Schedule 9

Localism Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 17th February 2011.

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Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark Minister of State (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Decentralisation and Cities) (also in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) 2:45 pm, 17th February 2011

I beg to move amendment 158, in schedule 9, page 288, line 34, at end insert

‘to whom a proposal for the making of a neighbourhood development order has been made’.

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments 159 to 163.

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark Minister of State (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Decentralisation and Cities) (also in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills)

I will speak briefly to this set of technical amendments, but to provide an overture to what we anticipate will be a long debate—no doubt to the further displeasure of my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire—and to speak in advance, rather than saving my contribution to be a surprise at the end, at the risk of provoking once again the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich, I intend to be constructive in my approach.

Our discussions in recent days have shown that the idea that communities should be able to have greater control and influence on their locality is common ground between us. I think that the hon. Gentleman the Member for Birmingham, Erdington confirmed that the Opposition favour the principle of neighbourhood planning.

The question that arises is how to do it. That is what I suspect the debate will be about: whether we have precisely the right way, or whether there are suggestions as to our approach. If we are addressing the best way of engaging in neighbourhood planning, the question that arises first is what is the definition of neighbourhoods? The amendments that I am speaking to address this in particular. It is pretty easy where there are existing democratic structures such as parish councils and town councils—everyone knows that. So the first question is should areas that do not have those democratic  arrangements be able to participate? Our view is that they should, and we have suggested a number of means by which they can do that.

Photo of Henry Smith Henry Smith Conservative, Crawley

I should like to extend that questioning. A large part of my constituency consists of London Gatwick airport. Could that facility be considered a neighbourhood?

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark Minister of State (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Decentralisation and Cities) (also in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) 3:00 pm, 17th February 2011

We will come on to debate these points, but I want to frame the debate. What I am saying is that, if there are areas that are not covered by existing democratic organisations, there is a question before the Committee, on which I intend to take constructive views, as to what is the best set of arrangements we can put in place for that. Some suggestions will no doubt be made by hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley himself.

The first question is what arrangements should be made where there are no existing arrangements in place? The second relates to comments made by the hon. Member for Lewisham East. There are local authorities which are very progressive and very keen on devolving power to their communities and neighbourhoods—those do not present a difficulty—but, just as over community rights, there are some councils that might be inclined, now or in future, to try to frustrate the opportunity that we envisage for communities to define themselves. So a second theme of the debate—again, I want to take a constructive approach to this—is how can we safeguard the rights of those communities who are being frustrated by an authority that is not in the mainstream, not in the swim of the localist reforms that we have in mind? There are arrangements around that.

I ask members to bear these in mind as the key questions: what are the arrangements where no democratic bodies exist; and how can we make sure that we have adequate, but not onerous, protections for communities against those councils—I hope that they will be few—that may seek to thwart or subvert their entitlement? I said that I have been impressed by the spirit in which the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington has approached these issues. The duty to co-operate was a good example of that. There are clearly improvements that can be made. I am open to such suggestions and I hope that it will enable members’ contributions to know that they have a receptive audience and we can proceed on those lines.

Let me address the proposals in this set of amendments. They are technical, one might even say comical, in that the drafting of the Bill neglected to specify that for a neighbourhood to apply to a local council, it had to be the local council that covers that neighbourhood. On the face of it, it would be possible for a neighbourhood in Tunbridge Wells to apply to Birmingham city council to have its neighbourhood designated. With your permission, Mr Bayley, I move the technical amendments that correct that small anomaly.

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

As the Minister said, these are narrow, technical amendments. I know that colleagues want to discuss the wider issues in the schedule about neighbourhood development orders. I think it will make more sense to debate those general issues under the  third group of amendments, starting with amendment 206. Unless there are people who want to question the Government amendments or seek to oppose them, we should move to a vote.

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

I have a simple question. Is the amendment to proposed new section 61K(4), which says,

“for the purpose of correcting errors that they have made”,

simply for the correction of factual errors, rather than policy changes?

Amendments made: 158, in schedule 9, page 288, line 34, at end insert

‘to whom a proposal for the making of a neighbourhood development order has been made’.

Amendment 159, in schedule 9, page 288, line 35, after ‘order’ insert

‘to which the proposal relates’.—(Greg Clark.)

Photo of Jack Dromey Jack Dromey Shadow Minister (Housing)

I beg to move amendment 140,  in schedule 9, page 288, line 37, at end insert

‘those voting constitute at least 20 per cent. of those eligible to vote in that referendum’.

