(L36) Local Government Consultation
12 Oct 2005 : Column 296 : 12.31 pm (from Hansard)
Ed. Private Members Bills rarely become law. However, they certainly reflect one MP's point of view, often capture a consensus beyond party bounds and strike a resonance amongst many people further afield. When Mr Liddell-Grainger says that To consult is a laudable democratic principle it clearly touches on a subject close to the heart of the Crystal Palace Campaign and has a bearing on the current Stakeholders Dialogue process. This has been running for about three years and has helped form the proposals put forward to substantially regenerate our dilapidated but much loved, historic Crystal Palace Park.
Consultation 12 Oct
Local Government Consultation
12 Oct 2005
Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide a statutory framework for full public consultation by local authorities in England whenever major developments are proposed by such authorities.
Those hon. Members who are currently scuttling towards the exit are, perhaps, on their way to talk to constituents, to take advice from their Whips or to listen to their secretaries. They are off to indulge in what everybody describes as "consultation". I wish that they would stay, because consultation is precisely what my little Bill is all about.
To consult is a laudable democratic principle. Every weekend, I consult my constituents: I consult my office, my family, the butcher, the baker and even the candlestick-maker when he is not up to his wick in wax! I do not have to take a blind bit of notice of any of them, but we like to consult, do we not? We like to go through the motions of seeking opinion; we may not be convinced by all that we hear, but at least we have bothered to ask. As a matter of fact, I am a committed advocate of consultation, but I want it to mean something. I want the people who give us their views to know that we have taken notice and, perhaps, have even adopted some of their ideas. I want consultation that works, which is what this Bill is about.
Consultation has become a ludicrous buzzword. The Government swear by it; 205 different consultations on new Government plans are currently under way, to which those of us with strong opinions and ample time are free to contribute our thoughts. There is, however, one small drawback: consultation does not involve any debate at all. The public are invited to pour in their opinion, which may be plagiarised, twisted or ignored.
The scale of the consultation industry reminds me of the old maxim, "divide and rule". There are now so many official consultations that it is well nigh impossible to keep abreast of them, let alone to contribute. In addition to the Government's 205 open consultations, all of which are listed on a website that is expensively devoted to that purpose, there is an even bigger list of the Government's closed consultations. For example, the Health and Safety Executive is consulting on regulations concerning vibration at work. My office in this building is underneath Big Ben, so I consider myself an expert on vibration at work. Under the rules that govern closed consultations, however, I am not expert enough, so, although my entire body shakes uncontrollably whenever the clock strikes the hour, as far as the Health and Safety Executive is concerned, I can get knotted.
Such are the small complications of consultation, but the big complications are much more serious. Consultations are voluntary, are not binding, and sad to say, are sometimes unworthy of the very paper that they end up being printed on. Making sure that consultation takes place at all is left to a toothless instrument of political persuasion - the vague, woolly and completely unenforceable code of conduct. Where would poor old Moses be today if God had handed him a code of conduct rather than 10 proper commandments? "Thou
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shalt not covet thy neighbour's ass" has more of a ring to it than, "Perhaps it would be better to leave the livestock alone."
If anyone wants to examine the William Shakespeare of codes of conduct, I invite them to scrutinise that devised by those matchless boffins of blether and bureaucracy, the Cabinet Office. This is how it sounds:
"Code 1. Consult widely throughout the process, allowing a minimum of 12 weeks for consultation."
What is meant by "widely"? Is that everybody, almost everybody, a chosen handful, or what?
"Code 2. Be clear about what your proposals are."
Clarity in government - that is a novelty.
"Code 3. Ensure that your consultation is concise and accessible."
How is one to do that?
"Code 4. Give feedback regarding the responses received and how the consultation process influenced the policy."
What sort of feedback?
"Code 5. Monitor your department's effectiveness at consultation, including through the use of a designated consultation co-ordinator."
In other words, hire a few more civil servants.
"Code 6. Ensure your consultation follows better regulation best practice, including carrying out a Regulatory Impact Assessment."
Where would we all be without a regulatory impact assessment?
