Sustainable Communities Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:00 am on 28th February 2007.
I beg to move amendment No. 2, in clause 1, page 1,line 4, leave out subsection (2).
I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood in welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. O’Hara, and once again I look forward to serving under you in this important Committee—albeit under different circumstances from those to which I am accustomed. I find that quite liberating because when I first sat on a Standing Committee, I listened to the Minister reading out the word “resist” on many occasions. I now find myself in the privileged position of deciding whether we shall resist. I say “we”, looking at my Parliamentary Private Secretary, to whom I am very grateful for serving on the Committee, in the knowledge that there is an empty chair on my right where the honourable Whip would normally sit. From the point of view of a Minister, that changes the dynamic of a Committee.
I am more than happy to take my hon. Friend up on his offer, as long as he accepts the restrictions that come with it.
I congratulate sincerely the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood for taking the Bill through the House with substantial support on both sides and in the country for what it is trying to achieve. I have tabled the amendment to facilitate the debate and to give the Government the opportunity the put forward their view on clause 1. It is not a wrecking amendment, but an opportunity for us to respond to the Bill. I am particularly grateful to him for conducting himself during the proceedings on the Bill with a good deal of sense and courtesy. I thank him for that and hope that it is reciprocated. I am sure that he has many years as a parliamentarian ahead of him and I wish him well in whatever might happen during his time in the House.
Mr. O’Hara, you would not expect any Government to subscribe to a Bill or campaign that describes the country as a ghost town. That phrase resonates with me because of the 1980s pop single by The Specials. I am probably showing my age because some Members are looking puzzled, either because they are at the older or the younger end of that generation. [Interruption.] I assure my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras that The Specials were from the early 1980s. The serious point is that the message about a ghost town resonated then with my generation in a different context.
I agree strongly with part of the thrust of the Bill: in some communities, small businesses have been put out of business by competition. I think that the local works campaign refers to cloning and homogenous communities and argues that some towns have lost some character and that villages in parts of the country have suffered, sometimes as a result of increasing numbers of second homes, which is, of course, a problem of success and prosperity, although not, I suspect, for residents in such a village who are unable to find a school for their child. However, other parts of the country might have suffered for different reasons.
The Bill addresses, as do the Government, policies such as planning and asks the question, “Are such policies making this process more difficult to handle?” The Bill, therefore, asks the same question as the Government are asking: “What can public policy do to help to ensure that our communities are sustainable?” The Government claim authorship of the phrase “sustainable community”. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister made it the logo for his Department. In a debate about eight years ago, I remember being chided by Opposition Members for using what was claimed by one Member in particular to be a “meaningless load of waffle”. I took the point; I knew what he meant. It is difficult to define “sustainable community”, but over the years, I believe an understanding has grown of what that simple phrase has come to mean.
I have been listening to the Minister’s words with great interest. How is he helping to define a sustainable community by getting rid of clause 1, which attempts to put in the Bill a definition that would help us all? I put it to the Minister that the major plank of the Government’s sustainable communities housing expansion programme is to build sustainable communities in new developments across the country at the same time as the lack of co-ordinated government policy is undermining villages that have been sustainable communities over hundreds of years across the country.
I do not accept the logic of the argument that, because I have tabled an amendment to delete a subsection containing a title, I am therefore against the meaning of the title. However, logic apart, the hon. Gentleman has made an accusation, and it is incumbent on the Government to try to respond to it. In the development of housing—just as it was for the Macmillan Government in the 1950s and the new towns Acts that followed under Governments of both parties—Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition normally oppose housing growth. If one reads the Hansard on the housing Act from the 1950s, one will see the Labour Opposition at the time making the same accusation against the then Conservative Government.
The point of housing growth is to ensure that communities are sustainable, because housing growth represents changes in demography that have an impact across not just the region but the whole country. The test that the hon. Gentleman is laying down is fair. Is the growth in housing in new areas contributing towards the sustainability of those areas or not? That is why the question on infrastructure, which he has asked on many occasions and that he and I have debated before, is important and fair. It is one that any hon. Member would ask about his own constituency. I recognise that the planning gains supplement is subject to debate and to testing as well, but the measures that we have put in place, and are putting in place, on infrastructure and, importantly, on funding policies, funding formula and the funding mechanism, and the desirability to join up such policies, funding streams and formulas between Departments and agencies, are one of the biggest tests for public policy.
The idea of a local area agreement, with pooled funding across Government agencies, greater flexibility and a statutory duty on agencies to co-operate—things that are strongly supported by the cross-party Local Government Association and which are reflected in Government policies, including the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, which is being debated in Committee—is in part to meet the point that the hon. Gentleman and others have been consistently making over the past months. That is why the agreement is getting support, and there is a strong connection between the goals of this Bill and the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, and the policies that are already in place. That is why the hon. Gentleman’s second point is unfair
I said that I do not intend to wreck the Bill; I merely want a debate about it. The Committee has an opportunity to get the best out of the Bill and to seek to meld that with the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill. I am more than willing to amend that Bill and to take the best out of the Committee’s deliberations.