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 141, in schedule 9, page 297, line 30, after ‘order’, insert

‘and those voting constitute at least 20 per cent. of those eligible to vote in that referendum’.

Photo of Jack Dromey Jack Dromey Shadow Minister (Housing)

Let me say from the start that the Minister was right when he said that it is common ground that encouraging neighbourhoods to have greater ownership of their neighbourhoods and to develop neighbourhood plans is a thoroughly noble objective. He is also right to say that where there are no democratic arrangements in place—a parish council, for example—issues arise about what arrangement should be put in place by way of a neighbourhood forum to establish a neighbourhood plan. In discussing the amendments, we will address some real and legitimate concerns that the Government must allay, and I hope that they will accept some of our amendments.

I want to be relatively brief, because the amendments relate to wider concerns, which we will come to in amendments to the schedule, about the legitimacy of the process through which neighbourhood development orders and neighbourhood plans are made. The amendments place a threshold of 20% of those eligible to vote on referendums for approval of neighbourhood development orders and neighbourhood plans.

Before I move on to the reasons behind the amendments, I want to explain that, as I have said, we are in favour of neighbourhood planning in principle. Local decision making has clear and obvious benefits. The people who live in an area understand its problems. They have views on how things could be improved, and if their views become reality, they will have an incentive and thus a commitment to make them succeed. Therefore, they will—if we get it right—give their time, police the detail of agreements and do all that they can to make their areas pleasant places to live and work.

Any proposals that seek to empower local people should do so fairly, and should ensure that people with different levels of resources, knowledge and expertise are able to benefit equally. The principle is sound, but the question is whether all citizens will be able to avail themselves of the opportunities in the Bill. It is also crucial that we ensure that actions that arise from such proposals command a reasonable level of support from the communities concerned, particularly where plans have a material impact on the lives of citizens and where they live and work.

It is with that in mind that we have assessed the Government’s proposals on the processes to make neighbourhood plans and neighbourhood development orders. Regrettably, the proposals, as they stand, have fallen short. The Government’s proposals are wholly inadequate and run the risk of being utterly undemocratic in how they work in practice. Under the proposals, bizarrely, it is possible for only three people from a community to be involved in the creation of a neighbourhood plan. As I have described, that could be three men or three women and a dog in the Dog and Duck. Only three people have to be members of a neighbourhood forum, and only one of those members would be required to vote through the plan in a referendum. As the legislation stands, it runs the risk of producing an outcome that is both undemocratic and farcical. The plans have the potential to affect the lives of thousands of people living in a community. We therefore believe that it is only right that such actions should be backed by at least a significant minority of that community.

The imperative for such a requirement increases when one considers, if our later amendments are not successful, that only three people could introduce such plans to make development orders and neighbourhood plans. The purpose of proposing a threshold for the referendums is to ensure that, crucially, there is a degree of legitimacy and acceptance of the outcome of the exercise. We need to have a debate on the level at which to pitch the threshold. For both a referendum on a neighbourhood development order and a neighbourhood plan, we propose that they are declared valid only if voted for by at least 20% of those entitled to vote in that referendum. We strongly believe that that is a reasonable requirement and will guard against a very small minority in a community being able to impose their will on others, including on those who do not vote. As I have made clear, we want neighbourhood plans to have integrity and support from the community, and we want them to be legitimate. Unless we address the issue of how we ensure that they truly represent communities, there is a risk of the noble concept of the neighbourhood plan being called into disrepute in some areas. In conclusion, we hope that the Government take on board our concerns regarding the legitimacy of the proposals, and either accept our amendment or commit to return to this House at a later stage with their own proposals.

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark Minister of State (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Decentralisation and Cities) (also in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills)

Parliament has debated at some length the question of thresholds in referendums in recent days and weeks, both in the House and in the other place. It has come to a view, on a very important question that will be before us in May, that it would be inappropriate to have a threshold in place. That is consistent with the practice, as the hon. Gentleman will know, for various  types of referendums we have had in this country. I think that the last time a threshold was set was for the 1979 referendum on devolution for Scotland. It is a major constitutional principle, as evidenced in discussions this week on whether to set in place thresholds for referendums. To do so in this case would be inconsistent with the settled view of the House, which has considered the matter in many different circumstances, even as recently as late last night. It is worth pointing out that the requirement to have a referendum is in itself a very strong safeguard. Some people outside the House have questioned whether it is essential, and whether we should not just make sure that parish councils, town councils or neighbourhood forums are open enough, and consider whether either a majority of the council or a single meeting should be sufficient.

