§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Joan Ryan.]12.42 pm
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Yvette Cooper)
I am pleased to open the debate on quality of life in local communities. The issues involved affect everyone in each of our constituencies. People open their front door. step out on to the street and care about the world around them and the issues that they face. Many of those issues have been ignored by politicians and policy makers because they were seen as being simply about the private realm—local matters for individuals to sort out for themselves.
We ignore those issues at our peril. They cut across many different communities, Departments and agencies, and they manifest themselves in different forms in different areas. MORI has done research in recent years into what makes somewhere a good place to live. It found that 56 per cent. of people were concerned about low-level crime; 39 per cent. pointed to health services as the most important factor; 37 per cent. referred to affordable, decent housing, and 28 per cent. said that shops were most important.
Interestingly, however, all those factors ranked higher than job prospects, local schools and facilities for children. People's impression of their quality of life is affected by their sense of belonging and pride in their area, not only their town, town centre or city but their own neighbourhood, their estate or the place where they live. MORI provided evidence that many people who thought that they lived in a fantastic, bubbling and buzzing city feared that they lived on a problem estate and were not proud of the street where they lived.
MORI also looked at issues affecting communities in different parts of the country. People surveyed in north Kensington said that the things that would most improve their quality of life were a reduction in crime and more activities for young people. In Southwark, the highest priorities were cleaner streets and the environment, followed by facilities for young people. In Dorset, the priority was housing, followed by buses. In Southend, people mentioned dog mess, followed by buses. In Seven Sisters, the priority was crime and litter, and in Hartlepool it was better play areas for children. People care strongly about the quality of their local environment and the strength of their local communities. That is about more than simply housing or their private circumstances—it is about the world and the community around them.
§ Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)
I was interested to hear what the Minister said about the different communities that contributed to the MORI poll. Does she agree that communities can be badly blighted by planning? She mentioned Dorset, where there is a lot of grief about proposals for wind farms, as indeed there is in my own constituency. Does she agree that local people need to have more say in key planning applications that will blight their communities and affect them in other ways?
§ Yvette Cooper
People often have strong views about planning. We are keen that the planning system should do two things. First, it should have a stronger sense of sustainable development in future instead of focusing on short-term planning issues. Secondly, it should involve local people from the very beginning of the planning process, rather than at a late stage, when a particular application comes up. We shall shortly publish the first draft planning policy statement—PPS1—which sets out the broad direction of planning, and will publish further statements on planning and renewable energy. I am happy to have further discussions with the hon. Gentleman about those issues.
§ Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)
I very much welcome today's debate. The Minister has cited MORI's findings, but has she not found from her own experience as a constituency Member of Parliament that one of the dominating issues for all of us is the continued rise of bad behaviour? While there are many positive aspects of Government policy involving job creation and so on, when we meet our constituents or have public meetings, the big issue that they want the Government to deal with is bad behaviour. We are now in a new era of the politics of behaviour.
§ Yvette Cooper.
My right hon. Friend is right that many people in our constituencies have concerns about antisocial behaviour. I shall discuss the issue shortly, so if he will allow me, I shall come back to his question then.
Another issue that we need to be aware of is the existence of considerable inequalities. The most deprived areas tend to have the fewest parks and well-maintained places in which children can play. They tend to have the greatest problems with graffiti, litter and antisocial behaviour. They also have the greatest design problems. I recently stood on a hillside with a fellow MP looking at the fantastic scenery in his constituency. The only thing that blighted the beautiful view was, he pointed out, a severe and stark set of buildings on an estate. They were grey and austere, and clearly had the greatest design problems in the constituency. When I pointed to the estate he said, "Yes, that estate also has the greatest problems in the constituency." Poor design, therefore, is often linked to the most disadvantaged areas.
§ Matthew Green (Ludlow)
The Minister seems to be hinting that the most deprived areas are all urban. Will she confirm that some of the most rural areas are also some of the most deprived?
§ Yvette Cooper
In looking at the estate that I have mentioned, I was standing on the edge of a small community surrounded by beautiful hills. Of course, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that problems often arise in rural areas as well, where there will often be much smaller concentrations of deprivation. That is one of the reasons why the sure start programme seeks to deal with small concentrations of problems in rural areas and why we must often look at different approaches in such areas. We must recognise that problems in rural areas will be different from those in urban areas.
A considerable amount of work is under way, but there is more to do in many areas. People want to live in environments and communities that are clean, safe and 674 green. The latter means places that are beautiful and pleasant, as well as places to play and enjoy, places for leisure and places for children in particular. Many of those ideas were encapsulated in the Government's programme to build sustainable communities, which was set out in the sustainable communities plan earlier this year. The plan is not merely about bricks and mortar or quick fixes; it is about trying to build town centres, streets, estates, communities, parks and green spaces of which people can feel proud.
It is worth outlining the work that is under way in a series of areas and needs to be taken further in order to address people's concerns about their quality of life and provide opportunities to improve it. I shall deal first with investment in the public realm, including public and community infrastructure and facilities. We know that such investment declined over many years. When we think back to the Victorians, we think of their immense investment in town halls, urban parks and the important community facilities on which so many areas depended. For decades, those facilities declined, along with investment in them.
In the past six years, however, we have seen substantial investment in local public facilities and the local environment. In particular, £1.8 billion has been invested over three years in the poorest communities through the neighbourhood renewal programme, which involves local strategic partnerships funding improvements in their areas. Improvements have ranged from neighbourhood wardens to street improvements, adventure playgrounds and a wide range of facilities that will address problems in particular areas.
We have also seen considerable investment in sure start programmes throughout the country. Most of the programmes involve investing in facilities, often for the first time, for the very youngest children, who have often been left out when local communities and councils consider what facilities are needed and what their priorities should be. Local parks and drop-in centres are now being improved by sure start investment throughout the country. In considering what builds a community, we should never underestimate the role of parents of small children, who often have a strong and immediate interest in the quality of the local environment—where their children want to play—and a strong incentive to build links with other parents and members of the community. That is why the sure start programme is so important.
Lottery funding has supported sports facilities and healthy living centres. There has also been a substantial increase in investment in housing—especially social housing—to help areas to meet the decent homes standard. As part of the sustainable communities fund, there has been a programme involving the investment of more than £200 million to improve parks and open and urban spaces. New resources have been provided for the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, which is working on public and private buildings to improve design, and establishing CABE Space as a champion with the expertise to improve public spaces, including parks and green spaces.
We have increased the support given to the Groundwork initiatives. I know that many hon. Members will have had contact with Groundwork in their constituencies. My experience locally has been that 675 it is one of the most impressive organisations working with local communities, often including schoolchildren, to improve local facilities such as riverbanks, squares or parks. It has had a considerable impact on local communities. The increase in support means that it can back more than 4,500 projects each year.
§ Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak)
When Groundwork projects occur, is not lack of capacity for future maintenance often a problem? Is that problem being addressed?
§ Yvette Cooper
My hon. Friend is right that the issue concerns not only physical infrastructure but what happens to facilities in the long term once they have been invested in. We often think in terms only of the capital investment that is needed to improve an area, but what can be done to sustain quality and involve the local community after that investment has been made can be far more important. Without such work, there will simply be investment in new facilities, after which all the same problems will arise, and the infrastructure will fall apart three or four years later. I certainly recognise that issue and I shall say a little more about it later.
There are two more significant programmes. The living spaces fund is asking for bids from local communities and groups that support community gardens, play areas, parks and so on, and the liveability fund supports local councils in improving their public areas. Such programmes add up to £200 million over three years—probably the most substantial investment in green spaces since the Victorian era. We are also building design into planning new communities such as the Thames gateway and the millennium villages.
As hon. Members have said, however, the issue concerns not only physical improvements but the communities themselves and the services that need to be delivered to maintain them and their facilities in future. The most beautiful street or space in the world can soon be spoiled if children have nowhere to go, if graffiti, litter or abandoned cars are left unchecked or if the neighbour is a nightmare. Many of our constituents see antisocial behaviour as one of the biggest threats to their quality of life. That is why the Government recently published the antisocial behaviour action plan. Hon. Members will have seen the plan, which builds on the work done in the Anti-social Behaviour Bill that is currently passing through Parliament. In particular, it deals with issues relating to environmental crimes, greater action against nuisance neighbours and swifter action on abandoned cars, graffiti and the other problems that can make so much difference if they are not tackled quickly.
§ Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)
The improvements and schemes that my hon. Friend describes are to be applauded, but if people do not feel safe when they leave their homes, environmental improvements will not be of much help to them. In making a Sunday morning visit in one part of my constituency, I met several pensioners who told me that they were too afraid to leave their homes at night because of the extensive drug dealing in 676 their area, as well as prostitution. I hope that she will encourage her Home Office colleagues to continue the good work that they are doing in those important areas.
§ Yvette Cooper
My hon. Friend is right. She will know that Home Office Ministers feel strongly about those problems. It is one of the most basic building blocks of a community that people can feel safe to walk the streets and join in with what is happening in their communities, and do not feel isolated in their homes because of fear of crime. One of the programmes that has made the biggest impact on these issues in past few years has been the neighbourhood wardens programme. There are many examples throughout the country of extremely popular neighbourhood wardens programmes in which local wardens know the area where they work.
§ Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden)
Is my hon. Friend aware that in the Lavender Fields ward of my borough, Merton, on one of our worst estates, Sadlers Close, the police had a 47 per cent. reduction in the number of calls that they received about antisocial behaviour as a direct result of the introduction of a fabulous community warden?
§ Yvette Cooper
My hon. Friend is right that there are many examples of neighbourhood wardens making a substantial impact on the work of the police by not only addressing crime and the fear of crime, but providing wide-ranging community support. For example, earlier today I heard a story about a vulnerable resident who suffered from considerable mental health and other problems, and whose family in Australia had become worried about her. They contacted the local neighbourhood wardens through the internet to ask them to keep an eye on her. The wardens made regular visits and were able to provide support, including making sure that she got the health care that she needed. Because neighbourhood wardens work very much as part of and with their local community, they are able to carry out a far wider range of roles than we ever envisaged when the programmes were first set up. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is supporting more than 245 schemes with more than 1,400 wardens. In addition, many councils, new deal for communities schemes and local street partnerships are setting up their own neighbourhood warden programmes because of their proven effectiveness.
§ Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight)
I should like to draw attention to the effectiveness of the neighbourhood warden scheme in Ryde, in my constituency.
What does the hon. Lady think has broken down over the past 30 to 40 years that has led to the Government responding with such schemes? What has provoked the outbreak of crime, incivility and disorder on our streets and elsewhere that creates the symptoms that she reports?
§ Yvette Cooper
Many things have changed over many decades. All sorts of social changes have taken place. We have to recognise, too, that they have taken place in different ways and to varying degrees in different areas. For a long time, policymakers said that the public realm should not be invested in; that society does not exist; and 677 that communities are merely collections of individuals rather than being important in their own right. That attitude contributed to the situation, but we can all point to a wide range of social causes over a long period. We are not in a situation of inevitable decline: many communities have been successful in making significant improvements to the atmosphere in the local community and the local environment. Antisocial behaviour and other problems in local communities must be responded to quickly and appropriately. In the long term, we need to build on community strength and opportunities and people's pride in the place where they live.
§ Ian Lucas (Wrexham)
I very much agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) that antisocial behaviour is the central issue for our constituents. Although there are many good examples of neighbourhood warden schemes and response schemes, too many local authorities still have structures that deal with health, social services and education, but do not see responding to antisocial behaviour as their central concern. My constituents, as consumers of services from their local authorities, tell me that that is the approach that they want them to take.
§ Yvette Cooper
My hon. Friend is right that local authorities vary considerably in this respect. My impression is that they are increasingly enthusiastic about taking such action, not least because of pressure from their local communities. The Home Office's action plan on antisocial behaviour took the approach that local authorities, in partnership with their local police and other agencies, need to build expertise and capacity in order to address the problems of antisocial behaviour. Moreover, rather than ignoring the problem, they should learn from neighbouring authorities that are dealing with the problem much more effectively. At the same time, we must recognise that where communities themselves are involved in local improvement projects and changes to local facilities, the impact can be much greater and more long-lasting than if such projects are drawn up for the area by the local council or another agency.
§ Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire)
I very much agree with the Minister's earlier remarks about the importance of young parents with regard to public spaces. Does she agree that the role of fathers is particularly vital in relation to young boys? Will she give the House a commitment that the Government will give all support and encouragement to ensuring that fathers—preferably as part of a couple, but even if not—are fully involved in bringing up their adolescent sons?
