Local Communities — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:54 am on 1st July 2010.

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Photo of Baroness Whitaker Baroness Whitaker Labour 11:54 am, 1st 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.