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8.12 pm

Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I am very pleased to contribute to the debate, because it is important to remind everyone of the key role that local government plays in the delivery of services to our communities. I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett), who is not in his place, for outlining the importance of council services to vulnerable people. That is why we need to take a detailed look at where the £6.2 billion of additional cuts are falling. I shall speak later about the huge impact that the £16.8 million of additional cuts, in-year, to Durham county council's budget will have in Durham city.

Perhaps we should not be surprised by the coalition Government's callous approach to local government and the communities it serves, because, although the coalition document says a lot about enabling communities to run services, there is not a single mention of how those services will be paid for. Neither is there a single mention of what will be lost by those communities in terms of services that they will no longer get from their local councils. I am surprised that our Liberal Democrats in Durham, who are normally very good at saying how they support localism, have been strangely quiet in the past few weeks. Not one of them has come forward to condemn the outrageous cuts being inflicted on north-east councils.

The Labour-led council in Durham has shown how dreadful the cuts will be for our local communities. The Department for Communities and Local Government has said that it will make a cut of £6.34 million, but it has announced only the cut to the area-based grant. There is, in fact, a cut of £16.8 million, because other cuts that have not been clearly identified have been passed on to local government in relation to transport capital, the housing and planning delivery grant, the local area agreement reward grant and many other areas. The cuts to Durham county council are savage already, even before the comprehensive spending review in October, which we know will go even further.

The two Government parties have to answer a number of questions. The headline percentage decrease reported by central Government has been calculated only against the area-based grant reduction. When other cuts are taken into consideration, the cut to Durham's budget will not be the 1% presented by the Government, but 4%. Why is there this lack of clarity?

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Analysis of the reductions in grants shows that northern authorities have received the largest decreases in funding, with 31 of the top 50 authorities being in the north. That will add to the problems that we have in trying to rebuild the economy after the recession and in trying to improve life chances in some of the most disadvantaged communities in the country. That is not fairness. Why are the Government taking that approach?

Perhaps more outrageous still, considering the size of the reductions being made, is how they relate to the index of multiple deprivation. There is a strong trend of the most deprived authorities receiving the largest budget cuts. It is simply wrong that the poorest authorities seem to be the least protected. Again, the Government must make it clear to the Chamber why they are attacking the most disadvantaged communities in the country the most.

We have to get past the idea that the cuts are simply cuts to waste, because they are cuts to real services. Durham is experiencing a cut to its extended schools start-up costs. Providing those services is not profligate; they help parents to go to work and they give vital support to children.

Chris Heaton-Harris (Daventry) (Con): How much of the cuts, in percentage terms, does the hon. Lady think that the top officers in Durham have taken on board themselves and how much does she think is being passed down to front-line services?

Roberta Blackman-Woods: It is because the hon. Gentleman's Government have cut the area-based grant and additional services that the cuts have to fall in the ways that I am describing. It would have been much more sensible not to have- [ Interruption. ] Is the hon. Gentleman going to listen to my answer or not? What I am saying to him is that if we did not have these additional cuts in-year and if there had been a proper programme of consultation, it might have been possible- [ Interruption. ] Will the hon. Gentleman let me finish? It might have been possible to identify other cuts that would not have had such a direct impact on front-line services. The way in which his Government have made these cuts has led to the attack on front-line services.

Chris Heaton-Harris: Let us just say that a reasonable percentage of the cuts have been in the amount spent on the officers in Durham county council. Can the hon. Lady tell us how much the Labour county councillors on Durham county council have cut their allowances?

Roberta Blackman-Woods: Clearly, the hon. Gentleman did not listen to the answer that I gave him and does not understand the impact that a cut to area-based grant and other grants has. As I was saying, there will be cuts not only to extended schools start-up costs, but to the careers service and to the Supporting People budget, so they will affect both young and older people.