I welcome the news that the Minister has not tabled amendments to try to wreck the Bill and I have listened carefully to his explanation of the logic behind them. However, if he were being logical, he would have tabled amendments that incorporate the Government’s own definition of sustainability. Their website states:
“For communities to be sustainable, they must offer: decent homes at prices people can afford, good public transport, schools, hospitals, shops” and
“a clean, safe environment.”
I do not see how subsection (2) contradicts any of those aims.
The Government’s definition of sustainable communities, as the hon. Lady found on the website, has been put into practice—into the real world—by a number of important measures that the Bill might jeopardise without proper consideration. There is a danger that it might add unnecessary processes to those that already exist and may result from a misunderstanding of Government policies. Those policies are recent developments, so I make no criticism of hon. Members.
The Local Government Act 2000 requires local authorities to prepare sustainable community strategies, and the idea of sustainable development is at the heart of that policy. Members of the Committee will know of councils in their constituencies that have prepared sustainable communities plans. The council in my constituency produced an extremely powerful document. It is a statutory requirement of the council that it produces such a plan.
My local authority has also produced a sustainable community strategy, but I spoke to it about the extent of consultation that it undertook and it turned out to be far short of what the Bill proposes.
The hon. Lady refers to the consultation by the local council with local people, which raises two important philosophical questions that this Bill and the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill try to address. If we take a more devolutionary approach than we have done, we have to answer the question of how far we prescribe and to what level we devolve powers. If we dictate how local councils should consult, rather than say that they should consult, we confuse issues of centralisation, decentralisation and devolution. Indeed, for the reason given by the hon. Lady, clause 106 of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill contains a statutory duty to inform, consult and involve local representatives. Should Parliament pass that Bill, that statutory duty will be backed up by the levers and tools of the performance regime and the new accountability measures.
I agree with the hon. Lady in principle: it is almost contradictory to have a sustainable communities plan that has not involved the community that it is trying to sustain. I agree philosophically with her and I will be interested to hear what Opposition Members think. To be fair, the right hon. Member for West Dorset made that point on Second Reading.
What I am outlining on behalf of the Government is not a problem of principle with the clause—it would be difficult for anybody to disagree with subsection (2)(a) to (e), and some would say it is motherhood and apple pie. One might question how free-market economics and the subsection are compatible. [Interruption.] I am being accused of being against motherhood and apple pie, and I understand the point, but the electorate send us here to scrutinise legislation, not just for its coherence and consistency, but to see whether it will work.
Is the Minister aware that one problem is that a local plan is developed in consultation with the local community, which comes up with a lot of good ideas, but a large developer then arrives, backed by a large supermarket chain, and proposes some huge development and announces that it will be unsustainable unless the building is a certain height, bulk and size? Local residents are then faced with a battery of corporate lawyers and huge amounts of money spent on newspaper advertising and other things. The local authority either collapses in the face of that problem or goes to the Secretary of State, who feels unable to intervene because of the battery of powers against him and the arguments used about the survival of a whole area. In a short time all the powers of the community simply disappear into the hands of powerful corporate interests.
My hon. Friend puts his finger on why the debate on the Bill is attracting such attention, and it is important that we analyse his argument. The answer to his question is yes, I am very much aware of the problem. I gave evidence to a public inquiry in my constituency against a supermarket development in one of the villages of Saddleworth, backed up by evidence from the New Economics Foundation. Local authorities often find themselves in a situation whereby their decisions whether to appeal against a planning decision are based not on the sustainability of the community or purely on planning policy and law, but on the cost, and risked cost, of making such an appeal. That is an important point.
On my hon. Friend’s second point, the Secretary of State, and particularly the Deputy Prime Minister, have successfully changed planning policy to promote the sustainability of town centres. Significant decisions have been taken in the past seven or eight years, including those relating to the Ikea Group. If hon. Members who represent the Stockport area were here they would be able to tell the Committee about the consequences of that change in policy, which has been recognised by town centre managers, councils and the British Council of Shopping Centres, with which I shared a platform at its conference. The British Council of Shopping Centres welcomes the changes in planning policy, which have gone a long way to addressing my hon. Friend’s concerns about town centres.
I note that only last week public opinion, which is an objective criterion in planning policy, caused the decision to develop a major superstore in the London borough of Kingston to be changed. I will not mention the name of the supermarket because I would imagine that my hon. Friend knows what it is.
Two issues arise from my hon. Friend’s point, which I think he has recognised. Developers would probably make one of them. If a proposal is within the law, then a developer has a right to make suggestions for its development. The rights of developers, companies and individuals to put forward ideas for businesses, commerce and trade, which are an essential part of a prosperous economy, have to be balanced againstthe sustainability of a community. That argument expresses itself in public debate in a very important way. If the community does not want a Tesco, it will not shop in it. However, the truth is that people do want such a store, and that includes my constituents.
The question that the Committee is being asked to consider is how we ensure that planning and development policies are in the long-term interests of a community as well as in its short-term interests.
Mr. Hoyle rose—
I shall give way to the right hon. Gentleman and then to my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley.