§ Yvette Cooper
The hon. Gentleman is right that fathers play a crucial role, not only as role models, but in building relationships with their children as they grow up. In perpetuating the idea that sure start programmes are for mums with young children—indeed, they often use its drop-in centres—we tend to underestimate how much they are doing to involve fathers: for example, by having them on the board. They have recognised the importance of the hon. Gentleman's point; we as a Government are keen to support that.
The evidence from programmes such as sure start, Groundwork and neighbourhood management pathfinders shows that communities that are involved in 678 the design of the changes that are taking place have a sense of ownership of those changes, which, as a result, are not only more appropriate, but better protected and sustained in the long term.
§ Mr. Alan Meale (Mansfield)
I appreciate what the Minister says about sure start, Groundwork and other programmes, but I want to return to her earlier answer about why such problems occur. We need to go back decades to when national Governments, particularly of the late 1970s, began to view local government less as a service provider and much more as a cost factor—"tax" and "charges" became dirty words. Since then, youth services and other community services that local authorities attempt to provide have been eroded.
Let me give an example. In Victorian times, when people fought to establish free local government services, the provision and maintenance of public toilets was openly on the agenda of every local authority. Now, in this new millennium, public toilets are being closed all over Britain because they are seen as a heavy cost burden on local authorities. We need to re-engage with local authorities to give them more power, strength and encouragement in re-establishing that approach and not shying away from the simple fact of having to raise, through taxes, the money to pay for such services.
§ Yvette Cooper
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Local authorities are critical to these issues. If we look at something as simple as spending on parks, we see that between 1991 and 1996, investment in parks and public spaces declined by between 10 and 20 per cent. throughout the country. In whatever area we choose, investment in those public facilities and public spaces, which are so important in enabling communities to operate, was in decline. That investment has now been substantially turned around, and we also want to build more investment into the future. My hon. Friend is right to say that local authorities have a critical role to play in these matters, and where they are successful it is often due to community leaders championing those facilities. They were discouraged from playing that role for many years, but there has been a change over the last few years.
§ Mr. Meale
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene again. The debate is about quality of life in local communities. In any ordinary constituency, more than 50 per cent.—usually between 51 and 52 per cent.—of the population have to plan their day around whether they will have access to a public toilet when they leave their home. If most of Britain's public toilets are being closed, there will not be much quality of life for those people in our communities.
§ Yvette Cooper
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Local communities having a greater say in the provision of that kind of service is something that we need to promote. In my constituency and others, the provision of public toilets has become a particularly important issue. When councils have been able to respond to the local community or to local groups, progress has been made and the facilities that people need have been provided. It is important that local areas should be able to make their own decisions on these matters and be responsive. That is why local councils 679 have such a critical role to play, and why there is an increasing role for local community groups to play in regard to these issues. This is not simply about what the town hall does; it is also about what the local community can do at a much more local level, and what decisions can be taken at ward level, for example. A lot of councils are trying out all kinds of innovative ideas involving area forums and area panels, and trying to devolve some of the decision making to neighbourhood panels, parish councils and so on, so as to be even more responsive to local community issues.
We have a considerable programme of work under way, investing in the local environment and public facilities, as well as in the kind of community support and community capacity building that is critical if these changes are to be sustained. There is a considerable programme of action around antisocial behaviour as well.
§ Lady Hermon (North Down)
I apologise for interrupting the Minister yet again; I appreciate her taking another intervention. Why has the antisocial behaviour legislation not been extended to Northern Ireland? The Minister will know, from her experience in her previous capacity in the then Lord Chancellor's Department, that criminal law, policing and justice are not devolved issues, so even when we have an Assembly, they are not devolved to it. Responsibility for policing, justice and antisocial behaviour remains here at Westminster, but that legislation does not apply to Northern Ireland. Antisocial behaviour is just as problematic in Bangor, County Down as it is in Bangor, Wales. Will the Minister please consult her colleagues in the Home Office to see whether, even at this late hour, that legislation could be applied to Northern Ireland?
§ Yvette Cooper
I would certainly be happy to raise that issue with my Home Office colleagues, although I suspect that the hon. Lady has done so herself on many occasions. We recognise that other areas have similar problems with antisocial behaviour, but we are very keen for devolution to work in practice and for as many as possible of those decisions to be taken at local level. I recognise the points that she made about crime, but she will also be aware that the Anti-social Behaviour Bill includes considerable provision related to housing, and to other areas in which we are keen for the devolved Administrations to make their own decisions.
I will certainly raise that matter with my colleagues in the Home Office, although I believe that we need to encourage local areas to take responsibility for these issues, whether at regional or local level. We cannot simply deal with them from Westminster. There are things that we can do to support local areas, but we cannot expect to solve all the problems that local communities face or to transform those communities' quality of life from this Parliament and this Chamber. There will be opportunities at neighbourhood level for people to have a stronger say in the management of many of the services that affect their lives, such as cleaning the streets or community safety, and in tackling some of the inequalities that exist.
I am conscious that other hon. Members want to contribute and that, with the leave of the House, I shall have the opportunity to wind up this debate later, but I 680 would like to make a final point. We have discussed improving the quality of life in local communities and the importance of improving the local environment, investing in the infrastructure, supporting local communities and tackling antisocial behaviour. We should never forget, however, just how fundamental it is simply for people to have the chance of a good job, and to have enough money in their pocket to buy the things that they need for their family. All those things are fundamental to people's quality of life in their local community, and that is about promoting full employment in every region. It is also about having steady and sustainable growth in every region, and about tackling the economic inequalities that areas face. Those factors can make a powerful difference to people's quality of life.
§ Mr. Frank Field
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way to me again. I cheer the statements that she has just made, but does she agree that one of the new factors that affect people's quality of life is the failure of some families to function properly or to teach their children the common decencies, such as having respect for other people? Of course we have responsibilities here in Westminster and through our local authorities, but we cannot have strong communities unless there are strong families. Somehow, the Government must carefully put back on to the agenda the fact that the malfunctioning of some families is the root cause of many of the issues that we are discussing today.
§ Yvette Cooper
I recognise the point that my right hon. Friend makes. No one could say that the Government were not keen to provide greater family support and to recognise the problems that families face. For example, we have produced a Green Paper on children at risk and introduced the sure start and antisocial behaviour programmes. Nevertheless, we must also address the underlying issues, especially for the long term, in relation to the local economy and local economic inequality and opportunity. Someone who is involved in a community programme said to me recently that we must beware of looking at different areas and figuring that rich areas get jobs and poor areas get community consultation. That cannot be a long-term, sustainable approach to providing support for every community and every family, wherever they live, and to ensuring that they do not face inequality of opportunity or unfair disadvantage.
People's quality of life depends on a wide range of factors. I have not touched on public services, not least because the MORI research referred to the local street environment and the issues related to that. In the long run, we all know that the things that make the greatest difference to families and to people in their communities are related to the quality of public services and the local economy. The title of our debate as shown on the Order Paper, "Quality of life in local communities", is potentially extremely wide-ranging, and I am sure that hon. Members will raise a wide range of issues today. I have chosen to highlight a few that are often neglected in our parliamentary debates, but I am sure that hon. Members will want to raise others, and I shall be happy to respond to them later.
We also need to recognise that the investment and the changes that are taking place are making a substantial difference to many communities. I see changes taking 681 place in my constituency of Pontefract and Castleford as well as local community groups, facilities and job opportunities that simply were not there five or six years ago. We are making considerable improvements, but we have to recognise also people's genuine concerns about quality of life in their communities.
We can all make more of a difference in this area, but only if we recognise that that cannot be done simply through Parliament. It has to be done by communities and agencies across the country working in partnership to improve the quality of life of our communities.
§ Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge)
I am glad to have the opportunity to debate what is, as the Minister said, an extraordinarily broad subject—the quality of life. It seems to me that the quality of life involves a range of things that she touched on in the last few moments of her speech. I feared at one stage that she was going to leave us with the impression that the local initiatives, important and valuable as they are, are what primarily determine the quality of life of our constituents in our local communities. Whether we would like that to be the case or not, the fact is that what central Government do is far more likely to impact on the overall quality of life of people, wherever they are in the country.
When I saw the title of the debate, I had thought that the Minister might attempt a comprehensive defence of Government policy across the board—economic, education, social, health and housing policy—but she chose to interpret it a little more narrowly. In thinking about how to stay in order, it seemed to me that there is almost no subject that could not be raised as relevant to the quality of life that people in our communities enjoy.
This matter involves material well-being—people having a roof over their heads, income in their pockets and public services that are accessible and user friendly—as well as the environment that we live in, which means liveable towns and cities with quality countryside surrounding them, and transport services that are accessible, reliable and affordable. It also involves a sense of security, which means physical security in our towns and cities and the freedom from crime and the fear of crime, as well as security of employment, financial security and security in old age: people knowing that the savings they have made in their lifetime will be there and can provide a decent living. People need confidence that the services that they have contributed to throughout their working lives will be delivered when they need them in old age.
The debate is about opportunity and empowerment, access to quality education, diversity of employment opportunities, health and choice in lifestyle and services. I am sorry to say to the Minister that it also involves things that are beyond the remit even of this Government, such as the freedom to practise one's beliefs. We take that very much for granted, but in other parts of the world people have to die for it. The debate is also about a sense of community, both local and national.
As the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) said, we are discussing also the support of friends and family, which can be such a huge influence on the quality 682 of life that people enjoy. However, I shall try to focus on those areas for which the Government have responsibility.
§ Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh)
My hon. Friend mentioned accessibility to public services. In terms of promoting community spirit, does he agree that our post offices play a vital role in doing that in all our constituencies? There have been a number of post office closures in my constituency in recent years and last week I received notification of two more. Does he agree that this programme has gone on for quite a while and that the Post Office should think very carefully before recommending even more post offices for closure?
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. This is an Adjournment debate on local government. We are going wide of the subject.
§ Mr. Hammond
Of course, Mr. Speaker, the debate is about the quality of life in local communities and I wrestled with its scope for some time.
§ Mr. Hammond
My hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) is right, and I am pleased that the Minister gave due recognition to the importance of community. I say to her that that refers not only to local communities, but to national communities and people having a sense of belonging and of place. My hon. Friend ably put his finger on an example of how Government policy has allowed the heart to be ripped out of many suburban and rural communities with the loss of the local post office, which is such an important part of the structure of those communities.
§ Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)
Does my hon. Friend agree that one phenomenon that is corrosive of precisely that sense of belonging that he rightly identifies as important is graffiti? Although the incidence of graffiti in local communities is not recorded separately from other crime statistics, but rather is incorporated within the category of criminal damage, does he agree that an attack on that phenomenon is crucial to the recovery of the self-respect on which the success of local communities will depend?
§ Mr. Hammond
I can readily agree with my hon. Friend, and we have already heard contributions identifying the fact that an attack on low-level crime and disorder is crucial to the quality of life of many of our constituents—people in local communities. Indeed, that is disproportionately so. If he will allow me, this is one of the issues that I will come to in due course.
The Minister mentioned income at the end of her remarks. I would have thought that income is pretty near the top of the list of things that determine people's quality of life. Of course people need an adequate after-tax income to enjoy a decent quality of life, but this Government, under a Prime Minister who pledged that we would face no tax increases at all, have increased taxes 60 times so that we pay 50 per cent. more tax than in 1997.
Across the country, people in communities face swingeing increases in council tax, which is a form of national taxation because of how the grant system 683 works, as local authorities struggle to deal with central Government's redetermination of priorities. That leaves them with no choice but to raise council taxes or cut local services.
§ Matthew Green
Does the hon. Gentleman think that the council tax is a fair tax on pensioners? If not, does he think that there should be a measure based on ability to pay?
§ Mr. Hammond
I think that the Liberals' proposal, as currently formulated for a local income tax, would be a disaster for local communities that led to higher tax bills for ordinary, hard-working families across the country—another blow to the quality of life in our local communities.
§ Mr. Andrew Turner
Does my hon. Friend agree that in low-income areas such as the Isle of Wight a higher rate of local income tax would be required to raise the same amount of money as, for example, in his own constituency? In that respect, the Liberal Democrat proposals would severely damage my working constituents.
§ Mr. Hammond
My hon. Friend raises an interesting point and puts his finger on one of the weaknesses of the Liberal Democrat proposals. There would not be a local income tax in any genuine sense because there would have to be a redistribution mechanism, which would break the crucial link between local ability to pay and the tax raised locally.
