Local Government: Community Empowerment

– in the House of Lords at 3:08 pm on 10th January 2008.

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Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Spokesperson in the Lords (Planning), Department for Communities and Local Government 3:08 pm, 10th January 2008

rose to call attention to the Action Plan for Community Empowerment: Building on Success and to the case for more initiatives to build sustainable local democratic structures and communities; and to move for Papers.

My Lords, I thank the small group of stalwarts who have put their names down to speak in this debate. I am sure quality will reign over quantity. In particular, I am very much looking forward to the maiden speech from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely. I thank my party, the Liberal Democrats, for allowing me to move this on a Liberal Democrat afternoon.

I have been involved in local campaigning and local democracy for about 40 years, which seems a horrific length of time. During that time, the terminology that people use has changed. We now talk about community empowerment and citizen engagement—or, at least, the Government do. Last year, they talked about double devolution, a silly phrase which has gone off to the Foreign Office or somewhere like that. When I started out in local government and local campaigning 40 years ago, most of my colleagues on the council would have referred to it all simply as "a damned nuisance" and seen it as people trying to get involved with things that had nothing to do with them. They should know that these other people were councillors.

However, my first message for the Government is to ask them, please, to start using plain English. Having read the report we are debating today, I had a vision of someone saying to their husband or wife, "I'm just off down the neighbourhood hub for a bit of community empowerment. We have been quality assured by the national empowerment partnership, and tonight we are embedding our practitioner learning and capturing and sharing it through the national neighbourhood management network". I hope the idea of all this is not to get people to talk in this way, because they will not. I have a basic principle in life: if people use silly words, they are probably talking a load of nonsense. If the Government want to persuade me that they are not talking nonsense, can they please use decent words? I am not a sceptic about this; I am a huge enthusiast, as I was when the Minister's political colleagues were very much against it. However, if we are all moving forward and believe that involving residents—which is what I would say—is a good thing and that there ought to be a lot more of it, then let us all work together.

I have been thinking about my credentials for having the gall to stand up and initiate this debate: I was involved in student and youth politics in the 1960s, as no doubt many noble Lords were, because of our generation. I exempt the Ministers on the Government Front Bench, who were probably at primary school at the time from that. There was a feeling in the 1960s that people ought to be a lot more involved and a lot more people got involved. In some cases it meant radical direct action throughout the world; in some cases it meant the growth of amenity groups. In 1970 I had privilege, as chair of the Young Liberals, of moving the community politics motion at the Liberal assembly, committing the Liberal Party to a policy of what we then called—and still call—community politics. It meant bringing together the politics of the street and the politics of the neighbourhood with the politics of elected bodies. This is absolutely crucial to the whole of this debate. If it works properly, what happens in the community and what happens on elected bodies—and now all the local quangos, and so on—have a direct link with each other. This is not always easy but it is very important.

On Monday evening I was in a slightly different position. I was at a public meeting, attended by around 100 people in the ward I represent on Pendle council, to present two people in the area with the South Valley Masterplan, a regeneration plan for that area. Here was I, who, when I was first elected to the council was with the people, mounting the barricades and assaulting the town hall, now managing public involvement in a very new Labour sort of way. Nevertheless, it was managed consultation that happened very successfully, and always with the understanding that if people do not agree with it, they are willing to say so and campaign against it. We were not storming the town hall, but rather "managing consultation". In those days, we used to think that there was a real dichotomy between these two approaches, that what some people used to call a patronising attitude to getting people involved was quite different from direct action. That has never been the case. They will always be on a continuum. It is important that when government, of all people, and the state are encouraging people to get involved, they must realise and understand that it cannot all be controlled and managed. Some of it will get very messy.

My second message for the Government is that involving people is not always easy or comfortable. Because people will get angry about what is proposed, and feel that the world and the state are against them, they will oppose what is going on. They will still storm the town hall, or whatever other bodies are involved, on occasion. The old attitude was to keep them out—keep them at arm's length—and it would be okay. The new attitude is to invite them in. But whether you invite them or keep them out, it will not always be comfortable. By all means, we must encourage people to use the available channels and to engage in dialogue; that is the advantage of inviting people in. But there are times when people will get angry, and it will get messy. It is not all working tea parties in the vicarage. It is sometimes a matter of resolving local conflict, which is not always comfortable for people in power at all.

I remember 1990, when the poll tax came in and I was leader of the council for a couple of years. We had to institute the poll tax. The people wanted us to say that we were not going to send the bills out or take part in this but, as we were running the council, that was an impossible position. People said "okay" in droves; the turnout went up hugely at the election and we were all voted out, and somebody else had to run the poll tax. People have a right to protest and a right to anger. It is not always easy, but you must still do it because it is the right way.

My third message for the Government is that they should think carefully about what they mean when they use the word "community". There is a romantic, rosy-eyed notion of community, of tea on the vicarage lawn; I apologise to the right reverend Prelates for these references, but they will know what I mean. At a local level, the community is who lives there; it is everybody. It is not the people who happen to be organised in groups, although they are part of it. It is not national NGOs and their local representatives, although they are part of it. It is everybody and all the organisations. We must always remember this. The Government talks in the local government White Paper of wanting,

"a voluntary agreement between a local authority and a local community", for local charters. I do not know what they mean by "local community" in that context—as a body that can "voluntarily" enter into an agreement. There is a lot of woolly thinking about it.

Who gets involved? Well, if there is a major issue, you get hundreds of people involved. We had a big issue where I live about proposals to remove a fire engine last year. A majority in the town signed the petition. Again, in around 1990 or 1991, we were campaigning against the proposals of the then Tory Government to close the local hospital in Colne. It was a huge campaign. We had a public meeting which I chaired, with about 350 to 400 people crammed into the sports hall, where our local MP, John Lee—who is now of course my noble friend Lord Lee of Trafford—came and gave what support he could to the campaign. He did not have much choice, really; he could either stay away or give support. There was huge local anger.

However, that is not the kind of engagement that the Government are thinking of. That is oppositional; it is campaigning to stop people closing things and doing things, which is what gets people worked up. If you have projects, if you are proposing to spend £5 million in an area—or even £30 million to £40 million over a period in regeneration areas, which is true of some I am involved with—people will get involved; not in huge numbers, but quite a lot will come to exhibitions. A sufficient number will take part in a local group to work with the council, or whatever other authorities, to see it through.

However, when you get to those who will attend meetings month by month and get involved at that level, particularly if there are no huge projects going on, you really are down to the committed few to keep it going. Are they the community? If so, are they representative? If not, how do you make important decisions about priorities? The Liberal Democrats say that that is where elected councillors come in. You cannot keep them out of the process, because they are elected to mediate between the different demands and views in the community and, ultimately, make choices; not locked away in smoke-filled rooms—as they would not be now—or otherwise, but as part and parcel of community decision-making processes.

