Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill (Ninth sitting)

Neil O'Brien Excerpts
Tuesday 5th July 2022

(1 month, 1 week ago)

Public Bill Committees
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Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD)
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In the spirit of unity and collegiality, which has marked the tone of the debate in Committee over the past few weeks, as a Lancastrian I wish the Yorkshiremen at the crease in Edgbaston all the very best. I still dare to believe, although there are two wickets and it could all go horribly wrong, could it not? However, let us focus on the matter at hand.

This is an important area for all of us. The Government have clearly set their heart on having a Mayor at the head of CCAs around the country and that being their chosen model for delivering devolution. I want to press the Minister to understand that that must not be something that is forced on communities. We must not be in a situation in which elected Mayors are deemed to be an essential, otherwise devolution deals would not be permitted.

I worry for lots of reasons, some of which have been mentioned by the hon. Member for Nottingham North. Many Mayors of all political colours do a great job around the country, and it is a mode of local government leadership that can work—it sometimes does and sometimes does not. The people of Bristol have demonstrated to us that it might not work for everybody. There is still time to reflect and think, “That’s not the way we wish to go as a community.”

The fundamental thing that I would like the Minister to state, in response to the debate on this particular aspect of the Bill, is that the Government will not make an elected Mayor a mandatory, compulsory element of any kind of devolution deal in any part of the country. There are reasons why communities might reject or not wish to have—or not benefit specifically from having—a directly elected Mayor as their mode of local government leadership.

For example, many people feel, as I do, that the election of a single Mayor to lead a local government area can personalise and trivialise politics. It can undermine collegiality, in which people from different parties and communities reach common decisions. It makes consensual outcomes with all political and geographical views properly represented much less likely. It can also distance local government from the people it is meant to serve. It feels to me to be part of a movement that is making local government less local.

If a councillor representing 2,000 or 3,000 people has direct access to the cabinet or executive of a local authority, a local person is much more likely to see that councillor, who is more likely to be someone they bump into at a supermarket, in the pub, at church, in the street or what have you, and to be able to hold them to account. Such a councillor is much more likely to absorb that person’s views and perspectives than a Mayor who represents hundreds of thousands of people. A Mayor makes local government less local, and what is the point of local government if it is not local?

One of the problems with communities such as mine—we have just gone through unitary reorganisation in Cumbria, with the two new authorities of Cumberland and of Westmorland and Furness—is that, in both authorities, parties were elected to run them that were clearly opposed to the mayoral model. To use us as an example, it would be very peculiar and anti-democratic if the Government were to make any kind of devolution deal contingent on the people of those communities having to accept something that they had just rejected only a few weeks ago.

That is the fundamental thing. It is not that there should never be Mayors. As the Committee can tell, I have my views—on whether I think that on the whole directly elected Mayors are a good form of local government—but I can absolutely see the case for them in some communities, if those communities choose them. The fundamental point to make about the clause is that the Government must not seek to enforce something on—or, in effect, to bribe—a community, by saying, “Yes, you can have your devolution deal, but only if you accept this model of local government.” That is not devolution, and it would be unacceptable. I hope that the Minister will reflect on that in his response.

Neil O'Brien Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (Neil O'Brien)
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I concur with the hon. Member for Nottingham North that it is a pleasure to have an all-Yorkshire Front Bench on this third day of the test—sorry, I mean on line-by-line scrutiny. He will recall that some years ago, Yorkshire allowed people who were not born in Yorkshire to play for the team, and I should break to him the news that my colleague the Housing Minister was born in Wales—“Greater Yorkshire” would be the definition here. However, I agree with him on the pleasures of this wicket-by-wicket, single-by-single approach to going through the legislation. I have never been accused of being a flair player, but I hope I can answer his questions.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale made a typically sensible set of observations. I will answer a number of them. For the first time, through the framework in the White Paper, there is an option to have a devolution deal without a Mayor, so that option clearly is there; it is possible. We are clear about that, and that may well the right thing, as either a transitional or permanent step, for a number of different places. However, the Government have made it clear that they will go further for places that do have a Mayor because then there is that accountable leadership.

The hon. Gentleman made some important points about the importance of collegiality. In the best functioning mayoral combined authorities, that still very much does happen. We have a clearly accountable front person in the form of the directly elected Mayor, who is a wonderful face for the area on the world and national stage and someone who can be held to account by voters. Where these things work well, there is still a great deal of cross-party collegiality going on below the surface, as it were.

The hon. Gentleman argued that the decision making was a less local model. I would challenge that a little, in so far as decision making for many of the existing combined authorities was already happening at that city-regional basis. Most of these places, after the abolition of the previous elected governments in 1986, had quangos running transport, for example, across the city region. It is just that nobody was directly elected and accountable for the decisions of those quangos.

To take a controversial example, in West Yorkshire there were two failed attempts, led by Metro, to create a tram for Leeds. However, it was not obvious to any normal voter who they should hold to account for those two previous attempts, because no one was elected. It was a quango—the kind that the hon. Member quite rightly complained about in previous sittings.

On the Opposition Front Bench, I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Nottingham North said on the important role that Mayors are playing around the country. On the specific point that he raised about election days, the first election of the Mayor will take place

“on the first day of ordinary elections”

for the constituent councils, which is the first Thursday in May. That is how it is written in schedule 2. Areas do not have to wait until the next scheduled election. It is that date—the first Thursday in May is the day of ordinary election. I hope that that answers the hon. Member’s question on the meaning. I do not blame him at all for asking the question; there is a particular meaning in law for that day.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
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I am grateful for that clarity. That will be enough for me not to labour the point. However, I hope the Minister might take that away and think about it, because the Bill refers to

“ordinary elections of councillors of a constituent council”.

I might have misunderstood, but that implies that it is not just ordinary elections, as in just “the first Thursday of May”, which might have been a better way to put it.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien
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I am very happy to look at that. I think it is to do with the language of the legislation sounding a particular way, but I am very happy to take that point on board and think further about it.

Question put and agreed to. 

Clause 24 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill. 

Schedule 2 agreed to. 

Clause 25

Requirements in connection with regulations under section 24

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
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I beg to move amendment 60, in clause 25, page 20, line 32, at end insert—

“(2A) But the Secretary of State must not make regulations under section 24(1) in relation to a CCA’s area if the constituent authorities of that area have requested that powers be conferred by the Secretary of State without the establishment of a mayor.”

This amendment would prevent the Secretary of State providing for a CCA mayor without the consent of the constituent authorities of that CCA.

If the previous clause stand part debate was my love letter to Mayors, this is slightly the opposite. As I said, it is right that communities that wish to harness the value of an elected Mayor are able to do so. I have no doubt that many will choose that, and it is right that they are able to. However, it is not right that those that would choose not to do so are forced, compelled or coerced to have one when that is not their real wish. I fear that that is the effect of the White Paper.

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Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron
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This important subject gets to the heart of the motivation behind the Bill. What is it all for? Are we trying to level up different parts of the United Kingdom so that we can make best use of the opportunities available, fulfil the talents of every person and community within the United Kingdom and not waste that talent? Or are we trying to make things neat and tidy for the Government so that they can control things centrally? If it were the former, we would not be having this conversation, which makes me suspect it is the latter.

I was pleased for a few moments when the Minister said it is possible to have a devolution deal without a Mayor, but then that was followed by a whole bunch of “buts”. If a community wants a little devolution deal, it can have it without a Mayor, but if it wants a full-fat deal, it has to have a Mayor. Surely local communities should be presented with two choices, rather than just “Like it or lump it”. They should be asked, “Do you want devolution and do you want a Mayor?” They should not be told, “If you want devolution at level 3 and to have those kinds of powers, you must have a Mayor.”

I concur with the hon. Member for Nottingham North that there is no obvious functional reason—it seems totally arbitrary—to say that that must be the case. The Government say, “Well, that way we can hold people to account better”. Local democracy, local elections and the electorate hold people to account. Mayors and councils are not and should not be accountable to the Government. They are accountable to the people who did, or did not, elect them within their electorate. If we cherish local democracy, that is where the power will lie.

It feels like this issue is not about accountability at all, but about control. If a community decides that the model of local government it wishes to have does not include a Mayor, but it has the appetite, resources and infrastructure to handle and deliver the highest level of a devolution deal, what right has Whitehall to tell it that it cannot? That is not levelling-up; that is condescending to every single community in the United Kingdom. We are talking not about accountability, but control. We asked last week: who is this Bill for? Is it for the people or is it for the convenience of Whitehall? Given the Government’s insistence that devolution deals will not be extended in their fullest form to places that will not have a Mayor, it is pretty obvious that this is a Bill for the convenience of Whitehall and not for the people.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien
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This is a really interesting debate, and it is good to be able to have it in public. Let me be blunt: nothing is hidden here. We are clear that the Government’s view is that we prefer the mayoral model. Although it is possible to get a lower-tier devolution deal without one, there is no secret that our preference is for the mayoral model. Let me explain why.

Clearly, we could devolve all these powers—do all these things—to an unelected committee. We could have said, “Let’s take the 10 local authorities in Greater Manchester—AGMA—give them all the powers that we have now given to the mayoral combined authority. You just sort it out among yourselves. You can have a committee of the 10 of you, and you can decide among yourselves—perhaps by a majority vote—and then make those decisions.” All those things are totally feasible, and we could do that. It is a perfectly viable model. However, it is not the model we prefer, for various reasons—this goes to the point made by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale. It is not for our convenience, but for the convenience of voters in these places. If we have just a committee, how is that committee held to account by a normal voter?

Let us take the Greater Manchester example, with 10 local authorities. We have got to choose where the new tramline is going to go. Is it going to go to place A or place B? The committee meets, there is no Mayor, and it decides the tramline is going to go to place A, not place B. I do not like that, as a voter; I wanted it to go to place B. What do I do, and who do I hold to account? Perhaps my local authority leader. I go to my local authority leader and she says, “I voted for place B, sorry, but I got outvoted.” What am I supposed to do now? Do I vote against her or for her at the next election? There is no one for me to hold to account if things are run by a committee.

I believe in steel-manning, not straw-manning, my opponent’s argument, so I could say, “No, what we want is not a committee. We want voters to have a say over what happens in these combined authorities, and what we actually want is to go back to the metropolitan county councils. We want to have an assembly.” It is perfectly viable, but let us be clear that that does mean quite a lot more politicians. It is a less sharp, less clear model for most voters than a mayoral system, which is why the mayoral system is the dominant model around the world: everyone around the world has city Mayors and knows that model. Inward investors know and understand that model. There is a phone number and people know who they are picking up to: is it Judith, is it one of the Andys? People know who they are supposed to speak to. We have clear accountability and clear leadership. Sometimes there are tough choices to be made. Consensus is a good thing—we always want maximum consensus—but in the end, we often have to choose between A and B. Having a directly elected mayor who knows that needs to be done, and to have programmatic government, not the lowest common denominator log-rolling and horse-trading, lets people make that decision and be accountable to the public. It gives visibility to the world.

One reason why Labour was right in 1998 to create a directly elected Mayor for Greater London was that in its absence we had a big committee—a big quango—with decisions made without anybody really being held to account. For the same reason that Labour created a directly elected Mayor for the capital, we have done it for the other cities that did not get one before 2010.

On a point made by the hon. Member for York Central, this is a long-term game. We want to do go further and further with devolution. One of the missions in the levelling-up White Paper is:

“By 2030, every part of England that wants one will have a devolution deal with powers at approaching the highest level of devolution and a simplified, long-term funding settlement.”

We want to keep going and going. The question I have about the unelected committee model of devolution is, once we start to do more and more high-powered things, more and more functions come out of Whitehall and more and more controversial decisions are taken—and take longer—at the local level. Is that a model that can really hack increasingly controversial decisions in the long term?

Evidence from the OECD finds that fragmented city governments—not having that tier at all—leads to worse economic outcomes. I think we are all agreed that a tier is needed to work together across local authorities and city regions. The only question is how the accountability then works. I wonder how many of the places that have now got Mayors would really want to go backwards. A lot of them resisted having a Mayor. They resisted very strongly. Even on the morning of the Greater Manchester devolution deal, one of the local authorities still had questions about it. Now that those cities have Mayors, who seriously thinks that it would be a good idea for them to go back to having just an unelected committee or a quango, and for them not to have either of the Andys or Ben Houchen providing inspirational leadership and working locally in a collegiate and cross-party way? Do people really think that would be an improvement? I wonder about that.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
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We have had a really good discussion. I agree with the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale. I fear that neatness and tidiness for central Government, rather than for communities, is dominant, which raises the question, who is this for?

The hon. Gentleman asked what right Whitehall—or central Government, or however we might characterise it—has to make such distinctions, and I agree with him. We are talking about two different sets of profound powers that will shape places and—I think there is broad consensus on this—improve and enhance the lives of local people, but one community will have access while another will not, because the Government have made the election of a politician a sticking point. The Minister has made it clear that that is the Government’s preference, but it is a fundamentally distorted vision of devolution. If the powers are to be so impactful, all communities should have access to them.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien
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To be clear, is the Opposition’s preferred model an unelected committee or assembly-type model? What do they prefer to the mayoral model?

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
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The Minister has never heard me argue for the assembly model—a red herring that he introduced to the debate—and I think the characterisation of committees as “unelected” is unhelpful. He has heard me argue over a significant time for the powers set out on page 140 of the White Paper to be available to county combined authorities. If they choose to be led by an elected Mayor, that is their choice and I would absolutely support it.

I think that is where we will end up in Nottingham and Nottinghamshire, although, as I have made clear, it is not my preference—perhaps by repeating how against it I am at all stages, I am attempting desperately to ensure that I never end up a candidate. Nevertheless, that has been my view throughout. The difference between my position and the Minister’s is that I have no intention of foisting mine on other people, whereas the Minister clearly does.

The Minister started by saying that he prefers the mayoral model—that is wonderful—and he made a strong case for it. I advocate that he take that case to the people of Leicester and Leicestershire, and given how persuasive he is, maybe he will succeed in convincing them. That would be an example of the process working well, and I would support his efforts in principle, if not in substance. But let us address this point about unelected committees, which as I said, is a bizarre characterisation. Let me put it this way: the Minister has introduced 60 clauses to create county combined authorities, and that has been important for this Bill Committee, which, by his logic, is unelected. In reality, the constituent members of those committees have very much stood for election and they lead their local authorities. I do not have any problem with that democracy. If four elected leaders meet for a pint after work, do they suddenly form an unelected committee and their democratic mandate ceases? I think they are still elected, and if they misbehaved that night, they would be treated as if they were. The idea that such committees are unelected is for the birds, frankly.

The Minister said—I am not sure that I agree—that this is for the voters. That is excellent news. In that case, I do not think he has anything to fear about what is established as the local preference. Why do something for someone if they do not want it?

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Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien
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The Opposition have spent several days complaining that our devolution model is too messy. This morning they are complaining that it too neat and tidy.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
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At no point have I complained that this is too neat and tidy. I am saying that Ministers are seeking convenience; not that the settlement is too neat and tidy but that Ministers are pursuing a life that is neater and tidier than it is ever going to be.

I was hugely discomfited by the Minister’s final point about the M10 Mayors. As I have said, I have family in Manchester who love that model and it really works for them. That is great. Andy Burnham is doing a brilliant job, and that can be said throughout the M10. The Minister’s idea is that many of those communities resisted Mayors but, as it was better for them, we can now say, “Gosh, don’t they see our extraordinary wisdom and they wouldn’t change it.” If that is his preference for devolution—they will like it when they understand it—we are getting off on the wrong foot.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien
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In the communities that resisted it, the leaders of local authorities had lots of questions about it, because they were bringing into existence a new directly elected body across the city. That is no small thing. It was creating somebody who would be in the same space as them. Of course they had all kinds of questions about it. Does the hon. Gentleman seriously think it would now be better for them to get rid of those directly elected Mayors for those large cities? Does he really believe it would be better without them?

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
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I have literally just said that I doubt that that would be the case, but it is for those communities to decide, not me, and I have no intention of doing so. This is about devolution and localism, which will have to take a local flavour and function. The Minister started by saying that the leaders of the communities had resisted, and now that they had questions. I would hope they would have questions. I am saying that there is no value in ramming these things through, or the idea that people later will really see the benefit. That is how we get progress but people do not feel better—because things are done to them. In many ways, that explains why community power is absent in the Bill.

On the place A to B tramline, there will always be a challenge with these things. The Minister talks about having to go back to constituents who want to hold us accountable for a decision we did not make, may have voted against or did not argue for. That is what Parliament is. I have been here five years and have barely ever won a vote. I have to go back to my constituents frequently and say, “Yes, I understand it is terrible that we have skyrocketing inflation, you do not have access to decent housing and the rise in violent crime is awful. I voted against things that caused that to be the case, but the majority voted for it.”

The idea that the existence of an individual suddenly creates that unanimity or direct ability to change is challenging, not least because voters’ decisions are multifactoral. There is an argument for a presidency in this place, which I certainly do not share, but we might wonder why we need so many Ministers if we could just consolidate them in one individual. I cannot agree with that. I have made my point and I will press the amendment to a Division, because there is a substantial difference between the two Benches.

The Minister started by saying that he prefers the mayoral model. That is absolutely fine. Every community that prefers that model should have access to one—I completely support that—but I do not think that every community that does not prefer that model should have to have it.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien
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I want to clarify that spatial development strategies are available to MCAs, and several are already doing them.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
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We will have many days to consider that in great detail and at great length to establish those facts.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

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Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron
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I think this is a sensible amendment. If we are to have Mayors, I am not against their appointing deputies. That sounds a perfectly sensible thing to do. In the previous debate, the Minister made an interesting and well-presented point about why a mayor is better than an unelected committee—a committee of directly elected councillors, serving smaller areas, who are more likely to be in touch with those areas. Will the Minister contrast and compare his concern for there being a committee making decisions—all of them directly elected—and executive functions being given to a deputy mayor who has been appointed by somebody else? I see a clear equivalence, and a reminder that it is entirely democratic and appropriate for decisions to be taken in a more collegiate way, and not just by one person being elected and then appointing other people to serve executive functions under that person.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien
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The amendment has no effect on its own. As set out in clause 26, the role of deputy Mayor of a CCA is created by that provision. It is therefore already statutory. The clause mirrors the provisions for county combined authorities, creating consistency across the two models. The role of deputy mayor is critical in supporting the effective delivery of the Mayor’s responsibilities and a deputy Mayor would act instead of the Mayor if that person is unable to act or the office of the Mayor becomes vacant. There is no need to add the word “statutory” to what is already a statutory role. Therefore I hope that the hon. Member for Nottingham North agrees to withdraw the amendment, although he may want to talk more about the point when we discuss amendment 34.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
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I agree with the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale that there is certainly an irony and a contrast between the two debates. Nevertheless, I think it is implied—frankly, it says it on the tin—that once we go for the mayoral model, that is what we choose with it. Again, if that is what a community wants, that is the right thing to do.

I will address the Minister’s points. To be fair, if it is in the statute book, it is probably statutory; I would be willing to concede that point. However, I have had the opportunity to make that clear. Nevertheless, the assurances from the Minister were plenty. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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Individuals may have a specific set of skills. For example, we have seen the role taken up in relation to policing, and there could be other formats, such as if somebody has expertise in transport or other functions. There are therefore opportunities within the Bill, but it is silent on how diversity could be a part of these roles and how it could enhance the model and address the democratic deficit. I would be really interested to hear the extent to which the Minister thinks the role could expand to reflect that diversity, which we will discuss shortly.
Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien
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Clause 26 requires the Mayor of a combined county authority to appoint a deputy Mayor from among the constituent members of the CCA. The deputy Mayor would act in the stead of the Mayor should the Mayor be unable to act or should the office of the Mayor become vacant.

We consider the amendment unnecessary and inappropriate. It is unnecessary because, as we will see shortly, clause 27 enables the Mayor to delegate general mayoral functions to members of the CCA. Members of the CCA can be given subject portfolios—the responsibility for a particular area, such as transport—and would be held to account for it. Such members may have a title—for example, cabinet member for transport or skills portfolio holder—that reflects the terminology and practice in local government.

As the Mayor is required to appoint a deputy Mayor and is able to delegate functions to other members, there is no need for an additional role within a CCA or for any member of a CCA other than the statutory deputy Mayor to be titled deputy Mayor. The risk is that the amendment might result in all CCA members having the position of deputy, which could be confusing and could be a problem if it is necessary to be clear about who the deputy Mayor is so that they can stand in if the Mayor is incapacitated. We think the amendment is not necessary or appropriate.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
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I am grateful to the Minister for giving way as he was about to conclude. Just to be clear, the Government’s intention is that deputy Mayors will be members of the county combined authority, and there will not be provision for a Mayor to appoint and give responsibilities to a deputy who is a private citizen.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien
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We discussed in previous sittings the role of the non-constituent and associate members of the authority, which is the way of getting in expertise from outside. Perhaps a transport specialist could come in through that route, but we need someone who is clearly the deputy in case the Mayor is suddenly not available any more. As part of collegiate working, which we have described previously, it is already very common for portfolio roles to be given to members of the combined authority.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am really grateful for that discussion. As my hon. Friend the Member for York Central said—this relates to amendment 35 in my name—we should seek to use these roles as a way of broadening the pool of those who have access to power for very good reasons relating to representation. We will probe that when we debate amendment 35. I am grateful to the Minister for his answer. There are bits of it that I still do not understand, which I will cover when we discuss the next amendment, but hopefully he will help me. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell
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I want to build on the points that have been made. One of the things we need to remember about deputy Mayors is that, unlike previous roles we have discussed, they are appointed, rather than elected. As we know, with appointments, there is always the risk of unconscious bias creeping in. Having transparency and accountability is therefore really important when looking at issues of diversity.

If we are creating a new tier of governance across the country, we do not want to repeat the old mistakes we have seen in this place or in local government, where the figures are quite shocking. We do not want it to be the end of this century before we see equality between men and women in local government. We have a lot of work to do to ensure that across our political systems and systems of governance, we are seeing and driving equality around all protected characteristics. I fear that if we are not putting these basic and rudimentary measures in legislation at this point, we risk at this stage of transformation slipping back into bad old ways. I would not want to see that. We are a country that embraces diversity and we should do that within our governance structures as well.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien
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Clause 26 requires the Mayor of a combined county authority to appoint a deputy Mayor from the constituent members, so the Mayor of a CCA could not make—to answer the question directly—a non-constituent or associate member a deputy Mayor. Constituent members will be nominated by the constituent councils and are usually the council leaders, who have been elected at local authority level. It is only right that the membership of the CCA is decided locally by those who best know their areas. CCAs and their constituent members will be independent of central government.

Amendment 35 requires the Secretary of State to report annually regarding certain demographic information about the persons appointed to be deputy Mayors of a CCA. We think that the amendment is not appropriate or necessary. CCAs, their Mayors and their constituent members will be independent of central Government. The Government do not believe they should require CCAs to inform them of the specific make-up of their deputy Mayors.

The Mayor, with their democratic mandate, will appoint one of the constituent members as a deputy Mayor. As a public and statutory position, it will be totally transparent who has been appointed as the deputy. I therefore urge the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
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I share the concern of the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale about this being a bit of a march of the blokes. That is a fear with individual elections, and it is what tends to happen. He made some very strong arguments about that.

My hon. Friend the Member for York Central is right in saying that appointments can go either way: they are either an opportunity to rectify gaps or they can end up, through unconscious biases, continuing to widen those gaps. I think the Minister’s answer has clarified the point and rendered my amendment moot. From what I understood, the deputies are going to be constituent members of the authority; that is a significant distinction from what happens in London and with the Mayor of London. In many ways, combined authorities and combined county authorities do have significant distinctions from the set-up in London, so that is not an inconsistency, but it is important to understand. My fear is that there will now be a march of the tsars. The Mayors are going to end up with lots of different tsars as a way of trying to get that extra talent in, as advisers and as additionality. I wonder about that.

