Skip to main content

Financial Sustainability (Local Government)

Volume 573: debated on Tuesday 7 January 2014

[Mr David Crausby in the Chair]

This debate is about sustainable local authority funding. It is my contention that it is neither sustainable nor local, and it certainly does not confer any authority. I will focus on our cities, not because I want to set up an argument between urban and rural areas, but because what is bad for our cities is bad for our urban areas. If our cities do not do well, rural areas will suffer.

Our cities do not reflect the national economy; they are the national economy. If our cities do not do well, the country will do not well. If we do not generate growth, the rest of the country will suffer, and one certainly does not generate growth by throttling one’s engine. Our cities are competing not with rural areas, but with other cities internationally. Cities are a complex system, even though Whitehall treats them as though they are only complicated. Jet engines are complicated; they are predictable and have predictable outcomes. Cities are complex; their outcomes cannot be predicted, and the players are not always rational. Above all, cities are systems that can come up with their own ideas and solutions to problems, if given permission to do so.

England is the most centralised country in the world—something that holds back our cities, stymies growth and productivity and produces poor value for our public services. Our cities were once great—Birmingham MPs will certainly be aware of that—but their power has continuously reduced since the 19th century and there has been a shift toward the centre. The most radical power shift probably came in the 1980s, when rate capping and financial penalties were introduced. Then, in 1986, the Greater London council and the six metropolitan counties covering England’s largest cities were abolished.

It is worth looking at the continent, where things are different.

“Every city outside the capital in Germany has GDP per capita above the national average, they are dragging the national average up. In Italy it’s six out of the eight, in France all are at or above the national average. We are the only country in Western Europe where, apart from Bristol, the level of the eight cities are some way below the national average and therefore are bringing down the national average of GDP per capita.”

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

Those were not my words—the comparison of England with France, Italy and Germany —but the words of the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), who has responsibility for cities.

Previously, the Labour Government embraced devolution. We devolved power to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and we restored London’s city-wide government in 2000, led by a directly elected executive Mayor. England outside the capital, however, remains unfinished business. It is a shame that the Government imposed police and crime commissioners, but presented us with a rather botched referendum on directly elected mayors in some of our cities.

I regret that our major cities do not have directly elected mayors, because such leaders need the support of the whole electorate and not only a small cabal of their own councillors. They need authority. To be frank, the names of the leaders of the core cities ought to be rolling off the tongue in the same way as we can name Cabinet Ministers, but they do not. Running a city the size of Birmingham is probably a far more difficult task than many a Cabinet post, yet we do not give those leaders the political authority that they ought to have.

A small way to remedy the situation, citing the noble Lord Whitby of Harborne as a precedent, might be for retiring council leaders to join the House of Lords, giving some representation for local government. I am not sure that the Mayor of London would be terribly keen on a place in the House of Lords after he finishes his term, but it is worth a try.

My second contention is that local government funding is not actually local. To quote again from the cities Minister:

“At the root of the problem is a lack of local control over the cities’ own affairs and spending”.

When talking about taking up his post, he said that he had to do two things, the first of which was

“to persuade the Cabinet to accept the principle to have licensed exceptions to national policy”,

so that cities could come up with their own way of dealing with things. If I remember rightly, in questions to the Deputy Prime Minister today, a number of Members also suggested that the presumption about deviations from national strategy should be that they were allowed, rather than having to prove the case.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and making such excellent points. In response to my recent debate on local government finance hold-backs, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), who will respond to this debate, claimed to be freeing local authorities to stand on their own two feet. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is the height of hypocrisy to claim to be freeing up our great cities when actually the Government are taking key powers into Whitehall, such as on inward investment, housing, skills, economic development and European funding?

Indeed, and I shall make that case with regard to Birmingham. Presumably, a true liberal regards the freedom to fail as a freedom, and that is one of the freedoms that our cities have been given.

The cities Minister also said:

“The second thing is to liberate from the central government barons funding that can be better spent locally.”

I cannot improve on his observation. Quite a number of colleagues will agree, in different ways, that the current funding structure is not sustainable. If there were some great vision of how our cities can succeed, we could engage with that, but what is happening at the moment is that, to quote Sir Albert Bore, the leader of Birmingham city council:

“Politicians in Westminster are systematically dismantling services that maintain the very fabric of culture and community here.”

Birmingham’s total budget for 2013-14 was £3.4 billion. That sum has to cover a whole number of things that the council must do and a number of things that the council might do. The money comes from a variety of sources, and the structure of the system is virtually impossible to explain to our voters.

I am wary of quoting figures, for two reasons. One is that we throw the words “millions” and “billions” around as if the difference is a change of just one letter. I have always found it useful to remind myself that 1 million seconds is 11 and a half days, whereas 1 billion seconds is 31.7 years. There is a massive difference. The second reason is that whenever I think I have a handle on the cuts, things change. I turned on the television yesterday and found that the Chancellor was in the west midlands announcing another £25 billion of cuts. I am not entirely sure where they will come from.

The latest figure for Birmingham is that we need to find savings totalling just under £840 million between 2010 and 2018, including £120 million of cuts in the financial year 2014-15.

The hon. Lady is making a powerful case for maintaining local government funding across the nation—not just in cities, but everywhere else—but I have one question. Those cuts are necessary because of the financial situation that the Government found themselves in three years ago. Would she prefer savings to come from local government or national Government, and, if the latter, in what areas?

That is a fair point, but as I will come to later, by the end of this Parliament local government will have taken 33% of the cuts, whereas Whitehall will have taken 12%. I will also suggest some ideas that would not be robbing Peter to pay Paul but would instead give greater liberty, in a managed way, to our cities to survive. At the moment, those areas in the greatest need are being cut most.

This might sound slightly boring, but let us look at the figures per dwelling. In Birmingham in 2014-15, using the Government’s preferred measure—that of spending power—we will lose £145.59 per dwelling, a cut of 5.3%. The national average is £71.58. Leafy Wokingham—Wokingham is not popular in my constituency because of the comparison, although one of my local councillors comes from there and takes slight umbrage that we keep quoting it—gets an increase in funding of £5.20, or 0.3%. In 2015-16 it will be even worse: Birmingham will lose 5.6% and Wokingham will have an increase of 3%. There is a whole list of shires and counties that are also getting an increase. At every turn, the combination of grant reduction and budget pressures widens to the point where—let us be clear on this—it is no longer a question of cutting services: some services simply will not be delivered.

My hon. Friend is setting out an important case. Does she agree that the issue is not just the impact of cuts on local authority spending, but the cumulative impact when taken along with welfare reforms, which tend to hit our most deprived cities the hardest? That combination is having a detrimental impact on local economies.

Absolutely. I have a couple of specific questions for the Minister that will help me outline how we can minimise further cuts.

In answer to a question on 18 December, the Minister suggested that Birmingham should

“be more efficient with its back office, and look at how to use its reserves to invest for the future.”—[Official Report, 18 December 2013; Vol. 572, c. 750.]

I had a chat with people at Birmingham city council about how much it spends on its back office services. It has already made some cuts to them, and will go on to make some of the largest single cuts in 2014-15. However, even if Birmingham were to remove its back office services entirely, it could not meet the required cuts for 2014-15, let alone those for 2015-16.

That puts me in a rather unusual position, in that I am at one with the noble Lord Heseltine. When he addressed the 200th anniversary dinner of the Birmingham chamber of commerce in April 2013, he called for no less than a “peasants’ revolt”, and I agree that that is what is needed. His definition of a peasants’ revolt was a reallocation of power back to the people who created the wealth in this country in the first place.