When nothing much is going on, there are people who are dormant but still interested. As a ward councillor, I send out an e-mail newsletter every week or fortnight about everything going on in the ward that I know about—planning applications, items on agendas and so on. Over 100 people now are happy to receive that, and only one person has ever cancelled it. That kind of provision of information to people is good because when something crops up, there are a lot more people who know about it and turn up.

The Government may want to stimulate a lot of public involvement; they have done one thing recently that will do far more than all this to achieve that; that is, the recent local government finance settlement. This really puts the squeeze on some councils for the first time in some years. There will, for example, be library closures, community centre closures and cuts in local services of all kinds. That will get people going; I am not quite sure that this is the way the Government want to do it.

I talked about priorities and the importance of councillors, and my noble friends will go into that a bit more.

When I read the Government's papers, where are the references to political parties? Which are the bodies that, for all their faults and lack of members nowadays, provide the engine room for activism in the community in so many places? The Government and the people who write all these papers seem to think that political parties can be written out of the equation; they hope that they will go away, leaving nice community involvement and engagement with citizens, without the sort of conflicts, arguments and rows that political parties bring along. I have got news for them: if that is what they think, they are living in cloud-cuckoo-land. Political parties, activists and elected representatives are a crucial part of political involvement and engagement in a community. They are a crucial part of the way the community works in determining opinions, who turns out to get involved in particular issues—whether it is oppositional or managed—and of course who gets elected to the council.

My next message for the Government—I think that it is number five, but I have lost count—is that, with regard to involving people or community engagement or whatever it is called, you have got to look at it in all kinds of communities, neighbourhoods and areas. There is a temptation to say that neighbourhood management is a new trendy thing and we will do it in the deprived or disadvantaged areas—what we used to call the poor areas. If you are going to do it, you have to do it everywhere, and this needs resources. The disadvantaged areas are the ones where perhaps there are fewer resources in the community itself, but whether you are talking about add-on projects such as putting in neighbourhood management schemes, or just trying to do things in a more local way in your normal, mainstream services, that still needs extra resources. At a time when the Government are demanding that councils impose 3 per cent annual efficiency cuts, it is very difficult to find those resources. If there is a choice between cutting a service or delivering that service in a different way, most councils will go for not cutting the service—that is just the way it is.

I have used up my time. I wish the Government well. My final message is: do not believe that you can do this top-down; you can't. Page 29 of the report says,

"we must increase people's influence over service provision and local decisions".

You can't do that; you can encourage, you can stimulate, you can provide the structures that make it more possible, but when it comes down to it you need people on the ground, politicians and the people who run organisations, who are enthusiastically in favour of it, and who accept—as the Government have to accept—that it will be untidy and messy. The Government can get over that by calling it diversity in practice, but it will still be untidy and messy, and in some places it will not work. Yet where it does work, it is the most fantastic thing in the world. I beg to move for Papers.

Photo of Lord Graham of Edmonton Lord Graham of Edmonton Labour 3:24 pm, 10th January 2008

My Lords, here endeth the first lesson. Verily, verily, I say unto you: lift up your hearts. I have been enormously impressed by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, because, as always, one knows the way in which one speaks. You know that you are listening to the voice of experience. He referred to the stalwarts who have gathered here; I call us the repertory company and this is the green room. We are examining where we go from here.

I was delighted to detect from the tone of what the noble Lord said that he is giving some marks to the Government for attempting to deal with a deteriorating position in participatory democracy. I have an interest to declare, which is registered, relating to the Co-operative group. I do not want to speak about the Co-operative group, but I plead in aid my experience in the Co-operative movement over many years.

I was lucky, when I began to have an interest in those matters, to do so during wartime, when there was youth National Service, and in the post-war period, when works and factory cycling and rambling groups contributed to the ethos of young people—and, of course, the churches played a powerful part in providing youth organisations. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, referred to the political parties. I joined the Labour Party when I was 16. I attended meetings of other parties. I was the Prime Minister of the Tyneside Youth Parliament for a period. My involvement was all natural: it was there and I participated. Sadly, when one looks at the role of local government, national government and organisations, including the churches, the Co-op, and everyone else, it is a new world—it is different.

When we talk about empowerment, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, is absolutely right; I like to use "ownership". I think that one of the great contributions made by the Co-op movement, for instance—the noble Lord knows very well about Rochdale, the Rochdale Pioneers in 1844 and the birth of the Co-op movement; it has a democratic basis of one member, one vote—is that provided many people with an idea of participating. They would not have used a grand word like "participation" or "involvement", but when they went to their local Co-op store, they knew that it was their Co-op store. They had some say in it. They had the members' meetings.

I remember in the post-war period going to the City Hall in Newcastle, which held 2,000 people. You could not get in, because of the members of the Newcastle Society wanting to participate. Mind, I tell you, the two big issues that always drew the biggest crowd were when we sacked the general manager or when we reduced the dividend. Sometimes, when we did both, we knew that there was going to be an overflow. Those were the days of very large meetings.

When I talked to my mam at a certain time in my life, I said, "How did you enjoy what I call social intercourse?". She said to me that there were two afternoons a week when she got out of the house. Dad was on the dole and she had five kids; I was the eldest. She went to meetings of the Women's Co-operative Guild and to the Labour Women's Section. "What did you do, Mam?" "Well", she said, "I listened to a speaker and we sang songs". "What did they speak about?". "Oh, I can't remember what they said, but I got out of the house for two hours"—social intercourse. It seems to me—and I do not blame anyone for this—that over the past 60 or 70 years the fabric of our society, or my society as I knew it, has been weakened. The Government are trying—and I pay due tribute to them—rather than making promises, to lift the democratic control that we ought to spend time and money on. I know the Minister, if she were able to be frank, would say that there were many more issues in her department which could command both time and money, so the Government should be congratulated on taking ownership of this issue.

Now we come to the question of how to measure success. Is it an increase in numbers? Is it an increase in branches? Is it speeches—inches in the newspaper? It is very difficult indeed. My noble friend Lord Clarke of Hampstead drew my attention to two documents. One is entitled Burnley Speaks, Who Listens...?.He was the chairman of a taskforce report which dealt with the very sad events in Burnley in the early 1980s. I know from our conversations that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, read that. Arising from the work that was done then, we now have a body called Elevate. I know the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, will know all about that as well. Quite frankly I was very impressed when I went through Elevate to see what that taskforce was doing. I was very struck by the words of David Taylor, the chairman of Elevate. Besides telling us about his work, he says:

"I have a theory that if you go right up to the top of the valley where you can see the terraces running up the hills, where they stop is almost like the high tide of the industrial revolution. As the tide ebbed away the problems set in. That's a measure of the challenge that we've got but people are always worth it. They really deserve more out of life. You transform buildings because that's what you can spend money on, but it's transforming lives that is the real challenge".

