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January 2007 Monthly Archives

Sustainable Communities Bill

January 19, 2007

Nick Hurd introduces the Sustainable Communities Bill to address the problem of community decline in Britain by giving real power to local authorities.

9.34 am

Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill will make the Government more responsive to an issue that arouses genuine passion and concern-the problem of community decline in Britain. It will push the Government to go further in giving real power to local authorities and the people whom they serve. That is the only path to delivering sustainable communities that will stand the test of time.

The Bill is tenacious-in various forms, it has fought for life for more than five years. It is therefore right to start by paying tribute to the work of hon. Members who sponsored and supported its previous incarnations. I am thinking in particular of the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) of the Liberal Democrats, the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) of the Labour party and my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), who is sitting alongside me.

I also wish to place on record my respect for the campaign group, Local Works, which has built and held together an extraordinary coalition to support the Bill. The breadth of that coalition is amazing. Any Bill that unites the Campaign for Real Ale and the National Federation of Women’s Institutes must be worth considering. The Bill’s principles unite 72 other national organisations, 300 local organisations, 1,000 parish councils, nearly 100 local authorities, the Conservative party, the Liberal Democrats and last, but by no means least, 170 Labour Members of Parliament who signed early-day motion 641 in the previous Session. I am told that, since then, the proportion of Labour Members of Parliament who have expressed support for the principles of the Bill has risen to more than 50 per cent. Out of respect for the strong cross-party support for the measure, I weighted the list of sponsors to reflect the balance of hon. Members in the House.

A sensible Minister would consider seriously any Bill that can forge such consensus, and I believe that we are dealing today with a sensible Minister-the Minister for Local Government. Time will tell. He should be encouraged to resist the predictable frogs’ chorus of opposition from Department officials suffering from not-invented-here syndrome. He should be in no doubt about the chord that the measure and the principles behind it has struck with the public we serve. Twenty thousand people have signed up to the Local Works campaign. Hon. Members who have taken part in the more than 70 public meetings throughout the country will testify that they have been packed and vociferous in their support for the measure.

What drives the rainbow coalition? It is common concern about what appears to be remorseless community decline in Britain and what that means for quality of life. The decline is well documented, not least through the incisive work of the New Economics Foundation and the all-party group on small shops. It is driven by the loss of key local services-often the hubs of the community. The statistics are stark. In the past decade, we have lost a fifth of our post office network, a quarter of our local grocery stores, a quarter of our bank branch network and more than 30,000 independent community retailers-the people who can often brighten our day with their enthusiasm and passion for the management of their business and their willingness to help others.

The decline affects not only the high street but the quality of our public spaces. According to English Heritage, 40 per cent. of urban parks are in decline, with only 18 per cent. considered to be in good condition. Spending on community halls has also suffered a dramatic decline in real terms in the past 25 years. However, hon. Members do not need statistics or third-party reports to grasp that problem. Most of us have all the evidence that we need in our constituencies.

In Ruislip and Northwood, we are fighting a constant battle to try to preserve the identity and character of places such as Harefield and Eastcote in the face of enormous pressure. Those open spaces are under threat from the planning regime. Local shopping parades struggle with the challenge of big, uniform warehouses, squatting on a ring road that is choked with traffic. Local service providers are under constant budget pressure, without the flexibility to respond if they do not comply with national targets.

Yet I suspect that we are the lucky ones. Across Britain, people living in many town centres and small rural towns and villages feel that the guts of their community have been ripped out. It is not enough for us in this place to say, “Oh well, that’s the market working” because, in some cases, such as post offices, public policy has been a driver. We are confronted with growing evidence of the genuine social cost that the market trend imposes on us. It is a cost to the communities in which we live and that we hope to pass on to others as vibrant places to live, work and raise children. It is also a cost on our ability to deal with some themes that should concern us nationally. I should like to concentrate briefly on four of them.

First, there is the cost to our quality of life, which is felt particularly by elderly people, who tend to be less mobile and rely more heavily on local services, such as the shop on the corner or the community pharmacy. It is no surprise that both Age Concern and Help the Aged are vociferous supporters of the Bill. The latter put it well:

“we want older people to live successful and independent lives in the community… The drift into Ghost Town Britain is not only undesirable and unacceptable but in terms of increased pressure on public safety net provision, it will be costly”.

The growing risk of street crime is also of concern. In my constituency, the once vibrant shopping parade in Northwood Hills is struggling to avoid a spiral of decline. As leases come up for renewal, independent shops give way to fast food outlets, which bring litter and attract yobs who intimidate and vandalise. As a result, resources are diverted, not least from the police, residents get disillusioned and the circle and cycle of decline continues.