For that, we require three elements. The first is more control over the money received from central Government and—this is an important point—a time scale that allows for proper planning. At the moment, cuts are being imposed so quickly that local authorities, whether in cities or rural areas, have not had the time to reflect properly on how best to reorganise. In some areas, we even find confusion over which duties are statutory, because some statutory functions have been farmed out—councils have found that when they cancel the contracts, they are in breach of their statutory duties. The second element is greater freedom over the money raised locally, and the third is the means to benefit financially from investments and savings made.

However, I do not believe that that will be sufficient. Something far more radical is required. Relying on council tax to raise revenue will help only affluent areas. Capping via referendum and the utterly out-of-date banding system mean that, for authorities that rely heavily on central Government grants, relying on council tax to raise revenue just makes the situation worse. We need a more radical idea. We could raise a local tax or look at a system of apportionment of locally raised VAT to replace the grant. At this stage, I am simply looking for the Minister to acknowledge that if he continues on the current trajectory, some of our cities will go to the wall. I do not say that to be dramatic; the statement is borne out if we look at the figures.

I also have a number of specific questions. First, on the better care fund, am I right to assume that, although NHS transfers across clinical commissioning groups, which start in 2015-16, will not overtly redistribute funds from rural to urban areas, they will end up doing so in practice, given the age profile of rural areas? The better care fund is not new money, but a kind of redistribution. In Birmingham, almost 46% of the population is under the age of 30, compared with 36.8% in England as a whole. In contrast, Birmingham’s over-65s represent 12.9% of the population, compared with 16.9% in England as a whole. If we focus on the older population, therefore, we will be disproportionately hit.

The second question is about education. Education funding was not part of the local government finance settlement, because it comes mainly through the ring-fenced dedicated schools grant. However, the current formula is historic, and a consultation is going on. When can we expect the result? Will it include a minimum funding guarantee that protects against losses at a per-pupil level? Next year will be a crunch year for our cities and local authorities. Unless they have some indication of how not just the known grants, but the ones that underpin them, will play out, they will not be able to plan.

That takes me to my final observation. The Local Government Association already says some councils are not viable. How many councils does the Minister think are in that category? Does he agree with the work done by the Mayor of London, which suggests we should hand tax-raising powers to England’s largest cities? Will he give English cities control of the revenues from all property taxes, such as stamp duty, council tax, land tax and business rates? One thing is for sure: they will manage those funds differently and, I would contend, better. Will he also lift the cap on local government capital borrowing? I am not for one moment saying that local authorities do not need renewing or that some of the funding structures do not need to be looked at. However, that needs to be done in a planned and sustainable way that allows authorities to respond positively.

Finally, I invite the Minister to come to Birmingham, because 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Joe Chamberlain—the man who introduced the concept of good governance into our cities. If we do sit down and talk together about some of these structures, I hope we can come up with a way of maintaining the strength of our cities, rather than marking the 100th anniversary of Joe Chamberlain’s death by killing our cities with 1,000 cuts.

Order. I intend to call the two Front Benchers at 3.55 pm, which will give them 10 minutes each to sum up. I think six people want to speak, and while I do not intend to impose a time limit, we should be able to get everyone in if Members keep their contributions to less than 10 minutes.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) on calling this timely debate and on introducing it in a constructive fashion. However, I do not share her enthusiasm for elected mayors, so I must demur on that point.

Several people in the room have probably sat on both sides of the political fence that divides local government from central Government, so they will be familiar with the scenario many of us have had visited on us: we listen to a statement about the local government finance settlement and think, “That’s not so bad,” but when we talk to our borough treasurer, we find that the world has more or less fallen in. I am very familiar with that scenario because my first experience of Whitehall involved coming down to Richmond house to see the now Lord Boateng, who was a Minister at the time. I was castigated on behalf of Sefton council because he felt we had quite enough money to deal with our problems, while we felt the money he was giving us fell significantly short of what he should have given us.

That scenario is fairly familiar, and it is part of a very dishonest conversation that has taken place decade after decade between local authorities and central Government. It is a dishonest conversation about local resources, central resources and their effect on services. All Governments say that the funding settlement is fair and generous in the circumstances and that councils surely have sufficient funding to get by. If Ministers need a further defence, they will point to occasional—or perhaps less than occasional—instances of local authority inefficiency or profligacy. They will then point to some local authority—normally one from their own political party—that does things particularly well and set it up as an exemplar for all others to follow.

Local authorities, in turn, talk about savage reductions, service impairment and the new and sometimes unnecessary burdens that have been imposed on them, but not financed, by central Government. Characteristically, they will accuse the Government of deceitful sleights of hand, favouritism and formula rigging. I think Members will acknowledge—particularly those who have sat on both sides of the fence—that those involved put their side of the case in a very one-sided way.

The past few years have been no exception. It helps local authorities that are making their case to their local populations to blame the Government for the totality of their woes, whether those result from demographic factors or unaddressed issues from years gone by. Most local authorities worth their salt big up the cuts, blame all the financial pressures they face on central Government and try as far as possible to ignore their own failings.

Equally, central Government help themselves by confusing the grant regime, changing the names of the grant from year to year—from revenue support grant, to formula grant, to spending power or whatever—and presenting their case in the best possible way. The Minister and I have had many interesting discussions about whether to describe a local authority’s situation in terms of a fall in its spending power or a fall in its grant. I prefer the latter; he prefers the former.

The hon. Gentleman talks about authorities bigging up the cuts, but, taking into account all the adjustments he has just spoken of, Sheffield will, by 2015-16, have seen a 50% reduction in funding since 2010. That is not bigging up the cuts; it is the absolute fact. Sheffield cannot go on with that level of cuts to its funding base.

I have no experience of Sheffield, but I have experience of my own local authority, and at times it rolls up many years’ cuts into one total figure, as if those cuts were imposed in one particular year. That is par for the course. Equally, central Government will find obvious scapegoats and point to the things such as assets and reserves—they are sometimes usable, but sometimes not—as though they can be regularly tapped.

Such things are all part of the toolkit or the argument, and most people are fairly familiar with them. The public tend not to pay a lot of attention to the debate, and they almost split the difference in many cases, because they are not certain who is telling the truth. They do get exercised when council tax goes up and certainly when services they are particularly enamoured of disappear, but, by and large, they are fairly agnostic on this issue, and they do not always know who should be blamed.

However, the game has now got deadly serious. What has been a familiar scenario over many years is now having a more severe effect. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston suggested, the sustainability of local services and, in some cases, local councils appears to be at stake—there is a fair case to be made in that respect. If we cut through what I described as the usual dishonest conversation, there are four absolutely indisputable facts.

First, in terms of deficit reduction, councils have been hit first—that is not particularly helpful, because they have to work within annual budgets and cannot make plans over two or three years—and they have been hit hardest, as has already been said. The second fact is that the reduction in central Government expenditure is considerable, and it may end up being something like £20 billion.

Thirdly, it is also an indisputable fact that the funding reduction for local authorities is proportionally greater in the poor areas and particularly the metropolitan districts. I take that as an unarguable fact, which we can all acknowledge around the room, although we may want to explain it in different ways. That fact is well documented, and it is what the Rowntree research, the Institute for Public Policy research, the National Audit Office and the Audit Commission report “Tough Times” all say. It is an indisputable fact.

