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Lothian Regional Council

Volume 978: debated on Wednesday 6 February 1980

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13.

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland when he plans next to meet the convener of the Lothian regional council.

I met the convener of Lothian regional council and three of his colleagues on 4 February, when I urged them to reduce spending and avoid excessive rate increases in 1980–81, in line with the Government's wider economic and fiscal policies. I have no present plans for a further meeting.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the contemptuous reactions of Labour councillors following that meeting? Does he accept that that rogue elephant of a council will not desist from its legitimised robbery of the ratepayers of Edinburgh in the proposed massive and unjustified rate increases? As a matter of urgency, will he seek new powers to stop that, if necessary by suspending the council?

I sympathise with my hon. Friend and his constituents in view of reports that indicate extremely severe rate increases for the Lothian region. I explained to the councillors why they should act like all other local authorities in Scotland and do their best to contain expenditure. I hope that the council will listen to what I have said.

Is it not time that the Secretary of State ended that political charade and admitted that, of the highest rate increase so far suggested in the Lothian region of 25p, 20p is a direct consequence of the Government's inflationary policies? Furthermore, will he make it clear that he informed the Lothian regional council that the only action he could take against it is to cut Government support, which will result in further rate increases?

The hon. Gentleman is aware that the discussions were about saving expenditure. When his right hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Millan) was Secretary of State he also tried to impress on Lothian regional council the need to keep down expenditure, but met with no success. I tried to point out to the council that other local authorities in Scotland, whatever their political views, are doing their best to reduce expenditure, but it appears from reports that Lothian region has no such intention. I drew that fact, and the likely severe effects on ratepayers if it did not keep down expenditure, to the council's attention.

Will my right hon. Friend take note that Moray district council has announced that it will increase rates by only 1p in the £?

I can only congratulate my hon. Friend on what appears to be the good housekeeping of his district council. I believe that, on average, electors in Scotland will find that, if they live in the area of a Conservative-controlled authority, they will have much lower rate increases than in a Labour-controlled area.

When the Secretary of State for Scotland next meets the convener of Lothian region, will he explain to him why the Government have decided to export unemployment particularly to the Lothians? His hon. Friend quoted that policy to me as a consideration in deciding to close the Scottish plant breeding station in my constituency.

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concern, but the decision was taken for entirely management reasons, in view of the operations involved. I have explained that carefully to hon. Members.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Lothian regional council and other councils should first seek to save expenditure in their staffing levels? Will he accept that they would do well to follow the fine example set by Dumfries and Galloway regional council.

I am sure that Lothian regional council will be grateful for my hon. Friend's advice. I hope that it will heed that advice as well as my own.

Will the Secretary of State accept that the convener of Lothian region is not a rogue elephant but has long and distinguished service in local government, and feels an understandable sense of outrage about the effect of this Government's policies on the services that he has built up? Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that that sense of outrage will be widely felt in local government if he uses his powers over capital allocations in an arbitrary fashion to punish Lothian region because he does not like its politics?

On 4 February I made it clear to Lothian region that the last thing I wish to do is take action against any local authority. I promised COSLA that I should take no action without first consulting that body. I very much hope not to have to take action. However, we have to bear in mind the terrible effect of very large rate increases on ratepayers. Councils have a responsibility to think of that, as well as of services.

Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that, apart from Lothian, all local authorities in Scotland are making every effort to contain expenditure increases? If so, how does he explain that there will still be massive rate increases in those areas next year? Does he accept that the increases are an inevitable result of Government policies, particularly over the rate support grant?

This is not the case. We have no information that there will be massive rate increases in all areas. Some areas, particularly those with Conservative-controlled authorities, do not expect there to be large increases. The right hon. Gentleman and I know better than most hon. Members that the key is to save money on services. Most authorities in Scotland accept that it is possible to do that. We are merely asking Lothian to do the same as other authorities, which is not unreasonable.