We have taken to heart the issues that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington raised about ensuring that literally everyone in the community has the opportunity to state their views on these matters. That is why we have included the provision for a referendum, which is contrary to what happens elsewhere in planning policy. For example, the adoption of a local plan does not require a resolution of the whole electorate; it just requires a resolution of the council. The fact that we are debating the issue at all is testament to the attention we give it.

Photo of Heidi Alexander Heidi Alexander Labour, Lewisham East 3:15 pm, 17th February 2011

Does the Minister really think it is right that, for example, 2% of the population in an area can vote on a neighbourhood plan and perhaps then 50% of that 2%—1%—actually sets out what the future shape of that area should be? Does he not have any concerns about the quality of information that would be available for people to base their decisions on or about the ability of people to give their time to make balanced decisions on what is before them? Certainly, given my own experience, I have significant concerns about all the things I have just mentioned.

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark Minister of State (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Decentralisation and Cities) (also in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills)

The hon. Lady raises a classic objection to ballots or referendums without either a compulsion to vote—as is the case in Australia—or a threshold. The same argument applies to electing Members of Parliament. In some constituencies, there is little more than a majority—and, in some cases, less than that— in support of the winning candidate, as no doubt the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove will argue very strongly in the referendum campaign to come.

It is a consistent principle that we give people the opportunity—the right—to vote, but we do not compel them to do so. Crucially, we do not wish to encourage a perverse consequence of having a threshold: abstention campaigns that subvert the process. One of the classic objections to setting thresholds in parliamentary elections, local authority elections or referendums is that they provide the opportunity and, indeed, the incentive for opponents of a particular cause not to argue their case or encourage people to participate in the democratic process and debate. Instead, opponents encourage people to stay away, so that they can subvert the views of those who have the commitment to vote by staying at home. The threshold then falls below the required level. This is a much debated policy. Time and again, the House has  come to the view that we should not provide a get-out for people who oppose a measure by giving them the opportunity to encourage people to stay at home. We should not have such a policy in place.

Photo of Jack Dromey Jack Dromey Shadow Minister (Housing)

“Perverse” is absolutely the right word. Would it not be utterly perverse for a handful of people to be able to take fundamental decisions affecting the health and well-being of their local community? Why do we have the figure of three? Why have a figure so absurdly low that it is likely to lead to perverse outcomes in some communities?

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark Minister of State (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Decentralisation and Cities) (also in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills)

The hon. Gentleman is confusing two different clauses. That figure refers to the composition of neighbourhood forums, not to the referendums that are available there. In reflecting on these matters, we should follow our consistent practice. Just last year, a Select Committee of the House of Lords held an inquiry into the role of referendums, and it recommended that there should be a general presumption against the use of voter turnout thresholds because of the evidence presented to it regarding the ability of abstaining voters to defeat proposals. The matter has been aired fully and properly.

Jack Dromey rose—

Photo of Jack Dromey Jack Dromey Shadow Minister (Housing)

No, but they are, with the greatest respect to the Minister, inextricably interlinked. Why three? If the Minister would like to address that question later, I am comfortable with that, but what is the basis for what the Government are proposing?

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark Minister of State (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Decentralisation and Cities) (also in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills)

I will, of course, address it, but I am sure that you will instruct me to do so, Mr Bayley, when we are debating the appropriate clause.

Photo of Heidi Alexander Heidi Alexander Labour, Lewisham East

I think that my question comes at the relevant point. I would like to return to the comparison that the Minister made in response to my earlier intervention. He discussed the fact that we do not set a threshold for turnout at a general election. The big difference, however, is that people grow up in this country thinking that it is their civic duty to vote, and I would like more people to think that. It is a big thing to decide who will be the Prime Minister of this country. The nature of people’s environment is also a big thing. We have already discussed how difficult it is to engage people when drawing up policies and visions for an area. Yes, people want to be involved in a particular planning application when they say, “No, we don’t want it,” but my concern—I wonder whether the Minister sees this at all—is that it is going to be very difficult to engage people and persuade them to give up their time to make sure that we have a 75% turnout, which is what I would love to see in referendums on local development plans.