Clearly, one element in it was the initial loss of area-based grants. We could argue that that happened because the previous Government were looking after the local authorities that were most of their persuasion. However, the fall in the less affluent areas, if I can put it like that, is in no way compensated for in its totality by city deals or regional growth funds. Those are often talked of as a compensating factor, but they must be looked at in terms of the general decline in regeneration funding in those areas as a whole. Taking the totality of the issues, I would be prepared to—although I will not—argue that case at length. There is nothing to suggest that things are otherwise; the proportionate reduction in poorer areas is greater.

It would be inappropriate for the Minister to respond, as often happens in parliamentary debates, by saying that none the less Birmingham gets so much per head, as opposed to some other area that he wants to nominate. I assume that we all buy into the assumption that grant support for local authorities must be based in some way on need. Therefore we would expect per capita spending in Liverpool, for example, to be greater than per capita spending in Surrey, and so on.

Like the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), the hon. Gentleman makes a powerful case for maintaining spending on local government. I disagree with his thesis that cuts are deeper in urban areas than rural areas, but let us leave that on one side for a moment. If I am right in guessing that the hon. Gentleman is saying that spending must be maintained at local government level, will he, a Liberal Democrat, tell us which central Government budgets he would like cut so that the local government settlement could be increased?

I am not necessarily making a case for increasing the local authority settlement. I am mainly making a fair case for different distribution, and for spreading it over more years, to enable local authorities to make the appropriate adjustments.

My fourth point, which has not been stressed in the debate so far, is that local authority spending is now significantly unbalanced. Because of the nature of the cuts, local authorities have had to concentrate on their statutory services, which primarily means social services. Most ordinary punters and electors do not ordinarily interact with social services. That is a democratic problem as well as a financial one. We have all heard of the graph of doom and the view that some local authorities will end up spending on nothing but social services. If that happens, neither electors nor the authorities will welcome it.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston is right about the situation. She did not say that it was not sustainable; she said that the trajectory we are on is not sustainable, and I agree. Various things could be done about it, and she suggested some. I shall not cover the same ground that she did. We can spread good practice and develop community budgets—the Select Committee did some work on that. We can talk about possible savings from the integration of health and social care, which would be good, or about possible benefits from the repatriation of rates, and accompanying incentives.

We can talk about things on a grand scale, as the Local Government Association is doing at the moment with the Rewiring Public Services campaign, which would also be good. All those ideas are ways forward, but they will not work at all unless we sensibly and intelligently—starting in this Chamber—stop the dishonest conversation and look at the facts for what they are. If we concentrate on formulae designed to present the Government’s or a local authority’s case polemically in a particular way, we will never get central and local government speaking the same language, or succeed in making local authorities sustainable as a result.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Crausby. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) on securing today’s debate.

I was disappointed at the contempt with which the Minister dealt with my question to him in response to the statement on the local government finance settlement before Christmas. Liverpool’s settlement is so dire that I offered personally to fund two rail tickets for him and the Secretary of State, so they could visit my city and look at the books. If they truly believe that Liverpool has not done everything they say a responsible council should do to mitigate the cuts, surely the Minister should have bitten my hand off and accepted the offer. It is still open—to avoid confusion, I want to make it clear that it would not cost taxpayers a penny: I would fund it from my own pocket—so perhaps the Minister will respond.

The cuts to Liverpool’s funding are deadly serious. They deserve not light-heartedness or levity, but sombre deliberation and scrutiny. That is why I felt so strongly about the lack of an adequate response from the Minister in December. Far from being a good news story for local government, as he injudiciously claimed, his statement was a disaster for local government. He also argued that the cuts he announced were fair to all parts of the country. However, far from that being the case, they disproportionately hit core city regions—those least able to absorb their severity and those with lower levels of gross domestic product.

I want to concentrate on what that so-called good news day for local government meant for Liverpool. Unsurprisingly, but none the less shockingly, Liverpool city council was once again hit hardest. The latest cut of 5.5% will have a devastating impact on a city that is working tirelessly to pull itself up by its own economic bootstraps. Even the Prime Minister has recognised the work that Liverpool has done to cut out waste and restructure its services.

Indeed, despite the latest savage cuts, Liverpool’s entrepreneurial spirit is alive and kicking, and in a few months we will host the international festival for business on behalf of the UK. Hundreds of thousands of businessmen and women will once again be able to see our city and feel the warmth of our welcome. That will happen despite what the Government are doing to us, but our resilience is legendary. It is crucial to understand that Liverpool, like all the core cities, is asking not for handouts but for a fair local government settlement, so that when the Government wield their axe it will not be hit disproportionately.

I have great sympathy when the hon. Gentleman speaks up for his wonderful city, but I feel uneasy about the way the debate is centred on how the cuts focus on poor areas and cities. Leafy, Conservative Wiltshire this year received 18.2% cuts; next year it will have 26.8% cuts; the year after that they will be 7%. We are going from a revenue support grant of £76 million down to one of £45 million. That is a great deal deeper than Liverpool’s.

That is absolute nonsense. It is possible to pick individual statistics, but cumulatively the cuts and other Government policies have a disproportionate effect on my city. It is a greater effect than the hon. Gentleman could ever understand.

I do not know the source of the evidence cited by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray), but I think the Audit Commission showed that one in 10 of the best-off areas suffer only a fraction of the cuts being suffered by the poorest 20% of areas in the country. Has my hon. Friend seen that evidence?

I have, and I mean to refer to it later. I also have further evidence about how badly the Government have treated Liverpool. I understand what the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) said about years of dishonest argument, but that is not what we are talking about. At times that dishonest argument was about some authorities that thought they should get a greater increase than other authorities. We are now talking about savage cuts, not increases.

Not only is Liverpool’s cut the deepest; there are 38 other areas that will receive either a flat settlement or an increase in funding. How can that be fair? What happened to the Chancellor’s claim that he would not balance the budget on the backs of those in most need, or to the Government mantra that we are all in this together? Before some hon. Member intervenes with the inevitable argument that Liverpool will still receive above the national rate per capita, let me point out that the very fact that the city is struggling to meet its statutory requirements as a local authority gives credibility to the argument that further consideration of the funding formula is necessary to reflect socio-economic and multiple deprivation indices.

Perhaps the best description of the consequences for Liverpool of Ministers’ actions was from the shadow Health Secretary when he suggested:

“The Government do not understand, or they do not care, and they just rip up the fabric of an entire city. It is disgraceful.”—[Official Report, 18 December 2013; Vol. 572, c. 765.]

I could not have put it any better myself: it is managed decline, based on an inequitable formula that, at its core, is predicated on an ideological assault on the cities that no longer offer the Tories or Lib Dems any form of electoral support. It is not fair and it is not good news for local government.

I wish, in a way, that the debate had followed the lines laid out by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) in an admirably even-handed and non-partisan way. Is it not true, as a matter of historical fact, that under the previous Government, heat maps were generated that specifically tied public funding to areas of actual and potential Labour support? That has been in the newspapers. We know that it is a well established fact, which has been well attested from other grounds. Should the hon. Gentleman not be properly recognising that in his remarks?

Deprivation has always been recognised on heat maps and areas of the country are well known in that regard. I do not accept the premise of the hon. Gentleman’s question. If he is saying that money in the formula was given to those areas of greatest need, and that showed up on a heat map, yes, that is true, and quite rightly so—it should have been.

Some might argue that it is simply coincidental that Labour-controlled Liverpool, Labour-controlled Manchester, Labour-controlled Birmingham, Labour-controlled Sheffield, Labour-controlled Newcastle and so on are the hardest-hit councils, with, in some cases, cuts to their budgets of more than 50% over the life of this Parliament, while councils that benefit most are well-off, Tory-controlled authorities. Some might suggest that that is just a coincidence, but I do not buy that. The formula was designed to do exactly that.

