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Session 2002 - 03
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Local Government Finance Special
Grant Report (No. 128) on Dealing
with Disadvantage Grant


Seventh Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation

Thursday 30 October 2003

[Mr. James Cran in the Chair]

Local Government Finance Special
Grant Report (No. 128) on dealing
with Disadvantage Grant

9.55 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the Local Government Finance Special
    Grant Report (No. 128) on dealing
    with Disadvantage Grant.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Cran. I know that these are busy times for you—

The Chairman: Order. I hope that we will not canter over that, but instead keep to the narrow measure before us.

Mr. Jamieson: I was thinking of your constituency engagements, Mr. Cran, and how involved one can get with such things at this time of the week.

The report will enable payment of grants to local authorities for expenses incurred while delivering the non-engineering aspects of the Government's dealing with disadvantage initiative in Greater Manchester and Lancashire. The report covers the period up to March 2006, and provides the revenue funding for local road safety education, training and publicity projects and some off-highway capital work, such as schemes for play areas.

Capital grants for improvements to the highway have been made under powers in the Highways Act 1980. I draw the Committee's attention to annex A of the report for a list of authorities to which the grant is to be paid, annex B for the reason for the special grant and annex C for conditions attaching to the grant. The Government are committed to tackling the problems of people living in disadvantaged areas, and have a vision for narrowing the gap between deprived neighbourhoods and the rest of the country. Our aim is that, in 10 to 20 years, no one should be seriously disadvantaged by where they live.

The social exclusion unit report entitled ''Making Connections: Transport and Social Exclusion'' highlighted the connection between disadvantage and road safety. Children in the lowest social class are five times more likely to be killed as pedestrians than those in better-off areas. Older people are also more at risk in poorer areas. Road safety problems are a blight on such communities, and we need to do something about it. There is also a significant financial cost. Every fatality costs society about £1.25 million, and every pedestrian casualty, averaged across all celerities, costs

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£62,000. Casualties in those areas represent a significant financial drain. That is quite apart from the human issues involved.

My Department has issued guidance entitled ''Tackling the Road Safety Implications of Disadvantage'' to all local authorities in England. We explained the issue, and required councils to set out how they proposed to address it in the annual progress report on their local transport plan. That brought the matter to the attention of local highways authorities, but it is clear that there are some places with particularly severe problems. If we are to succeed in getting the casualty problem under control, those councils will need special help.

The 2002 spending review identified £17.6 million in 2003-04 to 2005-06 for supporting councils with the worst road safety problems associated with disadvantage. Remembering the strong link between disadvantage and child pedestrian casualties, we ranked the authorities by child pedestrian casualty rates per head of child population. That showed a significant concentration of places with high child pedestrian casualties in Greater Manchester and Lancashire.

Last October, we invited 10 councils in Greater Manchester and Lancashire to develop ideas to tackle road safety problems in their poorest areas, for which we would grant funds. Working with those councils, an analysis of their problems was carried out, and submissions for grant funding put forward. Throughout the time that we spent working with the councils on their submissions, we stressed that road safety does not happen just on the roads. It has an impact on the way people live. We have encouraged councils to think more broadly about what causes casualties. For example, slowing motor vehicles by traffic calming will reduce the likelihood and severity of any condition, but improved road safety skills and awareness training might equip people to cope better with difficult road environments, and better social and play facilities would reduce exposure to traffic, particularly for children.

We need a broad-based approach to solving the problem of road safety in disadvantaged communities. The special grant report represents only one part of the support that we are giving to the 10 councils in Greater Manchester and Lancashire. We have allocated £5 million for improvements to road layouts and grant funding under the Highways Act powers.

We are pleased that we have reached agreement with Greater Manchester police to host a neighbourhood road safety team to improve understanding of why road safety is such a problem in such disadvantaged areas, and to work out how to solve it. The neighbourhood road safety team has been allocated £3.5 million, and will work in partnership with the councils in all 10 areas.

The special grant report is designed to deliver innovative road safety ideas locally. The launch of the initiative has provoked an imaginative response, and we wish to support the councils in making things happen. Throughout the period when we were developing these ideas, we stressed the need for

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working in partnership. The neighbourhood road safety team will forge partnerships with the councils and with local strategic partnerships. The grant will enable the road safety sections of the councils to deliver new ideas in partnership with the local strategic partnerships and will provide match-funding where that is necessary.

It is important that we learn from the experience of the initiative. Full monitoring and evaluation of how the initiative worked and what it achieved will be undertaken in a separate research contract, and we will promote what has been learned to all local authorities in disadvantaged communities.

