Andrew’s latest contribution to the Localism Bill

I will speak to Amendment 136A. My Lords, I apologise for coming in and out of the debate on Tuesday and missing the key parts of the discussion. My day on Tuesday was punctuated by meetings about the Olympics and a meeting with a Minister.

However, by 11 pm on Tuesday evening I think I had managed to get a good flavour of the debate. I also apologise for being another speaker in the debate who hails from Bradford. I do not know what was being put into the school milk all those years ago up there for so many Bradfordians to be speaking in this Chamber on this subject. I was a milk monitor for a while, but it was not me who put anything in the milk.

More seriously, who decides what land or buildings are included in the list? As I have listened to this debate on the Bill there has often been an assumption that local authorities, be they in Bradford or Tower Hamlets, are in close contact on the ground with local communities, that they know what is going on and that their staff have the entrepreneurial flair and skills to spot a building or land and create an opportunity when they see it. I hear a very different message in some things I have looked at in Bradford and elsewhere. Having had 30 years of experience attempting to negotiate with local authorities, both in east London and up and down this land, I must say that this is not my experience. There is one view looking down the telescope into a local community from the offices of a local authority. There is quite a different view looking up the telescope in east London from one of the poorest housing estates in Britain.

In my experience, often local authorities are actually not in touch with the practical opportunities on the ground presented by land and buildings. Local authority staff, and sometimes the local councillors, do not always possess the skills and mindset to know what to do with these assets, which they view from a fairly traditional public sector point of view. Some local authorities are just not innovators, and some are. Some local authorities resist social entrepreneurs like me who come along and suggest a wholly new approach or point to new opportunities presented by land and buildings that challenge the status quo. Of course, there are some excellent exceptions to this rule.

As the Bill stands, and as the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton has reminded us, the nomination of land or buildings as a community asset can be done only by a parish council, a county council or local authority. This means that, for example, the Bromley-by-Bow Centre in east London-which I founded, and of which I am now the president, so I must declare an interest-could not suggest that any land or building be included in the list. This is ridiculous. The Bromley-by-Bow Centre began 27 years ago as a small charity and has today expanded its operation such that it works closely with local residents across the whole of Poplar and beyond. We have done in practice what many contributors on the Bill have talked about. Today, what began as a small charity runs a three-acre site and has 170 staff. With local people, we have created 37 businesses and social enterprises that operate across Tower Hamlets and beyond. We built the first integrated health centre in the country that is owned by local people through a development trust, and now our doctors and their partners run four health centres in Poplar with responsibility for nearly 40,000 patients.

I also helped found the housing company Poplar HARCA, with which I do some work now and so must also declare that interest. This £300 million company has challenged the traditional logic of the housing association movement and has done a great deal of work to demonstrate how housing associations can use their capital investment in housing to trigger social and economic development with residents in a way that allows local communities to start to think very differently about how we can use both land and buildings in an innovative way. Today, the company has responsibility for nearly 10,000 housing units, operates in Poplar on an area of land that is the same size as the Olympic Park, on the opposite side of the road, and now owns 34 per cent of all the land in the area. This is a resident-led organisation. Today, Poplar HARCA, in partnership with the Bromley-by-Bow Centre and Leaside Regeneration Ltd-another interest that I must declare, as I am a director-has put together a £1 billion regeneration programme, which will have major implications for the area over the next 15 years, both for land and for buildings.

The idea that the Bromley-by-Bow Centre and Poplar HARCA, both of which are charities, should not be able to nominate land and buildings on to the list would be resisted by local residents, who have voted through a democratic process for the housing company. These charities have widespread support and are far more in touch with the opportunities for innovation on the ground than the local authority, even though we work in partnership together. What I am describing in practice is the opportunities that the Bill can present to local social enterprises and their partners if we get the detail right. I am describing what the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, has rightly described as the wider opportunities with which the logic of this Bill might, if the detail is right, present local communities.

With regard to the fears that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, expressed on Tuesday about large companies coming into the local area and cutting out local organisations, I understand that fear, but in practice the Bromley-by-Bow Centre has a very successful partnership with the multinational company G4S. Together, we created the first £35 million LIFT company, which has now built 10 health centres in east London. The social enterprise Green Dreams, which was founded at the Bromley-by-Bow Centre, is a landscape business that now has a contract with G4S to work on 26 school sites across Tower Hamlets. Together, social entrepreneurs and a large business are now going for large contracts that are focused on creating local jobs and skills. This has all been done in partnership with local residents. Because G4S as a company has a long-term interest in the area, as does the Bromley-by-Bow Centre, good working relationships exist on the ground. Both partners are of course constantly looking at the opportunities presented by land and buildings.

For those reasons, I suggest that this amendment should be on the face of the Bill. Local community organisations should be able to nominate both land and buildings if going local is to look like this in practice in the future. If such an amendment is not included on the face of the Bill, I fear that some local authorities will not necessarily listen to the pleading of a small but developing local charity or social enterprise that is attempting, as we have done, to grow in capacity. The danger is that the local authority will ride roughshod over the community organisation, and a small flower in a new garden, where a thousand flowers need to be allowed to bloom, will be crushed in the process. Outside this Chamber, a new world is emerging that is challenging both local authorities and the public sector, and that world is made up of organisations that are often deeply committed to the lives of local people. We need to enable this world to grow.

Finally, I must say that, in my experience, we sometimes need the intervention of the Secretary of State-not too often, but occasionally-because, without the intervention of key Ministers of State in the development of the Bromley-by-Bow Centre, we would not be where we are today. Innovation in local communities is difficult to do. I know that-I bear the scars-and sometimes you need friends in high places to help you to break through the local inertia.

This is an important amendment for charities and social enterprises across the country. I suggest that the Government should support it if they truly desire to let a thousand flowers bloom. My colleagues and I would certainly be willing to sit in a room with the Minister and her colleagues to discuss further how we might make this part of the Bill work in practice. I have certainly found my conversations with the Minister on the Bill to date very helpful.

I shall speak specifically to Amendment 147A.

I notice that the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, has now joined us in the Chamber. I assure noble Lords that the Bradfordians are not pulling the wagons around in this debate.

Six months seems to be a reasonable period. We live in a very bureaucratic world. If you are a small charity or a social enterprise, without all the back-up of a local authority to get your ducks in a row and achieve the necessary permission, it can take at least six months to move forward with land or buildings. One property that my colleagues and I have been working on with a very competent group of people has taken at least two years to get through planning and to reach a point where we can do the development. That is with even the support of local neighbours and a lot of people behind us. Six months is a reasonable period; all my experience tells me that it is about right.

The noble Lord, Lord Rogers of Riverside, who has great experience in this field, is no longer here but I know he would tell us that nowadays it takes a mini-miracle to build a building or get a development going. It is very difficult to get projects off the ground. We wonder sometimes why we are not hitting the housing targets. It is because, as the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, reminds us, there is so much red tape and treacle that you have to swim through to make any of this work.

The real test for the Bill will be whether it will be easier for those of us who develop land and buildings, whether we are business or social entrepreneurs, to do so. Will this legislation make it easier for us to do this work, or harder? This is the real practical challenge for this piece of legislation.