Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill

House of Commons

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins). I agreed with some of his remarks about democracy, but I found his later comments about direct labour organisations a little more difficult to accept. I canvassed in the streets of Camden in the 1987 election and I remember trying to work out why it was that my prospective constituents could not get any repairs done on their council flats in the daytime, but only in the evenings and at weekends. It quickly dawned on me that the DLO staff were sitting around all day doing nothing and doing all the work on overtime. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman’s recollections of DLOs are rose-tinted, although he did admit some problems existed in urban DLOs. I think his solution would create more problems than it would solve.

I am sorry not to be able to follow the right hon. Member for Streatham (Keith Hill), because his speech followed the excellent speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) who talked, appropriately enough, about Lilley Bottom. That reminded me of the link between the right hon. Member for Streatham and me, which is the happily named village of Wyre Piddle, around which he had constructed a bypass, for which I am very grateful. When it comes to local democracy, it is such matters that drive us all forward. Wyre Piddle has cause to be grateful to the right hon. Gentleman.

I shall concentrate my remarks on parts 4, 5 and 6 of the Bill, which are dealt with in my Committee’s report, published in March. I have to say to the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), that it is a great shame that this report, which was published on 13 March, still has not had a response from the Government. It would have been helpful to have had that response in time for Second Reading. I understand that the reason for that is that the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs, whose responsibility it is to reply, is on paternity leave, but the House is ill-served when a response to a major report from a Committee, dealing directly with legislation to be debated on the Floor of the House, is not available in time for us to know what the Government’s judgments are.

When I intervened on the Secretary of State on the subject of the ability of local authorities to opt out of economic prosperity boards, I was disturbed to discover that her reply was simply, “Well, we can discuss this in Committee.” The issue was raised by my Committee in its report, the House should have the Government’s position before it for this debate, and there will not be time in Committee to cover these matters because of the scandalously short timetable available for such a complex Bill.

It is a complex Bill. It runs to 138 pages and has 146 clauses, seven schedules and nine parts. It is not easy reading. It was subject to extensive amendment in the Lords, more amendments will be required in this place, and I predict confidently that, on Report, we will wade through scores of amendments that will be completely undebated, which is extremely unsatisfactory. I hope that my colleagues on the Front Bench will divide the House on the timetable motion, which is scandalously inadequate for such an important Bill. For a Bill that purports to be about democracy to be railroaded through this House without adequate discussion is profoundly undemocratic. One of the many reasons that we in this place are all in trouble at present is the contempt for the House’s procedures that we will see again with this Bill, and that we have seen so often in the past. That is one of the reasons why this place is held in contempt by voters outside—it is not just about our expenses, but about issues such as this, too.

It is also a shame that no Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Minister is in his place on the Bench to hear the debate. The subject of the Bill—local democracy—is primarily a matter for the Department for Communities and Local Government, but economic development and construction are primarily matters for BERR and a BERR Minister should have been here. Of course, we know that the problem is that there are only three BERR Ministers in the Commons, two of whom are shared with other Departments and one of whom is on paternity leave. There is not a BERR Minister spare, but it is a great shame on matters of economic development. I like the DCLG team. The Under-Secretary has been kind to me. We tried to sort something out in respect of automatic rate relief for small businesses, although we failed. I say nothing against the DCLG team, but a BERR Minister should be here too and should be replying to the debate.
Today, we mourn the death of a great comic. Danny La Rue died earlier today. The question about Danny La Rue was whether he was a woman or a man. He did not like the term “drag artist”—he preferred to call himself a comic in a frock. What Danny La Rue was or was not is an interesting matter, and what this Bill is or is not is an interesting matter too. It purports to be about democracy, but it is actually something very different. I am tempted to say that the Secretary of State, when she opened this debate, was wearing a frock. Whether that makes her a comic or not, I am not entirely sure, but I do not think she understood the irony of bringing forward a Bill on democracy in an undemocratic way and with measures that are contrary to the best interests of democracy.

I have recently been embroiled in the row over expenses—I do not want to go down that path at present—as we all have. When I was out canvassing in my constituency with my constituents’ full knowledge of my alleged involvement in the scandal, I was struck by the fact that that issue was not raised with me. The issue raised on the doorstep by many of my constituents was their sense of powerlessness in the face of an over-mighty Executive and their sense that they do not control their own lives any more. They so often resent us and they resent the apparent abuses of our expenses because they feel we are telling them what to do all the time and to do things they do not want to do all the time while we have our snouts in the trough. There is growing resentment of the political class that seeks to control what happens at a local level far too intensely.

