With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Government amendments 1 and 2.
Amendment 44, page 11, line 32, at end add—
‘(5) Such an amount should only be paid in place of other grants to local government if the Secretary of State is satisfied that the overall needs of local government will be met.’.
Amendment 45, page 11, line 32, at end add—
‘(5) The amount debited under subsection (3) must not be greater than any amount debited under subsection (3) for the previous financial year.’.
Amendment 19, page 12, line 20, at end insert—
(c) in determining the central share and the local share for any relevant authority, the Secretary of State must have regard to—
(i) the level of need in that authority,
(ii) the likely capacity of the authority to benefit from business rate growth, and
(iii) the council tax base of the authority.
Any assessment of the level of need in the authority shall include—
(iv) the ranking of the local authority in the Index of Multiple Deprivation,
(v) the level of unemployment within the authority’s area,
(vi) the proportion of adults with a limiting long-term illness within the authority’s area,
(vii) the number of adults in receipt of social care within the authority’s area,
(viii) the number of looked-after children within the authority, and
(ix) the level of child poverty within the authority’s area.’.
Amendment 37, page 12, line 20, at end insert—
(c) The Secretary of State must for each year, and for the subsequent two years in relation to each billing authority in England, determine an indicative share for the subsequent two years.’.
Amendment 38, page 12, line 20, at end insert—
(c) the percentages referred to in (a) and (b) above shall be determined following full consultation with local government.’.
Amendment 36, page 13, leave out lines 1 to 4.
Amendment 39, page 15, line 17, leave out from ‘must’ to end of line 19 and insert ‘prepare and publish an assessment of the level of need in each local authority, as defined in paragraph 4(c) above. The Secretary of State must—
(a) lay the report containing the assessment before the House at least 14 sitting days in advance of the publication of the Local Government Finance Report, and
(b) notify such representatives of local government as the Secretary of State thinks fit of the publication of the report on need and the detail of the basis of calculation in the Local Government Finance Report.’.
Amendment 26, page 17, line 37, at end insert—
‘(4A) The Secretary of State must also lay before the House of Commons his or her assessment of the impact which any such report will have on the level of service provision in any local authority to which it applies.
It is a pleasure to serve on this Committee of the whole House under your chairmanship, Mr. Robertson, and that of your colleague, Mr. Amess.
Amendment 46 is a probing amendment in an important group of amendments that the Committee will discuss. I have a number of questions for the Minister, which I hope he will be able to answer when he replies, but if not, I hope that he will answer in writing, as would usually be the case. I notice that two of the amendments are among the 17 that the Government have already tabled at this very early stage to their own Bill. In this case they correct not just drafting errors, but quite serious errors in basic sums. The Minister can speak to those himself when he contributes to the debate.
Amendment 46 and the rest of the group reflect four consistent concerns about this part of the Bill on business rates. First, it will create a greater uncertainty for local government in its flow of funding and its ability to plan financially, and therefore its capacity to cope with the funding squeeze now and foreseeably in the next few years. It undermines an essential stability in funding for sensible longer-term planning and sensible long-term service reform and change.
Secondly, the amendments reflect the distrust of central Government with regard to the use of the business rates funding stream as a cash cow to help to cover the cost of failures in economic policy when revenue streams from other sources fall off, as we have seen during the last 12 months.
Thirdly, they reflect unease that central Government will make decisions without local authorities, the people affected or this House being properly consulted or given an opportunity to make their views known as part of the process. Fourthly, they reflect a concern that many of the most important decisions in the operation of the new system will be made by central Government, rather than local government. I recognise that there is localisation in the Bill, but too much of it is the localisation of risk and responsibility, rather than of resources, and too much of it is central Government offloading blame for potential service cuts and service failures in future.
The all-party Local Government Association has stated:
“What councils, their residents and local businesses want is a fair and simple funding system that gives councils greater financial autonomy, supports local services and encourages economic growth.”
