My hon. Friend raises an important point. We had occasion, before Christmas, to raise concerns with Birmingham city council, which, on its own say so, had failed to use the working neighbourhoods fund money in a timely manner. It is the right direction of travel to give freedoms to local authorities, but we have to make it clear that with those freedoms and flexibilities comes the responsibility to use public money well and wisely for local people.
The Government's record on funding is one of real achievement and real confidence in local government. There has been real change on the ground, backed by real investment. I suspect that this debate might not attract huge public attention across all the media, but it will be followed closely in council chambers across England. In this week, next week and the week after, councillors will meet in town halls and civic centres to set council tax. They will be considering the coming year and the years ahead. They will follow our debates with interest, not least because of the looming election and the possible consequences for local councils and council tax payers.
This Government's support for local government is not in doubt. The settlement comes on top of a 39 per cent. increase in real-terms funding that compares with the 7 per cent. real cut in the final four years of the previous Conservative Government.
I reject the claim in yesterday's edition of The Daily Telegraph from 35 Conservative council leaders that low council tax increases this year have nothing to do with the Government. They said that they had
"managed to keep taxes low in our authorities despite the efforts of John Denham and his department."
Those councillors should be grateful. In January last year, the Leader of the Opposition proposed cutting my Department's budget by £1 billion, of which it is certain that £240 million would have come from council budgets. So those 35 local authority leaders should at least be grateful that I protected them from the policies of their own political party.
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