Local Government Bill [H.L.]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:14 pm on 6th December 1999.

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Photo of Baroness Young of Old Scone Baroness Young of Old Scone Labour 8:14 pm, 6th December 1999

My Lords, I hope to be brief at this time of the evening, mostly because much has already been said on several of the provisions of the Bill, and partly also with a mind to the fact that I rashly put my name down for the following debate. I fear that we shall be here until midnight at the rate we are going.

I touch on two provisions of the Bill. First, I cannot not give my support to Clause 68, repealing Section 28 of the Local Government Bill. Enough has been said about it, including by my noble friends Lady Gould of Potternewton and Lord Lipsey. Section 28 has no place in a modern, inclusive Britain, and I am pleased that the Government have brought forward the repeal. I look forward to supporting that.

Tonight, I want to focus mostly on Part I of the Bill. The vital role of local government in achieving environmental improvement as part of sustainable development has long been recognised. Local authorities are uniquely placed to deliver across the agenda of economic, social and environmental objectives of sustainable development. That has been recognised at several points. The Government's 1997 manifesto indicated that they would place on councils a new duty to promote the economic, social and environmental well-being of their area. Indeed, the White Paper on modern local government restated the commitment quite strongly. It stated that the duty would put sustainable development at the heart of council decision-making and would provide an overall framework within which councils must perform all their existing functions. In taking decisions which affect their area or their people, councils must weigh up the likely effects of a decision against the three objectives: economic, social and environmental.

I very much welcome that the Local Government Bill includes a power for local authorities to promote the economic, social and environmental well-being of their area. However, the provision is rather weak and watery, on three counts. The provision is now not a duty but a discretionary power, distinctly weaker than the original intentions and very much weaker than the provisions in the Greater London Authority Bill. My concern is that big local authorities will embrace the provision of discretionary power and that poorer local authorities will not.

It is also a rather pick-and-mix provision. Local authorities are being required to take into account the effects of decisions against three objectives, but they are not being required to take into account all three. For example, they are able to pick just one of the objectives that they choose to embrace. The whole point of sustainable development is, indeed, the integration of those objectives, with win-win-win solutions where all three objectives are achieved. To some extent, it is quite fundamental to the concept of well-being that solutions will be sought in which all three of the objectives complement each other. One cannot have well-being simply on a social scale if one does not also have well-being on an environmental and economic scale.

The third difficulty which I have with Part I is that local authorities have only a discretionary power to prepare a strategy for well-being. Again, the concern will be that progressive local authorities will carry that out but that there is no obligation for the poorer local authorities to do so. They, perhaps, are most in need of being encouraged along the way.

There is also no provision for monitoring and reporting on the well-being strategies, unlike the very strong provisions on monitoring and reporting which have accompanied the best-value provisions. Therefore, although I welcome the idea of the well-being provision being included in the Bill, it is all too wishy-washy and too discretionary. I hope that in Committee the Minister will tidy up the provision in that respect.

Before I sit down, I wish to make a more general point on this issue. When I was preparing to talk tonight, I was a little bemused because I felt that I had written all this before. Those of your Lordships who may have heard me speak may have heard it all said before. The reason for that is that we keep covering the same ground. We had a long debate about the sustainable development duty during our discussions on the Greater London Authority Bill, as we did when we debated the establishment of the regional development agencies. Before I entered your Lordships' House, when I was on the other side, as it were, as chief executive of the RSPB, we were trying to influence the passage of the Environmental Protection Bill to set up the Environment Agency and, at that time, we had a lengthy debate about the sustainable development duty.

It is sometimes referred to as sustainable development, sometimes as well-being and in the Government's recent sustainable development strategy, it was referred to as quality of life. Therefore, there is a range of terminologies. In each of the Bills to which I referred, there were also different terminologies in terms of requiring, exhorting, encouraging, suggesting or hinting to local bodies or government bodies that they might take account, bring into play, take a view on or promote the sustainable development requirement. The language was tortuous. There were powers and duties. Indeed, in Clause 2 there is tortuous language which says that local authorities are to have regard to the effect which the proposed exercise of the power will have on the achievement of sustainable development in the United Kingdom. I suggest that anyone who is not confused at this point does not know what is going on.

I am rather tired of debating the different formulations with each new Bill and I am absolutely certain that the Minister is tired of responding to them. Therefore, in this important area, can we not stop arguing about the formulations? Can we not have a standard duty to promote the social, economic and environmental objectives of sustainable development for all public bodies in the future?