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8 Dec 2009 : Column 243

Julia Goldsworthy: No. I do not understand why the right hon. Gentleman does not understand that. We have never said that.

To conclude, we have a Government who fail to acknowledge that there is a problem at all. As far as they are concerned, there is no problem that cannot be sorted out by some kind of incrementalism that moves so slowly that I could almost watch my fingernails grow as the Government progress. The Conservatives may be able to identify the problem, but they do not propose any solution. Basically, the Conservative proposal is to put a different coloured label on the same tin, which has the net effect of changing a red label to a blue label. Whatever colour that label is, the product is the same, and, as far as I can see, it is certainly not a localist one, or one that will get anybody excited or engaged.

Several hon. Members rose -

Madam Deputy Speaker: So far in this debate, we have had contributions from those on the Front Bench. May I remind colleagues that the winding-up speeches will commence at 9.40 pm and that five Back Benchers hope to catch my eye? I want to try to accommodate everybody. I am afraid that I shall have to leave Members to do the maths for themselves.

8.58 pm

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): I shall try to be brief-although my heart always sinks when I hear a politician say that, because we always end up saying far more, and taking far longer, than we intended.

I rise to welcome the debate and the amount of money that Blackpool has had from this Government. We have had above-inflation increases year after year after year. I also want to talk about the additional sums of money the town has received, because of course local government gets support from central Government through other Departments, and that also needs to be taken into account in this calculation.

Let me first say a little about the changes that have taken place. I served for 12 years as a member of Lancashire county council, and I can remember the days when we had annual allocations, and, as a local authority, we could not plan. We lurched from one year to the next, not knowing what the budget would be. There was therefore no forward planning. At the end of some years we were desperately trying to spend money, whereas in other years we had totally run out. I have to say that, more often than not, we did not have the money. The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) talked about social care. For seven of these years, I chaired the social services committee of Lancashire county council, and we never had enough money to deliver services.

Through the National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990, the last Conservative Government transferred responsibility for supporting people in residential care from the social security system to the social services departments of local authorities. They introduced us as gatekeepers but, at the same time, they cut back on the money. I have been in local government when, year after year we had cuts, and year after year we could not plan. Under this Labour Government, we have had year after
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year of above-inflation increases but, above all, we have also been given the ability to plan. We must never underestimate that and I welcome the fact that the Opposition parties acknowledge it.

Another thing that the Government have done is introduce new planning regimes-new opportunities to look regionally at the needs of an area and also to look at a micro-level in local authorities. Sadly, in years past central Government gave funding according to travel-to-work areas, and Blackpool was then in the travel-to-work area that included Wyre and parts of Fylde, two adjoining district councils that are affluent. Blackpool got precious little direct investment because it did not qualify. Now, as a local authority, Blackpool can access specific funding for the wards in the town centre where special need is identified, but it can also access funding from a regional perspective because the Northwest Regional Development Agency looks at all the areas of the north-west and targets special support on those areas. We have benefited from that re-examination of how best to target taxpayers' money in those areas of special need.

We also get money from other sources. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination will remember that when she was a Transport Minister, we had long debates about the Blackpool tramline. We have the money to upgrade the tramline and for new sea defences in both Blackpool and Cleveleys, where the money has come not only for sea defence but for beautiful new promenades that are improving the visitor attraction as well as the lives of our residents. We have had money spent on the schools and hospitals, but we have also recently had an allocation of £415,000 from the working neighbourhoods fund, which is helping the people of Blackpool who are unemployed and helping the local authority to get more people into work. We have had money from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport for the Sea Change programme, so Blackpool has had £4 million to help to do up our wonderful new promenade. Cleveleys has had the same, as has Fleetwood, in the top end of my constituency. Lots of money has been going into local government and we have had investment in our play areas.

I want to echo a point that was made in an intervention. My local Conservative councillors are not backwards in coming forwards to claim credit for that spending and to be photographed in new playgrounds, new schools and our Sure Start children's centres. All this money comes from central Government and we here need to ensure that people understand that. It is that investment that has so improved the lives of my constituents. It goes into local government and is spent on their behalf and it comes from a variety of different Departments. I am hugely proud of the changes that have taken place. In my constituency and in that of my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden), who is here in the Chamber, we have seen those improvements.

Finally, let me make a brief point about prudential borrowing. When I was a councillor, not only was that not available but we could not pool budgets. We could not work with other local authorities, with health authorities or with anybody. Now, local authorities have a chance-especially through prudential borrowing-to come up with exciting initiatives.