The Bill, in so many respects, makes that problem worse, not better. A Bill about local democracy could have done so much, sweeping away the duties and obligations on local authorities, rather than adding to them. That is the root of true democracy. That is what we should be seeking to do and that is the dreadful wasted opportunity that the Bill represents.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), in his excellent and very thoughtful speech, was in danger of getting into a contradiction, explored by I cannot remember who. I am glad to see the right hon. Member for Streatham back in his place—he must read my earlier remarks, but I thank him again for the Wyre Piddle bypass.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon got into an interesting debate about the apparent contradiction between representative and direct democracy. It was a debate I would have loved to continue, because it was very important and goes to the heart of what we should be discussing tonight. What struck me is that what touches my constituents in their day-to-day lives in relation to democracy and control of their lives is planning policy. Planning affects people most directly, and the sense of outrage in my constituency about the South Worcestershire joint core strategy is palpable. We have three councils coming together. Worcester city faces the same problem as Luton, and does not have space within its boundaries to expand— [ Interruption. ] The hon. Member for Luton, North thinks it has, but we have to face the fact: there is not room in Worcester for extra housing in significant numbers.

Worcester has been designated a sub-regional growth centre in the regional spatial strategy, so the two councils around it—Wychavon district council, which covers my constituency, and Malvern Hills district council—have come together with Worcester city council to consider how they can find that housing. Trying to explain to people that the South Worcestershire joint core strategy, driven by three local district councils, is actually the creature of a regional spatial strategy whose parameters have effectively been set by central Government is very difficult indeed. I see my councils being blamed for decisions that the regional assembly was obliged to take because it knew that otherwise the Government would intervene and demand still higher housing numbers.

We are in the bizarre, Alice in Wonderland position of conducting a consultation on the South Worcestershire joint core strategy, knowing that the regional spatial strategy plan revision that has been imposed on the region by the Government is likely to increase the housing demands still further. When we have the joint core strategy in place, we will almost certainly have to revisit it immediately and increase the numbers. There is no local democracy in this process whatsoever. [ Interruption. ] I sense that my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), a former distinguished Minister in this field, is seeking to catch my eye. I will happily give way to him.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): Is my hon. Friend not being too kind to the Government? They have just passed the Planning Act 2008 that means that when the Sizewell C and D proposals in my constituency are put forward, local people will not even be able to discuss the road situation, whether stuff should come in by sea, what will happen to the legacy buildings and the like. Those things will be excluded because some fatuous commissioner will appear from London, take soundings and then go back, and her or his word will be law. That is the worst kind of change, and this Bill does not make it any better—in fact, it makes it worse.

Peter Luff: My right hon. Friend makes an extremely powerful and important point, as he usually does. The sense of powerlessness that local communities feel in the face of the juggernaut of central Government will not do. The answer is that we should have national policy statements, as allowed for in that Act, and that they should be voted for in this House—the Government are resisting that—so that they have the force of law. We should then have the normal, local planning process—no Infrastructure Planning Commission—for the next Sizewell reactor on the strictly local issues. With Sizewell B, how much time did the strictly local issues take out of the process? A couple of weeks?

Mr. Gummer: Thirty days.

Peter Luff: That would be entirely acceptable out of the 300 days. We could have an entirely local process. The local community would have its say on the issues that mattered and the Government would rightly be setting down the national parameters for nuclear power that we actually need. The Government have once again—as in this Bill—taken a sledgehammer to crack a nut and the nut that they are breaking is local accountability and local democracy.

On the subject of local democracy, another thing that is not in this Bill that I hope will be in an early Bill from a new Conservative Government is the abolition of the Standards Board for England. Again, it significantly inhibits local democracy. I have an extraordinary situation in my constituency, where a major wind farm is being proposed. It falls in the ward of two members of the development control committee, which means that they are unable to express any view whatsoever about the wind farm’s merits, whether they are for or against it. I do not know whether they want to stand up to people opposing it or join the opposition, but they cannot express a view, because as soon as they do so, they lose their vote on the development control committee. The situation is utterly bewildering to constituents.
I am trying to resist pressure to express a view on the wind farm because I do not want to trump my two able colleagues on the district council who are being thrown out of the process, with their voices stripped from them. Local councillors exist to express the views of local people, but the Government have put in place mechanisms that take their voice away. There is nothing more undemocratic than removing the voice of a district councillor on a major and sensitive local planning decision. The Bill thus represents another missed opportunity.