We all back that aspiration, but there are doubts that the Bill will achieve any of those aims effectively, let alone all of them. London Councils, which supports the changes in principle, is even more direct in its criticisms. Among its reservations, it states in a briefing for Members that
“the Bill as drafted creates a fiendishly complex system in which the level of the business rate incentive is uncertain and unpredictable—this undermines entirely the Government’s aims of promoting local economic growth via the business rate base and delivering a clear link between local authorities and local businesses.”
The concern at the heart of amendment 46 relates to the difference between the total payments from local businesses via local authorities in respect of the central share, set out in schedule 1 in proposed new paragraph 2(1)(c), and the central allocation of those funds for local government use, set out in proposed new paragraph 2(4). The concern is that the difference between those two totals will in future be taken by the Treasury. The concern is shared by the normally cautious LGA, which states:
“Local Government will not have access to the full real terms growth in business rates in 2013-14 and 2014-15 through the mechanism of the ‘set-aside’ even though they will now use proportional shares rather than a government forecast.”
However, my concern is about what will happen beyond 2014. On that point, the LGA states:
“The Government’s proposals indicate that the set-aside will continue beyond 2015. There is little rationale for this, as the main justification for the set-aside was to ensure that the scheme functions within the spending control totals issued in 2010”— meaning the Government’s spending review—
“and therefore works alongside the deficit reduction programme. Continuing the set aside beyond this point reduces the incentive to grow business rates and acts as a form of central government control in a system which is designed to do the opposite.”
That means that in future a locally raised revenue stream will be appropriated centrally to cover costs currently borne by the national Government. In other words, it will create a slush fund for the Chancellor for the first time in 2015, which incidentally is likely to be a general election year.
I have several further questions for the Minister. What is the projected yield from business rates in 2015 and for each of the following five years? Secondly, what falls within the definition of
“for the purposes of local government in England”?
Those are the purposes for which the Bill allows the Government to use any surplus yield. Thirdly, what guarantee is there that the Government will not use this funding stream as a substitute to cover the costs of their current funding responsibilities in policing, employment support services, skills, national housing investment, universities, particularly to support innovation and research and development, health, in particular to cover the costs of elderly people, or housing benefit? What guarantee is there that local business funding, via local authorities, which is designed to pay for local services in the first instance, will not be used to substitute for those central Government costs?
The Bill contains a big change that is being forced through too fast. It is a reform that builds unfairness into the system like a ratchet. It means that in future, essential local services such as care for the elderly and for vulnerable children, street cleaning, waste collection, road maintenance, and fire and rescue services will no longer be funded on the basis of need or population, but on the basis of the ability to raise tax and pay for the costs locally.
If an area faces the wholesale closure of some of its industries, that obviously creates demand for the local authority’s services. Is it not a fact that such a local authority will lose money by the transfer to central Government and through the loss of business rates, and will therefore be less able to respond to the needs that are created by the wholesale closure of those industries, which we have seen in parts of the country?
My hon. Friend, as a former leader of St Helens council, knows a great deal about the local government finance system and the pressures on local government. He may not have heard my right hon. Friend Mr Raynsford in the last debate refer to what has just been described as a double whammy. In other words, there may be a loss of potential income at the same time as, and as a result of, the event that causes a greater need and demand for the services that have to be funded through that revenue stream. That is a concern.
I want to ensure that the Committee is clear that this is a fundamental shift in the basis of our funding calculations and in what local councils in England have to spend. The system will no longer work on the basis of need. It will not take account of the fact that there are three times as many looked-after children in South Tyneside as in Surrey or that there are five times as many children in poverty in Middlesbrough as in Wokingham. It will not take into account the capacity of a local area to raise resources, in particular through council tax. It will not take into account the fact that Bexley and Barnsley have a similar population, but that Bexley raises £37 million more in council tax each year. It will take no account of the fact that Brent has a similar population to Rotherham, but raises £22 million more each year in council tax.