Secondly, there is a cost to our economy, as the loss of community retailers means that less money is circulating around local producers. Small businesses rely heavily on post offices and local bank branches for the management of their cash flow. That ought to be a real concern for central Government, because the vibrancy of the small business sector matters hugely at the national level. Small businesses employ half the work force in the country. Under normal conditions, they should be the engine of growth and innovation in the economy. Declining high streets and the concentration of retail power appear to be working against their interests. Community decline therefore carries a big cost to our quality of life and to our economy.

Thirdly, there is the cost to the environment, local and global. The local cost of community decline can be found in dirty streets, badly maintained parks and children’s playgrounds covered in graffiti-in my constituency, often on the morning after having been set up. The global cost stems from our increased dependence on the car and our difficulty in meeting targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Minister should need no reminding that carbon dioxide emissions have risen in this country since 1997, and that transport is widely recognised to be the problem sector. It represents 20 per cent. of emissions and is the only sector whose emissions are growing. About two thirds of transport emissions come from motor vehicles. Those emissions have grown by 8 per cent. between 1990 and 2000 and the Government forecast that they will grow by another 8 per cent. between 2000 and 2010. We have an urgent imperative to control those emissions.

The path to reducing emissions does not lie simply in encouraging us to drive cleaner cars. We need to consider how land and space can be used more intelligently to reduce our need to travel. What we are allowing to happen flies in the face of that. With the loss of local amenities, we are having to travel more. The average person now travels a staggering 893 miles a year to shop for food, which is itself now travelling ridiculous distances to reach the supermarket.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a crossover between such environmental concerns and concerns about social exclusion? People in small rural communities are obliged to drive to get to essential services, but those who do not have access to cars, and who do not have public transport available, certainly in areas such as mine, are socially excluded and do not have access to the services that they need.

Mr. Hurd: The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely important point well. The issue of public transport and rural services has been extensively debated in the House without, as far as I can see, any satisfactory response from the Government.

With regard to the pressure to travel more, let me give one example that brings home the impact on emissions. Transport 2000 and the Campaign for Community Banking Services have calculated that the decision to close just one bank branch in Shepshed near Loughborough resulted in an additional 1.4 million road miles per year being travelled by the residents of Shepshed, and more than 500 extra tonnes of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere. If we are serious about tackling greenhouse gas emissions, we cannot afford to be complacent in the face of such trends.

Fourthly, there is the cost to our democratic health. With the sense of community decline and loss of identity comes a sense of disillusion about our ability to shape what is important to our quality of life.

Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): As the Bill applies to Wales as well as England, has the hon. Gentleman had any consultation with the Welsh Assembly Government or with anyone in Wales at all?

Mr. Hurd: I have not done so personally, but supporters of the campaign have discussed the matter extensively and the treatment of Wales is made explicit in the Bill. I would be delighted to hear further interventions from the hon. Gentleman, or possibly a speech, later. [Interruption.] Some reservations have been expressed from those on the Benches behind me on that last point.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): I assure the hon. Gentleman that I have been contacted by a large number of constituents-as, I am sure, have Welsh Members on both sides of the House-who support his Bill and wish it well.

Mr. Hurd: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention. He reminds me that I spoke to the people of Wales this morning on BBC Radio Essex- [Interruption.] And BBC Radio Wales. It was clear from the programme that the problems tackled by the Bill are felt keenly in Wales, where community decline is a real issue.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): May I give the hon. Gentleman some good news? Councillor Catherine Hoyle put a motion before Chorley borough council supporting you and your objectives-

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. It is Friday morning, but the hon. Gentleman should still use the correct parliamentary language.

Mr. Hoyle: I just want to let you know that- [Laughter.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I shall just give the hon. Gentleman a moment to reflect before he continues.

Mr. Hoyle: Just to let you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the Government Whips are not as effective as Mrs. Hoyle, so I will be supporting this important Bill.

Mr. Hurd: I am grateful to both the hon. Gentleman and Mrs. Hoyle for that intervention.

I want to return to the issue of popular disillusion about our ability to do anything about the problem. As a result-this point is reflected clearly in the Power inquiry set up in 2006-people are less likely to get involved in the community, let alone vote, and that is generally agreed to be a bad thing. The Bill attempts to do what the report calls

“possibly the most crucial step in any effort to reengage citizens with the democratic process”,

which is to give power to local communities and empower citizens.

Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): Will my hon. Friend confirm that his constituents find it bizarre that while councillors can oppose planning applications in which valued areas of their communities would be lost to garden-grabbing developments, that opposition founders on the national guidance implemented by inspectors? Does not that undermine their faith in the democratic system?

Mr. Hurd: I am delighted to take that intervention, not only because my hon. Friend is a well-known champion of localism and has probably done more than anyone in the House to throw a spotlight on the issue of garden grabbers, but because he raises a point that strikes a real chord in my constituency. Probably the single biggest issue in my constituency is the feeling of disconnection, and the sense that, whatever the local view on a controversial planning application, what drives the final decision is an inspector sitting in Bristol complying with national guidelines. Nothing makes the community feel more powerless to shape its environment than that.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): Will my hon. Friend comment on the role of regional assemblies in the planning process? In Bournemouth, that organisation, which is believed to be undemocratic and unaccountable, has told us to build 20,000 extra houses. That has no connection to Bournemouth’s needs and is not helping us to create a sustainable community.

Mr. Hurd rose-

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am happy to allow the hon. Gentleman to respond to the intervention, but I do not want the debate to stray too far from the subject of the Bill.

Mr. Hurd: I respect your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) for his intervention, because it too strikes a strong chord in the context of the area in which I live. The role of regional assemblies in general is emotive, especially among Conservative Members, who have a completely different view of their purpose and legitimacy from Labour Members. The point of the Bill is to push power down to democratically accountable local authorities.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): My hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way. In dealing with the important subject of democratic health, he has said much about the needs of old people. Will he bear in mind that young people also feel very detached from decisions made in their communities? There seems to be a common misconception that all young people need is a skateboard park and a pat on the head, and they will be fine. Actually, they have some very smart ideas about how their communities can be made more receptive to them so that they will want to grow up in those communities and bring up their own families in them later.

Mr. Hurd: I am delighted by my hon. Friend’s intervention. If he pries into the innards of the Bill, he will see that at its heart are Government and local authority responsibilities to consult local communities, and that there is specific provision for consultation with younger people.

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Con): What is so potent and powerful about my hon. Friend’s Bill is that it will turn planning topsy-turvy in trying to prevent the introduction of irrelevant nationally or regionally set guidelines that will impose unnecessary housing on communities. What we need is family housing, not one-bedroom or two-bedroom units that often involve a huge intensification of land use in suburbs. We do need housing, and we may well see back gardens being used, but we do not want a huge change in the style of housing when communities do not need it. As I have said, what we need is more family housing, particularly in areas such as Greater London, parts of which my hon. Friend and I represent.

Mr. Hurd: I understand and respect my hon. Friend’s point. I should make clear that the Bill is not at all prescriptive at this stage; it simply says that we need to give local communities more influence and power over what shapes them.

The Bill makes an honest and almost certainly imperfect attempt to address what I have tried to show is a real social problem-the cost attached to the decline of our communities. It combines two of the most pressing themes in politics today, the need to give people more power and the need to pay more attention to the protection of our environment. I believe that all three main parties subscribe to those priorities. The Bill tries to give them legislative shape, so that we can begin to deliver on them. Its purpose is not merely to send a message: we want to see it on the statute book. We must therefore answer the question that the late great Eric Forth would certainly have asked were he in his place today. [Hon. Members: “Oh, he is!”] I suspect that, in some form or other, he may be.

The question that Eric would have asked of the Bill is “Why is it essential?” The answer is, quite simply, “Because there is no coherent Government strategy to deal with the problem.” Yes, there have been plenty of programmes and initiatives and plenty of documents with the word “sustainable” written on them, but they do not hang together in a coherent and focused whole.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I sat through many of the late Eric Forth’s speeches, as he sat through many of mine. I think that the question he would have asked first is “What is the price tag attached to this Bill?” What estimate has the hon. Gentleman made of the cost of the additional bureaucracy that the Bill would create, which would have to be met by the council tax payer and the central Government taxpayer?

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): It will take fewer than 62,000 letters.

Mr. Hurd: I am not tempted to pursue the line of inquiry recommended to me. The short answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is this. The additional cost of the national allocation plans for which clause 2 provides will fall entirely to the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the day. As for the community spending plans, they are all about the opportunity to redirect existing pots of money. I will deal with the bureaucracy issue later, as I suspect that the Minister may wish to raise it.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): I was very fond of Eric Forth, but I was not fond of the way in which he often talked out very good Bills-it seems that I want to have my cake and eat it-and I do not like that attitude on either side of the House. I have come here today to support the hon. Gentleman’s Bill, but I urge him to be even-handed politically. This is not about one Government or one term of government; the ravaging of our communities has taken place over 30 or 40 years, and in my constituency much of it happened during the Thatcher years. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will keep the political balance right, because although there is something very wrong with the way in which our communities are being undermined, it is not a purely political matter. I hope that he will keep an all-party coalition behind him.