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Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell
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I beg to move amendment 51, in clause 27, page 21, line 28, at end insert—

“(1A) Where the Secretary of State makes provision under subsection (1), they must also publish a report setting out the impact this change will have on the delivery of levelling up missions.”

This amendment would require the Secretary of State to produce a report on the impact of changing the powers available to a mayor on the delivery of levelling up missions.

This amendment highlights the possibility of the Secretary of State’s regulating not only function, but who should undertake that function. Accountability is important, and I would argue that having clear lines of accountability is essential. However, clause 27 feels very much like the tail wagging the dog: the Secretary of State is micromanaging the Mayor, as opposed to letting the Mayor determine who would be best placed to undertake such functions. What functions they are is not clear in the Bill, and subsection (1) maintains the mystery, but I am sure the Minister will say how they will be determined in the devolution deal. However, who executes them should be at the discretion of the Mayor, as there will clearly be a diversity of knowledge and skill at the mayoral office level, and indeed in the wider team. I can understand the Secretary of State’s wanting the Mayor to be accountable for such functions, but to say that only the Mayor can carry them out is operational meddling from the centre.

When writing the amendment, and ahead of the sitting on Tuesday last week, I had understood that levelling up was to be a sustained agenda for tackling the grotesque injustice of inequality by identifying disparity and then using a range of solutions—through economics, transport, housing, spatial planning and so on—to bring justice to an area. I have to say that the Government’s explanation of clause 1 has now left me in doubt. I compare it more to the 1997 New Labour pledge card, with 12 missions rather than five and a tick box to deliver the Tory manifesto commitments that sneakily go beyond these and into an eight-year programme, but there is little to look beyond.

Aligning the purpose of tiers of Government is important if the country is to head in one direction. If everyone rows in one direction, we are more likely to get there, which is why it is important that there should be alignment nationally at CCA level and locally in addressing the ambition to rid this country of inequality—not least as we are the second most inequitable country after the US according to academics, including Pickett and Wilkinson. As we discussed on Tuesday, having levelling-up missions in central Government—including the sustainable development goals at a global level—and then differentiating priorities at a local or mayoral level means that we move forward more slowly than we would if we marched in step. Therefore, ensuring the delivery of missions nationally, and by Metro Mayors and their teams, gives us an opportunity to progress.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North is a lot closer to this subject than I am, but as he is working on Labour’s ambition for Government, which could come as soon as the autumn, I trust that we will want alignment of function with our national ambition to address the inequalities that our society presents. I am sure we will want a sustained framework that sets a path of ambition for 50 years rather than just eight, and that we will seek to account for the threads that run between the national and the local. I am sure that Labour would not want to place such control on politicians at the devolved level, and would trust them to deliver their work in the most appropriate way to achieve the outcomes that we long to see. The amendment seeks to achieve that by bringing alignment with those levelling-up missions and accountability behind them. That is why I would like the Government to accept it.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien
- Hansard - -

We believe the amendment is unnecessary. The Secretary of State may confer functions on the Mayor of a combined county authority only if they consider that to do so meets the statutory test of

“improving the economic, social or environmental well-being”

of some or all of those who live and work in the area. As our 12 missions show,

“improving the economic, social or environmental well-being”

is at the heart of delivering levelling up. The process for conferring mayoral powers, including the statutory test, is already set out in clauses 42 and 43, for the establishment of a new mayoral CCA, and in clauses 44 and 45, for the conferral of functions on the Mayor of an existing mayoral CCA.

Regulations conferring functions on a Mayor will of course be considered by Parliament. The explanatory memorandum accompanying these regulations will explain why the powers are being conferred, the views of consultees and how the statutory test is met; Parliament will have ample opportunity to consider the impact of conferring any powers on the Mayor of a CCA and whether they will achieve levelling up.

In addition to the information provided by the explanatory memorandum accompanying the regulations being laid in Parliament, clause 2 requires annual reporting on the progress of the delivery of the levelling-up missions. That will include the achievement against our local leadership mission, which I mentioned earlier—namely that by 2030, every part of England that wants a devolution deal will have one, with powers at or approaching the highest level of devolution and a simplified local funding settlement.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Coming to the nub of the issue, that ability to confer powers is certainly highlighted in clause 27(1). However, why does the Minister believe that the functions are exercisable only—I stress the word “only”—by the Mayor?

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien
- Hansard - -

Making some of the functions exercisable by the Mayor is at the heart of what we have been doing with devolution. If we are going to have the debate that we had earlier, I should say that the whole point of a Mayor is to have certain functions. If the hon. Lady is probing that, she is in a sense going back to the debate that we were having earlier today about why an area should have a Mayor.

The amendment is about a reporting requirement. As I have just set out, there are already substantial reporting requirements on why any powers are conferred on the Mayor. There is also reporting on progress on the devolution agenda, as part of clause 2 and the mission that we are pursuing, so there is already the kind of reporting that the amendment argues for. I hope that the hon. Lady will withdraw it.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I very much agree with the thrust of the amendment; the case that my hon. Friend the Member for York Central made was very strong. It makes us think that these missions should be a central theme running through the programme of work. That programme may, at times, look different in different parts of the country, in terms of how it is exercised, but those fundamental goals, challenges and missions are a collective endeavour. That brings me back to my fear, certainly regarding the earlier parts of the Bill, that the Government feel they have to take all this on themselves. That is, first, an unnecessary level of burden and, secondly, not likely to succeed.

We accept that government is a very difficult business, and at times a fine series of balances. I would argue that this Government make things look particularly hard, but that might be an issue for a different day. However, for Ministers in this Department—one might except the Minister for Housing; there is, after all, a reason why they change every year—[Laughter.] I do not wish that for the Minister who is here today; I hold him in high regard and he can stay until the next election.

However, the rest of the Minister’s ministerial colleagues really could have a slightly lighter time if they just equipped, in terms of both money and power, local authorities to deliver on their goals and then let them get on with it. They would look brilliant; they would look like sensational, revolutionary change-bringers and they could have their feet up for the entire time. That does not seem like such a bad deal to me.

Instead, what we get is this over-centralisation and this lack of trust; it is all to be commanded and controlled from the centre. I am afraid that that just does not quite get things done. The amendment would actually push us into making a further step towards what we hope Ministers want, which is to get the responsibility, the power and the opportunities out to communities, under that shared framework of goals. That would be a positive thing, and there is an awful lot to recommend the amendment.

What the Minister said about the explanatory memorandum is welcome, but I say again—this is a theme throughout all our debates—that the Government have not been able to produce an impact assessment for the Bill, and we sit here, day after day, talking about it. We are led to believe that the Minister has a strong belief in the impact of Mayors, but he cannot evidence that in a conventional way. We have heard a commitment from the Minister. When the decisions are being made on regulations for setting up combined county authorities, I hope that we will have the right information to explain and understand the impact of the decisions that we make.

--- Later in debate ---
Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

This is a very worthwhile amendment, which helps us to explore how we can play into local communities’ hunger for power and control over their own destinies. There is a real sense in many communities—I will speak specifically for rural ones, but this applies right across the country—of people being fed up with things happening to them, seeing things going wrong in their communities and feeling a sense of powerlessness: “What can I do to affect this?”

I will share two experiences. On Saturday, I was in the heart of the lakes, around Hawkshead and Ambleside, talking to tourism businesses struggling to find staff. We have a huge workforce crisis in all of rural Britain, but particularly in the lakes and the dales. We were talking about the things that it would be great to do locally to provide local affordable housing, caps on the number of second homes and limits on the number of holiday lets. That would provide places for a working-age population that is not earning tons of money to be able to live and preserve those communities.

Yesterday morning, I was in the village of Burton, with a good news story: we were beginning some work on developing an affordable housing project in the village that will underpin the sustainability of that community. However, I was talking to the housing association about how difficult it is to replicate that around the area, given the weak planning rules that do not allow them to take advantage of what might be the possibility of building 100% affordable settlements around a community like mine.

Those are all issues that we could tackle if we had the power. I think that communities are hungry for power and the ability to make a difference for their own futures. If the Government are sharing any power with the Mayor, then I want every other authority to know about it so that they can clamour for it too. I am not particularly critical of there being a lack of symmetry in devolution and in the models by which it is delivered. That is not because I am a fan of things being a mess, but because I am a fan of communities making their own choices.

Communities should not be forced to accept a particular model to gain powers that will give them power over their communities and the way in which their economies are run. To reflect that hunger, we must feed it so that everybody knows what is possible and on the table, and they can think, “Well, all right, we’d like those powers too.”

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien
- Hansard - -

Opposition Members have argued that the process in which new powers are given to CCAs should be transparent and public, and it will be. The processes that lead to the conferring of powers on a Mayor of a CCA are transparent and public. The Mayor must consult the constituent councils of the CCA regarding any requests for additional powers and then report those views to the Secretary of State when submitting their request.

If the Secretary of State agrees to a Mayor’s request, the functions to be conferred will be set out in regulations and then debated here. They must then be approved before they can be made. In considering those regulations, Parliament will have an explanatory memorandum and various other reports explaining why various powers are being conferred. It will therefore already be a public and transparent process—nothing can be hidden—so we regard the amendment as unnecessary.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I would argue that there is a difference between something not being hidden and its being shared. The points that colleagues have made were very good, and I would echo them. The point and thrust of the issue is to try to ensure that all areas know what is available to them and to give them the chance to reflect on and maybe ask for it themselves to improve their approaches to tackling all the challenges they face.

Of course, as the Bill says, the decisions will be made through a regulation and be taken by a Committee of Members in this place. However, I say gently to the Minister that I would not take that to be full publication. It will be published in a reasonable way—we have no doubt of that—but the idea that busy communities, county combined authorities or Mayors will instantly know that that has happened is not quite the same thing.

I hope that, at least, the Minister will reflect on the need for it to be understood what further powers that maybe even go beyond the White Paper might be available in future to county combined authorities. However, for the moment, I am happy to withdraw the amendment and not labour that point today. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 28 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 29

Joint exercise of general functions

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

--- Later in debate ---
Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O’Brien
- Hansard - -

I am not sure that I understand the hon. Member’s detailed question. I will try to understand it. Let me speak to what the clause does, and if that does not make things clear he can come in. We have talked about the flexibility of the CCA model, enabling the Mayor and the CCA to operate effectively and take decisions for the benefit of those who live and work in the area. Clause 29 continues that flexibility. It enables regulations to be made so that a CCA Mayor can jointly exercise any mayoral general function, such as on transport, with a neighbouring local authority if both parties agree. Such regulations may set out the detailed operational arrangements, such as membership, chairing, voting powers and political balance requirements for a joint committee. I hope that hon. Members will agree that enabling the Mayor of a combined authority to work collaboratively with neighbouring local authorities—something various Members have argued for in previous sittings—would be a positive measure, and I commend the clause to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 29 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 30

Functions of mayors: policing

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Clause 30 allows for the conferring of police and crime commissioner functions on the Mayor of a combined county authority. I think it is important that something as significant as this does not go through without debate. Again, this is the core aspect of tier 3 powers, which makes the case for a mayor in those cases. Again, we understand the need for the measure to be in the Bill, but we want to hear from the Minister how he thinks this will work in practice.

This is not without precedent. These clauses mirror combined authorities, and those combined authorities in Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire have a Mayor with police powers, and of course the same is true in London. It can be done, and it can be done safely. I am less sure about whether there is widespread desire for it. As I say, if it were the determining factor in tier 3 between taking on a Mayor or not, there may be quite a range of decisions taken.

We heard in both oral and written evidence—I genuinely thought it was admirable—about the culture of collaboration and joint working across the West Midlands Combined Authority. It is clear that it has been able to build consensus on virtually everything, except this point. That was quite revealing in and of itself. Again, it is those sorts of powers that local communities often talk about, such as economic levers, transport levers, housing levers and issues relating to net zero, rather than policing. Again, where communities want this, we are happy for it to be an option where desired. The reality is that it is complicated because of the unavoidable point of footprints for police forces, which do not elegantly overlay with even natural geographies, but definitely not geographies of combined authorities. I cannot imagine a situation where they are likely to converge without a lot of pain and disruption.

There will be some places—the West Midlands ironically being quite a good example—where the footprint probably matches up quite nicely, and clearly that is the case in Greater Manchester too. I want clarity from the Minister. Is his intention to use these powers where there is strong demand and where the geographies are suitable? As I say, I think that is likely to prove challenging. What is the Minister minded to do in situations where there is enthusiasm to take these powers on but the natural communities do not work, or maybe there is a police force that covers a small part of a county combined authority? How would that work in practice?

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

That is all right. Thank you for letting us know; it is very kind of you.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien
- Hansard - -

Clause 30 enables the Mayor of a combined county authority to have the functions of the police and crime commissioner conferred on them if that Mayor requests it. The Mayors of the Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire combined authorities already exercise PCC functions in their areas. Committee members will remember the evidence session we held with Tracy Brabin, Mayor of West Yorkshire, in which she talked about the advantages of having those powers aligned with the other powers she was using—for example, using her powers over transport and her PCC powers concurrently to improve women’s safety.

Clause 30 and the linked schedule 3 offer that same option for CCA Mayors if the local authority and policing boundaries align, and if they feel that taking on those functions will help them deliver more effective policing for their area, where that is agreed between the area and Government. The clause and schedule mirror the combined authority provisions for the conferral of PCC functions to ensure that if a CCA Mayor takes on those functions, the process of conferral and the way they are exercised on a day-to-day basis is consistent with those too. As with all regulations on CCAs, these regulations will be subject to parliamentary approval. I commend the clause to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 30 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 3

Mayors for combined county authority Areas: PCC functions

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move amendment 37, in schedule 3, page 206, line 34, leave out paragraphs (b) and (c).

This amendment would prevent the Secretary of State from conferring only partial Police and Crime Commissioner functions on the mayor.

The fun is always in the schedules, is it not? I like to get into the detail and understand some of the reasons why certain approaches have been chosen. Schedule 3 introduces the arrangements that allow for Mayors of combined county authorities to take on police and crime commissioner functions in the way that the Minister has set out. As I said, this is a complex matter, particularly due to geography. I do not think the Minister quite addressed the complexity issue. Again, I would be interested in his thoughts about how that is likely to work in practice, certainly for footprints that clearly do not match up with police force footprints. That argument has been made already, so I will not repeat it.

The thrust of amendment 37 is to not make the devolution of those functions any more complicated than it already is. Paragraph 2(1) of schedule 3 allows the Secretary of State to

“by regulations provide that the mayor may exercise in the CCA area—

(a) all PCC functions,”

—that is all the functions, as the Minister has described. As I say, that has been done elsewhere, and it seems to be beyond debate. However, I want to probe sub-paragraphs (1)(b) and (1)(c), which provide for

“all PCC functions other than those specified or described in the regulations, or…only those PCC functions specified or described in the regulations”

to be devolved. Basically, the Secretary of State can by regulation devolve partial police and crime commissioner powers. First, that is unduly fiddly, and it might create an unwise divergence between Mayors. Either an individual has police and crime commissioner functions devolved to them, or they do not.

--- Later in debate ---
Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

As my hon. Friend says, the taking on of the PCC seems to be that sort of totemic tipping moment, making this question all the more compelling. I am interested in a case in which sub-paragraph (1)(b) and (c) were used, in which only some police and crime functions were devolved. Does that mean that the pre-existing police and crime commissioner would continue to exist alongside the Mayor? Are we creating some confusion, if we have a PCC and a Mayor with some police and crime responsibilities? I am not sure that is desirable. Again, that might create variance between Mayors. I am not minded to support the provision, but I might be persuaded if we were clear what sort of circumstances it would apply to and what powers we might not want to give, and if we had clarity on the point about other PCCs.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien
- Hansard - -

The schedule provides detail setting out the areas where the Secretary of State either may or has to make regulations to enable a transfer of PCC functions to a CCA Mayor, and provides the framework and arrangements for them to exercise those functions day to day. It is important that CCA Mayors can exercise PCC functions if the authority and policing boundaries align, and if they feel that taking on the functions will help them deliver more effective policing for the area.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I apologise, but it is helpful that the Minister used the “boundaries align” phrase. Is that a complete alignment of boundaries?

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien
- Hansard - -

Yes, I think it is, implicitly. The levelling-up White Paper talks about how, if the boundaries did not quite align and there was a strong desire locally for that, we would look at the geographies over time and whether it was worth changing them in order to make them fit. I stress that that is probably a long-term function. Broadly speaking, this is keeping the mayoral combined authority and CCA models aligned, because the power already exists, although it is not being used in the MCA legislation.

Over time, the PCC role has expanded and evolved, and it continues to do so, and the Bill would allow the Home Office at a future date not to devolve all PCC functions, if that were not appropriate in future. At this point, I cannot specify in exactly what circumstances that might arise—it might be to do with edge cases where there is desire to do some policing-adjacent things through transport, of the kind that Tracy talked about—but so far those powers have not been used. At the moment, I do not think that there is an intention to use them. I am aware of no examples of active discussion of any such thing.

As I say, however, the PCC role is evolving over time, as is that of the different combined authorities. We are just holding open that possibility for the future. Were we to explore that future, the possibility of the processes that we have talked about so far in this sitting—things going through Parliament with explanatory memorandums and so on—would all apply. At the moment, this is just holding things open for a potential future, in case there is a desire to do things in this kind of space.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Minister knows that I do not give an awful lot of shrift to the argument that we need to do such things because that is how they are in combined authorities. The Minister has chosen to establish a separate class. If we merely had to adopt the same arrangements as combined authorities, basically we should have moved the 60 amendments and simply agreed them. The Minister has chosen to legislate differently, and therefore I believe that the amendment needs to be treated on its own merits.

Similarly, I do not give an awful lot of shrift to the idea of leaving the door open for things that have not been used before in mirroring powers, so that they might be used later for an unspecified purpose. That is not a strong reason to keep something in statute, so I will press the amendment to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

--- Later in debate ---
Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move amendment 38, in schedule 3, page 207, line 23, leave out paragraph (a)

This amendment would allow the person who is appointed deputy mayor under section 26 to be appointed as deputy mayor for policing and crime.

This is the dangerous bit. I am going to torture the cricket analogy one last time, even though it really does not stand up to it: we are just seeing out the final over before lunch, so I will try not to nick one here if possible.

Paragraph 3(1)(a) of schedule 3 states that the Secretary of State may

“appoint a deputy mayor in respect of PCC functions”

but that that person cannot be what I have called in previous debates “the statutory Mayor”. More than anything, I am keen to know why that measure, which amendment 38 would delete, was included. It may be that the statutory deputy could hold a role outside their normal duties that would mean they were not eligible to take police and crime functions, and could not stand for police and crime commissioner—just as a Member of Parliament cannot be a police and crime commissioner—but I am not clear what that role would be. Short of an unavoidable hurdle, I wonder why we are reducing the options rather than letting the Mayor choose which of their eligible candidates would be best for the role.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien
- Hansard - -

The single-word answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is: workload. Clause 30 enables the Mayor of a combined county authority to have the functions of a police and crime commissioner conferred on them, subject to their consent. It includes provisions on the employment of a deputy Mayor for crime and policing, and the rules that govern who is eligible.

The role of the statutory deputy Mayor of the CCA is, as we have discussed, to step in should the Mayor become unable to act or if the office of Mayor is vacant. As we said earlier, the deputy Mayor, as any other member of the combined county authority, may assist the Mayor or be delegated a portfolio to lead for the CCA—that could be transport or all manner of different things. The deputy Mayor is also likely to be a leader or another senior member of the constituent council, so is likely to have plenty on their plate. The role of the deputy Mayor for crime and policing is to dedicate constant focus and attention to the vital areas of crime and policing.

Those are both clearly significant roles, and it is difficult to see how both could be delivered by one person without insufficient attention on policing or the responsibilities of deputy Mayor suffering.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Is the intention for the role to go to a private citizen, not a constituent member of the authority?

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien
- Hansard - -

The CCA member also holds an elected position for a specific portion of the CCA area, so they are a constituent member. The Mayor’s PCC power covers the entirety of the police force in the CCA area. That could cause confusion about the democratic mandate that the CCA member has—when compared with the requirement of the deputy Mayor for crime and policing—to support the Mayor, who has been elected to represent constituents from across the whole police force area.

Let me encapsulate it. Why do we have to have a deputy Mayor for crime and policing? Because PCC is a full-time job, and in most of the country outside the MCAs, it is a stand-alone job. There are many advantages to bringing those two things together, as the Mayor of West Yorkshire told us, but it works best when there is a high degree of delegation to a deputy Mayor for crime and policing who can drive forward all that work so that the Mayor can provide strategic join-up between that and other functions. We would still have someone whose full-time job is to do all those things. If we tried to combine the two roles, however, it would be just too much workload for one person.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The point about workload is well made. I understand now that the portfolio of deputy mayorships will be held by constituent members of the authority, but I am still now sure—maybe that is my fault—whether the deputy Mayor for crime and policing is a constituent member before their appointment by the Secretary of State.

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill (Tenth sitting)

Neil O'Brien Excerpts
Tuesday 5th July 2022

(1 month, 1 week ago)

Public Bill Committees
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to resume proceedings with you in the Chair, Sir Mark.

These seven clauses deal with a significant change in policy, because they enable the fire and rescue functions and the footprint of the county combined authority to be transferred to the Mayor. I think that significant change deserves debate and recognition. Many of the arguments about clause 30 and the similar delegation of police and crime functions read across to fire and rescue functions, so I do not intend to duplicate them.

I am not sure that I have detected a huge demand for the transfer, nor a sense that fire authorities are not doing what they are supposed to be doing. If there is local enthusiasm to take on those functions and consensus can be built on that, it is for those communities to argue for that rather than me. I would be interested to learn from the Minister what the business case for such a change looks like. Part of the problem of the lack of an impact assessment is that we do not know the impact of the proposed change, nor the upsides that we can expect from it. What is the take-up?

My questions to the Minister are similar to those that I asked about clause 30, and I hope that I will receive similar answers. I take it that this is about local choice and that any change can only be made where there is local consensus. May I take it that the same proviso about geography applies in this case as did under clause 30? Generally, will the arrangement operate according to coterminosity, and work elegantly, rather than trying to make something fiddly work which is not likely to succeed?

Clause 31(2) refers to the involvement of the chief constable of the police. In recent years, it has been a Government policy decision to blur the distinction between fire and rescue and the police. I am keen to hear the Minister’s answer about that involvement. What safeguards will be in place to handle those two organisations, which have separate functions, so that there is at least some sort of distinction between them, certainly in the finances but also, in some senses, on the policy? A case needs to be made for any such involvement because I do not think it is automatically a good idea.

Neil O'Brien Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (Neil O'Brien)
- Hansard - -

Clause 31 enables the Secretary of State to make regulations to allow the Mayor of a combined county authority to whom police and crime commissioner and fire and rescue functions have been conferred to delegate fire and rescue functions to the chief constable of the police force for the area. It further allows the chief constable to delegate those functions to both police and fire and rescue personnel, and through it enact what is known as the single employer model.

Those provisions are designed to provide the option for Mayors of CCAs to exercise fire and rescue service functions under the single employer model where they also exercise PCC functions, if they feel that allowing the chief constable to run both operational services will help them to have a stronger role in public safety and to deliver more effective emergency services for their local area. That is the rationale that the hon. Member for Nottingham North is seeking.

It is an equivalent provision to section 107EA of the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009, which made that option available to Mayors of combined authorities when Parliament approved its addition via the Policing and Crime Act 2017. The change is basically about enabling the benefits of blue light integration between the two services.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 31 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 32 to 37 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 38

Mayors for CCA areas: financial matters

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move amendment 52, in clause 38, page 33, line 32, at end insert—

“(c) for and about alternative funding streams (including grants from the Secretary of State) for fire and rescue services if constraints on revenue-raising mean that there is a threat that fire and rescue safety standards may not be maintained in the area.”

