HL Deb 01 April 2003 vol 646 cc1157-60

2.36 p.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their response to those who allege that plans for neighbourhood renewal, though sensible, may be stifled by complex representative structures.

The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker)

My Lords, in order to tackle the diversity of local needs, neighbourhood renewal plans must include structures for engaging with the full range of local stakeholders. We will do all that we can to continue to work with local partnerships as they seek to improve local decision-making and delivery mechanisms. However, this is not an area for prescriptive solutions from central government. Local problems require local remedies, and it is for local communities to decide what is best by way of the arrangements.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the Government have very wisely and sensibly given no less than £20 million to the cause of neighbourhood renewal in Tower Hamlets? In the light of that, does it not behove them to ensure that sensible arrangements are made in order to provide that that money becomes fully effective? Is the Minister aware that many people fear that instead of effective action, we will get another layer of chatter and bureaucracy just trotting about in the purloined garments of democracy?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I thought that I had dealt with the noble Lord's issue regarding Tower Hamlets in January. I invited him to visit Tower Hamlets, and I repeat that invitation today. The leader of the council would be more than happy to discuss with the noble Lord, on the ground, the effectiveness of the neighbourhood renewal programmes in what is, I must say, the most deprived borough in the country. It is certainly the most deprived borough in London.

The sums involved are £7.9 million last year and £10.6 million next year. The system for delivering that money has been accredited not by my department but by the Audit Commission. Contrary to some rumours peddled by certain people, the number of groups and bodies involved in the delivery to local people is very modest; namely, some eight local partnerships, five theme groups and one overall management group. There is much public money to be looked after. It is important that it is looked after to local people's satisfaction, which I understand it is, and that it is accredited by the Audit Commission. This is the best way to deal with the problems in that deprived borough.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market

My Lords, will the Minister tell the House how the Government intend to allocate the extra money contained within the Comprehensive Spending Review for next year? Will the money continue to be allocated to the current 88 localities or will it be ring-fenced to hit government targets rather than locally set ones?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I do not think that that was a very friendly question in the way it was put. So far as I am aware, without notice on the specifics, the programme remains for the 88 most deprived areas of the country. We can easily make big programmes by spreading money thinly. The idea of this programme, over a number of years, was to target it. There are always other areas on the border of meeting the deprivation indices near to the 88. But we decided to concentrate on the 88 areas in order to make a real difference to the lives of people in those communities.

Lord Clarke of Hampstead

My Lords, I should like to ask another friendly question. In places such as Burnley, the neighbourhood renewal plans have brought great hope and some joy to people who have suffered decades of neglect. Will the Minister agree that the local strategic partnerships, which are helping to carry out these plans, are doing a valuable job? I could not agree with the Minister more that it must be left to local people. In the case of Burnley, they are doing a first-class job after the difficulties of a couple of years ago.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, my noble friend speaks with knowledge of Burnley. There is evidence that the local strategic partnerships being set up around the country are proving effective in taking out other layers of organisations which have sometimes got in the way. I fully admitted that to the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, in my answer in January. There were complications in delivering many different programmes in areas. I used the analogy "almost like a bowl of spaghetti" and people not understanding the flow of finances. The local strategic partnerships are cutting through that, reducing the numbers of different organisations involved and it is to be hoped that they are obtaining better value for money.

Earl Russell

My Lords, would the Minister agree with the view that proposals, though sensible, may be stifled by complex representative institutions? It is one which, at different times, has been held by every government who have ever put proposals before Parliament.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, yes, in order to make things happen and do things. No Minister comes to Parliament with bad ideas. They are all very sensible ideas. It is making them a practical reality that touches the footprints and fingerprints of people's lives so that they can see a connection between what is said in this House and another place and what is happening in their local community.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale

My Lords, I declare an interest as the chairman of the Neighbourhood Management Board of Castle Vale, the successor body to the housing action trust. Is my noble friend aware that community representatives on the Castle Vale estate have made a brilliant success of the transformation of that pig-sty civic area into something that is now a leading-edge example of regeneration? I can assure my noble friend that they will continue to do so.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I know the area well. There were times in the 1970s and 1980s when many of my constituents who wanted to move broke down in tears in my surgery when they were told to go to Castle Vale. "Please don't send me there", they begged. Now people are queuing up to get into Castle Vale, not to get out of it.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote

My Lords, while applauding the initiatives being taken—particularly those in Tower Hamlets, which is certainly one of the most deprived areas in the country—will the Minister consider returning to the House with a detailed report on how such schemes are working? Having visited two Sure Start schemes in London, which are very impressive indeed in their initial stages, I believe that such initiatives merit more information being given to the House.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I shall come back to report on these matters as often as the House wishes. I am pleased that there is an interest in this subject. There are pockets of deprivation all over the country—they are not confined to the cities—and we are attempting to change people's lives. All programmes are in their early days—they are only one, two or three years old—and have had an extremely short time in which to make a difference. I believe that the House and another place should keep such schemes under constant surveillance and hold Ministers to account for them.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is not only the House that needs to keep these schemes under constant review? In declaring an interest as a resident of Lambeth, what are the Government doing to ensure that the local strategic partnerships draw these schemes to the attention of the 99.5 per cent of the people in their neighbourhoods who have no idea of what is being done in their name?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I do not wish to nitpick but to say that 99.5 per cent of people do not know what is going on is, frankly, an exaggeration. I met certain groups of the leadership of Lambeth Council yesterday to discuss matters relating to their planning service, which has in the past been poor but which has seen massive improvements over the past couple of years. Indeed, the council received the fourth highest planning development grant for the new scheme that has recently been announced to reflect its improved performance. I gave encouragement to continue that improvement.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, speaking and declaring an interest as a taxpayer, does the Minister agree that when he says "government money" he actually means "our money"? As taxpayers, we are all interested in seeing that our money is spent correctly and directly on deprived areas and less on the people who are creaming it off and running about, as the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, said.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I dispute that there are people creaming it off and running about. All right, I made a slip of the tongue: all the money is taxpayers' money, whether it is raised locally through businesses or through individuals. It is just quicker to say "government".

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords—

Noble Lords

Next Question!

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, we have 40 minutes and there are only four questions. As the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House is not getting to his feet, I assume that I can continue.

Does the Minister agree that one of the problems in local government at the present time is the system of cabinet government where only a few people are involved in making important decisions? The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, is surely right when he says that people feel a little disenfranchised with local government at the present time. Does the Minister consider that it would be a good idea—as happens in the countryside where there are parish councils—to set up neighbourhood councils in large cities and towns to help with planning and the distribution of the aid available from central government?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, that is exactly what is happening in some big urban areas in parishes where devolution is taking place. If there is such a large interest in this subject, I hope that there will be a substantial attendance in the House on Thursday when I shall be bringing forward the Local Government Bill for your Lordships' consideration.

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