If everyone who has participated today were to ask, "What have I got out of it?", it would be very difficult to be precise. There is a warm feeling of friendship—I call it comradeship—among people over the years. I think the Government have got this priority right. What is required? Funding, strategies, consultation, relevance, leadership—none of which is easy but all of which have to be tackled. The Government can be congratulated there.

Again I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for having this debate and not forcing me but inviting me to read this report. I looked through the illustrations. There are case studies, which may be the best or may be run of the mill, but reference is given to Perry Common in north Birmingham, Portsmouth City Council, Hattersley Neighbourhood Partnership, Sandwell Town Teams, Rochdale junior neighbourhood wardens, Shoreditch Trust, Forums Against Extremism and Islamophobia, the Bradford Vision budget, petitions in Barking and Dagenham, and Gambesby village hall in Cumbria. They should go on record in this debate as being noted by parliamentarians and ought to be congratulated.

In my youth, I joined dad's army. Before I saw service in the Royal Marines, I was a member of the Home Guard, the Local Defence Volunteers—quickly known as "look, duck and vanish". We do not create that sort of thing now. I do not want to use the term "going back to the good old days" or hanker after conditions as they were, but somehow society has to get its act together.

I am glad that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely will make his maiden speech today, because, twice in the past three years, I went to christenings in Welwyn parish church, Hertfordshire. As well as babies Leo and Toby, 300 people squashed into the church on a Sunday morning. I am not a churchgoer, but I love going to a church when I get the opportunity. The Welwyn church is 1,000 years old and the congregation were happy and joyous to be brought together for a purpose.

Two of the happiest times of my life were in 1977 and 1981. "What happened then?", I hear noble Lords cry—although not very loudly. The Silver Jubilee was in 1977 and the marriage of Charles and Diana was in 1981. In 1977, I said to my constituents, "I want to come to all the street parties", and I was invited to 82 on the same day. I had a good agent, who, with his wife, my wife and I, divided the parties up. The people were happy—not delirious, except when it got very late—and they enjoyed themselves. The British people are very good at responding to causes.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, referred to agitation and argument. In Enfield, there is a proposition to close the A&E unit of Chase Farm Hospital and I have taken part in marches against this. On the right issue, there will be a response of that kind from people. These opportunities are given to us and the Government are carefully studying them. In the Elevate report and the report that we are debating, there is no question of looking for a quick fix. It will not come. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, nods his head because his experience is the same as mine. You have to be in this for the long haul. It is not an issue that will win medals or decorations; it has to give you satisfaction.

I ask the Minister and her colleagues to continue doing these things. When I look at the changes during my life between what I knew and now, there is no comparison. Today, the population shops by car. When I think of the size of the corner shops and the Co-ops that I used to know and today's supermarkets, it is a different world. I enjoy the new world and I do not say anything against it, but we must understand that the problems that the Government and communities are facing are very real and earnest. So, my tuppenceworth to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, is that I am very grateful that the repertory company has been assembled and we will continue to perform as well as we can until the next time.

Photo of The Bishop of Ely The Bishop of Ely Bishop 3:39 pm, 10th January 2008

My Lords, I am very honoured to make a contribution to this debate. I am told that your Lordships' House is a place of welcome and hospitality, and I have found it so. I come from a rural and a farming background. I am proud to say that my family, despite all the things that have happened in the past few years, are still farming. All my ministry has been spent in small country parishes and I bring that experience to this House. In addition, I have spent 15 years at the National Agricultural Centre and with the Royal Agricultural Society dealing in a sense with the socio-economic issues that underline the report. The diocese I now serve comprises Cambridgeshire and west Norfolk. Ely looks out on some of the most fertile and consequently the most expensive land in England. A third of it is below sea level; part of the diocese is at 25 feet below sea level, so there are issues there that the House could address at some stage.

Like the previous speaker, I welcome the report, not least for the range of issues that it raises—localism and the devolution of responsibility to local people is of the greatest importance. The concerns of rural areas were once much higher on the agenda than they are today. It is now almost forgotten that the post-war Mansholt plan of 1947, the foundation document of the common agricultural policy, was conceived of by virtually all the contributors as a social document. It said a lot about agriculture, but it was basically a social document and the countries that read it that way—France and Germany particularly—have therefore made great progress in those areas.

Those who live in rural areas suffer from being on the margins. In recent years that has been exacerbated by planning policies and social policies based on the concept of city regions, which is an American concept, and central place theory. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, mentions community. "Community" is a central word but it is difficult to define. It can apply equally to the European Community and to a small religious house. A former academic colleague listed 94 definitions of community—that was of undoubted academic interest but not of a great deal of practical help as we looked at the problems of rural areas. In reality, community is known by its absence—we know when it is not present, but it is difficult to define by its presence.

Endless government and other documents have spoken about the ideal size of rural settlements. I like the definition of a Fenland parishioner in the area that I now serve. She said that such a settlement has to be large enough for a good deal to be going on and small enough so that she misses none of it. The whole of the eastern region is experiencing extraordinary population growth, the fastest of any part of the country. Cambridgeshire is a region that is growing enormously and many people are responding to the challenges that that throws up.

It is constantly brought home to those of us who live there that while it is easy to build houses, creating community is significantly more difficult, so much so that people are leaving the new settlements—Cambourne and so on—around Cambridge at a much faster rate than had been anticipated, and there is a danger of them acquiring a reputation for simply being acres of housing with no meaningful community. Whether good or bad local government happens in that area, that is not in a sense the point. The point is the indefinable sense of community in those places, which does not depend on the frequency of rubbish collections or the availability of children's playgrounds. Once again we can be trapped into believing that what we cannot measure does not exist.

In rural areas few would deny the importance of voluntary organisations, and I pay tribute to all those who support them—the large army of volunteers themselves and those who argue their case in central and local government. I speak with personal experience as I served as a commissioner on the Rural Development Commission for 10 years until it ended in 1999. The Commission for Rural Communities—the new body that has taken over its work—together with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Arthur Rank Centre at Stoneleigh have all recently published papers which point to the significance of churches and faith communities in the development of what is now called social capital, but we would understand as local community. In this we recognise the way in which communities are created and sustained, and the clergy find that they recognise their roles and functions, the work of their buildings and of their congregations in the new and unfamiliar terminology of social capital, anchor organisations and so on.

I welcome this report and the good things that no doubt will flow from it. I hope that the single reference to rural communities in the 12 examples that have been given in the report does not indicate a disposition to ignore that part of the country, where 20 per cent of the population live. I hope that the role of voluntary organisations in urban and rural areas will be deeply understood, well resourced and widely recognised.

Photo of Baroness Hamwee Baroness Hamwee Spokesperson in the Lords (Regional and Local Government), Department for Communities and Local Government 3:45 pm, 10th January 2008

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate mentioned the welcome that all new Peers receive in this House. The happy task of giving the formal welcome now falls to me. It is a pity that the House is a little thin, although the right reverend Prelate will come to recognise that that happens on a Thursday afternoon. It is a shame that more of our colleagues were not here to listen to his maiden speech. However, they will get the opportunity to hear him speak in the future.