I do not want to detain the Committee, but the Minister has now been on his feet for20 minutes. Ostensibly he is arguing for the removal of subsection (2), which defines sustainable local communities. That definition is almost entirely drawn from a document from his own Department, or rather his predecessor’s Department under the Deputy Prime Minister. He has not so far advanced a single reason for supposing that the definition is incorrect. Were he to do so, he would be defending the proposition that his own Department got it wrong, which would be odd. Why is he seeking to remove this particular subsection of this particular clause from this particular Bill, which I take it is the purpose of the Committee and not a general disposition?
I apologise if I have taken too much time. I will try to come to a close to give other right hon. and hon. Members the chance to speak.
Subsection (4) puts a duty on the Secretary of State to publish
“within 12 months of the passing of this Act, guidance to local authorities and principal councils on the effective promotion of the sustainability of local communities.”
Apologies, Mr. O’Hara. I am reading my notes for my next speech. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for pointing me in the correct direction. I think that my right hon. Friend—I mean my hon. Friend—the Member for Chorley wished to intervene.
That is the only promotion I will ever get from this Government, but I take it as it being offered.
My hon. Friend talked about supermarkets and people having a choice. He said that if they do not want the supermarkets, they should not shop there. What he ought to recognise is that when a supermarket comes into a community, it undercuts the prices in the local shops, forcing them to close. It is no use saying that people can choose not to shop there because, unfortunately, people end up in the supermarket because it operates a policy of stealth whereby it takes over a community and forces every shop out. That is not good for local communities. It certainly is not sustainable. Does the Minister agree that it is the power of the supermarket that needs to be controlled to ensure that we have communities?
On the power of the supermarkets, one can, of course, argue that the Competition Commission and competition laws should properly address those concerns. I have been given examples of supermarkets—I shall not name them—where some pretty bad practices have gone on. A local wine shop was put out of business by a supermarket whose managers made a note of the shop’s special offers and undercut them with loss leaders. They placed bottles of wine with a 50 per cent. discount by the till to pull in business from the local shop. One may legitimately argue that the competition laws need toughening.
Two philosophical approaches are coming together. One, which is shared by my hon. Friend, seeks to fetter the powers of conglomerates, if not monopolies and duopolies. The other approach, which is not contradictory and is shared by Labour Members, is that the planning and development laws of local authorities need to be toughened to level the playing field and make communities sustainable. Not many hon. Members would argue that that takes away from the fact that a shop, whether small, medium or large, is free to compete. That has driven our economy forward.
Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras) (Lab) rose—
Mr. Hurd rose—
It is the hon. Gentleman’s bill, so I shall give him an opportunity to intervene.
I want to place on the record my thanks for the Minister’s generous comments at the start of his remarks. I entirely reciprocate the sentiments that he expressed about the good nature in which negotiations have taken place.
On the amendment and the point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset about accountability to the public, is it not entirely reasonable for our constituents, when confronted with this Bill, to ask what we mean by sustainable communities and to seek some sort of definition? It is clear that the Government are seeking to remove that definition, which I find puzzling. As my right hon. Friend said, the Bill simply extracts four or five of the most important indicators from existing Government definitions.
Does the Minister recognise that in the context of so much confusion about the meaning of sustainability, there is value in including a definition of sustainable communities? Would not his amendment leave a vacuum, with no frame on which to hang and judge a policy response? Given that the definition is so similar to Government definitions, what is the problem?
I find myself in the lovely position of now understanding what a probing amendment is. The amendment solicits a number of philosophical problems with the clause. The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne giggles, as does the right hon. Member for West Dorset. I shall give some examples and answer the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood directly.
The description of a sustainable community given in the Bill, as opposed to the description in Government policy and in previous legislation, is wide and ill-defined. It does not define
“protecting or reviving local economic activity”,
or how one would define and measure the impact of “protecting the local environment”. What does it mean to promote the
“prudent use of natural resources”?
The definitions in the clause are worth while and it is difficult to disagree with them, but the job of Parliament is to legislate so that the legislature can interpret it meaningfully on behalf on citizens. My proposition is that such loose definitions would result in problems for the courts.
Could the problem be solved by taking the entirety of the Government’s definition and inserting it in the Bill, or does the Minister believe that that definition, too, is inadequate?
We are talking not about policies or the communications that are put forward in order to express them, but about the law. The right hon. Gentleman knows that a definition in law that is wide and ill-defined would not help the sustainability of communities. Rather, it would empower the conglomerates that he and others say they want to fetter.
May I commend the wording to my hon. Friend on the grounds that it is in plain English, which cannot be said of the Government’s Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill? Whereas that is extremely difficult to understand, the definition here could actually be understood by an ordinary member of the public. The phrases are broad, admittedly, but there is no way round that. If we tried to over-define, we would end up with about eight clauses trying to define prudent. It is possible for people in local authorities to define prudent for themselves.
I am shocked that my right hon. Friend thinks that the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill is not written in plain English. I shall report back to parliamentary counsel forthwith.
May I give my hon. Friend my authority to say to parliamentary draftsmen and draftswomen that if they can produce a Bill that all of us understands when we first read it, I will give them £100? I do not think that my £100 is at risk.
I am absolutely certain that my right hon. Friend is not risking £100. As somebody who in a previous ministerial position was responsible for overseeing parliamentary counsel’s work, I can assure the Committee of that. In all seriousness, however, there is a good reason why parliamentary counsel insist on tight definitions.
