§ Second Reading debate resumed.
§ 5.4 p.m.
§ Lord HILL of LUTON
My Lords, it will be evident in the first phase of this 1380 debate that the prime criterion which is to be applied to this Bill in the stages that lie ahead is whether in fact through its proposals it does reduce the role of local authorities, it does reduce local accountability; or whether, as the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, claimed, the local role is strengthened rather than reduced by the provisions of this Bill. If this Bill is passed in its present form, I have grave doubts whether that statement, no doubt genuinely and honestly made by the noble Lord, will be expressed in the changes that follow. Not every reform of local government has achieved the purposes which it claimed were its own.
For my part I shall be brief, bearing in mind the number of noble Lords who wish to speak. I begin by applying two criteria: one to the block grant and one to the provisions for capital expenditure. Under the heading of block grant, if this Bill passes in its present form the Secretary of State will determine the standard expenditure for over 400 authorities. There is no need to indulge in the fiction that the Secretary of State, or his ministerial colleagues, will engage in those calculations; it will in fact be a Civil Service exercise. That is not necessarily wrong, but we have to ask ourselves, bearing in mind the different circumstances and conditions of 400 authorities, what a massive task will fall upon the body of civil servants who seek to get involved and to understand local problems, local attitudes, local desires.
Not only that. The Secretary of State will lay down the standard expenditure, and he will also lay down the three items that are involved in the calculation of the block grant: the standard expenditure; the standard rate poundage, and the multiplier. If a Minister decides that an authority is spending too much, or too little, it has to remedy that situation. The mind boggles at the thought of persuading a local authority to spend more in order to get to the approved standard level of expenditure. But I suggest it is undeniable that where a Secretary of State lays down the level of standard expenditure, lays down the other two elements in the calculation of the block grant, it is nonsense to say that that does not involve a diminution of local responsibility.
The second point is a smaller one, and I find it in the capital provisions. Clearly, 1381 Government need to, and will seek to, control capital expenditure and the attendant borrowing. But I notice that in this provision, which contains many good points, including the classification of capital expenditure under five different headings with an element for transferability—a great advantage—the Minister will control all expenditure, whatever the source of the money. I give a particular example. A local authority runs a profitable undertaking. It may be an airport. It cannot apply the profits on that undertaking to local purposes that it thinks best without the Minister's permission. Even if it proposes to use the profits on the airport for the rebuilding of that airport it has to have the Minister's permission. Why, in heaven's name? It is their own money. I have a particular example of this that I would send to the Minister.
Why? It seems to be part of the urge for greater and greater central control of local authority expenditure, and particularly capital expenditure. I suggest that the existence of a few recalcitrant authorities is a poor excuse for a basic change in the whole of the attitude to local government. I hope that the Minister will answer on the two examples that I have given him.
As matters stand, this is a damaging Bill because, despite any short-term gains it may bring, in the long term it will make it unattractive for people to give their time and services to local government, and local government will tend to become a local outpost of central Government; and that would be bad for the country, whatever might be the gains of a short-term character.
§ 5.11 p.m.
§ Lord UNDERHILL
My Lords, I am sure noble Lords in all parts of the House will share my keenness to hear more of the sort of informed debate we have had so far. All of the speeches have been informed and all have expressed a passionate desire to ensure that democracy in local government in this country not only continues but is further developed. As has been said, this is a massive Bill; 42 sittings in Standing Committee in another place indicate the amount of attention which your Lordships' House will need to give to its various clauses in Committee.
1382 The Bill contains some welcome relaxations which will be a help to local councils throughout the land. Unfortunately, however, those are cancelled out by the controls which will be imposed by central Government and the considerable powers which will be vested in the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State has said that the Bill challenges long-established habits and attitudes. It certainly does that. As has been said by noble Lords who are more informed on these matters than I, it will put local government in a straitjacket to central Government and the level of local government will be demeaned. It has been made clear by, for example, my noble friend Lord Greenwood of Rossendale and the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, that local authority associations are very concerned. Local councils and individual councillors throughout the country are troubled by many of the provisions of the Bill and by many of the powers which the Secretary of State is to be given. Time does not permit me to list all those powers, but we shall need to consider them all in Committee. The noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, referred to local councils needing to have accountability to central Government. I hope he accepts that there must also be accountability on the part of the Secretary of State, and the Bill gives far too many powers to that Minister.
The measure is so complex that time permits me to deal with only a few aspects of it, and I wish to start with the question of direct labour organisations. Of course they must be efficient, but why must the Government show their hostility to yet another form of public enterprise? I thought we had reached the stage where there was acceptance of a mixed economy; certainly most of my noble friends accept that attitude. Surely we are concerned with how to provide the best service, to the people of an area and fair conditions for those engaged in local building work. I have no criticism of the proposal that direct labour organisations should obtain building and construction contracts in open competition, hut that competition must be fair all round.
Will private firms he made to have the same commitments and responsibilities as exist now for most direct labour organisations? Will they be debarred from using lump labour? Will they have to provide a good degree of welfare 1383 benefits, as do the direct labour organisations; and will they have to provide adequate training facilities and apprenticeships for young craftsmen? Manchester has been given as an example, employing some 5,000 in their direct labour department, with provision for training 500 apprentices. I trust that this important question of training will not be forgotten. Will private firms also have to provide the same degree of security of employment as do the direct labour organisations? Why interfere with the planned continuity of maintenance work on local authority housing and other local authority property? Surely that should be allowed to continue.
As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester pointed out, direct labour organisations have a fine record in connection with urgent action arising from floods, storms and other similar incidents. Will they still be able to provide emergency and instant service without interference as a result of the provisions of the Bill? This part of the Bill is art example of the exceptional powers to be given to the Secretary of State, who will prescribe the descriptions of work that may be undertaken by direct labour organisations, will lay down the reuturn on capital and will be empowered to repeal or amend any provision in any local Act which appears to him to be inconsistent with or will become unnecessary in view of the provisions of the Bill
I remember the intensity with which your Lordships' House stood by a decision of its Select Committee on the Greater Manchester Bill. Under the Bill before us, however, the Secretary of State could wipe out that particular clause in the Greater Manchester Bill, despite the attention given to that matter by a Select Committee of this House.
The AMA has expressed considerable concern with many of the Government's proposals regarding direct labour organisations and the Secretary of State's wide powers in connection with them. The Association of County Councils has stated that throughout the Bill there are many instances where the Secretary of State is attempting to abrogate to himself wide-ranging and far-reaching powers, and the ACC has said that that is particularly the case in regard to direct labour organisa- 1384 tions. The Secretary of State will have powers to review and close down direct labour organisations as he thinks fit, and the ACC urges that direct labour organisations should be reviewed only where the local authority is found not to conform with appropriate statutory duties.
Other noble Lords have dealt with the aspects of the block grant set out in Part VI. I shall make no reference to that, except to express my concern with the provisions of Clause 44 which give power to the Secretary of State to change expenditure items on which transport supplementary grants will be paid, and even to terminate such grants. The Secretary of State has said that flexibility is desired. Why, then, should the Government even consider the possibility of ending transport supplementary grants, which are so essential for public transport? I am sure that is a matter on which the county councils in particular will be greatly concerned.
Reference has been made to the concern of the various planning organisations over the planning aspects of the Bill. Some of the provisions which will ease planning procedures are to be welcomed, but I must reiterate what other noble Lords have said: namely, that for the first time it is proposed by the Government in the Bill to introduce charges for making planning applications. An elector, a ratepayer, will have to pay a charge for seeking approval for something which he has a legal right to do. I cannot see how any Government can justify the introduction of such a proposal. The Secretary of State may by regulation lay down the scale of charges as he thinks fit--yet another power to the Secretary of State.
It appears that county planning powers are to be reduced and that extra responsibilities will be placed on the district councils. I ask whether the district councils will have the manpower to cope with these extra responsibilities, bearing in mind the pressures being exerted on them from other Government sources. These clauses w ill have to be considered most carefully in order to ensure that planning powers are not in any way weakened. We want to see procedures improved, but I am certain that no noble Lord wishes to see planning powers weakened. It seems that it will be possible for structure plans to be amended without any examination in public.
1385 A brief reference is made to the Community Land Act. This Act is wiped out in just five lines. I have read the report of the Standing Committee of another place and, frankly, I fail to see that the Government have adequately explained what they have to replace the provisions of that Act. I think that it is generally agreed that conditions have not been right for the success of the changes that were introduced by the Community Land Act, and perhaps more time was needed for it to prove successful. But why destroy it? Why not seek to amend it, where it may be necessary? The Community Land Act not only provides that the community shall retain value from any development brought about by community action, but, more importantly, it seeks to ensure the proper use of all development land, which is becoming more and more important as the years go by. Yet once again—I think for the fourth time—we have a Conservative Government seeking to repeal a measure that attempts to achieve those aims.
It might be worthwhile saying that land is not like other commodities; the supply is finite. Nobody did anything to supply land. There can be competition in land only in regard to the amount of profit to be made and how the land is to be used, and I wish to know whether, with the repeal of the Community Land Act, private land is now to be returned entirely to what is called the market.
Clause 84 provides for a register of land, but a register only of land held by public bodies, and a very large list of the public bodies concerned is set out in Schedule 13. Why is land held by private interests not to be included in this register? Under Clause 87, the Secretary of State may compel any of these many public bodies to dispose of land; the authority is to be his; the direction is to be his. It is worth commenting that, although the Community Land Act is to go, I am certain that many people will be pleased that the Land Authority for Wales is to be continued—and with some increased powers. However that prompts one to ask why what is good for Wales is not good for elsewhere?
The provisions in Clause 104 with regard to the use of development land give far too sweeping powers to the Secretary of State. He may direct an authority to 1386 make an assessment of land suitable for residential purposes, and the authority must comply with such directions as the Secretary of State may give. There is far too much use of ministerial power and direction contained in this particular clause. We must try to ensure that this clause will not lead to any encroachment on green belt land; and enough statements have been made to give me at least some apprehensions that this may arise from the application of Clause 104, and it will need to be watched very carefully.
Part XV gives the Secretary of State power to direct a new town corporation to pay to him, on a date that he will specify, a sum that he will specify from the sale of new town assets. I believe that the Secretary of State has said that he wants new towns to sell £140 million worth of their assets by next March. It is not very difficult to see who will be harmed by such a proposal; nor is it difficult to see who will benefit from such a proposal.
It has long been held that when new town corporations complete their work, their assets will be placed in trust for the local community and that proceeds from assets or from rentals would be fed back into local government to improve the local community. This will not happen, and cannot happen, when assets are sold to private interests. One must ask whether this is not once again an example of the Government following their own doctrinaire attitudes with regard to community-held assets?
The Government have not sufficiently explained how management will be properly looked after when new town assets are sold off piecemeal. It is generally agreed that the management in new towns is excellent. The Town and Country Planning Association has stated:The only justification for selling off the assets would be if private ownership could manage them more effectively to the general benefit, but for this view there is no shred of evidence".It would seem that the intensity of the Government's view on the public sector borrowing requirement blinds them to the value of holding on to essential assets that would bring great value to new towns in the future.
The Association of County Councils has suggested that the provisions of Part 1387 XVI, on urban development, are so widely drawn that they could have serious consequences for any part of local government by transferring to statutory corporations many of the normal powers of local government. All these powers are listed not in one schedule, but in four schedules—Schedules 24, 25, 26 and 27 to the Bill. The Secretary of State will have power if he—I repeat, he—is of the opinion that it is in the national interest to designate any area as an urban development area. The Secretary of State will then have power to establish an urban development corporation for any such area. He will appoint the members and will remove authority from elected councillors of the area. So much for the suggestion that the Bill will give a greater say to those in local government.
The Secretary of State has said that this provision is to be confined to Merseyside and London's Dockland, but the Bill does not say that. If that is the Government's intention, why not amend the Bill so that the provision will in fact be confined to Merseyside and Dockland? The Bill would enable the Secretary of State to take this action anywhere where he considers it fit to do so. Furthermore, these bodies will be independent of the local authorities, and, it would appear, will be set up without any proper consultation and without any provision for a public inquiry.
The only justification that I can see from all the proceedings on the Committee stage in another place is the alleged slowness of procedure. To any noble Lord who thinks that that is the reason I suggest, with respect, that he reads the report of the Committee stage, from which he will see that London Member of Parliament after London Member of Parliament outlined the work of the Docks Joint Committee—the work already achieved—and referred to the fact that any hindrance has been caused by the various interventions by different Governments from time to time, and has not been due to the establishment of the Docks Joint Committee.
The Secretary of State has said in regard to London's Dockland that the boroughs cannot handle the development because they are concerned with their much broader responsibilities. I should have 1388 thought that the very fact that the boroughs are concerned with broader responsibilities is one reason why they should be left to deal with the developments in London's Dockland and should not have this responsibility taken away from them.
Finally, I wish briefly to refer to a point that has not so far been mentioned in the debate; namely, the inclusion in the Bill of the three-line clause, Clause 153, and Schedule 28 on enterprise zones. Apparently this arose from a last-minute action only two days—I think it was on 14th May—before the debate at the Committee stage in another place. It seems to have been a last-minute decision. Naturally, I and other noble Lords will welcome any step to set up new industries and provide additional employment, but having read the proceedings during the Committee stage in another place, it is not clear whether the proposals will do this.
How far will genuine new enterprises be attracted? How far will existing firms just move part of their existing activities into these new areas because of the advantages that will be given to them? What are the conditions to be laid down for any undertakings that wish to take advantage of the enterprise zones? What positive help will these provisions give to the areas of heavy unemployment? Having also read the proceedings during the Report stage in another place, information on this is most inadequate.
My Lords, it has been said that this is a poor Bill. I am worried that some of its provisions will help to establish a rather shoddy society. I think that is what we must be very concerned about, and I think that when we come to the Committee stage we shall have to look at all these different provisions very carefully.
§ 5.31 p.m.
§ Lord DUNCAN-SANDYS
My Lords, it is of course quite impossible in a single debate to discuss adequately the vast range of subjects which are dealt with in this voluminous Bill, whose Long Title, after the recent correction, now runs to 20 lines. There are many provisions of the Bill about which I should like to speak, but in order not to take up too much of your Lordships' time I propose to confine my remarks to two specific points to which I attach much importance.
1389 The primary purpose of the Bill, as its Title explains, is to relax controls over local government. With certain reservations, I welcome this objective, though I am not altogether sure how far the Bill achieves it. In fact, in some respects I would certainly like the Bill to go still further. One example is the control of outdoor advertisements in conservation areas, with regard to which local authorities would like to be given greater freedom of decision. Under the existing law, local authorities have the power, on their own responsibility without any reference to the Secretary of State, to designate as a conservation area any area which in their opinion is an area of architectural or historic interest—and I now quote from the Act—the character or appearance of which it is desirable to preserve or enhance".In this connection, Circular No. 23 of 1977, issued by the Department of the Environment, while drawing attention to the fact that some conservation areas include commercial centres, specifically advises local authorities—and here I am again quoting,to ensure that advertising displays do not detract from the appearance of areas of architectural or historic interest".That is advice with which I assume we all agree; but as the law now stands, local authorities have no power to control outdoor advertisements without first obtaining the permission of the Secretary of State. This can often involve lengthy and tedious procedures, including, at times, the holding of public inquiries; and this is a great discouragement to the local authorities.
Since local authorities have the power to designate conservation areas without reference to the Secretary of State, it is surely right and logical that they should have the same unfettered power to control outdoor advertisement displays in those conservation areas where they think it appropriate, in accordance with the advice given to them by the Department of the Environment in their circular. That is a relaxation of central Government control which this Bill does not, but should, in my opinion, provide. This proposal, which is entirely in keeping with the primary purpose of the Bill, enjoys the full support of both the Association of Metropolitan Authorities and the Association of District Councils. I do not, of course, expect any 1390 definite reply from the Government today, but I sincerely hope that the Minister, when he winds up the debate, will assure us that between now and the Committee stage this matter will receive sympathetic consideration.
Unlike my first point, the second issue I wish to raise concerns what I believe to be an excessive relaxation of central control. This is a point referred to a few minutes ago by Lord Underhill. As I understand it, the Bill would give to local authorities the power, with certain exceptions, to use land which is at present designated for amenity purposes, including green belt and commons, for any other purpose they may choose. This would inevitably encourage the encroachment of new development upon open spaces of all kinds. It would run counter to the whole trend of legislation, which has in recent years paid ever-increasing attention to the enhancement of the quality of the environment in which people live and work. I hope, therefore, that the Government will pay most careful attention to the numerous representations which have been made to them on this point.
§ 5.38 p.m.
§ Lord BROADBRIDGE
My Lords, we have waited a long time for this Bill to reach us today, and I know that many believe it over-large and cumbersome. When I am asked what it is about, I have to reply, "Almost everything". It much resembles the elephant, of which it has often been remarked, "It is not easy to describe, but somehow you cannot help recognising it when you see it". Fortunately, my only subject today, allotments, is all neatly and concisely contained in the eight lines of subsection (5) of Clause 1, and in the relevant later Schedule 5 on page 142.
In this Bill I believe the Government speak on allotments with a forked tongue. On the one hand, they have hinted at, and given half promises of, new allotment legislation fairly soon, but in this Bill they propose immediately to remove some of the most important legislation protecting half a million allotment holders who have by bitter experience learned that, with a few enlightened exceptions—such as, for example, Birmingham, Bristol, Coventry, Sheffield, Waltham Forest and Brent—they have everything to lose and 1391 nothing to gain from relaxation of central and local government control and controls. I should now like to support these arguments, and provide just a little background.
I should first state my interest in protecting allotment holders. I have some years of allotment gardening experience; I am President of the National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners, which has over 100,000 members; and I made my maiden speech on allotments in this House, but not in this Gallery, on 17th March 1976. This was in Lord Wallace's short debate,calling attention to the need for encouraging home production of vegetables and fruit by greater provision of allotment plots and similar facilities, including the restoration of waste land".My Lords, perhaps I may take this opportunity of saying how much I enjoyed the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Grimston of Westbury, and of expressing the hope that he will return to dig the rich soil of your Lordships' House again and frequently.
