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Naturally, none of this comes cheap. The council tax in London attributable to the Mayor and the GLAthe mayoral precepthas more than doubled in that period, from £123 in band D in 2000 to almost £300 today. Yet the Mayor of London empties not a single bin, cleans not a single street and runs not a single
school, library or social services department. His budget goes on a huge public relations exercise alongside policing and the transport system, which seems scarcely fit for purpose to those who live in, work in and visit London. His failure to keep his eye on the financial ball is legendary. When not frittering away tens of thousands of pounds on abortive jaunts to Cuba or Venezuela, two countries not known for their support of the global capitalism of which London is surely the greatest exemplar, he runs a massive central bureaucracy at City Hall, which has recently been assessed in damning terms by its own internal auditor, the accounting firm Deloitte.
The GLA is big and costly, with 673 permanent staff. The chief executive earns £175,000 a year while the average salary is some £50,000 a year. It has an annual wage bill of £35 million, yet there are also spiralling costs from the use of temporary agency staff. That wasteful, financially profligate story of incompetence is now the backdrop to Mayor Livingstones demanding yet more powers. That will all, of course, come at significantly higher costs.
On Second Reading of the Greater London authority Bill, I hope to address some of my more specific concerns about the proposals for housing and planning that my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden touched on earlier. It would be inappropriate at this juncture to rehearse a Second Reading speech on such matters, but there are some deep concerns from the 33 London boroughs about precisely which strategic powers on housing and planning are to be transferred to the Mayor. If we are to believe in localism, which seems to be the new buzz word on both sides of the House, that must mean that such matters should be kept at the most local level rather than being decided at City Hall, with its enormous bureaucracy covering 7 million people over the whole of the capital city. I have some sympathy with the view that making the mayoralty work properly requires broader strategic powers, and so I will look on some of the proposals with an open mind. However, the evidence from the current incumbent has been of a grotesque failure that risks mortgaging the future of Londoners for decades to come.
I am afraid that nowhere is that more apparent than in the funding of the 2012 Olympic games. Typically, once the bid was won the Prime Ministers interest waned. London council tax payers, presumably alongside worthy national lottery recipients, will have to foot the fast-rising bill. I say this with great regret, because I am a keen sports fan, but I rue the day that my city won the Olympic games bid. Many of us warned before the bid was won that the financial implications were not being properly thought through, yet Ministers derided my concerns at the time. What shocks me now is only that we face financial difficulties so quickly. Less than 18 months since we won the bid, the budget has doubled. We have had confusion over VAT, disputes over land ownership and the increasing likelihood that we will not be able to rely on a fixed price construction contract after the fiasco at Wembley stadium. We have had little indication that there will be a worthwhile legacy in the lower Lea valley to justify the enormous costs.
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm whether he wants to abolish the Mayor of London and
to give the Olympics to the French, as those seem to be the logical conclusions of his speech? He seems to be against those two things that have brought a lot of good to London on the international stage.
Mr. Field: I have made it clear that I understand the view that says that we should increase the Mayors powers. Clearly, we will have the Olympic games in London in 2012 and although we have seen the sorry financial situation, it is quite clear that the games will go ahead. They will be a success and a great spectacle, but I am addressing the issues of the long-term cost. I fear that the London Olympics will prove financially to be every bit as much of a disaster as the Montreal Olympics exactly 30 years ago, which are still being paid for by council tax payers in that Canadian city. Now, the Government say that they want to give more prudential borrowing power to the man who gave us this. We will need to give close consideration to the proposals in the Greater London authority Bill.
I also want to say a few words on nuclear power, which will be an important consideration this year for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs agenda. Like many Conservatives of a sceptical disposition, I am not entirely convinced by some of the more apocalyptic predictions made by the environmental lobby on climate change and, more particularly, about the man-made elements of recent fluctuations in global temperature. All too often, that has been used as a stick with which to beat global capitalism. Although I do not doubt the sincerity of some in this House who wish to parade their green credentials far and wide, the conversion of many others smacks of an ill-thought-through tactical manoeuvre.
