Skip to main content

Departmental Update

Volume 736: debated on Thursday 20 July 2023

This statement updates the House on progress that has been made across the Department’s remit.

Update on the Intervention in the London Borough of Croydon

On 16 March 2023, the Minister for Local Government updated the House on the work of commissioners and improvement panels at three councils, including the London Borough of Croydon. Whilst acknowledging the significant steps that had already been taken by the council over recent months, given the depth of the historical challenges and the extent of improvement required, we were minded to move the existing improvement and assurance panel, chaired by Tony McArdle OBE, to a statutory footing.

This proposal followed the evidence provided in the improvement and assurance panel’s latest assessment that the council under the leadership of Mayor Perry has made good progress in laying the foundations for its recovery. At the same time, historic issues continue to be unearthed at Croydon and their potential impact on the council and the progress made to date cannot be underestimated, particularly given its continuing precarious financial position. I concluded that the authority was not meeting its best value duty—a requirement set out in the Local Government Act 1999 to make arrangements to secure continuous improvement in the way in which its functions are exercised, having regard to a combination of economy, efficiency and effectiveness.

The intervention package proposed in March centred on the council continuing to make the necessary improvements to the satisfaction of the improvement and assurance panel, as it has done to date. The panel would be backed by statutory directions issued to the council requiring it to follow the instructions of the panel if they were not satisfied in the future with the progress being made.

I invited representations on our proposals from the council, and from members of the public, which I have now received and considered.

We received one representation from the chief executive of the council. The council supported the intervention and the proposal to move the existing improvement and assurance panel to a statutory footing, although requested some changes to the proposed intervention package to remove risk management and commercial governance as individual priority areas, citing notable progress in these areas. The representation also identified finance, housing and transformation as three pressing priorities which the council needs to address and which should be specifically covered by the proposed intervention package. It recognises the importance of the council continuing to lead its recovery and is committed to continue working positively with the panel moving forward.

Having carefully considered the representations received about the intervention, I am today confirming that the panel will now be placed on a statutory footing.

Best Value Intervention in the London Borough of Croydon

On balance, it is not necessary to identify risk management and commercial governance as individual priority areas at this stage and we have amended the intervention package accordingly. We expect the panel to continue to monitor the effectiveness of the council’s management arrangements.

The intervention package should focus on the three individual priority areas of finance, housing and transformation and we have amended the package to reflect this. On this basis, we have decided to make two new appointments to the improvement and assurance panel. Margaret Lee, Finance Lead, wrote to me on 12 March to tender her resignation for personal reasons. I accepted Ms Lee’s resignation with immediate effect and I would like to thank her for her excellent work in Croydon and wish her well for the future. Along with appointment of a new Finance Lead, we are also appointing a new panel member to lead on housing.

Brian Roberts OBE (Finance Lead) - Brian provided financial support to the commissioner team in Liverpool and was Finance Commissioner at Northamptonshire County Council. Brian is currently Chair of the CIPFA Financial Management and Governance Panel.

Pamela Leonce (Housing Lead) - Pamela is the CEO Founder at Stowhill Careers and has been an Executive Director with experience across the housing, health, social care and criminal justice sector.

This brings the panel membership to five, with Tony McArdle continuing to chair the panel and Jon Wilson and Phil Brookes continuing in their respective roles as leads in adult social care, and commercial and asset disposal. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Tony, Jon and Phil for their ongoing work in driving forward the necessary improvements at Croydon and for agreeing to continue leading the Croydon improvement and assurance panel. We will appoint a new panel member for transformation in due course.

The statutory panel has been appointed until 20 July 2025, or until such earlier or later time as we determine. We are clear that the directions should operate for as long, and only as long, and only in the form, as necessary.

The panel will be asked to provide their next report within the next three months, with their initial views and an assessment of whether they require further support. I will review panel membership at this point to ensure that the panel continues to be fit for purpose for the council. Future reports will be provided every six months, or as agreed with the panel.

I want to be clear that the council will continue to lead its recovery but that the intervention package and appointment of the two new panel members will ensure momentum is both maintained and increased with the support and expertise of the panel. That is to say that decisions will continue to be made by the council; the intention being that the panel will only use their powers of instruction as a last resort if they are dissatisfied with the council’s improvement processes.

As with other interventions led by my Department, the council will be directed to meet the costs of the improvement and assurance panel. The fees paid to individuals are published in appointment letters which are available separately on gov.uk. I am assured this provides value for money given the expertise that is being brought, and the scale of the challenge in councils requiring statutory intervention.

Conclusion

The Government will continue to work closely with the political, business and cultural leadership of Croydon, to ensure the return of the council to sustainability for the long term. We wish to place on record again our thanks for the progress made to date and look forward to further advancement in the months ahead.

I have published the directions and explanatory memorandum associated with this announcement on gov.uk and will deposit copies in the Library of the House.

Election finance regulation

In December 2020, the Government uprated election spending limits for candidates at local government elections in England in line with historic inflation since 2014 (3 December 2020, Official Report, HCWS618). At that time, the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), announced the Government intention to review party and candidate spending limits for all other reserved polls with a view to uprating them in line with inflation since they were last set.

In September 2022, the then Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), wrote to the members of the Parliamentary Parties Panel in September 2022 to consult them on uprating spending limits and other sums in electoral legislation. This letter was also published on gov.uk.

