Orders of the Day — Standard Spending Assessment (Cumbria)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:41 pm on 31st January 1990.

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Photo of David Heathcoat-Amory David Heathcoat-Amory , Wells 10:41 pm, 31st January 1990

My hon. Friend makes a characteristically telling point. I too have noticed that the hon. Member for Carlisle is the only Cumbria Labour Member to attend, whereas all three Conservative Members from the area are here. I refer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling), my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Franks) and my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), who has taken time out of his ministerial duties to attend this debate. All three of my right hon. and hon. Friends have consistently and vigorously promoted the interests of their constituencies and the county. That has been more productive than the mistaken allegations made by the hon. Member for Carlisle.

If the Labour party ever makes progress in bringing forward alternative proposals for local government finance—we await them with interest—the hon. Member will still have to face up to the problem of how to distribute grant between local authorities. A balance must be struck between making the system reasonably simple and understandable—by limiting the number of criteria—and including ever more criteria to take account of every conceivable circumstance. The latter system would immediately become too complex and opaque—features of the system that we have replaced. It became too complex to be understandable even by those who work in local government.

I shall return to the details of the SSAs for authorities in Cumbria, but first I must mention the overall provision in the settlement for 1990–91 for England as a whole. The plain fact is that the total standard spending for 1990–91—the amount that we consider it appropriate for local authorities to spend in total from revenue to provide services—is a full 11 per cent. higher, at £32·8 billion, than the equivalent for 1989–90.

Perhaps I may now turn to Cumbria itself and put on record that for 1990–91 Cumbria county council told us that a budget of £278 million would, in its terms, be needed to maintain services. This represents a cash increase of more than 11·5 per cent. over its equivalent total expenditure for 1989–90, and seems to me to be rather more than should be needed simply to maintain services. It does not suggest that the council has made further efforts to find savings. My hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness pointed out where it could start to look. I hope that, now that it knows its final standard spending assessment and the grant and business rates going to district councils in Cumbria, it will be able to look again and find further savings to benefit its charge payers. In broad terms, every £1 million by which Cumbria county council could reduce its budget could lead to a reduction in community charges in its area of almost £3 per charge payer. All savings that local authorities can make will now feed through, pound for pound, into reductions in the community charge.

As I have already said, my hon. Friend listened very carefully to the points that Cumbria county council made when it came to see him. One of the points that most strongly concerned it was its assessment for highway maintenance—a point raised by the hon. Member for Carlisle also—and in particular for winter maintenance. Several other authorities with climate and geography similar to Cumbria's also told us that the winter maintenance SSAs seemed out of line with expenditure. As I have said, we looked again at this and realised that the formula we published in the consultation documents on 6 November did not adequately reflect my right hon. Friend's desired treatment of winter maintenance. On 8 December last we wrote to all local authorities informing them of this.

This has been of very considerable benefit to Cumbria county council—a point not made by the hon. Gentleman. Its SSA for highway maintenance in the final figures is £1·587 million higher than the figure published on 6 November. Taken with other changes—in particular, more up-to-date figures for credit approvals—Cumbria county council's SSA is now almost £2·5 million higher than the figures published in November.