David Taylor: I am reluctant to intervene on my own constituency MP between noon on Monday and 9 pm on Thursday, but when he refers in a rather stinging aside to those who parade their green credentials, does he have in mind those who use wind turbines of such a power that they have been assessed as creating hardly the energy for a hairdryer in the Notting Hill area?
Mr. Field: Nothing of the sort. I think we all realise the importance of making certain contributions. In many ways, that has to come from the bottom down, whether it involves recycling household waste or having a green turbine on ones home. I am certainly not making the point that the hon. Gentleman suggests in any way whatsoever. I am glad that he is a council tax payer for those four days a week; he will no doubt be looking forward to paying for Mr. Livingstones folly in the years to come.
I am old enough to remember the time when expert scientific opinion, whatever that might mean, was resolute in predicting that we were entering a new ice age. That was only 30 years ago, and past centuries of statistical evidence were said to make the case. The same weight of statistical evidence, going back beyond the middle ages, apparently makes precisely the opposite case today, and we have global warming of an epidemic scale. In all this we need to remember that no scientist, especially one paid for by the Government, should be regarded as entirely independent. Scientific studies sponsored by BP or Shell should be treated with caution, but equally, a Government-funded study in
this area is carried out by people who know that their future funding will be enhanced by a more definitive conclusion to their research.
All I am saying is that expert opinion must inform the debate on global warming and in a number of other areas, but ultimately what we do in going forward must be a political judgment. Politicians must make decisions after weighing up the evidence along with broader considerations about the importance of maintaining economic growth. Our role is not simply to abrogate responsibility in the face of a highly organised environmental lobby that is never reluctant to distort the facts to make its case.
Mr. Field: I am not saying that the Stern Report is wrong; I have not read enough of it to make a definitive judgment. I suspect that the same could be said for most of the other 645 Members of this House who would none the less still want to jump to that conclusion. My point is clearthere needs to be a political judgment and a political balance. It is not just a matter of giving a outside adviser or an expert in whatever field the opportunity to make his or her case. There must be a political judgment about what we do as we go forward. Clearly, some of the proposals in the Stern report are extremely worrying as regards what the future will bring. There is little doubt that there has been some global warming. The question is this: how much is man-made, how much is avoidable and how much is down to natural circumstances with the ebb and flow over time?
There needs to be a sensible debate about how we should go forward. As part and parcel of that, it is prudent to consider renewables, and I support the significant investment in solar and wind energy that will take place over the decades ahead. However, unless technology develops beyond our expectations, there is little doubt that such sources will not be able to make more than a small contribution to energy needs in the near future. In my view, we need to upgrade our nuclear energy capacity and we need to do so with great urgency, not only to reduce carbon fuel emissions and thereby counter global warming, but in recognition of the fact that this country needs to maintain a significant independent energy supply.
Dr. Whitehead: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that even if that were to happen from tomorrow, not one kilowatt of new nuclear power would come on stream before 2021 and that by that point, the investment in alternative forms of energy would probably mean that the system did not require a great deal more capacity, as the most recent study on the subject published by the Department of Trade and Industry states?
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentlemans point that we need to make decisions now, because there is a run-in of about a decade and a half, as he
rightly points out. Obviously, many of our nuclear power stations will be leading up to decommissioning before 2021 comes into play.
We need to invest in other non-renewables, but I am highly sceptical as to whether that will be sufficient considering our energy needs, which are not simply economic. There is also a rather important political issue at stake: it would be most unwise for this country to be overwhelmingly reliant for energy supplies on either oil and liquefied natural gas from an increasingly unstable middle east or gas from a Russian state that is fashioning a post-cold war place in the international community with what might be some uncertain political consequences.
