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13 Jan 2011 : Column 178WHcontinued
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Robert Neill):
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, and I will endeavour to encompass as much of this interesting, well-informed and wide-ranging debate as I can in the time available. I congratulate the Back-Bench Committee on selecting and nominating this subject for
debate, and the Chairman of the Communities and Local Government Committee, the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), on the thoughtful way in which he introduced it. He and I do not always agree about everything, but I never doubt his knowledge and interest in local government. I also pay tribute to that Committee; it does great work and a number of hon. Members who sit on it have spoken today.
Perhaps I can deal briefly with the background and then with some of the specifics in the contributions. I will not seek to make a lengthy issue of the economic background, save to say that it is the reality that no one can escape. In relation to the more partisan comments that were made, I have to say that it gives pleasure to no Government of any kind to find that they have to reduce the spending available for various services. However, as has been observed and, I think, accepted in varying degrees on both sides of the House, it was trailed well to everyone in local government and to the public that sadly, whatever the outcome of the general election, the country's financial circumstances meant that reductions in public spending would be necessary.
When the coalition Government came to office and saw the extent of the problem, they concluded, rightly, that swift action was necessary to reduce the deficit. Otherwise, there were real risks to the economic health of the country and to the country's international credibility. If that were not tackled and there were a serious economic downturn, which was a real risk, it would be an even greater threat to public services in the long term. A destroyed economy would make it all the harder to deliver the public services that we all want.
There may be a difference between us, but I say to those Opposition Members who criticise the speed and scale of the steps that we have taken that it behoves them-as they are, I regret to have to say, primarily responsible for the mess-to say what they would have done instead. Simply to criticise the Government, who are doing something that is starting to turn things around, is, in the circumstances, not good enough.
We have had to deal with the situation that confronted local government in a way that was fair and proportionate. I want to set the record straight on one or two matters that were raised. First, in relation to the settlement for local government as a whole and the picture compared to the rest of Whitehall, it is important to make it clear that against the 2010-11 baseline, the Department for Communities and Local Government will be making savings of some 33% on resource, but we will also be moving some £6.7 billion into formula grant. That is money that we are ceding to local authorities.
I think that it is some of those differences in the figures that produced the difference in the figures that the hon. Member for Sheffield South East was calculating. He referred to a 68% cut in the CLG budget. No, that is the combined total reduction in resource and capital funding by 2014-15. The resource funding was reduced by 33%, but we have chosen to devolve extra money by putting it into formula grant, rather than keeping it in the Department. So we have passed money down, within a tight settlement, to local government as a whole. In fact, our departmental resource support for local government will reduce by 22% compared with 33% for CLG as a whole, so we are protecting local government
as opposed to the central Government elements of our spend. Similarly, although we have had to reduce capital support to local government, that reduces by a lower percentage than is the case for the CLG's central departmental expenditure limit-the DEL, as it is called.
Against that background, we have endeavoured to support important programmes. We are putting £6.5 billion into the Supporting People programme. That constitutes a reduction of only 12% compared with the CLG's 33% resource reduction overall. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was right to tell the Select Committee that we had sought, in the circumstances, to protect Supporting People.
We have sought to make the settlement itself more progressive. I shall come to the imperfections of the formula in a minute, but within the formula that we have, we have increased the weighting given to the needs element to 83%. That is an increase from where it was before and will help more deprived authorities. Also, a number of authorities with significant problems faced the loss of the working neighbourhoods fund, which the previous Government set up but were terminating because it was a three-year programme. The present Government, recognising the difficulty, set up the transitional grant that has been referred to by hon. Members, so we have helped to cushion the loss of the WNF that the previous Government proposed to impose. Therefore, it cannot be said that we have not sought to be fair in the circumstances.
The hon. Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie), who is no longer in his place, made some comments about fairness and referred to the House of Commons Library paper. I am afraid that that paper was quoted selectively. The analysis also said:
"Excluding London, northern regions will receive more grant per head than their southern counterparts".
It confirmed that formula grant per head in the north-east is, at £696, approaching double that in the south-east, which is £374, and that reductions in formula grant for the north-east and north-west were "clearly less" than those in the south-east and the eastern regions. Therefore, it cannot be said that the Government have sought unfairly to discriminate against areas where, we accept, there are difficulties. I hope that that puts some of the comments in context.
Let me deal with a couple of other points raised by the hon. Member for Sheffield South East. He specifically asked about business rates exceeding formula grant by 2013-14. For reasons that I shall come to, by 2013-14 the landscape will indeed look very different as a result of the local government resource review. As he knows, the review will consider allowing local authorities to retain business rates, and obviously we shall have to look at that in the context of the implications for resource equalisation and redistribution. There is a legal obligation to redistribute the business rate, and we do not intend to change that. The assumption was made that there would be a sudden pot of money and that there was no change to what the Government were doing. That is not the case: we have already announced our intention to make a change.
