I am grateful to have the opportunity to raise the subject of local government finance in Kent. I am grateful to the Minister of State for being here at the end of what has been a busy week for all of us, and to my hon. Friends for joining me for this important discussion. I do not intend to use this opportunity to excoriate the Government to make us all feel better. Instead, I want to take the opportunity to make some serious points, and to invite the Minister to reflect further on some of the pressures that my and my hon. Friends' constituents face when the budget settlement, on which Ministers are consulting, is finalised.
People get the wrong idea about Kent. Because it is close to London, in the south-east of England and has beautiful countryside and historic towns and cities, such as the one that I am proud to represent, they assume that we are universally affluent, with no social or economic problems or real worries. That is far from the case, however. Even Tunbridge Wells has some areas where deprivation is as extreme as in other places that are more renowned for their levels of social deprivation. A charity in my constituency that does fantastic work in one of the most deprived areas of the county has even had to take the name Tunbridge Wells off its letterhead, because its experience was that when looking for donors and applying for grants, people turned a blind eye and assumed that there was no possible need to help the poor and vulnerable in Tunbridge Wells. That is not the case.
Kent is more surprising than many in the outside world realise. In terms of deprivation, for example, 12 per cent. of Kent constituents are wholly dependent on benefits—a massive figure. Kent has 5.6 per cent. of all the looked-after children in the country, which is twice the national average. It is important that we give the best possible service to those young people.
Far from being an area in which proximity to Europe and London has resulted in jobs galore with high productivity and salaries, we lag behind in knowledge work. For example, only 13 per cent. of people in Kent are employed in the knowledge industries—only just over half the level in south-east England as a whole, which is 24 per cent. Areas of deprivation are therefore scattered across the county.
The case that I and, I am sure, my hon. Friends want to make to the Minister is not one of special party political pleading, but for a review of the situation in Kent. As the Minister considers the funding settlement, I want to commend such a review to him for five reasons.
First, deprivation and trends in deprivation in Kent should be considered. Sadly, deprivation in Kent is deteriorating compared with other parts of the country. Between 1991 and 2001, on all the key indices of deprivation, it has shown a marked decline. In Kent, the number of pupils in the areas of greatest deprivation is increasing, which is the opposite of the pattern across the country whereby growth in pupil numbers tends to be in the more prosperous areas. No doubt there are various reasons for that, but it is a fact. Because there is a uniformity of decline in socio-economic indicators, it is particularly important that Government funding keeps up with the facts.
We know the indices of deprivation. They are very clear in the 2001 census, and yet the Government persist in allocating funds not on the basis of that census, which is already nearly five years old, but on the basis of the 1991 census, which is almost a generation out of date. People in my constituency, especially young people, should be given their fair share—no more than that. If the Government persist in using the 1991 census, a whole generation will have passed their lives as children without the care and support that they might expect if the Government were up to date.
Does my hon. Friend agree that given the level of deprivation to which he has referred, it is unjustifiable that whereas when the Government came to office Kent council tax payers were contributing a quarter of local government expenditure, eight years later they are being asked to shoulder more than a third? Is that not grossly unfair to them?
I agree with my right hon. Friend, who makes his point with characteristic force. The position is particularly unjust in view of the fact that the statistics relating to Kent match those relating to other areas that have been treated more generously. My constituents, and those of my right hon. Friend, feel let down by the Government.
The second factor is our ageing population. As we know, the population throughout the country is ageing, but in Kent that is happening with particular force. In the next 15 years, there will be 56 per cent. more people over 85 living in Kent. We know the reasons for that. People have always moved out of London to the home counties, especially to seaside resorts, to retire. A problem that affects the country as a whole affects Kent particularly severely. Yet again, however, the funding formula does not afford my constituents and Kent county council the fairness that has applied to other parts of the country. The average payment for an elderly person in the London boroughs is over £1,600 a week; the figure in Kent is £630. That is a massive difference, which cannot be explained by the cost of accommodation and services. Paradoxically, we in Kent are given much less money with which to look after our elderly people although wage pressures and property costs are as high as in other parts of the south-east.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case, but the position is even worse than that. Many elderly people from London are in Kentish homes. Absurdly, there may be two elderly people side by side, one of whom is receiving more than twice as much Government funding as the other although they are in nursing or residential homes at the same cost.
My hon. Friend is right. My constituents are often bewildered to find that they cannot obtain places in Kent care homes and must move miles away to Hastings or the Medway towns, because the Kent homes are full of people being funded much more generously by London boroughs.
There is a further paradox. Many people who move to Kent after retirement start off with a reasonable level of resources enabling them to look after themselves, but run through those resources as they get older, especially as care home costs increase. Because they have become resident in Kent, the Kent council tax payers end up footing the bill. A number of anomalies combine to produce a very unfair position.
The third factor that makes Kent a special case is the particular burden that we bear for the care of asylum seekers. It is appropriate that Kent, as the gateway to Europe and, in many respects, the rest of the world, should extend the warmest possible courtesies and welcome to those who come to our shores as refugees, and Kent county council has a record second to none for so doing, but that comes at a price. It is important that council tax payers who happen to be in Kent, which happens to be the gateway, are properly recompensed for that.
I am afraid that the system of obtaining what is only reasonable reimbursement of asylum costs from the Government has proved tortuous. It has taken hours of the time of Kent county council officers and cabinet members and resulted in less than satisfactory settlements that have ended up being compromises. For example, claims for 2003–04 have only recently been settled, and there is an outstanding bill of £4.5 million for 2004–05. That introduces, for a social services department that is one of the best in Britain, a damaging degree of instability. It is difficult to plan for excellent provision if it is unclear for what part, if any, the Government will pick up the bill. It is important that Kent county council should benefit from some certainty and stability in the funding of asylum costs.
The fourth area in which Kent has been relatively poorly treated is education. We have some of the best schools in the country and many of my constituents have moved to Kent because of the quality of its education. It is important for us to support our teachers and head teachers in their work. The Government's most recent regulations include a requirement for 10 per cent. of teachers' contact hours to be set aside for what is called PPA—planning, preparation and assessment. To be fair to the Government, some financial provision has been made across the country to allow for that. Kent, however, has fallen short of what is required yet again. We have received an average of 3 per cent. less funding for work force reform than the country at large. For an average-sized secondary school, that means a shortfall in funding of £100,000 a year. I know from talking to head teachers in my constituency that that is a huge sum, representing the cost of nearly three teachers. We all know how important it is to ensure that our children continue to be well educated.
Having spent time during the recess sitting in the back of classrooms and observing the work of teachers in my constituency, I saw first hand just what a strain it is for head teachers to have to arrange for these periods of preparation without the necessary resources to bring in cover or extra teachers. It has put heads and teachers in an invidious position, which should not be the case when the rest of the country has been treated more generously.
Finally, there is infrastructure. Many of my hon. Friends have experienced, and continue to experience, the pressures that growth can cause to the infrastructure in their constituencies. As it happens, Kent incorporates two of the Government's prime growth areas for residential development—the Thames Gateway and the area around Ashford. That places considerable burdens on the infrastructure. While it is true to say that some financial provision will eventually follow, Kent county councillors maintain that the Government have been niggling in the amount allocated and there is also the important issue of timing.
