Local Communities — Debate

– in the House of Lords at 11:40 am on 1 July 2010.

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Moved By Baroness Perry of Southwark

To call attention to Her Majesty's Government's proposals to devolve power to local communities; and to move for papers.

Photo of Baroness Perry of Southwark Baroness Perry of Southwark Conservative 11:41, 1 July 2010

My Lords, I am pleased and honoured to introduce this important topic for our debate today, and I look forward with great pleasure to the maiden speeches of no fewer than three noble Lords during this debate. This Government are attempting to turn around decades of an ever-increasing monster state encroaching on every area of our public and private life, and are beginning the slow but sure process of returning power to the people. It is an awesomely ambitious project, but it is, surely, what true democracy is about.

It is also what the people want. Almost any conversation with any group in society in recent years has turned to a frustration with the intrusion of the state in our everyday lives. "Get the Government off our backs", has been the cry from doctors, teachers, nurses, judges and a host of other professionals. "We're fed up with the nanny state", cry others, whatever their job or position. Even Tony Blair remarked after the debacle of the Millennium Dome that perhaps it was not a good idea to run such a large project from Whitehall. Why then, I wonder, did he think it was appropriate to run the massive National Health Service, with over a million employees, as well as over 30,000 schools, from the centre?

I enjoyed very much the argument put forward soon after the election by the journalist Janet Daley writing in the Telegraph. She said:

"who are the progressives now? ... Can we not finally agree ... that state-driven, command-economy solutions that attempt to control a country's economic and social outcomes are dead? ... Today's real progressives are those who are trying to find ways of dismantling the monolithic structures left behind by the theology of state power".

This coalition Government are indeed set upon that exciting but daunting progressive task.

Some critics-the old worshippers of state control-have tried to suggest that the devolution of power is just a way of covering for the cutback in central government which the economic recession has made inevitable. This is a criticism I find wholly unacceptable and out of touch with reality. It mistakes, perhaps deliberately, the motive behind the coalition's policies, and it ignores entirely the public wish for smaller, less intrusive government. But even more, it ignores the tremendous energy and innovation of talent which is just waiting to be fully released.

This country has a proud tradition of voluntary activity. Thousands of small and large voluntary associations involve hundreds of thousands of citizens, good people, who give their time, their commitment and their money to care for the sick, the elderly and those who cannot help themselves. These good people also run voluntary youth clubs, football teams, out-of-school activities and a thousand things more. The report of my noble friend Lady Neuberger on volunteering described the amazing variety and vitality of the voluntary movement, and I commend that report to noble Lords as a handbook both for what is happening and what should be the way ahead if we are to tap into this huge resource.

A fortnight ago in this House, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester initiated a debate in which many noble Lords spoke of the examples known to them of community self-directed action for the public good. Many, many inspiring stories were told. I mention only one, as it raises an important principle. The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke of Penrhys, a community situated on a council estate in the Rhondda. There, a unique partnership called the Penrhys New Perspectives established a community partnership programme to create 100 new small businesses, as well as an effective health centre. The most reverend Primate commented that this was,

"a community which hardly knew it was a community until someone ... enabled people to see themselves afresh".-[Hansard, 16/6/10; col. 1006.]

In so saying, he drew attention to the importance of a figure who will lead and inspire a local community and help them, in his words, "to see themselves afresh".

This element is not always needed, of course. Many communities already have the will and experience for self-help, as neighbourhood watch schemes and street parties-to name but two local initiatives in which this country excels-have long demonstrated. Other communities, though, because of changing patterns of occupation and disparate traditions within their neighbourhood, will need leadership to inspire and help them. I pay warm tribute to the role of the churches and the universities in providing this leadership in many local communities already. I trust they will continue to do more in the coming years.

One inspiring example of this energy of local communities are the charities known as community land trusts. These community land trusts are a mechanism, created by those who live in the local community, for the democratic ownership of land by that local community. Their trust owns and manages the local assets for the benefit of the members of the community, involving local people and local small businesses in the development of the assets for those on low and moderate incomes. Residents cannot sell their properties for individual profit; if they wish to move they must sell back to the trust so that the housing can be offered to another locally employed person and remains in the control of the trust. I name this example not only because it is one that I greatly admire but because I believe that it captures the essence of localism. At a time when much concern has been expressed at the break-up of local, and especially rural, communities, the CLTs are a magnificent movement designed to keep the young, who have grown up in a village or the area of a town, in affordable housing where they can stay near their parents and grandparents and bring up their own children, so retaining a community's cohesion.

One splendid example of such a trust, which I have visited, is the Stonesfield Community Trust in Oxfordshire, which over the past 27 years has created 12 affordable homes and many small workspace units for the village. The trust has developed a building to house the local post office, so keeping it in the community, and has funded a local youth service. In so doing it has created a true community, all too rare in recent times, where several generations of families can stay living and working in the village, contributing to its health and wealth.

However, recent legislation is now threatening this superb movement. The Charity Commission, which for the past decade has seemed to operate with more zeal than compassion, has decided that the trust can only preserve its charitable status if the housing is given to people in severe need of a place to live, regardless of whether they belong to the local community. It is not allowed to keep those who work and prosper and who have grown up in the village. This seems to me to be a sad example of an ideology which assumes that charity consists only of handouts that keep people dependent, instead of one which also helps them to achieve personal viability within their own community. I hope that the Government will look at the recent changes in charity law which lead many to predict the destruction of socially constructive projects such as these.

I could weary your Lordships with many examples of other community provisions which have been lost to the state in recent years. We have lost many of our community hospitals which provided a focus for the elderly, for those with chronic illness and for the excellent services of physiotherapists, district nurses, occupational therapists and many more of the services which made local people's lives better when help was needed. These have now almost all disappeared into a more centralised remote provision, although they provided a much-needed focus for a sense of community. I for one also very much regret the loss of friendly societies, some of which had already become building societies, and some of which have also now become banks with no tradition of a community which saves to help itself while making provision for those who needed loans to tide them over hard times. Perhaps the time has come to revive the idea of friendly societies on a wider basis.

I should not neglect to mention the splendid third sector which has flourished as a counterweight to the overweening state in recent years. Social enterprise companies such as Serco have taken over large sectors of public service, following ethical practice in employment and commercial activity and returning their profits for the good of the services they provide. I am confident that this sector will grow both because it is highly efficient and because it is free from the restrictions of the state-provided services with which it has successfully competed. It will be wholly to the advantage of our country if this happens.

In the area of policing we are promised community involvement through the election of local police chiefs. This Government will also encourage the growth of library services, leisure centres and many other facilities to be run by people from within their own community, meeting local interests and needs. I was recently enchanted by the suggestion of one of my honourable friends-a new Member of the other place-who suggested that local villages and town districts should be given control over the revenue from speed cameras in their area to use the income for community projects agreed by all in the local community. Her idea might even take some of the sting out of those wretched intrusions into our countryside and streets.

There is one area, however, where the Government have already moved swiftly to respond to local community energy, and it is, of course, in the field of education. Along with health provision, this is an area where the intrusion of the previous Government has been most resented, and least productive. I am delighted that my right honourable friend Michael Gove has moved swiftly to introduce the legislation which will allow more schools to move to independence as academies-and I pay tribute to the previous Government for introducing the academies programme.

I am also absolutely delighted that my right honourable friend has introduced the freedom for groups of parents and teachers to set up and run schools for their pupils and children, free from government control, though not of accountability to those who fund them through taxation. This has released the energy of thousands of schools and communities. More than 1,700 schools have expressed an interest in becoming independent academies, answering to parents and students, and more than 700 groups of parents and teachers have expressed a wish to set up and run their own schools. What more powerful demonstration could we have of the huge wave of public willingness-and, indeed, public wish-to manage their own affairs without state intervention? I know that many noble Lords from all sides of the House have already become involved in discussions with their local communities about these plans and, like me, have been moved by the enthusiasm and excitement that this proposal has aroused.

Critics say that only the middle classes will involve themselves in this kind of initiative. This astonishes me, both for its ignorance and its arrogance. Years of working in education with some of the most deprived in our society have demonstrated to me time and again that parents from the poorer communities care every bit as much as middle-class parents about their children's education and welfare. They have every bit as much energy and will to help, are as or more resourceful, and often enjoy a stronger sense of community within the boundaries of a council estate than those who live behind the closed front doors of their detached houses. This is a reform which reaches into the instincts and ambitions of all classes.

There are few areas of social life more central to us all than education, and the example of what has begun to happen in this area of the public services must serve as a template for what could be done in other areas such as health, social care and housing. I am so pleased that education is leading the way. I hope that we shall see in the coming years other public services such as the police, neighbourhood security, health and care provision, gradually moving back into the control of the local community. It is in this way that the public services can be truly "owned" by those who understand local needs, and who use them and take a pride in what we can, together with our neighbours, accomplish in building the rich society we all so wish to see. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Whitaker Baroness Whitaker Labour 11:54, 1 July 2010

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, is to be congratulated on securing a debate on such a key topic so early in the Session, and I, too, look forward to the three maiden speeches, made by my two new noble friends and by the right reverend Prelate.