Let me put on the record that the heat maps are not reflective of imbalances in deprivation funding at all. Let us take an example that is completely open and known to everyone, which is the scandal of the private finance initiative, in which 106 new hospitals were built at enormous cost. The vast preponderance of them were built around a model of funding that was for very large outpatient hospitals in major cities, and it was deliberately targeted on those cities. The result has been, at a time when health care has been moving to a much more localised, technology-enabled solution, a disaster for health care. We will find that these great hospitals, including the new one being built in Liverpool, struggle as a result.

It absolutely beggars belief that individual Members of Parliament do not understand that every area is different. Areas that had infrastructure from Victorian times, hospitals that were literally falling apart and schools that leaked, needed intervention at that time—not in 15 or 20 years, when the country might well have been able to afford it. Intervention was needed.

I am no great fan of PFI, by the way, but according to the latest figures the Chancellor is signing off as many PFI contracts, worth as much, as the previous Labour Government did. Members really cannot have it both ways—be anti-PFI while not even standing up to their own Chancellor, who is signing off these huge contracts, including the one for Liverpool.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) said:

“Tough times do indeed require tough decisions”—

nobody would argue against that—

“but this Government, as they have shown time and again, from the bedroom tax to the top rate of tax and local government funding, take most from those who have least. That is unfair and unjust.”—[Official Report, 18 December 2013; Vol. 572, c. 746.]

A cumulative 52% cut to Liverpool city council will mean not only that it has to make staff redundant, which means even more human misery and an even higher benefit bill, but, as I have said, that it may not even be able to fulfil the requirement to deliver statutory services to the level that it has to date. In other words, keeping our libraries open will be virtually impossible. Services for the young and old will be decimated. Children’s centres will be affected. Street lights and roads will not be repaired at the same rate, and the legacy of our year as European capital of culture will be damaged, possibly beyond repair.

Perhaps the most devastating aspect of the whole debate is the fact that decisions continue to be made, by a Minister and his boss in a cold and calculated manner, that I know will detrimentally affect Liverpool’s history, heritage and traditions and adversely affect every man, woman and child in our city.

The number of Members standing to speak seems to keep increasing, so Members will have to keep their contributions shorter if we are to accommodate them all. I call Jesse Norman.

Thank you, Mr Crausby. I am grateful to you and to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston for calling this important debate.

I absolutely applaud the measures that the Government have taken over the past couple of years, not merely to bring the national economic crisis under some kind of financial control, but to make specific improvements to local government in the hope of making it more relevant, more accountable and more autonomous. The hon. Lady made the very good point that local government was glorious in the 19th century, and one reason for that was how autonomous it was. It is very important that we restore proper dignity to town halls, and I think the Government are doing that.

It is remarkable that the Government have been able to do that in the extremely difficult financial conditions in which we find ourselves. It is extraordinarily hard to change embedded funding decisions and disparities that have been left over from times past. In my county of Herefordshire—although we are talking about cities and the wider impact, I hope that we can strike a rural note, as the hon. Lady acknowledges the differences between them and the effects that each can have on the other—levels of funding have always been extremely low. The culture is one of making do and mending. To take one example, it was a minor miracle when we moved from having the third worst-funded schools in the country to the fourth worst-funded schools in the country, in the past year or two. I hope that we will continue to motor rapidly up the tables thereafter.

Above all, the issue is not only about local government, but about the totality of public services, because, as I think all Members would recognise, the services interlink with each other and the cumulative and interrelated effect of them makes all the difference. I am perhaps somewhat unusual in that I commissioned an independent study of underfunding in Herefordshire in 2010, which concluded, based on a comparison with other authorities, that it had been underfunded to the tune of £174 million over the previous five years—the period from 2005 to 2010. That is £35 million a year or roughly 10% of local government spending.

Those totals broke down across the public services as: police, £11 million a year; fire, £4 million a year; schools, £30 million a year; and health, £44 million a year. Each of those sums, in turn, was dwarfed by the underfunding of local government, which was £85 million over that period, or £17 million a year.

It is important to put that in perspective. It is not only about underfunding in some of the leafy suburbs to which people like to refer, because there are areas of deprivation in Herefordshire. It is not a rich place; it is a county in which the average earnings are significantly below the averages for the west midlands and for England as a whole. It is well known to those who have studied the issue that public services are harder, not easier to deliver, and more expensive, not cheaper to deliver, in rural areas than in cities, whether that involves filling potholes or the number of women whom a midwife can see in a given year.

I want to see whether I understand the essence of the hon. Gentleman’s point. Is he arguing that his area is underfunded, as a number of us would think of our areas, and therefore that central Government need to do something to relieve that underfunding? Alternatively, is he arguing that money should be taken off other areas and given to his area to address what he perceives as the underfunding problem in his area alone?

I am arguing that the situation in Herefordshire is the result of well over a decade—possibly two decades—of underfunding and that therefore, although every area has been hit badly because that is the nature of the tough times we are in, the case for treating with care and attention areas that have suffered from that inherited imbalance of underfunding is clear.

Let me give an example. In many parts of the country, local councils have reserves—indeed, large amounts of reserves that they have stored up over many years against a rainy day. That is not true in Herefordshire. Herefordshire council is only 10 or 15 years old. It does not have large inherited reserves. All the reserves it has are spoken for, more or less, and therefore it is not in the position that some cities are in of being able to draw on inherited reserves.

I am winding up my speech, but I defer to the hon. Lady so much that I am happy to take her intervention.

I am exceptionally grateful. The hon. Gentleman mentioned that Herefordshire is a relatively young county. Is not that the problem? When there was a split between Herefordshire and Worcestershire, there was always a debate about whether they were big enough to be sustainable local authorities. Do not some of the problems in his area relate to the question whether the size and configuration of local authorities is optimal?

Of course, that point would be much stronger if it were ever true that Herefordshire had received anything like a fair level of funding relative to its comparators. Unlike, I think, most other hon. Members, I have the facts and the evidence in my hands and on my iPad if anyone would like to check them, so we can be quite precise about it.

My final point has to do with reserves. Herefordshire does not have huge reserves. It has virtually no reserves and an embedded underfunding over at least two decades. In that context, the Government’s efforts to level the playing field, if that is what they are, are to be welcomed, because that is doing a difficult thing in unusually difficult circumstances. I am grateful to the Minister and his colleagues and hope that they will continue to look closely at this issue and at the disparities between different authorities as reflected in their reserves.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) on securing this important debate. She is a tireless campaigner for the people of Birmingham and, like me and many of my colleagues on the Opposition Benches, is simply unwilling to let the issue of unfair cuts to local government go.

Indeed, I have lost count—I am sure that the Minister has too—of the number of times I have raised with him and other Ministers the impact of disproportionate cuts on cities such as Newcastle, yet he continues to bury his head in the sand about the scale of the consequences of the decisions that the Government are taking. I therefore look forward to hearing his response and seeing whether he will acknowledge the impact of those decisions on communities and services in cities such as Newcastle. However, given the provisional local government finance settlement that was confirmed to the House on 18 December, I am not holding my breath.

