Orders of the Day — Land and Housing

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 14th March 1973.

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Photo of Mr Robert Brown Mr Robert Brown , Newcastle upon Tyne West 12:00 am, 14th March 1973

I accept fully that the Secretary of State has not incited any Tory-controlled local authority in the North-East to behave with less than decency to old-age pensioners. I would not even suggest otherwise. He has not incited them, but he has not encouraged them to accept their responsibility for the old people of the area and pay this precept.

The resources element gives extra support if the rateable value is below the national average per head of population. The high rateable value of the land in Newcastle city centre brings Newcastle just above the national average, so it gets no help from the resources element.

The barmy thing is that much of the city centre has already been cleared for redevelopment, so no rate income is available to the city council. This is not taken into account by the gems who advise the Government on fixing the resources element.

Under the needs element extra money is paid to local authorities per capita for pensioners and young children. No one would deny that young children and pensioners need much more support from the social services and health departments of a great city than other ratepayers. No distinction has been made between Bournemouth, with its prosperous pensioners, and Newcastle with many pensioners living on the breadline.

I understand that councils receive a payment of £1·69 for each person over 65, with no question asked as to what his demands on the local services are, or are likely to be, in the next year. No one will deny that the old dear who retires to a plush hotel or holiday home in Bournemouth will make much less demand on the community services than a pensioner living in a bedsitter in Newcastle will make.

The factors I have referred to mean that Newcastle gets just 34 per cent. of its net expenditure met by the Government, whereas Gateshead gets 48 per cent., Tynemouth 48 per cent., Sunderland 53 per cent., and South Shields, at the mouth of the river, 60 per cent. That is the only one which measures up to the proud proclamation of Government spokesmen in recent weeks that they are paying 60 per cent. of local authority costs.

The case of the large cities has been argued unprofitably with the Prime Minister. Apart from the large cities, Newcastle was told that its representatives would not be seen by the Prime Minister because Newcastle was not a sufficiently large city. Whether it is or is not, as a regional capital Newcastle has special needs. I am pleading the case, not just for Newcastle, but for all regional capitals which must provide many of the amenities and services that other local authorities in the area are not called upon to provide. I hope that in future the aspect of the extra expenditure involved in running a regional capital will be considered.

I have mentioned the income side of Newcastle's equation. The expenditure side is no less perplexing for Newcastle's citizens. Some factors of the equation are controlled by the Government and some by the city council. I do not blame the Government for the fact that Newcastle ratepayers are called upon to spend more per head on planning and highways than anywhere in Britain. Nor do I blame the Government for the fact that on health and libraries we are third in the league of local authority spending. I am proud that Newcastle is third in the league on health and library spending. We are fifth in the league on social services expenditure. I blame neither the Government nor the city council for that. I am pleased that we have such an excellent health and social services set-up in the city.

I indict the Government on the charge that they are responsible for pushing up the burden on Newcastle ratepayers by increasing interest rates on the money we borrow. In the last year short-term rates of borrowing have more than doubled to 11 per cent. and medium-term rates have doubled to 9 per cent. This alone will push up the city's spending by about £810,000 in the next year. Newcastle's total capital debt is £140 million, representing £700 for every man, woman and child in Newcastle—the highest level of debt of any council in the country.

I now indict the Government with the most serious charge of all—the effects of the Housing Finance Act. This was not accidental. It was deliberate Government policy. Whatever might be said in other respects about food prices and Russian grain harvest failures, on housing finance there can be no alibi: the Government must accept the baby.

The city council tells me that it will collect in the next year £600,000 less in rents from tenants than it has this year. It claims that this is because of the national rebate scheme. In the past under the Newcastle City Council rebate scheme much of the money for rent rebates came from the taxpayer through the Department of Health and Social Security. The set-up is different now. The money must now come from the other council tenants and the ratepayers.

If ever a Government played a mean confidence trick, this is it. Moving the burden of providing rent rebates from the taxpayer to the council house tenants and the ratepayers generally means that the Government have carefully redistributed more of the wealth of the nation. While the Department of Health and Social Security was paying rate rebates through supplementary benefits, people with sufficient income were paying for them in their taxes. That system has changed completely now and Newcastle council house tenants, like every council house tenant in the country, are paying the lion's share of supporting their less fortunate neighbours. There is nothing Christian or equitable in that.

Before I leave the subject of rates I wish to quote from the Newcastle Evening Chronicle. It says 'But now we are getting a very raw deal indeed. I do not think there can be another council in the country that suffers in so many ways as we are going to do in the coming year'. That is not a quotation of anything that I said to the Evening Chronicle, but a quotation from Councillor Bill Harding the Tory chairman of the city Finance Committee, discussing rates with an Evening Chronicle reporter.