My Lords, I shall speak also to the other 44 amendments in this group that are in my name and the name of my noble friend Lady Hamwee. Mention of 45 amendments in one group seems sufficient to clear the Chamber. I reassure noble Lords that 40 of these amendments say exactly the same thing and relate to the name of the proposed body.
The Bill refers to the Boundary Committee for England, but 40 of these amendments change its name to the Local Government Boundary Commission for England. These amendments are supported by the Electoral Commission, and the change that they would make makes sense. The capacity for confusion between the present Boundary Commission and the Boundary Committee for England is obvious, and that confusion must recur again and again. The only explanation I have heard offered for choosing this name was that it was the most minor change possible. Generally it seems preferable to make as little change as possible. It does not seem sensible to seek to cause the greatest confusion possible.
Although the proposed name of the Local Government Boundary Commission for England is a little longer, it has the great merit of actually describing what it is and what it does. Giving a body a clearly descriptive title is obviously desirable. It would also bring it into line with the Local Government Boundary Commission for Wales and the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland. To have a similarly named body for England also seems sensible.
I hope that I shall achieve some success today in getting the Government to accept 40 amendments from me. At that point I may well decide to quit. I see that that is very tempting to the government Front Bench. I did not mean it.
Amendment 106 refers to the appointment of the chairman of the committee—or the commission, as I hope it will be—being made on the recommendation of the Secretary of State. The Electoral Commission has some concern, which I share, about the continuing part to be played by the Secretary of State. That does not mean that there are doubts about any individual, past, present or future. However, it is important that these matters are not only done impartially but seen to be done impartially. We therefore propose that the appointment should be made on the recommendation of the House of Commons rather than the say-so of the Secretary of State. It may seem like a small change, but it is an important one to ensure that absolute impartiality is seen and is beyond question.
Amendments 107 and 108 relate to the appointment of the deputy chair. The post is important, and should the chairman be unavailable or cease to be able to hold that office, the role of the deputy chair will clearly be as important as that of the chair. We therefore propose that the same appointments process and procedure should take place for the deputy chair as for the chair.
The effect of Amendments 142 and 143 is that there should be no transitional arrangements. The Electoral Commission and the Boundary Committee are very concerned indeed that if there is a gradual process of separation, the period of uncertainty for their staff and others will be all the greater. They state very clearly that they see no need for this period and that the transfer should take place cleanly on the specified date.
All of the amendments are sensible and I look forward to hearing the Minister's acceptance. I beg to move.
My Lords, I must admit that the noble Lord's earlier offer nearly made me jump to my feet, and it is a shame that he withdrew it.
Let me first address the amendments in relation to the name of the new body. When introducing these provisions we sought where possible to minimise change, as the noble Lord, Lord Tope, said. As a result, we were of the view that the existing name should be retained. There is of course an argument that changing the name of the Boundary Committee will in itself cause confusion. However, I recognise that retaining the name of the Boundary Committee for England could also result in continuing confusion with the Parliamentary Boundary Commission for England, which deals with parliamentary constituencies and is commonly known as the Boundary Commission. There have been occasions in the past where those in Parliament and members of the public have been confused about the separate roles of these two bodies.
The noble Lord, Lord Tope, and the Electoral Commission have put forward the name Local Government Boundary Commission for England, which is of course in line with the names of the Local Government Boundary Commission for Wales and for Scotland. I assure the noble Lord that we will give full consideration to whether the proposed name is appropriate. On a technical point which I should draw to the House's attention, despite the noble Lord's best endeavours, the amendments as they stand remove references to the existing Boundary Committee, which would need to be retained. We would also need to ensure that all references to the Boundary Committee are captured if we agree that a name change should be made. I hope the commitment that we will give further consideration to the proposed name change provides the noble Lord with the assurances he requires to withdraw his amendment at this stage.
I should now like to address the amendments to Schedule 1, which relate to appointments to the new body. First, in relation to Amendment 106, I set out in Grand Committee why we believe that the Secretary of State should be responsible for recommendations to Her Majesty on the appointment of ordinary members of the new Boundary Committee. The Secretary of State's role in making appointments to such bodies is well precedented and is, in our view, wholly appropriate in this instance. I gave clear assurances during the debate in Committee that the appointments process will ensure that impartiality and independence are maintained. The Secretary of State would of course adhere to the guidance of the Public Appointments Commissioner.
As I set out in Committee, there will be oversight and audit of the process by the Public Appointments Commissioner; recommendations for appointment will be based on recommendations from a panel of officials, including an independent person; and a process of advertisement and executive search will be followed. In addition, by providing the Secretary of State with a role, knowledge of the local government sector will be brought into the appointments process.
The Electoral Commission has stated that these assurances have allayed its fears about the appointments process for ordinary members. I hope, therefore, that the noble Lord's fears can also be allayed and that he will withdraw Amendment 106.
For the same reasons, it is not necessary for the deputy chair to be appointed following an address from the House of Commons. I set out in Committee that it is essential that appointments to the new Boundary Committee are, and are perceived to be, politically impartial, independent and unambiguously made on merit. This clearly applies to the post of deputy chair. Paragraph 3 of Schedule 1 provides for the Secretary of State to designate one member of the Boundary Committee for England to be the deputy chair. The deputy chair must therefore be an ordinary member and will have been appointed by the process that I have just set out.
On that basis, I have been able to address the concerns of the Electoral Commission, initially in relation to the appointment of ordinary members. I see no good reason to remove the Secretary of State's role in designating a member of the Boundary Committee to be a deputy chair. Indeed, as I indicated in Committee, we see nothing objectionable in the chair of the new body being appointed by the Secretary of State, so we see no good reason for her not to be responsible for deciding which of the members that she has recommended will be appointed deputy chair of the Boundary Committee.
An appointments process that involves the Secretary of State is at least as likely to deliver our aims of appointments being politically impartial, independent and made on merit as a process involving votes in another place. The Electoral Commission has stated that the Speaker's Committee should be responsible for the recruitment of the deputy chair. The Speaker's Committee gave its broad support to the Bill following its introduction. However, it is meeting today to consider its provisions in more detail. This will include what, if any, role it should have in the appointment process.
The Government will of course take into consideration the views of the Speaker's Committee, particularly in those areas where the Bill provides it with a role. However, until the views of the Speaker's Committee are known, we should not table amendments to provide it with a role that it may believe is unnecessary. Thus, I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.
Finally, the noble Lord sought clarification on the transitional provisions, which are set out in Clause 60 and Schedule 3 to the Bill. These transitional provisions relate only to the process by which the Boundary Committee's final recommendations become electoral change orders. For example, the Boundary Committee will remain the statutory committee of the Electoral Commission and its staff will continue to be Electoral Commission employees until the new body is established.
I will expand on the explanation that I gave in Committee. Clause 60 and Schedule 3 make transitional provision for the existing Boundary Committee to exercise its function in relation to electoral boundary work, without the involvement of the Electoral Commission, prior to the establishment of the new Boundary Committee for England. Schedule 3 provides for a transitional period, starting on the day that the Act is passed and ending with the establishment of the new Boundary Committee for England, which we expect to happen on
As I set out in Committee, the key recommendation of the Committee on Standards in Public Life was that the Electoral Commission should concentrate on its core functions, hence the removal of its role from electoral boundary work. The Electoral Commission has stated that the process currently envisaged would involve a gradual separation, resulting, as the noble Lord said, in increased uncertainty for both staff and stakeholders. The provisions in Schedule 3 are clear. They remove the Electoral Commission's role and replace it with the new parliamentary procedure. This will involve work for the Boundary Committee in preparing for the new procedure, but I cannot agree that there will be uncertainty about what the procedure is.
