Ross Cowling: "With the failure of John Prescott's flawed plans to set up regional assemblies in England, what can the Conservative Party do to further stop the fragmentation of this country's historical and cultural boundaries?"
The sad truth is that John Prescott’s regional assembly project has actually gathered pace rather than failed – despite the resounding ‘no’ in the North East referendum. Regional assemblies exist throughout the country and between them and various other regional quangos they are sucking power up from local councils. Their powers cover things like planning and housing and you will have noticed that the regionalisation of public services such as the police and fire services is also underway. We have pledged to abolish regional assemblies and return powers to local communities when we get back into power. In the meantime we are working with Conservative councillors up and down the country campaigning against this regionalisation by stealth.
James Maskell: "The Government is looking to change the structure of local government in 2008. This potentially means the cancellation of next years local elections. What is the Conservative Party's position on this? Will the Conservatives be campaigning to ensure voters will be able to do their democratic duty and vote on May 3rd next year?"
This is certainly a hot topic in Westminster at the moment. As readers may know, David Miliband set a hare running on this with a deliberately leaked letter suggesting the abolition of county and district councils and replacing them with unitary councils. The main purpose was to cause division between our county councillors and district councillors in the run up to the 2006 local elections. We are completely opposed to the government forcing a unitary council structure on people and have mounted a strong campaign against it. My colleague Eric Pickles has written to the Electoral Commission expressing in strong terms his concern about any move to suspend next year’s elections. The publication of the White Paper has been put back which would make it very difficult for the Government to find time to legislate for a cancellation of the elections. However, we will continue to make the case for keeping the present tiers of government which people are familiar with, not least pressing home the fact that restructuring is tipped to cost a typical household over £300! The idea of landing hard-pressed council taxpayers with a bill for £300 to pay for a restructuring exercise they don’t even want is barmy, and I wouldn’t like to be the person that had to sell it to them on the doorstep come election time.
Dizzy: "Given devolution in Wales and Scotland, what do you think should be done to address the West Lothian Question?"
I’m afraid the West Lothian question is a prime example of where the Government starts something and leaves it unfinished. The answer lies in having English votes on English laws, but I think we can hazard a guess as to why the Government is so resistant to it!
Jonathan Sheppard: "The planning system is blamed for many of the problems faced in this country. For example: we dont have enough gas storage facilities - because no one wants them in their back yard. New developments are being built with wholly inadequate provision for parking - in an attempt to force people onto public tarnsport - with the result being cars parked on pavements and lawns being bricked over. What changes would you make as a priority when you become Minister in a future Tory Government in order to make a real change to the planning system to improve the lives of ordinary people?"
It’s all about decentralisation. As it happens, I have just spent this
afternoon opposite Ruth Kelly debating this very subject and in
particular the development of back gardens which is a real problem in
my constituency. In my mind, the solution is quite straight forward.
It is about returning planning decisions to local authorities and the
communities they represent. At the moment, people have lost faith in
the planning system. This is for a variety of reasons; the terms
‘Brownfield’ and ‘Greenfield’ have been abused so that they no longer
apply to the sort of land that most people would associate with those
terms, decisions made locally stand every chance of being overruled by
the Secretary of State and more and more planning decisions are taken
regionally. If we are going to be localist, then we really have to
return these powers to local councils so that they can take decisions
based on the needs and wishes of the people they have been elected to
Cllr Graham Smith: "It seems to be increasingly the case that people living in non-inner city areas consider the lead role in local communities should be increasingly taken by town/parish councils (being the most local tier and democratically elected), working in partnership with their district/borough/city and county councils. Clearly this model only works well where parish/town councils are based on locally accepted (rather than artificially delineated) neighbourhoods. Would you be willing to host discussions with the National Association of Local Councils and other appropriate bodies to see how these ideas could be incorporated into Conservative Party policy?"
