentally wrong in a Government Department saying that it will have measures and targets, that it will review, and that it may recalibrate and tweak in order to reflect circumstances over a period of time? Governments do not straitjacket themselves. There has to be flexibility, particularly when taxpayers’ money is being deployed.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It is not about flexibility; it is about credibility. There is nothing wrong with the aims as articulated by the UK Government, but a Government cannot set themselves a task, call it a flagship policy and then reserve the right to move the goalposts as and when they fail to make progress. That is an important point.
The hon. Gentleman brings me to another very important matter. On the delivery of levelling up, what of the bids that were announced as being successful this time last year? We are in a different situation now, because the costs of labour and resources are being impacted by inflationary pressures. With regard to infrastructure projects, for example, road stone inflation is currently running at around 35%. This means that, in order to continue to support the levelling-up projects to which they have committed funds, the UK Government must increase the awards already made to take account of inflation, or councils must make up the difference because of the impact of inflation, which is difficult as council resources are already very stretched, or projects that were envisaged and costed last year are significantly scaled back. If it is the latter, that is very serious, because even successful levelling-up bids cannot have the impact that was first envisaged when the bids were made and approved. It is a mess.
There is also a significant impact on projects currently awaiting approval as they will be similarly hit with soaring inflation. I am very keen to find out how this will be dealt with. If this is not taken into account, bids already approved are hamstrung and cannot have the impact envisaged, which means that levelling up, as set out in the Bill, will amount to even less than it did before, with its vague missions and moving goalposts. It is no wonder that the Government want the ability to move the goalposts.
How ironic that, after more than a decade of Tory misrule and austerity, the UK is in a worse position than it should be, facing the worst downturn of any advanced economy in the world. No eurozone country is expected to decline as much as the UK, and, as a whole, the eurozone is expected to grow—so much for levelling up. In this context, marking their own homework and permitting changes to the mission, progress and methodology start to make the Government look more than a little suspicious. They could, of course, support amendment 14 and put all those suspicions to bed.
We are supposed to be persuaded simply by the mere passing of a Bill, vague and lacking in credibility as it is, that this Government can and will deliver levelling up. It is almost Orwellian. At the very point that we have a weakened economy, crumbling exports, rising food prices, rising energy prices, challenges with our fuel supply, and with the Government’s own forecasts predicting worse to come, the Secretary of State has the power to change the mission and progress of levelling up. That does not look like a Government who are confident and certain that they will actually deliver the meaningful levelling up that they say they want to deliver. However, if they support amendment 14, they could commit themselves in a way that would be far more credible.
In the time available to me today, I will cover two amendments to the Bill, both of which I originally tabled. One has been taken on by the Secretary of State, for which I am incredibly grateful.
First, new clause 4, which stands in my name, is a technical amendment. My constituency covers two local government areas: the City of Westminster and the City of London. Both are subject to the rules governing the participation of councillors in formal discussion or in voting on matters where they have a pecuniary interest, as per the Localism Act 2011. The rules apply to Westminster and the City of London, but in the City, uniquely, there is an additional provision, contained in what is now section 618 of the Housing Act 1985, that bans councillors outright from discussing or voting on such matters. Contravening this ban constitutes a criminal offence.
The history of these provisions has been examined by the City’s officials, but their origin remains unexplained. These provisions have simply been repeated without comment in successive consolidations of housing legislation over the past 30 years. Members may ask why I have tabled this amendment. I do so because I believe, as I am sure everyone in this place does, that local people should be represented at council decision-making meetings, such as planning committees, when an application within a ward is being heard. As things stand, if there is a planning application that affects, say, the Barbican or Golden Lane estates in the City, a local councillor who represents Aldersgate or Cripplegate but who lives on one of those estates cannot speak at committee. To do so could lead to their being prosecuted. That is outdated and in fact outrageous.
By removing the punitive provisions in subsections 618(3) and (4) of the 1985 Act, my amendment corrects that anomaly and allows members of the Court of Common Council in the City of London to represent their residents, as every other councillor in the country does. This is a matter of equality of treatment, with which I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister will agree.
Secondly, I want to touch on Government amendment 1. The case for repealing the Vagrancy Act 1824 was made in this Chamber during debate on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. From conversations I have had with both the Metropolitan Police and the City of London Police, I believe alternative powers to deal with aggressive begging are already available and are being used, as we would expect. We have those powers from the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, so it should be no surprise that arrests and prosecutions under the Vagrancy Act have plummeted since 2014.
In practice, we have not seen a sudden crime wave as a result of repealing the Vagrancy Act, but we have seen many lives extended and improved. That feels very much in keeping with the aims of the Government’s levelling-up agenda. We must support those on the street to turn their lives around, not criminalise them. I thank the Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend Michael Gove, for the time he has given me to discuss this amendment, and I am grateful that the Government have now accepted my arguments and taken on my amendment as their own.
To conclude, I welcome the Bill. It sets out to achieve a lot, and I believe it will benefit from amendments made today. I look forward to seeing its progression in the other place and its final stages in due course.
I will focus my remarks on new clause 84, tabled in my name. I thank colleagues who have put their names to it.
New clause 84 would require the Government to include reducing geographical disparities in adult literacy as one of their levelling-up missions. Additionally, it would require them, during each mission period, to review levels of adult literacy in the UK, to publish the findings of that review and to set out a strategy to improve levels of adult literacy and eradicate illiteracy in the UK. I believe that that is vital.
Poor literacy skills and illiteracy often consign people to insecure and low-paid work. They are a form of deprivation that can lead to isolation and poverty and can leave people vulnerable to exploitation. They can also impact on their children, as people with very low literacy skills often lack the confidence and ability to read to their children when they are young or assist them with their homework when they are older. That compounds the problem and means that a whole cohort of children are disadvantaged due to a lack of support at home in learning to enjoy reading. Very low literacy levels also leave people unable to fulfil their potential in other ways, such as navigating opportunities for travel, training, housing, leisure or work.
It is quite remarkable that the most recent national survey of adult basic skills in England was the 2011 skills for life survey, commissioned by the previous Labour Government. The survey interviewed more than 7,200 adults aged 16-65 in England and assessed their literacy, numeracy and information and communications technology skills. Their skills were assessed against the five lowest national qualification framework levels, which are entry levels 1 to 3 and levels 1 and 2.
As a guide, entry level 1 is equivalent to the expected level of attainment for pupils aged 5 to 6; entry level 2 to that for ages 7 to 9 and entry level 3 to that for ages 9 to 11. Adults with literacy skills at entry level 3 or below are deemed to be functionally illiterate. The survey found that in 2011 5.1 million adults, or 14.9% of the adult population, had literacy levels at entry level 3 or below, meaning that they were functionally illiterate.
The survey looked at differences between the regions in England and found that rates of functional illiteracy varied considerably. The highest levels were in London at 28% and the lowest were in the rest of the south-east and the south-west at 9%. Those figures demonstrate clear disparities among the regions, although one reason thought to be behind the high figure for London was the much higher proportion of adults living there for whom English is not their first spoken language.
However, analysis of only those adults with English as a first language shows that their rates of functional illiteracy were still highest in London and the north-east, both at 17%. Meanwhile, in the south-east, they were almost half that level at 9% and in the south-west 8%, while the national average was 12%. Those are the findings of the 2011 survey.
In 2022, according to the National Literacy Trust, 7.1 million adults in England can be described as functionally illiterate—so clearly things have got worse, not better. Such people can understand accurately and independently short, straightforward text on familiar topics, and obtain information from everyday sources, but reading information from unfamiliar sources or topics could cause problems.
Those 7.1 million adults represent 16.4%—or one in six—of the adult population in England. In Scotland, one in four adults experiences challenges because of a lack of literacy skills; in Northern Ireland, one in five adults has poor literacy skills; and in Wales, one in eight adults lacks basic literacy skills. That represents a crisis, and one that requires immediate attention from the Government. It is shameful that there has been no follow-up by the Government to the 2011 skills for life survey, which was commissioned by the last Labour Government. Why has there been no survey since?
We are considering levelling up, so it is important to understand that there are also regional disparities in the take-up of adult education in general. Nesta noted in its 2020 report, “Education for all: making the case for a fairer adult learning system”:
“There are major differences in the rates of participation in adult learning in different parts of the UK”.
According to its analysis,
“the South West and London stood out from the other regions, reporting higher participation levels of about 16 per cent. In contrast, Northern Ireland reported participation of around 10 per cent,” and participation was also low in the north-east of England. It also found huge differences in participation within individual regions. For instance, the analysis showed that London had the greatest variation in participation of any region; the participation of adults in the west and north-west of outer London was 18%, compared with just 12% in the east of inner London.
“We need to level up lifelong learning” and that
“we’re limiting people’s opportunities based on who they are and where they’re from. We’ve got to change that.”
I think he is absolutely right, and I hope the Minister takes note. Improving levels of adult literacy is important not only for empowering individuals to make the most of their lives, but for the economy, too. The millions of people who struggle to read and write undoubtedly make up a large proportion of those furthest away from the labour market.
As the WEA has noted, employers say that they value essential skills such as communication, teamwork and creative thinking, as well as the foundation of literacy, numeracy and digital skills. The CBI says that over 90% of the workforce will need to retrain by 2030. Clearly, those who struggle to read and write must be a priority for the Government if we are to improve productivity and address inequality.
Organisations such as the Good Things Foundation do important work on digital literacy and supporting people in need. Digital literacy skills are very important and have become more so as the world of work and methods of communication have changed drastically in recent years. However, people need literacy skills to acquire digital literacy, so we need action from the Government. It is notable that the Government introduced a £560 million adult numeracy programme last year, but there was nothing for literacy. Why? It is an essential skill for life in the 21st century. The Institute for Fiscal Studies cited a 50% fall in spending on classroom-based adult education between 2010-11 and 2020-21. That represents a massive cut in the provision of community-based adult learning opportunities, which are crucial for the delivery of adult literacy.
Addressing the crisis in adult literacy is a matter of real urgency if we are to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to reach their potential and if we are to address the economic challenges that our country faces. It makes absolutely no sense for the Government to continue ignoring this crisis. There can be no levelling up in the UK without a focused and well-resourced response to the crisis in adult literacy. I call on Members across the House to support new clause 84.
It is nice to be called near the beginning of a debate, Mr Deputy Speaker; I am grateful that I have managed to catch your eye—perhaps it is because I have put a tie on today. I am also grateful for the chance to speak on Report, as I sat on the Bill Committee in its latter stages, but for only five of the many, many sessions that Alex Norris mentioned, so I experienced only a fraction of the joy that he did.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak given my interest both in this place and as the leader of a council that is directly involved in devolution negotiations. Indeed, they are probably some of the more advanced negotiations and, to proceed, they require the Bill to pass. I thank the Minister for her response on a number of technical points in recent days and weeks, and for her commitment to this agenda, which I know she is passionate about.
The amendments focus largely on devolution in combined authorities. As I have repeated, I am frustrated that the planning parts are even in the Bill. It started as a Levelling-Up Bill, but planning was added to it later and has complicated it and made it difficult and controversial. Those could have been two separate things. We could have flown through this very quickly. I know it is before the Minister’s time, so I do not expect her to account for that, but the Bill could have been far simpler than it now is. The timing of all this is vital for the delivery of some of these combined authorities. If the Bill is delayed, it will delay the timeline for the delivery of these outcomes that we all seek, so it is important that the Bill is allowed to progress quickly.
