Local Government (Scotland)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:36 pm on 17th January 1983.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr George Younger Mr George Younger , Ayr 7:36 pm, 17th January 1983

I share the hon. Gentleman's concern in this connection. As he will have seen, we have taken notice of the difficulties that are involved. I do not believe that the alarm that he has expressed is quite as serious as it might have been. The Government have increased their cash grant to the Scottish Arts Council by 7 per cent., so that the Scottish Arts Council will be in a position to make commitments about £1 million above the 1982–83 level. The Scottish Arts Council will also receive a further £500,000 in the current year from the Arts Council of Great Britain's supplementary grant of £5 million recently announced. I hope that those local authorities that are not making due provision for the arts will look again at their plans and bear in mind how serious it would be if the arts were not adequately supported.

Two further points are worth making about the 1983–84 figures. First, not all the expenditure provision has been allocated to guidelines. A total of £120 million has been withheld from the guidelines, so that individual authorities have been set very stringent targets. I should have much preferred to avoid doing that, but it has been forced upon me by the failure of authorities so far to cut their spending. Experience suggests that budgets will exceed guidelines. The guidelines for 1983–84 make some allowance for this, so that even with a modest excess over the guidelines total planned expenditure will still be within the target. We have already tried a wide range of measures to encourage moderation, and I believe that this new approach is well worth trying in 1983–84.

Second, district councils have the same guidelines as last year. We had planned in the public expenditure White Paper for a reduction in district council services. However, the proposed reduction was offset by a transfer from provision for regional council services, which was made to match the transfer of functions for which provision was made in the Local Government and Planning (Scotland) Act. The total planning figure for district council services was therefore the same as last year, and to avoid undue fluctuations from year to year the guidelines are unchanged. The only exception to this is where some authorities will see an apparent reduction in their guidelines because for 1984–85 we have removed the urban programme from guidelines.

I know that there has been some misunderstanding about the methods that we have adopted in dealing with this highly technical aspect of the settlement and that some concern has been voiced on behalf of individual authorities. However, let me assure the House that for 1983–84 the guidelines remain, as they have always been, indicative only. Withholding £120 million from guidelines has no effect on entitlement to grant, and this unallocated margin will be fully taken into account when local authorities' budget estimates are compared with the target figure. If authorities keep total expenditure reasonably in line with the settlement assumption, there should be no need for action to cut grant, whether by selective reductions or by general abatement. I am confident that the guidelines will be of considerable assistance to all authorities disposed to plan expenditure on that sensible basis.

Of course, the last few years have been difficult ones for everyone in local government. The country has battled its way through the worst recession any of us can remember. Everyone—those in business, families and individuals too—has had to play a part in that fight. I have sought to encourage local government to play its part by reducing its expenditure too and to do so early enough to avoid too much difficulty. One can take the view that local government should always increase its spending—spending more every year than in the previous year. That is the clear implication of what many Labour Members are saying. However, that is not the view of the ratepayers and taxpayers who provide every penny that councils spend. If they can make savings and cut spending in their businesses, why cannot local government play its part in doing the same?

It is against that background that we must see the achievement that we have made so far—stopping the spending increasing at a rate that no one can afford. So far from being unduly harsh, I and the Government have literally leant over backwards to make that task less difficult. [Interruption.] We have twice enhanced the planning figures to make it less difficult for authorities to reach their figures. We have made every effort to warn local authorities in good time that reductions were coming so that they could be made in good time with less difficulty. Indeed, on several occasions—my ministerial colleagues will support me on this—I had to look at savings within my programmes at the Scottish Office to make it slightly less difficult for local authorities to meet the targets which some had not made much effort to do.

This has been a difficult period, but the vast majority of people in local government have been doing their best to change habits which have gone on for a long time and have at last begun to bring spending under control. It is against that background that I hope the order will be seen, and I commend it to the House.