The right hon. Gentleman surprises me in saying that. He would be the first to criticise a Government who introduced loosely defined law, because that results in litigation and litigation is not, on the whole, taken up by the weak and the vulnerable, it is taken up by the powerful.
Mr. Hurd rose—
Mr. Letwin rose—
Let me make this important point. Hon. Members from all parties often criticise Finance Bills because the number of clauses in them appears to increase every year. That is true under all Governments, and the reason for that is because litigation is brought by powerful companies on behalf of clients who pay for their services. To define law in terms that sound good is an attractive idea and would probably win support, but if we were to do that we would, in the long run, damage the goals that we are trying to set.
Order. Before we proceed, I have been listening extremely carefully to the Minister and have given him a lot of latitude, especially on the many occasions when he has said that he wants to address philosophical issues, which are necessarily discursive. He seems to be addressing in great detail subsection (2)(a), and has addressed subsections (b) to (e) in response to interventions. I wonder whether he has adequately made his point on the need for sharpness and clarity of definition.
It is for the Committee to decide that, Mr. O’Hara, but I thank you for that guidance. I will give way one more time to the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood Bill, but first I would like to finish my argument.
I have argued that subsection (2) is unnecessary because of existing Government policies and legislation. The “Sustainable Communities: Building for the Future” plan in 2003 included our definition of sustainable communities. Also relevant is “Securing the Future”, the Government’s sustainable community strategy in its action plan—action plan is a phrase that is used in this campaign—that was published last year. Planning policy statement 1, “Delivering Sustainable Development”, set out the Government’s overarching policy on the delivery of sustainable development through the planning system. As I said, the relevant clauses in the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill set out the proper relationship between central and local government. The Local Government Act 2000 gives local authorities the broad powers, including the power of well-being.
I said that I would only give way one more time to the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood, but if my hon. Friend wants to push the point, I will give way.
I am here to help my hon. Friend. I know that there is a difficulty in defining sustainable community. However, I would go back to that power of well-being and I, for one, am happy to examine the link with the current Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, which the Minister is steering through Parliament. I would examine the power of well-being and come up with an exact form of words. However, we all know that the five points in subsection (2) are what we are already asking local authorities to do, and many of us who used to sit on local strategic partnerships will be engaging in that process. So, in that spirit of engagement, I hope that the Minister will work with us to get an exact form of words if he does not like what is there at the moment.
I indicated that that was my intention. What I am trying to get across, in moving the amendment, is that many of the things that I believe the clause is trying to achieve are already in place elsewhere. I have mentioned some of the problems with the definitions which I believe to be serious.
In addition to the requirement to produce a sustainable communities plan—I acknowledge the point that the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne made, when she said that clause 106 of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill directly addresses that issue—there is, of course, the important local area agreement financial process, which is under way. The third requirement is the local development framework, which puts into planning policies at a local authority level the objective of sustainable communities.
My argument, therefore, is that although one may agree with the goals of the subsection, those goals are already met by existing law and existing policy, and the subsection, if it was enacted, would do the opposite of what the goals are intended to do; it would result, by loose definition, in litigation, which always happens when law is loosely drawn up. I ask the Committee respectfully to examine my arguments on the amendment.
It is a pleasure, Mr. O’Hara, to serve again under your chairmanship; I seem to remember that we had other philosophical discussions in other Bill Committees. You allowed a certain degree of latitude in those debates too, I remember.
The Minister opened his remarks by talking about what the phrase “ghost town” meant to him. What it means to me is something that I see when I walk down the street in one of the towns in my constituency. It is a town where six shops have closed in the last six months and it is probably the case that in the next six months to a year, unless some action is taken, that town will effectively become a ghost town. It has a small number of independent retailers, no multiples, but it is very likely to lose those retailers very soon, simply because they are unable to compete on a level playing field with some of the out-of-town shopping centres that are being developed in the area.
What “ghost town” also means to me is a definition by the New Economics Foundation, which produced two reports charting the decline of local shops, post offices, pubs, services and communities. That has been underlined by parliamentary groups such as the all-party group on small shops, which produced a report, “High Street 2005”. Other organisations, such as Age Concern, have raised their concerns about the decline of communities and small shops.
I had the privilege to serve on the all-party parliamentary group on small shops. The report was called “High Street Britain 2015”. Its point was that unless urgent Government action is taken, particularly on the independent supply chain for independent retailers, we could well face the prospect of there being no independent retailers on Britain’s high streets within the next eight years. The point was as serious as that.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. The Minister’s comments about the need to create a level playing field between the independent retailers and some of the larger supermarket chains were very pertinent. The problem is that there is very often not that level playing field. The Bill would introduce a mechanism allowing for those issues to be addressed. One of the key issues, which has been raised at many public meetings across the country, is that out-of-town shopping centres do not pay business rates on their car parking, whereas independent retailers that provide car parking do. At the moment, there is no clear mechanism for trying to address changes of that kind.
Yesterday, I was talking to someone involved in local government, who explained the processes he had been through simply to allow recruitment in, I think, legal services, rather than going through the Legal Services Commission. He has been trying for three years to come to an agreement with the relevant Department. Everyone thinks it is a good idea, but it has taken three years to happen. That is the problem. There is no mechanism for primary legislative changes to take place that are recognised at local level. The chain of due process for national Government to put that through seems to be very lengthy. There is no mechanism for it to happen. That is one of the key reasons for the Bill being so important.
