Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 107) (HC 60) on Special Grant for Activities Undertaken by Beacon Councils

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Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): It is a pleasure to welcome you to the Chair, Mr. O'Brien. I largely agree with the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) and I can perhaps deal with one of his concerns. He was worried that the number of grant applications had fallen; perhaps that is because many council officials are so busy dealing with the extra burden of inspections—not least under the comprehensive performance assessment process—that they do not have time to spend applying for relatively small sums of money.

It is odd that we are debating a little more than £2 million, given that we will hear the local government finance settlement next Thursday. We will then discuss how grants totalling £39,596 million will be distributed. The time spent debating that sum, proportionately, will be far less. Will the Under-Secretary comment on that? Will he assure the Committee that rather more time will be spent on that debate?

The Chairman: Order. I am afraid that the Under-Secretary will not be allowed to debate what will happen with the revenue support grant distribution. We must stick to the subject under discussion.

Mr. Davey: I take that point, Mr. O'Brien.

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We should compare other Government policies with the policy under discussion, especially the comprehensive performance assessment, as the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar said. He wondered how many councils in the higher tier were on the list. My related fear is that some councils on the list might be labelled weak. That would go against what the Under-Secretary said, which was that the Government were considering the performance of the whole council. When the Audit Commission produces its figures and the Government give a statement on them, will we find that some councils listed in the report prove weak? I challenge the Under-Secretary to assure us categorically that that will not be the case. I presume that he knows of some of the councils; I presume that he has been given a sneak preview. Will he give us that assurance?

No one can dispute that the money will be used to good purpose. The idea of spreading good practice from beacon councils is essentially incontestable and sensible. More questionable is whether we have found the right way to finance that approach. Should money come directly from the Government, with subjective choices that may not be partisan, or from a body such as the Improvement and Development Agency? As I understand it, that body was set up for that very purpose. The Under-Secretary says that it is involved in the staging of various events that are designed to spread best practice. Has it been involved in selection, or have such issues been kept merely within the Department?

No one will quibble with individual sums, the total budget or the fact that the money is available for spreading best practice. Our quibble is with how the Government are going about matters.

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Mr. Leslie: Several interesting points have been raised in the debate. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar is disappointed that the numbers are down. There may be various reasons for that. One is that councils are selecting not to apply, knowing that the standard of award is high. It might be interesting for him to realise that for round four of the beacon council scheme, on which we are now beginning, the number of applications from councils is up by around 44 per cent. There are ebbs and flows depending on the issues involved.

Mr. Pickles: Is that a 44 per cent. increase on this year?

Mr. Leslie: Yes. The number of councils shortlisted for round four is 90, compared with 63 under round three. I hope that the maths works out on that; I suspect that it does.

Mr. Pickles: Will the Under-Secretary concede that that was less than the number two years ago?

Mr. Leslie: No. In round one, the number of councils shortlisted was around 68. The difference between that and 63 in round three shows that that argument falls.

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Bureaucracy—the burden that councils feel that they are sometimes under—is a fair issue for the hon. Members for Brentwood and Ongar and for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) to raise. Excellent, beacon councils will be those that have their performance statistics and other information at their fingertips, and can submit their applications relatively easily. Bureaucracy should not be a burden in that sense.

The other important issue of which hon. Members should be aware is the general context in which we are discussing the lifting of burdens and bureaucracy from the shoulders of local councils. Last week we announced that we are giving local councils a series of freedoms and flexibilities. We are reducing the number of plans that are required from local to central Government by 75 per cent. For excellent authorities, there is also a lightening of the inspection burden; up to a possible three-year inspection holiday, I think.

Mr. Davey: Is it not true that even after those policies are implemented, the Government, effectively, will be charging local authorities more on inspection costs and compliance with central Government diktats than they will provide them in improvement funds? Inspection costs thus will still be higher than improvement funds.

Mr. Leslie: I do not think that there is always a direct correlation between improvement funds and the natural, legitimate auditing and inspection costs that all large institutions and agencies should quite rightly pay for good governance and corporate responsibility. However, announcements on the amount of grant that central Government will give to local authorities are to be made on Thursday. We shall wait and see what councils will get in that respect.

On unfair political representation, it had not even occurred to me to ask which political parties got which beacon council schemes, although it is interesting that only 11 per cent. of the beacon councils are Conservative councils. The issue had not crossed my mind, and I have no explanation for the difference. I have confidence in the advisory panel and in the recommendations on beacon councils that we received from our officials. Others can draw their own conclusions on the quality of local services.

In respect of the examples of Northamptonshire and Rotherham, I would not want to get too involved in the detail of the success or otherwise of those councils. However, I am aware that Northamptonshire got its beacon status because it was improving green spaces, and I know that Rotherham got its status for fostering business growth—[Laughter.] I am sorry that the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar thinks that efforts to foster business growth in Rotherham are a laughing matter. I believe that if anywhere needs decent business growth, it is a place such as Rotherham, where there clearly have been successes under the beacon council scheme. I hope that Rotherham goes from strength to strength in the future.

Mr. Pickles: I am very happy to explain my laughter, which owes a lot to the Under-Secretary's delivery. I think that the rest of the Committee was comparing and contrasting the £42,000 for business

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growth with the £172,000 spent by the deputy leader of Rotherham council on gambling, horse racing and prostitution.

The Under-Secretary said that a council has to be good across the board to qualify as a beacon council. I shall not tempt him into commenting on Rotherham; I can understand why he wants to steer clear of that. However, I think that I should tempt him with a reasonable, legitimate question about Northamptonshire county council. Was the general well being and good running of Northamptonshire county council taken into consideration?

Mr. Leslie: Yes. The beacon council advisory panel takes into account the general performance of the authorities. We have an advisory panel—a non-departmental public body—that independently goes through the assessments. Specialist teams look into the examples, but also make a general assessment. There is a certain amount of consideration of general performance and collecting of data from the Audit Commission inspectorates, who look at the general performance section of the applications made. That predates the comprehensive performance assessment process, which is the most thorough way of assessing the overall performance of a local authority and its capability to improve. Those announcements will be made in a matter of days. I cannot now announce the results of Northamptonshire, Rotherham or any other council.

Phil Sawford (Kettering): I had not intended to speak, but the remarks of the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar have tempted me. Northamptonshire county council and its pocket park initiative—there are 50 pocket parks across the county—has led the way on preservation of the local environment and involvement of communities. Sue Paice and the team have done an excellent job. I invite the hon. Gentleman to come with me to Northamptonshire. I will show him the pocket parks around the county.

The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar spoke about what the council is doing across the board. I say that the council deserves beacon status. I have attended events run by the council for the spread of its good practice, using the money that has been awarded. I recommend what is happening. The award is perfectly justified and I thank my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary for it.

Mr. Leslie: That is a classic example of the virtues of the beacon council scheme, from the hon. Member in whose constituency such effective work has been done. Incidentally, my hon. Friend has no doubt

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helped—within the council and his constituency—to improve relevant policies, ensuring a high quality environment for his constituents. If the example he gave does not prove the virtues of the scheme, nothing that the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar says can dispute it.

Mr. Pickles: I thought that there was the possibility of consensus breaking out. I am touched by the prospect of visiting Northamptonshire; perhaps in the next few weeks that will be possible. However, I have a straightforward question for the Under-Secretary. Although it is terrific for a council to be good at providing pocket parks, in order for a council to become a beacon council it is necessary to be good all round. Is Northamptonshire a good county council, yes or no?

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