HL Deb 31 January 2005 vol 669 cc1-6WS
The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker)

My right honourable friend the First Secretary of State and Deputy Prime Minister has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

In the Sustainable Communities Plan which I published in February 2003, I set out how the Government would work to create successful, thriving and inclusive communities across England.

Sustainable communities are welcoming, prosperous places to live. They have the jobs, homes, schools, healthcare, transport and other services people need. A sustainable community meets the needs of all its citizens so that the most disadvantaged are not left behind. Our aim is to create communities that will stand the test of time and places where people want to live.

My recent plan for housing, Sustainable Communities: Homes for All, published last week, set out what we will do to give many more people more choice and fairness in housing—especially those who want a home of their own but cannot afford it.

But people live in neighbourhoods, not just in houses. So today, I am publishing a second five-year plan, Sustainable Communities: People, Places and Prosperity, and copies have been laid in the Library. It is a partner to the first plan, and it sets out how we will work at every level to improve the communities that people live in. With it, I am publishing a number of other documents that give more details of its major themes.

People, Places and Prosperity sets out a strategy to:

give people more of a say in the way places (both urban and rural) are run;

work through the town, city or county hall so that local authorities deliver excellent services, provide leadership for their areas, and empower their communities;

tackle disadvantage, so that people are not condemned to lives of poverty, poor services and disempowerment by accidents of birth or geography; and

work through the regions to increase prosperity, and bring together the funding and plans which can best be co-ordinated at regional level.

The strategy is built on two main principles—the need to give communities more power and say in the decisions that affect them and the importance of working with the right partners at the right level to get things done.

More power and say for communities in the decisions that affect them

In the past, many people thought that local decision-making was not for them. They often felt distant and unheard by the people in power. But now many more people are helping to shape the places where they live. Over a million more people have become engaged in their communities since 2001.

The policies and schemes that help people get involved in their communities—like community strategies, Sure Start, and the New Deal for communities—act as nurseries for democracy, getting people involved who do not necessarily want to become local councillors. They have unlocked huge untapped energy and experience—giving people more influence over the decisions which matter to their community.

But we know that, despite this increase in voluntary activity, many people still feel they cannot make any real difference to the things that really matter to them. We need to reconnect politics with the things that people care about in their local communities—their public services, the state of their streets and towns, their sense of safety—by giving them more power and a bigger stake in the way their areas are run, and making sure their voices are heard in local, regional and national government.

So, I am announcing today that we will offer more opportunities for all communities to have more control over their own neighbourhoods. The aim is to have arrangements that give all neighbourhoods real power, but which are flexible enough to apply to a wide range of different circumstances; and have local councillors at their heart, rather than being set up in parallel to existing democratic structures.

As part of this, we propose a "Neighbourhoods Charter", setting out what local people should expect, both in terms of outcomes—for example, safe, clean streets—and in terms of control or influence over their neighbourhoods. Some parts of the charter might be for every neighbourhood, others would be agreed between particular neighbourhoods, their local authorities and other local partners, with more accountability needed where more power and influence was being transferred.

The kinds of powers agreed between local authorities and neighbourhoods would range widely, and might include:

giving communities the ability to require action where local people are dissatisfied with the level of performance of a particular service, including "triggers" which require the local authority to take action;

model bylaws, and new powers to levy penalty notices, to make it easier for communities to deal with issues that are causing problems, such as anti-social behaviour;

devolving budgets and giving communities the power to manage particular services directly;

giving communities ownership of some local assets like playgrounds and community centres and the chance to manage them themselves; and

a proposal for "Neighbourhood Improvement Districts" which, if agreed locally, could allow areas to vote to raise additional money to spend on local priorities.

In some places, local authorities have devolved funds from existing budgets for councillors to spend in consultation with their local neighbourhoods. This has been highly effective in galvanising action on some local issues, such as vandalism or rubbish, which are relatively inexpensive to sort out but which can be a source of major annoyance. It has also helped to create a positive spirit and energy within those bodies. We will encourage all local authorities to take up this idea.

As well as proposals for the neighbourhoods charter, the plan sets out ideas for ensuring more responsive local services, with better links to local people, including schools, health services, and the police, and our proposals for a more community-focused role for local councillors.

And it sets out a wide-ranging strategy to make places cleaner, safer and greener; with clean, safe streets free of anti-social behaviour, good quality, well-maintained parks and open spaces, and well-run, attractive and inclusive town centres.

Working at the right level

We want more chances for communities to get involved and make decisions, but we also know there are things that must be delivered by good, strong local authorities, and others that need a wider view, across a bigger region.

