Clive Efford (Eltham, Labour) : I welcome parts of the Bill; there are other parts that bemuse me, and others to which I am violently opposed. As we are considering the role of local authorities in scrutiny, I will make my contribution in that spirit.
The Bill is an attempt to make local government more responsive to the needs and aspirations of local communities. That has eluded us for some time, and it has led to disaffection and a lack of engagement in local elections. We have a problem to overcome in relation to local area agreements between local statutory providers and local service providers. How do we engage the local community in those, and how do we create a dynamic relationship that responds to the local community’s aspirations and influences those local area agreements? That should be the focus of our attention. Much in the Bill moves us in the direction of bringing local authorities closer to their communities, and I very much welcome those aspects of it.
I can give examples of difficulties that have arisen in my local communities. A number of the most deprived communities in my constituency were asking for services, especially podiatry services, for elderly people. We convinced the local primary care trust to set up a pilot service in a satellite practitioner nurse-led centre financed by our single regeneration budget programme. That proved popular and was well attended by elderly residents in the local community. The pilot came to an end and in spite of the popularity of the service and the high demand, the community unfortunately failed to influence the service providers to bend their spend—a phrase we have used in the past—to meet that aspiration.
I also chair one of our local neighbourhood renewal panels. For many years, at the start of the neighbourhood renewal programme, we asked for funding for neighbourhood wardens from the neighbourhood renewal funding. However, it was difficult to get officers who supported the panel to produce a report in favour of them in spite of the fact that the whole community, covering two estates in the neighbourhood renewal area, was unanimous in its support for the idea. We finally got the report three years later and the neighbourhood wardens are now in place. They are extremely popular and are doing a very good job.
Similarly, a number of heads of local schools came up with the idea of having adult learning centres in their primary schools. They came to the neighbourhood renewal panel with the plan to work in partnership with the further education college for the borough and develop adult learning centres where parents and people from the community could come to improve their education and employability. The scale of the improvements and benefits to the local community are difficult to quantify, but with little money from our neighbourhood renewal panel the heads were able to set up those schemes. One has led to £1.4 million of additional investment to expand the adult learning centre by having a family centre on the premises and a lift to enable disabled people to access the adult college. That scheme arose from a local initiative, with the heads of local schools talking to residents on their neighbourhood renewal panel and the panel agreeing a sum to finance the improvement and introduction of those services. That is an example of people who were empowered by the resources made available to them through neighbourhood renewal programmes so that they could make a difference. There was a reason for them engaging in the process because they made a contribution and a significant difference to their community.
Sadly, our neighbourhood renewal programme has been rolled up into a much more centralised structure in which it has to hit specific targets. The decision-making process has been taken away from local communities. A minimal sum of money is left for people to play around with in their communities. Basically, the presence of local residents in terms of neighbourhood renewal is now a box-ticking exercise to satisfy the requirement for some sort of community engagement to deliver on the core themes.
Phil Woolas (Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government): My hon. Friend talks about the centralisation of neighbourhood renewal. The Department funds neighbourhood renewal through local authorities. In neighbourhood renewal funding areas that is a non-ring-fenced grant through the local area agreement. Is he saying that it has been centralised to borough level or to national level?
Clive Efford (Eltham, Labour) : I am grateful to the Minister for giving me the opportunity to clarify that. It is very much centralised at borough level. What has been drafted for the programme of expenditure is driven by the service professionals, whether they are in statutory organisations or the borough itself. The complaint from members of my neighbourhood renewal panel is that what was working well, and what empowered the local community to be very responsive to things that came out of the community at a local level, has been diminished and has almost disappeared. That is to the detriment of the programme.
Another part of the Bill that I very much welcome is the intention to expand the support and involvement of the third sector. When we do that, and in particular when we talk about introducing local parishes in London, we need to guard against those communities that have readily available to them the capacity to take advantage of those powers at the expense of those communities that are more disadvantaged and therefore less likely and less able to do so. In saying that, not only do local councillors need to play their role, but we as MPs need to play a role, too. Often when we draft this type of legislation, we overlook our role as champions within our communities.