Eventually, the increased population will, of course, bring with it greater resources in the form of Government grants and council tax. If we are to proceed rationally, the infrastructure should be laid down in advance of people arriving in our county. Roads must be built before people need to use them and schools need to be opened before others are full. That means often running at below capacity as we build up towards higher capacity. The Government's funding allocation mechanisms compensate for population when it is there, but do not anticipate population movements. We are sure to find over the months and years ahead that schools and roads will be in the wrong place. That will occasion expenditure that will have to come from the county council's own resources, as it is not compensated for in the Government's funding formula.
So there are five specific, one might say technical reasons—none of them, I contend, are pungent party political reasons—why the settlement in Kent should be looked at carefully to ensure that it reflects these cost pressures. Sadly, that appears not to be happening. My hon. Friends will recall that when the last local government funding settlement was entered into, Kent was a big loser. Ultimately, Kent council tax payers lost £55 million. I am aware that a system of ceilings and floors will mitigate the effect of that settlement over time, but ultimately, it will cost every council tax payer in Kent in the region of £100 a year.
Because of the failure to update the socio-economic census data, which are now 15 years out of date, another £9 million has been added to Kent council tax payers' costs. It is estimated that the Government's latest proposals could result in a further relative loss of up to £33 million for Kent council tax payers. So, altogether, Kent is losing out by £100 million a year, compared with other parts of the country. For reasons that I have outlined, we have particular pressures relating to some of our most vulnerable people. This is not a situation that the Government should be proud of, and I hope that they will reflect further during this consultation period on whether it can be addressed.
It is not that Kent county council is profligate, wasteful or ineffective; quite the opposite. It is one of the United Kingdom's flagship councils. It has consistently achieved a comprehensive performance assessment rating of "excellent", and it has been especially commended for its financial prudence. It has gone beyond the Gershon targets in terms of savings made. In every respect, this is an excellent council. Over the years, its leadership has been responsible and has been prepared to engage in rational discussions with the Government. Indeed, Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart is one of the most respected local government figures in Britain today. [Interruption.] The Minister nods his assent. Sir Sandy's successor, Mr. Paul Carter, has a distinguished record in education. He knows at first hand the pressures that our schools face, and I am sure that he will continue that responsible record.
Given that Kent county council is excellent, economical, effective, efficient and well led, it ought to be listened to when it makes—as our colleagues on it are doing—a reasonable and reasoned case to the Government. I am delighted to have had this opportunity to raise these issues with the Minister, and I hope that he will give them full consideration.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Greg Clark on securing a debate on a subject of incredible importance to Kent Members of Parliament. It has got to be wrong that one of the most beautiful counties in the country—a county that is the garden of England, and which has phenomenal natural resources and proximity to the capital city—should also host some of the highest levels of social deprivation not just in the south-east, but in the country. East Kent, Thanet and parts of Dover—I am sorry that Gwyn Prosser is unable to be here this afternoon, but I am sure that he would agree with me—host levels of deprivation that people in the metropolis would probably find hard to grasp. Much of that deprivation has been imported. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells said, it is not the result of bad local government—quite the reverse. As he also said, Kent is a flagship council—it has been performing superbly since Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart took over what was indubitably a basket-case and turned it round. The economy of the county has, in the past dozen or so years, come on in leaps and bounds.
Nevertheless, what we face, and have faced continually in the 22 years for which I have been a Member of Parliament, is an influx of social problems. Throughout the 1980s, east Kent, and particularly Margate in my constituency, suffered from what became known as the dole-on-sea syndrome, as the unemployed from around the country and Ireland came to Thanet to live in seaside hotels and guesthouses, on the dole. As that problem was solved, what has been described as a wave of asylum seekers hit Kent. Dover and Thanet in particular have borne the brunt of that and of the social, cultural, educational and medical problems that arrived with people from some of the most deprived places in Europe and, indeed, the world. That has placed an enormous strain on the county.
In tandem with that, there has been an influx of retiring people, many from the east end of London—people who spent their honeymoons in Margate 30, 40 or even 50 years ago and wanted to retire to the dream of a seaside home. They are now living in genteel and, sometimes, less-than-genteel and rather sad poverty. In many cases, one partner in the relationship has died and the other is left on very strained resources. Those people, I have to say to the Minister, are the ones who end up running out of money and being supported, not by the east London boroughs, not by Tower Hamlets, not by Islington, but by Kent county council.
Kent is paying for the placements in retirement homes, but we have seen a diminution in the available care. Homes have closed in their dozens because there is not the funding in the east of the county to make them commercially viable—they are, after all, businesses. In the west and north of the county, homes have thrived, but not by making provision for the elderly of Kent. Those homes are, as my hon. Friend rightly says, accommodating clientele being paid for by the London boroughs at £1,600 a week in funding from central Government. The Minister has to be able to explain to us, the representatives of these constituents, why a granny in Kent is worth a third of a granny coming from Islington. That is what we are talking about. Central Government gives money to Islington, for example, and the council buys space in Kent because it cannot be bothered to make provision for its own elderly, and still pockets a healthy balance.
I am not talking about Kent county council's old people's homes, which, by modern seaside standards, are simply not viable. If the hon. Gentleman wants to go down that route, I can tell him that Campfield, in my constituency, is about to be closed by the county council because it cannot meet the standards required under regulations. That has been the case way down the line. If the hon. Gentleman is seriously suggesting that somehow the county council should be able to keep open homes that do not meet today's modern standards or offer the desired facilities, I have to say that I do not agree with him. If he is saying that Kent ought to be refurbishing, rebuilding, modernising and reopening these homes, I might just agree with him, if Kent had the money to do it.
The hon. Gentleman argues in favour of the Care Standards Act 2000, which I supported—but which the Opposition did not—for the reasons that he now presents. The home closures of six or seven years ago took place because Kent no longer wanted to be a provider, but merely a commissioner and purchaser. The closures had nothing to do with quality.
That is incorrect, as there were severe implications about the quality of the homes involved. Those Opposition Members who know something about the matter did oppose elements of the 2000 Act—I have to be careful, as I chaired the Bill in Standing Committee—but on the basis that taking away an en suite lavatory from an elderly person merely to provide an extra square metre of floor space was a nonsense. To be frank, the elderly person involved was not likely to get out of bed and play football, so a lavatory was of more use than the space. There are many other examples that I could give the House.
The Registered Homes Act 1984 led to improved standards in both local authority and private residential homes by the end of the decade. The provision then was good, but lack of money has made it impossible to maintain that standard. The result now is that a granny in Kent is worth a third of one in Islington— why?
Another difficulty is the problem of dumped cared-for children. In the social services they are known, rather revoltingly, as "Friday afternoon children". When, for emergency reasons, a borough in west London has to place a child on a Friday afternoon, he or she is sent to Thanet. No provision is made for education or medical care and there is no consultation with the county council. There is no advance preparation at all. Does the Minister think that that is satisfactory?
Kent county council's Thanet report spells out what happens, in stark terms. The young people involved are taken out of their environment in London and removed from their friends, family, extended family and school. They are taken from the familiar area in which they were brought up and dumped in a place where they have no sense of ownership at all. Is it then surprising that they resort to daubing graffiti and to engaging in antisocial behaviour, vandalism and truancy? Of course it is not.
