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8.51 pm

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): This has already proved to be a highly emotive debate, which is indicative of just how important local government is to Members. Sadly, it has also been very predictable. It has clearly been a simple mechanism to enable the Opposition to run scaremongering stories, in the final week of the local election campaign, that have no foundation in fact. As chair of the all-party group on local government, that saddens me enormously. I would therefore like to focus on the positive aspects of the all-party group’s work and on some specifics of the future of local government.

The all-party group, supported by the Local Government Information Unit, is reviewing the possibility of enhancing the role of the councillor and of encouraging more people from diverse backgrounds to step up to the plate and seek election, thereby bringing with them a wealth of experience. We hope to feed our findings into the Roberts review being undertaken for the Department for Communities and Local Government. The future of local government depends in part on the quality of the people whom we attract as councillors. The stream of negativity from the Opposition today is hardly a good advert for the job.

The all-party group heard from a range of witnesses—from councillors from all the main parties, from experts such as Professor Steve Leach, from Paul Wheeler of the political skills forum, from Dr. Stuart Wilks-Heeg of the university of Liverpool, and from those representing minority groupings. We also asked the media to participate. There is an enormous amount of enthusiasm from elected representatives who have submitted evidence on the role that they have undertaken, and for the innovative work going on within existing parameters to engage the public more
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widely, and to assist them in understanding the service that their council and councillors can offer.

Interestingly and in contrast with today’s debate, the all-party group meetings have been productive. It has been largely agreed on a cross-party basis that some of the problems flagged up tonight can be resolved only if we move forward in a more consensual and positive way. The view has also been expressed that the best authorities already make good use of existing powers to reach out to their residents and electorates. There is some excellent practice out there, and the Government’s beacon council scheme certainly does an excellent job in highlighting best practice and disseminating information more widely.

A number of Members have, through various early-day motions and private Members’ Bills, supported the extension of local authority power and the wider empowerment of individuals in their relationship with their local council. The Local Government and Participation in Health Bill takes forward most of the key strands of the ideas being put forward and further enhances arrangements through local area agreements, for example, without some of the drawbacks of the measures proposed by others. The Opposition pamphlet setting out their position on sustainable communities raised concerns from experienced Members in all parts of the House. It suggested that local authorities should be given greater powers to set targets and to establish programmes directed at local needs, but quite how that fits in with proposals that would require Whitehall to deliver an action plan to achieve them I cannot imagine. Full cognisance does not appear to have been taken of the fact that local decision making means decision making within the locality.

It is unclear how the Opposition’s proposals would be achieved—how the mechanisms and the administration of their proposed scheme would be handled. Given their dislike for all things regional—and, by default, for regional offices—would they move this power and responsibility towards the centre? They have come up with few genuine proposals for the future of local government that stand up to scrutiny, and we have heard nothing new from them today. However, the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill has managed to obtain broad support, and its passage through Committee was notable for the positive and often consensual debates that were held.

That approach has been mirrored elsewhere. Lord Bruce-Lockhart, the Conservative chairman of the Local Government Association, welcomed the White Paper that preceded the Bill, saying that it reflected the growing confidence in, and competence of, local government, as well as the belief that the best way to deliver the best services to local people is at a local level. Front-line services should be focused on the needs of those who use them. Lord Bruce-Lockhart also acknowledged that the proposals would help to free up elected councillors to put local people first in the delivery of the right services at the right time and in the right place. Many of the witnesses to the all-party group have supported the view that the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill is a real step in the right direction and that the challenge is
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there for authorities and individual councillors to grasp the opportunities presented to them.

The Leader of the Opposition talks about taking responsibility and the avoidance of Government interference in other areas. He should, therefore, support what the Government are trying to achieve with local government. The Government want to release some of the central controls and to enable far greater control over decision making to be devolved to councillors and citizens.

In his report, Sir Michael Lyons reaffirms the importance of local decision making and sees a positive future role for local government in fostering a new public confidence in our local governance arrangements. It is an incredibly detailed and thorough piece of work, as one would expect from Sir Michael. Although he dwells at length on a number of matters outside the question of taxation, Sir Michael does tackle the thorny issue of trying to find a solution to the perennial problem of local taxation.

It would be in all our interests to resolve that problem once and for all and to accept that, at least in part, local taxation needs to be property based. No tax is popular, but every party in this House that aspires to being in government should want that problem sorted out in a way that at least enables local government to operate on a sound footing, plan long term and offer clarity to the taxpayer. The approach that I have suggested would also promote a greater sense of fairness and justice than currently exists.

The Opposition have tried to imply that the Government want to introduce a waste tax in addition to the council tax, but that is merely further scaremongering. That proposal was simply one of the many options put forward by Sir Michael Lyons for consideration. Local authorities of all parties are looking at mechanisms that would enable the better management of waste. Some are using sticks and others carrots: for example, Conservative Barnet council has been targeting residents in respect of waste, and fining them. Which council can say that it would not want to use such a power in the future?