The United States celebrates groundhog day on 2 February, but I think mine might be occurring at the beginning of this month, because on 8 January last year, I introduced an Adjournment debate on the effect of funding cuts on Newcastle city council, during which I was complacently told by the Minister:

“Predictably, the doom mongers have been consulting their Mayan calendars and issuing dire warnings about the end of the world as we know it and a billion pound black hole in local budgets. Concerns that the poorest councils or those in the north will suffer disproportionately are well wide of the mark”.—[Official Report, 8 January 2013; Vol. 556, c. 293.]

What is the reality facing cities such as Newcastle? In the debate last year, I outlined how in 2012 Newcastle city council had started to consult on a three-year budget for the period from 2013-14 to 2015-16 in the light of the unprecedented funding challenges it faced. When it began the consultation process, it believed it was looking at a funding shortfall of £90 million over three years as a result of disproportionate central Government funding cuts and rising cost pressures, such as inflation, energy prices and the costs of providing services to an ever-ageing population. That figure rose during the consultation process to £100 million, following further cuts announced in the 2012 autumn statement and the local government finance settlement. However, following the 2013 spending round and provisional local government finance settlement announced in December 2013, Newcastle city council now believes it faces a funding gap of £108 million over the same period.

I have no doubt that the Minister will again seek to dismiss concerns about the scale of the cuts faced by cities such as Newcastle by reminding us, again, of the “spending power” that Newcastle has at its disposal—it is groundhog day, after all—but I suggest, as other hon. Members and I have suggested on several occasions, including today, that that measure is absolutely meaningless if it is used simplistically to compare total spending power without taking into consideration the completely different spending pressures facing cities such as Newcastle and those facing other parts of the country with totally different needs and challenges to support.

The Minister repeatedly fails to mention the scale and the speed of the change in spending power that is proposed for the next two years. Newcastle may have a higher total spending power than certain parts of the country, but it faces a cut in that spending power of £232 per dwelling over the next two years. In sharp contrast, Wokingham, which my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston also referred to—I appreciate the concerns of the friend to whom she referred—and which the Minister often likes to cite, will see its spending power rise by £60 per dwelling, and Windsor and Maidenhead’s will rise by £32 per dwelling. Therefore, although the spending power of cities such as Newcastle is being significantly cut, the spending power of some of the wealthiest and least deprived areas of the country is not only being protected but increased under this Government. The straight fact is that the additional spending power of cities such as Newcastle has not originated from some unfair funding decision of the past, but reflects very real differences in spending pressures and, in particular, differences in the requirement for statutory services.

Newcastle, as an urban and relatively deprived city, faces significantly greater spending pressures than the two councils that the Minister frequently chooses to compare it with. However, as Newcastle city council officers have pointed out:

“The reduction in spending power of areas with higher needs and lower resources and the increase in spending power in the wealthiest areas is a trend that will continue each year if the Government continues to operate the grant system as is currently proposed. It will not just close the funding difference between these areas but in time will potentially reverse it...This effect is happening because the Government’s funding system now focusses on self-sufficiency and providing incentives for areas where economies grow as opposed to applying the core principles of providing sufficient funding to reflect the different needs to provide statutory services across the country and to compensate for very different abilities to raise money locally from a standard council tax. These were the core principles introduced…in 1993/94 by the Conservative Government at that time. The principles were aimed at ensuring that residents anywhere in England could receive a standard level of service to meet their needs with a similar council tax charge for similar bands of property. Now that this no longer holds true the provision of statutory services can and will only be achieved by councils in poorer areas with higher services demands by charging a higher Band D council tax than wealthier areas of the country. As the Government is effectively restricting increases in council tax this will in effect mean that similar levels of service (including statutory services) can no longer be provided in poorer areas of the country or those areas with higher calls on statutory services.”

Crucially, the officers say:

“It is unclear whether Ministers...fully understand the implications of the new funding system that they have introduced.”

With regard to the title of today’s debate, the key concern is the cumulative impact of higher percentage cuts and higher cash cuts in spending power per dwelling. Far from Opposition Members bigging up the cuts, those cuts will place much greater pressure on the financial sustainability of councils sooner than would be the case if they were proportionate. The Minister may decide to use his response to the debate to continue to bury his head in the sand on this critical issue. Perhaps he thinks that if he sticks his fingers in his ears and sings loudly enough, we will all just go away, but it is not just Opposition Members and Labour-run councils that fear that, although they are clearly the ones worst affected by the Government’s decisions. Ahead of the autumn statement, the Conservative chairman of the Local Government Association, Sir Merrick Cockell, commented:

“The next two years are make or break for many councils and the Chancellor has it in his power to either deliver a stable environment in which they can plan for the unprecedented challenges ahead, or he can deliver uncertainty and risk which will put even more stress on vital local services and push councils toward failure…This Government is testing the resilience of councils to breaking point and in many areas the cracks are starting to show. 2015/16 is shaping up as the crunch year and we expect some councils to be placed in a position where they do not have the money…to meet their statutory obligations.”

That is a truly damning statement, and if it comes to fruition, it will be residents of constituencies such as mine, in Newcastle North, who will pay the price.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I am slightly disappointed at the outcome of the debate, although I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) on the thoughtful way in which she introduced it. The subject of the debate deserves a little better than some of the contributions that have been made. I agree with the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) that we must use the debate as an opportunity to think about the sustainability of local government finance in the longer term.

Some of the matters that have been raised relate, I suggest, to symptoms rather than disease. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston hinted at the real problem with financial sustainability in local government, which is that the state in this country is highly centralised. That needs to change. I gently say that that is not the construct of any one party; it has happened over about 50 years. In fairness, it must be said that this Government have taken important steps to seek to reverse that.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) that Ministers should be congratulated on the devolutionary steps they have taken at the same time as having to make significant spending reductions to meet the economic crisis we inherited. We cannot have sustainable financing for local government, which accounts for some 25% of the spend on public services, without a sustainable economy for the public finances as a whole. I do not accept lectures from Opposition Members who suggest that we should exempt local government from the necessary spending reductions.

In the longer term, we need to tackle the real problem, namely that local government has historically been too dependent on central Government grant for its finance. The Government have taken important steps to address that, but the degree of the problem is highlighted by the London Finance Commission. I represent a suburban London seat, which falls somewhere between the two poles when it comes to the matters that are being discussed. The LFC report, which the Mayor of London commissioned and endorsed, points out that some 7% of all the tax paid by London residents and businesses is retained locally, as opposed to, say, New York, where the picture is some 50%.

I am not saying that it is realistic to change those figures overnight, because we come from different constitutional and historical traditions, but we can move in that direction. In that regard, the Minister and the Government—I might have a slight interest in this—are to be commended for providing other financial levers to local authorities beyond pure dependency on central Government grant or council tax. The new homes bonus was an important additional income stream from central Government.

The hon. Gentleman rather misses the point. During the whole time that the Labour party was in government, it made no such devolutionary steps in local government finance. It ill behoves the Labour party to criticise the steps that the Government have taken against a background of financial stringency.

Secondly, the retention of business rates, particularly if we follow it through in due course and increase the local share, has a real opportunity to reduce dependency on central Government grant. Currently, for understandable reasons such as deficit reduction, the local share has to be constrained. The primary legislation is drafted in such a way as to permit the local share to increase as the economy grows. I hope that happens, and I think hon. Members would do better in the longer term at finding financial sustainability for local government if they were to support that growth on a cross-party basis rather than seek to make short-term points about the funding of individual local authorities.

