Motion A

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill - Commons Reason and Amendment – in the House of Lords at 5:06 pm on 25 October 2023.

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Earl Howe:

Moved by Earl Howe

That this House do not insist on its Amendment 22B, to which the Commons have disagreed for their Reason 22C.

22C: Because local authorities should continue to meet in person to ensure good governance.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, with the leave of the House, in moving Motion A I shall also speak to Motion B. Your Lordships will remember that, during our consideration of Commons amendments on Monday this week, two amendments were carried by the House for further consideration by the other place. The first, tabled by my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering, was on virtual attendance at local authority meetings, and the second, moved by the noble Lord, Lord Ravensdale, related to consideration of climate change within the planning system. I will take each of these in turn.

Amendment 22B, tabled by my noble friend, has been decisively rejected by the other place. I well appreciate that this issue has elicited a range of differing views among your Lordships. However, I have to tell my noble friend, whom I greatly respect, that the Government’s position on the matter has not changed. Throughout the passage of the Bill, the Government have not wavered from their clear, strong and principled view that preserving in-person debate is important for maintaining the integrity of local democracy. My noble friend’s amendment is quite clearly at odds with that position, as it provides the power to any future Government to potentially make regulations that go so far as allowing all local authorities to always meet remotely, without any limitations.

Local authorities need councillors to be physically present, to actively take part in democratic decision-making affecting the citizens they represent, and to interact with their fellow councillors at every opportunity to develop a sound understanding of local needs and priorities. That understanding is clearly vital for ensuring the strong local leadership that councils depend on to deliver for the electorate. Perhaps most importantly, councillors need to be physically present to interact with citizens in a way that builds meaningful relationships with their community and ensures that they are, in the fullest sense, accountable to their electorate.

The Government stand by their opposition to this amendment. The other place has agreed with that position. Therefore, again with great respect to my noble friend, I suggest that we have reached a point where it is right for us to draw a line under this issue. I hope that, on reflection, my noble friend will agree.

I now turn to the other outstanding issue, which is the way in which climate change is considered within the planning system. The Government continue to be committed to ensuring that the planning system supports our efforts in meeting our legal net-zero commitments by 2050 and tackling the risks of climate change. As I said earlier this week, we believe that there are already strong provisions within the Bill and other legislation that set the framework for this to happen. We have also committed to developing national policy in a way that is consistent with this.

But we have heard the strength of feeling that this commitment should be further enshrined in law. Therefore, the Government have gone a step further in tabling an amendment to require that, in preparing any national development management policies:

“The Secretary of State must have regard to the need to mitigate, and adapt to, climate change”.

As I have already made clear, we are fully supportive of the intentions of the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Ravensdale, but we remain concerned that the amendment, as drafted, would give rise to significant challenge to how local councils fulfil their obligations to consider climate change within their planning functions. Notably, the combined effect of local authorities having to prove that their plans and decisions have “special regard” to climate change, while also proving that they are consistent with strategic national targets on carbon reduction, will at the very least create significant debate and deliberation on how to demonstrate this, but will very likely also give rise to litigation over the justifications presented.

The additional legislative provisions we have bought forward put climate change considerations at the centre of the development of new national development management policies, and in turn enable those considerations to influence all local planning decisions. I believe that this new provision takes us a lot closer to the position the noble Lord sought to arrive at with his amendment. I hope that both he and the House will be content to approve it. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for coming to the Dispatch Box in his charming and inimitable way to consider my humble little amendment once again. It is almost 20 years to the day since I joined a shadow team of which he was an eminent member; I hope that our co-operation will continue long into the future.

I think that any primary school pupil who has been watching our proceedings will be confused by our exhausting not just every letter of the alphabet except the letter O but additional letters of the alphabet. I am inclined to agree to disagree with the House of Commons’s disagreement with Amendment 22B, and will rehearse a couple of reasons why. The revised Amendment 22B was very modest in its remit. I accept my noble friend’s premise that local councils should primarily meet physically, but we went on to state that limited circumstances specified in regulations passed by the Government would permit a normally wholly physical meeting to be attended virtually. I am a little baffled and bewildered by the Government’s unwillingness to move a little more along these lines.