Mr. Raynsford: Would the hon. Gentleman like to ask the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) how many times he took decisions regarding planning obligations that took away power from local councils and imposed central Government diktat when he was Secretary of State for the Environment?

Peter Luff: I think that would be procedurally tricky, but my right hon. Friend might try to catch my eye later. I share the concern of the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) about the power of the Secretary of State and the lack of appeal for aggrieved residents in respect of decisions made by the Planning Inspectorate through the Secretary of State.

Mr. Gummer rose—

Peter Luff: My right hon. Friend has caught my eye. At the risk of being an intermediary in a debate between two Members, I shall give way.

Mr. Gummer: Does my hon. Friend agree that that issue is totally different from institutionalising a mechanism whereby people are excluded from having any view on local matters? If a Secretary of State intervenes, that is because there is a national concern that requires a national input. However, a system that says that no local body or person may take any part whatever in decisions about what happens to their locality—let alone what might happen afterwards with the Secretary of State—is a disgrace.

Peter Luff: I think I shall let my right hon. Friend’s wise intervention speak for itself before I receive an adverse ruling from the Chair.

The subject of accountability goes to the heart of many of my Committee’s concerns about the Bill. Paragraph 119 of our report talks about the “accountability gap” that has been created with regional development agencies. It says:

“The Committee recognises that regional committees”—

the new Regional Select Committees of the House—

“are expected to have a key role in the accountability of the integrated regional strategies and regional governance. It is too soon to judge their effectiveness”—
most members of my Committee have a view about the likely effectiveness of those Committees, but we shall see—

“but this Committee does have concerns about whether regional committees will have the time and resources to scrutinise sufficiently regional strategies. Nor is it clear how such scrutiny will fit with existing committees’ remits, such as this Committee’s scrutiny of BERR and its agencies, including RDAs.”

The Bill, and the House generally, is creating a pig’s breakfast through the approach on regional and local matters.

As I said in an intervention, this report was the first for which my Committee thought it necessary to insert a lengthy glossary at the beginning, because as Committee members considered the Chairman’s draft, they got completely bewildered by the alphabet soup of initials. The array of terms includes EPBs, LALBs, LALFs, RSSs, RDAs, REP PSAs and SNRs, not to mention the single pot budget. Our constituents do not understand the system in operation now, which I am slowly getting my head around as I wrestle with the South Worcestershire joint core strategy and the regional spatial strategy. I cannot begin to think how they will ever understand the new mechanisms, which have major problems with accountability.
I want to talk particularly about the role of regional development agencies, although I shall not take too long because several colleagues wish to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker. We have serious reservations about the existing responsibilities of RDAs. We have heard about the Government’s tendency to add endlessly to RDAs’ responsibilities. They are Christmas trees on which baubles are regularly hung, with people saying, “Oh, there’s a task. Who shall we give it to? I know, the RDA.” Such an approach is already diverting RDAs from their core task of helping regional development.

I have changed my view on RDAs. When they were set up, I had one of the worst in the country: Advantage West Midlands. Everyone acknowledged that it was appalling, but it has now got its act together and does useful work locally. It did a fantastic job after the closure of MG Rover on the Birmingham-Bromsgrove borders and following last year’s floods in my constituency. It does good, important work by keeping major employment in my constituency and that of the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster).
During the Committee’s evidence gathering, we were struck that we heard only one single voice against the existence of RDAs, which was in the evidence given by the TaxPayers Alliance. However, no one else, including the Forum of Private Business, the British Chambers of Commerce, local authorities and non-governmental organisations, was critical, even though the volume of evidence was thick. We did not hear just from the usual suspects, such as Government Departments and quangos. Business itself said that they wanted RDAs, even though they had concerns about many aspects of their work. I have concerns about their overseas work, while local authorities have concerns about boundaries. I am glad that my party’s policy is now not to abolish RDAs, but to give a voluntarism about boundaries to local authorities. Essex made a particularly powerful case to our Committee about the inappropriateness of the boundaries of the East of England Development Agency, which are extraordinary, given that the furthest reaches of Suffolk, as represented by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal, have little in common with Essex. Such large discrepancies need to be addressed.