To some extent, the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point about the long term. The problem is that we are dealing with the situation we are in, which is that local government is dependent on grant from central Government. Waltham Forest council, which covers most of my constituency, has already faced extensive cuts and will probably face further cuts in grant from central Government of some 8% over the next two years. That reaches the stage, as Sir Merrick Cockell has said, where it is unsustainable and cracks start to appear. My local authority has wrought miracles in delivering services in difficult circumstances, but I am not sure that that can continue.

With every respect to the hon. Gentleman—I know he thinks about such matters carefully—the problem with his analysis is that simply shovelling more money into the system that cannot be paid for in a sustainable way is not, I regret to say, the answer. A much more radical approach is needed to the way in which we deliver services, which good councils of all political persuasions are willing to undertake. We should move away from the high levels of dependency that local government in this country has on central Government bail-out.

There are things we could do. I hope we will not only increase the local share of the retained business rate and therefore reduce dependency on central Government grant, but work with the Local Government Association to deliver a genuinely sustainable market in municipal bonds, which holds real opportunities, particularly for big cities.

I hope we can extend the period of the funding settlements for local authorities. It is worth recognising, as the LGA recognises, that in the autumn statement this year we set out that local public services will get the same long-term indicative statements as central Government, which will provide more certainty. That is an important and valuable step forward, on which I congratulate the Minister. We might, in due course, roll that out to five-year settlements for local government, which will provide a sensible approach to long-term planning.

There are things that can be done, but it is not enough simply to talk about a system and to have a needs-versus-resources argument that does not recognise efficiency. We can do more in the system to recognise efficiencies and past efficiencies. Although the cities are a pressure point, it struck me when I was a Minister that we should not forget that there are financial pressures on rural authorities as well. One thing that concerned me when I first came into office at the Department for Communities and Local Government was that the then formula grant system did not recognise the cost of rural services or the particular pressures that give rise to rural deprivation. I congratulate the Minister and the Government on taking important steps to recognise that. There are positive, long-term things that we can do, and I hope the Minister will reflect on what we can build on in a constructive way.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) on securing the debate. Reference has been made to the Local Government Authority’s position. It is a good idea to take notice of those who, day to day, have to deal with the problems we are discussing and make decisions in local government. Sir Merrick Cockell, the Conservative leader of the LGA, which has a Conservative majority, has said clearly that the position of local Government finance is not sustainable. I happen to agree with him, and there is cross-party agreement in the LGA. That comes about because, as my hon. Friend has said, local government has been asked to make twice the level of cuts demanded of central Government Departments. Local government services are more important than that, and the extent to which local government services have been singled out for disproportionate cuts is unacceptable.

We can argue about which authorities have had the worst deal, and I certainly argue that those with the greatest needs and traditionally the highest level of grants have had the biggest cuts in their grant. That is not questionable—the figures are there to back it up. Local government generally has a good record on efficiency savings. It has coped with the cuts so far quite well, but we have already seen across the country cuts to community services such as libraries and changes to eligibility criteria for adult social care that are affecting communities and individuals in local authorities of all political persuasions.

We cannot continue on that basis, because it is not sustainable. Cuts that are made one year cannot be simply repeated and enhanced the following year. Every year it becomes more difficult because there is less room for manoeuvre and a lower percentage of discretionary spend that can be cut. That is not a steady state, because more pressure is being put on spending for adult social care all the time. The graph of doom that the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) referred to is already there. As cuts are made in spending availability and extra demands are made on adult social care, the amount left for other local government services is squeezed until it becomes non-existent. Adult social care and care for looked-after children ultimately benefit a minority of people, important though those services are, and the rest of the population do not know what they get from local councils because virtually nothing is left. That undermines local democracy, which is very worrying.

The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) is absolutely right that we have to look towards the longer term. The Government have done some good things, such as abolishing ring-fencing, moving a little on business rates—I would like to see more—and introducing city deals. The most significant thing they have done, however, is to undermine the basis of local government finance in this country to such an extent that a future Government simply will not be able to come back and build on what was there before.

There has to be a fundamental and radical change. There was a good contribution to the debate from the LGA with the “Rewiring Public Services” document. There was a good contribution from the London Finance Commission. The Communities and Local Government Committee is to conduct an inquiry into local and inter-city financing and how city governance affects other parts of the country. Important elements have been raised for discussion, and I hope we can take that debate forward.

In the meantime, what will the Minister do when a local authority gets into real difficulties? The National Audit Office has been highly critical that the Government have not done an impact assessment on the cumulative impact of cuts to local councils. The LGA has said that 56 councils will spend 15% above their income by 2015-16. What happens if one of those councils gets into serious financial difficulties? Would the Government insist on a council having a referendum if it needed to raise council tax by 20% to make ends meet and to deliver its statutory service? Will the public vote for an increase in a referendum if they know that the Government have section 31 powers—civil servants and Ministers revealed them to the Committee—to step in at any point and give councils extra grant to stop them from going bust? Where do we stand when an authority gets into serious difficulty, whether that authority is Conservative, Labour or Lib Dem, rural or urban, a city authority or a district council? What action will the Government take if a council gets into difficulty, which seems to me to be almost inevitable?

Order. I plan to call the first Front-Bench spokesman at 3.55 pm, so, with four minutes to go, I call Angela Smith.

I will do my best, Mr Crausby. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) on her excellent speech, which had depth and context. The only thing I can add on the history of local government is its contribution in cities such as Sheffield and Birmingham to our housing, our schools, our leisure facilities and our libraries. The green legacy, particularly in Sheffield, bears a heavy debt to the history of local government in the area. She succinctly outlined the declining powers of local government over many decades, which was echoed by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill).

The case for cities as economic motors was powerfully made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston. I want to compare Sheffield with Pittsburgh in the USA—she made comparisons with Europe, but comparisons can occasionally be made with the USA. Pittsburgh is Sheffield’s sister city and suffered the same decline in its industrial base, but it is now motoring ahead. Why? It is because Pittsburgh had the powers available to rebuild itself. It has focused on life sciences and hydraulic fracturing—fracking to most of us—and has rebuilt its economic base very successfully. It has managed to tap in to resources made available by the federal Government, but beyond that it has tapped into local resources and rebuilt itself. It stands as a shining example of what can be done when a city is given control of its destiny. It is not just Europe we can look to for comparisons of what can be done; sometimes, the US can teach us lessons.

By comparison, Sheffield will, over the lifetime of this Parliament, suffer a 50% reduction in its grant. Barnsley, the other borough I represent, will suffer a 41% cut over the same period. The contrast between what is happening in some of the great cities of the world and what is happening in the UK could not be greater. People living in Sheffield and south Yorkshire more generally feel emotional and strongly about the loss of their industrial base. Something has to be done to rebuild the economy of south Yorkshire. Even the boroughs of Barnsley, Rotherham and Doncaster would acknowledge that Sheffield has to be at the heart of that regeneration.

The myth about the rural and the urban needs to be scotched. Some 70% of south Yorkshire is rural, but it is within a metropolitan area. It has suffered declines greater than Herefordshire, Worcestershire and other areas in the country. I do not want to pitch south Yorkshire against other parts of the country, but south Yorkshire and areas like it helped to build the UK’s industrial base, and they have the capacity to do that again. The role of local government in that is critical. Local government as we know it is broken for ever. The model has gone. Devolution has to be at the heart of the solution for countries and regions such as ours. For Birmingham, for south Yorkshire, for Greater Manchester, for Newcastle and for the north-east, we have to have devolution and a different model for delivering local government in future.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) on securing this very important debate and on how she has spoken up for her constituency and her city and made a wider and powerful case on the importance of our cities to the UK economy. Cities have helped to shape local government as we know it.