This amendment enables the Secretary of State, in circumstances where mayoral revenue raising powers are insufficient for the provision of a safe Fire and Rescue service, to make alternative provision to fund the services, including a grant from the Secretary of State.

I think it is right to declare a number of things. First, North Yorkshire is in deep discussions about a devolution deal. We want to see that progress successfully, but at the same time we face a real challenge with our fire and rescue service. I want to talk about the reality of what we are debating, to ensure that we place it with the right safeguards, which are absolutely essential.

North Yorkshire was one of the first authorities in which the fire and rescue service combined with the police and crime commissioner function. At one point there were just four authorities in that position. Therefore, North Yorkshire has probably the best experience of how that combination works. I must say to the Minister that there have been some benefits from such a combination, such as cost savings, in particular arising from back office integration. That helps with public funding, which must be a positive because that is public money. However, when we look at the reality of what is happening now in the service, we have a very different story to tell.

My amendment is designed to keep the public safe and ensure that there is sufficiency in the service to retain sufficient fire appliances, to operate them safely and to have crew in the vicinity. This is about making sure that the funding flows work. Right now, I am expecting a meeting with the Home Secretary to discuss the matter. If the authority is devolved, I may be looking in a number of different directions to achieve the sufficient funding required to keep my community, and others, safe.

To highlight the challenges ahead of us, we are looking at the removal of night-time cover from Harrogate and Scarborough fire stations, as well as the removal of a second fire appliance. In my community, Huntington’s fire station may be pared back because of funding deficiencies. That means that response times will increase by seven minutes and 59 seconds—eight minutes of burning fire could cause a lot of damage. It is important to consider the issue in the context of today’s debate, because if it takes 16 minutes in total to reach a fire in my constituency, 31,000 residents will be impacted as a result of that change. That is quite significant.

Colleagues will be pleased to hear that I do not intend to go into all the ins and outs of the North Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service, but the sufficiency of the service will be subject to constant challenge. We will be looking ever more at how we can share resources and integrate roles, but there comes a point when the very viability of the service is challenged, and the public is put at risk. That is the point we are at now. If we are to see this integrated into a devolution deal, the money will have to be ringfenced and the community safeguarded, or else we could see a disaster.

In North Yorkshire—this also applies to other Members’ constituencies—we have a mixture of urban and rural. The reality is that North Yorkshire is the biggest county by geographical area, which puts stress on the service. It is not all bad news. The Home Secretary came forward with a fix to this for eight authorities that had kept their reserves. They got additional flexibility around the precept and so were able to fully fund their services and have sufficiency and some headroom for protection. North Yorkshire had spent its reserves and so was not awarded that precept flexibility.

Because of the geographical nature of North Yorkshire, it is now just about the worst-funded fire authority in the country. If there is no flexibility from the Home Secretary and Government, the result is that my constituents’ lives will be put at risk. Their homes could burn. Across North Yorkshire it can get tinder dry at this time of year and we see fires breaking out. It could have a catastrophic impact and put firefighters at risk, as well as the environment and so much more. Who will be responsible for bailing out a service is a serious consideration. Because we will not have proper governance over the funding of the service, as it will be under the new authority, will we keep cutting and cutting, increasing the risk to the public and ultimately placing them in danger?

It is part of a devolution deal, whether the police and crime functions and fire and rescue come together in one role and how that will work out, but it is important to consider where that funding is going to come from. I am really concerned. That is why my amendment is so important. With the scale of the outstanding deficits, if we are going to pare back now, we will see increased energy costs, higher maintenance and issues around salaries, which have not yet been negotiated. The service needs new equipment, uniforms and insurance—the list goes on. That all has to come out of a zero balance. Therefore, being able to get the assurance that when there is devolution there will be sufficiency is going to be really important to ensuring that there are protections.

It could be argued that for a few years there will be greater cost savings. That could be the case, although I am not sure much more could be got out of the service. But the cuts in York, Scarborough and Harrogate will have a significant impact. In fact, only Cambridgeshire and Essex are now worse funded, and actually they have more reserves than North Yorkshire. That is the financial situation.

We need a resolve. The resolve comes in my amendment, which seeks to utilise the efficiency savings we can gain. That has clearly already been done—as has the back office shared facilities and the usual reserves. At that point, do we put the public at risk? Under a devolved authority, what we are talking about is the very homes we are trying to build being put at greater risk. That seems somewhat ironic within itself. Or do we provide that ring of protection around our fire and rescue essential service—emergency services, as we know it? Putting those constraints there is absolutely important.

My amendment would add one paragraph to the Bill. It highlights that if there are constraints around the funding, there will be means of revenue raising that will ensure that the safety standards are maintained in an area. That would essentially be either a grant or flexibility around the precept. That precept flexibility has already been exercised for eight authorities, so we know that is a mechanism that could be triggered. However, that was determined by Whitehall. If it is to be determined by a devolved authority, what would that look like, or will a Mayor have more opportunity in order to protect the community? I would like to understand how that would work functionally, and how we keep those communities safe.

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Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Lady makes an excellent point. We are the wettest bit of England. We need to be, because of the lakes—we have to keep them topped up. Nevertheless, Members will remember that in the past few months there were flash fires at Cartmel Fell, which raged for a full weekend and took many pumps to get under control. I am massively grateful to those who got those fires under control.

With that changing weather, we can go from very damp weather to very dry weather for long periods. In areas with lots of forestry and agriculture, there is the potential for flash fires, which can cause death and damage to wildlife, livestock, homes, businesses and families—human beings. We therefore need to be all the more aware of the fact that we cannot allow the technicalities of funding formulas to get in the way of keeping our people safe.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O’Brien
- Hansard - -

I am extremely sympathetic to hon. Members campaigning on local services. I know that the Home Office has been engaging with the North Yorkshire fire and rescue service specifically on these issues. In 2022-23, the North Yorkshire fire and rescue authority will have core spending power of £33.5 million, which is an increase of £1.4 million or 4.5% compared with 2021-22. As of 31 March 2020, North Yorkshire held £4.9 million in resource reserves, equivalent to 60% of its 2020-21 core spending power. According to its draft 2020-21 accounts, total resource reserves increased by £8 million by 31 March 2021, an increase of £3.1 million or 62%. The issues that the hon. Member for York Central has raised, which are very important, are certainly being looked at.

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Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I promised the Committee a debate on alternative mayoral titles when we were talking about changing the names of county combined authorities, and I would never knowingly not keep a promise of such magnitude. I will be honest: I am not very excited by alternative mayoral titles, whatever the right hon. Member for Pudsey might say—not least because I have a lot of confidence in the collective wisdom of the British people. Being a proud Nottinghamian, I know that if someone were to become the Mayor of Nottingham and Nottinghamshire and then pursue an alternative title that was too grand to befit their status, they would face significant judgment from some very straight-talking people. In the end, it would not work out well for them. I have confidence that title inflation is not something that the British people are likely to look at fondly.

I do not want to detain the Committee for long, but I have three questions for the Minister. Frist, will he indulge us by letting us know what demand there is for alternative mayoral titles and what conversations he has had with communities that wish to have them? I understand that some demand might result from having different geographies and make-ups, and I am interested to hear about that.

Secondly, we had the first part of this debate when we discussed clause 15, which relates to county combined authorities changing their names. Clause 15(2)(c) has a requirement for the CCA to vote by a two-thirds supermajority for a change of name. Under clause 39(3)(c), the resolution to have an alternative mayoral title needs to pass with a simple majority. I did not have a lot of interest in the first proposed usage of the supermajority. A supermajority does have it uses, but only by exception. I am not sure that clause 15 makes a compelling case for one, but that has been disposed with. Why, however, has the Minister chosen to diverge in this way?

Finally, clause 39(2) provides a list of alternative titles, including county commissioner, county governor, elected leader and governor. Clause 39(2)(e) then introduces the possibility of having

“a title that the CCA considers more appropriate than the alternative titles mentioned in paragraphs (a) to (d), having regard to the title of other public office holders in the area of the CCA.”

I read that as meaning “any other title”, essentially, but I am keen to hear from the Minister that that is what is meant.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien
- Hansard - -

The hon. Gentleman is correct to read it as “any other title” that is locally wished for, having respect for the fact that there may be other people with such job titles in the area. He asked about where there is demand. A number of places that we are talking to about devolution deals are thinking about using non-mayoral titles, particularly in non-urban areas and where people feel that “Mayor” may not be the correct term for them. They may prefer leader, governor, commissioner or some of the titles that we have discussed.

I was hoping that the hon. Gentleman would ask why a supermajority is required to change the name of the institution but not the title of the directly elected leader. The difference is that many people will have made legal contracts with a CCA, so changing it is a fundamental and non-trivial thing to do, because it would require lots of other consequential changes. We talked in a previous sitting about the need for the stability of the institution. This is a more novel and more experimental area. I do not expect that we would see lots of constant changing and chopping of the name of the directly elected leader, but we think that that is an important part of devolution.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I have a further question about this measure and how we could end up with such a variety of names in different devolved areas: a county commissioner in one place might be a county governor, a governor, a Mayor, or who knows what we might end up with under subsection (3)(e). That could be more confusing for the public. We have already talked about a range of powers and a range of tiers; we now have a range of names, in a whole spectrum of shifting powers and accountabilities. Does the Minister believe this measure to be a necessary step? Does he recognise that it could lead to more confusion than trying to address the very issues he probably intended it to address originally?

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Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O’Brien
- Hansard - -

I believe it to be a necessary step in the Bill. In previous sittings, I set out that our particularism, our respect of local circumstances and our bespoke nature are features, not bugs, of our devolution agenda. This clause is a further part of that, making the title of the directly elected leader reflect the desires of local people and the history of the local area, and to fit in with local circumstances. It is therefore of a piece with the nature of how we are conducting the devolution agenda.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 39 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 40 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 41

Power to amend list of alternative titles

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Bearing in mind the Minister’s answer that clause 39(2)(e) in essence allows any title to be chosen, if that is the will of the county combined authority, what is the necessity of this clause? It allows the Secretary of State by regulation to change the list of those potential titles. There is an argument to say that there is not much point to having them on the face of the Bill, if a CCA can just choose what they want anyway—but perhaps it is shaping the conversation, in which case I understand that. Given the powers for county combined authorities to choose any name they wish, I find it hard to understand any value in reserving the ability to change the list by regulation. That seems very much after the fact. I am surprised and wonder why the Minister is so keen on the clause.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O’Brien
- Hansard - -

It is entirely to shape the conversation, as the hon. Gentleman says. It is to give a list of suggestions that may be appropriate, while also allowing others to go for different things if they consider that appropriate locally.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 41 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 42

Proposal for new CCA

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move amendment 53, in clause 42, page 38, line 14, at end insert—

“(c) prepare and publish a report setting out the results of the consultation.”

This amendment would require the authority or authorities submitting a proposal for a new Combined County Authority to make the results of the public consultation publicly available before submission.

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Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

In looking forward to changes in the way in which local government will be organised in the future, we are bound to reflect on how things have been done in the past.

In Cumbria, we are working hard to ensure that the reorganisation to unitary authorities is a big success, and the early signs are positive. It is worth bearing in mind that there was a consultation, and that fewer than 1% of the public engaged with it. We can glean that the massive majority felt it was not necessary to reorganise local government in Cumbria. People in the southern part of Cumberland object to being lumped in with Westmorland and split from the rest of Cumberland, and people think we would be far better off with smaller units of local democracy. After all in Scotland, where it is an entirely unitary local government landscape, there are unitary authorities with as few as 17,000 people living in them. In England, there is no recognition of the similar rurality need for smaller authorities.

Many people also thought, “We are going through a pandemic, what a stupid time to be rearranging the deckchairs.” If there is a need for local government reorganisation they thought that surely now was not the time to do it. We are where we are, and we will make a success of it—we are determined to do. These are important amendments, because they remind us again that we need to scrutinise the motivation behind the Government’s proposals. Who are these proposals for? The Government are minded to reorganise local government to bring in new CCAs, Mayors and all the rest of it, but unless we are clear that the public want those changes and the Government are responding to that, it is yet more evidence that this approach to local government reorganisation is about fixing Whitehall’s desire for control and convenience, rather than about listening to local people anywhere in the country.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O’Brien
- Hansard - -

We discussed in a previous sitting the new combined county authority model and the associated consultation requirements. At that time, I set out our commitment to ensuring that whenever a CCA is established, its boundaries change or, if it is being abolished, that the local public are consulted on the proposal.

Clauses 42 to 45 set out the requirements, including public consultation, associated with establishing, changing or dissolving a CCA. They include the preconditions for any regulations with those effects to be made. One such condition is for the area or CCA to undertake a public consultation on the proposal to establish, amend or dissolve a CCA. A summary of the consultation responses must be submitted to the Secretary of State alongside the proposal, and the decision to submit it must be taken at CCA or council meetings, which are held publicly. As such, that summary of consultation results will be publicly available.

Another condition is the specific duty on the Secretary of State to consider whether, prior to making regulations, further public consultation is needed. Indeed, the absence of a public response to an earlier consultation might give rise to further consultation—that addresses the point made by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale. If the Secretary of State makes such regulations, they must publish an explanatory memorandum setting out the results of the public consultation. As a result, although we totally agree with the sentiment behind the amendments, they do not add anything to the requirements that are already provided for, and I hope that they will be withdrawn.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I appreciate the contributions that have been made by hon. Members. The points about accountability were absolutely right. We have seen a reorganisation of local government in North Yorkshire, and the districts were not supportive of it and felt that it was very much imposed from the centre. Being able to see the rationale and the thinking is important, and that is what these simple amendments would allow. I am happy to withdraw the amendment for now, but I reserve the right to bring it back at a later stage. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 42 ordered to stand part of the Bill

Clause 43

Requirements in connection with establishment of CCA

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move amendment 40, in clause 43, page 39, line 23, at end insert—

“(5A) When the Secretary of State makes regulations under this section they must publish an accompanying statement stating—

(a) whether or not the CCA has access to the fullest conferred powers, and

(b) if not, the reasons why not.”

I will be brief, because this is a counterpart conversation to discussions that we have had before. The amendment would enhance the clause by putting in a requirement to report on whether a combined county authority has access to the fullest conferred powers, and if not, an explanation for why. That would help the Government to maintain their stance in the White Paper, in which they seemed to want to offer such measures by 2030. It would perhaps be a positive step if we did that a little quicker.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O’Brien
- Hansard - -

The amendment is not appropriate for two main reasons. First, it uses the term “fullest conferred powers”, which is undefinable and incalculable. Our devolution framework does not provide a minimum offer, and our local leadership mission and desire to deepen devolution mean there is no upper limit to the conferral of powers, nor should we seek to impose one.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

On a point of order, Sir Mark. Could the Minister speak a bit slower? I do not know whether it is the acoustics in the room, but I am finding it quite difficult to hear what he is saying.

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Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O’Brien
- Hansard - -

Are some people finding this not thrilling? That is absolutely outrageous—we are getting to the really exciting bits. I will try to enunciate better. It is perfectly reasonable that the hon. Lady asks me to do so.

It will be appropriate for different CCAs to have different functions due to the different circumstances and priorities in their areas. We have had that same argument a number of times in Committee. Whatever functions are to be conferred will be done by regulations, which will be considered by Parliament and cannot be made without parliamentary approval. In considering the regulations, to rehearse some of the points already made, Parliament will have an explanatory memorandum and other explanatory documents explaining why the powers are conferred, the views of the consultees and how the conferral meets the statutory test of improving economic, social and environmental wellbeing.

I hope that given those explanations, the hon. Member will withdraw the amendment.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. I got a little more than I bargained for. I admire the Minister’s characterisation of the Government’s devolution agenda as “incalculable”. I have some doubts about that. I argue that the Minister has set out quite defined and calculable strata in the White Paper, so I am slightly surprised that it would be impossible to know whether a combined county authority had the maximum powers. That is possibly a point of difference. We are in the strange position that our alignment with the White Paper is greater than the Government’s, but I am sure that point will come up again. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 43 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 44 and 45 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 46

General power of CCA

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

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Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I wonder if I could crowbar something in? Within the combined county authorities there will be housing powers. There is reference of course to a lack of borrowing powers, and I want to push back on that. On both sides of the House, we often talk about the chronic need to build more affordable and social rented homes. Many councils retain ownership of council housing, and I was pleased that one of the upsides of the new authority in Westmorland and Furness is that, because Barrow never got rid of its council houses, our new authority will have a council housing department. That is really positive.

I know that there are fingers on the public sector borrowing requirement, and there are reasons why the Government are reluctant to give authorities’ council housing departments the ability to borrow in order to build the homes we need, but that is clearly wrong. If the Government want to empower local communities to build the houses we desperately need, they are going to have to give housing authorities the power to borrow to build them.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien
- Hansard - -

In general, the hon. Gentleman’s question takes us a bit beyond the scope of the clause. However, the narrower part of it, which connects up with the good question put by the hon. Member for Nottingham North, gives me an opportunity to explain what the clause does and does not do.

The clause does not give a combined county authority unbridled power. It gives it the power necessary to do anything it considers appropriate for the purposes of carrying out any of its functions—its “functional purposes” in the law. That might include undertaking a feasibility study as a preliminary stage to an infrastructure project. The clause sets out boundaries and limitations for a combined county authority’s exercise of its powers.

These are therefore broad powers, but there is still a requirement in law that they are related to the carrying out of its actual functions.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 46 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 47 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 48

Power to make provision supplemental to section 46

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move amendment 41, in clause 48, page 43, line 11, leave out paragraphs (b) and (c).

This amendment would prevent the Secretary of State from conferring different general powers on different CCAs.

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Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I add my support to Labour’s approach. I am not fixated on symmetry in terms of what devolution looks like across England, but like the hon. Member for York Central I am obsessed with symmetry of opportunity. The amendments would help to raise the bar and raise the expectations of all authorities so that they can see what powers they can aspire to.

If we do not have something like the amendments, and some communities, because they have a Mayor or for other reasons, are offered greater devolution—it is often more delegation than devolution—more powers and more responsibilities, that is not levelling up. It is quite the opposite: it is building privilege into some parts of the country over other parts of the country, and institutionalising privilege. Broadly speaking, it will be institutionalising privilege for urban and metropolitan areas that have city deals, Mayors and the highest levels of devolution and delegation of responsibility. Not allowing all parts of the country to opt in to having the greatest level of devolved powers, should they so choose, is a recipe for creating the need for a different kind of levelling up some time not very far in the future.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien
- Hansard - -

This is indeed a continuation of the debate we have been having over several days now. We have stated our belief that one-size-fits-all arrangements of the type provided for by amendment 41 are antithetical to different areas having different functions and progressing at different speeds.

The effect of amendment 41 would be that, regardless of the functions conferred on different CCAs, unless the CCA has had conferred on it the broader general power of competence under clause 49, the conditions imposed on what can be done in pursuit of those functions will have to be the same. That would be an overly rigid approach, in practice requiring all CCAs to be at the same level before any conditions could be changed. That outcome, however unintentional, would not fit with our area-led and bespoke approach to devolution.

The general power of competence, introduced for local authorities by the Localism Act 2011, would allow a CCA to do anything an individual can do that is not prevented by law. For example, if a CCA does not have housing powers, the general power of competence would enable it to buy a house on the market, but it would not enable it to compulsorily purchase that house.

Amendment 42 would require the offer to all areas, implicit in this clause, to confer the general power of competence, if it is appropriate to their circumstance and if they want it, to be restated wherever it is so conferred. That requirement is unnecessary.

We have been clear that if a good case exists for any power to be conferred to any area as part of a devolution deal, we are open to proposals to do so that are in line with the devolution framework. Further, it could be unhelpful and inappropriate to be required to make an unconditional offer that might not be universally appropriate. To date, only three combined authorities have asked for this to be conferred, which we have done.

Both amendments seek to bind matters that should always be the subject of an individual agreement between the area and the Secretary of State, which Parliament will then have to approve. All variations will be public knowledge and the rationale for them will be subject to parliamentary debate informed by explanatory memorandums.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I was very taken by the Minister’s comments about an area-led process. It does not feel like this is area-led; it feels Secretary of State-led—the Secretary of State will determine what the powers will be. Would the Minister consider an amendment that facilitated a more area-led approach at a later stage of the Bill? If there were a more à la carte opportunity and authorities were ready to take on greater powers and responsibilities, could they assume those powers, as opposed to having to renegotiate a deal, which could be quite a bureaucratic process? They could access what other authorities have accessed, in a timely way. Would that be a suitable amendment to the Bill that was palatable to the Government as we move forward?

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien
- Hansard - -

Without wishing to repeat all the arguments we have been making over the last several days, I would argue that this is the à la carte approach. We are resisting a one-size-fits-all approach in which, if a power is offered to one area, it must be offered to every single area, and in which people can move only at the speed of the slowest. For all the reasons I have already set out, we will continue to resist that approach.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I do not think this is about a one-size-fits-all approach by any means. It is recognition that different authorities will be—

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Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Thank you, Sir Mark. I was building my case, but I appreciate your guidance. I simply seek a different mechanism by which authorities could take on greater responsibilities, because it seems it is either full negotiation or a denial of being able to pick to expand. I wonder whether there is a halfway house that could be palatable to the Minister.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien
- Hansard - -

As Members will have noticed from us having done six or seven devolution deals to continue to deepen deals we have agreed, and from the fact that we are working on deepening the devolution deals for the West Midlands and Greater Manchester Combined Authorities, we are prepared to go further all the time. That brings me to the end of my remarks.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Rachel Maskell, do you wish to respond?

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Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien
- Hansard - -

I will have to write to the hon. Gentleman. Clauses 50 to 54 are basically technical provisions needed to make the CCA model work. Clause 50 grants the Secretary of State the power to make incidental, consequential, transitional or supplementary provision in support of regulations made under this chapter. I am happy to set out some examples for him in slow time.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 50 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 51 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 52

Guidance

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move amendment 43, in clause 52, page 45, line 16, leave out “may” and insert—

“must, within 6 months of the day on which this Act is passed,”.

This amendment would require the Secretary of State to produce guidance on the establishment and operation of CCAs within 6 months of this Act receiving Royal Assent.

We are about to reach the end of chapter 1 of part 2, which relates to the formulation and mechanics of combined county authorities. Much of what will pass in the rest of part 2 is consequential and not much to debate, so this will be the last opportunity to make some points. I did not want to miss that opportunity, particularly on guidance.

The discussions we have had, and the mechanics of the organisations as laid out by the Minister, show that the CCAs are fiddly entities. There is much to be established, with Mayors, deputies, changing geographies, changing names, police functions, fire functions and much more. As detailed in the White Paper, at least 10 places are foreseen as potential partners for combined county authorities, so there is likely much to be understood in guidance.

I hope that my amendment is not necessary. It changes the provision allowing the Secretary of State to give guidance to one compelling them to give guidance. I hope that the Minister will tell us that the intention is to have guidance, because clearly there will be a need. I have suggested “within 6 months” of Royal Assent. That is not something to fall out over, but I am keen for a commitment that guidance will follow and to know when it might do so.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien
- Hansard - -

The clause grants the Secretary of State the power to issue written guidance about anything that could be done under or by virtue of chapter 1 of the Bill by a combined county authority, combined authority, county council, district council or integrated transport authority. The relevant authority must have regard to any guidance given in exercising any function under this chapter.

The amendment, as we understand its intent, is misplaced. The reference to guidance in the clause relates to the requirement for an authority to have regard to the guidance in exercising a function conferred or imposed by virtue of chapter 1. I can undertake that areas wishing to establish a CCA will be made familiar with the processes required of them during their devolution deal negotiation. We will help them to do all those things. Officials will continue to work closely with area officials to ensure the successful implementation of deals and the establishment of CCAs.