Is my right hon. Friend surprised that we are returning to having a Conservative Government who are quite clear that they will reward the areas that vote for them and write off whole swathes of the country, including the north-east?
Like my hon. Friend, I am not surprised by that. I seriously question whether the scheme will work even on its own terms, but I support the principle of a system that provides some rewards and incentives to local authorities so that they better support growth in business, jobs and the economy. The cost of doing that in the Bill and under the new system is very great given that they take no account of need or resources, and do away with the decades-old principle of equalisation.
The right hon. Gentleman knows the high regard in which I hold him from when he was in his former positions in the Treasury and the Department for Communities and Local Government. We had fruitful conversations when he was a Minister and I was leader of a large council. However, I must tell him that Bexley has to raise so much more money than Barnsley because when he was a Minister, he fiddled with the equalisation formula to force affluent southern councils to raise council tax to subsidise northern councils. That is why there is such inequality.
The hon. Gentleman has a lot of experience of local government and was a distinguished leader of a council in north, not south London. However, no one could not tell that from the comment that he has just made. As to my fiddling the figures in the local government formula, my goodness, many people say that Labour should have learned many more lessons more clearly from the extent to which the Tories did that before 1997.
Before the previous intervention, I think the right hon. Gentleman was comparing council tax raised in the London borough of Brent with that in the unitary authority of Barnsley. Has he got figures for looked-after children in those two boroughs? I assure him that the London borough of Brent includes some of the most deprived areas in the whole country and, sadly, huge numbers of looked-after children.
The very point that I am making is that the current system, complex as it is, takes account of resources—an area’s capacity to raise revenue, especially through council tax—as well as the needs of the population in that area for the essential services that local authorities provide. The formula covers both and is based on the principle that I outlined.
If the Government were truly serious about taking need and the ability to raise funds into account, they would have had an independent assessment, outside the political arena, to ensure that grants for local authorities in future reflected need. Comments from the Government Members are always about how much one local authority gets compared with another, and always ignore need. The reason for higher funding is that the need exists.
Whatever side of the House we are on, we should endorse the principle that objective, sometimes independent, assessment is the basis for better decisions.
I have never been one for saying that important decisions, which should be taken by politicians, who then are accountable for them, should necessarily be outsourced to independent experts who do not have the direct accountability that we and members of the Government have, but my hon. Friend makes an important point that is relevant to our discussions. It is impossible to make any sensible assessment, let alone a sound, independent assessment, of what the system will mean for the future. That makes our discussions and the decisions that we are required to make as members of the Committee difficult. We are making big decisions, largely in the dark, and we are being asked to give members of the Government significant regulation-making powers that will define the most important dimensions of the way in which the system works and what is available for people in different areas.
I want to underline the point that spending to meet increased need in future will have to be funded by the business rates increase. The council tax freeze and referendum start to remove that as a realistic alternative source of additional funds.
I am in the Committee as much to learn as to speak to the amendments and would welcome a refresher. The right hon. Gentleman makes the case that there is no accounting of need in the future funding system. My reading of the Bill is that there is. He can argue that the reset period is too long, but there is a reset period—of 10 years—and therefore, need will be reassessed. Likewise, there is a safety net, such that if the business rate increase in a certain area goes a certain amount below the retail prices index, the Government will intervene. Is that not the same as a needs assessment?
The hon. Gentleman is right—there will be resets—but we do not know after what period or on what basis, so there is no guarantee that the accounting of need in the current system, which will be frozen at the point when the new system starts, will be reflected in a formula for, assessment of, or decisions on resetting. He might want to pursue that point with his hon. Friend the Minister.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, but does he share my concern that, if, as is suggested, the reset period is set at 10 years, the gap between the poorest and the most affluent authorities will widen and the disparities will worsen in that period? Does that not reinforce his argument that need must be a fundamental part of the overall formula, as does the capacity to raise additional income using the council tax and the council tax base?
My hon. Friend is right—I am about to make a similar point on relatively affluent areas becoming relatively more affluent under the proposed system.
