Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 88)(HC 305) on Special Grant for Activities Undertaken by Beacon Councils

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Dr. Whitehead: It is certainly true that we imagine that the relevant councils' performance would be good overall. If the question is whether a council has to have an excellent report across the board to obtain beacon status in any function for which applications are requested, the answer is no. If that were necessary, I am not sure that people would undertake a beacon status exercise for any specific function, as the only bodies that would conceivably be eligible would be local authorities that were regarded as excellent across the piece.

Barnsley local authority is now a beacon council under the competitiveness heading. Some problems in the social services department at Barnsley have been acknowledged, but those problems did not torpedo the local authority's application for beacon status as far as competitiveness was concerned.

Let me conclude my exposition of the procedure whereby the grants are given to local authorities. The authorities' plans set out how they will share their good practice—the events that they will hold and the publicity materials that they will produce. The plans also set out the costs and the income involved. Those plans have been approved by the Secretary of State and all costs will be relevant expenditure towards which grant will be paid.

The amount of grant each beacon application attracts will be equal to the net relevant expenditure actually incurred by the council, up to a cash limit. In other words, all the costs a council incurs under its dissemination plans will be covered by grant up to the cash limit for that council. We have specified a cash limit of £39,069 for each single beacon award where one council has been awarded beacon status in one theme and one of £49,069 for a joint beacon award where two or more councils applied and were given one award jointly.

In the case of joint beacon awards it has been agreed with the relevant councils that the grant will be paid to the lead authority. If a council holds beacon status in two themes it will be entitled to £39,069 for each theme and so will receive £78,138. If hon. Members examine the report annexe they will see that there are varying sums of money against the names of different local authorities. That is because some of those local authorities have received single beacon, some double beacon and some joint awards.

The money will be paid to councils on submission by them of a simple claim, which will be subject to audit, showing the amount of relevant expenditure incurred.

Mr. Moss: I am following the Minister closely on the matter of the figures in annexe A and I understand his explanation of the single grant of £39,069 and the doubling of that to £78,138. The joint grant figure is £49,000 and the money going to the leading council doubles to £98,000. Is that right?

Hon. Members: No.

Mr. Moss: Is it not?

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster): Sussex has £88,000.

Mr. Moss: My hon. Friend got to the answer before I did.

Dr. Whitehead: If two or more councils have combined for a joint beacon award and a lead local authority shares beacon status with other local authorities, additional funding will be provided. I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern about that particular figure because the category for that particular figure is not entirely included in the categories that I have previously set out: one has to combine categories to arrive at that total. West Sussex county council has obtained a single award of £39,069 and an additional sum of £49,069 for the joint award that it shares with Mid Sussex and Horsham district councils, making a total of £88,138.

We expect claims, whether they are for £88,138, £39,069, or other amounts, to be made before the end of February, and payments are to be made by the end of March. The report opens the way for arrangements to be made for the second year of the beacon council scheme. The scheme is now well under way and we are finalising the arrangements for the second round. Councils are already benefiting from the learning experiences being offered. The scheme gives all councils an opportunity to improve and to provide good quality local services. I therefore commend the report to the Committee.

Special grant report No. 81 is about gypsy sites. Helping to keep gypsy sites available for use is an important part of Government policy to minimise the disruption that can arise from unauthorised encampments. We have commissioned comprehensive research to look into the availability, quality and management of gypsy sites. The research, which is due to report next spring, will examine existing site provision, the demand and need for all sorts of site and for other housing, and how those demands can be met. That fundamental piece of work will provide us with a greatly improved knowledge base to inform future spending reviews and policy.

Early next year, we will revise our good practice guidance on managing unauthorised camping by gypsies and travellers, following an independent review by Heriot-Watt university. We intend the revised good practice guide to be a valuable tool for local authorities, the police and other agencies—and, indeed, travellers and the settled community—in formulating and implementing the effective strategies that are so vital.

Alongside those key policy initiatives, the gypsy site refurbishment grant programme will operate over three years in recognition of the importance that the Government attach to keeping the sites in good condition and available for use. The grant will be funded from the new money that the Government have provided for the support of local authority gypsy sites in England. The grant report allows for the first year's payment of grant to local authorities that are successful in our gypsy site refurbishment grant competition.

The existing network of local authority gypsy sites is a valuable resource for gypsies. In July 2000, my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), then Minister for Housing and Planning, announced as part of spending review 2000 that £17 million was to be made available to local authorities for the refurbishment of authorised gypsy sites over the ensuing three years. The grant is intended to meet 75 per cent. of the refurbishment costs. Local authorities are required to fund the remaining 25 per cent. from their own resources. The injection of funding will help local authorities to extend the useful life of sites, to bring them into full use and to improve the quality of life for residents.

Bidding guidance and invitations to bid were sent to all English local authorities in November 2000. By the closing date, in January this year, we had received a total of 75 bids from 51 local authorities. Evaluation of the bids was carried out for the Department by PricewaterhouseCoopers, using criteria set out clearly in the bidding guidance. A total of 38 projects were given approval in March 2001. The successful bids amounted to almost £4 million, with projects ranging in cost from £17,000 to £320,000. The schemes range from essential groundwork to improve drainage to comprehensive site-modernisation work involving refurbishment or replacement of substandard amenity units.

I have already mentioned that the sum specified, a total of £17 million, is to be made available over a three-year period. Resources are finite so the grant is awarded on a competitive basis: it is a matter of hard arithmetic that some authorities are bound to be disappointed. However, the gypsy site refurbishment grant is a three-year programme, so authorities that are unsuccessful in round 1 may bid again in rounds 2 and 3. Some £6 million will be available in round 2 and £8 million in round 3. That money is being made available in such a way as to allow authorities that were unable to make a quick bid, or wanted to consider for longer what they would do with their sites, to bid in years 2 and 3 and take advantage of the grant in the longer term.

I should emphasise that if an authority that does not bid or is unsuccessful in round 1, it does not imply that it will be unsuccessful in rounds 2 or 3. We understand that some authorities in that position already intend to bid in the second or third rounds. We have given feedback on unsuccessful bids to allow authorities to reconsider some issues to strengthen their future bids, and we shall continue to improve the feedback process for round 2.

Mr. Moss: Previously, the Minister alluded to the Government's announcement on unauthorised camping and went into some detail as to what would be announced in future. Paragraph 4 of the report says that it deals with specific money to go to existing gypsy sites

    ``as defined in section 24 of the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960''.

Does that mean that a site is ineligible for a grant unless it has the connotation ``gypsy site''? How do travellers sites fit into the scheme, bearing in mind that the Minister used the two words almost synonymously?

Dr. Whitehead: A large number of gypsy sites throughout the country were established some time ago as a result of Government grants. The gypsy site refurbishment grant will not open new sites but will allow local governments to plan a programme of refurbishment for sites already in use that have become run down and have problems with maintenance and development. The grants assist that programme on a 75 per cent. basis, but they go only to sites designated in the report, which are run by local authorities. As a policy encouragement, gypsy and travellers sites are, ideally, provided with planning permission by gypsy or travellers' organisations and associations, and by individual gypsies. A substantial number of private sites have developed with a more general connotation. By July 2001, there were some 4,255 gypsy or traveller caravans on private sites, which is a significant number, but the report simply aims to ensure that existing sites remain in use, can be refurbished and continue to perform their original function.

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