We all appreciate that the flip side of taxation is public service spending. We all want to enjoy high-quality public services, so have we seen improvements in those public services, which make up another component of people's quality of life, as our taxes have soared by 50 per cent. since 1997? The answer, of course, is that we have not.
The problem is that the switch of resources to public services was not preceded, as the Government originally promised, by an improvement in delivery productivity. So we see a business on the scale of the national health service accounting for 8 per cent. of United Kingdom gross domestic product. It achieved a 21 per cent. increase in funding over two years, but delivered just a 2 per cent. increase in output growth. That represents a negative growth in productivity that would result in bankruptcy in the private sector. It contributes to the halving of the productivity growth rate in the economy overall that has taken place since this Government took over from the last Conservative Administration. That is not a dry point: productivity growth fuels the increases in personal consumption, public services and public investment that underpin so much of our quality of life.
The truth is that the Government have had a lucky run—initially, with considerable prudence, building on the legacy of their predecessor and more recently, with 684 alarming profligacy, proceeding blindly down the alley on which they have embarked. They have brought the economy to tipping point. The Chancellor is playing a game of brinkmanship with the prosperity and quality of life of millions of people as he gambles on the appearance of a new driver for the economy before his inevitable puncturing of the balloon of private and public borrowing that is the only thing keeping the economy afloat.
The Government have not spent the money they have raised from hardworking families—eroding their disposable incomes and their ability to exercise choice—on improving our public services. They have squandered it on bureaucratic, underdelivering services that they have neither the political will nor the courage to reform. Where else in the world could we find a health service which, while enjoying a 20 per cent. increase in funding, can deliver only marginal improvements in health care? A million people are still waiting for NHS treatment. Last year alone, 300,000 people without health care insurance had to dig into their savings and pay for their own medical treatment, while 70,000 patients had their operations cancelled within 24 hours of the time when they were due despite a Government drive to reduce the number of such cases. All those things have had a serious impact on the quality of life in local communities.
Then there are the inequalities in health care that persist despite the Government's constant reassertion of their determination to wipe them out. Three years into a crusade against cancer, two thirds of the number of women with breast cancer who could benefit from the drug Herceptin are not receiving it. That figure masks a huge range of prescription levels—for instance, the discrepancy between levels in the west midlands and the south-east. Those inequalities—the postcode lotteries that persist despite the Government's rhetoric—undermine the quality of life throughout the country.
The Government railed against managers in the NHS before coming to power. but there are now 45 per cent. more managers than there were in 1997. There are more managers than beds. As for education—funded by central Government, but delivered by local authorities under the close and watchful eye of Whitehall—one in three 11-year-olds leaves school unable to read, write or count properly, and this year more than 33,000 16-year-olds left without a single GCSE at any grade. Discipline in schools is collapsing: somewhere in England or Wales, there is an attack on a school teacher every seven minutes during the school day. There is also a rising tide of truancy. All those things contribute to the sense of insecurity, and undermine the quality of life in local communities.
The Government's response is to increase the torrent of central guidance for schools, rather than freeing headmasters and teachers to create the environment that parents want for their local communities—be it a more disciplined or a less disciplined environment. The Government insist on central directives and on inflating school costs through headline deals which they then spectacularly fail to fund, leaving local authorities and schools to wrestle with overstretched budgets rather than focusing on the delivery of quality education and an appropriate environment to the children whom they serve.
685 Meanwhile, more and more parents—including, apparently, Labour MPs—give up on the state altogether. Hundreds of thousands have been forced to do just what others have been forced to do in relation to NHS waiting lists, and raid their savings to buy privately something for which they have already paid through taxation. That is an affront to their right as citizens to enjoy good quality public services wherever they live.
What of the environment in which we live—our transport infrastructure, and our towns and cities? Perhaps this has more to do with what the Minister talked about. None of us would deny that a roof over one's head is a pretty fundamental requirement for a decent quality of life, and to many millions of people in Britain owning that roof represents a huge step up. We are talking about a roof over people's heads, and a chance to get on to the housing ownership ladder. Labour has failed on both counts.
§ Matthew Green
The hon. Gentleman has been speaking for 15 minutes. He has produced a catalogue of Government failings, and I agree with much of what he has said. But can he reassure us that at some point he may offer a solution rather than just listing problems?
§ Mr. Hammond
I shall deal with our policy agenda shortly. The point I am making now is that this Government, who are long on rhetoric, have taken large amounts of money from the pockets of ordinary hardworking families to invest in public services that have spectacularly failed to improve those people's quality of life. The Minister devoted a large part of her rather longer speech to worthy and worthwhile local initiatives, without addressing much bigger issues of Government policy that crucially undermine the quality of life of individuals throughout the country.
§ Mr. Hammond
Even the Minister recognised in the closing moments of her speech that the bigger issues such as health, taxation, education and social services affect the quality of life crucially—that they provide the backdrop. Perhaps as crucial as anything in all local communities is the provision of housing. The number of homeless families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation has increased threefold since 1997, and priority homelessness has increased by 26 per cent. That failure in particular underlines the Government's failure to live up to their rhetoric about caring for the most vulnerable in society, and improving quality of life for those most in need.
§ Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test)
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about the importance of a roof over one's head and of housebuilding programmes. Can he explain why members of his party throughout the country have opposed plans for the building of new and, in particular, affordable housing in areas where the issues that he raises could he dealt with?
§ Mr. Hammond
The hon. Gentleman is not being terribly specific. I do not doubt for a moment that 686 various members of my party in various places may have opposed specific proposals. In a moment I shall say something about the Government's communities plan, which is the main way in which they hope to address these issues.
The number of social housing completions has fallen by a third since 1997. If we had maintained the 1997 rate, we would now have 35,000 more social homes—enough to house the families who are in bed-and-breakfast accommodation three times over. What I consider even more pernicious, however, is that across large areas even people in full-time work find it impossible to gain access to home ownership. What we used to call social housing, which most of us used to regard as a way to provide housing for those who were unable to participate fully in the economy, now needs to be provided for people who have full-time jobs, often in the public sector. I find that intolerable; it does not serve our communities or those who work in our public services.
The Government's answer is the communities plan, consisting of four growth areas in the south-east and a proposal to demolish many homes in the north. The communities plan will do nothing for the quality of life of the hundreds of thousands of workers across the south-east in the public and private sectors who aspire to owning their own homes in the communities that they serve. Instead, they will be condemned either to key worker, rented housing, or to long-distance commuting to the area in which they work from a home in a growth area selected by the Government. If they do choose to commute, they will get a chance to assess the success of the Government's 10-year plan for transport, which has been rubbished by virtually everyone—from the Commission for Integrated Transport to the Select Committee and the social exclusion unit.
If those people go by train, they will have plenty of time to ponder on the longer journey times and decreased reliability of a railway that is soaking up ever-larger volumes of taxpayer's money. And they will perhaps have a chance to consider the Government's extraordinary feat in turning a poorly performing element of our infrastructure—our national railway—into a worse performing one, which now seems to need to double as a bottomless pit for public finance, if we are to avoid its imploding completely. If they go by car, they will be able to contemplate the £45 billion in taxes that Government impose on motorists, while considering that Britain's spends the lowest proportion of motoring taxes on transport of any country in the western world.
Either way, as those people commute they will get a chance to see something of the countryside that the Government talk about protecting, but for which they display nothing but contempt. The failure to support rural communities as agriculture has lurched from crisis to crisis has eroded the quality of life of those who live in, and depend on, the countryside. The countryside is not a mausoleum, so that failure will erode its ability to benefit those who live in our towns and cities.
In an earlier intervention, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead pointed out that the key issue that emerges on the doorstep when one asks people about quality of life is having a sense of security. In part, that means future financial security, such as pensions; critically, it also means basic physical security, which we might hope 687 to be able to take for granted today, but cannot. Crime and the fear of crime blight lives in our communities as much as, if not more than, material poverty. Britain under Labour has become the crime capital of the western world. Violent crime recorded by the police has increased by 70 per cent. since 1999, while clear-up is down by one quarter. Gun crime has doubled under Labour. People in England and Wales are now more likely to be victims of crime than those in Europe or north America.
I agree with the right hon. Member for Birkenhead, however, that almost as worrying is the growth in low-level crime and antisocial behaviour. A senior police officer described it to me the other day as a social malaise that has soared under Labour. It makes life a misery for people in our local communities. It makes them feel vulnerable and disempowered, and I suggest to the Government that it is a symptom of a lack of balance between rights and responsibilities in our communities.
The solution to detrimental low-level crime and disorder is neighbourhood policing that is accountable to the community, so that the community's priorities are reflected in the police's responses. Too often in too many areas, what the police consider low-level crime does not get the response that the community believes it deserves. The next Conservative Government have pledged to increase the number of police officers on the streets through the savings that we will make by sorting out the shambolic asylum system; and to reduce police bureaucracy, so that those additional officers deliver real reassurance on the streets of our towns and cities, throughout the country.
I want to touch on another issue relating to physical security that is germane to the debate on local communities. It is not only our police forces that protect us from the threats around us; so do our fire and rescue services. During the long fire dispute, the Government pledged that the modernisation of fire services would result in a reduction in fire deaths. So how many people will sleep safer in their beds and see their quality of life improved, thanks to Government's recent reduction of their target in respect of deliberate fires? Their target figure of a 30 per cent. reduction by 2009 has been amended to a mere 10 per cent. reduction by 2010. And how will people's sense of security be enhanced by the Government's reducing their target of a 20 per cent. reduction in the number of accidental fire deaths from 2004—a date that is a bit close to judgment day? Suddenly, that date has been pushed out to 2010.
Such examples underline the nature of this Government's use of targets. Targets grab headlines when they are announced, but when they become difficult to meet they get pushed back. Indeed, during a Standing Committee debate the other day, the hon. Member for Corby (Phil Hope) was very honest about the accidental deaths target. He said:We have extended that to March 2010 because … the previous target was not attainable."—[Official Report, First Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation, 21 October 2003; c. 4.]At least he was honest, but what is the point of setting targets if, every time we get close to judgment day, the Government simply push them back to a date beyond the next general election?
688 As the Minister knows, there are many areas that I have not even touched on that contribute considerably to the sense of an undermining of the quality of life in our local communities. Indeed, I hope to mention some points that relate specifically to my local community, and to discover some things ahead of the expected announcement from the Chancellor. We confidently predict that we will hear of yet higher taxes, yet more burdens on hard-working families and yet higher council tax levels. On the local government settlement, we expect to hear more from the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) about the Government's redistribution of resources around the country, which will undermine the quality of life of people in communities not favoured with this Government's largesse.
The Government can best contribute to the quality of life in our local communities by giving them back their freedom: the freedom for local authorities to address the needs of the community, not the targets of government; the freedom for accountable police authorities to address community priorities, thus enhancing the population's sense of safety and security; the freedom for our doctors, nurses and teachers to treat and to teach; and the freedom for patients and parents to exercise the choice that empowers individuals. We need a Government who live within their means; taxation that does not squeeze the lifeblood out of our economy; public services that are reformed to deliver efficiently, without waste and bureaucracy, through the exercise of citizen choice; funding distribution based on the need to protect the vulnerable everywhere—not just in areas favoured by government—while still promoting economic growth and allowing the economy to grow by attracting investment to the areas in which inward investment wants to locate.
In short, we need a fair deal for everyone—the south as well as the north, the countryside as well as our cities. That is the way for the Government to contribute to a rise in the quality of life for all our local communities.
§ Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)
I contribute to this debate as the chair of the all-party group on regeneration, which has had many discussions on the quality of life. Indeed, I want to record my thanks to the Minister for recently attending a meeting of the group. Such a debate is important, and the speeches made so far have made it clear just how important this issue is for MPs and their constituencies. If the phone calls, visits, letters and e-mails to my constituency office are anything to go by, this issue tops all the others in terms of what matters to people. It is intrinsically linked to people feeling that they can have faith in their MP, faith in their Government and faith in their local authority to deliver the things that matter to them.
