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House of Commons

Tuesday 30 November 1999

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]


City of London (Ward Elections) Bill (By Order)

Order for consideration read.

To be considered on Tuesday 7 December.

City of Stoke-on-Trent Tunstall Northern By-Pass Local Government Act Compulsory Purchase Order 1997


Message to the Lords to acquaint them therewith.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Local Authorities (SSA)

1. Mr. John Healey (Wentworth): If he will make a statement on the Government's proposals for determining the standard spending assessment settlement for local authorities for 2000-01. [99006]

The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Ms Hilary Armstrong): I was pleased to announce to the House last week that we have again provided a generous increase in grant for local authorities, which will enable them to continue to pursue with vigour their policies and the Government's priorities for action.

Mr. Healey: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Is she aware that in authorities such as mine in Rotherham there is strong support for the principle of the three-year freeze in SSA changes and for the longer-term finance review? Will she give particular consideration in

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that review to the treatment of capital financing? Will she condemn last week's comments by councillor Peter Chalke, leader of the Tory county councils network? He said that the

    "settlement demonstrates that the Labour Government is the enemy of the countryside."

The average increase for all authorities in the settlement is more than 5 per cent. and the increase for Councillor Chalke's authority in Wiltshire is 5.6 per cent.

Ms Armstrong: I think that Councillor Chalke, along with some Conservative Members, made his remarks before he had studied the settlement. There were no changes in methodology. The settlement showed, as Conservative Members ultimately had to agree, that shire counties got an above average rise. We have to work hard to move forward and ensure that local people understand the settlement, which should reflect the additional money that the Government are putting in so that local people know the priority that is given to public services at local level.

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay): Does the Minister accept that authorities that find that the SSA formula does not reflect fairly on them have been disadvantaged in year one, disadvantaged this year and further disadvantaged next year? Surely that is unfair. They are having to put up their council tax above the Government's targets and cut services. Surely they deserve a better deal than being told that there can be no changes to the unfair formula for three years.

Ms Armstrong: As I announced to the House last week, we have continued damping arrangements that mean that no education authority receives less than a 1.5 per cent. increase. All authorities knew what they were to get over the three years. It is easier for any organisation to have a three-year plan rather than a single-year plan to decide how money is to be used and how to get the best from that spending.

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central): On the long-term future of the SSA, does my right hon. Friend accept that the effect of the current formula is so bizarre and awry that a city such as Stoke-on-Trent receives hundreds of pounds per child less each year than areas of acute deprivation such as Surrey and Hertfordshire? Will she urge her working party to act as quickly as possible and will she undertake to be bold and radical in tackling a problem that has defeated government for the last l0 years?

Ms Armstrong: My hon. Friend is right to point out that some of the effects of the current formula are difficult to justify locally. That is why we are having a root and branch review. We are working with authorities throughout the country in an attempt to find an alternative to the current SSA methodology. The overwhelming view that was expressed in the survey of authorities that we conducted was that SSAs are not working effectively. It is not just me but the authorities that have to be radical in

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how they look at future funding. We need a system that is as fair as possible, but they must recognise that it is inevitable that not everyone will be fully satisfied.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): Will the Minister confirm that support for shire districts has plummeted under this Government? They have had a cut of £220 million, or 28 per cent., on what they received in 1997-98. Kent is facing an £8 million cut in total grant next year. Does she accept that it is no consolation to such councils, mainly in country areas, as they face great unfairness, higher council tax and cuts in services, that they have what she calls stability for three years? They would far rather have had the chance to come to see her last year or this year to persuade her to change the methodology. Does she accept that in talking about generosity and stability, she is merely disguising the true position, which is that many of the councils are being treated unfairly by the Government not only in year one, but in years two and three, so that it truly is a case of this Government being the enemy of the countryside?

