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House of Commons

Tuesday 23 April 2002

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Greenham and Cookham Commons Bill

Lords amendments agreed to.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Standard Spending Assessments

1. Hugh Bayley (City of York): What steps he is taking to bring SSAs in English unitary authorities closer to the national average. [49393]

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Nick Raynsford): We are currently reviewing the system for distributing grant to local government. We have said that the new formulae will take into account the circumstances that authorities face. Clearly, circumstances in unitary authorities vary enormously, as they do elsewhere. Therefore, I do not think that it is helpful to set broad goals, such as moving a particular group towards an average. That would lead us to a system where everybody gets the same irrespective of differing needs and local circumstances, which would not be fair.

Hugh Bayley: When the City of York was created as a unitary authority in 1996, it inherited from the Conservatives one of the lowest SSAs in the country. I know that the Government acknowledge the need for change in the local government funding formula, and that they have brought forward proposals in that regard. Will my right hon. Friend say whether the Government intend to bring forward legislation in time to affect the local government finance settlements next year?

Mr. Raynsford: I am pleased to be able to tell my hon. Friend that we intend to introduce changes in time for next year's local government settlement, although that will not require legislation. The proposals will be subject to a period of consultation with local government and other

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interested parties during the summer, and we intend to make the necessary arrangements so that the new system can be in force from April 2003.

Mr. Andrew Rosindell (Romford): In his review, will the Minister look at the London borough of Havering, which receives substantially less than other boroughs with similar populations? For example, Redbridge next door gets £50 million more than Havering. Does he agree also that it is better for local money to be spent on local services than on the bureaucratic and unnecessary regional assemblies around England with which the Government appear obsessed?

Mr. Raynsford: The system is based on a proper and serious assessment of the needs of each area, taking account of different circumstances and requirements. Simplistic and crude comparisons of the grants available to different areas are usually very wide of the mark. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government are looking carefully at all the factors relevant to local government needs, in London and in other parts of the country. We intend to produce a system that is clearer, simpler and easier to understand than the current system, and one that is also fairer.

As to regional assemblies, the hon. Gentleman will have to await our proposals. However, it is our intention not to create bureaucracy but to create structures that add value and improve regional economic performance.

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon): My right hon. Friend said that it was important to take into account the circumstances of different authorities. Swindon borough council receives the lowest education SSA of all unitary authorities. Schools elsewhere in the country receive £1,000 more per pupil than is the case in Swindon, where standards are higher. Does my right hon. Friend accept that that is unacceptable and unfair, and that the situation cannot continue?

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend raises a perfectly fair point about the weight to be given to the per-pupil allowance in the educational element of the grant distribution formula. However, other factors need to be taken into account, such as special local circumstances. Authorities in rural areas face greater costs because of sparsity, for example, and there are particular deprivation factors in inner-city areas, and where there are high concentrations of people for whom English is not the first language. Any system must take account of the whole range of factors, and that is why we propose to carry out detailed consultation before we finalise our proposals.

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire): Despite the Government's continual boasting about increases in SSAs and levels of grant money to all local authorities, including the unitary authorities, real-terms council tax rises under Labour have averaged 5 per cent a year, compared with 2 per cent. under the previous Conservative Administration. Is not that yet another example of a Labour Government stealth tax?

Mr. Raynsford: No, it is not. The details show that the largest increases in council tax this year have been imposed by Conservative authorities. If he wishes to criticise council tax increases, the hon. Gentleman could

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do no better than to talk to his colleagues in those Tory shire counties which, in the year after an election, have chosen to have a very large increase in their precept. That is an example of the politics being played by the Conservative party, and the House will have no truck with that approach.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North): Boroughs such as mine, Westminster and the royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea did well in this year's settlement, but is my right hon. Friend aware that the figures issued last week on households below average income show that London as a whole has more families at risk of poverty than any other region in England? Will he assure me, therefore, that the current review into SSAs will take into account both London's exceptional costs and the extremely high levels of deprivation across the capital?

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend makes an extremely valid point. As she will know from my earlier comments, we are considering carefully all the relevant factors in all areas of the country. Inevitably, there will be some difficulty during that process, because every area and every group of authorities sees the review as an opportunity to increase its share of the total. Everyone cannot be a gainer in that process, however, and it is our duty to be thoughtful and careful and to come to the best and most prudent conclusions that will genuinely respond to needs and create a fair framework for the grant distribution settlement. That is the basis on which we are acting, and I hope that my hon. Friend will bear with me and will understand the difficulties that face us as we try to come up with an appropriate solution.