The Electoral Commission has provided us with an indication of the recommendations that it expects to receive from the Boundary Committee in the next 12 months. It has informed us that, based on the latest plans, it expects the committee to make final recommendations in the electoral reviews of Cornwall in September, Northumberland in February, and Durham in March. Both the Electoral Commission and the Boundary Committee argue that, since they do not expect to make any orders in this period, there is no need for this transitional provision. Clearly, that argument can be turned on its head. If they do not expect to make any orders, why do the transitional arrangements present any difficulty? Indeed, the transitional arrangements in the Bill provide clarity so that electoral change orders can continue to be made in accordance with the new procedures, if and when they are approved by Parliament. We are yet to be convinced that we should, in effect, introduce an artificial moratorium period where electoral change orders cannot be made. That is the key issue.
Were the transitional arrangements not in place, Parliament would have legislated for a new procedure that removed the role of the Electoral Commission, yet the commission would continue to be able to make its orders. It is clearly a matter for the Electoral Commission to decide if and when it chooses to make electoral change orders until such time as a new process is put in place. We continue to believe that it is right that, if and when Parliament approves the Bill, the new more accountable system should come into effect straight away. This will give greater clarity and confidence to local councils.
We are grateful to the Electoral Commission for providing information on the level of work that is expected in this period. We also note the Electoral Commission and Boundary Committee's concerns. However, to date, we have seen no compelling arguments for why the transitional arrangements that we have proposed would cause the Electoral Commission or the Boundary Committee any particular difficulties. Of course, they will have to develop new working practices to enable them to deal with Parliament instead of the commission, but these are not insurmountable. Indeed, given the small number of ongoing electoral reviews, they will be making the transition at a low point in their work programme. Having said that, we will continue to discuss all of these matters with the commission and the committee, but I hope the House will agree that, at this stage, Clause 60 and Schedule 3 should stand part of the Bill.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for a very full reply. On the question of the name and the 40 amendments that apply to it, I understood the Minister at least to express sympathy with the point that is being made and to give an undertaking to look at it. Of course I understand that the Government must be sure that, if it is to be done, it is done properly and in all the right places. I hope very much that they are able to do that in time for Third Reading so that when the Bill leaves this House we have at least achieved a name change here, and do not have to go through the same process all over again in another place. I am grateful for that.
I am also grateful for the explanation on the other points that I raised. They were points of concern raised by the Electoral Commission itself. As the Bill progresses, I am sure that discussions between the department and the Electoral Commission will continue. I hope that these concerns can either be allayed or met during the passage of the Bill. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 101 withdrawn.
My Lords, when we come to all the other amendments, to save reading out every single one, may I assume that the noble Lord will not wish to move any of them?
My Lords, the Deputy Speaker may so assume.
Amendments 102 to 105 not moved.
Amendments 106 to 108 not moved.
Clause 52: Review of electoral arrangements
Amendments 109 to 114 not moved.
Clause 53: Requests for review of single-member elected areas
Amendments 115 to 119 not moved.
Clause 54: Review procedure
Amendments 120 to 124 not moved.
Clause 55: Implementation of review recommendations
Amendments 125 to 127 not moved.
Clause 56: Transfer of functions relating to boundary change
Amendments 128 to 131 not moved.
Clause 58: Transfer schemes
Amendments 132 to 135 not moved.
Clause 59: Continuity of functions
Amendments 136 to 141 not moved.
Clause 60: Interim provision
Amendment 142 not moved.
Amendment 143 not moved.
Clause 64: Interpretation
Amendment 144 not moved.
Clause 65: Local authority economic assessment
Moved by Baroness Warsi
145: Clause 65, page 48, line 1, leave out paragraph (b)
My Lords, I will also speak to Amendment 146. These amendments, which, I am delighted to see, have been endorsed by the Minister, are designed to keep ownership of economic assessments with the local authorities that conduct them. They get rid of the overbearing role of the Secretary of State, which would have allowed her to tell a local authority to revise any aspect of an assessment that she did not like. Quite why this should ever have seemed like a suitable idea is unclear. In Grand Committee my noble friend Lord Hanningfield made it clear that he would be totally against the Secretary of State directing these assessments, because they should be conducted to assess the economic needs of the local authority, not the needs of the Secretary of State, which might be very different. I am pleased that the noble Baroness has taken our advice that these powers are not necessary and I welcome their removal from the Bill. I beg to move.
My Lords, we have Amendments 147, 151, 152, 153, 153, 154 and 155 in this group. They follow those moved in Grand Committee, to which my noble friend Lord Greaves and the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, spoke quite forcefully about the position of non-unitary districts. We think that having a duty to undertake an economic assessment is unnecessary, like much of this Bill, but we were told that,
"Such a duty would help local authorities and their partners to work more effectively, supported by a comprehensive and robust economic evidence base".—[Official Report, 9/2/09; col. GC 255.]
It was confirmed that the powers are within local authorities' current powers but that,
"we need to provide a consistent framework".—[Official Report, 9/2/09; col. GC 261.]
We were also told that there are clear advantages in having one body in the lead.
As I said, the two noble Lords spoke forcefully about the role of the districts. I shall not seek to repeat at any length their description of the diversity of districts within quite close areas, the districts often being the authorities with which the public identify. Therefore, it seems to us that a district should be able, if it wishes, to take advantage of the benefits that we are told this clause will bring. Some economic policies and plans will be very local, and I stress the voluntary nature of my amendment, giving districts the option to buy into the arrangements.
The Government's response at the previous stage and the provision smack of an agenda for bigger unitary authorities. As we have said before, there may be things to commend a unitary system across the country but we should debate that on an open and clear basis. We on these Benches find this quite difficult, coming at it all somewhat crabwise.
Amendment 151 is consequential on the first amendment. We have tabled Amendments 152 and 153 because Clause 65(6)(b) seems to us very narrow. It states that the county must have regard to the material produced under Section 13 of the 2004 Act. As we have lost so much of our debating time this afternoon, I shall not find the flag and read Section 13. The reference to the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 reminds us of the importance of the link between economic generation and planning for an area. Of course, the district is still responsible for much planning by way of the local development framework and development control. The Bill provides for other considerations prescribed or directed by the Secretary of State, and there may be other very relevant material. That is why our Amendment 153 inserts the words "or otherwise".
Rather than co-operation going only one way, with the district co-operating with the county, I propose in Amendment 154 that both district and county should co-operate with each other. Amendment 155 would allow for an assessment made before the commencement of the section to fulfil the duty that the section will impose. The world did not start this year and will not start when the Bill is enacted and the relevant clause comes into force. It seems very unnecessary for local authorities to have to repeat what they have already done when they can simply point to work which many of them are doing at the moment in assessing the economic condition of their own areas. In our view, having carried out the work, the duty should have been fulfilled.
My Lords, this group of amendments concerns the proposed local authority economic assessment duty. I shall address Amendments 145 and 146 first. The Minister has put her name to the amendments, as the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, said.
We have listened carefully to noble Lords' concerns that a Secretary of State power to direct an individual local authority to revise its assessment would give the Secretary of State undue control over how the assessments are taken forward. The power of direction was only ever intended as a safeguard and, as we are confident that local authorities will wish to keep their assessments up to date, we are very keen to keep government prescription to a minimum. For that reason, we are happy to support these amendments.
Amendment 147, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and the noble Lord, Lord Tope, would allow a non-unitary district council to elect to be placed under the duty, so that in two-tier areas both the county council and district council would be under a duty to prepare an assessment for their respective areas. Amendment 151 is a consequential amendment.