10.1 am

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Cran, and I hope that you will not be delayed too long by these proceedings.

The Opposition welcome anything that is designed to reduce the carnage on our roads, and especially serious injuries and fatalities involving children. If the Government think that throwing money at this problem in the way that they are currently describing is the right way to do that, all I can say is let us see what actually happens. However, I am bound to ask a few questions and express a certain scepticism, because we have a continuing complaint that the Government think that, if they throw money at problems, ergo the problems are solved. The Minister said that the Government have identified 10 councils that are deserving of the additional funding, but he has not explained why those councils, with their enormous budgets and burgeoning staff numbers, have already failed in their responsibilities to their citizens to improve road safety.

I have not been through every name on the list, but I will pick out the second council on it—Blackpool. It is a Labour-controlled council, with the Conservatives as by far the second largest group and breathing down Labour's neck with 15 councillors. In Blackpool, there are 3,384 full-time staff and 3,664 part-time staff. The average band D council tax is more than £950. From what the Minister has said, that council has had the best part of nine months to draw up proposals to help with road safety in Blackpool under the dealing with disadvantage project. All that it has come up with is a demand for support staff to deliver dealing with disadvantage projects. There is no money for anything new on the ground—all we are talking about is extra support staff. All 10 projects have in common a nice round figure of £50,000 for such staff. Conservative Members think that councils do not need more support staff. They need people doing the work that they are already employed to do, and delivering on the ground.

In my constituency, we would welcome substantial sums of money to help with renewing playground equipment or introducing pedestrian crossings—substantive highway improvements, ways in which to reduce the incidence of road accidents and to minimise the consequences of driver or pedestrian error.

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A Government project dealing with disadvantage grant allocations sounds wonderful. There will be a lot of spin—everybody was saying that the project showed that the Government were serious about the problem. However, how can we be sure that the money will go to the front line and deal with the problems on the ground? In some councils, all that has been granted is money for support staff. Annex C sets out the conditions on the payment of grants. Paragraph 2 states:

    ''Every special grant paid under this Report must be applied towards meeting eligible expenditure on a project listed in Annex A, and not for any other purpose.''

The project listed in annex A for Blackpool is to recruit support staff. Will the Minister explain why recruiting more support staff in Blackpool is a worthwhile project, when it already has the best part of 7,000 staff? The money should be spent wisely rather than frittered away.

The same goes for Bury metropolitan borough council. It has not come up with anything specific for a new play area, a pedestrian refuge or support outside schools. I do not know whether you, , Mr. Cran, had the chance last week to go to the awards ceremonies and presentations on investigating safer journeys to school, organised by the Royal Automobile Club. This is a well-attended Committee. Those of its members who did not have a chance to go would benefit from seeing the projects on how to improve the safety of school journeys that were carried out by schools in constituencies up and down the country. That is one of the key ingredients for improving road safety.

Very modest sums of money would be involved, and they would be spent not on support staff but on improvements on the ground: on the road infrastructure and the pedestrian infrastructure, on providing alternative ways of getting to school, or on safe places to play. All such things involve expenditure but they do not need extra expenditure on administration. It is sad, but typical, of the Government that they have allowed projects that bid only for more support staff to be given grants under the programme, when there are a heck of a lot of more deserving councils that run their staff efficiently. They need not more staff but resources to direct to the real problems. We have a high degree of scepticism about the matter.

Bolton metropolitan borough council has an annual budget of £452 million. Are we really saying that £330,000 will make all the difference to road safety in Bolton, when £50,000 of that will be spent on additional support staff? There are already 7,068 full-time staff and 6,497 part-time staff in Bolton. Does the council really need to spend another £50,000 on staff over the next three years, will that significantly reduce road casualties, particularly among pedestrians and children, or should Conservative Members suspect, as we have reason to, that the problem in so many areas is that the council is run by the Labour party, which has failed to deliver to people on the ground? The Government have come up with the idea that the solution is to increase inputs without concentrating on outputs. With reference to paragraph 2 of annex C, can the Minister explain how spending money on support

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staff without spending money on anything else, as is the case with some projects, is worthwhile public expenditure?

I hope that people will look at the report with a degree of scepticism. Perhaps all those other councils that are under Labour control and have not yet gained access to the grant funds should consider how they can improve road safety for their own people without more support staff, but with wiser expenditure of the large sums that they are already raising.

10.10 am

 
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Prepared 30 October 2003