Our debate on this subject is important and necessary. As was mentioned in an earlier intervention, we seem to have lost a sense of place, a sense of belonging and a sense of trust in a community identity whereby people know who is responsible for what, who to go to when something needs to be done and what can be done to put things right when they go wrong. We know that some people will be proactive in getting such things done. 689 What we need to convey from today's debate, which also reflects the debates in the all-party regeneration group, is the fact that we support the Minister because we realise that she has a cross-cutting role inside the Government to deal with issues such as community safety, policing, education and so forth. Ultimately, the Treasury is involved in respect of the finances available for dealing with those issues. We want to give more power to the Minister's elbow to fight that corner for us. That is why our debate is important.
The debate is also timely. It is being held not only before the Queen's Speech but before the next spending round, which will determine the allocation of moneys. We must issue the plea that every Cabinet Minister should take the quality of life seriously, and we also need a strategy for delivery. I am often reminded of the phrase, "vision without action is just a dream; action without vision is just a waste of time". Only when we can combine vision with action will we change the world. Our constituents want their MPs to help to change the world for the better in the local community.
Today's debate highlights quality of life indicators, which are welcome, and I greatly commend the Government for introducing them. We can monitor the quality of life indicators to establish how things are changing and improving. We need to use such tools to add weight to the importance of delivery at the local level.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)
I have listened carefully to the hon. Lady's speech and I know that she wants to deliver at the local level, so how does she square that with her Government's removal of housing and planning to the regional level? Does that not amount to taking such decisions away from local people, making services far more remote and less accessible?
§ Ms Walley
A great deal of consideration should be given to the new planning guidance. as well as to the current guidance. People want some input into the planning decisions that affect their local areas. As the Minister said in her introduction, we must examine our economic well-being at the regional level. It is important to plan in order to avoid huge out-of-town developments, which have done so much to undermine a local sense of well-being and belonging.
I remember that, as a child, I knew everybody. I knew who people were before they were married; I knew their names; I knew all about them. My point about the planning system is that we need to take account of issues as a whole—at a regional level as well as at the local level—and I believe that the Government are getting the balance right.
We must examine the role of local authorities. Following on from this debate, I would like us to reflect on how to get local democracy right. We should examine how local councillors can play a part in the regeneration policies that we want. There is a danger of having too many local partnerships of one sort or another, bringing about more bureaucracy rather than allowing locally elected people at the ward level any real opportunities to design, deliver and implement what is needed.
§ Andrew Selous
It is right to talk about getting local democracy right, so what would the hon. Lady say to 690 local councillors in my area, where the biggest local issue for about 50 years—the doubling of the number of houses in the constituency—has been taken entirely out of their hands? It is being decided at regional level and through an urban development corporation with the approval of only a minority of elected councillors. What happens to local democracy in those circumstances?
§ Ms Walley
Anyone who knows my record will be aware that I am a proud defender of the rights of local democracies and, indeed, of local councillors. It is important that planning is conducted within a national as well as a regional framework. It is important that we get the balance right.
We have had many reports—the Rogers report, for example—various consultation documents, and other reports from the former Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, but the time for talk is now effectively over. It is now time for delivery. I cannot therefore stress enough the importance of the Minister's ability to cross Departments. Various recommendations have resulted from the work of the various taskforces and the many people across the country who have given freely of their time to influence what should be done: now is the time to put them into action. That is crucial.
Neighbourhoods are also an important issue. I come from an area that has a very strong sense of neighbourhood. People place high value on the public realm and their local communities, whether it be in respect of parks, play spaces or local services such as rubbish collection or the maintenance of shared areas. It is a matter of concern when national surveys have revealed that 40 per cent. of people would like to move from poorer areas because they feel that the neighbourhood conditions are not right. That is why I greatly welcome the housing renewal programme, which the Government have introduced. It will apply in north Staffordshire and I urge the Minister to ensure that we get it in place as quickly as possible and link it to regional planning and economic development issues.
I was struck by Members' comments about antisocial behaviour. I have been involved in many research studies, and in my experience it is the issue that matters more than any other to many people. I noticed my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan), who has successfully piloted the Fireworks Bill through the House, in his place earlier. Some antisocial behaviour could result from not yet having dealt with the previous Government's abolition of controls on the importation of fireworks. Antisocial behaviour often makes people move from inner-city areas to greener places where we should not be building, so we must ensure that we build sustainable communities in urban areas.
It is often only a small minority of people who cause much antisocial behaviour. Whether it results from insufficient drug rehabilitation places, insufficient parenting skills, a continuing cycle of deprivation or whatever, we must deal with the problem, because feeling safe in the community is more important than anything else.
I should like to draw the Minister's attention to the role that street lighting can play in tackling antisocial behaviour. The Home Office has tended to invest large 691 sums in closed circuit television cameras on the grounds that they can play a large role in reducing antisocial behaviour. I have to say that the contribution that CCTV cameras can make depends on monitoring within the local authority. Research undertaken by the all-party lighting group showed that more effective street lighting could play a bigger role. Such lighting need not be polluting, which might make it unwelcome in some rural countryside areas. New technology exists to get round that problem. I firmly believe that effective street lighting could make a huge difference.
§ Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton)
To back up the hon. Lady's point, CCTV was introduced on the Cambridge road estate in the Norbiton ward in my constituency. The high-tech CCTV was in place, but parts of the estate were not sufficiently lit. That shows that there was no joint thinking, which would have ensured that the lighting was adequate. We need a dual approach with both cameras and proper lighting.
§ Ms Walley
I am glad to have the opportunity to commend the work that the hon. Gentleman has done for the all-party street lighting group. If a local authority cannot afford to employ sufficient people to monitor its cameras, or if blind spots are caused by insufficient street lighting or overgrown trees in summer, CCTV will make no difference to antisocial behaviour and may merely displace it from one area to another. That shows the need for proper communication between the Government and local authorities to ensure sufficient assessment of street lighting, where it is failing and where it needs to be replaced. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to remind the Treasury that funding must also be available—I am happy to say that we have private finance initiative funding for the whole of Stoke-on-Trent to be relit—throughout the whole country.
§ Mr. Andrew Turner
The problem is that CCTV is merely treating the symptom. I understand why people want the symptom to be treated, but we need to treat the disease. Will the hon. Lady explain, if she can, on behalf of Ministers who have not yet explained it, how we can treat the disease of antisocial behaviour, rather than merely the symptoms?
§ Ms Walley
We were promised at the outset that this would be a far-ranging debate and that is what it has turned into. We need to consider the whole issue of how we address antisocial behaviour. One good news story in Stoke-on-Trent is the sure start programme, which has reached out to young people. It gives both men and women parenting skills and provides toy libraries, and advice on proper nutrition and on proper parental behaviour. It links with nursery provision in the area and it helps young children. However, it is older children who contribute so much to the senseless yobbish behaviour that undermines our communities. Drug addiction is one problem, and we need to combat nationally the increasing amount of drugs entering the country and the hopelessness they bring. At the weekend, I drove through parts of the country that I do not know very well—former coalfield areas outside north Staffordshire—where traditional jobs have been 692 taken away and have not yet been fully replaced, and that is why I support what the Minister said about economic security. We need to work with regional development agencies to provide the investment that we need on the ground to create new jobs. People in my constituency have lost their jobs in the ceramic industry because their jobs have been outsourced. We need to address those issues quickly, but in a way that is well thought out and works across the board.
Play issues are also important. Twenty years ago, local authorities had clear responsibilities to provide parks, but investment over the years has not been what it should have been. I pay tribute to the Government for setting up the working party on play, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson). I am proud to say that the working party's report was launched at a conference held by the Landscape Institute at Vale Park conference centre in my constituency. It is very important that we provide good play areas for children and proper areas for young people.
Stoke-on-Trent city council advises me of a major problem, in that the majority of funding for play comes from external funding sources, including the neighbourhood renewal fund, the children's fund, the new opportunities better play programme, positive action for young people, community cohesion or learning and skills councils. Local authorities have a real problem deciding which source to apply to for what purpose. The Government also need to ensure security of funding so that it does not dry up after a scheme has been running for three years. We also need the chance to follow up pilot projects with mainstream projects. It is no good setting up neighbourhood management teams with neighbourhood renewal funds if, three years later, the funds are not available to continue that work. It makes recruitment difficult if people are uncertain about how long their jobs will last.
§ Mr. Meale
Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to pay tribute to local authorities of all political persuasions for their work on biodiversity? Some 5,000 local authorities throughout Europe have participated fully in Agenda 21, at a local level in their communities and through education programmes.
§ Ms Walley
Last Wednesday, I was invited to launch a conference entitled "Sustainable Staffordshire", held to celebrate the 10th anniversary of a group, which included people from businesses, local authorities and other organisations, set up to carry out the work of Agenda 21. I had helped to set up the group and it invited me back to celebrate its anniversary. At the conference, I was able to report back from the Johannesburg world summit. As the Environmental Audit Committee has done many times, we were able to examine how the issue of environmental sustainability should be part and parcel of the process of regeneration. Every regeneration proposal must have regard to biodiversity and the real issues raised by the action plan from the Johannesburg world summit, which built on the progress achieved after the Rio earth summit some 10 years ago. For example, the Government have announced today a review of English Nature and we need to ensure that what is put in its place pays proper regard to issues of sustainability. That will also require the Government to work with local authorities.
693 The citizenship scheme that the Government have introduced in schools can play an important part in ensuring that our young people understand our agenda. Huge gains can be made by providing proper funding for sport. I note the concerns that the full amount of funding from the Treasury has not reached the Football Foundation, which provides partnership funding for sport at a local level, together with the premiership and other funding sources, such as the lottery. I urge the Minister to check with her colleagues at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to ensure that promised funding is allocated in its entirety.
I supported the post office network reinvention programme, because I know how important post offices are to so many urban and rural areas. I would be grateful if the Minister worked closely with the Post Office on the implementation of that programme, which I understood would look strategically at where post offices were needed to ensure access for local communities, in a similar way to the process that provided extra money for rural post offices. My area still has many urban villages—former mining communities—and the Post Office has taken the easy way out. For example, it has closed the post office in Ball Green, despite huge opposition and before strategic consideration of what is needed. I do not think that the Post Office is abiding by the letter of what was agreed. Visiting the post office means that one meets people and feels part of the community. The sense of belonging is really important.
I am conscious of the time, so I will raise only two more issues. The first has to do with back alleys. In the 21st century, it is not right that so many people in terraced properties should find themselves ankle deep in mud when they go out of their back door because the alley has not been adopted. I have spent eight years campaigning on this matter. I have gone to the local government office, to my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and to the regional development agencies and the local authorities, but with no success, as there is no dedicated funding for adopted alleys. I am sure that many of my constituents would welcome designated funding to adopt all the unadopted alleys—for instance, as part of the housing renewal programme.
Finally, I agree with my hon. Friend the Minister when she said that the most deprived communities are often the ones with the largest needs. I want to end with a plea. Stoke-on-Trent city council has applied for a share of the £200 million liveability fund. I pay great tribute to the work done by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment in helping local authorities draw up proposals, but only three of the 28 applicants for the liveability fund in the west midlands will be successful.
Stoke-on-Trent has suffered huge job losses and urban deprivation. Genuine desire for improvement was expressed at the conference launched by my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, and a plea was made that my local authority's application should be successful. I met Mr. Phillip Harper, the director of urban management recently appointed by the council manager for Stoke-on-Trent city council. I understand that two weeks ago Mr. Harper had a special meeting with my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and other departmental Ministers to talk about the wonderful work that had been done in 694 Middlesbrough. It is clear that Mr. Harper could administer any money received as a result of a successful liveability fund application. I know that the Government are to make an announcement early this month. I cannot stress how important a winning application would be to my constituents.
§ Matthew Green (Ludlow)
I am pleased that the Government have arranged this wide-ranging debate. Like the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley), I want to be as positive as possible when it comes to proposing solutions to some of the problems that exist. I do not want to copy the style of the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond), who spent 27 minutes talking about problems, and one minute skating over a few solutions.
A regular feature of the contributions so far has been the issue of antisocial behaviour and low-level crime. The Minister was right to touch on the roots of those problems. In particular, the 1980s were a period when the sense of community broke down. It was replaced with a much more individualistic approach, when belonging to a community became much less important.
Cultivating a sense of community is one of the most effective ways to reduce antisocial behaviour. I speak with some knowledge, as there is practically no such behaviour in my constituency. I served on the Anti-Social Behaviour Bill, but I think that I have received only two letters on the subject since I became a Member of Parliament. I realise that that is not a common experience among hon. Members, but why should that be?
