Orders of the Day — Rates Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:30 pm on 17th January 1984.

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Photo of David Amess David Amess , Basildon 7:30 pm, 17th January 1984

I rise to address the House for the first time, mindful of the fact that anything I say as long as I am a Member of this place will probably have been said by someone else before me and put more eloquently.

I am greatly honoured to have the privilege of representing the people of Basildon. The burden of responsibiliy is made all the more heavy by my following no fewer than five extremely able predecessors, all of whom remain Members of this place. I refer to my hon. Friend the hon. and learned Member for Fylde (Sir E. Gardner) and my hon. Friends the Members for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine), for Holland with Boston (Mr. Body), for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. McCrindle) and for Billericay (Mr. Proctor), all of whom served the House with distinction and diligence. I hope that they will long continue to be Members of this place. I do not wish to forget Eric Moonman, who is no longer a Member of this place but who used to sit on the Labour Benches. He was one of the most hardworking and conscientious Back Bench constituency Members of his time and he is still regarded with great affection by many of my constituents.

As an East-Ender, I am especially pleased that so many of my constituents were my former neighbours from that most warmhearted part of London. I tried for a number of years to persuade those good people to cast their vote for me but I never persuaded enough of them to do so to enable me to win an election.

When the electors of Basildon returned me to this place, they created, I believe, a unique circumstance. As far as I am aware, I am the only Conservative Member in this Parliament who does not have within his constituency a county or district Conservative councillor. I hope that I shall prove to be the forerunner of many successful Conservative candidates in Basildon at all tiers of government, and I shall work towards that end. Although there may be an uneasy relationship occasionally between the local Member and the district council in the meantime, I shall not be deflected from the course set when I was elected. I have always accepted the maxim that creative tension is beneficial, and I hope that it will prove to be so in Basildon.

Basildon was designated as a new town in January 1949. The town has blossomed and grown and has finally matured into one of the most exciting places in Britain. The town can be conveniently divided into Fryerns, Langdon Hills, Vange, Pitsea, Nethermayne and Lee Chapel, all nestling in the heart of the beautiful Essex countryside. There can be few places in the country where the effects of this Government's policies can be so beneficially seen as in Basildon. It is a town which has imaginatively, through the help of the development corporation, grasped its opportunities. The opening of the M25 has further enhanced its attractiveness as a centre for commerce and industry. We have probably the finest shopping centre in the country, if not in Europe.

We have our problems in the town, but those with open minds are working together to try to solve them. It is self-evident that the future success of Basildon is linked inextricably to a growing and expanding economy with minimal inflation, and it is for these reasons that I welcome the introduction by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment of the Rates Bill. The Bill is a vital ingredient to the success of the Government's economic policies. It is absurd to have a national economic policy that is at odds with a local economic policy.

Rate reform is long overdue and the Bill will go some little way to meeting that need. I welcome the Bill but there are some aspects of it that I regret. I am still convinced that there is a practical alternative to the present rates system and I am disappointed that the Government feel unable, after great deliberation, to recommend one. The poll tax still has an irresistable attraction for me, if only because of the intellectual exercise of seeing which sectors of our society would be happy to disfranchise themselves.

Before commenting on the core of the Bill, I shall draw the attention of the House to two clauses that have great merit. I know that clause 13 will be warmly welcomed by representatives of industry and commerce in Basildon, as indeed throughout the country. At long last we have some element of democracy, with the requirement of consultation, remembering that non-domestic ratepayers provide over 50 per cent. of local authorities' income. I hoped that businesses would be given the vote and am a little concerned about the form of consultation and the notice that will be taken of it. I am concerned also about the recommendations that will be made. Schedule I, paragraph 19, widens the circumstances in which rate relief is available to institutions for the disabled. It represents a much-needed change.

As we have already heard from my right hon. Friend, it is most unfortunate that some parts of the Bill have had to be introduced. In a perfect world where all local councils were under Conservative control, I am sure that such legislation would be unnecessary. The Government have made a genuine attempt not to resort to this type of legislation, but continued non-compliance by certain councils has made this action necessary. It is ridiculous to suggest that the Bill threatens local democracy. Anyone would think that local government was self-financing. It is conveniently forgotten that 52 per cent. of rate fund revenue in 1982–83 in England and Wales came from the national Exchequer.

