Friday, January 27, 2023

Ros in the Lords: Net Zero

I was asked at a recent Parish Council about the action we have taken towards Suffolk's goal of being carbon neutral by 2030. And yes, even a tiny parish like Creeting St Peter can make a contribution, as Ros noted yesterday...

My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, for securing today’s debate so soon after the publication of this excellent report. In his report, Skidmore says that
“there must be more place-based, locally led action on net zero. Our local areas and communities want to act on net zero, but too often government gets in the way. The Government must provide central leadership on net zero, but it must also empower people and places to deliver.”
I could not agree more. At this point, I should declare an interest as President of the National Association of Local Councils, the representative body for town and parish councils. They cover everything from the tiny parish in which I live, with a precept of a few thousand pounds, to some of our largest towns with budgets of many millions.

So, as the first tier of local government, they should not be overlooked in the delivery of net zero. Many are already providing place-based, locally led action. Many have put climate change on their agenda and are actively looking for ways in which they and their communities can play their part in delivering net zero. If time permitted, I would share with the House some of the many case studies of strong local leadership and practical projects, such as tree planting, recycling schemes, car charging points and much more.

With their clear place-based remit, they are uniquely positioned not just to act themselves but also to act as a catalyst for community and faith groups, local businesses and local government at other levels. Crucially, they can ensure that action is not just concentrated in large urban centres, and that even rural parishes can play their part. So, when the Government come to consider recommendation 20 on the establishment of trailblazer net-zero communities, I do hope that at least some of them will be led by ambitious town and parish councils with a proven track record. But they could do more. These councils need to be empowered by extending the general power of competence, and by the removal of administrative barriers.

Government funding streams are, frankly, a mess. Across government, there are too many funding streams that are too complex, too expensive to administer and deliver and often incoherent. That is not just my view but that of the NAO. Indeed, the Climate Change Committee has made many of the same points on this agenda. Local authorities now find that they cannot bid because they simply cannot afford to. The Government should undertake a massive simplification, particularly with regard to net-zero funding, and ensure that, this time, town and parish councils are entitled to bid and play their part, because they are often denied access.

I would add the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill to the list of Bills that have already been mentioned. There is an opportunity to do some of this quite quickly, since what I have said reflects not just what Skidmore said but what all the organisations that gave evidence to him said. Parish and town councils are leading the neighbourhood planning revolution, and they will be vital to the next stage of delivering net-zero neighbourhood plans with their communities and their buy-in. However, that Bill offers some challenges to the neighbourhood plan process, and we will explore that as it progresses. Can the Minister assure us that the levelling-up Bill will be assessed against Skidmore’s report to make sure that it is not actively working against it?

Polling shows that there is a great public appetite to do more, but people are unsure about how best to contribute. It all feels somehow remote and too big for them as individuals to make a difference, but local action can bridge that gap by involving people and communities and making a real contribution to net zero.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

I am, for the first time in a long time, without a role within the Liberal Democrats. It feels... okay.

I am, as I've admitted in the past, the consummate Liberal Democrat bureaucrat. I have a seemingly unlimited curiosity about how the organisation works, read constitutions and standing orders because they matter and serve on committees so long as they interest me and I can make a contribution.

I stood down from Federal International Relations Committee at the end of last year having not sought re-election. I felt that I had pretty much run out of purpose - the Committee is running well, it's far more politically effective than it was when it first emerged from the last Governance Review, and there are some really good people leading it forward. I could have run - I might even have won - but I'd come to a good endpoint.

I did run for Federal Council - as much because I felt that my skills would be useful than out of a desire to take part in the wearying internal conflict over transphobia and its definition. But I lost, albeit narrowly, and was fairly relaxed about it. And I did earn a place on the Party's delegation to ALDE Party Council, which I'm still really pleased about.

For those of you who voted for me, many thanks.

But that leaves me with the responsibility to attend two meetings a year, somewhere other than in the United Kingdom. It's not exactly onerous, is it?

In truth, I find British politics a bit depressing. The never-ending sense that we have a government led by people who don't understand the importance of ethics and morality is bad enough, but I increasingly fear that they don't care, that they are actively attempting to undermine most of the truths I hold dear - that good governance is at the core of a successful, thriving state.

