Rory’s Speech on Sustainable Communities


It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir, and fantastic to speak in the debate. Thank you for calling me.

A common theme in our debate on sustainable communities appears to be the old Britain. I am surrounded by my hon. Friends the Members for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) and for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), and my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George) in west Cornwall introduced the debate, so as a representative of Cumbria I would like to speak together with them for the Brythonic peoples of Britain.

There is something a little bizarre about the notion of the sustainable community, which is a horrible combination of double jargon. The very word “sustainable” drags in six different directions. When we talk about sustainable growth, we seem to be talking about environmental projects. When we talk about sustainable infrastructure, we seem to be talking about no ongoing financing. When we talk about a sustainable facility, we seem to be talking about no Government investment. When we talk about sustainable infrastructure, such as broadband, we seem to mean something that does not involve volunteers. The worst example, of course, is sustainable farming, in the name of which we see again and again in our communities farmers being paid Government subsidies not to farm, so that a time will come when the sheep have left the hillsides, the subsidy stops and the sustainable farming is neither sustainable nor farming at all.

I shall not discuss the variability in the notion of sustainable community, except to say—moving from the facetious to the serious—why the debate is so important. This is perhaps the most important problem facing Britain today, and it is a problem of trust. When polled, 87% of British people say that politics is broken and 84% say that society is broken. Every single one of us in the Chamber has the experience of sitting down, perhaps at a dinner party, and trying to make polite conversation with the people next to us as it gradually emerges, once they have discovered we are a politician, that they think that we are indeed a liar and a thief. We know the gentle politeness with which, after the first course, they ask, “Is it really true that you have a subsidised bar? Would you mind explaining exactly the nature of your expenses?” Then, as we move on to the dessert course, they ask, “What do you think about all these professional politicians? Don’t you think that people with experience should come back into politics?”

All that is a sign of a big problem, which is the gap between local people, local communities—the ground—and us. It is a problem that we ought to be able to solve, because this is our moment and this is the right country in which to solve it. This is our moment because we have never before in this country had so many educated, confident people able to challenge Government in every way. Britain is also a country with a very strong and deep tradition of local democracy, which we talked about incessantly through the 18th and 19th centuries. Now, however, we find ourselves in a position where France, which we always saw as a hyper-centralised country, is well ahead of us in terms of decentralisation and local government.

How shall we address that? We have begun, but we have not gone far enough or been ambitious enough. The tone of Government is beginning to change: under the banner of things such as the big society, we see individual examples up and down the country of civil servants checking themselves, rethinking and considering ways in which they can respond to local communities. We see it in the construction of the infrastructure for sustainable communities: in rural areas, that means investment in broadband, for example, which allows people in a remote area to continue to operate and to flourish. They can get health and education services, or run businesses down broadband; perhaps more important for our purposes today, they can challenge their representatives and organise themselves down broadband. Thus local communities are allowed a political and democratic voice through technology.

The problem is that we have not gone far enough. Sometimes I think we need to be more decisive and spend more money, to answer the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma). We could spend more money in reference to splendid ideas such as, for example, National Citizen Service. That is a great idea to get a lot of young people and volunteers involved, but what have we got after two years? A very good project, but still only a few thousand people. The coalition Government are in power only until 2015, and if we are serious about getting National Citizen Service going, we should be aiming to have 70% or 80% of 16-years-olds going through the scheme by 2015. We should be putting the money behind it.

Sometimes it will be a question of challenging the structures of late capitalism, which is to say we need to challenge the structures of big business, and sometimes even the structures of big charities. An odd phenomenon of the modern world is that we sit in our local areas, and not only are supermarkets rolling into local communities and kicking out small shops, but major national and international charities that have 600 or so people sitting in their donor proposal writing departments in London are rolling into local areas and destroying local volunteer networks.

Solving those problems is not simply a matter of putting a little pressure on a local council or calling an official to account. We have to address the fundamental structures of procurement, the fundamental structures of financing and the structures of law. Again and again, we get caught up in state aid regulations in a way that we do not need to be, with small projects of £17,000 enmeshed in those regulations. We also need to take a different attitude to risk. If we are serious about working with local communities, we have to overcome some of our anxieties about accountability, predictability and transparency, and find ways of taking risk, trusting people and delegating to people.

A small example to illustrate how that is going wrong in my area in Cumbria relates to the bugbear with which I began: broadband. A classic example of local community activity is to be found in Mallerstang, a remote and beautiful valley, where the local community organised itself to get fibreoptic cables to every home. If the community had not done its work, that project would have cost hundreds of thousands of pounds, but because the local organisers signed up 100% of the people in the area for the service, because they found a way of digging the fibre trenches themselves, and because they negotiated with the supplier, the total cost to the Government will be £17,000. That is a very small amount of money to fire up a whole valley, yet somehow the Government have not yet got the money to the people. The last time I spoke to an official, that official suggested that British Telecom could make a charitable contribution of the money, because it was too complicated to get through the procurement and state aid regulations. As long as those attitudes and blocks remain, such fantastic opportunities for community action will never be realised. If we could use it on a national scale, that type of action could save us hundreds of millions of pounds and bring superfast broadband into communities—but only if the Government are as aggressive and flexible as they need to be.

This is not a question of attitude, of tone or of money; it is a question of the constitution. I pay tribute to the Minister who, above all, has expressed philosophically and consistently why that matters, why the dignity of the citizen matters, and why local communities matter. I think all of us in the Chamber would agree that if we are looking for one big constitutional change in this country, it is not tinkering with what happens here in Parliament, but changing what happens locally.

It is very disappointing that we did not get as many elected mayors as we wanted. Philosophically, the Minister will disagree with the idea of imposing a centralised solution on local communities, but I am beginning to believe that one of the triumphs of the French commune system was Napoleon himself, and that if we truly want local democracy in this country, we need to go for it and to impose locally elected mayors on communities—force communities to be free, and force them to vote for their own local representatives.

When we are not being attacked at ghastly dinner parties, we are often praised in our local areas for being good local constituency MPs. That peculiar paradox—that everyone hates politicians in general, but quite likes their local MP—explains the vacuum at the heart of our constitution and the vacuum of local democracy. If we can address that, if we can get sustainable communities in place, and if we can aggressively address finance, law and procurement in our constitution, we can turn our benighted subjects into citizens.

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