I commend the Committee’s report to the House—I would; it is tagged to the debate. It has a useful summary although, in view of the time, I will not examine it for as long as I had hoped. One of the report’s overarching themes is the extent to which the proposals lack clarity and detail, which is a point that was ably made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden. The provision in the Bill about the local authority leaders’ boards says nothing. It does not tell us who will be on the boards, what they will do or what criteria the Secretary of State will apply. Although there are a lot of words in the Bill, they mean very little. Time and time again the Bill lacks clarity. It should have a proper Committee stage so that such clarity can be put in place, but that will not happen because of the time that is being allowed.

A section of the summary sets out the overarching theme of the Committee’s report:
“Most importantly, there needs to be a proper balance between RDAs’ business focus and the role of councillors in representing the views of their constituents. We are concerned that the proposals in the Bill about the relationship between RDAs and local authorities place too much weight on the views of RDAs and business interests, particularly during the drafting and agreement of the single integrated regional strategy. We call for the role of local authorities—and of the communities they represent—to be strengthened.”

We are the Business and Enterprise Committee, so it is our job to promote economic development and to do what we can to create the business environment for it. However, the message from the business community to us was, “We know better than other people where houses and jobs should go. We have a superior view to the ordinary citizen casting his or her vote at election time.” I understand why it said that—it wants certain things, which I respect—but, in a democracy, people have a right to express themselves, to see that view expressed by their local representatives and then to be proved wrong. In fact, more often than not the opinion would not be wrong, because when people are treated like grown ups and involved in a process intelligently, communities will take the right decisions. The idea that decisions should be imposed on them, which lies at the heart of the Bill, is deeply offensive.

The regional strategies have, at present, tenuous democratic accountability. I never was a fan of regional assemblies, but they achieved something. If we were to abolish them, the right thing to do would be to create a forum of local authorities, which would have responsibility for planning policy. There used to be the south-east forum; what was it called? I cannot remember. [Hon. Members: “SERPLAN.”] It was SERPLAN, the London and South East Regional Planning Conference. That was the right way to do things. The same was done in the west midlands. That is the way to provide accountability, to avoid too much nimbyism, and to get democratic buy-in, but that just has not happened. That is what worries me. The Bill, particularly in parts 4, 5 and 6, does not address the underlying issues.
There were a host of details in the report. I do not know what the Government response to them is, because we have not received it. We have not had a response on Second Reading, either; I asked the Secretary of State about one specific issue, and she was not able to answer me. It is an important issue, because if an economic prosperity board—by the way, let us call it an economic partnership board; let me suggest that amendment to the Government, because “prosperity” is a difficult word at present. If it were called an economic partnership board, it would have the same initials. If an economic partnership board is composed of willing volunteers, it will work, but if one of them changes political control and is no longer a willing volunteer, and starts being a drag anchor on the rest, it will not work any more. What are the mechanisms by which that unwilling partner can be excluded from the process? It is not clear. The Secretary of State said that we could look at the issue in Committee, but it needs to be looked at now, urgently, because the new bodies—I am very sceptical about the need for them, by the way—must work perfectly from day one. The nation faces an awful challenge in recovering from this dreadful recession, and bureaucracies that do not quite know how they function will not help us to get out of it.

Finally, I should just like to speak up for the Woodland Trust. This point also goes to the heart of one of my Committee’s concerns. The trust’s submission to Members about the Bill says:

“Proper and meaningful consultation helps ensure transparency and public confidence in decision-making. In its present form there is, however, a risk that the legislation will erode public and stakeholder engagement. The Trust believes that the Bill must provide a statutory role for regional stakeholders such as NGOs”.
Given the inadequate democratic structure of the Bill, the cumbersome local authority leaders’ board arrangements, and the subsuming of power by regional development agencies over planning policy, which I abhor, it is all the more important that the voices of organisations such as the Woodland Trust are heard. My Committee, in one of its recommendations, said something along the same lines. The trust also points out:

“the strategies should include policies tailored to mitigate, and adapt to, climate change. In practice this could involve implementing policies that protect crucial environmental assets, such as ancient woodland, restore degraded habitats and embark on a strategic expansion of the natural environment to deliver accessible and multifunctional greenspace.”

I agree with the trust, which does marvellous work in my constituency and around the country. If such organisations feel excluded from the Bill, its lack of democratic accountability is even more worrying. It is a great duty to vote against the Bill’s Second Reading later this evening.

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