Actually Graham that question puts me in mind of something which the journalist Simon Jenkins described to me as the “Marbella Test” for local government structure. It goes along the lines of ‘if you bump into a fellow British holidaymaker walking along the beach in Marbella and ask whereabouts they are from it is a pretty good indicator of the tier of local authority with which they most readily identify’. This is a great time for you to have brought this up as it happens. We have set up a working group to look at the ways in which different tiers of local government can work most effectively together and if you would like to contribute please do get in touch with me.
Graeme Archer: "Do you support the idea of elections for borough police chiefs, housing officers and education leaders?"
I’m not opposed to the idea of elected police chiefs. There is
certainly a problem with communities feeling a degree of separation
between them and their local police and a directly elected police chief
might be a way of overcoming that. I’m not persuaded of the case for
elected housing officers and education leaders, at the end of the day
councillors are elected to look after these functions and there is a
danger that if you create too many additional directly elected roles
you diminish the incentive for people to turn out to vote in council
NigelC: "NIMBY is a term often used to attack people who have legitimate concerns over bad planning decisions or who simply care passionately about preserving the environment for future generations. How can we move the debate on housing on from the simplistic NIMBY and BANANAS name calling? The Connect England report from the TCPA seems to have some new ideas. I believe you attended the launch. What is your postion on having an overarching national planning framework (not a statutory plan!) rather than a set of statutory regional spatial plans that appear unconnected and that are all claiming the same jobs growth to justify increased housing numbers?"
I’m no fan of these acronyms either. When it comes to planning I’m instinctively cautious if it’s prefaced with the world ‘regional’ or ‘national’. My instinct would always be to go for making planning as local as possible; there are some who would argue that the problem with planning decisions being decided locally is that nothing would ever get built. I actually don’t think this is the case. If a local planning authority fails to meet local need or local wishes for growth, be it economic, housing or infrastructure, then they would be held accountable at the ballot box. I think that’s how it should be.
Andrew Woodman: "What are your views on affordable rural housing? It is my opinion that we've lost seats such as Westmorland, because we've failed to address the issue whereas the Lib Dems seemingly have done. When Gordon Brown proposed the scheme which offered tax advantages for second homes, should we have immediately opposed that to show a commitment to helping those who are low paid and wish to remain in rural communities."
The crisis in affordability is certainly one of the biggest challenges this country faces and nowhere more so that in rural areas. I visited Taunton last week and the cost of a house there is nine times the average salary and that is horrifying.
We need to look at why people are moving out of our urban areas and into the rural areas so much. This migration is certainly driving prices up, and there are certainly some elements of planning law which actually make it very difficult to deliver the kind of affordable homes people desperately need.
Part of the solution also lies in delivering new and imaginative ways of helping people actually buy a house, such as through wider shared equity.
With regard to second homes specifically, I’m not sure we should be in
the business of punishing people who have worked hard to afford a
second home and I’m also not convinced that fiscal measures are a very
effective way of moderating the housing market as they throw up all
kinds of unintended consequences.
Anxious: "How can Tories defeat the BNP?"
The truth is it isn’t solely about the Conservatives defeating the BNP in the last elections and it was mainly in traditional Labour-held areas where the BNP picked up support. However I strongly believe it is the duty of every mainstream political party to challenge the BNP head on and confront their hatred and bigotry. We worked really hard at the last elections to prevent the BNP gaining support by fielding candidates in nearly all seats contested by the BNP. We put resources into seats where the BNP were challenging specifically to try and stop votes going to them in the wake of the foreign prisoners scandal at the Home Office and the comments of Margaret Hodge. David Cameron also tackled the issue head on when he publicly stated he would prefer people to vote for any Party other than the BNP.
Lisa West: "You, like Ruth Kelly, are a Bible-believing Christian. Could you represent gay people as Equalities Minister even though you disapprove of the homosexual act?"
I’m not sure that I agree with the premise of your question to be honest. I don’t discriminate between anyone on the grounds of race, sex or religion and I certainly don’t believe we should be judgemental about others.