The Secretary of State has no immediate plans to issue guidance. The ability to do so via this clause provides maximum flexibility should the issuing of such guidance ever be appropriate. I hope that reassures hon. Members.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am a little surprised that the intention is to provide guidance in a kind of ad hoc manner directly from officials to area officials. It would seem to me valuable for that to be a common and publicly shared thing, not least so that the public can understand it and get the sense that these processes are being done transparently, rather than in phone calls that they do not have access to. I am a bit surprised by that. I will not labour the point by pressing for a Division, but perhaps the Minister will reflect on it. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 52 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 53 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 4 agreed to.

Clauses 54 to 70 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 71

Capital finance risk management

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

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Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien
- Hansard - -

The Government recognise the importance of prudential borrowing and local capital investment for economic growth, improved public services, and meeting local priorities such as housing delivery. That is why we need a robust system that supports the benefits of local decision making and allows for sensible investment, but also that safeguards taxpayers’ money and protects the local government finance system.

In recent years, a small minority of local authorities have taken excessive risks with taxpayers’ money: they have become too indebted, or have made investments that have proved too risky. To give some examples, local authorities have engaged in investment activities in markets they know nothing about, such as energy companies, and lost tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money. Some have not had the governance structures in place that would enable them to make, or assure themselves of, investment and borrowing decisions. Some have borrowed up to £1 billion when they have only had a core spending power of just over £10 million, and others have not set aside funds to pay off their debt when it becomes due. The National Audit Office reported that 20.8% of local authorities’ property acquisitions in the period 2016-17 to 2018-19 were outside of their region. In summary, there have been a number of problematic activities, which clause 71 seeks to address. The Government have been consistent and clear in their messaging that they will take action to address such activities as needed.

The National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee have reported on the risks to the financial system, and the need for urgent action to address them. The Government are making changes to the capital system to support good decision making and constrain risk, but they must also have the powers to directly address excessive risk where necessary and appropriate. The changes will provide a flexible range of interventions for the Government to investigate and remediate issues where capital practices have placed financial sustainability at risk.

To be clear, the Government have no intention of restricting the activities of local authorities that operate responsibly. We are clear that measures must be as targeted and proportionate as possible to protect local services and taxpayers, while letting the Government mandate remedial actions where needed.

However, as the examples I have given show, the need for action is pretty clear. The metrics and thresholds that will underpin the new powers will be set in regulations, as the hon. Member for Nottingham North said, and we will of course engage with sector experts and local authorities and consult widely as we develop those regulations to ensure they are fit for purpose. That is exactly our intention, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, and it is why I hope the Committee will support the clause.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to the Minister for his answer, and for the oblique references he included in it—there was a well left Easter egg, which I was able to find very easily. In return, I might say—equally obliquely—that if such local authorities had not been more than £60 million worse off in real terms over the past four years, some of those decisions might not have been made. I also say that such concerns have not stopped Ministers in the Department, or indeed the Minister himself, from seeking to bestow more powers and resources on those local authorities, so there must be some limit to the concern that the Minister would have in such cases, were they to occur. I would also suggest that significant mechanisms are already in place, as the Minister has hinted at and as I know very well myself.

However, the Minister has given a generous assurance, one that will be welcomed by the sector, which will be very keen to take part in that process. On that basis, we are happy to support the clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 71 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 72

Long-term empty dwellings: England

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Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell
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I rise to support amendments 61, 62 and 63 and speak to amendments 78 and 81. The rural economy has been eloquently described, but I want to talk about my city of York, which is a centre for visitors—we had 8 million pre-pandemic and I am sure we will climb back up to that number again.

The staycation economy has driven a new clientele into our city. In what we are calling an “extraction economy”, investors from London and the south-east are purchasing properties as second homes—whether for private or Airbnb use. Already we can see the inequality building. What is happening is not levelling up. Investors are extracting not only properties from people in my city but the money they get from the properties, which goes back to London and the south-east.

We are left all the poorer, and that means that many in my community are without any housing whatever. In fact, people have been going door to door offering cash to residents in social housing. They say that if the residents purchase their homes under right to buy, they will buy the house from them. I have heard stories of people paying up to £70,000 more for a property that is then used in the investment economy, rather than for people in our city.

The housing crisis could be controlled if the Government put curbs on such activity and ensured that properties were not only developed—we will come to that—but were available for people locally. I have the same challenge to the local economy that we have already heard about in this debate. The hospitality, retail and tourism industry is so strong in York that we do not have enough people to work in it—not least because the pay is low. The overpricing of properties is heating up the market and then pushing people out. |On top of that, there is the problem of the reduction in available stock.

The issue also impacts our public services. We cannot get the social care staff or recruit to our NHS because there is nowhere to live. Families and young couples trying to buy their first home save up for their mortgage, only for that opportunity to be snatched by someone sweeping in and buying up the property. They are having to save up more and more but never realise their aspiration of owning a home.

We are beyond a crisis point: this issue is impacting on the economy, pushing families away, gobbling up residential housing for purposes for which it was not developed in the first place, and destroying communities and the infrastructure. People can now walk down streets in York where four, five or six properties are either second homes or holiday lets, and that, of course, is breaking up the community.

The worst situations that I am hearing about are of families pushed out of the city by section 21 notices. They have to take their children out of school and go to live miles away. What is happening across our communities is really destructive, so we need to put the right deterrents in place. We may have to go further than even these amendments are calling for to try to fix the challenge.

I would argue that a council tax rise of 200% or 300% in the first instance is a modest measure. Wales is the first place to have introduced this kind of rise in council tax, but it still has not been sufficient to deter people from purchasing second homes in Wales. Often the purchasers are asset-rich people who saved a lot of money during the pandemic, so having to pay an additional £3,000 or £4,000 a year is something they build into their costings. Those who go into other sorts of property—for example, leasehold property—are already paying thousands of pounds a year in management costs for the right to live in the property, so actually these are small measures compared with the excesses and headroom that the purchasers of these properties are expecting. The measures will provide resources for local government, for which this is a win-win—both getting the money in and creating a sufficient deterrent. That is why we should give local authorities the powers to decide, should they have need, to impose the additional levy on second homes and ensure that it works for their community. Of course, we would argue that local authorities do not have to do that, but having the option available is important.

Amendment 78 is about how to better determine the duration of occupancy that applies, taking it down from one year to six months. The housing market is moving fast at the moment, so this option should be considered as a way to address the issue far faster, especially in properties that are not primary residences, and to benefit the community by deterring the purchase of second homes. Pacing it, making the increased council tax not mandatory but optional, is really important. Shortening the timescale is appropriate.

Clauses 72 and 73 provide definitions around empty properties. We know that there has been some latitude in how that has worked for businesses that have emptied their property to avoid business rates, but it also works for residential dwellings. It is important that we maximise the opportunity to bring the properties forward and implement the curbs and protections needed in the local area.

Amendment 81 would enable a billing authority to make its determination in six months, rather than a year, so that the authority could see the financial award in-year. That will be important to balancing finances while giving local authorities enough revenue to inspect the properties to determine whether they are occupied or unoccupied, which will enable them to ensure that they get the right levy on the properties to pay the additional council tax for which the amendments call.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien
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I am sympathetic to many of the points made by Opposition Members. The Bill tightens the tax treatment of empty second homes to free up those homes for use by the community. The question is one of balance, of course.

Broadly speaking, the amendments would make the premium paid on second or empty homes more punitive. I absolutely understand the issues that the amendments raise, but they risk unintended consequences for our communities. For both second and empty homes, the amendments would shorten the time before a premium could be applied, and increase or bring forward the maximum that the council could choose to impose. We all want homes to make a positive contribution to the community, but we need to get the balance right between dissuading behaviours that none of us want to see and accidentally catching legitimate uses of properties that benefit communities. The Government believe that homeowners should have sufficient time to take steps to bring an empty property back into use. There is no hard and fast rule for calculating that period, but our judgment is that 12 months gets that balance right. A reduction to six months, as proposed by the hon. Member for Nottingham North, would create a number of challenges where there are very good reasons for a property being empty for a reasonable period, such as substantial refurbishment or a delayed sale. Often, family life is complicated, hence our judgment that 12 months gets the balance right.

For the same reason, an empty property has different impacts on the local community, depending on why and for how long it has been out of use. The Government believe it is appropriate to allow councils to increase the council tax premium in stages that reflect the length of time a property has been left empty, rather than imposing it immediately at the six-month point. We understand and sympathise with the point that a high concentration of second homes can hollow out communities, but they can also benefit local economies and tourism, allowing people to work in and contribute to the local economy and return to a family home in another part of the country.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell
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Will the Minister give way?

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O’Brien
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I will give way in a moment, but I will make some progress first. We have already introduced a higher level of stamp duty for the purchase of second homes, and the Bill could double the council tax bill for those properties, providing additional council tax income for councils to invest in local services and communities. We are investing £11.5 billion in the affordable homes programme, delivering up to 180,000 affordable homes. The Bill includes provision for the Secretary of State to adjust the level of the second homes premium in the future, but we need to see the impact and assess the evidence before considering different arrangements in the council tax system.

Wales has been mentioned a couple of times. So far, only three authorities in Wales are using the 100% premium, and the 300% premium will start only next spring. The hon. Member for York Central said that it was not a sufficient deterrent to stop purchases. The truth is that we do not yet know that because it has not come into effect. We do not know how many authorities will use it and what its effects will be. She talked about these being small measures, but it is useful to talk about what it means in cash terms—pounds, shillings and pence. If, in a place like North Norfolk, we took a typical council tax band D property at roughly £2,000, going to a 300% second homes premium would mean a council tax bill each year of £8,120. In Scarborough, it would mean a bill of £8,386. In South Lakeland, it would be £8,242, and somewhere like Dorset it would mean an annual bill of £9,160. These are not trivial sums of money, and it is right for us to consider the impact of the initial measures of the 100% precept before we decide to go further.

Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron
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We are contemplating radical measures, and we are dealing with a catastrophe. We are doing our very best—surely we should be—to get the stable door shut before all the horses bolt, and if we ponder and contemplate our navels any longer, there will no horses—no community—left whatever. The problem will have solved itself by fulfilling the terrible prophesy of where I fear we are heading. If the Minister is taking this incremental, cautious approach, might he consider letting national parks be the pilots? I have asked both the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District national parks. They are both up for it. They would bite his hand off if he offered them the opportunity through their constituent local authorities to double or triple council tax on second homes just within their own boundaries.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O’Brien
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My fellow Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey, is doing roundtables to explore the different possibilities on that point. I am sympathetic to what the hon. Gentleman says about the scale of the problem. We are seized of it, and there are multiple things we are looking at to tackle it. On the numbers I read out, if someone has a £9,000 council tax bill for a band D property—never mind an expensive fancy property—that is a non-trivial sum of money. That is quite a lot of money for a band D property.

Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron
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Brilliant.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O’Brien
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The hon. Gentleman says, “brilliant”, but the people who made a long-term commitment to those communities and who face a £9,000 tax bill would be unlikely to have the same reaction. However, as the hon. Gentleman says, they are one local stakeholder, and there are others as well.

However, as the hon. Gentleman says, they are one local stakeholder, and there are others as well. Our argument, which I think he understands, is that although we will have the powers in the Bill to go further and to do the 300%—we will not need to legislate again—it is sensible to look at the effects of things before making further adjustments. [Interruption.] I think he is keen to speak before I turn to amendment 63.

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Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron
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I simply want to say that a large sum of money would act as a disincentive, and given the crisis that it would tackle, it is worth considering; it is worth looking at pilots to do this in the first place.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien
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I think the hon. Gentleman has in a sense answered his own question, in so far as there are indeed multiple policy tools that we can use to tackle something that we regard as a very serious issue. We are absolutely seized of the fact that, in particular parts of the country, there are hotspots that need action.

I think hon. Members have heard the argument that I have set out. On this issue, we will have the power to go further in the Bill—even further than we are already going, which is pretty far—but we would like to see the evidence and make our plans in the light of evidence, rather than simply jump to that now, given the large sums of money involved.

Turning to amendment 63—

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell
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Will the Minister give way on that point?

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien
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I will just get on to amendment 63 first. Second homes are furnished properties for domestic use by someone who has their main home elsewhere. Owners may occasionally let that property out, but second homes are primarily for personal use. I think I understand what the hon. Member for Nottingham North is trying to get at with these amendments—he is thinking, I think, of some of the changes to use classes, and things like that, which happened in Wales. Again, that is something that we are actively looking at. It is a serious thing to look at.

On this amendment, there is a blurring of two different things. The hon. Member is bringing in questions about how long a second home can be let out before it should be treated as a business. He will be aware that, at present, where an owner intends to let their property out for short periods, totalling at least 140 days in the coming year, it will generally be treated as a holiday let and liable for non-domestic rates. Properties liable for non-domestic rates would not be in the scope of the second homes council tax premium. I therefore think there was a blurring of those two different things.

Alternatively, the hon. Member may be seeking to increase the thresholds under which a property is treated as a holiday let. Following consultation, the Government have recently taken action to strengthen those thresholds. From April 2023, holiday lets must have been rented out for at least 70 days in the previous year, on top of being advertised for 140 days, to be liable for non-domestic rates. The amendment does not change that, so I am not sure that it has the effect the that the hon. Gentleman wishes.

Additionally, the recent consultation on a similar proposal in Wales demonstrated that there is a real risk that genuine self-catering businesses, making an important contribution to local economies, may not be able to meet the new higher thresholds. I am sure that is something none of us would wish to see.

Broadly, the new rules coming into force in April in England strike a balance between requiring proof of letting and marketing and protecting genuine businesses in a variety of different circumstances. There are, of course, a wide variety of circumstances. We are providing for holiday lets operating in a range of different circumstances, not just those in the most popular tourist destinations. Our rules also provide for new businesses—those just getting going—rural lets, and those with more restricted letting seasons, while protecting the system against possible abuse. We will of course keep those thresholds under review, but we should understand the impact of the forthcoming changes before we take any further action.

To summarise, we are sympathetic to many of the points that have been made and we are taking action in this Bill on many of those points. On some of the points, we will have the powers to go further, but before doing that we will want to look at the evidence. On other issues, although we are looking at the boundaries between the short-term let and the second home, we think there are probably different and better ways to get into those subjects than the amendments. We therefore hope that the amendment will be withdrawn, notwithstanding the fact that we are actively looking at many of those issues.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am sorry that the Minister did not take my interventions, because I had some points to make in response to his speech. First, on the assumption that the properties used as second homes are in band D, many are in band B, and therefore will be paying £1,440 in council tax. The sums he talks about could be about half, if not more.

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Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien
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The hon. Lady should recognise that that is symmetrical—some of the properties will above band D; therefore the numbers will be much higher even than the £8,000 to £9,000 figures I have been quoting.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am talking about the impact that is having on my city of York. Many of those properties are in band B—they are smaller properties that people purchase because available properties are few and far between. Even if it was band D, we are only talking about £1,852.45 council tax. It will vary across the country, and that is why giving more powers to local authorities to make those choices is important. The financial deterrent in York will not be there with 100% council tax. As a result, those properties will continue to be purchased and the measures will have little impact. That is why it is important that the Minister has an understanding of the breadth of challenges faced in different communities.

I am looking forward to the Housing Minister coming to York for a roundtable to look at the Airbnb situation. We have specific issues and it is about the pace with which they are occurring, in a holiday destination. That is why the pilot should not just be in rural areas but in cities that are holiday destinations, because it is having a massive impact. There needs to be a bit more reality in the Government’s analysis.

The other point that I wanted to take up with the Minister in an intervention was the benefit to tourism. I would like to see the evidence of that, and to know the basis on which he made that statement. In York we now have an unregulated tourism market, versus a regulated tourism market of the traditional B&Bs and guesthouses that are losing trade at such a rate that they are going out of business. That is having a negative and incredibly destructive impact on our tourism industry. These measures will not provide sufficient deterrence against the impact on our city.

I appreciate that the Minister’s analysis may be in particular areas of the country, but it will not touch our city. That is why I urge him to carry out more research and to understand the different impacts on different communities in the country. We need to ensure that my local authority has the ability to put the right deterrent in place at the right level in order to deter this extraction economy that is, bit by bit, destroying the context and fabric of our city, our industries and people and families. For that reason, I urge the Minister to reconsider.

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill (Seventh sitting)

Neil O'Brien Excerpts
Thursday 30th June 2022

(1 month, 2 weeks ago)

Public Bill Committees
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We want communities to be involved in their own destiny before there is any ink on the paper. That consultation and working through the stage of each process to bring the CCAs together is also important. That is why we want that process to be embedded in the Bill.

We have recently been through a local government reorganisation in North Yorkshire, and that has been quite a painful process for many of the district councils as they have come together to form the new North Yorkshire County Council. York was part of the initial consultation and because we had a voice, we were able to stake our claim not to be brought into that authority. We argued that we had our own identity, going back to King John and the charter that established York as a city. If we had lost that identity, we would have lost a significant place on the global stage. The original proposal was for York to disappear and to be replaced by a North Yorkshire East and North Yorkshire West model. If the identity of such a significant city had disappeared, there would have been no heart to Yorkshire, nor any identity. That is why I am glad that we had proper consultation about that process, and that is why it must be replicated in this legislation.

To Labour, the people’s voice really matters, and we want to see people’s voices coming through so that they are involved. Nothing in a Government agency should be superior to those we represent. I trust that the Government will reconsider the amendments and see the opportunity that they present to them, if not to the people.

Neil O'Brien Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (Neil O'Brien)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I echo the comments from those on the Opposition Front Bench about the quality of the debate on the first day of line-by-line scrutiny. I hope to continue that tenor and interesting dialogue.

We completely agree with much of what Opposition Members have said, which is why we have provided for exactly what they want in the Bill. Let me expand on that. In the levelling up White Paper, we announced a new institution that we believe can provide the strong leadership and effective and coherent collaboration needed for a strong devolution deal in certain circumstances. This new institution is the new combined county authority model, referred to in the Bill as a CCA.

As Opposition Members have said, the appropriate circumstances for that model is where a county deal covers an area with two or more upper tier local authorities. Those upper tier local authorities will be the constituent members of the CCA. Although we have not yet of course established any combined county authorities, because we are legislating for them here, we need to look to the future, as Opposition Members have said, and anticipate a scenario where an established CCA wishes to change its boundary. Since there is no benefit in a shell institution existing in perpetuity, it is only right that the legislation provides for such an institution to be abolished.

Wherever a CCA is planned to be established, its boundaries changed, or is to be abolished, we absolutely want to see the local public being consulted on the proposal, but the amendments are unnecessary, because the requirement for a consultation on a proposal to establish, amend or abolish a CCA is already provided for in clauses 42(4)(a) and (b), and 44(3)(a) and (b). Those provide an opportunity for local residents, businesses, organisations and other key stakeholders to have a say on the proposal, exactly as my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley pointed out. A summary of the consultation results must be submitted to the Secretary of State alongside the proposal and have regard taken of it.

There is a further safeguard in clauses 43 and 45, which provide that the Secretary of State has to undertake a consultation before creating, amending the boundary of, or abolishing a CCA, unless there has already been a consultation in the affected areas and further such consultation would be unnecessary. That will ensure that there has been sufficient public involvement in the consideration of whether it is appropriate to establish, change the area of or abolish a CCA. As such, I hope that I have given sufficient reassurance that the amendments would be purely duplicative for the hon. Members to withdraw them.

To touch on a specific point, the hon. Member for Nottingham North talked about initiators of devolution at the centre, we are the initiators of the devolution process in one sense. However, we are not the initiators of devolution deals for particular places. Ahead of the levelling-up White Paper, we called for expressions of interest, and we only move forward—we can only move forward—with a devolution deal if it has the support of locally elected leaders. In that sense, we are not the initiators; it takes two to tango, and that is the nature of devolution. In this Bill, it comes with what I hope for Opposition Members is sufficient requirement to engage in deep public consultation, and for that consultation to be listened to properly, as said by various people.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful for colleagues’ contributions. They were good ones. Briefly, the example given by the spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, was a salutary tale. Again, there is the idea that something so significant might be engaged in by only 1% of the population; if that is where we end up with these structures in future, it would be really problematic and almost undermine their ability to perform from the outset.

On the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for York Central, I have not quite found the right moment in the debate to talk about integrated care systems, but that is a good example of another very significant body that will have to engage with the county combined authorities in some way. The footprints do not sit elegantly, and they do not in life—I understand that. It is easy in countries such as the US perhaps, where they have defined, existing state borders—okay, everything can fit elegantly around that, but it can still get confusing at the margins.

There is a challenge there, but I think that it gives greater strength to the case for public involvement, rather than saying we ought to sit here with a map and carve things up. The people who know that best and how the sensible natural geographies work are the general public. The answers lie there, and it happens naturally—people know at what point they start to look, say, northwards to the hospitals in the north of the county, rather than to the one in the south, as happens in Nottinghamshire. That is a strong case for greater public involvement.

I am, however, reassured by what the Minister said about the provisions in clause 42(4)(a) and so on—the hon. Member for Keighley mentioned them, too. The reason for the separate amendment was my concern for the process to be one that happened not as an ABC condition right at the beginning, but as a co-equivalent term of engagement. Clearly, from what the Minister said, the intent is not to come alongside a proposal: “Have you brought your consultation with you? Right, that is ticked, therefore it is done.” On that basis, I will not press my amendment to a Division.

I will finish on the point the Minister made about initiating devolution. I am not sure that I quite agree with what he said. First, of course the centre is the initiator, in the sense that we could not have these bodies if we did not have the Bill, and we could not have the Bill if a Minister of the Crown had not presented it—so the centre is the initiator in that sense.

Also, I love the idea that the Government’s view is that local communities of a natural geography would come together to ask for county combined authorities and, most importantly, the powers that come with that, and the Government would respond on the quality of that application, but the White Paper already tells us the 10 areas that the Government are prioritising. That is “initiating” in any sense of the word; those are the areas chosen and the geographies for those areas have been chosen. There is no sense that this is a “come one, come all” process, as the Prime Minister has previously said— come to him or the Minister with ideas and “We will give you the powers you need.” That is not what is in the White Paper—it is very clear who it is who is being called forward. So I challenge the Minister’s point on that, but I am grateful for the comfort he has given on the amendment and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron
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This is important because the suspicion of many people is that this is a back-door way of circumventing district councils. We have been through reorganisations in much of the country, and for those places that have escaped somehow, such as Lancashire for instance, the Bill is a way of making sure that they all behave themselves and come under an aegis of an organisation set up by the Government.

In many cases, there is great value in two-tier authorities. If we believe in devolution, it should be knitted together and initiated from the grass roots and not from Whitehall down. If the CCAs are the building blocks through which levelling up is to be delivered, that must be done on the basis of an accurate analysis of the respective needs and desires of the communities involved. Independence in this context applies to the assessment of the value of the boundaries and the nature of the CCA. That is vital, particularly to put at rest those who may fear that CCAs represent a back-door way of scrubbing out the powers and relevance of district councils, even parish councils. I hope that the Government appreciate that fear and seek to address it.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien
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In my earlier comments, I set out the CCA model and talked about the rationale for it. Some areas that we are discussing a devolution deal with are considering adopting that CCA model. But even with those first areas, it is highly unlikely that the deals will be negotiated, announced and implemented via secondary legislation, and CCAs established and up and running within the 12-month period of this Bill receiving Royal Assent. That would render the report’s evaluation no different in 12 months’ time from today.

Opposition Members rightly want to have a debate in Committee about the CCA model. I have said a bit in our previous sessions about why we are doing it, but let us take the discussion a bit further. The purpose of the CCA model is to make devolution practically possible in two-tier areas without requiring unitarisation. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale talked about districts coming under the aegis of a CCA, but that is not quite right. It could easily be that only top-tier authority powers are devolved to the top-tier authorities in a CCA. If they do not want to, the districts may choose not to take part. They are not having their powers or responsibilities changed, but the difference is that they are not able to veto their neighbours from getting devolution or making progress.

I am perfectly happy to stand here and make an argument about fairness, because I do not think it is fair that one district can veto progress for a large number of neighbouring districts and boroughs for top-tier authorities, particularly if it is not being forced to do anything, as is the case under the Bill. It is simply unfair for such a district to be able to stop their neighbours going ahead.