I would like to make some observations on the coalition's programme for government. It has some very good opening remarks:

"It is our ambition to distribute power and opportunity to people ... That way, we can build the free, fair and responsible society we want to see".

I repeat, "free, fair and responsible". And again:

"oversee a radical distribution of power away from Westminster and Whitehall to councils, communities and homes across the nation ... communities coming together to make lives better".

That is good stuff. Following through the idea of "free, fair and responsible", the section on equalities also has fine words, though not many, about children held back because of their social background. Later on there is mention of tackling health inequalities; disadvantaged pupils; bullying, which the programme is against; and neighbourhood groups, which it is for. Local communities are right where all these things happen and perhaps the Government are arguing that only they, local communities, can make them really happen.

I shall focus on Gypsies and Travellers because they are particularly at risk from all the disadvantages that the programme refers to, primarily because of the lack of one basic attribute of living in a community-a secure home in which to bring up a family. They are also at risk because of the attitudes of other communities in their locality. Gypsy and Traveller children are not, by and large, free to fulfil their potential. I have been told that the Government have abolished the separate fund for the Gypsy and Traveller education unit, thus risking discriminating against people who are different from the settled community.

The last Parliament passed a law which granted equal security of tenure on caravan sites with other mobile-home dwellers, but that needed a statutory instrument to bring it into force and this was not finished before the Dissolution. So I asked during the debate on the gracious Speech when this legal obligation would be carried out. The noble Baroness replying wrote back to me very promptly, and I suspect that the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, might have a hand in the reply, so I pass on the compliment to her for its speed. What it said was not so clear, though:

"Ministers are considering options to address the issues of equal security of tenure".

This is a matter of a law, passed by Parliament. I hope that the Government are not flouting it. Surely it is a matter of when, not whether.

I was also surprised that the spending cuts for the Homes and Communities Agency seem to have ended the grants for new sites and refurbishment for Gypsies and Travellers. I am told that in our country there are only 3,729 caravans on unauthorised sites-one square mile if they are all put together. Yet from the disruption and concern caused by those unauthorised sites, you would think that it was a really intractable problem. I am afraid that some local communities need a bit of nudging to agree even to these few sites, and I believe that the noble Baroness's Government are keen on the nudge approach. The Government appear in this case to have taken away the nudge mechanism. Years of work went into the Gypsy and Traveller accommodation needs assessment and the public inquiries that followed, and agreement was reached. No party said that it would reverse this when it got into power.

I understand that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has written to councils to say that they can disregard housing targets. If this is true, it has been done before Parliament has been asked to abolish the regional spatial strategies that it made legal; so Mr Pickles again seems to be flouting Parliament. Now it also seems that Mr Pickles wants to return trespass to being a criminal offence, rather than a civil one. It all seems to be going one way: departing from fairness, preventing one community from being free and giving incentives to all communities to behave irresponsibly. When he was the shadow Minister for Planning, Mr Bob Neill proposed central funding for councils to build authorised sites. What has happened to that fair policy?

Localism is admirable, but I am sure that the noble Baroness will agree that it needs to be fair. When the whole community shows outcomes in health, maternal mortality and educational attainment so dramatically worse, and their basic security of a place to live is so markedly less, than that of the settled population, we must recognise that something unfair is going on. The causes may be multiple, but that does not absolve society and the state of responsibility. It does not absolve local communities of responsibility, although they may need help in exercising it.

In the schools section of the coalition programme there is the striking phrase,

"remove the bias towards inclusion".

I know that that is about enabling children with special needs to have access to special schools, but I hope that it is not what devolution I going to be about as well.

Photo of The Bishop of Derby The Bishop of Derby Bishop 12:00, 1 July 2010

My Lords, I begin by thanking your Lordships very warmly for the quality and depth of the welcome that I have received. People who read Hansard may think that this is a purely formal convention, but I have been overwhelmed by the graciousness of your Lordships. I have been accosted in the bar and in corridors by people who want to shake my hand and say "welcome", and I am truly grateful for that-strangers who want to become friends. That is a very interesting notion of how we make a community in this place and what might lie behind some of this debate-strangers wanting to become friends. It is part of the gospel that I stand for as a priest-trying to encourage strangers to become friends with their maker and with each other-and I am very impressed with the evangelical fervour with which Members of this House have the desire to help strangers become friends. I thank noble Lords for their welcome.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark, whose place I take, had a long and distinguished service in this House, to which I pay tribute. I do not think that I will be able to emulate it, but one small point of continuity is that I have succeeded him as co-chair of the Inter Faith Network, which brings together people of all kinds of faith perspectives, from the great nine faiths, in local and regional groups to work together and listen to each other-strangers seeking to become friends. That work provides a context for this debate. In our diocese of Derby, I chair the Multi-Faith Centre at the University of Derby, which in a small, local way tries to continue that work. We have heard about the power of the English tradition of street parties. Last week, I had 40 faith leaders for an evening in my garden, where the devolution of strawberries and cream achieved great effect in helping strangers to become friends.

The diocese of Derby does not simply deal with interfaith matters. It is a very mixed diocese. There are great urban areas such as Derby and Chesterfield. There is the former coalmining district on our border with Nottinghamshire, where there is an urgent need for community regeneration; and there is the classic English scene of market towns and villages in the Peak District, one of the most visited areas of our country, where we face issues such as how communities survive in terms of affordable housing, and the future of farming.

It might be interesting for this debate to train a lens on one small part of our diocese and ask what it might mean to-as the noble Baroness said-return power to the people. What is community if it is not about helping strangers to become friends? What might that look like through the lens of one small part of our diocese? I refer noble Lords to a part of the diocese in the centre of Derby, in the inner city. This area covers 0.75 square miles and in it live 15,000 people of more than 100 nationalities. How do those strangers become friends? There are issues about housing, health and the environment. What will local enterprise partnerships and the devolution of planning and housing powers contribute to that scenario? If we ask the people in that 0.75 of a square mile what they desire to help strangers to become friends and grow community, they identify three things: they want community safety, because there is a high level of drug trading, drinking and prostitution; they want community cohesion, because the temptation of all these different national groups is to live in their own shell in a protective way; and they want an environment that is pleasant to live in and not dominated by graffiti, litter and poor housing.

So how can power be given to people in a small area such as that? There is, as the noble Baroness said, amazing energy and initiative there. There are 80 public buildings, and 66 organisations offering 212 types of activity and service. Sixty per cent of that local energy comes from the faith communities-half of it from the Christian churches. Despite all the challenges and problems in a small area such as that, the people have enormous energy and a desire to make community. It seems to me that the great challenge of this debate and the whole big society programme is how the devolution of power downwards, whether it is in planning, housing or local enterprise boards, can meet the energy, commitment and initiative coming upwards from people who desperately want the resourcing and capacity to help strangers to become friends and for community to grow.

I thank noble Lords for the warmth of their welcome and for making this stranger a friend in their presence.

Photo of Lord Taylor of Warwick Lord Taylor of Warwick Conservative 12:08, 1 July 2010

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, for securing this debate, which is extremely well timed. I also congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby on his superb maiden speech. I am relieved to hear that his experiences of being accosted in this House have nevertheless been pleasant ones. He had a distinguished academic career at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. He has written several books, including one intriguingly entitled A Challenge to the Churches. His personal calling into the church began as a curate in Wolverhampton in 1976, and he eventually became the Bishop of Derby in 2005. We welcome him to this House. Clearly, by the quality of his speech today, he has much of value to contribute.

I also look forward to hearing the maiden speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Knight and Lord McAvoy.

Local communities should be a voice, not an echo. They should have their own distinctive say in what happens to them locally and not be controlled by central government. There is simply no more life in the old dogma that Whitehall must control. Therefore, I am glad to see that the Government have already scrapped home information packs and intend to remove a layer of regional government which, frankly, was a barrier, not a boon, to local communities.

The relationship between local and central government turned into a sort of verbal volleyball until more power and control was sucked to the centre of Westminster. It is not that we are slow to learn; we are just too quick to forget. We forget that the small, the personal and the local work much more easily with the grain of human nature. The noble Baroness, Lady Perry, set out some superb examples of how local communities can work effectively.

I was born and raised in a place that many people call paradise-Birmingham, just off the M6 motorway, by the gasworks! But Birmingham is a prime example of a city where innovation thrived, through businessmen such as George Cadbury, and where political careers had their start, as in the cases of Joseph and Neville Chamberlain. We also produced Ozzy Osbourne, but that just goes to show what a diverse talent base the city has. In localities across Britain there is immense untapped human potential, but this is not fostered by target-driven, top-down government which is tied up with bureaucracy and wants to micromanage. It will be an encouragement to the new coalition Government to know that Birmingham, which is the largest council authority in Europe, has had a working Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition majority for more than six years.