Best practice in social services says that those young people should be placed as close to home as possible, yet they arrive in Kent with no provision having been made for their education or medical care, and they receive no attention worth speaking of from social services. No resources follow them to provide the policing and other back-up that they need. They are simply dumped.I have spoken to the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Maria Eagle, who has responsibility for these matters, and asked for a moratorium. To date, nothing has happened, even though the Thanet report has been on her desk for months. The cost incurred in looking after these dumped children is another one that the Government are not meeting.
I come now to the question of asylum costs. Opposition Members in Kent have fought long and hard for the money that the Government acknowledge that the county should have to meet the costs incurred by asylum seekers. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells said, we have just about cleared the slate up to 2004, although that has involved rather more give than take on our part. The Home Office agreed the figures—grudgingly—and has finally shelled out for the costs incurred up to 2004.
The hon. Gentleman refers to the grudging way that the Government have reimbursed Kent county council for its expenditure in respect of asylum-seeker children. I want to emphasise that the county has spent that money on children, as adults are dispersed around the UK. When Mr. Howard was Home Secretary, no money at all was reimbursed to the local authority. Does the hon. Gentleman recall that?
What I cannot recall is when the hon. Gentleman came to the House, but I have a clear recall of other matters.I recall clearly saying to a Home Office Minister in the summer of 1997, on good advice from Kent police, that a wave of asylum seekers from the Czech and Slovak Republics was about to hit Kent. My right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Howard and I drove from Kent to the Home Office, demanded to see the Minister and warned him, on the strength of the information given to us by Kent police, that that was about to happen. The Home Office did nothing about it. When my right hon. and learned Friend was Home Secretary asylum figures were falling. The problem started in 1997 and worsened. I will take no lectures whatsoever from the hon. Gentleman on that score.
I would not want to appear to be lecturing the hon. Gentleman. For his information I came to the House in 1997. Before that I worked for 10 years for Kent social services, so I have first-hand knowledge. I knew that the local authority was not reimbursed by one single penny from the then Government. His idea is that when we arrived in office in 1997, that was somehow a watershed for asylum seekers. Does he recall the conflict in Kosovo and the conflicts that have arisen around the world? It is not just Kent and this country that have seen an increase in the numbers of asylum seekers, but many countries across the world.
I am prepared to give way again if the hon. Gentleman would like to place on the record—in his words, not mine—the number of asylum seekers resident in Kent in the spring of 1997 and in the spring of 2000. The costs bear no relation to each other. The costs to Kent of asylum seekers prior to 1997 were minimal.
I hope and believe that perhaps the hon. Gentleman's constituents and his colleagues' constituents may listen to or read the debate, and may then know from the record how they are letting down their constituents in Kent, our county. With respect, the hon. Gentleman did nothing whatsoever to help to secure the funding. Kent was owed £14 million by central Government and had to fight for every penny of it, but still did not get every penny of it.
Simply on the strength of the information and representation made to us by the leader of Kent county council. If the hon. Gentleman can produce the letters that he has written to Ministers asking for payment, I should be delighted to see them and even more delighted to acknowledge that perhaps he played a tiny part in securing the money. The fact is that the hon. Gentleman's Government have for years failed to pay. If he made representations, they were not effective. We waited a long time for the money. Perhaps he can now explain why we are still waiting for the £4.3 million for the period from April 2004 to April 2005. Why has that money not been paid? That is probably a question that the Minister should answer. To be fair to the hon. Gentleman, he is at least trying to play some sort of bat and I only wish that one or two more of his colleagues would give him a hand.
I shall not speak for much longer because other colleagues wish to participate. My hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells referred to the development that is being imposed on Kent. I say "imposed" advisedly, because the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, having been prepared to see asylum seekers, cared-for children and grannies dumped in Kent, now wants to dump housing in Kent. The garden of England will soon be the backyard of England—
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to visit Herne Bay in my constituency and see how green fields are being built over without any infrastructure to support that building. Look at how many houses have been given planning consent; look at the lack of primary and secondary school places; look at how children who cannot get into the single secondary school in the town are bussed, at Kent county council's expense, halfway round the county to get their education; look at the lack of road infrastructure; look at the fact that the Government have failed to give priority to the vital east Kent approach road that might just help Thanet, the area with the highest level of deprivation in the south-east; look at the shortage of doctors; look at the growing shortage of water; look at the lack of sewerage infrastructure for all those houses, and tell me where the money will come from. My hon. Friend Mr. Brazier was right in his intervention earlier. If we are to build houses—and I accept that people have to have homes—we have to make provision for primary and secondary education, and transport and medical care, before and not after the event.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells said that when the Conservatives left office, Kent was bearing the costs of 25 per cent. of expenditure, but that that figure had now risen to 35 per cent. One of the reasons for that rise—[Interruption.] I would love to have the Minister's attention, although I know that he is being well briefed by his Kent colleagues. The fact is that there is no justification for the Government not basing Kent's grant on at least the most recent census figures. It is nothing short of a scandal that Kent is being short-changed because of a grant based on census figures that are very nearly 15 years out of date.
My hon. Friend said that he would be moderate and modest and seek to persuade the Minister. He was, and I hope that he has. I feel much less moderate about this because I have watched people suffering—some of the poorest and most deprived, the very people that this Government claim they want to help but do nothing for—as a result of being cheated by this Government moving money from the south-east to the north and their own heartlands. That has gone on long enough. It is time for the Government to recognise that our beautiful county and its flagship county council deserve better than the shoddy treatment that they are getting at present.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute briefly to this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend Greg Clark on the measured way in which he set the scene, although, inevitably, some of us will feel more strongly about such issues than others. He described the problem as the perception that Kent is particularly affluent, which is the issue at the heart of this debate.
We do not have to take my hon. Friend's word on that problem because, in February, when I complained about the funding for Sevenoaks on the local government finance report, the Minister's predecessor told me that it was an affluent area and that was why we had been badly treated. If the present Minister cannot recall the basis of my complaint, I shall tell him, because it was very simple. In terms of the increase in per capita funding since 1998 for all the district councils, county councils and police authorities in England, Sevenoaks was 424th out of 424 for percentage change. We were the worst treated. In fact, we had no increase at all and were among four or five councils that had actually been cut in per capita terms.
The House does not have to believe my hon. Friend. The Minister himself said that our funding had been cut because Sevenoaks was an affluent area. It is true, of course, that some constituencies are more affluent than others, but it is equally true that there are serious pockets of deprivation in every constituency, including mine. Parts of north Sevenoaks, and especially in the town of Swanley, can match any of the deprived areas about which my hon. Friend Mr. Gale spoke so eloquently. The problem with the funding allocation is that it does not properly reflect the serious pockets of deprivation that exist alongside some of the more affluent areas. It does not respect the fact that all our district councils and the county council have to provide the same basic services as councils in areas that are better treated by the Government—perhaps in the north. We all need the same basic services, so it is wrong that councils are treated unequally.