The Opposition sort of alluded to the practical reality in that although I would not rule further mayoral combined authorities in the future, in a lot of a country that currently does not have a devolution deal, the CCA model will be the practical way of delivering that. In practice, if we do not have that model, we will just not make progress. I can think of one area that we currently discussing that has a very, very large number of district councils, and it is exceedingly unlikely that we would be able to agree a sensible agreement if every single one of them were given a veto.

In a sense, the amendment is to push us, not unreasonably, to talk about the whether the CCA model is the right one. The proposed evaluation is in one sense called for so that we can now discuss whether this is the right thing or not. I think we have been clear. There is no back door. I am standing here telling Members why we are doing it right now and what it does and does not mean. We will discuss some of the nuances when we consider further clauses, and we absolutely have to get that right. However, the amendment and the evaluation proposed would essentially not add anything to our conversation this morning, whether one believes that the CCA model and the removal of that veto is right or not. That is why I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I share a lot of the views expressed by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale about districts, which we will have the opportunity to discuss further in the debates on future amendments. I also agree with what he said about parishes. I hope the Bill is the single biggest step forward for parish and town councils in terms of the community powers that they can exercise, closest to the lowest possible level, to give communities a real say in what happens in their area. The Bill does not currently say that but we will seek to add it in due course.

I have a number of points to make about what the Minister said. I appreciate his candour, which reflects well, as it would be easy for him to obfuscate. I take him at his word, but I am surprised that there is a sense that within a year of the Bill achieving Royal Assent, which itself is some months away and probably nearer to Christmas, we will not have had any future deals agreed under these provisions. That genuinely surprises me, and I suspect it will surprise quite a few people who are currently negotiating such deals. I understand that the Minister has May 2024 in mind for elections; that timescale does not give us an awful lot of time, which poses its own desirability problems.

I disagreed with the Minister’s point that rather than this being about circumventing districts it is about making combined authorities possible without requiring unitarisation; that is not quite right. Deals have been made that involved district councils and they did not require unitarisation; they required consensus and understanding. I do not think it follows that it is either what is in the Bill or unitarisation, which leads to the point about districts not losing power. We will test that later, but I am glad that the Minister has put that on the record because it is important.

The Minister made a point about fairness, which I understand. He alluded to an example in which a deal with perhaps 15, 18 or 20 partners could not go ahead because one partner was able to say no to the whole process; I agree with him that that is probably not a good thing. Possibly, that is a point about fairness, but there would be other ways around it, such as to allow districts to exit a process and others to carry on. Again, there are benefits and disbenefits to that. Rather than a single district being able to veto the whole process, it could be done by a super-majority, given the significant nature of the decision.

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Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O’Brien
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The hon. Gentleman has touched on a really important point. He has encapsulated in a very neat way what we are trying to establish here, which is the ability of districts to participate if they want to and not to if they do not want to.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to the Minister, but I do not think that will be the effect of the legislation. The reality is that a combined authority area can be formed for the area that includes the district council, whether it wants that or not. Indeed, the district council will have limited say. I do not want to prejudge the discussion we will have when we come to clause 16. It is welcome that the Minister has nailed his colours to the mast, but the reality is other mechanisms could have been chosen. The Government have chosen this mechanism, so it is right that we probe it. We have been able to do that and, as I am at risk of moving ahead of the discussion, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 8

Constitutional arrangements

--- Later in debate ---
Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I share my hon. Friend’s view. That point was made very clearly in Tracy Brabin’s evidence. Having said that we in this place have an interest in constitutions and the rules of the game, my strong belief, as someone who wants to see change happen in my community and to see my community improve in a vast range of areas, is that form should follow function. What are we trying to get out of these bodies? The structures—the bodies and committees that need to be in place—should then flow from that. I strongly believe that the people best able to decide that will be those who operate locally in the combined authorities.

The Government have to set the broader parameters, but I am hoping to hear from the Minister that those are likely to be de minimis involvement and that, instead, they will positively cut the link and allow county combined authorities to drive action forward without worrying about that tap on the shoulder telling them that even though they said they wanted to do that, they cannot.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O’Brien
- Hansard - -

In our response to this amendment, it is crucial that we hold in our minds the distinction between local standing orders for combined authorities on the one hand and the statutory instrument setting out things such as voting arrangements on the other. It is essential for the stability and the establishment of combined authorities that things such as voting rights can be set out in secondary legislation to ensure a stable institution. Of course, the CCA can set out its own local constitution by itself, but those two things are very different.

We have talked already about the county combined authority model; clause 8 is vital to permit the effective operation of a CCA. Before making regulations under this section, the Secretary of State needs the consent of the constituent councils and, where it already exists, the CCA. In other words, the arrangements cannot be imposed against the local area’s will.

To answer the point made by the hon. Member for Nottingham North, the clause closely mirrors the provision for combined authorities, which has supported the establishment of 10 combined authorities, each approved by Parliament. In this instance, “constitutional arrangements” means the fundamental working mechanisms of the CCA, including things such as its constituent membership and voting powers. It is vital that those things are set out in secondary legislation and approved by Parliament. That ensures that CCAs are stable institutions with good governance, in line with agreed devolution deals. It is only right that the core design and operating model of the CCA, such as the constituent membership and the voting arrangements on key decisions, remain in line with the devolution deal agreed by Government and local partners at the outset, with the secondary legislation establishing the CCA being approved by this Parliament.

A CCA can set out its own local constitution or standing orders with additional local working arrangements. It might, for example, set out meeting procedures, committees, sub-committees and joint committees of the CCA. That is done locally, at the right level consistent with our position on localism, and does not require secondary legislation. The Mayor of West Yorkshire pointed out that they were making changes to go from one to three scrutiny committees, which is quite right.

The amendment is really inappropriate and potentially quite dangerous to the devolution process. It is inappropriate because it would allow a CCA to change elements of its constitution that are rightly approved by Parliament and part of the initial devolution deal agreed by all parties locally. It is unnecessary because all the other elements of a constitution can already be changed by the CCA locally. I hope to have given sufficient explanation for why we will ask Members to withdraw amendments 16 and 17.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful for that response. I take slight exception to the idea that the constitutions cannot be imposed without will. Yes, of course, all the members of the county combined authority will have had to have signed up to it—I understand that—but it will presumably be an indispensable part of the wider package, so we would be asking for local areas to turn down possibly many millions of pounds’ worth of funding, plus transport powers, extra housing powers and powers on skills, because they do not like the shape of the constitution. Of course they are not going to do that. I would not characterise that as them entering into it with the freest of free wills.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O’Brien
- Hansard - -

Perhaps it would help if I were to expand a little. If I were a local government leader considering joining a CCA, I would want to know that the key arrangements for it, such as voting arrangements, would be stable over time and could not suddenly be changed by a potentially transient majority of local authority leaders who are members of it. To be honest, if I felt that that could happen to my local authority, I would be wary about signing up to a devolution deal on that basis. That is why certain core functions of these things are rightly set in secondary legislation, while other elements are rightly for local decisions so that they can make arrangements work for them and make things work locally.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to the Minister. I understand that, but I would like to know that local authorities will not fall victim to a one-size-fits-all arrangement. One could argue either way, which is fine.

The Minister’s point about local standing orders has addressed most of my concerns. He said that the arrangements remain in line with the original deal, but that cuts both ways. If he is saying no to local variation but yes to the idea of local standing orders, that must also mean that the Secretary of State will not make such changes. If we start to see variation between those deals, that becomes challenging, but I am getting ahead of the amendment before us. I am grateful for the clarification on local standing orders, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 9

Non-constituent members of a CCA

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Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

This is the third sitting of line-by-line scrutiny and the Minister is yet to accept an amendment, but I have noticed that his tone has been positive and he has engaged with everything that has been put forward, which is very welcome. The tone of debate on all sides has been really positive and constructive. The Government Front Bench has not been dismissive—I am grateful for that; I have been impressed. This amendment seems to be one that he could accept, so I wish he would.

I have a few observations, a couple of which are key. First, it is very important that CCAs, indeed all local authorities, should be engaged and listen to chambers of commerce, trade unions and other community groups. It is vital that they do. There is a slight worry that all this looks a little bit like what happened post the abolition of metropolitan counties in the 1980s, when counties were effectively stitched together afterwards, partly by people who were not elected at all.

The people on the CCAs as non-constituent and associate members may be wonderful people whom we should be listening to, but there is a mechanism for them to become full voting members of the authorities if the elected members choose to give them that right. We are therefore looking at the possibility of having not a version of democratically elected local government, but in essence a quango. I am not sure that we need more quangos; we need more democracy. If devolution is to take place, it needs to take place on the terms of the community to which power has been devolved.

That is part and parcel of the Bill, however, and the Government are quite explicit about this: it is part and parcel of a movement towards devolution and a change in the relationship between Whitehall and the regions, sub-regions and nations of the United Kingdom. It is therefore worth bearing in mind that what we have seen already—the combined authorities, the unitary authorities and potentially now the CCAs—is in effect a scaling up of local government. It might be argued that it is the professionalisation of local government—there are all sorts of ways in which it could be advocated as a positive thing. I have my doubts.

One of the areas I have doubts about is diversity. That is why I think the amendments are important. For example, Cumbria—the centre of the universe, or the centre of the United Kingdom actually: if we draw a line from the Scilly Isles to Shetland, the middle point is at Selside, just north of Kendal, and it is important to say that—had something in the region of 300 to 350 elected members on the two-tier local authorities pre-reorganisation, and roughly 100 post reorganisation. Some people might say, “Good; that’s saving money” or, “Fewer politicians; that’s a good thing,” but what it actually means is that those people who are part-time politicians—most have other lives and other responsibilities—have to do three times more work.

The observation from across the country, not just in Cumbria, is that when we do that, we push out certain groups of people—we limit the number of people who are able to take part in local government. It therefore tends to be older people, with time on their hands, and the men who stay behind. Anecdotally, looking at the people who have chosen not to put themselves forward to the new unitary authority, they are principally people with caring and childcare responsibilities, people in full-time work, and more women than men. They are the ones choosing not to go to the new world of the unitary authority.

That scaling up of local government, making local government less local, in itself has a tendency to be bad for diversity. That is not the Government’s intention—I am 100% sure that it is not—but it will happen, I am certain. That is why the amendment is important and an easy one for the Government to accept.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien
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Let me start by gently taking issue with something the hon. Gentleman said: that this measure is very much like the abolition of the metropolitan county councils. I argue that it is almost diametrically the opposite of that abolition; it is restoring a directly elected and directly sackable leadership for a strategic area.

Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The reason it reminds me of that is that once those county councils went, there had to be a stitching together of some kind—so Tyne and Wear went for the Passenger Transport Executive to run the Metro, the buses and all the rest of it. The people on that body were not directly elected, whereas the people who ran it when there was a county council were—that was the analogy, but I take the Minister’s point.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien
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I am grateful to the hon. Member for taking the point, because I agree with the tenor of the argument, that we do not want to have major strategic decisions made by a quango. That is what we spent the past eight years fixing—starting in the coalition years, in fairness. We are on the case with his concerns.

Let me take a step back for a moment and set out what the clauses are doing. Clause 9 provides a flexible framework for combined county authorities to appoint non-constituent members, who are representatives of a local organisation or body, such as a district council, a local enterprise partnership or health body. Clause 10 provides for CCAs to appoint associate members, who are individual persons with expertise, such as a local business leader or an expert in a particular policy area.

Combined authorities have appointed commissioners with specific expertise to focus on a challenging local policy area and drive change—for example, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority appointed Dame Sarah Storey as a commissioner on active travel. It is a way of bringing in experts and other institutional stakeholders locally to complement the core of, ideally, directly elected local leadership so that everyone works together as well as possible.

It is only right that those nominations, or appointments, are the decisions of local leaders, who best know their areas. The clauses set out transparent processes for the nomination and appointment of both types of members. For a non-constituent member, the CCA designates the local organisation or body as the “nominating body”, which then selects a person to represent it at the CCA. It is for that nominating body to make that decision. For example, the CCA might designate the district council as a nominating body and then the district council selects its leader, for example, as its non-constituent member representative at CCA meetings—ex officio, as it were.

The clauses provide a way for local experts and key stakeholders to have a seat at the table of a CCA, bringing their local expertise and knowledge to facilitate better action to tackle local challenges. Those are vital public roles and transparency on them is equally vital. That is why clause 11 enables the Secretary of State to make regulations about the process of designating nominating bodies, the nomination of non-constituent members and the process of appointing associate members. We expect that all appointments of associate members will be undertaken through an open and transparent process, of course.

By their very nature those roles will be public roles—for example, a public body such as a district council nominating its leader to a role in another public body. In the Bill’s spirit of localism—a key word—this is a matter to be decided locally by the CCA and nominating bodies. They are independent of central Government and it is right that they make the decisions about how and with whom to collaborate.

The amendments seek annual reporting regarding the persons selected by the nominating bodies to be non-constituent and associate members. The Government do not believe that they should prescribe to CCAs that they should be informing Government of the specific make-up of their non-constituent and associate members. As with all good public bodies, a CCA should promote equality and diversity in the organisation. What is more, non-constituent and associate members are only one part of the membership of the CCA. The amendment calls for a report on one group of members of a CCA and does not reflect the CCA as a whole, including its constituent members, which is slightly odd. It is also slightly concerning that, as the hon. Member for York Central mentioned, the amendment mentions only some but not all of the protected characteristics. That would open up some potential legal questions that I am not really qualified to opine on.

The core point is that non-constituent and associate members of CCAs have an important role to play, but the amendment is unnecessary. It fails to consider the independence of CCAs and nominating bodies and does not reflect the fact that the positions of associate members and non-constituent members will, by their very nature, be public; these are not secret roles. I hope that the hon. Member for Nottingham North will agree to withdraw the amendment.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to hon. Members for their contributions. I agree with the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, who expressed the hope that we are not establishing a quango. We are definitely establishing a new class of leadership, however, and it is less local and less directly accountable.

I am slightly disappointed by the Minister’s response, because I did not get a sense—

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien
- Hansard - -

I have to take issue with the hon. Gentleman’s comment about the process being less local. If I think about the devolution of powers over a number of things that are already done through combined authorities, such as the devolution of adult skills spending, if an authority is not in a CA, that decision is made in Whitehall. The decision is made here. In the combined authorities, such a decision is made more locally, for example by the West Midlands Combined Authority, which I visited the other day. Such authorities are making better decisions; because they are more local, they can create the co-ordination between local colleges. I take issue with the idea that decision making is less local as a result of what we are doing for devolution.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Minister is of course right that such decisions are more local than central Government, but that goes back to my argument on the first set of amendments. Having told people that communities will get the power to shape place, if what comes through the process is devolution to a new level of politics consisting of politicians and public figures who are further way from those people than their local councils, I do not think we will have passed the localism test. That may be a point of difference but that is certainly my view.

I had hoped to hear the Minister offer a slightly stronger commitment from the Government that the new bodies really ought to represent the communities they serve in terms of their make-up. I am surprised that was not said. We were left to believe that the make-up was for local decision making. Just as in the Health and Social Care Act 2014, I fear that we will end up with Schrödinger’s localism: when there is a difficult decision to be made, “That’s a local decision”; and when the decision is something that the Government want to reserve to themselves, “Of course we have to set the rules of the game, because otherwise it is dangerous”—as the Minister argued in response to the debate on the previous set of amendments. The Government are in danger of falling into some cakeism, but I hope that is not the case.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien
- Hansard - -

This is an opportunity for me to repeat that, like all good public sector bodies, the CCA should promote equality and diversity within the organisation and it is for the CCA to do that locally. On the point about cakeism, these are two very different things. In the case of the voting arrangements for a combined authority, allowing them to be changed locally by a transient majority might cause a lot of local authorities to simply not join in the first place.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying that; I would never want to misrepresent what he has said. On the second point, we are likely to test it considerably over the next however long.

I struggled with the Minister’s criticism that the amendments excluded the constituent members of the CCA. That would be a valid criticism had he put in a provision that included them, but he has chosen not to. Similarly, his criticism that I have not included all the protected characteristics would be valid had he put in a provision covering them all. I do not believe that he wants to do those things, so I think that was slightly unfair. On the question of legality, he has access to more lawyers than I do, but I spoke to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission and it did not have a problem with this, so I do not think legality would be an issue.

I am willing to accept the Minister’s point about non-constituent members, pertaining to amendment 18, in that, as he says, they are appointees of their own organisation. I remember chairing my health and wellbeing board and my discomfort at the fact that it fitted the characteristics the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale described more than it ought to have in a community that was very diverse, but when it came to trying to do something about that, the point was made to me that the board members were representatives of organisations, including the police, the council, the universities and so on, which themselves had diversity challenges that led to that common challenge, to which there was no elegant solution. On that basis, I will not press amendment 18, but amendment 19 involves choices—direct choices—whereby a county combined authority decides who to put on. I want to know whether we are trying to address inequities or just repeating the same failings. That is an important point of substance, so I will withdraw amendment 18 and press amendment 19 at the appropriate time. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 9 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 10

Associate members of a CCA

Amendment proposed: 19, in clause 10, page 10, line 3, at end insert—

“(5) “The Secretary of State must publish an annual report on the associate members appointed to each CCA. This report must include:

(a) the age of all associate members,

(b) the gender of all associate members, and

(c) the ethnicity of all associate members.” —(Alex Norris.)

This amendment would require the Secretary of State to make the age, gender and ethnicity of associate members of CCAs publicly available.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

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Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will be brief, given the time. Personally, I have no problem with asymmetrical devolution. A contrived central devolution is perhaps why Lord Prescott’s proposals in the ’90s and noughties did not work and were not popular. I have no problem with asymmetrical outcomes, but I have a serious problem with asymmetrical autonomy. Each community should have the same access to powers, even if gained in a different way. This is an important probing amendment, and I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say. For example, a rural community such as Cornwall, Northumberland or Cumbria should not have a Mayor forced on it if it does not want one, yet it should still have the same access to the same levels of power that the Government are offering through devolutions to those communities that do have a Mayor.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O’Brien
- Hansard - -

The amendment brings us to a series of other amendments bound together by a particular philosophy encapsulated in the statement by the hon. Member for Nottingham North that the default should be alignment. The amendment is a particular and bleak way into this philosophical debate, and amendments to some later clauses—in particular amendment 26—make the Opposition’s position much clearer: that things should move in lockstep and that there should be more one-size-fits-all.

Fundamentally, we pretty profoundly disagree with that philosophy for a number of reasons. Devolution agreements should be different in multiple different ways, because there are different local wants. Simply, the point of devolution is that different people in different places want different things, and devolution makes that possible. Pragmatically, there are also different readiness levels. In some places, a process has been going on— for example, the Healthier Together work in Greater Manchester, which had been going on for a decade before health devolution in Greater Manchester. Also, different places are set up with various partners that they work with at different readiness levels.

On a pragmatic point, my great fear about adopting the one-size-fits-all, lockstep approach of the convoy moving at the speed of the slowest is that we will just not make significant progress. Were the hon. Gentleman to find himself in my place and I in his, he would discover that he could not make much progress in getting Whitehall to devolve powers. That is no small thing—to ask the elected Government of the day to give up control of the things for which they will be held accountable by the electorate to local politicians, who in many cases may be of a different political party. That is no small thing to agree. If it were said that a power could not be offered to a particular place unless it was offered to all—like the most-favoured-nation principle—I promise that devolution would grind to a halt extremely swiftly.

There is a framework. The basics are set out in the levelling-up White Paper, but variation is intended. Variation is a feature, not a bug of our devolution agenda. We believe in localism, in particularism, and in adapting things to the particular needs and particular local politics of different places—I agreed at least partly with what the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale said, which in some ways chimed with our view of this.

The hon. Member for Nottingham North asked us to explain why that might be so, in particular in relation to the amendment, which is about membership. Simply put, there might well be different numbers of members in different CCAs. We could have one with two members or one with a lot of members. Or we could have ones where the members were relatively similar authorities, or one where one member had radically different characteristics from the others—we might imagine a load of urban authorities and one that was more rural, or something like that. However, this amendment is the start of a series of amendments, so I will not labour the point at this stage.

Something else that the hon. Member for Nottingham North said that chimed with me and stuck out was that the centre should let go. That statement is very much our intention, in practice, with the desire for uniform devolution. We do have to let different places do different things because, fundamentally, they have different priorities. One place might care a lot about housing issues, but another might care about its innovation strategy. These things should be different, reflecting different wants.

To recap why we still want voting arrangements, for example, to be in secondary legislation, it is not primarily us in central Government that that arrangement is protecting; it is protecting local leadership from someone joining something only to find that they have been stitched up and then have their powers taken away due to a particular alignment of local leaders. Some things must be certain for local leaders and should be locked down and made safe for them in order for them to make progress, but in other ways there should be diversity, variation and localism.

This amendment represents just one aspect of that philosophy in practice, and we will talk about it again under other amendments, but the Opposition spokesman called on me to be direct, and I will be. There is just a difference in philosophy here about how we should approach devolution.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

There is a difference of philosophy, but the Minister slightly misrepresents the point I am trying to make, or perhaps I am not explaining it well. Our intention is not, as he characterises it, a lockstep, one-size-fits-all movement forward or, as he says, that the convoy must move at the same speed; it is that divergence, where it exists, should be the choice of the local community, not central Government. That is what we have today. The Minister is reserving for himself the ability to pick and choose who the Government feel is able and willing to exercise certain powers in certain ways in certain contexts. I do not agree with that, and that is the difference.

We are not saying that the settlement will be the same in every part of the country. The Minister says that this is a feature rather than a bug. I agree with that, and that is the point that we will be probing in subsequent amendments. We do not need to fight things out on constitutions at this stage. We will need to return to that, but on the principle that we are not saying that one size fits all, rather that the Government should not get to pick the winners. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Miss Dines.)

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill (Eighth sitting)

Neil O'Brien Excerpts
Thursday 30th June 2022

(1 month, 2 weeks ago)

Public Bill Committees
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris (Nottingham North) (Lab/Co-op)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move amendment 21, in clause 12, page 11, line 28, at end insert—

“(8) If an appropriate person carries out a review under subsection (2), they must make the report of its findings publicly available.”

This amendment would ensure that the findings of any review of a CCA is made available publicly.

It is a pleasure to reconvene with you in the Chair, Mr Paisley. Clause 12 allows a combined county authority to review its constitutional arrangements. That is a wise provision because, of course, there will be moments when CCAs will want to be sure of whether form fits function. There must clearly be local scope for review and understanding, with as much transparency as possible. It is with that in mind that I move this amendment.

Transparency is important, because it strengthens our democracy by opening up the decision-making process to the whole population. As we build new political institutions, such as the proposed CCAs, it is vital that we put transparency in them at the beginning. As we discussed previously, transparent and open government makes better policy, delivers better outcomes and is generally a good thing for our democracy.

This amendment proposes that if any review is conducted to investigate changing the constitutional arrangements of a CCA, it must be published publicly. That would improve the function of the Government’s proposed CCA. It will be part of the honest conversation about the work the body is doing and the work we want it to do, and it will ensure that it serves not its own members or vested interests but the whole population. That is really important. These debates are too important to take place behind closed doors.

That does not need to be a negative process. It can be an open process that gives the population, as well as all the constituent members that we have discussed under previous clauses, the chance to engage. Amendment 21 is a fair and reasonable requirement to be added to the review mechanism, and I hope the Minister is minded to agree.

Neil O'Brien Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (Neil O'Brien)
- Hansard - -

As we discussed during our consideration of previous clauses, the key constitutional arrangements—membership, voting and decision making—will be set out in the secondary legislation establishing the CCA. That legislation, which requires consent from both the relevant local authorities and Parliament, would also enable a combined county authority to set a local constitution specifying how detailed decisions are taken on aspects of how the CCA is to operate. It could cover, for example, meeting procedures, committees, sub-committees and joint committees of the CCA.