The allotment legislation under threat of repeal in this Bill was passed in 1908, 1919, 1922 and 1925, during years of high unemployment and low productivity. Today, with nearly two million unemployed and low productivity, there has never been a greater need on purely economic grounds for allotments; but, additionally, because more people live longer, retire earlier and have smaller or no gardens due to the depredations of successive building programmes, the need is more important still for social and economic reasons. Today my society's best estimates are that the waiting list for allotments has grown from 60,000 in 1976 to over 100,000, that there are presently about 500,000 holders and that a well-kept allotment produces pleasure, exercise and about £100 worth of fruit and vegetables per year, at least.
Successive Governments have stated their desire to support allotment gardeners in what is hardly a party political issue, but the history of action is lamentable and today we are asked to favour "support" by legislative repeal. There was a spark 11 years ago followed by consistent heavy rain. For then in 1966, the Government, which for the record was a Labour one, set up a departmental Committee of 1392 Inquiry into Allotments chaired by the late Professor Harry Thorpe of Birmingham University whose name has come to be associated with it. That report was published in 1969 as Command 4166 and it made 48 constructive and concise principal recommendations for improving the legislation which existed then (as it still exists today) in the seven allotment Acts passed by Parliament between 1908 and 1950.
As all addicts know, that report summarised what Lord Sandys described in our 1976 debate as beingof really outstanding importance",and, on page 265 at paragraph 665:Far more serious however is the fact that the current law is largely irrelevant to the allotments situation today".The first two recommendations were for a retention of a measure of compulsion in the provision of land and for the repeal and replacement of existing legislation. The compulsion to provide is still technically there, although in practice widely flouted, but only if the resident specifically asked for it first—a rather back-to-front situation. Incidentally, allotments are still ommitted from structural plans, which is where they should begin.
Anticipated legislation subsequent to the publication of the Thorpe Report had been the subject of seven ministerial statements in another place by March 1976, seven years later, the latest at that time being that for the Secretary for the Environment in another place on 7th November 1974, (Official Report, column 222):My right honourable friend is reviewing his general policy on allotments in the light of the recommendations made by the Thorpe Committee of Inquiry into Allotments.…During consideration of this Bill by Committee "D" in another place, the Minister told the Committee that the Government were minded to look seriously at the question of whether now was not the time to update the Thorpe Report and to bring forward legislation in a suitable form. As quoted in the Official Report for Standing Committee "D" for 12th February 1980 at column 46, the Minister said:At present we are considering comprehensive legislation to take in the Thorpe Report. There has been in the background of the Government's thinking for some time what is called a recreational gardening Bill".1393 Further taxing the very limits of our credulity, the Minister additionally said in another place in debate on an amendment to make subsection (5) of Clause 1 of this Bill inoperative until January 1st 1982—as quoted in the Official Report 3rd July, 1980 at column 1892:We intend to give the matter detailed consideration when the opportunity permits. The report has been around for some time and I know that that assurance will not satisfy everyone".After 11 years of waiting, only the Guinness Book of Records for ministerial understatement seems positively in view.
My Lords, the issue is simple. Allotment holders are not reactionaries, they want change. Thorpe said so 11 years ago; the National Society said so this year. It is simply a matter of the type of change. Either something is definitely to be done by amending legislation, maybe together with repeal, or by the introduction of totally new substantive law; or, what I am coming increasingly to suspect, nothing is to be done, by either party, ever. After a massive, painstaking and no doubt expensive Committee of Inquiry we surely do not have to expend the slender opportunities of a Private Member's Bill. The subject deserves frontal exposure backed by Government. But we are bewildered. As Mr. Graham, Member for Edmonton and mover of the delaying amendment in another place, aptly said a few minutes later in their debate and following the ministerial statement that I quoted a few moments ago:The hon. Gentleman said the Government were merely removing a few controls which he suggests are superfluous or minimal. Why therefore carry through the legislation? Why go through these traumas if the Government are serious about acting on the Thorpe Report in the next two or three years? The anxiety may be unnecessary but many people are concerned about the legislation.Exactly. Many people certainly are concerned about the legislation.
Officers and members of my Society have made a careful study of the eight proposed repeals—which I should prefer to consider individually at Committee stage—and at its 50th anniversary conference held at Hastings two months ago delegates unanimously condemned these repeals in the light of their experience of the operation of the present legislation by central government and by the majority —but not all—of local authorities. These are people who know, people who are in 1394 the front line and not comforted remotely by reassuring briefings from servants of the Department of the Environment in Marsham Street, Bristol and elsewhere. The ethos of the current Bill is the belief of the Government, and, I understand, particularly the Secretary of State, that affairs should be left more in the hands of local people because local people know best. This is a very laudable belief, and in principle, I subscribe to it: they do know best, but can they be trusted always, or even for most of the time, to act disinterestedly? Of course, not, recalling St. Augustine, who prayed to God to make him good, but not just yet.
As was said in another place, the country must grapple with the question of whether local authorities gave in the past accepted their principal obligation under section 23 of the 1908 Act:to provide a sufficient number of allotments".The record clearly shows that they have not; and past behaviour is medically generally considered a good guide to future behaviour in the same circumstances if a large sample is studied. For most of the people most of the time, expediency is the adopted policy.
I do not believe this to be a counsel of despair but simply an acknowledgement of plain reality. I also believe that fundamentally the Government recognise this, for Clause 2 of this Bill is wholly devoted to insisting that local authorities not only keep accounts but publish them and make information as widely available as possible—but those in Committee "D" who said that they were unhappy that Section 54 of the 1908 Act (providing a statutory obligation to keep separate allotment accounts) was to be repealed were told that this was no longer necessary in the 1980s. This statement seems directly to contradict the spirit of Clause 2.
My Lords, in summary, by all means shift the emphasis tocouncillors, who are far closer to those who want allotments and those who work on them than we are"—as the Minister has put it, but do it with more safeguards and requirements for publication of information, not less—which is where repeal gets us. Finally, as evidence of how a lack of coercion and supervision produces inertia, I should like to commend to noble Lords an 1395 excellent new report called Wasteland, produced last month by Thames Television Limited in support of a programme screened on 24th July called "The Thames Report Programme". I have no interest in this company except as a viewer and a reader. Wasteland, which takes about six hours to read, gives a fascinating and highly factual insight into how a London local authority has dealt with the problems of derelict land owned by public authorities (the GLC and Tower Hamlets), private owners and nationalised industries.
The local authority's commitment is to the people living within its boundaries. But has it been able to obtain the derelict land it needed at the right moment or at the right price? Not at all, and indeed this Bill has proved it by going back to square one 35 years after the last war and including clauses (Nos. 82 to 89) specifically requiring notification of the very existence of derelict land by public bodies in the form of a register, so unwilling have the owners been over their statutory requirement to declare in the past.
What certainty can we then have, without coercion, of the unremitting disinterestedness of public curators of allotment land? I will not digress now on to the great possibilities that derelict land holds for the temporary or permanent provision of allotments, but will conclude by reading to your Lordships two quotations printed between the preface and contents of the Wasteland report. The first I believe shows that the state of the nation and the need for regulation do not change as fast as the Minister perhaps believes, and the second is a quotation from the Minister himself. The first runs:England hath many hundreds of acres of waste and barren lands … and many thousands of idle hands; if both these might be improved, England by God's blessing would grow to be a richer nation than it is now by far".That appeared in Samuel Hartlib's The World turned Upside Down, printed in September 1649, 321 years ago.
Then, the right honourable Michael Heseltine, Secretary of State, speaking at the Local Authorities Association Conference in September 1979, said:It is difficult to think of a nation so rich, so powerful, so steeped in historical certainty that has dissipated its inheritance so fast and to so little 1396 effect as we have.… In London there are 5,000 acres of dereliction within walking distance of the City. In Liverpool, 2,000 acres. Yet we have been unable to mobilise the resources that are necessary to put that land into uses which, in addition to providing jobs, creating wealth and adding to the national economy, also will provide regular income for the local authority where there is none now. I cannot think of any precedent for the scale of opportunity which these two areas present".My Lords, I believe in reform of allotment legislation which is positive and not in this Bill's proposals for simple partial repeal, which is wholly negative and which I shall oppose at Committee stage on 6th October. I hope that noble Lords will support me. I believe that I have half a million allotment holders behind me but only one or two have a vote in your Lordships' House.
§ 5.53 p.m.
§ Lord MISHCON
My Lords, may I add to the congratulations and good wishes expressed to the noble Lord, Lord Grinston of Westbury, on his very welcome maiden speech? In the absence from his place—I hope only temporary—of the Minister, may I apologise for the fact that I did not have the privilege of hearing the major part of his speech? I only came in for the concluding words of Lord Bellwin's introduction of the Second Reading of this Bill. I think that must have been psychological because I found as I wended my way to your Lordships' House that it was as though my feet were bound down with lead, and that is because of my love of my fellow man. I could not bear to hear the noble Lord—whose participation in local government in this country has been so notable—suffer what must have been the internal agony of introducing the Second Reading of a Bill which in many parts reduces local authorities to the status of eunuchs at the Court of the Emperor Heseltine.
It must have been so painful for him. It must have been very much like asking the noble Lord, Lord Cockfield, to introduce into this House a Bill to nationalise all the banks, or indeed all the undertakers of this country. I would have expected very truthfully that, had his position not been the eminent one that it is—and so well deserved—as a Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, would have looked upon this many-headed monster and decided that as St. George in this 1397 House he would try to take away as many heads as lie could. He has not had a very happy time this afternoon because so far there has not been one speech which has not criticised very essential elements of this Bill.
In order to increase the Government's embarrassment I observe that a newspaper that is not usually vitriolic in its criticism of the present Government's legislation—the Financial Times—had a headline to define this Bill in this morning's issue.It is:The Planning Bill—an object lesson in how not to legislate".Then it goes on to say:A repeat of the stormy passage through the Commons now seems assured for the Local Government Planning and Land (No. 2) Bill which comes up in the House of Lords today for its second reading.The Lords are likely to be just as worried as the Commons about the massive Bill which not only proposes constitutional changes in the relationship between central and local government but also raises fundamental questions about the way in which legislation is enacted in Britain.The Bill—really six bills in one—has prompted a storm of criticism from all sides of the political spectrum in and out of local government.I end the quotation and nothing in my speech could be more eloquent than those remarks, and I am therefore very content to leave them with the House and get on with the rest of my speech.
Autobiographical detail is not usually welcome among your Lordships. I promise to spare your Lordships that this afternoon. However, I must mention that I had the privilege of spending just over 20 years in local government, starting off at a fairly young age as the chairman of the Finance Committee of one of the largest boroughs in London, and then having the happy privilege of chairing several committees of the London County Council, then the Council itself, then chairing one of the principal committees of the Greater London Council.
I mention this for one simple reason: if anybody wants to dissuade able people in this country from taking on the unpaid —usually unpopular—work of local government, then let him take away from local government councillors the very powers that this Bill endeavours to extract from them. This is death to local government. Other noble Lords have mentioned the various provisions in this 1398 Bill which they find unacceptable. I am not going to repeat their speeches. Remarks have been made about block grants; about the impatience of the Government; that this should obviously have been analysed properly; that there should have been more consultations; that there was indeed a very sensible plan put forward by local government associations to the Government which would have been a very much better alternative than the one that we now have in this Bill.
Other people have talked about the crippling way in which the capital expenditure programmes of local authorities are now going to be manacled by this Bill. The shades of Herbert Morrison are in this place. He was a very much loved Member of this House, and possibly some people feel that his greatest contribution to the national life of this country was not so much that of a Minister, although he served in many important capacities, but as the leader of the London County Council. In his day, out of the revenue of the London County Council, capital expenditure was spent on Waterloo Bridge. Subsequently, when he was a Minister, and when there was a Festival of Britain, the London County Council, with his co-operation, managed out of revenue to build the Royal Festival Hall to commemorate that great festival that we enjoyed in this country in 1951. Without that imagination the whole of the South Bank scheme, the whole of the pride of this capital city in serving the arts as it has done, would have been nullified. It would not be possible for local authorities to do that under this Bill, without going cap in hand to the Secretary of State, hoping that he will have the same imaginative genius as those, apart from myself, who led London Government at that time.
I turn from this sphere, if I may, to give your Lordships one more example, in rather more detail than has been done so far, of the completely arbitrary powers which the Secretary of State now wishes to vest in himself under this Bill, to the great detriment of local government, and, indeed, opening a chapter that Lord Hewitt might well have wanted to include in his book, which your Lordships will remember was entitled The New Despotism. I am referring to the sections of this Bill under Part X. I hope your 1399 Lordships will be patient with me; it is the last subject on which I am going to try your Lordships' patience. Clause 82 applies to anybody for the time being specified in Schedule 13 to the Act, and then subsection (2) says that the Secretary of State may by order made by statutory instrument amend that schedule by adding an entry naming a public body not for the time being specified in the schedule. Then the clause goes on in subsection (5) to say that anybody specified in a notification may make representations to the Secretary of State within a period of 42 days from the date of the notification. There is not even a duty to consider the submissions that are made; not even an independent inquiry in regard to the matters that the Secretary of State now wishes to decide. Having given an opportunity for representations to be made within 42 days as to whether an authority shall be added to the list, the matter is closed if the Secretary of State decides, having read them, or not read them, as the case may be, that he is going to include them.
I go on dealing in this detail only to show what this House is faced with on the Second Reading of this Bill. Clause 83 says in subsection (2) that the Secretary of State may by order made by statutory instrument direct that this Part of this Act shall come into operation in the area of any district council or London borough council specified in the order. No criteria are set down here which will enable, or, rather, direct the Secretary of State as to how he should decide whether to designate. He has the right to designate; it is an unquestioned right; it is a right that does not even have to have any reasons attached to it; that is his arbitrary right under Clause 83. Under Clause 84, having taken those powers on to himself, and having behaved—I am sure, with the present Secretary of State, in a most civilised way—as this Bill would entitle him to do if it is enacted, he then may compile and maintain a register, and in that register there will be land belonging to that public body. Under subsection (2)(c) of Clause 84, all he has to do is to decide himself, in his own opinion, that the land, or any land in the register, is not being used or not being sufficiently used for the purposes of the performance of the body's functions or of carrying on their undertaking.
1400 What an insult to the local authorities of this country that a Secretary of State shall be enabled to say, in regard to any local authority, without a public inquiry, without an arbitration, by a subjective judgment, that in his view they are not carrying out their functions or carrying out their undertaking. And, therefore, if he feels, in his own arbitrary decision, that the land is not necessary for their purposes, he can then order them to sell on such terms and in such ways as he sees fit, again after receiving representations or giving the local authority an opportunity to submit representations but without having a duty to consider them. No provision even then for any public inquiry or arbitration! It is the subjective judgment of the Secretary of State as to how much of the land they will sell, when they will sell it, how they will sell it, and, presumably, what the reserve price may be. Have your Lordships ever heard of any person engaged in commerce give, by any such enactment, such a disastrous atmosphere for a sale? Everybody knows, if this Bill is passed, that the local authority has got to sell. Everybody knows that the local authority has got to sell subject to the conditions announced by the Secretary of State. What a way of creating a market for publicly-held land! What a way of increasing the public funds of this country, which, as we all know, are so desperately short!
I have tried to limit myself to these clauses, not because I could not recite other clauses or because your Lordships are not aware of them, but so that your Lordships are apprised of the detail in regard to one matter contained in this Bill, showing the dictatorial powers that the Secretary of State is endeavouring to vest in himself on a very vital matter, and how he is endeavouring to divest local authorities of their independence, and, indeed, of their freedom. This is a House which, more than once in its glorious history, has stood for the freedom of the individual and for those freedoms which are protected by our democracies. With all their faults—and all of us know local authorities who have faults—the local authorities of this country are the embodiment of local democracy. We upset that freedom at our peril.
§ 6.10 p.m.
§ Lord MIDDLETON
My Lords, at the end of a very busy Session we are 1401 discussing for the first time a Bill which might with advantage have come before this House much earlier in the year and before the legislative pressure was at its peak. It is indeed a massive Bill and if every noble Lord speaking today were to try to deal adequately with all its parts this would be a very long debate. My noble friend Lord Ridley, with his great knowledge and experience of local government, has given a very comprehensive and lucid summary of his views, and I am in close agreement with him. So far, speakers have concentrated mainly on local government finance and on one or two other matters. I propose to confine myself to speaking on those parts of the Bill that deal with planning.
The concept of town and country planning has evolved over the years. At first the planning process was looked on, rightly or wrongly, as wholly negative in its effects. It was felt that the planners were out to stop people doing things and that they were not very good at it. That was the kind of thing which was being said, probably with some justification by those who witnessed apparently uncontrolled and unattractive development, especially in the urban areas.
It then became accepted that planning should be more positive in its effect and there was to be an economic content. The purpose of planning was to be no longer merely to control physical development and to protect the environment; local resources were to be assessed and utilised and infrastructure developed in order to create the most favourable conditions for local prosperity. Regional councils were set up in the early 'sixties to work out economic planning strategies, subject to central Government approval and to being kept up to date. The economic planning councils were abolished with great rapidity when the present Government came into office, but I shall not get diverted on to the rights and wrongs of that decision.
After local government reorganisation the new counties were given by Government the task of working out structure plans that tied in with the relevant regional strategic plans. Draft structure plans have to go through an elaborate public consultation process before submission to Government approval. Once approved, they must be kept up to date 1402 and modified if necessary. The structure plan therefore is the means by which a county council carries out its statutory responsibility for the strategic planning of its area and it sets out the land use policies necessary to achieve the county's economic and social objectives. The structure plan strategy is made effective by means of the development control system. The operation of that system is largely the responsibility of the district councils within the county.
This general concept was accepted by Governments of both parties and is accepted by the present Government. It is true that there is a natural tendency for a district authority to think that it knows better how to plan within its own area and for a county authority to think that it can more easily take a broader view over a wider area. Probably any friction that might occur between county and district is more likely to occur in metropolitan than in non-metropolitan counties. Yet by and large this system of allocation of planning powers between counties and districts is workable, but it can only work so long as the county planning authority is able to exercise the minimum amount of control necessary to see that its districts, while given as much freedom as possible, do not allow development that would constitute a major departure from the broad county plan.