I knew that the right reverend Prelate must be a good egg when he chose to make his maiden speech in this debate. I knew no more about him than that until I discovered when I arrived here just before we started that I was to follow him. I see that his background before theology was in anthropology. I can tell him that that will come in handy here. His CV lists his non-political career. I have to say that I think that the Church of England manages a fair bit of politics. It is not, as my noble friend said, all tea on the vicarage lawn, so that will be great experience.

I have always thought that those on the Bishops' Benches start with something of an advantage in two ways. I cannot say that I detected it in this case, but making a maiden speech might not feel like an easy thing to do. However, most of us arrive with no experience at all of speaking in rather august surroundings, sometimes to a few people and sometimes to a great many. I have always rather envied the Bishops their experience. Also, more seriously, they have a deep understanding of people's lives, which can sometimes be missed in the speed of life in London and in Parliament. However much we disparage the ivory tower and say that we get out of it, it can be a problem. In his speech today, the right reverend Prelate has clearly demonstrated what he and his colleagues bring to us in that regard, so I am very happy to welcome him on behalf of the House.

My noble friend Lord Greaves said that his credentials include experience in the youth and student movement of our party. He did not share with the House the fact that he was asked by Jeremy Thorpe to get involved with and to keep an eye on that radical firebrand Graham Tope. They have both done a great deal in their communities to bring forward the issues that we are debating today. "Doing community engagement" are the words of the action plan, and I share with my noble friend a wish to use not just plain English, but good English. What probably most divides those of us on these Benches from noble Lords in the other two parties is what we see as legitimising a local authority and a local authority's government. They see it as giving power from central government to a local authority; we understand the formal legislative position, but for us the underlying philosophy is that the power comes from the people within the local authority area as a part of the governance arrangements as well as being its citizens. The language, as I and my noble friend have said, is important.

Pictures are important, too. Whoever chose the picture accompanying the Secretary of State's foreword to this document had a sense of mischief. I am not sure whether the Secretary of State is heading a football or is about to be knocked out by it. I see from the Minister's face that she thinks that a little more proofreading in its widest sense might not go amiss sometimes. Still on the theme of language, I had thought that the term "citizen" featured nowhere in this paper. However, just before I came to Westminster, I found it in a paragraph about activists.

Whatever the language, it has a hollow ring if it is only words. Local government throughout the country needs to be seen as powerful and local authorities need to be seen as autonomous; if they are not, everything else about empowerment is, at best, on a very insecure base. I am talking about things such as local income tax, ring-fenced grants and so on. Local authorities need to send out the unspoken message that they are open to ideas, to discussion and to involvement. Without this, there is a degree of cynicism that is difficult to overcome. That is not to be taken in any way as opposing the role of the community. I agree with other noble Lords that there is what one might sum up as a question mark over what is meant by community. I particularly liked the notion that one sometimes knows it by its absence. A structure without firm foundations will be very flimsy.

Perhaps I am too naive. I start by assuming that all local authorities are doing the right thing and that they have that inclusiveness. Well, I know I am naive. I was shocked to learn from the document that in only 28 per cent of local authorities are petitions given an automatic response—whatever "automatic" means. I find that almost unbelievable. So perhaps processes and structures are needed. But I find the whole agenda, as put forward by the Government, too process-driven. The quicker we move from prescribed, discrete procedures to a culture where individuals who are elected—or who, as officers, are appointed—quite naturally involve local people, the better.

I know that making the cultural shift is not always easy. It is now almost 10 years since I was an elected councillor, and local government has changed enormously in that time. But there are still some common principles. In 1983, when my group took over the administration of my local authority, I became chair of the planning committee. We changed the procedures almost overnight to involve those who were affected by planning applications as well as those involved in the whole area of forward planning. I did not at the time recognise how difficult I was making life for the officers by imposing these new ideas on them. Perhaps it is unfair to say "imposing"—they did not resist them. But it was a real difficulty for them to be thrown, with no experience or training, into what they perceived as very difficult environments, in meetings that went from being 20 minutes in private to being four or five hours in public, facing local people. For some people, a big cultural shift needs to be made.

Involving local people well is time consuming. Unless you provide feedback—I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for using a word that he will hate as much as I do—and unless it is an iterative process, it is not good enough. Moreover, none of this comes cheap, if we are to do it well.

Perhaps almost the hardest thing is to get to the point where those involved have a shared understanding of the problems that they are seeking to solve. Some of that is about language. Recently, having received a letter about a consultation about a controlled parking zone—in suburban London, that is about as contentious as you can get—I noted that my neighbour's response was about something different; he wanted to raise the configuration of the road. He was not wrong, but that is not the focus of the consultation and it is irrelevant to that issue, so he will be disappointed. People are not starting from a common base.

The mechanisms for communication are changing. This morning, I was at a meeting with the London boroughs and the London Civic Forum discussing the proposed budget of the Mayor of London for next year. The chair of the civic forum reminded us that printed communication is on its way to being obsolete and that new media, "used by citizens other than geeks like us"—I quote him—are what one needs to focus on. The website www.theyworkforyou.com facilitates communication, which comes to us as a "letter from your constituent". I do not know whether this will get me a mention on the website. It has a lot of information and very good links. The e-mails that I get as a Member of the London Assembly, which is London's strategic government and which has a rather particular role, are almost invariably about things over which the GLA has little influence, let alone direct power. People who are using the facility express their frustration and I feel embarrassed that the answers often have to go back, as nicely and helpfully as possible, saying, "This is not something for us". The bureaucracy and the demarcations must make citizens' eyes glaze over. Until you get a common foundation of understanding about how our governance works, a lot of frustration will be caused.

Communication, as ever, is the best foundation for involvement and access. Another item that came up this morning was how well in many parts of London safer neighbourhoods policing, which is very local policing, is working, because people know whom to contact and they can see what is going on.

The document recognises the dangers of raising expectations. At this point, I will mention another document, the consultation on petitions, which the Government have just published. I fear that the danger of raised expectations does not seem to be acknowledged. I find what is proposed in that document, which I know comes from the Act that the repertory company recently worked its way through, rather disingenuous and rigid. It provides something of a gift to opposition parties on local authorities. Many of us will know how easy it is to get signatures to petitions.

Empowerment is a big subject. I have not mentioned community leadership or distinguishing devolution from subsidiarity. We could talk about all sorts of areas of community activity, such as sports and the arts, which would take us on to funding. Perhaps one should ask the repertory company mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Graham, whether this is high drama, tragedy, or farce. One of the actions in the action plan is to open up direct dialogue with local activists. Action 15 states:

"We need local community activists to work with us to tell us what is really happening and influence our thinking about policies".

I should like to recommend some community activists—elected councillors. From what we have heard, the councillors in Pendle are well qualified.