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark Minister of State (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Decentralisation and Cities) (also in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills)

I agree with the hon. Lady—I would like to see that level of turnout. The whole thrust of our reforms is to give people a reason to participate in their local community. The fact that decisions have been  made on a local plan by remote, specialist committees in the town hall has put people off over the years, and I hope that giving people the opportunity to shape the future of their neighbourhood will encourage them to participate. I hope that they will be encouraged by voices in their community to take an interest in matters. I hope that neighbourhood plans will be of great importance, but we should consider some other important areas for which we, or others, do not set thresholds for participation. For example, one could hardly think of a role of greater importance for the world than that of the President of the United States. There is no requirement for, or compulsion on, people to vote, or for the election to be declared null and void if a certain threshold is not reached. Important though neighbourhood plans are, giving people the opportunity to vote, rather than compelling them to do so or requiring certain thresholds, is the right approach.

Several hon. Members rose—

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark Minister of State (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Decentralisation and Cities) (also in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills)

I shall give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central, and then to the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South. I think that all the views available will have then been expressed.

Photo of Gavin Barwell Gavin Barwell Conservative, Croydon Central

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the previous Government allowed referendums to introduce new governance arrangements for local authorities without setting any turnout threshold whatsoever?

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark Minister of State (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Decentralisation and Cities) (also in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills)

My hon. Friend is right. We have discussed the Mayor of London, and the hon. Member for Lewisham East is a former deputy mayor of Lewisham. I do not suppose that she declined to participate in that election on the basis that the original referendum was not legitimate because a majority of people did not vote. Did a majority of people vote to create the post of mayor of Lewisham?

Photo of Heidi Alexander Heidi Alexander Labour, Lewisham East

I did not know that this was how it worked, but I am more than happy to respond to the Minister. I did not actually live in Lewisham when the referendum took place. I do not believe that a majority of people took part in it. Nevertheless, I return to my earlier point. The Minister has invited me to respond, so I will take 20 seconds to make one other point. He might accuse me of a frivolous use of public money, but my experience of the planning system and developing neighbourhood-type plans in Lewisham was that the only way to get people other than the usual suspects into the room was to pay them to be part of a public consultation on developing a neighbourhood strategy in Deptford and New Cross. When we advertised on public forums, we always saw exactly the same, small number of people. That goes to the heart of the problem, and it is why we are suggesting a threshold on the number of people who take part in referendums.

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

That was a long intervention, but it was an intervention, believe it or not.

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark Minister of State (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Decentralisation and Cities) (also in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills)

It has become quite a long debate on a pretty straightforward matter. All that I would say, gently, to the hon. Member for Lewisham East is that I regard, as I am sure she does, the mayoralty of Lewisham as a pretty important matter for the people  of Lewisham. Although she did not live in Lewisham at the time of the referendum, if she considered it such a constitutional outrage that this post was created without a majority of the people of Lewisham voting for it, I dare say she would have declined to serve in that capacity. We have a tradition of not having referendums. The right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich is uncharacteristically silent on the matter. No doubt because on a previous occasion in the House, he was the Minister responsible for the Greater London Authority Act 1999, which had no threshold requirement for participation. There is precedent.

This is not a party issue, although the amendment was tabled by the Opposition. For better or worse, the country has taken a view that to impose threshold requirements when people are invited to go to the ballot box is not the right way to proceed.

Barbara Keeley rose—

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

I am astonished, because we were all kept here last night until 12.20 am, while the Government pushed through a Bill that would bring about a referendum on the voting system, the whole purpose of which is to get to 50% plus one. The Government believe that voting in parliamentary elections should be on the basis that the elected candidate reaches 50% plus one.

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark Minister of State (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Decentralisation and Cities) (also in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills)

I am astonished. The reason we were here last night was to insist that we do not introduce a threshold. The point of our late nights and their Lordships having—

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

Order. I remind the Minister that we are debating today’s business, not yesterday’s, about thresholds relating to local planning.

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark Minister of State (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Decentralisation and Cities) (also in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills)

We are, but I would hate to think that their Lordships had their sleepovers in vain, rather than asserting the important principle that was reasserted last night that we do not have thresholds in referendums. That has been the consistent practice of the House and the country over the years. I suggest that the Committee does not accept the amendment.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Labour, Greenwich and Woolwich

The Minister implied that all the issues had been discussed, but I think he has omitted one consideration. I should like to consider the whole issue of thresholds and referendums seriously and identify the one important issue that he has not addressed: the difference between a compulsory referendum and an advisory referendum.