A century ago, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, and Newcastle were the economic powerhouses of the world. Now they have only half the GDP per head of major European cities. After London, the next English city in the European league table of economic performance is Bristol at number 34. That simply is not good enough. The sad fact is that local councils today have lost the power to fight urban decay, crime and social breakdown. Less than a tenth of the money spent every year on regeneration has been spent by local government. The rest has come from regional development agencies, learning and skills councils, the homes and communities agencies and other regional agencies, bodies far removed from the local people.

Since 1997, nearly 300 pieces of legislation have been enacted with the words "local government" in the title. It is said that democracy is free, but it is not cheap. Since 1997, the cost of monitoring local government has ballooned to £2 billion. We can learn lessons from abroad. Countries like Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland and America have a high level of devolved power over a host of public services. It cannot be a coincidence that the voter turnout in UK local elections is about 35 per cent, compared with 80 per cent in Sweden, 70 per cent in Germany and 60 per cent in France. We are reaching the stage, in the UK, where local people will be neither for nor against apathy.

There are key issues to be considered. In our largest cities, I would support the policy of an elected mayor who can provide a city with strong leadership, but it should be for local people to decide in each case. Ideas either fly or die, but the office of an elected mayor has shown itself to be an effective model all over the world. It would be for local people to ensure that the chosen mayor is not a nightmare. Government need to give local communities a share in local growth. There should be financial incentives, such as reduced council tax, to local authorities which deliver the housing that local people need. Local councils should be able to retain the financial benefits arising from new business activities in their areas. They should also be given the power to levy business rate discounts. Local firms should have the power to challenge effectively any planned business rate increase.

In Germany, all council planning departments have incentives towards developing land for residential and commercial use. Last year, in this country, we completed just over 118,000 houses, the lowest level of house building since 1946. Germany seems to do it much better. So, not only did the Germans beat us in the World Cup, but they can also teach us a thing or two about local housing development.

The regional development agencies have spent more than £13 billion to date, but the Institute of Directors and other business bodies have complained that the RDAs lack both a prominent profile in their regions and have insufficient empathy with the needs of business. Some areas of the UK are clearly underperforming. That is bad for local people and for the national economy. I am encouraged to see that the Government intend to replace regional development agencies with local enterprise partnerships between local authorities and business.

I believe strongly that community and faith groups should be given the opportunity to bid to run local services, as they know what they want and are often better placed to do so than state bureaucracies. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby has given some superb examples of that. I know of a number of Christian groups who see it as part of their calling to be actively helping others in their locality. For them, it is more than a job or a career, but they often lack sufficient funding. This will help to set the foundations for the big society, about which I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Wei, will want to say more.

Devolving power to local communities is the only way forward in these difficult economic times. Yes, it will put more responsibility on local leaders to innovate and to use their increased powers wisely, but they will become stronger for it.

Photo of Lord Knight of Weymouth Lord Knight of Weymouth Labour 12:14, 1 July 2010

My Lords, it is a real privilege to speak in this House for the first time and to follow the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, and I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, on securing this important debate.

I note that other maiden speeches normally start with thanks, and I will come on to those. I also note that many have talked about their family associations with this place. I am afraid to tell your Lordships that, in the same way that I have not inherited Labour politics, I have no genetic links to your Lordships' House, but I am delighted to have the chance to take a title. There was much discussion on my Facebook page about what it should be. Someone congratulated me on gaining more titles this year than the England football team. Others suggested an association with my favourite football team, the Arsenal, but having closely studied the Code of Conduct I felt that "Knight of the Emirates" might give rise to the suspicion of sponsorship.

In keeping with a debate on localism, I am delighted to have a title from where I live, Weymouth-a town that I was so pleased to represent in the other place for nine years. I thank the electors of South Dorset not just for those wonderful years as their Labour voice in Parliament but for not renewing my contract in May, because otherwise I would not be here now. I also thank my staff, supporters, and most importantly my family. In the case of the latter, I do so more by way of apology for not being around to reciprocate the support they give me in my political career. Finally, let me thank the staff here as well as so many of your Lordships, such as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby. You have all made me most welcome.

I have wrestled with localism throughout my political career. As mayor of Frome in Somerset and as deputy leader of Mendip District Council, I developed a real appreciation of how much difference an active councillor can make, particularly working in harmony with like-minded comrades. Indeed in those days, especially in planning and economic development, I had more immediate power to influence people's day-to-day lives than I probably did last year when I served in the Cabinet. Localism is close to people, and at its best engages and empowers them, but centralism also has its merits.

Last year, I was responsible for a massive centralised delivery machine in the form of Jobcentre Plus-an executive agency that employs around 80,000 staff who by and large do a great job, as evidenced by the fact that 90 per cent of customers get back into work within a year of unemployment. This machine had to respond to the worst global recession in 70-odd years and prevent the unemployment effects of a large sudden contraction in the economy. The predictions-the almost racing certainty of a year ago-of more than 3 million unemployed and a lost generation of young people were confounded, at least for now, because we in government had the levers and the central delivery system to respond fast and effectively.

Given how necessary and fashionable it is now to talk about doing more for less, it is also worth saying that I had departmental responsibility for procurement. In common with my successor in the new Government, I continued with larger and better value-for-money contracts despite the conflict with localism.

I therefore counsel a pragmatic approach to this subject. Localism is not an ideology; nor should it be yet more government spin. Instead, it should be about delivering power to people to influence change as locally as is reasonably possible: what Sir John Major called subsidiarity. One of the few things that I did in the Department for Work and Pensions that is not now being undone by my successors is the introduction of local flexibility in Jobcentre Plus. Yes, it is a central organisation, but it has room for local managers to respond to local circumstances and find new ways of delivering the agreed outcomes.

In that, I built on my experience as Schools Minister for three years. In England, we have one of the most delegated schools systems in the world. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Baker of Dorking, who introduced the local management of schools. This has been extended and developed by successive Ministers, so that around 90 per cent of schools' funding goes to schools' budgets without touching the sides. This is unheard of elsewhere and with the consequence that 23,000 schools are all employers with the power to hire and fire. It is easier to hire than fire, but again this is very unusual internationally.

That system of localism works. My biggest regret, looking back, is that I was too timid on pushing further flexibility in the secondary curriculum. Perhaps I should have listened more to my supporting Peers, my noble friends Lord Adonis and Lord Puttnam. My noble friend Lord Adonis was a valued colleague as a Minister and has transformed education in London through London Challenge, which means that London schools now outperform the national average-although, come to think of it, that was a somewhat centralising programme. However, his academies programme has transformed the educational chances of whole communities by allowing local flexibility and innovation where local authorities were failing to maintain standards-true localism at its best.

My noble friend Lord Puttnam has in turn taught me much about education as the crucible of the future. Aside from the great film that he made with Sir Michael Barber, he also recently introduced me to Sir Ken Robinson. For those of your Lordships who are so minded, please go to YouTube to find Ken's TED lecture on creativity in education. If ever there was the perfect speech about what is wrong with the centralised curriculum that I was responsible for, it is that. I know from my subsequent year as employment Minister that although the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic are important, employers also want other skills. They want communication, team working, leadership and creativity.

Our centralised system reveres the past at the expense of the future. It is still basically a post-war system geared around training people to be academic professors, at its peak, and for the majority to go into unskilled work. That is not what the future needs; it is not what the majority needs; it is not what engages children; and it is not what local economies need. More local freedom to engage children and their parents, to do what it takes to unlock their enthusiasm and skills, to value other talents alongside academic ones and to feed the required skills into the local economy-that is good localism. However, that does not mean 23,000 independent schools. I still believe in accountability. Every school an academy means an obscene centralisation of accountability through the Secretary of State that I believe to be unsustainable, inflexible and doomed to failure.

My Chief Whip advised me to thank everyone, be a bit funny, not too controversial and not too long. I fear that I may have failed. Let me conclude on this. Localism works, but so does centralism. We need both. The current Government are doing and will do both. The former will be dressed up as enabling, as the big society; the latter as efficiency and value for money; and the wheel will come full circle. What is really exciting is how we can then use new technology to digitise public services and get the best of both worlds-but that is a speech for another day.

Photo of Baroness Hamwee Baroness Hamwee Liberal Democrat 12:22, 1 July 2010

My Lords, it is always a privilege and a pleasure to welcome new colleagues on behalf of the whole House, and I do so very warmly in the case of the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth. Few of us now have genetic links with this House; most of us are the objects of quite recent patronage. I see from the noble Lord's biography that he has a background in performance arts-I am not talking about the cabaret along the Corridor-and he is a great campaigner. He was the HouseMagazine campaigner of the year four years ago, and I am sure that he will be able to use this House as a platform for continued campaigning. He will be known nationally for his distinguished ministerial career. I, for one, was at least as impressed by his career in local government, holding senior positions at local level-doing, as he said local, real things. We look forward to hearing much more from him; I, for one, agreed with a great deal of what he just said.

