Adjournment (Christmas)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:24 pm on 19th December 1990.

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Photo of Mr Jacques Arnold Mr Jacques Arnold , Gravesham 7:24 pm, 19th December 1990

Before we adjourn for the Christmas recess, I ask the House to redress an injustice to community charge payers in the borough of Gravesham. This injustice is contained in the revenue support grant settlement for 1991–92, and has continued for many years—I refer to the allocation of districts to different designations for London and fringe allowances. The revenue support grant is adjusted accordingly.

These allowances have existed for many years. Originally, they were based upon the Metropolitan police district, before the establishment of Greater London in 1965. In 1971, a distinction was made between inner and outer London, and in 1974 a network of neighbouring districts were grouped into inner and outer fringe areas. There have been no changes to those designations since 1974—they have been well and truly set in cement. The definitions are inaccurate and fundamentally unfair simply because of geography.

Gravesend is about 22 miles from Charing Cross, as the crow flies. It is the administrative centre of the borough of Gravesham, which is ruled outside of any allowance area. To clarify the injustice I could show hon. Members the pretty multi-coloured map that I have here but, as that cannot be put in Hansard, I shall try to illustrate the situation with words.

Let us circumnavigate the metropolis in an anticlockwise direction, 22 miles out from Charing Cross. Across the Thames northwards lies Thurrock, which is an outer fringe borough. To the east lies Basildon, which is some 30 miles out, and is also an outer fringe borough. They are both funded accordingly. Further round lies Brentwood, which is an outer fringe borough, Epping Forest, which is an inner fringe borough, and Harlow, which is outer fringe. We then come to the southern reaches of east Hertfordshire, an area which stretches northwards 50 miles from Charing Cross, and is classified as an outer fringe district.

Further round, we find Welwyn-Hatfield, St. Albans, Dacorum and Chiltern, which are all outer fringe districts. Next is south Buckinghamshire, which is not exactly poverty-stricken—it is considered an inner fringe area. Then we go through Surrey. The whole of that county receives fringe allowance funding, and four of its districts are funded as inner fringe areas. Even Waverley, on the borders of Hampshire, which is more than 30 miles from Charing Cross, is considered to be a fringe district. Crawley, in west Sussex, is 30 miles out and is a fringe borough.

In my county of Kent, Sevenoaks and Dartford are cosily within the fringe—Dartford is classified within the inner fringe. Gravesham, uniquely, is left out.

What effect does that have? Gravesham borough council is a well-run borough. It gives a high standard of service within a tightly controlled budget. Its effectiveness can be judged by the community charge set this year, which was £293 and compares very well with the English average of £357.

Nevertheless, Gravesham council achieves that within one of the most expensive parts of the country for housing and general living costs. The cost of housing in Gravesham is little different from that in the Kentish borough of Dartford, which is funded as an inner fringe district, and the London borough of Bexley, which receives the even better outer London allowance.

To ensure that the quality of staff is maintained, that vacancies can be competitively filled and that current staff are fairly treated, Gravesham borough council has unilaterally resolved to pay its staff the allowance. The cost has been added to community charge payers' bill.

Were Gravesham an outer fringe borough—as would seem right and proper judging by geography alone—our grant would be £300,000 higher. If we were classified as an inner fringe district, as is our neighbour Dartford, we would be £600,000 better off, which translates to £4 or £8 respectively off the community charge bills in Gravesham.

In the meantime, we are saddled with the cost, and local employees of the county council are saddled with the additional injustice of not receiving a territorial allowance in their pay. It is worth noting that teachers and other county council employees in the north-west Kent division who work in Dartford borough—at Swanscombe or Southfleet—get an inner fringe pay allowance, but those who work in education or other county services in the eastern part of the same division, at Gravesend or Northfleet, receive no allowance whatsoever.

The territorial divisions around London which I mentioned a few moments ago were introduced by the Labour Government in 1974. The present Conservative Government have corrected or rejected so much of their complicated inheritance from Labour: I hope very much that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will ensure that yet another step is taken to rid my constituents of this remaining injustice.