When I introduced the Greater London authority legislation, I made provision for a referendum and there was no threshold. That and the last Government’s other devolution arrangements for Scotland and Wales were all based on advisory referendums. The Government said that they would not act unless there were a yes vote, but they were not bound to act if, for example, the outcome of the referendums had been derisory. [Interruption.] Some hon. Members think that that is  ridiculous, but it is constitutionally correct. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst knows that. We said that before legislating we would first sound out the people of the areas affected and proceed with legislation only if there were a yes vote.

Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con) rose—

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Labour, Greenwich and Woolwich

If the hon. Gentleman waits for a moment, he may find that the point that he wants to make will be made. I understand that this is an important but subtle issue. If a clear body of opinion was expressed in a referendum, it is very unlikely that the Government would not act on it. However, at least there was the discretion that, if the outcome of the referendum had either been derisorily small or so close and the number of people voting so low as to undermine the viability, the Government would have had the opportunity to say, “On reflection, having sounded people in the area, we have decided not to proceed.”

Photo of Alun Cairns Alun Cairns Conservative, Vale of Glamorgan

The right hon. Gentleman is talking semantics, particularly on the point about the Welsh Assembly referendum. There would have been an outcry in Wales if the Government had not accepted the conclusion of that referendum. He blows a hole in his argument in that the majority was a fraction—less than 1%—on a very poor turnout, the exact opposite of the point that he is making.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Labour, Greenwich and Woolwich 3:30 pm, 17th February 2011

I entirely accept the hon. Gentleman’s point. However, if the turnout had been 5%, the Government could have said, “This was a very finely balanced outcome, on a derisorily small turnout, and we won’t proceed.” I accept that the feeling in Wales at the time was in favour of devolution. Therefore, even though the balance was pretty fine, the Government felt that they were right to proceed, although not doing so still remained an option. That arrangement was sensible, because it avoided what happened in Scotland in 1979, which was referred to by the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells. A threshold was set in advance and, although there was a clear vote in favour of devolution in Scotland, the then Government could not proceed, because the threshold had not been met.

My hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham East and for Birmingham, Erdington rightly highlighted the point that, if there is a derisorily small turnout in a referendum for a neighbourhood plan—that could happen for precisely the reasons identified by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham—the council will have to proceed, because such a referendum will be mandatory under the Bill. It will not have an option. It cannot say, “We have listened to the referendum. People have had an opportunity, and we have assessed the vote. Yes, it was a yes vote, but only three people actually voted—two in favour and one against—which represents only 2% or 1% of the neighbourhood. Therefore, we do not think it is right to proceed, given all the costs, time and commitments involved.” The Government expect costs of £15,000, £17,000 or £20,000 to develop a neighbourhood plan. The council has to do it, despite a derisory outcome.

Again, we have the problem of the Government’s very prescriptive approach to localism. If they leave the  local authority discretion and say that it must have regard to the outcome of the referendum, that would be an entirely reasonable formulation. In the scenario that I have depicted, with a derisorily small turnout and a wafer-thin majority, the local authority would have decided that it was not sensible to proceed, given the costs and effort required.

The Government are not being localist; they are being prescriptive. Proposed new section 61E(4) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 states:

“A local planning authority…must make a neighbourhood development order if more than half of those voting in a referendum under that Schedule have voted in favour of the order”.

There is no discretion for the local authority, and no scope for it to apply common sense in extreme circumstances. That will not happen all the time, but the Government should think more about it. In some mayoral referendums, we have seen pretty low turnouts, and there might be derisorily small turnouts in those on neighbourhood plans. What do Government Members think about what the TaxPayers Alliance and others would say if a local authority was committed to spend £20,000 in developing a neighbourhood plan on the flimsy basis of three people voting—two in favour and one against? That would clearly be nonsense.

I urge the Government to listen to my hon. Friends and to think again. The Minister could think again—he has shown that he is willing to do so, and perhaps he will on my point—and change proposed new subsection (4), so that the local authority must have regard to the outcome of the referendum but is not bound to implement a neighbourhood plan if the yes vote is derisorily small. Alternatively, he could accept the concept of a threshold. I prefer the former because that is localist; it gives the local authority some discretion and protects against absurd situations. It is genuinely a common-sense argument. I ask the Minister to think again.

