Local Government Finance

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 9th April 1976.

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Photo of Mr Anthony Durant Mr Anthony Durant , Reading North 12:00 am, 9th April 1976

I am talking about all staff. I apologise if that was not clear. I am seeking to show the growth in staff. I am not necessarily criticising it. I am merely showing the scene and the point that we have reached in this matter.

Let us consider capital debt. That is another anxiety for all local authorities. It is now £22,000 million. That debt must be serviced and repaid before any dustbin is emptied or any street light is lit.

The breakdown of some of these figures is interesting. Education takes the largest share in the rate poundage—40·46p in the pound. I do not deprecate that. I am merely showing the facts. Housing is obviously of top priority. That takes 9·2p in the pound. That is another large figure. Once again, I do not deprecate that. However, it must be paid for. Town and country planning, something that does not seem to be of great importance, takes l·49p in the pound. It is interesting to see how the money is spread around in various ways. I shall return to some of the figures later.

Spending in 1975–76 is about £15,500 million. That is 30p in every pound of public expenditure. It represents a sum of £440 spent by local government for every second of every day that passes. It is a fair sum of money. It works out at roughly £300 a year on average for every man, woman and child. That is another interesting figure.

I have mentioned the vast increases in rates and the fact that this money must be found. I should now like to deal with local government reorganisation, because we are constantly told that the increased expenditure is all due to the reorganisation. I want to get something out of the system right away. There is no doubt that there was pressure to reorganise local government and that whichever party had been in power there would have been reorganisation. When I intervened in the local government debate last week, the Minister admitted that there would have been reorganisation under his party. He was arguing whether the system which had been set up was the best. However, let us accept that there would have been reorganisation in any event.

We are constantly told that it is reorganisation that is mainly responsible for the growth in expenditure. But let us look at the situation of the Greater London Council, which was reorganised not recently but somewhat earlier. The GLC's staff has increased in just the same way. Between 1973 and mid-1975 there was a net increase of 4,500. We can see, therefore, that this matter does not relate merely to reorganisation. It is a growth factor which we must take into account. We must also remember in this whole question of expenditure that other factors have entered into it. We must accept that wages have risen and that fuel costs have meant enormous debts for local government. The interest rates on borrowing are also a strain on the whole system. That is another factor. Therefore, costs would have risen whatever anyone on the Government side of the House might say. Let us face that fact squarely.

The key question that most ordinary citizens ask when involved in local government elections, or any aspect of local government, is "Are we getting value for money?". We must examine the overlapping of some of the services. In planning terms these are matters which were fudged in local government reorganisation. A clearer line should have been laid down where planning begins and ends in terms of different levels of responsibility. Confusion on this score is expensive. If this is put right, I am sure that in the long run it will save money.

It is quite ridiculous that at present every local authority is allowed to operate, for example, a museum of its own. That is another anomaly we should examine. I am not, of course, against the setting up of museums, but that surely is a ridiculous piece of overlapping. Arts and crafts are an important area of activity, but again there is a great deal of overlapping. Those are simple examples, one large and one small, in which there is overlapping of services, and surely that aspect of the problem should be examined.

I must confess that I am an anti-planner. My experience of planning has never been good. I was a member of a planning committee for four years and I sometimes wonder whether some of the decisions we made were right. I look at some of the buildings for which we were responsible and ask myself whether we have in many cases created concrete jungles for people to live in. Again, we need to examine the relevance and contribution of planning in our society.

In our planning we are not sufficiently conscious of the whole environment. The tragedy is that we have set up a whole Department with enormous responsibility for the environment and yet there is far too wide a fragmentation of planning. This fragmentation covers roads, railways, houses, leisure facilities, social services, education, hospitals and many other areas of activity. There is not enough examination of these matters, and too few areas have town plans and overall schemes which the public may examine.

The subject of housing has become a political football. Everybody likes to produce nice figures of the number of houses built, and this is always done with great pride in local government. The local authority says "We have build 500 houses". But the other side says "That is not good enough. You should have built 800 houses". The number of houses is not necessarily the right answer to the problem. We need to look much more closely at improvement grants, housing action areas and housing development of that kind. People do not want to live in remote council estates. I spend a good deal of my time seeing constituents in council estates. People who live in smart new council estates seem to experience far more bitterness, arguments and other problems than do the occupants of the humble two-up, two-down houses in the poorer areas. In those areas there is a community feeling and a spirit of camaraderie; people know each other and they find life worth while.

Are not planners too fond of the bulldozer? Are we not knocking down far too many buildings rather than improving existing accommodation? That is what people need. When "Coronation Street" is screened, the camera first shows a tower block and then pans down to Coronation Street. Many people prefer to live in Coronation Street than in a tower block. My experience of high-rise flats is that most people want to get out of them as fast as they can. This is a major social problem. I look forward to the day when we can start pulling some of them down. I do not think that that is the way in which people want to live.

Let us examine the situation where a council has the opportunity to build a children's playground in a certain area. Let us assume that the idea is accepted as a good one because there are no exist-the playgrounds in the area. What happens is that the playground, once built, becomes the responsibility of the leisure committee. However, such committees are not usually given very much money to operate their activities and eventually the playground becomes a sad area, full of broken swings and other badly-maintained play equipment.

I read of a recent Liverpool review which threw up the interesting fact that out of a large total budget a figure of only £7,000 was spent on playgroups, one of the most important activities in our modern society.

I should like to see much greater use of improvement grants and housing action areas. I believe that people want to remain in their communities. I have in my constituency an area where the conditions are appalling. There are boarded-up houses, incidents of vandalism, and people living in derelict houses by night and stealing out during the day. In the middle of that area are people who own their own homes living in an almost waste area. It is a tragedy and an aspect of planning of the kind we must examine.

Let us examine the situation in the provision of roads. We know that there must be cuts in that service, and I am not against them. I do not regard an enormous road pattern as being the answer to all our problems. I am not sure that it is a bad thing that it takes me 10 minutes longer to reach my destination. If it is a question of homes or roads, I declare myself to be in favour of homes.

We have the extraordinary situation in Reading that we have just been granted permission to build the rest of our inner distribution road. It is surely curious that, in the middle of a financial crisis, we have suddenly been given the go-ahead for a plan that will cost £15 million and will cause an enormous amount of dislocation. That decision has been arrived at for no apparent reason.

Let us turn to the subject of education. Again we must ask whether we receive value for money. Because of the anxiety by the Left to go all out for comprehensive education, we are spending money on reorganisation plans when adequate schools are already being used by pupils. However, we are told that the system must be reorganised and money is being spent in drawing up plans, in the holding of public meetings and all the rest of it. This is happening when people are content with what they already have. In my constituency 33,000 people declared themselves as being against comprehensive education. That is a fair number of people who regard the idea as a nonsense. That view was expressed not necessarily by people from the grammar schools but by people who wanted to defend their schools. I am not seeking to make a political point, but I wish to draw attention to the extravagance in money terms of this piece of educational reorganisation. It is another matter which we should examine.