The reason I say this is that we experienced during Covid the situation whereby all council meetings were virtual to permit local government business to continue. That was deemed to work extremely well and kept the wheels of local government moving at a particularly challenging time. To move from completely virtual attendance during Covid to a situation where no virtual or remote attendance is allowed seems baffling. Also, I think it is fair to say that, if we in the Lords are permitted to serve on a committee and to meet either in hybrid form, which is what we are seeking in this amendment, or remotely, it seems incumbent on us to extend the same ability to local councils to meet in these circumstances.

I shall repeat the words of my honourable friend in the other place, the Minister, Rachel Maclean, who said in responding to an intervention from a Conservative Back-Bencher:

“He will know that, with this Bill, we are pushing power down to local people, local areas and local councillors, who are elected to represent their communities … the Government have a very clear view that local democracy should take place face to face”.

Where I agree with my honourable friend is when she went on to say:

“Through our levelling-up work, we are in the midst of a once-in-a-generation devolution of power to allow local areas, such as the one he represents, to make the best decisions for their local communities, notwithstanding this particular point, on which the Government have strong views”.—[Official Report, Commons, 24/10/23; col. 787.]

There is a slight irony that the Government are devolving powers in this Bill to local authorities but not the power to decide to permit certain councillors to attend when they have certain difficulties.

We rehearsed at length what those circumstances might be, and I will repeat them briefly here. It seems to me a sensible, common-sense approach, for all the reasons my noble friend said, to permit local government to meet primarily physically and to permit virtual attendance in case of, for example, short-notice difficulties in obtaining childcare provision—which does happen and has led a number of councillors to leave local government—or because of the distance to travel and the lack of public transport, especially in the evening when councils normally meet, and on those occasions, which we have seen in the past two weeks, of inclement weather such as snowstorms, floods and high winds.

In the constituency where I was the MP for my last five years, one of the local councillors put to me that permitting virtual attendance to allow hybrid meetings in those circumstances would be a sensible way of working, it having worked so successfully. She said that because, at the time, Ryedale council covered a wide area. Take the example of Filey, in North Yorkshire, where to reach council meetings in Northallerton it is a 1.5 hour one-way journey and a total round-trip of between 60 and 80 miles. We are asking a lot of these councillors to achieve physical presence on every single occasion.

I acknowledge almost universal support—90% to 95% of councillors—for the amendment in lieu, Amendment 22B, which we debated previously. I realise that this is late in the day on this occasion, but I promise my noble friend that I will revert to this; if there is any possibility in any of the legislation in the King’s Speech, I will latch on to it. I give him early warning of that.

I thank all in the House who supported the amendment in its original and revised forms, and my colleagues in the other place, including my honourable friend Peter Aldous, my right honourable friend Theresa Villiers, and others who spoke in support of this. That this humble, modest amendment is the thin end of the wedge, where all meetings would go from being totally physical to totally virtual, is a little of an exaggeration. While not wanting to test the patience of the House further by pressing this to a vote, I express a little disappointment and sadness that the Government have not seen fit to move on this occasion.

Photo of Lord Ravensdale Lord Ravensdale Crossbench 5:15, 25 October 2023

My Lords, I shall speak to Motion B. I declare my interests as set out in the register. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, the noble Lords, Lord Lansley, Lord Teverson and Lord Hunt, as well as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, all of whom supported the amendment at earlier stages.

I particularly thank the Minister for coming back with the government amendment. Although it does not give us everything that we asked for, it constitutes great progress in this area. It ensures that climate mitigation and adaptation will be considered in the national development management policies, and, looking at the wider context of plans in the Bill, will ensure that it is included and will then be a compulsory part of decision-making. Therefore, it goes some way towards giving us what we were after, and I am grateful to the Minister for coming back with that substantive amendment.

I have one small point. In the absence of a definition of climate change mitigation and adaptation in the amendment, perhaps the Minister might consider including the targets, with reference to the Climate Change Act and the Environment Act, in the Explanatory Notes to the Bill.

I welcome the comments made by the Minister in the other place that the Government intend to do a fuller review of the NPPF, to ensure that it contributes to climate change mitigation and adaptation as fully as possible, following Royal Assent. I hope the Government seize the opportunity here to strengthen chapter 14 of the NPPF to specify that, in determining planning applications, decision-makers must take account of climate change mitigation and adaptation.