Since my right hon. Friend Boris Johnson said some 18 months ago that these deals would be a key driver for levelling up, progress has been positive. Mansfield is often at the wrong end of many tables that would put it front and centre of the levelling-up agenda, so we wanted to be at the front of the queue for new powers and new funds. We are currently consulting on a new devolution deal, worth £1.14 billion initially in additional gainshare funding into our region, plus powers over transport, skills and economic development.
Huge opportunities for us stem from this Bill and from other existing growth projects across the region, whether that is our freeport, our development company, which is also formalising and given its powers through this Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, integrated rail plan projects or spherical tokamak for energy production—STEP fusion—which was recently announced for north Nottinghamshire. When painting out this opportunity for business clubs, residents and education providers recently, I have used the STEP fusion example. It is a £20 billion project with investment from the Government and the UK Atomic Energy Authority that could put us front and centre of clean energy for the world in 20 or 30 years’ time. It is a huge, long-term project, and what devolution gives us—I would like to think this is part of why our area was attractive for the bid—is the ability not only to have a prototype power plant in the future, but to create the skills environment and training opportunities around it, working with our colleges and universities so that local children can take up those courses and move into that space. That way, rather than just importing nuclear scientists from other parts of the world, young people in places such as Mansfield are given the opportunity to build and create.
The deal also means we will have the power to fill in the gaps in our transport system and ensure local people can easily access those opportunities and get to and from those jobs. That is game changing. There will be kids in my constituency who, in 20 years’ time, will work not just in nuclear science but in its supply chain who could never have dreamed of those opportunities on their doorstep even just a few months ago. The power of this deal and these opportunities is incredibly meaningful. Finally, the east midlands can be in the premier league alongside other regional partners; I hope we will do a bit better than Forest so far, although things are picking up. The project is a huge opportunity.
I welcome new clauses 61 and 62, which enhance the powers of Mayors over that key route network. Members will not be surprised by this if they have campaigned in elections, particularly local elections, but highways are always at the top of residents’ list. They are probably the one service, particularly at upper-tier, county level, that everybody uses and experiences, so they are always top of the list. More power and opportunity to engage in this space and work with National Highways on a wider range of networks and to do that more closely and in a more joined-up way is beneficial. I also look forward to the negotiations for our region around this transport pot and investment that is part of our deal and is yet to come.
I am afraid I cannot support new clause 71 tabled by my right hon. Friend George Eustice. I appreciate that he was making a particular case for his area, and he was right to do so; we all do the same thing. But one benefit of devolution—the Government have said that every area across the country will have the right to access this opportunity—is the chance to have some clarity and consistency within a structure that is currently incredibly complicated. I speak for an area that has, arguably, three tiers of local government. We see a combined authority as an opportunity to make coherent sense of that and to pull us into a structure that allows us to have shared strategies.
Other areas might take a different view, but it is not inconsistent or unrealistic to say that if someone wants the same powers as the west midlands, for example, they should have the same accountable structure as the west midlands. That will allow Government to have a consistent relationship with each region and each part of the country with those regional Mayors. That is my personal view from my experience of that engagement. If, having devolved powers, built structures and offered everyone that chance, we end up with a more complicated structure with different systems across the country, that would be a bad thing.
My right hon. Friend knows Cornwall better than I do; I know it only as a holiday destination. I leave him to make the case for his particular place. I am sure that the Government will engage with him in that conversation. However, consistency is an important outcome from these proposals.
A number of amendments appear to duplicate things that are already happening around the country and in government. For example, new clause 46 speaks to a review of business rates, which I hope and trust the Government are already looking at. The Treasury review concluded last year and set out a five-year road map on that, but I hope the Government will take it further.
High streets and market towns in constituencies such as mine are really struggling. Local residents are shopping less because of the cost of living crisis and businesses cannot compete with online retailers because of business rates, so I am surprised that the Government are not supporting new clause 46. After all, one of their 2019 manifesto commitments was to review business rates in order to come up with a better model that can allow our high streets to thrive and help to level up regions where market towns are struggling.
I agree with the hon. Lady’s premise; I have made the same case to Government myself. I simply point out that last year’s Treasury report, which I was reading this morning, which laid out the conclusions of an initial review of business rates, set out a five-year timetable for change. It is not as powerful or as fast as I would like, but that review has already begun and therefore new clause 46 appears to duplicate action where it is already happening.
As we heard from Margaret Greenwood, new clause 84 seeks to get adult literacy written into levelling-up missions, but, as far as I can see, that is largely already there. The missions already speak to more people achieving basic standards of reading and writing, as well as improving skills, while one of the key strands of the devolved settlements is adult skills. It is fantastic that that is passed down to a regional level, giving us the opportunity to have far more clout and say over how such skills are delivered, so I think adult skills, such as numeracy and literacy, are at the forefront of the Bill as it stands.
As I just said, as far as I can see, the provision is already there and therefore the new clause is unnecessary. Our conversations about devolution within the region have revolved massively around adult skills. In the future, I would like to see Government further devolve powers in related areas, particularly around provision delivered by such organisations as the Department for Work and Pensions, so that there will be a chance to engage in employability conversations and boost basic skills. I look forward to conversations about that in the future.
From conversations with officials and Ministers, it is clear that once we have the framework and structure, we can come back and talk about new things we would like to see devolved down to our region. That is an example of an area where Whitehall struggles to join things up and where such matters can fall through the gaps in a siloed system. One of my favourite examples of that is youth work, which sits across about six Departments so a joined-up strategy is difficult to achieve. If we can devolve such matters to a regional level, we will be able to share budgets and strategies and do things more effectively. I hope we will be able to have those conversations with Government in the future.
My final point is about flexibility in local budgets. I had the honour of hosting the local government Minister, my hon. Friend Lee Rowley, in Nottinghamshire a few weeks ago. We went into great detail about the council budget, the opportunities and risks of it, and some of the things that could be done that do not cost the Government any money. In the spirit of empowering local leaders and devolving powers to local areas, it is key to give them more flexibility over existing budgets.
If I had the same budget in my local authority but all the rules and ringfences about what I could spend it on were removed, I would have a surplus and I would not have a problem. The lack of flexibility in the system means that I can spend the budget only on certain things that are not always the priority. There is a good opportunity, whether in the upcoming local government settlement or in the 2023 devolution deals and beyond, to genuinely empower local council leaders to be able to take decisions on funding key priorities.
I will point to one example. In common with many people, I have a bus service improvement fund in Nottinghamshire County Council that allows me to build bus lanes. At the same time, I have a shortfall in the funding that I need to keep the buses running. I could end up in a scenario where I have to build bus lanes, but I have no buses to run in them, even though the money is already in my bank account and if I were allowed to do so, I could spend it on keeping the buses. That is just one example, and there are many more. Flexibility and empowerment of local councils and leaders is hugely important. I am pleased that the Government have committed to that through devolution, but there is more that could be done to support the sustainability of local councils too.
In conclusion, the timescales of the Bill are hugely important. It needs to be completed on time in the spring or early summer if we are to pass statutory instruments and stick to timetables and targets for elections in 2024. I urge the Government to push the Bill through and ensure that we meet those timescales, otherwise my region will be stranded: the deal will be done, the structures will be in place and everything will be ready to go, but we will have to wait another year for another set of elections. That seems arbitrary and would be incredibly frustrating. We are at the front of the queue and we just want to be let in the door. I trust that the Government will recognise the importance of delivering on those commitments. I look forward, of course, to speaking to the Minister in due course about the success of Mansfield’s levelling-up fund bid—she may hear that from a few hon. Members in this debate—so there are many conversations still to have.
It is a pleasure to take part in the debate and to have heard the contributions so far, and an even greater pleasure to have been involved in all but two of the 27 Committee sittings—I missed them for the Westmorland county show, which is permissible in my opinion. I confess that I have not sat on a Committee for many years and I genuinely enjoyed it, which may be a peculiar thing to say. I enjoyed the civility of it, the way that we could go through the Bill line by line, and the fact that we could disagree—we disagreed pretty much politely throughout.
As has been observed by other hon. Members, the turnover of the ministerial team was rather like Mark E Smith’s The Fall—the Secretary of State was Mark E Smith in that characterisation, although even Mark E Smith never managed to sack himself. The turnover was remarkable, but all the Ministers were pleasant and well engaged, so I enjoyed the process.
The Bill is complex—there is a lot of it and a lot of detail—but I would argue that some of it is totally unnecessary, because levelling up the country needs not legislation but will. The phrase “levelling up” recognises that some regions of the United Kingdom, particularly in England, are behind others. Generally speaking, only London and the south-east tend to make a positive net contribution to GDP. The eastern region’s contribution is occasionally fractionally positive, but the rest of us technically make a negative contribution. That is not our fault; it is because of the way this country operates as a unipolar country, where all the resources are centred on London and its environs.
There is absolutely a need to level up, in the phrase that the Government have chosen, but the action seems starkly missing. Let us be honest: as we go through the process of public services and public spending cuts now, there is no doubt that the poorest regions of the country that are most in need of levelling up will, as always, be hardest hit, because those are the communities in which people most need public services. In my view, therefore, much of the Bill—for all that it has been a joy to discuss—is navel contemplation over action.
The part of the Bill that we are discussing that relates to devolution and the settlements and deals for local communities is thoroughly patronising. We are not actually being offered devolution at all, are we? We are being offered delegation. I am pleased to support new clause 71 in the name of George Eustice, whose kind words about my former and current colleagues are genuinely well received and I am grateful on their and my behalf. He talked about the importance of Cornwall being able to choose its own destiny, which I fully support and which, surely, is what we want for everywhere else as well if we believe in devolution and empowering local communities.
The various Ministers who we spoke to in Committee consistently reinforced the position that level 3, the highest tier of devolution, will be available only to those communities that choose a Mayor. That is not devolution but delegation to neaten up the system for the benefit of the Government rather than to empower local communities. If rural and diverse communities such as Cumbria, which is not dissimilar to Cornwall, decide that they want devolution, but do not want to choose the model the Government tell them to have, who the heck are the Conservative Government in Westminster to dictate either to Cornwall or Cumbria that it must have such a system? We would like devolution—we demand devolution—and we demand not to be told the format that it must take. An obsession with symmetry is typical of all parties that end up in office—sometimes.
Does the hon. Member not accept that, if we allow every area to dictate the way it has devolution in the way it would like to have it, we would end up with a ridiculous hotchpotch of systems across the country that makes no coherent sense? Our system of local government and local governance is already incredibly mixed and complicated, and surely this is a chance to have some consistency across the board so that his area, just like my area, can have a positive and consistent relationship with Government and equal access to Government.
I see the point, and I understand that the hon. Gentleman is a local government leader himself. Nevertheless, that is what people would say if they were sitting in Westminster, because it is neat and useful for them. The reality is that, in Cumbria, Cornwall, Northumberland or Shropshire, having the ability to choose our own style of government might be complicated for the Government, but it is not complicated for us. Do we believe in devolution, or do we want the Government to have things just as they want?
I feel—I fear, even—that what we are seeing is not devolution, but delegation. The Government are seeking neatness and convenience for their own sake, rather than the empowerment of communities. It is an obsession with symmetry, rather than the empowerment of such communities. With the exception of the right hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth and perhaps one or two others, the Government are playing to their stereotype of being out of touch with local communities. So, Mr Deputy Speaker, if you will allow me, I will play to my stereotype and talk about electoral reform. You would be very disappointed if I did not.