I've got my Parish Council responsibilities, which I take seriously enough, and my new roles at County and National level within the Suffolk Association of Local Councils and the National Association of Local Councils, where I sit on committees and offer up my thoughts in a scrutiny role. It's a bit like the Liberal Democrats but without the angst.

I am planning to attend Conference in York though - a hotel room is booked - so it's not as though I'm giving up the whole yellow thing. Perhaps a rest will be as good as a change...

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Ros in the Lords: Levelling Up Bill (Second Reading)

As has been noted by many, this Bill has been so gutted that the Conservatives are being told not to refer to "levelling up" any more. What that's going to do for the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is anyone's guess. However, it does offer an opportunity to make some gains for the Town and Parish Council sector, ably represented in the Lords by the Honorary President of the National Association of Local Councils, one (checks notes) Baroness Scott of Needham Market...

My Lords, I wish to focus my remarks on what I regard as the crucial role played by parish and town councils throughout England—one which, I suggest, is essential if the aspirations of the White Paper and this Bill are to be met. I declare my interest as president of the National Association of Local Councils, which supports England’s 10,000 local councils, covering everything from my own tiny parish and its precept of a few thousand pounds to some of our largest towns with budgets of many millions.

Local councils represent an existing, sustainable and accountable model of community leadership and service delivery. Crucially, they help to create that spirit of place which is so essential in building well-being and a strong civic society. They provide parks and open spaces, facilitate street markets, support high streets and organise community events. Part of their strength is that they are close to the people, but they are also part of the important fabric of the local area, alongside community groups, faith groups and voluntary organisations. Working alongside those partners, they are increasingly innovating in areas such as local climate change action, tackling loneliness and dealing with the cost-of-living crisis.

It is in the area of housing—neighbourhood plans led by local councils, with the full involvement of residents—that local councils have proved themselves more than capable of adding to the stock, rather than diminishing it. I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Stunell for introducing this. There were people who said, “Well, they’ll all just say no to everything”, but they do not. When local people have buy-in, we end up with more housing rather than less. In the last decade, 3,000 neighbourhood plans have been made; 1,300 referenda came about as part of that, and 88% of people voted yes. However, neighbourhood plans are not available in unparished areas, and it is fair to say that the attitude of the principal authorities is not always supportive. This Bill could contain measures to help deal with some of that, but it also contains some measures—we will return to this in Committee—which could adversely impact on the way neighbourhood plans are currently running.

True devolution is not just about passing a bit of power down one level. The framework set out in the Bill says nothing about onward devolution; therefore, there is very little in it about devolution to local and community councils. The White Paper contained a commitment to carry out a review of neighbourhood governance. It is a shame that we have not yet had that, because the measures needed could have been part of this Bill. Can the Minister say when this review might take place? I ask her, please, not to say, “in due course”, because I have been told that about four times in Written Questions. The UK Social Fabric Index shows that areas with full coverage of local councils score higher in measures of community strength than those without.

There are significant and sometimes ridiculous limitations on the financial powers of local councils, which are excluded from a whole raft of government funding streams. The result is either that a local area does not bid at all, or that it has to set up a whole new organisation and paraphernalia in order to bid and then run it. Reform is needed on this and in other areas, including extending the power of general competence, rights over community assets, clarity on funding for church halls, and parity with the rest of local government in order to be able to pay a carer’s allowance.

The sector made good use of remote meetings, which were forced on all of us during the pandemic. There is lots of evidence to show how engagement—both people joining the council and people joining in with council meetings—increased during that time, so we would like to see that brought back.

The Bill provides a really good opportunity for local councils to build on what is already an impressive record and to play their part in rebuilding and regenerating the social, as well as the economic, fabric of their areas. They do so with very little support and training. They do the best they can with what they have, but it would be good to see local councils have parity with principal councils when it comes to government funding. I know that the Minister has a good track record of working with the town and parish council sector, so I hope she will use the passage of the Bill to make some improvements and enable it to motor.