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Local Government White Paper

Volume 451: debated on Tuesday 7 November 2006

17. What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on their role in implementing aspects of the local government White Paper. (99686)

I have had strong and active support from Cabinet colleagues in developing the policies in the local government White Paper. Across Government, we are committed to implementing the White Paper in full so that citizens get the full benefit of a Government focus on key priorities, greater local innovation and stronger leadership.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. It is only right that she should be commended for taking these issues forward on a cross-departmental basis. With regard to local government reorganisation in the county of Cumbria, and to the borough of Copeland, there are many issues that demand unique attention and special arrangements. Copeland hosts the Sellafield nuclear facility, and it is only just and equitable that future planning issues and powers relating to all aspects of the nuclear industry should reside with the people of Copeland, and not with the people of Kendal and Penrith—

Order. There must be a question, and it must be brief. The Secretary of State will try to answer the hon. Gentleman—

If my hon. Friend is referring to the circumstances surrounding the long-term disposal of nuclear waste, I am sure that he will be aware thatmy right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has made it clear that such disposal represents a unique long-term challenge for us all, and that he would like to see voluntary arrangements in which local communities benefit as a result of agreeing the long-term disposal of the waste.

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has completely misunderstood the proposals in the local government White Paper. It sets out three new relationships: a new relationship between central and local government; a new relationship between local government and its partners; and a new relationship between local government and the citizen. The desire is to reduce the number of targets from up to 1,200, and to concentrate on about 35. If we get that right—I am sure that we will, through the comprehensive spending review—local authorities will be freed to innovate locally, to be creative in responding to local challenges, to lead their areas in relation to the services that they deliver and to speak out for all services delivered. To me, that is equivalent to devolution and deregulation that will set up a new freedom for local government.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the White Paper, a common thread of which is the wish to reduce central control and to give power to communities and citizens. In that regard, will she tell us more about the new performance framework, which strikes those of us who were previously local councillors and who are keen to ensure that local citizens have more rights than they have now as exciting and innovative?

My hon. Friend draws our attention to an important point in the White Paper. Because of the new framework, and the new relationship between central and local government, we will be able to reform the rolling system of inspection for each local government service and to replace the present comprehensive performance assessment with a proportionate, risk-based, comprehensive area assessment. The Local Government Association and other local government stakeholders have been calling for this reform for many years, and it should massively reduce the costs for local authorities and make it possible for them to lead their areas better.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that, in implementing the White Paper, there will be room to consider not only unitary options based on current district and county boundaries but the reinstatement of historic counties such as Westmorland and Cumberland?

Of course we will consider any such proposals on their merits. There is a case for unitary authorities that can better lead their areas, but I do not want two-tier authorities across the country to be distracted for months—or, indeed, years—by the process of reorganising boundaries. That would distract them from their main job, which is to improve the quality of local services, and to increase prosperity for local citizens and respond to their concerns. An invitation to bid was sent out at the same time as the local government White Paper, setting forth the criteria against which any bid will be made. It makes it clear that the building block of any proposal should be the district councils, which should be the units around which proposals are based.

May I tell my right hon. Friend that the White Paper has been generally well received by councillors in my constituency, but they have one genuine fear—that the White Paper will be used to reduce drastically the overall number of councillors nationally? Will she reassure me on that?

I can certainly reassure my hon. Friend on that point. I know how much he champions the cause of his constituency and local authority. Rightly, he believes that his local councillors are making a huge contribution to well-being in his area, and he wants to see a future for them. I assure him that our proposals are devolutionary, and that it will be for local areas to decide whether to move to single-member wards or, for example, to all-out elections.

The White Paper calls for parish councils in London. Will the Secretary of State confirm that that will include powers to hike council tax via a parish precept? Is she aware that the average parish levy on band D is £30, and that it is more than £100 in some parts of the country? Is not it the case that Londoners now face a triple tax whammy—a parish council tax, a looming council tax revaluation, and a soaring bill for the Olympics because the Treasury and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport are at one another’s throats?

The hon. Lady is not right at all. The White Paper would allow London the freedom that everywhere else in the country has to determine neighbourhood arrangements. If local people think that they are better served through parishes rather than, for example, neighbourhood forums, it would be for local people to feed that view to the local authority. The proposals are about making services responsive to local citizens’ and community concerns. I hope that both sides of the House share the view that it is in everybody’s interests to ensure that we meet citizens’ rising expectations and tailor services to meet local needs.

The recent White Paper confirms the Government’s determination to tackle regional economic disparities. Will my right hon. Friend have discussions with the Chancellor to ensure that the upcoming comprehensive spending review will continue the movement of resources towards those areas of the country with the greatest needs?

My hon. Friend knows well that the Government have increased resources to local authorities by 39 per cent. in real terms since 1997, as against a cut of 7 per cent. in real terms when the Conservative party was in power. The Government value local services and local provision, which is why our White Paper proposes a new local settlement. Just as important as the distribution of funding, however, is the flexibility of funding. While it is right that we always keep under review the appropriate balance between different local authority areas, it is also right that we give local areas the flexibility to manage the resources channelled to them. That is what the White Paper proposes.

In the Secretary of State’s discussions with the Chancellor, apart from listening to his grave concerns about city regions, will she take the opportunity to ensure that local government is given the right level of resources to deliver on the responsibilities imposed on them, week by week, by central Government? Will she assure the House that the local government settlement and the Chancellor’s comprehensive spending review will reflect the needs of local communities for services from an independent, genuine local government?

If the hon. Gentleman is calling for greater investment in public services, this Government are delivering that investment to local authorities. Through the local area agreement, we are giving local areas much more flexibility over how they use those resources. For example, £500 million is currently funnelled through local area agreements, which could rise in future to £4.7 billion. He is right, too, that if we impose new burdens on local authorities, they should be funded from central Government for that purpose. The Government are committed to that, as will be seen through the comprehensive spending review.

My local city council, after rejecting the idea of an elected mayor, is governed by an improved committee system. The upcoming White Paper includes three alternative leadership models, all of which, sadly, are incompatible with our current system. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that there will be enough time and consultation for local authorities to implement any upcoming legislation?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. It is only right that we talk not just to the local authorities that will have to adopt one of the three new models, but to authorities that have a different model for particular local reasons. Specific discussions will take place with Brighton and Hove to ensure that the structure we expect it to adopt is welcome locally.