Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 680 - 699)



Mrs Ellman

  680. What are you looking for? What would constitute success and what would constitute failure?
  (Mr Byers) I think we need to look at it in terms of the traditional way of doing things, because that is a comparator, to see if it is being successful. I think we judge success by whether or not service delivery is being improved, whether local people feel that there is more openness, that there is a greater buy-in to what the local authority is doing.

Mrs Dunwoody

  681. How can you have more openness when you are concentrating power within small groups who are scrutinised by all the other councils who have no independent advice?
  (Mr Byers) That is why we need to compare it with the more traditional approach, and see what benefits—

  682. I know where the difference lies, Secretary of State—even I know that—but you were asked how are you going to monitor it and how are you going to define success.
  (Mr Byers) I think if I say one of the ways in which you can define success is by openness, and it turns out it is not as open, then it will not be successful.

  683. Ah. You may find you can produce results quite quickly.
  (Mr Byers) Most Members of this Committee know my views on this particular issue.

Mrs Ellman

  684. Would you be looking at increased participation in local elections—high turnout rates?
  (Mr Byers) If it can be achieved.


  685. Sir Richard, nodding is quite useful.
  (Sir Richard Mottram) No, no, Chairman, I was just thinking about something else. I would record that I was nodding at that point.
  (Mr Byers) I may be wrong, but I am not convinced that people turn out to vote because there is a cabinet system or there is not a cabinet system. What motivates them is actually the quality of service and knowing what the local council is doing. There are a variety of ways in which you can do that. Some of the best local councils, under the old system, would have high turnouts because they would be open, they would be clear with people on what they were trying to do, there would be political conflict and people would turn out and vote. That used to happen under the old system, but not everywhere—probably in far too few areas. So I think it is worth trying a new approach to see what benefits that can bring.

Mrs Ellman

  686. Would you regard more civic engagement—for example through people voting in local elections—the measure of success?
  (Mr Byers) I think that is the sensible measure to look at, yes.

Dr Pugh

  687. How big a redistribution will follow from the reform of the SSA?
  (Mr Byers) We will need to see. What I have said is that the Standard Spending Assessment will go because it bears no relationship to need within a particular local authority area or to a level of service which is actually being provided. What I would like to see is a reformed system of distribution which responds far more closely to the demands being made on local authorities within their own area and, also, the level of service which they are providing.

  688. Could you anticipate a redistribution, say, from the south-east to North Shields, as an example?
  (Mr Byers) I would not comment on that because I have got a constituency interest, but what I can say is within London there will be a redistribution because there are some parts of London where demand has increased dramatically and where there is a great need compared to other parts of London.


  689. That is ducking out of the issue, is it not? You know that in South Shields—
  (Mr Byers) South Shields is better. It is south of the river, so I can probably comment on that.

  690. You know that in North Shields and places like Tameside and Stockport we are doing pretty badly compared to parts of London. Can you really justify that?
  (Mr Byers) It is an unfair system and it is the system which we all know was introduced for the most cynical, party political reasons. The SSA is motivated by party politics.

Mrs Dunwoody

  691. Surely not.
  (Mr Byers) To save Westminster and Wandsworth. If you talk to the former Secretary of State for the Environment, now Lord Baker, I think he concedes the fact and is now quite open about it. This is not a London-against-the-rest-of-the-country thing, because there will be parts of London that will benefit from a system which is more closely based on need and the level of service which is required.

Ms King

  692. Of course they will, because we have got more wards and a higher deprivation factor than any other region, which seems—
  (Mr Byers) That is why it is wrong to say it is London against the rest of the country. The issue is that there will be parts of London that will benefit by a fairer system, there will be other parts of the country that will benefit as well; there will be some parts of London that will lose and there will be other parts of the country that will lose as well, but that is the nature of any big change. This will be a big change in the way in which we allocate funding.

Dr Pugh

  693. I think we would all accept it will be a contentious change. What are the arrangements for consultation, and when the consultation produces recommendations will there be any transitional arrangements to cushion the effects on some of the losers?
  (Mr Byers) I think there will need to be transitional arrangements with the sort of big change that we are looking at. I have said, when I gave the Local Government Settlement, that I would like to find the mechanism to involve, clearly, Members of the House and local government itself about the changes that we want to introduce, because they will be contentious. A problem shared is a problem halved.

  694. Consultation timetable?
  (Mr Byers) We are doing the work now in the department and I would like to think that, perhaps, after the local elections in May we have something that we can go out with.


  695. The idea of "a problem shared" is that you take the credit and we get the blame.
  (Mr Byers) Absolutely.

Mr Wiggin

  696. Will you be considering rural areas with the new policy? A huge number of my constituents have to spend a lot of the SSA currently on transport and the education budget. Will that be part of your consideration?
  (Mr Byers) We will, and I think one of the important issues that we will need to look at is, really, particularly for small district councils, where this is a real, pressing issue, that there is a cost by just having a local council. This affects small districts in particular, and it may be that we say that for every council there will be a sum of money that you get automatically, as the cost of running the council. Small, rural district councils, in particular, will benefit from that particular approach. That is one of the ideas that we are looking at at the moment.

  697. Electoral matters. Who will decide the fairness of the wording of any referendum question on the Euro? I think we have had some fairly different answers in the past.
  (Mr Byers) I always get in trouble when I talk about the Euro, so Sir Richard will answer.
  (Sir Richard Mottram) The Electoral Commission will tell us.

  698. So they will wholly decide the wording? I believe we were told that they would only have some consideration in it. What is the real answer, please?
  (Sir Richard Mottram) My understanding is that they will determine it, yes.

  699. They will write the whole thing without interference?
  (Mr Byers) They are given guidance, I think, in the legislation. There is some provision which gives them—
  (Sir Richard Mottram) I have not got this in my notes but I can give you more detail. It is not determined by the Government.

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