My hon. Friends made some powerful points about the care homes scandal, asylum costs and so on. I have three short points. The first is that the Government must deal with the widespread perception, or allegation, that they are covertly switching funding from south to north. The Minister may try to deny it—he may even admit it—but it would be for the good health of the debate generally that, if there is such a policy, it is made explicit and Ministers have the guts to say that they are moving money from southern districts to northern metropolitan districts or the larger conurbations. If Ministers are doing that, they should say so.
It is remarkable that if you look at the league table, Mr. Deputy Speaker—the list of 424 district councils, county councils and police authorities to which I referred—you may not find that your local authority is anywhere near the top of the table, where there is a strong north-east, north-west and midlands flavour. Few southern councils appear there. If the Government, through their decisions about annual local government allocations, are moving money from south to north that is their decision. They are the Government so they are free to do that, but they should at least be explicit about it and accept what they are doing, so that they can be judged accordingly by my constituents and, doubtless, by the constituents of the hon. Members for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw) and for Gillingham (Paul Clark).
My second point is about London weighting. It will come as no surprise to the Minister that I return to that point, as I have been making it constantly since 1997. London weighting is a shambles. Time and again, I have pointed out that police officers can resign from the Kent force to join the Metropolitan police and immediately earn an extra £3,000 a year, due to the effect of London weighting, but remain in the same housing in west Kent. Nurses in our hospitals in west and north Kent can transfer across the line to work in a London hospital and gain London weighting.
The arrangements are different for each public service, but in each case that I raised, because the arguments were so overwhelming, Ministers responded—I must be fair to them about that—but only in an ad hoc way. The Kent health authority was given additional money to deal with the problem. The then Secretary of State, Mr. Milburn accepted that there was a problem and gave a one-off allocation to deal with it.
Two years later, the same thing happened in relation to the police settlement. Kent police authority was given additional funding to tackle the problem, which was more acute in the west Kent than the north Kent area: in Tunbridge Wells, Sevenoaks and Tonbridge, we lost about 30 officers in a single year. Ministers had to respond, but they did so in a completely ad hoc way, from service to service.
If we are talking about joined-up government, someone must consider London and south-east weighting regionally. It is absurd that some weightings in London extend outwards to Hampshire or parts of Essex, but not to Kent. It is absurd that some people are eligible in some public services, but not in others. The whole thing must be considered more coherently and those of us on the fringe of London should not have to beg each time for additional resources in respect of individual funding streams. The whole of Kent should be classified properly, with London, as a high-cost area because that is exactly what it is.
My third and final point, which my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells touched on, is that I am quite sure, having served my constituents for the past eight years, that we are not getting our fair crack of the whip in terms of spending on infrastructure. The Minister has a north-western constituency.
The hon. Gentleman says that Kent is not getting its fair share. I remind him that he wrote a letter to the Sevenoaks Chronicle in 1999, when he had been the Member of Parliament for the area for two years. He said:
"Now Kent has asked me to complain to the Minister about their allocation under the latest round of schools funding. How can I honestly go persuade the Minister all over again, when we haven't even started spending the £1 million he allocated in March 1998?"
Does he remember that letter?
I should be happy if the hon. Gentleman can refresh my memory about which £1 million he was referring to. I think that I can now recall the £1 million. I think that it was the capital grant in respect of Riverhead school. I do not know whether he can confirm that. I think that the long delay in getting a decision on the siting of Riverhead infant school cost £1 million. Yes, I complain about bureaucratic delays, and I am sure that he complains about them, too.
I return to the point that I was making about infrastructure before I was interrupted. It is striking that in regions such as the north-west, part of which the Minister represents, it is almost impossible to go from one town to another without travelling on some sort of motorway—the M60 or whatever. We in west Kent still seem to have much of the infrastructure that was placed there in the 1920s or the 1930s—for example, the single-carriageway A21, along which my constituents must travel if they want to go to Pembury hospital or further south. The railway system is still essentially unmodernised from many years back.
I still feel that we do not get our fair share of the necessary capital infrastructure that our region needs. It is an important region. My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet spoke of the beauty of Kent and the attractiveness of our county, but it is also a key part of the economic region. It is one of the wealth-creating areas of our country. I do not think that we yet get the attention from Ministers that we and our constituents deserve.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells on securing this debate on local government funding. We do not get our fair allocation of funding, and improvements to the system can be made. There is a general perception that Kent is losing out compared with the rest of the country, and I am sure that the Minister will do his best to correct that when he replies.
I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the debate and congratulate Greg Clark on securing it. He made an excellent thought-provoking contribution and I am sure that it will read well in the royal spa town, which I know well.
I was born in the county of Kent and have lived there all my life. I have worked in most of the different parts of the county, so I hope that I can add something to the debate. I want to say something about the other side of the complaints that we have heard from Conservative Members. Several of the Conservative Members in the Chamber will remember a debate that was held in February 1997 when they attacked the county council and went on about its various visits and trips abroad. That was a disgraceful assault on a local authority that could not defend itself. There were no Labour Kent Members at the time. I have read the transcript of that debate and wonder if Mr. Brazier remembers complaining about money being cut from his children's school.
In that particular year, Kent county council spent £5 million on computer equipment and furniture for the education department's offices. The computer equipment did not result in any job savings and administrative manpower continued to increase. Although £5 million was spent on furnishings and equipment for offices, there were classrooms without enough chairs in them.
That was the first time that Kent's local authority had spent more than its standard spending assessment. In the years during which I went to schools in Kent, it spent consistently much less than its SSA.
I am delighted to talk about schools in Kent. They were underfunded for years, and it was not until the administration of 1993 to 1997 that they started getting resources. Let me address the area of my constituency and that of Sir John Stanley, who is in the Chamber. He knows that in our area, the Malling school, Aylesford school and Holmesdale technology college are being rebuilt at a cost of about £50 million. The total amount of private finance initiative money in Kent is about £80 million. Aylesford school, which the right hon. Gentleman knows well, is a series of huts. There was no prospect of getting that school refurbished to a modern standard with the levels of capital spend present under the Conservative Government.
The hon. Gentleman must do his homework. Aylesford school received a substantial capital grant from the Conservative Government because it was one of the first schools to achieve grant-maintained status. It received major investment from the Conservative Government.
I am well aware of the building. Grant-maintained status gave a little bit to a few schools, but there was little hope of the school getting the real refurbishment that it needed. When we got into office, the Tory Government had been spending £800 million a year on school buildings. That is quite a lot of money when one thinks about it, but not when one considers that that figure is £5.6 billion this year. Such funding means not that there is just one small capital project in Aylesford school, but that the whole school can be rebuilt. The contrast is stark. Money is being spent on schools throughout the county. There are now more teachers and classroom assistants in Kent and they are better paid than before.
Mr. Fallon talked about the police service and leakage to the Metropolitan police. Such things occur from time to time, but the Government responded positively to that situation. They got little thanks for that, just as there was little thanks for the £1 million for the hon. Gentleman's school at Riverhead. The Government gave that money and that has happened time and again throughout the whole county.
The hon. Gentleman might say that, but the three secondary schools in my borough that are being rebuilt now are not a figment of my imagination. There was never any money available for such rebuilding under the Conservative Government, so I certainly will come on and tell him how much money is being spent in Kent.