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark Minister of State (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Decentralisation and Cities) (also in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills)

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire will tell me, “I told you so.” I provoked the right hon. Gentleman to respond, and my hon. Friend is slapping his forehead in despair. The right hon. Gentleman constantly amazes us. The chutzpah that he brings to the proceedings knows no bounds. He can make a passionate defence of the practice of previous Governments and can make an equally passionate defence of the opposite of the practice of previous Governments. During the whole period when he was a Government Member, we did not have a threshold on a single referendum. We had a referendum on Scotland, on Wales and on the north-east regional assembly, which I think was his idea. We had a Mayor, new arrangements London and different mayoral referendums everywhere. At no point was there a suggestion of a threshold. I will check the debates on such matters to see whether he made it clear to the electorate that, if there were a low turnout, the Government were minded to disregard the result.

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark Minister of State (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Decentralisation and Cities) (also in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills)

I am interested to hear that. I do not remember it being a prominent part of the campaign at the time. We are consistent with the practice of both parties. It is worth reflecting that any neighbourhood development plan put to a referendum must be certified by the local authority as being sound and unable to  contain any of the perverse elements that Opposition Members worry about. That is one of our preconditions. To describe giving the opportunity for neighbourhoods to adopt a neighbourhood plan on the basis of a referendum as in some way anti-localist makes me think that we are with Alice in Wonderland, rather than in Committee scrutinising the Bill.

Photo of Brandon Lewis Brandon Lewis Conservative, Great Yarmouth

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. On the requirement for the referendum to be sound, would that include protecting people against the rather worrying thing that we have heard from Lewisham about paying people to take part?

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark Minister of State (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Decentralisation and Cities) (also in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills)

That is a novel approach that I have never heard of; in parliamentary terms, it is a criminal offence. I enjoy a period during election campaigns of being advised by my agent that I am not allowed to buy anyone a drink in my constituency. I am grateful for the sanctuary that that gives me. I am surprised to hear of such a thing, but I think that the hon. Member for Lewisham East is about to correct matters.

Photo of Heidi Alexander Heidi Alexander Labour, Lewisham East

The hon. Member for Great Yarmouth must have completely misheard what I said. I was explaining the process of drawing up a local master plan for part of the borough of Lewisham. To make sure that a wide cross-section of people took part in the consultation events that led to the plan being developed, we paid individuals a small sum to participate to get as wide a cross-section as possible. I know of no circumstances in which Lewisham has ever paid anyone to participate in a form of referendum or vote on anything. I hope that the Minister accepts that that was what I was referring to.

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

That is not a point of order for the Chair.

Photo of Jack Dromey Jack Dromey Shadow Minister (Housing)

Looking around, I think that 12 will do us.

Without pre-empting a debate that we are due to have shortly, we must bear in mind the admirable concept of neighbourhoods developing neighbourhood plans that really make a difference to their neighbourhoods, with local people involved in shaping their future. The Minister runs the risk of bringing into utter disrepute that concept by the extraordinary combination of having no threshold, while three men or three women in the Dog and Duck have the capacity to initiate the process. Therefore, we will press the amendment to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 15.

Division number 25 Decision Time — Schedule 9

Aye: 7 MPs

No: 15 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Photo of David Ward David Ward Liberal Democrat, Bradford East

I beg to move amendment 206, in schedule 9, page 290, line 9, leave out from ‘if’ to end of line 10 and insert—

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment 207, in schedule 9, page 290, leave out lines 14 to 27 and insert—

Amendment 137, in schedule 9, page 290, line 22, after ‘open’, insert ‘only’.

Amendment 138, in schedule 9, page 290, line 25, leave out ‘3’ and insert ‘20’.

Amendment 139, in schedule 9, page 290, line 26, at end insert—

Amendment 208, in schedule 9, page 290, leave out lines 28 to 30.

Amendment 193, in schedule 9, page 290, line 39, at end insert—

Amendment 191, in schedule 9, page 290, line 41, leave out ‘not’.

Amendment 192, in schedule 9, page 290, line 41, at end insert—

‘if the local planning authority are satisfied that the neighbourhood forum is no longer fit for purpose after examining the forum’s procedures and governance arrangements’.