New clause 45 offers local authorities the opportunity to choose their own electoral system. Unsurprisingly—I will absolutely stagger you now, Mr Deputy Speaker, and predict this—a commitment to electoral reform will be in the next Liberal Democrat manifesto. There, I have said it. The point is that communities should be allowed to choose, and since the last election the Government have removed the ability to use the supplementary vote—not an electoral system I favour, but nevertheless one fairer than first past the post—for mayoral elections and police and crime commissioner elections, which I think removes choice from local communities.
I would also suggest this in support of my amendment. The Government choosing to make a change to the electoral system, as they have done in local government, without reference to a referendum is an interesting precedent for what might happen under a future Government. It is a precedent the Government will wish they had never set, because if a party or parties go into a future election committing to electoral reform in their manifestos and find itself or themselves in government, we now have the precedent that electoral reform can be delivered without reference to a referendum. The Government will rue the day, and they might rue it soon.
New clause 45 gives local authorities the opportunity to choose to elect their mayors, councillors and police and crime commissioners in the way they choose. If this really was a levelling-up and devolution Bill, of course the Government would permit local authorities to do that. They do not need to approve of what a local government area does, within obvious parameters, to be able to permit them to have that power.
I want to move on to new clause 46, in my name and that of my hon. Friend Daisy Cooper, which, with your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will seek to push to a vote. It is on the reform of the business rates system, to which my hon. Friend Helen Morgan has already rightly and powerfully made reference. Business rates are an outdated and completely counterproductive system of taxation. They are harmful for our high streets and the economy because they directly tax investment in structures and equipment, rather than taxing profits or the fixed stock of land.
The 2019 Conservative manifesto committed to doing exactly what I am suggesting and proposing that the Government should do, so they should have no problem whatsoever in adopting new clause 46. It should be a piece of cake for them to do so, because in their manifesto they pledged to
“cut the burden of tax on business by reducing business rates. This will be done via a fundamental review of the system.”
Where is it? My amendment gives them the opportunity to do just that. This is the opportunity for them to show that they meant what they had in their manifesto.
Since the 2019 election, the Government have repeatedly tinkered with business rates but failed to bring forward that fundamental review. We often approve of that tinkering, but the fact that they are constantly tinkering is a living admission that the system is broken, so let us fix it. The fact is, business rates do not reflect the value of properties, particularly in the north and the midlands—areas outside of London and the south-east—and do active damage to our high streets, which are already under enough pressure.
We see the move towards online shopping and the pressure of the economic downturn with people having less money in their pockets, so our high streets—our town and village centres—are under enormous pressure. Business rates actively suppress entrepreneurial spirit. For many businesses in my community—in Westmorland and in towns such as Kendal—and in towns further afield such as Appleby, Kirkby Stephen, Sedburgh, Windermere, Ambleside and Grange, the use of town centre premises would be a valuable addition to what they do, and yet they stay out of town and village centres because business rates keep them out. Reform is essential. There is demand from many businesses to have a town or village centre presence, yet business rates put them off. Why do the Government not carry out their manifesto promise? Adopting new clause 46 would give them the opportunity to do just that.
We have had references to the Vagrancy Act 1824. I am pleased to pay tribute to Nickie Aiken, who is no longer in her place, and indeed my hon. Friend Layla Moran and others on both sides of the House who pushed the Government into this position. In Committee just a few weeks ago, the Government were defending what was in effect the reintroduction of that Act, despite it being totally counterproductive and utterly immoral. That is the one amendment from outside the Government ranks that, so far, they have chosen to accept. Credit to them at least for having done that in the end.
A major issue for us all and the big question hanging over the debate—it was referred to by the official Opposition spokesperson, Alex Norris—is: what about Monday? Will the Bill continue this side of Christmas, and on what basis will it do so? I confess that, unlike many members of Bill Committees, I wanted to be on the Committee. I knocked on the door and volunteered because I saw the opportunities, particularly in the planning part of the Bill, to do great good for communities such as mine by addressing the planning issues, excessive second home ownership, the evisceration of the long-term private rented market by Airbnb and the loss of many rural services. I thought that even if the Bill did not solve those issues—it did not and does not—it nevertheless provided a structure for us to table amendments that could solve those problems, and yet here we are, waiting. I do not think that it is fair. The Government are showing weakness and indecision. We have already had enough delay and enough ministerial changeovers. Let us get on with it and consider these issues so that we can make a difference.
The Rural Services Network, using the Government’s own metrics, assessed the regions of England and rural England as a separate entity, and it worked out that rural England is the poorest region of England. The Bill is the opportunity to tackle some of the problems that I have mentioned. The fact that we are in doubt about whether that will happen is deeply concerning.
I have one more comment to make before I conclude. Ben Bradley talked about buses and some of the nonsense that affects us. I am with him on that. The lack of investment in rural public transport, and bus services in particular, is debilitating to communities such as mine. However, it would appear that there is a set of cloth ears in the Department, the Treasury and the Department for Transport when it comes to how money is allocated. Cumbria bid for Bus Back Better money—good for us—but we got nothing out of it. Nothing at all. One reason why was that a key criterion that the Department for Transport sought to ensure councils fulfilled in using that money was building bus lanes. Mr Deputy Speaker, you know my constituency, and in Little Langdale there ain’t no space for a bus lane—there is barely space for a lane. The idea that that was where public money was to go shows that we have a Government who take rural areas for granted and do not listen to the people who live in them. My great fear is that levelling up is a phrase, not a policy. It is not landing in the communities I represent or in those of many others. This is an opportunity wasted and it will be even more wasted if we do not get to Monday.
I rise to speak to new clause 7, which is tabled in my name. I thank Members from across the House for supporting it and the Minister for the listening to my pleas. In short, new clause 7 intends to prevent the imposition of council tax on individual tenants of a room in a house with shared facilities, or in a licensed house of multiple occupancy.
This issue came to light in my Gosport constituency where the high street, like so many others up and down the country, is in decline. A local businessman, Daryn Brewer, identified an opportunity to breathe new life into our high streets and at the same time create affordable accommodation for young professionals. He is doing that by buying up empty disused shops, redeveloping them and bringing local independent traders into the shop space while converting the spaces above into high quality shared living accommodation. The residents have high-spec individual ensuite bedrooms, but shared kitchen, laundry and workspaces. They are effectively professional houses of multiple occupation and are known as Pro Pods. This is levelling up in its most pure form: reimagining our high streets as places where we do not just shop, but live, work, socialise and spend our time. At a stroke, it makes low-cost, high quality affordable living accommodation and takes some of the strain off the housing market.
Generally speaking, HMOs are in band C or D for council tax and are therefore classed as one dwelling, meaning the landlord is legally responsible for paying the council tax for that single dwelling. However, over recent years there has been a growing trend for the Valuation Office Agency to start to re-band those bedrooms as individual dwellings in and of themselves, meaning residents across Gosport, Portsmouth and, increasingly, across the whole country, are being hit with unexpected and completely unaffordable council tax bills. The VOA has stated that it is not taking a new approach to HMOs or systematically revaluing HMOs. However, this is a growing issue, one that my right hon. Friend Penny Mordaunt and I have brought to the attention of successive Ministers over the last couple of years, and one that colleagues across the House are increasingly seeing among their local landlords and developers. That is evidenced by the number of Members backing new clause 7.
There are several reasons why this issue poses a problem. First and foremost, it is placing a huge financial strain on people, often young professionals at the very start of their careers, who are suddenly landed with a council tax bill of up to £1,000, even after they have been allocated the single person discount. In some cases, it has even been backdated three years, so there could be a bill of up to £3,000. We can imagine how this is causing untold distress and misery, especially at a time when other living costs are rising. There have even been incidents of previous tenants being chased for a council tax bill they did not know they owed after they had moved out, due to reclassifying and backdating—a dreadful situation.
Shared housing is a core pillar of the housing sector. In 2018, HMOs provided up to 3 million sharers with rental accommodation across England and Wales. It is a significant contribution to the housing sector, so this issue has the potential to become a major problem. If these bedrooms start to be classified as dwellings and become band A, where the tenant is legally liable for paying the council tax, goodness knows where it will end. There are other knock-on impacts of this trend that I want, very briefly, to put on the record.
Disaggregation creates individual units, which are usually not self-contained. Once disaggregated, there is nothing to stop a landlord putting cooking facilities into these places retrospectively, thus creating miniature flats. Those do not meet housing standards or create quality living environments.
We also have the issue of housing numbers. Bedrooms within HMOs that are rebanded create a “dwelling” in law. That means that those bedrooms are added to the UK housing numbers, even though they do not meet the minimum national space standards and are not self-contained. Unwittingly, the VOA, local authorities and therefore, ultimately, the Government would be fudging the housing numbers. For each bedroom that is rebanded by the VOA as a dwelling, local authorities can claim on the new homes bonus scheme. That suggests that the Government could award those bonuses to local authorities without proper homes being created through the usual planning process.
If this continues and bedrooms keep being rebanded, the Government could be seen to be encouraging the creation of dwellings that simply do not meet national space standards. Unless they grip that growing issue, they will potentially create substandard rental properties that would contradict the renters reform Bill and the decent homes White Paper.
The Bill is fundamentally about levelling up our wonderful country. By not addressing this issue, we are doing a disservice to our constituents, many of whom are young strivers, simply trying to build their careers and make their way in life. They have been hit unexpectedly with an extra financial strain that they have not budgeted for and certainly do not deserve, at a time they can least afford it.
I deeply regret that I had to table an amendment to put a stop to this. I have frequently raised the issue with the relevant Departments, but it has fallen on deaf ears. It has led me to fear, until this point, that some people working in this area may have forgotten that council tax is a property tax, not a head tax. It should not be down to individuals who are paying simply for a bedroom to foot the bill.
That is why I am deeply grateful to the Minister and the Secretary of State for engaging with me so brilliantly and openly on this issue, and for confirming that they will have an accelerated consultation on the issue with a view, potentially, to introducing the relevant regulations to prevent this happening and to address it. That will need to cover how we deal with the sites that have already been revalued, the bills that have been issued and the arrears that have been incurred, so that is not straightforward.
I am grateful for the Minister’s commitment to address this matter, and I have no doubt that she will. I know that she cares deeply about levelling up. She is an excellent Minister and I know that she wants to seize this once-in-a-generation opportunity to get the Bill right and deal with this issue. I thank the Minister for her commitment. I will not push my amendment to a vote and I look forward to working with her to make sure that we solve this issue once and for all.
I will speak to new clause 82 and amendments 71 and 72 in my name and those of my hon. Friends. New clause 82 seeks to reinstate the standards board. Every single one of us in this place should be able to get behind that, as it is not partisan; it is about restoring the public’s faith in local politics.
We have all seen examples of councillors acting outwith their role and their code of conduct. We also see, often, that the act that eventually leads to their demise follows an established pattern of behaviour spanning many years. Those around them may have been fearful of calling out their behaviour for many reasons. Last year, a councillor was sentenced after pleading guilty to a charge relating to the abuse of public trust in public office, yet he remains in post. In another area, two former council chiefs and a county council leader are due to appear in court after being charged in connection with a long-running police investigation into allegations of financial irregularity.
