Local Communities — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:41 am on 1st July 2010.

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Photo of Baroness Perry of Southwark Baroness Perry of Southwark Conservative 11:41 am, 1st 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.