I understand the fear expressed by noble Lords that district councils would have a peripheral role in the preparation of local economic assessments in two-tier areas and that countywide assessments would fail to take account of the important contribution that district councils make to wider economic development. I assure noble Lords that we do not underestimate the vital role that districts play in supporting local economic development and regeneration. Indeed, we fully intend county councils and district councils to work in partnership in preparing their economic assessments.
The Bill, in Clause 65(6), already requires the county and district councils to work in partnership in the preparation of the countywide economic assessment. It includes a requirement on the county council to consult and seek the participation of district councils within its area and to take account of the evidence gathered by the district council in the course of its role as planning authority that may affect the development of the area. It also includes a requirement on the district council to co-operate with the county. We do not believe that the amendment would further strengthen partnership working between the county and districts.
The amendment would place a separate duty on the county council and the district to prepare an assessment. As noble Lords are aware, local authorities have general powers to discharge their functions jointly. Thus, the county council and district councils electing to be bound by this duty could decide to prepare a joint county assessment. Although, in the best case, districts and counties might choose to exercise their duties jointly, nothing in the amended provisions would require them to do so. Therefore, we cannot discount the possibility that a district council would want to produce its own assessment rather than work with the county. In such a scenario, the district's assessment would have the same statutory status as the countywide assessment, which could lead to unnecessary duplication of effort. It could also mean that regional partners would be presented with two potentially conflicting assessments for the same area in preparing the regional strategy. Furthermore, if a district council was to go it alone, Amendment 151 would result in there being no requirement for the county to consult it and seek its participation in preparing the countywide assessment.
As I explained in Committee, we believe that it is important that assessments should reflect the local economic geography as much as possible. We do not dispute that district councils have a key role to play in economic development and regeneration. However, economic linkages or economies do not stop at district council boundaries; the solutions to local economic problems can often lie in the wider economy. For example, skills shortages and shortcomings in connectivity often require a county or sub-regional response. Counties provide a better match for real economic markets and are better placed to build a broad strategic understanding of the drivers of the wider economic area. For these reasons, we believe that it is better to prepare the assessment at a county level.
Therefore, we believe that the best way to take forward local economic assessments is to place the duty on county councils but with a clear requirement for the county to work with the districts. Counties are particularly well placed to lead on economic assessments, as they have a strategic overview of the economic, social and environmental well-being of the county as a whole. They are already the responsible authority for preparing the local area agreement in two-tier areas and they tend to be better resourced for this type of work than district councils. We consider that the Bill, as drafted, requires both the county and district councils to work in partnership in preparing the local economic assessments and that it provides district councils with a specific role in recognition of their important contribution to the assessment. Such an approach is simple and transparent, provides clear lines of accountability and will, it is hoped, lead to high-quality, consistent assessments. We believe that it strikes the right balance between ensuring that district councils are fully involved and the need to have clear lines of accountability. I hope that I have addressed the noble Baroness's concerns and that she will understand why I think that the amendment is not necessary.
Amendments 152 and 153, also tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and the noble Lord, Lord Tope, would require a county council to have regard to any material produced by a district council, regardless of whether it relates to the district's planning functions. Amendment 154 would require the county council and district council to co-operate with each other. The Bill makes specific mention of material held by the district council in the discharge of the district council's functions under Section 13 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, because the local economic assessment is expected to inform the preparation of local development frameworks. In view of this, it is important that there is consistency between the evidence assembled at a district council level in preparation of the local development framework and the evidence gathered for the local economic assessment duty. We should also not lose sight of the fact that the material collated under Section 13 is wide-ranging and is not restricted to economic data, as I think the noble Baroness mentioned. Section 13 requires local planning authorities to keep under review any matters that may affect the development of their area. This would include, among other things, principal physical, economic, social and environmental characteristics of the area.
Many district council functions relate to economic development and regeneration. Both district councils and counties contribute in different ways in supporting economic development, often working in partnership. For instance, both tiers work together alongside other partners in tackling skills challenges. There is a range of evidence that local authorities can draw from in developing local economic assessments, some of which is held by districts, some by counties and some elsewhere. Local authorities should also, where appropriate, draw on the evidence assembled in developing other key strategies such as local housing strategies, which are assembled by districts, and local transport plans, which are assembled by counties, in putting together their economic assessments. It is important, therefore, that county and districts work together with other partners in agreeing the range of evidence needed to assemble the local economic assessment, aggregating it and disaggregating it where necessary so that it both informs local priorities and gives a broad strategic picture that can properly inform the regional strategy. Our intention is to address these issues clearly in future guidance. We do not, therefore, believe that there should be an open-ended requirement on the county council to have regard to any material that the district council decides to provide. However, there needs to be a genuine dialogue between the county and districts. We believe that the Bill as drafted will help to achieve that.
Amendment 154 would place a requirement on both the county council and district council to co-operate with each other in the preparation of a local economic assessment. We do not believe that this amendment is necessary because, as I have explained, the Bill already includes a requirement on the county council to consult and seek the participation of district councils and the district councils to co-operate with the county councils. It is implicit within such a requirement that the county council should work closely and co-operate with district councils within its area. I can assure noble Lords that we will emphasise the need for co-operation in guidance.
Amendment 155, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, would provide for an assessment prepared prior to these provisions coming into force to be able to fulfil a local authority's statutory duties in relation to Part 4 of the Bill. Noble Lords are understandably keen to ensure that existing work done by local authorities in developing an economic evidence base is not lost. We completely agree that local authorities should, wherever possible, build on existing work in preparing their new assessment. The important point is that the assessments be fit for purpose and give an accurate and up-to-date assessment of local economic conditions. As the policy statement on local economic assessments, which was placed on the Communities and Local Government website in January, makes clear, a local authority that has already carried out an assessment will need to consider it in the context of the new duty and any government guidance. While such local authorities may need to make some changes and will certainly need to ensure that they meet their new statutory obligation to consult, we do not intend that the work that they have already done should go to waste. I hope that noble Lords will, therefore, understand why we believe that these amendments are not necessary.
Amendment 145 agreed.
Moved by Lord Patel of Bradford
146: Clause 65, page 48, line 3, leave out subsection (3)
Amendment 146 agreed.
Amendment 147 not moved.
Moved by Baroness Warsi
148: Clause 65, page 48, line 13, leave out paragraph (a)
My Lords, in moving the amendment I shall speak also to Amendments 149 and 157. I return to the simple point: we agree with the principle of conducting assessments. We agree that when a local authority is conducting an economic assessment of its area it is right that relevant bodies and persons should be consulted. Where we disagree is on the need to spell out in such great detail which those partner bodies must be. This has been a recurring theme throughout the Bill. The Government have gone into prescriptive overdrive and at every stage we have suggested a more flexible approach. This is another such situation. Our amendments would leave in the duty to consult but leave it up to the local authority to choose who the consultees will be.
One of the concerns that I have with putting lists into the Bill is that it may encourage a tick-box mentality, whereby a local authority may simply go through the list in the Bill but may not go any further. By placing the onus on local authorities, we will encourage them to consider every possible body that they should consult. We would therefore free up local authorities and allow them to think creatively when consulting, rather than adopting a mechanical approach and thinking, "We've have done our bit". The list of partner authorities in Clause 66 is no doubt exhaustive and complete, or so the Government suggest, but that list may change. The Secretary of State may have to keep laying down orders to update the list to keep it exhaustive and complete. I suggest to the Minister that this Bill could be improved with the removal of Clause 66. I beg to move.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, and the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, have tabled Amendment 148, which would remove the requirement for local authorities to consult named partner authorities in preparing their local economic assessment. Amendment 149 is a consequential amendment, while Amendment 157 would remove Clause 66, which lists those partner authorities.