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Blackpool council wants to buy back, to buy and to bring into local control Blackpool tower, the Winter gardens, which last night hosted the royal variety performance-and an excellent show it was-the golden mile and Tussauds. It can do that only if it gets support from central Government, if it is allowed to carry out prudential borrowing to raise money and if it gets European funding. Local government works best if it works in partnership with central Government and if central Government acknowledges areas of need and delivers. That is what this Government have been doing with local authorities of different persuasions. Long may this Government continue in power so that we do not go back to days such as those when I was in local government, when we never had the money to deliver the services that people need.

9.5 pm

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): I rise to defend myself against the strange charge from the Labour Benches that some years ago, when I was the Secretary of State for Wales, I sent back £120 million from the Treasury. I do not understand why, a few days after Labour issued the "Smarter Government" document, it should so strongly object to a Minister having practised smarter government some years ago. If only Labour had practised it in the past 12 years, we would not be facing the financial Armageddon that we currently face. That £120 million was not money that local government authorities needed, because they had had a full settlement. It was savings from changes regarding inefficiency, over-management and too much bureaucracy in the Wales Office.

Those savings were made by putting a freeze on staff and by stripping out back-office and overhead operations that we did not need. Of course, that money should have gone back to the Treasury because it was not money that we held. Even that Government were borrowing a bit, although we did not need to borrow as much. Surely Labour Members should welcome the fact that there was a pioneer of their smarter government. If only we had had their smarter government for the past 12 years, and if only we had had more for less, our economy would now be stronger and we would be in a better position. Instead, we have had 12 years of waste, incompetence, intervention, overriding local decision making, too much bureaucracy and inspection, and too many circulars. We have had ordeal by circular and ordeal by command and billions down the drain, and we have not been given better services.

Julia Goldsworthy: Would the right hon. Gentleman describe his actions, when he was the Secretary of State for Wales, as the "Smarter Government" document would, by saying that he was aligning the

Mr. Redwood: No; I always try to speak in English. I think that that was another criticism of me at the time, but it is a good tip for politicians: they should not speak in jargon. In this place, they should always speak in English, which I believe is the preferred language of the Hansard reporters.

We meet today to debate, at last, an important settlement at a time of financial crisis. It seems that we are never allowed time to debate really big sums of money. We
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have had no debate on the £280 billion of guarantees of bad and toxic debts that have recently been announced, £170 billion of which was lent overseas in relation to things that make no difference to the jobs and prosperity of our country. The Government were trying to get away with a £47 billion expenditure block here with absolutely no debate, so I am grateful that my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench think that this issue is worth debating. The Government's excuse, apart from lost letters, was that we do not need to debate the settlement every year because it is a three-year settlement. Of course we need to review the budget every year and consider the detail of the settlement every year, because it is fixed every year. It is a cop-out for the Government to say that we do not need to scrutinise such spending.

Barry Gardiner: I agree that this issue is worth debating. Given that the Conservatives have secured the debate, does the right hon. Gentleman consider it strange that there are as many Members on the Labour Benches as on the combined Opposition Benches?

Mr. Redwood: No, I do not find that strange, as there are many more Labour MPs because of the unfortunate decisions of the electorate at the last election, but we hope that they might think again in the light of what has happened in the past few years.

I have very little time left. The important question to ask is why, given that the Government have put a lot more money into local government, everyone is so unhappy. Councils are unhappy because they do not feel they have the money they need for all the requirements and inspections placed on them. The electors clearly are not happy because, as we have heard from Conservative Front Benchers, despite all that money going in, council tax has more than doubled during the Labour years.

I am not one who thinks that more money in total ought to be voted for this block of expenditure. I think that local government has to do more for less, just as central Government have to, but there is a simple solution that the Government ought to adopt. They ought to get out of the way. They should stop making all those demands on local government for information and inspection, and they should understand that we want local government delivered by local councillors and a limited number of offices. We do not want local councils to have to employ a very large number of very expensive people to fill in the forms, answer the inspections, deal with central Government or interpret all the information. We do not need 39 different special grants for local government: we want to get back to having a single block grant, over which councils have discretion. We do not wish to have this mighty inspection system, with its stars and black marks, that preoccupies so many very senior officers at enormous expense. We could probably halve the number of senior officers in a well run local authority if we stripped out all the demands from central and regional government.