I did not want to intervene because I spoke at great length. Nevertheless, the "Come on" related to the police. The hon. Gentleman knows that Kent police are in dire financial straits. He knows that Thanet and Canterbury have lost policemen to the Medway towns to make up for those who are going into the Met. He knows that there are no special constables in parts of the county because they have been taken into the regular force to make up the numbers that we have lost to London.
Kent police have more constables than ever before. The Medway police force is at full strength. It has not been before. The decision to allocate police officers is not for politicians but an operational matter for the chief constable. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that it should not be, let him say so. We have more than 100 police community support officers. The chief constable supports that. The hon. Gentleman knows that the chief constable will bid for a further 500 over the next two years. We have investment in our health service. Kent was one of the first counties to meet the three-month target for cataract operations. That is what is happening in our hospitals, schools and police service. Each service is increasing and each is in a better shape than it was when we got into power in 1997.
As for our roads, I recently read in the paper that there is a "Huge boost in Kent for transport". It states:
"Kent received a cash boost of . . . £17 million."
I think that is from the Thanet Extra, a paper from the area of Mr. Gale, dated
"Kent has emerged as the biggest winner in a Government cash handout to local authorities to help them develop schemes to improve traffic blackspots, invest in public transport schemes and make roads safer.
Kent county council is to get £16.9 million to spend between 2006 and 2011 after originally being told it could only expect about £6.6 million."
Kent has done very well.
I was not in the House in 1997, but the hon. Gentleman was. Does he recall that the A21, between Tonbridge and Lamberhurst, was scheduled for imminent conversion to a dual carriageway? That project was cancelled within months of this Government coming into power.
There was a long list of road proposals at the time, but the money had never been allocated to them. One of them was the M20 widening, which caused so much blight in my constituency and that of the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling. The Chancellor in 1996 admitted that there were no resources for those projects, and they did not go forward. A Government can have a list as long as their arm, but they must have the funding for those roads. Otherwise, they are deceiving constituents. We have done well on infrastructure.
Again, in my area, the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling campaigned for many years to get a special surface put on the M20. It would have cost millions, and the Conservative Government refused every time. Their policy was that it was not possible to have quieter road surfaces unless it was a new road or it was being widened, but our council, with his support, managed to get them to change that policy. We got the quieter surface, which helped our constituents. That is another road improvement that has assisted our constituents.
I merely wonder whether the hon. Gentleman is listening to what he says. In the period that I was in the House before he was—those years of Conservative Government immediately beforehand—the extra sections on the M20 were built. During that time, huge investment was committed to the Thanet way, which my hon. Friend Mr. Gale and I enjoy. It was completed shortly after Labour came into office, but the bulk of the building was done under the Conservatives, when the money was committed to it. Since Labour came into office, I cannot think of even a bypass that has been built in Kent—and the hon. Gentleman talks about resurfacing.
I am sorry to keep picking on the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling. The Leybourne bypass is being constructed as we speak. Many road and infrastructure projects have occurred in that period. I told Mr. Brazier the amount of money that Kent county council has received. That was only to tackle road congestion and public transport. There is also the £70 million that the council received. It said in its press statement that it got more than anyone else in the country. On roads, public transport, schools, police and hospitals, what we heard from Conservative Members was that Kent has not been getting its fair share whereas that simply is not the case.
I look round my constituency and see the investment that has taken place, such as new £2 million health centres in Snodland and in Larkfield. That money is being invested in our communities and making a huge difference to the quality of life of the people whom we represent.
The hon. Gentleman's comments on hospitals will be read with disbelief by my constituents and those of my hon. Friends the Members for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) and for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon). Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would explain to the House why the important new district hospital for Pembury, covering the whole west Kent area, which was at an advanced stage at the end of the term of the previous Conservative Government, is still no further on in terms of starting construction, eight years later.
I know the Kent and Sussex hospital very well. I used to take adults with learning disabilities when they sadly had accidents to the hospital when I worked in that area. The right hon. Gentleman is completely wrong when he talks about an advanced stage. The site had not been purchased and the money had not been allocated. What does he mean by "advanced stage"? There was no provider and plans had not been worked up. It was not at an advanced stage. It was a pipe dream. It took a Labour Government to allocate resources. We have the largest hospital building programme in the history of the NHS. There has been investment in the Maidstone hospital, the Medway maritime hospital and other hospitals throughout the county.
Waiting lists have been mentioned. People had to wait for 18 months when Labour was elected to office. This year, it is will be down to six months. The waiting will continue to come down. [Interruption.] Opposition Members do not like this, but my constituents have seen the investment put in to my constituency and the huge difference that it has made to their lives. Despite the disgraceful attack upon a local authority that could not defend itself in February 1997, the infrastructure, resources and public services of the county are in a much better state now. I know because I worked in Kent for 10 years and I have lived in it for all my life. Public services are in much better shape now. I and my hon. Friends throughout the county are proud of that.
I have been listening with interest to Jonathan Shaw. I intended to be brief but the hon. Gentleman has provoked me to speak at slightly greater length than I intended.
The distinction should be made very clear between current and capital spending. I shall comment on what the hon. Gentleman said about capital spending. About 95 per cent. of the examples that he gave involved capital expenditure whereas the basic submission of my hon. Friend Mr. Gale, apart from the remarks that he made at the end of his contribution, related almost entirely to the problems in current spending. Yes, there are some problems of infrastructure and I shall start by saying something about that, but the main issue is the ever-tightening garrotte on the level of current spending—rate support grant—available to Kent county council for people in old people's homes, children in care and so on.
On the capital side, the hon. Gentleman really must find out about Kent's road programme. The last Government invested a fortune in Kent's roads—the building of the extra sections of the M20 for the link-up with the channel tunnel, the dualling of the Thanet Way, in which my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet played such a vital role over all those years, and which was finished about 18 months after the present Government took office, and the dualling of the A2 extension of the M2. There was one programme after another, all carried out by the Conservative Government. Under the present Government, there has been virtually no capital expenditure, apart from the odd tiny bypass in the road programme, and money available for road repairs has declined.
There are other areas that I could challenge. I shall mention one on the capital side. The hon. Gentleman made great play of investment in the NHS. Certainly, a great deal of money has been invested in new hospitals in other parts of the country, but it is in east Kent that there were two and three-day queues in casualty, after the Government took office. There was a two-page spread in The Sun about people who spent three days on beds in the Kent and Canterbury hospital accident and emergency unit. That happened on the present Government's watch, not under the previous Government.
The burden of the debate and almost the whole of the submission from my hon. Friend Greg Clark was on current spending and the tourniquet that the Government are applying to the support grant for current spending in the county of Kent. I remember arguing once with a group of people in the Tea Room—I have some friends in the Labour party, and I count the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford as one of them—about whether it is worse to be poor in an area neighbouring better-off areas or to be poor in a poor area. The answer must be that it is much worse to be poor in south-east England than in a relatively deprived area, for several obvious reasons. One is that it is much more expensive to provide support for poor people in an area with neighbouring better-off areas, because it is a struggle to attract well-qualified people into the public services there. Another reason is that food and other basic amenities are more expensive near a better-off area.