In my constituency, there is a very strong sense of local community. That is partly because the communities involved are small and widely dispersed, and we do not suffer from the problems that have emerged elsewhere. Conservative Members need to address the fact that the breakdown in the sense of community is one of the main reasons why antisocial behaviour is such a large problem. Many of the Government's solutions are sticking plasters applied in an attempt to paper over the damage. We must try to rebuild that sense of community.
It has rightly been said that the problem of graffiti is a blight on many communities. Graffiti wears down people's sense of well being in their community, and probably encourage crime. Liberal Democrat Members supported the Anti-Social Behaviour Bill's provision on graffiti, but councils have been able to act effectively even before those provisions have been introduced. No one has all the solutions, and we need to look at best practices.
Milton Keynes council decided that graffiti was one of the most serious problems in the area, and residents wanted the matter dealt with. The council set up graffiti-busting teams, and there are now about 2,000 fewer tags or problems with graffiti than was the case two years ago. The teams act very promptly, and deal with a problem as soon as it is identified. They have tackled the existing problem with graffiti, and the number of incidents involving graffiti in the future is likely to be lower. Councils in general could learn from that.
Kingston council, in the area represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), has adopted a holistic approach. It has worked 695 with magistrates and police to produce joined-up initiatives, and a dramatic reduction in graffiti has been achieved.
I have presented two examples of positive action by local councils, but I am sure that other hon. Members know of others. They would be doing the House a service if they described them.
Dealing with crime sometimes requires more than a big stick. The design of local communities is also very important. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North spoke about back alleys. In Liverpool, locks and gates have been placed on back alleys, and residents have been given the keys. As a result. they have control over the alleys, and the policy has had a dramatic effect in cutting crime. Sometimes, the simplest solutions are the most effective. The one that I have just described is also very cheap, but it has worked very well.
§ Ian Lucas
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the biggest difficulties when it comes to dealing with antisocial behaviour, or what has been called learnable crime, is that agencies such as the police, local authorities, community councils do not talk to each other? Straightforward solutions are missed as a result.
§ Matthew Green
My immediate response is that, if those agencies are not speaking to each other, it must be the role of the local MP to ensure that they begin to do so. Perhaps matters are different in the hon. Gentleman's area. If local agencies in my area were not in touch with each other, I would make sure that they got together and spoke to each other. I would not let them get away with not doing so. It is possible for MPs to have an influence in that way.
One difficulty with antisocial behaviour is that the Government's approach has been to vilify young people. In effect, the Anti-Social Behaviour Bill says that young people are the problem and that a solution can be achieved by hitting them harder with a stick. Some elements of the Bill are necessary and welcome, but the proposal in respect of the dispersal of groups is unacceptable. At its worst, the Bill will punish innocent people for the misbehaviour of others, as those innocent people will be the ones to be dispersed from an area when problems are caused by outsiders. That approach will cause young people to have less regard and respect for their communities and for the forces of law and order. It is not an approach that the Government should be following.
§ Mr. Edward Davey
On the Sunray estate in Tolworth in my constituency, we have the problem of youth gangs committing antisocial behaviour and terrorising some of the residents. Last week, I held a meeting with local police who told me that they did not want to criminalise young people but to find diversion tactics—other ways to reach out to them and to find other things for them to do—as well as empower the residents so that they could link up and build the sort of community that is the only sure foundation for stopping such antisocial behaviour.
§ Matthew Green
I thank my hon. Friend for that point. Perhaps the saving grace of the Anti-Social 696 Behaviour Bill is that the Association of Chief Police Officers has made it fairly clear that it thinks the police will never use the dispersal powers. Once again, we have a piece of legislation that will probably never be used.
§ Ian Lucas
May I share with the hon. Gentleman details of a case from my own constituency? A letter arrived on my desk yesterday morning from a lady who described how, due to the behaviour of between 25 and 30 young people in her area, she needed protection from the police. They asked her to contact me to make it clear that they wanted dispersal powers to deal with those incidents. Today, I shall write to her to let her know that the Liberal Democrats do not support such powers.
§ Matthew Green
We certainly do not support the dispersal powers that are currently set out. I am happy to defend that position.
Housing has been mentioned. The right to a roof over one's head is key to people's quality of life. I want to consider three aspects. The first is affordable housing to rent. As we have heard, there has been a decline—especially since 1997, as it happens—in the amount of new social housing that has been built, although that decline started as long ago as 1990. The number of new houses registered to social landlords has been in decline since then.
The situation is exacerbated by the continued existence of the right to buy, especially in areas of high housing demand. Local councils should be given the power to decide both whether right to buy should apply in their area and on the scale of the discount to be offered. That would stop the erosion of housing stock in high-demand areas.
§ Mr. Hammond
Selling a house under right to buy does not cause that house to be lost from the housing stock; it causes it to be occupied by exactly the same person who occupied it on the day before it was bought and who would have continued to occupy it on the day after it was bought even if it had not been bought.
§ Matthew Green
The hon. Gentleman is clearly unaware of the number of cases of abuse of the right-to-buy system. People are encouraged to take up that right, but after a couple of years a company acquires the house. There is huge profiteering by people who are not the original tenants.
§ Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge)
My hon. Friend may be aware that in rural constituencies, former council houses in small villages have a high value. They can be sold on after four, five, six or 10 years at a large profit and are then lost to the social market.
§ Matthew Green
My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. My constituency is a rural one and affordable housing is the No. 1 issue. People want more homes to rent. The reason that there are fewer such homes is that too many of them were sold under the right to buy.
§ Mr. Hammond
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that his objection is to abuse of the right to buy scheme and 697 not to the scheme per se? Earlier, he appeared to be saying that local authorities should be able to opt out of the right to buy.
§ Matthew Green
I said that by removing the discount local authorities would be able, in effect, to opt out. That is giving local choice to local communities, something to which I thought the Conservatives had converted themselves over recent months—to the shock of many of us: local solutions for local problems.
§ Mr. Andrew Turner
Another aspect of local choice for local communities is that of who should be on their housing list. My constituents complain furiously that people come from the mainland and are housed in my constituency. Can the hon. Gentleman tell us whether the Liberal Democrats support the right of local authorities to determine who should be on their housing list?
§ Matthew Green
I have to point out that Tory asylum policy is to find an island, as yet unspecified, on which to stick all asylum seekers. With that in mind, the hon. Gentleman should be wary of talking about housing and incomers.
We need more registered social landlord properties, and they can be delivered through the planning system. Several local authorities, including one in my area, have adopted a policy requirement of 50 per cent. affordable homes on sites of two or more houses. That is much higher than the Government's recommendation of 30 per cent. affordable homes on sites of 19 or more. In areas of high demand, especially around London and in the south-east, I encourage the Government to push the figure up to 50 per cent. on sites of two or more houses. In that way, the market can deliver extra rented homes.
We also need affordable houses to buy. The rampant growth in house prices means that in large parts of the country few people can afford to get on to the housing ladder. In London and the south-east, the problem affects key workers. In rural areas such as mine, where wages are low but house prices have risen due to people retiring to the area, local working families can no longer afford to get on to the ladder.
I offer a positive solution. It was dreamed up by South Shropshire district council and has already been adopted in the Dartmoor national park: the use of the golden share scheme, under arrangements set out in section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, to ensure that when a property is built it is bought, at a reduced amount, by people who qualify as local and who need to live in the area because they have local links or work there. However, when they sell the property it cannot go on to the open market; there are restraints under section 106 so that it remains affordable in perpetuity. The system was introduced in south Shropshire in January.
The Minister may not know about the scheme in detail, so I shall not ask her for an instant response, but I urge to look into it. It offers a way to create a middle tier of affordable housing whereby people can own 100 per cent. of their property with no shared equity. Such houses remain affordable for local families.
Houses should also be affordable to live in. The Government could do much more to improve building regulations to ensure that energy use is reduced, through 698 measures such as the incorporation of natural light and heating in the design of houses. If they were serious about the introduction of micro combined heat and power plants to serve all properties with a gas supply—about 70 per cent. of UK houses—they could replace nuclear power within the next 15 years, as long as they allow net metering. That would produce a dramatic effect; cheaper heat and light will make homes more affordable to live in. There is much that the Government can do about that and I hope to hear positive things from the Minister.
We have already discussed post offices, but pharmacies are also under threat. The quality of life in local communities depends on local post offices and local pharmacies. We cannot do without them. The Government must find a way of reversing their course on post offices. We want more post offices to open and to protect the ones that we have already, not the continual decline first of rural and then of urban post offices. Before it is too late, the Government must stop taking the same route in relation to pharmacies. We must protect small, local pharmacies.
Much can be done to encourage small shops; for example, by changes to the uniform business rate. The car parks of large out-of-town supermarkets are, in effect, untaxed, because the business rate is levied only on the building and not the car park. If we changed the taxation system so that it took account of land value rather than rateable value, supermarkets could be taxed on their extremely profitable large car parks and small shops in towns would pay lower taxes—[Interruption.] It is, in fact, Liberal policy.
We have heard about facilities for children. Sure start is a success, which we need to build on, and the Government ought to be making announcements about increasing the extent of that initiative. We also need a coherent policy about play areas and green areas. After all, under Conservative Governments, playing fields were sold off. We need to protect playing fields and local councils need to register them.
§ Matthew Green
I will not because I am going on—not yet for quite so long as the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge.
I also want to touch on rural areas, as hon. Members might imagine given my constituency. The Government have introduced the term, "rural-proofing". I welcome it, but they need to show what it means. I shall give an example from my constituency. We have a community—Bishop's Castle—that hit the highest level on all the Countryside Agency's sheets of the most deprived areas. The people there have been trying to get together a sports and arts facility, which is much needed because anyone in Bishop's Castle has to make a 20-mile round trip to get to one of those facilities. The Government have so far failed to find any route to help to fund that facility. Bishop's Castle is in a rural regeneration zone and has objective 2 status, but such facilities do not meet any of the necessary funding criteria, although, quite frankly, people are deprived by not having them.
699 In rural areas, social exclusion for the young and elderly is very much dictated by the complete lack of transport provision. Many parts of my constituency have no bus service, and some of them have a bus service that comes once a week. That shows the level of the problem. How can people enjoy a coherent lifestyle if they are reliant on that?
I want to finish by considering what the Government need to do to improve the quality of life for local communities. As I have said before, local problems need local solutions, so the Government need to devolve as much power as possible to local communities. They need to take power from Westminster to the regions and local councils. That decentralisation will empower local communities and allow them to make the choices and decisions that work in their areas. None of us has a magic one-size-fits-all solution, and if people pretend that they have, they are, quite frankly, barking mad.
We also need to revitalise local democracy. Proportional representation for local elections—we hope that it will be introduced in Scotland shortly—would have a major impact, by ending the monopoly one-party states that we see in local government, and that can be said of all parties.
§ Matthew Green
I will not give way because I have taken some time and I am now winding up.
The Government also need to enable the provision of first tier councils—community councils—where they are wanted, even in urban areas. If people decide, perhaps in a local referendum, that they want a low-level council, let them have one. My constituency is entirely parished—there are first-tier councils throughout my constituency—but other hon. Members will have none in theirs. Very often, such councils can be the most effective way to deliver local solutions.
Finally—this has been touched on—what will really make a difference to the quality of life of many people in our local communities, particularly pensioners, is giving them extra income in their hands. Scrapping the unfair council tax and replacing it with a tax based on ability to pay would give those on low incomes more money. The Conservatives introduced the council tax in 1991, and the fact that their spokesman has said nothing about it confirms that they still support the council tax. They obviously still think that it is a fair tax. Council tax is no longer sustainable, and we have heard the Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire say that that it is approaching the level of unsustainability.
The Government are now considering local income tax as part of the balance of funding review, but the day after that was announced by the Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire, the Prime Minister announced in his monthly press conference that the Government will never introduce local income tax. The Deputy Prime Minister and all the Ministers under him are clearly open-minded about local income tax, but they have already been overruled by No. 10, saying that they cannot do it. I would very much welcome the Minister clarifying in her winding-up 700 speech whether the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister would be able to persuade No. 10 that local income tax should be introduced if the balance of funding review recommends it.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)
Order. Limited time is available to the debate, which covers a broad canvas, as has been acknowledged. I hope that not all hon. Members whom I call will wish to cover its entire breadth.
§ Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test)
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was indeed going to commence my remarks with the observation that the title of the debate could be treated not as a subject but as a coat hanger on which various coats could be placed, so as long as hon. Members put at the end of each metaphorical coat the words "the quality of life for local communities". In that respect, the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) did not disappoint. Indeed, he covered a huge area on that basis.