As my hon. Friend has said, urbanisation and industrialisation in the 19th century created the impetus in cities for the growth of local democracy, whether that was guilds of merchants and craftsmen coming together; the turnpike trusts and the improvement commissions; or the local Acts of Parliament, such as in Newcastle, to ensure that houses had privies attached to them, or those in the west midlands, where councils came together to promote an end to animal cruelty, or those of many local authorities who sought public health measures to tackle diseases such as cholera and tuberculosis. There was also the invention and confidence of municipalism in Birmingham, symbolised by Joseph Chamberlain—he was mentioned by my hon. Friend—who municipalised the gas works and the water supply. London blazed the trail for the national health service. Some 40,000 of the 55,000 hospital beds in the city were run by the county council.

Today, the challenge is even greater for our big cities. They must lead the renewal of local government, not only for local citizens who rely on their local services, but also, as my hon. Friend rightly said, for our national economy. They must do that in spite of Government policies that have hit our cities hardest of all. Birmingham council’s leader, Sir Albert Bore, said that

“these cuts will mean the end of local government as we know it”.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) spoke powerfully about how his council has already worked incredibly hard to reform local public services and to make efficiencies. We know that local government, despite receiving the biggest cuts of any part of the public sector, is viewed by the Government as the most efficient part of it. The Prime Minister has said that.

The core funding reductions in local government are an average real terms cut of 33%, and the figures announced in the 2013 spending round envisage a further 10% cut in the local government resource budget, but I believe that it goes further than that. The key issue is the unfairness of the distribution of those cuts. By 2014-15, the 10 most deprived local authorities in England will have lost six times more than the 10 least deprived local authorities, compared with 2010-11.

While Birmingham, Newcastle and other cities will lose most, the Prime Minister’s local authority—West Oxfordshire council, which is one of the wealthiest—is seeing its spending power increase. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston contrasted the cuts to her local authority, as did other hon. Members, with the increases in Wokingham, Hampshire, Surrey and Windsor and Maidenhead. Where is the fairness in a policy that takes most from those with least to give to those with most and a policy that takes from the have-nots to give to the haves? The council cuts are brought to us by the Government who gave millionaires a tax cut while imposing the bedroom tax on the poorest.

We know that the policy is deliberate. The former local government Minister, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), whom we have heard from, is on record as saying that. Both the Audit Commission and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have said that councils in the north have been hit harder than those in the wealthier south-east. Can the Minister explain why that is right?

The National Audit Office has warned that cuts are having a direct impact on front-line services—we know that from our own areas—and that many councils are at risk of being unable to balance their books in future, with potentially disastrous consequences, not only for the delivery of those discretionary services, but for the delivery of those statutory services that our constituents rely on. The Public Accounts Committee report on the financial sustainability of local authorities found that there had not been a proper analysis of the impact of the cuts. The Committee highlighted the unfairness of the cuts for different areas of the country and raised serious concerns that some councils will simply not be viable.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) has said, it is not just the scale of the cuts but the pace of them that is having such a significant impact on our areas. The Chair of the Committee has said:

“Central government is cutting funding to local authorities by more than a quarter over four years but does not properly understand what the overall impact will be on local services.”

For instance, the Department for Education has failed to provide a proper cost analysis of how funding reductions will affect children’s services. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton has said, the cumulative impact of cuts in other departmental budgets on local authority public services is affecting our cities most. Nor is enough work being carried out across Departments to determine how funding reductions in one area of spending might affect services in another—for example, how cuts in local authority adult social care are leading to bed blocking in hospitals, as they are in my area.

The Public Accounts Committee says that the Government do not understand the impact of their cuts on vulnerable groups. We know that, and it is reflected in other policy areas across government, not least welfare reform. We want to know what actions the Government would take in the event of the financial failure of multiple local authorities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) said—he is the Chair of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, and I hope the Minister will listen to him—we must hear from the Government what action they will take if councils cannot balance the books.

The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst told us that the shifting of funding is aimed at reducing dependence, but the truth is that often the areas with the highest demand for services have the least capacity to raise income through business rates or council tax, as I am sure he knows. Although some of the changes to business rates can be built on and are to be welcomed, on the issue of fairness, he is not right. It has compounded the problem for some of the toughest areas of our country with greatest need.

In the Government’s spin operation following the provisional finance settlement, they said that there would be no more cuts to local government. I was astounded to read august publications such as the Local Government Chronicle reporting “No more cuts to local government”, when we know that next year, the year after that and—to listen to the Chancellor yesterday—in the five years that follow, if the Conservatives are in power, there will be substantial further cuts to local authorities. The Chancellor has said that 10% will be cut in the next two years, but I ask the Minister to take this opportunity to correct the record. The Local Government Association, a cross-party organisation, is clear that without including NHS support for social care, which is not available for all councils, the reduction over the next two years will be 15.9%.

The Minister and I are having our own groundhog day; we were here a few weeks ago debating holdbacks. I welcome the Government’s U-turn on holdbacks, particularly the decision to return some of the money held back as part of the new homes bonus, which was the subject of a debate led by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), who was here earlier. The second U-turn that we heard about was to adopt Labour’s policy to act on business rates, which have increased for small and medium-sized businesses by £2,000 under this Government. However, we would go further, freezing and then cutting business rates for 1.5 million small and medium-sized businesses. If the Minister were to confirm that the Government are willing to take that U-turn, I am sure it would be welcomed around the country.

My generosity to the Minister does not extend to the fairy tale that we are likely to hear about council tax and the notion that it will again be frozen. When will we hear the details of the council tax freeze grant for 2014-15? What is his response to the recent report in The Daily Telegraph that at least 42 councils, more than half of which are Conservative-led, plan to reject the Government’s additional funding and raise council tax this year? The leader of Conservative-led North Yorkshire said that

“settling for the additional funding for another year could place the council’s finances in a perilous position.”

The next Labour Government will not be able to turn back the clock, but we can offer hope to local authorities and local government around the country that we understand the depth of the financial challenge that councils face and are committed to finding a way forward. We will start by putting fairness back at the heart of the relationship between central and local government. We will acknowledge the difficulties that councils face, not try to sweep them under the carpet. We will respect decisions made by councils at local level about how to use resources, not criticise and carp from Whitehall, as the Secretary of State does about everything from the level of reserves to bin collections.

The next Labour Government will, of course, want councils to meet communities’ needs, but our approach will be one of partnership. It is crucial that we support councils to deliver economic growth in all areas of the country with fairness. We will consider the report of the London Finance Commission and some of its proposals, and the LGA document “Rewiring Public Services”. We want to devolve power over housing and planning, and jobs and skills. Councils will have to come together to decide how best to use those powers, not just in our cities but across England, as part of what my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) calls the English deal. We will take the process of devolving power from Whitehall further, through Labour’s “Total Place” programme, which has sadly stalled under this Government, but whose pilots in places such as Greater Manchester show that there is much potential.

The local government innovation taskforce, set up by the Leader of the Opposition, makes it clear that Labour in local government is already innovating in responding to the challenges faced by our communities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton said, our councils are doing a great deal already, even in these difficult circumstances. That taskforce will press for a growing role and greater freedom for local government. Labour’s localism will be an ambitious programme requiring Whitehall and local government to work together as we transfer much more power and responsibility to local councils. In that way, although resources will be tight, councils will have a better chance to find a sustainable and fair way forward for their communities.