We discussed these provisions at some length in Committee. We explained that we have included these provisions in the Bill because we believe that there are partners that local authorities should be required to consult in carrying out their assessments. The authorities that are listed are already working closely with local authorities in local strategic partnerships. We believe that it is important that these partners should be given the opportunity to engage with the principal local authorities in assessing the economic conditions of the area. The list of partner authorities takes as its starting point the list of partner authorities which are set out in Part 5 of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 for the purpose of agreeing local area agreements and which responsible authorities must consult when developing their sustainable community strategies.
We have taken this approach because local economic assessments are expected to form part of the evidence base for the sustainable community strategy and for the local area agreement negotiations. All the partners listed have a duty to co-operate with local authorities in determining local area agreement targets and must have regard to these targets in the exercise of their functions. In view of this, we believe that it is only fair that these partner authorities should have an opportunity to contribute to the local economic assessment. Involving these partners at an early stage in identifying the economic strengths and weaknesses of the local economy will help to strengthen the impact and effectiveness of targets agreed through local area agreements further down the line. Also, we should not lose sight of the fact that local economic assessments will inform the preparation of the regional strategy. It is important that the regional strategy should be informed by the best possible advice and knowledge. Many of the partner authorities listed in Clause 66 will play an important part in that process as well.
However, as I explained, our intention has been to ensure that local authorities at the very least consult those public bodies that are working closely with local authorities in determining local area agreement targets and delivering them. We are keen to keep prescription to a minimum and to allow space for local flexibility. In Committee, we heard the arguments put forward by the noble Baroness and the noble Lord against the inclusion of partner authorities. I undertake to table appropriate amendments at Third Reading to deal with those concerns. With that reassurance, I am sure that the noble Baroness will be happy to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 148 withdrawn.
Amendment 149 not moved.
Moved by Earl Attlee
150: Clause 65, page 48, line 14, at end insert—
"( ) When conducting an assessment under this Part, a principal local authority must consider the impact on the economic well-being of the authority's area, including where applicable the effect on ports, caused by non-domestic rating revaluations."
My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Bates, I beg to move the amendment standing in his name. Your Lordships debated this matter last week. It concerns retrospective non-domestic rating of ports. We had an excellent debate. I expressed my extreme concerns regarding the current situation. The noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, gave a very careful and detailed explanation of the problem and why the Government believe that nothing more can be done to improve the situation. The House then divided and voted to accept my Motion to regret that the regulations would not prevent several port companies from becoming insolvent. The underlying SI was approved as it actually improves the situation, but in my view not enough.
Today, the Minister in another place, John Healey, made a Written Statement to the effect that the Government will ignore your Lordships' determination and leave the way open for councils to issue rate demands forthwith. Your Lordships will recall that local authorities are bound to collect the rates due diligently. My question for the Minister is: what happens next? Exactly when will local authorities issue rate demands and when will the amounts first due have to be paid? I beg to move.
My Lords, I was unable to be in the House on Wednesday when the noble Earl moved his Motion, but I read the debate with interest. Clearly, this Bill cannot stop the orders; that is not within the scope of the Bill. However, there is something, which I take from the debate, which the Government could do. I was glad to see that the Minister's response answered the point about trading while insolvent. Given that the rates due in the future are a future liability, she talked about,
"the directors' reasonable expectations of being able to meet their liabilities as they fall due in the future".—[Hansard, 18/3/09; col. 304.]
She said that they are not in such an extreme position as seems to have been suggested in some quarters. I was glad she said that because it confirmed what I had understood to be the case although my professional experience of this is by no means recent.
The Government can impress on banks and on lenders that that is the position. The concern expressed was the difficulty in which individual companies are being left because lenders are taking the view that they are either insolvent or in such a precarious position that one must not lend to them. In saying that, I am not in any way trying to diminish the seriousness of the position and the problems faced by some companies. We own a large part of the banks so we should always use opportunities to persuade them to act in a civilised manner. That is a specific point which the Government could take up.
My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, was absolutely right: we had a very good debate last Wednesday and we put many things on the record. I am happy to reiterate our concern today, without going into any detail, about the predicament of some businesses faced with unexpectedly large backdated bills. I went into some detail about the history of that and why it was such an unfortunate occurrence, coinciding with the downturn and so on.
I recognise the anxiety in the House and I recognise that the non-fatal Motion was lost by the Government. I put the same Statement into Hansard today, recognising and respecting the response of the House but reiterating, as I said in the debate, that we had gone as far as we could within the limits of the law because we could not waive tax liability—no Minister could. I am grateful to the noble Earl for not rehearsing that today. Facts concerning tax liabilities that are now known cannot simply be disregarded, as he will understand, and of course port occupiers are not alone in having backdated liabilities as a result of ensuring that the ratings list is accurate and up-to-date.
We know that some businesses may struggle with significant and unexpected bills for more than 33 months from
On the specific question posed by the noble Earl, my advice is that bills can be sent out any time now. Local authorities will have to issue demands and bills now because there is no reason not to bill and payment of bills is due 14 days from the issue of the due bill. The schedule of payments, as agreed with the local authorities, would be eight equal instalments, if a company falls into that situation. That is what will happen.
The point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, is pertinent. I was happy to put on the record the situation about insolvency, as it is important information, so that people would not feel that immediately they receive those bills on their balance sheets they will be bound to be declared insolvent. The point made by the noble Baroness about making it clear to the banks and to the lenders that that is the position is very important. I said in the debate that we would look for ways to ensure that that information was held by local authorities and that we will seek to put it on websites and so on. Bearing in mind what she said, let me think about how we can ensure that that information goes to the lenders as well. The debate on the issue has raised considerable public interest and a letter sent from both Stephen Timms and John Healey to the Treasury Select Committee received a fair degree of publicity. Nevertheless, we should ensure that we make as much of it is possible.
I must address the amendment before us. Obviously we do not think that the specific amendment in this context would be appropriate. We do not agree that matters that should be addressed in local economic assessments should be placed on the face of the Bill because it is up to local areas to determine what is relevant in terms of their economic assessment and how it is best deployed. It would also unnecessarily constrain local authorities and make it more difficult to respond to changing economic priorities. Local authorities should be free to determine what to include in their assessments, taking account of local priorities.
I am grateful for the opportunity to reaffirm what I said and to add further information about port businesses that are affected by the situation described on Wednesday in the debate on the Motion.
My Lords, I am extremely grateful for the Minister's reply. I do think that we are heading for disaster, but it is helpful that the Minister has told the House that rate demands will be issued probably in the next two weeks. Matters will then come to a head, and the clarity for businesses will be helpful because they have been in limbo for some time. We will see what happens next. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 150 withdrawn.
Amendments 151 to 155 not moved.
Moved by Baroness Hamwee
156: Clause 65, page 48, line 36, at end insert—
"( ) Nothing in this section shall affect the powers or duties of a principal local authority in relation to the social or envionmental well-being of its area."
My Lords, Amendment 156 is an amendment to Clause 65, which concerns local authority economic assessments. My amendment would provide that the new clause shall in no way affect a local authority's powers or duties in relation to the social or environmental well-being of its area.
The Government will say that the amendment is unnecessary. The Minister grins at that: perhaps it is his first line. However, the amended clause would make a very important statement that is not currently in the Bill. I tabled an amendment, framed a little differently, in Grand Committee. It required local authorities to have regard to social and environmental issues alongside economic ones. It provoked the comment from the Government that my amendment would "unnecessarily constrain" local authorities. If the assurances about the importance of all three pillars of well-being—economic, social and environmental—mean anything, I do not understand how my amendment would constrain local authorities. The phrase makes me fear that the assurances are not as I would like to understand them.