We all know, of course, that those cases are in the minority and that the vast number of councillors work hard for their community. However, those who behave in that way are currently given a free ride, as the framework around complaints is largely kept in-house. Councils and fellow councillors should simply not be allowed to police themselves. Such an arrangement puts officers, and particularly monitoring officers, in impossible positions. Those officers, who are in contractually and politically restricted positions, somehow have to find ways to manage governance and the expectations and pressures of political groups when the sanctions available to the standards committee are very limited and its members are political colleagues of those they are investigating. That point was noted by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which reported:
“We have heard of cases where Monitoring Officers have been put under undue pressure or forced to resign because of unwelcome advice or decisions”.
A Local Government Chronicle survey finds that 60% of monitoring officers do not believe that they have sufficient tools to tackle serious misconduct among elected members.
In this place, we have an independent and transparent complaints process. We are also under a lot of scrutiny. However, fewer residents and news reporters take an interest in the actions of local councils and councillors. In local councils, the current system for upholding standards and monitoring behaviour is simply too opaque and too open to interpretation and abuse. There are not provisions to suspend or disqualify councillors who act inappropriately and misuse public funds.
I know all too well from my own local authority the consequences of limited checks and balances and of processes open to potential undue interference. The former leader of my council, Iain Malcolm, resigned all his posts and positions suddenly in 2020 in the wake of allegations of creating a culture of fear, bullying and control. There were scandals in which public finances were readily accessed for personal reputational defence and to silence critics, as well as a litany of other financial concerns. He left just weeks after the chief executive walked out after 10 years in post. Police and other investigations are still ongoing.
This Government want more devolution. With that, there should come more accountability, because with devolution comes more responsibility and more money from the public purse. The Committee on Standards in Public Life’s 2019 report echoes the concerns that I am raising today:
“Our evidence supports the view that the vast majority of councillors and officers maintain high standards of conduct. There is, however, clear evidence of misconduct by some councillors. The majority of these cases relate to bullying or harassment, or other disruptive behaviour. There is also evidence of persistent or repeated misconduct by a minority of councillors.”
It is little wonder that respondents to the Local Government Chronicle survey called for
“a single national code of conduct for councillors” and for
“more effective sanctions, including suspension and disqualification”.
It is clear that the current system is not working and that the handling of complaints relating to councillors who breach codes should be thoroughly independent. The Minister rejected my clause in Committee—then new clause 76—on the basis that the Government, despite clear evidence of misconduct in local councils, have not changed their mind since 2011. The Government remain stubbornly of the view that the Standards Board was
“incompatible with the principles of localism” and that its abolition
“restored power to local people.”––[Official Report, Levelling-up and Regeneration Public Bill Committee,
One of the problems with the Standards Board was that it was simply overwhelmed with complaints because residents were allowed to go to it at first instance, rather than appealing to it if their local authority did not deal properly with their case. Another problem was that parish council complaints were allowed under it. If those two issues had been addressed, the Standards Board could have dealt with a smaller number of cases, as an appeal system. It would have been a very different arrangement.
My hon. Friend is correct. It is simply not in the interests of local people to have no mechanism at all to remove someone from office who is acting inappropriately. People in my area who have experienced the damage caused by our previous council leader and his supporters find offensive the suggestion that removing that level of accountability has somehow given them more of a voice or restored any power to them.
It is the greatest honour to serve our community, whether at council level or in Parliament. With that should come appropriate checks, balances and levels of accountability. The public need confidence in the system. They need to know that cases such as those that I have mentioned will never happen again. My new clause would ensure that.
Amendments 71 and 72 simply ask that the Government align the levelling-up missions with the United Nations sustainable development goal to end hunger and ensure access by all people—the poor and the vulnerable, including infants—to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round, and that it be measured by tracking the prevalence of undernourishment in the population and the prevalence of moderate or severe food insecurity, based on the food insecurity experience scale. It is astonishing that a Bill that attempts to level up all parts of the UK does not mention hunger or food insecurity once, despite the Government acknowledging that it is not possible to level up the country without reducing the number of children going hungry and living in poverty.
The hon. Lady is right that this is an incredibly important issue, but is it not the case that all these issues were addressed through the Agriculture Act 2020, and the requirement to publish every three years a food security report that includes very detailed chapters on household food insecurity, which is what she is concerned about?
I thank the right hon. Member for that intervention. He will know that those measurements have not resulted in reduced levels of poverty. The amendments would strengthen the Government’s commitment to reducing it.
There are 14.5 million people living in poverty across our country. Poverty among children and pensioners rose in the six years prior to covid, alongside a resurgence of Victorian diseases associated with malnutrition, such as scurvy and rickets. Surely the Government must have grasped that for at least five of their own missions to succeed people need access to food. Living standards, education, skills, health and wellbeing are all deeply impacted in a household impacted by hunger. The Government’s own reporting in the family resources survey, which was made possible only after years of campaigning to implement my Food Insecurity Bill, shows that households in the north-east are more likely to struggle to afford food than those anywhere else in the country. It would be totally misguided to think that we can level up the country without addressing that issue.
We know that the figures will increase. Already this year food insecurity has risen by almost 10%. Thanks to the Government’s economic mismanagement, the biggest fall in household incomes on record will only exacerbate those levels of hunger. The Food Foundation has found that levels of food insecure households are rising, with figures for September this year showing a prevalence in nearly 10 million adults, with 4 million children also suffering from hunger. If it were not for the over 2,500 food banks in the country, those adults and children would be without food. That should be a source of great shame for Government Members.
Regional disparities, which the Bill supposedly aims to level out, are more stark when we look at the fact that life expectancy in my part of the world, the north-east, is two and a half years less than in the south-east. Increasing healthy life expectancy is a huge challenge. The pandemic revealed the serious underlying health inequalities in this country. Public health funding will play a crucial role in helping to achieve the mission; however, in the most recent allocation councils faced a real-terms cut. That is just another example of where the Government’s actions do not meet their levelling-up rhetoric.
The Government commissioned a national food strategy, which found that diet is the leading cause of avoidable harm to our health; however, the Government have ignored Henry Dimbleby’s recommendation to increase free school meals eligibility. If the Government are serious about levelling up, tackling food insecurity is vital to achieving the levelling-up White Paper’s missions. As Anna Taylor, chief exec of the Food Foundation, said:
“If the Government wants to really get to grips with the issue, a comprehensive approach to levelling-up must tackle food insecurity head on.”
“designed to establish the framework for the missions”––[Official Report, Levelling-up and Regeneration Public Bill Committee,
not the content of them. That sums up the vacuous nature behind all the missions in the Bill. By making them as opaque as possible, and lacking such content, the Government will not have to bother delivering on a single one of them.
The Government should accept this amendment today. By doing so, they would signal that at long last they accept that people are going hungry on their watch and they are eventually prepared to do something about it. I sincerely hope that they will do this, but I expect that they will not. In any event, I look forward to the Minister’s response later on.
I want to speak to new clauses 1 and 2, but particularly new clause 1, which relates to the election of Mayors. These are straightforward new clauses and I will not be putting them to a vote, but I hope that the Government will give serious consideration to new clause 1 in particular, because I think it addresses a gap in the current devolution discussions.
When it comes to devolution, my preferred option would be for far more radical reform. I believe that local government in England is in need of substantial reform and that the Government should embrace devolution. The way to do this is to have devolution settlements right across the country with the appropriate powers and responsibilities so that we properly decentralise and also have consistency. I also think that, as part of that, the introduction of Mayors everywhere is a positive thing.
I will come to that point about particular areas. My belief is that if we believe in devolution, we have to set out what we believe, embrace it and introduce it. One of the problems with our present devolution settlement is that there is too much inconsistency. There is a patchwork of devolution and a patchwork of local government that is not in any way beneficial for individual areas or for the country as a whole.
I genuinely believe that the introduction of Mayors has brought leadership to particular areas. It also creates accountability and responsibility, and we are seeing the successes up and down the country, including in Teesside, in the midlands and in Manchester, where we have Mayors who have demonstrated leadership in their locality. But the Government’s approach seems to be very different. They have adopted what I would describe as a gradualist approach to devolution, a policy that appears to be about bottom-up with a degree of incentives or pushing local areas to go down a particular route. I accept that it has had some success, and there is indeed some potential success in the pipeline, but it has been limited to date.
The result of Government policy is uneven devolution and, as I have said, a patchwork of inconsistency across the country. What we really need is clarity and consistency, but I accept that that is probably going to be for the future rather than for the next couple of years. Right now, I do at least support the direction of travel that the Government are taking with regard to devolution and I will certainly support the Bill, but their approach appears to be only to approach existing local authorities to instigate discussions for a devolution settlement in that particular area. They are almost waiting for requests for devolution, and any success will depend on the decisions of local authorities in particular parts of the country.
But what about those areas where there is support for devolution, but not necessarily from the local authority in that area? Areas can be held back by the actions of individuals or individual authorities when in fact that locality supports a devolution settlement and actually wants one. We saw that happen in Cumbria a few years back when a devolution settlement was in prospect but held back in many respects by the views of the leader of a particular council. For example, businesses in a particular area could be supportive of a Mayor and devolution, as could charities, parish councillors and minority political parties on councils—indeed, councils could be divided on the issue—but for one reason or another the dominant view would be against a devolution settlement rather than for one. There could also be support for devolution among the wider population. There is a growing appreciation that areas that do not end up with a devolution settlement and a Mayor are likely to be left behind. Because of the finance and a Mayor’s ability to be an advocate, areas will lose out if they do not have that voice. When the Chancellor goes to the north of England to speak to local leaders, his automatic choice will be to speak to Mayors. Areas that are bereft of a devolution settlement do not have a Mayor, so they will be left behind.
I tabled new clause 1 to create a reserve power for the Government to step in if they feel that a particular area has an appetite for devolution and a Mayor but is being held back by, say, the machinations of local politics. Having that reserve power would enhance the Government’s ability to negotiate devolution deals and would strengthen their position. I therefore hope they will consider introducing this measure.
People going hungry is clearly a product of 10 to 12 years of austerity and deepening division in our society. Somebody needs to get a grip on this. I represent 23 ex-mining villages in the heart of England, in Yorkshire. Cornwall is a very special place, but Yorkshire is God’s own county. The county of George Eustice may have a special constitutional role, but Yorkshire has a divine role.
It is interesting that the Bill has no vision for what parish and town councils can do. Notwithstanding that, parish and town councils in my area are the ones feeding the hungry and, now, opening up warm places for elderly people and families to go to, because of the cost of energy. They are the ones doing the levelling up.
When there was a problem with people leaving their home because of covid, who arranged for people in my village to knock on doors to offer to go to the Co-op? It was the town and parish councils. They organised the churches, the voluntary sector and all the other bodies in the village. I represent 23 ex-mining villages, and it happened everywhere in my constituency. Why are we distributing power away from the centre in a top-down, uniform, homogenous way that is convenient only to the men and women in Westminster, rather than to the communities we represent, which are so different in character?
The Bill is full of constitutional changes, structural changes and processes, but it does not specify the outcomes. Part 1 refers to the mission statements that will be produced, but there is no reference in the Bill to what those mission statements will contain. However, the White Paper has a helpful indication of what the mission statements, which the Minister will eventually organise, will contain. She needs to tell the House what her intentions are in relation to the mission statements, because there is nothing in the Bill.