I should like to talk not just about the quality of life in local communities, but about the role of Government in enhancing it. Of course, as the hon. Gentlemen reflected, that is a huge subject, encompassing the health of our environment, the planning and organisation of our cities, the investment that we might make in sport and culture, the way that we deal with the housing needs of our population and the way that people can transport themselves around to get to those amenities, and so on.
I very much welcome the debate, broad ranging though it may be, because it signifies the coming together of joined-up government. Addressing the quality of life in local communities is, frankly, something that, historically, Governments have not done, and it is still fair to say that it is regarded as something of a fluffy issue; it is not really the stuff of high politics. Governments of the right traditionally have not addressed the issue. They have agreed that the market will sort it out and that the role of the Government is to maintain basic order, to hold the ring or, to extend the metaphor slightly using Roy Hattersley's telling phrase,to hold the ring while the biggest and best trained boxers beat the smaller and less trained boxers to a pulp.However, even where Governments of the left have considered that holding the ring was not enough and that one needed to intervene positively through governance to change the conditions in which people lived because the market itself would not do so, the intervention was, historically, essentially restricted to bricks and mortar.
As we have heard this afternoon, bricks and mortar are very important. Whether we have a roof over our head counts rather a lot in our quality of life. If we have a roof over our head, whether we can have locally available to us a doctor's surgery, a post office, amenities for entertainment, shops and so on also count. Even if we have all those, whether we can get to them matters too—for example, people may not have cars.
§ Mr. Hammond
Does the hon. Gentleman not recognise that perhaps quality of life is a better indicator 701 of how Government should distribute funding than some of the cruder underlying indices? For example, that measure that would recognise explicitly that people living in materially more affluent areas of the country might also suffer some downsides from living in those high-pressure, economic growth areas. That seems to be something positive that we can reach for in the debate.
§ Dr. Whitehead
If the hon. Gentleman bears with me, he might be pleasantly surprised. Rather than responding to that point in particular, I hope to develop my argument a little.
The design of our communities is very important, but other intangible factors are at work, governing the quality of life in our communities. For example, the health of our communities depends not only on the important building blocks of the physical arrangement of the environment, but on the less tangible world of the provision of public goods. I refer to goods in the sense that they are goods, instead of bads. That is often a fragile raft. Sometimes communities with relatively poor physical provision of amenities can thrive, whereas others with better provision can occasionally flounder, and who can be said to have the better quality of life thereby?
Communities that flourish will, for example, be those with a high degree of what we might call social capital—the glue that binds people together; the richness of community associations; the web of sports clubs, allotment societies, mother and toddler groups; or even more informal social contacts that enhance mutual support and improve the quality of life in those communities.
I recently met groups of semi-randomly invited constituents to discuss quality of life. Among many other topics in the discussion, I asked them one central question, which could be considered as a positive or a negative: what one thing would most improve the quality of their life if they consider that they have a good quality of life; or what one aspect of their life that they might lose would most damage that quality of life? Those who consider that their quality of life might improve tend to mention specific things that might help: for example, accessibility of services. Those answering the negative questions, however, say that the biggest single thing that would reduce their quality of life would be to be suddenly deprived of their friends, neighbours and community.
Where do Governments come into this? It seems to me that they come into it in a number of ways on which I believe our Government are beginning to gain traction. First, there is the question of bricks and mortar, which is a contentious issue in itself. It is not enough simply to provide: we need to think publicly about how to provide and in what way we provide. My mind was cast back to an interesting statement made in 1929 by the architect Le Corbusier:We must never … lose sight of the perfect human 'Cell', the cell which corresponds most perfectly to our physiological and sentimental needs. We must arrive at the 'house-machine', which must be both practical and emotionally satisfying and designed for a succession of tenants. The idea of the 'old home' disappearing and with it local architecture, etc., for labour will shift about as needed, and must be ready to move, bag and baggage.That essentially describes the layout of many of our towns and cities today. We still have the legacy of Le Corbusier with us in terms of high-rise blocks, the 702 soulless centres of our cities, and the way in which that design of our cities has removed community rather than enhanced it. It is therefore not without significance that the Government's plan for a radical increase in house building in the south-east of England is called not a plan to build houses but the communities plan. That plan appreciates in a way that Le Corbusier and his disciples signally failed to do that communities must be sustained and must work, and that a key role of Governments is to provide the wherewithal to make that happen.
It is interesting to look at a number of research projects into how communities can be seen to work in terms of how urban areas are designed. A study in San Francisco made a clear correlation between the location of particular houses, the number of friends and social contacts that inhabitants of those houses had and the extent to which those houses could be involved or less involved in their communities. Houses that were, for example, on the edge of dual carriageways or in the middle of busy intersections had less social contacts, whereas houses that were designed in areas where community interaction was possible had much higher levels of social contact and interaction.
That brings me to an apparently ephemeral although important issue, certainly in terms of the debate on antisocial behaviour: trust in communities. It is interesting that the Government's strategy unit document on social capital considered, perhaps curiously, that measuring the degree to which people trust strangers in communities might be a good index of the extent to which communities work. It is interesting to make international comparisons of responses to the question, "Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted, or that you cannot be too careful when dealing with people?" As a nation, we come badly down the list—31 per cent. of us answer positively to that question, whereas in countries such as Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Canada, more than 50 per cent. of people answer positively to that question. There are also substantial differences within the United Kingdom in terms of who answers positively to those questions.
In that context, work on ensuring that people feel safe in their environment and are able to trust people and use amenities in their communities without being in fear of their personal safety or being afflicted by neighbours from hell, is important. It seems to me that the underlying idea of much work on antisocial behaviour is not simply to stop antisocial behaviour but to build a more positive aim: to ensure that there is trust within communities and that people are able to go about their business and make use of their communities, therefore enhancing publicly the quality of life in communities, because people are not too afraid to use community facilities in the first place.
It is interesting to consider in that context the Palo Alto experiment, which took place a little while ago in America. A number of researchers left a number of cars with the bonnet up—or, as they would say in America, the hood—in different parts of America. They then observed how long it took before the car was taken to pieces. In some of the six different locations, the car was taken to pieces within two hours. In Palo Alto, however, not only was the car not taken to pieces but, after two days, when the researchers got thoroughly fed up with hiding behind a bush watching the car and came out and drove it away, the researchers were reported to the local 703 police on the grounds that they were acting suspiciously. That sort of index of how communities work, whether they work well and whether there is trust and safety in communities, is vital in relation to discussions of how Governments can make a change in the quality of life in communities.
Of course, the role that Governments have under those circumstances is different from the traditional one of doing things and making things happen. Instead, the role is one of capacity building, providing opportunities for communities to work, supporting communities when they do work, making sure that measures are available for communities to build and sustain themselves, and making sure that those work. It is also about ensuring that the needs of the environment and the people are held in balance. When we debate the question of building more houses, is the issue simply that we should not build any more houses in certain places because the quality of life of particular people will be degraded? Alternatively, if we are trying to build communities as well as housing estates, does such a public good require a public discussion about how it works?
The rewards in terms of better public health, community cohesion and less crime, which underpin and support the capacity building of communities in terms of their social capital, are considerable. They are not easily measurable by traditional means, however, and certainly not by numerical targets, which some have attempted to use. Such projects and programmes are perhaps also unattractive to Governments because the results do not turn up in six months, they do not give good headlines, and they take many years to turn around and change communities. I commend the Government, in relation to their communities programme and other proposals, on resisting the temptation to opt for short-term gain and on investing in the long-term future in making these changes to how communities work and how they do so effectively.
It is essential that Governments go down this route, because unless we find ways of supporting and building capacity in our communities, and of joining up government to do it, the inevitable consequence is the Le Corbusian vision of the isolated worker and individual—in their community but not of their community—simply going about their business and not doing anything else with their lives. It seems to me that communities are the heart and the stuff of life of our country, and supporting them, thereby enhancing the quality of life of those communities, is an essential role for Government to undertake.
§ Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight)
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead). I do not propose to compete with him in thoughtfulness, but his was a thoughtful speech which I will read again with care after this debate is over.
My constituency has a wonderful quality of life—let there be no doubt about that. Consequently, my constituents do not, in the words of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley), who is no longer in her place, want a Member of Parliament who wants to 704 change the world, even for the better. They want a Member of Parliament, a local authority, and most particularly in this context, a Government, who will not get in the way of their enjoyment of their quality of life and will not diminish the quality of life that they enjoy. Many of them subscribe to the view that I have outlined several times, which I shall repeat once more, that no problem in the world is so great that Governments, of any colour, cannot make it worse.
The key factor that determines people's quality of life is how well and comfortable they feel in their communities, and I shall examine several of the points made by the hon. Member for Southampton, Test with that in mind. He did not identify why communities in Norway, Sweden and Denmark were so trusting—perhaps he did not know. He did not identify which communities in this country are more trusting than others. I do not have any evidence to identify those communities either because I did not know that he was going to mention them, but I shall hazard a guess. The communities that are most trusting are those that are the smallest and most stable. There is confidence in Norway, Denmark and Sweden, which is not shared in all parts of this country—I cannot speak for Canada at all—since there is more community cohesion in those countries because of cultural homogeneity and for reasons of stability.
We must carefully address the extent to which our communities are changing and the speed at which that is happening. I have a lot of information about that because many people choose to move to my constituency from London, other metropolitan areas and parts of the country that would have been regarded as pleasant suburban areas until quite recently. Many people no longer feel happy in such places, so they have moved to my constituency and other parts of the south of England, especially. They move not only for the wonderful weather that we enjoy but because they are dissatisfied with the areas that they counted as home before they moved. When such people arrive in my constituency and enjoy the quality of life there, they become worried about the well-being of their friends, daughters and sons who remain in metropolitan areas.
There are two key problems in metropolitan areas about which we must be clear: the cost of housing and the quality of public services. The Government are right to try to address those, although they have chosen the wrong route in some instances. Conservative Members are right to identify the problems as key issues, too. The factors that drive people out of metropolitan areas to areas such as mine are the quality of public services, schools and hospitals, the cleanliness of streets, the amount of graffiti present and the fear of crime.
A further problem is overcrowding, and part of that problem is associated with migration and alienation. People are becoming alienated from the communities in which they have often lived all their lives. If areas change rapidly, as change they do, people start to feel insecure and choose to move. There is large pressure on London and south-east England owing to migration. The Government accept that there are 100,000 migrants a year, while organisations such as Migration Watch UK suggest that there are 200,000, so a new town the size of Slough is required in the already overcrowded southeast every one or two years. Given that, I am sure that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, appreciate why people move 705 from such areas and why they worry about overcrowding. We must address the stability of communities.
We must consider the quality and calibre of local government and its ability not to interfere or intervene, but to set the right priorities. The hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) talked about where money to fund local government should come from. It is easy to propose a different taxation system—we did that twice when we were in government—but the taxation system does not make a difference to overall demands on the local public purse. The quality of decisions taken by local councillors makes the difference because they have to balance the amount that they take from the public and are given by the Government with the amount that they choose to spend on providing what are hopefully good quality public services.
Irrespective of whether local income tax, the rates system, the community charge or the council tax is used, there must be a means of redistribution to areas with greater need or fewer resources from areas with less need or greater resources, as my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) said in reply to my intervention. It is not wholly honest to suggest changing the system unless the method of distributing resources among local authorities is also considered. I am glad that the hon. Member for Ludlow is now listening to me. Perhaps he would like to tell us how the system of distributing money among local authorities could be reformed, because it is that system that matters, not the means of taxation.
§ Matthew Green
However a local government finance system is created, there will have to be some money redistributed from the centre to balance it out. Irrespective of whether houses or local income are used as the basis of the tax, a redistribution system will be needed. The details of such a system have managed to mess up Ministers with responsibility for local government throughout history, so I would not dream of outlining them during a mere intervention.
§ Mr. Turner
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ludlow for his honesty. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge will help him further.
§ Mr. Hammond
I would not dream of trying to help the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green). Does my hon. Friend agree that given the hon. Gentleman's admission that the so-called local income tax would have to be redistributed nationally, it would be nothing more than a Liberal Democrat stealth increase in the basic income tax?
§ Mr. Turner
Indeed, it would be. I think that the Liberal Democrats admit that their proposal would lead to a 25 per cent. increase in income tax for most people in this country.
