Encroachments on Local Government Autonomy

Part of Orders of the Day — Supply – in the House of Commons at 6:48 pm on 12th November 1981.

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Photo of Mr David Ennals Mr David Ennals , Norwich North 6:48 pm, 12th November 1981

That did not apply to the metropolitan counties. There were elections during the term of the previous Labour Government. Sometimes councils were Labour-controlled and sometimes Conservative-controlled, so I do not accept the argument.

The Secretary of State's argument is that the local authorities must trust the Government. I agree with that. The Labour Government set up consultative machinery. What the Secretary of State now proposes will undermine the trust that has existed for many years between the Government and local authorities and their representatives.

The Association of District Councils has referred to the present crisis of confidence. No one can doubt that if the Secretary of State's proposal goes through it will create a crisis of confidence. His proposal will fetter locally elected councillors. As one of the associations has said, what is proposed will remove the statutory right of the local authority to determine its own level of spending and rates. It will destroy the autonomy of local authorities and undermine local responsibility and democratic accountability. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) said, it will turn councillors into automatons. The plans threaten the future of local authorities and challenge the relationship with the Government.

Perhaps the Minister will tell us how many local authorities have written to him supporting the referendum proposals. I can tell him the views of the Conservative-controlled Norfolk county council. Last month it rejected the proposals by 66 to one. [HON. MEMBERS: "Who was the one?"] That was Mr. Ian Coutts, who was defeated by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett). He is in a minority of one on his local council. He cannot remain as chairman of the finance committee of the Association of County Councils.

The leader of Norfolk county council, Mr. John Alston, said: There are a number of people who take great exception to any idea of a referendum in our constitution. He proposed that the council should support the resolution passed by the Association of County Councils, which asserted that local democracy was essential and rejected the referendum concept.

Another councillor said that he would find it abhorrent to think we would have to have a referendum at local level. The county council threw out the idea by an overwhelming majority.

A referendum can and should be used on national constitutional issues. It was right to use it in respect of the Common Market. However, that is not the Government's view. In view of the Government's position, why should we not have a referendum on the expenditure cuts in universities or on cuts in benefits and services for the disabled? Why should we not have a referendum on the Budget? Why does the Minister not have a referendum on this proposal?

If the right hon. Gentleman believes that a national referendum would be too costly, let him have a referendum of all elected councillors. If he wishes to obtain a biased result from a smaller electorate, he can have a referendum of Conservative-elected councillors. He may be surprised at the results. If he requires local authorities to have a referendum, why is he not prepared to have a referendum on his proposals?

The Secretary of State is showing himself to be a potential dictator in his handling of local authorities. There comes a time—as with all would-be dictators—when one has to say that he has gone too far. I believe that that time has come.

A second example of the Secretary of State using his powers wrongly is his handling of Norwich city council in the context of the right to buy council houses. He picked Norwich as the first authority to threaten with the powers given to him—or which he took—under section 23 of the Housing Act 1980. He threatened to send a commissioner to do the council's work if it did not adhere to his targets. He summoned council officials to his office last week. I was part of the delegation. Why did he pick on Norwich, which is one of the best housing authorities in the country? [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] The electorate in Norwich decided that.

The local authority is almost crippled by the spending cuts imposed by the Department of the Environment. Fewer than 30 new homes will be handed over to the council in the next 12 months, compared with 500 last year. The ruthless policies of the Secretary of State are wreaking havoc on waiting lists and the many other statutory responsibilities placed on local authorities. Those obligations include improvements, repairs, transfers, sheltered housing schemes—which are now in mothballs because of the action taken by the Secretary of State—accommodation for single or homeless people and slum clearance. Out of that list of statutory obligations, the Government have chosen the sale of council houses as the central issue. The Minister for Housing and Construction is not that—he is the Minister for the sale of council houses.

The city of Norwich recognises that, against its views, it must live within the law. The councillors were elected overwhelmingly not to sell council houses, but with the law as it is they are now dealing effectively and expeditiously with the statutory responsibilities laid down in the Act.

The council is issuing section 10 notices at the rate of 60 a month and is changing many procedures to meet the specific wishes of the Minister, who still calls himself the Minister for Housing and Construction. It aims to complete the issue of those notices by next June. Since last week's meeting with the Secretary of State, the council is arranging for the mortgages sub-committee to meet fortnightly until the evaluations are complete.

However, last week the Secretary of State said that June was too late and that the evaluations must be completed by February. The dividing line is four months. If the Secretary of State decides to take over the responsibilities of elected councillors he will be doing so for the sake of four months. I warn the right hon. Gentleman that if he does not accept the council's response—which is a fair one—to the representations made it, and if he decides in the next few days to issue a notice under section 23 of the Housing Act 1980, the council will take action in the courts to quash it. It has received that advice from learned counsel. The Secretary of State should ensure that his legal advice is better than that which he received when he was last taken to court and was found to have committed an illegal act.

If I have appeared angry during my speech, it is because of the Secretary of State's handling of my local authority. I was Secretary of State for rather longer than he has been one. I never received a deputation in the climate that prevailed last Thursday when the right hon. Gentleman received a deputation in my presence. I urge him now, as I did then, to take no precipitous action, but to review progress in January. The council has decided to do exactly that.

Why has the right hon. Gentleman picked on Norwich? I asked him, but he gave me no answer. I tabled a number of written questions asking how Norwich compared with other authorities in its performance. He said that he would answer the questions shortly. Why shortly? He has the information available. All of it must be available in his office, otherwise he would not have decided to pick on Norwich—a Labour council—and issue threats against the autonomy and rights of that locally elected council.

I know of a number of authorities under Tory control whose records are considerably worse than that of Norwich—even on the issue of the sale of council houses, which the Tory Government so much acclaim. I hope that when the Ministr replies to the debate he will give me a hint of why the Government have picked on Norwich.

There are too many examples of the way in which what has been built up over many decades—local responsibility and a relationship between local authorities and the Government—is being threatened. It is being threatened not only by the measures proposed by the Secretary of State, but by the way in which he acts. I counsel him to act with some restraint and wisdom, and with sound legal advice.