HC Deb 03 March 1998 vol 307 cc845-7
13. Mr. McNulty

What progress he is making in his consultation on the reform of local government. [30633]

Ms Armstrong

On 9 February, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister launched a wide-ranging consultation paper, "Local Democracy and Community Leadership", on modernising local government. A second paper, "Local Services Under Best Value", was published today. Further papers on the new ethical framework and on aspects of local government finance will be published shortly. Following consultation, the Government will set out their firm proposals in a White Paper this summer.

Mr. McNulty

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Does she agree that the apparent conversion of the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) to the value of local government is far too little, far too late? No one will be convinced by Mickey Mouse conversions by the Opposition on that, the countryside or any other issue.

Ms Armstrong

We are determined to rejuvenate local government. The Conservative Government left local government demoralised and in a mess. They believed that they knew best about everything, but they had their answer on 1 May and they will receive similar answers in the future.

Mr. St. Aubyn

Does the Minister accept that there was no countryside rally or countryside march against the last Government? The reason why more than 100,000 people rallied in Hyde park last year and more than 250,000 people marched through London at the weekend is the Government's meddling attitude to rural affairs.

Ms Armstrong

The hon. Gentleman needs to learn a little history. People in the countryside are not obsessed by one issue; they want a Government who listen to them on the whole range of issues. That is precisely why I am consulting them on the future of housing opportunities in the countryside, and why we are ensuring that brown-field sites in the countryside are properly used for social housing. Moreover, we are considering transport opportunities to ensure that there is decent public transport in areas where few people have had access to it. People in the countryside are anxious—and angry—about those issues because, for the past 18 years, they have been absolutely neglected.

Mr. Soley

Has my hon. Friend seen Hammersmith and Fulham council's proposals for improving the representation of councillors and reinforcing their role, while subjecting them to closer scrutiny? In anticipation of the Local Government (Experimental Arrangements) Bill, may I ask whether that is not the way in which the Conservative party, and all parties, should encourage local authorities to develop the local democracy that will strengthen the bond between elected councillors and the electorate? Is not that where the real argument lies?

Ms Armstrong

Of course it is where the real argument lies. We want to ensure that local councils take responsibility for thinking about how they can be as responsive and as open as possible to local people. Those ideas are expressed in the Local Government (Experimental Arrangements) Bill, which has recently been considered in the House of Lords. That private Member's Bill arose from a House of Lords Select Committee; it had all-party support in the House of Lords, as well as the strong support of local government. I hope that the House of Commons will treat it seriously.

Sir Norman Fowler

It needs debate.

Ms Armstrong

It certainly needs debate and, if Opposition Members are co-operative, it will get debate. We are determined to ensure that it is debated properly. If Opposition Members agree with that, they will ensure that the Bill gets into Committee, so that we can give local government the chance to develop its own way of working.