The Government relied in Grand Committee on guidance that we have yet to see and referred to the policy statement that we have seen. I acknowledge that the policy statement covers wider ground than the narrowly economic. It mentions, for instance—just to show that I have looked at it—the transition to a low-carbon economy and the causes of worklessness. However, that is in a policy statement; it will not be in statute.
If this or any future Government become even more panicky about the economy, there will be no statutory backing for the balance. We on these Benches believe that it is necessary to consider all three aspects at the same time: they all support one another. The social and environmental well-being of an area in itself supports the economy of that area. I beg to move.
My Lords, unfortunately it is my third sentence that says that the amendment is unnecessary. I will try to reassure the noble Baroness, who has raised some important points. She mentioned the policy statement and her concerns about ensuring that social and environmental well-being is not left off the agenda. The fact that I am reassuring her in the House will, I hope, add strength to the argument that this amendment is unnecessary.
Amendment 156 would insert the provision that the duty to prepare an assessment of the economic conditions of an area shall not affect the powers and duties of a principal local authority in relation to the social or environmental well-being of the area. I assure noble Lords that nothing in Clause 65 would have an effect on any local authority's powers or duties relating to social and environmental well-being. I understand that noble Lords are concerned that the new duty would give too great a prominence to economic issues at the expense of social and environmental matters. However, this is not the case.
As the noble Baroness said, we set out in our policy statement that we believe that local economic assessments will contribute to the overall aim of delivering sustainable economic development. A primary function of the economic assessment is to inform the preparation of the sustainable community strategy, which sets out the long-term vision for the economic, social and environmental well-being of an area. The local economic assessment, however, will form only part of the evidence base for the sustainable community strategy. In preparing the strategy, local authorities will need to weigh the findings from the local economic assessment alongside all other factors that must be considered, including the need to promote social and environmental well-being.
We do not expect economic assessments to be prepared without any reference to wider social and environmental concerns. Some of the main barriers to economic success are social issues such as lack of skills and poor health. Economic conditions in turn may have social consequences. We know that worklessness is often linked to worsening social outcomes such as increased crime. At the same time, it is obvious that economic development has potential environmental consequences, and all areas need to think about how well placed they are for moving towards a low-carbon economy. The noble Baroness was right: we will address all this in government guidance.
In determining the long-term vision for the places that they serve, local authorities will need to bring together all the relevant issues in the sustainable community strategy. The economic assessment duty means that local authorities will have a good understanding of local economic circumstances, based on sound evidence. However, it is not the case that this evidence somehow trumps other considerations: it will be for local authorities to bring together all the evidence on economic, environmental and social issues, and balance the different considerations. The economic assessment duty will ensure that local authorities have a good understanding of the economy of the local area. There is no provision for these assessments to change existing local authority powers or duties on social or environmental matters. I hope that these reassurances will enable the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I thought that the first part of the Minister's speech was very much better than mine at making the same points. However, I did not agree with his conclusion. We have sustainable community strategy duties, so why is it necessary to have the new economic assessment duty? The imbalance worries me. As the Minister said, the three aspects are interwoven. I should like to see something about this in the Bill. I should like to test the opinion of the House.
My Lords, the purpose of this group of amendments is to make sure, as the Government have said, that the whole thing is more bottom-up than top-down. Amendment 157A would make sure that the Secretary of State is not the ultimate power in all this and does not have the ultimate say. Amendment 157E goes back to the point that I made in Committee, which was that the economic assessments should form the main part of the evidence base for the regional authority in drawing up the regional strategy. For all the glowing comments that we had earlier from the noble Lord, Lord Patel, about the way in which district councils and counties were going to have a great say in the economic assessments, we want to make certain that the assessments are the base of any regional strategy.
I hope that the Minister will agree that these amendments would strengthen the role of the local authorities in the process, which is something that we will return to with future amendments. This seems an entirely logical step. The Minister agreed with some of our earlier comments and I hope that she can agree with these as well, because they involve local authorities in the whole process. In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Patel, talked about,
"considerable opportunities for local authorities to play a stronger role in economic development and regeneration. ... As local place-shapers, authorities are well placed to lead and facilitate the delivery of economic growth and regeneration".—[Official Report, 9/2/09; col. GC 255]
These amendments present that opportunity and would provide a clear picture across the region. As I have said before, there can be a real problem of differences across large regions. In my county of Essex, for example, there are enormous differences between Clacton on the coast and parts that border London. I beg to move.
My Lords, I understand why the noble Lord has tabled these amendments again.
My Lords, I am quite clear about that but it is always nice to hear from my noble friend. I look forward to the next group of amendments.
As I was saying, it is understandable why the noble Lord has brought back these amendments on the preparation of regional strategies and the relationship of local authority economic assessments to regional strategies. I know that he is concerned that we should demonstrate how much this is an organic and bottom-up process.
On Amendment 157A, we debated the notion of the regional strategy being established by the responsible regional authorities in Committee. There will be a touch of déjà vu, because I raised concerns then which I still hold. The problem with the word "establish" is that, rather than helping the cause of the noble Lord, it adds to the confusion. I will address the issue of who publishes the regional strategy in my response to the next group of amendments, but this amendment simply confuses the nature of what is involved in the process. We have made it clear in Clauses 69 and 70 that the responsible regional authorities would prepare the regional strategies. That is quite right because, as the noble Lord says, it is not the Secretary of State's job to do this; it is very much in the hands of the joint authorities. I am happy to put on the record again that the Bill establishes what I believe will be a genuinely equal partnership between the RDAs and the local authorities with a genuinely collaborative approach in the drafting of strategies to achieve the regional objectives. I am happy to reassure the House again about that.
The noble Lord is right that local economic assessments have to be the fundamental bodies of evidence for the regional strategy. Amendment 157E would make it explicit that new integrated regional strategies must take account of local economic assessments. I am sorry to disappoint him but I do not think that it is appropriate to go into that degree of prescription in the Bill. As we said in the policy document that we published alongside the Bill, we expect the local economic assessments to form a key part of the evidence base, which is why we have debated them at such length and put so much emphasis on the quality and consistency of that evidence base. They will inform the preparation of regional strategies.
We also said in our policy statement that local economic assessments will form part of the evidence base for the examination in public of the draft regional strategy. That is where they will be challenged and scrutinised by people from many different disciplines and experiences, which is an important iterative part of the process. We have said that we will set out more details about how the assessments should feed into the regional strategy in future guidance, when we will have an opportunity to explore and emphasise their significance and to go into some of the issues that local authorities would find helpful. I hope that that provides sufficient assurance for the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her answer. We are going to discuss this again in the next group of amendments and I am sure that we will be pursuing this theme for a while. We all want to achieve something and make certain that we can build houses in and benefit the economy of our areas. I think that the Government often come from an urban perspective, considering groups of authorities that can easily relate together, such as in London, Manchester, Birmingham or Liverpool. However, most of the country is still divided into counties. Some of them are now unitaries; a lot of them still have districts with small or fairly large towns but not many cities. Getting coherent strategies on building houses and development is very different in those areas from the situation in London or Manchester. I will withdraw the amendment now but we will come back to this issue in the next group.
Amendment 157A withdrawn.
Moved by Lord Hanningfield
157B: Clause 67, page 50, line 7, at end insert—
"(1A) In undertaking their duties under subsection (1), the responsible regional authorities must seek the advice of each authority whose area falls wholly or partly within the region.
(1B) The authorities to be consulted for the purposes of subsection (1A) are—
(a) a county council,
(b) a district council, other than a non-unitary district council,
(c) a National Park Authority,
(d) the Broads Authority.
