Clause 54 - Repeal of duty to prepare sustainable community strategy

Deregulation Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 18th March 2014.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald The Solicitor-General

The clause repeals the statutory duty placed on local authorities to prepare a sustainable community strategy for their area. Councils should be trusted to produce strategies of this nature as a matter of course, and we believe that the existing duty represents an unnecessary statutory burden.

Removing the requirement to prepare a sustainable community strategy will reduce the burden of bureaucracy on local authorities, and give them the freedom and flexibility to take decisions which are right for their local area. I would like to reassure hon. Members that the repeal of this duty will not affect community involvement, because the Government have introduced streamlined statutory best value guidance. That guidance sets out expectations and makes it clear that this is not optional—local authorities have to work with voluntary groups, community groups and small businesses. As a result, the existing statutory duty for an authority to consult representatives of people living, working or using services in this area will still apply.

In addition, in the Localism Act 2011, the Government introduced new rights and powers for local communities to challenge the way in which local authority services are run. The intention to repeal this statutory duty was announced in April 2011, and subsequently included in the streamlined and strengthened best value guidance of September of that year. As I have said, local authorities may still prepare a sustainable community strategy once the statutory duty is removed, but it is for them to decide the best way forward. I commend the clause to the Committee.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Like the Law Officer, I am all in favour of streamlining something wherever it is practical to do so. Can the Minister set out how much he thinks will be saved by bringing down this bureaucracy?

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald The Solicitor-General

I do not have a figure. [Interruption.] No, I am not in a position to give a figure, but of course if a statutory burden of this sort is  removed and extra flexibility results, it may be that the effect will be to improve lives and it will not just be a matter of money.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

We have heard today several assertions by Government Members that the Bill—whether we call it a Christmas tree Bill or whatever else—will be a sign of this Government’s success in bringing down costs. However, the Government themselves do not have a clue. They are making wild assertions about how the Bill will help reduce bureaucracy or save money, but they have not even done the sums for it. That is very sad, because this is not a particularly contentious proposal. One would think someone as eminently sensible as the Law Officer, who I think is trying to catch my eye—

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald The Solicitor-General

No, I was listening to the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

One would expect him to do his homework before Committee, particularly as on the previous four clauses I have asked the Parliamentary Secretary what the cost is. I am disappointed. This is a sign that this is a PR exercise for the Government. The hon. Member for North West Leicestershire made the point that £6,000 is an important sum of money, but the cost of printing the Bill and of civil service time is probably far greater.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I have to say to my hon. Friend that I am not convinced that the public see our time in quite the same way.

Photo of Andrew Bridgen Andrew Bridgen Conservative, North West Leicestershire

Does the hon. Gentleman not understand that, especially in business, time always costs money? If we can reduce the bureaucratic burden we will save time, which always saves money.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am reminded of the joke of the Scotsman who went from Glasgow to Aberdeen to get a free train fare back to Glasgow. Obviously, they would not do that in South Lanarkshire, Mr Hood, but perhaps in Fife they would. There is a danger, and I am sure, Mr Hood, that you will recognise that what we are seeing—

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

One moment. I suspect the hon. and learned Gentleman has had some inspiration while we have been chatting away. I say to the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire that he really is on poor ground if he thinks he can justify spending thousands and thousands of pounds on printing documents and civil service time, on all the excellent Hansard and doorkeeper staff, plus our slightly less important time, sitting through a Bill Committee that will save less money than we have spent on introducing the legislation.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald The Solicitor-General

I do not know if it has occurred to the hon. Gentleman that there is a lot of law out there. If it is no longer needed, it is a good idea to get  rid of it. The analogy that I would put to him is that it is a bit like walking through the forest. We might spy something that could be a Christmas tree, but it is only once we have removed the undergrowth that we can see it properly.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am a big believer in Christmas, and I would not want to see anything ruin Christmas for any of us, Christmas tree or otherwise. I welcome the assertion from the Law Officer that if laws are not being used, have never been used or will never be used, they should be scrapped. We will perhaps see that debate continue later this afternoon. However, I think I have made my point.

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Conservative, Macclesfield

This is an important point. There is a presumption on this particular issue that we should leave it in place—that is what the hon. Gentleman said. We should think about the cost and effort put into producing these plans, which did not really serve much purpose in the first place. There is no requirement of duty. If there is a need for co-ordination and working together, we should get on with it. I think the hon. Gentleman misses the point. I would suggest—he is probably right—that not enough work has been done to show what the costs are, and my guess is that a lot of cost is involved. The other swathes of activity—

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I think we will continue to have this discussion on subsequent clauses, so I hope the hon. Member for Macclesfield will understand if I do not respond at any length to his intervention. We do not oppose the clause, but I think we have made our case quite well.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald The Solicitor-General

May I make the point that the Local Government Association, which knows a lot about these matters, welcomes the removal of this burdensome duty? It said:

“This will free up capacity”.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 54accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.