When I sit through our debates on local government, I am always saddened to hear the unremittingly negative comments from the Opposition. They have yet to come to this House and offer any serious positive proposals that will help local government move forward. Hon. Members on the Opposition Front Bench could take lessons from those of their colleagues on the Back Benches who attend the all-party group. They contribute in a positive way, and understand the important contribution that local government and local councillors make to their communities.

It may be that the Opposition’s attitude to local government is still shaped by the 1980s and early 1990s, when local government was seen as a nuisance. It was the subject of swingeing cuts that caused morale among councillors to plummet, but the mood now is very different. Yes, councillors have been subject to inspection—but what a difference that has made. There has been an impressive turnaround in the number of authorities ranked as good or excellent—

Mr. Pickles: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Alison Seabeck: Yes, briefly.

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Mr. Pickles: I thank the hon. Lady. I am the deputy chairman of the all-party group, and she has gone out of her way to thank me for my contribution. Will she therefore withdraw her remarks about the Opposition Front Bench? Or would she prefer to withdraw what she said about my contribution? She has to do one or the other.

Alison Seabeck: I shall be gracious to the hon. Gentleman, as his participation in the all-party group has been generally positive. In all fairness, I must say that he has made some useful suggestion and has enhanced the discussion.

Local authorities have learned how to be self-critical, and how to seek out best practice elsewhere. They have gone from saying, “What can central Government, or indeed the public, possibly know about running a council? We know what we are doing,” to saying, “Perhaps we can learn from others. Could we do a little better? Can you help us to improve our services?”

The Government should be congratulated, as should the councillors and officers who have put so much effort into this transformation. My local authority, Plymouth city council, was close to being placed on special measures while it was under the control of the Conservatives. In order to get elected, they made rash spending pledges that took money away from core services, such as transport and waste disposal. On election, they frittered money away and made no attempt to put the authority on a sound financial footing. They still oppose green transport plans and only this week abstained on the urban strategy.

The Labour administration, led by Tudor Evans, took the bull by the horns, dug deep to understand the true nature of the problems and took difficult decisions, showing real leadership. Plymouth is back on track and it has the lowest council tax in the south-west. Across the country there is clear evidence that local government is at last coming out its shell—under a Labour Government.

9 pm

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests.

After listening to the speeches from the Front Benches, I realise that we are obviously all devolutionists now. However, if we are to be devolutionists there are two preconditions—a fixed idea of the direction of travel for local government on structure and on revenue. Until those two basic frameworks are in place, we cannot have an orderly, sensible and sustained process of devolution.

We are in the middle of a new round of negotiations about unitaries. The Government seem to have stumbled into those negotiations and they need to make up their mind what structures for local government are available—I use that word deliberately. The truth is that we live in a centralised state at the moment and because we are trying to move towards a more relaxed system, devolution—or localism—will by definition be a managed process, so how we manage it is important.

It is a question not just of local government structures but also of the configuration of all the other
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bodies whose responsibilities touch local government: the regional development agencies, the learning and skills councils, planning bodies and Government offices. The implications of devolution are huge in terms of the whole geometry of regional governance.

The Government have been a bit all over the place. There was a period of enthusiasm for elected mayors, but then it was realised that impregnable Labour cities which it might take us several elections to have a go at in the normal course of events could fall at a single blow in a mayoral election when an outsider entered the race. Then there was the period of enthusiasm for universal unitaries, when the present Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs made a brief stopover at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister as Minister of Communities and Local Government.

We are now in the period of unitaries la carte, so I am interested in where the debate on city regions will go. Representing my part of the world, I am a supporter of city regions and can see the logic in planning and skills terms of trying to treat as a whole not only metropolitan areas that abut one another but also the districts that supply that travel-to-work area.

We want to know which direction the next regime will take. We have heard the contributions of the Chancellor’s Yorkshire outriders, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, the hon. Member for Wentworth (John Healey), and the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, the hon. Member for Normanton (Ed Balls)—I suppose they might be described as two of the horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Capacity and accountability are important. The hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills) said that Swindon did not have the capacity to be a unitary. There is a real dilemma. The Government have insisted that we need more capacity in a number of sectors, so the health service has been reorganised to create more capacity. We were embarked on the creation of more capacity in police services, but the Government have withdrawn from that process. The dilemma is: to what extent do we trade off capacity for accountability? We are all legitimately concerned about the responsiveness of our institutions to the general public and about people’s disengagement from the political process. However, if we unremittingly seek capacity as the sole good, the cost will be paid in terms of identity and accountability.

