Localism Bill Speech

The Localism Bill is a piece of legislation which has received a great deal of attention in England because of its supposedly radical intent. It has received slightly less attention in Wales for a different reason – that those parts of the Bill which are currently relevant to Wales may not be relevant by the time of Royal Assent later this year.

That is, of course, because of the referendum on Part IV powers being held in Wales in six weeks time. A yes vote would transfer responsibility for legislation on almost all matters in this Bill to the National Assembly for Wales.

A Yes vote on March the 3rd will ensure that there is less confusion when Bills such as this are brought forward because it will be clearer what is an England-only provision and what will be relevant to the Celtic countries.

I say this after the provisions regarding council tax referenda were taken out of context in Wales by Conservative AM’s who suggested that Wales would also hold these costly additional referenda – when in fact Part 4 Chapter 2 merely gives the Assembly the power to allow these, not a duty. There is an important distinction between the two.

Bearing in mind the strong possibility of a Yes vote, for which I will, of course, be campaigning, may I ask the minister what effect this will have upon the passage of the bill.

Of course, while awaiting that referendum, this Bill has been scrutinised like any other.

Those of you familiar with the transfer of powers to Wales under the Government of Wales Act 2006 will know that there are a variety of means of making this transfer. The most commonly mentioned are the Legislative Competence Orders in Council, LCOs, but possibly the most efficient is the transfer of framework powers in a Bill which already has Parliamentary time.

In the case of this Bill, there are three sets of framework powers, relating to housing payments, council tax referenda and planning matters, although I shall make the point that there should perhaps be more.

Beginning with the powers relating to housing payments, I welcome the consultation that has taken place between members of this place and Ministers from the Welsh Government on certain subjects. That is a positive step from which some other government departments may learn in future.

Hon Members will know that since my arrival in this place last Summer I have consistently drawn attention to the injustices of the Housing Revenue Account Subsidy System in Wales.

This dreadful system, dubbed by a former senior special adviser in Wales as the ‘Great Welsh Rent Robbery’ has seen Welsh council house rent-payers contribute more than £1bn to the Treasury in London in the past decade.

I must give my due to the Communities and Local Government department who have recognised this problem and accommodated as far as they can go, hence the inclusion of section 152 which provides the National Assembly with powers regarding the HRA scheme.

Sadly, though, our problem is not with the Hon Members on the front bench opposite but with their colleagues in the Treasury, who have yet to come to an agreement with Welsh Ministers regarding the approximately £80-£90m that go to their coffers each year from Wales, and where Wales is treated in an entirely different manner in England. Indeed, the Housing Revenue Account in England, which is already a different system to that in Wales, is scrapped in this Bill.

I hope that this problem can be solved in the short, rather than long term, so that this money can be spent where it should be – on improving housing in our communities.

I have already mentioned the confusion over council tax referenda. Although I see no purpose in such a referendum, which to my mind would be costly and lead to vetos and other problems with local spending, it is right and correct that powers to enable this should be given to the Welsh Assembly for the Welsh Government to do with as they see fit.

Indeed, it has become the norm in recent years that when a power is created in England in an area which is devolved, a mirror clause is introduced for Wales. This is to save time, money and energy on the Legislative Competence Orders in Council system which we hope to scrap in March. Whether we may wish to utilise that competence or not is not important to the creation of the clause – it simply makes no sense to provide the legislative framework for something to be done in England, but not in Wales.

However, there are areas where no such mirror clause exists, even though it might be expected – for example the general powers of competence given to local authorities in part 1 local government should also be given to the National Assembly to determine. Irrespective of the result on 3rd March, an approach which creates a mirror clause is constitutionally and administratively better.

Elsewhere in the Bill, we welcome the abolition of the Infrastructure Planning Commission, which we opposed in the Planning Act 2008, as undemocratic, transferring out responsibilities and scrutiny which belonged with the Secretary of State. That is one of the few areas of the Bill relevant to Wales, Scotland and England.

One of the issues raised in that 2008 Planning Act was the transfer of powers to the Welsh Assembly to take decisions on energy projects above 50MW. That is a very sensitive issue in Wales and was supported by the Liberal Democrats who called a vote on this at report stage. I hope that they will put this on the agenda, both in this Bill and in the Energy Bill which we expect shortly.

I must ask about the effect of the abolition of regional spatial strategies upon Wales, specifically those areas closest to the border such as Wrexham and Flintshire in the north-east that are impacted upon by the North West England regional strategy, and how this will affect cross-border workings. What discussion has taken place with the Welsh Government on this issue?

As I said at the outset, due to the Welsh powers referendum, this may be my only substantial contribution to debate on this Bill. I do hope so.

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