(1C) The authority must give advice to the responsible regional authorities, including advice relating to the inclusion in the regional strategy of specific policies relating to any part of the region.
(1D) Where an authority under this section is a county council for an area for which there is a district council, the county council must consult the district council in relation to the discharge by the county council of its duties under this section."
My Lords, this group covers a wide range of amendments. My Amendment 157B is a Local Government Association amendment as well. Some of these issues were discussed in relation to the 2004 Planning Act, when the Government accepted the will of this House. As I said, it is vital that the planning process for regional strategies should be bottom-up. Otherwise, one is going to get resistance rather than acceptance for building houses. You have the district doing local development frameworks and the counties above that with the highway powers, waste and mineral powers and all the social powers. That is a coherent policy, which is tied to the economic, environmental and social strategies that we talked about in relation to the amendments tabled by the Liberal Democrats. It is important that all this should tie together and then go up to create the regional strategy.
The Government suggest that leaders' boards working with the RDAs might be the answer. I fear that it will not be if you really want to achieve success, develop the economy, build houses and provide a satisfying solution, given that, as I have just said, a vast amount of the country is covered by two tiers—it is very rural with a series of large towns in it. I have been involved in this process for a long while. I want to see agreement on the building of houses and development, but it works much better from the bottom up than it does from the top down.
The amendment sets out a number of bodies that should be part of creating the regional strategy; it should not be only the leaders' board. Obviously the RDA and the leaders' board will decide ultimately, but the process should be bottom-up, with lots of people participating and being involved; if it is not, it will not work. I think that everyone agrees that the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 has not worked terribly well in giving planning powers to the regional assemblies, otherwise we would not now be giving them to the RDAs; the Government have admitted that by proposing something different two or three years later. The Government should acknowledge that the process should be much more bottom-up and that these various bodies should be consulted and involved in the construction of the regional strategy. I beg to move.
My Lords, I apologise for having jumped the gun a moment ago, but all these amendments cover much the same territory. The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, moved his amendment very well. While I take second place to no one in my support for the Government in wanting to get planning streamlined and to be able to get ahead with it and so on, it will not work unless people have been properly consulted. It will run into all kinds of problems if people feel that they have been bypassed.
I shall speak to Amendments 160, 164, 165 and 168 and, in doing so, I should remind the House that I am president of the Friends of the Lake District and a vice-president of the Campaign for National Parks. I shall speak for a little longer than noble Lords have been speaking so far today, but that is because I shall be speaking to all four amendments. On aggregate my time will not exceed four minutes per amendment.
We all realise that leaders' boards will be very important bodies. They will be responsible for the development and sign-off of the regional strategies. The regional strategy under planning law, once approved, becomes part of the development plan covering the national parks and other areas. Amendment 160 seeks to ensure that each leaders' board has on it representation from each type of authority. There are good reasons for ensuring that all types of authority are represented, but I shall focus on the area that I know best—the national park authorities.
The critical question is whether the arrangements will provide adequate representation. There are strong grounds for believing that they will not. The statutory purposes and functions of national park authorities, as set out in Parliament, are unique. Arrangements therefore need to reflect the "national" in national parks. I am well aware of much of the work that the national park authorities are doing to support local communities, as they take it very seriously, but we should not forget that national parks are just that—national—and that local authorities are responsible for their areas and local communities.
This significant difference needs to be recognised in the institutional arrangements. It may well be possible for district councils within a region to come together and establish a form of representation, but it would not be possible for local authorities to represent the interests of national parks, because the functions, purposes and audiences are different. Planning is the key to delivering national park purposes, and Parliament has decreed that national park authorities must have spatial planning powers. Indeed, spatial planning is a crucial tool in delivering national park purposes for the nation. The new regional strategies will be pivotal to the region—indeed, they will form part of the development plans of the national parks—and yet if a region wishes to exclude a national park authority from the leaders' board, with the effect that it does not sign off the regional strategy, it is perfectly entitled to do so under this legislation.
The new arrangements would weaken the existing approach. The national park authorities are named authorities under Section 4(4) of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004. For this reason, NPAs have a seat on regional assemblies, which enables them to engage with regional partners. What is proposed represents a significant weakening of the current arrangements.
As we all know, the NPAs are not party political, yet they provide significant benefits for the nation. This means that they need the support of central government to ensure that their needs are met when new regional arrangements are being established, which itself has been a highly political process. Under the Bill as proposed, national park purposes would probably be undermined. If NPAs are not represented on leaders' boards, the interests of national parks are unlikely to be addressed and the delivery of the national park purposes would be undermined. For example, the NPAs take seriously the need for affordable housing for local communities, but under the Bill decisions over housing numbers, locations and other infrastructure, which will have a direct bearing on national parks, could very well undermine or erode the special quality of those parks. The NPAs are at pains to balance both considerations in meeting the social need for housing.
NPAs are facing considerable development pressures on their doorsteps and will do so more in future. This demands that national park purposes are always reflected in the decisions that ultimately affect them. Where development policies are accepted as essential for the regional strategy but they erode the national park special qualities, it is necessary to have an informed representative on the leaders' board who can propose counterbalancing or mitigating policies.
As the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, argued, better planning requires less ministerial intervention. Without better planning arrangements, ultimately there will be more ministerial intervention. Ensuring that all parties are involved at an early stage in planning to iron out potential conflicts of policy will help to reduce the need for ministerial intervention. As I understand it, that is exactly what the Government want, but this requires bodies to be involved from the earliest stages.
I was heartened by my noble friend's comments in Committee when she said:
"The National Park authorities are participating authorities responsible for drawing up the scheme for the leaders' board. We said in the policy document that they can but do not have to be on the board, but they must be part of the board's membership and its operation and they would be consulted on the draft strategy and Clause 72(3), to be provided in regulations. Again, I am happy to write to the National Parks Authority, setting that out and ensuring that everyone is clear about that, because it is such a critical partner in this".—[Official Report, 24/2/09; col. GC 63].
Surely if it is my noble friend's sentiment that they must be part of the board's membership, that needs to be reflected in the Bill.
In 1995, Parliament gave the national park authorities independence under the Environment Act. This was in recognition that an arrangement whereby the national park authority, with national purposes, was effectively a sub-committee of a local authority was not appropriate. However, this Bill, if not amended, could lead to national park authorities having to look to local authorities to represent them; they would lose the independence we entrusted to them.
My noble friend may point to the participating authority status which national park authorities are said to enjoy. While this is a fluid process, my understanding has generally been that national park authorities have needed to bang on the door to be let into discussions, rather than being invited genuinely to participate. In any case, the participating authority status will mean very little after the Secretary of State has approved the scheme for a leaders' board in each region. It is a temporary status in this respect.
The national parks cover many administrative boundaries within a region. This enables them to take a wider perspective, which is helpful in addressing strategic planning issues such as climate change. It also means that it would prove extremely difficult for the interests of the national parks to be adequately represented by the local authorities sitting on the leaders' boards. In addition to ensuring that the interests of national parks are addressed, national park authorities can bring significant beneficial expertise to the table; for example, regarding rural areas and sustainable development. This year is the 60th anniversary of the visionary National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. It would be sad if 2009 marked a weakening of the special role of the parks.
On Amendment 164, the ground covered by this amendment was first discussed in Committee, when it was examined by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and the noble Lord, Lord Tope. This issue has attracted cross-party interest. It is also regarded as important by the CPRE and by the County Councils Network. The Local Government Association has also expressed concerns. My noble friend's response on day seven of Committee was that NPAs and the boards would be involved by virtue of being named participating authorities. This status means that the NPAs should be involved in agreeing a scheme for leaders' boards. It does not mean, however, that the regional planning board needs to seek the advice of a national park authority in preparing a regional strategy, as is the case now.