§ Richard Younger-Ross
Perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman. The system would effectively move money away from the national income tax pot toward the local 706 income tax. Most people would therefore experience no difference. The system would lead to savings because of lower collection costs.
§ Mr. Turner
If the only advantage of the local income tax that the hon. Gentleman can put forward is that it would change collection costs and that a lot of jobs would be lost in many local authorities—perhaps that would be justifiable, however—he is not getting us very far. A local income tax capped at 5 per cent., which I believe to be the Liberal Democrats' proposal, would represent a 20 per cent. increase in income tax for everyone throughout the country on average. What matters is not the way in which the tax is collected but how the Government distribute money between rich local authorities, such as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, and poor local authorities such as mine. It is no good for the Liberal Democrats to propose a local income tax as if it is a magic wand, because the distribution method of the revenue support grant must be right if a difference is to be made.
§ Mr. Turner
I shall not, if I may.
It makes good sense to spend locally—that is an equally important consideration. If a local authority such as mine were advised by the county treasurer that it needed an 11 per cent. council tax increase to meet the effects of last year's Government redistribution, it could say, "But we're not getting enough money from the Government". I could then say that I would lead a delegation to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the relevant Minister could generously give us an additional £1 million—as he did—with more to come in future years. If those who run my local authority then said, as they did, "Well, that's wonderful. Now we'll put the tax up by 14 per cent.", they would not be exercising careful control on their expenditure.
§ Dr. Whitehead
Bearing in mind the hon. Gentleman's strictures about good sense when it comes to spending in local communities, and his view that a local income tax is a bad idea, would his party approve of returning the setting of the business rate to the discretion of the local community?
§ Mr. Turner
I suspect that my party would not approve of that, for the good reason that some local authorities drove businesses out of their areas before the nationalisation of the business rate. I am sorry that that solution had to be adopted, but business could not afford the taxation placed on it. That had a detrimental effect in the long run on the economy and jobs in local communities.
If local authorities are to set the level of local tax, and I believe they should, that brings with it the responsibility of applying common sense to the taxes they set. To do that, they must identify priorities, which sometimes involves making difficult decisions. Sometimes the priority is to keep public lavatories open, as the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) reminded us. At other times, it is to provide a bus shelter, as on the Pan estate in my constituency, which 707 my local authority told me it did not have enough money to do, or to provide litter bins on the seafront at Sandown, something else that my local authority told me it did not have enough money to do. It could involve not providing a cycle track that costs £600,000 or a pop concert that costs £400,000, two of the things that my local authority, which does not have enough money for litter bins, bus shelters and public lavatories, has provided.
Making such decisions requires sense among local politicians and that requires effective accountability. When they stand for election, they must set out what they intend to do and be held accountable for that. If they do that and are accountable at the end of those four years, we will have a much better quality of life and of local government.
§ 3.2 pm
§ Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden)
I do not feel as challenged as some to discover a definition of quality of life. My constituents are clear about what affects their quality of life. I accept that it is the view of suburban south-west London, but what reduces their quality of life, whether they are owner-occupiers, council tenants, private tenants or people who have bought under the right to buy, is the antisocial behaviour of other people in their area. People tell me that graffiti, abandoned cars, noise nuisance and the state of the parks affect their quality of life.
Such problems are often laughed at. Every time the Government attempt to have a crackdown on chewing gum on pavements or litter in the streets, a national newspaper laughs at them, presumably because the journalists do not suffer from the same problems, but any Back Bencher from any party would agree that those are significant issues for their constituents. From their connection with their communities, MPs know that those things seriously affect people's lives.
I congratulate the Government on being brave enough to take on some of those problems, for saying that something needs to be done and to consider changing the law. Although changing the law in itself does not resolve the problem, it might help to bring about a different climate that clearly states what is and is not acceptable behaviour. Perhaps those requirements were not necessary before because we all agreed on what was the right thing to do. Years ago, we all accepted that sticking a mattress or three-piece suite out on the street and expecting the council to collect it was not right. Unfortunately, today, we have to say those things clearly and boldly.
Shifting people's opinions will not happen this year or next year. We need a long-term effort to make all of us respect the quality of life of others. The invisible pendulum between the individual and the community has swung too far in favour of us the individual rather than us the community. That goes for people no matter what their housing tenure or whether they are wealthy or not. One of the most insulting things I often hear, although people do not mean it to be, is the suggestion 708 that antisocial behaviour exists only on council estates. For me, it exists everywhere, irrespective of income, perhaps to lesser or greater degrees.
§ Mr. Hammond
Does the hon. Lady see the breakdown of respect in communities as one issue that affects antisocial behaviour? I was struck by something said earlier about people engaging within their communities. Surely the problem is that people are reluctant to engage when they see antisocial behaviour because they have no real sanction to apply and cannot expect to receive respect for the position they take.
§ Siobhain McDonagh
That brings me back to the idea that things have swung so far in the interests of the individual that we find it difficult to say absolutely and clearly what is right and wrong, and we expect a backlash if we try to do something about such behaviour. The hon. Gentleman is right that people are fearful of checking others because they worry that the authorities will not do anything to help. That is why I congratulate the Government on introducing legislation to deal with what are often seen as small issues. It is right that policing priorities include such problems and that authorities have to take them seriously. One local police inspector told me, "The calls I get are about antisocial behaviour. My chief inspector never calls me in to discuss antisocial behaviour. He wants to talk about robberies and burglary. If only I could deal with some of the small things, I am sure we would find that we could tackle the larger ones."
I carried out a survey of my constituents to discover their views on the Anti-Social Behaviour Bill. I wanted to ensure that I was getting it right and representing their views. I was also highly disturbed by Liberal Democrat comments on how it was wrong to move on gangs of youths on street corners. I tested my approach by writing to 2,000 constituents. I set out the Bill's major themes and asked them for their views. The response to that consultation was larger than any I had received before. Indeed, so many questionnaires were returned that one morning I could not open the door to the office.
The results were telling. More than 90 per cent. of respondents supported the toughest measures, including the banning of spray paints to under-18s, giving the police powers to move on intimidating gangs of young people, and imposing fixed-penalty fines for graffiti on anyone aged 10 and above. The support existed across the constituency from people in all tenures of housing and from all income groups.
§ Richard Younger-Ross
The problem with the dispersal laws is that young people have become an object of fear to older people, whether they are a threat or not. The proposals are in danger of alienating law-abiding young people from doing what young people like to do, which is sitting around talking and having a yak. The police were called out a few years ago in my constituency to a serious drug incident on the seafront at Teignmouth because an elderly person had seen young people snorting coke. When the police investigated, they discovered that they had lemon sherbets.
§ Siobhain McDonagh
I think that it was right that the police attended the call, and when they saw what was happening they were not going to move anybody on or 709 cause any problems. The Bill does not say that people can be moved on if they gather in one place or that gathering is prohibited; it applies only to cases in which antisocial behaviour is occurring.
It is a mistake to believe that antisocial behaviour is an issue for older people. Young people are more likely to be hurt or intimidated in the street. What would the hon. Gentleman say to the young man in Pollard's Hill in my constituency who is in his late teens and so fearful of the gangs who gather on his street corner that he feels that if he does not behave like them he will be attacked? He finds himself involved in behaviour that he wants no part of, but he feels that he needs to take part to protect himself.
§ Mr. Andrew Turner
I have every sympathy for that young man, and I do not disagree with some of the Bill's contents, but does not the hon. Lady accept that the Bill deals with the symptoms? How does she propose to deal with the causes?
§ Siobhain McDonagh
I do not agree. We are introducing a legal framework for what is, and is not, publicly acceptable, so we will see a change in behaviour. There is a law requiring people to wear a seatbelt, and most of us are law-abiding citizens, so we comply. There is a role for such legislation in a society where the forces of social control are changing.
Returning to prosaic matters, I want to thank the Government for taking up my idea about removing graffiti from street furniture owned by statutory undertakers—people who can dig up the roads. One thing that irritates me as an MP is receiving large, glossy brochures about social responsibility from big corporations that are not prepared to maintain their own street furniture. That failure leads to a reduction in the quality of life of my constituents.
When the Anti-Social Behaviour Bill completes its passage through the other place, I hope that it will say that such companies, which include the water boards, the Strategic Rail Authority, London Transport, Telewest and BT, have a responsibility to look after their street furniture, and that if they do not do so the council will step in and recharge them. I am excited that that will happen, and I am pleased that Merton will be one of the 12 pilot areas from 1 April. We will see how effective the measure can be. It is not about punishing those companies, but if we, as individuals, have responsibility, companies have a responsibility to look after their street furniture.
I am also delighted that the Government are tackling these issues through "alleygator" schemes. We all have experience of those highly successful schemes, whereby back alleys are blocked off, preventing fly tipping, stopping people gathering behind other people's homes and making the environment much safer. In one ward in my constituency that has an "alleygator" scheme, we saw a 65 per cent. reduction in domestic burglary. The schemes are a simple solution, and, if we can get the community together to talk about them, they have a tremendous knock-on effect in that people get to know their neighbours. It is right that people contribute to "alleygator" schemes. Our experience in Pollard's Hill is that people are more than happy to pay some of the cost of putting up the gates.
710 I know that, to some people, these issues are minor, but to our constituents they are not. Abandoned cars, which start out being an eyesore in the street and end up acting as torches when they are set alight, frighten everyone, so I am glad that the Government are to introduce a target for London next October that, after being reported, abandoned cars have to be removed in 72 hours.
The fact that we are debating these matters is a fantastic step forward and it shows that people's issues are taken seriously by this place. I urge the Minister and her right hon. and hon. Friends to ensure that their policies will be effective. The Government has provided enormous funds for youth services, Connexions services and the children's fund, and I am not convinced that the money is always spent wisely or properly. Sometimes, the basics are lacking; we get grand schemes when what young people want is a place to gather. We get services that are available from nine to five, when what communities want are evening and weekend facilities. We need to bear down on the organisations involved to ensure that they deliver for the people who pay for them to exist.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. If those hon. Members who remain to speak in the debate confine their remarks to about seven minutes, it should be possible to accommodate them all.
§ Mr. Andrew Rosindell (Romford)
I commend the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) for her remarks. She said that Government funds are not always being spent in the most effective way. I agree. Indeed, it is often the case that when the Government or other public bodies spend money, nationally or locally, those funds are used inappropriately and squandered.
That is why I believe that the best way forward for local communities is to have low taxes, including council tax, and more power for individuals and organisations to make their own decisions, as free from local government as possible. I served as a local councillor for 12 years prior to becoming a Member of Parliament. I also spent four years as a community area forum chairman. During my years on the London borough of Havering, I learned one thing very clearly—local democracy must be truly local. I am afraid to say that our current system does not help us.
I should like to focus on the meaning of what we are talking about when we discuss communities. I heard the Minister refer to neighbourhoods, communities, wards and parishes, and others have spoken of districts. What do we mean by all those different units? We have not defined a true local community. One of the basic problems is that we have not looked at boundaries. For local government and Parliament, the boundary commissions often create anomalies. In my constituency we have communities that are completely divided between boroughs and wards, just to make up numbers. Such anomalies create divisions in communities by splitting up natural neighbourhoods. I say to the Minister that we have to get right the boundaries before 711 we can get down to restoring pride to communities. I could give many examples from my own borough in which anomalies give rise to difficulties that could be avoided.
We need to encourage people to take pride in their communities. That means involving not only local councils and those of us who are elected to serve but people who are truly engaged at a local level. That means involving churches, local sports organisations, schools and a range of other groups. I visit such groups every week, and since becoming an MP I have visited between 300 and 400 local community organisations that cover a multitude of interests. They have a genuine interest in what goes on locally, and we should involve and support them.
I have always objected to the fact that in my constituency, on the outskirts of Greater London, we pay so much for services, yet the money is drained towards central London. We contribute an enormous amount towards the costs of the Greater London Assembly, we pay for all kinds of quangos and central London organisations, and we do not benefit from that. If we are to improve communities, we need to ensure that the funding, and its organisation, is directed to where it is needed. That means ending the current mess in local government finance. It also means ending the explosion of partnerships, agencies, working parties, forums, taskforces, committees, boards, panels and a multitude of other quangos that constantly justify their existence by producing a stream of paper, including reports, strategies, consultation documents and so on. I am fed up with receiving those things in the post and hearing what all those bodies are supposed to be doing. I agree with the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden that those Government bodies and institutions are not spending our money or our constituents' money in the most effective way.