Mr. Hurd: I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he has said. I am sorry if I have given any such impression, for it would be entirely counter to my interests and instincts. I know that what is distinctive about the Bill is the cross-party consensus behind it. The hon. Gentleman’s point about a long-term trend is well founded: we are talking about a trend that goes back over 20 or 25 years and spans various Governments.

Let me return to why the Bill is essential. Its premise is that there is no coherent strategy at present, and that one is required. There have been plenty of initiatives, as I said earlier, but the whole approach has been undermined by a key failing, which has been identified by Professor Anne Hill of the London School of Economics in a document published by the Government’s own Sustainable Development Commission. She wrote of the Deputy Prime Minister’s sustainable communities five-year plan

“It is essentially a top down programme which does little to encourage community involvement or ownership of the proposals… and does not propose tools for delivery to ensure long term community viability and environmental protection”.

The Bill is required because existing laws and mechanisms are not adequate.

It is not clear that either the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, which we will debate on Monday, or the Lyons review will give the issue of community decline enough prominence. The Lyons report will focus primarily on the financing of local government, while the Bill is essentially about its governance-although, as the Minister will undoubtedly tell us, bits of it take us further down the path of devolving power and improving local accountability.

My Bill does not contradict Government legislation; it complements the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill by giving prominence to the issue of sustainable communities. It will give real teeth to local area agreements, and will push the Government further in the direction of devolution in which they need to travel in order to make a real difference.

The Bill specifies four necessary steps. First, it requires central Government to give more priority to the promotion of sustainable communities, and makes them accountable for delivering a long-term action plan in support of that aim. It requires them to draw up that plan in a different, bottom-up way, with the real participation of communities and residents acting through their local authorities. Secondly, it will give local authorities the right to demand and receive a breakdown of central Government spending on local services in their areas. I emphasise the distinction between the money that is already passed to local government and the money spent by central Government directly through Departments and through their network of agencies and quangos in the communities that we represent.

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that that spending would include area-based initiatives, which are directly funded and are not directly reflected in local government spending?

Mr. Hurd: I thank the hon. Lady for her helpful intervention. I am happy to confirm that important point. We are talking about money spent by central Government through their network in our communities. At present that money is invisible to us: it is extraordinarily hard to obtain proper information on how it is being spent.

As I have said, the Bill will give local authorities the right to demand and receive a breakdown of spending on local services in their areas. The Secretary of State will be required to secure approval in Parliament for his or her definition of the services that can be carved out as being of primarily national significance. The move towards greater transparency is radical, but surely it is time to demand more transparency when it comes to the money that central Government are spending in our areas. Today it is invisible to the communities that are supposed to benefit from it. Without transparency, there can be little accountability. That must change, particularly at a time when, as we all know, people feel that they are being fully taxed and are asking “Where has the money gone?” It is time to show us the money.

The third step in the Bill will give local authorities the right to go back to the Government with an alternative spending plan for the community allocations identified in an earlier clause.

Anne Milton (Guildford) (Con): My hon. Friend mentioned participation; that is the key element of the Bill. Many communities are consulted-consultation goes on across the public sector-but participation is the key. Until local people feel that they are participating, the disillusionment will remain.

Mr. Hurd: I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention; it is important that I confirm that that is at the heart of the Bill. Its first step, as spelled out in clause 2, is the formulation of a national strategic plan, and what is different about that plan is that it must be seen to absorb bottom-up, community-driven recommendations and inputs. That must be part of the process, and there is a requirement on the Secretary of State to come to the House and explain why decisions have been taken-and why inputs have been rejected, if they have. There must be much stronger transparency and a much stronger sense of accountability.

Let me return to the allocation of money, because that is where real power flows. The Bill requires greater transparency. It requires central Government to show us what they are spending in our areas, and it gives our local authorities the right to absorb that information and to present alternative plans for the use of that money to the Secretary of State.

