Queen’s Speech — Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:42 pm on 2nd June 2015.

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Photo of Lord Shipley Lord Shipley Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities, Decentralisation and the Northern Powerhouse) 9:42 pm, 2nd June 2015

My Lords, first, I declare my vice-presidency of the Local Government Association. I have found this an extremely valuable debate. A number of concerns, affecting a number of Bills, have been clearly identified, and I hope the Government will take steps to listen at a very early stage to all the specific issues that have been raised not only from these Benches but from around the whole Chamber. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Eden of Winton, on his excellent valedictory speech, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury and the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, on their excellent maiden speeches.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, I pay tribute to the work that local government has done. Despite the reductions in government support, the public give local government high satisfaction ratings. The noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, was right when he warned of the likely impact of future cuts, and he was right to say that the system of distribution of central government grant may need to be revised. The financial situation remains difficult for councils. Given that the Government are committed to no increases in income tax, VAT or national insurance, and also to the protection of some budget areas from cuts, this is going to make life very difficult for local government. We have to have a discussion about that. That is also why encouraging fiscal devolution is so important, so that local authorities can raise more of their own money and reduce duplication in public services at a local level, and thus generate significant efficiency savings. The Local Government Association has demonstrated in its publications how some of this can be achieved.

I echo previous comments in wishing the new Secretary of State success in his new role. I worked with him for almost three years on city deals and local growth deals and I know that his drive—along with that of others—has got us to the position on devolution within England that we have reached today.

In the few moments I have, I want to concentrate on two matters: first, devolution within England; and, secondly, the urgent need to build more homes. The two are related because local government could build more if it had the powers to do so. I welcome the devolution agreements that have taken place and the creation of the several combined authorities under the 2009 Act as steps in the right direction. Five years ago, it would have been hard to think that there would be such a sea change in the location of power within England. We now need counties to follow, and I welcome the recent indication from the Secretary of State that progress will be made on this—I hope within the next few months. Even though my party is not now in government, we shall offer constructive opposition that enables the broad thrust of government policy on devolution to be progressed.

I have two questions on the housing Bill. Despite a lot of reading and listening to your Lordships’ debate today, I am still unclear about what net increase in homes the Government plan to deliver in the course of the next five years. Secondly, what are the Government’s plans to build affordable homes in the quantities we need? Last week I read two figures in national newspapers —first, that the Government plan to build 150,000 houses a year by 2020, but also that they plan to build 200,000 a year by 2020. Whichever it is, both figures are actually under the rate at which new housing is needed.

Several contributions in this debate have demonstrated that there are serious problems with the proposal to sell off housing association homes. It is hard to see how the one-for-one replacement policy could work, given the failure over so many years to replace council housing stock. Why are the discounts proposed so high, with discounts of up to £104,000 in London and £77,000 elsewhere? Is the National Housing Federation right when it says that this policy will cost over £5 billion? What assessment have the Government done on the cost? Finally, can the Minister assure the House that assets of registered providers, which have mostly been publicly funded, will not be sold off without the taxpayer getting their money back? Those are my questions, and around your Lordships’ House there have been a range of other questions in relation to this Bill. Urgent discussions are needed to assess the viability of the proposals as they stand within the housing Bill.

We have heard a bit about the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, of which we take Second Reading here in your Lordships’ House on Monday. The speed of progress on devolution is good to see, but we must not make mistakes. We must connect the whole structure, not just the metro mayor, with the ballot box. There have been a huge number of reports over recent years on the benefits of devolution for a whole range of bodies, and they all point in the same direction—that you can drive growth faster and join up public service delivery through devolution, as well as making government more responsive to the needs of local people.

There are four issues, and one relates to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury, about the northern powerhouse. In his announcement on 14 May on this matter, the Chancellor said that the northern powerhouse covered the whole of the north of England—that it was not just Manchester, nor was it just Man-Shef-Leeds-Pool. But we need some clarity in government and in the north of England about what is meant, first, by “the north” and, secondly, by “powerhouse”. Indeed, I noted that my noble friend Lord Greaves has a Question for Written Answer on the Order Paper to be answered by 11 June on these very points, and the position may become clearer then.

I accept that we have to start somewhere with connecting new structures with the ballot box, and metro mayors are a start. I am slightly uncomfortable about the fact that for two years Greater Manchester will have a metro mayor who has not been elected by popular ballot. We need to be much clearer about governance and about who has what responsibilities and what powers, whether it is the mayor, the mayor’s officers, political advisers, council leaders, or whole councils and opposition parties. We need to know the powers that will leave or remain with local government and the powers that will leave or remain in Whitehall. We need to understand better the powers to precept by a mayoral combined authority and how those powers will operate in practice.

The combined authorities in the 2009 Act have responsibilities for economic development, regeneration and transport across a functional economic area. To that list can be added social care, healthcare, skills, police, housing and strategic planning. I am concerned that there is an assumption that one person can handle all those things, because I doubt that they can. I share the concerns expressed a moment ago by the noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury. Although an assembly for Greater Manchester has been ruled out, at least for the time being, I am not sure that that will stand the test of time.

We need to look at the voting systems for local government. I agree entirely with the point made by my noble friend Lord Tyler about the need for proportional representation in local government, and we need to look more closely at whether the supplementary vote system is right for the election of a metro mayor.

I finish as we started today from these Benches. It has been a very sad day for all of us in politics with the loss of Charles Kennedy. He was a very good friend to so many of us, and we shall miss him.