Local Government Bill [H.L.]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:21 pm on 6th December 1999.

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Photo of Lord Laming Lord Laming Crossbench 6:21 pm, 6th December 1999

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, began by saying that local government is in crisis. That may be but I cannot agree with him that the Bill addresses those serious matters. I make it plain that to question the Bill should not be seen as an indication that one is opposed to change. I suggest that change is equally a responsibility for central government as it is for local government.

My response to the Bill follows closely the contribution of the noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon, and I hope that the Minister will be able to persuade me and others that we should not feel terribly disappointed that this is a Bill of lost opportunities in achieving the Government's wish to revitalise local government. At this time, the Government could have set clear, new and modern objectives for local government and concentrated on outcomes and impact. Instead, the Bill concentrates on structure and process, which are not central to the issues on restoring local government.

Over the years it has become commonplace for Governments to advance the cause of strong local authorities while strengthening the grip of central control. In a healthy democracy there needs to be a proper distribution of power. The best way to tackle social exclusion--I pay tribute to the Government for giving that a higher priority--or economic regeneration is to empower local authorities to engage local people and to identify new ways of encouraging local communities to take a strong stake in their quality of life.

At a time when the Government have a large majority in the other place, there is even more need to take proper regard of checks and balances on power and control. It is ironic that we are discussing these matters on a day when the Prime Minister is in the north of England addressing the north-south divide. I suspect that few people in Whitehall would be able without hesitation to identify the location of Sefton, Knowsley, Tameside and Kirklees--let alone Three Rivers or Dacorum--yet Whitehall is able to set priorities for local authorities and to determine through the standard spending assessment how much each should spend on the services for which they have responsibility.

The Bill seems to take even more control to the centre by interfering in internal structures and management arrangements. Clause 18 even requires each local authority to report to the Secretary of State on its executive arrangements. I would be interested to hear from the Minister how many local authorities will need to do that. Is the number really in excess of 400? What is the population range of each authority? I suspect that it is something between 30,000 and 1 million. Do the Government really want to get involved in the internal management structures of every local authority in this country?

There was a time when local government raised most of the money it spent in its own locality, with a small top-up from central government. That position has reversed. About 80 per cent of local government expenditure now comes from central government, with a large number of strings attached. Is it any wonder that local authorities are often thought of as being agents of central government rather than separately elected public authorities with rights and responsibilities and having wide discretion over local decision-making?

If one of the local authorities visited today by the Prime Minister made a thorough assessment of the social and economic needs in its area, for the most part it would have to go cap in hand to Whitehall or to Europe in the hope of changing the distribution formula or attracting a special grant. Is it any wonder that the turnout for local elections is so low? Electors know where the power lies. If the Minister's ambition to revitalise local government is to be realised, it is necessary to release local government from the tight grip at the centre and to encourage good-calibre local people to present themselves for election and become leaders of local communities, feeling that they will have a strong influence on the way that local authorities address the issues they confront.

It is more than a question of structures and processes. In this day and age, it is vitally important to find new ways of involving local people to combat areas of alienation and feelings of resignation that are so evident in some communities. Too many local communities reveal clear signs of disillusionment and disbelief that they can do anything about their environment or life opportunities. We need to find ways to engage local people and to stimulate and motivate local communities. Gone should be the days when the state does things to and for people. We should be finding ways of working with people in a genuine and equal partnership, supporting initiative and innovation. We should be finding ways of bringing together individuals, groups and organisations--voluntary and private--and public bodies to shape the future of local communities. Local government will not be able to perform that leadership role effectively if it does not have greater flexibility than the Bill allows.

Clause 2 gives powers to local authorities to promote the "well-being of their area" but Clause 3 prevents them from raising money to be used for that purpose. The Bill ratchets up further the Secretary of State's control and I cannot help but observe that the enthusiasm for referendums at local level seems not to be shared by central government, who wish to keep a firm grip on their own agenda.

Although I welcome the wish to improve standards in public life, as I am sure all your Lordships do, even at local level power will be concentrated in the hands of the few and many elected members will feel marginalised--even in the authorities to which they have been elected. I fail to understand why the time-honoured practice of political balance being reflected in the decision-making process is to be reduced. Some parts of the Bill are welcome but overall it is far too intrusive and allows too little flexibility for local government.

Will the Minister indicate whether he is aware of the real concern about Clause 64--particularly the financial arrangements for supporting people in sheltered housing? That is such an important part of fulfilling government policy on care in the community that I hope care will be taken to ensure that sheltered housing and tenants of sheltered housing are not put financially at risk.

I hope that I have managed to convey that, although this is a time when we should be seeking to revitalise and empower local government and help local communities to feel that they have greater influence over their quality of life, the Bill increases the powers of the Secretary of State to interference in the way that local authorities go about their business and adds to central control. I shall be a happy man if the Minister can convince me that I have got it all wrong.