We do not want regional government at all. We should trust local government, give it more power and take the powers away from the regions, which are unelected, unaccountable and much disliked in most parts of England. The Government have spent 12 years trying to get people to love their regions, but they do not and will not. The regions in England are artificial, and we do not want them. They are the layer of government that we wish to strip away.

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That would save us billions and start to solve the conundrum of why, although the Government have tipped so much money in, we are getting so little out, why so many voters do not think that the services are good enough, and why the councillors do not think that there is enough money to make the services better.

Richard Younger-Ross: The right hon. Gentleman says that we should strip out any form of regional government, but is he saying that all regional planning should therefore be done by central Government?

Mr. Redwood: No, I am saying that most planning should be done by the local community, with their representatives. The big items should be national items. If the aim was to drive a motorway across the country-and I do not think people want that at the moment-it should be a decision for national Government, defended and sorted out in the normal democratic way. If the wish was to build a new housing estate, that should be determined by the local council.

I think that my Front-Bench team are working on some very good ideas in this regard. A lot of councils do not want development in their area, sometimes for good reasons. If they were allowed to keep some of the benefits of a new development, and if there were a pot of money to provide compensation for people in the local area who would otherwise be adversely affected by the development, we might have the answer to the problem of achieving localism in action. There would still be development in the country, but it would be development that local communities and neighbours approved of or supported. People would not feel that developments were being rained down on them from the centre.

David Taylor: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Redwood: I would love to, but the time constraints on us all mean that I have to sit down very shortly.

I want to mention briefly the extraordinary position that the Liberal Democrats have got themselves into yet again in this very short debate. We learn that they want to place a 1 per cent. tax on houses, although there seemed to be a row between their Front-Bench spokesmen about the value of the houses involved.

Richard Younger-Ross: No, no.

Mr. Redwood: The more vehement the denials, the bigger we know the row to be. I am sure that the problem relates to certain constituencies and the discovery, perhaps by the spokesman who came up with the lower value, that an awful lot of the houses would be in his constituency. We have learned tonight that the Liberal Democrats have no idea what they are going to do about the fact that, under the scheme, a few places in the country would have lots of money, but quite a lot of others would have no money at all. They do not know how they would redistribute it, but they said that the money would be raised in the ratio 75 local to 25 national, so most of the places without any expensive houses clearly would not get any money.

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Then we heard that the Liberal Democrats want to introduce a local income tax. However, they have no idea what its threshold is, and we do not know whether there would be a higher rate and a lower rate. We do not know how progressive it would be. We have no idea how much money would be taken off the City of London and Westminster, where incomes tend to be quite high, and how much of it would be sent around the country.

The proposal is absolutely clueless but of course completely irrelevant, because parties that think they might win the election know that the public will never fall for a local income tax. National income tax is already quite high enough and there is no scope for doing what the Liberal Democrats propose.

When I was given the job of putting the council tax in place-which I did not want-I made only two claims for it. One was that it would be a little less unpopular than the community charge, and the other was that it would last a bit longer than the community charge. I am delighted to say that both things came true. I never thought it was very good. All taxes are unpopular and they all have their defects, but the fact that council tax is still around after 12 years of Labour Government shows that both main parties have come to the conclusion that it is the least bad option.

It is now up to us and local government to live within the amount the tax provides, which can be done only by smarter government, although that will need a change of Government. I like the phrase "smarter government". We need to do more for less and the sooner we have a Government who can help councils do that by stripping away the on-costs and bureaucracy, the better it will be.

9.14 pm

Mr. Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): I have come to regard it as a painful duty to speak in debates such as this and to bring a report from the front line of Conservative local government in Hammersmith and Fulham-the Leader of the Opposition's favourite council. We now hear from the Conservative party chairman that Conservative councils demonstrate how the Conservatives will run the country. After seeing how the financial settlement was treated in Hammersmith and Fulham, I feel that we need a post-watershed warning about violent and disturbing images. Three principles govern what happens in that authority: increasing charges, cutting services and disposing of assets.

In the last three years, charges for meals on wheels have been increased by 60 per cent. There is now a £15 million surplus in the parking account. Adult education fees, particularly for people of pension age, have shot up, because the council falsely claims that it is age discrimination to give concessions to the over-60s, despite the fact that many other London councils do so. The council even charged for recycling, and then claimed that the service was unpopular and cut it altogether.

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