Clause 1 talks about the mission statements being
“laid before each House of Parliament”.
Does that mean there will be a vote? Will the mission statements be amendable? Laying them before the House might mean putting them in the Library, which is simply not acceptable. If the Bill does not allow the House to discuss the objectives we are trying to achieve, there must be proper scrutiny of the matter in the House of Commons.
The amendments in the name of my hon. Friend Mrs Lewell-Buck raise the question of outcomes, rather than process. She wants to see young people—in fact, all our people—fed. The Bill does not allow for that, because we are dealing with structures rather than outcomes. I want to illustrate this with two further points that are in the mission statements in the White Paper, but not in the Bill. They relate to bus transportation, which the Minister referred to, and another point. I will talk about them quickly, because there is not a lot of time.
My constituency is the 529th least socially mobile constituency in England. There are 533 on the list, so only four seats have less mobility than mine. What does that mean? A child born in poverty today in my constituency will almost certainly die in poverty—there is no social mobility unless we do something dramatic—and younger than children being born elsewhere. That is not acceptable.
Social mobility is about education and all sorts of other things, but there are two things I want to focus on briefly. One is transport. In a village that has no work any more—remember that the villages were built around coal mines, which have all gone—it is very difficult to find work. People have to move from one place to another, but the way in which we organise our public transport system is not helpful. I met a woman who walks in the dark for an hour from one village to another to work, and then back in the dark at night. That is not acceptable.
There are 24,000 people in my constituency—I raise my constituency to illustrate a broader point—without access to a car. I asked how many people use a bus or a train. Out of the whole constituency, only 3,900 people use either a bus or a train, yet there are 24,000 people without a car. The buses stop early in the evening and start later in the morning. Lloyds bank tell me that of the 650 seats in our country, people in mine rank 621st for how likely we are to use public transport, through our credit or debit cards or however we pay. That is not acceptable. Will the Minister accept that something has gone radically wrong with our public transport system that in a constituency such as mine with no social mobility at all, people are imprisoned in villages with no work and no public transport? Something drastic needs to be done about it, which is not in the Bill.
Another point that is in the White Paper but not the Bill is digital exclusion. The White Paper states that digital exclusion and social exclusion go together. Of course they do, but here is the fact. In my constituency, there is no easy way to move around without a car—using cars is not a great thing anyway for the planet—but the download speed in my village is 46 megabits per second. The average for the UK is 86. We have people running businesses in the constituency who cannot move to a job somewhere, and it is not working. I met a guy—an ex-miner—who had won this wonderful contract to provide design solutions for the New York stock exchange. Guess what? He was doing the design at work in my constituency but he had to put the computer in the back of the car and drive it home so that he could access the internet in the evening. That is not acceptable.
As for telephones, in my house I cannot use a mobile phone. What I want is a discussion not about my constituency, but about everyone who lives in left-behind or held-back communities up and down our country. The talk of levelling up in the Bill gave them hope. Everybody has clocked those words, but they have also clocked something else: the Government have not willed the means to change what has happened to so many communities, which are locked out of the so-called prosperity of our country. I feel very angry about this, and I am very disappointed with this Bill.
My final point is on local government. I was council leader in Leeds, one of the great cities of the country. We had resources to begin to make a difference, although not enough—we always needed more; council leaders will always say that—but local authorities no longer have the resources to deliver the kind of levelling-up agenda the Government say they want. We see that in every single service—buses, trains, education, feeding people who are hungry. Funding for all those areas has been cut.
There was a discussion earlier in the debate about literacy. My constituency has some of the worst educational attainment figures in the country, and school funding has been cut by 40% during this Government’s time in office. We cannot level up on peanuts or simply by changing structures; we have to will the means as well.
I rise to speak in support of new clause 34, which I and my hon. Friend Bob Seely and others have tabled in this group of amendments. It forms part of a larger package of new clauses and amendments, most of which will be debated on day two, and I will try not to trespass too much on to those other amendments.
New clause 34 would require a review to be carried out of the Secretary of State’s compulsory purchase powers. Subsection (3) highlights the particular importance of properties which have been unoccupied for a prolonged period and buildings of local public importance in our high streets which might also have been left unused. The new clause highlights the importance of bringing derelict land back into use. We all know new homes need to be provided; we need to do more to make sure that land that is derelict and unoccupied is put to use to help deliver those new homes, hence the new clause. We should use this kind of brownfield site, particularly in urban areas, as a key way to address concerns about the supply of housing, and to do so in a way that does not undermine local decision making or damage the environment, as is the case with other aspects of our planning system.
Of course care must be taken with regard to the exercise of compulsory purchase powers; it is a serious matter to remove someone’s property, even if a fair price is paid. The landowner should be given appropriate compensation, and relevant planning rules must be followed in terms of what actually gets built on these derelict sites—for example, green-belt land protection must not be compromised—but I genuinely believe there is scope for expansion of the use of compulsory purchase powers to open up more brownfield sites for new homes.
This new clause is supported by the Local Government Association, and I am grateful to it for that. I believe that there is some appetite in local government to move to a more active approach on compulsory purchase order powers. Landowners must be given a chance to remedy the problem and start using the land in a positive way, but if they fail to do so—if sites lie abandoned for years and years, for example—it seems not unreasonable for the state or local authority to step in and get some homes built there. I gather that there can be genuine problems in establishing who the owner is, and the review called for in the new clause should consider how this could be resolved, for example through insurance.
The review requested in this new clause should also consider buildings of community importance in our town centres, which may also be left unoccupied for a protracted period. Regeneration of our town centres is of course a core aim of this Government and this Bill. Again, I acknowledge that CPOs are a serious step and should only be undertaken after careful consideration and consultation, but proportionate use of such powers by local councils could be helpful in unlocking broader regeneration schemes to boost high streets.
I take this opportunity to make a broader point about our local high streets and the crucial role that they play in our communities. We all know that they have faced so much adversity over recent years. The big shift to online retail has reduced footfall and made it harder and harder to sustain viable businesses in our town centres. Covid, of course, intensified that trend. That is why I very much welcome the huge programme of grants and support that were delivered by the Government during the pandemic for local businesses in high streets, especially for hospitality.
I welcome the cuts in business rates for small high street businesses that we have seen delivered over recent years and for which I have lobbied many Chancellors. I also welcome the provisions of the Bill that are designed to give our town centres a brighter future, as they play such a crucial role in our constituencies. In Chipping Barnet, they will always be one of my highest priorities, and I urge the Minister to place the highest of priority on reviving our high streets right across our nation.
In conclusion, I wish to take a slightly broader look at the debate around the Bill. New clause 34, which I have spoken about, is part of a bigger package of amendments designed to remedy very serious problems with the planning system. The debate on that package was due to happen on Monday. I understand that that has been postponed. I welcome that decision. Postponing day two of Report is a sensible move.
Planning legislation does not come along very often, Mr Deputy Speaker, as I am sure you will be aware. It could be another decade before a Bill on planning pulls up at the station. We must not lose the opportunity to remedy the flaws in the planning system, which I and many on these Back Benches have highlighted so many times over the past few years. In particular, top-down housing targets should be scrapped, because they are undermining local control over planning decisions and creating pressure for development, which is damaging to the local environment and to the quality of life of our constituents. We also need to address the crisis in some parts of this country, which is seeing swathes of homes removed from the residential rental market and diverted to Airbnb, leaving local residents with fewer and fewer places in which to live.
I welcome the indication from the Government—from the Secretary of State—that they are listening to Back Benchers on these crucial matters, which means so much to us and to the constituents whom we represent. Postponing Report day two gives us all the opportunity to seek to find a solution that delivers the right homes in the right places and that restores and retains the primacy of local decision making in planning. We cannot carry on as we are, with the toxic impact that these targets are having. We must have change. This Bill is our opportunity to deliver that change. I look forward to a robust debate during day two’s group of amendments. We on the Back Benches are determined that the concerns of our constituents on overdevelopment will be heard loud and clear.
I rise to speak to my amendments 69 and 70, but before doing so I want to put on record my support for the amendments in favour of “true devolution”, as others have been saying, not delegation in all of its messiness. In particular, I support the amendments advocated by George Eustice and Tim Farron.
It is also a great pleasure to speak after my colleague, Jon Trickett, who spoke so powerfully about the importance of devolution. From what he was saying, very much focusing on the issues of inequality and social justice, I guess the comments that I would like to add are from the angle of sustainability. If we are to have any hope of meeting our decarbonisation targets, it will be by pushing power down to a more local level. In my view, both social and environmental justice are absolutely served by serious devolution, not by what we have had served up to us today.
Turning to my amendments, amendment 69 would support a just transition for workers in high-carbon industries, such as oil and gas workers in the North sea. We know there are huge opportunities that come with the transition to a zero carbon economy but, as it stands, those workers risk losing out and being held back from accessing good green jobs instead.
Research published in 2020 revealed a huge appetite to be part of the transition to the zero carbon economy, with more than 80% of those surveyed working in oil and gas saying they would consider moving to a job outside their industry and more than half saying they would choose to transition to renewables and offshore wind if they had the opportunity to retrain. However, as things stand, oil and gas workers face an often insurmountable barrier to doing so, because they would have to pay for entirely new training courses, despite there being many shared skills among the offshore energy sectors. That is on top of an average of £1,800 a year that workers currently pay out of their own pockets to maintain their existing training and safety qualifications.
Since I tabled amendments during the passage of the Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022, calling for what is often referred to as an offshore training passport, the training standards bodies OPITO, the Global Wind Organisation and the International Marine Contractors Association have all announced that they are looking at training duplication and mapping out pathways forward. That is welcome, but much more needs to be done to ensure a truly just transition for oil and gas workers, who have valuable skills and experience in offshore energy.
We simply cannot allow communities to be hollowed out and left behind as we strive to meet our climate targets. We must learn the lesson of what happened when the coal mines were closed and the dislocation that was caused, which communities are still living with today. That cannot be allowed to happen again.
New research from the organisation Platform shows that investment in three key energy sectors—offshore wind, retrofitting and electrolyser manufacturing—could pave the way for more than 100,000 green jobs in regions with high oil and gas employment. A just transition for workers in the fossil fuel industry is both possible and necessary, and my amendment would support that goal. Specifically, the amendment would require that the first statement of levelling-up missions include the mission to increase significantly the number of people completing high-quality skills training, bringing the commitment in the levelling up White Paper into the text of the Bill itself. Crucially, it makes explicit that that training must include green skills training for workers in high-carbon industries who wish to transition to careers in well-paid green energy sectors, with cross-sectoral recognition of skills regardless of their current contract status. It gets to the very heart of what levelling up ought to mean and ensures that all communities are able to reap the rewards of our transition to a greener and fairer economy.
My second amendment, amendment 70, would rectify the failure of any of the current levelling-up missions to acknowledge the importance of access to nature in shaping how people feel about where they live. The covid-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of access to nature and a recent survey by Natural England found that 90% of people agreed that natural spaces are good for both mental health and physical wellbeing. Yet we know that people from ethnic minorities or those with low incomes are much less likely to live near accessible green space, and there is a particular inequality in access to our wilder and more open spaces. The Campaign for National Parks estimates that while, for example, 60% of the Yorkshire dales is open access, the public have the right to roam across just 0.5% of the broads in Norfolk and Suffolk.