Some local authorities have made magnificent efforts to control expenditure and maintain a high calibre of services. The first that I wish to mention is the London borough of Redbridge, where I still serve as a councillor and which includes part of the constituency that is represented by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. The authority has kept within the guidelines, yet continues to serve the community well.

Essex county council also runs a tight ship and still manages to maintain services. Oh, that I could wax lyrical about Basildon district council! We have heard earlier how the selective scheme for rate limitation will be applied to relatively few of the high-spending councils, but unfortunately Basildon district council may be among that number. This is an example of an authority that has gone out of its way to thwart the Government's economic policies. Far from merely maintaining services, the council has set about expanding them in the most cavalier and irresponsible fashion.

I shall give some examples of Basildon district council's wastefulness of ratepayers' money. First, the costs of administration of council houses is five times higher than that of the development corporation. It is about £4 a house instead of 75p. Secondly, there is the cost of unnecessary area rent offices. The office at Laindon, for example, was opened at a cost of £90,000. Thirdly, there is the nuclear-free zone nonsense. The council has given grants to local CND groups and has spent £6,000 on a peace festival. I look forward to the district auditor's remarks on such expenditure.

Oh, and then there is the "Caring Friend" strategy. The council's theme is that of the caring council, and speaker systems blast out the caring council theme tune all over the town. The council spent £26,000 purchasing a "caring friend" caravan and after a month the wheels dropped off. A sex advice centre for young people called Grapevine has been set up at a cost of £52,000. Golf courses and bowling alleys run by the district authority made a loss last year of £41,800, at least. A legal advisory service has been set up, despite the perfectly adequate citizens' advice bureau, at a cost of £68,000. Wat Tyler park is being built at a cost of £150,000 on a munitions dump in an area where deposits of asbestos have been discovered.

An officer has now been appointed to advise the adminstration, which amounts to him being a Labour political adviser. A publicity officer has been appointed to the administration; this is really to help the Labour party promote its views through the monthly distribution of the so-called council information sheet "Link"—a platform for the distortion and misrepresentation of Government policy. In Basildon approximately 70 per cent. of rates, representing £8·4 million, goes on salaries and other associated staff costs.

Despite all this, many companies have been attracted to the area—the Ford tractor plant, Marconi Avionics, Rothmans, Yardleys, the Distillers group and Gordon's gin, to name but a few. Should any business man or entrepreneur wish to find an area in the United Kingdom in which to set up a business there is no finer place than Basildon where there is a willing, enthusiastic and skilled work force available.

We are fighting hard to attract new business to the area. However, last year Littlewoods, a major retail outlet, pulled out of the area, blaming the high level of rates. Just recently we have had the devastating news that Carreras Rothmans may leave Basildon in April. Whilst I would not single out the level of rates as the main reason, it cannot help when decisions such as this have to be made when there is a rates bill of £0·5 million, particularly when contrasted with the rates paid by other Carreras factories in Spennymoor and Darlington.

Charity has been described as that amiable quality that moves us to condone in others the sins and vices to which we ourselves are addicted. Full of amiable qualities as right hon. and hon. Members of the Opposition are, and addicted as they may be to using public money to buy trinkets and ideological toys, their vigorous defence of prodigality and inefficiency sterns more from a desire to preserve some corner of a field from reselection than any real commitment to the wasting of money as such.

I hope that by taking control of the taxpayers' money that is going to local councils, we shall eventually be able to reduce the amounts being taken from the taxpayer. By making local government more efficient we shall ease the burden on businesses. Last June the Conservative party placed before the British people a manifesto part of which contained proposals for the introduction of this Bill. Although the Opposition have never accepted the fact, the Conservative party gained an emphatic victory at the polls and an endorsement of those proposals. We have the full support of the people on this matter and we are determined that the Bill will become law.

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