Environment, Local Government and Education

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:37 pm on 12th May 1992.

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Photo of Mr Bryan Gould Mr Bryan Gould , Dagenham 3:37 pm, 12th May 1992

I beg to move, at the end of the Question, to add: but humbly regret that the Gracious Speech contains no recognition of the proper role of local government and local democracy, no recognition of the scale of the housing crisis and no proposals to release local council capital receipts, no legislation to establish an Environmental Protection Agency and no measures to improve educational standards and opportunities, but instead represents a further series of measures to centralise power, weaken local democracy and extend privatisation which will undermine the quality and supply of local service provision and do nothing to fulfil the expectations raised by the Citizen's Charter. Let me begin by offering my congratulations to you, Madam Speaker, on your richly deserved election to the Speakership of this House. You carry with you our highest hopes and confidence, and I should like to wish you every success in a long and successful Speakership.

Of all those with good reason to be dismayed by the outcome of the general election, local government has perhaps more reason than most to feel a sense of despair. The return of a Conservative Government means that more than a decade of unremitting hostility to local government from both Westminster and Whitehall is set to continue. Clearly, the Conservative party regards the public sector, not as a contributor to the national well-being, but as a constant drain on national resources, operating somewhere beyond the boundaries of the national economy, virtually a foreign, not to say an alien, territory.

There is no sense that the public sector has anything to contribute, no sense that its services are valued by those who depend on them or that it is a proper partner and support for the private sector. Instead, there has been nothing but antipathy not just to the public sector as a whole, but to local government in particular. That antipathy has meant a series of blows to local government's powers, resources and morale, blows which for some authorities which proved to be unduly recalcitrant meant that they were simply abolished altogether. The blows, to the whole of local government, culminated in the disaster of the poll tax and the straitjacket of capping. The poll tax was in one sense a terrible mistake, but in another it was a deliberate act of malevolence which threatened the very existence, independence and autonomy of local government.

Those who have suffered from that unprecedented onslaught go far beyond the officers, councillors and work force who have dedicated their lives to local government. The real victims have been all those who depend on the services delivered by local government—the homeless, those waiting on swollen housing lists, those looking in vain for home helps, meals on wheels, nursery provision, those expecting decent schools for their children and those looking to local government to perform its traditional functions of guaranteeing clean air and freedom from pollution.

However, the damage has gone still further. It is the very concept of local government itself that has been the true victim of Tory hostility, and the whole of our democracy is the worse as a result. The sustained effort to undermine the independence of local government and to ignore the aspirations of the people of Scotland and Wales has meant that we are now the most centralised country in western Europe. A pluralistic system of government, in which a wide range of opinion could be represented, has given way to an elective dictatorship exercised from Whitehall and Westminster in which the winner takes all.

Local government itself has shown quite remarkable resilience and it is a considerable tribute to all those dedicated men and women that it has survived as well as it has done. However, it can hardly be surprising, in the face of that sustained attack from the Tories during the past decade, that the sense of the value of local government is now at a low ebb.

Over the past year or two, the Department of the Environment has suffered from what might be called the curse of the two Michaels. The first Michael, the previous Secretary of State for the Environment, was the great Heseltinian centraliser. He was the instigator of rate penalties, he was the inventor of urban development corporations, and he was the destroyer of the local authority housing programme. He is still at it—he has set up the urban renewal agency, designed to bypass local government, and appointed an unelected crony to run it for him. His one redeeming feature—his declared hostility to universal—poll tax capping did not survive his second stint at Marsham street. He quickly joined all those of his colleagues who endorsed what he once memorably described less than two years ago as an act of centralised power outside our experience. Even the right hon. Gentleman can turn tail, or so it seems.

The second Michael, the ironically titled Minister for Local Government, was the arch defender of the poll tax. He was the man who told the Tory party conference that it would be a "rip-roaring success". He so supported the poll tax that he ensured that it lived on in the council tax.

The first Michael has gone off to the Department of Trade and Industry, where, no doubt, he will try to do for British industry what he very nearly did for local government—and, perhaps, that is the right way of putting it: he very nearly did for local government. It is doubtful whether local government could have survived another Heseltinian term at Marsham street. No wonder that the leaders of British industry are now running for cover.

The second Michael has gone off to the Treasury as Chief Secretary, where he will no doubt demonstrate the same skills at managing the public finances which enabled him to preside over the £19 billion loss to the taxpayer as a consequence of the poll tax debacle. He is hardly the obvious person to carry credibility when he tries to crack the whip over wasteful public expenditure.

With what a heartfelt sigh of relief must local government and the Department of the Environment have seen the departure of the two Michaels; but with what despair must the realisation have dawned that a third Michael had been installed in their place. Indeed, it now seems inevitable that the very term "a Michael" is destined to serve the same pejorative purpose as "Wally" and "Herbert" do in other contexts.

This third Michael is in many respects even worse news than his predecessors and homonyms. This, after all, is a man with a record. This is the man whol guided the poll tax legislation through the House and who still apparently is able to recall that experience without visibly blushing. This is the inventor of the system of standard spending assessments which the whole of local government now regards as hopelessly complicated, unfair and unworkable, and which the chairman of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities has even today urged the new Secretary of State to modify—a system which had the great and unexpected merit of being able to discern that more snow was likely to fall in the borough of Brent than in the wastes of Cumbria.