As my right honourable friend Lord Ridley reminded us—and it was indeed touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Underhill—by means of Clause 75 of this Bill, the Government intend to remove the county's power of direction where structure plans are put at risk by a district. The Bill provides that all decision-making in the field of development control should be placed with district councils, with the exception of a few residual applications which will remain county matters. These are mineral development, applications straddling boundaries of national parks, and—this may be of some comfort to the noble Lord, Lord Grimston of Westbury, whose speech we have listened to with much pleasure—private applications for waste disposal sites.
Yet structure plan policies are looked on by this Government as providing the basis for local planning. My noble friend Lord Bellwin today has reaffirmed 1403 the Government's intention that the strategic planning role of county councils should be maintained. It does seem to me that if Government by this Bill remove from counties the ability to ensure the implementation of plans that have been submitted to the widest possible scrutiny and which have been approved by Government, then the whole laborious process of structure planning seems rather pointless.
I am sure my noble friend Lord Bellwin will tell us that there remains the duty for districts to have regard to structure plans —whatever that may mean. He will say that there will by means of development order be a new statutory duty to consult on strategic applications, and that the appeal system will give adequate protection to county strategies. The Government will no doubt say that they will monitor the situation and, if necessary, step in under what they call the departure procedure. But none of this seems to me to be a very economical way of doing what could perfectly well be done by the counties. Furthermore, such a process is not consistent with this Government's policy of devolving power away from central Government to the appropriate level of local government. I think my noble friend Lord Bellwin referred earlier to the need for cutting down unnecessary intervention by Government.
This is not the occassion—and it would be tedious to do so—to discuss the details of the rather complicated planning clauses in the Bill. I would merely say that I wholly approve of the provision for speeding up planning procedure and for cutting out waste. But I am not, as I said, a bit happy about the possibility, if Clause 75 remains unchanged, of the frustration of Government-approved county policies; nor am I happy—nor would I have thought should the Government be—about the possible consequence of such frustration, which is that public expenditure control by a county could be seriously weakened by ill-judged district planning decisions.
I know that the district councils do not quite see it this way. The Association of District Councils has done me the honour of making me one of its vice-presidents. After what I have said today, it may feel rather differently about that, but I have to say that my own experience in regional 1404 and county planning leads me to support my noble friend Lord Ridley. I am quite sure that he is right. I hope that by the end of October we may have persuaded the Government to think so, too.
With regard to the imposition of charges for planning applications, I fully understand that any scheme that could recover £30 million of public expenditure is well worth considering. I am not, however, entirely happy about it in principle. I share some of the misgivings of the noble Lords, Lord Beaumont and Lord Underhill. I am not sure that it is just that an individual should have to pay to a public body a fee to regain rights that have been removed from him for the public's advantage. I have looked at the department's consultation paper, and I am still not clear whether it is intended to levy charges on applications in respect of property when an application would not normally be required had the property not got attached to it some amenity interest such as being a listed building, for instance. Nor am I clear as to whether it is intended to make a charge in respect of a planning appeal. These are points of detail which, with other similar points, will be better raised at a later stage; but they do illustrate the kind of anomaly that can arise in a Bill of this size and scope and which perhaps we can put right in October.
Finally, my Lords, having spent many hours criticising in debate and in trying—and occasionally succeeding—in amending the Community Land Act five years ago, I applaud its repeal. There was one particularly objectionable feature of that Act which gave extremely wide powers to a local authority, which was contained in Section 15. To my surprise, Section 15 was dragged back into this Bill virtually unchanged, and I am very pleased that the Government noticed this in time and repented so that at a late stage in another place Clause 75 was amended. We see it now as Clause 80 and, in my view, it seeks to regulate compulsory purchase by a local authority in a more acceptable way. This is a great improvement. There is still plenty of room for more improvement in the Bill, whose broad intentions I welcome.
§ 6.22 p.m.
§ Lord IRVING of DARTFORD
My Lords, I, like other noble Lords, would 1405 like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Grimston of Westbury, on his very interesting maiden speech. Some of us will remember his father as being a distinguished Member of another place and an occupant of the Chair. The noble Lord follows in a great tradition, and we hope to hear him very frequently in the future.
I have been a member of a local authority for nearly 30 years and I am still chairman of the finance committee of a borough council. I have seen, sadly, over the length of time, the removal from local government of trunk roads, hospitals, personal health, ambulances, electricity, gas and sewerage. I am now asked by the Secretary of State to believe that the package of financial and other measures in the Bill offers a new deal for local government and a major advance in local freedom and local responsibility. However charitable I would wish to be, I must say, with the Duke of Wellington:if one can believe that one can believe almost anything.No one in local government believes it. The local authority associations do not believe it; the chairmen, leaders and chief executives of every shire county in the country (and they are practically all Conservatives) do not believe it. Indeed, the previous Secretary of State, Mr. Geoffrey Rippon, does not believe it; the districts do not believe it; and the Bill has very few friends anywhere.
The objections are very clear and very powerful. They are that the new provisions for block grants and expenditure will result in a decisive shift of responsibility and accountability from local government to central Government and that the Government have opted for central control and influence over spending decisions of individual local authorities. Inevitably this will mean replacing local decision-making with that of civil servants. I remained a member of a local authority throughout the whole of my service in another place, because I believe that a sound, democractic local government system is basic to a healthy democracy. In addition to being a vice-president of the Association of District Councils, I am a vice-president of the United Kingdom branch of the Council of European Municipalities and therefore have some acquaintance with other systems of local government. It has always been my view 1406 that the system of local government in this country has been the finest in the world. It has avoided the dangers of bureaucratic central control that is seen in France and also avoided the dangers in Germany and the United States, where the powers are clearly and statutorily defined without very much relationship to the national need.
The powers now being asked for, in my view, will change all that. These measures could be justified only if local government had failed to act responsibly in responding to government policies. But the reality is that local government has a consistently good record of matching closely the capital and revenue targets laid down nationally. In my view, capital controls have been unnecessary for the past five years, as local authorities have been within five per cent. of the public expenditure projections in the White Paper. This is therefore not a reason for introducing the sort of controls that are contained in the Bill.
The first problem is that the extensive powers conferred on the Secretary of State, covering a wide range of financial and other matters, are defined in general terms. This means leaving large and critical areas of new policies still to be looked into and dealt with in later orders, regulations, directives and administrative arrangements. The absence of any clear basis for the exercise of these wide residual powers will give an unprecedented discretion for their exercise—not merely now but by any future government—in a manner not contemplated by Parliament.
Such reliance on subordinate legislation leaves a high degree of uncertainty, and the Secretary of State will leave wide enabling powers available to his successors, whoever they may be. The noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, and others have drawn the attention of the House to the fact that these could be used to make the more thrifty authorities spend much more than they do now. This seems a very strange thing for a Conservative Government to do. The powers are completely out of proportion to the limited problems with which the Government wish to deal and, in our view, the Bill should define the precise nature and scope of the powers to be exercised.
The Explanatory and Financial Memorandum explains that the various pro- 1407 visions of the Bill, other than those mentioned, will not have substantial direct, financial and staffing effects. As these proposals have developed since the publishing of the Bill, it is clear that in particular the proposed capital expenditure proposals, the direct labour organisation provisions and the publication of information on performance will result in a significant increase in central and local government staffing costs—in other words, more money and more staff will need to be devoted to paper work and there will be less money and staff for the provision of services. That is surely contrary to what the Government intended.
On Saturday I had a letter from Sir John Grugeon, the leader of the Kent County Council, with whom I am happy to say I have worked very closely for a number of years. Sir John says:The provisions in the Bill are so complicated as to be almost unworkable and, certainly so far, cannot he operated in an equitable manner without a considerable measure of central control over the levels of expenditure of individual local authorities. The fact of the matter is that the present provisions could change the balance of accountability between central and local government and add substantially to the bureaucracy both in Marsham Street and county and town halls".He goes on to say:I do not think I exaggerate when I suggest that this could, in the long term, mean the end of local government as we know it.".My Lords, this is not the Labour Opposition talking, but one of the most experienced and able local government members in the country. I believe that the Government ignore the advice of such people at their peril. They will announce yardsticks of what each local authority ought to spend and yardsticks of what each authority ought to raise. These yardsticks will be seized upon by ratepayers and pressure groups and quoted as the amounts an authority ought to be spending and rating for. The effect of this will be to transfer the real responsibility for these fundamental local judgments from the democratically elected authority to the central Government. As to the unworkability mentioned by Sir John, there is real concern about the practicality and intelligibility. The noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, referred this afternoon to "becoming easier These proposals are said to be simpler and easier to understand than the present system and to make for greater accountability.
1408 It is, however, evident from the reports of the working party of the consultative council for local government finance, which met only last week on 28th July, that the proposed new method of assessing grant-related expenditure is much more complex, more unintelligible and uncertain in its results, than the needs assessment used in the present two-part grant. The paper put out only today by one of the local authority associations—because I understand that the noble Lord was proposing to put the working papers in the Library—says:These documents clearly demonstrate the complexity, incomprehensibility and uncertainty of the proposed new system of block grant".The difference between the grant-related assessments and the actual expenditure are so great that it would be unwise to use them as a basis for the proposed system of block grant thresholds and tapers. This is especially so with district expenditure, covering as it does a wide and variable range of local services which are not capable of formula assessment, because of the limited data which is available for small areas. The block grant mechanism of grant-related poundage, multipliers, thresholds and tapers is equally incomprehensible and is capable of infinite permutations to give widely differing results.
Another weakness is that general rate poundage will be levied on the authority's rateable value. Rateable values are, however, an increasingly unreliable base as they are out-of-date information. The present valuation lists contain many distortions between different areas and different classes of ratepayers. There are wide variations in rateable values for similar properties. The district with the lowest rateable value, Newark, with 80.59p in the pound, has an average rate payment per domestic hereditament of £95, whereas the district with the highest rate, Wear Valley, with 117.02p in the pound, has a not dissimilar average rate payment of £99.51. Conversely, the district with the lowest rate payment, Rossendale, with £71,85, has a rate levy of 105.10p in the pound, compared with the highest, Beaconsfield, with a rate payment of £266.65 and a rate levy of 94.47p in the pound.
There are no plans to rectify this situation, although the Secretary of State has mentioned that he may have to use 1409 a dampener to offset the anomalies, the differences and the unfairness existing by the use of this basis. Of course, once that happens, it will, in itself, be arbitrary action which could make for greater unfairness rather than for greater fairness. But the Bill makes no provision for quinquennial valuations which, in view of what I have just said, is difficult to understand. To base rates actually levied on such a foundation is bad enough, but it is ludicrous to suggest this as a main plank in distributing the grant between authorities in the manner proposed.
The local authorities, as the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, has pointed out, put forward their own jointly agreed scheme and the Government rejected it without giving any proper indication of why it was not effective. It was clear that it met the objectives outlined by the Secretary of State on Second Reading in another place. Control of borrowing by expenditure control, together with the proposed block grant, will have the most serious consequences for the future autonomy and independence of local authorities. No real reason has been given for the change from the present system, which gives the Government adequate control over total capital spending and over the amounts financed from loans.
In addition, the Municipal Journal said only last week that with the present system it takes two years after the year in question before the rate support grant can be finally calculated. It could now, under the new system, be even longer. The Government claim that they wish to give greater freedom to local authorities, but the proposals in the Bill would increase control. More time would be taken locally in preparing the case for schemes which at present require no other authority than that of the local authority itself. Civil servants at regional offices will be called upon to judge between the merits of a sports complex in one town, a refuse treatment works in another, and a works depot in a third.
The present system relates retrospectively to expenditure actually incurred, and the Government say that they tend to reward the extravagant authorities at the expense of the more thrifty. But, strangely enough, the thrifty authorities, who might have been expected to welcome the 1410 Bill, are as opposed to it as others in the country, as they believe that it is taking a sledge-hammer to crack a nut and it penalises everyone in order to deal with some who we know exist. As the Local Government Chronicle said in January:Even if a team of Department of the Environment officials were to be installed in every local authority, it will be impossible to make unitary grants work in an efficient and fair way".One of the consequences of this will be on membership of local authorities, as a number of noble Lords have said. One of the most damaging things that will happen is that initiative and enterprise in financial matters will be taken away. Everyone will coast along, without incentive or opportunities really to stretch resources to achieve more.
In my own authority, we have under construction at this moment a multipurpose hall which, when completed at the end of next year, will be unique in this country. It will incorporate features from the United States and from France, which have been further developed here, and with its new acoustic system will be entirely new and unlike anything else that exists in this country. Not only is this a fascinating development, physically and technically, but when it opens in 18 months all that will remain unpaid of the cost of £4 million will be £500,000. This will have been achieved by the use of a capital fund into which regular payments have been made, plus some capital receipts and an immediate revenue contribution in each of three years.
Your Lordships might say that this is just what worries the Secretary of State —the big spender. But you would be wrong. This has been achieved with a rate increase this year of 16.9 per cent., which is exactly comparable with that of Kent County Council which has prided itself on having one of the lowest increases in the country. Such an effort will never again he possible under this Bill, as it will require Government loan sanction, and under the capital controls it will be impossible to accumulate the money. If it were ever to he approved, it would have to be financed by way of borrowing. This would leave my authority with a debt burden stretching into the future for forty years. So the effect of the Bill will be to stifle initiative and enterprise, make local government more expensive in this respect and infinitely less 1411 exciting, and less likely to attract people of ability, whether members or officers.
I do not want to speak for much longer. The new Bill omits a number of important and useful provisions which were contained in the No. 1 Bill—improved working of the planning system, gipsy caravan sites, relaxation of highway controls and so on. In view of the particular importance of the gipsy caravan site provisions, I and some of my noble friends propose to try to introduce at the Committee stage Clauses 205 to 212 in Part XV of the old Bill. The relaxation of 300 controls is very welcome, but it is a long way short of the 1,000 that were recommended by local government itself in the working paper last year, which triggered off the Government's current wish to introduce some of these relaxations. I hope, and local government hopes, that the Secretary of State can be prevailed upon, even at this late hour, to postpone the implementation of those matters relating to finance and to get together with the local authority associations in an effort to get—perhaps for the first time—a really satisfactory relationship in financial terms between central and local government.
§ 6.40 p.m.
§ Lord MONK BRETTON
My Lords, while I have certain reservations, they are much on the same lines as those of my noble friend Lord Ridley. I wish tonight to congratulate the Government on much that is contained in the Bill, or the greater proportion of it. Much of what I wished to say has already been said by my noble friends Lord Ridley and Lord Middleton —and how well I thought it was said. While referring to other speeches, I should like to congratulate my noble friend Lord Grimston of Westbury on his maiden speech and say how quite sure I am that the whole House was pleased to be reminded of the problem of litter which he so rightly raised.
I want to make only two points, both of which are in a rural context and with which I think I can deal quite quickly. I hope that my noble friends on the Front Bench will watch both of them very carefully. My first point relates to the loss of agricultural land. It continues to disappear under concrete and buildings at the rate of 40,000 acres annually. 1412 Alarming forecasts about this have been made to your Lordships before now, and it is not something about which one should be complacent. We in this country have only one-third of the land per head that the French have. Therefore we cannot be prodigal with it. It occurs to me that in my lifetime the Dutch will have added to their country an area about the same size as Kent—an example, perhaps, of a different attitude towards land resources and one that we may find we are going to have to follow more closely and that we may regret not having followed more closely up to now.
There is anxiety in agricultural quarters about the effect of this Bill upon the uptake of agricultural land. It is asked whether Clause 75 will lead to a widening of the gap between strategic planning at county level and detailed development decisions at district level. This immediately echoes what was said by my noble friend Lord Ridley; counties should be able to protect their structure plans.
In this connection, will it be possible for central Government to pick up all cases where district proposals would be at variance with Government policy? This, it seems to me, will be a very major task. Therefore, specific assurances about the uptake of agricultural land would be very welcome.
The other matter which I should like to mention and upon which I trust the Government will keep a close eye is that of small industries in rural areas. We are confronted with considerable changes in village populations—their age structure, occupations and so forth. It is a matter which requires to be carefully watched because of the threat implied, eventually, to village facilities such as schools, shops and other services, and which needs to be studied with care and in depth. The speed with which change takes place must not be forgotten. There are many villages, I am sure, whose primary school numbers have dropped by 50 per cent. in 10 years. In some cases, the solution may well be the introduction of suitable small industries, which happen to be notable job creators. This is a matter which has been discussed before in your Lordships' House. The ultimate importance to the future of the economy of small business is also something that is well known to your Lordships.
1413 We must remember that there can be virtually no new business of this kind in rural areas without planning permission. The lack of planning permission can place a dead hand upon such developments and upon the services that villages may enjoy in the future. There is a need for a very careful balance in reaching decisions, and the need for careful analysis of this kind should not be set at naught by sectional interests which may rush in, as one might say, where angels fear to tread. I think that the guiding hand of county councils is of considerable importance and I trust that my noble friend on the Front Bench will keep his eye very clearly upon it.
§ 6.47 p.m.
§ Lord MOTTISTONE
My Lords, I, too, should like to start by congratulating my noble friend Lord Grimston of Westbury. He was absolutely right to choose litter as his subject for being non-controversial upon, because we all agree with him. However, I look forward to the day when he makes a speech which is controversial, and I hope that we shall not have to wait too long for it.
I think that the Government have been getting a bit of a bashing from both sides, and I am not sure that I think that it is right. To take, first, the Opposition; I remember particularly some four years ago when we were the scaremongers, the gloomy ones, that we forecast how dreadful the Bills which the Government of the day had before us would be. And, my God! we were right. They have turned out to be terrible Bills, and it is going to be very difficult to put them right. But we have guessed right, whereas on the whole the party opposite usually gets it wrong. I should not have thought that some of the things which have been said this afternoon, particularly on the other side of the House, are matters which need to be taken too seriously.
I have three points to make. Flaying opened my speech by giving a little encouragement to the Government, I must warn them that in due course these points may lead to amendments to which, when the time comes, I hope they will give the greatest possible consideration. My first point will relate to the CBI, and I must declare an interest as director of a trade association which is a member of the CBI. The second point that I 1414 shall raise will be in support of my noble friend Lord Ridley who spoke on behalf of the counties of England, though I understand not Wales, and with whose speech I substantially agree. Or is it Wales? I thought that my noble friend said that Wales was being treated differently. However, I was confused, so I hope my noble friend will forgive me. My third point will be a very special one for me—the Isle of Wight—and I shall devote most of my time to it. I have a special interest in the Isle of Wight. My grandfather, who was later Father of the House of Commons, settled the family there nearly 150 years ago.