The cuts are not just to the public sector. The Government parties have demonstrated again today that they do not understand the links between the public and private sectors. On Friday, I visited one of the private nursing homes in my constituency to discuss the problems that it was experiencing with its budget.
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The entire business of that private sector delivery organisation is being affected by the requirement for the local authority to raise its residential allowances, which will lead to a loss of jobs in the private sector. It also makes no sense to cut the working neighbourhoods fund and the local enterprise growth initiative, especially in Durham, where the unemployment level is higher than the national average.

Do not get me wrong. The council and the regional development agency have worked hard in the last few years to try to ensure that unemployment remained at much lower levels than those experienced in the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s, and they were very successful in that regard. However, they need the working neighbourhoods fund and support for local business if they are to ensure that unemployment does not rise further. According to the council, it has received funds in the past for projects to help people into work, deal with worklessness and enhance job creation, but those are the funds that are being cut now. I consider that action to be disgraceful, short-term and short-sighted. It shows no understanding of the need for measures to encourage people to seek employment. Furthermore, the loss of funds from the Home Office will reduce the amount of resources for tackling antisocial behaviour.

I could go on and on with the list, but my main point is that if local people were asked where to make cuts, I very much doubt that they would prioritise cuts in services that seek to tackle antisocial behaviour or help people back into employment. We all know that cuts have to be made, but the top-down way in which these cuts are being inflicted means that local authorities cannot have full control over the areas that they would protect and those in which they would make cuts. It also means that they cannot consult local people. Such a degree of centralisation imposed by the Government parties, whose members say that they support localism and devolution, is breathtaking.

As well as not allowing local government time to produce a sensible framework for reducing the deficit, the Government have provided no clarification in respect of key programmes. In the case of Building Schools for the Future, that is leading to considerable uncertainty in our communities about whether new schools will go ahead. We need clarification as soon as possible. My local authority wants an open dialogue with the Government, and greater consultation within the sector on the timing, extent and detail of future reductions so that they can plan for them properly-and, critically, so that they can ensure that those who are most vulnerable are protected as far as possible from the impact of the cuts that must be made.

Why are the Government parties picking on existing policies-particularly those designed for the long term-that seek to reduce inequality? I have two examples in mind: free school meals and free swimming. The task of protecting and improving health must not depend entirely on the national health service; we also need local policies and services that help our young people to develop healthier lifestyles and a more sensible approach to their eating habits. The way in which the Government's cuts are attacking free school meals will ensure that a central plank is removed from our plans for reducing inequality for the future, and I do not consider that acceptable.

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8.25 pm

Mr Mark Spencer (Sherwood) (Con): I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Wolverhampton South West (Paul Uppal) and for Dudley South (Chris Kelly), who made their maiden speeches today-although they caused me a little pain by referring to the mighty rise of Wolverhampton Wanderers and West Bromwich Albion, as I recalled that Nottingham Forest's efforts to achieve promotion this year ended in dust. Fortunately, I was able to console myself then with the knowledge that, come the summer, England would probably win the World cup.

I am becoming increasingly frustrated by the series of Opposition Members who say, "We would have kept this or that bureaucratic scheme that would have protected vulnerable people," in the next breath say, "We would have made £40 million worth of cuts," and in the next breath do not specify where they would have made those cuts.

Roberta Blackman-Woods: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will tell us what is bureaucratic about free school meals, especially given the universal pilots in Durham and other areas.

Mr Spencer: A number of schemes have been tied up in bureaucratic nonsense, and local authorities have had to jump through a number of hoops to deliver centrally issued targets that create an enormous amount of bureaucracy for local authorities. I shall say more about that shortly.

It is little wonder that the country's national finances were brought to the brink of an abyss, given the last Government's lack of vision and basic financial understanding. We only just avoided the intervention of the IMF in our finances; we were very close to that, as has been widely recognised.

Chris Leslie: What evidence has the hon. Gentleman that we were on the brink of having the IMF called in?

Mr Spencer: It was widely recognised-globally-that this country's finances were in dire straits. Global economic markets were betting against our economy. We were saved only by the markets' recognition that an election was coming, and that hopefully a Conservative Government would take over. We are in the fortunate position that the coalition has tackled those issues and saved this country from the enormous abyss it was facing.