The Government’s declared intention is for a 10-year gap between resets. I have my doubts about whether a reset after that period will be capable of restoring a proper reflection of need or a proper fairness in the system. We will speak later to amendments that would create much shorter reset periods, but they would not change fundamentally how the system will work to build in an advantage for already affluent areas with a higher business base. That advantage will just get bigger over the period between resets.
It is very easy to talk about resets here and now as an academic exercise, but when the time comes to do something that fundamentally alters the tax take of different authorities up and down the country, Governments of any persuasion might think twice. We should perhaps think of the history of council tax revaluations. They are not easy, but they have an impact on individual councils, and they are sometimes dismissed.
My hon. Friend is really saying that we have not had a council tax revaluation. The problem he describes is a problem for any Government, but Governments will experience a similar problem with business rates as a result of the Bill.
My hon. Friend rightly talks of the unfairness of the possible reset in 10 years’ time exacerbating the problems for local authorities, particularly those such as mine, which need the ability to raise income locally and for acute local needs, such as those in Tameside and the Reddish part of Stockport, to be reflected.
In fact, is it not worse than that for such areas? There is almost a double-whammy. For those authorities, we must not only get the reset procedure right, but set the initial baseline correctly. All of that is based on the unfair funding settlements and cuts to local authorities such as Tameside and Stockport, but if we get the procedure and the baseline wrong, 10 years down the line, the real unfairness will set in.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. It is certainly clear from how the cuts to local government have fallen in this Government’s first two years that certain areas, including his and mine, have borne a much greater burden than others.
The other part of the double whammy, to use my hon. Friend’s expression, is designed into the system, and it should give the Committee cause for concern. It is that the local distribution of the business rates is very uneven. For instance, Kensington and Chelsea has a much smaller population than Rotherham or Barnsley—I represent part of both those boroughs—but raises five times as much in business rates as Barnsley and three and a half times as much as Rotherham.
The opportunities to grow the business base are also uneven. I have looked back at the latest gross value added statistics published by the Office for National Statistics just before Christmas. Last year’s figures showed a difference of more than 3% between growth in London and that in Lincolnshire, Cornwall or Merseyside. In other words, it is clear that from year one the gap between affluent and less affluent areas will grow. The business rates base, and therefore income for councils, will grow faster in some areas than others, as it has in the past.
Even if there were the same rate of growth in all areas, the relative size of the business base income, which is higher for some councils than others, would mean a greater actual cash income for some councils. The top-up and tariff system that the Government are designing will reduce, but not remove, that disparity. If it did remove it, it would remove the incentive element that they want to build into the system.
Having been a local government Minister for two years, introduced the first ever three-year settlement for local government and altered the formula to better reflect needs and resources, I know that there are always winners and losers from any change. The whole House knows that. However, the councils that have a big business rates base, a strong council tax take and high levels of growth will be win-win-win councils, and those that do not will find that they are lose-lose-lose councils. That is the unfairness that is built into the design of the new system. It will increase divisions and tensions in our country.
Does the right hon. Gentleman not recognise that the current system also has a whole lot of disincentives for local authorities built into it? Over years gone by, it has disincentivised many local authorities. It is perhaps all too easy to make comparisons between relatively affluent central London authorities and those in relatively long-term impoverished areas of the north of England, but the scheme that is being put in place is intended to challenge those disincentives. Although I accept that elements of it will not provide as much transparency as many of us would like, it is at least a step in the right direction.
The extent to which it is a step in the right direction remains to be seen. There is an element of its direction that is right, which is the desire to see greater incentives for local councils to support the growth of their business base, and greater rewards for doing so. How those incentives will work is weak and potentially perverse, but the principle is nevertheless in the right direction. The potential practical problems that we are beginning to tease out are part of the debate that we need to have.