I welcome this debate, and its title: not decentralisation, which is local administration of central government, but devolution-in other words, local government as we would wish it to be. What a challenging time to try to make these changes. Expectations have been raised, and local communities are more likely to have come up with ideas for spending than for saving, and will share those ideas through the social media to which the noble Lord just referred. That is a speedy-indeed, instant-mechanism for sharing. Competition for funds will be enormous. Agreeing and setting priorities are such important parts of politics and are what representative democracy is about, as well as exercising responsibility to hear those who are hard to hear, such as Travellers.

I acknowledge and applaud the recognition that real people, not just politicians, should have a real role in providing as well as using services. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Perry-to whom I am very grateful for introducing a topic very dear to my heart-I think that we must not lose sight of the importance of and the strains on the third sector. Local authorities have long depended very much on it. I ask-rhetorically perhaps-how should we assist strangers to become friendly competitors in this slightly changed world? How should we ensure the accountability of groups that will receive public money? In other words, what is the interface between localism and accountability?

There are two changes that would be most democratic and would give most power to local people. The first is electoral reform. It could be that only English local government will have a voting system that is not reformed although, ironically, it has the basic infrastructure of multimember wards that makes it most appropriate for reform. The second is meaningful local tax-raising powers. Central government has announced that council tax will be frozen next year, a decision that I suspect many local authorities would have taken for themselves. I hope that the Minister will explain to the House the thinking behind the announcement and the necessity to pre-empt local decisions.

Indeed, there are a number of matters on which I hope the Minister will give the context and detail of how they forward the devolution agenda. The first is the choice of democratic structure. It seems only two minutes ago that we were changing democratic structures, but it was in 2000. I was asked at the time how I came to a view about the correct population number for authorities to be able to retain the committee system, as I was leading a number of colleagues in resisting changes that were proposed. I have to say that it was a matter of horse trading. There was nothing technical about it. I hope that in future local authorities will not just have a straight choice between current structures and the old committee structures but will be allowed to find their own ways of combining the best features for themselves. However, it seems that there will be no choice if you are one of the 12 largest cities that are to have mayors, subject to a confirmatory referendum. I understand that it will be a negative referendum-in other words, a referendum not to have a mayor-which will be quite interesting to explain to voters. It will be a different sort of campaign. As I understand it, the current leader will become the shadow mayor as of May next year.

To go from perhaps the sublime to the gorblimey, we have heard that local authorities are going to have to collect refuse every week. Mr Clarke of the coalition Government yesterday showed that he is not driven by the Daily Mail, which was terrific to hear. I hope that on refuse collection, about which the press frequently writes rather alarmingly, local decisions on how to handle the arrangements can be allowed to stay in place-for instance, decisions about how best to increase rates of recycling.

Yesterday, someone said to me that we are no longer allowed to use the term "total place". I do not believe that the Government are in the business of throwing out the baby with the bath water. Whatever it is called, the substance is important, supported by area-based budgeting and the power of general competence, which we will welcome very much.

I turn to two areas which have already been mentioned. On planning, we need early clarity on how the reforms will work for local authorities and developers, which we know need certainty. On housing, I am delighted that community land trusts have already been mentioned. Citizen-led approaches fit perfectly with the local agenda. It seems that there is a willingness by some land owners to offer up land for CLTs, provided that they can be certain that affordability will be retained in perpetuity.

I am not sure whether the Government Office for London is sublime or gorblimey. It has long been argued that it is inappropriate to have a government office in London given that it has its elected city government. I hope that the Minister will tell us more about the dismantling of GOL. It seems that all civil servants are going back to their home departments. I hope that this is not a move upwards. I have heard that so far there will be savings of only about £15 million, which seems small. We look for bolder steps.

I should declare two interests which pull in slightly different directions. I am one of three co-presidents of London Councils and a past member and chair of the London Assembly. I welcome the dismantling, but it is not enough. I welcome more powers for the mayor, but they will not be enough. I do not have time to speak at length about the role of the London Assembly, but a new devolution settlement for London should be clear and rigorous about what should rest with the GLA and what should be devolved to the local level-to the boroughs, which are close to their communities. They have shown themselves to be capable of joint working where that is required. The London Assembly is a constituent part of the GLA, but it needs more powers. I suggest that the right to block mayoral policies and strategies by a two-thirds majority would be one of those.

Local government is where my heart is. This House is lucky to have a Minister whose heart I know is in the same place. We look forward to hearing from her and to her introduction of what I hope will be a devolution and not a decentralisation Bill in the autumn.

Photo of Lord Wei Lord Wei Conservative 12:32, 1 July 2010

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lady Perry for obtaining this debate, which is extremely well timed. I also welcome the insightful and eloquent maiden contributions of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby and the noble Lord, Lord Knight, and I look forward very much to the forthcoming maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy.

A key principle of the big society as expressed in government policy across the board is to give people more power closer to where they live-in effect, to devolve power to local communities, to citizens and citizen groups. I want to take this opportunity to highlight some of the ways in which this can happen through the thread of action from the centre of government through to the level of a street or neighbourhood and in reverse. I will then bring out some of the specific challenges in implementing these policies and potential ways to address them. Finally, I will mention the roles that not only central government play, but also the roles that enabling bodies such as local authorities and social enterprises as well as citizens can play in helping to effect this multi-layered devolution of power smoothly.

As has been mentioned, we live in a relatively centralised democracy, with powers concentrated in the hands of the few. This places accountability mainly in the hands of Parliament to regulate and monitor both government and itself, and to the media to hold government to account through ad hoc public challenge and exposure-but only infrequently at some elections is there a feeling of real accountability to the voters. This state of affairs leaves many ordinary citizens disillusioned and disconnected from power. It can feed a sense of apathy and reliance on government for solutions, rather than a sense that citizens together can make improvements that fit their circumstances, resources and geographies with government and other institutions in more of a supportive or facilitative role.

For all the rhetoric of previous Governments, the model to date has in general been rooted in the notion of the controlling state rather than the enabling state. There is a sense that big government-the assumption that government has all the answers-while it achieved much in the 20th century, is no longer fit for purpose and that reforming it will require not just a piecemeal devolution-a referendum here or a right to be consulted there-but a radical approach to shifting power at every level, a control shift, which combines new ideas with a rediscovery of ancient values. This shift starts in Westminster in exploring how this House and the other place can best function and represent the nation, and how we can relate more equally with the devolved Administrations; in how data in Whitehall are more widely shared about costs and impact through a right to data policy; and even in the bringing back of true Cabinet government and greater trust in the Civil Service.

It continues with an emphasis on shifting powers to local authorities; namely, powers of competence to determine their own future financially and non-financially, powers to have elected mayors, and, in the abolition of regional spatial strategies, powers to return decision-making on housing, enterprise and planning to councils and localities. It is expressed in greater trust in front-line professionals, with a reduction in the amount of targets being collected across various departments and other bureaucracy so that professionals can focus on serving citizens and communities whether on the beat, in the community, or in the classroom. It continues in giving public sector workers the right to bid to form employee-owned co-operatives to take over the services that they deliver, and in allowing some of our highest performing schools to become academies and new ones to be established.

The shift continues in measures which allow the further opening up of hitherto central or local authority run or owned services and assets to third parties, such as social enterprises, and to citizen groups so that they can be co- or wholly citizen-designed, run, and/or bid for or taken over with payment by results. It continues as monopolies in state provision are opened up in education, healthcare and social care, and in central and local procurement, supported by the release of local data on costs and performance, such as through crime maps, and in the promotion of open-source processes to enhance and involve citizen participation in planning, budgeting, debating and myriad other activities.

In the long term, we have the opportunity to enshrine rights for, and to remove barriers to, neighbourhood groups at the most local level so that they can engage with, run and shape even more the services that affect them; to collaborate with each other and with enabling bodies such as local authorities, social enterprises and other local anchor institutions to achieve critical mass and scale where needed; to tackle critical and complex problems; and to exist without uncalled for interference and costs being imposed on them where they are clearly behaving responsibly. I hope that noble Lords will agree that this is indeed a radical shift.

There will of course be challenges in implementing this ambitious programme. The first is the ability of each protagonist in the chain to exercise its new powers responsibly and effectively. The second is the capacity for communities, particularly those in deprived and resource-constrained environments, to make use of these new powers and data to bring about improvement. That is a challenge which I and my colleagues in the Office for Civil Society in particular are wrestling with through policies such as community organisers, the community first grant programme, and the big society bank. The third is the willingness and ability of players along this tapestry-local authorities, newly elected mayors and social enterprises-to seize this opportunity to act and to take responsibility, and for us not always automatically to blame the centre when things go wrong.

The fourth challenge is when the shift of power is not accompanied by a shift in resources-for example, when councils cut grants to effective social enterprises because they represent external costs which are much easier to deal with than internal ones such as staff. Players, be they government departments, local authorities, social enterprises or citizens' groups, that handle this shift well and responsibly deserve our praise and support, while those that abuse their new-found powers and do not pass them down deserve scrutiny and challenge, not just from us at the centre but from the people, through greater transparency and local media interest.