Let me take first the CBI point. It is interesting to me that nobody else has mentioned it because the interests of manufacturing and commercial business in this Bill are very real indeed. In fact, business pays in rates about 85 per cent. of what it pays in corporation tax, and indeed nearly half the rates are financed by business. The CBI estimates the total rate in 1980–81 at £9 billion, of which business pays £4.2 billion. That is a very large sum of money and it will be paid by business to local authorities without any representation in the electoral system. That is a very important point. So those councils which, for one reason or another, do not think business is important, get this vast sum, nearly half of all the rating income, from people who have no official way of protesting by throwing the councillors out.
I am not saying that we want to have a business vote back, because in any case it would not count for much, but it is a fact, which leads to the point that within the legislation there must be safeguards for business. Some provisions of this Bill, but by no means enough, provide such safeguards. As I see it the problem is safeguards, not only for business but I am concentrating on that because I wanted to make this point as nobody else has made it.
The fact is that in safeguards one is creating a dilemma because every safeguard that is built in can be seen by the local authorities as an infringement of their authority. You may ask: why should central Government put in safeguards? The reason for that is that we know very well that some local authorities in some areas—and I do not mean geographical 1415 areas, but some responsible areas—appear to be irresponsible and Governments (not just ours) have found it necessary to place some restraint within the terms of Bills of this nature. That is where the dilemma lies and I take the next point as an example, although there are many others and your Lordships have heard a lot this evening.
Taking the example of the rate support grant, under the old system it so happened that the rate support grant militated very specially against the Isle of Wight, the county in which I happen to live. This was just its machinery. So we thought it was a bad system. I am not speaking about the special problems of the Isle of Wight; I am speaking generally about areas for which support is given, which apply to all counties in the Kingdom. It just so happened that the machinery worked against us. Now we get the block grant and we have heard from countless people on both sides of the House that that is a disaster. Of course it might be a disaster because the Government have rather put themselves up as an Aunt Sally; if they do not deliver the goods on the block grant, then of course all the people who have been saying it is a disaster will have been proved right. But if, on the other hand, they do produce the goods, then all will be well. I say to my noble friend Lord Bellwin that I think it is terribly important that the Government should achieve what they say, because they have put themselves in the position of having to do this and they really must do it.
So we can perhaps be reasonably certain about the present if we trust the Government. I do not expect the Opposition to, but that is not their business. On the whole, I do; partly because I belong to the same party, and partly because in my part of the world we have had various very tentative and restrained indications that the Government will do their best by us. It was so in the fourteenth Committee sitting in another place, at column 684, when my right honourable friend Mr. King gave a sort of guarded assurance to my colleague (as I can call him in this respect) Mr. Ross, the honourable Member for the Isle of Wight, and there were also good sounding noises when I had the privilege of seeing my 1416 right honourable friend and my noble friend Lord Bellwin.
So the present is okay, but how about the future? That is the problem, and in that respect I find myself echoing the misgivings of my noble friend Lord Ridley. The future is the difficulty and a great deal will depend on how the Government set the thing up in the first place.
Before I get on to the Isle of Wight—and I shall not detain your Lordships any longer than I have to—I wish to emphasise that in terms of county council expenditure we have special differences from other counties, but so do all counties as between themselves and we recognise that these are reflected in varying degrees in all counties. Our sympathies as a county therefore lie with our fellow counties and like them we hope that the Government will be sympathetic to any amendments that we may put forward.
I turn now to the Isle of Wight, for which I wish mainly to speak. My Lords, islands are different. I see the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Marnock, on the Opposition Benches and he will know that that applies to Scotland. It applies to England, too. We see ourselves in islands mainly as islands, which happen in some cases to be part of the local government system of the mainland of the United Kingdom. On the other hand, the planners in London or Edinburgh see us as counties or districts which happen—inconveniently, one sometimes feels in their case—to be islands. The great similarity of islands is that, however far they may be from the mainland, they are separated from it by tidal waters and that leads to sea transport costs which in one way or another affect all islanders every day.
That was not always so. Fifty years ago, when I was a boy, in many respects the Isle of Wight was self-sufficient. We fed ourselves and preferred our own locally caught fish to fish fingers, which as yet had been undiscovered. We had own own brewery, we had our own sawmills and our own local blacksmiths and carpenters to make many of the simpler things required for everyday life; and that was mostly what we wanted. It is true that this also applied to other mainland based counties, although perhaps not to quite the same extent because 1417 they were not quite cut off, even then. But in the last fifty years improved manufacturing methods, improved methods of sales, improved land transport have led to the centralisation of production and cheaper products. It is a very good thing that they are cheaper products, but they create a dependence on centrally produced goods.
I suppose that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester would not altogether approve of that because it removes some of the independence of the people living in the country districts as they do not rely solely on the food they grow themselves. I would say to the right reverend Prelate that, although I sympathise greatly with what he says, the question of centralisation breeding irresponsibility (with which I agree) is something which is a penalty of the modern world, where we have created the ability to produce central goods; from that comes a measure of central direction and if we did not have that we should not be able to feed the people in our cities. So it cannot be written off as being quite wrong.
However, coming back to the problems of the Isle of Wight, though the means of provision of goods has changed, sea transport is little changed. It costs relatively much the same, and in certain cases that is relatively quite a lot. So islanders are thus at a disadvantage with the cost of most everyday products, including convenience foods. The fact of the matter is that islanders as individuals have four basic groups of expenditure for which they have to provide from their own personal incomes—Inland Revenue taxes, rates, provision for goods and services to live, and the added cost of many, if not all, the goods and services that have to be provided by sea transport from the mainland. The inhabitants of mainland countries have the first three groups for which they have to make provision, but the fourth is peculiar to islanders. This is recognised by Government in relation to county council costs. Indeed, they paid to us what they called severance costs, which is a swagger word for sea transport costs, and did their best to offset such costs so far as the county council expenditure went. However, central Government have never recognised, uniquely in the case of the Isle of Wight, the need to make provision within legislation for some allowance to he made for individual 1418 extra expenditure within this particular island.
Of course, the actual added costs to individuals are immensely varied and it would be impossible precisely to provide a special increase to the proposed block grant to offset these costs in detail. That we recognise. However, why do I say "uniquely" in the case of the Isle of Wight? Let us take ourselves away from this sea of benches in Westminster and imagine ourselves in an island, any island, looking back at the mainland. In the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man they are able to take account of individual extra expenditure by reduced income tax. The Scottish islands and the Scilly Isles are mentioned separately in legislation, so that provisions to take account of the special sea transport extra financial burden on householders can be made by Government. It is true that this is not currently necessary for the other island counties, Shetland and Orkney, because of their oil benefit, but the provision in the Scottish Local Government Act 1973 is still there, as it is also for the Western Isles, where provision is currently, I understand, very necessary. That is why I say that the Isle of Wight is unique and why I hope most fervently that the Government will accept amendments showing that they recognise that some provision must be made to ensure fairness for this fair isle.
§ 7.4 p.m.
§ Lord BROOKS of TREMORFA
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, must be feeling very lonely. Until the last speaker he had virtually nothing to support him but his briefs. There is an irony in this occasion, because the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, as many of your Lordships have said, has a long and distinguished record of service to local government, and he finds himself saddled with a local government measure which is almost universally condemned.
Whenever a Conservative Government use terms like "fair rents", "more freedom", "a greater say for people in spending their own money", then someone somewhere, usually most of us, had better look out. "Fair rents" meant higher rents; "a greater say in spending of our own money" meant personal tax cuts which benefited the more affluent and a huge increase in indirect taxation. 1419 Now the Government are saying that they intend to give more freedom to local authorities by relaxing some 300 controls as part of the reforms in this Bill. The abolition of many of these controls is of course to be welcomed, but the main thrust of this Bill is intended to give central Government greater control over local democracy. As one commentator has said:The Local Government, Planning and Land (No. 2) Bill will have momentous consequences. The issue can be briefly stated. Is local government to be local government with its own legitimacy and responsibility, or is it to be merely the local office or outpost of an ever-growing centralised bureaucracy?That is the real question which will be constantly raised during the passage of this Bill.
Attacks on local government are not new. Over 200 years ago a pamphlet was published with this title:A treatise on parish rates occasioned by the disputes that have lately arisen and are increasing with much heat and animosity in many parts of the country".So this latest attack on local government is no new thing.
I became involved in local government less than 10 years ago, following local government reorganisation; I became the leader of the South Glamorgan County Council. Those with a lifetime of local government service, officers and members, told me then and are still telling me that the current attacks on local government are largely the consequence of the 1972 Local Government Act, the imposition by successive governments of new duties on local authorities, and, of course, inflation.
In reorganising nearly 1,400 local authorities in England and Wales into over 400 larger units—and chief officers are now paid in relation to the population of their areas—many jobs became worth more as the authorities were enlarged. Often we have the same man running the same service for a larger number of people but at a much higher salary, with related increases for other staff throughout the authority. The division of planning responsibilities between the two tiers was estimated to have increased the number of planners employed by 25 per cent. Contrary to popular belief, there was no dramatic increase in administrative staff, and it was found that a 3 per cent. 1420 increase in salaried staff was directly attributable to reorganisation. In my own case I was responsible for setting up an entirely new authority—no staff, no headquarters, hardly a stick of furniture. All this coincided with inflation taking off and rising to unprecedented levels. As a result of that experience I am convinced that central Government cannot know the circumstances of every local authority.
The very basis of local democracy lies in the power to raise money by a tax upon property in their areas. Parliament has given this authority to local government for hundreds of years. There is the irresponsible local authority of course, but the overwhelming majority of local authorities carry out their responsibilities in a mature and reasonable way. This Bill will not help responsible local government. Indeed, it has been said that it will lead to a combination of elaborate statistical tomfoolery and political manipulation. What a prospect for local government and local democracy !
My Lords, the Conservatives were accustomed for hundreds of years to Parliaments without democracy. Parliament was looked on as a means by which they could settle their own differences. I had hoped that the post-war experience had brought a change in Conservative attitudes, but this Bill is the worst example among a whole series of measures which demonstrate this Government's ability to adjust reality to dogma.
§ 7.10 p.m.
§ Lord SANDFORD
My Lords, I knew that I should have given up local government for good after piloting the Local Government Bill 1972 through your Lordships' House and onto the statute book. But now I find myself president of one of the three local government associations apparently locked in battle with the Government that I would like to support. Furthermore, at present, I find myself following the speeches of four vice presidents—the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman; the noble Lord, Lord Irving of Dartford; my noble friend Lord DuncanSandys and my noble friend Lord Middleton—which are presumably capable of indicating to your Lordships that there is some consistent strand of policy to be detected among those four.
1421 The task is a difficult one and I shall start by following the noble Lord, Lord Greenwood of Rossendale—my co-president, if I may put it that way—and by indicating that I wish to concentrate on the area of real controversy—namely, the block grant, which is contained in Part IV. But, before doing that I should like to run very briefly through the Bill and indicate, as I think I can, that it is not reasonable to import to the entire Bill the problems, objections and difficulties that we have over Part VI.
Part I deals with relaxation of controls. There may be a thousand controls that could be relaxed, but the Government have at least made a start and relaxed 300. That is no mean feat and it is welcomed alike by all the associations. One cannot expect the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, which has now changed its political control, to express itself quite as enthusiastically as the others, but I know that it does, nevertheless, welcome those changes. That does not mean to say that we cannot press for more. I am very glad that my noble friend, Lord Duncan-Sandys, has indicated another relaxation which I think we would all want to support—namely, the power for planning authorities to take control of advertisements in conservation areas. But the problem of going to the limit along this road was indicated by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Broadbridge, who I thought made an eloquent plea for leaving the controls on in order to safeguard the situation of allotment holders. So, the issue is not absolutely straightforward.
I turn to accountability. I should have thought that we could all welcome that and I am glad that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester did so. We are proceeding there by building up a voluntary code of practice which can be agreed and, I hope, published, and that should be welcome.
I think that there is a general welcome—not a unanimous welcome—for Part III concerning direct labour organisations. I am glad that the ADC has succeeded in extracting from the Secretary of State an undertaking that the size of direct labour organisations that is entirely excluded from the provisions of Part III, should be reconsidered. I think that that would meet the point which the right reverend Prelate was making about the 1422 necessity to have an organisation large enough to deal with seasonal jobs, emergencies et cetera. So, there is plenty of room for agreement and progress there.
There is a general welcome, too, for Part IV dealing with local government allowances. When we come to rates in Part V, there is general regret about the delay, but there is some understanding as to the Government's difficulties in that situation.
I shall come back to Part VI in a moment, but I shall turn now to Part IX. The battle here is, I know, with my colleagues in the county councils. I hope that they will not consider it too provoking if I quote a passage from the report of Mr. Dobry, an independent expert in the field of planning, who said recently:some county planning authorities find it equally hard to remember that district councils now exercise planning functions in their own right rather than by delegation".There has been a change in six years and I think that the Bill reflects that. In 1972 I would have defied anyone to produce a perfect system, because the planning manpower was so strangely divided between the county councils and the district councils. All that we could do was to set up something which could move in the right direction. It has moved in the right direction and the main bulk of planning activity is concentrated where I am sure we would all agree it should be, as near as possible to the local electorate.
The situation now is that the district councils have 14,000 planning officers and the counties have four. It is therefore appropriate for the main planning functions to he executed at that level. However, that is not to say, of course, that we should not have proper arrangements for safeguarding the structure plans and the voluntary code of practice which all three associations are currently discussing together and working out with the Department of the Environment and which should by October give us a useful point from which to conduct the discussion which my noble friend Lord Ridley has raised.
Therefore, not all of the Bill is objectionable, not all of it is unwelcome but there is plenty there that we can seek to improve at the next stage. However, we 1423 now come to the grievous business of the block grant. Here we are in difficulties. The ironic situation is that the difficulty is not about objectives. The Government have stated their objectives at various times and I think that it is true to say that there are four. The Government want to promote greater accountability, and surely we do not disagree with that. They want to make the grant system more comprehensible, and we do not object with that as an aim, but the argument is as to whether they have achieved it. They want to ensure that the high-spending authorities cannot pre-empt an undue share of grant by spending more, and surely we are all agreed that if that can be done it is highly desirable. We are all agreed that the Secretary of State must have some way of exercising the responsibility which we all accept is his for influencing the totality of local government expenditure.
As my noble friend Lord Mottistone says, there are many people outside local government who want the Secretary of State to be able to control local government expenditure directly and much more completely than he is attempting to do himself. People who are subject to cash limits, high interest rates and so on, do not like to see some—only some—local authorities getting away with a high rate of expenditure and no possibility of their being controlled. But the Secretary of State is not seeking to control the totality of local government expenditure, but to find a better way of exerting some influence on it in the discharge of the general responsibility which I think everyone recognises he has.
I suggest that the situation is that we are not far from being in agreement among ourselves and with the Secretary of State about objectives. The disagreement comes when we look at the methods being pursued. We must ask ourselves whether the block grant achieves the objectives in the best possible way. A number of objections have been raised. One—first raised, I think, by the noble Lord, Lord Greenwood—is that the grant-related expenditure sets limits on the local government expenditure. I think that it sets a standard by which local government expenditure can be assessed and judged, but I do not think that it sets firm limits. However, that is something that we can examine.
1424 Next, there is the question of comprehensibility. Certainly I must admit that the papers submitted to the Consultative Council on Local Government Finance last Monday looked extremely formidable. But before one is too sweeping about that—and I venture to suggest that the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, was rather sweeping—one must remember that one must compare those papers with the papers that are needed in order to operate the rate support grant at present. If one makes that comparison, it is a much more debatable and arguable matter. Nevertheless, I cannot dissociate myself from the general burden of comment this afternoon that there is an intrusion here on the independence and the autonomy of local government which we would not want to see.
However, the Secretary of State has a scheme; it has been worked on, and at the present moment it is being presented to Parliament for consideration, support and approval. In parallel with that, there is an alternative scheme which has the great merit—and this was stressed so much by the noble Lord, Lord Greenwood of Rossendale, at the beginning of his speech —of being supported by all the associations. It is very rare for the London Boroughs Association, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, the Association of District Councils and the Association of County Councils to agree about anything.
In February they put forward a scheme to the Secretary of State as an alternative to what he had proposed, and it has the great merit of commanding that support. The Secretary of State replied in a letter of 10th March indicating that he did not think it met his objectives. Some of the reasons that he gave sounded to me to be strong ones which need to be met. My feeling is that he rejected that scheme in terms which discouraged the associations from doing any further work on it.
I would hope that one of the results of this Second Reading debate would be to encourage the associations to return to that scheme, to look at the Secretary of State's letter of 10th March and to see what further work they can do on it. It is unfortunate, first, that he used such discouraging terms and, secondly, that the associations were so easily discouraged. Unless the associations bestir themselves, 1425 return to that scheme and see how they can meet the objectives, about which there is not very much disagreement, I think that it will be very difficult when it comes to the Committee stage to sustain the very valid objections which have been raised this afternoon to the scheme being designed by the Department of the Environment.
I would hope that, as a result of this Second Reading, for their part the associations will redouble their efforts to make that scheme meet the objectives, which we are all agreed need to be met, and that we also continue to work with the Secretary of State in refining and clarifying the scheme which he, too, has tabled. That will enable Parliament to choose from two possible runners instead of only one to which at the present moment we have very considerable objections.
Therefore, when my noble friend winds up I hope that he will be able to give some encouragement, to add to mine (which is not worth very much), to the associations to continue work on their own scheme to see whether they cannot meet the objections of the Secretary of State as well as if not better than, they have in the past. I hope he will say that he will seek to demonstrate more successfully than his right honourable friend has done so far, that the system which he is introducing really has the merits which have been claimed for it.
§ 7.24 p.m.
My Lords, I do not propose to criticise Her Majesty's Government; I think that they must be given a fair chance to show whether or not they have it right. My points are points of omission—pleas to the Government to try to put a little more into the Bill. My interest lies in the creation of small business in order to help remove a little of the unemployment that we have. Here I want to follow the noble Lord, Lord Monk Bretton, in his remarks about small businesses in rural areas and the danger of rural depopulation.