The government amendment embedding climate and the environment in planning decision-making will have a great effect on getting clean infrastructure and sustainable homes built right across the country. Importantly, it will also do much to empower local authorities and regions to play their part in the net-zero transition, which they all want to do. We still see a need for further legislative work in this area—particularly on a move towards a statutory duty, as we propose—but, again, I am grateful for the progress that has been made.

Lastly, I thank all noble Lords who voted for my amendment and helped to get it over the line in a very close vote on Monday.

Photo of The Earl of Lytton The Earl of Lytton Crossbench

My Lords, I shall comment on each of the amendments. First, I commiserate with the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering. I do so as a past president of the National Association of Local Councils, the parent of parish and town councils in this country, which would dearly have loved to have had the facility to vary the way in which it deals with meetings. I am sorry that the Government have not seen fit to acquiesce to any of this. The Minister suggested that the measure went too far and that it would open the floodgates to local government holding virtual meetings as a matter of course. Were that his fear, the Government’s fear or that of the other place, it seems to me that it would have been perfectly possible to come back with a proviso that the Secretary of State would make regulation.

One matter that has never been explained to my satisfaction is the juxtaposition—the fact that, by definition, accountability is somehow measured by physical presence. I do not get that, and I do not think there will be many Members of this House present today who will get it. This issue will come back through sheer force of practicality and necessity. We have to move into the modern age, in that sense. I will leave my comments on that there.

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Ravensdale, on his success in getting what I can only describe as the obvious provision into this Bill, namely that we have to take climate change seriously and that it underpins everything that we do. To that extent, it was inevitable—if not in this Bill then in very short order—that something would have to be included somewhere in primary legislation, but I congratulate him on his persistence in getting this far. Even if it is not the whole bun, it is certainly more than a currant in the bun and he is to be congratulated.

In that context, there are other things in the Bill that have been left on the cutting- room floor. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, is not here at the moment. His amendment on healthy homes is about something that is inevitably going to come back. It is not going to disappear; this is going to have to be the benchmark whereby society expects homes to be created.

The series of amendments which I have been trying to get through unsuccessfully was to do with building safety remediation. The fact is that so many leasehold homes are unprotected yet are faced with remediation costs and liabilities, without which they will not get insurance at any sensible cost. These homes are not excluded from the necessity of remediation by virtue of their height, whether it be 11 metres and below or above 11 metres, because the Building Safety Act 2022 says that it will cover all these other buildings.

It is simply not correct that somehow these homes escape the inevitable consequences of that. That is going to come home to roost because there is an entire market sector—an entire financial sector—that is dependent upon that being resolved. If it is not resolved now in this Bill, as it clearly will not be, then it will come back in short order because this is a matter of an existential threat to leasehold tenure, or indeed whatever tenure there might be instead of leasehold. If you have a building in multiple occupation, where different parts are apartments, this problem is going to come home to roost so long as there are defects caused in the original construction and the constructor and developer are able to walk away from that liability.

In congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Ravensdale, on getting his motherhood and apple pie amendment passed, let me remind your Lordships that other bits that have been left behind are also going to come back and haunt us as things go forward.

Photo of The Duke of Montrose The Duke of Montrose Conservative

With the leave of your Lordships, I will touch on another small point. In Monday’s Hansard, the heading for this Bill said that legislative consent had been obtained from the Welsh Government but that the Government were still looking for legislative consent from the Scottish Government. In fact, a Scottish Government paper relating all the trials and tribulations that my noble friend had been through—it had 26 pages—was still operating. Are we still looking for more consent from that direction?

Photo of Baroness Pinnock Baroness Pinnock Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, this Bill has been improved by the assiduous work of this House over the last 10 months. Some significant and welcome changes have been made during that process.

I turn first to the two Motions left on the Order Paper. I regret that the Commons has failed to perceive the benefit of enabling some meetings of councils to be in a hybrid form. Like the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, I feel sure that this issue will resurface as the Government move towards the creation of even larger units of local government, which will put additional pressure on those elected to attend meetings in person.

