I agree with the hon. Gentleman that variations up to a certain point can and should be the choice of the local authority, but it is the extent of those variations and people's varying expectations that were alluded to in the debate.
Over the past 12 years, after an initial period that hon. Members have rightly categorised as intensive and centrally directed targeting-designed to get services that in many cases were of varying quality to come together and for agreement to be reached on what quality was-central Government are changing gear and reducing the number of strategic performance measures and re-emphasising the importance of local leadership and local decision making. As a result, councils have been given greater powers and freedoms and, thanks to the first ever three-year settlement, greater financial stability.
I am glad that my hon. Friend Mr. Turner, whom I look forward to welcoming to the Department in the new year, recognises the benefits of this settlement and I am sure that he, like me, will discuss the benefits of rolling settlements with the Secretary of State in the new year.
We have also reduced ring-fencing and devolved powers, which, as I am sure my hon. Friend Mr. Drew-once a member of my local authority, Stevenage borough council-will agree, has allowed the proliferation of parish councils. That can only be a good thing. In my own constituency and region, they have really grown and begun to flex their muscles locally. These increased powers have also led to councils making and enforcing some byelaws and getting increased choices in the democratic processes, both electorally and on leadership matters.
As Robert Neill will be glad to hear and as he knows from previous interactions with me, discussions on the general power of competence are ongoing within Government. Although they are at a very early stage, this space is definitely worth watching. We are also looking at ways in which councils can raise money for specific local economic projects, and a great deal of work is being done-as yesterday's pre-Budget report alluded to-on ways in which councils can raise money with things such as tax increment financing, renewable heat and light incentives and feed-in tariff revenue streams.
Most recently, the Government introduced the Business Rate Supplements Act 2009, which only received Royal Assent last month, so that county and unitary authorities and the Greater London authority could retain the proceeds of a supplement levied on their business rates to invest in additional projects aimed at promoting economic development-I emphasise the words "economic development"-in their area. As some hon. Members mentioned, we have also introduced the business improvement districts.
We have given local councils an enhanced role in leading their communities, shaping their area and bringing their public services closer together. Indeed, since 2007, we have given this co-operation a statutory underpinning in the shape of local area agreements. Despite the remarks of the hon. Member for Mole Valley-in future we should call him the grand old duke of Mole Valley-we have reduced the performance management burden on local authorities, working alone or in partnership, by reducing the national indicator set to a suite of 188 measures and setting a cap of 35 on the designated improvement targets set by local area agreements. In 2011, we hope to review and consult on the indicators set and to reduce their number even further, and under sustainable communities legislation, citizens can put forward proposals for change in their areas through their local councils.
Alongside those improvements, we have introduced extended scrutiny arrangements to give local councils and their electorate a powerful tool with which to influence the decisions that affect their daily lives. Measures in the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 will further extend those, and we will use the Act to change the law to allow local authorities, and other "best value" organisations, to enter into much-needed mutual insurance schemes. In those and many other areas, the Government have demonstrated regularly how seriously they take their relationship with local government. Our ratification of the European charter of local self-government in our first 12 months in office is a good illustration of that commitment. The central-local partnership and the joint signature of the central-local concordat in December 2007 are further clear indications of the value that the Government place on their special relationship with local government.
The debate about the balance between central and local government is not, however, just an academic exercise; as I said earlier, it is about getting the highest quality services for local people. That is where the Total Place approach, as outlined in this week's White Paper, entitled "Putting the frontline first: smarter government", will help to make a real difference on the ground by giving local areas more control over what they spend their money on and by reducing burdens, especially where the cost of national performance monitoring, assessments and data collection outweighs the benefits to local areas.
Once again, and despite allegations, we have made a very serious attempt to reduce burdens, and I hope that in putting the front line first, we will go even further through the commitments to reduce burdens. Our measures to put the front line first will go hand in hand with a new drive to make more comparative performance data public and to allow the Government and the people to hold service providers to account for the safety, quality and cost of the services they provide. The new comprehensive area assessment, also announced this week, has a part in that openness and transparency. Unlike its predecessor-the comprehensive performance assessment-the CAA focuses on outcomes delivered by councils in partnership with other local service providers, rather than just on the performance of individual councils.
Despite councils in some areas performing very well, internally and externally, some areas have been flagged up-for example, my county council of Hertfordshire and the provision of social housing-as causing concern. Those areas have been given a red flag. Making data available to the public empowers the public. Total Place is a revolution and will revolutionise how we deliver public services locally, regionally and nationally. We are looking at a huge change, some of which I have seen beginning on the ground. And it works!
Places such as Margate are delivering a comprehensive range of services through the portal of the local library. People can go and talk about refuse or their housing benefit, or attend a sexual health clinic while simultaneously taking their children to the local library. I am glad to say that the number of children attending that library has trebled over the past few months. We are making a huge assessment of assets in areas such as Kent. It is this kind of drive-
Debate interrupted, and Question deferred (
The Deputy Speaker put the deferred Questions (
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