The only way to deal with local government is to give power back to local government. Local people are much better placed to make local decisions. I welcome the decentralisation of local government and its management, and I sincerely hope that when we pass that power down the structure, better decisions will be made. I am very much encouraged by the thought that that will happen.

I am quite frustrated by the number of Opposition Members who have said that the leafy shire counties are all right thank you very much. Hon. Members should come and look at Nottinghamshire and at Sherwood. We have some challenges and some areas of real deprivation, such as Ollerton, Rainworth, Blidworth and Bilsthorpe right in the middle of Nottinghamshire county.

Toby Perkins: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for referring to some of those areas, many of which are former pit villages. I have played cricket in a lot of them.
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The hon. Gentleman fails to understand that the areas he is on about are precisely the areas that are going to suffer from the cuts that his Government are making. We are talking about rich, southern shire counties such as Surrey, not his constituency. The hon. Gentleman is arguing for cuts that will greatly affect those mining villages.

Mr Spencer: The simple fact is that those areas of Nottinghamshire face enormous challenges. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman recognises that some of the shire counties face the issues that many hon. Members claim exist only in Labour seats. We are going to have to deal with the enormous mess that the Labour Government left and tidy up some enormous problems. That will be a really big challenge, make no bones about it. Conservative Members recognise that it will be a big challenge. I do not think that Labour Members recognise what an enormous problem that is going to be.

Nottinghamshire county council was under the control of Labour for 28 years. In the last 10 years of that Labour control, the council tax doubled. That is the sort of pressure that Labour-controlled county councils put on people in the villages I mentioned-on pensioners and vulnerable people. That was a great shame. Fortunately for the people of Nottinghamshire, the Conservative party took control of Nottinghamshire county council. The increase in the council tax this year under Conservative control was 0%. I am proud of that, and the council will attempt to deliver it again next year. It is about protecting and reducing the cost imposed on pensioners and vulnerable people in those areas.

The hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) mentioned Building Schools for the Future-a good example of how bureaucracy is built into policies. BSF was quite a good scheme. Two schools in my area-Dukeries college and Joseph Whittaker school-are desperate to be rebuilt. The county council had to spend £5 million to get itself to a position in which it could bid, and we have not laid a single brick. That £5 million could have been spent on improving the schools rather than jumping through the hoops that the previous Government required.

Fortunately, the county council is now able to prioritise and use the money available to it. One of the statistics that sticks in my mind is that for every £7,000 of Government spending available locally only £350 is not ring-fenced and is available for local authorities to spend in the direction that they want. That is a shocking indictment of the centralisation and control and ring-fencing that has taken away local autonomy and the ability of local people to make local decisions. Fortunately, some councils under Conservative control are able to make the most of that £350 and prioritise things such as new pavements, filling potholes and trying to recover some of the damage done by previous administrations. I very much welcome that.

The one thing that has really impacted on my constituency is the removal of the regional spatial strategy, and I am particularly grateful to the Minister for doing that straight away. It put enormous pressure on the green belt of Nottinghamshire in my constituency. I am grateful that we can now have a grown-up debate in Sherwood about where housing is to go and what sort of housing it should be. The sort of housing is just as important. In areas of my constituency we have had to build large houses where they are inappropriate. We
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would be better building social housing so that vulnerable people could be housed and younger people could get on the housing ladder. In other areas, pensioners who live in four or five-bedroom houses on their own would like to move but cannot because there is nothing suitable locally. I welcome the fact that we can now have a grown-up debate about what sort of housing we put into Sherwood and where. We are desperate for the correct sort of housing and for the employment that goes with it.

Before the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham) left his place, he referred to Ashfield, my neighbouring constituency, and I would have welcomed his coming to look at the town. I was at a manufacturing company that falls under Ashfield district council in the town of Hucknall, called F. J. Bamkin and Son, which made socks for the Ministry of Defence for many years until the previous Government passed the contract to a far eastern supplier and, sadly, put enormous pressure on the company.