We must also accept that at times there will be failure from which we must learn and move on-that is the risk you take when you trust people and institutions-and recognise that often a local rather than a systemic response for failure works best, unless the failure is genuinely systemic. In essence, we want small failures, not large ones. We must also recognise that such challenges will mean that the pace of change will be different in different places, although that is not necessarily dissimilar to the situation in many places today.

This is fine as long as progress is still being made across the board and the state is always on hand to protect the vulnerable. New skills will be needed to help effect the culture change and transitions that will be required. Central government will need to become more risk-aware and less risk-averse. Councils may need to learn to facilitate more and deliver and even commission alone less or in less onerous ways. Front-line staff and commissioners of services will need to take into account more than just a pure short-term value-for-money argument in their decisions. They will need to understand what will drive long-term sustainability and savings in their locality and to build bridging social capital through greater citizen and non-governmental inclusion in service delivery, whether that be through restorative justice circles, patient expert groups and new mutual forms of social care such as demonstrated through Southwark Circle.

We will also need to make sure that transparent citizen feedback, harnessing technology where possible, is used to generate continued pressure for devolution and improvement, learning from businesses such as Amazon and eBay so as to avoid having to create regulations and bureaucracy in order to keep track of the myriad actors and players that will be involved in this new landscape. For this to work, it is clear that central government cannot act alone. Just the act of publishing data and passing new laws can achieve a great deal, but local authorities, social enterprises and other intermediary bodies that stand between the centre and the citizens where they live will have a huge role to play in making such laws and information usable, ensuring that local capacity and engagement exists, and ensuring that changes are fair.

Even then, it will require millions of citizens, a veritable "civic service", to want to make use of their rights, to take responsibility to help deliver, hold to account or feed back on progress, and not once more just leave it to a few to carry the rest of us. Will such a civic service arise, building on the great multiplicity of action that already exists? Will local institutions step up to the mark? Can Government willingly give up so much power? Do we have any other choice? I do not believe we do, and so we must try. But more than hope for the best, the challenge for all of us is to work together to bring about this shift, and it will require our finest minds, our most enlightened officials and politicians, our most able social entrepreneurs and forward-looking public servants, and our most innovative and determined citizens up and down the land to make lasting and real progress.

It is my belief, however, that we can do it. One short true story illustrates my point and demonstrates to me that this programme, while ambitious, is possible. A certain engaged citizen I know, William Perrin, lived on a street in King's Cross which eight years ago had severe social problems-exploding cars, endemic fly-tipping and severe anti-social behaviour, including a crack dealer living in a caravan right in front of his house. William and his neighbours got stuck in to volunteer community work, but after several years the burden of local paperwork and documents became more than he could bear. In desperation, he set up a community website to manage the information and share it with others, blogging about the situation, using photos taken on members' mobiles to report acts of abandonment and vandalism, and the unresponsiveness of some local public bodies. Four years on, the website has 900 articles, many local campaigns have been successfully fought, and the local area is being transformed. William used the experience to raise money and set up a social enterprise that helps other people in hundreds of other deprived communities use the web to improve their neighbourhood up and down the country, in rural areas, towns, and post-industrial estates.

This story, replicated in myriad different ways across the country, can contribute over time to a stronger and more content society as our social ties grow; to a more balanced economy as we transition resources and people from the public into the community and private sectors, and could even allow us once more to help inspire other countries around the world as they too wrestle with how to build partnerships between government and civil society, and to design their civil administrations in a way that empowers people. Imagine what more could be done if we can achieve the shift that this Government wish to make happen and see it lived out in millions of stories such as the one I have just mentioned. We can do it if, together, we can overcome the obstacles that we will surely face, and if as many of us as possible are able to play a responsible and appropriate role, however large or small, whether online or offline.

Photo of Lord McAvoy Lord McAvoy Labour 12:43, 1 July 2010

My Lords, it is with more than the usual trepidation that I rise to speak because after 13 years in the Government Whips' Office, it is now around 14 years since I last made a speech in the Palace of Westminster. I join other colleagues in thanking all the staff and Members who have made me extremely welcome. I have never been in quite such a warm and friendly place. I have been in many a warm place along the corridor, but the welcome I have received and the friendship shown here augurs well.

I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, on choosing the subject of our debate today. I also thank her for that because it allows me to speak about something I feel quite comfortable with, which is localism. Most folk would describe me as being a great fan of parochialism, but I make no apology for that. The emphasis in the debate has been on localism and local connections. I have my own local connections to declare because the place I was born and brought up in, and represent, are quite extensive. My wife Eleanor and I were both born and brought up in the Burnhill area of the Royal Borough of Rutherglen. We were married there and we have always stayed there. Our four sons all reside no more than half a mile from our house, and that connection is very important to me. Connections to this House have been mentioned, but I can certainly vouch for the fact that my grandfather, who was an immigrant from the north of Ireland to the west coast of Scotland, definitely had no connections to this House because I still have his marriage certificate. It states, "Bernard McAvoy. His mark here", and there is then a very large cross. I am proud that the traditions of this country have allowed the grandson of a person who could not read or write to become a Member here.

The west of Scotland has a reputation-undeserved-of being male dominated, but in reality it was and still is the women who are the strong characters. In my own family, the three most influential people were my grandmother, my mother and my late sister. I think about them and those connections every day. Before I became a Member of the Commons, I worked in the Hoover factory in Cambuslang as a forklift truck driver. I was heavily involved in the local community council and the tenants' association and became the chair of those organisations. I also became a Strathclyde regional councillor. To me, that council was the epitome of decentralisation because at the time it was the largest local authority in Europe, covering 2.5 million people. But the decentralisation and devolution of power that took place were real. Effectively, the council was divided into six sub-divisions with power being devolved to local people. The combined experience of working with the community and in the then Strathclyde Regional Council has shaped all my attitudes since then to public life. You get the best out of communities and out of people if you work together-not in a deceptive way by pretending to agree with one another, but on real community issues it is so easy to get agreement and people working together.

My first constituency as a Member of Parliament included areas of Cambuslang and Halfway. Again, there is terrific continuity in these areas which continues to be reflected. I was lucky enough to be asked to serve in the then Opposition Whips' Office and I served a terrific apprenticeship under my noble friends Lord Foster of Bishop Auckland and Lord Dixon. I am quite sure that that apprenticeship will continue in this place, as it did in the Government Whips' Office under Nick Brown.

It is not just about systems of local government; I believe that local government is the main tool for delivering to local people. We do not want to return to what some critics said of the last Government and certainly of the previous Government, about the controls and restrictions put on local authorities established during the 1980s and 1990s. The local council can be the deliverer. The trick, if you like, is to inculcate local people with a sense of ownership and a sense of freedom, while also still inculcating the council with a sense of accountability and responsibility. They are the constant threads for delivering well to local people.

In my own life, this is the best example I can give of local people working together. In 1975, the towns of Rutherglen, Cambuslang and Halfway were incorporated into the great city of Glasgow. It is a wonderful city, but we were used to a more localised and accountable structure, and we did not take comfortably to being part of a great city. So, in 1995, in conjunction with the then Conservative Minister responsible for local government in Scotland, Allan Stewart, and the noble Lord, Lord Sanderson, we managed to set up a campaign that united the whole area. Every tenants' association, every community council and every local organisation combined in a joint committee to join a more local council, and in 1996 we succeeded in getting into South Lanarkshire Council. The best committee I ever served on was that one-working to get a local council for Rutherglen, Cambuslang and Halfway-because all the political parties combined. We worked with Conservative Ministers who showed a lot of co-operation, and we achieved it. So returning power to local communities has certainly happened in our area.

South Lanarkshire Council has reflected that because it has established local area committees where people can participate. It has devolved matters to local co-operatives, which is important to me. It also works extremely well with the co-operative and mutual organisations. There are many ways in which it can improve efficiency and cut costs. It is also investigating the possibility of joint administration with a neighbouring council-for instance, in regard to the education payroll-thereby cutting costs, sharing administration and saving the public money.

There should be no return to conflict between local and national government; there should be a balance. I believe in a certain amount of centralised direction but, under that, there must be total control for local people. I hope the present Government continue with that policy.

Photo of Lord Rosser Lord Rosser Labour 12:50, 1 July 2010

My Lords, on behalf of your Lordships, I welcome my noble friend Lord McAvoy and congratulate him on his thoughtful and thought-provoking maiden speech. It is no surprise that he decided to make his maiden speech in today's debate as it addresses an issue in which he has considerable expertise and experience. He chaired the Rutherglen Community Council from 1980 to 1982 and was a councillor on Strathclyde Regional Council from 1982 to 1987.

My noble friend has had a distinguished career in the Whips Office in the other place, to which he was elected in 1987. Having been an opposition Whip prior to the 1997 general election, he became a government Whip that year and was Deputy Chief Whip from 2008 to the recent general election. In his career in the other place, he also took a keen and long-standing interest in Northern Ireland affairs. On this side, we await with some trepidation to see whether we get a seal of approval from him on the way our Whips function, or whether we receive something more akin to a rollicking.