Clause 12 enables a CCA to review and amend its own local constitution in certain circumstances, and I hope it provides some of the flexibility that the Opposition have been arguing for. A review of the local constitution can be undertaken if proposed by constituent member or the mayor, if there is one, and if the proposal is supported by a simple majority of the constituent members. The local constitution can be amended if the amendments are supported by a simple majority of constituent members including the mayor, if there is one.

At each of these stages, the CCA’s decision must be made at a meeting of the CCA. CCA meetings, like those of all local authorities, are conducted with full transparency. That means that interested parties, including the public, can attend CCA meetings, and papers must be made available in advance. The CCA will also need to publish its constitution. Amendment 21 is therefore unnecessary. There is no need for a separate report of findings, which would place a disproportionate and unnecessary bureaucratic burden on the combined county authority, and distract it from the implementing the changes that it needs. I hope that, with those explanations, the hon. Gentleman is content to withdraw his amendment.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful for the Minister’s answer. In general, I think his response does suffice, but I would like to push back on two points. As he says, these will be public meetings and there ought to be full transparency. However, we know that is not universally the way things operate. At local authority level, for instance, I would expect rules to operate exempting certain parts of meetings for reasons of commercial confidentiality. We know that there are points of friction for local authorities up and down the country. There can be the sense that things are being hidden behind the exempt part of the meeting. I would not say it is inevitable and unavoidable that we will get full transparency, but I have heard the spirit of what the Minister said. I am not sure it would have been an administrative burden, not least because the thing will have been done anyway and will exist already. Someone would just have to upload it to the website. That would satisfy the requirement of the amendment as I wrote it. Nevertheless, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 12 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 13

Overview and scrutiny committees

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Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will not speak for long, Mr Paisley, but I want to reemphasise some things we have talked about today and build on the wise comments made by the hon. Member for Nottingham North.

Equality is hugely important and not to be taken for granted. The issue is that a movement towards a form of local government that is by definition more removed from the public than a district council, for example, will undoubtedly affect those with protected characteristics. We must prevent the tendency we discussed earlier to have people on the board and the committees—running the CCAs, in this case—who are much more likely to be older, male and white. That tendency will naturally occur because, while devolution is happening in one sense, it is also a centralisation locally, away from district councils. That will inevitably happen unless we work hard to prevent it. That is why these equality impact assessments are very important—not just in terms of the representative nature of the people who are on the CCA, but on the kind of policies that they pursue.

I am bound also to remind Members of the Rural Services Network’s report, published this week, which pointed out that if rural England was a separate region, it would be poorer than all the other regions. It would be the poorest region and the region most in need of levelling up. Pretty much every CCA in the country will have a rural element to it, but the chances are that it will not be the central part or the part where most of the members come from.

I want us to think very carefully about the impact of our decisions, particularly on rural communities. I spent part of the break between this morning’s sitting and this one on the phone to a local GP surgery in Cumbria that has lost something like £70,000 of its income in recent years. It has a patient roll of 5,000 to 6,000 people, but it sees on average 2,000 to 2,500 patients every year who are not registered with the surgery—they are visitors coming to the Lake district. The surgery gets not a penny for that.

Earlier, the hon. Member for York Central rightly mentioned the interaction between the integrated care systems, which will come into force this week, and the new CCAs. It is vital that we consider the differences in access to services between rural areas and urban areas, and consider disadvantage as being different. There are much higher levels of unemployment in the Barrow part of the Westmorland and Furness Council area, for example, and much lower unemployment in the part of the area that I represent; however, the gap between average incomes and average house prices is bigger than anywhere outside the south-east of England. The consequence in terms of poverty is therefore much greater, and the need for us to pay attention to those differential metrics—and, more importantly, the impact on individuals’ lives—is that much greater.

That is why it is important that equality is built into this legislation. Accountability would come out of the fact that impact assessments would be provided on a regular basis and there would be scrutiny as a consequence. It would force members who are either from demographic profiles that are not a minority or under-represented or from non-rural parts of the geographical community represented by a CCA to be held to account on behalf of those people and those communities who are.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien
- Hansard - -

The public sector equality duty under the Equality Act 2010 ensures that public bodies play their part in making society fairer by tackling discrimination and providing equality of opportunity for all. As public bodies, CCAs must integrate equality considerations into decision-making processes from the outset, including in the development, implementation and review of policies. However, the equality duty does not require public bodies to follow a prescribed process and leaves it to their local discretion as to when it is appropriate to carry out an equality impact assessment to ensure compliance with the duty that binds them. The amendment would place an additional unnecessary duty on combined county authorities that does not apply to other public authorities, including existing combined authorities, which relates to the point made by Opposition Members about ensuring there is equal treatment and similar legal bases between MCAs and CCAs.

It is the Government’s intention that CCAs will be expressly subject to the public sector equality duty, which we will do by consequential amendments to the Equality Act, meaning that CCAs have to integrate equality considerations into their decision-making processes as soon as they are established. There is therefore no need to place a further burden on CCAs by requiring them to produce a separate equalities impact assessment. In fact, equalities considerations will already be at the very heart of what they do. With those assurances, I hope that the hon. Member for Nottingham North will withdraw his amendment.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, for his contribution. His points about rural poverty are well made and are grist for the mill because, as he said, in all CCAs there will be levelling-up features. Everyone will seek to take such measures. Rather than an individualised, exceptionalised programme, we are talking about a collective advance of CCAs. Slowly but surely we are making a fine socialist of the Minister, speaking for collectivism rather than individual exceptionalism. Any day now, I am sure that he will wear that badge with pride.

I was a little disappointed in the Minister’s reply. Yes, the public sector equality duty exists, but if the Government’s answer is to rely on that, we should remember that it has not removed all the inequalities that I spoke about. At some point, we must do something differently in this country, and I would have thought that this legislation was a really good place to start. I put it to the Minister that doing things the same way will only produce the same answers in the future, and I fear that that is what will happen unless we insert a firm commitment to tackle inequalities in all their forms into the DNA of the proposed new bodies. I am disappointed.

I was not happy with the answer about the divergence from combined authorities. If the Minister had such a problem with combined county authorities differing from combined authorities, he would not have introduced combined county authorities; he would have just relied on combined authorities. There then would have been no divergence between the two. The Minister has chosen to make that change, because it is more convenient for the Government so that they can work with the communities with which they have struggled to work over the past few years. In doing that, they have opened themselves to the divergence issue. That is not my problem, nor my fault, but that is of the Government’s choosing and it is baked into the Bill; otherwise, we would not need the legislation.

I will not press the amendments to a vote, because the suggestion from my hon. Friend the Member for York Central is better than my amendment. I am happy to withdraw it on the basis that it could be better, and perhaps we might seek elsewhere to improve it. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 13 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 1

Combined county authorities: overview and scrutiny committees and audit committee

Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

This seems to be a really sensible and proportionate proposal. The Conservative leader of the District Councils Network talked to us in the evidence session on Tuesday 21 June. He speaks very clearly on behalf of members of all political parties who are on district councils: Liberal Democrat, Labour, independent, Green and, of course, the leading Conservative group among district council members.

There is a concern about district councils being slowly but surely erased—and they are. In Cumbria, we are living proof of that, because some good district councils are being dismantled this year, hopefully with very good unitary authorities taking over their responsibilities and being reflective of what the local communities desire. However, if we are to move forward in this direction and if CCAs are to be the building blocks by which these decisions and the delivery of levelling up will take place, it is surely right to demonstrate to district councils that we and the Government value them—not only that we value them as district councils but, as the hon. Member for Nottingham North rightly said, that we value their expertise.

In this amendment, the Government are being asked to consider picking the people who already do this job in their home patch, so to speak, and to bring the skills, expertise and experience that they have from providing scrutiny of their own councils’ business and the operation of democracy internally within their district councils to the sub-regional level.

The amendment seems to be not only a very effective and sensible practical proposal but one that would allow the Government to demonstrate to district councils that they are not being erased and that they are a very important part of our future. We talked earlier about whether symmetry mattered. If we believe that local communities are best at designing their own destiny and if they choose to maintain two-tier authorities, as many do, then reflecting that autonomy and its outcome—not begrudging it, but welcoming it—seems to me a wise thing to do. Let us have the chairs of the overview and scrutiny committees from the constituent district councils within a CCA on the overview and scrutiny committee of that CCA.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O’Brien
- Hansard - -

I would say that the amendment is well-intentioned, but that would not really do it justice; I actually completely agree with the broad thrust of what Opposition Members are trying to achieve. However, I think that we should do it in a slightly different way.

Schedule 1 places a requirement on all combined county authorities to establish one or more overview and scrutiny committees, and provides for the Secretary of State to make regulations for such committees. That mirrors the provisions for combined authorities; regulations were made in 2017 that already apply to all the combined authorities.

As for the majority of the CCA model, it is our intention that the overview and scrutiny arrangements for CCAs will adopt the same broad principles as those for combined authorities. Regulations made under schedule 1 must ensure that the majority of members of overview and scrutiny committees are drawn from the CCA’s constituent councils. Furthermore, an overview and scrutiny committee cannot include a member of the CCA, including the mayor.

The regulations and powers in schedule 1 enable scrutiny committees to be established with membership appropriate to the CCA, so that they are able to effectively challenge, advise and make recommendations to the decision takers. To do this, each CCA’s overview and scrutiny committee needs to be flexible enough to reflect the bespoke role of the CCA, as agreed in individual devolution deals—how they are constituted, the powers they are responsible for delivering, and so on. That will affect the background and interests of the members that it would be appropriate to appoint.

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Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I do not want the decision on clause stand part to go by without any discussion. I want some clarity from the Minister. The clause allows the Secretary of State to make regulations about how to pay for the combined county authority, with the understanding in subsection (2) that it has to be done with the consent of the constituent councils. I want to understand how the Minister thinks that will work in practice. Presumably, the Secretary of State will hope to receive a proposal from the constituent councils that they have all agreed to, rather than suggesting a model.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O’Brien
- Hansard - -

Let me reassure the hon. Member by saying that clause 14 enables the Secretary of State to make regulations setting out how an individual CCA is to be funded by contributions from constituent councils. Such regulations can be made only with the consent of the constituent councils and—where one already exists—the CCA. The CCA will decide how its activities are funded and how its funding is sourced, whether that is from investment funds and other devolved funding or from contributions from constituent councils.

Where constituent councils are providing contributions, regulations under clause 14 can set out how the CCA decides the proportion of contribution from each council. Similar regulations for combined authorities usually state that that is for agreement locally but provide a default split if agreement is not reached. That underpins the very nature of the collaborative approach we are trying to support through the new CCA model. The clause will be instrumental in ensuring that combined county authorities are strong institutions with sustainable funding to which to devolve functions and flexibilities, which is essential to achieving our ambitious local leadership levelling-up mission. I commend the clause to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 14 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 15

Change of name

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move amendment 23 in clause 15, page 12, line 14, leave out “not less than two-thirds” and insert “a simple majority”.

This amendment would remove the need for a super-majority to change the name of a CCA.

In preparing amendments, we had the hundreds of pages of the Bill, and hundreds of pages of explanatory notes. The delegated powers memorandum is even longer—never mind the White Paper. As a result, one started to go deep in the weeds, and I am very deep into them here.

This significant clause makes provision for the process of changing the name of a combined county authority. Subsection (2) sets out the requirements, with paragraph (c) requiring a super-majority of no less than two-thirds of CCA members to vote in favour of the rule change. That is a high bar—far higher than for most decisions that we make in Parliament. I am interested in why there is such a high bar, so, to probe that, my amendment suggests reducing it to a simple majority.

I have a couple paragraphs here that I wrote last night about “What’s in a name?” I will spare the Committee those; I think we can establish what is in a name. I will say that I am not completely ignorant of the value of super-majorities. They can be very important to protect the rights of minorities, but they can also be used—the US Senate is a good example—by a concerted majority for a number of decades to protect special interests.

I am not sure why the clause requires a super-majority. We want to give these combined county authorities significant money—tens of millions of pounds, and I suspect those negotiating them want even more than that—and significant powers over things that shape our communities. If we cannot trust them to change their name on a simple majority, how can we trust them to do anything else on a simple majority basis? I am interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts.

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None Portrait The Chair
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We were on to the war of the roses there.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O’Brien
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We are honoured by the depth of the forensic scrutiny that the Opposition are offering us on these clauses. They are quite right to probe all these questions, which are important. Few things are more likely to arouse the passions than names of local authorities and county authorities, as we heard in the impassioned speech from the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale. We recognise the importance of people living in an area having a strong attachment to, and identity with, that place, which is something both he and the hon. Member for Nottingham North have alluded to.

When we establish a county combined authority by regulations, we will specify the legal name of that institution. Of course, it is only right that the name can be changed to adapt to local circumstances over time, and the clause allows a CCA to change the name it is known by, subject to various safeguards and conditions, one of which is a requirement that two thirds of members of the CCA consent to the change. The threshold was chosen quite deliberately to ensure that name changes are undertaken only where they will make a real impact, rather than where they are just a rebranding exercise. Names really matter to local communities, as we have heard, and it is important that a strong majority of a CCA supports any change.

The amendment is designed to reduce the consent threshold to a simple majority, which would mean that CCAs would have a lower threshold for such a change than existing combined authorities, for which the threshold is a minimum of two thirds. Two of our existing combined authorities, South Yorkshire and Liverpool city region, have already changed their names since their establishment. A lot of politics were involved in that, so clearly there is flexibility under the two-thirds arrangement to change the name when that is felt to be important. I remember that there was a lot of consideration of that choice during the run-up to the devolution deal with Sheffield city region—it is now called South Yorkshire—and likewise with Liverpool city region.

My officials are in regular contact with the mayoral combined authorities, and we have not heard of any difficulties with the existing legislative process. As we have discussed before, it is important to keep parity between the CCA and combined authority models as much as possible, including in respect of name changes. A further consideration—this is why we have the higher threshold—is that many organisations will have made legal contracts with a combined authority, and changing the name is a non-trivial thing to do, given that it will require many things to change.

Fundamentally, as Members have said, names really do matter. What’s in a name? We do not want them to be something that flips over from time to time. We could end up having a tit-for-tat war whereby the majority changes the name of an authority and then it changes again. We want the name of an authority to be stable and lasting. Opposition Members have quite rightly asked why that is so, and I hope that I have given sufficient assurance that they might be willing to withdraw the amendment.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful for those contributions. The debate has had a bit of lightness to it, but as the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale said, identity does matter to people. I think identity can be a big driver in levelling up, by providing that passion, commitment and love of place that makes people want to do better and tackle inequalities. That is a really positive thing and it does matter, but I do not think it is the be all and end all.

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Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move amendment 24, in clause 16, page 13, line 10, at end insert—

“(aa) affected local district councils”.

When I wrote my speech I thought that clause 16 was perhaps the most significant of the 60 or so clauses that establish CCAs. It was certainly the only one that had a particular debate on Second Reading, although largely among multiple members on the Minister’s side.

The clause allows for functions of a local authority to be exercisable at a CCA level. There will be points at which there will be a keenness to do that. It allows for functions to be exercisable by the CCA, rather than the county council or district council. It also allows for: functions to be exercisable concurrently with the county council or district council; for the function to be exercisable by the CCA and the county council or district council jointly; and for the function to be exercisable by the CCA jointly with the county council or distract council but also continue to be exercisable by the council alone. That essentially means that councils can collaborate and share in whichever way they choose to— subsection (5)(a) requires the constituent councils’ consent—with the CCA.

This has twitched my antennae a little. We have discussed some of this already. I believe that devolution as it forms part of the levelling-up agenda is about devolving power out from the centre—from the centre to sub-regions, and from local authorities to local communities. The latter, community power, is broadly absent from the Bill, and I hope we will get the opportunity to add it back later in these proceedings. On the former, the direction of travel is supposed to be towards communities—towards the lowest proper level—rather than away from them. Indeed, local authorities are already free to collaborate, and there are many good examples of that. I do not think the purpose of the new sub-regional bodies established by part 2 of the Bill is to draw powers upwards from local councils; rather, it is to draw them downwards from the centre.

I am willing to accept—if this is the case, perhaps the Minister could give us a little detail—that that might be desirable in order, perhaps from a finance point of view, to share budget arrangements, or to have lead council arrangements on spend and receipt in a certain policy area. Crucially, under subsection (5)(a), the regulations will be made only if the constituent councils of the CCA consent. Those local authorities essentially have a lock on that process: it can happen only with their consent. On that basis, who am I to stop them? I think that is fair enough.

The issue here is that all four of the scenarios under subsection (4) involve the CCA also taking on the power of district councils, which are not—this is certainly my understanding—“constituent councils” and therefore cannot consent. It looks to me—I will qualify this shortly —like district councils could have powers taken from them.

Several Members have raised concerns that this part of the Bill is about removing district councils from this sort of decision making, the argument being that current statute makes it too hard so we need to free ourselves of the district veto, which the Minister described in the evidence sessions as an

“unintended consequence of the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009”.[Official Report, Levelling-up and Regeneration Public Bill Committee, 21 June 2022; c. 57, Q87.]

I am not sure that is necessarily true, although I am happy to be wrong. I think that the expectation at that time was that communities would proceed by consensus. That is why it is a de facto veto. It may now be deemed impractical, but I do not think it was an unintended consequence.

That poses a problem: if these bodies get up and running, and particularly if they choose to have a mayor elected to lead them, and they get off the ground already with local opposition, that will be a shame. I think that will hold back their work, build cynicism and erode public confidence. Therefore, the approach of working around districts rather than with them is perhaps the wrong one. As I have said before, districts have a proven track record of delivery. The amendment is modest: it seeks to add a provision that affected district councils must have consented to having their powers taken away. That seems reasonable to me.

I have hedged my bets a little because I am really hoping that the Minister will say that this is a moot point. In the evidence sessions, Councillor Oliver from the County Councils Network said:

“I am grateful to the Minister for clarification on some confusion around clause 16.”––[Official Report, Levelling-up and Regeneration Public Bill Committee, 21 June 2022; c. 58, Q88.]

I confess that I did not know what he meant by that; it was not anything that was clarified on Second Reading or in the evidence sessions. I did a bit of digging and I understand—this is second hand, so I apologise to the Minister if it is not right—that the Minister may have written to the representative bodies of local government to clarify that the Government do not intend for the powers to be applied in this way. That would be a very good thing if it were true.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O’Brien
- Hansard - -

indicated assent.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I can see the Minister nodding, so that gives me hope. However, I have not had any such contact, so I can only go on what is written in the Bill. If that is the case, perhaps we should tidy up what is in the Bill so that there is no doubt. Clearly, it can be read the other way, which is why there has been so much interest in it, even if that interest is happily unnecessary.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O’Brien
- Hansard - -

Although many of the things we have talked about today have been interesting and thought provoking, this is perhaps the most interesting and thought-provoking amendment so far.

Clause 16 gives the Secretary of State the power to confer any local authority functions—including those of a county council, unitary council and district council—on to a combined county authority by regulations, subject to local consent and parliamentary approval. Any existing function of a local authority could be given to a combined county authority; these could be modified or have limitations and conditions attached. Functions could be specified as exercisable by the CCA concurrently with the local authority, jointly with the local authority, or instead of the local authority.

Clause 16 will enable effective co-operation between CCAs and local authorities where it is desired by the local area. Clause 16 mirrors section 105 of the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 for the conferral of local authority functions on to combined authorities. It also mirrors section 16 of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 for the conferral of public authority functions on to an individual local authority, in terms of both the mechanism and the consent mechanisms. These powers already exist. Consequently, the consent requirements for regulations under clause 16 relate to the constituent councils and, where a CCA already exists, the CCA.

Amendment 24 seeks to make affected district councils have a say on the conferral of local authority functions. The necessary irreducible core of a county deal is a county council and any associated unitary council. Many of the powers that have been devolved through devolution deals so far have tended to be upper-tier powers. These are agreements between the Government and the upper-tier local authorities. That is absolutely not to say that district councils have no part to play in such agreements. They do—I hope they will—and we expect the devolution deal with the upper-tier local authorities to include details of how the new CCA, the county council and the districts that wish to will work together to deliver the outcomes envisaged in the devolution deal agreement.

As for providing for districts to have a say on the conferral of local authority powers, within the context I have described, they will indeed have a say, if they wish. First, they will have had discussions and reached agreements with their upper tier councils about how they will be involved in implementing the devolution deal. Secondly, powers are conferred through regulations. Before regulations to establish the CCA and confer powers on it, there must be a public consultation on the proposal, as we discussed earlier. This is an opportunity over and above the devolution deal that district councils will have to make their input, in the context that we are clear the agreement is with the upper-tier local authorities.

There is a good reason why we have taken the approach of having an agreement with the upper-tier local authorities: to avoid past experiences where one or two district councils have frustrated the wish of many in the area to have an effective devolution deal. However, we are equally clear that the appropriate involvement of district councils that wish to be involved is important and, indeed, essential to the delivery of certain outcomes that the devolution deal is seeking to achieve. It is, in short, a question of balance. We believe we have struck the right balance between an agreement with the upper-tier local authorities to establish it and flexibility so that the involvement can reflect local wishes of both the districts and the upper-tier local authorities in the area.

I know concerns have been expressed about district councils’ functions being removed and transferred to a CCA. I want to put on record something I have said to local authority leaders and which we have repeatedly made clear over the years. The Government are clear that there is no intention to use this provision to reallocate functions between tiers of local authorities when there is no consent. From the start, the devolution agenda has been about power flowing down to local leaders to enable decisions closer to the public, not flowing up. To the best of my knowledge, I do not think the powers in the two Acts I mentioned earlier have been used to date.

Parliamentary scrutiny provides a very secure safeguard here. The Secretary of State cannot make any changes to the functions of an individual CCA without parliamentary approval. It has always been the case that Parliament decides where the responsibility for functions lies in local government. An individual CCA cannot exercise functions unless it has been given them in regulations by the Secretary of State following parliamentary approval. A CCA cannot take power from a district or any council. One tier of local government cannot legally usurp the powers of another.

I understand and hear the concerns being that are being expressed about issues relating to the clause. I wish to reassure the Committee that I will take these issues away and readily consider how we might reflect the role of district councils in devolution deals. I hope that gives sufficient reassurance for amendment 24 to be withdrawn. We will think further about this important issue.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful for that full answer and happy to withdraw the amendment on that basis. The Minister was as explicit as possible about how he envisages things working. I hope that, in his reflections, he will consider whether what is in the Bill needs to catch up and is as clear as it might be. I hope he will continue to engage with us in such conversations and, if he has engaged with those bodies in writing, that he will make a copy of the letter available in Committee or in the Library, so that we have full information for continued consideration. On the basis of the response provided by the Minister, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 16 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 17

Other public authority functions

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Clause 16 dealt with the conferral of local authority functions on CCAs. Further clauses, such as the ones between 30 and 37, deal with the conferral of police and crime commissioner functions, and clauses 19 and 20 confer transport, highways and traffic functions. With clause 17, I wondered what the Minister’s understanding of “Other” might be. What ideas does he have in mind?

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien
- Hansard - -

I will have to come back to the hon. Member in slower time on that. To explain a little about the clause, it is in essence the devolution clause that will enable the CCA to take on the functions of public bodies, including Ministers in central Government, the Greater London Mayor and Assembly, and agencies such as Homes England. Broadly, the clause allows devolution to happen. On his specific point, I will have to write to him.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 17 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 18

Section 17 regulations: procedure

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move amendment 26, clause 18, page 14, line 35, at end insert—

“(1A) But notwithstanding subsection (1)(b), if a CCA prepares and submits a proposal for conferred powers under section 17(1) and the Secretary of State has already made provision for another CCA to be granted identical powers, the Secretary of State must consent to that proposal.”

This amendment would require the Secretary of State to accept an application for conferred powers from a CCA where they have already accepted an identical application from another CCA.