My amendment takes inspiration from the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (Amendment) Bill, my private Member’s Bill, which recently started its Second Reading that is due to be resumed in March next year. That Bill has support from all sides of the House and would amend the CROW Act to include more landscapes such as rivers, woods, more grasslands and green belt, essentially extending access to approximately 30% of English land from just 8% that we are currently legally able to access in England.
Amendment 70 would require that the first statement of levelling-up missions include a mission to expand public access to nature and to reduce geographic inequalities in access to open space land. It addresses the frankly extraordinary omission of nature from this Bill, and would have a potentially transformational effect in improving access to our beautiful countryside and the wellbeing and mental health benefits that that would bring. I hope the Government will consider it.
First of all, I commend the Minister on what I thought was an excellent opening speech. It was the first time I have been in the Chamber when she has given one. I thank her not just for that but for the time that she makes available to Back Benchers such as me for discussions on levelling up. I know that we all greatly appreciate it.
I also commend my hon. Friends on the Back Benches who have done so much work in putting forward important amendments. I hope that the Government will, as they have indicated, incorporate the vast majority of those amendments into the Bill. It is important that some of the issues raised by Back-Bench colleagues are addressed, and so far, I have been heartened by what has been said.
On the Bill itself, I was heartened when the Minister spoke about infrastructure. As many people will know, the constituency of Leigh has wanted a bypass for 60 years and has been waiting for it to be completed for 40 years. The problem is that the Atherleigh Way bypass runs across three local authorities and two counties, and it is difficult to get this stuff finished under existing laws.
As Andy Burnham—the previous incumbent of my seat—used to say, Leigh is one of the largest towns in the north-west of England without a railway station. Well, I am very pleased to say that, after 60 years, Golborne station is being reopened, and I am hopeful that we will be able to get a station opened for Leigh as well. Of course, levelling up is a cross-departmental discipline.
On regeneration, Leigh Means Business, the local community interest company, has provided me with information stating that almost 25% of commercial property in the centre of Leigh is vacant and unused. I think that goes to the point made by colleagues about the importance of bringing back into use brownfield sites in red-wall town centres such as mine before we start chipping away at the green belt and the green fields on the edge of town.
I am so delighted that my hon. Friend is making that point, because it is pretty much central to so much of what we want to see. We are accused of being nimbys and of saying no, no, no to everything, but we have a dozen-plus amendments because we want to find solutions for the Government. We loathe the top-down targets because they are fantastically un-Conservative, but we are desperate to try to find a way to change the balance between brownfield and greenfield development. Does he agree that if we can get that change in dynamic, we can fire up a development boom in this country? We could avoid so many of the stresses about greenfield development by focusing much more on brownfield.
I am glad that my hon. Friend says that, because before my slip was withdrawn this morning, I was meant to be in Greater Manchester speaking about Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s “Places for Everyone” strategic development plan. I attended a session about two or three weeks ago, and the point was made—not just by me but by others, including the CPRE—that if we focused on addressing the proper use of brownfield sites in Greater Manchester, we would be able to fulfil the target set under the “Places for Everyone” plan without taking a single piece of green belt. I am delighted that these issues have been brought to the fore. I served for 13 years as a councillor on Wigan Metropolitan Borough Council, and these arguments have been batted back and forth for many years, so I am tremendously pleased that we have been able to bring these issues to the fore.
On the technical matters, my hon. Friend Ben Bradley said that he thought it might be better if a separate planning Bill had been introduced, and I think there is a strong case for that, but we are where we are. As I said, I am pleased that the Government intend to listen to the concerns of Back Benchers and incorporate a number of remedies that I think will be of great importance for improving the Bill.
There is, however, one matter on which, I am afraid, I am not entirely on board with the Government. I am sure that it will not come as a shock to anyone on either Front Bench that I am not a tremendous fan of elected Mayors. To my mind, the correct approach to reforming local government is through localism, and not devolution, because the problem we have with the form of devolution that the Government have chosen is that it creates a number of unaccountable sinecures that will be run by regional Svengalis. The problem is that this encourages a form of challenge to the Government whereby a regional Mayor of whatever stripe stands up and says, “The Government are terrible, give me more money.” [Interruption.] I see Jon Trickett is somewhat amused.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. The issue is that it does not matter what the actual circumstances are. Regardless of the facts on the ground, Mayors are incentivised by the nature of their role to stand up and say, “I am fighting for my area.” It encourages them to concoct fights with central Government, regardless of the issue. Then we end up with this position where there is constant strife between central Government and regional Mayors.
The problem with regional Mayors—a number of colleagues including my right hon. Friend George Eustice have made excellent points on this—is that it creates one single figure representing in some cases millions of people. A huge amount of power is vested in that individual, and that is deeply unhealthy.
We have heard the arguments for a sense of conformity across local government. I fear that that approach replicates the errors of the 1973 local government reforms, which created ever-larger local authorities. I remember—it was before I was born—that the campaign against it was, “Don’t vote for Mr R. E. Mote”, because the feeling was that the decision-making process was being removed ever further away from small communities to large, more remote places. As I am sure Lisa Nandy knows, because we share a borough, the people of Leigh in the 1970s campaigned hard to avoid being merged into the Metropolitan Borough of Wigan, and we lost, much to our immense regret. Other communities, such as Warrington, that campaigned successfully to stay out of Greater Manchester are much happier in Cheshire. I know that the good people of Bury successfully campaigned to stay out of the much larger Rochdale borough that was proposed. I fear that we are replicating the errors of the 1973 local government reforms on a county level or, indeed, a multi-county level with these regional Mayors.
I am sure you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, that there is not universal approval for the idea that everywhere should have Mayors. I spoke on “Sunday Politics North West” a number of months ago, and there was cross-party agreement that Lancashire—your home county, where your fine constituency of Ribble Valley lies—wanted a combined local authority, not a Mayor, and I fully support that. It had universal cross-party approval. My understanding is that other areas, such as Cheshire, are basically not entirely on board with the idea of a Mayor covering the entire county.
We have heard about Cornwall, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth made a compelling case. The only bit I did not agree with was where he said that Cornwall was a special case. I agreed with every word he said except that, because I believe that every part of England that does not want a mayoral devolution settlement should not be forced to have one. Furthermore, I also agree with Opposition Members who said that the best sort of levelling-up deal and funding should not be tied to having a Mayor. That is an obnoxious provision with which I profoundly disagree. I am afraid that on that particular issue, the Government will not have my support. I place my grave reservations about that measure on record.
In broad terms, I think the Bill is superb. A number of improvements have been made during its progress, and as I have said before, I thank Members who have come forward with amendments, and I thank the Minister for her response on how they will address that. As I have said, I have grave concerns about the path of devolution that we are taking as a Government and those issues need to be addressed. One size fits all will not work across the whole of England. We have to address the serious issues at the heart of trying to hammer square pegs into round holes.
The Minister referred to the Greater Manchester trailblazer devolution deal, just as the Chancellor did in the autumn statement, but I would appreciate it if she conveyed to the Secretary of State that I, and other Greater Manchester MPs, would very much like to be briefed on that. While the Government may have spoken to the Mayor of Greater Manchester, I am afraid that consultation on the issue with Greater Manchester colleagues has not been forthcoming—I see the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Wigan, nodding. I assume that, like me, she has received very little consultation, or none.
Over the past few years, there has been an unfortunate tendency for Governments and Departments to seem far happier speaking to regional Mayors than to Members of this House. Members of the House should firmly resist the idea of being turned into powerless cyphers. In my view, a Mayor is a part of local government. They should have a lesser role in the governance of this nation than we do as Members of Parliament. To dilute the powers of Members of this House is fundamentally wrong.
After all, the vast majority of Mayors, other than in London, where there is a full Assembly, have scant accountability mechanisms—there is no Greater Manchester Assembly or Merseyside Assembly. Vesting such powers in individuals who negotiate directly with Government Departments, with scant input from Members of Parliament whose areas those mayoral authorities covers, is an unsustainable position. I understand that that is not the fault of the Minister, but I hope she will stress very firmly to the Secretary of State that the issue needs to be addressed, and addressed quickly.
I have covered everything I want to say. Overall, the core of this legislation is extremely sound. I commend the work of the Minister and her colleagues, as well that of colleagues who worked on the Bill before she took up her role. The tension between devolution and localism has come up today and, unless it is addressed, it will continue to come up as we discuss other pieces of legislation. The thing about devolution is that everything tends to get devolved after time and as MPs we get asked about everything. If we become shut out of the discussion and the process, that will present problems, regardless of party and across the House.
We have before us something called a Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill. I agree with Ben Bradley who said that the Bill might be better if the planning elements had been taken out of it. The problem is that that would not have left much remaining, because essentially it is a planning Bill with bit of levelling up tacked on.
Indeed, as I said on Second Reading, the Bill has no new powers and there is no new money for levelling up and devolution. The Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee has launched an inquiry into the funding of devolution and levelling up. We have just started taking evidence and it will be interesting to see what conclusions are found, based on that evidence.
I do not agree with James Grundy that we are diluting the powers of Members of Parliament. Hopefully, what we are doing is taking powers from central Government and handing them down to local government. I am in favour of that; we do not do nearly enough of that in this country. Indeed, as Members of Parliament we sometimes have to recognise that we do not have that much power. The Government get on with their business, and occasionally they tell us what they are doing.
I will return to that, but I will first comment on the planning issues, which we will hopefully come back to at a future date. There are some challenges around housing targets and how we get to 300,000 if we do not have the building blocks at a local level. I am sure that will be an interesting discussion.
I am in favour of building on brownfield sites wherever possible, because this is about regenerating and bringing life back to many areas that have suffered incredible decline. I would say, however—the Government will have to listen at some point—that building on brownfield sites is more expensive. In my constituency, there are old industrial areas with chemicals in the ground and old derelict buildings that need clearing and improving before we begin to put something new in their place. That is an expense. At some point, the public purse will have to find the money for that to enable private sector development.
The other day, I sat almost entranced for half an hour by a briefing from Professor Philip McCann, who is now at the Alliance Manchester Business School but was previously at the University of Sheffield. His description of this country was staggering. He talked about the inequalities between regions in this country that make us different and more unequal than any other country in western Europe. He said that the inequalities between the richest parts of the south-east and the rest of the country are now wider than they were between East and West Germany at the time of reunification, which is staggering. The richest part of the country in the south-east has a degree of affluence, an income and gross value added levels that make it very similar to the richest parts of western Europe. The rest of the country, particularly northern areas, have productivity levels below those of the Czech Republic. It is staggering that that is where we have got to. One of the big challenges is to remove that inequality.
We are one of the most centralised and unequal countries, so the idea that central government is the way to level up is nonsense; we level up only by getting powers down to local communities. To come back to the point of the hon. Member for Leigh, with which I am not sure I totally agree, that probably means that we need something beyond the size of an individual local authority to enable the economic transfer of power on the scale that is necessary to make a difference—to attract overseas investment, to get the skills agenda going, to put the transport infrastructure in place, and to do all the things that we want to see. That is why combined authorities are probably a good way forward—I will put one or two conditions on that in a second—with or without an elected Mayor.
