Cambridgeshire's entitlement to needs element in the main Rate Support Grant Orders for 1975–76 and 1976–77 showed increases of 38 per cent. and 23 per cent. respectively over the corresponding payments for the preceding year. The initial entitlement for 1977–78 shows a reduction of 12 per cent. from the 1976–77 total.
I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that the drastic cut in the rate support grant for 1977–78 is a matter of deep concern to my constituents and is regarded as grossly excessive and politically motivated? Does he not recognise that Cambridgeshire is the fastest-growing county in the country and is, indeed, a special case?
I am very much aware of what the hon. Gentleman says, because delegations from Cambridgeshire have seen both my right hon. Friend and myself. We have deliberately gone out of our way to see the counties and urban areas that have been particularly hard hit by the settlement. But the settlement as a whole is generally recognised to be a hard one in present economic circumstances. The cut-back from 65½ cent. to 61 per cent. in the Government's contribution is one example. Another aspect is that to some degree this hits certain counties like Cambridgeshire because new indicators have been brought into the assessment to try to ensure that money goes to the areas where the need is greatest. The assessment is objectively done and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it was not politically motivated.
My constituents will be pleased to hear the Minister's last remark. Does he not accept that for local government to function properly there needs to be forward planning? The way things have gone to date, with a sudden deterioration in the local grant, means that it is absolutely impossible to provide the services for which Cambridgeshire has quite rightly been famous.
I am well aware of Cambridgeshire's problems. I have seen delegations deliberately in order to try to see what can be done. One of the things I want to look at is the possibility of restricting loss of grant beyond a predetermined level—some kind of safety net. That is one of the ideas I am considering in view of what has been said to me about certain areas that have suffered particularly badly.
How can the Minister be satisfied that the allocation of the needs element is fair when the £3·7 billion is allocated largely on the basis of the 1971 census figures and on the expenditure of the local authorities in previous years? Surely he must accept that if local authorities are to plan their expenditure they need to have a promise of continuity from one year to another about the support they will get.
I have already dealt with the second part of the hon. Gentleman's suggestion. With regard to his first point, I would be the first to accept that there is an element of rough justice about the present system of allocating needs element. Nevertheless it is objective, and, unfortunately, it has to be based upon indicators which the hon. Gentleman has said—and I agree—are out of date. But those are the inevitable circumstances in which we have to operate in order to try to produce a system which is objective and is seen to be so.