Members will be starting to think about how money could be redeployed in their constituencies, as I am in respect of mine. We might identify a piece of local spending-by the Environment Agency perhaps, or English Nature, or the Learning and Skills Council or the Government office for London-that we think is of dubious value set against the value of keeping a post office open in a village, for example, or, in my constituency, extending the opening hours of Northwood police station. The Bill would offer us an opportunity to step up and make the case for redeploying such funds, with a real chance of influencing decisions.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I warmly congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his speech, and on promoting this Bill. Will the process he is describing extend to health services? In my constituency, the centralisation of mental health and maternity services is, we estimate, leading to about an extra 4,000 journeys a year being taken from Cheltenham to Gloucester and vice versa. That is taking the heart out of the community, increasing greenhouse gases and making services less local.

Mr. Hurd: I completely understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. The Bill is not prescriptive at this stage, and I anticipate that there would be quite a debate about where the line is drawn between investment in health services that is primarily of national significance-acute health care is a good example of that-and health care investment that is primarily of local significance. The Bill places a duty on the Secretary of State to make such definitions, and to make a case for them before the House and to win that case.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): I understand that my hon. Friend’s Bill is not prescriptive, but how permissive is it? For example, my constituents in Salisbury fail to understand why it is that while almost all our households are now recycling glass on a weekly basis and sorting out their rubbish, every day they see council trucks driving around and collecting all the glass from all the pubs, clubs, hotels and restaurants and then taking that straight to landfill sites. That should not happen. It happens because of the way that the rules are set up for recycling and charging. I would have thought that to address such matters should be permitted under the Bill; is that the case?

Mr. Hurd: To be honest, I will need to think that issue through more clearly. The value of the exercise contained in the Bill is that it creates a climate in which such issues can be discussed in a more transparent way, with a much better chance of effecting change.

Once the local authorities have exercised their right-it is a right, not a duty-to receive explanations in respect of the money being spent and to suggest to the Secretary of State alternative uses for it, step four of the Bill places a presumption on the Secretary of State to accept the local plan and requires him or her to publish any amendments, or any reasons for not accepting the plan. The Bill also requires regular reporting of the implementation of the plans. That is very important, and is of relevance to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton).

There are four simple steps: transparency, accountability, participation and accountability again. They are designed to give our constituents real influence over the future of our communities, without necessarily costing any more public money.

Mr. Dismore: I obviously support those sentiments behind the Bill, but I have concerns about some of the practicalities. My council-Barnet council-is Conservative-controlled. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] It is Conservative-controlled only for the time being. One of the wards in my constituency, Burnt Oak, is deprived; it has been consistently deprived, and even more so since the Conservatives took control of the council four and a half years ago. Money has been diverted from Burnt Oak to more affluent parts of the borough. What safeguards are there in the Bill to ensure that the most deprived and therefore less vociferous parts of a local government area-those areas that agitate less-are not deprived in favour of those who shout the loudest?

Mr. Hurd: I am now straining to retain cross-party consensus on the Bill as I am receiving a lecture on the reallocation of resources from a Member representing a party that forms a Government that could stand charged of that accusation on a wider scale. However, I shall restrain myself from pursuing that, and instead address the hon. Gentleman’s point by referring only to the Bill.

The hon. Gentleman’s point will be legitimately addressed by some Government legislation that will be before us shortly on improving local accountability, but let me also explain how the Bill might help the ward he mentions. If the climate in which the decisions he refers to are taken is one of budget pressures-as I suspect it is-the Bill carries the opportunity for new resources to be sprung for local authorities if they can make the case that those resources can be better directed in the way that they suggest, rather than the way the money is currently used by central Government Departments or agencies.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his Bill, and I have attended the debate to support it. I have been approached by a number of traders in a parade in Honor Oak in my constituency. That parade suffers from all the multiple problems that he has described. Does he agree that those traders-and their customers, who are their greatest supporters-need to get together to create a local plan and to make demands, and that his Bill might give them the focus and ability to do that?

Mr. Hurd: That point crystallises problems in many Members’ constituencies. What the hon. Lady describes I recognise also in respect of Whitby road in South Ruislip; I can see the parade now, and I am thinking about the problems that it faces. Her instinct is entirely right: the Bill gives the people in such communities an opportunity, and an incentive, to get together and to make proposals to the local authority to address such problems. That opportunity does not exist under current legislation and mechanisms.

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): The Bill in many ways accepts what the Government have been trying to do in respect of local strategic partnerships in identifying the funding for an area and getting the statutory agencies to work together, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of its great merits is that it brings democratic accountability into that process, which is key?

Mr. Hurd: The hon. Gentleman has hit the nail on the head, and it allows me to pass on to the next part of my speech, which is to address the Government’s response to the Bill.

At the heart of the Bill, I have tried to set out four simple