Rural depopulation is happening at present, and one of the reasons that I voted in that rather celebrated vote against Her Majesty's Government about whether there should be free school transport rather than payment for transport was because I feared that if parents had to pay for their children's transport to 1426 school, they would no longer come to live in the small country villages; they would go much nearer the towns where the secondary schools were likely to be located.
One way of keeping the spirit of the villages alive is by the creation in them of new small businesses. Here I criticise our planning authorities. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, mentioned the fact that originally we feared that they would be much too conservative in their outlook and much too slow about doing things. I think that those fears have been justified. They take a great deal of time to make decisions and they also consult over a very wide area. It may be nice to be consulted as to whether one's neighbour wants to erect a garage on his property, but surely it is not necessary to be consulted on such a matter, and the time factor could be quite considerably reduced.
I should like to see the planning rules and regulations changed so that there will be no need to obtain planning permission for any improvements or alterations inside a house or in the grounds of a house; and thereby we could encourage the setting up of small workshops without any reference to the planning authorities, which would probably say, "No, this is a residential area; you cannot start a business".
I should also like to see the whole attitude of the planning authorities changed and the burden put upon them to give good reasons why they refuse applications. I realise that this cannot necessarily be done for the major applications but it could be done for the minor ones where only one public authority is seriously involved in the application. I should like to see the burden of proof that there was a need to reject the application put firmly upon the shoulders of the planning authority.
§ Lord SANDFORD
My Lords, I wonder whether I could interrupt the noble Lord for a moment because he is dealing with a very important matter. I would not deny that the criticisms that he is making of planning authorities do not, in a number of cases, have justification. But I should like him and theHouse to know that I know of more than one district council planning authority which not only has taken all the advice that he has so far offered, but which has gone rather further. I think it is the North 1427 Norfolk District Council which has surveyed all the redundant buildings in its area and indicated positively what uses it would be prepared to approve for them. It is quite possible to be positive as well as negative in planning, and I should like the noble Lord to know that this is not a practice which is not at the moment being followed.
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, for that information. It is encouraging to hear it. I only wish that we could make sure that all planning authorities could be equally as positive as the ones he has mentioned. Despite, the fact that I see sitting here the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, who is chairman of our Select Committee on Unemployment, I am just going to mention two small but very important points that seem to be coming through to us while we are taking our evidence there. They are, in relation to small businesses, the lack of suitable premises, and secondly the lack of information. I believe that both those problems have to be solved at local government level.
I should like to see some direction to local authorities, even perhaps down to the more than 10,000 parish councils which I believe exist in England and Wales (it may be even more than that counting Wales) that they have some responsibility for encouraging new businesses—small ones; I am not talking about large ones —and allowing people to start up in their workshops and start on something new, and also to create somewhere where information about grants, methods of finance, and the various local regulations that would have to be observed could be collected together and made available to the entrepreneur who wants to start up. If anything like that were able to be put into the Bill, I should be very pleased.
§ 7.32 p.m.
My Lords, I should like first to congratulate my noble friend Lord Grimston of Westbury on his maiden speech. It takes a brave man at the best of times to speak of rubbish, and to do so with such charm and ability has done nothing other than whet my appetite for his next speech.
1428 I welcome this Bill. I shall not weary your Lordships by pushing at an open door to demonstrate the reasons why. I should like to restrict my remarks to only two elements of the Bill which I find a little disturbing. The first item arises on Clause 7(8)(a) which provides that on an application by any person a local authority is obliged to furnish him with a written statement showingall the prices contained in offers submittedin relation to tenders to carry out work. As presently drafted the words I have quoted could be interpreted to mean that the local authority is obliged to disclose all the detailed prices in bills of quantities which make up the overall tender price of the contractor. I cannot believe that the Government intend that. This fundamentally is a drafting point.
I understand that it is the intention of the Department of the Environment, or the local authorities themselves, that such an interpretation be given to these words. The detailed prices in bills of quantities are confidential as between contractor and client. It is not the practice in the industry for either successful or unsuccessful tenderers to submit any form of breakdown in their prices for public disclosure. No objection to overall tender prices being disclosed would ever be lodged, and I understand that it is only a drafting point. May I, with respect, suggest that the wording the "overall price contained in offers" might cover this particular point.
The other point I wish to raise is the question of charging for the planning applications and appeals. I must confess that I was astonished to learn of this provision. The major point of principle is that the planning system is not an individual service provided for the benefit of individuals but a method of enforcing control over development. I am here reflecting the views of the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, and my noble friend Lord Middleton.
It is plain that the planning system as a whole must be seen as providing a benefit to the general public, and is directly analogous to other forms of public control exercised in other spheres of activity which 1429 are financed from the public purse; for instance, the Factory Inspectorate, the Alkali Inspectorate, et cetera. My noble friend Lord Bellwin in his opening remarks —and I look forward to reading this tomorrow—defined the purpose of the planning law extremely eloquently, and I would suggest that we read this with care. This view is also enforced by the Department of the Environment Circular No. 9 of 1976 which states that there is a presumption in favour of development, and that permission should normally be granted unless it is clearly against the public interest or contrary to an approved policy.
Since the implication of this statement, which has recently been repeated by Government Ministers, is that the planning system has clearly been devised to scrutinise the landowner's proposals to ensure that they are in the public interest, it hardly seems equitable to charge the applicant for the process. Imagine the dismay and indeed the astonishment if, after one recieves an assessment for income tax, one then receives a separate bill for the accountancy work involved in working out the computation.
The Government have consistently denied that they are seeking to charge for a service, preferring to claim that the cost of a development control system should be imposed on the users. Even if one accepts this piece of semantic evasion, it is pertinent to ask how far the Government intend to extend this principle to other areas of the public sector—that is, health and education—where any benefits quite clearly accrue to the individual. At this time of night I do not wish to labour this point. I wish only to state that I entirely agree with those who have expressed concern that this extraordinary precedent should be set in this Bill of charging for planning which in no way could be described as a service but rather a hindrance. I intend to follow this up at the Committee stage with as much energy and vigour as I can muster.
§ 7.38 p.m.
§ Lord MONSON
My Lords, I too should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Grimston of Westbury, on an excellent maiden speech, especially as the subject was very dear to my heart. Although we hope to hear from him again soon on many other topics, I hope he will 1430 return again to the attack upon litter and upon pollution which he launched so vigorously and so constructively today.
I am afraid that I intend to follow other noble Lords in attacking, albeit from a different angle, the new proposed grant system; but, in view of the general onslaught there has been against the Bill as a whole, I think it is only fair to put on record that some of us at any rate find many good things in the Bill. One might instance Part II concerning the duty of local authorities to publish information; Part III, which has to do with direct labour organisations; Part X, which deals with publicly held land; Part XI, which repeals the Community Land Act; and Part XIII, dealing with compensation.
On a more minor note one can welcome Clauses 119 and 120, which remove outdated, paternalistic restrictions concerning licensed premises in new towns. There may well be room for modification and improvement but, on the whole, I think that these parts of the Bill are praiseworthy. I must also disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, about Clause 76, which permits fees to be charged in respect of planning applications. I take his point about freedom, but I think he overlooks that the granting of planning consent sharply raises the capital value of one's land. Charging fees, therefore, is a rough and ready but cheap and not too onerous way of imposing a modest de facto immediate capital gains tax on the increase in value resulting from the granting of planning permission, and for that reason I suggest it is justifiable.
However, as I said earlier, although the present system is far from satisfactory I cannot agree with the new grant proposals. It is interesting to note that both the major political parties declare themselves to be against profligate, spendthrift local authorities. However, the Labour Party believe they can best be dealt with by leaving matters as they are; the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, told us that local authorities should be accountable to their own electors for the decisions they take. In contrast, the Conservatives believe that their new proposals will do the trick. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, suggested that, following their implementation, profligate local authorities would have to raise the money from 1431 their own ratepayers and justify to them the reasons for doing so.
With respect, I feel that both major parties are wrong in their assumptions, except perhaps in areas where one political party controls the council by a very tenuous majority or where minority parties—Liberals, Independents or Ratepayers—hold the balance of power. The reason lies in certain misconceptions about local democracy as it works in practice. It is a truism that in national elections a dead sheep could get elected in Barnsley so long as it stood under a Labour banner, while the dead sheep's twin would have no difficulty in securing election in Bournemouth provided lie or it stood as a Conservative. If that is true in national elections, how much more must it be true where local elections are concerned.
After all, in a national context, everybody pays tax. If they do not pay income tax, then at any rate they pay VAT on most of their purchases as well as duty on petrol, alcohol and tobacco. There is a strong incentive therefore not to vote for any political party associated with waste or financial inefficiency, since the consequences of doing so will hit the electors' own pockets very directly. At local level, however, things are quite different. Unlike the United States, we have no local sales tax and no local income taxes here. Instead, revenue derives from rates on property.
The rating system is full of anomalies, many of which cause resentment—for example, a house on one side of a street might be rated 25 per cent. higher than a perfectly identical house on the opposite side of the street—but that is not the main point I wish to make. The point is that, unlike elections to the House of Commons, where all voters are also taxpayers, only 32 per cent. of voters in local government elections are ratepayers. One may argue that that gives a false picture, as all the occupants of a given dwelling-house are just as interested in the magnitude of the rate demand as the head of the household who is responsible for paying it. I would dispute that, especially where young adults living at home with their parents are concerned, many of whom earn good money but pay very little for their keep. But for the sake of argument, let us accept for a moment the contention that all 1432 occupants of a household have an identical interest to the head of the household in this matter. We must still face the fact that, over the country as a whole, only 72 per cent. of ratepayers pay rates in full; 12 per cent. pay at a reduced rate, and 16 per cent. are exempt from rates altogether.
However, in the areas where spendthrift councils are thickest on the ground, it is certain that the proportion of non-ratepayers is greater still. Furthermore, it is often those councils which tend towards overmanning. It was revealed yesterday in another place that one out of every 11¼ people in Manchester is employed by the council, which means that one in every 8.4 adults is employed by the council—almost 20 per cent. of the working population. That is one more reason why the electoral reaction against spendthrift policies which the Government anticipate as a result of the proposals in the Bill is unlikely to occur, since so many people either have a vested interest in overspending or are relatively unaffected by it.
We all know—and I suppose we all subscribe to—the maxim, "No taxation without representation". Is there not something to be said for its opposite, "No representation without taxation"? From the point of view of protecting the ratepayer, far fairer, I suggest, than what is proposed by the Government in the Bill and far less likely to lead to the undesirable interference in council decisions, and the other adverse side-effects predicted by the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, and others, would he a limitation on the extent of annual rate rises, except of course where such rises were necessitated by new obligations proposed by central Government.
Suppose, for example, that rises were limited to the rate of inflation plus 20 per cent. If the retail price index in the previous year had risen by 17½ per cent., rate rises would be limited to 21 per cent. If the retail price index had risen by only 8 per cent., rates would be allowed to rise by no more than 9.6 per cent. There would of course have to be some provision for overspending in a particular financial year, provided that over, say, a three-year period the aggregate rise did not exceed the inflation rate by more than the stipulated amount. That would force local authorities to cut their coats 1433 according to their cloth without the detailed interference that is a feature of the present proposals. This would, I believe, be overwhelmingly supported by the public at large.
§ 7.47 p.m.
§ Lord DAVIES of LEEK
My Lords, we have had a long day and nearly everything that could be said apparently has been said. Nevertheless, those of us who have looked at the Bill in depth can still find plenty of work in it. Before making the short speech which I intend to make I wish to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, for the work he has already done and for the work that will be put on his shoulders when we return in October, and that is a kindly remark before the sparks fly. It is clear that the Bill will have to be examined in great detail, and I was glad to hear a speaker from the Liberal Benches say, in effect, "Let us have no 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning business when we are dealing with meticulous amendments that need understanding". I have listened with interest to the debate because all noble Lords who have taken part have spoken with practical understanding and knowledge, and most of us here have had some local government experience anyway. I will therefore delete some of the speech I had intended to make and try to touch on the philosophy of the subject.
This Bill—indeed, so much of the recent proposed legislation on local authority land and the rest—sets out proposals which, whatever may be our views on either side of the House, fundamentally change and reconstruct, I believe without adequate thought and consultation, the relationship between central and local government. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Grimston of Westbury, on his speech, and he gave a good example of this in relation to pollution, a subject which this Government have neglected. I was in the other place when a local Act was passed enabling fines to be imposed on people; it would be interesting to table a Question asking how many people have been fined for scattering rubbish around Britain since that measure was passed. This is now one of the dirtiest countries in the world from the point of view of pollution and rubbish on the highways and byways, even on the little mountains of Wales, and something must 1434 be done about it. I will not develop that in depth now, but I believe it will be in order at a later stage to discuss it.
I believe that the Government are rushing through this legislation at a pace that forbids adequate time for thought and constructive amendment. The penalty for noble Lords opposite and their Government will be that before their term of office is up, their Government will be hooked on a whirligig of U-turns that will drive them to a general election. They will not be able to sustain the legislation that they are pumping through this House.
Local government is a splendid thing—a many splendoured thing, to quote the famous book. It was here before national government. It grew up before we had the concept of nations because even tribes built up local kinds of government. It needed chieftains, and power, and centralisation, but, as anyone who understands history will know, in the beginning local families and tribes invented systems of government from the villa and the garth that we knew with the celts.
Local accountability is now being whittled away far more than the man in the street realises because the Government have drastically substituted central control and influence, rather than have local accountability. I believe that central control has been substituted over much. This worries me because the tendency grows. Let me pose a question, a relevant question. How many Members of this noble House who are "Eurocrats" bother to read all the newspapers and papers that come out to us about the Common Market and the EEC? The truth is that England is ill-informed about the Eurocrat. In our new system of local government we shall get masses of paper, full of interesting statistics that the man in the street will not have the opportunity, nor the time, to study. However, our Committees work very hard upstairs on the European problems. Week in, week out, noble Lords of this House devote much of their time to trying to understand these problems. Is this situation going to spread to local government?
I wish to deal with one little aspect of the Bill now before us. As a keen gardener and allotment holder I regret the proposed repeals of Sections 32(2) 1435 and 54 of the Small Holdings and Allotments Act 1908. The Government, despite their welcome agreement to withdraw the proposal to repeal Section 8 of the Allotment Act 1925—that is a proposal to undermine the security of tenure of people who have allotments—intend in this Bill to proceed with the proposed modification to Section 32(2) and the repeal of Section 54 of the Small Holdings and Allotments Act 1908. What will this do? As a result the proposal about how to deal with the cash proceeds derived from the sale of allotment land is now changed.
Let me again remind the Minister of the Croydon case, which most noble Lords know about. There were considerable surpluses from the sale of statutory allotment land in the borough of Croydon, and, as the London Association of Recreational Gardeners pointed out, this was probably the worst example on record where a council, with the collusion of the Secretary of State for the Environment, transferred about £250,000 a year from the allotment account to the general rate fund.
I wish to enter a caveat here, as I did earlier. We have spoken about coal and steel, and some noble Lords have spoken about civil defence and the need for steel air raid shelters. Have we all forgotten about "Dig for Victory"? The allotments are one factor in the defence of Britain. During the war Britain was saved millions and millions of pounds in relation to overseas currencies because allotments were available. The question is—and I shall not develop this further because I have made my point—are we going to destroy this, or encourage it? Are we going to ensure that in future allotments have shelters, lavatories, water supplies and other amenities that are needed for good gardening? I hope that when we come to deal with this point an amendment will be moved.
I regret my promise to be brief, but a promise is a promise, and a tired House is a tired House. I have one other point. Many amendments are needed and I hope to put some down myself. It might be said, "There is no need to talk about them now, Lord Davies, if you are going to talk about them again ". Well, I am. I wish to refer to Part VI of the Bill and the 1436 rate support grant which as now drafted is I think topsy-turvy.
My last point—your Lordships will be glad to hear me say that—is on Part XII, dealing with the Land Authority for Wales. I see that it is left alone. Thank goodness for that!—because it has been very successful in all its dealings. The noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, will be pleased by my next sentence. I appreciate that new powers are being given to the Land Authority for Wales and I hope that they will be used intelligently. Much as I am yearning to speak longer, I realise that the noble House is tired, and I have made my point. So much has already been said that I think it would be wise if I now make way for the next speaker.
§ 7.56 p.m.
§ Lord MARSHALL of LEEDS
My Lords, first, I wish to congratulate my noble friend Lord Grimston of Westbury upon his speech this afternoon. I had the privilege of knowing his late father, and I can tell your Lordships how much good his late father did for local government. I follow a plethora of presidents of local authority associations, and I shall try to be as relevant as they were, even though they argued from different premises. Therefore with regard to Clause 1 may I say simply that however much the generality of local authorities welcome the relaxation of controls (as referred to in Clause 1), many local authorities at the same time feel disappointment at the comparatively limited scope of the relaxation contained in Clause 1 of and Schedules 1 to 6 to the Bill. I think that those authorities would very much hope that Government would explore with local authority associations the inclusion in a future Bill of further relaxations of governmental control and interference, in particular with regard to those departments that have not hitherto been very forthcoming.
Underlying the Bill are two parallel arguments, in the background, as it were. The first concerns expenditure in the present financial year 1980–81. The second relates to the control of spending in the years to come. They are separate and should not be confused. The problem is that the Government's critics are confusing the exercise this year, which is concerned with bringing local authority 1437 spending into line with targets based on out-turn expenditure for 1978–79, with the future procedure for grant fixing, which will show clearly where local authorities have decided to spend more than a certain level of expenditure which is defined as grant-related expenditure.
Where there is a connection between this year's expenditure volume review and future grant settlements is in the evidence that it provides about the unwillingness of certain authorities to co-operate with the drive to bring public expenditure under control as part of the battle against inflation. The Government, I think rightly, are seeking measures which will enable them to limit their contributon, made through grant, to higher levels of spending by those councils which are committed to increase expenditure irrespective of ability to pay. In other words, the Government are seeking to limit their liability towards local government.