I again congratulate my noble friend on his maiden speech. I am sure that I speak for all noble Lords in expressing the hope, having heard his excellent maiden speech today, that, taking advantage of his new found freedom having been released from his oath of silence as a Whip in the other place, he will be a regular contributor to debates in this House.

As have other speakers, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Perry of Southwark, on initiating today's debate. It covers an area of some concern about the coalition Government's intentions

On 10 June, the Department for Communities and Local Government announced the services and the councils on which the £1.165 billion of cuts in local government funding will fall in this financial year. The areas with the greatest challenges and needs will bear the brunt of the cuts-or, as the Local Government Minister in the other place put it:

"Those in greatest need ultimately bear the burden of paying off the debt".-[Hansard, Commons, 10/6/10; col. 450.]

That shows clearly shared coalition Government values in action.

It is hardly the way, either, to say that you are serious about devolving powers if one of your first decisions as the Secretary of State is to let local services and local government bear the brunt of the reductions by accepting over-the-top cuts in funding amounting to some 20 per cent of the additional cuts this year of £6.2 billion. This can only reduce the flexibility and ability of local communities to take on more responsibility and determine their own priorities and courses of action.

The Chancellor has announced an average 25 per cent reduction in budgets across departments and it remains to be seen, when the spending review is announced in the autumn, whether the cut in the Department for Communities and Local Government budget will be 25 per cent, or more, or less. These further cuts, though, will have a big impact on local government and local communities and will be in addition to the £1.165 billion already announced.

This raises the issue of whether it is the coalition Government's shared value to weaken, rather than support or strengthen, local government and locally elected representatives. The Secretary of State's lack of action in fighting local government's corner must be a cause for concern. The early decisions of the coalition Government would certainly suggest that, through the Secretary of State, they are tightening, not loosening, Whitehall's grip on local government, as well as squeezing it hard financially.

The Secretary of State has ordered councils to put spending information on line, without consultation on cost or how this should be done, while, at the same time, not properly explaining where £500 million of cuts will fall. When asked in the other place what estimate he had made of the cost to, first, Durham County Council and, secondly, all local authorities of publishing the details of each item of expenditure of £500 or more, the Minister for Local Government said:

"No estimate has been made of either figure".-[Hansard, Commons, 2/6/10; col. 34W.]

I am sure the Minister will today tell us if a figure is now available.

The coalition Government, without consultation, appear to have watered down powers given to councils to control the spread of houses in multiple occupation where difficulties are being caused, and has replaced it with a system where it is the Secretary of State who decides what is best for local people.

The coalition Government have also stepped in to determine how councils can and cannot communicate with those to whom they are accountable through free council newspapers. Whatever one may feel about council newspapers, that is not the action of a Government looking to devolve power but, rather, the actions of a Government determined to keep and increase their powers over local government.

The academies proposals of the coalition Government will further reduce the role of councils and their locally elected representatives in education without increasing parental involvement in governance. Direct elections for police commissioners and health bodies risk creating conflicting policies and objectives with local councils and within local communities, while proposals on GP commissioning could lead to further fragmentation of responsibility and decision-making in health and social care without enhancing accountability.

There will, of course, be different views about the merits of elected mayors, but they tend to weaken, not strengthen, the representative role of locally elected councillors. The coalition Government are clearly keen on bringing them in in 12 cities, and it is not clear whether the confirmatory referendum will be required before a mayor can be installed or whether it will take place some time after the mayor has taken over.

Proposals for referendums could well hinder joined-up policy and thinking. It is interesting that the Government appear to be thinking of a referendum on the level of council tax increases but not, apparently, of referendums geared to ensuring minimum or improved levels of service.

The danger is that the Government's actions to date and proposals for the future will fragment the provision and accountability for local services when it is important to join them up as envisaged in the philosophy of Total Place, which looks at making the best use of local public service spending as a whole, whether it be, for example, police, school, health or council money. Often that money is being spent on the same particular specific groups or areas in the community, and the question is not whose money it is but how, when looked at in total, that money can most efficiently be spent to produce better services for the specific groups or areas concerned.

Local government, with its elected local representatives and direct accountability, has the vital role in co-ordinating activities in its communities, including those of the voluntary sector, to ensure that overall resources, both human and financial, can be deployed in the most effective manner to the maximum benefit of the communities served, achieving the priorities of those communities. That role has been made that much harder by the coalition Government's decisions to date and there must be real concern that their declared future intentions will make the situation even worse.

With the reduction in local government funding already announced, and those even larger reductions still to come, grants to voluntary organisations that communities value and need to provide services over and above, and in addition to, those provided by local government and statutory agencies are also likely to be significantly reduced. Many charities are dependent on public money to carry out their valuable work, with just over one-third of charities' income being funded from central and local government. More volunteering cannot fill the gaps because there is a cost to volunteering.

Devolving powers to communities, whether through local government, statutory agencies or the voluntary and third sectors, becomes a bit meaningless if it is being done against a background of a Secretary of State who so far has displayed greater interest in grabbing more control into his own hands than he has in protecting local government and local communities from over-the-top reductions in funding. One suspects that what the coalition Government may really be interested in is seeking to devolve responsibility for their own actions down the line but not their power or influence. Only time, of course, will tell, but the coalition Government's actions to date have not matched their declared intentions.

Photo of Lord Rennard Lord Rennard Liberal Democrat 1:00, 1 July 2010

My Lords, I wish to make a few general remarks about the philosophical approach that we are discussing today and then raise a few specific issues.

Devolving power to local communities has always been at the heart of the Liberal approach to government, but it has generally been the opposite approach to that adopted by successive Westminster Governments. I hope therefore that there will now be a real and long-lasting change in approach with the recent change in Government.

The coalition agreement says that it is,

"time for a fundamental shift of power from Westminster to people".

The agreement commits the new Government to promoting decentralisation and democratic engagement, ending, it says,

"the era of top-down government by giving new powers to local councils, communities, neighbourhoods and individuals".

The question is how to turn this rhetoric into reality.

In a recent speech entitled "The Big Society: moving from romanticism to reality", the chief executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Associations, Stephen Bubb, argued that there are two planks underpinning the approach to what is now called the "big society". The first, he said, is,

"the drive to ensure a bigger role for civil society and to encourage more citizen involvement and community action".

The second is,

"the drive to diversify public service delivery, promote consumerism and to ramp up third sector provision of more citizen focused services".

Speaking on behalf of many voluntary organisations, I believe that he was right to say that the "smart, strategic state" of which the Prime Minister has spoken will need a Government who work in genuine partnership with that sector and with local government in order to address the challenges ahead, not a Government who simply retrench and leave others to pick up the pieces.

Our debate today concerns fundamental issues about the role of the state. That issue has been at the heart of the divide between the major parties' philosophies for as long as they have existed. In describing my own view and, I believe, generally the Liberal Democrat view of the role of the state, I sometimes quote a great liberal politician, Mario Cuomo, a former Governor of New York. He said that we demand only the government that we need-but we also demand all the government that we need. He was speaking at a time when the values espoused by leaders like Ronald Reagan and the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, were considered hostile to almost any action by the state, and when it was once famously claimed that there was no such thing as society. The coalition agreement is a complete rejection of that view. We have moved on a great deal if the commitment to what is being called the big society is genuine, and there may now be more consensus in the major parties about achieving the culture change that I hope really underpins it.

I turn to some specific issues-first, money. If you want to look at where power lies, you have to look at where there is control over revenue-raising and spending decisions. When you look at our system of local government today, you see that currently just a quarter of the money spent locally is raised locally. Without control over the major tax-raising and spending decisions there is little local power, so I hope that national controls over council tax levels will be only very temporary and that the review of local government finance contained in the coalition agreement will address the issue of devolving financial responsibility, as well as creating a system for paying for local services based more on ability to pay than the present council tax system is.

I know that the Local Government Association is keen to work now with central government on improving local delivery and getting better value for money by looking at area-based budgeting that could reduce the cost of unnecessary bureaucracy, saving money and freeing up resources for what we all now call "front-line services".

Secondly, there is the issue of making councils more accountable and representative, which will be even more important if they are more financially autonomous. It seems to me that the real governance issue for many councils is that they have simply become one-party states for long periods of time. This will no longer generally be the case in Scottish local authorities, where a system of proportional representation has been introduced. If we want local democracy, we must make local councils more representative of the people they serve, and that means giving them a voting system that is fit for purpose in the 21st century.

The third issue is the devolution of power from local councils to neighbourhoods. It seems to me that the logical conclusion of moves to allow community organisations to bid to run local services may also be to allow local communities to do so through electing neighbourhood councils, particularly in many urban areas where the council may seem remote and unresponsive.