Photo of Lord Dixon-Smith Lord Dixon-Smith Shadow Minister, Communities and Local Government

My Lords, I have one interest to declare. Oh, I beg the noble Baroness's pardon.

Photo of Baroness Scott of Needham Market Baroness Scott of Needham Market Spokesperson in the Lords, Department for Communities and Local Government 4:00 pm, 10th January 2008

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Greaves for initiating this debate today. Tony Greaves, as most of us refer to him in our party, was one of the authors of community politics in the 1960s and beyond. He literally wrote the book regarding most of the campaigning techniques that political parties and other groups use today. They may have become more sophisticated, but the fundamentals were developed by Tony and his colleagues. We all owe him a huge debt of gratitude for what he has done.

I am also very pleased to have been here for the maiden speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely. The House will be very grateful not just for his comments today but for his rural perspective in future debates. I come from the neighbouring county of Suffolk and I know how difficult it is for rural communities to feel that politicians operating from London really understand their concerns. It seems ironic, incidentally, that a debate on involvement has attracted so few speakers. I found myself asking why this is. I came to the conclusion that the problem is that we are debating a document called The Action Plan for Community Empowerment. I am afraid to say to the Government that the term "action plan" has now become oxymoronic. It usually means that someone has gone away and thought about things and that nothing will be done. Community empowerment is seen by most people as meaningless jargon.

The fact that there are so few speakers in this debate demonstrates that the language we use is absolutely key if people are to get involved. If Members of your Lordship's House cannot take an interest in such a debate, we really have our work cut out to expect people outside to engage in a debate that is couched in these sorts of terms. It emphasises what is seen as the divide in thinking between Whitehall and Westminster and the rest of world where we are seen as living in an ivory tower. That is something of a shame because every one of us here is a member of a number of communities. Everyone in the country belongs to a number of communities: where they happen to live, the places where they work, where they worship, or among people who share their interests.

What differentiates each one of us is the strength of those ties, how much importance we each place on them, and how much time, effort and energy we are each prepared to put into that sense of community. That is where the comments of my noble friend Lord Greaves comments were absolutely right. It is not possible to legislate for that. It is not possible somehow to direct from above or even from a local authority that people must get involved in a particular way. This is something that people will choose to do if they think it is worth while. The question today is how government, central and local, and public bodies should behave and organise themselves in order to encourage the sense of community which already exists and further to encourage the development of community thinking and action where it does not.

The right reverend Prelate made a very interesting point when he said that community was often more noticeable in its absence. When I moved to Needham Market in the early 1980s, having spent my life moving around as a forces child and then as a forces wife, I certainly found that the sense of community just hit me because it was something I had never come across before. I found it hugely comforting. Becoming involved in community activities was what led me into politics. So there is a salutary lesson there for anyone. Nevertheless, I think you know community when you see it. It is what makes this sort of debate so difficult. I have a certain amount of sympathy with the Government when they are trying to produce documents such as this, because it is like trying to nail jelly to a wall. I recognise the difficulty but they, in turn, must recognise that there is a danger that in trying to pin too much down, you lose the sense of the very thing you are trying to create.

It is a fact of modern life that we are much less geographically rooted than we were. Much is made of how this country has one of the most flexible job markets in the world. That tends to mean that people move around and are therefore much less rooted. It is much harder to have a sense of community if you think you will be living somewhere for only two or three years and will then move on. The Government will have to think hard about that when it comes to providing new housing. As the right reverend Prelate so rightly said, we can build the houses but we cannot easily build the communities.

The noble Lord, Lord Graham, made some interesting points—with some of which I agreed—about how much has changed in recent years in the way in which people become involved. A whole industry has developed around the consumerist approach that links service users and their providers, using things such as surveys, feedback and complaint forms. This is relatively recent. There are much better networks now, much better ways in which interest groups organise themselves and have their say. That applies both locally and nationally. When I get a heavy postbag on a particular issue—at the moment it is the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill—I think it is fantastic that people take the time and trouble to put pen to paper or send an e-mail.

We have seen huge growth in what I think of as the participatory events. In addition to turning up to public meetings, people are involved in citizens' juries and community workshops. A lot of exciting work is going on, and that is very new too. There are also the events that react to specific challenges. My noble friend Lord Greaves and the noble Lord, Lord Graham, talked about how people will come out of the woodwork when something really affects them, such as post office or hospital closures. But the act of voting is still the biggest way in which people are involved in their local community. Despite declining voter turn-out, more people turn out to vote than are involved in other areas. We should never forget that or denigrate the role of local elections.

There needs to be a balance of all the methods I have described. The ballot box is not always perfect. We on these Benches argue that there is a difficulty when first-past-the-post electoral systems result in fiefdoms, which can result in unresponsive government. The public have reacted by electing far more local authorities which are now in no overall political control, but the Government are making it quite difficult to manage those politically. I do not intend to rerun the debates we had on the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill but there is a danger that the current models imposed on local authorities deny the plurality that the voters have chosen. If they want a council run by a number of political groups, it is the business of Government not to get in the way of the councils running themselves. I genuinely believe that local democracy works best when it is truly local. Evidence from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, among others, has shown that relationships are closer between smaller organisations and communities. The larger organisations become, the harder it is to keep that closeness.

I recognise that there is a difficult balance to be struck as regards obtaining efficiency, economies of scale and capacity for a strategic role. All those tend to gravitate towards larger units, not just for local authorities but for all sorts of other public bodies. Yet we know that the public would rather have a council that is close by, where they feel that they know the people involved, and where they can go to the town hall rather than have a huge modern, PFI-built structure on the edge of town that nobody can get to. Telling them that they can send an e-mail is still not the way to involve many people. We need to do an awful lot more to develop situations that work in particular areas where smaller councils can work together to provide strategic services but still be small enough to keep the local link. At the same time large councils can be helped to develop governance mechanisms that keep them close to the people they represent. The concept that these solutions should be developed locally is key.

As I said, this is not just a local authority problem. I often hear how consolidation in the housing association sector means that housing associations, which are becoming ever larger, are losing much of the local link with the residents that was a key part in the decision to move to a housing association in the first place. It is a great pity if tenants feel that they are losing that involvement.

It seems to me that what is absolutely key, regardless of which method of participation or involvement brings people in, is genuine accountability. People want to know to whom they should be talking, whether anybody will listen and, most importantly, whether anything will get done as a result. There is much evidence to show that there is virtually a systemic failure to bring the results of complaints and consultation exercises into decision-making. That has led to real cynicism about local governance. People will not get involved if they think that it will not make any difference. That has been exacerbated by the huge number of local bodies which now operate. Most areas have a real alphabet soup of public bodies providing services, giving grants and performing other functions. All that makes it very difficult for citizens to work their way through the system.

