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19 Nov 2002 : Column 568continued
Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe): I welcome most of the measures in the Queen's Speech. I begin by drawing attention to the antisocial behaviour provisions. Earlier this year, I called on the House to toughen the legislation in that respect. It is one of the most difficult problems with which hon. Members have to deal in their constituencies, and the extra powers that the police and local authorities are to be given should be warmly welcomed.
I echo the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) about the problem of fireworks as one aspect of antisocial behaviour. I have had more letters on that subject this year than ever before. It seems to be becoming a much bigger issue. A total ban on the sale of fireworks to the general public would cause difficultiesthere is always the danger of creating a black marketbut we must legislate to restrict the sale of fireworks to certain times of the year, probably to allow only designated retailers to sell them, and to stop the sale of the largest and loudest fireworks. We should also roll out the pilot scheme currently under way in four police authorities, with on-the-spot fines for the improper use of fireworks in public places.
I shall spend the rest of the short time available to me considering the proposals for local government, planning and housing. We should not overestimate the total effect of the proposed local government Bill. I welcome many aspects of it, but the idea that it will completely change the balance between central and local government is an overestimate, which does not do it credit. There are some worthwhile measures in the Bill. It is a series of small steps in the right direction.
I welcome the introduction of prudential guidelines for local authority borrowing. I and others in local government, as I used to be before I came to this place, argued for that 20 years ago. I never thought that any Government would have the courage to do that, and I am pleased that it is a Labour Government who are doing it.
I welcome the proposals to free up local authorities' ability to trade. Of course, they should not be subsidised in that trading to do down firms in the private sector, but when a local authority goes in to install central heating in five local authority homes in a block of flats, the fact that it cannot also put central heating in for an owner-occupier there who may want that service, because that would count as trading, has always been nonsense. The measure in the Bill will allow such a problem to be sorted out. I welcome the changes to council tax benefits, as a response to the Xdaylight robbery" campaign. They are good and positive proposals, as well.
I welcome the review of the overall balance of funding between what local authorities can raise for themselves and what they get from central Government. That is the key issue. We will not have true local democracy and proper local government freedom until we alter that balance substantially. The fact that local authorities can raise only 25 per cent. of what they spend from local sources is a real constraint on that freedom, and the problems of gearing are well documented and well known.
I must say to my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench that the fact that the Government have ruled out the transfer of the business rate back to local authorities puts them in a very difficult position. I am not sure what other big idea is around to significantly shift that 25 per cent. of funding controlled by local authorities up towards 50 per cent. or more. Without the transfer of the business rate, I do not know how that will be achieved, but I look forward to the outcome of the review.
During this Parliament, we will see a change to the way in which the resources that come from central Government to local government are distributed. I shall make one brief comment on that. Some of us feel that the area cost adjustment has been extremely unfair and has discriminated against our local authorities for many years. I say to the Government that we are not against the principle, and recognise that in some parts of the country local authorities must pay more for staff because of local market conditions. I am quite prepared for an element of grant to be paid to authorities in the south-east to reflect the fact that they have to pay more for certain public sector workers. That is fair enough.
What I do not accept, and what I have not heard a justification for, is the idea that that area cost adjustment should reflect pay levels in the private sector, which have nothing at all to do with local authority responsibilities or costs. The fact that chief executives in London are paid a lot more than chief executives in SheffieldI am speaking of the private sectoris no reason for London authorities to get extra grant to reflect that, because it is not a real cost for them.
David Taylor: Does my hon. Friend accept that although there is a justification for an increased level of grant within certain parameters for the south-east, to reward the people of Hertfordshire with a standard spending assessment that gives them 13 or 14 per cent. more per school pupil than the people of Leicestershire, which is right at the bottom of the county league table, is probably excessive?
Mr. Betts: I well understand those problems, and we can draw similar comparisons between northern authorities. Clearly, there are particular elements of any change that I would want to examine closely, such as the area cost adjustment. Overall, a comparison must be made between the amount of grant that children in neighbouring and similar authorities get from central Government for their education. That must be seen to be fair and reasonable in order to convince the public, who do not understand the arcane intricacies of the grant system, that they are getting a fair deal in their own local authority.
Mr. Betts: I understand that issue very well. I come back to the point that any grant to reflect the extra amounts that particular authorities have to pay should be based on the realities of the situation, not on some general and philosophical formula that does not relate to the real costs that local authorities face.
On the planning proposals, I welcome many aspects of the planning Green Paper and the Government's response to the Select Committee's investigation. We need more resources to speed up the planning process. The fact that local authorities are dealing with the same number of applications as they were five or 10 years ago with fewer staff is a credit to them. They need more resources, and the Government will provide them. As well as quicker planning decisions, we need better planning decisions. I therefore welcome the proposals to improve pre-application consultation and to issue proper guidelines for consultation. The days when notices were stuck 30 ft up a telegraph pole should be at an end.
I welcome the proposal that the length of time for which a planning permission is valid should be cut from five years to three years, in general. I also agree that planning consents should not automatically be renewed, so that when planning guidance is changed, extant planning permissions do not undermine its effect for years to come.
My one worry is still the local development framework, and whether it will really be clearer and simpler to understand and allow quicker decisions than the unitary development plan system. The development plan system has been implemented far too slowly. Government could have insisted that it be speeded up. My worry is that if we replace a plana physical document indicating what development will be allowed on what sites in a particular areawith numerous written criteria and with some plans for development areas, some for conservation areas, some for greenbelt areas and some for proposed housing schemes, and that lot must be put together, I am not sure that the lack of an overall, written, laid down plan which the public and developers can see will lead to any greater certainty. In fact, it might lead to more confusion.
I know that the Government have said that under the new local development framework arrangements, authorities will be able to draw up a whole plan for their area, but they will not be compelled to do so. The certainty of having a plan is better for developers and for communities, who can see what sites in their area might be used for in the future. I am sure that we will return to the matter when we discuss the proposal in more detail.
Finally, on housing, I welcome the proposals for the draft Bills. For years, some of us have argued strongly for an end to the squalor and appalling conditions of many people living in houses in multiple occupation. It is right that we should have a proper system of control. I look forward to those proposals, and also to the
Let me raise a matter mentioned by the Deputy Prime Minister. I welcome the Government's commitment to decent homes standards in council housing, but they must find resources to ensure that those standards are met irrespective of whether tenants vote for stock transfer. Tenants in Sheffield are bitterly opposed to it, and the proposed scheme did not meet the Government's requirements and did not add up financially anyway; but we must find resources enabling tenants who want their homes to remain in council ownership to have the same rights as those who vote for stock transfer. That is very important to my constituents.
I look forward to the hunting Bill, although I am sorry to learn that the Government may introduce a licensing system. I will not vote to license hunts so that every time a fox is torn apart by a pack of hounds, that happens with the approval of Members of Parliament. I have always voted for a complete ban, and I look forward to doing so again in the near future. I trust that the will of the House will prevail.