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Caroline Spelman: Local Democracy Bill

I am sure everyone in this chamber who has an interest in local government will have spent the last few weeks, including the recess, campaigning for local elections.

Knocking doors daily throughout the expenses furore I am sure we are under no illusion that people want our democracy to work better for them.

So on the face of it, the title the Bill seems to hold out some promise of this.

But the title is misleading.

It is just the first of a many disappointments in this Bill.

Far from being a “Local Democracy” Bill – it is a charter for snatching power away from people.

It’s about taking power away from locally elected decision makers and off to regional quangos, Combined Authorities and Economic Prosperity Boards.

The sheer fact that something as vital as strengthening local democracy has been lumped together with provisions for the construction industry and other economic aims tells us that the Government doesn’t see strengthening local democracy as sufficiently pressing in itself.

Instead ‘local democracy’ has been tagged onto a series of measures which look like remnants that have been scraped up off the floor from other Bills.

Why for example are we having legislation to create a National Tenant Voice within a few days of the Office for Tenants and Social Landlords coming into operation?

Either the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 has been found wanting, or this is just unnecessary duplication.

No wonder my Noble Friend Baroness Warsi described this Bill as “ramshackle piece of legislation with lots of motherhood and apple pie”.

And the critique was not confined to our benches, with fellow Noble Friends from all parties variously referring to it as “an eclectic mix”, “a bureaucracy bill” and at best a “mixed bag”.

I’ve long had a theory that the longer the title the more Delphic the content and this Bill is no different.

I say that advisedly as the author of a book snappily titled:

“Non-food uses of agricultural raw materials: Economics, biotechnology and politics”

Needless to say it never made it into Richard and Judy’s book club!

However, Mr Speaker, coming back to the matter in hand.

Over and over again I found my self writing “why do we need to do this?” beside the clauses of this bill.

So much of it is plain common sense or already best practice by some councils which should be spread by sharing and emulating the good ideas which well-run councils introduce.

But does it need a change in the law to tell them how? I don’t think so.

Will more legislation make councils do their job better? I doubt it.

It will stifle innovation and suppress diversity.

I happen to believe diversity drives up standards.

Diversity is a far better tool for change than the dead hand of the state.

This Bill is simply ‘legislation for legislation’s sake’ – by that I mean unnecessary and even counter-productive for being so prescriptive.

I invite Hon Members to admit – half the contents of this Bill are things that most decent local authorities are doing anyway.

Why are we using valuable time in this chamber, in committee and in the Other Place, debating how legislation should dictate when, where and how councils go about promoting democracy?

On the evidence of this Bill I would venture to suggest Ministers should not be giving advice to anyone about how to promote democracy.

Why not trust councils, who have to secure their own mandate, to manage their own ways of promoting democracy – and let them be judged by their voters?

Similarly with petition handling and involvement in public authority functions – why does it need to be prescribed from the centre? Why not let councils get on with it themselves?

If you really want a Bill that deals with petitions – let’s start with getting our own house in order – literally.

The Scottish Parliament really impressed with the way in which petitions are used to shape legislation. It contrasts sharply with the way petitions have such limited effect here in Westminster.

But Mr Speaker, that is a bigger debate for another day.

The problem with prescribing processes like petition-handling by councils, in tiny detail, by statute, is that you end up creating an expensive new compliance industry with Town Hall officials chasing targets and tick-boxes.

The same applies to the requirement for Economic Assessments in Part 4 of the Bill.

Is the Minister honestly trying to tell me he/she thinks local authorities don’t already carry out local economic assessments?

At best this is a textbook example of what my Noble Friend Baroness Warsi described as “prescriptive overdrive”.

At worst this is a case in point where Ministers are using this legislation to strengthen the whip hand of Whitehall over the Town Hall.

By seeking to codify, monitor and sanction areas of activity where local authorities have been creating successful new ways of doing things, the Government is regressing further and further into defensive, top-down, centralism.

How telling that in its original form the Bill gave the Secretary of State the power to change any economic assessment she disagreed with?

That really does give the lie to the phrase “Whitehall knows best”.

How on earth does that stack up with “devolving more power to local communities?”

It doesn’t.

Because in large part this is a Bill about taking power away from communities and their elected representatives.

For evidence of that we need to look no further than the way in which it entrenches the role of unelected, unpopular and unaccountable regional government.

I just do not understand why it is that this Government is so determined to undermine local democracy through its obsession with regionalism at the expense of localism.

The one region which was given a say on regional government clearly voted by a majority of 80:20 against it – yet they were ignored and regional government has been steamrollered out across the country ever since.

Regional government is an albatross around the neck of local councils and it’s time the whole costly and needless project was ditched.

Can the Minister understand why these untouchable regional monoliths are so disliked?

They’re outmoded and unwanted – and I have to say until a Bill comes before the House pledging their abolition, it will continue to be the Achilles’ Heel of any local government legislation.

Isn’t it the case that The Noble Lord Judd gave the game away in The Other Place when he said:

“I understand the Government’s wish not to be too prescriptive and not to undermine autonomy – which they want to see regions exercising.”