What the Cabinet Office does today, our local authorities are encouraged, cajoled or pretty well forced to do tomorrow. That is the problem. Codes of conduct are growing like Topsy. Consultations are bursting out everywhere about everything. They generate mountains of paper, they are not legally binding, and there are no set standards whatever.
Before the general election - the only bit of recent genuine national consultation in this country - I argued in my constituency that we could do with some proper consultation whenever controversial schemes are proposed by local authorities. I had in mind the plans of West Somerset district council to shift offices and redevelop land. Months later - years later - discussions about those plans are still going on. I am certain that there would have been far fewer grounds for argument or anger if the council had properly consulted people fully from the start.
First we need a decent definition of the word itself. The "Pocket Oxford Dictionary" suggests the following meanings:
"seeking information or advice . . . taking into consideration the views of people . . . considering feelings".
I am sure that every planner and politician in the land would endorse such sentiments and vow that consultation is a splendid part of the process - it is like motherhood and apple pie; one could not possibly disagree with the general idea - but with such a woolly meaning, consultation can be as good or as bad as planners and politicians prefer. The trouble is that too many planners and politicians are prepared to settle for the barest minimum when it comes to standards of consulting people.
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I am sorry to say that the blame lies here in Westminster. This House has always fought shy of spelling out what consultation should be - how local people are canvassed, how local views are assessed, what account is taken of opinion, and how many meetings will be held. The remit to consult is written into all local government legislation, but the dotted i's and crossed t's have always been left to the locals and their codes of conduct. Basically, this House has copped out.
My private Member's Bill is designed effectively to put such procedures in front of Parliament. It will no longer be good enough for the transport authority to insert a tiny notice on page 103 of the classified ads in the local paper telling everybody what road is about to be closed, widened, re-rerouted or subjected to a half-baked new traffic management scheme. Under this Bill, the nature of the proposals would have to be crystal clear and they would have to be advertised so that people can see them. Local authorities would have to go out of their way to let people know what they are doing, and the Bill would specify how far out of their way they had to go. On the coastline in my constituency is a place called Hinkley point, which is probably more famous for its nuclear power station than its landscape. Rumours abound that there might be a new power plant there - one day, perhaps soon. The need for a new and comprehensive consultation system is therefore urgent.
Critics may say that consultation costs money. In the short term, yes, there will be costs. However, paying for sensible minimum standards - specified high- profile newspaper advertisements, intelligible letters to householders, public meetings and the like - will surely save money in the long term. If planners and politicians listen to local opinion first and take action based on what people really want rather than on what the town hall thinks that they want, it can only lead to better decision making.
The inspiration for the idea was not merely born out of the confusion in West Somerset. I can cite hundreds of examples from up and down the country, where local authorities have paid lip service to the concept of consultation and reaped the consequences of unpopularity thereafter. Let me give one current example. Devon county council - my next-door council - decided, without the merest hint of asking anybody, to sell one of its most valuable assets, Exeter airport. One can picture the scene at Devon county hall: "I say old fruit, wouldn't it be spiffing if we flogged off the airport?" Did the council consult? No. Instead, it called in some expensive City types to offload the airport. No consultation whatever took place.
Guess what - the Government have rightly called in the decision to have it reviewed by the Competition Commission. The council could have avoided that. The tragedy is that local authorities are not doing anything wrong. They are obeying the law as it stands. However, the law as it stands is legless legislation. The law leaves interpretation of the word "consultation" purely to the town halls.
My Bill spells out the problem. It has the support of Members of Parliament from all parties. My Bill makes sense and I commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
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Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger, David Heyes, Kelvin Hopkins, Mr. Robert Syms, Mr. Ben Wallace, Stephen Hammond, Mr. Geoffrey Cox and David Mundell.
Local Government Consultation
Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger accordingly presented a Bill to provide a statutory framework for full public consultation by local authorities in England whenever major developments are proposed by such authorities: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 11 November, and to be printed [Bill 56].
Friday 11 November, and to be printed [Bill 56]
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19/12/2005 Last Updated 19/12/2005