The Government now intend to proceed with uprating reserved and excepted party and candidate spending limits to reflect changes in the value of money in the years since the respective limits were set. This is an important action as many of the absolute statutory spending limits have not been uprated since they were set over 20 years ago. Limits for UK parliamentary candidates were last uprated by the coalition Government seven years ago, in 2014. The lack of change in absolute terms impacts campaigning ability, given the increased costs of printing, postage and communication, which is vital for parties and candidates to engage with voters. There will be no change in real terms.

The Government also have a statutory duty under section 155 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 to review specified sums in that Act, broadly relating to the reporting of donations and regulated transactions, and either uprate those sums to reflect changes in the value of money or where I, as Secretary of State, decide not to amend any of the specified sums make a statement to Parliament explaining why.

It has been more than a decade since these thresholds were last uprated by the last Labour Government in 2009, following their introduction in 2000. If these limits are not uprated the effect is to cut the thresholds in real terms. The principle of a threshold for publishing donations was established following the report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life (the Neill Committee) on the funding of political parties in 1998 (Cm 4057), noting the need to balance privacy and transparency; the Labour Government’s response in 1999 (Cm 4413) agreed with this principle.

Therefore, the Government intend to uprate in line with inflation some of these thresholds for political parties, regulated donees, permitted participants at referendums and for unincorporated associations making political contributions, where they relate to the reporting of larger donations. The purpose of these reporting thresholds is to provide transparency around the granting of larger donations, balanced with the administrative burden such reporting may create for the recipient and with the privacy of smaller donors. Uprating these thresholds will ensure that balance is maintained in line with the original policy and legislative intent of Parliament when setting the thresholds. Again, there is no change in real terms.

However, the Government have decided not to uprate some of the specified sums. It is not the Government’s intention to uprate the sums specified in section 95(B)(6) and schedule 11, which relate to third-party campaigners. Given that some of these thresholds are within devolved competence, this is to avoid divergence of these thresholds and thereby risk undue complexity for campaigners. The Government will also not increase the £500 threshold replicated across the 2000 Act relating to the point at which a financial contribution is considered a regulated donation, and subject to permissibility checks. The Government do not consider this threshold to be inadequate. This approach will ensure that all checks on the permissibility of donations and donors remain as they do now, and reflects the stance the Government have taken to prevent foreign interference in elections.

None of these reforms costs taxpayers’ money. Indeed, in Britain, taxpayers do not have to bankroll political parties’ campaigning. Political parties have to raise money themselves, while following transparency and compliance rules laid out in law. Those who oppose party fundraising need to explain how many millions they want taxpayers to pay for state funding instead.

Finally, violence and intimidation cannot be tolerated and should have absolutely no place in our public life. The Elections Act 2022 provides for new measures to tackle intimidation in elections, building on the wider work to address intimidation in public life, as outlined in the written statement of 9 March 2021, Official Report, HCWS833.

No one should feel afraid to participate in our democracy. To provide clarity on the issue of whether security expenses fall to be regulated under electoral law, the Government intend to explicitly exempt reasonable security expenses from contributing to spending limits for political parties and candidates at reserved and excepted UK elections, to ensure that these limits are not a barrier to providing adequate security during election campaigns. Many parties and agents already take the view that money spent on the security of a candidate is clearly not money spent promoting such a candidate to the electorate; however, the Government believe there are merits in explicitly stating this in law to provide greater clarity.

The Government will further engage with the Parliamentary Parties Panel and the Electoral Commission on the technical implementation of these measures.

Taken together, the measures will support continued democratic engagement by political parties and candidates; facilitate continued freedom of political expression and association, whilst ensuring our elections remain free and fair.

Update on Government Action in Relation to Onshore Wind

The Government recognise the importance of taking into account the views of local communities in the appropriate siting of onshore windfarms, which is why the Conservative Government in 2016 bolstered the protections that existed in the planning system, helping to protect treasured landscapes and in particular national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty and the green belt. And following action taken by the Conservative Government in 2016, applications for onshore wind are rightly decided at a local level. These planning changes were introduced by a Conservative majority Government. During the coalition Government, the Liberal Democrats blocked the proposals to give local people a greater say.

But the Government are conscious that there is a lack of clarity as to how to meet the test for community backing if there are objections, even where the rest of the community is supportive, and some projects are stalled as a result. The proposed site must also currently be designated in a development plan.

The Government are determined to address these issues, and therefore recently conducted a consultation on proposed changes to the national planning policy framework, including measures for onshore wind. The proposals aim to address local planning bottlenecks and would provide local authorities with greater flexibility when considering new onshore wind planning applications with local support. They included consulting on an approach where onshore wind is still decided at a local level and permission is predicated on demonstrating local support and satisfactorily addressing planning impacts identified by the local community. We also consulted on local authorities having more flexibility to demonstrate their support for areas suitable for onshore wind by allowing more routes to do this than just the local development plan.

The consultation period was open until 2 March 2023, during which we sought the views and opinions of stakeholders, experts, and the public. The responses we received demonstrated strong support for taking steps to enable more developments to proceed, and I would like to extend my sincere gratitude to all those who participated in this vital process. I recognise the importance of these views and will set out our formal response to the consultation when we publish it in the autumn.

In the British energy security strategy, the Government also committed to develop local partnerships for onshore wind in England, enabling supportive communities who wish to host new onshore wind infrastructure to directly benefit from doing so.

Government are already doing work in this space and have recently published a consultation focused on how the current system of engagement between communities and developers for onshore wind, and the types of community benefit packages that are offered, can be improved. The consultation closed on 7 July. Government are now analysing the responses received and the response will be published in due course. Where there is demonstrable local support, onshore wind in the right places has the potential to create green jobs and foster economic growth in communities.

[HCWS985]