There has already been debate about the Government definition of “sustainable community”. Subsection (2) clearly outlines that in plain English, as the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras said. The Minister might be concerned about the loose wording of “protecting or reviving”, but he has had the opportunity to table amendments providing for a clearer definition.
I want to amplify a point that the Minister did not allow me to elaborate. As the Bill is meant as guidance to public authorities, it should rightly roughly reflect the guidance that the Government have adopted. The Government already engage in a wide range of activities that, potentially, are judicially reviewable. They would have to resort to their own definitions in defending their actions. As the definitions in the Bill are drawn from Government definitions, does the hon. Lady agree that it is wholly inconsistent for the Minister to reject them?
It is wholly inconsistent. If the Minister pressed the amendment to a vote, its effect would, essentially, open the Government up to even more litigation, because there would be no definition at all. The amendment would take the guts out of the Bill right at the outset, which is very concerning. On Second Reading, the Minister was very keen to reassure the House that the issues would be taken seriously. He gave an undertaking that he would engage in the debate in all seriousness, but I am concerned that that has not happened.
Action has been taken outside the formal procedures of the House that goes against what the Minister said within it. I understand that, for six months, people supporting this campaign have been trying to speak to the Secretary of State; eventually, a meeting was arranged for 17 January, when Second Reading was on 19 January. The Department wrote to other Members of Parliament stating its opposition to the Bill. Briefings from the Department have been issued to hon. Members, opposing the Bill. Labour Members were asked to attend the House on Friday 19 January to oppose Second Reading. My concern is that there has been a mismatch.
For the record, the accusation has been made, particularly on that last point, that Members were somehow persuaded against the Bill. That is not the case.
I thank the Minister for that clarification, but that is not my understanding. Although this is the first private Member’s Bill in which I have participated, other people key to its progress who have much experience of private Members’ Bills have spoken about their frustration. Never before have they encountered such reluctance to engage on an issue. The Bill is almost unprecedented in its amountof support. I hope that in tabling his probing amendments, he is agreeing to undertake a constructive debate, but I still have concerns that will be allayed only as we go through the Bill in Committee.
The Minister also spoke about the sustainable communities strategy, accepting that perhaps there had been weaknesses in that process. He also spoke of other mechanisms by which the issue of sustainable communities could be raised by local government, such as the local development framework. Again, that draws me back to my point. If there is no definition in law, surely those processes would be improved by having a clear definition?
I met with my local authority to discuss the Bill, as well as with the LGA, as other Members have. One of the interesting things to come out of that meeting was that there is a clear understanding of the definition of a Sustainable Communities Bill. As the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras said, it is accepted. The five key areas have been outlined, and it is understood to be public policy. However, the Bill goes further by encouraging local authorities to look beyond their own remit and to comment on other issues affecting the sustainability of their local communities, things that are currently beyond their decision-making power. For example, the closure of a local post office can have a huge impact on the sustainability of a community, but local authorities cannot make a meaningful contribution or take action to prevent it.
To return to the Minister’s comments on his amendment, he seemed concerned that the drafting was not tight enough and might disadvantage communities represented by local authorities in battles with larger developers. However, local authorities’ great support for the Bill’s provisions seems to imply that they are happy with what the Bill offers them and would welcome the opportunity to have those powers and to take on the fight.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Thousands of parish councils have signed up to the Bill, authorities have signed up to it and the Local Government Association clearly feel that the principles behind it are to be welcomed.
When I talked to my local authority, we spoke in great detail of the other mechanisms in place. What came out of that meeting is that some excellent practice has taken place in many local authorities. Cornwall particularly has been developing a sustainable communities strategy. We talked about the effectiveness of consultation and participation in that process. In other initiatives, such as the market and coastal towns initiative, consultation with the local community is also excellent. The problem is that it is patchy and does not draw everything together. That is what the Bill seeks to do.
I return to the amendment. Essentially, the entire Bill hangs on this definition, which is based on the Government’s own policy. It would fundamentally undermine the rest of the Bill if the amendment were withdrawn. If the Minister has serious reservations about the definitions used or about the tightness or phrasing, I am disappointed that he did not feel able to table amendments to provide that clarity. The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood has always made it clear that he does not feel that it is a perfect Bill. We are happy to see improvements where necessary, so it is disappointing that the amendment has not followed through in that tone of constructiveness.
Mr. O’Hara, it is a delight to serve under your chairmanship once again. I hope that this Committee will not go on indefinitely, because we have all got other things to do. I start in the spirit of consensus in which the Bill was brought forward. In fact, that may be one of the problems. In a sense, we are discussing fluffy toys and white bunnies dancing over Watership Down. We all know what we want to do but we do not know how we are going to be doing it.
I start that way. I think the beers have it.
I am grateful to all Committee members. Although we can have lovely philosophical discussions in Committee and even though I am sure that we will continue, for a short time at least, to try to nail down what we mean by sustainable communities, the real importance of this Bill is outside the House. There may not be a huge number of people in the room watching us, but an awful lot of people will read the proceedings.
