Clause 73

Localism Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:30 pm on 10th February 2011.

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Photo of Alison Seabeck Alison Seabeck Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) 3:30 pm, 10th February 2011

I beg to move amendment 106, in clause 73, page 53, line 10, leave out sub-paragraph (iii) and insert—

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment 107, in clause 73, page 53, line 11, at end insert—

Amendment 108, in clause 73, page 53, line 15, leave out paragraph (b).

Photo of Alison Seabeck Alison Seabeck Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

Amendment 106 would expand the groups that can make community nomination beyond the current prescriptive and somewhat exclusive list, which is wholly dependent on regulations—again, as yet unseen—that are made by the Secretary of State. As the Bill is drafted, only two specified groups can make community nominations: parish councils in England and community councils in Wales. We welcome the Government’s decision to allow them to list land that they want protected for the benefit of the community, but we are surprised that the third category that will be allowed to have a say will be

“a person specified, or of a description specified, in regulations made by the appropriate authority.”

Once again, we have the centralising power of the Secretary of State. Here, not only do his fingers reach into the pies of local government, but he has power over the specification of individual members of communities. Do the Government think that this is possibly a step too far for the Secretary of State?

Amendments 106, 107 and 108 are designed to take some of the burden off the Secretary of State; his desk must be groaning under the weight of all these regulations, and we are only one third of the way through the Bill. Amendment 106 would, therefore, remove the Secretary of State’s powers to specify or describe individuals who would have the right, and would open the door to communities to allow them the right to take up the powers described in this chapter.

Safeguards remain, because the Secretary of State—he still has some role in all this—should still be able to prevent an individual or a community group from participating in the scheme if he felt that was appropriate. That would allow him to take action if extremist groups, which none of us would welcome, found that they could use the legislation to serve their own ends at the expense of community cohesion. We feel, however, that it is important to get the balance right in the clause. It must be as inclusive as possible if we are to give the proposals any chance of success.

As it is, limiting to parish councils and their Welsh equivalents the ability to nominate land for inclusion on the list of land of community value would mean patchy coverage at best. I have serious doubts about the policy’s equalities impact. It is not clear, given the Minister of State’s answers in the evidence sessions, what the coverage of neighbourhood forums—one of the groupings that I suspect will appear in the regulations—will be. He put his hands up and said that he does not do targets and could not tell us how many there are going to be. There are some estimates that suggest that coverage could be as low as 20% in 10 years’ time; others suggest that it might be 60%, but that would still leave large tranches of the country with very little coverage from any of those groups. Quite how they fit into the process is not entirely clear.

Amendment 107 supplements amendment 106 by providing a definition of “community organisation”. It would define a community group as one that acts for the benefit of the community, is not for profit and is based in the community’s area.

Since I assembled my speaking notes, the Waterways Project has sent a note to the Committee. The note flagged up, I think unintentionally, a related issue by stating that it should be possible for a consortium of local groups to come forward to manage an asset—rivers and canals can cover large areas—which touches on the point raised earlier by my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich. We need to look at how to deal with the crossing of borders, because consortia might come forward in that way.

The second proposed new subsection would ensure that a not-for-profit group that turns a financial surplus is not excluded, so long as the surplus is reinvested in community activities. That point was raised earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South.

I draw the Ministers’ attention back to the comments thoughtfully made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East on the importance of assisting the participation of all sorts of community groups and ensuring that these clauses are as inclusive as possible. We should ensure that people who perhaps normally feel that they do not have a voice and are not able to get involved in the listing process are enabled to do so.

Amendment 108 removes the right of local authorities to list land as being of community value. Although amendments 106 and 107 clearly come as a pair, amendment 108 deals with a separate issue that deserves discussion. Again, it is a probing amendment, and I appreciate that the thought behind it might not be immediately clear. We are conversant in and supportive of aiming to protect community land and assets for community use, but we want to debate the mechanisms through which land may be acquired by the state through compulsory purchase orders where it is essential for the provision of services or infrastructure.