I welcome the progress that has been made in the amendments so determinedly pursued by the noble Lord, Lord Ravensdale, on making sure that climate change is at the heart of the planning process. If I have understood correctly, the noble Earl, Lord Howe, has committed that climate change adaptation and mitigation will be included in national planning policy guidance. But we would like to see it included in what is at the moment a blank sheet of paper: the national development management plans. It would be even better if that were the case. That would make a very clear statement that climate change has to be part of any planning decision-making.

Having said that there has been progress, I acknowledge that there are many other unresolved challenges. The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, has raised the importance of support for leaseholders and further amendments to the Building Safety Act 2022. These included what my noble friend Lord Stunell pursued about regulations within that Act. There is also an unresolved challenge in creating inclusive transparent devolution settlements for county councils and in providing any evidence and energy to effect the agenda that begins the process of levelling up those parts of our countries that are in desperate need of government help.

Yesterday, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a report that provided evidence to support the fact that 1 million children in our country are living in destitution—not poverty but destitution. On the day before that, this House decided against making tackling child poverty a key mission of levelling up. I hope the House learns to regret that decision. On these Benches, we will continue to make the case for dealing with the inequalities that scar our country.

I thank all who have taken part in proceedings and those who have provided the essential support in different parts of this Chamber and in the office supporting the Liberal Democrat Benches. Finally, I genuinely look forward to seeing evidence of levelling up in practice where it is needed most. Sadly, at the moment, I cannot say that I am particularly optimistic on that score.

Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government) 5:30, 25 October 2023

My Lords, as the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, said, significant changes have been made to improve the Bill while we have worked on it over the past 10 months—although I have to say that it is beginning to feel like a lifetime.

However, we are mainly looking at the two amendments in front of us—first, on whether local authorities should be allowed to meet virtually with hybrid technology. I commend the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, on her assiduous work in pressing this issue and continuing to bring it to the attention of your Lordships’ House. We find the Government’s response deeply disappointing. In many ways, I would like better to understand why they have dug their heels in on this issue, because I genuinely do not understand why there could not be a little flexibility. Local councillors can see that, in your Lordships’ House, we are able to take advantage of hybrid technology, so why is this refused to councillors? It could have been put in legislation with fairly strict reasons for its use, so that is disappointing. I genuinely do not understand why no progress whatever was made on this.

Moving on to progress, we welcome the amendment in lieu of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Ravensdale, on climate change and planning. I congratulate him on his work on this and on getting the Government to recognise that this is an important issue that needed an amendment to the Bill. We endorse the noble Lord’s proposals on how we can continue to take this forward.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, said, it is disappointing that, in a levelling-up Bill, neither child poverty nor health inequalities were included, because they are central to levelling up. On that, it is disappointing that the Prime Minister has chosen to remove the cap on bankers’ bonuses.

I thank everyone who took part and the noble Earl for his generosity in meeting to discuss these issues. We may be saying goodbye to the levelling-up Bill, but there is still much to do if we are to achieve levelling up in this country.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend, the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Pinnock and Lady Hayman of Ullock, for their respective remarks.

As I said earlier, I appreciate that my noble friend and other noble Lords beg to differ from the Government’s position on remote meetings of local authorities. However, the Government’s position rests on an issue of principle that has served local government well for over 50 years. The Local Government Act 1972 is clear that “attending” a council meeting means attending physically in order to be “present” at such a meeting. I appreciate that the Covid regulations saw us through some difficult and exceptional circumstances, but the democratic principle of face-to-face attendance of meetings at all tiers of government is important. There is a long tradition of local authorities meeting in person and, since the expiration of the temporary arrangements put in place during the Covid-19 pandemic, they have continued to do so without issue. Having said that, I am grateful to my noble friend for giving us fair warning that she expects to bring us back to these issues at a suitable point in the future.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ravensdale, for welcoming the government amendment. I suggest to noble Lords that we should not underplay the effect of the Government’s amendment in lieu, which will mean that all national development management policies will give consideration to their impacts on climate change mitigation and adaptation while they are being developed and designated. I will take back for consideration the noble Lord’s suggestion about including targets in the Explanatory Notes.

Finally, in response to my noble friend the Duke of Montrose, I can tell the House that the Scottish Parliament granted legislative consent for relevant parts of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill yesterday, following the agreement with the Scottish Government that was mentioned in the House previously.

Motion A agreed.