At the end of the previous sitting, the Minister started the debate on this issue, which is a point of distinction, so I think the amendment will be an interesting one to discuss. Notwithstanding the sorts of functions that the Minister has in mind, which he will follow up with, the clause sets the rules by which county combined authorities can receive more powers from central Government. We are supportive of that: we want to move powers from Whitehall to our town halls, but in doing so the Bill can be improved.

I touched a little on the asymmetry of the devolution of power in England, and it is worth covering something of that. Metro Mayors hold powers over spatial planning, regional transport, the provision of skills training, business support services and economic development. The detail of the powers and budgets devolved, however, varies massively between areas.

For example, in Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire the powers of the police and crime commissioner have been merged into the mayoral role, but not in other mayoralties. The Greater Manchester Combined Authority oversees devolved health and welfare budgets, working in partnership with the lead Whitehall Departments, but other combined authorities do not have such powers. All Mayors can establish mayoral development corporations, except for the Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. All Mayors can raise a council tax precept, except in the West of England.

That is an odd hotchpotch. If we were to sit down and plan a devolved settlement, which we are doing quite a bit of, we would never pick a model that is quite as uneven and such a mishmash. That is what happens when settlements are negotiated case by case behind closed doors, on the basis of what Ministers judge communities are ready to have. Furthermore—this is part of what we are addressing today—those disparities in power do not even account for the fact that vast swathes of the country do not even have combined authorities; they just have their council.

We are in the odd situation where Manchester gets to elect a Mayor with a PCC, but in Nottingham we cannot vote for a Mayor—we don’t have one; we do not have a combined authority in the county terms yet—but we vote for councils and a PCC. That gets very hard to explain to constituents, and means that different parts of the country get access to different powers. I think we should do better there.

The Minister characterised that position as being for either a one-size-fits-all model or moving at the pace of the slowest. I am not saying that. My dissatisfaction with asymmetry aside, I live in the real world; we have an asymmetric settlement and it would not be practical or desirable to change that. Where those combined authorities are motoring along, they must keep doing so; they are doing crucial and impressive work, and of course we would not want to change that. However, we have the power to ensure that the combined county authorities, which cover big parts of the country, and will hopefully bring devolution to the bulk of the country, have some sense of commonality in the powers that they are able to access, but not have to access—not a floor but a ceiling.

I do not think that I am actually asking the Minister to do anything more than has already been set out by the Government. The White Paper itself sets out those three tiers of powers. We will get to the point about the governance structures at a later date, and as the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale said earlier, I also completely dispute the point that we should have to accept a Mayor in order to get tier 3 powers.

Nevertheless, the Government have established a common framework—a common menu, as it were—from which to pick. This is the significant point of difference: I believe that should be a local choice. It should be the local leaders and local public deciding what powers they want. I must say that I think the bulk will want something towards the upper end, because they will understand that decisions will be made better locally and that they will have a better understanding than the centre about what they want for their communities and how to get it. The Government’s approach—the approach of the past 12 years—is to pick and choose, depending on the qualifications, or otherwise, they think the local leaders have. I think that is a significant mistake.

Amendment 26 seeks to improve that. Essentially, it would prevent the Secretary of State from doing a blizzard of different side deals with different communities, based on the powers they confer on a CCA by saying that, if they confer a certain power on the CCA, then an identical application from another CCA must also be accepted. That is saying that, if new ceilings are set, then everyone should have access to that. As I said, that will not result in perfect symmetry—anything but—that is not the intention of the amendment. However, it will mean that all communities have access to the same powers.

I am interested in what the Minister says to that and will listen carefully. If, in practice, the way in which the amendment is worded does not deliver that effect but, in the Minister’s view, there is a better way of doing it, then I would accept that heartily—it is the substance, rather than the amendment itself, that means something to me. However, it is a very important point.

This is the moment, on county combined authorities, to say that we are going to break free from this individual deal-by-deal way of devolution, and say that we just think the powers are better exercised locally—we should be explicit about that because it is a good thing to say—and that in doing so, everybody gets access to them, not just the ones that are deemed to be good enough. I think that would be a significant step forward for this legislation.

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As we work through the stages of devolution, we are dealing with different systems of politics, so there are real opportunities here, and I do not want those opportunities to be denied. Obviously, there are live negotiations around North Yorkshire and the opportunities that will present to us in York, but I do not want those opportunities to be choked off. I do not want to be looking across the Pennines at Manchester and constantly saying, “They’ve got it all”, when we have not got those powers. Manchester is going to move ahead economically, which will have social benefits, but we will be left behind. It is important that we are afforded those opportunities, even if that means taking on those powers one by one during the process of growing our confidence. I will be interested to hear the Minister’s response.
Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien
- Hansard - -

We have had asymmetric devolution in this country since 1998, when the Labour Government introduced devolution for London, Scotland and Wales, but not the rest of the country. In 2010, when we came into power, London was the only part of England that had a devolution deal; that was great for London, but the problem was that other areas of the country were not enjoying the same advantages. It was not even the case that there was symmetry between Scotland and Wales: there were differences in the name of the legislative body—Parliament versus Assembly—and in tax-raising powers, so the revealed preference of the last Labour Government was to have asymmetric devolution. I think that was justified by the different levels of readiness.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

We are all learning on this issue, but does the Minister acknowledge that that approach has brought us a call for an English Parliament from some quarters and, from other quarters, a greater propensity to want independence? We have to be careful that we do not break up the Union, or the federation, by what is being created in this Bill, and ensure that we maintain those ties that still bind us together.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien
- Hansard - -

I do not want to critique the decisions of the last Labour Government; I am merely pointing out that there was an acceptance of asymmetric devolution throughout that time, for all kinds of reasons of practicality.

The hon. Member for Nottingham North said earlier in the debate that the default should be alignment. We fundamentally do not agree with that, for reasons of localism; it is not what every local area wants. He also asked why these devolution deals are different, and mentioned two examples: the West of England not having a precept, and Cambridgeshire and Peterborough not having development corporations. The reason why those areas are different from the others is that that is what local people wanted, and it is what local leaders would agree to. That was their choice. That is localism, and that is generally the case for most of the variations in devolution agreements. It is about what local political leaders wanted to agree to—it is fundamentally about localism.

However, that is not the only reason why devolution agreements differ between areas. I will be candid: there are things that make it possible to go further in some areas than in others. It is partly about geography; does an area’s combined authority—the CCA, potentially—fit with the governance of the thing for which the area is trying to devolve powers? Is there geographic alignment, or will it take time to achieve in respect of various public services? Are local partners—perhaps the NHS, in the case of Greater Manchester’s health devolution agreement—ready to work with an area? Has an area been working on it for a long time prior to the devolution agreement?

In some cases, there is a tie to whether an area has a directly elected leader. We are clear that we prefer the direct accountability and clarity that comes with the directly elected leader model, which is why the framework we have set out enables places to go further if they choose to go with that model. In some cases, in respect of things such as the functions of a police and crime commissioner, we are not legally able to devolve powers to someone who is not directly elected.

I said earlier in the debate that, fundamentally, we will not make progress and the devolution agenda will not make progress if we have to move in lockstep—if a power offered to one place has to be offered to all. To quote the great Tony Blair,

“I bear the scars on my back”

from negotiating all these devolution agreements in Whitehall. It is no small thing to get elected Ministers of the Crown to give up their powers to people in different political parties. It is the case that different places are ready to do different things, and it is important for them to do different things.

It is not the case that there is no framework—a framework is set out on page 140 of the levelling-up White Paper—but it is clear that there will be variation within that. It is a basic framework. Indeed, the White Paper includes principle three, on flexibility:

“Devolution deals will be tailored to each area”—

they will be bespoke—

“with not every area necessarily having the same powers.”

It does, though, set out what may comprise a typical devolution deal at each level of the framework. It is clear from our experience that we can add to devolution deals over time, that areas will have more ideas about the things they want to pursue, that they will get ready to do new things and that we can go further over time. It is an iterative process, not a once-and-for-all deal.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale asked who this is for—is it for Whitehall or for the people? I put it to him that our flexible model is for the people, not for Whitehall. Tidy-minded Whitehall officials would love nothing more than to have a rigid framework in which “Each of these things must mean exactly the same. If one’s got it, everyone must have it. We’ll put you in a grid. Oh, the matrix is not right!” I assure the hon. Gentleman that Whitehall would love that. It would absolutely adore that—it is what Whitehall would fundamentally like. Our approach rejects that bureaucratic approach and instead gives people what they want locally and what they are ready for in an area. Doing that enables us to make iterative progress.

I am not having a go at the Opposition, but we inherited a situation in which there was no devolution in England outside London. We have been able to make progress partly because we have been able to work iteratively. If we had said in 2014, “If you are offering these new and novel powers to Greater Manchester, you must offer them to every other single place in England,” we would never have got anywhere. It is as simple as that. We have to work iteratively, and by doing so we have made good progress.

Emma Lewell-Buck Portrait Mrs Emma Lewell-Buck (South Shields) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am a little confused. My understanding was that the amendment does not say it has to be the same everywhere. It simply says that if an area requests a power that people have elsewhere, the Secretary of State should grant that request. I think the Minister misunderstands what the amendment is about.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O’Brien
- Hansard - -

I think I have directly addressed that point. I reject the Opposition statement that “The default should be alignment.” I have taken on quite directly the point that it is about not just each area wanting different things but different places having different geographies that do or do not fit with different local partners. It is the case that different places do or do not have the agreement of local institutional partners and it is the case that some places are more or less ready and have further institutional maturity and, indeed, that we continue to add to that. I am not hiding or running away from the fact that part of this is about a view of what is achievable, along with, most importantly, what local places want. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving me the chance to take that on directly. I will not hide from the fact that that is one of the reasons for variation. My final point is that one reason why we are able to make progress is that we can move the convoy not at the speed of the slowest.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

This has been a really good discussion. As the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale said, the fundamental question is, “Who is this for?”—that is exactly the question posed by the amendment—and I would add, “Who decides?”. At the moment, we will have devolution as long as it is what Ministers want—that is disappointing. Sadly, it is why, as the hon. Gentleman said, preconditions will be put on access to powers that do not relate to the exercise of those powers,

My hon. Friend the Member for York Central made an important point about patchwork Britain. As I have said, we are willing to live with local choice provided that it is the local choice—that is perfectly legitimate. I actually think that most communities will turn to the highest levels of power. I was perhaps too bashful to say this at the outset, but we need only set the operation of the powers against the Government’s record over 12 years. I do not think many councils will be thinking, “Please let this Government keep doing more things for me because it is going so well”—those that do will be very limited in number.

Yes, there has been asymmetry. I am glad that the Minister accepts the brilliance and goodness of Tony Blair. I must correct the Minister, though: he keeps saying the “last Labour Government”, but it is only the previous Labour Government—there is nothing final about it! [Laughter.] In all seriousness, this has to be about what communities want, not what Ministers want. The Minister said that for some communities, it is not the right time. Okay, but if the common ground for decisions to be made locally is the alignment of public services—that point was well made—could geographies that do not match naturally be converged if that is what local people want? I would support that, but it would take time. Provision should be included to allow them to access the powers when they want to. They should not have to rely on further regulations.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O’Brien
- Hansard - -

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way at what is probably quite an annoying time for me to intervene, but I want to highlight mission 10 of the missions that we discussed earlier. It states:

“By 2030, every part of England that wants one will have a devolution deal with powers at or approaching the highest level of devolution and a simplified, long-term funding settlement.”

I think that makes it clear that our intention is for the powers and the scope of devolution to move upwards over time. That has been the direction of travel since 2014.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to the Minister for that intervention because he has made an excellent case for my amendment. That is what it would do: all communities would have access to the highest level of power. The Minister used the word “bespoke”, but how does that fit? Why would we have a series of bespoke arrangements if we wanted all local communities to have access to the highest powers? Those two things do not sit together naturally.

The point I made earlier about the default position being one of alignment was in relation to the constitution of CCAs. Let us say that ten deals are done and ten sets of regulations are made. The default should be that those regulations say the same thing, unless there is a really good reason for them not to. I am not saying that for the entire settlement. As I have said, things will move over time, but access should be to the highest level of power.

This is not about moving in lockstep; I am sure that there will be different paces. I dare say that although I do not have the Minister’s perspective—I do not work with local communities on this day to day—I have a lot more confidence in local communities to take the powers on more quickly. They only have to beat the Government of the day, and I have a lot of confidence in them in that respect.

Certainly, I do not disagree with what the Minister said about the White Paper, but I am not willing to rely on it in lieu of a better alternative in the Bill. I must rely on what is in the Bill, so I will press the amendment to a Division.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

--- Later in debate ---
Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I, too, support this wise and important amendment. I am thinking again about my community in Cumbria. Many bus routes that serve the county cross boundaries including, indeed, regional boundaries, because many of Cumbria’s routes are through to: Northumberland and Durham, a different region; into North Yorkshire, a different region; and to Scotland, a different nation—not necessarily a matter for this Committee, I am afraid. We are bounded on one side by the sea and then at the bottom there is Lancashire—the same region, but very likely to be in a different CCA, if that is the direction in which the Government and the community seek to move.

Bus services cross boundaries, and of course people work in different communities. People in the south end of Cumbria will look to work in Lancaster and further south. Towards the eastern end, the dales part of my community will look towards Leeds or Skipton. Further north, people will work in Carlisle and Penrith, and so on. Bus services rightly do not respect artificial boundaries, and it is important that we regulate fairly.

It is also worth bearing in mind, though, that there are far too few bus services to regulate and they are far too expensive. In a rural community like mine—in fact in most communities, urban or rural—bus services do not make much money, if they make money at all. Rather than thinking about the burden on the taxpayer of a subsidy that we might ask for, we need to consider public transport as a crucial investment in the oiling of a community, and of an economy.

As we move towards CCAs, part of the ambition that I would like them to have, as they are integrated with transport authorities, is to be able to bring more services. It seems odd that we are in a country where most local authorities are forbidden from being operators themselves. We should allow authorities to become bus operators and make their own luck, and indeed to compete properly in order to provide services to their communities.

For people living in a rural community such as mine—living off the A6, the A591, or the A590—on those arterial routes there will be a very expensive bus service. Often, there will not even be an expensive bus service; there might be one a week if people are lucky. Giving power to local communities, and putting in a provision and an expectation that they will co-ordinate, regulate and make sure that there is fairness and continuity across boundaries, should also go hand in hand with ensuring that there is sufficient investment, so that we have more buses and indeed more light rail serving our communities, particularly in rural areas that are so remote and where the distances to travel are that much greater.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O’Brien
- Hansard - -

I agree with so much of what has been said by Members on the Opposition Benches. I agree about the importance of co-operation across boundaries. I have been very pleased to see the way that the West Midlands Combined Authority has improved transport even beyond its boundaries. Places that are negotiating devolution deals with us at the moment, from the south-west to the north-east, are thinking about that very actively.

I agree with what the hon. Members for Westmorland and Lonsdale and for York Central said about the importance of integration. It is one of the reasons that we have been keen to support bus franchising where people want that. I remember it being advocated to me nearly 22 years ago by the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer), who is a former leader of Manchester City Council. He spoke about the advantages of integration through having that London-style bus franchising, which we would be able to approach in different ways through devolution.

Our approach is to achieve voluntary co-operation, rather than setting a requirement or duty to co-operate. We always try to encourage co-operation wherever we can—indeed, to the point of the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale revealing that he had encouraged it across the England-Scotland border, through the wonderful borderlands growth deal.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the Minister acknowledge that many of those negotiations can take a significant amount of time, and can be not only incredibly painful when it comes to making progress, but at times quite conflictual, because there are conflicting interests at play, depending on the model of bus ownership and franchise that is operating?

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O’Brien
- Hansard - -

I absolutely agree. That is one reason why we are resisting the amendment—there are profound choices and it should be for local areas to make those choices.

The devolution framework absolutely recognises the importance of neighbouring authorities working together. Clearly, that is very important in CCAs being able to deliver their transport functions properly and to exercise control over local transport plans, and specifically to use these powers and controls to deliver high-quality bus services, as the hon. Member for York Central and the hon. Member for Nottingham North have said.

The amendment is unnecessary. There is already extensive collaboration between local transport authorities. Under current arrangements, there is a formal duty to co-operate, but not in the way that the amendment proposes. The current framework for local transport planning and guidance issued following the national bus strategy recently encouraged the joint development of bus service improvement plans. Examples exist in the West of England Combined Authority and North Somerset—two different areas—and also in Lancashire, with Blackburn and Darwen again working across the boundary of two top-tier local authorities. Those examples offer some further positive models of collaboration between local transport authorities in relation to planning local bus service improvements, which will include fare levels and service patterns, and all the other key issues.

We would expect CCAs to take the same collaborative approach with their neighbouring authorities, and I have to say that all the signs from the discussions we have had so far suggest that they want to take the same collaborative approach. We therefore feel that the existing mechanisms are sufficient to deliver and ensure the co-operation between authorities that we are talking about. As such, this amendment is unnecessary.

I hope that, given those assurances, the hon. Member for York Central will withdraw the amendment.

--- Later in debate ---
Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

This is an important amendment. Having served as a shadow Transport Minister, I know the importance of getting a system in place to ensure connectivity and reliability, as well as modal shift. These amendments would hold the Secretary of State to account through the requirement to set out the reasons for any inequality in the transport functions conferred on CCAs. Ultimately, the public have a right to understand the Secretary of State’s thinking on such matters, particularly as it could well have an impact on them.

As we will debate further as the Bill progresses, the national development management policies will be making particular demands around transport infrastructure in our country. I am sure that will be a major area of contentious debate, but if we are looking at some authorities having the means to address their local transport system and other local authorities not having equal means, that will create even more discontent and inequality.

Ultimately, our transport system is a national system because our connectivity across the country has to connect—that might seem an obvious point. My fear is that this inequality could mean a more stop-start approach to transport planning, as opposed to the smoothing that we know the road and bus industries—and indeed the transport sector as a whole—are calling for. Accountability for any differentiation of powers is important, and that is what these amendments call for. It is also important to understand the Secretary of State’s thinking about how they are putting the transport system together across our country.

I appreciate the Minister’s role, but what happens in what I described earlier as the capillary routes, as opposed to arterial routes, is of equal importance, because people will not maximise the opportunity of those routes if they cannot reach them. There has to be joined-up thinking that stretches beyond the remit of the Minister, but which is crucial to the Bill.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O’Brien
- Hansard - -

These amendments would require the Secretary of State to publish an annual report setting out any differences in transport, highway and traffic functions conferred on CCAs, the reasons for those differences and the extent to which economic, social and environmental wellbeing factors were considered in coming to decisions to confer different powers. The reports that the amendments seek are unnecessary as the information will already be available. The hon. Member for Nottingham North said that there should be an account, and I am happy to say that there will be.

Following a successful devolution deal negotiation, the devolution deal document and councils’ proposal will set out any transport and highways roles that the CCA will have, the intended outcome and the difference these will make to the area. Whatever functions to be conferred, including any on transport and highways, will be set out in regulations, which are considered by Parliament and must be approved by Parliament before they can be made. Parliament will have an explanatory memorandum explaining which transport powers are being conferred, and why, the views of the consultees and how the conferral meets the statutory test of improving economic, social and environmental wellbeing—the exact set of issues that the Opposition are keen to hear more about.

There will be differences, as I have said, to reflect the bespoke nature of devolution deals that address the needs of an individual area, seeking to maximise local opportunities to drive levelling up. At the moment, there are no integrated transport authorities in place, but the possibility of establishing one remains. Parliament will have all of this information available through other means; this amendment would create unnecessary bureaucracy.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am happy on the basis that this information will be available to Parliament. I hope that, if it is debated, Ministers will be as candid as the Minister has been throughout today’s proceedings and explain the precise reasons for any differences. That is an important part of effective scrutiny. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 19 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 20

Directions relating to highways and traffic functions

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

These are significant powers. We have talked about the importance of devolving highway and traffic functions to CCAs. The clause allows those powers to revert and the Secretary of State to direct. I want an assurance from the Minister that those powers would be used only in very exceptional circumstances, because I cannot believe that that ministerial lock is that necessary if we are really intending to devolve these powers.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O’Brien
- Hansard - -

I should reply to that, Mr Paisley. I cannot think of any instances where these powers have been used so far. Of course, there is a scenario in which a CCA was wound up. There are some issues in a particular case in the north-east at the moment about moving from a combined authority that covers part of the area to one that covers all of the metropolitan area. It might be that there are some legal powers one needs to make that happen, which is the will of the local authorities. However, in general, it is not our intention to suck powers upwards, but to devolve them.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 20 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 21

Contravention of regulations under section 20

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The clause concerns contraventions of the directions in clause 20. I know these powers have not been used and they mirror powers in the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009. However, I wonder whether the Minister would understandably think that there would be some sort of arbitration before these powers were perhaps used to their fullest. Of course, finance is involved in this clause.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O’Brien
- Hansard - -

I am sure there would be a lot of discussion before one came to these kind of steps, which are pretty dramatic. I am happy to discuss that further with the hon. Member for Nottingham North.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 21 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 22

Changes to boundaries of a CCA’s area

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move amendment 31, in clause 22, page 19, line 15, at end insert—

“(14) Where the Secretary of State makes provision under subsection (1)(b) to remove a local government area from a CCA, they must publish a statement setting out how that local government area that will have access to the powers they have lost in the future.”

This amendment would require the Secretary of State to explain how a local government area will in future have access to the powers they have lost as a result of removal from a CCA.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The amendments alter clauses 22 and 23. Clause 22 allows the Secretary of State, with the consent of the relevant local authorities in the CCA, to change a CCA’s boundaries. I would not expect it to be a frequently used power or, certainly, to be used soon after Royal Assent, but given the Minister’s earlier example of north and south of Tyne, I can understand that there could be a context, perhaps for a combined county authority, where something similar could happen.

Similarly, clause 23 allows for dissolution. Again, there might be a context where a CCA does not leave the husk body—I think that was how the Minister characterised it earlier. What is important, and what I am probing with these amendments, is that there will be some sense that this is not about the end of the devolution settlement for those areas and that they will not lose powers, but rather there will be a confirmation that these communities still have access to the same powers. The amendments would require the Secretary of State to provide an explanation of how those communities will still get access to those powers.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O’Brien
- Hansard - -

Although we have not yet established any combined county authorities, we need to look to the future and anticipate some scenario in which an established CCA wishes to change its boundary, or a CCA needs to be abolished. If that happens, Parliament will receive a statement and an explanatory memorandum explaining the boundary change or dissolution, any conferral of powers, the views of the consultees, and how it meets the statutory tests of improving economic, social and environmental wellbeing. It will then be considered in a debate. In addition, the Secretary of State may make regulations changing the area of a CCA only if that is something that the area consents to, and a CCA cannot be abolished without the consent of a majority of its members and of the Mayor, if there is one. It cannot be imposed.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful for the Minister’s reply, which gives me some confidence that things will happen as we would have hoped. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Miss Dines.)

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill (Fifth sitting)

Neil O'Brien Excerpts
Tuesday 28th June 2022

(1 month, 2 weeks ago)

Public Bill Committees
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Patricia Gibson Portrait Patricia Gibson (North Ayrshire and Arran) (SNP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

There is a lot of interest in the idea of levelling up and its lofty and laudable aims, but warm words and good intentions, of themselves, will not reduce inequality across the UK. There is a real flaw in the Bill’s lack of accountability and ownership of each of the 12 levelling-up missions on the part of individual UK Government Departments. Amendments 3, 5, 10 and 12 and new clause 1 seek to address that lack of accountability.

Of course, the Government have given themselves the power to move the goalposts, change their targets, and look as if they are doing what they said they would do even if they are not. Rather than merely marking their own homework, they are also ready to lower the pass mark of the test if they fail it. That tells us how important the Government’s levelling-up plans are. If they really had the confidence in this flagship commitment that they profess to have, why would there be any baulking about objectively measuring their progress on levelling up?

