It would be fair to say that Ros takes a very strong view on localism, which runs back to her very first steps as a Liberal Democrat, and beyond. And when you let Conservatives loose on a good idea, sometimes you ave to explain to them what the term actually implies...
Baroness Scott of Needham Market (Liberal Democrat)
In every speech on local government I have made in your Lordships' House in the 11 years that I have been here, I have called for government to introduce the power of general competence. I am going to have to think about something else now because I am really pleased to see that the Government have finally brought it forward. I am also very pleased to see the abolition of the Standards Board. It is a body which, while well intentioned, in practice led to a constant stream of vexatious and often trivial claims which were highly damaging to the individuals concerned and really bad for the reputation of councillors and local government as a whole. I am also pleased to see that the committee system is returning as an option for local councils, although I cannot for the life of me imagine why the Government think they should wait up to three years to be able to bring it in. It is important that local councils have an option on their governance models and can choose the model that suits them and their circumstances best. It is for that reason that I am utterly opposed to the imposition of the mayoral model in shadow form, as proposed in the Bill.
The idea of merging the mayor with the chief executive is quite frankly barmy. The whole rationale behind elected mayors is to have a high-visibility candidate, someone with quite different skills from the managerial qualifications that you would expect a good head of paid service to have. I have no doubt that it will go through, but if someone came to this House with a proposal that Ministers should become Permanent Secretaries, there would be an absolute uproar.
There is a sort of schizophrenia evident in the Bill. There are parts that are genuinely localist. For example, I was really pleased to see the dismantling of the provisions in the 2007 Act which told local councils how to receive a petition, but I saw with dismay an even more regimented system for bringing in referendums. Where I live in mid Suffolk, we are having a referendum right now on whether to merge with the local council. The councils got on and did it. They did not need primary legislation to do it, and this provision should not be in this Bill because, as it is envisaged, I fear it will be divisive and I think it will be very costly. There is still a tendency to reach for regulatory answers to every question. If the Government are serious about localism they have to go far beyond the boundaries of just this department and create a localism audit on all new legislation coming forward.
We have a real problem here. Too often, local councils are frozen like rabbits in the headlights of the legal profession and tend to take the safest option on offer. The sparse use of the Sustainable Communities Act and the general power of well-being is testament to that. My fear is that the general power of competence will go the same way. With so much other regulation, both from this department and imposed by others, councils and citizens will simply be unsure about what they can do, a point so well made by the right reverend Prelate.
I am struck by the fact that, despite the general power, I have been deluged with requests from councils and other organisations to request specific powers and duties to be put in the Bill. Clearly, they share the same concerns that the general power of competence simply will not do the job. I was particularly struck by an approach made to me by councillors in Cambridge who, like councillors across the country, are seeking to protect the special character of a shopping street, Mill Road. They are not confident that the general power will give them enough power to override the 2,500 pages of existing planning law, which they believe prevent them from taking the steps that they need to take in order to preserve the special character of the street. I am not at all sure that the changes to the planning system in this Bill will give councils the flexibility that they need to manage their streets in the way that their citizens want. I am sure that we will spend a lot of time on this issue in Committee but it seems to me that if the Localism Bill does not allow councils to protect cherished local neighbourhoods and facilities, it will have failed.
The actions of local government are too often bounded by what they have a statutory duty to do and also by what they are barred from doing by other regulations. We need to create more space in the middle, a discretionary space, where councils can do as they see fit. If one looks simply at the six clauses in this Bill relating to assets of community value, there are 54 things on which the Secretary of State will need to issue regulations. In my view, this is a massive job creation programme for CLG civil servants and for parliamentary draftsmen.
The elephant in the room of course is money. While three-quarters of local authority spend comes from central government, it is inevitable that central government will seek to impose control. The very complexity of local finance will mean that if there are referenda on council tax increases, they will become just a sort of shouting match between central and local government - a battle of percentages - which in the end will freeze and turn off local voters. Given the cost of a council-wide referendum, what we have here is capping by any other name.
Genuine local accountability is impossible while this system persists. It goes to the heart of a healthy local democracy. A lack of clarity about financial responsibility, the maze of statutory provisions and the demise of the local press in many areas combine together to work against a responsive local democratic system. To my mind, this is made far worse by the bundling together of elections on the same day. I fought, and won, two county council elections on general election day. I speak from experience when I say how hard it is to get any oxygen for local issues when elections are fought concurrently. Of course, turnout is higher but, if many of the people turning out are paying no regard to local issues, the cause of local accountability is not enhanced at all. The devolved Assemblies in Scotland and Wales have been given the option to choose whether to hold elections on a day other than that of the general election. Perhaps we should think about local councils being given the same option. There is nothing magical about the first Thursday in May.
This Bill has some good points but it is overly bureaucratic and remains overly centralised. Let us hope that the Government are prepared to listen to what noble Lords have to say today and in Committee and are prepared to make some changes.