Ms Armstrong: That is arrant nonsense. As the hon. Gentleman knows, shire counties have done better than average this year. No shire county--not a single one--is having its grant cut. Every county and every metropolitan authority is receiving a minimum 1.5 per cent. increase, which does not equate to a cut of £8 million. The hon. Gentleman can project what he would like to spend next year, and then say that a salary has been cut because it is not meeting his budget. That is what he is talking about, but that is not proper budgeting. Kent, along with other areas, is receiving the minimum protection, but Kent is doing better than that. If one adds up the amounts going to shire counties and shire districts, the amount going to the countryside is, to put it mildly, generous.

New Deal for Communities

2. Ms Margaret Moran (Luton, South): If he will make a statement on the progress of the new deal for communities in Luton. [99007]

The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Ms Hilary Armstrong): I was delighted to announce that Luton is one of the 22 areas eligible to put forward proposals for the transformation of a deprived neighbourhood under the second round of the new deal for communities. I will ensure that local people, businesses and organisations get the support that they need to deliver real equality of opportunity and choice in that neighbourhood.

Ms Moran: I thank my right hon. Friend for her wisdom in selecting Luton as one of the pilot areas for the new deal for communities. Is she aware that, in the centre of my constituency, young people from Bangladeshi and Pakistani households are four times more likely to be unemployed than the national average, despite educational attainments that are similar to the national average? How does my right hon. Friend see the new deal for communities working in conjunction with other

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Government initiatives which Luton is pleased to receive to tackle that severe problem, so that all the youngsters in my constituency have an equal opportunity to find jobs?

Ms Armstrong: The report that led to the launch of the new deal for communities pointed out that, in our most deprived neighbourhoods, it is much more difficult for people to find work, and that is particularly true for those from ethnic minorities. We should not tolerate that in our society, and we are determined to give local communities the tools to turn that around. One of the policy action teams has been looking at access to jobs, and another has been looking at skills. We are confident that we will be able to work with local communities to make sure that they are able to turn their areas around and to bring jobs, decent health standards, decent education and hope to those areas.

Green Belt

3. Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): If he will make a statement on protection of the green belt in Mill Hill and Totteridge valley. [99008]

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Nick Raynsford): In most cases, this is a matter for the London borough of Barnet, though my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister expects the borough to have firm greenbelt protection policies in its development plan. My right hon. Friend will consider calling in planning applications that appear to conflict with greenbelt policies and deal with appeals in greenbelt cases in line with his commitment to green belts.

Mr. Dismore: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's decisions on recent planning applications for an enormous riding centre at Belmont stables and a plan by Barnet football club for a 10,000-seater stadium on greenbelt land were very much welcomed by my constituents. However, is my hon. Friend aware that Barnet FC has come forward with a plan to put a 9,999-seater stadium at exactly the same location with virtually identical plans? Will the Secretary of State take a robust line, as he has in the past, to defend the green belt against such depredations?

Mr. Raynsford: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments on decisions taken by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister. My hon. Friend has indicated that a further application is apparently in the pipeline, so it would not be appropriate for me to make any comments about it, other than to reiterate that the application will be considered closely in line with the Government's stated policy on the green belt, as set out in planning policy guidance 2, and where there is a presumption against inappropriate development within the green belt.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): The statement today will be welcomed by Londoners, not only in the northern part of London to which the Minister referred, but more extensively, because the Government's record in preserving metropolitan green belt has been abysmal, especially at Stevenage and in Sussex. Can the Minister assure us that from now on, especially as aide-de-camp to the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), he will be vigilant in ensuring

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that the metropolitan green belt is preserved, because it is the heritage of Londoners as well as inhabitants of the communities in which it is located?

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman is not correct in his views about the green belt. As he knows, my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) has just complimented the Government on their decisions in protection of the green belt in London. The hon. Gentleman will also be aware that in the two and a half years since the Government came to power the amount of green belt has been extended by some 30,000 hectares, and we are clear about our commitment to the preservation of the green belt.

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