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7 Jan 2003 : Column 108—continued

8.45 pm

Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan): First, may I congratulate the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) on his bid for the 2003 brass neck award? He occupies the pole position in such a contest, and made a good job of getting off the starting blocks quickly.

I was a member of a local authority from 1979 to 1997. During that time, I recall only one Conservative Secretary of State introducing plans to reduce the

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regulations on local government. After a lot of huffing and puffing and vanishing into the jungle, he introduced a number of proposals. In the 15 years during which I chaired Wigan council's highways council not once did I avail myself of the opportunity to introduce cattle grids in Wigan's roads without reference to the Secretary of State for the Environment—that was the sum of Conservative attempts to reduce the burden on local government. It is therefore a bit rich of the Opposition to start to complain now about a measure that does just that.

Kali Mountford: Did the scales fall from my hon. Friend's eyes, as they did from mine, when the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) told the House that such difficult legislation was imposed on local authorities at that time because of the Labour councillors he had to deal with? If he had not had to deal with them, he would not have introduced the legislation.

Mr. Turner: Certainly, scales fell from my eyes several times when previous local government Ministers spoke. The hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) and the right hon. Members for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) gave tremendous reasons for doing all sorts of things at the time. Now they come along and say that we are not doing enough to repeal measures that they introduced.

I want to deal with clauses 77 and 78, which deal with the extremely important matters of property revaluation and council tax banding. Revaluation is essential—nobody can be in any doubt that since 1991 there have been huge changes in property values, not just nationally, but within and between regions, so we must make sure that that is reflected in council tax bands. There is an extensive home ownership market in this country, and house values represent closely people's ability to pay for housing. If they can do so, they can pay for their council tax as well. A council tax band that does not accurately reflect the real value of a house will in the long term bring banding into disrepute.

Mr. McWalter: Does my hon. Friend agree that if band A is split into, say, band A1 and band A2, with A2 people paying the current band A and A1 people paying rather less, there will have to be compensation for the difference in revenue? It would therefore make sense to split band H at the other end.

Mr. Turner: I shall deal in a moment with banding and the splitting of bands. If my hon. Friend will bear with me, I shall finish the point that I was making about council tax valuation and the need to ensure that that is done at least every 10 years. Sophisticated information is available from the building societies and other bodies, which would allow us to revise house valuations on a more regular basis than that. Why can we not carry out a regional uplifting every year and a complete revaluation every 10 years to bring the two together? That would provide buoyancy for council tax income without the need to increase the council tax rate and levy each year, as those on the Liberal Front Bench suggested would be beneficial.

On the council tax ratios, my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett) pointed out forcefully the problems that we have in many areas of

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the north-west. I am sure that his authority is similar to mine, where 70 to 75 per cent. of houses are in band A or band B. Of 120,000 properties in the Wigan borough we have 141 in band H. That shows the disparity that exists. We need to consider not merely splitting those bands, but introducing a more realistic ratio between the value of those bands and the amount of council tax that people pay. At present, someone living in a band A property worth #30,000 pays six ninths of the standard rate. Somebody with a property worth #300,000—10 times as much—or #400,000, #500,000 or #1 million will be in band H and will pay only twice the band D rate. In other words, somebody at the top of the scale will pay only three times as much as somebody at the bottom.

That cannot be right. It is hugely regressive, and there is no doubt that the reason why the Opposition do not want the introduction of new bands or the splitting of existing bands is that they prefer a regressive council tax to a progressive one. I hope that the Minister will make sure that we consider splitting the bottom range and that we introduce a number of new ranges at the top, so that through the bands and the ratio between them, the system reflects people's ability to pay.

Clauses 40 and 41 deal with housing finance. I was disappointed with this aspect of the Bill. It does not level the playing field between local authority housing and registered social landlords. Only by transferring from local authority housing to a registered social landlord will the overhanging debt be written off. That is the wrong way of using the available finance. It should be used for additional investment in housing, rather than paying off debt to transfer the ownership of those houses.

There may be good reasons for transferring housing ownership to registered social landlords and away from local authorities. The local authority may not be a particularly good landlord, and it should not be allowed to continue in those circumstances. However, we should recognise that there are dangers involved in transferring to registered social landlords. A registered social landlord usually has a fairly small number of properties, so only a small group of people can do that. Even so, in small district councils, the consequent reduction in the size of its housing department may represent a quarter or a third of the intellectual mass that goes into that local authority's corporate ability to deal with problems. That seriously diminishes such an authority's ability to take corporate actions to solve housing and other problems. In all good authorities, there is corporate accountability and local authority chief officers act together to discuss and resolve problems. If part of the intellectual mass is taken away, particularly in district councils, that limits their ability to tackle problems.

There is another issue relating to registered social landlords. People who live in social housing usually face a host of problems, including educational, social, financial and health problems. We are trying to create a system to ensure that all those problems are dealt with on a corporate and partnership basis. Taking away the housing aspect and giving it to a registered social landlord means taking away the ability of the local authority to control the issue directly and deal with it properly. The needs of tenants will be suborned to the needs of the registered social landlord's finances and other priorities. We must be very careful of that danger in the transferral to registered social landlords.

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Clause 103 deals with voting on the same day in both the European and council elections. I welcome that and I can see why the Opposition have doubts about it. One of the major reasons why they had a better result than they might otherwise have achieved in the elections held in June 1999 was that they took place only one month after other elections and people had become tired of voting, so they voted with their feet by staying at home. Holding the two elections together will ensure that that does not happen, and I am sure that Opposition Members will be pleased to have properly elected members on the basis of a full ballot rather than a diminished one.

I hope that the Minister will take on board my concern about the fact that the Bill currently mentions only 2004. However, in 2009 and 2014 we will run into exactly the same problem, so I suggest that we consider amending the Bill in Committee to ensure that, after a debate in the House, the Secretary of State can move local elections to the same date as European elections or general elections, which sometimes happen at about the same time, without necessarily introducing another Bill.

Mr. Swayne: The hon. Gentleman suggested that we should change the system because my party did rather better last time and he wants it to work to his party's advantage. Will he not at least acknowledge that there are difficulties with voting in as many as four different voting systems on one day? Does that problem not occur to him at all?

Mr. Turner: I think that that is rather insulting to the electorate. The last general election took place on the same day as county council elections. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is not trying to suggest that people were so confused that they voted for parties for which they would not otherwise have voted merely because they had to vote in a county council and general election at the same time. There are difficulties, but most of them concern the counting of votes, their separation from different ballot boxes and the delay that that causes, rather than any problem that the electorate have in putting a cross on the appropriate ballot paper. We should consider some of the examples from abroad. For example, the American ballot paper often looks more like a toilet roll than a traditional English ballot paper. If the Americans can deal with that, I am sure that the British electorate can do so as well.


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