These amendments seek to lock independent scrutiny of the progress of levelling up into this flagship Bill. Here we are, having to debate it, when it should be taken as read. The Institute for Public Policy Research has also called for an independent body, established in law, to oversee and judge the UK’s progress on levelling up. What Government with true confidence in their ability to deliver their goals, as this Government say they have, would resist that kind of scrutiny and accountability? Surely they would exalt in it; it would be the opportunity to demonstrate their success. What have this Government to fear from transparent and objective allocation mechanisms for delivery? The only conclusion that can be drawn is that the Government know that there is more bluster here than actual substance.

True levelling up, of course, requires actual investment, but the necessary financial backing appears to be absent. Any investment must be delivered in a non-partisan and transparent way. Let us not forget that the Institute for Fiscal Studies has pointed out that departmental budgets will actually be lower in 2025 than they were in 2010. How that chimes with and supports the idea of levelling up is something that I am struggling to understand.

Levelling up is an admirable principle, but if the Government are confident that they can deliver, as they say they are, what possible objection can there be to scrutiny? With such attempts to avoid independent scrutiny, it feels as if there is agenda beyond levelling up. If the levelling-up missions do not have the effect of reducing inequality across the UK, then they will have objectively failed in their goal. These amendments seek to measure that progress. Who can object to that?

If the very foundation of the Bill—the ability to deliver greater equality across the UK—is not open to full and transparent, evaluative, published scrutiny, and if that is not written into the Bill, the very principles on which it purports to stand are built on sand, will not inspire confidence and, I fear, will not deliver. I absolutely agree that we do not need the fanfare of a Bill to reduce inequality; it could just be done—a Bill is not needed. A Bill whose stated aims are not open to transparency and independent scrutiny is definitely not a Bill we need, and we are right to be sceptical.

Neil O'Brien Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (Neil O'Brien)
- Hansard - -

It is a pleasure to begin line-by-line scrutiny of this important Bill with you in the Chair, Mr Paisley. We have a very distinguished Committee and I look forward to some thoughtful and enlightening debates.

The Government’s defining mission is to level up our country—to close the gap in productivity, health, incomes and opportunity between different parts of the country. That goal is made all the more urgent in the face of cost of living pressures and the inequalities laid bare and deepened by the pandemic.

The levelling-up White Paper sets out that levelling up is a moral, social and economic programme for the whole of Government, not just one Department, to spread opportunity and prosperity more equally throughout the country. The Bill sets out the framework for delivering on our levelling-up missions and places a statutory duty on the Government for the first time to set missions to reduce geographic disparities and to produce an annual report on our progress.

The Government absolutely recognise that scrutiny and seeking expert advice will be important to ensuring that we deliver on our missions and level up the country. That is why we have established the Levelling Up Advisory Council, chaired by Andy Haldane, former chief economist at the Bank of England, to provide the Government with expert advice to inform the design and delivery of the missions.

The council is made up of an expert and distinguished group of people. It includes Katherine Bennett, chief executive officer of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult and chair of the Western Gateway, which brings together the research and development strengths of the Bristol region with south Wales; Sir Tim Besley and Sir Paul Collier, two of our most distinguished economists from the London School of Economics and Oxford; Cathy Gormley-Hennan from Ulster University; Sally Mapstone, principal of the University of St Andrews; Laxman Narasimhan from Reckitt Benckiser; Sacha Romanovitch from Fair4All Finance; Hayaatun Sillem, chief executive officer of the Royal Academy of Engineering; and Sir Nigel Wilson, chief executive of Legal and General. These are very independent-minded people—serious people with deep expertise. The reason why we have brought them together is that we respect and value independent, thoughtful, expert advice.

The Government are committed to enabling Parliament, the public and other experts outside the advisory panel to fully scrutinise progress against our missions. The proposed initial set of metrics have already been published in the levelling-up White Paper, in the technical annex—40 pages, which give all the different ways we will measure all the different missions in incredible, unprecedented detail. I do not remember such detail under any previous Government. The metrics were published in the White Paper and will be refined over time. The analysis included in the annual report to Parliament will be based on the metrics that are here and included in the statement of levelling-up missions that will be laid before the House.

Given the level of transparency and reporting, and the level of input from deep experts, it is unclear what value an independent body would add. The Government will be required to report on set missions within set metrics and methodologies. Instead of creating a new independent body, the Government believe that levelling-up missions can be better supported by focusing on delivering those missions themselves—by getting on with it, as the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale said. It is also wrong to argue that without an independent body, the Government’s progress towards delivering missions will not be subject to independent external scrutiny. Parliament, the public, think-tanks and civil society will all have an opportunity to comment and report on how well the Government deliver missions, in response to our annual reports.

Patricia Gibson Portrait Patricia Gibson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

This has just occurred to me as the Minister has been speaking. I am curious: if child poverty does not reduce, will the levelling-up programme and mission be considered a success or a failure?

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien
- Hansard - -

The hon. Lady raises a really important point. The last Labour Government had a statutory child poverty target; that target was literally locked into legislation. Was it hit? It was not hit, no. That is why we have adopted the approach that we have; just writing something into law does not mean that it happens, unfortunately. That is why we have created the independent architecture around levelling-up missions: to provide both really serious external expertise in the work that we are doing—I do not think anybody disputes the fact that these are really independent, serious people; and an unprecedented level of detail, to give everybody who wants to criticise the programme all the resources and exact detail they need to do just that. I do not remember any of those things happening under previous Governments.

Missions are intended to anchor Government policy and decision making to level up the UK. However they should not be set in stone. As the economy adapts, so too might the missions, to reflect the changing environment and lessons learned. Of course, some of these things can be tightened over time; we have made remarkable progress on our missions to roll out Project Gigabit and the Shared Rural Network, which are a £5 billion intervention and £1 billion intervention respectively. Over the course of just the last two years, they have transformed the availability of gigabit internet and rural 4G.

Opposition Front-Benchers said, “Why do you have to change some of the missions? That seems very dodgy to us.” Some of the missions will literally have to change. For example, one of the missions that I am very proud of is the one to increase domestic public R&D spending outside the greater south-east of England by a third over the period covered by the spending review. Of course, that prompts the question, “What will happen after the spending review?” We will have to change that mission, otherwise it will just become meaningless. Things have to adapt over time, of course, and I think that everyone recognises that levelling up is a long-term mission; nobody thinks that any of these things, some of which are century-long problems, can be solved in the course of one or two years.

However, the Opposition Front-Benchers made a very important point: the Bill sets out that any changes to missions should be—indeed, have to be—fully and transparently explained and justified through a statement to Parliament where they occur. Nothing will happen without Parliament knowing about it.

Hon. Members on the Opposition front page—Freudian slip; Front Bench—would recognise that some of the missions will just have to change over time; there is no point locking in a three-year mission for the next 30 years. This layer of transparency enables the public and civil society at large to comment on the Government’s decisions. It is unclear what additional benefit an independent body would bring. The Bill sets out that any changes to missions should be fully and transparently explained and justified where they occur. The missions will be rolling endeavours.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The big challenges facing our society, such as climate and the economy, have independent bodies, but inequality and the injustices that come from it will not. What do the Government see as the value of independence when it comes to the Office for Budget Responsibility and the Climate Change Committee that they do not see with this particular agenda?

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien
- Hansard - -

That is an extremely good and useful question. Everyone remembers the backstory about why we created the OBR. As Chancellor, Gordon Brown changed the assumption about how fast the UK economy would grow, to prop up and justify to the public extraordinarily high levels of public spending. When the financial crisis happened, his decision to change the assumption about how fast the UK economy would grow proved catastrophic, and we ended up with the largest structural deficit of any major developed economy in the world going into the financial crisis, with catastrophic effects on public spending and public services that lasted for a generation.

We changed that because it is very difficult for anyone outside the Treasury to challenge or see some of the forecasting assumptions being made; the macroeconomic and technical work that was happening only within the Treasury prior to the OBR was difficult for anybody to scrutinise externally. Anybody, even Opposition Front-Benchers, could tomorrow update every single bit of data in this document. All these things are public sources; it is straightforward for anybody to hold us to account for them.

However, when it comes to the OBR, it is not quite so straightforward to say, “No, I think the output gap should be different. I think that your assumptions about the fiscal impact of excise duty changes interacting with changes in consumer behaviour are wrong.” That is a fundamentally more difficult thing to do. Ultimately, the OBR was created to protect the Treasury from the kind of behaviours that, I am afraid, we saw under the last Labour Government.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell
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Will the Minister give way?

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
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Will the Minister give way one more time?

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien
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We are going to have to make progress this morning, I am afraid, because we have a lot of clauses to get through. The Opposition amendments are well intentioned—given who the shadow Ministers are, it could not be otherwise—but they are unnecessary and that is why we must resist them.

None Portrait The Chair
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Rachael Maskell, you can make another speech, as this is line-by-line scrutiny.

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None Portrait The Chair
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Does any other Member wish to catch my eye? Does the Minister wish to respond?

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien
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indicated dissent.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
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I start by saying—given that one of my Whips is in the room, I should not say this—that, for the reasons mentioned, I enjoy these Bill Committees. I am not sure whether I will enjoy them in a few weeks’ time, because we will have been at it for a long time.

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Patricia Gibson Portrait Patricia Gibson
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Amendment 13 would place

“a responsibility on the Government to publish the resources made available to communities in order to level-up”.

Who could argue with that? In not arguing with it, I cannot help reminding the Minister that Scotland was promised a £1.5-billion-a-year bonanza as part of the Brexit windfall. Of course, the reality is that Scotland has received 40% less funding than it did under the EU funding agenda, and it has suffered a 5.2% cut in its resource budget and a 9.7% cut in its capital budget. Perhaps the Minister can tell us how that supports the levelling-up agenda, because I certainly cannot understand. It is quite galling that as this Government show disrespect to devolved Parliaments—democratically elected Parliaments—by impinging on devolved powers and bypassing the democratic will of the Scottish people in devolved areas, they simultaneously cut their budget in the context of levelling up.

Despite the stated goals of the legislation, the Minister has been unable to say—perhaps he will do so when he gets to his feet—whether the levelling-up missions would result in a reduction in inequality to the point where we would see a reduction in child poverty. What kind of levelling-up commitment would not address the basic social scourge of child poverty? I cannot think what the point of any of this is if we are not committed to tackling that most basic and serious ill.

Of course, as we have heard, we do not need a fanfare to tackle inequality; we just need to get on and do it. We can exalt in our success if indeed we have it, but we do not need a Bill that runs to hundreds of pages but cannot even commit to transparency or to publishing details of the resources that it is willing to use.

In Scotland, the Scottish Government have tried, with their limited powers, to instigate levelling up—for example, with the Scottish child payment of £20 per child per week. That is real levelling up, and these are the kinds of measures that the Bill really ought to tackle to build a more inclusive society. As food bank use rises, we have a real opportunity if we are serious about levelling up, but it takes targeted political will and a determination to tackle the causes of inequality. That is not an easy thing to do—we have to put in a real shift—but a Bill that runs to a few hundred pages with vague missions that objectively cannot be held to account will not convince anybody.

It is clear to see that the resources for true levelling up will not be made available, certainly from the Scottish perspective with the figures I have cited. For all the warm words, and there have been many, it is difficult to have confidence that our communities will see any tangible difference as a result of this fanfare—sorry, this Bill. The Government should have no problem with amendment 13, because they know that no levelling up can happen without resources. Presumably, if they are serious about levelling up, those resources will be committed, so why not publish them? Why do the Government not exalt in their success and the resources they are willing to expend? If this levelling-up Bill and agenda do not reduce inequality or tackle poverty, child poverty or child hunger, I honestly cannot see the point of them.

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O'Brien
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I agree completely with the spirit behind the amendment, and we are actively working to bring about what Opposition Members want. However, we do not think the amendment works, and I will explain why. Official statistics about public spending in different places are widely available already. Her Majesty’s Treasury already publishes a regional breakdown for total current and capital identifiable expenditure per head through PESA—Public Expenditure Statistical Analyses—which is my favourite regional statistical document.

We are also taking steps to improve the quality of spatial data. The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has established a new spatial data unit to drive forward the data transformation required in central Government. It is frustrating to us that many of the types of data that should have existed for years still do not. The spatial data unit supports the delivery of levelling up by transforming the way the UK Government gather, store and use sub-national data, so that it can underpin transparent and open policy making and delivery decisions. It is completely in that spirit that we are acting to improve data on all levels.

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Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell
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I am listening carefully to the Minister, who has talked about input as opposed to outcomes. In the light of our seeing gross inequalities and life expectancy for some people in our poorest communities decreasing, there is clearly something that is not working in the Minister’s methodology to deliver the outcomes we want to see to close the inequality gap. Will he expand on how he sees the shifting of the dial, as opposed to what we on the Opposition Benches perceive as more of a scattergun approach in terms of where the money still seems to be going through the methodologies he has described?

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O’Brien
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We are the Government who are creating—literally, through the Bill and the clauses we are debating this very morning—a mission to close the gap in healthy life expectancy between local areas, and between the highest and lowest areas, and to raise it by five years by 2035. These are the missions that the Bill will be getting us to report on every year to Parliament, so we are addressing the hon. Lady’s point. Through the health disparities White Paper and the other things the Government are doing, we are addressing as one of our central priorities the underlying causes of lower life expectancy and the inequalities she mentioned.

To summarise, while we are completely with the spirit of the Opposition’s amendments—we are trying to get better data and have processes in place that are generating better data, because we recognise its importance to the levelling-up agenda—there is, in truth, no hard and fast difference between levelling-up resources and the rest of Government resources. Indeed, philosophically, it is important to recognise that one should not think just about levelling-up funds. Much as one can rattle off an impressive list, one should think about how we reform the totality of Government spending.

That is one of the novel aspects of the White Paper’s approach. For a long time, people thought of science funding in a science policy silo, and thought that it should be allocated to science excellence, with no spatial dimension. We are the first Government to set regional targets for science spending, recognising its importance to potentially addressing some of the inequalities that the Opposition have mentioned this morning. We have changed the Treasury Green Book. We have started to allocate housing and regeneration spending differently so that we can get out of the cycles that Tom Forth and other regional economic policy experts have talked about: some bits of the country are overloaded and people cannot get on a train or buy a house, while other parts are crying out for investment and have lots of scope to take on growth.

I hope that I have given the Opposition at least an honest account of why we are resisting the amendment, even though we absolutely agree with its spirit.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
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I am really grateful for the contributions to what has been a good debate. I will cover some of the points made by my Opposition colleagues and then move on to what the Minister said. Turning to my hon. Friend the Member for York Central, Great British Railways is a brilliant example of what we are talking about. We remember the press release on, I think, 5 February, which came shortly after the White Paper and was seen very much as an element of the levelling-up agenda—indeed, it says that on the Government’s website. The location of Great British Railways will be determined through an online public vote. It is like “Love Island”, Mr Paisley. Anyone watching this series knows that we badly need a vote to try to shake things up, but I do not think it is how we should determine the location of—

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
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I apologise, Mr Paisley. I will get straight back to Great British Railways and levelling up. My hon. Friend the Member for York Central made a strong case for York and, if the hon. Member for Broxtowe promises not to tell my constituents, I might make a strong case for Derby. We are generally not allowed to do such things, but that is my one for the year—[Laughter.]

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O’Brien
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There is some confusion on the Opposition Benches.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
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Happily, it does not look like the hon. Member for Broxtowe is going to grass me up.

The whole process—we can already see this because people are being encouraged to use a hashtag—will involve TikTok videos and be nauseatingly modern. I know that the Minister does not like things as nauseatingly modern as that, so I cannot believe it for a second—he is sitting sphinx-like, which is of course fine. The constant beauty parade and artificial competition just take energy out of things. Of course, someone will win, and that will be wonderful news, and I will be very pleased for them, but multiple places will lose as a result. That cannot be the best way to level up. I know the Minister talked about a balanced diet, but I will cover that shortly.

My hon. Friend the Member for York Central spoke about where she sees the future for her community and her region, with an emphasis on biotech, rail and the creative sector, and that will be different in Nottingham, Leicestershire or West Yorkshire. That is a good thing. Part of levelling up will be about, as we understand it, sub-regions taking control of where they think their local economies are going to go and the skills they will need to ensure they get that. Getting the resources to make sure they can do that, which is what this amendment is about, is fundamental. This is about resource going to those communities so that they can make those decisions for themselves. I think that the people of York and the sub-region in which my hon. Friend works will have a better say about that than Ministers themselves.

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Let me finish on the Minister’s point about the inconsistencies that he perceives in our positions. Our positions are not inconsistent; they are entirely clear. We want to move away from the beauty parades and to proper funding, based on need, for communities to shape their own direction. That is our position. The Minister said that contrasts with the points that I made about value for money and the spending so far that pushes us instantly to half a dozen analyses, but that is not the point I was making. I was making the point that the Government spend so far has barely passed even the most basic financial tests.
Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O’Brien
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The PAC reported on the levelling-up fund. Are there any particular levelling-up fund bids that we are funding that the hon. Gentleman would like to say represent bad value for money and should be withdrawn?

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
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The Minister knows that is unkind. I am not going to stand here and pick at one. We could go down the entire list of 157 local authorities, virtually all of which are significantly worse off, by tens of millions of pounds; I am not going to turn around and say that one of their projects should not happen. Please—of course I am not going to say that. The Minister says that the Public Accounts Committee picked up on the levelling-up fund, but that is not true: it has reported on the towns fund, too. This is a long-running issue and there are more than three years-worth of reports.

Oral Answers to Questions

Neil O'Brien Excerpts
Monday 27th June 2022

(1 month, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Ben Lake Portrait Ben Lake (Ceredigion) (PC)
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13. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on improving the digital connectivity of the hardest-to-reach premises as referenced in the levelling-up White Paper.

Neil O'Brien Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (Neil O’Brien)
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I am in regular contact with other Ministers on this subject, which is very important for rural areas. Through Project Gigabit we are investing £5 billion in better broadband. At the start of 2019, just 7% of Welsh households could get gigabit internet; now 51% can. We are investing a further £1 billion in the shared rural network, which will increase 4G coverage in mid and west Wales from 86% to 97%.

Ben Lake Portrait Ben Lake
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Minister will be aware that some 19% of properties in Ceredigion currently receive broadband speeds of under 10 megabits per second. Although there are plans to improve connectivity in a number of these areas, there are other communities in villages such as Plwmp, Brynhoffnant, Blaenporth, Penrhiwllan, Ffostrasol and Rhydlewis that are not currently subject to any plans. How will the Government ensure that such communities will benefit from improved connectivity even when commercial companies have not thus far brought forward any plans?

Neil O'Brien Portrait Neil O’Brien
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That is a very important observation. I mentioned some of the huge investments that we are making and the pace that things are moving, but we want them to happen even more quickly. I have a lot of respect for the hon. Member, and if he would like to discuss further how we can make the new roll-out go even faster, I would love to do that.

Stephanie Peacock Portrait Stephanie Peacock (Barnsley East) (Lab)
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14. What recent assessment he has made of the impartiality of criteria used to award levelling-up funds.

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Sarah Atherton Portrait Sarah Atherton (Wrexham) (Con)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

T6. Wrexham’s levelling-up gateway bid is supported by a 16,000-signature petition, which we will present to No. 10, to redevelop the Kop stand at the racecourse and create an international sporting stadium in north Wales for the first time. Does the Minister agree that people are at the heart of the Government’s levelling-up agenda and the amount of people who have signed the petition shows its true value?

Neil O'Brien Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (Neil O'Brien)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I pay tribute to her leadership on this issue. We look forward to seeing the bid.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the SNP spokesperson.

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill (Third sitting)

Neil O'Brien Excerpts
Neil O'Brien Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (Neil O'Brien)
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Q Thank you, Mrs Murray. The Bill comes at a time when various processes to look at the reform of neighbourhood governance are still under way, but it still contains a number of important changes, be it the strengthening of neighbourhood plans or the changes to the infrastructure levy, with potentially larger sums for neighbourhood communities. There are also things such as street votes and high street rental auctions, which might give community groups, and indeed parish councils and the like, a chance to get on to the high street and increase their visibility. Reflecting as practitioners of neighbourhood governance, what is your advice on how best we can put into practice the different measures in the Bill so that they best channel the energies and pick up the concerns of neighbourhoods and local communities?

Jonathan Owen: We are really keen to see the detail on some of the other aspects of the neighbourhood governance review. The White Paper held out for us real promise to ensure that the opportunities of devolution and levelling up were really seized, so I hope you will not mind if start off by encouraging you to consider how you can build aspects of that wider review into the Bill. We are particularly keen to see the review conducted within quite a reasonable timescale, to be involved in the process and to make sure that any proposals that come out of it are enacted. We would quite like to see some sort of placeholder clause put in for street votes, to say that the neighbourhood governance review will be completed within a certain time and the agreed proposals enacted. I do not know whether that is possible, but I really do think you might miss an opportunity if you do not engage fully in that review and implement some of its actions.

The key things for us are about making it easier to set up parish and town councils. At the moment, about two thirds of the country has a parish, but only about a third of the population, which means that two thirds of the population are missing out on having the first tier of local government supporting community empowerment and helping them address the big challenges that we face. Many of you will be aware of the research done by Onward. Its social fabric index showed that places with parish councils tended to have a stronger community identity and so forth. I think there are some real opportunities that need to be picked up either as part of the Bill or as part of that wider neighbourhood governance review.

The other big area for us is funding of the sector. At the moment, our councils are not necessarily able to access some funding streams, such as the community ownership fund and other things. It would be good to look at making it possible for them to access that funding. An interesting example of that was how, through the covid pandemic, a lot of our 10,000 councils stepped up really early, as you will be aware, to set up volunteering arrangements and support local communities. Many of them did really great things, but many of them lost out from lost income. You were able to compensate the principal authorities but unable to compensate parish councils that had lost out. To be honest, principal authorities were reluctant to devolve much of the funding they received down to our level.

I think you should consider using the Bill to put in place a mechanism whereby you would be able to fund local councils directly. That could be really helpful to this Government and probably to future Governments when another big problem happens, such as the pandemic, so that you would be able to reach down to communities throughout the country and provide some financial support or lifeline as necessary.

On the street votes, we will be interested to see the detail on that and, again, picking up on my other point on neighbourhood planning, we just need to make sure that that complements and does not replace the wider neighbourhood planning role.

Finally, returning to the last question on digitalisation, the holding of remote meetings has been really useful in the last couple of years. We have seen evidence that lots of members of the public have attended parish and town council meetings because they are able just to attend for the one item that interests them, which is often a planning matter. Enabling councils to meet remotely and have engagement remotely from residents would be really good.

Tony Burton: I think it is a really helpful question to be asking at this stage. There is experience from similar questions that came through on the Localism Act 2011, from which some of the existing community rights measures stemmed. If we look back over those 10 years, we see that some have been successful and some have disappeared, frankly—they might be on the statute book but no one is using the power they provide. The things that worked are those that responded to what people want—there may be lessons here for the provisions you cited and others in the Bill. They were a response to what our communities were asking for, as opposed to us saying, “We’ve got a good idea. Please will you use it.” Some came with support and help, which allowed communities to really understand how to navigate and use the process and talk to others that are maybe slightly further ahead of them in the process. Some in a sense held the ring on some of the bigger questions.

That is why neighbourhood planning is so good. It is such a flexible and strategic tool, as well as being locally specific. You can make it a single policy about a single issue if you want, or you can make it a mini local plan that covers the bases. It is up to the community to drive that process.

I would also encourage you to anticipate where there will be blockages in the application of whatever powers or rights are being established. With neighbourhood planning we have had to retrofit a lot of those, and it has not been that helpful. There have been things such as the timetables for local authorities to make decisions and some of the powers to appeal to the Secretary of State. It is actually worth stress testing these against the worst cases within which they are trying to be applied as well as thinking that we are always going to be operating in a benevolent environment.