We must therefore oppose more government, which is why my party and I oppose regional government. The sooner that we can have a referendum to get rid of the London Assembly the better. The sooner that we can restore power to local communities by getting rid of the power that we have foolishly handed over to institutions such as the European Union the better. Those bodies affect what goes on in local communities, because all kinds of rules and directives are flooding in. Local government is hamstrung in its goal of serving its communities and instead must bow to Government and EU directives. All those documents must be put on a huge bonfire, and I do not doubt that a future Conservative Government would have the courage to do so.
I am not going to talk for much longer because I know that other hon. Members wish to speak. However, housing is vital—we must restore the right to buy and give local housing association tenants the right to purchase their home. We must ensure that the police are given the respect that they deserve and power to do their job, which is important to local communities. The police have lost confidence in their ability to do their job—a job that, as we know, needs to be done. We need to restore discipline in schools and society in general. We 712 need to support local shops, libraries and other community facilities, as has been mentioned, as well as post offices and pharmacies, all of which are vital.
Ten years ago, I was among those Conservatives who were sceptical of the policy of ending the tradition of keeping Sunday as a special day; a policy that has led to many local community shops having to close, particularly in rural towns and villages. I supported the Keep Sunday Special campaign because, although I believe strongly that we should have as much freedom and choice as possible, a balance has to be struck. It is important that Members from all parties learn such lessons. We must ensure that parks are places where families and children can feel safe and happy, because that is not the case in many parts of the country. We must support the youth service in local authorities, which has been underfunded for too long. We must clamp down on antisocial behaviour, including graffiti, vandalism and the yob culture. We must also tackle general decay. I hope that the Minister will take note of many things that have been raised today, and that that will translate into positive action. It is very well for us to talk about these things, but our constituents want action that will result in genuine progress and make our communities better for everyone. I hope that the Government will take all those points on board.
§ Ian Lucas (Wrexham)
I should like to thank the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) for reminding me of the reason why he is a Conservative and I am a socialist. He believes that government can do bad things, but I believe that it can do good things. Government, both nationally and locally, can achieve great things in our communities. Our role as Members of Parliament is to become involved and facilitate achievement and progress in our local communities.
I accept, however, that Governments can do bad things, and some of the things that they did in the past 20 to 30 years have led to long-term problems, with which we are still dealing, caused by the breakdown of communities. For example, in my constituency in 1983, one in five of the adult population was unemployed. That figure has fallen to 3 per cent, but the fact that 20 per cent. of people were unemployed in 1983 is still having consequences today. I heard the litany of complaint from the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond), but I have a litany of complaint about the Government who ran the country between 1979 and 1997, as what happened then has had a profound effect on my community, and on society.
The present Government are trying to confront and deal with those problems, but we must accept that they are profound and long-term and that there are no instant solutions. There has been much praise from Members on both sides of the House for the sure start scheme, which we all support. That scheme is designed for the long term—we are only beginning to see its good effects—and in 10 years' time, we will see its beneficial consequences and those of similar schemes. Similarly, people who lost out at school are coming into education through lifelong learning programmes. Their lives are being changed, so they form stronger bonds within their families and create the type of family unit and small community that leads to co-operation rather than 713 conflict. Consequently, in such cases, we no longer have to deal with the antisocial behaviour that we have heard so much about.
Although tackling the problems is a long-term project, their consequences are immediate. It may not be true in Ludlow but it is certainly true in Wrexham that instability in a small number of families and communities has resulted in a lack of discipline and respect, and is having a disproportionate effect on the lives of others in the community. The structures of local government do not reflect the demands and wishes of the people whom I represent. Local government is still geared towards the departmental provision of services such as schools and social services, and has not woken up to the fact that the main demand is for security and stability. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 was a tremendous piece of legislation, but local government has still not fully taken it on board. I learned from my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) about the good things that are being done in her local community, but in Wrexham we have a lot to learn and a lot of progress to make in achieving co-operation between different agencies in the town and ensuring that the security that my constituents want is delivered.
The hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell) referred to the danger of too many organisations dealing with similar issues. The all-party regeneration group recently discussed the problem of various organisations in a small geographical area pursuing similar agendas and applying for money from similar sources. That leads to a situation in which groups effectively compete with each other. People in such groups often attend the same meetings to discuss similar topics, but end up making similar funding applications to the same organisations. There is a sense of meeting and organisation exhaustion among such people.
§ Richard Younger-Ross
In Teignbridge, we have very good inter-service agencies that try to avoid that problem. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) said, local Members of Parliament should talk to their agencies to ensure that such groups work.
§ Ian Lucas
I am frustrated and disappointed by the patronising approach that the Liberal Democrats seem to be taking. I am well capable of representing my constituents and seeking co-ordination, but despite my efforts—I assure the hon. Gentleman that they have been strenuous—the number of organisations involved and the influence that I have had have been somewhat limited. I am not alone in voicing that complaint; a number of colleagues have done the same. I call on the Minister to recognise that that is a problem and to consider ways of avoiding it. The current structures mean that too many organisations are pursuing similar aims.
The other important issue is the relationship between those structures and local government. Currently, they do not fit into the local government structure, which has a serious long-term effect on local government. Why should someone become a councillor if they will have a limited influence on money that is awarded to organisations that are often unelected quangos rather than elected bodies? While I support the idea that money 714 should be dealt with at the lowest level, the reality is that we need to ensure that local government, which is, after all, elected, is involved in the process. I ask the Minister to look closely at the structures that are dealing with antisocial behaviour and to press upon local authorities the need to put in place proper structures to deal with that overriding concern and the multiplicity of agencies that are developing in our communities.
§ Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire)
It is a pleasure to take part in this thoughtful and heartfelt debate. I am especially pleased to see that the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), will respond to the debate, as she has the power to take decisions on two particular issues that severely affect my local communities.
My constituency finds itself in the middle of the Milton Keynes and south midlands sub-regional strategy, which plans to double the number of houses located in it. My area is one of high housing need and my district council already has plans to build some 6,000 to 8,000 additional houses, many of which will be affordable houses. to provide the housing that local people need. I fully support that plan. The Government's plans, however, are of a wholly different magnitude. They seek literally to double the number of households in my constituency.
I can tell the Under-Secretary that surveys organised by my local authorities show that 95 per cent. plus of local residents have grave concerns about those plans. They have concerns that there will not be sufficient local jobs, as there is no way in which we can provide employment for such a number of people. That will mean an increase in commuting on roads and railways that are already very crowded. The building will occur across wide stretches of the green belt, which has always been protected—we have been given no good reason as to why that land should go—and the environment of local people will be very adversely affected.
A better watchword for the Under-Secretary's housing proposals for London and the south-east—I should be grateful if she focused on this point, as it is of great interest to my constituents—would be local housing for local people across London and the southeast. My constituents object very strongly to the location of London overspill housing in our constituency and three other areas around London. We want local housing for local people across London and the south-east. That is better for local communities. I do not believe that the Government's proposals to build huge out-of-town housing estates will secure the proper community spirit to which so many hon. Members have referred. The history of post-war housing from the Easterhouse estates on the edge of Glasgow onwards has shown that large housing estates can be built on the edge of towns, but they do not have the community spirit and voluntary groups that are a feature of existing communities. I have huge worries about that, as do many local people.
There is also a big worry about infrastructure catch-up. In Leighton Buzzard, a town that always used to have more doctors per head of population than 715 anywhere else in the country, we are already two to three GPs short, and there are extreme concerns among local people that the proposed housing expansion will not come with proper medical facilities and all the other local services that we need.
This is a heartfelt plea to the Minister. In speech after speech, hon. Members talked about the importance of local people deciding on local issues. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (M s Walley) mentioned local councillors. What upsets me most is that, pretty much universally, my local councillors, of whatever party, object strongly to the plans—so what price our local democracy? When my constituents say to me, "Why should we bother to vote in local elections when we cannot influence locally the biggest decision to affect our area for 50 years?", I cannot give a good answer. I have grave worries about the fact that the proposed development corporation will have a minority of elected councillors.
Antisocial behaviour is a huge problem in my constituency, as in those of other hon. Members. Let me propose a couple of ideas that would assist in that. Many of my constituents who are initially hopeful that the police will be able to impose antisocial behaviour orders find that when the police go round to try to get the necessary evidence, local people are too terrified for their own safety to come forward with it. I suggest a huge increase in the number of independent witnesses who can, unbeknown to the perpetrators of the crimes—for that is what they are—provide evidence of what has been going on without fearing for their safety. I commend that idea to the Government: it would make a big difference and allow more antisocial behaviour orders to be made.
Many of my constituents feel trapped and imprisoned in their homes as a result of the legislation by which a person selling their home has to say whether they have an antisocial behaviour problem with their immediate neighbours or in their immediate environment. Many council tenants who have bought their houses say, "We are desperate to sell our property back to the council or to a registered social landlord, because we are effectively trapped here." That is because the council housing allocation policy has put close to them people who are causing antisocial behaviour. Owner-occupiers can be similarly affected. That is wrong. I commend to the Minister the idea that former council houses can be sold back at a fair and agreed price.
In my constituency, there are seven unauthorised gypsy developments. I have nothing against gypsies: people are free to choose to lead their lives as they please. In planning law, however, it is the law-abiding majority—the settled community—who are severely discriminated against, because gypsy communities are able to buy arable land, wholly against the planning system, and turn it into large encampments sub-divided into different plots. That is causing enormous problems.
Fly tipping is a huge problem in my constituency. I suggest that fines be made much more severe to encourage those who believe that they are cheaper than the proper disposal costs to think again. The issue should be made much more of a priority for the police. 716 Small builders and businesses should be able to use tidy tips: only very large commercial companies should be prohibited from doing so.
I hope that the Minister finds those ideas helpful.
§ Yvette Cooper
With the leave of the House, I shall try to respond in the short time available to a thoughtful and wide-ranging debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) gave a thoughtful account of the impact that design and infrastructure can have on the way in which communities behave. He also talked about trust and the role of friends and families.
The hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell) raised concerns about the geographical definition of the word "community". We can sometimes be over-simplistic in envisaging that all community groups are good, whereas some are unfair, oppressive or discriminatory, whether to their members or to outsiders. We are right to talk about the importance of sustainable and inclusive communities.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) raised the important issue of voluntary groups in his constituency, and I should be happy to look into that further. Many local strategic partnerships are engaging effectively with local community groups. The hon. Members for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), for Ludlow (Matthew Green) and for Romford all talked about different forms of local government finance. I guess that we can look forward to an increasing amount of debate on the interesting alternatives being offered by Opposition Members, especially given the rise to prominence on the Conservative Benches of someone with such expertise in local government finance, the architect of the poll tax himself. I look forward to Conservative Members following their leader on that one.
Several hon. Members raised the issue of housing. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) mentioned housing market renewal, and I agree that it is important that housing and economic regeneration should go closely hand in hand. The hon. Member for Ludlow talked about the need for a greater amount of affordable housing, particularly in the southeast, and mentioned the section 106 arrangements. We are looking at those provisions, because we need better to address the issue of getting more affordable housing into new developments. That is something that we are extremely interested in.
The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) raised concerns about various issues in his constituency, of which I am well aware. I would say to hon. Members that we cannot have it both ways. We cannot complain about the pressures on house prices and the lack of supply of affordable housing while at the same time complaining about the programme for additional house building across the south-east, which, frankly, we need. Hon. Members have also talked about antisocial behaviour. My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) described her constituents' concerns, and the importance of alley-gating. Sometimes these things are so obvious. She was right to say that this issue is critically important to many of our constituents.
717 This has been a debate about the quality of life of our constituents. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) said that an important factor in people's quality of life relates to income, and I agree. Income issues are extremely significant, and that is why I would ask him what the impact on people's quality of life was when interest rates were at 15 per cent. and people could not afford to repay their mortgages. What impact did it have when unemployment hit 3 million? My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham was right to say that the impact of that was felt for many years. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge said that we were building on the legacy of the previous Conservative Government's economic policy. Frankly, we have been dealing with the effects of that policy for decades, and that is why so many problems relating to the quality of life in the most deprived communities have been so severe, and why we have had to address them now.
People in this country know very well the impact on their quality of life of steady economic growth and job growth year after year, of having low inflation year after year, and of having investment in their local communities, public services and quality of life at local level. They do not want to turn the clock back to a time of boom and bust, insecurity and greater inequality. Finally, may I say—
§ It being three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put, pursuant to Order [30 October].