Queen's Speech — Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:48 pm on 27th May 2010.

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Photo of Baroness Whitaker Baroness Whitaker Labour 1:48 pm, 27th May 2010

My Lords, I will focus on the sentence in the gracious Speech that announces the Bill to,

"devolve greater powers to councils and neighbourhoods and give local communities control over housing and planning decisions".

There are good reasons for giving local people more power over their neighbourhood. Indeed, one could say that it is an essential feature of democracy. I wish the Government well in this objective, provided that, in the end, democracy is well served by the way in which it is done.

There are other essential features of democracy as we understand it, of course. One is to enable the citizen to enjoy a secure place to live, with the amenities we consider necessary to health, education and leisure accessible and of a decent standard. Another is to safeguard the rights of minorities to those things, as the noble Lord, Lord McNally, has recognised. It is particularly in these respects that we must look carefully at how control by local communities will be exercised. For instance, how will the Government ensure that good standards of design for housing will be adhered to, no matter what the enticements of developers; or, for that matter, that enough housing will be built at all? Will it be firmly inculcated, with guidance available, that good design in housing saves money in the long term, especially since people tend to live in communities in the long term, unlike some developers, who build, sell and move on? How will the admirable statements of the new Minister for Culture, Mr Ed Vaizey, on the value of good architecture, be brought to bear on planning authorities? Now, as the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, said in his profound maiden speech, there is a great opportunity for joined-up government. Can we be assured that it will be used to raise local standards?

Where will local communities find their expertise in design? I mean the design not just of houses, but of whole neighbourhoods, so that schools and clinics are within easy reach, that there are pleasant places to walk, that the motor car does not take pride of place where families live, and that crime is designed out and community solidarity fostered. Good design can help powerfully with all those things and there is plenty of research to show it. Research also shows how well designed communities are energy-efficient and attract investment. Design contributes substantially to eroding that poverty of aspiration which characterised the poorer housing estates of the 1980s. What will happen to the design principles that are emerging now from our enlightened neighbourhoods, where crime has fallen and people have rediscovered community action to improve their surroundings? What plans do the Government have to raise the standard of the worst to that of the best? Will they develop the role of CABE, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, and will they endorse the approval of the Liberal Democrat LGA Group for the "Total Place" concept?

The other area I mentioned-that of the interests of minorities-applies most poignantly to the fate of Gypsies and Travellers. Sadly, the previous Government did not have time to implement the provision in the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008, which would give Gypsies and Travellers equal security of tenure with other occupants of mobile home sites. Can the Minister tell us when the statutory instrument which would bring this legislative obligation about will be made? How will the Government ensure that local authorities make comprehensive assessments of homelessness, so as to include Gypsies and Travellers and provide the sites which they should? What provision are they making for the education of Gypsy and Traveller children, who are among the lowest achievers in our maintained system? One reason for this is bullying and intimidation at school. I have heard many examples of drop-out at secondary school for this reason. What will the Government do to provide safety and security for the children of this most marginalised of communities? Will their mothers continue to have the highest rate of maternal mortality in the British Isles?

I look forward to hearing more about how the fairness which both sides of our new coalition Government have proclaimed will be made available to the people who have had least of it; and how local communities can be empowered so that fairness, as well as good design and new homes, are brought about.