There are of course some authorities which have come to expect continuing Exchequer support for their high spending policies, which must be at the expense of other, more prudent councils; and this, no doubt, is one of the objectives towards which the block grant is aimed. As I understand it, we shall have a more logical framework for local government finance, which hopefully will encourage the best use of resources. It is one of the arguments in favour of the block grant system that it will relate grant more closely to standard spending levels, so that authorities which choose to spend more will no longer automatically get an equivalent increase in grant. As I understand it, this is precisely what the majority of local authorities have been wanting and have been saying they favour.
Let me remind your Lordships of the view of the Association of County Councils in this regard. They accepted the objective of dealing with overspenders, and said:The Government intend that authorities which spend in excess of their true needs should not receive the same proportionate level of grant support as authorities which exercise restraint on their spending".The association unhesitatingly endorsed this objective. Indeed, the association have criticised the existing grant system on these very grounds. They go on to say: 1438The Government's intentions will markedly increase the power of the central departments to influence local rating decisions ".It is now the case that the Government will not publish standard expenditure figures for individual authorities. I believe that is so. Authorities will be able to rate, as now, as they wish, and to decide their own expenditure policies. What it will also do is to identify to local ratepayers the level of local spending, and relate this to the level of rate increase required to finance this spending. For most authorities, the grant-related expenditure figure will have little direct influence on their rating decisions; but where profligate authorities are committed to high levels of expenditure, the tapering reduction of grant at higher levels will tend to bring home the effects of such spending on ratepayers.
There is one other thing I should like to say before I deal with a separate matter. It is a fact, I believe, that the assessment of need under the new block grant system has not yet been developed in detail prior to the publication of the Bill, so that the local authority associations can, I believe, make a contribution, through working parties, to the discussions of the details of the needs assessment formula.
With regard to Clause 2, I think nobody will disagree that local government is in the forefront of the fight for the containment of public expenditure, and the reason is not hard to see since local government's revenue expenditure accounts for at least a quarter of the entirety of all public revenue expenditure. Add to this the fact that local government employs between a third and a half of the total manpower employed in the public sector, spending about 68 per cent. of its gross current expenditure on staff wages and salaries, and it is plain to see that manpower lies at the heart of the matter. If local government is to employ, as it does, just over 2 million people whole-time or whole-time equivalents, as computed, and if, indeed, unhappily, that 2 million is not decreasing but is pretty constant—and it has been for the last 18 months to two years—then I certainly am in favour of statistical returns broken down by service which will enable members of the public to evaluate the efficiency of their own local authority.
1439 Further I would be interested in statistics which would show me the unit costs of what happens in Norfolk County Council, say, as compared with the South Yorkshire Metropolitan County Council, or Nottinghamshire County Council. These comparabilities, despite some that are going to disappear shortly, would make very fruitful research. So manpower, unhappily, is not coming down; and a reduction in revenue expenditure by any local authority which is not accompanied by a reduction in manpower is no more going to solve our problems than will a reduction in bureaucracy which leaves services and subsidies intact. It is quite true that Manchester, which of course is Labour-controlled, is making cuts, and the other day published its decision to make cuts of £22 million; but these cuts do not affect the staff by a single unit. The staff remain, and they remain at 42,000, which, with the present population of the modern Manchester, since local government reorganisation, is almost 1 in 10 of the population. So almost 1 in 10 of the residents of Manchester work for the corporation.
It is not for me to criticise that, but surely the public should be afforded the capability of inquiring whether that is a prudent thing for Manchester to do. It is doubtful whether local government or for that a matter the public at large, even now either appreciate or accept that the exercise of retrenchment is not, as in the past, a mere temporary lull in expansion. It is difficult for them to appreciate that, really, in effect, it is a total change of direction. After a long period of improvement in conditions of life through the 'fifties, the 'sixties and the 'seventies, it is not easy for local authorities or the public to accept that the upward and onward movement in local government can no longer be sustained; that, in present conditions, retrenchment must be consciously and deliberately induced.
Local government is in a cleft stick. It is not an easy situation at all. It is in a cleft stick because, on the one hand, the Government are wishing to limit their financial obligation towards local government and, on the other hand, there is great unease up and down the country—I will not say a ratepayers' rebellion; that would not be true, but there is great 1440 unease and unrest—about rate increases—and well there may be in certain parts of the country! I will not name the authority but one authority has performed in such a way since 1978 that the domestic ratepayer has found that his rates have gone up by 130 per cent.
It would not be true to say that the local authority is the darling of the nation at the present time. It has many good friends in this Chamber but this is not a matter which I would care to canvass up and down the country. It does not stand alone in its difficulties because, although I think there is need for a rundown, economy model of local government, there is also need for a run-down, economy model of the central Government machine and the public sector generally. Rejigging the works to convert from Rolls-Royce to Ford Popular is not easy and will need careful management. From now on, and for the foreseeable future, the elected members of local government, in my opinion, will be in the business of the management of contraction.
Local government supports the Bill's basic principle that authorities should publish suitable information to inform their electorate about what they are doing. It is to be hoped that this can be achieved by means of a code of practice as agreed with local authority associations but local government on the whole has no reason to be secretive; it has nothing to hide. The best local authorities have for years taken their public into their confidence. As a lifelong Conservative practioner in local government, it is an article of policy that elected members as well as officers are trustees, and regard themselves as trustees, of the public purse, of the public money; and regard themselves as accountable as such. I believe that many local authorities—and I must say that many are Conservative local authorities—have responded to the reasonable complaints of small firms about the level of commercial rates. It is not only small firms who complain about the level of commercial rates. The CBI are making very loud noises about the level of commercial rates.
This Bill therefore provides for the extension of domestic rate relief to most mixed business-and-domestic properties. It also extends the right to pay rates by instalments especially in small businesses. 1441 Again, I would expect every local authority (at least every Conservative-controlled local authority) to encourage small businesses, and to do that by keeping down the level of rates, through a policy of good management of their affairs and the reduction of waste—of which manpower management and control is one of the most important factors. Their record in that regard, I believe, speaks for itself. Huge increases to the domestic rate or the commercial rate bring the rating system into disrepute; and there is already a lobby up and down the country, strong in some parts, for the total abolition of domestic rates.
And that is not all. The lobby is for the abolition of domestic rates, full stop. It is not for the abolition of rates and the substitution of another capability for local authorities to raise revenue by a different means; it is for the total abolition of domestic rates. If that were to happen, I do not know who could be found to serve in local government. I guess that once you remove the revenue-raising capability from local government you effectively destroy the system.
My Lords, I welcome the provisions of the Bill not only under Part II, dealing with the publication of information, but generally. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Bellwin on the way he presented the Bill. I want to add this rider. Local government spending has been facing restraint in the last few years of the last Government. This trend has continued in the present economic climate. Local government well understands that it is the business of Government to manage the economy. Local government has never in my experience failed to respond to Governments of whatever political colour when Governments were carrying out their job of governing. I think therefore that it is a pity that in certain sections of the press which ought to know better or which ought to keep themselves better informed more confidence has not been demonstrated in the responsible stance and attitude of which local government is historically and inherently capable.
How refreshingly different for me has been the atmosphere of this House today. Local government has many friends, obviously, in this House. It should be well aware of that and it should be grateful for that. But the lobbies that criticise 1442 local government as irresponsible, as spendthrift, as not worth the price, cannot and must not be ignored. They range the length and breadth of the country. There is no use in saying that local government is in partnership with Government. What kind of partnership is it where the Government pay 62 per cent. of the relevant current expenditure of local government and 38 per cent. is paid by local government and the ratepayers? What sort of partnership is that? One can mount a very attractive argument, one can talk about essential local relationships; one can say that local authorities are responsible not to Ministers, not to Government, but to their electorate; but, at the end of the day, let us not buck the issue: they have a keen responsibility to the person who supplies the majority of the purse.
I yield to no one in my regard for local government; I yield to no one in my regard for those of whatever party who serve it. It is because of this that I approach this Bill, I hope, with realism, regarding it as I do as an antidote to and a possible defence against the dangerous lobbies which I have mentioned.
§ 8.20 p.m.
§ Lord HENLEY
My Lords, I was intending to speak to the proposals set out in Clause 76 which allow for charges to be made for applications for planning permission. You will be very pleased to hear that many people have already dealt with this far better than myself, notably the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, the noble Lords, Lord Beaumont of Whitley and Lord Underhill, and my noble friends Lord Middleton and Lord Morris. There is one exception. The noble Lord, Lord Monson, felt that Clause 76 could be justifiable as a modest form of capital gains tax on the increased value of a building due to a grant of planning permission.
I should like to refer him back to what my noble friend Lord Morris said about this being a charge on an individual for a service which is essentially a service to the whole community and not simply to that individual, and also to note that the charge is made not for the grant of planning permission, but for the application of planning permission. That strikes 1443 me as very different. One pays for other licences and commissions such as a firearm certificate on its grant and not on the application for it.
Having said that, there is little I want to add to what noble Lords have said, other than to ask the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, three questions. First, I think he said that Clause 76 would help increase the efficiency of the planning process. I should be very grateful if he would go into that more when he winds up. Without being rude, it struck me as rather naive. I cannot see how paying for an application makes the process more efficient and will mean that the application will be considered more properly.
The other two questions that I want to ask are about building regulations. I was told by someone, I believe yesterday, that one has to pay for applications for building regulations. I wonder whether the noble Lord would confirm that that is correct. Could the noble Lord tell me what statute or ministerial order introduced that—if it was so introduced? Having said that, I should like to say that generally I support the intentions of the Bill. Whether in practice the way the Bill tries to implement those intentions will work, is another matter.
§ 8.23 p.m.
§ Lord RAGLAN
My Lords, I really came along to speak about certain matters in Schedule 12—which is headed "General Planning Control", but has much in it about conservation—or rather what is not in Schedule 12 and what I think should be in it. I cannot resist some general comments on the matters that I have been listening to this afternoon. For instance, if it were not for parliamentary privilege the Government might be taken before the Advertising Standards Authority for supplying misleading information in the first sentence of the Long Title of the Bill, where they say that it is an Act to relax controls.
This gives a friendly look; but when one looks closely they want to relax some controls and increase others. They should say so or omit that first sentence altogether. I will not enter the arguments about how finance, as arranged in this Bill, is going to affect local authorities. 1444 There are others far better qualified to do so than I am. The sources of local authority finance look rather odd and need some justification. Sixty per cent. comes from central Government; 30 per cent. comes from commercial and industrial rates and those ratepayers are in effect disenfranchised. Only 11 per cent. comes from the domestic rate. It really is a most peculiar method of financing a democratic body.
Obviously, there is much room for argument about who should exert how much control over local authority expenditure. It seems that the Secretary of State, as the representative of the central taxpayer, thinks that he should call the tune; but from the disharmony that he has created around the House this afternoon I wonder with my noble friend, Lord Irving of Dartford, whether some agreed or better agreed method of financing can be worked out. It should not be beyond the wit of man.
This Bill has many purposes. This has been alluded to this evening. It does not touch on half the functions which local authorities are called upon to do. The load which local authorities carry has increased particularly in the past 15 years or so and I think that more than a passing thought should be given to the question of whether the structure of local authorities is really strong enough to bear this increased load. I mean something better than calling your town clerk a chief executive.
Local government has changed hugely since the time that my father was a county councillor (which he was for 25 years), and he considered that his duties were fairly well discharged if he could attend once a week. Nowadays it is very nearly a fulltime profession for a great many councillors. We should consider seriously having a directly-elected chief executive who is paid an appropriate sum. I have no time to enlarge upon that, but such a scheme of things would help local authorities greatly in many ways in the fulfilment of their many functions and duties.
Although the Long Title does not say so, there are some important provisions in this Bill relating to conservation and preservation. As chairman for some years of a building preservation and amenity society in the city of Bath, I am naturally 1445 deeply interested in Schedule 11 and other related parts. The central Government, through the law, through directives and through judicious pressure, has greatly helped to change attitudes towards conservation and preservation which used to prevail at one time. Instead of wholesale destruction, we now have wholesale rehabilitation.
The idea that a building has a calculable lifespan has generally been discarded and many thousands of fine, agreeable and useful buildings, which otherwise would have been done away with, still grace our streets. Yet, despite comprehensive legislation and this new attitude, there are far too many old buildings which are either neglected, at risk or being pulled down. Buildings, I feel, are still low in priority for Government funds, compared with, let us say, pictures, or even opera. For instance, the Historic Buildings Council receives annually from the Government only about the same amount of money that Covent Garden Opera House alone gets. I am not saying that Covent Garden should not get what it gets; I am saying that the Historic Buildings Council is far too low down the list of priorities in the minds of the Treasury.
Apparently there is no difficulty in finding millions after millions to prevent pictures and objets d'art, painted or made by foreign artists, leaving this country, when all that is happening is that these pictures are simply finding their way from one collection to another, as has happened ever since they were painted. They are not going to disappear; quite the contrary. One can be certain that, wherever they go, they will be well looked after. But buildings are part of our national heritage, and once a building has been bulldozed it has gone forever. It follows that anything that can be done to ensure that where a building is threatened with destruction or inappropriate alteration, some second thoughts can be encouraged while an economic use can be found for the building, then we should try our best to do it.
There are attached to Schedule 12 a large number of provisions which one hopes will improve the laws pertaining to conservation. Of course, enough money needs to be forthcoming to put some of these provisions into effect. May I say to the Minister that the 1446 Government must make sure that it is forthcoming or we shall be neglecting our duty to the present generation and future generations? There is an omission in this Bill, as in previous ones; it is a small but really very important one. A local authority which owns a listed building can give itself planning permission to alter it or knock it down, and the citizen has no right of appeal either to the Minister or to a public inquiry. Only last week or the week before, I was pleased to see an article in the Economist which drew attention to this fact. They were reporting that Mr. Heseltine—I do not know how they know this—is drafting a directive in which he points out that one in three applications to demolish historic buildings come from local authorities for buildings which they themselves own. The paper asks, Quis Custodiet?, which I, through my superior education, can complete with, Ipsos Custodies? That is my point, but I do not think the remedy can be made by directive. I believe it would have to be done by legislation. I am willing to have a go in Committee, but I would much rather the Government did it for me. I hope they will help, because I know from past experience how very difficult these things are.
§ 8.34 p.m.
My Lords, it would be tempting, as an original member of the Historic Buildings Council, to follow the noble Lord opposite, even if I am not as good as he is at the Latin language, but I am going to resist this temptation because it is late. I want to make one point, and I promise I shall not be more than two minutes, if I cannot make it in one. If the Government are really anxious to reduce central control over expenditure on small items of routine administration by local authorities, I should like to ask this. Why is there no reference in the Bill to the multitude of trivial controls by the Home Office over the expenditure on activities of police authorities, even down to alterations to buildings and individual police houses which I would rate as no more than routine estate management?
The 1964 Act is very vague in defining the responsibility of police authorities vis-à-vis the Home Office, and this is a very sensitive area. But I have sensed a 1447 feeling in the Home Office to increase their powers over the police at the expense of local control, and I am sure there is a feeling in some branches there that at the end of the day we are moving towards a national police force, which is something that I submit we should resist; this is an opportunity for us to do something practical. The special constitutional position and responsibility for law and order which the Home Office has is no argument for retaining detailed controls over trivial matters of administration.
If there are no Government amendments on the paper at the Committee stage, I hope the Government will look kindly on those which my noble friends and I may put on the paper, not with any idea —I must make this clear—of weakening the independence of chief officers, which would be very wrong, but to strengthen local feeling and local responsibility for our incomparable police forces and to encourage able men and women to serve on police authorities, which at present is not the case. Both county councillors and magistrates who are really active in their particular spheres are often loath to sit on police authorities, where they feel they are just rubber stamps because the Home Office and chief constables together take all the decisions. I hope I have made this point clear in the short time I have spoken, and I hope, too, that at the next stage the Government will join with their supporters on the Back Benches, not just to strengthen the position of the police but to strenthen those whose responsibility it is to see that our police remain the best in the world.
§ 8.37 p.m.
§ Lord PONSONBY of SHULBREDE
My Lords, at this late hour of the night it is unnecessary for me to reiterate at length our view that the Bill, far from relaxing control over local government, will in fact inevitably result in greater control by central Government over local government. Many noble Lords have dealt with detailed aspects of these controls this afternoon, and I shall not reiterate them save to say I believe that the Bill does nothing for the vitality of local government. Local government is not, and must not become, a mere branch of central Government. It is an expression of local will and vitality. Local councillors must 1448 be accountable primarily to their own electorates and not to central Government. As has been said—and many noble Lords have given different examples of it from the Bill—this Bill has pushed the pendulum in the other direction, away from local accountability.
We have certainly had a very wide-ranging debate this evening. Indeed, that is probably inevitable with a Bill that encompasses what would normally be four, five, six or seven Bills. Various noble Lords have dealt with quite different aspects of the Bill. We have had the noble Lord, Lord Broadbridge, who was dealing with the allotment issue. He was complaining that it was 11 years and nothing had been done about it. I am reminded that it is about 20 years before anything has been done about Sunday trading. That perhaps is another contentious issue which I should not tread on now.
As one of the patrons of the "Cleaner London Campaign", I should like to take this opportunity of congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Grimston of Westbury, on his eloquent maiden speech in which he spoke about the litter problem. This is something which I feel very strongly about. I feel that it has a very adverse effect on the sort of image we present, not only to our fellow citizens but also to the incoming tourists. I hope that we hear further from the noble Lord in the months to come. In talking about the wide range of the debate, I should mention that we have also heard from the noble Lord, Lord DuncanSandys, about civic amenities, and from the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, about rural life in the Isle of Wight half a century ago; this was a very moving picture.
Several noble Lords have spoken about the question of fees for planning applications. Personally I find it always a difficult issue. While I find the idea of fees for planning applications abhorrent, one does accept that there is a problem, and I speak as a former chairman of the central area planning committee for Greater London. There is the problem of the substantial applications which may involve a number of officers of the local authority in a considerable amount of work over a considerable period of years, and the result of the grant of the planning 1449 application for the developer will be a profitable one.
One wonders, should he not be asked to pay for all the problems and all the time which the local authority has been involved in in considering the application? This is a problem; I accept certainly that it is a problem. I think when we come actually to look at the detail of the Bill that what it will really turn on is what exemptions are actually proposed from these charges. I would certainly think it quite wrong if charges were made for what I shall call the normal run of the mill planning applications. Personally I would adopt a different attitude to major applications.
