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Mr. Gale: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to visit Herne Bay in my constituency and see how green fields are being built over without any infrastructure to support that building. Look at how many houses have been given planning consent; look at the lack of primary and secondary school places; look at how children who cannot get into the single secondary school in the town are bussed, at Kent county council's expense, halfway round the county to get their education; look at the lack of road infrastructure; look at the fact that the Government have failed to give priority to the vital east Kent approach road that might just help Thanet, the area with the highest level of deprivation in the south-east; look at the shortage of doctors; look at the growing shortage of water; look at the lack of sewerage infrastructure for all those houses, and tell me where the money will come from. My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) was right in his intervention earlier. If we are to build housesand I accept that people have to have homeswe have to make provision for primary and secondary education, and transport and medical care, before and not after the event.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells said that when the Conservatives left office, Kent was bearing the costs of 25 per cent. of expenditure, but that that figure had now risen to 35 per cent. One of the reasons for that rise[Interruption.] I would love to have the Minister's attention, although I know that he is being well briefed by his Kent colleagues. The fact is that there is no justification for the Government not basing Kent's grant on at least the most recent census figures. It is nothing short of a scandal that Kent is being short-changed because of a grant based on census figures that are very nearly 15 years out of date.
My hon. Friend said that he would be moderate and modest and seek to persuade the Minister. He was, and I hope that he has. I feel much less moderate about this because I have watched people sufferingsome of the poorest and most deprived, the very people that this Government claim they want to help but do nothing foras a result of being cheated by this Government moving money from the south-east to the north and their own heartlands. That has gone on long enough. It is time for the Government to recognise that our beautiful county and its flagship county council deserve better than the shoddy treatment that they are getting at present.
Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks) (Con):
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute briefly to this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for
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Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) on the measured way in which he set the scene, although, inevitably, some of us will feel more strongly about such issues than others. He described the problem as the perception that Kent is particularly affluent, which is the issue at the heart of this debate.
We do not have to take my hon. Friend's word on that problem because, in February, when I complained about the funding for Sevenoaks on the local government finance report, the Minister's predecessor told me that it was an affluent area and that was why we had been badly treated. If the present Minister cannot recall the basis of my complaint, I shall tell him, because it was very simple. In terms of the increase in per capita funding since 1998 for all the district councils, county councils and police authorities in England, Sevenoaks was 424th out of 424 for percentage change. We were the worst treated. In fact, we had no increase at all and were among four or five councils that had actually been cut in per capita terms.
The House does not have to believe my hon. Friend. The Minister himself said that our funding had been cut because Sevenoaks was an affluent area. It is true, of course, that some constituencies are more affluent than others, but it is equally true that there are serious pockets of deprivation in every constituency, including mine. Parts of north Sevenoaks, and especially in the town of Swanley, can match any of the deprived areas about which my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) spoke so eloquently. The problem with the funding allocation is that it does not properly reflect the serious pockets of deprivation that exist alongside some of the more affluent areas. It does not respect the fact that all our district councils and the county council have to provide the same basic services as councils in areas that are better treated by the Governmentperhaps in the north. We all need the same basic services, so it is wrong that councils are treated unequally.
My hon. Friends made some powerful points about the care homes scandal, asylum costs and so on. I have three short points. The first is that the Government must deal with the widespread perception, or allegation, that they are covertly switching funding from south to north. The Minister may try to deny ithe may even admit itbut it would be for the good health of the debate generally that, if there is such a policy, it is made explicit and Ministers have the guts to say that they are moving money from southern districts to northern metropolitan districts or the larger conurbations. If Ministers are doing that, they should say so.
It is remarkable that if you look at the league table, Mr. Deputy Speakerthe list of 424 district councils, county councils and police authorities to which I referredyou may not find that your local authority is anywhere near the top of the table, where there is a strong north-east, north-west and midlands flavour. Few southern councils appear there. If the Government, through their decisions about annual local government allocations, are moving money from south to north that is their decision. They are the Government so they are free to do that, but they should at least be explicit about it and accept what they are doing, so that they can be judged accordingly by my constituents and, doubtless, by the constituents of the hon. Members for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw) and for Gillingham (Paul Clark).
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My second point is about London weighting. It will come as no surprise to the Minister that I return to that point, as I have been making it constantly since 1997. London weighting is a shambles. Time and again, I have pointed out that police officers can resign from the Kent force to join the Metropolitan police and immediately earn an extra £3,000 a year, due to the effect of London weighting, but remain in the same housing in west Kent. Nurses in our hospitals in west and north Kent can transfer across the line to work in a London hospital and gain London weighting.
The arrangements are different for each public service, but in each case that I raised, because the arguments were so overwhelming, Ministers respondedI must be fair to them about thatbut only in an ad hoc way. The Kent health authority was given additional money to deal with the problem. The then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn) accepted that there was a problem and gave a one-off allocation to deal with it.
Two years later, the same thing happened in relation to the police settlement. Kent police authority was given additional funding to tackle the problem, which was more acute in the west Kent than the north Kent area: in Tunbridge Wells, Sevenoaks and Tonbridge, we lost about 30 officers in a single year. Ministers had to respond, but they did so in a completely ad hoc way, from service to service.
If we are talking about joined-up government, someone must consider London and south-east weighting regionally. It is absurd that some weightings in London extend outwards to Hampshire or parts of Essex, but not to Kent. It is absurd that some people are eligible in some public services, but not in others. The whole thing must be considered more coherently and those of us on the fringe of London should not have to beg each time for additional resources in respect of individual funding streams. The whole of Kent should be classified properly, with London, as a high-cost area because that is exactly what it is.
My third and final point, which my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells touched on, is that I am quite sure, having served my constituents for the past eight years, that we are not getting our fair crack of the whip in terms of spending on infrastructure. The Minister has a north-western constituency.
Jonathan Shaw: The hon. Gentleman says that Kent is not getting its fair share. I remind him that he wrote a letter to the Sevenoaks Chronicle in 1999, when he had been the Member of Parliament for the area for two years. He said:
"Now Kent has asked me to complain to the Minister about their allocation under the latest round of schools funding. How can I honestly go persuade the Minister all over again, when we haven't even started spending the £1 million he allocated in March 1998?"
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