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ODPM Annual Report and Accounts 2003 (2)

ODPM Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Committee 15 July2003

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Keith Hill MP, Minister of State for Housing and Planning, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Rt. Hon Nick Raynsford MP, Minister of State for Local and Regional Government, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and Rt. Hon Lord Rooker, a Member of the House of Lords, Minister of State for Regeneration and Regional Development, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, examined.

Q213 Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): I am not sure that there is a short, sharp answer to the first question which is about the reshuffle in June, which was the fourth reshuffle in five years involving the department, having started off being the DETR, then the DTLR and now the ODPM and presumably it is unavoidable that there will be some disruption in the department's work. What is your experience of that? Has the disruption been minimised? Is it all over? Has everything settled down now?

Lord Rooker: To be honest, the question of reshuffle is really down to the Prime Minister. There is no secret about it. From my point of view and say Keith's, the Prime Minister wanted a Member of this House to deal with housing, so that means there have been some changes. It means that you have a few more briefings to do to catch up on things. It is not affecting the management of the department. We had other changes as well other than those between myself, say, and Keith joining the department. There is no evidence. We are still answering parliamentary questions, we are turning up at adjourned debates, we are still getting around the country visiting the growth areas and the pathfinders, and we are meeting local governments and other people.

Q214 Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): A smooth transition then?

Mr Raynsford: Can I perhaps comment on that because I am the continuity having been right through DETR, DTLR and now ODPM and I have to say that, talking to colleagues in other government departments, there have been more dramatic changes in personnel in a number of other departments. I certainly do not see a problem in terms of the reshuffle. I am delighted that we are continuing to focus very much on our key priorities with renewed energy.

Q215 Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): That is fine but there does seem to have been some confusion certainly about ministerial responsibility. The Committee was unable to get a list setting out the detailed responsibilities of each of the ministers. Which minister, for instance, is responsible for social cohesion now?

Lord Rooker: It is probably me in conjunction with the Home Office. Look, let us get this clear. We do not decide these things. You are going to have to ask the Prime Minister about this, the head of the department. We do not negotiate. The idea is to make sure that there is as least interruption as possible with the flow of Government decision making and the reaction with Parliament and the public. I cannot account for any difficulties you might have had in finding out what is what. As you fully appreciate, for 24 hours, we were one minister less than we had had previously and that in itself meant that there was a reallocation of responsibilities when we lost the Parliamentary Under-Secretary and then gained one within about 48 hours. That in itself would have caused delay but, as far as I know, there has been no delay in answering questions and obviously no complaints from anybody outside, any appointments and delegations that are coming into the department. Social cohesion is a cross-cutting issue across Whitehall and particularly in our relations with the Home Office and all the work on the ground with neighbourhood renewal and social exclusion.

Q216 Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): So there is not a single minister responsible for social cohesion?

Lord Rooker: The lead minister from my time at the Home Office was always the Home Office Minister; it was John Denham following the disturbances when we set up a separate unit and a separate cross-Whitehall Committee of Ministers and that was chaired by John. So, from that point of view, unless something has happened of which I am completely unaware, the lead minister will be a Home Office minister but obviously there are contributions from other departments.

Q217 Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): Can I ask the Minister of State for Housing and Planning if he is going to be the minister who finally sees off the Dome and sees the end of the project.

Keith Hill: You do not mean literally see off the Dome, I take it! We are very keen to sustain this huge architectural monument and I am very optimistic about the prospects. We now have a joint project involving both a very major housing development scheme which actually, on the whole site, can lead ultimately to construction of 10,000 houses which is absolutely colossal and of course the Anshultz Entertainment Group have a solid track record of the construction and successful operation of great entertainments-come-supporting complexes in the United States and have taken on the Dome itself. They have plans which are very well advanced for the development of the Dome into an arena which can in part be for sports but also can be for concerts and other forms of entertainment. They are working already quite closely, I am pleased to say, with DCMS in terms of the Olympics bid because they point out that the Dome could be part of what is on offer in terms of sports complexes for the Olympics. I visited the Dome and inspected the site on Wednesday of last week, met with the key players and it is looking good at this moment. As you know, all of the planning permissions have now been agreed to, the Mayor is playing ball, and, as a department, we decided that the application was sustainable and did not need to be called in - that was announced last week. Things are looking very positive as far as the future of the Dome is concerned.


Q233 Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): Just to follow up on the point about the importance of local transport, I am pleased that the Minister has mentioned Newcastle and Gateshead because I was a little concerned about what co-operation there is and what co-ordination there is between the departments, the Department of Transport and your department. The pathfinder area in Newcastle and Gateshead would benefit very much from improved links to the Tyneside Metro System, for instance. There is a project on the cards at the moment called Project Orpheus which the Passenger Transport Authority would like to be able to introduce which would do just that and which would actually bring the Metro out of the underground and onto the street in the form of trams. I notice that this has been somewhat rubbished by the Secretary of State for Transport recently, so there is a bit of a problem there in terms of getting these things co-ordinated and approved by all departments concerned.

Lord Rooker: There is and I would like nothing more than to be able to come here and say, "We will fix all the transports." I do not know what the priorities are or, if you like, what the economic dilemmas are in terms of the transport across the country as a whole that Alistair will be looking at, but you are a Select Committee of the House and you can summon who you want. All I am saying is that, at local level and at the pathfinder level and at Government level, we are working across departments to try and get agreed decisions. The communities plan is a Government plan, true it is led by our department but it is a Government plan with other departments. What we are trying to do is to shift the mainstream funding in some of the departments, a little like what we are doing with neighbourhood renewal, to these joined-up priorities. It is not always easy but I reckon that we are making progress.


Q284 Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): Could I ask Nick Raynsford about the balance of funding review which I understand has now met twice. I am just wondering what the emerging findings of the review are and why the process is so slow?