I know that the Government have rather belatedly recognised that and by forming local strategic partnerships are making an attempt to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. However, there are dangers in that. There is a danger of having too much closed door decision-making. There may be more people behind the closed door but it may still be a closed door. Taxpayers' money is involved here. If we are to ensure that people do not become cynical where taxpayers' money is being spent, they need to be able to see what is happening. I have seen two reports recently from local press organisations, which say they believe that under new executive arrangements local councils are much less transparent than they used to be. The press feel that they are not able to do the job they used to do in reporting to the citizens in their areas.

It seems to us that council leadership is absolutely essential because when it comes to the crunch they are the only people who can be booted out. They are the only people who can be held accountable by the local population. There is a major challenge as regards how we ensure that these networks are genuinely open to everyone. We have to accept that many people will choose never to get involved. Rowntree estimates that about 50 per cent of the population in a given area are not involved and do not want to be, and we have to accept that. However, that still leaves a lot of scope for work. As my noble friend Lady Hamwee, said, the methods we use to consult, the location and design of buildings, and whether people are contactable by e-mail are not rocket science but they are very important in terms of whether people feel there is a point in getting involved.

But ultimately the key to this is that central government have to deal with the paradox that on the one hand they seek to maintain central control, particularly financial, but at the same time they put duties on local authorities to consult residents and users. If community involvement is to be genuine, local bodies must have genuine autonomy. They need to be free from targets, ring-fenced grants, inspections, public service agreements, capping and the whole centralist paraphernalia. Until they are genuinely autonomous and can respond to the communities, Government face an uphill struggle.

Photo of Lord Dixon-Smith Lord Dixon-Smith Shadow Minister, Communities and Local Government 4:15 pm, 10th January 2008

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, for my premature jump; it was quite inadvertent. I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for introducing this interesting debate on community empowerment and local democratic structures. There is absolutely nothing new about this. All that has changed is the terminology and the way in which it is undertaken.

I, too, welcome the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely. I am a fellow East Anglian, born, bred and raised in East Anglia. As he is from Ely, he may think that Essex is not a part of East Anglia—it is a rather urban type of existence there—but I assure him that I have a great deal in common with him in what he was saying. I thought his comments on the need to develop community in relation to new developments, particularly large-scale ones, were interesting and helpful.

All of us who have been involved in this for a long time—I cannot begin to approach the depth of experience of the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton—have different perspectives on the subject. Perhaps I might be allowed a couple of reminiscences to show how hot community involvement can be. I well remember an occasion when we were consulting on education reorganisation, which, curiously enough, was required by Harold Wilson's Government back in the late 1960s. We, a Conservative education authority, proposed to a district in a Labour authority a very Labour form of reorganisation. It was a new town where the population had stopped growing. All of a sudden, the school populations began to drop and something had to be done, but we did not like the idea of closing schools. I shall not bore the House with the detail, but we held a series of meetings in the town. One night, six of us went to chair the meetings and about 400 or 500 people attended each one. That is real community involvement. People felt passionate about the issue, which was exacerbated for political reasons. Another point you need to bear in mind on community involvement is whom you are talking to. In that instance, we were Conservatives and they were socialists, but they would have fought us whatever we proposed. That is the way life is sometimes.

Another example of real empowerment arose in a different town, where there was a similar series of meetings. The one that I chaired was going extremely well. There were about 600 people in the school sports hall on a bitterly cold night. The meeting could have gone on all night, but after an hour and a half the school caretaker, a very wise man, simply turned off the heating. That is real empowerment. The meeting came to a sensible conclusion and closed at a reasonable hour. That is community involvement.

We should recognise that this has gone on over a long time. Of course, its nature has changed, but to have community involvement you need an issue. The idea that people will keep coming out to chew the fat over minor changes in their community on a monthly or even a quarterly basis is just unreal. They simply will not. There are too many other distractions in life nowadays.

I am afraid that my view is that community interest has diminished. The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, talked about community leadership and accountability. Not least of the difficulties that we have in dealing with this subject relates to the fact that when I began local authorities held virtually absolute power. It did not matter whether it was a county, district or parish council; their powers were defined. They had an annual budget that was in their absolute control and the result was that, when a particular issue arose, the community knew precisely whom to go to and who was responsible.

I talked to my local county council before this debate, which said that it is now subject to approximately 200 separate targets or standards set by central government or often arising from European initiatives, especially on the environment. Councils must follow set rules. Then there is the financial aspect. Because of the changes in local finance arrangements over the years, the vast proportion of the money comes from central government, which has a dramatic effect on how rates move. A shift in local government resources up or down is greatly multiplied at the ratepayer level. That is the reality of life and it diminishes the authority of members of the councils in the eyes of the public. There is no longer the clarity of responsibility that used to exist.

I accept that it is necessary to have clearly defined standards on the environment, but the micromanagement of the economy of local authorities has not helped their standing, although they can take decisions that matter—I pay tribute to those who take on that responsibility—and they do an extremely good job in increasingly difficult circumstances. We need to recognise the enormous contribution that local authorities make to British society, which benefits hugely from the voluntary sector—in this sense, local government is a voluntary sector—where people do everything they possibly can, generally successfully, to make the system work effectively in the interests of their community. I pay serious tribute to the people who do that.

I do not think that there will ever be an ideal situation—a sort of Utopia or community where everybody feels properly involved in everything. Society moves on. We are having a good debate this afternoon, but if I may be allowed to say it—this is not meant to be an acid comment, as I am one of them—we are a group of relatively aged people. I suspect that if we talked to the young they would think that we were having a wonderful waffle about something that does not really matter. If we want to communicate with them, we probably need to do it on the internet, which leads us into the business of community petitions and so on, in which some people will get interested.

Young people may listen to this discussion on community and all the rest of it, but unless a particular issue catches their imagination or interest they will not get involved; they have other interests. One of the issues with which we should concern ourselves relates to—I will not say the alienation of the younger generation, because that implies antagonism—the fact that, in my experience, younger generations are reluctant to get involved in public life in the way that was quite usual when I started.

When I started, the average age of council members came down by some months because of my intervention, but coming to the council with me were a number of young people of similar age. Now when I look at my local authority, young people are a rarity, as they are in voluntary work. That is immensely sad. I do not know what we are going to do about that. It is an issue that has nothing to do with politics and something to do with the way we lead our lives.

The uncertainty introduced by increasing central government intervention in local government has made matters worse. Another aspect that still causes me some concern, inevitably, is that for 40 years there has been no sense of constitutional stability for local government to rely on. Forty years covers a great many Governments of different political persuasions, so this is not a party-political issue. The structure of local government has not been stable for that length of time and is still not stable. There are still rumbles around the country over whether you should have this sort of organisation or that sort of organisation and so on. Everybody feels this uncertainty. We have a regional structure that was first to be made democratic and now is not to be. The regional assemblies are to go altogether and we will have regional development agencies. They, of course, have taken some authority away from county councils and, to some degree, unitary authorities. We are still in a state of flux.