I spy no strangers. I shall pass on quickly. I know that there will be a great deal of interest outside the House, because Committee members have been lobbied by all manner of organisations. I am talking about things that were brought up on Second Reading and it is inappropriate to return to them, even though you have been very generous, Mr. O’Hara, in liberally interpreting this amendment and allowing us to range near and far over the different points that need to be advanced to make the Bill meaningful.
I hope that the Minister agrees that, if we do not like the Bill, it will behove him to do something, given that no other Committee members have tabled amendments. I presume that other Committee members, including Labour Members, are reasonably happy with what is in the Bill. We may, in subsequent sittings, wish to change some elements of the Bill and improve it. I hope that the Minister will assure Committee members that there will be detailed considerations.
We must be clear what we mean by a sustainable community, although that is not easy. I am happy to return to the Government’s definition, as the right hon. Member for West Dorset said, which would be a good starting point. We have the power of well-being and local area agreements, which need to be defined clearly in terms of what a sustainable community is, and the local development framework, which the Minister has also mentioned, and other legislation. It is right that he mentioned those, because he is the common factor, presumably, along with the parliamentary secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, on the current Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, which is important.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the principle behind the Bill is trusting local communities? The right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras is right. We must trust local communities to define—in his words—what “prudent” or “protecting the local environment” mean to a degree that they feel answers their concerns. There is a provision under clause 2 for the Secretary of State to act if he is unhappy with their interpretation of that definition.
I agree. We are all going to get into mushy compromise and try to agree about what we want to do. The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point.
I did not disagree with much of what the Minister said, because he has eventually to sign off something that will go into statute and therefore has to be capable of being defended in court, if nothing else, when someone says, “That is not what we understand by ‘sustainable community’”. That could happen in due course. It is wrong to get hung up on something that will not be in the Bill. We cannot have a Sustainable Communities Bill where we do not try to define what a sustainable community is.
In a previous incarnation, when we discussed the Commons Bill, we changed the maiden notion of the body that would oversee commons administration. We spent an entire sitting trying to define what a commoners association would be. It can be done in legislation, but it was not a helpful period because we went off at tangents. As my right hon. Friend says, the ordinary person in the street wants us to introduce simple legislation that makes a difference to our lives.
If this is not right, let us have detailed discussions outside this place to get it right. We must get clause 1 in the Bill right. It has to define what sustainable community is. It has to relate to other pieces of legislation, because it is no good if it just sits on a shelf. It has to be a meaningful piece of legislation that relates to what else the Government have done and other parties in the House want them to do. This is a consensual Bill. Nobody should have ownership, because it is far too important for that. As long as the Minister agrees to that, I will not say anything other than I hope he will not push this to a vote. It could be an interesting result if he did. In the spirit of his remarks so far, and with the help that we will all give him, he knows where we want to take this and how we want to get it right. But let us do that outside this room so that it is right when we come back for our next sitting.
I entirely concur with the hon. Member for Stroud. The Minister started by saying that he recognised the popular support for this Bill across the country, but he has misjudged the popular mood today. His approach to the very start of the debate on the Committee stage of the Bill has been wrong. I contrast it with another piece of private Member’s legislation in the last session. I had the privilege to sit on the Committee on the Bill on international development and the transparency of the Government’s aid budget. It was promoted by the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) and the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development had an extremely constructive approach to getting that Bill right. He worked with the right hon. Gentleman and the Committee stage was extremely probing. Many of the complicated issues were analysed in detail. At the end a very good piece of private Member’s legislation made its way on to the statute book.
I am disappointed that today, we have a Government amendment that could prevent a definition of sustainable communities when in the course of the debate the Minister has admitted that there are already definitions in legislation and there are also definitions on all sorts of Government websites. The official shakes his head, but I am sure that during the course of his remarks—I shall be delighted to check the Official Report—the Minister deliberately referred to previous legislation.
The interchange between by my hon. Friend and the invisible official is interesting. As I have been reflecting on this rather weird debate, I wonder whether perhaps the Government do not want to have a definition of sustainable communities in any legislation. They want only to have the flexibility of guidance on their own websites. That could be to prevent legal action by someone in planning, for example, who seeks a judicial review on the basis that the Government are not adhering to a particular definition that would enter legislation if it were in the Bill. I wonder whether we should take this opportunity to try to get to the point where the Government accept that, sooner or later in some piece of legislation, there will have to be a definition of sustainable communities if it is to be a meaningful policy.
My right hon. Friend is as perceptive as ever. There is a real danger in the approach he described. However, in supporting my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood, what better, what better place would there be to define what a sustainable community is than in the Sustainable Communities Bill? There is a lot of support out there for real, effective and co-ordinated action, whether it be by local authorities or central Government, to address the issue of sustainable communities. His approach so far this morning has been very disappointing.
Not only is there a strength of feeling outside this House, we know that there is a great strength of feeling within this House because over 300 Members have signed the early-day motion about sustainable communities.
Exactly. I am grateful for that intervention. I shall sit down now and leave time for others to make their remarks. I simply say on behalf of my constituents that I hope that the Minister’s approach to the Bill improves for subsequent clauses.