There appears to be potential for a conflict of interest, if councils were able to use the list of land of community value to skew negotiations on the purchase of land or to manipulate the price by removing land from the open market. I would welcome the Minister’s thoughts on that. Has he considered whether it is a potential problem?

There is a risk that landowners might feel that they are being treated unfairly if councils seek to combine the list of land of community value with subsequent compulsory purchase orders. What advice has the Minister taken on the impact that being placed on the list would have on the value of land and property? That point was raised by the hon. Member for Bradford East.

We do not want these powers to get a bad name, and we do not want to see the waters muddied. We very much want these powers to be a means of empowering local communities. If a community feels that land is of value, it should be listed, and if the council feels that the land is needed for the effective provision of local services or for the delivery of infrastructure, it should quite properly use its existing legal powers, which are well understood by the property sector. We think that this element could be misused, so we wish to amend the clause to ensure that the powers within the chapter are conferred solely on the local community, leaving local authorities free to use their existing powers to pursue similar aims. I will welcome the Minister’s views about the amendment.

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Communities and Local Government 3:45 pm, 10th February 2011

In view of the example that the hon. Lady gave, I should perhaps declare that I am a vice president of the Macclesfield Canal Society, which would be the sort of body she described. We are certainly sympathetic to the principle behind amendment 106, which proposes local connections. We are minded to restrict the nomination process to groups or individuals with a local connection, and we would intend to do this following consultation—I come back to the consultation document—in subsequent secondary legislation. That consultation will allow us to seek views more broadly. I do not discount the views expressed by the hon. Lady at all. We should take then into account, but I do not think that it is appropriate to anticipate the outcome of the consultation.

An important aspect of the community right to buy is the fact that it empowers local groups and individuals to save their own community assets, so all such groups must have that. I fear that the hon. Lady’s valiant attempt to define what local groups are will not be sufficient, given the huge range and diversity of groups. I think that she acknowledges that, but she makes an important point that we certainly have in mind, and our debate reinforces the importance of it.

On amendment 108, the hon. Lady asked whether the local authority should be able to list assets on its own initiative. She has already accepted that it is valuable that town and parish councils should be able to nominate, so I put it to her that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If, in her view, parish and town councils are appropriate bodies, it is a little hard to see why a principal council would be less able to use fair judgment and avoid conflicts of interest.

We think it is important that councillors, who are likely to be the people who initiate or generate requests through their councils, should be able to act. We also think that it is right that councils themselves should take a strategic view. Perhaps this is more obvious in rural areas, but one could well imagine that a district council might take a view at a strategic level within its area that local assets should be listed for communities with certain characteristics. Excluding local authorities from that opportunity would restrict their role as place shapers and would mean that we would lose the benefit of their strategic knowledge.

The hon. Lady painted that part of my argument even more clearly when she said that once parishes, neighbourhood plans and forums were taken into account, bits of the country would still not be covered by those mechanisms. It would therefore seem absolutely appropriate for the principal council in such an area to have the capacity to nominate assets of community value.

I hope that the hon. Lady understands that I am sympathetic to the intentions expressed in her first two amendments, although she has been a little premature by putting them down on the page. Amendment 108 would be a mistake, however, and would cut across our intentions, which I believe the Opposition share.

Photo of Alison Seabeck Alison Seabeck Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

I thank the Minister for his response. I do not think that we would disagree with the general thrust of the clause but, as I pointed out, we have one or two concerns. I was interested by his comments about local connection and the need to try to define that at the  end of the consultation process, although it would have been enormously helpful if we could have done so before now. I have made the point that we need to understand what local connection is, and part of the reasoning behind the amendments was to try to tease out exactly what would work. I hope that the Minister will come forward with a clearer provision on Report, because we support the proposal and want it to be developed.

I still have a slight worry about these large tranches of the country where decisions will be taken at local authority level and community groups may not feel as empowered as they might, given the structure of the legislation. However, with that said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 73 ordered to stand part of the Bill.