My right hon. Friend is being incredibly generous in giving way. Is there not another problem that has not been properly addressed in the legislation? It takes no account of the complexities of sub-regional economies. For example, many of my constituents in Tameside and Stockport work in the city of Manchester or other local authorities. The scope for economic development in Greater Manchester is concentrated in the city centre, around Manchester airport, Trafford park, the Trafford centre, the media city and Salford quays, and not necessarily in Tameside or Stockport to the same extent. Although there are facilities for pooling business rates where local authorities agree, if they do not agree, will not authorities such as mine be disadvantaged?
My right hon. Friend is being generous with his time. I want to add a third whammy and take up the point made by my hon. Friend Andrew Gwynne. Large parts of the country will have no incentive at all because they are in shire and district areas, where the district authorities will probably be the planning authorities that will make the business decisions, yet the shire authorities deliver 85% of services, including fire and police services, and might have little say in how much they take from business rates in terms of business growth. It will be difficult for them to increase their base if district authorities act unproductively or do not co-operate.
My hon. Friend is right, and I suspect that it will be one of the Minister’s biggest headaches in the system. I doubt whether he will come to the conclusion—although perhaps he should—that the real answer is unitary authorities across the country. [Interruption.] But I sense that I may be tempted into territory that falls well beyond my amendment and the whole group of amendments.
My right hon. Friend was talking about the principles and practicalities at the heart of the Bill. Does he agree that the real problem is that because the proposed system is so complicated—with central and local shares, top-ups, tariffs, set-asides, safety nets and levies—the incentive for a local authority to do anything differently could be marginal? Even if we accept that the incentive is there, it is so complicated that councils will not be sure whether it will be worth doing something differently anyway. Is that not the real problem?
My hon. Friend is right. She made that point powerfully last week in her Second Reading speech, which was one of the best that the House heard. Whether for children or councils, incentives need to be simple, and the rewards and rules need to be clear, but the system that the Bill will introduce falls far short of those basic objectives for any system of rewards and incentives.
Is there not another issue here for the local authorities with the lowest business rates take? The Government have indicated that they believe that those local authorities have low business rates take because they are not interested in developing businesses and do not do all that they can to attract businesses to their areas. Does my right hon. Friend consider that perverse, given the problems in areas such as St Helens and many others, including his own? The major concern of local authorities in those areas is to bring in as many jobs as possible, but because of their location, the skills base and other things, it is extremely difficult. It is insulting for the Government to pretend that it is because of a lack of effort by local authorities.
A number of colleagues have made that point, about local government in general and their local authorities in particular. It is hard to point the finger at any council and say that it has not bust a gut in recent years to see its economy grow and jobs created, because that is to the benefit of their local area and the local people they serve, and that would also be the view of most Members. I still think there is a case for trying to design a system that rewards local people, via their local councils, where they are successful in that. Under the last Government, we attempted to do that through the local authority business growth incentive scheme. The system that we are now discussing is clearly a new way of doing that, but its fundamental flaw is that it tries to fix the whole funding system for local government at the same time as using the same, single tax stream to create that incentive. The new system is trying to do too much with that one funding system, creating contradictions and tensions, which lead to the sort of complexities that the Minister is trying to counter in the design of the system.
My right hon. Friend makes the point about the new system trying to do too much, which goes back to what my hon. Friend Mr Watts said. The evidence is that the potential economic impact of local councils in trying to develop business locally is perhaps only 20% of the total impact, with far more of the impact coming from the private sector. The new system is putting an awful lot of responsibility on to local government for generating new business, therefore putting a huge responsibility for the generation of business rates on to local authorities, when there is relatively little that they can do, particularly in areas such as St Helens or Sefton, or my right hon. Friend’s area.
My hon. Friend is right. One of the strengths of this debate, as shown by contributions from all parts of the Committee, is exemplified by what he has just said. He has served as a councillor in north Kent and brings that experience and perspective to this debate. He now serves as the Member for Sefton Central, in the north-west of England, and also brings that perspective, reinforcing his point.