West Coast Main Line

2. Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): What recent representations he has received on the progress of the upgrade of the west coast main line. [49394]

The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar): I have received a number of representations about a range of issues relating to modernisation of the west coast main line.

Mr. Luff: On St. George's day—and a very happy St. George's day to you, Mr. Speaker—I am delighted to be able to ask a question about a line that links London with the heart of England. Does the Minister share my concern about the implications of the regular programme of weekend closures planned for the line later in the year? Will he intervene to ensure that better management avoids the serious short and long-term consequences of that wholly unnecessary programme of closures?

Mr. Spellar: As a fellow heart of England Member of Parliament, I remind the hon. Gentleman that we have a very acceptable and efficient alternative rail system from the west midlands to London via the Chiltern line. I am sure that he will acknowledge its extremely good record.

I depart from the hon. Gentleman, however, when he says that the closures are unnecessary. There was much discussion about them in the industry. As he knows, the initial proposals were for a four-week closure programme that included the working week. Many representations

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were made as to the impact of that on business and commerce in the regions. However, Railtrack needs to secure the track in order to make vital improvements on the west coast main line and there has been much discussion with the Strategic Rail Authority, local train operators, Virgin and Railtrack to try to pull together the various elements. Nobody could say that the closure is desirable but it is necessary and there was an agreement in which everyone gave a little. Obviously, we are looking forward to the improvements that will result from this period. We have also made sure that it avoids a number of significant events—not least the Commonwealth games in Manchester.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree that when the west coast main line is fully upgraded—hopefully with the trains running at 140 mph—there will still be a major capacity problem? Bearing that in mind, does he support the SRA plan for a brand new high-speed link from London to the north of England?

Mr. Spellar: My hon. Friend is a little in advance as regards the state of that process. That option is being examined and we shall obviously look at the outcome. Similarly, we shall consider the proposal for additional freight capacity made by Central Railway. The SRA is in intense negotiations and will be making its recommendation later this year.

Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale): On St. George's day, may I ask whether the Minister has had the opportunity to meet the Secretary of State for Scotland to make a joint assessment of the impact on the Scottish economy of the continued procrastination about the west coast main line upgrade? Will the right hon. Gentleman take this opportunity to deny the rumours and speculation that the upgrade will not extend north of the border?

Mr. Spellar: The hon. Gentleman is a little uncharitable given that the state of the railway industry that the Conservative Government bequeathed to us, the appalling structure and record of Railtrack and the problems that it had on the west coast main line were the absolutely crucial factors in its inability to continue as a going concern. A degree of humility from Opposition Members would be in order.

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the SRA, Railtrack and the train operators are considering how they can work together to ensure the most favourable outcome from the west coast main line scheme, which had been appallingly priced and mismanaged by Railtrack. We are starting to pull that scheme together, but I do not underestimate the difficulties that we were bequeathed by the Conservative Government, whom he supported.

Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish): Will my right hon. Friend reconsider the weekend closures and the closure of Stockport station? I am not sure whether he recalls that between 1958 and 1960, when the west coast main line was electrified, every bridge between Manchester and London had to be raised to get the electrical cables through. That was done with minimum disruption on a Sunday. Why do engineers now seem

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incapable of achieving the desired main line upgrade without major closures at weekends and without closing some stations for long periods?

Mr. Spellar: Well, Sunday is half the weekend. The implications of the time scale are straightforward—the more the work is spread out, the longer it takes and the later we get the improvements. As I said earlier, there was a proposal to do the work in shorter time by shutting down much longer chunks of the network throughout the week. That was thought undesirable and, indeed, damaging to business and business travel. As a result, we are considering a series of weekend works, but even more weekends would be affected if we were to adopt my hon. Friend's suggestion, which would, of course, affect even more people who wish to travel to and from London at the weekend.

A balance must be struck. No one believes that such closures are desirable—I merely point out that the various parties have reached the best negotiated outcome.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): The chief executive of the north-west tourist authority says that the weekend closures will seriously affect tourism in that region. They will also seriously inconvenience my constituents who do not have cars and who wish to travel to London and the rest of the country. Is it not beyond the wit of Railtrack and the Government to upgrade the west coast main line without shutting it at weekends in one of busiest periods?

Mr. Spellar: I suspect that the hon. Gentleman's other constituents who wish to travel to and from London on business would be very concerned if the system were shut down during the week. A balance must be struck. All the options create difficulties; it is question of which is more undesirable. The House would generally agree that weekend closures are preferable to shutting the line during the week and severely disrupting business and commerce. I am sure that the business community in the north-west will note the rather light-hearted way in which the hon. Gentleman is treating such comments.

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