If I have a final message, it is that my contacts across the spectrum of local government all say, "Please, if we could just leave things alone for a few years, we might be able to make them work". That will be real community government, because people will know where they stand. You cannot expect good communities— I go back to the words of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely—to come together and work together in a really effective way without some degree of stability. That is a particular problem when we are developing new communities and we have to face it. People need stability if they are to be able to work together.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) 4:27 pm, 10th January 2008

My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for giving us the opportunity to debate a very important topic. There is no one in this House who could have opened this debate or steered it implicitly like the noble Lord, for all the reasons colleagues on his Benches have made clear. The noble Lord has written a book; we are still leafing through the index to some extent. I am grateful for the breadth of his introduction because we have had a very thoughtful debate, as much about the context in which we conduct community policies as the policies themselves.

It is a very useful and welcome opportunity for me to talk about what the Government are doing. Before I do so, I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely on his maiden speech. We are a small but very distinguished group in the Chamber this afternoon. The right reverend Prelate, having chosen to join us, has added lustre to the company. It was extremely significant that he spoke from his experience as somebody who knows—and, indeed, has written widely about—the rural community. I hope I can give him every assurance that the rural community is important to everything we say in the document and our policies. How could it be otherwise? The right reverend Prelate has worked to address isolation and bring people in from the margins, as he described it, through his position as chair of the Cambridgeshire branch of Action with Communities in Rural England. There is some excellent social enterprise work being done by the Ferry Project in Wisbech and the Huntingdonshire Youth Bank, which puts money directly into the hands of young people for them to decide how to spend it. That is the sort of example which might reassure the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, about young people's involvement in a range of voluntary organisations and their willingness to take responsibility and power.

I am grateful for the support I detected for the action plan. I hope to prove that it is both a plan and full of action which will be taken. I very much agree with much of what has been said this afternoon. Noble Lords are absolutely right in their critique of language; the language in this field is very difficult indeed. I agree that "community empowerment" is a clumsy term. I wish there was something that we could all agree on which would mean everything that we would want it to mean. It is difficult to find a word that does that. We talk about community involvement and influence. Wherever possible, we should always use the simplest and most direct and common language. We really must address this, and I promise to do so. It is quite a well known term but we will go on looking for words which mean "enabling the people to become involved and influence the services and places they live in the best possible way". That is ultimately what we are talking about.

Making this connection with the wider community will be a defining mark of this Government, making going beyond the town hall a clear priority and making practical propositions. That is one of the things that make it different and new. We are looking at a set of practical propositions in our action plan. I would not say that they are processes; they are new tools. Some are not that new, because they have been used and developed by the best councils, but bringing them together in a strategy plan is new.

We have heard different versions of the personal journeys that noble Lords have made this afternoon, including, I am pleased to say, from my noble friend Lord Graham. They have been reflected by the Government's journey because things have changed from the days of mass protests, when getting involved meant going to a meeting. It is not like that any more and we must recognise and address that. Since 2000, we have been engaged on a genuine journey of devolution which started with Scotland and Wales and ended up before Christmas, via the local government White Paper and the Governance of Britain Green Paper, with a concordat between central and local government which consolidated that relationship. It was very seriously negotiated and not something where it was said "Let's do that because it'll look good" at all. It said, for the first time, that local and central government have a responsibility to use tax payers' money well, devolve power and engage and empower communities and individual citizens at local and national levels in debate, decision making, and shaping and delivering services. That is quite simple language.

Behind and underneath all that is a set of problems which community engagement is designed to help us solve. Among them are the self-evident problems that noble Lords have addressed today in many different ways: the challenge of building trust and coherence in a complex, diverse and fragmented society, and in rural communities where isolation is often visible and yet invisible when one thinks about young people, for example. People who engage and are active in their communities build up what we call "social capital", enabling them to build communities, connect, and do and change things together.

Secondly, there is the challenge of the democratic deficit. There is low participation in all forms of elections. The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, talked about the ageing of the councillors; the average is 58.3 years, and only 3.5 per cent of councillors are under 30. One of the paradoxes is that there is no shortage of interest in how local government spends its money or provides services. There is evidence to suggest that the action plan and its actions can be made successful because people want to be informed and involved. Some 71 per cent of non-voters said they were likely to get involved in a process where they decided how and where local money is spent, and 80 per cent of people agree that they would engage more if they had been aware of the opportunity to do so, and given help and advice. Yes, we have that hierarchy where 15 per cent are very active and 15 per cent do not know or want to be involved. Yet there is, as the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, said, great potential for bringing in the community bystanders, not giving them tasks but enabling them to discover what they can do to change their communities.

This is about designing, managing and changing policies and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, moving towards a shared understanding of where the problems are and so where the solutions are. One positive thing that takes us away from this suggestion that people will get involved only when they want to change or stop something is our experience in New Deal for Communities or our neighbourhood management. Ordinary people with skills they did not even know they had took on the responsibility for changing their communities, and have done so. We have seen, in those deprived and difficult communities, progress in the improvement of school standards, in the reduction of crime and in the improvement of housing and the environment. This has changed people's perceptions about the places in which they live. That is positive community involvement.

I am sure the right reverend Prelate was right when he said that we recognise community when it is not there, but people I see when going to these communities are also very clear about what is changing and what is good about where they live. That is what we want to be able to spread. I note the assertion of the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, that nothing here is new. What is new about how we have approached this is that, first, involving people in helping find the solutions is now essential to what the Government are trying to do and the way they are trying to do it. I give all credit to the Secretary of State for making this a personal and political priority. It is certainly central to my department in the way we are trying to transform communities and the way we provide housing and new communities. The right reverend Prelate was right; of course we must not just build houses, and we do not intend to. It is a challenge to build communities where they do not exist and to change communities that do. Yet it is community planning—master-planning with the community resource and infrastructure at its heart—that will help us get from the beginning a sense of what the community wants. That is what we are trying to do.

The second difference is that it is about direct levers. I will come on to illustrate that with a few examples. Thirdly, it is different because it is about the whole of Government. This is not something that the department which is called "Communities" has to deal with alone. We have to move this out across Whitehall. For example, in the youth action plan, the emphasis is put on young people making changes and giving them money as well as power to determine the sorts of facilities they want in their communities. There is the involvement of children in the children plan. The LINKs network in health is another radical change, going beyond the usual suspects to determine what is best in terms of social care. There is a sea change in the way the Government are drawing on these resources—because that is what they are.

The action plan is ambitious; it is a major plan. It starts with the need for cultural change, the duty to involve a radical step which requires local authorities to show that they have involved the community. We recently published draft statutory guidance on both that and local strategic partnerships, and community strategies in relation to that. We are now looking for the best ways of doing that. The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, referred to the 200 targets that are involved in many local authorities' decisions at the moment. There used to be 1,200 targets and we have made a quite significant change there. We will be consulting on draft regulations soon and guidance on the duty in the Sustainable Communities Act. But we in the department are also wrestling with the problem of the particular form of communities. I absolutely take the point that there are many different definitions of community, as there are many different types of communities—whether ethnic communities, communities of interest, or whatever.