We are making the change because, as was pointed out in the powerful and impressive speeches of my hon. Friends the Members for Peterborough (Mr Jackson), for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery), for Halesowen
and Rowley Regis (James Morris), for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) and for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), the formula no longer works. They all queued up, rightly, to say that.
We have recognised that there is a need for significant change to the formula and, rather than beating about the bush, we have established a local government resource review. I expect that the consultation documents will be sent out before the end of this month. We hope to do it from January through to June, and central to it is enabling local authorities to retain the business rates that they collect. Of course, there would also be an incentive for them to grow their tax base by growing their business rate base. That would enable us to rethink the operation of grant. Formula grant would no longer be operating in the same system. I totally accept the point made by hon. Members that in those reforms, it is crucial that we find something that is much more transparent than the Schleswig-Holstein question. Actually, this issue probably makes the Schleswig-Holstein question seem comparatively simple. So that is what we are doing.
Mr Betts: I hope that the Minister responds specifically to this question; it is an important one. Is he saying that when the Government go out to consultation on a new method of funding for local government, including local authorities keeping their business rate, they will also deal with the question of how, in that context, redistribution in terms of need and resources can also be achieved?
Robert Neill: It is intended to be a comprehensive review of local government resource. We shall have to consider all those issues. The hon. Gentleman will have to wait for the document itself. He will understand why I cannot go into detail; I am sure that we shall be laying a statement before the House about the content of the document. However, it is intended to be a comprehensive review of the resource, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be satisfied with what he sees in terms of its parameters. I know that the Select Committee will certainly want to discuss with the Department the way in which we carry the review forward, and we will welcome that. Against that background, the Government have sought to achieve a balance.
I accept the points made by my hon. Friends: we must be prepared to be a little less conservative with a small c in our approach to delivering local services. I do not think that small c conservatism is generally found on this side of the Chamber at the moment. Local authorities have worked hard to produce efficiencies-I accept that-but it is clear that yet more can be done. For example, the CBI has pointed out the considerable further savings that could be made by local authorities banding together to use their procurement powers. Baroness Eaton and her colleagues are up for doing that, and I am sure they will. It is not a question of chief executive pay, for example, closing the funding gap, but at times such as these, it is not illegitimate for the Government to say that if we have to prioritise, the message that pay sends is important. It is fair and proper to look at these matters in that context.
I take on board the important points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East, who was my
old comrade-in-arms in the London Assembly. Given the Mayor we had, "comrade" was probably appropriate from time to time. I also agree with a comrade from the opposite side of the London Assembly, the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), about support for the voluntary sector. It is hugely important, which is why the Secretary of State has repeatedly said that in these difficult times it is important that local councils do not fall back on the usual suspects in their approach to reductions, such as salami-slicing. They get rid of the voluntary sector grants first because they are the easiest, but often it is those voluntary sector groups that deliver public services in the most imaginative and innovative manner. That is where remuneration comes in and is why we are increasing transparency for the public over remuneration in the Localism Bill-that is the right way.
I hope that a director or chief executive on a six-figure salary signing off a report for a council recommending cutting a six-figure grant from voluntary groups will not feel entirely comfortable in doing so when looking at their comparative positions. That is a legitimate point in the context of this debate. We will all have to constrain expenditure that is not directed at the front line. That is not to rubbish the work done in local government, but it is right to accept that people are surprised when they see the salary inflation at that level; people are right to question whether that is the best way to spend the money. That is how the Department has looked forward.
We are, of course, keen to assist local authorities to grow their economies and to rebalance them. That is why, as well as the Supporting People programme, to which I have already referred, we are spending more than £2 billion on the decent homes programme, and continuing to support the disabled facilities grant and to facilitate the passage of the vulnerable into work in the community. The regional growth fund of £1.4 billion taken together with the local enterprise partnerships, set up with business and local councils as key partners, affords an opportunity to refocus economies. We seek to align that regional growth with the equal sum in the European regional development fund. Work is being done to channel such resource as we can afford into areas that will make the most difference.
References were made to housing funding and the benefit changes. It is worth remembering that even with the changes, a third of homes in London will remain affordable. About 17,000 households may be affected, but the choice they will be left with is no different to the choice that the low-waged who are not on benefits face. We cannot continue with a situation in which expenditure on housing benefits has risen from £14 billion to £21 billion. It is about getting the balance right. Of course, we will continue to liaise with our colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions on those issues.
I see that time is creeping round, and I know that my hon. Friends raised other specific points. With your permission, Mr Robertson, I will respond to them by letter. Detailed matters, such as private sewers, are probably best dealt with in that manner.
Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).