I support the programme of updating our nuclear power stations and building anew. The Government have dithered for far too long on this, as in so many other areas. The legacy that they will pass on to their successors is one of delay and administrative failure. I hope that, in this area, they will now have the courage to act, and act soon.
Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): I very much welcome the inclusion in the Queens Speech of a climate change Bill. Like many hon. Members, I have received many representations from constituents for the inclusion of that Bill. One thing I would say is that I have not yet been convinced by the argument that we should have annual targets. I listened with great interest to the comments made in a thoughtful speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), who clearly has a great deal of experience in this field. His idea that we could move towards some accommodation, and perhaps some agreement across the House, is very constructive.
Many Members of the House know more about the details of this matter than I do, so I shall concentrate on one element of it, which is related to housing. There is an issue of energy conservation, which can be addressed quickly by the Government. I see on the Front Bench my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning. I hope that we are now making progress on new building regulations for housing in particular, but for other buildings as well, to try to ensure that the new homes that we build are energy efficient to the greatest extent possible.
I welcome the fact that, with home information packs coming in next year, there will be an energy audit for every home that is sold and the introduction of a star rating of some kind, so that everyone can clearly see the energy conservation related to the home that they are buying, as well as suggestions on how with additional work the house might be improved.
There are other very simple things that we could do. We have a successful initiative to make improvements to our social housing through the decent homes programme, although one element that the Communities and Local Government Committee highlighted as in need of further improvement was energy conservation. Current standards do not meet building regulations standards, and we clearly need an energy homes-plus initiative to deal with a number of measures, particularly the energy conservation of social rented housing.
We should perhaps gain a bit of experience and consider what happened with the clean air programme, which as a child in Sheffield I remember. We identified a major problem of industrial and domestic pollution from burning coal, but within a few years, a Government initiative at national level, which was carried through with local council support, led to the replacement almost overnight in most homes of coal fires with gas fires. That was done with a measure not only of prescription, but of grant and encouragement. Perhaps we could consider such a programme to improve energy conservation, particularly in the homes of people on limited incomes, who might not be able to afford the measures.
I remember when I was leader of Sheffield council in the late 80s and early 90s going to Denmark and Sweden to look at combined heat and power schemes and being impressed even then by the information on conservation that was available to people from the state and from local government. They could trust that advice because it was independent. For example, people could go into a local shop to see on display the products that could be put into their homes to improve energy efficiency. They could also get independent advice on what products might or might not be worth trying.
Confusingly, many householders who instinctively feel that they ought to be doing something about energy conservation and improving the energy efficiency of their home are not sure what to do or where to go for independent advice on which initiatives they should be taking and which are perhaps not worth the money involved. Perhaps the Government will consider how that might be improved.
I welcome other elements of the Queens Speech such as the local government Bill. I do not want to go into the detailed proposals that I expect will be made, because I have already welcomed the White Paper, which sets out most of those initiatives. Rather than concentrate on the details, I shall just say that I believe that the Bill will probably mark a sea change in the relationships between central and local government.
Ministers and the Government are talking in a different language about local government and are, I hope, building up a relationship of trust with local government, which has been absent from Governments almost from time immemorial. The other day, I went to a Local Government Association briefing and heard representatives from the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties all say that they welcome the Bill and want to work with central Government on the proposals. That is a very positive development.
Nevertheless, if we are to build on that we must address some other issues. We await the Lyons report. Frankly, unless we get a significant change and bold proposals on financial devolution in local government, we will not make much progress with the whole devolution agenda. I want some radical measures to emerge from Lyons, but in particular we must address the nonsense that local government collects directly in council tax only 25 per cent. of the money that it spends overall.
If we are to give local government some more real powers, we must loosen the string that it is so attached tocentral Government, the financial string. That has to mean giving control of the business rate back to
local authorities. Unless we make that change, we will not be able to alter fundamentally the relationship whereby local government is so dependent on central Government.