We are dealing with problems of community cohesion: the need to find ways to promote the sort of social engagement that enables the building of trust in communities which are very diverse. Our Connecting Communities fund is making that a reality by supporting the work of minority ethnic groups through community networks; for example, helping them to run citizens' days so that they get to know each other.

On housing and planning, two Bills are coming forward from another place very shortly. The Housing Bill will give tenants and residents more power to shape their lives and their housing conditions. The Planning Bill, contrary to popular mythology, is creating more opportunity at three different stages of the planning process to involve people in what is happening in their communities. That is about creating different cultures and opening doors.

We are also looking at widening and deepening opportunities locally. I have two examples. I know that asset transfer is close to the heart of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, thereby creating opportunities for communities to manage and own local public buildings, village halls and community centres so that we have much more accessible community resources. Those are resources from which skills, opportunities and even jobs can be grown. Those are social enterprises. It is not only in instances such as Coin Street in London. In rural areas, we have Gamblesby in Cumbria, where the village hall has given the whole community a new focal point and a sense of purpose.

If we move from that to participatory budgeting, we are looking at instances such as Bradford, where £1 million has been spent in five years: local people deciding how to spend money on local issues. That is why we announced 10 pilot areas in July and a further 12 last month, because we are ambitious for every local authority in the country to offer that within five years. I can say to the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, that those are not just words; this is real difference. It will work and it will happen, because people want it.

We talked also about the need to improve services. You can do that in two ways—we have chosen two. Through local charters, which are more strategic, we want councils to work more visibly with the community as a whole. On the question raised by the noble Lord about what constitutes a community in that sense, it can be a community organisation or an alliance of community organisations. That will be determined locally. We are issuing guidance across the country in March for local authorities wanting to develop charters. Then there are petitions. I heard what the noble Baroness said, but she will know that we are building on the Councillors' Commission. I am sure that the consultative process will throw up many ideas and comments on that. We will publish responses on both those issues later this year, and we will draft legislation if necessary.

All that will change, strengthen and galvanise local democracy, which is what it is intended to do. We also need to tackle the malaise in local government: the failures represented by ageing structures and the unattractiveness of a proposition that used to be so much connected with civic pride. That is where the Roberts commission has fitted in. We are now looking in detail at its recommendations, which are many and various, and will respond to it. What it says about local government is also being reflected in the work being done by the Darzi commission and the Flanagan review of the police force. How do we bring in more people, how do we get them to take responsibility for the things that really affect and harm their lives?

We cannot do any of that unless we provide support mechanisms. I have a bit of jargon here. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, mentioned the network of empowering authorities, which is what it is. It is a core of 18 local authorities which will be the trailblazers for good practice. They will work together to spread the message: this is how things can change and work. We need those people to help us do that. They will not listen to us, but they will listen to local authorities who have done it for themselves. Alongside that we will have a national partnership of all those bodies which bring together ideas—the IDeA, the LGA, the Urban Forum—giving serious purpose to what will actually enthuse, galvanise and mobilise people. We have community anchor organisations as well.

My noble friend asked how you measure success. That is a very important question. Public Service Agreement No. 21 seeks to build more cohesive, active and empowered communities. We will not only be seeking to meet that target; we are also finding new ways of measuring participation, both active and passive. We are doing a citizenship survey, for example, to look at everything from school governorship to who and how many sign local petitions. Through the national census of local authority councillors, we will be measuring the profile of councillors. Noble Lords are also right to ask about resources. These are not simply words; they are not even simply good ideas. There will be investment in this—£35 million has been committed to underpin the action plan.

Having gone through rather rapidly and superficially what is in this plan and what it signifies, I hope noble Lords agree that what is different is that there are new opportunities. There is a new seriousness, a new centrality of purpose. There are ways of enthusing people, young and old, in these programmes and of holding out a better future. There is connectivity between the range of things that local government can do and what the community wants to do for itself. We can open doors. It is uncomfortable but we have to face those realities. If we have the principles and some of the processes right, and the ambition, we can actually do it. As for making community a reality, to return to where the right reverend Prelate started, if we can recognise in five years' time a community by what it has rather than by what it has lost, we will be on the way to making genuine change.

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Spokesperson in the Lords (Planning), Department for Communities and Local Government 4:47 pm, 10th January 2008

My Lords, it occurred to me while I was listening to this excellent debate that I had forgotten to make a formal declaration of interest as a member of Pendle Borough Council. I think I have made it fairly clear what I do when I am not here but I need to put it on record formally.

I was not wrong when I forecast that there would be quality in this debate to make up for the lack of quantity. I thank all those who have taken part, in particular the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely. We all look forward to hearing what more he has to say over his years in this House.

I will make two or three very quick points. The noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, made some extremely interesting points. One of them was about the rise of the BNP in some areas. It reminded me that, if my party will have me again and if I can find 10 people to nominate me, I may defend my council seat in May in a ward in which the BNP are in second place. In circumstances like that community activity is very political indeed. You simply cannot take the politics out of it.

My noble friend Lady Hamwee talked about her experience in setting up a system in the planning committee when she was chairing it and members of the public and objectors and applicants were able to come and speak. I had the same experience. When we set up ours, we relied very much on the experience in Richmond. There is a huge amount of experience out there which has to be tapped into and used. We are not inventing the wheel and the Government are not inventing the wheel.

Lastly, the noble Lord, Lord Graham, talked about campaigning against hospital closures and said that he is still involved in them. That reminded me that last Friday I chaired an amazing meeting of activists and councillors from our party across six boroughs in East Lancashire to work on a campaign on hospitals there. We have set up a website, which will please the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, and all his young friends, called itsournhs.org.uk, which you can all go and have a look at. You will find I am there so perhaps you will not want to look at it.

There is a whole spectrum of oppositional street activism, which goes right through to the huge privilege of being able to move Motions such as this in your Lordships' House. Not everyone will want to be involved in that spectrum, but there is somewhere for everyone. I was very impressed by the Minister's enthusiasm and sense of determination, and I shall read carefully what she has said. The consultation on this report, An Action Plan for Community Empowerment, runs to 19 January. One reason to have this debate was to contribute to that consultation. I should be very grateful if everything said today, reported in Hansard, is put into that consultation process.

Finally, I came across a wonderful quote just 10 minutes before I came into the Chamber, but I was unable to find out who said it—no doubt someone will tell me in due course.

"A society of sheep must in time beget a government of wolves".

I thought we should have a big banner saying that erected over the Peers Entrance, but then I thought Black Rod probably would not be too happy about that. Instead, all I can do is beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

S

Lord Greaves's comments are brilliant. His...

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