Mr Raynsford: The answer is there are no emerging findings yet because the review is still looking at the problem and analysing the foundations for any conclusions that the review comes to. This is probably the most significant review of local government finance for 25 years, since the Layfield Report. It is complex, there are difficult issues, some of them are mutually contradictory. What we have been trying to do is working with a very good team of people from local government, from central government, from academic bodies, from business, from trade unions, people from a variety of different perspectives, trying to get a common understanding of the right way forward in terms of the principles that must underpin any future system of local government finance. As you may imagine, there is quite a debate going on about what those objectives and principles should be. The progress has been good. I think everyone who has attended this felt that the first two meetings had been constructive. People have not been grant standing, they have been working together trying to bottom out some really quite difficult issues. We have commissioned research which is going to feed into our next meeting in the autumn. We are about to issue an invitation - in fact we may already have issued it, it was due to be issued this week - to people to respond with their own recommendations and proposals to us and we are gathering in a great deal of information that will feed into our discussions. I hope you will understand why it is taking time, but that does not mean this is an unreasonable delay. This is a very serious analysis and we are giving it the attention it deserves.

Q285 Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): Is it likely that the review will result in dealing with some of the anomalies which emerged from the latest change in the financial regime for local government?

Mr Raynsford: Obviously we are looking at a whole range of issues, although the main focus of the review is the overall balance of funding for local government between central and local sources. The concern about some of the factors that lay behind the difficulties there have been in terms of education funding will be considered as part of the review.

Q286 Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): Can I quickly move on to the Comprehensive Spending Review which is this year to have a number of themes, one of which is devolution and decentralisation. How will this manifest itself over the next 12 months and what will it mean for your Department?

Mr Raynsford: Devolution and decentralisation are very much key themes and at the Local Government Association Conference just a fortnight ago both the Deputy Prime Minister and the Chancellor were speaking in very positive terms about the importance of devolving more decisions to enable both local authorities and regional bodies, where they are set up, the scope to be able to make a profound influence on the future development of their areas. So this is absolutely central to our thinking. We believe the right framework is one where the Government sets an overall framework, national targets and expectations, but where there is more scope devolved regionally and locally for decisions to be taken in the light of local circumstances and building on local strengths in order to achieve the best outcomes.


Q289 Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): Whilst I very much support the idea of devolution and subsidiarity, it seems to a lot of local representatives that this is not working through them but bypassing them quite often and foundation hospitals and police boards are two examples. Some of the area-based initiatives and the way that people are elected onto them seem to be ways of bypassing the local authority rather than devolving things to the local authority.

Mr Raynsford: I am not sure that is the case. I do think that much more effective co-operation is taking place between local authorities and the Health Service or between local authorities and the police in terms of initiatives to tackle crime to improve the health of communities. This is all to the good and does result in different ways of working than the traditional ones where local authorities tended to operate in isolation. I am very much an advocate of authorities engaging through their local strategic partnerships with a wide range of bodies and in certain cases working with other groups which may be elected on a different basis such as the community groups I have described.

Q290 Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): My experience of local authorities was not that they worked in isolation but where they were very much involved. I am going back a long time, but we had the police boards, we had local authority members on the health boards and we had the public health officer who was a member of the local authority and it was not a question of working in isolation, they were part of the overall structure. What we have done is created all these little pockets which they might be represented on but they are not part of any more.

Mr Raynsford: My own feeling is that the greater local participation in neighbourhood renewal areas and in community initiatives of that sort has been a thoroughly good thing. In the past some of those communities have felt excluded and that the local authorities took decisions that did not fully take account of their local concerns. When I said in response to Chris Mole's question that I believe that devolution does not stop at the Town Hall, it also involves local communities, this is part of the whole localist debate and finding the right balance which does, rightly, emphasise the critical role of democratically elected local authorities but does not preclude other ways of engaging people is the right way forward.


Q326 Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): Of all the electoral pilots that have been held, the greatest improvement in voter turn out has come through postal ballots by a long way. Why do we not spend money on improving that system and ironing out any anomalies and abuses rather than continuing to spend money on pilots like electronic voting which are not as successful?

Mr Raynsford: For two reasons. Can I say immediately I do not accept the premise that electronic pilots were not successful. Firstly, the initial work on all personal pilots did not produce the same very successful outcomes that recent pilots have. It is only as the process has been refined that authorities have become better in terms of informing the public. The public have become used to the concept of all personal voting and the procedures for validation which are a bit confusing if you have not done it before, but we are seeing the full benefits. All postal has got a time advantage over electronic. We think it is right and proper that there should be an opportunity to develop the electronic pilots where there is evidence for doing so.

Q327 Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): Is that because they are cheaper?

Mr Raynsford: The second issue is just as important. All the evidence from other areas of life is that postal communication is tending to reduce and to be replaced by electronic. If we are thinking about how people should be able to cast their votes in ten, 15 or 20 years' time, it would be unwise to ignore the potential for electronic means of communication. I think they are likely to grow. There will be huge long-term savings, but the initial stage is inevitably more expensive and it is more expensive because we want to have a competitive market and therefore we are having to ensure that there are a range of different companies providing whereas there would be obviously financial advantages in doing it through one, but that would avoid the long-term benefits of a competitive market. Obviously when you are doing a limited number of pilots the costs are greater than if you were spreading it over a larger scale. We think it is justified. It is an investment in the long term. There is real evidence in those areas that have now done electronic pilots in two successive years, places like Swindon and Sheffield, that there have been benefits from that and that those people who are using the electronic means of voting enjoy it and find if convenient and are likely to go on doing so. There is going to be a full report from the Electoral Commission in a couple of weeks' time and obviously my remarks have to be slightly guarded at this stage until I see their report.

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