I have been involved in setting up local community forums in my constituency, and I am currently involved in trying to set up a charitable trust involving local residents. One of the problems that we are coming up against is that we already have an existing centre that is used by young people. The charity is funded by a trust, held by a bank, and it had a capital sum invested for it. Unfortunately, as a result of the dotcom collapse, some of that capital sum disappeared. The income is now reduced and the fall means that the charity has drawn on the lump sum that it invested, making its income even lower. It has been a vicious circle.
None the less, the charity is an important voluntary organisation within my constituency and it is having serious problems in identifying a source to fund the core activities of a charitable trust. It has a number of irons in the fire with regard to applying for grants, but it does not have a means to access resources readily. It needs resources that can be underwritten for three years or more to give it sustainability and the chance to plan ahead to perform its core functions. That is a big problem. The forthcoming taskforce report into the third sector must address the problem of core funding for the third sector to ensure that such bodies can stand up and play their role in delivering some of the strategies that the Government and the funding bodies want an organisation that engages with young people in the community to deliver. If those organisations fold because of a lack of funding for their core functions, the opportunity is lost to engage with them and with the use of their resources and links within the community. That is an essential part of ensuring that we have a vibrant and effective third sector.
I want briefly to cover one or two other things. Part of the Bill deals with the future of local government boundary review procedures. My experience when we had the local government boundary review in Greenwich was that the whole process was unsatisfactory. The local government boundary commission was not accountable to the local community. It held no public inquiry to conclude its initial findings and it split many well-established and well-understood local community boundaries across not only council wards but, inevitably, parliamentary seats, because its findings were the building blocks for the future parliamentary review. I say that having benefited slightly from the parliamentary boundary review. I do not want to give the Minister the impression that this is sour grapes. In fact the difference is marginal, so it is neither here nor there.
The Cator estate in Blackheath is run by its own trust, currently served by two wards and in future to be served by two Members of Parliament. None of the decisions made any sense, but the commission committed itself at an early stage to delivering a set of ward boundaries providing for a number within 1 per cent. of the average number per ward if the population is divided by the number of wards. By setting itself that standard it drove a coach and horses through any idea of local accountability, local knowledge and local communities.
If we are to engage with local communities and encourage people to participate in elections, we must ensure that they feel some affinity with the boundaries of the areas that are being represented. In Greenwich, we underwent the painful exercise of moving from two-member and one-member wards where we had 62 councillors to three-member wards with 51 councillors. In the process we made the wards too big. They are unwieldy and unrepresentative, and parts of communities are lumped together in a ward while half a mile away there is another part of another community, although there was a much more sensible solution to the problem in the locality.
The Bill suggests a system of directly elected mayors, leaders or executives. I believe that there have been 35 referendums on mayors, and that on 23 occasions the proposal was rejected. If we value elections and putting information before the electorate, allowing them to make up their own minds, we should recognise that communities that have been given that choice want to exercise it; but the Bill suggests that we take the choice away, and allow no referendums before introducing mayors. The Minister looks puzzled; if I am wrong he can correct me, but I believe that if a local authority decides that it wants a directly elected mayor, it should be able to put the proposal to members of the local community in a referendum so that they can decide. Heaven help them if they are stupid enough to vote in favour of it, but that will be a matter for the community. In any event, the proposal should be put to the community in the form of a reasoned argument.
It has been said that we have diminished the role of local councillors by electing executives. I am passionately in favour of the committee structure, because when we were on committees as local government councillors we had the opportunity to scrutinise the officers who were charged with responsibility for delivering services. At present, scrutiny means scrutiny of a member elected to an executive rather than scrutiny of the officers. What used to happen was that a group of members with broad knowledge of, say, social services in an area could interrogate the officers charged with delivering those services.
Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour) Will my hon. Friend give way?
Clive Efford (Eltham, Labour) | Hansard source
I will not, because I am about to sit down. I have been speaking long enough, and I know that others wish to speak as well. I could go on, though, and I hope that there will be further opportunities to scrutinise the Bill. I know that other Members will speak about the scrutiny of health services. That is what I wanted to speak about next, but in fairness to them I will sit down now.