One would be forgiven for believing that there was some golden inheritance for local government when this Government came in. Many council leaders across the political divide would struggle to recognise the description given by the shadow Minister. Having been a council leader under the last Government, I find the idea of the Labour party favouring anything involving flexibility or partnership with local government, as opposed to top-down central control through one mechanism or another, almost laughable.

We should put this debate in context. We still have not heard anything from the Labour party about the £52 billion in cuts to local government that they outlined—local government still has something to fear. Members have also talked about money for areas. We have heard the debate about the difference between rural and urban areas. We would argue that we have created a fairer position, but we should also remember the backdrop outlined by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne): the previous Government basically spent all the money. As my hon. Friends the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) and for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) rightly said, we are working within the tight financial envelope left to us by the mess of the last Labour Government.

Having said all that, I must also congratulate and thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) for securing a debate on this important issue and for her thoughtful opening speech. This Government have armed local government with a fair funding deal for all parts of the country—rural and urban, district and county, city and shire—which means that councils can plan budgets and deliver sensible savings while protecting front-line services. I will come back to the context of “fair” in a moment.

As has been outlined, every bit of the public sector must do its bit to pay off Labour’s deficit, including local government, to account for a quarter of all public spending. Our hats should go off to local government for the impressive work it has done, because we have shown that we can make those savings and still deliver good front-line services. Public satisfaction is at an all-time high, especially compared with 2010.

The autumn statement ensured that local government is protected from further spending reductions for 2014-15 and 2015-16. Councils now have the stability and certainty to plan their budgets and move ahead with transforming local services and ongoing efficiencies, which they absolutely need to do.

No, I will not, due to the time constraints.

Councils now have stability. A number of local authorities have already done much work to prove that efficiencies deliver not only savings, but better services for their residents. Ultimately, that is the key. It is not about Government money or councils’ money; it is about taxpayers’ money being spent on good front-line services for local residents. I encourage authorities to look at the good councils out there doing great work with efficiencies and innovation, such as those that have done work through the community budget programme and the public service transformation network.

Their work is becoming more efficient and effective for council residents. Independent reports show that it is saving about £20 billion a year in this country. More importantly, areas going forward with such innovation show better outcomes for residents, not the least of which is being highlighted through the work of the better care fund, which involves work between the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department of Health, and is showing benefits. I will touch on Members’ individual points in a moment, and I will write to the hon. Lady with some details about the better care fund, particularly with relevance to Birmingham. I am happy to meet her separately on that issue as well.

The average spending power reduction for councils in 2014 is expected to be limited to 2.9% per household. Members have mentioned the top 10% and the bottom 10%. Let us be clear that authorities’ spending power in the most deprived areas is much higher. In 2014-15, it is up to about £4,200 per dwelling in the 10 most deprived authority areas, compared with about £2,100 per dwelling in the 10 least deprived. That absolutely reflects, as the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) said earlier, ensuring that need is recognised.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston mentioned better care, as I have said, and education, which I will feed through to the Department for Education. I appreciate the invitation to Birmingham. I will look at the diary and see whether we can work out a visit, to ensure that we get up there. However, I gently point out to Members from Birmingham, Liverpool and Newcastle that we are holding consultations right through January—councils are coming to see me to talk about the financial settlement—and at the moment those individual authorities have not even asked for an appointment to come and see the Department. I gently suggest that those Members go back and say to those authorities that if they feel they need to talk to the Department they should make appointments to come and see us. I am seeing the councils from the north-east next week, but at the moment Birmingham and Liverpool councils have not asked to come and see us.

As I have said, I am not giving way, either to tide or time.

Regarding Liverpool more generally, I will happily see Mayor Anderson. In fact, I saw him just a few months ago, and the next time I am in the north-west I will make a point of ensuring that I go to see him again. I appreciate the kind invitation that has been made to visit him, but if it is a working visit it will be even more efficient for the taxpayer.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire quite rightly made the point about the backdrop we are working with. He also made the point about rural and urban funding. I appreciate his comments on the work we have done in that regard, which recognises the problem for young councils.

As I have said, some councils have been mentioned today whose representatives have not yet made an appointment to come and see us. I hope that they will do so, but I particularly want to point out that my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst quite rightly highlighted the key role for moving the relationship between local and central Government, particularly on funding, so that we have a system that is much more based on reward rather than handouts, and on giving local authorities the power—the autonomy—to decide their own future and their own destiny, which is something we are very keen to do. That is about ensuring that we get efficiencies, and that we encourage local government to move away, as some councils are doing—not all councils are doing so but there are some really good councils doing great work, across the political divide. As has been highlighted, Manchester is a good example, with its community budgets work.

However, councils must not do what they do just because they do it. They must go even further than the occasional stop and pause to think, “Can we do this better and quicker and faster?” They should start from the beginning by asking, “What is it we are looking to achieve? What is the outcome we want for our residents and how do we best supply that?” The councils that do so are finding substantial savings.

There is significant scope—with small things as well, in some cases—for small authorities with a small budget of £5 million to £20 million to merge back office services to do more joint working. Councils that are doing that are finding up to 18% in savings—substantial money. They can get more for less that way and do better with the £60 billion-a-year procurement budget that local authorities have; they could tackle the £2 billion of local fraud that is still there; they could reduce the £2 billion of lost money in council tax arrears, with arrears substantial in some areas such as Liverpool; or they could use their record £19 billion of reserves and get better value for money from the billions they have in property assets.

We touched on spending power this morning in the House and the Government grant is, of course, not the only way councils receive their money. People need to understand why we look at spending power. Local councils have income from a wide range of sources, so it is right and accurate to look at their overall spending power. The Government have again looked at all of a council’s income, from council tax, settlement funding assessment figures, specific grants, new homes bonus and, as I have said, from 2015-2016 the pooled money that will come from the NHS to support health and social care.

Councils still have a long way to go in terms of the work they can do to be efficient. They can look at the transformation fund—there is a new fund of £330 million. There is a £200 million extension of the troubled families programme to support 400,000 more families that need help and to build on the progress that has already been achieved. There is £100 million to enable efficiencies in service delivery; a £30 million revenue fund; and £45 million to drive transformational change just in the fire and rescue service.

There are rigorous safeguards in place to protect local authorities’ sustainability. Local authorities are legally required to balance their books and are responsible for managing their cash budgets within each financial year. The chief finance officer plays a key role in positively influencing the budget-setting process, including setting out the key risks associated with the budget and helping to find sustainable solutions in future. Chief finance officers have a duty to stop council spending effectively instead of allowing an overspend, and there is an audit process in place to ensure that the books are balanced. I encourage authorities to look at the 50 ways to save for local government and at what good authorities are doing to find those savings, and to learn from them.

Authorities have considerable flexibilities to set income and spending levels and to move money between years to help themselves. We have given more flexibility and more local autonomy, and councils are now directly able to benefit from local business growth for the first time in a generation, with around £11.5 billion per annum available through business rates and the annual growth on their share. Therefore, there is a strong incentive to support and develop local businesses, and to help people get into work and to see those businesses grow. There are cutting-edge councils that are doing this work—they know how to do it and they are leading by example in developing best practice for the rest of the country to follow.

I know that getting the ball rolling can be a hard part of overhauling local services. We have seen that. That is why the transformation challenge award was brought in. We were pleased to announce 18 successful schemes just last year, including projects looking at shared services and integration of health care and council services.

Local government has shown commendable skill in reducing its budget and protecting front-line services. With the economy now in recovery and more job opportunities being created, councils are managing their budgets and have a once-in-a-generation chance to step out from Whitehall’s shadow and be masters of their own destiny.