It has not been mentioned this evening that some 60 of the 166 clauses, in fact, concern Scotland, and when we come to the Committee stage I have no doubt that the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, will have support from the Scottish Ministers on these issues. No noble Lord has mentioned in the debate the clause about honorary freemen, and I certainly do not wish to become involved on that clause.
The two particular areas I wish to say something about are the proposals in Parts XVI and XVII for urban development corporations and free enterprise zones. There is a very wide general power introduced in Part XVI for the proposed establishment of urban development corporations. One appreciates the purposes which lie behind this proposal and the motives behind them. One welcomes in a sense the idea of setting up corporations of this nature, but one questions whether a general power to set up such corporations should be inserted in this particular Bill. As it is inserted as a general power, it means that it would be possible for the Government of the day to designate any urban area needing regeneration as an urban development corporation. Indeed, there will be nothing to stop the Government of the day from designating the whole area of a recalcitrant local authority as an urban development corporation.
I have noted with interest that I am supported in this view by the Member in another place for Hexham, Mr. Geoffrey Rippon, a former Secretary of State for the Environment and a former Opposition leader on the London County Council, 1450 who is firmly of the opinion that the Bill, as it stands, confers on the Secretary of State too much power in this area. There should be a restriction on the exercise of this power other than the one which is written into the Bill. That is of parliamentary approval of any order designating an urban development corporation. Surely there should be consultation on proposals for such a designation with the local authorities concerned. This should be written into the Bill. Surely the creation of urban development corporations should involve the local authority in the right to nominate members on to that corporation, as the mere fact of the creation of the corporation will mean that the electorate in that area will cease to be represented on a local authority. They should have representation by the right of nomination through the local authorities of the area.
The legislation here is very largely based, as the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, said in moving the Bill, on new towns legislation. Yet the situation that exists in an urban area requiring redevelopment is very different from that in a rural area needing development. In one there is an established and sizeable population and in the other there is not. This should surely be taken account of in the phrasing of the proposals in this particular section of the Bill. Also, there should be included in this section proposals for the compensation for loss of office by the servants of the existing bodies within these areas as a consequence of the establishment of the urban development corporations.
In London, for example, uncertainty is being created among the staff of the Dock-lands Joint Committee about the future continuity of their appointment. Indeed, the same will apply when the urban development corporations are eventually dissolved after a period of time. There will be the problem of guaranteeing employment for those particular staffs. One would think that it would be right that similar provisions to those which applied to the 1974 local government reorganisation and to the reorganisation of water resources should be applied here.
I cannot feel that in this particular area the Government would not have been better advised to introduce an Urban Development Corporation (Liverpool) Bill and an Urban Development Cor- 1451 poration (London) Bill than, in fact, to introduce such general powers into this particular Bill. Indeed, it is ironic that a Bill which is purportedly designed to relax control over local authorities will completely deprive local authorities of powers in the areas which are so designated. I hate to point out that, in fact, by setting up these corporations we are creating further Quangos when the Secretary of State for the Environment, I understand, is very keen to decrease the number of such bodies.
If I may move on to the question of enterprise zones, I think these proposals will need very careful scrutiny by your Lordships' House. The idea of areas where rates are remitted for 10 years, where planning consents are easy to come by, and where form-filling is very much less, is very attractive and is attractive as a means of attracting productive industry into a particular area, but I think that we should not minimise the problems which could be produced by the designation of such areas. I think that your Lordships should look carefully at these problems and see, in fact, what amendments are necesssry to the proposals as they stand. I think that basically the idea should be welcomed, but your Lordships should look at the worst consequences of the establishment of the zones.
One of the first problems is the question of the no-man's-land which will immediately surround the areas so designated. Already, indeed, cases have been reported of industrialists who have businesses within and without the proposed areas, who would intend to switch all their activities from outside to inside the area, with the consequences that an area of dereliction is created outside the area. I think it is very important that the development of these proposals should be monitored. They are experimental and one would want to monitor them very closely to see the effect they were having on the adjoining areas. One would not want to see damage done to those areas.
There is concern about the broad span of the advantages accruing across the board to industry and commerce moving into the enterprise zones. There is particular concern about whether in fact a large hypermarket would be able to be set up in such an area and so reap considerable 1452 commercial benefits in the form of remitted rates, so that it would be creating unfair competition between such a hypermarket and the local shops in the surrounding area, which would not be to the benefit of the community as a whole. In fact, the amount of trade would not be expanded and therefore it could seriously disrupt the whole of the shopping area. When the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, explained this clause to the House, his remarks were particularly directed to the thought of productive industry—industry which would be innovating new processes—rather than to the thought of enterprises such as large shopping complexes. I hope that is something we shall be able to come back to on Committee stage.
The debate today has shown, from all parts of the House, considerable reservations about different parts of the Bill. I know the House will wish to scrutinise the whole Bill at Committee stage when we come back in October. I very much hope that the Government will prove to be more flexible in their attitude towards the sort of amendments that will be tabled from all sections of the House, and I am sure that the House will want to produce the most effective Bill it is able to produce. I know also that the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, would like to assist the House in being flexible when amendments are tabled, and I hope he will be able to adopt such an attitude.
§ 8.54 p.m.
§ Lord BELLWIN
My Lords, this debate has covered almost as much ground as the Bill itself. I hope your Lordships will forgive me and understand if I do not respond to every speaker or to all the points that have been raised. Obviously it would not be practicable, unless we want to start immediately the late night sittings about which we were warned by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley. We should be making a very early start on those late nights, my Lords, if I were to answer all the detailed points—not that I am not tempted to have a go!
It is apparent from much of what we have heard during this long debate that there is still a lack of understanding about certain parts of the Bill. I said in my introduction that the Government have necessarily tried to redefine the boundaries between central and local Government. It 1453 seems I must reiterate that we have not approached our task in terms of trying to tilt the balance between central and local government.
To suggest, as some of your Lordships have done, that this Bill represents an attack on local government autonomy is wrong—I have to say it again, and in what I shall be saying in a few minutes I am sure I shall have to repeat it yet again—because we do not at all consider this to be an attack on local government autonomy. For the last 15 years I myself have seen at first hand the erosion of that autonomy in so many different ways. I have abhorred it, I have regretted it and I have been on the receiving end. Therefore it is not lightly that I say what I do about that, and I hope that your Lordships will accept it in that way.
There are, as I have said, a number of points which have been made and which I fear I may not have covered in that which I have written down. Perhaps I may comment on one or two of the points that have been made and that I fear I may not have covered elsewhere. I shall try to do that very quickly. The noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, referred to revaluations. She said they were regularly needed. I am sure she would not wish me to remind her that in fact there have been only three such revaluations since the end of the war in England. Not one of them was brought in by a Labour Government; they were all brought in by Conservative Governments and in fact a Labour Government has never brought in a revaluation since the war. Indeed, during their 1974–79 term of office they twice put it back, so perhaps I had better not say too much about that.
The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, said that the Government did not know where they were and he referred to consultation. I wonder whether the noble Lord is aware of precisely what consultation has gone on in connection with this Bill. I can tell him that from where I have been sitting I do not know what he calls it, but I call it consultation. If the outcome is that one does not always get to where one wants to be, one always says, I suppose: "You didn't consult with me properly". But I can tell him that if one measured it in terms of hours, discussing it with all concerned, then it would be 1454 absolutely fair to say that there has indeed been consultation.
May I add at this point my own compliments and congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Grimston of Westbury, on his maiden speech? I did wonder at times—I know he will bear with me if he is here—precisely where this sat in relation to the Bill. Nevertheless that does not in any way detract from what was a splendid first effort on the subject of pollution, which is something which very much concerns everyone in your Lordships' House, and I happily congratulate him on that.
I must say that when my noble friend Lord Ridley said that the Government had promised less legislation—and here am I, of all people, standing up for the third time with a not-too-small Bill (dare I say?)—what could I do but agree whole-heartedly with his point? Nevertheless, I think it is also fair to say that in the first term of any government it is understood that that is the time when there will be—dare I say it without putting my foot in it?—perhaps more legislation than in any other Session, but I am keeping my fingers crossed as to that! Certainly I thank him for the kind personal words that he said about me.
The noble Lord, Lord Hill, doubted the Bill would achieve what the Government said. I hope that when the time comes for a judgment to be made, and it will only be a gradual one, the noble Lord may feel that the Bill will indeed achieve what we said. Certainly we do not embark upon it expecting that it will do other than that.
The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, with whom it is, if I may say so, always a delight to debate, said he felt it would be painful for me to be introducing this particular Bill. Let me assure him that in fact there was really not too much pain at all: indeed there was and is considerable pride, for reasons which I hope to bring out in a few moments as we go along. He said that there was no speech in favour of it. But, of course, he will readily accept that that was in the early part of the proceedings. There have since been a number of speeches in favour of the Bill, and there was a very outstanding one to which I shall refer later.
1455 May I just correct the Financial Times on one small point—at least, as I see it? It said that the Bill had had a stormy passage through the Commons. I do not think that what it had in the Commons was at all a stormy passage—quite the contrary. There was no guillotine there. In my lack of experience, I do not know how one assesses or defines a stormy passage. But, certainly, on any interpretation that I would put on it, I would not call that a stormy passage.
May I thank my noble friend Lord Monk Bretton for his kind words, and I shall shortly touch on his point about agricultural land. The noble Lord, Lord Monson, wants real central control. Many of the public may well like it, but I assure him that the aficionados would very strongly dislike it, because that would really be a major tilt in the balance between central and local government. It may be what one day will happen, but it certainly has nothing to do with what this Bill proposes.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek, deeply for his brevity and also for his kind observations. I have no doubt that at regular intervals during all the years when they were in power he took up with his Labour colleagues his concern about pollution. As to the noble Lord, Lord Raglan, he was concerned about who pays the rates. He is absolutely right and that will be the next debate. My noble friend Lord Marshall also touched on this. Mark my words, my Lords, one day that will be the debate that will arise. Who pays the rates and who has, therefore, the end responsibility for everything that happens? That will come, but not yet and certainly not in connection with this Bill.
My noble friend wanted directly elected chief executives. That is the system in Germany and perhaps in other countries. Whether it is better or worse is, again, part of the great debate about where local government should go. Finally, my noble friend Lord Inglewood was really concerned about the relaxation of controls over the police. He made a very important point, and I am sure that when we are discussing the next round—and there will be a next round in this whole exercise of relaxation of controls—that is something that we shall be looking at.
1456 If I may refer to the relaxation of controls, because so many of your Lordships touched upon it, at the end of the day councillors, elected members, must be responsible for their own decisions and must be seen to be responsible. That is what much of this Bill is about. The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, said that we were drifting with the tide away from local accountability, but, with great respect, it is exactly the opposite. This whole principle of accountability is a basic tenet, both of the philosophy behind the Bill and of that which is in the Bill. Again and again, when we come to Committee and the later stages, I hope to be able to prove to him that this whole business of local accountability is the very key to everything that we aspire to see coming out of this Bill. Indeed, it is a quid pro quo for many of the other things that we are requesting from local government.
It is true that some of these 300 controls which we are relaxing are not major—some are minor. But we have always said that, and there will be 300 fewer than before, so it is a start. We shall come back again with more of them. Have no doubt about that, my Lords. On the other hand, some are far from trivial and are very major indeed. As we talk about some of the other relaxations later, I think I shall be able to bring that out better.
My noble friend Lord Ridley welcomed what we are doing, as indeed did my noble friend Lord Sandford, who I thank for his kind remarks. My noble friend Lord Duncan-Sandys said that we should go further and I gladly confirm that we shall be going further on this. I shall touch on his other points a little later. I also thank my noble friend Lord Marshall for what he said on that point, too.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester was not as happy as some about what we are doing. He felt that we were increasing rather than relaxing controls. I think that is what he said, but if he did not I know that he will forgive me. I suppose that whatever we did in this direction would not satisfy all those who have a particular interest. There are many controls which have not been relaxed or removed, and if they have not been, then those affected will be less than happy. I am sorry about that, but 1457 perhaps the right reverend Prelate, too, will feel comforted by what I have said, about what we intend to do. This is by no means the end of the road.
The noble Lord, Lord Broadbridge, raised the question of allotments. He is not in your Lordships' House at the moment. I had intended to make some references to what he said, but, in the interests of time and since he is not here, it might be better if I write to him. Still in the same area, the noble Lord, Lord Hill, raised the question of capital expenditure and airports' finance and profits. Strictly speaking, it is part of the capital controls rather than the general relaxation of controls. But may I say to him—because I know it is a matter of considerable interest to him—that the issue of training undertakings, in the context of the proposals in Part VIII of the Bill, is one where we recognise that there may be some difficulty. As the Minister for Local Government and Environmental Services announced at Report stage in another place, it is an issue which we are looking at, and I shall hope to acquaint your Lordships with our considered view when we reach the Committee stage. But I thank the noble Lord for raising this point.
So I come to the very large point of capital expenditure and project controls. Many of your Lordships spoke on this at length, and it is one of the two basic financial provisions in the Bill which have given cause for concern. I am sure that that is why it was referred to by so many of your Lordships. In my view, there is no longer a case for retaining the present detailed project controls which the Bill will enable us to sweep away. Why should Ministers or civil servants have to oversee and supervise the details of, for example, individual housing schemes? What is the advantage of constraining local authorities to precise housing standards and cost yardsticks? We believe that it should be the responsibility of a local authority to decide, within the resources available to it, what are its housing needs and how they are to be met. These are major constrictions that we are speaking about removing.
When I was a different incarnation—a term which I have learned since I arrived in your Lordships' House—the one thing which I always wanted and which everybody I knew in local government 1458 also wanted was the chance ourselves to decide what were the local priorities. We knew best whether we needed in our areas an aged persons' home, or a school, or more housing, or leisure service facilities, and we always said so. But what did we have? What is the present system from which we are now departing and which noble Lords have indicated, at least by implication, that they so much prefer to what we are proposing? I wonder how many noble Lords know exactly what is involved in making an application for a project and all the "nuts and bolts" which it has to go through: the application to borrow, the submissions which have to be made on every single project, the army of people down here in London checking over whatever one applies to do in every case. What kind of freedom is that?
What we are seeking to do is, very simply, this. We have said that we are viring the blocks into one. Local government will have the right itself to decide what its priorities should be, because with this allocation of money goes an automatic borrowing right. No longer will it be necessary to submit any more projects. I wonder what the trains from the various parts of the country will be like? British Rail will certainly have to look to their laurels, because the number of local government officers coming down to London will be very much smaller. This is a practical point. I know exactly what has to be done at the present time when it comes to making applications. I suggest, with no disrespect, that many of your Lordships who have spoken do not know the "nuts and bolts" of what it all involves, and it is that which we are doing away with in these proposals.
What are we asking for in return for what I consider to be a major disengagement of central Government from local government? We are saying that only the Government can really know what the country can afford. Nobody quarrels with that. I have never met one person in local government anywhere who has argued other than that the Government themselves have to decide what they can afford. Therefore the Government will decide the total amount which can be afforded and then it will be up to local government itself to decide its priorities. If that is not what I say it is—a major disengagement, a major new freedom— 1459 then I do not know what is. Certainly noble Lords will gather, I hope, from the way I have put it that I am hook, line and sinker behind it. I deeply believe in it. I have always wanted it. It will be for the good of local government and when it starts to work I believe that they will all come to accept it.
May I again say something about accountability. I referred to the point which was made by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, and I shall repeat it, I hope, with no less vigour than some of the other points which I have made, because I feel that it is important. The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, was also concerned about accountability. He spoke about the accountability of authorities to the Government. But this is not about accountability by the authorities to the Government. This is about accountability by the authorities to their own citizens—their electors, their ratepayers, the people who live within their authorities. That is what this is about. I say again that it is an absolutely fundamental tenet of what we are trying to do. It is a surprise to me, from what has been said today, that this is not one of the measures in the Bill which has been generally welcomed. Together with various bodies, not least with the local authorities, we have been working out systems, and in general terms we have not encountered any opposition to it.
Turning to direct labour, this was bound to be controversial. The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, and, indeed, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester touched upon it, and certainly the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, was concerned about it. What we are proposing here has also to do with accountability. I refute entirely the accusations by those who contend that we are launching an attack on direct labour. It is nothing of the kind. What we are attacking are some aspects of direct labour which are less than satisfactory, and I know that they are less than satisfactory to many people in local government today. Many of the leaders, Labour as well as Conservative, are also concerned about it, because they recognise, quite rightly, that when direct labour organisations are as nearly pure the driven snow as ever one can get—and more than that I would not expect—then 1460 direct labour organisations are home and dry and have a role to play. I know some splendid direct labour organisations in different parts of the country, and I hope that I left one behind me. Perhaps I should not have said that.
I should like to comment on a point which was made by the right reverend Prelate. When he spoke about tender limits I could not accept what he said. We have been conscious all along that in setting tender limits we needed to ensure that direct labour organisations were tested in frequent competition with private contractors but that at the same time this did not entail a substantial increase in administration. Both our original proposals and our revised ones were published in February, they were criticised by the local authority associations as being too low and they were criticised by the building federations as being too high, and of course that is almost exactly what one would expect. I will not now repeat those ceiling figures, but if anyone looks at them carefully, I think they will see that they are very high indeed. I have heard of one today from the right reverend Prelate but I had not previously heard of any authorities that were really concerned about that particular aspect.
As to the code of practice on reporting that was drawn up partly by CIPFA and which the right reverend Prelate was concerned about, I can only say that it was drawn up in accordance with the best existing practice. I heard what he said about the likely cost to Hampshire, and I was surprised, but I cannot make any comment on that. I wonder how many other authorities would say the same. I do not think there is much more I want to add. I could say so much more about direct labour organisations and I suspect this is one area in which we are going to—
§ Lord BELLWIN
All right, my Lords, I will try to pick up individual points on the direct labour organisations. The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, asked whether private firms would have to provide the same training, the same standards, the same security of employment, the same instant service that the private sector would 1461 be expected to have. But that has always been the debate. At the end of the day the people who will decide will be those who are on the receiving end—the user, the customer. They are the best ones to decide. I do not think that anybody, the noble Lord, Lord Greenwood, or any one else who really has at heart the interest of direct labour organisations, would want to quarrel with the fact that they should have their basis of making up accounts carefully checked; that the way in which the overhead calculations are arrived at should be carefully checked; that it should not be possible to blur the accounts of an authority, as I know can happen by jiggling them around within the total accounts of an authority. As I have just said, I think there is a future for direct labour organisations, but I think it will be a better one when we see what this Bill will bring forth. I am only sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, referred to Manchester having set on 500 trainees. I should have thought that was one of the causes of the problems in their financial situation in which they find themselves.