I was against elected Mayors, but I have come round to the view that they work. I would not impose them on an area, but it is right to have that option. Most areas will conclude from what they have seen elsewhere that having a focal point has helped combined authorities to establish themselves in the public mind. Perhaps it does mean that Ministers go to the Mayors, but so what? I would sooner have Ministers going to the Mayor of South Yorkshire than not coming at all, which was probably the case before.
I have some further caveats, because the Bill does not go far enough to address those fundamental inequalities. I will pick up on the point of John Stevenson. I remember that, in his time on the Select Committee, we discussed such issues and basically agreed, and I agreed with him today. He said that the Government have a “gradualist approach” and that we have a “patchwork” that lacks clarity, and he is right.
We do not have a framework for devolution that covers the whole country so that we can see where the powers are going to sit. The Select Committee has asked for that and recently asked for it again. I challenged the then Minister, Neil O’Brien, when he came to give evidence to the Select Committee on why we could not see the operation of the subsidiarity that people used to argue for when we were in the European Union—the idea that things should be done at a local level unless there is a good reason for doing them at a national level. He said, “Oh that was a bit radical.” Well, it is a bit radical but it is probably right, and I hope that we can get to that position eventually or at least move towards it.
There are no new powers in the Bill. At the beginning, I asked the Minister in an intervention where the new powers in the Bill are, and she mentioned—and I think it is right that we look at this—the discussions taking place with the Greater Manchester Mayor and the West Yorkshire Mayor. However, they are not actually new powers in the Bill; they are discussions going on at the side. There are no new powers in the Bill. There are extensions of existing powers to county combined authorities that are currently with the existing combined authorities, but they are not actually new. Where is the radical skills agenda, or the radical transfer of powers and finance for transport infrastructure and transport operations? They are simply not there. Authorities are going cap in hand for a bit of money to run their buses next year, and often not getting it, but that is not a radical transfer of power and resources. There are some real challenges about that, and such a framework ought to be there.
Even if we cannot have a framework and still have a deal-based approach, when right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) was Secretary of State, in his first go at the job, and was asked about the deals that were being done and whether if one combined authority got powers, he would look favourably on other combined authorities having similar powers—basically, the presumption was that that would happen—he said yes. Could the Government not at least get to the position that, if these deals come in for West Yorkshire and Greater Manchester, other combined authorities, unless there is a very good reason, would automatically get those powers? That would at least be a step forward, and we could say that we have made some progress on this today.
I am a Sheffield MP, as well as Chair of the Select Committee, and at the moment there is not a single thing for South Yorkshire and Sheffield in this Bill—there is not a single thing about extra powers or extra money—so the challenge I would like to throw out is that the Government should at least spread the deals that are going to be done more widely. In preference, however, let us have a framework so that the whole of our country can see where they fit in and what they are entitled to. Some areas may decide that they do not want to take on some powers, do not want the responsibility and do not want the challenge. Okay, but that should be their decision. It is not for us to decide because, quite frankly, I do not know what is best in Cornwall, Cumbria or, indeed, Leigh for that matter. The councillors there are closer to those communities, and they should therefore be the ones making the decisions. Let us get to that position, and get to it more quickly.
I will conclude with two points. On compulsory purchase orders, I was heartened, I think, by what the Minister said in response to an intervention. The land value compensation legislation needs abolishing. When the Land Compensation Act 1961 came in, it meant that when a piece of land is given planning permission, essentially the owner of that land gets added value based on what the land might be used for once the permission is given. If that legislation had been in place in 1945, we would not have built the new towns in this country; we could not have afforded them, because every time we declared a new town, the value of the land would have gone up through the roof—of course it would, because it was there for development.
At least let us have a look at this, so that when a council says it wants to compulsorily purchase a site to make it part of a major regeneration scheme, the value of that land does not increase simply because the CPO is going to be put in place and the land is going to become part of a regeneration scheme. We must have a look at that. I was reassured by the Minister’s response, and I hope that actually gets transferred through.
Finally, if I went back to my constituents or, I suspect, those of any other Members in so-called levelling-up areas, and said, “Have you seen the benefits of levelling up in the last three years? Can you tell me the difference?”, I suspect the answer would probably be no, but no doubt the Minister will try to reassure us it is not.
I am going to speak to new clause 34, and may make some broader points, as my right hon. Friend Theresa Villiers did—I thank her for her great work and leadership on this issue. There are many good ideas that we have been discussing on all sides of the House today, and it is great to see such a brilliant Minister in her role and dealing with this Bill. Indeed, quite a few Ministers have been dealing with it, but I am glad that the buck has stopped with her. I welcome all and any measures to support levelling up.
The Isle of Wight is rich in so many ways, but economically is not necessarily one of them. We have a wonderful sense of community and a wonderful quality of life, but if I can achieve one thing in this place, it is to improve Islanders’ life chances and opportunities. I am delighted that in the last five years the Government have been listening more than they have done previously. We have got £120 million of additional investment. There is £48 million for the NHS—the build at St Mary’s is due to start in the next two weeks—and £26 million to rebuild the Island line. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago I was at Ryde Pier with my little hard hat on—a Boris look-alike or whatever—because the rebuild of the railway pier is now happening as well.
Mr Betts asked what levelling up has done. Actually, we have got a 240-ton-lift crane in East Cowes for our shipyard, which will drive dozens of new jobs and apprenticeships in shipbuilding on the Isle of Wight. The clippers that we see going up and down the Thames are made on the Island. We have lots of great things, including in training for Isle of Wight College.
One of the many things said by the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend Boris Johnson, which really sticks with me is that, “Talent is shared out equality in our nation, but opportunity isn’t.” We feel that, in a poorer part of a rich area.
I turn to compulsory purchase. If we go to any town or city in this country, apart from brownfield—I will come to that—we see long-term empty, derelict buildings. In coastal areas, as the Minister will know—it is fantastic that she has agreed to come to the Island and we very much look forward to hosting her—that problem is especially acute, particularly with former hotels. In Sandown, which is a town with a really lovely, wonderful community, some of our most important and valuable sites have stood empty for years. The Grand hotel is owned by a developer who seems to be unwilling to develop his own properties. The technical ownership of the Ocean hotel seems to change every month as it is flipped through a series of highly questionable companies. It is one of the most important sites in Sandown, and it is derelict and vandalised. We need the compulsory purchase powers. I respect property rights, but actually we need those powers to be as strong as possible so that communities such as mine and the Isle of Wight Council can use them to do good.
I am going to try this argument: I want to be able to get the Isle of Wight Council to compulsory purchase from the Government. Camp Hill prison site—the third prison site on the Island—has been empty for nine years. For five years I have been asking for a decision on Camp Hill. The Government cannot decide whether they want to turn it back into a prison, give us the land, sell it privately and so on. If they can give us that land at a price that we can afford, we can do real good with it, and we can build homes.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet made the point that we want to propose good stuff. That is why, among 20 amendments and new clauses that we tabled, we have proposed new clause 34. There is an incredibly trite conversation around the issue, suggesting that those who object to top-down targets and the entirely depressing reliance on out-of-town, car-dependent housing estates plonked down in the middle of nowhere are somehow anti-young people or nimbys—a nimby is a local patriot, in my opinion—shouting, “No, no, no,” with their heads in the ground like ostriches. Actually, we are saying, “Yes, yes, yes” to so many ideas—we are trying to give the Government so many ideas—because we want planning and housing to be a success. We want to protect communities and, at the same time, we recognise that we need to build, but we want a system that is community-centred, environment-centred—environmentally friendly—and regeneration-centred.
When we have acre after acre of brownfield sites in towns and cities up and down the country, what on earth is the point of being reliant on developers lazily building on greenfield sites? That alienates older people in communities—they have their dog-walking routes and views ruined—yet so often, and especially in the home counties, those houses cannot be afforded by young people. All that happens is people move out of London. That is a problem in Essex, Kent and Hampshire. On the Island, the dynamic is slightly different because people retire to us, but either way, despite having increased our population by 50% in 50 years, one of the most depressing facts is that we still export our young people too often.
New clause 34, which would give us compulsory powers to act in the public good, is only one of a series of, I hope, good ideas supported by my right hon. Friend, me and many people. For example, I think that for new clause 21, on top-down targets, we have more than 55 colleagues. Regardless of what the Labour party does, we need to work together. We want to work together with the Government in a spirit of co-operation, but can they please trust us and listen to us?
Another example of a good idea, apart from new clause 34, is the new clause on having a “Use it or lose it” rule to stop planners land-banking. I respectfully suggest to the Minister that a fundamental problem is not that planners do not give out permissions—80% get passed—or that pesky nimbys stop everything, because we know that is a load of rubbish. The fundamental problem is that developers have a vested interest in only releasing land for housing slowly, because that keeps the value of land high, house prices high, share prices high and bosses’ bonuses high. I sound a bit like I should be on the Opposition Benches. I am a big fan of capitalism, but I want capitalism to work. I want the developer industry to serve the people of this country, not its bosses.
We will achieve that by getting a system that works, so we want a new clause for “Use it or lose it.” We want a new clause that says, “Okay, you will have a time here and if you do not build out, you’re paying council tax on that 200-house estate. If you haven’t built it, you’re still paying council tax come what may.” We want bigger sticks. We want some nice carrots for brownfield, but we want bigger sticks for developers, so that when someone gets a 1,000-acre site they actually have to do something with it, and they cannot just sit on it and inflate their share price.
We want what is in the public interest. As soon as some people become Ministers, they think they know best—I am sure that this Minister does not think that—and they want top-down stuff, because that is where they drive reform. However, we know that a community with a neighbourhood plan is more likely to welcome development. Why? Because they get to shape it. All the so-called nimbys actually think, “Okay, here’s a home for my kids, a home for my daughter and son-in-law, a home for my grandkids.” They buy into it.
That is why top-down targets fundamentally do not work. They create an incredibly divisive battle. The Government say, “You have to build this many houses.” We get ridiculous, absurd numbers for the Isle of Wight, considering that our indigenous population is meant to decline by 9,000 over the next 15 years. We get targets and local government is put under pressure. The developers then start plonking down greenfield permissions, because they cannot be bothered to look at brownfield sites, which alienates communities. It becomes fundamentally divisive and adversarial.
Changing economic incentives would revolutionise development in this country, so that it becomes a win-win for communities. We could create more disincentives for greenfield sites—a super-tax—so that every plot on a greenfield site has to pay twice the amount as those on a brownfield site. Some brownfield sites are dirtier than others, but if we had a tax that said, “Okay, you are giving up 1,000 acres of greenfield site in Cambridgeshire, Kent or Hampshire, but you are getting 2,000 acres of cleaned-up brownfield site” that would be a win. That is something we could accept. We need to think in much more creative terms and to move away from an adversarial system. That is why another amendment—along with new clause 34, which we love—asks the Government to look at the creation of incentives for brownfield and greater disincentives for greenfield.
Fundamentally, with the exception of one or two things, the Government are going in the right direction, but they need to go further. Another example is the new clause on character tests. Some shoddy developers have criminal records. They intimidate people, do not treat communities properly, never build out or build poorly. Why can that not be a reason to object? Do we not want to clean up the development industry? Do we not want socially responsible developers who do the right thing for their communities and actually make an effort? They can be rewarded by us supporting their development planning applications and we can stop people who want to build caravan parks in the wrong place but use loopholes. That is another of our amendments—it is a great amendment—which would do real good, so why are the Government not accepting it?