In east Kent we have a particular problem. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet said, in parts of east Kent and one or two other parts of Kent we have some of the worst deprivation statistics anywhere in southern England. In some wards in Thanet, the statistics are among the worst in the country. However, the fact that we are relatively close to the capital means that we have serious additional problems. Against that background, the dire figures take some explaining.
I will not go through the equation on the funding of the elderly, which my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells so effectively covered. I shall take the parallel equation for children in care. My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet is right about the dumping of children in care in Kent, without the associated money always coming with them in knock-on areas such as education and health. Putting that to one side, how can it be right that a child in care in Kent gets from the Government £263 a week, compared with £425 in Blackpool, an area in the north of England where costs are lower, and £1,373 in a London borough such as Islington?
Hon. Members will know that over the years I have taken a particular interest in children in care, particularly through my role in the all-party group on adoption and fostering. I am horrified at what is happening to our local social services as a result of the squeeze on funding. I shall give an example. It is no good talking about shiny new buildings and the rest of it; we are talking about current money to cover current costs. One of the effects is that almost no provision is left for the most awkward fostering cases. In the old days, special placements would have been provided, because it was acknowledged that those cases were simply too difficult for most foster parents to cope with. The money is no longer available for that. I spoke recently to foster parents who told me that several of their colleagues had given up fostering because children had been placed with them with whom they were simply incapable of dealing.
I am obviously pursuing the matter with Kent county council social services, but the system is creaking. How can it be right that an area where costs are high gets one sixth of the funding per child of some London boroughs? Those figures are not fiction. They are in a letter that is signed by Sandy Bruce-Lockhart. It is the last letter that Sir Sandy wrote before he retired as leader of a council that everybody, from the district auditor to the people who recommended him to Her Majesty the Queen for his recent knighthood, recognises as excellent. The figures are his, not mine.
I hope that some of our constituents will read the debate. When the Minister for Local Government replies, he can score some points about shiny new buildings and infrastructure. In making points about infrastructure, he can forget that Kent has been chosen for two of the four population growth points, and all the additional requirements that that creates. I do not believe that we have the infrastructure that we need or that we get our fair share of it. However, this evening's debate is mostly not about that.
The debate is about the sheer unfairness of a formula which, on the first readjustment, led to an increase per capita of funding of every single member of the then Cabinet, and, for the second consecutive time—the third time in a row if one includes the decision not to update the deprivation indices from 1991–2001—resulted in Kent being among the three or four worst funded councils. That cannot be right.
The Minister must tell us why a granny or a child in care in Kent are so much less important than their counterparts in London and other parts of the country. I look forward to his reply.
I congratulate Greg Clark on securing the debate. I suspect that, like me, he believed that it would be a half-hour, end-of-day debate but it has turned into a full-blown, well informed discussion about Kent, its problems and successes, and its future. I therefore offer genuine congratulations to the hon. Gentleman. I hope that the political and news programmes in his part of the world are taking note, because it has been a good debate that will make good television and radio.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands that I cannot respond to specific points about possible changes in the formula before the local government finance settlement that is due shortly. I assure him that I have listened to his arguments and taken a serious interest in the arguments that the district, county and unitary councils in his part of the world have presented. Indeed, Kent county council is part of our working party on the social services formula reviews. Some of his points have been covered by that and I hope that he will accept that assurance.
Let me begin with general policy and answer hon. Members' specific points afterwards. The title of the debate is "Local Government Funding (Kent)". Let me again put it on record that, whatever one says, the Government have increased local government funding in real terms by 33 per cent. I say that to remind hon. Members that we are debating the alleged or real problems of Kent in the context of a fast rising tide of funding.
Points have been raised about the position of Tunbridge Wells and other parts of Kent. Kent is the garden of England, and it is a beautiful place. I have worked there and I know it and love it. However, when we talk about the way in which Kent has been treated, I would ask hon. Members to bear in mind that we are discussing this issue in the context of an increase in funding—
The hon. Gentleman says that the funding has been cut. I shall give him the figures in a moment.
I also want to point out that the last delegation that came to see me from a county was not from a Conservative county in the south-east of England but from Labour-led Lancashire, which also feels that it is being treated the worst. I am a fair person and I approach these matters in a non-partisan way. However, Lancashire has also received increases in its budget. Of course, hon. Members on both sides of the House have raised issues on behalf of their constituents, but can we please acknowledge that there has been an increase in funding, and that these problems are relative ones? If I were tempted to be partisan, I would point out that, in the four years up to 1997, there was a real-terms reduction in the grant to local government of 7 per cent. So, fair's fair. Last year was the eighth successive year in which the Government provided local government overall with an increase in total Government grant above inflation. And it was the third year in which we were able to guarantee increases for all local authorities at least in line with inflation.
Specific points have been raised about personal social services, and Conservative Members have been critical of the funding that is provided for local authorities' social services responsibilities. I do not deny the pressures on social services, but I want to put this in context. Spending on social services over the past 15 years—again, I am making a non-partisan point—has doubled, at a time when gross domestic product per head has increased by 50 per cent. So we are meeting a new demand, and this is a more civilised country as a result.
Specifically on this Government's watch, we have provided some £11.5 billion this year for adult social services, which includes some £1.9 billion paid to councils as specific revenue grants. That includes the additional £100 million of non-recurrent funding to support existing older people's services, which was added to the access and systems capacity grant. Total funding for children's social services was £4.3 billion, an increase of 8 per cent. Some people would say that that is not enough, but it is a generous increase none the less.
Of course, hon. Members from all parts of the country make comparisons with other parts of the country that will show their area in a less favourable light. I could show the hon. Gentleman Conservative-led councils in London that would argue that their area cost adjustment is unfair, compared with that of Kent, given the costs that they face. I could also point out Labour-led local authorities that would make the same point that he has made. Of course there is a difference in the per capita funding. I do not have the exact figures at the moment, although I might come to them later, as they are somewhere in my very extensive briefing. I accept that there are differences in the figures, and the hon. Gentleman will have to be patient in regard to the forthcoming settlement. I would plead with him, however, to the effect that it is not a sound argument to say that he should have more because other people have more, if those other people are saying, with accuracy, that they have increased costs. I shall come to the point about dispersal from London in a moment.
There have been increases in all the areas mentioned. Resources in children's social services have increased by more than 30 per cent. in real terms since we took office.
It being Six o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Heppell.]
Of course, the 30 per cent. real-terms increase has not been distributed equally across all social services authorities, but all social services authorities have had increases. Let us acknowledge that. That is an average of 2.8 per cent. a year above inflation, and further increases are planned over the 2004 spending review period. In addition, investment in child care and early years will increase by more than three quarters of a billion pounds between 2004–05 and 2007–08.
Hon. Gentlemen have referred to the pressures facing police authorities. I must remind them, however, that we have provided substantial extra resources for policing: as my hon. Friend Jonathan Shaw pointed out, there have never been as many police officers in Kent. I acknowledge the real-world difficulties that the hon. Member for North Thanet pointed out, but Government support for police funding has increased by 39 per cent. since 2000.