Fourthly, giving councils a general power of competence is an essential aspect of delivering the localism agenda. Councils need to be able to offer innovative services tailored to local needs, doing what they consider would benefit their area and the people who live there.

Lastly, education is of course one of the most important locally delivered services. While accepting that there can be benefits in reducing some of the barriers to people who want to establish new schools and reducing the level of government-imposed regulation on all schools, we must also ensure that the proper role of the state in safeguarding children's health and welfare is maintained. We should recognise that the free-school model is unlikely to be a form of education for many children, that principles of equality of opportunity must always be preserved and therefore that the state, at an appropriate level, must still be able to play its part in ensuring that lessons of best practice learned in schools over many years continue to be learned in the decades ahead.

Photo of Lord McKenzie of Luton Lord McKenzie of Luton Labour 1:07, 1 July 2010

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, on securing this debate and giving us an early opportunity to discuss this aspect of the coalition Government's proposals. It also gives us the opportunity to take stock of progress made in recent years and of where we are today, and to set out an optimistic vision for the future. I add my congratulations to my noble friends Lord Knight and Lord McAvoy and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby on their impressive maiden speeches.

The proposition that the noble Baroness advanced is effectively that we have an overcentralised government that is stifling local activity. But, listening to the debate, what has struck me is that pretty much every contributor has given us an example of what is happening locally in their patch and their environment in their town. The noble Baroness herself made reference to the third sector flourishing, and I agree, as well as to the work of the churches and the community land trusts.

The right reverend Prelate talked about his work with the Inter Faith Network. I pay tribute to that, but I ask him what that network would have looked like 13 years ago; I bet it was much less developed than it is now. Community safety partnerships were created under the previous Government, as were local strategic partnerships.

My noble friend Lord Knight reminded us that even if, as we should, we support devolution and power going to individuals and communities, we would be quite wrong to brush aside the importance of central government and the role that it can play. To my noble friend Lord McAvoy I can say in all honesty that as I am now no longer responsible for getting Bills through this place, I hope that he does not wait another 14 years before he makes his next speech.

When Labour took power in 1997, many public services were on their knees. In the preceding four years local government had received a 7 per cent reduction in real-terms funding. Contrast that with a 45 per cent increase in real-terms funding under Labour which, together with a drive for efficiencies and tough capping powers, has led to the lowest council tax rises on record.

It is undoubtedly the case that local services are now more effective and that the existence of rigorous targets and inspection regimes helped to bring this about. But things should not stand still. In July 2008 we published Communities in control: real people, real power, focused on passing power to local communities and giving real control over local decisions and services to a wider pool of active citizens. We published a progress report on it last year.

We should have high expectations of local public services, where residents and communities have the right and ability to shape the area in which they live and the services that they receive and provide. We believe that local services can be higher quality, more personalised and lower cost. Notwithstanding progress over recent years, we accept that there is much still to do. We want greater local flexibility and responsiveness, so that services are shaped around the personal needs of citizens and their entitlements, not the silos of government departments. For us, it is not about cutting services; we believe that there is the opportunity to achieve more and save money. We support the role of elected local authorities in driving change, and we support giving local public services more freedom, fewer targets, less ring-fenced finance and slimmer, more effective inspections-a process which is under way.

We have the chance through the Total Place approach-I did not realise that we had to expunge this phrase from our vocabulary; I ask noble Lords to forgive me if I do not-to look at all local spending across all local agencies, giving local services the opportunity to bring together bodies such as the police, councils and the NHS to save money, but also radically to improve services. As the LGA put it:

"To achieve real reform and devolution, there must be a transformation of the way the public sector works. Area-based budgeting would deliver real savings by giving power to the people who know their areas best".

There is no mention of Total Place in the coalition agreement. On the basis of what the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has said, I perhaps now understand why that is. The Minister might take this opportunity to say whether the coalition Government plan to continue to develop this approach, with all its advantages.

The signs do not look altogether promising, as actions proposed in the coalition document look effectively to be reinforcing rather than breaking down silos. Total Place is not just about local government policy. It makes sense only as local public services policy; it needs all the partners coming together. The coalition Government's proposals threaten to bypass local councils rather than put them at the centre of a dynamic and holistic approach to delivering local services. Academies and free-school proposals marginalise the role of councils. Direct elections for police commissioners and health bodies will create competing mandates with local authorities. The Conservatives have repeatedly attacked independent inspections of local public services, and the coalition is to scrap the CCA, stripping away inspections and scrutiny and making it easier to hide cuts

As my noble friend Lord Rosser said, the Secretary of State for Local Government, Eric Pickles, has not made a good start. He has acquiesced in £1.2 billion of the early cuts falling to his department and has then imposed them on councils unfairly, hitting the hardest-pressed communities most. Included is the funding for Connecting Communities and the Working Neighbourhoods Fund, focused on community-led approaches and capacity-building. In his passion for localism, the Secretary of State has by diktat stopped councils choosing whether to trial different ways of managing waste recycling by stopping "pay as you throw" pilots. These actions do not sit well with a Government who seek to devolve greater powers to councils and neighbourhoods.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, touched on council tax freezes. Implementing a council tax freeze in 2011-12 is all very well, but we shall have to see the detail of how it will work in practice. Does the Minister accept that council tax is effectively being set from a desk in Whitehall? If so, it is hardly a spur to localism. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, spoke about local government finance, an intractable issue. We shall have to see what comes from the review of local government finance. The first one that I can remember was the Layfield commission in 1976, which I read avidly. I do not think that I have read avidly everything that has followed that, but I shall try to do so this time.

The Secretary of State is obviously warming to his theme of controlling from the centre in his latest announcement of a crackdown on newspapers produced by local councils. This is notwithstanding the fact that, as the LGA has made clear, most council publications are distributed only a handful of times a year and are not significant competitors for advertising revenue. They are an effective means of keeping residents informed about the services on offer where they live and how they might get involved.

The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, among others, referred to issues around directly elected mayors. As we have heard, there are proposals for the creation of directly elected mayors in the 12 largest cities in England, subject to confirmatory referendums. Opportunities already exist of course for bringing forward proposals for a referendum on a mayor, and presumably these will be retained. The Minister may wish to confirm this. It would seem that implementation of the proposal for directly elected mayors will test how localist the agenda truly is. Perhaps the Minister will tell us how the Government have defined the "12 largest cities", what powers the elected mayor will have, whether there will be a standard model, whether the provisions will apply automatically to the designated cities or whether the onus will be on them to come forward if they wish to avail themselves of the opportunity.

Residents are to be given the power to instigate local referendums on any issue and the power to veto excessive tax increases. What safeguards are proposed in respect of the former to prevent the rich and powerful pursuing their prejudices? And I speak as someone who was living and working in San Francisco when Proposition 13 was on the ballot paper. Why are there no rights for people to veto excessive cutting of services to keep council tax low? Will a power of general competence in practice add much to the well-being power?

The coalition Government's proposals to scale back RDAs-referred to by the noble Lords, Lord Wei and Lord Taylor-at a time when economic recovery is still fragile, do not seem to be well placed. Instead, as we have heard, they plan to replace them with local enterprise partnerships, bringing together business and local authorities to establish local accountability. RDAs have acted as key drivers for regional economies since 1999. Free from short-term political considerations, they have taken strategic economic decisions that have not only supported businesses, enabled skills training and created thousands of jobs but also helped co-ordinate and fund regeneration projects to build stronger communities. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Wei, that they have helped to attract inward investment and channelled it where it is needed to boost jobs. They have shown their importance in times of regional economic crises; for example, the collapse of MG Rover in the West Midlands in 2005. Local enterprise partnerships would risk short-term political considerations determining key investment, infrastructure and planning decisions, leaving regional economies fragmented. Business leaders, including the CBI and the British Chambers of Commerce, have voiced their opposition to changing RDAs.

We have heard again today about plans to scrap regional spatial strategies and to devolve powers to local authorities. We have also heard from the Chancellor about incentives being offered to encourage households to give the go-ahead for controversial building projects. The LGA has made an urgent plea for clarity about how all this is to work in practice. It is not easy to see how the sum total of decisions, particularly on housing at local, even sub-regional, level, will be consistent with our national housing needs, let alone how it will work for particularly disadvantaged communities such as the Traveller community to which my noble friend Lady Whitaker referred. This has the smack of pandering to nimbyism, but next week's debate will give us an opportunity to probe this in more depth.

This has been a useful canter around a subject which will no doubt occupy much of our time in the upcoming months. We believe that the next great challenge for the reform of public services is the way in which local public services are delivered. This transformation is already under way and we want it to succeed.

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 1:19, 1 July 2010

My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, for introducing a fantastically interesting debate. It has not always been confined to one particular subject. Most speeches have been pretty wide-ranging and quite a lot have been quite philosophical on the subject, but that is what makes this House so good-that we manage to get a touch of everything, as well as a few acerbic asides, quite properly, from shadow Ministers opposite. The noble Baroness has done us very well, and her introduction of the subject was quite masterly. It was wide-ranging and measured and brought out most of the things that people have wanted to concentrate on since. So I thank her very much for that. We have also had three very inspired maiden speeches and we will clearly have a great deal to hear and learn from those who have just joined us. We look forward to hearing further contributions from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby, and the noble Lords, Lord Knight and Lord McAvoy.