Amendment 209, in schedule 9, page 290, leave out line 41 and insert—

Amendment 142, in schedule 9, page 296, line 38, at end insert—

It may be helpful to the Committee if I say that I will first call Mr Ward to speak to his amendment, and then I will call the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson. In effect, we should have a stand part debate on the issues in the clause. This group of amendments includes amendment 130, which is about whether the Dog and Duck is big enough or whether larger venues would be required.

Photo of David Ward David Ward Liberal Democrat, Bradford East

It is the Dog and Gun in my constituency. I was willing to vote as I did in the last Division, because although I dislike referendums, I dislike thresholds even more. I am struggling on this provision, however, and I hope that the Minister will listen carefully to what I have to say.

I mentioned the story about the art gallery and the eyes that seemed to be looking at each person from a different viewpoint, and this measure is a classic example. Many members of the Committee will say that they do not see the problem. They are aware of easily defined local communities that are already capable of being described as a community, or possibly as a parish or “parishable.” They are distinct communities that would relish the opportunity to develop a plan. That is not my experience of many of the communities that I know.

Believe it or not, although the Bradford district contains about 600,000 people, two-thirds of it is rural. The third that is not rural is made up of former council estates, and they are distinct communities. People know when they are on an estate and when they are not, and everybody understands that. The rest of the area is made up of lots of so-called urban villages. They have grown and grown, in many cases through overdevelopment. Some 50, 60 or 70 years ago, they were distinct communities in their own right, divided by fields, but they are not now. Where one stops and the other begins is in the Dog and Gun, and because the details are difficult to determine, it is easy to get into a fight. Beyond that, further difficulties relate to boundaries, which I will come to soon.

There is nothing wrong with the principle of having much greater community involvement in planning, and I welcome it. The question is whether the new neighbourhood planning framework is not only fair, but workable in many communities. My principle concern about delivery relates to the neighbourhood forums for non-parished areas. Unlike parish councils, neighbourhood forums are seemingly accountable to nobody, and there is no obligation for members to disclose financial interests. It is not long ago that we discussed the importance of requiring local councils to have registers of interests for members, but such bodies and organisations do not have to declare any financial interest in a plan’s outcome. As a result, they will not and cannot command the necessary community legitimacy—and I think legitimacy is the right word. Do they legitimately represent their communities on plans that are drawn up?

There may be ways of making neighbourhood forums marginally accountable. I believe, however, that they can be successfully underpinned only by some parish-style accountability, with a clear electoral mandate. There are difficulties to do with boundaries, and in a place such as Bradford, there are no obvious parish boundaries to work from. Believe me, it causes difficulties. As well as social difficulties, it can be ethnically divisive. In an extremely segregated area such as Bradford, one can easily imagine a neighbourhood forum seeking to omit a particular street or estate from a neighbourhood area, for the purpose of excluding particular groups from the process. That is the reality of many areas. In my constituency, there are places where the whole street is from one particular European country, while the next street is from another. There are two or three streets together that are of one particular Baradari, and others that are of a completely different one. I do not know how one legitimately forms a cohesive plan for neighbourhoods in such areas.

Amendment 206 seeks to give communities the opportunity to re-establish parish or community councils in urban areas before neighbourhood forums are formed—and that is possible. The newest parish council in Bradford is in an area that, despite being called a parish council, is probably 80% Muslim. A former regeneration company decided to use the vehicle of a parish council as a successor body at the end of its life. It is possible for any community to have an elected body of a parish council nature. Parishing overcomes nearly all the problems of accountability and representation, and the boundary issues for neighbourhood planning in urban areas. I would have thought that it would also fit in very well with the Government’s localist agenda, giving people an opportunity to engage democratically at a much lower level, empowering communities to make their own decisions about the issues that matter in their area.

A method of doing that, in the form of a community governance review, exists in legislation; it is set out in the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007. The reviews are carried out by local authorities, which can make recommendations to set up a new parish or community council. My amendment would make the review mandatory before a new neighbourhood forum is set up, to establish whether people want to set up a new parish council. That route seems sensible, and I would think that I would be supported by those already involved with parish councils. I guess the argument against it is that it probably slows down a process.

When anybody was rushing her, my grandmother used to say, “He must have a bus to catch.” The Government are acting as though they have a bus to catch. We have time for this; if we go forward with the proposals for parish areas, we have time to parish others, or at least to include local, accountable and democratically elected bodies that take on the role of the neighbourhood forums. That would be an extension of democracy to a lower level, which is in line with the localism agenda.