My noble friend said in Committee that she would write to the national park authorities on this point. Whatever the correspondence which has or has not taken place, surely it would be better to have the Bill amended rather than to rely on a letter which could all too easily be ignored by future Ministers. At present, regional planning bodies are to take advice from local authorities and national park authorities in preparing regional strategies. This is set out in Section 4(4) of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004. The Bill would repeal that requirement. Instead the regional planning body would be required to consult national park authorities and local authorities on an already prepared strategy. Why does this matter? National park authorities and local authorities have taken their responsibilities seriously. They are a source of expertise, in the case of NPAs, on issues relating to sustainable development and in particular their application to rural environments. It can help the regional planning body better to understand the implications of different policies and options and to avoid conflicting policies.
The existence of the Section 4(4) duty has led to service-level agreements being adopted between national parks and local authorities. It has helped strengthen working relationships at a regional and sub-regional level. My noble friend will be aware that a duty to take advice is very different from a duty to consult. The latter is much weaker. The Government have published the policy document on regional strategies. This document advocates an inclusive approach. The repeal of Section 4(4) would represent a weakening of the current statutory framework. I have been privy to correspondence which my noble friend sent to the director of the English National Parks Authorities Association, Paul Hamlyn, last October. In that letter she says:
"Finally, with regard to the preparation of the regional spatial strategies, I can confirm that National Park Authorities retain their role under Section 4(4) of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004".
The proposal to repeal the entire section seems contrary to that statement.
Finally, I suggest that the Government may be worried that what I am arguing is adding to the statute book: it is not. The amendment will simply ensure that existing duties, which Parliament has already approved, are maintained. If my noble friend is still concerned on this point, there is always Amendment 168, which is a simple formulation to achieve the same outcome.
On Amendment 165, the Bill includes provisions for a plan for implementing the regional strategy— Clause 77(1). The proposal to strengthen the link between the spatial strategy and decisions over resource allocation is helpful. This lack of linkage has been a problem in the past for regional spatial strategies. The implementation plan will be a key document within the region in setting detailed priorities, public investment decisions and for creating strategic partnerships. The Bill contains no provisions for consultation on the implementation plan. The Government are on record as saying in paragraph 2.37 of Prosperous Places: Taking Forward the Review of Subnational Economic Development Regeneration, published in November 2008:
"The Government is committed to stakeholder engagement as a fundamental feature of the processes for developing and"—
I underline this—
"delivering the regional strategy and there will be a duty on the RDA and Leaders' Board to consult and engage stakeholders".
The Government's principle is to apply to both developing the strategy and also to its delivery. Delivery is the role of the implementation plan. This amendment is about agreeing the principle on the face of the Bill, not the detail of how it might be done. That principle is too important to be left to guidance which can be changed at the stroke of a Minister's pen.
Briefly on Amendment 168, this amendment has not been tabled previously in any form. It follows from Amendment 164. It reinforces the point that, instead of new legislation, the aim is simply to ensure that existing duties under the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 remain. The amendment therefore seeks to leave out the provisions in this Bill which would repeal Section 4(4) of the 2004 Act and in so doing reduce the ability of national park authorities and local authorities to engage meaningfully in regional planning at an early stage.
My Lords, since this is the first time I have spoken on this Bill, I should declare an interest as a vice-president of the Council for National Parks and vice-president of Friends of the Lake District.
I gladly put my name to the four amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Judd, and I am glad that two of them are subscribed to by the Liberal Democrats. There is not much more that I need to say. It is difficult to find a hole or gap in the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Judd. He put a comprehensive argument for the amendments. I reiterate the point that national parks are not the same as local authorities—they are national. They are a provision of the 1949 Act. Their interests are national—they represent the nation and not local authorities. It is extremely important that that is recognised at all stages in a Bill whose provisions I find difficult to understand.
I will close on the point about national parks. I hope that the Minister will look with favour on what the noble Lord has been saying.
As the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, has just said, there is little to add to what the noble Lord, Lord Judd, has just said in speaking to Amendments 164 and 165. My noble friend Lady Hamwee has added her name to Amendment 164. If there had been room, I would have added mine as well but we both managed to get our names down in time on Amendment 165. We therefore readily support the amendments. The noble Lord has moved them so well and so fully that there is little that can be usefully added other than again to express our support.
Before I move to our amendments, perhaps I may also say that we fully support Amendment 157B, which stands at the head of this group. As the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, said in moving it, it commands wide support, including that of the Local Government Association, and we add to that.
Amendment 160A stands in my name and that of my noble friend. We had assumed that Clause 68 would expect all authorities within an area to participate in a leaders' board, but the debate in Grand Committee and subsection (3) suggests that it may not be the case. Amendment 160A has therefore been tabled partly to clarify that, but also, if it is not the case, to add the words, "and which determine to participate".
Amendment 160B returns to a point that was raised in Grand Committee, which is to ensure that leaders' boards enjoy full party and non-party representation. If they are drawn solely from the leader of a party in control or their representative, that will often not be the case—indeed, I think that reference was made in Grand Committee to the fact that, as things stand at the moment in the south-west of England, the party of national government would have no representation on a leaders' board, which is absurd. If the leaders' board is to command widespread support, to have credibility and genuinely to be able to speak for the communities, a way must be found to ensure that all the political parties represented in that area are represented on the board and that, if and where there are independent members, they, too, have an appropriate voice.
Amendment 164A would add the simple word "effective". I am sure that the Government would say that they want involvement to be effective, but, as things stand, nothing requires it to be effective; it may simply be a consultative process that is gone through for the sake of it. We wanted to add a word to the Bill that made it very clear that community involvement needs to be meaningful, and to be meaningful it has to be effective. Therefore, that one word has an important meaning in the Bill. Those are our three amendments, all of which would add clarity and emphasis to the Bill.
My Lords, perhaps I may speak to the amendments from a north-west perspective. Before I do, I declare the interests which I declared in Committee. I was for some time the chairman of the North West Regional Assembly's executive board, which became 4NW. I resigned from that position when I became a member of the Northwest Regional Development Agency in December.
As I think the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, would recognise, as well as two big cities, the north-west contains quite a considerable rural area. I do not think that you can get more rural than Cumbria. In creating 4NW, which is essentially the leaders' forum before the Bill cuts through, we had to make sure that all the different parts of the north-west were effectively represented. We started off by saying that each of the sub-regions should have three representatives, and that within those sub-regions, which had different kinds of authority, all the different kinds of authority should be represented. For example, if it was a unitary authority, there should also be a county and a district member.
At the end of last year we also started working with the NWDA on a regional strategy which, I again assure noble Lords, does not work in quite the way suggested. We started off by issuing a consultation draft on issues of principles which has gone out to all the partner agencies and local authorities. We will develop the strategy over the summer and more than 50 participating partners will be involved in the consultation. After the draft is produced towards the end of this year there will be a longer period of consultation before the strategy is agreed. At each stage all the local authorities and partner agencies will be able to contribute. My noble friend Lord Judd was concerned about the Lake District National Park. I assure him that it is a full member of 4NW and that it participates in it, as do the other agencies that are not included formally. Health needed to be included, so we got the strategic health authority involved. The new HCA is also involved. Those are some of the participating bodies. If you went to the meetings, you would not know where you were.