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet and I, the 55 colleagues who signed new clause 21 on top-down housing targets, and many others, including the—I think—30 colleagues who signed new clause 34 on compulsory purchase, all want to say yes to this stuff. We want our communities to feel that development works for them—that it works for the old and young folks in communities, that it works to regenerate and that it works to protect our environment, which is so important to our future and which helps the whole process of community-led regeneration. In that spirit, we tabled new clause 34 and all the other wonderful amendments, which we look forward to discussing with the Government when they come up with a second date. My plea is for the Government to work with us on this issue, because want to make this a win-win, not a lose-lose.
I thank right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions, and I put on record again my thanks to all the Members who served in Committee during the somewhat lengthy consideration of the Bill. I will endeavour to respond to the points that have arisen today, but before I do, I re-emphasise the importance that the Government place on the three interconnected themes from our debate: devolution, regeneration and levelling up. Local power exercised accountably is the only way that we will extend opportunity throughout our country. Too often, Governments have fallen into the trap of thinking that controlling more will make local areas more effective, but the lessons of the past 70 years are clear: that approach does not work and we must trust local areas with the tools to build their futures.
Let me turn to some of the individual matters that Members raised. My right hon. Friend George Eustice is not yet back in his place, but I was grateful for his incredibly passionate contribution and his rousing speech about the wonderful, unique qualities of Cornwall. I look forward to visiting Cornwall soon and to working with him and other Cornwall colleagues on progressing a deal that works for the people of Cornwall.
“the economic, social and environmental well-being of some or all of the people who live or work” in an area. That means that the impacts of devolution on an area’s community, including those identifying as belonging to a national minority, such as the Cornish, would be duly considered under social wellbeing when deciding whether the test is met. Hopefully, that provides some reassurance.
My right hon. Friend also spoke about new clause 71, on whether the framework for a tier 3 deal is accessible without a Mayor. We in the Government are committed to that framework. We believe that directly elected Mayors with a clear path of accountability and a convening power to make change happen is really important, but the key point is that there will be no imposition from Government to have a Mayor. It is for local areas to decide what tier of deal they want to access. If they do not want to access a tier 3 deal and impose a Mayor, clearly, that option is available to them. Also, if they wish to, the framework allows them to deepen devolution later at their own pace. The Government are not imposing these measures. It is for local areas to decide what will work best for them in the framework that we have set out.
My hon. Friend James Grundy is a great and passionate advocate for his constituents and his constituency. I heard loud and clear his point about Leigh station and I will raise that with colleagues at the Department for Transport. He raised the point about how a one-size-fits-all approach does not necessarily always work. That is why it is so important that we negotiate deals on a local basis, so that every deal we have is negotiated with local authorities and other local stakeholders to ensure that it will work for the local area.
My hon. Friend raised a good point about engagement with Members of Parliament. Although I am relatively new to my role, I certainly want to endeavour to do that better as we progress devolution, either in existing deals or when we look at new devolution deals in the future.
I am incredibly grateful to my hon. Friend John Stevenson for his support on devolution and on the importance of strong, accountable local leadership. I am pleased to see his gung-ho passion for rolling out Mayors across the country, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh says, not every area wants a Mayor. I do not believe that we should be imposing Mayors without local consent, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle that we do not want any areas being left behind. I am happy to engage with him and with the Northern Research Group on the question of how best to further the devolution agenda in his region and across England.
My hon. Friend Ben Bradley made the crucial point that timing is vital. We need the Bill to get Royal Assent in a timely fashion to ensure that some of the devolution deals we have agreed get over the line in time for the elections in 2024. I know that my hon. Friend recognises the incredible opportunities that a devolution deal can bring to his local residents. He spoke about the need for simpler funding; the Department is exploring the issue and will publish a funding simplification strategy in due course.
“reducing geographical disparities in adult literacy” one of their missions, and to set out a plan
“to improve levels of adult literacy and eradicate illiteracy”.
The hon. Member seems to think that the Bill makes provision for that. It does not. Does the Minister agree that addressing adult literacy is a core issue if we are to get the very best out of everybody and give everybody the opportunities they need?
The hon. Member must have read my mind, because hers is next on my list of points to address. I am grateful for her passionate contribution on adult literacy. We all agree in this House that education is vital to levelling up, but the Bill is designed to provide a framework for the formation of missions rather than to set out the missions themselves. She will have seen in the White Paper some of the missions that we have published, which refer to educational attainment. I also point her to the Government’s work in other areas, such as funding courses for adults who do not have a level 2 English or maths qualification so that they can get those skills.
Jon Trickett raised several issues relating to social mobility. I was most struck by his point about inter-village transport; I face that issue in my constituency, so I can very much relate to it. Some of the devolution deals that we have negotiated and are looking to negotiate will mean more transport powers being conveyed to local areas and Mayors. That provides an opportunity for a rethink of how local transport is operated. As we spread more devolution deals around the country, that opportunity will be brought to more local areas. The hon. Member’s point has been heard loud and clear.
I had not planned to do so, because of the breadth of contributions that we have had today, but I am happy to write to the hon. Member on that point after the debate.
Mrs Lewell-Buck spoke to amendments 71 and 72. She is incredibly passionate about this important matter, as she has demonstrated not only today but in Committee and in other contributions. I go back to the point that I made to Margaret Greenwood: the Bill is designed to set out not the missions themselves, but the framework for them to exist. That is why we will not enshrine any particular missions in the Bill. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for South Shields and I had the same debate in Committee; I see her shaking her head, but I do not think that she is surprised by my response.
Let me very briefly address a point that the shadow Minister, Alex Norris, and the SNP spokesperson, Patricia Gibson, made about the levelling-up missions. They spoke about removing the ability to amend the methodology and the matrices. I am concerned about that, not because it is some kind of cynical aim, as has been suggested, but because data will be incredibly important in assessing our success in addressing the levelling-up missions. As we get new data sources, new datasets and new ways of presenting the data, it is important that we have the flexibility to access and use the data to its maximum potential. That is why I do not agree with amendment 14.
The Minister says that flexibility is important, so can she explain what the Government will do about the first successful bids, which are now falling short because of inflationary pressures on labour and materials?
The hon. Member will be pleased to know that I have a note to return to that in a moment.
My right hon. Friend Theresa Villiers and my hon. Friend Bob Seely raised some important points. We will come to many of their amendments on the second day of Report, when they will have an opportunity to speak on them in more detail. That will be coming soon. Both Members highlighted the passion around high streets, which, as we all know across the House, are vital to the heart and soul of any community. I am grateful to them for raising new clause 34 on compulsory purchase orders. The measures already in the Bill put it beyond doubt that local authorities have the power to use compulsory purchase for regeneration processes, but we are modernising the process to make it faster and more efficient.
As I announced in Committee, we are going even further by asking the Law Commission to undertake a review and consolidation of the law on compulsory purchase and compensation, to make it more accessible and easier to understand. As part of that work, the Law Commission will review existing CPO enabling powers to ensure that they are fit for purpose, and will make recommendations where appropriate. I do not believe that the new clause is necessary; however, I put on the record my gratitude to both Members for the incredibly constructive way that they have engaged on not just this part of the Bill but all of it, particularly regarding planning and housing matters. My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight said that I promised a visit. I am very much looking forward to visiting the Isle of Wight in due course.
One reason that we have asked the Law Commission to undertake the review is to ensure that we deliver in the most appropriate way, but I am happy to follow up separately with the hon. Member on hope value, because it is something that we will come to in the future.
Tim Farron and I had a great time in Committee during the few days that I was there in my role as Minister. It was always incredibly good natured, and I thank him for that. He spoke on new clause 46, as did Helen Morgan, which is on business rates reform. As both hon. Members are no doubt aware, the Government recently conducted a business rates review, and the report was published at the time of the 2021 autumn Budget. A package of reforms announced then was worth £7 billion over five years. In the autumn statement incredibly recently, the Government went even further and announced a broad range of business rates measures worth an estimated additional £13.6 billion over the next five years, including freezing the multiplier. The Chancellor of the Exchequer also announced the extension of the retail, hospitality and leisure relief scheme, and a transitional relief scheme for the 2023 valuation.
I appreciate the points that the Minister makes, but they are tinkering around the edges of the existing system. We are asking for root and branch review of how business rates are levied.
While I understand the intention behind the new clause, we consider it unnecessary on the basis that a review has been concluded only recently, and we have put in place an incredibly robust support package.
I am grateful to the Minister for what she is saying. To add to what my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire said, there may be much to commend that particular part of the autumn statement, but is the very package not an admission that the system is broken? Tinkering on the edges will not help. Surely it needs full reform and replacement if we are to support our town and village centres.
I am grateful to the hon. Member, and indeed all colleagues who have engaged with us on business rates reform. I will not go over arguments that I have already made. We will not accept the new clause, but I hope that hon. Members recognise that we are very much committed to ensuring that business rates are not an impediment to businesses investing in and residing within our high streets.
The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale also spoke to new clause 45 on electoral system reform. It was no surprise to hear the Lib Dems talking about electoral reform, and I do not want to rehash debates from Committee. I know that he and his party are passionate about this subject, but he will not be surprised to learn that the Government will not accept the new clause.
Turning to my hon. Friend Nickie Aiken, I want to put on record my sincere praise for her campaigning on the repeal of the Vagrancy Act. She is so passionate on this issue and I am grateful to her for her positive engagement. I look forward to working with her as this progresses. On her new clause 4, I have to admit that I would not want to make a commitment today, but I am keen to work with her to understand the issue of local voting rights in her constituency more fully. I would love to get a meeting in with her in due course to see whether this is something that we can review.
Caroline Lucas made an impassioned case on an issue on which I know she is very passionate. It was great to find agreement with her, as we both believe in devolving power to a local level to tackle local challenges. In the White Paper we set out a skills mission which set a target to increase the number of people completing high-quality skills training in every area of the UK by 200,000, with 80,000 more people competing skills training in the lowest skilled areas of the UK. The White Paper also highlighted the importance of the Government’s net zero target in helping to achieve that mission. The Government’s net zero strategy also makes a commitment to ensuring that the skills system is incentivised and equipped to deliver the skills necessary for the transition to net zero, as well as a commitment to growing post-16 training programmes such as green skills boot camps, apprenticeships and T-Levels. We will not be accepting the hon. Member’s amendment today, but I hope she recognises that there is a commitment from the Government, through the White Paper and other strategies, to ensure that we hit those net zero targets.
I want to make two quick final points. First, I want to say how grateful I am to my hon. Friend Dame Caroline Dinenage for her positive engagement on the issue of council tax for houses of multiple occupancy. We have reached a good position and I look forward to working with her and her constituent Mr Brewer throughout the consultation and beyond to ensure that we get it right.
Finally, Mr Betts raised points on the standards board and compulsory purchase orders, but I want to latch on to something he said about his belief in devolution—something that he and we in the Government absolutely share. He talked about brownfield land, and he will know about the brownfield land release fund, which has been so crucial in helping to support and regenerate brownfield areas. I would be happy to engage with him and I look forward to working with him and the Committee in my wider ministerial role.
In closing, I hope that hon. Members can see from the amendments that the Government have tabled today that we have listened to the concerns that have been raised since the Bill was introduced and that we are determined that the Bill will make a tangible difference in communities up and down the country.
Question put and agreed to.
New clause 61 accordingly read a Second time, and added to the Bill.