Birmingham City Council (No. 2) Bill

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 9:45 pm on 13th November 1989.

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Photo of Mr Jeff Rooker Mr Jeff Rooker , Birmingham, Perry Barr 9:45 pm, 13th November 1989

It is a pity that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark) was not present to support the city council on Second Reading. He was not in the House to speak or to vote. He was conspicuous by his absence. Judging by his speech today, one would think that the hon. Gentleman was present that day. The same applies to other Conservative Members from the city of Birmingham. It is not the cosy arrangement that one would suppose. Some hon. Members are conscious of finances. We are well aware that, during next year's local election, Conservative Members will attack the Labour-controlled city council for its record over the past six years—the longest period that Labour has been in power since the war. The council will go on for at least 10 years. Conservative Members will attack the council for whatever poll tax is set—whether it is £240 or £340. However, included in the poll tax will be a subvention for the road race.

Underlying all our debates, our primary objection has been the way in which finances have been handled. It was never intended that ratepayers' or poll tax payers' money should be used to subsidise the road race. It was clearly and explicitly stated that that would not happen, and arrangements were made to make sure that it would not happen. I disregard debates about whether it will take three or five years to break even. Leaving aside revenue costs, we even thought that we had an arrangement for capital costs. We thought that capital costs had been so arranged that it would be possible, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) said in her press release, to spend money on roofs, gutters and eliminating black mould. We know now that that is not the case. That is our central objection.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) said that, this year, the race will cost ratepayers £17,000, as though, for a city with a budget of £1 billion, £17,000 does not matter. Birmingham city council is so strapped for cash that 150 disabled people have not been granted bus passes. The council was unable to find the £15,000 to fund their bus passes. That gives an idea of what a council can do with £17,000.

Birmingham city council is not a high-spending authority. Anyone who knows Birmingham would say that it spends too little in some areas. It is £96 a head below average metropolitan districts, as was shown by last week's statement by the Secretary of State for the Environment. It is a question of priorities. We should leave aside the benefits that might accrue from the road race—the publicity and advertising—which I separate in revenue terms from the other issues raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Small Heath, such as the NEC and the international convention centre, which are wholly different. Those issues are on different planets from the road race.

We must consider the financial arrangements and the overall benefits to the city. I am the first to make the point that one must be careful when painting the whole picture of our urban areas. On the one hand, we want new and better investment in our great cities from the public and private sectors. That is crucial across the country. But on the other hand, the dilemma for those of us who represent the arguments of the people who are downtrodden and ignored, who get second best, who have had a bad start, who end up in rotten housing or with rotten or no jobs and who are involved in a cycle of deprivation, is that if we highlight those facts to fight for something better, we are told that we are doing our city down. We have to strike a balance.

So far, to its credit, Birmingham has never put a homeless person or family into a bed-and-breakfast hotel. Never. That is a massive plus for Birmingham city council, but the housing crisis in our city is now so great that within a couple of years—by the time that the five-star Hyatt hotel opens, with its £2 million of ratepayers' money; at the very time the international convention centre opens; and the fifth or sixth year of the road race—there will be a cardboard city in Birmingham. There is no question about that. Under the present financial arrangements we cannot cope with our housing crisis. That means that we must look at the full cost of an enterprise such as the road race.