I am concerned by the amendments on party politics tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Tope. I am not sure that we want the leaders' boards to become party political. One of the problems that we had in the North West Regional Assembly was that it became very political and we were not talking to each other; in fact, we were arguing. When I became chairman of the executive board, I set out deliberately to be consensual. I would not let the Labour group or any of the other groups meet on their own, because they wanted to represent each other's sub-regions. I said to my Liberal Democrat colleagues in Stockport, "I've got more in common with you than I have with the Labour representatives up in Cumbria". We needed to make sure that we represented not just our own interests as a particular local authority but the collective interest. We had to listen to each other, participate in debate and make sure that we did not divide along party lines, because collaboration means working together. Therefore, automatic inclusion of political parties is a difficult matter. One has only to look at some of the local authorities these days—Stoke-on-Trent would come to mind—to see the number of splits, splinters and parties. If you had to have one representative from every one, you would probably need to hire a room much bigger than this one to get all those different parties in it. The leader needs to represent not an authority or a political party but his area, whether it is urban or rural, and try to make decisions which improve the lot of the people in it. I was very proud when I stepped down from my previous role to hear people comment that we had not had a vote—that is not true; we had one vote on the name 4NW, which I lost. Working in that way meant that people had to think and listen to each other and not argue along party political lines.
My Lords, that is true. However, although there are two Labour members and one Liberal Democrat member in Greater Manchester we ensure that we also represent the two Conservative councils in the area, because we have a collective view on the issues that we raise. If we want the bodies to be effective, as the noble Lord's amendment seeks, we also need to think about their size.
My Lords, what an interesting and lively debate. Many of the amendments relate to the composition of the boards and the danger of prescription. We have tried in the arrangements that we propose to give regions greater flexibility to devise detailed administrative arrangements which suit their regional circumstances. That came though in our sub-national report and is also the view of the LGA, which agrees that it should be for local authorities in a region to determine these things. I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Smith for having just spoken about how it is working in practice.
We debated this matter in Committee, where I said that the principle that we were trying to hold on to is non-prescription and explained why the Government have deliberately shied away from covering within the Bill matters that we thought inappropriate for national government to prescribe, such as the detailed composition of the leaders' board and consultative arrangements. However, in recognition of concern about these points and in response to requests for greater certainty, we also indicated that further details would be covered by guidance and/or regulations, such as a list of statutory consultees to be set out in regulations. However, we are trying to strike the right balance between flexibility and assurance, and meeting different expectations.
My noble friend Lord Judd, supported by the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, have tabled amendments which would include the national parks as representatives in every region in which there is a park and necessitate consultation with them. We want the leaders' boards to be small enough to be effective, streamlined, managed and properly representative of local areas, but the noble Lords have made an important case. On Amendment 160, I recognise the importance of my noble friend's argument regarding the national parks. I have listened to the concerns expressed and we will come back with a proposal to ensure that the Bill enables national parks to be properly represented without undermining the principle of regional self-organisation.
On my noble friend's Amendment 165, on the consultation arrangements, it is clear to me that noble Lords consider it important to spell out in more detail the relationship between the responsible regional authorities and the local authorities boards and individual local authorities. Again, I am willing to take the matter away and consider how we can address noble Lords' concerns by setting out more clearly in the Bill the reciprocal duties of the responsible regional authorities to consult, engage and take advice from local authorities in the region and the responsibilities of local authorities to engage in that process. I hope that noble Lords will be happy about that.
On the amendments laid out by the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, I think that we had a similar group of amendments in Committee. Amendments 157 and 164 require the responsible regional authorities to seek advice from the county and unitary councils, the national parks and broads authorities, and so forth. The noble Lord makes a powerful case about the different geographies of this country, in particular the rural as opposed to the urban. This is a restatement of amendments we considered in Committee, particularly in the light of concern expressed by the Local Government Association that the Bill does not replicate the Section 4(4) provision of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 and is therefore perceived as weakening the role of strategic authorities held in principle under the previous legislation.
I sought to reassure noble Lords and the LGA that counties and national park authorities will have a number of clear statutory roles. I subsequently wrote to the LGA and the ENPAA setting these out. They include different levels of responsibility; a new duty to prepare economic assessments, which will be a key input, as we have just described, into the evidence base of the regional strategies; and a crucial role in establishing and configuring the leaders' board in their region. Many county leaders will be members of their leaders' board and therefore have direct management control of the regional strategy and process. They will also have a role as statutory consultees in their own right and be consulted on draft revisions to the regional strategy. We will set out our consultation expectations in regulations and guidance, including a list of consultees. That will additionally be covered in the statement of community involvement.
I believe that this package of provisions give counties and national parks much more real, practical influence over the regional strategy than they had over the RSS via the regional assembly, which had a much looser arrangement, and certainly more than they ever had in relation to the regional economic strategy. We have a range of ways in which counties and districts can take advantage of input and participation to get a better level of influence. I think it will be a challenge and although I agree that we have not replicated it in exactly the same way as in the PCPA, there will no loss of opportunity or access to influence.
I turn briefly to Amendment 168 in the name of my noble friend Lord Judd and the noble Lord, Lord Chorley. We will shortly be debating the need for an integrated strategy and I know that this amendment will keep the current system of regional spatial strategies by retaining Part 1 of the 2004 Act. I will not rehearse my arguments now but will say that we urgently need a single strategy to bring together the spatial expression of the need not least to provide more housing but also to manage our resources, with the economic strategy which is more closely focused on economic considerations such as jobs, skills, enterprise, business, investment and innovation. That is what a single regional strategy will do for the first time. It is long overdue in some cases. However, if noble Lords will allow me, I will come on to that debate later.
I turn to the three amendments in the name of the Liberal Democrat spokesmen. Amendment 160A would allow local authorities to choose to opt out of participation. I heard what the noble Lord, Lord Tope, said, but I did not find it very convincing. We have already made clear the flexibility available to participating authorities in determining how they establish their leaders' board and who should be a member, and I think that that is right and proper. Given the importance of the strategy and the key role of the leaders' board, it seems right to require at least a certain level of participation from every local authority in critical parts of that process, and I think that input to establishing a leaders' board is one of those.
Amendment 160B is about participation and representation by all political parties. I think that that was very well answered by my noble friend and I do not have anything to add to that. Finally, Amendment 164A puts a greater onus on the statement of community involvement to demonstrate that the policies within the statement will be effective. I do not think that the amendment has that effect. We had a discussion in Committee about the challenge of making community involvement a genuine and inclusive process. It is very important that we work hard to make that so, and we committed to doing it. Looking at this amendment, it is very difficult to define effectiveness and very difficult to define how it might be assessed. I am sure that the noble Lords would not want a purely presentational amendment; they would want it to work, and there is already an implicit expectation that policies put forward by the responsible regional authorities should be effective. If they are not, they will certainly be challenged in the iterative process of consultation, in the examination in public.
I regret that I cannot accept these thoughtful amendments. However, I hope that noble Lords have been persuaded and that my noble friend Lord Judd is happy that we will address the issue that he raised in his amendments.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that very comprehensive answer. I do not think that it totally addresses the points that I made at the beginning. If the economic assessments are going to be carried out by counties in conjunction with districts—we did not win the concession that they should be automatically involved, but we are assured they will be—then when it comes to the actual regional strategy, since the bodies we have just been talking about are not going to be properly, statutorily consulted on it, I do not see how the thing is going to be joined-up. I do not accept what the noble Baroness said about the regional strategy being joined-up and from the bottom up.
The noble Lord, Lord Smith, made a convincing argument about what was happening in the north-west but he was actually talking about how the leaders' board would operate. The ultimate power will be the regional development assembly—that is my point as well as the point of the noble Lord, Lord Judd—and my amendment would make the national parks a consultee in the regional strategy. This is an LGA amendment. It is an all-party amendment from the LGA and I do not see why the Government cannot accept it. It would put into the Bill what should happen and who should be consulted about establishing a regional strategy. It is very important to test the opinion of the House on this.