Sir Julian Lewis: I begin by adding my congratulations, in her temporary absence from the Chamber, to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke) on her maiden speech, which strongly impressed the House with her environmental commitment and credentials and which included generous tributes to some of her predecessors – not least to David Heath, whom many of us remember with affection and respect, and also to the late Mavis Tate, who may not be so well known to hon. Members of the House. She was a Conservative Member of Parliament during the war years, and indeed before the war. Unfortunately, she was a member of the team of 10 parliamentarians who went to visit the Buchenwald concentration camp, and what she saw there so undermined her mental health that she took her own life two years later in 1947. It is sad to reflect that, nearly 80 years later, comparable atrocities are still being carried out, for not dissimilar reasons, in parts of the middle east.
As a leaseholder myself, I would like to associate myself with the comments of the Father of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley), on the vulnerability of leaseholders to abuse of power by freeholders. That is something on which he has campaigned most effectively for a number of years. I also share the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith) about building work that is allowed to proceed in the face of accurate predictions of future flooding. I know of more than one case of that happening in my own constituency.
My primary reason for making a brief contribution to the debate is to flag up the concern that I referred to earlier about the decision of the Government not to accept Lords amendment 13. I am to a degree reassured by what I heard from the Front Bench, which was reiterated quite effectively by my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) a few moments ago – namely, the assurances that district councils will in fact be able to make a contribution when decisions are made that directly affect them. Yet if there is an opportunity for further elaboration on that, I would like to hear it. I have probably heard enough to prevent me from rebelling against the Government, but whether I feel I can go all the way and vote against what the New Forest District Council chairman Jill Cleary, a Conservative chairman of a Conservative District Council, feels is so important is another matter.
For the record, this is what those concerns amount to. Lords amendment 13 states that, for combined county authorities:
“A Minister of the Crown may by regulations establish a process for non-constituent members to become full members.”
The district council feels this is a vital addition to the Bill, otherwise power will steal away from communities and be concentrated at county level without sufficient active district involvement. Indeed, the district council points to a survey of people in shire areas earlier this year, which shows high levels of trust in and satisfaction with district councils – higher levels than for other parts of local and national Government.
I conclude by quoting directly from Jill Cleary’s letter:
“District councils hold levers which are indispensable in creating jobs, improving economic opportunity, addressing skills shortages, tackling inequalities and reviving local pride – precisely the outcomes at the heart of levelling up agenda that the Bill seeks to reinforce. District councils are the housing and planning authorities in two-tier areas. We drive economic development in our places. We have strong links to local businesses, big and small, and a track record of attracting inward investment. It simply makes no sense that districts should be excluded from these new devolution deals.”
I appeal to the Minister, once again, to make it clear both to this House and to my concerned and esteemed local district council that it will not be sidelined or excluded by the Government’s refusal to accept Lords amendment 13.