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By LGCnet political correspondent Robert Hedley ...
By LGCnet political correspondent Robert Hedley

Sixteen of the Bills outlined in the Queen's Speech had implications for local authorities, with some imposing severe demands on hard-pressed authorities, shadow secretary of state for local and devolved government David Curry told MPs.

They were debating local government, environment and transport aspects of the planned legislative programme which, Mr Curry claimed, contained one important omission - any mention of a draft Bill on elected regional assemblies.

Opening the debate, deputy prime minister John Prescott said the housing Bill would protect vulnerable people by tackling unscrupulous landlords; the planning Bill would speed up the delivery of new homes, schools and hospitals; and the fire services Bill would improve security by enabling the service to respond to the threat from terrorism.

Over the past 25 years the role of the fire service had changed fundamentally, and would continue to change in future. The Bill will create a new duty for fire and rescue authorities to respond to serious civil emergencies, ranging from flooding to terrorist incidents. It was important to better integrate the emergency services, said Mr Prescott. The Bill would also create a duty to promote fire safety.

Anne McIntosh, Conservative MP for Vale of York, said there was widespread concern and confusion about local fire services being told, on the one hand, to consider sharing control room and other facilities with other emergency services, and on the other to desist from doing that and consider regionalisation policies.

Mr Prescott agreed that a certain amount of confusion might be caused while the debate was ongoing, but change was certainly needed.

Bob Spink, Conservative MP for Castle Point, and Liberal Democrat spokesman Edward Davey questioned why there were no proposals to bring empty homes back into use, possibly through compulsory leasing. Mr Prescott said the government was studying a Law Commission report on some aspects of tenant s and compulsory purchase, and it would continue the issues again.

He added that houses in multiple occupation were some of the worst properties. The government was to introduce a licensing scheme for the highest risk HMOs. Licensees would need to show they were fit and proper to manage the property and that arrangements were in place to ensure adequate management standards were met.

Mr Prescott said he was aware of concerns about the cost of home information packs , to be provided by people selling their homes.The main elements of the pack will be a search, a home condition report, an energy efficiency certificate and legal fees. The government was discussing the possibility of a phased introduction of the packs as part of a national roll-out.

However, both Mr Curry and Mr Davey urged the deputy prime minister to scrap the idea.

Mr Prescott said the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill was part of the wider strategy to reform the planning system, making it fairer, faster and more predictable. It would bring clarity, certainty and a new sense of strategic direction to the planning system. It would also make the compulsory purchase system simpler, fairer and quicker.

He told Henry Bellingham, Conservative MP for North-West Norfolk, that regional planning frameworks should not be in the hands of the counties.

'The county council will still be entitled to have a discussion about that, but in the main planning will be done at a regional level. That is what we have always said, and we will continue to do so. The regional spatial networks and the local frameworks will fit together to achieve sustainable community development', added Mr Prescott.

Mr Davey asked whether the deputy prime minister felt 'a little uncomfortable taking power away from elected bodies and giving it to unelected regional planning boards'.

He replied that in the north, the people would have the opportunity to have elected regional assemblies. If they said yes, democratic accountability would exists. At the moment, indire ctly elected bodies or assemblies would be consulted on regional spatial development.

The Bill also paved the way for the new business planning zones.

Mr Curry, replying, said: 'A decision has been made to hold referendums in the three northern regions, based on expressions of interest that were so meagre as to be practically subliminal; and now we have preliminary proposals on the reorganisation of two-tier government in those areas - with no price tag attached, of course.

'We know that that reorganisation will be unwanted, unnecessary, disruptive and expensive'.

Mr Curry said no one could object to the aim of creating a fairer, faster planning system, with greater community participation, but could it be delivered? The Bill had been around for a long time, but does the regional framework make the process of democratising planning more, rather than less, remote. Nor had the deputy prime minister said there would be a statutory consultation role for councils.

'The measure is supposed to speed things up, but there is an extraordinarily complex web of schemes, including a local development framework, a local development scheme document, local development plan documents, and development plans and policies, each with their own timetable for community involvement, revision and appeals', added Mr Curry.

He said the legislation programme raised a huge question - the capacity of local authorities to deliver.

'Some 16 Bills in the Queen's Speech have implications for local authorities. Some - the Housing Bill for example - have enormous implications where local authorities will be in the front line', said Mr Curry.

'The Bill on school transport is smaller, but nonetheless has implications. The planning Bill has enormous implications for local authorities. In this complex, modern world - in which a lot depends on forecasting technologies - we are discovering that the capacity of public bodies to deliver is understressed'.

He said local authorities would be under severe financial pressure this yea r, and ministers were saying capping would be back for councils.

'Yet many will find that increasing council tax by two or three times the equivalent rise in the rate of inflation is inescapable. We know that district councils and those services closest to the citizen will be under pressure because of the general 2.2% increase', claimed Mr Curry.

He said the government talked about lots of local authority freedoms, but it was imposing a large number of responsibilities on local authorities. The government must ensure they received the means to deliver on their responsibilities.

Hansard 1 dec 2003; Column 239 - 340

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