Greater London Council (Money) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:02 pm on 11th July 1983.

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Photo of George Young George Young Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment) 9:02 pm, 11th July 1983

Much of the debate has been not about the Bill but about broader proposals concerning the GLC. I shall not deal with those. The parts of the debate that have been about the Bill fall to be dealt with not by me, but by the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), who made one of his less provocative speeches when he presented the Bill. The hon. Gentleman emphasised the role of the private sector and showed a touching concern for the health of the privately owned construction industry in London. I hope that this will be a theme of all his speeches, because we have not always heard that concern.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the council is unique in that it and its predecessors have for many years presented an annual money Bill for the approval of Parliament for the capital expenditure and the lending that it can undertake during the current financial year and the six months following. This long-established arrangement has been modified, but not superseded, by the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980.

The Government will not oppose the Bill. That may occasion some surprise, because there is of course a great deal about the GLC that the Government do not support. We do not support the behaviour of the existing administration at county hall. We do not support a body which has become increasingly unnecessary as it has lost a number of its functions, most notably its housing management responsibilities, which are progressively passing to the boroughs, but yet remains the largest overspending local authority in the country.

We do not support some of the expenditure decisions to which the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) has drawn attention. He has become rather sensitive about those grants. If he wants to avoid criticism of the GLC he should stop making such grants and the criticism will smartly cease. As he knows, we are firmly committed to abolishing the GLC and giving as much of its functions as possible to the boroughs to improve the economy and effectiveness of London's local government. But that is not a reason for blocking the Bill. Between now and the date of abolition, the government of Greater London must continue and the council must have the resources for necessary expenditure.

I emphasise the word "necessary". Last week the Government announced their decisions on the extent to which rate support grant will be held back from overspending authorities. There has been adverse comment from the Opposition in the press and elsewhere, suggesting that such holdback is unreasonable.

I see that the matter came up again in an article in yesterday's The Sunday Times, which referred to an authority which is almost laughing off the holdback. The Labour chairman of the council's finance committee is quoted as saying that he had no real problem: The government gave us all the figures and we knew in February that it would be about £23 million, so we put it into the April budget. Local authority expenditure accounts for 25 per cent. of all public expenditure. Getting the economy right means getting public spending down, and local government must play its part. The GLC is budgeting to spend more than half as much again as the target that we have set in the light of what we see as London's needs. With ILEA, it will account for more than half of the overspending on revenue by all authorities in England. That is ludicrous and we have had to act. That is the only capital punishment that I shall be supporting this week.

If the capital budget in the Bill were on the same ridiculous scale, I could not ask the House to support it, but it is not. Initially, I thought that it would be. Last October the council sought an extra £75 million other services allocation, on top of the normal allocation for that block of about £10 million.

Such a massive increase would have gone partly towards developments involving, for example, the Greater London enterprise board which my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) mentioned. We rejected that. The leader of the GLC responded by threatening that those London MPs who did not support the GLC's programme when faced with an inflated money Bill in Parliament would find that no money would be spent on capital projects in their constituencies, beyond the barest essentials. What would have happened to constituencies with a Conservative Member of Parliament but a Labour GLC member was never made clear to me. Hon. Members will recall the swift action that the authorities of the House took against that threat.

I am pleased to say that the council subsequently saw reason. The usual discussions with the Government took place, after all, before the Bill was deposited. The provisions of the Bill have been scrutinised and agreed by the various interested Departments. Its proposals now reflect the level of capital investment which the Government think it reasonable for the council to be undertaking. The flights of fancy have been removed, and I can therefore commend the Bill to the House.

The hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright) rightly drew attention to the importance of the GLC's substantial programme for the renovation and improvement of the transferred stock to which it is committed by the transfer orders. The GLC's housing investment programme is related essentially to those commitments. Indeed, it has received an increase in its allocation for the current year to fulfil those obligations.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned a matter of constituency interest—the proposal to establish a west London trade union club in Acton. I am normally keen when public money is invested in my constituency. However, I must tell the hon. Member for Newham, North-West that we can do without that type of investment. It is a social and recreational club the membership of which is open only to trade union members. The trade unions have put in a total of about £250 and the rest has come from the ratepayers of London. That proposal has not found enormous public support in Acton. It is an example of the type of project which the GLC could well cut back on if it wished to keep its budget within more reasonable limits.

I ask hon. Members to note that the council relies on the Bill as its only authority for capital expenditure and lending. It is important that the Bill be allowed to proceed. I hope that the House will give it a Second Reading and send it to Committee for detailed consideration.