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Orders of the Day — Local Government Finance

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:13 pm on 1st February 1995.

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Mr. Geoffrey 'Clifton-Brown:

I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Olner). I am sorry that his party is so bereft of ideas and policies that he has been forced to use a Conservative party brief prepared privately for Conservative Members.

This is a tight settlement, which amounts to about 25 per cent. of the Government's total expenditure of some £43.5 billion, but it is 2.2 per cent. higher than last year's. My county, Gloucestershire, is to receive an increase of 2.4 per cent. overall. For some services, it will get an increase of 4.3 per cent. compared with the county average of 3.3 per cent. Therefore, it has not fared as badly as many other shire counties.

The Liberal and Labour parties form the ruling group in that shire county. On average, in every community charge band Labour charges £100 more than the Conservatives while the Liberals charge £50 more. Representatives from Gloucestershire council came to see my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration with a proposal to cut £7 million from the education budget—a cut of 4 per cent. That is a disgrace and it is unfair to the children in my county. Last year, Gloucestershire council threatened that there would be a loss of 150 teachers. In the event, six were made redundant and 111 were retired, but 165 full-time appointments were made.

Gloucestershire requires only two more grant-maintained schools to reach the magical 75 per cent. at which all grant-maintained schools will be funded by the Further Education Funding Council. I recommend any school in my constituency which is running into budget problems to seek to become grant maintained. It will then be funded nationally and the children in the school will not be disadvantaged.

Gloucestershire council spends £1,000 a day for computer consultants. It is advertising for a third PR man for its social services department to rectify the public relations disaster of funding a safari holiday in Africa for a child in a special needs school. The child was difficult and had committed crimes and, believe it or not, the council sent him to Africa for a holiday. That is the nature of the council which is controlled by the Liberal and Labour parties.

The council owns more than 5,000 acres of agricultural land and I have had serious discussions with it on how it could sell some of that land to reduce its debt. When the council was under Conservative control in 1986, its debt was £26.5 million. Today, under the Labour and Liberal parties, it has a staggering debt of £120 million. That is an increase of well over 1,000 per cent. since the Conservatives lost control in 1986, and it has occurred simply because the council cannot control its expenditure. Its budget is almost £300 million and it should be able to make efficiency savings. I know of no other business or local authority with a budget of that size which could not make some efficiency savings.

County hall in Gloucester has office after office. What do the occupants of those offices do? I have no idea, but I am sure that it is possible for the council to make savings. I shall give an example. There is a footpath through my land. Gloucestershire county council has no less than four full-time footpath officers. The footpath on my land has been walked perfectly satisfactorily for 20 years and those officers are perfectly happy to use my field gate. They now want to move the footpath just 10 yards so that they can walk through the middle of my orchard.

The council wrote to me stating that it would like a gate cut in my fence and said that it was prepared to do it for £60. I wrote back and said that I would be delighted to have people walking through the middle of my orchard. I wrote, "Please do it for £60, that is very good value for money." After a fortnight I got another letter. Goodness knows what it costs to send them all, but in that one the council said that it had had another look and that the job was not quite as simple as was first thought. The letter said that a special gate would be required and recommended that it would be cheaper for me to do the job myself. I wrote back saying that I would be perfectly happy to do it and that I would make the necessary arrangements.

That is a typical example of the wasteful expenditure of Gloucestershire county council, yet it sends a delegation to see my right hon. Friend. It whinges, complains and produces a magical budget whereby it wants to spend another £22 million, no less. It then complains to my right hon. Friend that it has a cut on what it would otherwise have liked to have spent.