My Lords, if I have missed points which have been made may I assure your Lordships that I will go very carefully through Hansard and will write to noble Lords. I will give way to the noble Lord, Lord Greenwood, if he wants to make a point.
§ Lord GREENWOOD of ROSSENDALE
My Lords, in fact I did not refer to direct labour departments, but spoke on behalf of a major organisation in the local government world. I do not want them tomorrow to think that their views have been ignored, and I think that also applies to the points raised by my noble friend Lord Irving of Dartford, who was expressing the views of the county councils' association.
§ Lord BELLWIN
My Lords, I am glad the noble Lord has said that he did not raise that particular point because I had not noted it down, and I am glad to think that I did not miss it, I think the noble Lord was referring to the AMA in particular—at least I hope he was, otherwise I have that one wrong. If he was, I think I am probably as aware of the AMA's line on this, as most people are. It is not all that long since I was arguing the cases for them. If I have missed it, 1462 then I apologise; I undertake to look carefully and will write to the noble Lord and also to the noble Lord, Lord Irving of Dartford.
Coming now to some of the planning points, before returning to Part VI, the Bill's main financial proposals, I think I should say something on some of the planning observations that were made. With regard to planning charges, I am well aware of the argument that since development control is in the public interest it is the public who should pay for it. What we are concerned with here is whether the cost should fall on the ratepayer and taxpayer or whether it is right that the developer should meet at least a proportion of the cost. To me it seems to be perfectly reasonable. We want to be sure that the charges are not an excessive burden on any type of development, and we think that the scale we have put forward in our consultation document is a moderate one. But I have noted the comments which have been made today and would only emphasise that in any changes we make to the proposed scale our aim will be to keep it as simple as possible, because we are determined that the income from charges will not be nibbled away by expensive administration.
As to the philosophy behind charging, clearly we shall discuss that again in more detail when we come to the Bill itself. It was understandable that my noble friend Lord Ridley should argue strongly the case for the county councils retaining overall supervisory control of planning applications, as it was that my noble friend Lord Sandford should argue precisely the opposite on behalf of the district councils. All I would say on that is this. When, again in my former incarnation, we received 9,000 planning applications per year, we employed quite an organisation, quite a staff, to deal with them. If I tell your Lordships that nine miles down the road in Wakefield the West Yorkshire County Council employed another staff to go over exactly the same 9,000 applications, to make quite sure that not one of them was in breach of their structure plans, I suggest there is no way that that can make sense.
This whole matter was debated; it was taken up by the Labour Government when it was there; I know because I used 1463 to argue the case for the local authorities then. It was a matter of getting the right balance. I think it is no secret that the district and county councils wanted other redistributions of functions. At the end of the day this was the conclusion that we reached. With the reservations we have included regarding the code of practice, the onus is on district councils to make sure that they do not breach the structure plans. With all that we have tried to put in as safeguards, I think we have got it just about right. This required something of a judgment of Solomon and who am I to say anything else of that, except that I hope and I really believe that we got this right.
Nobody can justify a continuation of the out and out duplication that exists at present; it just is not a starter. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, who said, what will the district councils do, will they have the staff to do it? They have the staff there now; they are doing it at the present time. They are not going to take on anything new. The question should have been, what will the county councils do about the staff they are employing to do the supervisory work, much of which will not be necessary in the future?
Before I come to the financial provisions, perhaps I might comment on what the noble Lord, Lord Monk Bretton, said. He suggested that Clause 75 might endanger the position of agricultural land. As I have said, we believe our proposals will improve and not weaken the planning system generally. On this particular point may I remind your Lordships that there is a Department of the Environment circular, No. 75/1976, which gives advice on the treatment of agricultural land in development control decisions. We would naturally expect district councils to take that into account. The circular also asks that any proposals to develop more than 10 acres of agricultural land should be notified to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, which gives an opportunity for the Secretary of State for the Environment to call the application in if this is desirable. I hope my noble friend will feel that that is helpful, but if he would like further discussion on it I will be glad to arrange for that.
1464 I want to refer quickly to something that my noble friend Lord Henley said about building regulations. There are now charges for applications for approval under building regulations; they were introduced this year by regulation. The primary powers already existed in the Health and Safety Act, under which building regulations are made. They are nothing to do with this Bill or with charges for planning applications. I do not remember saying that making planning charges would be a factor that would necessarily increase efficiency in planning. I hope it is the many other things I have been mentioning and will mention that will have that effect.
The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, touched on UDCs. These proposed urban development corporations have also been claimed by some to be an attack on the autonomy of local government. We feel that that is not so. We accept that existing arrangements have made valuable contributions, in London especially, but a new imaginative approach has to be taken, and we are convinced that urban development corporations are the best way to spearhead the regeneration of London and Merseyside docklands. The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, and indeed the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, said "Well, if you only intend to have them in Merseyside and London why did you not just produce a Bill which says so?" We have said so. We have been categorical in the other place and we are categorical here. I would have thought that one very relevant factor in limiting what one can do with urban development corporations is cost. It is no small undertaking to go in for an urban development corporation of the kind we are proposing and I hope that noble Lords will think about that.
The other points that the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, made were interesting. I hear what he says about the employment point and I should like to think about it. I am glad that he generally welcomed the enterprise zones. Yes, of course, we are aware that there are all sorts of questions yet to be answered about enterprise zones. However, they are an experiment, but with the enthusiasm with which we go into them we believe that they offer a real opportunity. The way in which they have been received by people in 1465 local government is encouraging and a sign that they too want to be involved.
So, I come to the financial provision, to the block grant, about which more has been said today certainly than anything else. So many people have said that it is the death of local government, the end of autonomy, and I think that the noble Lord, Lord Irving of Dartford, quoted Sir John Grugeon as saying that it was, "the end of all life on earth" or something almost akin to that, so far as local government was concerned. Sir John Grugeon is not unknown to me. He and I used to bandy these things about a great deal in other places not all that long ago. He will not be surprised to learn when he reads Hansard that I not only strongly disagree with him, but in his case I make an exception to the fact that I try to be very gentle in what I say. In his case I say that what he says is rubbish.
§ Lord IRVING of DARTFORD
My Lords, would the noble Lord recognise that Sir John Grugeon does not stand alone? He stands with the leaders of every shire county in the country and many other senior members of local government.
§ Lord BELLWIN
My Lords, of course I recognise that Sir John does not stand alone. He just does these things in his own way; but alone he does not stand. However, I could reel off the names of many other very distinguished leaders in local governmnt who feel exactly the opposite to the way Sir John feels, but then we would not get very far if we started to do that.
§ Lord BELLWIN
My Lords, of course. He would refer, for example, to Councillor Peter Sparling, the recent very distinguished leader of the Leeds authority; Councillor John Hunscombe the recent leader of Bolton; the shadow leader of Newcastle, Councillor Moore; and to the shadow leader of Tyne and Wear, Councillor Conway. I do not think that I should weary the House, but I assure the noble Lord that I could go on at great length. There is more than one opinion.
1466 I said when opening that there has been much misunderstanding, and after listening to the speeches today I am more convinced of that than ever. Thank goodness for the absolutely magnificent speech, to which it was a joy to listen, of my noble friend Lord Marshall of Leeds because he summed up the situation exactly as it is. I hope that, leaving aside any partisanship at all, noble Lords will read carefully exactly what my noble friend said on this whole subject. His speech was thoughtful, balanced and moderate. I hope that noble Lords will read it very carefully. In my view it put the case extremely well.
It is not true that this is in any way a bid by central Government to usurp the proper decisions of democractically elected councils. The noble Lord, Lord Greenwood, wondered why Governments are so insistent on block grants. Many people both inside and outside of Parliament have for years been complaining bitterly, with justification, about the perversity and unfairness of the present rate support grant arrangements. Those arrangements have consistently rewarded profligate authorities with yet more grants and within a fixed total that can only mean less for the majority of prudent authorities. So often and typically the Labour Party—from whose supporters we have heard so much today—started to tackle it, but got it wrong because they knew something had to be done and then they left it.
We, however, will not leave it because the only incentive which the present system provides is a relentless pressure to increase expenditure. Authorities which have failed to get on to this bandwagon have watched their share of the grant steadily dwindling. I ask noble Lords what sort of equity, what sort of freedom does that represent for the responsible authority? In my view none at all. Yet the block grant system which has been so vilified as an attack on local freedom represents a genuine and, in my view, a soundly-based attempt to remove the worst features of the present system.
The noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, raised a few matters. She said that there is a world of difference between figures that are explicit and those that are not. But what on earth is explicit about the figures in the present rate support grant 1467 system? Everybody acknowledges that it is a Chinese mystery, and so there is nothing explicit in that. The noble Baroness said that the Government were abandoning the phrase "standard expenditure". We are abandoning the phrase at the precise and specific request of the local authority associations, which felt that it could be misleading. That and only that is why we are abandoning that phrase.
The noble Baroness said that the authorities would not be able to work out the size of the grants. What makes the noble Baroness think that local authorities can work them out under the present system? I have laboured under it ever since it came in and I never found a treasurer who could work it out beforehand; it was not possible at all. The noble Baroness said that six years ago she was concerned as to the level of services and as to the basis on which authorities should get grants, and she wondered whether it would not be better for the changes in the rate support grant to be made at a slower pace. We are six years on and we are still in the midst of the mysteries. We are still suffering from all the shortcomings of the present system, and this is an attempt to do something about it.
The threat which the block grant is alleged to pose to local democracy is, as I have said and as I shall go on saying, illusory. If I did not think that it was so, I could not support the block grant. As the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, intimated, there is no way I could do it if I did not sincerely believe in it.
§ Lord MISHCON
My Lords, the noble Minister has been kind enough to mention my name in connection with this quotation. I think that the House would wish him in every incarnation to look as well and as vocal as he has been tonight. But would he kindly, in referring to a previous incarnation of his, say how, as a local authority man, he would look upon a provision which he has not mentioned so far—namely, that a Secretary of State should be able, without any inquiry and without any independent arbitrator, to decide what properties a local authority will have to sell, which belong to that local authority, and the terms upon which the sale must take place?
§ Lord BELLWIN
My Lords, I shall answer that point, although I would rather have completed my observations on the financial implications. But if I do not answer it I shall run off and then I shall not do it. On that point, if that was the only point in the Bill as regards the designations and the requirements for disposals of land, there might indeed be something in what the noble Lord says. But the Bill calls for all bodies—including nationalised bodies—to have exactly the same obligations as regards land. There is—and I know that the noble Lord will not differ on this—a tremendous problem of this kind of land that is around. I do not want to weary the House at this time of night. I should dearly love to give some examples of some of the awful things that I have seen happen with land that has lain derelict for years and years.
I know the point that the noble Lord is making. He is not quarrelling with the principle—at least I do not think he is—about what should be done with the land. He is more concerned about the Secretary of State taking the powers on his own. As to that, if it was only for local authorities, then it would be a point for some discussion again; but it is more than just for local authorities. It has to do with all land. It is land, as I say, in the ownership of the nationalised bodies, the public undertakings and so on.
§ Lord MISHCON
My Lords, the Minister is always gracious in giving way and I am not going to impose upon the House any more interventions of mine, I promise. Would he please remember that this is a local government Bill, and we are concerned tonight with the rights and duties and powers of local authorities and how they are being infringed? We are not dealing tonight with nationalised industries.
§ Lord BELLWIN
My Lords, the Bill is, as it says, the Planning and Land Bill. It has to do with land and it is land which is owned by these other bodies, and that is why I made the point I did. May I come back to the financial provisions? The point of complexity was made, and I am turning this over very quickly, because the hour is getting late. There was concern about the complexity. The new system, I maintain, is much less complex than the present rate support grant system. 1469 What we are doing is, if you like, opening for the first time the black box, the computer, and we are looking at the works inside. In the past what has been the position? No longer will we have to take what has been absurd; that the results of the black box are simply taken for granted and without question. Henceforth there will be full and sensible discussion between central and local government as to what should be the factors and their weighting.
I defy anyone to show why and how this is not an improvement on the mysteries of the present system. Simple it is not; child's play it is not. There are those who said you needed to be a senior wrangler to understand the previous system. I do not know whether even senior wranglers would have understood it. It was immensely complicated. I suppose in fairness that any system that sets out to distribute grants equally to over 400 authorities is not going to be easy to produce; it would tend to be complicated and difficult. That it certainly is. But easier, yes. I think when we come to see more of it, when we come to see more of the details, it will be far more accepted than it is now. Perhaps when we come to the later stages I shall be able to bring this out more clearly than I would want to try to do in a Second Reading wind-up of this kind.
It is true that we have developed a new methodology—and the word itself is enough to put most people off. The process of assessing grant related expenditure will, like the present system, be based on a general formula applied to all authorities. This is a point I want to stress very importantly, because this is essential. It means that there is no question of detailed interference in the affairs of individual authorities.
I want to make it clear that authorities will not be obliged—and is not this the answer to all the accusations about local autonomy?—in any way to conform to their grant related expenditure assessments. I must differ from my noble friend Lord Ridley when he argued to the contrary. They will still be free to spend as they think fit, but, if they wish, and if they do so decide, to spend significantly above normal levels, they will have to raise an increasing proportion of their expenditure from their own ratepayers. 1470 That seems to me an entirely reasonable proposition and hardly the stuff of an autocratic takeover of local government. I suggest it puts some of the hysteria about ending local autonomy into proper perspective.
I say it again in simple words: the authorities themselves will decide what to spend. They themselves will decide what to rate. Central government is not imposing a ceiling on either, although there are many who wish that they would. What central Government is saying is, "You will decide what you will spend, but we, being responsible to the taxpayers, to the country as a whole, will decide if that is a fair proportion relative not to government but to the other authorities.' We are talking about a finite sum, a fixed sized cake. If one authority gets more, another authority gets less. It is all about being fair and equitable.
I shall not come onto the point about convergence which the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, referred to. This is the question of underspenders being forced to spend more. I could go into that in detail, but I suspect that she would prefer that I did it on another occasion, and I gladly will.
As for the associations' alternative to the block grant, my noble friend Lord Sandford put it very well. We were not able to accept the alternative proposals, and in many ways I share the regret of the noble Lord, Lord Greenwood of Rossendale, and others about that, because obviously it would have been preferable had we been able to do so. I am afraid to say that the proposals just did not meet our main objective of providing a fair and consistent incentive to all authorities to economise, to manage their resources efficiently and to keep their expenditure within reasonable limits. This is another topic on which one could speak at length to point out exactly why, but I suspect that that too is something I should leave for another occasion. The points which my noble friends Lord Marshall of Leeds and Lord Mottistone made about the CBI and who pays, and the phrase "taxation without representation", I touched on earlier. Those are very important matters but they too are for another time.
In the context of the country's economic situation, the Government's avowed and 1471 mandated policy of reducing public expenditure and the critical need for everyone, including local government, to play their part in tackling the horrors of inflation and all that flows from that, not least unemployment, then with a scenario like that, can anyone seriously query not merely the right but the vital necessity of Government to question and, where found wanting, to change the distribution of rate support grant? Can there be one person, at any rate on this side of the House, who is prepared to accept that this Government of all Governments should shy away from the need to stop encouraging the over-spenders in local government? Does anyone really expect us to allow them to go on forever, some of them—only some of them—thumbing their noses while deliberately thwarting the Government's overall spending policies on which so much of the national economy depends? One clearly could not allow that to continue.
Of course, there are many local authorities of all political colours which either do keep down their expenditure and give value for money or try hard and conscientiously so to do, and I pay tribute to them now as I have always done; but there are others who wish to do nothing of the sort, and they are the ones who preach most about local autonomy as if it were something quite apart from and nothing to do with national needs. Mark you, they did not act in that way in 1976 when the Labour Government said there had to be reductions in local government of 3 per cent. at once, because the IMF had said so; there was no talk then about the end of local autonomy and no cries of thwarting the Government's policies. The central and local government relationship is all-important and this Government recognise that as much as anyone, but it must apply both ways.
There are those who say they fear for the future of local government, and I fear for it too, but I did not come here to work towards the demise of the democratic grass-roots system of government which operates on the doorsteps and streets from where I come. My aspirations and hopes for local government are as deep-rooted as those of any noble Lord in this 1472 House. I did not give up a great part of many years of my life to want to see it destroyed. Yes, I too fear for the future of local government, but not by any means because of this Government's rate support grant proposals.
When I see the punitive doctrinaire-riddled rate increases which some authorities autocratically impose on the commercial and industrial businesses in their areas and on their ctiizens, then I fear for the future of local government. When I see the extravagance, waste and misuse of taxpayers' money by the lunatic Left in many areas, then I fear for the future of local government. When I see the restrictive practices which compel overmanning, then I fear for the future of local government. When I see the determination of certain councils to deny their tenants the opportunity to own their own homes, thus condemning them forever to own nothing, then I fear for the future of local government.
When Lewisham says it will refuse to pay its police share of the precept; when Sheffield talks to restricting services to those areas which return Labour councillors; when Rochdale insist on their workforce joining a closed shop; or when Walsall says it will not employ Conservative supporters—that and more like it is the real threat to local government. If nothing is done, and nothing is seen to be done, to show people that the Government care about matching services with ability to pay, the reaction to local government will escalate to the point where the system itself will come under challenge.
We shall assuredly be spending many long hours and days going through the Bill line by line, clause by clause. If improvements are proposed that do not breach the underlying philosophies, we shall welcome them. If amendments are put forward to defeat the principles, we shall resist them. I again commend the Bill to this House with all the enthusiasm and vigour at my command, and I invite your Lordships to give it a Second Reading.
§ On Question, Bill read 2ª, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.