This is the man who demonstrated the same tact and sympathy for local government when he was at Marsham street as he went on to show to the trade unions when he went to the Department of Employment—the man who, through his opposition to the minimum wage, demonstrated his touching faith in the proposition that our economic salvation lay in having the worst paid hairdressers in Europe.

This is the man who counted it a success at the Department of Employment to preside, month in and month out for all but three of the 27 months that he served, over an increase in the unemployment total and an increase in the economic failure and human misery which that figure represented.

This is the man who now returns to the scene of the poll tax crime and threatens to kill off local government for good. When local government desperately needs a builder and healer, it has been saddled with a Secretary of State who could not telephone the speaking clock without picking a quarrel with it.

We can expect more of the same, yet even the new Secretary of State might quail when he discovers what his predecessors have thoughtfully bequeathed to him by way of a replacement for the poll tax. The poll tax was unfair and unworkable, and there is unlikely to be one Conservative Member who would dispute that simple assertion. But the council tax threatens to outdo the poll tax on both counts. It retains all the worst features of the poll tax—the unfairness, the head count and the need to keep a register—but it throws in for good measure the doubts and difficulties of a totally untried property tax compounded by a botched valuation process.

I predict that the council tax will be to this Government what the poll tax was to the last. The anger of all those who must suffer it will be all the greater when they realise that the Conservatives have refused to learn the poll tax lessons.

Then there is the problem of reorganisation. Undaunted by past Tory failures, the new Secretary of State will apparently press on with the proposals he has inherited, proposals which will mean that local government will be plunged into chaos and unprecedented confusion as a local government commission trundles its way around the country in a leisurely and piecemeal fashion for perhaps 10 or 15 years. At any time, local government in some parts of the country will be expected to remain dual in structure, whereas in others it might become at some time in the future—or it might already have become in the recent past—unitary in structure.

The Opposition agree that a simpler and more accountable structure for local government is desirable. We support the idea of a commission which will consult widely and take into account the variety of local interests and needs. But we have the gravest misgivings about a process which is manifestly designed to allow a partisan Secretary of State to abolish Labour-controlled county authorities while preserving those under Tory control.

The new Secretary of State is hardly helped in his task of grappling with this nightmare by the fact that the lieutenant with whom he has been saddled is a Thatcherite ideologue. It is a matter for regret and surprise that that lieutenant is not beside the Secretary of State on the Treasury Bench this afternoon. The new Minister for Local Government and Inner Cities is an heir to that decade-long Thatcherite tradition of regarding local councils as outposts of rebellion that have to be subjugated rather than legitimate guardians of local democracy and pluralism. He is hardly likely to restrain a Secretary of State from pursuing that Government's vendetta against local government.

In case we are tempted too far into gloom, there is a little light relief at hand. There is always the Prime Minister and his citizens charter, which we are reliably informed is to be relaunched yet again. It has already had more relaunches and come-backs in one year than Frank Sinatra has had in a lifetime.

The problem with the citizens charter is that, having thought up the title, the Prime Minister's powers of invention deserted him. Perhaps that is why he has asked the right hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Waldegrave), the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, to take responsibility for the matter. We are told that the right hon. Member for Bristol, West is not one who wears his learning lightly but is something of a philosopher. Just as Bishop Berkeley asserted that he could prove the existence of the tree in his garden even when he could not see it, so I have no doubt that the right hon. Gentleman will prove, at least to his own satisfaction, that the citizens charter really exists, even though no one else doubts that it remains stubbornly lodged in the Prime Minister's imagination.

Whether real or imagined, no citizens charter can possibly produce the better-quality services and the more effective remedies that are promised if, at the same time, the public sector is constantly reviled, starved of resources and told that its only future lies in it being privatised. The citizens charter will remain a diversion from the real task. The fact that it featured not at all in the recent election campaign shows just what the Prime Minister's colleagues really think of it. Until we have a Government who place a proper value on the public sector and on local government, the citizens charter will remain an ineffectual piece of paper.

I take the opportunity to affirm the Labour party's passionate belief that local government is essential to the efficient delivery of local services. It is essential to the accountability that local communities demand from Government. It is essential also as the properly pluralistic counterbalance to the overweening power of central Government. We shall do all in our power to sustain local government over the coming difficult years of continued Tory rule from Westminster.

It is not only local government that will suffer over the next four or five years. The Government's record on housing, education and the environment should alert us to what we should now expect in those areas. Housing is one of the most shameful failures on even this Government's blotchy record. Homelessness has soared, repossessions are at record levels, the housing market is in a slump, rents are being forced up by Government diktat, the number of houses built is the lowest in any peacetime decade this century, and the construction industry is in deep recession. Yet there is nothing in the Queen's Speech to suggest that the Government have the slightest intention of tackling any of these problems or have any inkling of their urgency.

There is not even a recognition of the absurdity of the restrictions imposed by Tory central Government on local authorities that have their own money by way of capital receipts, their own land, a clear housing need to meet and a clear political will to meet it. They are prevented by the Secretary of State, as they were by his predecessors, from building the houses that people so desperately need. This money does not have to be borrowed; it does not have to be raised by new taxation. It is money which already exists and which everyone in housing, in local government and in the construction industry agrees should be invested in meeting housing need. Only the Government remain outside that common-sense consensus.

There is nothing in the Queen's Speech to show that the Government recognise the pressing nature of the environmental problems that the country and the rest of the world face. The promise of a new environmental protection agency, the only constructive thing that the Prime Minister is ever known to have said on the subject of the environment, has been dashed by the publication of the Queen's Speech.