The figures are unprecedented. On average, police formula grant has increased by nearly 4.8 per cent., including specific grants of £766 million in 2005–06. The specific grant increase in funding direct to police forces is more than 5 per cent. Specific grants enable us to target funds where they are particularly needed. The crime fighting fund, for example, has enabled us to secure record police officer numbers. No police force has received less than a 3.75 per cent. general grant increase this year. That is substantially above police pay increases and inflation, and above-floor increases range up to 6.8 per cent. Again, the points being made by hon. Gentlemen are relative, not absolute.
The Minister has dismissed the idea that relative under-performances should be corrected. But what about the absolute failure to update the census figures and to take the most recent deprivation figures? Does that qualify as an argument of which the Minister is prepared to take account?
Again, the hon. Gentleman will have to be patient in respect of the future. The argument about population figures, however, has been put to me in the past three months by shire councils of all political parties, county councils of all political parties, and metropolitan authorities of all political parties, and they cannot all be right, can they? The hon. Gentleman made a cogent case—I say that genuinely—on behalf of his constituents. I do not want to score points—actually, I do want to score points—but we are talking about a context of increasing resources and of problems being relative not absolute.
We have had some very interesting contributions. If I could have a bit of fun, because this is the end of a heavy parliamentary week, I was grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford for pointing out the parliamentary debate on
"I congratulate my hon. Friend on his splendid recitation of the high economic crimes and misdemeanours" of Kent county council. Dame Peggy Fenner said:
"the wasteful use of staff in Kent".
There was then a reference to
"a wicked example of precisely what is taking place."—[Hansard, 5 February 1997; Vol. 919, c. 946–48.]
I am grateful to the Minister, because I was present at that debate and I would not take back a single word of what I said. I have already given one example of the staggering waste in the education department at a time when schools needed the money in the classrooms, but let me give two wider examples. First, we had 15 chief education officers then, and a chief education officer was paid more than the Prime Minister. Within weeks of the Conservatives' taking over, the number had fallen to six. Secondly, the council managed to spend all the reserves, apart from the legal minimum, in running up huge debts, but in the end it was squealing that it was not receiving enough rate support grant, despite a formula that was much more generous in comparison with those in other parts of the country than it is today.
The irony is obviously lost on the hon. Gentleman. I wish he would acknowledge the reality, which is that gross domestic product per capita has risen in his county, unemployment in his county has fallen and public investment in his county has risen under a Labour Government. I am not here to defend Kent county council's actions during the period concerned, although I would imagine that—as my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford suggested—its spending, particularly on education, rose above the level of the standard spending assessment, and I would imagine that not one Member who is present now argued to the electorate at the time that the SSA should be reduced. But perhaps I should move on from irony, as some fell on stony ground.
The hon. Member for North Thanet asked why people were displaced from London. That problem affects all major cities, particularly in Kent and parts of east Sussex. The reason is probably the high costs to London local authorities were they to keep the care homes in London. I know from my own constituency that, unfortunately, people with severe problems—especially mental and disability problems—have been placed in homes many miles away. I wish that that were not the case, and the Government's policy is to reverse the position, because it is better for local people to live locally.
The hon. Gentleman cited Islington council. I am pretty sure that it is controlled by the Liberal Democrats. Perhaps we can unite at this point, because, as usual, no Liberal Democrats are present. I am sure that if Islington council were spending local and national taxpayers' money on accommodation at the rate at which they would have to spend in central London, the hon. Gentleman would be lambasting it here and elsewhere.
The point is that Islington's grant per elderly person, and indeed per cared-for child, is three times the grant that Kent receives. That is supposed to reflect the very costs in London that the Minister has mentioned. Like a number of London boroughs controlled, probably, by all parties, Islington is placing people in Kent, buying facilities that Kent cannot afford in its own county, and pocketing the change. The money was put there for the council to provide for itself. Let it do that.
The hon. Gentleman must face up to the paradox that his own speech exposed. First, one could not reasonably pursue a policy whereby spending on social services for the elderly in inner London boroughs should be the same as that in shire areas, though we could argue about the differential. Secondly, it is not reasonable to say that any authority should provide residential care only within its own boundaries. I do not think that I would like to live in a country where that was the case. Local authorities across the political parties should be congratulated on making efficiency savings. If they are getting a cheaper—in the financial sense—service by placing people in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, it is easy to understand why they should be doing so. If Islington can make financial savings, I would have thought that both my party and the hon. Gentleman's should congratulate the council on that.
The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells spoke about pressures on home building and complained about the alleged lack of infrastructure as a result of growth. Once again, he cannot have his cake and eat it. He cannot complain about pressures on houses while at the same time saying that we need to put up a fortress around the inner London boroughs to protect Kent from the real world. That is not a consistent policy.
The Minister is awarding boroughs such as Islington higher costs for looking after its elderly, reflecting the higher costs in the area, but if it chooses to spend a greater amount in sending old people out of those areas, surely that should sooner or later be reflected in the allocation that he makes. The council cannot have it both ways. If it is getting extra money because the area has higher costs and then benefits by sending its elderly out of the borough, is it not unfair on other authorities that are receiving a lower grant?
The impression has been given in the debate that that is the only criterion for the allocation of money. I think that I am right in saying that sparsity is another criterion in the allocation, which I would not have thought applied to inner London. Mr. Fallon makes a serious point, which I will take very seriously. The consequence of doing what he recommends would be to punish success. It would be to tell councils that are producing efficiencies and spending council tax payers' money more responsibly that that money should be withdrawn from them.
Of course, there has to be a balance and I accept that some rural and county areas have genuine extra costs, but I do not accept the picture that has been painted of the south-east in relation to other areas. We need a balance between recognising genuine extra costs—we also have to take historic spend into account in order not to rupture or dysfunction services—and encouraging efficiencies in order to keep the bills of council tax payers down. I am sure that Conservative Members would agree with that. There is a danger of not rewarding authorities that are attempting to keep their bills down.
I acknowledge that there is a real issue, but let me address the point about infrastructure. Conservative Members have made different specific cases. I think that the hon. Member for North Thanet said that the Deputy Prime Minister was dumping houses on Herne bay, but I think I am right in saying that Herne bay is not in the growth area of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. I do not know the circumstances of local building, but once again, the hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. He cannot say that he wants to provide reasonably priced homes and a future for the people of the area and at the same time blame all the problems on the Labour Government.
To be fair, the economy of south-east and east Kent—and, indeed, north Kent—was damaged by the closure of the mines in the 1980s, though I am not trying to make a partisan point about that. There is also the knock-on effect of the opening of the channel tunnel. Some Members have said that there has been no infrastructure investment in Kent, but I think that I am right in saying that the largest infrastructure investment in western Europe is located between London and the channel: it is called the channel tunnel link. Ashford International station was chosen as part of a regeneration—
The hon. Gentleman, who shouts from a sedentary position, is in danger of becoming the Chicken Licken of the Tory party. The channel tunnel link was a Conservative Government initiative, and the policy was that it should be paid for entirely and exclusively with private money. The scheme collapsed, and my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister negotiated a package to save it. Is the hon. Gentleman denying the Labour Government's crucial intervention to ensure the modernisation of the channel tunnel and the creation of a fast link? He virtually implied earlier that we are not allowed motorways up north. Goodness me! The idea that there are more motorways up north than down south is ridiculous.
