Rory debates the Localism bill
This debate is an example of why changes such as those in the Bill are so difficult. All the arguments that Labour Members are making-all the “Yes, buts” we have just heard-show that we live in a strange world. Many Labour Members have said how much they support initiatives such as those in the Bill, but the obstacles that they are mentioning show why, for 13 years, despite their best instincts, they were unable to introduce them.
A fundamental problem faces Members of all parties-the difference between the expert, with all the “Yes, buts” and ideas, and the reality on the ground. There seems to be a fundamental gap in our culture between rhetoric and reality. I experienced it myself every day in Afghanistan, where I heard people say, “We are committed to a gender-sensitive, multi-ethnic, centralised state based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law”, whereas in fact 98% of Afghan women cannot yet read or write. Such disjuncture characterises life, whether abroad or locally, and we experience it every day.
This is not, however, a question of theory. Despite our best intentions and protestations, we daily encounter waste and situations in which we achieve exactly the reverse of what we intended and in which local communities are prevented from doing perfectly sensible things. To put it in pompous, philosophical language, those are problems of power, knowledge, will and legitimacy. That is why the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), is to be congratulated. At the moment, we have a culture not just of experts but of soundbites, and my right hon. Friend has put 10 or 12 years of focused thought into the Bill.
We could talk about many matters, and Members have mentioned some of them, such as the good moves we have made in relation to councils, but I wish to focus on parishes and communities, the hidden strata on which people do not necessarily focus, perhaps because they are seen as old-fashioned. In the context of a rural community, however, they are vital.
From the point of view of the expert, the parish appears to lack knowledge, power and legitimacy. There is an idea that we should not have a community right to buy, that we should not introduce neighbourhood plans and that we should not allow such localism in the Bill, because communities do not know what is best for them. Of course, as Members of Parliament, we all see daily that that is not true. The shadow Secretary of State made exactly that point when she talked about meeting parish councils. What we observe, and what I daily observe in Cumbria, is that communities should be allowed to carry out neighbourhood planning because they care enormously about their neighbourhood.
If someone sends their child to try to find a house and they cannot, it motivates them to seek affordable housing. That is concretely illustrated in Crosby Ravensworth, where the community is building its own affordable housing. Those people are not nimbys trying to obstruct building-they are doing it themselves. I see the same happening in Kirkby Stephen, where people are getting together to do all the things that planners think they can do with their knowledge of heritage, economics and development. The community is doing them in a much more sophisticated and integrated fashion that is linked to the local area. The people involved are in the area, so they know things that people in Penrith, Carlisle or London do not. Despite all the rhetoric, I do not feel that such communities are ignorant or ill-informed, and they do not ignore local connections.
Why, then, are we pushing ahead with neighbourhood planning, reforms to home building and the community right to buy? It is partly because, in my area, communities show that they can always go further than the Government think. It happens everywhere I go. In Alston, the community has just taken over a snow plough and there is a community ambulance. Those were not things that it was allowed to do-it had to fight to do them. That goes all the way through to smaller things. For instance, we had this country’s first community buy-out of a pub. The communities in my 110 parishes are organising themselves.
Most ambitiously, those communities are looking to the future and to the most difficult issue I can think of-broadband. One might think that communities and decentralisation had nothing to do with that, and it seems like a nightmare for a community to address. There are legal, technical, state aid, engineering and landscape issues to consider, which is why for the past 20 years-it was not just under the previous Government-such infrastructure projects have been conducted in an extremely expensive, slow fashion through semi-monopoly providers that have consistently failed to provide for my community. However, the community knows more. It maps every cabinet and exchange from Leith to Lyvennet. It cares more. It puts the transmitters up on the churches. It can do more and do it more imaginatively-it gets people online and pilots new forms of services. By doing so, the community achieves something that nobody would have thought possible.
That does not happen without Government support. Some Government money is needed, but probably about a 10th as much as would be necessary if the community did not lead the process. Without the community leading the process, the project I am talking about would probably cost £1.5 million of taxpayers’ money, but with the community in the lead, it could probably be done for £500,000.
Communities can do other things because of their legitimacy. We associate knowledge, power and will with them, but legitimacy is vital. To take the broadband example, the community’s legitimacy allows it to ask people in the parish, “Will you allow us please to put a transmitter on the top of the church? Will you dig from your house to the M6 cable network? Will you contribute money?” The community can ask every farmer, for example, in the district of Crosby Ravensworth, “Will you waive the wayleaves to build a community network that the community will own?”
This is a strange time and place because all hon. Members believe in that decentralisation, whether we call it localism, hyper-localism or double hyper-localism, but we are obstructed by our anxieties about power, knowledge and legitimacy. Let us remember the basic instinct and work together. We should support the Bill because we know that communities know and care more, and that they can and ought to do more than distant officials in Penrith, Carlisle, London or Brussels.