Thank you, Mr. O’Hara, for giving us the opportunity to speak to a valuable Bill with all-party support. If we start from that point, we can recognise where we ought to be going. It is interesting that Chorley’s local authority had a discussion about supporting the Bill because it feels that the Bill is important. The authority recognises the importance of a Bill that will instruct it on the best way forward to ensure that it can adapt what it needs to do as a local authority to empower the community to be sustainable in the future. That is so important and we ought not to lose sight of it. The reason that the authority wanted to do that was that it felt the concerns about the future of local post offices—urban and rural—banking and farming. There are many reasons why the authority wishes to ensure that the Bill is supported.
Somehow, the Minister must not be listening; local authorities, the people out there and Members of this House united. Surely he ought to be recognising that we should work together to deliver the Bill. The Minister has a great reputation, but his reputation is like a bar of soap in the bath: every time he thinks he has got it, it shoots out of his hand and whizzes round the bath again. I do not want him to have that reputation; I want him to have a reputation for being conciliatory, for working together and for uniting with us.
That is what we need to see today, and I would like to think that he is going to do that. It is so important that we pursue the line that was brought up by the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne. She touched on part of the problem, and the Minister touched on it too. We do not really want to knock supermarkets because they could be our friends in government, but we have to be honest and, at times, stand up and say what we actually feel. What we feel is that the supermarkets’ power is very strong, and is killing communities. It is not an even playing field because of business rates, which we have touched on. Never mind the car park; that fact that the little village shop pays the same business rate as Harrods per square metre is the problem that puts pressure on local communities. That pressure is beginning to kill businesses, which is why line 1 of clause 1 is so important; it sets the agenda and the tone. That is what we hope the Minister will take on board.
We must ensure that the community understands why the local library is there and what will happen if people do not use it. It is about joining up the local authority and the community to ensure that if people do not use it, they will lose it. That message has to be all joined up; it is about ensuring that the community will exist. It is about Mr. Bowan. I know that the Minister will not know who Mr. Bowan is, but I shall explain: he is the local village butcher in the village I live in. He is a quality butcher who served his time at Smithfield, and everyone recognises how good he is. The problem is that he is under the cosh. He is opening only four days a week now because it is not worth opening the other three. That pressure has been put on him by supermarkets. We need the community to recognise the role that he can play.
Let us consider post offices, which we do not like to talk about, but which are part of a sustainable community. They provide a valuable service to villages and urban areas and we should not allow them to be lost. We are losing the plot if we allow services to be withdrawn. The fact is that post offices are responsible operations. Pensioners can trust them and get help and advice from them. Local post offices, not the Minister, assist pensioners with the complicated forms that we generate, and which often ensure that they do not get the benefits to which they are entitled. That is why I think that post offices are so important.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that post offices play a vital role in ensuring the economic sustainability of many local communities? For every £10 withdrawn from post offices, £6 is spent in the local community. If the post office closes, the money is taken out and spent somewhere else.
Order. Before the hon. Gentleman proceeds, I see how his remarks relate to subsections (a) to (e), but perhaps he could make them more specific.
I am trying to set the picture and establish the landscape around clause 1. It is important to be aware of what we will lose if we alter the title, which we believe ought to remain. That is why I am trying to demonstrate its importance. The Minister understands that; his is a semi-rural community. Our constituencies are very similar. We have urban and rural areas. It is around that that we want to draw the landscape. I know that he understands rural areas and sustainable communities because he has told us about the advantage of what his council has done. However, he does not recognise that councils across the country are not replicating that. That is why subsection (1) will set the scene portrayed in my comments.
Farming, of course, plays an important part too. The price of milk is dictated by the supermarkets, which, too, have a role to play in the community. They ought to be joining in with sustainable communities by buying locally and reducing food miles. Local farmers ought to be paid directly and with farm-gate prices to ensure that sustainable farming continues in rural areas. Supermarkets should not be pushing down prices, because that means that farmers cannot produce with a profit and so lose out. That is why we are seeing a major reduction in dairy farming and beef production. Local beef is produced very close to these supermarkets, but do the supermarkets buy from them? Absolutely not! They insist on food miles, which are not sustainable. That is why subsection (1) is so important and why I am concerned about farming.
I can see that I am testing your patience, Mr. O’Hara so I shall return to line 1.
Of course, this all joins up. Given the leeway that you allowed the Minister, Mr. O’Hara, we feel rightly that we should address similar points. But I understand what you are saying.
Community radio has an important role to play as well. Believe it or not, in Chorley we have the local community radio station, Chorley FM, coming in our ears. It is so important to our community because it allows us to put across what is happening in our area. That is why the Bill is important to the sustainability of our communities. We can use community radio to let people know what is going on and to empower them.
I am sure that the Minister is listening very carefully and wants to be more sympathetic. He recognises the importance of the Bill, but he should also recognise that no one in this Room disagrees with it—I believe—except for him and maybe his PPS, but that is just for the purposes of promotion.
The message for the Government is this; listen to what is being said on both sides of the Committee, take it on board, be sympathetic, be conciliatory and let us work together.
It is a tremendous pleasure to follow my hon. Friend, who is an ardent supporter of the dairy industry.