The policy of this Government is that all areas should share in prosperity. I was asked for an assurance that there is no policy of northern bias by stealth, but that observation is based on the assumption—one could almost say prejudice—that up north we are all poor. The second richest county in the UK is Cheshire, and there are bits of the north and the north-west that are beautiful, just as there are bits of the south and south-east that are poor. In the run-up to the local government settlement, the special interest group of municipal authorities accused us of not giving money to the north and of giving it all to the southern softies. I apologise to SIGOMA; I was paraphrasing. Equally, southern authorities are accusing us of the reverse. However, the formulas are based not on geographical distribution, but on a genuine attempt to achieve fairness that is being made in the context of a rising tide. So I can give the assurance that has been sought on this issue, and if Members look at the figures, they will see that my point is borne out by the position of, say, Lancashire, in relation to other county councils. The Government's policy is based on the view that the differences within regions are as great, if not greater, than they are between regions. The poorest areas in the country are overwhelmingly in London, and some of the richest are in Cheshire and Yorkshire. A very fair point was made about pockets of poverty, and Mr. Brazier relayed his interesting conversation in the Tea Room about where it is better to be poor. I do not want to be drawn into that, because the truth is that there is a balance in this regard. It is more difficult to get a job in a poorer area, but I acknowledge that there are perhaps extra costs associated with living in a pocket of poverty in a richer area.
I can assure the House that the horribly titled super-output areas—a statistical description of how we measure deprivation—enable us to identify deprivation at a sub-ward level, and to provide a better analysis of the allocation of money. It is fair to point out that it would be wrong to assume that there are no pockets of deprivation in the better-off areas. The hon. Member for Sevenoaks said that my right hon. Friend Mr. Raynsford described Sevenoaks as an affluent area, and that that is why it is badly funded. Sevenoaks is a relatively well-off area, but there are no doubt pockets of poverty and deprivation within that. Our policy is to ensure that our funding formula addresses that. On the other side of the coin, I would not like to take the hon. Gentleman to, say, Knowsley and argue that point too strongly. The breadth and depth of deprivation in some towns and cities is significant, and the Government are successfully addressing that as well.
The hon. Gentleman said that my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich had said that Sevenoaks was being badly funded because it was affluent. I suspect that my right hon. Friend said that Sevenoaks had received an above-inflation funding increase, like everywhere else, but acknowledged that it was relatively less well-funded than other areas. I hope that I have made my point.
The hon. Gentleman made an important point about London weighting and said that pay policy and housing policy differed across sectors. One could say that that is simply a result of the bargaining mechanisms that we have. There is also a policy to try to ensure that more affordable housing is available for key workers. I recognise, however, that London weighting is a problem for areas on the outer ring of London. I would include in the equation the difficulties and differences resulting from the area cost adjustment. Incidentally, those systems were not set up by this Government, but the hon. Gentleman's point is worth careful consideration, and I thank him for it.
I do not want to go into too much detail on infrastructure. I do not accept the general premise that the Government have not invested in the infrastructure in Kent. On motorways, the other side of the coin would be the accusation from these Benches that Kent got its motorways first. We used to love coming down south and getting on their fast motorways. We waited from 1964 for the completion of the M60 around Greater Manchester. I was delighted to be there when it was opened and delighted that it was my Government who opened it. We did not build that motorway because it was up north; we built it because we wanted to improve the prosperity of the country and make everybody better off.
I have made the point about Ashford and the rail link. I hope that the House will acknowledge that investment in infrastructure has been substantial. Points have been made about the need for more water, sewerage, schools and so on, but planning policy, as updated by this Government—in PPS6, I think—acknowledges the point about infrastructure.
The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells made a point about the 1991 population statistics. It would be wrong of me to pre-empt the settlement. What I would say is that that is true for everyone, and not all the examples of new developments in south-east England—I have mentioned Herne bay—are the result of the ODPM's growth policy, but we do need to provide houses for people.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could clarify something on the record because it might help a lot. He has to accept that because of the general presumption that we need lots more houses in the south-east, local authorities are terrified of turning down planning applications on ground of lack of infrastructure. There is a fear that all a developer has to do is go to appeal, and because of the ODPM's attitude, the appeal is bound to be granted, at the local ratepayer's expense. Whether the development is designated by the Deputy Prime Minister is almost immaterial; the effect is the same.
I listened to the point that the hon. Gentleman makes as a constituency MP, and take it at face value. I hope that what he describes is not the case: it is certainly not the Government's policy to encourage such a development or such attitudes.
These matters are more appropriate for my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning, but we have talked about them on many occasions, in preparation for this debate and for others. I can assure the House that the Government do not intend to build anywhere and everywhere, including on the green belt. That is not our policy, and no such suggestion is borne out by the facts. However, the hon. Member for North Thanet used the word "fear", and that is something that we should look at.
Fear has no place in the process, but we must not forget that housing demand is led by changes in lifestyle, greater longevity and other factors. On the whole, it is not governed by population increase. There is therefore a knock-on effect for schools and care homes, and for the problem of old people from Islington being "dumped"—as the hon. Member for North Thanet termed it—in his constituency. We want good-quality care to be provided for all our old people.
Finally, I want to put on record some of the statistics that I promised earlier. In the past five years, Kent has received an annual average increase in formula grant of 5.4 per cent. In total, it has received an extra £200 million in grant over that period, on a like-for-like basis. That substantial annual increase is above the rate of inflation each year. Over the same period, Kent has increased council tax by an average of 7.4 per cent.
Moreover, Kent's provision of personal social services for adults this year amounts to some £278 million, up by 6.1 per cent. from last year. The county's allocation per head of population is £278. Cumulative growth in cash terms in the local authority since this Government took office has been 53.9 per cent.
The figures involved are clearly substantial. This year alone, Kent has received a 7 per cent. increase in total resources for children's social services. As a three-star social service authority, no part of Kent's social services resources is ring fenced, so the county can target those resources at the greatest need. I have listened to the arguments advanced by Opposition Members in this debate, but the background is that resources have been rising across the board.
I could give similar statistics for all the district authorities in the Kent area, but I shall concentrate on Tunbridge Wells, as the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells chose the topic for this Adjournment debate. In the past six years, there have been increases of 4.1, 4.3, 3.6, 3.7, 2.6 and 3.7 per cent, respectively. Those increases do not amount to a fortune, but they are above inflation.
The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells made some important points on his constituents' behalf that merit due consideration in discussions about the formula review. Representations have been made by Kent county council and the district councils in the area. They are being given due consideration and, as I said earlier, Kent county council is part of one of the working parties looking at how the formula works.
However, like the rest of the public sector, local authorities must constantly look for things that they can do differently to keep costs down. Opposition Members want to debate ways in which the central tax payer should pay more and more. They have come to accept that this Government's economic policy is so successful that there is more money, although I am sure that any proposal for tax increases by central Government would cause them to call more Adjournment debates on Thursday evenings, when once again they would pursue the Chicken Licken strategy.
Once more, I thank the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells, and congratulate him on securing this debate.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at half-past Six o'clock.