The most important thing that we can do is to remove some of the ring-fencing from the money that is passed to local government, and remove the enormous amount of bureaucracy that local authorities find in their way and the hoops that they have to jump through in order to tap into that money. Then, just maybe we can not only ensure that local people make the right decisions for their local areas, but protect the vulnerable people who were so badly let down under the previous Administration.

8.36 pm

Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Lab): This is the first opportunity I have had to congratulate you on your appointment, Mr Deputy Speaker. I congratulate also the hon. Members for Wolverhampton South West (Paul Uppal) and for Dudley South (Chris Kelly) on their confident and assured maiden speeches. I wanted to find something in common with them and my constituency, and I noted that they both support Wolverhampton Wanderers, who are managed by Mick McCarthy. He is a Barnsley lad, and I now represent a part of Barnsley-I say that in case people are not aware of where Penistone is. Mick McCarthy is known to frequent a wonderful Indian restaurant in my constituency, the Dil Raj, in Dodworth, so there is the connection, and one of which I am proud.

I, like many hon. Friends, have a background in local government. I was a councillor in Sheffield for almost 10 years, and if I learned anything in that time it was that local government is absolutely vital to the smooth, coherent running of our society. Without it, our way of life would soon deteriorate, with all our constituents suffering the consequences. However, I must tell hon. Members what the coalition Government seem intent on doing, because we now know what the big society means. It means looking after oneself and doing things for oneself; it means, "I'm all right, Jack". Potentially and most worryingly, it means an erosion of the principle of democratic, elected accountability for the delivery of local services. That approach is based on an ideological belief in the small state; it is not the "needs must" approach that Government Members have touted in recent weeks.

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My constituency straddles two metropolitan boroughs in south Yorkshire, Barnsley and Sheffield. Both have every reason to remember the last time the Tories were in government, as they suffered deeply from the unfair cuts that were imposed on south Yorkshire local authorities. Judging by the cuts that the Department for Communities and Local Government has already announced, it looks as if they have much to fear this time around. It is not as if they are poor, inefficient authorities; they are not. Barnsley metropolitan borough council is renowned for the quality of its leadership and its efficient use of resources, and for having one of the best leaders in local government, Steve Houghton. Recently, through careful financial planning, it managed to freeze council tax for old-age pensioners and to give the under-16s not only free swimming but free bus passes. I applaud Barnsley on that achievement, which is now under threat.

Sheffield city council's efficiency has been praised for many years, or at least it was when it was Labour controlled. The Audit Commission awarded it four stars on many occasions, and, although it is right that local authorities should be as efficient as possible, the recently announced £1.65 billion of cuts to local authorities will have significant detrimental impacts on services, especially in places such as Barnsley and Sheffield. More worryingly, it very much looks as if metropolitan authorities are being asked to take a larger share of the cuts, with a reduction of £12.22 per head in those areas, compared with an average of £8.75 for English authorities as a whole. If any Government Member can tell me what is fair about that, I will be incredibly impressed. I do not think that they can.

Further analysis shows that cuts have been made disproportionately in some of the most deprived areas in the country. For instance, Blackburn is ranked at No. 5 on the scale of multiple deprivation and it sees a cut of 1.7%. Meanwhile, Calderdale, ranked at No. 107 on the scale, suffers a 0.6% cut-less than half that suffered by Blackburn. Interestingly, while shire councils see only a small cut of 0.3% in their budgets, the mets are cut, on average, by 0.9%. The right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne) says that we are all in this together, but yet again it seems that some are in it more than others. In typical Tory style, it seems that those with the least are being asked to pay the price for Tory ideology.

How will people's lives be affected by the cuts already announced and those that will come later? In a report to be published shortly, the New Local Government Network concludes that many chief executives are saying that libraries, sports centres and street cleaning will be particularly vulnerable. Those of us with a background in local government know that all too well-we remember the last time around.

We hear from the Government Benches about the glories of decentralisation, but let me remind Government Members that in 1995 Sheffield set the budget that it wanted to set, to avoid cuts to libraries and street cleaning. It was told by the Tory Government of the time to go back and reset the budget in June that year; the budget was declared illegal. That is not what I call decentralisation.

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