There you have it “regional autonomy”.

That surely explains why rather than aborting regional government, Part 5 of this Bill transfers planning powers from regional assemblies to the Regional Development Agencies.

In short-hand, it transfers them from one unaccountable quango to another.

I am at a loss to reconcile that with the stated aim of the bill which is to ‘empower local government and communities’.

Regional government has been tried, tested and found wanting by every reasonable measure.

This Bill should abolish regional housing and planning at a stroke.

Colleagues will know from their own experience that more often than not when people have a complaint about the scale and location of new development it originates from the region.

With no regard for the local environment, the infrastructure or sustainability, housing targets are forced on communities leaving them and their elected representatives powerless.

Is it any wonder that planning has become so controversial and new development is constantly met with such hostility?

As the CPRE puts it:

“Some parts of the Bill will result in communities feeling even more confused about, and disengaged by, the planning system”.

There has to be a better way to get the new housing we need.

How about giving communities a real voice in planning decisions?

On this side of the House we have pledged abolish regional planning and housing and instead give communities a real incentive to deliver the right kind of new housing in the right places.

Ask communities if they would like small scale, incremental growth in their town and villages and most would welcome it as a way of sustaining local services and delivering homes their children can afford to buy, and accommodation the elderly can step down into and remain near their friends.

But force massive new developments on those towns and villages - with no infrastructure and no regard for the character of a neighbourhood - and those communities will resist it at every opportunity.

So let’s get away from that top-down, centrally-determined, regionally-imposed approach.

That’s the old politics.

Let’s move from the carrot to the stick and look at what communities can reasonably absorb and what they will benefit from.

Let’s give them clear incentives to deliver new housing, such as our proposal for matching the council tax proceeds from every hew house built for six years.

That would give councils an immediate 100% increase in the amount of revenue generated by creating new homes.

Responsible local authorities, who have record housing waiting lists, can be trusted to deliver the right homes we need in the right places.

If they get it wrong their communities should vote them out – that’s local democracy.

Mr Speaker

It’s depressing that in a Bill which is entitled “Local Democracy” there is virtually nothing in there which is about freeing up or empowering councils.

Such is this Government’s distrust of democracy that the only gesture of local involvement in this Bill is through a ‘Leaders’ Board’.

But it’s a board with no right of veto.

(I can tell you as a former Party Chairman that a board’s right of veto is very often what it gives it real teeth!)

With no right of veto the Leaders’ Board is a fig leaf to spare the blushes of naked regionalism.

I’d also like to comment at this point on the remit of RDAs.

This transfer of planning powers is the latest example of “mission creep” which has led to RDAs being diverted from the vital task of stimulating business growth.

Surely in the depths of recession it makes no sense to be saddling them with regional planning – in itself one of the most bureaucratic, time-consuming, controversial and unwieldy responsibilities?

RDAs should be focused on one thing only – getting British business back on its feet.

The best way to do this is refocus them on solely economic development and let local councils define how they work and what areas they cover.

Then if voters don’t like it they can express that view at the ballot box.

That would give clarity and local accountability.

The present role of RDAs goes to the heart of the Combined Authorities and Economic Prosperity Boards in Part 6 of the Bill.

So much of the detail is still unclear.

Who will be on them? When will they come into being? How will they be funded?

And critically how will they work with the RDAs and Regional Assemblies?

The principle of authorities joining forces to deliver prosperity is a good one, one we on this side of the House have long promoted.

But for it to succeed it can’t be buried under the morass of unaccountable regional government.

These boards have the potential to flourish, but only if they are unfettered by regional boundaries and bureaucracy.

It’s exactly the same with the Multi-Area Arrangements of Part 7.

Yes they are a good thing, yes councils should be entering into them where it’s appropriate – but does it need to prescribed in legislation?

And will it ever fulfil its potential as a driver for cross-border working when it is in the shade of some regional edifice?

Mr Speaker

Having spent some time talking about the Local Government and the Economic Development aspects of the Bill, let me now turn my attention to the Construction aspect of the Bill.

If only there was one.

The construction industry must have thought they’d lost some pages of the Bill when they first read it.

When their profits are in freefall and work has quite simply stopped on construction sites up and down the country, the Government has only nit picking details about contracts to offer.

The construction industry clearly feels this Bill should have been an opportunity to help them.

Where’s the ambition? Where’s the imagination?

Instead of setting out ideas to kick-start regeneration or deliver new infrastructure, this Bill confines itself to ‘contractual etiquette’.

Frankly the construction industry deserves better and the country deserves better.

The source of my disappointment with this Bill is that it had the potential to really breath fresh life into local democracy.

Instead it’s more like the death rattle of Government that has simply run out of ideas.

It smacks of a department desperate to be seen to be doing something.

Perhaps it’s because the Community Empowerment Bill has been furtively dropped that the Minister feels her department has to “make busy”.

Although to be fair, Ministers have been busy exploring ideas in the White Paper entitled “Communities in Control”.