Indeed. However, I wonder whether that is due to ulterior motives on his part—not that I would suggest such a thing. To return to clause 2, which is what we are talking about—
I stand corrected. The issue is the sustainability of local communities. It is extremely difficult to define either “local community” or “sustainable community”. It is also difficult to pinpoint all the levels of decision making that go in to providing jobs and protecting local economies and environments.
We all accept that there are difficulties in defining sustainable communities, but the Government are asking local authorities to undertake work relating to the sustainability of their local communities. It seems strange that they can require local authorities to take on a sustainable community strategy without having set down in law what that means.
I beg to differ. The object of involving local communities is not to patronise them or to set out in advance a top-down model, but rather to get involvement from the bottom up.
The real issue is the sense of alienation among people who feel that decisions are made by large organisations miles away, and that they have no power over them and cannot have much input. Coupled with that is our tendency to have smaller families and to live longer, so there are fewer people walking about in villages than there used to be. There is also a tendency to travel further to work, leading to a “come home, shut the door, be inside my house” mentality and less opportunity for people to engage in what is going on it their local town or community.
There are many factors, and it would be invidious to lay the blame at any one door. What is important now is the wake-up call contained in the report “High Street Britain 2015”, produced by the all-party group on small shops, of which I am a member, and the opportunity that it offers to debate the underlying causes. If we cannot sort those out, we will not do anything towards promoting the activities listed in paragraphs (a) to (e) of subsection (2).
The erosion of town centres did not happen yesterday. It has been going on for a number of years. The most important thing to come out of the report is the fact that the Competition Commission is now lookinginto the power of the big supermarkets and the effects of big out-of-town developments; the encroachment by supermarkets into the corner shop market; and the immense purchasing power of the supermarkets, which is driving down the prices of products such as milk and meat.
I would very much like to encourage farmers to give evidence to the Commission. Clearly if they do not get a fair price—a living wage—for their produce, they will go out of business, and that will lead to a decline in economic activity in the countryside. Indeed, it will be difficult to encourage young farmers to carry on their traditions. If we are to build local economic blocks, we have to ascertain which factors affect those blocks and how we can encourage the growth of local economic activity.
The subsection refers to a number of issues such as protecting the local environment and the prudent use of natural resources. Those matters have to be considered in the context of a range of levels of government. Some things, such as combating climate change, might be decided by EU regulation. Others might be decided by a local group of prospective residents discussing with a co-operative housing association how they want the lay-out of their housing to be. Decisions at all levels interlock, so it is about not just empowering local communities but ensuring that they are part of joined-up government thinking.
There has been positive feeling about devolution in Wales. Initially, people were quite nervous and did not know how the Welsh Assembly would work out. Over the eight years it has been in existence, the Assembly has come to be very much respected. It gives us the opportunity to have a more direct relationship with a much nearer organisation than if we had to go directly to the Secretary of State. It is helpful to have the Assembly Government.
Back in 1995 there was a more difficult reorganisation, when we took on the idea of unitary authorities. That had a partly positive and partly negative impact. Some people feel closer to their unitary authority than they did to their previous county or borough, but some feel more alienated. We must sort that out at a local level. Mechanisms do exist for county councils to have close consultation with town and community councils. The question is how effective they are at using those mechanisms. While the possibility is in the letter of the law, we need a new spirit in how we encourage such involvement.
It is not easy. We say to people, “Oh, come and tell me all your wonderful ideas,” and how many turn up? How many actually bring an idea? If we are not careful, it is easy to let community involvement turn into the dominance of a few determined individuals with a particular agenda. We need to ensure that the Bill offers truly democratic guidelines for approaching the matter and does not leave the door open to pressure groups that try to misuse legislation.
We all now understand what we mean by wanting a community in which people speak to each other rather than walk past each other and have the opportunity to use local services. We also have an idea of what we mean by “sustainable”. We do not want people to waste things and use resources inappropriately. Working out what mechanisms will produce those things is much more complex and needs a great deal of debate and Government action at all levels.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. Before I call the next speaker I shall say that it is difficult to speak to the amendments without effectively speaking to clause stand part. Rather than vainly try to call Members to order I have made the decision from the Chair to group the clause stand part debate with the amendments. When we come to clause stand part I intend it to be moved formally.
It is a pleasure to serve under your amiable but firm chairmanship, Mr. O’Hara. You should not be bothered by the fact that you are bringing out philosophical aspects in Members today.
I declare an interest: most of the references so far have been to problems in rural or semi-rural areas. Despite the fact that I have the honour of representing Chalk Farm, Elm Village and Jockey’s Field, I represent what could be described as a fairly urban area—Holborn and St. Pancras. The clause, and indeed the whole Bill, are just as relevant to the area that I and my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North represent as to rural or semi-rural areas.
I commend the wording of subsection (2) to my good friend the Minister. As I recall, the first local government Act that this Government passed, the Local Government Act 2000, placed upon local authorities a duty to
“promote the economic, social and environmental well-being” of their areas. I commend those words, because I wrote them in our policy document when I was shadow environment spokesman. They were a bit plain to be included in law, but nevertheless they were used. The definitions in the subsection are more precise and would add precision that was not originally there.