Local Communities — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:19 pm on 1st July 2010.

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Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 1:19 pm, 1st 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.