Most of the Bill is very business-light. I am surprised, as it was initiated by the Government side, which includes so many Conservative Members. There is a missed opportunity in the Bill; local businesses are given no legal right to be involved in the neighbourhood planning process. That issue is covered by one of the amendments. Businesses are an integral part of many communities. It is right that they should have a role in shaping commercial development in an area. Amendment 207 addresses that by allowing business rate payers registered in the neighbourhood area to form part of the neighbourhood forum. The hon. Member for Crawley asked about the Gatwick area. In my view, an industrial estate or business park composed entirely of ratepayers should have the same rights to initiate a neighbourhood development plan. No doubt the Minister will refer to that.

Withdrawing a designation on the basis of there being no criteria makes sense when we have not set any clear criteria, but in proposed new section 61F(5), there are some criteria. They are not strict enough for my liking, but criteria are set for what a local planning area should be like. So why can we not withdraw designation if it stops being like that? There is an illogical aspect to the Bill, in that having decided that something can be designated because of certain criteria, we cannot later say that it should not be designated if it stops being like that. I would like the Minister to address that point in particular, but my main concern is the nature of the bodies, their lack of accountability, the unworkability of creating the forums, and their legitimacy in many communities that I am familiar with.

Photo of Jack Dromey Jack Dromey Shadow Minister (Housing) 3:45 pm, 17th February 2011

I shall speak to amendments 137 to 139, 142 and 191 to 193. Once again, it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bradford East, who has identified some serious issues, which I hope will be sensibly addressed during our debate. I stress once again that unless Ministers listen to the concerns expressed, they run the risk of establishing a new framework, which will quickly fall into disrepute. The issues of representativeness, integrity and legitimacy are absolutely key, and we hope that we will be able sensibly to address them during the debate.

As I said in an earlier debate, we are returning to a common theme in this part of the Bill, which is the democratic legitimacy of the process by which neighbourhood plans and neighbourhood development orders are made. I should like once again to express the Opposition’s support for the principle of neighbourhood planning. Anything that sensibly, properly and fairly increases local participation in the shaping of communities is a thoroughly good thing. We have real concerns, however, about the representative nature and democratic legitimacy of the framework that the Government have presented in the Bill.

We also have real concerns about the social and economic ramifications of the proposals. As the hon. Member for Bradford East has clearly recognised in his  amendment, there are real dangers that the proposals will create a divide. The hon. Gentleman spoke with passion about his community; I, too, represent a community where some of the concerns that he expressed would be felt very strongly. Along with many of the organisations that have given evidence, and that we have met, we believe that the Government are creating a two-tier planning system at the local level. It will be a two-tier system democratically, economically and socially. We do not believe that our amendments will necessarily solve all the problems that have been identified, but they will improve the proposals. We hope that at the end of our debate the Government will go away and rethink the proposals in their entirety, so that we can return to a sensible outcome that we can all support.

Amendments 137 to 139 seek to improve the democratic legitimacy of the Government’s proposed neighbourhood forums. We want to increase the number of members required to constitute a neighbourhood forum from three to 20, and we want a requirement for one of them to be an elected councillor.

Amendment 142 seeks to apply the Equality Act 2010 to neighbourhood forums, and amendments 191 to 193 seek to ensure that local authorities can rule on the appropriateness of a local area for neighbourhood forums and the forums themselves, not least for the reasons that the hon. Member for Bradford East indicated. It cannot have escaped the Government’s notice that their proposals will create a significantly different system in different  parts of the country. Intrinsically, there is no problem with the creation of different systems—of there being a certain flexibility—provided that they pass certain tests. Do the proposals create systems that are genuinely representative; that are transparent and open; that are accountable to the community in which they are based, financially accountable; and that allow equal access, regardless of background, geography and resources, financial or otherwise?

On all counts, the proposals set out in the Bill do not meet those tests. It is clear to us, having analysed the proposals and having heard and read evidence from a whole range of organisations, that the proposals are fundamentally flawed and unfair. They will create a two-tier system in more ways than one.

I am looking in the direction of the Whips to see what they have concluded as a result of their discussions, and any moment now—

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Assistant Whip (HM Treasury)

When you sit down, we can adjourn.

Photo of Jack Dromey Jack Dromey Shadow Minister (Housing)

I have great pleasure in sitting down.

Ordered, That the debate be now adjourned.—(Bill Wiggin.)

Adjourned till Tuesday 1 March at half-past Ten o’clock.