After burning the midnight oil to write a speech for the third reading of this Bill time ran out and I wasn’t called! So, here is the speech that never made it into the public domain…until now!
THIRD READING, LOCALISM BILL,
18TH MAY 2011
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I’m grateful to you for calling on me to speak in the 3rd reading of the Localism Bill, the 2nd reading occurring before I was admitted to the House.
I would have to describe the Localism Bill as a mixed bag – there are elements of the Bill, such as the expressed desire to empower communities, which are positive but the Bill is so full of contradictions that it makes me think that either the Government is insincere about this or, if the Welfare Reforms are anything to go by, that it is about empowering people the Government believe deserve to be empowered.
While I accept the need for reform to the planning system the measures in the Bill are, I’m afraid, poorly thought out and will impede economic growth – they show an appalling lack of understanding of the important relationship between regional and local spatial planning, as well as a disconnect with strategic development. We heard earlier in the week how pay disparities between the UK’s highest and lowest paid workers were taking us back to Victorian times and I’m afraid the planning system proposals are another example. I would urge the Government to reconsider amendment 29 which puts communities in control of their high street, promoting diversity and choice and creates the certainty that retail businesses of all shapes and sizes need to grow. This is particularly so in constituencies like mine in OES; we need to ensure that new retail developments as we’ve seen in villages such as Greenfield help to regenerate and invigorate our towns and villages and do not jeopardise the richness of a diverse retail sector.
However probably most divisive are the plans for social housing and the undermining of the duty towards homeless people. Not only does the Bill remove the security of tenure by introducing 2-yearly reviews, but it will also allow Housing Associations and later local authorities the ability to charge up to 80% of commercial rents instead of a social rent. The impacts of this would be to create a powerful disincentive for tenants to work as this would mean they no longer meet tenancy requirements. It would also mean that social housing will consist of transient, deprived and workless communities. A recipe for disaster Mr Speaker. How exactly does this empower communities?
Mr Speaker I believe fundamentally in empowering individuals and communities to take control of their lives, their destinies. As a former community worker many moons ago, I have seen firsthand how communities can be transformed through community development, by removing the barriers that prevent so many from participating in issues that affect them. And the confidence and real well being people gain from being involved and able to influence decisions that affect their lives. The previous Labour administration did much to support community empowerment – I would have liked us to do more. Many communities were decimated during the 80s and 90s; I believe the level of abandonment communities experienced then has generational effects and requires on-going support. The measures in the Bill as mentioned earlier are limited, and fail to enable local authorities not only to actively engage all citizens but to adopt community development principles in how they work. We know from a 2009 DCLG report on the evidence of the effects of community empowerment that only those that, I quote
‘…had the capacity and skills to do so or, through existing involvement in governance or community activities, were well placed to take advantage of community empowerment opportunities…’
As the report goes on it stresses the need for developing accessible, inclusive and facilitated strategies for empowerment. The community and voluntary sector and specifically community development techniques have an important role to play here. However with the LG funding allocation and the cuts LAs are facing this is an area many Councils are no longer funding. So I’m afraid I’m somewhat sceptical of the Government’s commitment to genuine empowerment of all communities. Another contradiction is how the Secretary of State seems to be actually empowering himself! As the Centre for Local Economic Strategies puts it ‘the Bill is light on local government’ and only suggests a move away from centralised power. In fact, the Bill gives the SoS 126 new powers including an extraordinary power to amend, repeal, revoke or disapply any duty on local authorities by order, requiring minimal parliamentary scrutiny. Mr Speaker I would like to register my objection to this potential abuse of power in the strongest possible terms. My Hon Friends tried to get Clause 5 to which this applies amended without success. So I am assuming the SoS intends to repeal, revoke or so on the Carers & Disabled Children Act, the Equality Act, the Child Poverty Act, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act and the 43 other Acts or regulations that my Hon Friends tried to move not be affected by this draconian power. This is absolutely disgraceful. It seems a hallmark of this Government is that they put together a great PR package with all the right buzz words and phrases – empower communities, GPs at the heart of the NHS, parents and teachers running schools – play the right mood music but when the details are exposed you can see just how toxic the proposals are, how they threaten the values that as a nation we treasure.
Mr Speaker I would urge the Hon Members opposite propping up this Tory-led Government to reconsider their support of this Bill and to vote with the opposition tonight. It is underpinned by Tory ideology and will fail to deliver their vision of localism.