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Mr. Raynsford indicated dissent.
2 Feb 2005 : Column 957

Mr. Amess: It is no good the Minister of State shaking his head. I have been overwhelmed by the number of local residents who have made telephone calls. There has been a rally. I have received umpteen letters. Misery is being piled on the good residents of Southend because the Government will not listen to the points that the local authority is making about the census. I ask the Minister of State not to behave churlishly and to reconsider meeting a small deputation.

7.38 pm

Mr. Tony Clarke (Northampton, South) (Lab): The need for brevity will perhaps lead me to be less courteous than I would like to be in my comments, but I start by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Minister and his team on delivering the eighth consecutive inflation-plus rise to local government since the Government came to office. I say that with all sincerity. Those of us who served in local government before coming to the House remember the rises below inflation that were delivered year on year to local government by the Conservatives. However, I say to him sincerely how dissatisfied we are in Northampton with the settlement. He will remember that when he gave the figure in November, I questioned his language because he said that he had listened very carefully to the needs of those in growth areas, yet he delivered to Northampton borough council a settlement of 2.7 per cent., compared with settlements in neighbouring districts of 10.5 per cent. for East Northamptonshire district council and 7.4 per cent. for Wellingborough borough council. There seems to be an imbalance between the amount given to them and that given to Northampton borough council, which will have to take on a lot of that growth.

I blow to pieces the assertion of the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) that this is some sort of class war or that we are taking a partisan approach. I am here representing—or trying to—the needs of a Conservative-led administration in Northampton not because it deserves it, but because it is unfair that it be required to cut back substantially on the services that it offers.

I take the point made earlier that rather than looking for savings across the board, local authorities tend to go just for the big figures in the hope that they can cut out the fat. Conservative-led Northampton borough council is making a right hash of trying to ensure that it achieves the figure that it is supposed to achieve. It is making some incredible mistakes, such as offering its leisure centres to private management, with no thought as to whether anybody wants to purchase them. That is supposed to be achieved before March, but we all know that it will not be possible. It is increasing car parking charges, increasing charges for leisure services across the board and increasing cemetery charges by 10 per cent., which proves that even the cost of dying goes up under a Conservative-led council.

There is a further staggering initiative that I did not believe when I first heard it. The council is introducing a £12 charge for the collection of large items from outside people's houses, such as fridges and furniture. I suppose that there is nothing wrong with that in itself, although it should be noted that an increase from zero to £12 is huge. The council says that those who pay the £12 can have their large item picked up within a week, but only last week it announced that dealing with fly-tipping was
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one of its priorities and that any fly-tipped item would be picked up within 24 hours. So under a Conservative-led council, lawful citizens of Northampton can pay £12 to have their items collected within a week, while others can dump them outside, phone them in as fly-tipped and have them picked up within 24 hours. That is the level of competence that we are dealing with in Northampton, against the backdrop of a very poor settlement. [Interruption.] It is a Conservative-led council, under which the cost of dying goes up by 10 per cent.

I want my right hon. Friend the Minister to take this issue seriously. In November, the Lords Select Committee on the West Northamptonshire Development Corporation looked very seriously at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister's record in consulting on the imposition of an urban development corporation for west Northamptonshire. We are having a hard time convincing our electorate that it is good for them, and it is even harder to do so when we are asked to deliver growth against the backdrop of a 2.7 per cent. settlement that is in no way adequate for what is the largest non-unitary council in the country. It should be unitary, and the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer)—he is not in the House today—admitted that the previous Conservative Government made a mistake in that regard. I ask my right hon. Friend to start correcting some of these wrongs. Let us make sure that Northampton does become a unitary council and that it can deliver growth. But let us also ensure that the Government and the ODPM take seriously the need to treat us fairly. Then, we can bat on their side, rather than suggesting that the figure granted to us is wrong.

7.43 pm

Mr. Michael Foster (Worcester) (Lab): I am grateful for being called, Madam Deputy Speaker, and grateful to my colleagues for being brief, thereby enabling me to be the final Back-Bench contributor this evening. It would be churlish of me not to congratulate the Government on another generous settlement for Worcestershire this year. I do not want my comments on what I regard as an inconsistency in the local government funding formula to be taken in the wrong way. I want to tackle the long-standing issue of the area cost adjustment, which my colleagues on the Front Bench know all about. The Government have not yet dealt with it, and it is causing much disquiet among my constituents.

I want to deal briefly with how this inconsistency arises by looking at the example of the education formula spending share. The EFSS has an element of top-up under the category of deprivation, and the three deprivation factors used—income support-level claimants, low-achieving resident ethnic minorities, and working tax credit claimants—are all residence-based. However, in calculating the area cost adjustment, instead of using average earnings according to a residence-based criterion, a workplace-based criterion is used.

What does that mean for my constituents? Some of the deprived, low-earning areas in the west midlands conurbation rightly qualify for additional top-ups for deprivation, but some of them also qualify for a top-up
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for high earnings under the area cost adjustment scheme, because the Government use work-based qualifications to assess average earnings.

How the system hurts Worcestershire so much can be seen in the latest local council figures, particularly in the comparison between residence-based earnings and work-based earnings in the west midlands region. Unsurprisingly, Solihull is the highest on both the residence and work-based criteria and receives the area cost adjustment. Warwickshire is the second highest on residence-based earnings, third highest on work-based earnings and also receives the area cost adjustment. Worcestershire is the third highest authority with respect to residence-based earnings, but only the eighth highest when it comes to workplace earnings and it does not qualify for area cost adjustment. It is the inconsistency between residence-based qualifications and workplace-based qualifications that I want the Government to address by making changes to the funding formula.

What adds insult to injury is the fact that some areas within the west midlands conurbation have lower earnings on the work-based criteria than Worcestershire—in theory, they should not qualify for area cost adjustment—but because the Government recognise the large grouping of the west midlands conurbation, those areas end up benefiting from the area cost adjustment, even on the flawed basis adopted by the Government.

In conclusion, I am grateful for the opportunity to make a brief comment on the area cost adjustment and I urge the Government to look carefully at the Blanchflower-Oswald report on area cost adjustment. When the changes are made, I urge the Government to consider carefully their impact on places such as Worcestershire, which seem to suffer on both the work and residence-based criteria for local government funding.

7.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Phil Hope): We have had an interesting and lively debate, though we have occasionally witnessed what I think could be described as tired and emotional interventions from the Opposition Whips. We have, I think, dealt with them. We have heard a variety of views about the adequacy of the total grant settlement proposed for next year.

The views expressed have included a welcome from my hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts), for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) and for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien), who all referred to a "generous" settlement for the forthcoming financial year. The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), who is no longer in his place, described it as the best settlement of the decade—and we have not yet reached the end of it, Madam Deputy Speaker, so we are clearly doing extremely well. I am pleased to see that our debate on the Government's substantially generous and good settlement for local government has, perhaps with only one exception, been positive. We want local government to provide better, more efficient and more effective services in the next financial year.

We have also heard Members propose some novel and ingenious methods for distributing the total differently. The area cost adjustment was mentioned a
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few moments ago. Other subjects mentioned included census figures, amending reports, the question of stability versus turbulence, redistributing rebates and even a discussion of super output areas and pockets of deprivation. Interestingly, if not perhaps coincidentally, the changes advocated by different Members would benefit their own constituents and their local authorities. That is par for the course.

It always amazes me that Conservative Members stand up and demand more money for their councils at the same time as supporting a manifesto commitment not just to freeze spending on local government, but to make massive cuts of some £4.8 billion to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister budget.

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