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Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): Does the Minister realise that constituents will see the Government's further attempts to provide specific moneys to relieve council tax pressure at the expense of cuts in health and education as underpinned by a sense of guilt for the pressures they have placed on counties such as Bedfordshire? In recent years, that county council has suffered from extra costs, increased burdens from Government pressures, the transfer of moneys away from the shire counties to other places and problems stemming from the inability to use appropriate census data. Does the Minister not expect constituents to recognise cheats when they see them?

Mr. Raynsford: I would expect the hon. Gentleman to recognise that his own county of Bedfordshire has received a 6.5 per cent. increase—[Interruption.] I would also suggest that the hon. Gentleman moderates his language in future—[Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) might want to rethink his statement.

Alistair Burt: I would not want to apply that statement to any Government Members, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was referring to the process by which this extra payment has been arrived at—through cuts in other budgets—and I stand by what I said earlier.

Mr. Raynsford: I regret, Madam Deputy Speaker, that the hon. Gentleman has not seen fit to withdraw an allegation that is wholly unfounded and does no justice to a settlement that has given his county a 6.5 per cent. grant increase. Most balanced Members of Parliament would acknowledge and recognise that. I tell the hon. Gentleman as I have told others that the Government have discussed the best ways to ensure that local government is properly financed in the years ahead and, more particularly, for the year 2005–06. We have done so on the basis of ensuring additional funding for local government, but without the threatened cuts that the hon. Gentleman talks about in other service areas. This is all about improving the delivery of services by local government, which impacts on all Government Departments—particularly the Department for Education and Skills and the Department of Health, because we hold education and social services very dear indeed.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his continuing support for local government. I would like to draw to his attention two sectors where pressures can be felt. The first is environmental protection and cultural services, for which the recycling of material and waste management are important and the second is health and social care. Local government is looking for additional support in those respects and I hope that my right hon. Friend will
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continue to give his support to those units. Will he also take note of police service demands for additional funding to meet their commitments?

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend has taken a close and long-term interest in local government funding and particularly advocated the interests of the special interest group of municipal authorities. I am sure that he will be pleased to know that his own authority of Wakefield receives a 5.5 per cent. grant increase in this settlement. He asked about the EPCS settlement, which I know has been a matter of concern to many authorities. He will be pleased to know that, as a result of our work, we have increased the formula funding share provision for the EPCS block from £11.1 billion last year to £11.385 billion in the settlement for 2005–06—a 2.5 per cent. increase, which is much better than previously anticipated on the basis of the original spending review. We certainly recognise the importance of the EPCS block and the need for continuing investment in the matter of liveability.

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset) (Con): One of the major concerns of the two district councils in my constituency is the burden placed on them by central Government when they have to deliver certain services, but the Government do not provide them with enough money. The Minister mentioned the Licensing Act 2003, in respect of which the fee income will probably lead to a major shortfall. East Dorset district council recently raised with me the access to information policy, whereby it can recover only 10 per cent. of the cost of the information that it provides. The disabled facilities grant is another problem. The Government office for the south-west has made a blanket 2 per cent. cut this year and the council might also lose more than £100,000 in respect of the planning delivery grant. Can the Minister reassure council tax payers in my constituency that they will not be burdened with yet more Government expenditure in the name of the local authority?

Mr. Raynsford: Yes, I can. The hon. Gentleman raised four issues. On freedom of information, the Local Government Association suggested in its initial submission that there would be an extra cost to local government of £125 million. When we analysed the figures with the association, it transpired that it was talking about the total cost to the whole public sector and the actual cost to local government is very much less. Following discussions between my colleagues in the Department for Constitutional Affairs and the LGA, the actual cost to local government was agreed at well below £20 million. That is the informed decision about the actual burden and it is provided for in the settlement that I have announced today.

I have already referred to the significant increase in licensing fees, which are currently the subject of consultation, and to the pledge by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport that there will be an independent review in any case, after the first year of the scheme. On disabled facilities grants, the hon. Gentleman will know that they have increased enormously during the past eight years. The level of grant has almost doubled over that time.

On planning delivery grants and planning fees, when the hon. Gentleman looks at the fine detail, he will realise that the Government are acting to make it easier
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for local authorities to deliver a good quality service and to receive support where they achieve the higher performance targets. The fees will also allow them to recover their costs, whereas there has been genuine concern in the past that that was not possible. On all the hon. Gentleman's points, there is a good news story and I hope that he will welcome his authority's 6.1 per cent. grant increase. Local government in Dorset will want to do its very best with the good settlement that it has received.

Mr. Tony Clarke (Northampton, South) (Lab): I listened carefully to my right hon. Friend's statement and he said that he had listened carefully and had been impressed by the arguments of authorities in areas with rapidly growing populations. Can he reconcile those comments with the fact that Northampton borough council, the largest district council in England and the town of his birth, has a settlement of 2.7 per cent.—just above the floor? Why then should I support his proposals? Why should I not object to his Department's proposals for an urban development corporation in that area, and why should not Northampton borough council withdraw its support on the same basis?

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend will know that the settlement has given South Northamptonshire a significant increase of 8.3 per cent. as against the 2.7 per cent. increase for Northampton itself. That will reflect changes in demography and population, and it is right that those changes are taken into account. The position of all district councils is protected with a 2.5 per cent. floor so that all district councils have the means to deliver services with a settlement that is above the rate of inflation. My hon. Friend will no doubt want to welcome the fact that Northamptonshire county council has a 6.1 per cent. increase, which is a very good increase indeed.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): Is the Minister aware that in my constituency, which has one of the highest proportions of retired people, many pensioners are already finding the level of council tax unsustainable and many are forced to eat into their capital to pay it? What is contained in the announcement today that will result in a reduction in the council tax for the thousands of pensioners in Bognor Regis and Littlehampton who may not qualify for benefits but still cannot afford the tax even at its current rate and even with the promised £50 voucher?

Mr. Raynsford: I would have hoped that the hon. Gentleman had heard when he was listening to the earlier exchanges that decisions on council tax are taken by local authorities. Conservative authorities do not have a universally good record on that. We have seen higher average council tax increases from Conservative authorities than Labour authorities. Only the profligate Liberal Democrats exceed Conservative authorities in a tendency to push up council tax.

The settlement gives a good increase to all local authorities. They all have an above-inflation increase. The hon. Gentleman will have heard my comments to the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter), who asked about action to tackle pressures on local government. This settlement involves not just increased
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funding for local government, but a series of measures designed to tackle the genuine pressures that local authorities face. In return, we expect authorities to budget prudently for low increases in council tax. We expect increases to be lower in the coming year than last year and to be below 5 per cent. in aggregate across the country.

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