Local Government (Scotland)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:31 pm on 17th January 1983.

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Photo of Mr James Craigen Mr James Craigen , Glasgow Maryhill 9:31 pm, 17th January 1983

My hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) spoke about the experience and expertise of the local government representatives who formed part of the lobby that visited the House today. One of the differences between the local government system and that of Parliament is the extent to which local government officials and councillors specialise in certain subjects. Such specialisation is not always found in our parliamentary system. Civil servants and Ministers change, and some of those making vital decisions today will not taste the medicine in a few years' time when the problems occur.

I understand why some Conservative Back Benchers are ready to go into the Lobby to support the Government in pushing through the order. But a dangerous trend is developing of the Government viewing themselves as an anti-local government party. It is left to the Opposition to advance the positive case for local authorities. Time and again today the Government appear to view local authorities as good whipping boys. They believe that attacking local government is good for the recovery of private industry. The facts contradict that philosophical approach because there has been a marked decline in private industry. The figures show a 1¼ million drop in the number of people working in private industry during the first two years of the Conservative Administration. The Government's economic policy is crumbling and local authorities are being asked to pick up the pieces.

Local government must deal with the problems of the unemployed; and also cope with a larger proportion of elderly within the community and their special needs such as housing, or added demands on social services. The number of homeless is increasing, as is the number of families breaking up because of cash problems. The effects of that on many children is placing increasing demands on the social services, yet the Government are cutting their central contribution.

The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) referred to the derating of external machinery and equipment. Other local authorities will have to bail out those local authorities primarily involved in that change in the legislation.

The CBI, which initiated the move, is quickly backtracking because its members up and down the country will be hit as a result of the changes in the rating and valuation system. A greater burden is being thrown on to fewer shoulders. We are witnessing the erosion of the rating base. Industrial concerns are closing. As has been pointed out, more and more shops and commercial enterprises are going out of business with the recession and the local authorities lose rates for those premises. Local authorities are facing a shrinkage in the rating base at a time when the Government are savagely cutting their central contribution.

I shall raise three specific points with the Minister. The Secretary of State is adept and he managed to skip over the changes in urban deprivation. This measure will be a big blow to regions such as Strathclyde, with the problems in the inner city areas and with the high level of unemployment that persists in the west of Scotland. It is sad that the Government have given their approval to the Scottish Development Agency to withdraw from Glasgow's east and renewal. I hope that it does not alter the input of the Scottish Special Housing Association which would affect the assistance given to tackling the city's problem of urban renewal.

I should like the Scottish Office to make a positive move towards supporting some of the priority areas that Strathclyde region has designated such as Maryhill Corridor Project. The various agencies should move into the inner city areas. The Government usually say that they leave the region or the district to sort out their priorities. However, they know full well that both regional and district councils are experiencing reductions in the resources available to them. It is most unfortunate that the Government should decide now, at short notice, to withdraw the extra teachers available through the urban aid programme. They were a positive advantage to areas such as mine. If Strathclyde region wants to fund those teaching posts, it will have to increase the rates. Therefore, the Government should have a change of heart.

Reference has been made to the problem of leisure and recreation. More young men and women are now hanging about, filling in time, because they do not have jobs. Facilities that those young people would use are now being closed. If, because of their economic policy, the Government cannot provide youngsters with permanent jobs, they should at least recognise the growing need for leisure and recreation and do something to mitigate the plight of those youngsters. One can play about with as many Stodart reports as one likes, but hon. Members know from their constituency correspondence that bowling greens and swimming pools are being closed and that libraries are shutting earlier. We are not utilising the existing social equipment.

We have the nonsense of the Prime Minister in the Queen's Speech debate criticising the local authorities for not spending all their money on capital projects at a time when the Government are reining back on their revenue expenditure. In Glasgow, one of the options was to close libraries on Saturdays or on three or four days a week, while, at the same time, a local authority might be able to get the necessary capital approval to build a new library. It is nonsense that the Government and their advisers should carry on in that way.

I should like to refer briefly to restrictions on housing. Am I right in thinking that the Government are prepared to hand out £5 million through the Housing Corporation in Scotland to develop shared housing to encourage people to have a 50–50 rent-ownership arrangement? I do not quibble about the concept, but it appears strange that for the immediate future some private builders who have not been able to sell their houses might find those houses taken over by the housing associations as a means of introducing the concept of shared ownership. If the private market is so good, surely the private builders would be able to sell all their houses without any need for public support.

Moreover, the Minister is aware of the problems that are cropping up for local authorities over the operation of the rate support grant when conducting the modernisation programmes that we should like to see implemented. Most Members of Parliament are being made aware of areas which would like to have their local authority houses modernised. The problems facing Glasgow district council at present are precluding the necessary modernisation of much of this housing. The district council is contemplating a rent increase of 6½ per cent. at a time when the Government still adhere to their policy of 4 per cent. pay rises in the public sector.

More and more family budgets are under pressure, not least from travelling costs. I hope that the Government will consider again the problem of public transport. In Strathclyde, it appears as though there will have to be a fares increase of 5 per cent. In my constituency 80 per cent. of the public depend on public transport. Perhaps the Government will consider again how motorway development is funded, not that there is a great deal of it left nowadays. It still appears to be easier for the regional authority to develop in that way. I hope that the Government will seriously reconsider the amount of support that is available to the region for its transport services. Ministers may wax eloquent over the operation of the guidelines, but, looking through the papers that we have received, it is remarkable how scanty and skimpy the information is. The Under-Secretary of State is smiling, but the people who have to take the hard decisions are those in local authority committees who have to deal with the priorities that the guidelines impose on them.

The number of people receiving rent and rate rebates is increasing. The Minister should tell us exactly how many people are in receipt of rent and rate rebates because that will show the extent to which people are falling outwith the burdens that the Government expect local government to carry. The Government have failed to act on their promise to reform the rating system and local government. They use the rate support grant as an annual excuse to obscure the fact that they are failing to keep election promises.