A great deal of knowledge has been shown today by noble Lords in their contributions. In introducing my side to this, I should like to say that devolving power to local communities lies at the heart of the coalition Government's programme. It very much reflects the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, on the public wish for smaller government. Local communities and local government at local level and lower than that will have a much greater say in how they operate and how their lives are affected-and, one hopes, not so affected without their being able to respond, as happens at the moment. That is the point about whether central government and centralisation of power can work with local power. I think that it can, and that is what we are all heading towards.

The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister have made it clear that the days of big Government are over and that the previous Government's centralised, top-down approach, which has not proved to be totally successful, is going to be reversed. We believe that the state has intruded too far into people's lives over recent years and that the time has come to give them more control over their own lives. It is time for a fundamental shift of power away from Westminster. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby has raised the enormously important point as to what devolution will do to enhance communities. Our answer would be to say that it will bring more involvement. As I think we would all recognise, an enormous number of small organisations and individual people work at local level. The right reverend Prelate described clearly, as did other noble Lords, the importance of what happens in small communities. It was very relevant when he said that there were 100 nationalities in the small area of 15,000 people and, I guess, 100 organisations all working with them to try to make things work for them. All those should have an even greater role and a greater say in how people's lives are helped.

Comments have been made about policies that have already been put forward or implemented. The department and the Secretary of State have already taken a number of pretty bold steps, with the scrapping of the home information packs and the CCA, along with the proposed bins tax. That may not be the most important thing, but it is certainly something that will have a local effect. We have given councils and communities the power to prevent garden-grabbing, which was becoming a serious issue in a lot of places.

Localism is the watchword, and the commitment to devolving power is real-not just a mantra but a practical demonstration by central government in areas such as housing policy, which we may not have discussed very much today or heard very much about, because we will have a debate on it next week, when I hope some noble Lords who are here today will take part. There will be a choice of local governance. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that I shall touch on local mayors again in a few moments. This brings back in one of the elements for which both she and I fought very hard when it was taken out-that is, the committee system, which will become part of the governance again, if local councils want it. It is not being forced on them, but it is there if it is considered a suitable way in which a council should operate. Perhaps we did not fight quite hard enough-I understand that we lost it-but it has now come back.

There will be a role for social enterprises, charities and voluntary groups to play in delivering public services. I declare a former interest as the immediate past president of Volunteering England. I recognise clearly how much voluntary work is done and how many people give time, effort and commitment to volunteering. They do it for nothing and are prepared to give that time, which gives an enormous strength to our communities. However, they also have within those volunteering organisations powers to deliver services and the ability to be sensitive. Quite often, such organisations are the ones that can provide a service much better than a local authority does, as they are much more sensitive to people's requirements. The fact that they will now have the opportunity to have an even greater role is extremely important.

We touched briefly on the election of a representative as a police commissioner, although we have not discussed it much, and a planning system responsive to local needs. There will be a wider involvement of local people in developing policies at local level and their implementation. We have supported this by a new approach to transparency and accountability and by publishing information on the internet so that people can see what local government is doing, where its contracts are going and what it is spending its money on.

The right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, in particular talked about the untapped energy of communities. I feel that very strongly and, from the speeches we have heard today, I think that everybody here feels that there is a surge of energy that can be harnessed at local level and which is often just something that has been provided by local people themselves. They have not been asked to do it, but they do it because they recognise that it is required. If we can get that energy focused even more into local areas, nothing but good will come from that. The netting or welding together of local communities is really important. We live in towns and the country with a diversity of community, and it is very important that we all live in harmony. The more say people have in how they live, the better.

I almost decided that I was not going to say anything at all after I heard the speech of my noble friend Lord Wei, who described the big society far better than I shall ever be able to. Mind you, perhaps he ought to be able to, as he is working at it every day of the week. He gave a wide-ranging view of what the big society-if we have to have a term for it-is all about, highlighting the relationship government and the enabling bodies that will help people take greater control of their own lives. Again, our vision of the big society is no mantra but a real and radical new approach to redefining the relationship between the citizen and the state. My noble friend will no doubt develop that even further, and I hope that we hear more from him in future. To echo a sentiment expressed by my noble friend to this House in his maiden speech, which was widely regarded at the time, I am under no illusion that our new approach presents some great challenges.

A number of questions were raised. I am sure that I will not do adequate answer to them, but I will try to pick up some of the points that were put forward. Perhaps I may start with the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, who spoke about Gypsies and Travellers. We are anxious to see that there is a proper relationship with the Gypsies and we will ensure that the planning laws, in particular, ensure fairness between the settled community and Travellers. We are going to encourage local authorities to provide appropriate sites for Travellers, in consultation with local communities, so that instead of having what has been a sort of antagonistic arrangement all the time, when Travellers arrive onto sites and people want them kicked off, we hope that in fact a local agreement can be come in local areas about where those sites can be, with incentives being offered to do so. We will take to heart what the noble Baroness said about the inequalities in the health and education attainments of the children and families. So there is no question of having thrown Gypsies and Travellers to the winds; rather the contrary, as the Secretary of State made it clear quite recently. I hope that she will be reassured that that is not something that will be forced away.

Now, I appear to have lost all the bits of paper that I had. I said yesterday that I was never going to have another piece of paper in my hand again, because I could never find what I wanted to talk about subsequently, but I did not live up to my own assertion. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, made some pretty astounding comments, if I may say so-it may be that he was getting back at me for yesterday-about the reduction in costs and the grant to local government which has come about this year. I shall exchange the slight acerbity, if I may, by reminding the House that we have been left to deal with one of the biggest deficits ever known in this country and that local government had to take its cut within that. However, unlike other settlements, each local authority has, this time, had to make or will have to make reductions across the board of 1.5 per cent to 2 per cent. That has not been true in other settlements, where there has been a wide variety in the percentages and where cities have done better than the country, with much feeling of unfairness. Here, at least, everybody knows the amount that they will have and knows that that is what every other local council in the country is having to deal with. I hope that the noble Lord will accept that.

Because my time will run out, I shall just touch on Total Place. Whatever noble Lords call it, Total Place is the coming together of many bodies and elements, not only within a local area but with the advantage of being able to spill across boundaries. I have not heard that anybody wanted to throw out the name, but I do not think that there is any disagreement about the value of Total Place and what it can do. It is an experiment which has been worth having and I am sure that it will be built on. Local enterprise partnerships are not too far away from it; they have the same intention, which is to bring together business, the health service, local authorities and the voluntary sector, to be able to spend money and provide services by working together in a way that is very relevant to the local area. It is not uncommon for local authorities to work with businesses and the health service, but it has not always been very easy. There have been barriers and I hope that Total Place has begun to demonstrate that those can be put aside. I have no doubt that that programme will be there in one way or another.

The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked some specific questions. I may already have answered her starting question about governance. A question was also raised about elected mayors, who are not a new thing; they have been in for some time now. What is being put forward at present, with the suggestion that in each major city there should now be a mayor, is a new experiment in government-except that we have had it in London now for some time. It is worth seeing that put out on a wider basis and, as has already been said, that will ultimately have to be confirmed by a referendum on whether the local people want it. This is not something for everybody to be worrying about too much, but it is there.

The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, also raised a question about the review of local government finance. Yes, that will happen in the autumn; we are looking to do that then, and the general power of competence is there. But there have already been announcements about the de-ring-fencing of grants, so local government will have a greater control already over its finances.

On education, briefly, the academies are also not new but are being expanded and extended in their numbers. However, they will not push aside the local education authorities' interest in other schools that are left with them. Standards will, we hope, be raised by both, with the academies having the freedoms to ensure that their children have a high standard of education.

The council tax freeze is indeed being implemented this year to help people because of the general financial situation. Local authorities can make their own decisions about the amount of council tax but if they go above a certain level, they will have to pay for it themselves.

I hope that I have covered most of the points that were raised. If I have not, I will have Hansard scoured tomorrow and make sure that letters go to where there have been specific questions. I am grateful to everybody who has taken part in this debate today.

Photo of Baroness Perry of Southwark Baroness Perry of Southwark Conservative 1:38, 1 July 2010

My Lords, it remains only for me to thank all noble Lords who have taken part in what has been a very useful debate. It has allowed us to air a lot of important issues that will no doubt occupy us in the months ahead. I add my congratulations to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby and the noble Lords, Lord McAvoy and Lord Knight, who in different ways gave a foreshadowing of how important their future contributions will be to the House. It was also a particular pleasure to hear that we have so many stout advocates of local government among our number. The debate certainly brought them out, like the first birds of spring, to warn that they will be defending and advocating the role of local government, which is also very dear to my heart. I thank again all noble Lords who have taken part and beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion withdrawn.