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Mr. Betts: I will give the hon. Gentleman two examples of raising money locally. Sheffield city council raises extra income from local sources by opening the town hall car park on Saturday. Secondly, all the internal roads for Meadowhall shopping centre were designed by the council's own engineers and received commendations from Meadowhall's owner, Eddie Healey, for doing a job as good as any private firm. Local authorities are restricted by the vires rules that the Government inflicted on local councils, which prevent them from earning money in the ways that I described.

Mr. Pickles: No doubt the hon. Gentleman went round that centre with his personal plumb bob and spirit level, to examine the roads. I do not understand his point. Nobody is suggesting that all the work done by local authorities is bad. We are arguing that heaping debts on the back of local business is not the best way to be involved in the local economy. If the hon. Gentleman wants to involve and to work in partnership with the private sector, and to relieve himself of an obsession with municipal ownership, the people of Sheffield will welcome that approach.

This year, local authorities will receive £900 million, which is greater than expected from last year's statement. Arrant nonsense was talked about local authorities suffering different rates of inflation from the rest of the country. That is a hoary old chestnut. That was true in the late 1970s, but it has not been true for the best part of 20 years. Against the background of additional money, it is only right for the Government to focus on the priorities of education, social services, and law and order.

I share my right hon. Friend's concerns about relaxation of the capping rules. Removing capping is like getting off the back of a tiger. One is safe until one tries to dismount, and then the problems start. With local authorities, the tiger has been smiling through its beard and saying, "It is going to be all right. You can trust us, we are responsible and we will do the right thing." Yet the very moment capping is relaxed, we hear statements like the one made by Sir Jeremy Beecham.

Like many hon. Members, I received a briefing note from the three local authority associations--which are soon to be one--in which Sir Jeremy Beecham said that


What a daft idea that it should. Indeed, there would something wrong with the settlement if it did match spending. In no other sector would the wish list of an

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organisation suddenly become its spending plans. The idea that the best way in which to solve a problem is to appoint an officer is entirely wrong. In my experience, the best way in which to solve a problem is to disappoint an officer.

Local authorities use a strange language of compliance. We hear councillors say that as the capping level has been relaxed they will spend up to the new level--just because the Government say that they can. When the Government say that it is possible to raise the level of spending, they are by no means advocating that such a level should be reached. Just because the standard spending assessment has gone up or just because the cap has been relaxed, there is no compulsion to increase total spending.

The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras seemed rather excited about what the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said about expected levels of council tax. I should think that the Chief Secretary, by his nature, has a rather jaundiced expectation of human nature. There is no reason for council taxes to increase by about 8 per cent. Indeed, some councils are planning to cut their council tax next year. We should expect, however, local authorities to start to address priority.

Clearly, we are giving education a high priority this year. In my county of Essex, the total sums available for education are being increased by almost 5 per cent--an increase the size of the allocation for two or three district councils. We have already heard that the Lib-Lab coalition on the council is determined not to pass on those extra resources to schools. All we will see as a result is a further flood of schools opting for grant-maintained status. Every secondary school in my constituency is already grant-maintained. They offer enhanced choice and diversity in education, whether in language or technology.

I would, however, like to take a leaf out of the book of my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby and make a special plea to my hon. Friend the Minister, because we have worries in the Brentwood area. [Hon. Members: "Ah."] They are real worries and I hope that the Opposition will support me in my plea. Our schools are so good and so attractive that we are desperately worried about the prospect of an influx of children of members of the shadow Cabinet. We are not entirely sure that we can take such a number of children, but we will do our best. Should Brentwood schools be favoured by Opposition spokesmen, will my hon. Friend look kindly on the wish to build a number of extra classrooms in our secondary schools to accommodate them?

Mr. Austin Mitchell: At least the hon. Gentleman has no need to fear an influx of children of Conservative Members, since they all send their children to private schools.

Mr. Pickles: We are very proud of some of the children who went to private schools in Brentwood, the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) being a prime example. We often see him at old boys' reunions. As someone who did not come from a privileged background, it is always nice to see the toffs doing well on the Opposition Front Bench.

It is also important to concentrate on social services. Along with the rest of my hon. Friends, I have become increasingly worried about the way in which the Lib-Lab coalition on Essex county council has been abusing its

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position over care in the community. Essex is virtually unique in so far as it has received the largest allocation of special grants and SSA on personal social services. Unfortunately, it has a bunch of old-fashioned, municipal councillors who simply want to organise and control everything. They have ended the Conservatives' modernisation programme of old persons' homes, they have ended the modest charge for home helps and reduced the service, and they have taken money from social services to introduce stress officers for their staff--no doubt so that their staff can explain to the rest of the population why the service has been reduced.

The Conservatives had introduced a scheme whereby a series of old people's homes, whose structure and decoration had been neglected, were offered for sale in the private sector. The controlling group on the council has stopped that process and essentially reduced the amount of money available to help old people get into private homes.

In my constituency a home called Brook House, which is owned by the county council, was threatened with closure just before the last general election. Despite many protests from the local Liberal Democrats, who said that the proposed closure was a disgrace, the home was eventually closed. I had the pleasure of reopening it. Virtually the same staff work there, but in new conditions.

Instead of looking like some kind of poor house or somewhere where old people are sent to be forgotten about--I am talking about the basic surroundings not the quality of the staff--the home now looks like a hotel. That says to our old people that we recognise the work that they have done, respect them and want them to see their last days out in some dignity. We know that it is cheaper for the county council to place elderly people in private sector homes instead of its own homes, yet it does not do so because of ideology.

As I said to the hon. Member for Attercliffe, the private finance initiative is likely to come into being next year. It will enable county and district councils to use some of the disciplines of the private sector in renovating their libraries and schools.

We must ensure that local authorities behave responsibly with their new responsibilities and flexibility. My council of Brentwood is controlled by the Liberal Democrats. The local leader was in the paper saying what a disgrace the settlement was, how the council could not manage on it and how there would be a massive hike in council tax to compensate for it. He predicted large council tax rises and said that it was all the Government's fault.

Sometimes we politicians can be taught a lesson or two by members of the public who say the obvious and cut through much of the political froth. I am grateful to my constituent Mr. Michael Pointer who wrote to the Brentwood Gazette to comment on the local leader of the Liberals blaming the Chancellor for the prospective increase in council tax. He said:


He points out that in 1992, the council took £4.2 million from the reserves and spent it on revenue, in 1993, it took £2.5 million and spent it on revenue, in 1994 it took£2.7 million and spent it on revenue and in 1995 it took just short of £2 million from the reserves. What the gentleman says in his letter is that the day of reckoning

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has arrived. Brentwood has a badly run council that has not applied basic housekeeping rules. Frankly, it has been deserted.

Mr. Rendel: I thought--perhaps I am wrong--that the Government were trying to persuade local councils to use up their reserves, on the grounds that that is the best way to keep council services going.


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