We need to ensure the right kind of involvement at each level—with people able to have their say, and decisions taken at the level that makes most sense. This also means that we need good decision-making at every level—with good leaders at every level who have a clear strategic vision, who are not defensive about giving more power to local communities, and who have the ability to deliver on their aspirations.

Alongside the People, Places and Prosperity plan, I am also publishing two discussion papers—Citizen Engagement and Public Services: Why Neighbourhoods Matter and Vibrant Local Leadership. These are part of the development of a new strategy for local government—local vision—which we are taking forward through a series of discussion documents and a wide ranging debate with all stakeholders. Many of the things we set out in the main plan have been developed and will be delivered through the strategy, and are set out in more detail in these discussion papers.

The plan sets out how we will work through the town, city or county hall to develop councils' role in leading the locality—pulling together public agencies and key stakeholders to act together to secure excellent services and solve local problems—and enabling community empowerment. There will be:

clearer roles for councillors—with a strong, visible executive and a distinctive role for councillors as advocates and leaders of their local community;

more opportunities for mayors for those that want them, particularly in our major cities, with greater power to make a real difference, backed up by strong roles for councillors in wards. We are consulting on proposals to offer more options on how councils are run;

more local area agreements to deliver better services based on shared priorities, and reduce the number of targets and funding streams for local authorities. There are 21 pilots under way, and I am today announcing a further phase of 40 pilots to be in place by April 2006; and

we are also inviting views on a move to whole-council elections every four years for all councils in England—providing greater clarity to voters and greater stability for councils.

We need to act at every level—neighbourhood, local, regional and national—if we are to give everyone the chance to live in a desirable, sustainable community. It is not enough to have a strong neighbourhood body if the local authority is not up to scratch and even an excellent local authority cannot deliver the bigger economic growth and drive that a strong region might.

Our plan sets out how we will work through the regions to increase prosperity, and bring together funding and plans. There will be:

action through all our regional institutions—the regional development agencies, regional assemblies and Government Offices—to support strong economies in all regions, offering opportunities for everyone to share in increased prosperity;

action at the right level—whether it's work in core cities, at regional level, or across more than one region, like our successful Northern Way programme—to make a difference;

a planning system which meets the needs of businesses and householders, while protecting the environment. Regional housing boards and regional planning bodies will be merged under the leadership of the regional assembly, to make sure that the right homes are built where they are needed and also that these are planned alongside other vital services. Our new legislation and guidance on planning puts sustainable development at the heart of the planning system, so that as we use planning to respond to business and housing need, we also protect the environment; and

a strategic approach to skills, transport, planning and infrastructure, aspiring to increase the employment rate to 80 per cent, including 900,000 more people in work in areas outside the greater south-east.

Alongside People, Places and Prosperity we are publishing a series of nine regional documents explaining the action being taken in each region to support prosperous, sustainable communities. Later this week we will also be publishing more details of our work in the regions in Realising the Potential of All Our Regions and the Northern Way steering group will publish its progress report, showing how the Government are working to make the Northern Way a success.

Tackling Disadvantage

As we seek to improve services and places for everyone we need to keep a clear focus on those who are worst off. A truly sustainable community must be a fair community, where everyone has the chance of a good education, a decent home, support for good health, and the opportunity to get a job. We need targeted action for the worst-off places and people and we need to make sure that mainstream services do at least as well for the worst-off as they do for others.

Today's strategy sets out how we will tackle disadvantage so that people are not condemned to lives of poverty, poor services and disempowerment by accidents of birth or geography. There will be:

over £2.5 billion invested each year in practical work to tackle disadvantage in England, better targeted on those that need it most;

faster progress in education, health, work and cutting crime in the most deprived areas, and for the worst-off people—narrowing the gap;

housing-related support for over one million vulnerable people, to help them live independently and successfully;

better personalised public services which can meet individual needs better—not just for the well-off, but for everyone; and

effective action to attract private sector investment into deprived areas.

I am also publishing today the joint report by the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit and the Neighbourhood Renewal Unit, Improving the Prospects of People Living in Areas of Multiple Deprivation in England and our progress report against the aims set out in the Neighbourhood Renewal Strategy, Making it Happen in Neighbourhoods. Copies of all the documents published today will be available in the Library as well as on the ODPM website.


By putting local people in the driving seat, making sure that local democracy and regions are flourishing, and tackling disadvantage wherever it occurs, we will create thriving, sustainable communities across the country that people are proud to be part of. People, Places and Prosperity, together with the housing strategy, Homes for All, which I published last week, sets out how we will do it.