I am sympathetic to the notion of the small unitary, because I want councils whose leaders can be recognised and accosted in the street, as happens in many French areas—it is well known that I have some sympathies for the way the French do these things. We recognise that accountability has a cost, but if we are to move through local authorities to devolve to the citizen, we must make sure that there are accountability structures. Whether we call it civil society or the third sector, the bodies in it may be very admirable but they are not necessarily representative. They are there to pursue a particular aim and we have to make sure that people speak for the wider community and not for particular interests exclusively.

Chris Mole: Far be it for me to suggest that the right hon. Gentleman is again showing up those on the Opposition Front Bench, but I genuinely believe that he puts his finger on one of the dynamics of public service—whether it be in local government or elsewhere—which
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is the trade-off between neighbourhoods and local accountability and the strategic capacity, efficiency and effectiveness of organisations. Given his wisdom and expertise in government, I would be really interested if he could give us his thoughts on how we might take the debate forward to ensure that we best resolve the problem without the usual yah-boo that seems to get in the way of addressing some of the challenges in local government.

Mr. Curry: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those remarks. I agree with him about the importance of the issue and I will certainly look for occasions to develop it if we are to put substance on our localism agenda. Meanwhile, if he is kind enough to pay attention to them, I will do my best in my columns.

The second issue that is of concern to us tonight is funding. The present situation is not sustainable. Business rates are frankly off the agenda; I do not see anybody introducing them against opposition. I regret that, because they should be returned to local authorities. The circumstances that led to their nationalisation are past and there is a huge history now of working between business and local authorities. In fact, incorporating mechanisms that safeguard against abuse does not require a PhD. Relatively simple mechanisms can be deployed and I hope that we will move back to recognising that.

Revaluation is also probably off the agenda. I rather regret the fact that the Government backed off that; they have rather backed themselves into a corner in doing so. I note the Secretary of State’s little words “in this Parliament” and I look forward to the manifesto that says that if Labour is re-elected, it will reband and revalue in the next Parliament. I suspect that I will scan for some time before I identify that.

The problem with charging is that people now find the council tax so highly objectionable that their tolerance for adding additional charges on top of that is not what it might have been a number of years ago. The council tax is more than ever centre stage, because nobody tonight has mentioned the fact that schools funding now goes directly to the schools. If one abstracts schools funding from the formula, one sees that council tax is getting on for half the revenue of some local authorities. It is a much more high-profile tax than it was. Redistributive business rates and council tax now form a huge element of the tax resources of local authorities.

Of course, we need to explore the implications of the Lyons report. Even though Sir Michael has now gone to his earthly reward—although I am not sure that the BBC should be described as all that earthly—there are some substantial points in his report. The problem is that for years the Government said that they were waiting for Lyons, but he now says, “Sorry, the time is not ripe.” It is a pity that we have an outstandingly good intellectual thesis that has not rescued us from some of our immediate dilemmas in the way that some of us hoped it might.

Sir Paul Beresford: I am listening with interest to my right hon. Friend, but does he not agree that the accountability that he mentioned and financing are clearly linked? Because of gearing and the
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Government’s paranoid desire for control, the difficulty with the current system is that neither of those two things are in balance. We cannot have accountability because the Government dictate, and the accountability has gone from the council tax because the gearing has exaggerated the cost of local services.

Mr. Curry: I am sure that that is the case. On top of that, the Government, for reasons that we understand, wish to restrain the increases in council tax. Even if we do not have capping, the threat of capping has done that job and that has been used by both parties. I welcome the movement to two-year funding, and longer-term funding is clearly a sensible way to go.

There is a problem for this Government and there will be a problem for an incoming Government. I would not want my party to come to office and then spend ages agonising over the same fruitless search for the north-west passage, which is the way through local government finance, that has preoccupied so much of this Government’s time and no doubt would have preoccupied previous Governments’ time. The fact of the matter is that there is no north-west passage—that is the problem. There is no pathway through the ice that is blocking the way. The return of business rates is not a panacea, given that the money is not a new source of funding, but it represents a more devolutionary way of applying the tax that creates more initiative.

We should explore the idea of establishing a neutral agency for the distribution of grant. Such agencies are increasingly coming into fashion in other sectors of the public services. While we should explore the idea, rather than necessarily endorse it, both parties have an interest in finding a settled way to deal with the matter.

Chris Mole: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Curry: If the hon. Gentleman will excuse me, I have given way twice already and I am trying to finish my speech within my allocation of time.

On structure and finance, local government needs some quality and stability, and at least predictable and defined directions of travel. Until we have that, the cries for devolution and localism will lack substance. If I may come back to my Francophile tendencies, I am bound to note that 3 May falls between the two rounds of the French presidential election. The turnout in the first round of that election was 85 per cent., but I suspect that we would be happy if we got half that turnout in a significant number of the councils being contested throughout the United Kingdom and, perhaps, in Scotland. The truth is that there is not enough at stake to make it worth while for people to turn out. People turn out when there is something at stake because power is the adrenalin of democracy. We need to put more adrenalin in our democracy.

9.11 pm

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