Perhaps two of the most interesting ideas mooted in that paper concerned making it easier for councillors to vote and encouraging people to turn up at the ballot box.

One solution, we were told was by enabling councillors to vote remotely, perhaps from their sofa, perhaps from the pub – who knows?

As for getting people to take part in local elections, there were various exciting option – free entry to a prize draw if you vote, a free doughnut for every vote cast… the list goes on.

What was so telling in the Paper was the extent to which it completely misdiagnosed why people are so switched off from local government.

It’s not because councillors can’t be bothered to go the Town Hall, it’s not because voters would rather be doing lottery scratch cards.

It’s because they see the way local government is over-ruled at every stage.

This Bill should address, head-on, the priorities of communities up and down the country who are crying out for more say over the decisions that affect their neighbourhoods.

The truth is that this Bill would have carried twice as much weight if it had been half the size and dealt with only two issues – planning and council tax.

How is it we are debating a Bill from the Local Government Department which just ignores the fury about rising council tax?

Ministers happily referred to this year seeing the lowest level of increase for some years, but meanwhile most people were staggered that it would go up at all given the average council tax has more than doubled since 1997.

Council tax is causing real pain for hard-working families and people on fixed incomes who each year see higher bills landing on the doormat.

The Government should grasp the issue – how about a council tax freeze of the kind we have offered?

How about giving communities the right to block excessive council tax rises through a referendum?

Instead the Government pushes on regardless, gearing up for a revaluation on 2010.

We know that because it has just renewed its contract with Rightmove – a contract which means data on 9 out of 10 house sales will be imported to a government database, ready to be used as a means of driving council tax up even further through revaluation.

When will this Government realise we need to be helping people by getting the tax burden down?

It’s exactly the same with Business Rates.

Mr Speaker

There is something slightly surreal about debating a bill - at a time of economic crisis - which has economic development in its title, yet does nothing to address the issue of business rates.

Our country’s recovery from the recession will be determined almost entirely by how well UK businesses can compete with those from overseas.

Instead of giving them a helping hand, the Treasury has given them a smack in the teeth by increasing business rates above inflation, and pushing ahead with a revaluation.

These are all conspiring to undermine businesses in Britain at a time we need to protect them.

And deferring an above-inflation rate increase is no panacea as it still has to be paid.

Anyone running a business, or working in a business where the amount of work is shrinking exists in a world of anxiety.

But any small business looking for comfort in the Bill will find none.

Likewise any Port-based business.

I had to surpress some shock at the difficulty we had trying get an amendment on ports taxes in order, in the Other Place.

If there is one virtue in such a convoluted titled, colleagues might imagine it would be that it permits the opportunity to debate almost anything!

But not, it seems, Ports taxes – despite them quite clearly coming under the aegis of local democracy and their undeniable role in economic development.

The fact is that port businesses have had a huge and unexpected tax rise backdated to 2005.

At a time when the recession is biting, it simply defies belief that the Government will not give any quarter.

No impact assessment was done, no consultation and businesses have been casually handed debts which in many cases would make them ‘balance sheet insolvent’.

These are big, urgent and immediate issues.

Ones which are at the forefront of people’s minds.

Does the Minister understand how people will look at this Bill?

They must read this legislation and listen to this debate and think Politicians are from another planet.

How ironic that not less than eight hours after the Prime Minister told Radio 4:

“Power must be more accountable to the people who elect MPs and councillors”

We have this Bill which does the exact opposite.

The Prime Minister held forth this morning about listeners feeling powerless and politics not being sufficiently accountable.

If this bill is supposed to be the solution to that problem then God help us!

Lets face it they are fed up; fed up with the recession and the pain it brings, fed up with MPs and fed up with their Government.

So this piece of legislation should have been a chance to begin to put that right.

It should have been a chance to make politics relevant again.

Instead I fear it has done the opposite.

When I met voters beside themselves with frustration about the imposition of unsustainable numbers of houses on their community or mums in the playground really angry that a phone mast had been erected next to the school despite government recommendations that it shouldn’t I could really understand that the silent majority is seeking a silent revolution.

They want politics to change.

Far from delivering that change, this Bill just serves up more of the same.

It’s been cobbled together to fill the Parliamentary programme and to give Ministers some more levers to pull.

This Bill is about keeping control over councils via the statue book because they can’t do it through the ballot box.

But people deserve better than that.

The political landscape has changed beyond recognition since this Bill was in the Lords.

The public’s fury over expenses is not just about the money, it’s a reflex against the entire nature of our broken politics -

- The top-down, centrally imposed decision-making.

- The inflexible, insensitive bureaucracy that bosses people from day to day.

To support this Bill would now send a clear message that we are simply not listening to the voice of the electorate.

Mr Speaker

Unless we discharge real power, the current animosity between the public and Parliament is simply going to turn into the long goodbye.

The Prime Minister got one thing right when he said recent events have “exposed a big need for change” in our politics.

Where he got it wrong was in suggesting he and his Government were the right people to deliver that change.

What this Bill makes abundantly clear is that for a public hungry for change in politics, the only way to get it is with a change of Government.

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