We must also address the demands for capital infrastructure spending in our urban areas, particularly our major cities. Earlier this afternoon, I chaired a meeting of the all-party urban development group. We had an inquiry on infrastructure funding in our urban areas and the problems in getting funding up to levels similar to those in cities on the continent. What came forward over and over again was the fact that so many decisions in this country have to be referred to the centre. So many decisions are fragmented across Departments, as are so many of the funding streams, and there are no genuine abilities for local authorities to borrow against future revenue funding streams to make capital improvements, which will eventually create added value in the community and probably largely pay for themselves. That is a challenge, and I hope that when Lyons reports he will address it and the Government will pick up proposals that he makes.
Tied into that is the need to see our local authorities in a slightly wider context. My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) made that point earlier. So many of our local authorities relate to an administrative area, but not to the economic footprint of the communities in which they sit. I look forward to the Government making proposals on moving towards city regions and giving them more powers, particularly over transport, skills and wider planning issues. That was not in the White Paper, but negotiations are going on between the Departments for Transport and for Communities and Local Government in particular, and, again, it could be another bold and radical initiative for the Government to take within the spirit and the policy of devolution.
Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): The hon. Gentleman and I serve on the same Select Committee. Would he like to expand on his comments, as we are still in quite a fog as to the value of a city region? As he is well aware, the Committee was told that a city region without a city may be possible. If we are to discuss city regions, does he agree that we need to hammer out exactly to what we are referring?
Mr. Betts: When I refer to a city region, I mean a region that surrounds a city. That is probably not rocket science, but I think that the hon. Lady is trying to make the point that if powers are given to certain cities with a sub-region around them, the needs of some areas in between, such as the central Lancashire towns, which have been arguing this point, should still be addressed. Such areas may need aspects of devolution, albeit that they may not be rightly classified as a city region. We will have to pick up that issue as part of the process.
I also say to my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning that some elements of devolution still need to be addressed. One of those is giving the right and ability to local authorities and arms length management organisations to build houses for social renting. Certainly, that is now one of the most pressing issues in my constituency. As house prices have trebled in the past seven years, people
simply cannot afford to buy a home, and there are no houses to rent. I know that Ministers are willing to address the problem, and I hope that they press on with that as quickly as possible.
David Taylor: My hon. Friend referred to the ability of local authorities to borrow against revenue funding streams. With regard to council housing, is not that the case a fortiori? Should not that be the trigger to allow local authorities once more some ability to build houses to meet local needs?
Mr. Betts: My hon. Friend is right, and the Government have accepted in principle that the prudential borrowing rules should be extended to housing. I understand that the housing revenue account has some real complications, and that the prudential borrowing rules could have some perverse implications, including losses of grant, if houses are built as part of the process. That is why Ministers have now accepted that there should be six pilot authorities on housingone is my authority in Sheffieldwhich will consider the workings of the housing revenue account and see whether changes are needed to allow those rules to be used so that houses can be built. I welcome the Ministers pilot scheme, but, clearly, some end results are needed as quickly as possible.
In addition, it is slightly perverse that many services in Sheffield are rightly run by an elected local authority, but as much money is spent by the primary care trust, for which there is no accountability whatever. That body is appointed by an appointments commission, which is itself appointed, so it is two stages removed from political influence or control or even advice and assistance. It is so remote from those whom it serves that we must start to question why we cannot be radical and make the PCT part of the local authority. It is exactly the same sizein most cases, PCTs have been reformed to be contiguous with local authority boundaries. I know that the Prime Minister is always in favour of being even more radical than we are, so perhaps that suggestion can be put to him for a future occasion.
On transport, I obviously welcome the Bill on nationwide concessionary bus fares for pensioners. Many of those benefits are already available to my constituents, because South Yorkshire has an extremely good system, with links with West Yorkshire providing free travel across the boundaries, and links with some services into north Derbyshire because of agreement between the authorities. We have extended the concessions to Supertram to apply for a greater number of hours in the day.
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