Thank you very much, Mr. Bercow. In light of the agreement that we have just reached under your chairmanship to debate clauses 1 and 4, and in light of the tabling of amendments Nos. 22 to 24 by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud, it will be in the interests of the debate and the Committee if I withdraw amendment No. 2, which we were debating at the last point of interruption.
Perhaps with your help, Mr. Bercow, if I am able to catch your eye, I will be able to respond to my hon. Friend when we reach his amendments. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
‘encouraging the improvement of the economic, social or environmental well-being of an area.
(2A) In this section “social well-being” includes participation in civic and political activity.’.
What a delight it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow. We may actually make some progress today, so we hope that there will be two good things in the day.
I do not intend to take much time, but it is fair to say that the clause needs rewording to clarify the issue of sustainability and, more particularly, to get the Bill off on the right footing. I shall speak to amendment No. 22, but amendments Nos. 23 and 24 are consequential to it so that we can have a reworked clause 1 with tightened-up wording that makes sense of what we are trying to do.
The amendment would allow the Bill to fit in neatly with section 4(1) of the Local Government Act 2000, which states:
“Every local authority must prepare a strategy (referred to in this section as a community strategy) for promoting or improving the economic, social and environmental well-being of their area and contributing to the achievement of sustainable development in the United Kingdom.”
So we already have legislation that refers to sustainable development, and the amendment is intended to tie this important Bill in with that. It would require the Secretary of State to help local authorities along the lines that they are hopefully already trying to pursue in economic, social and environmental well-being. It summarises and improves on the existing wording, and it simplifies it, as I always try to do.
It is essential that we include in the provisions civic and political activity. Such activity is referred to in the amendment, which makes it clear that it should be included in an existing definition of sustainable development and sustainable communities. I have the delight of moving amendment No. 22; I shall come back to amendments Nos. 23 and 24. They are entirely consequential on the attempt to simplify and clarify the Bill and give it some oomph.
I rise to add our support for the amendment. As the hon. Member for Stroud said, it is useful because it aligns the provisions with the Local Government Act 2000. It broadens the way in which local communities may seek to define their sustainability, which is important for the empowerment of those communities. The emphasis that the amendment places on civic and political participation is also important. We welcome all those aspects of the amendment, particularly the consistency that it applies to the provisions.
I rise to place on record my personal support for the extremely constructive amendment that has been tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud. When last we debated the matter way back on 28 February, we had a less productive discussion; the Government were clearly reluctant to define sustainable communities in the Bill, as they argued that they were adequately defined elsewhere. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering argued so eloquently, if one cannot define sustainable communities in the Sustainable Communities Bill, where can one do so?
It is welcome that we have returned to the issue and found a form of words that works. In effect, we have substituted a rather longer list of definitions that were drawn from Government guidelines with a shorter list that was extracted from the same place. I think that it captures the essence of what we are trying to define as sustainable communities. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stroud on his constructive amendment, which I am happy to support.
I, too, am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud for tabling the amendment, because it provides a way forward that the Government can support. It is worth putting it on record that local government welcomes and embraces the power to promote the economic, social and environmental well-being of the area. The measures provide a statutory basis, which the amendment will back up if it is accepted, on which local authorities will be able to make policies and spend money legally to improve their area. In this country, we normally operate under an unwritten constitution that tells us what we cannot do. These provisions tell councils what they can do; under this definition, they can promote the well-being of their area, which is a prerequisite for sustainability.
The amendment has to be viewed in conjunction with amendments Nos. 23 and 24, which will provide us with a new version of clause 1 if the Committee agrees to them. I hope that it will.
I am grateful for the remarks that the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood made about the first meeting; “buying time” is a more accurate description of what happened. Let me reassure the Committee of the Government’s intention to move forward on this. We will support an amended Bill; we have collective agreement to that policy. However, I should give notice that, having sought the advice of parliamentary counsel in light of policy instructions on the matter, we will need to take heed of that advice. I want to be frank with the Committee, and I do not want to be unfairly criticised if I come back with amendments that improve the Bill but do not negate the policy intentions. I do not want to be fairly criticised either, but although it would be unpleasant to be criticised unfairly, one has to live with fair criticism.
We intend to support a sustainable communities Bill. As has been said, we have to start with a definition, and the one that has been provided gives us the best way forward, so I support the amendment.
In accordance with what I have just said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Thank you, Mr. Bercow, for making it clear that we are making such good progress. These are simple amendments, and their effect would be that the wording of the clause made more sense.
Amendment No. 23 is a technical amendment. It takes account of the fact that the term “principal councils” includes local authorities, so the superfluous words should be removed. Amendment No. 24 is designed to deal with a drafting error. It allows us to leave out the guidance to principal councils on promoting sustainable communities, but makes it clear that that is their responsibility. On that basis, I hope that the Committee will agree to the amendments so that we can make progress towards producing a new version of clause 1 that is worded as we want it to be.
Not only do I support the hon. Gentleman’s amendments; I cannot understand why subsection (4) was there in the first place. It is clearly a massive improvement to remove the requirement for that wholly unnecessary guidance, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for having proposed that we do so.
We support the amendments. My understanding is that amendment No. 24 empowers local authorities to use their own terms of reference to promote the sustainability of their communities by taking power away from the Secretary of State and making it clear that the responsibility lies with them. On that basis, we are happy to support it.