I want to draw the Minister’s attention to the future position of fire and rescue services. Can he provide me and other Members who are interested with details about his modelling and assessment of future revenue streams? Can he say how many and which fire authorities will be top-up authorities in future, and how many and which will be tariff authorities? There is concern among senior fire staff that if the incentive that this system is designed to deliver works as the Government say it will, the top priority for councils in the future will be those functions for which they are responsible that help to build business growth. However, those who serve in our fire and rescue services—services that do not directly contribute to economic and business growth—are concerned that a consequence of that will be that in future they will not get the priority for funding that the proper protection of their area may deserve because they do not contribute to business growth. Let me quote a chief fire officer who fears that that may—but not necessarily will—happen. He says:
“I am concerned that the proposed funding model could foster an antagonistic relationship between the fire authority and the local authorities if they begin to see us as a service which takes money from the business rates but does not actively participate in the business growth agenda.”
There is a strong case for fire and rescue services to be funded in future on the same basis as the police, with a very clear, consistent and comprehensive assessment of risk, need and resources built into the allocation of funding for fire services in England. What we start to see with the fire and rescue services, in common with the rest of local government, is concern about the uncertainty—what it means, what the funding is likely to be and how hard it makes it to plan sensibly for the future, particularly the ability to plan and manage within diminishing resources, which by and large is accepted. As another senior fire officer told me, stability is the most important factor. The Minister could do the
Committee and many in local government a favour by giving a clear and strong reassurance this afternoon about the stability and predictability of the system in future.
I am conscious that there are a number of other amendments in the group and that other right hon. and hon. Members want to speak to them, so let me return to my starting-point of amendment 46. It is a probing amendment, but it contains a proposal that all revenue raised from what is a tax on businesses designed to pay for local services should provide funds for local government—not for national priorities or services around which the cloak of local government can be loosely thrown at their funding streams and categorised as local government. Post 2015, this will build in a real localising ratchet. Post 2015, when the business rates take is projected to be bigger than the sums distributed to local councils, it will mean that where central Government want to use funds to cover non-council services, they will have to transfer the responsibility and devolve the power and control for those services to local government in order to use the business rates revenue to help fund them. Thus my proposal will mean Ministers truly putting their money where their mouths are. It will mean putting into reverse the post-war centralisation of government that this country has seen, and it will mean making the localist rhetoric a reality.
I am not entirely convinced that we are debating quite as revolutionary a change in local government finance as John Healey would have us believe. As he rightly says, there has been periodic centralisation of local government finance in the post-war period; this Bill is a step, but only a relatively small step, in a different direction.
I am concerned that some provisions will not provide the overall transparency that all of us desire for local government finance. The worry, as we all know, is that council leaders across the country who get and understand the system will then work it to the benefit of their own local authorities, while neighbouring authorities with similar sets of needs will not reap the same benefits. I believe that has been the case since time immemorial, and I suspect it is a problem that exists in any political system. However much we try, it is difficult to discount the articulacy of those who understand and work a system. As I say, I am not as convinced or as concerned as the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne. I hope he will forgive me if I focus my comments on issues that have come from the lobbying of one of the two local authorities in my constituency, and in so far as we work here, we all have a vested interest in this authority—Westminster city council.
Is not the real worry that unless a duty and responsibility are placed on Ministers to ensure that needs are assessed and catered for within the grant system, which under these proposals they will not be, the worst aspects of the hon. Gentleman’s worst fears might come to fruition?
There is a duty, although it will apply to potentially different sets of needs. I think one of the most destructive elements of local government has been the almost constant lobbying—whether it be for three-year settlements or the annual settlements of the past. Although we might return, well before 2022, to specific concerns about elements of need that have rightly been referred to, the idea of having a 10-year period is a positive route forward in providing certainty for local authorities.
Westminster city council strongly supports the principle of allowing local authorities to retain a proportion of the business rates generated in their area—no one seriously suggests that either of my two local authorities should retain all their business rates, although there are common councilmen in the City of London, and members of Westminster city council, I am sure, who would rather like the idea, but even I would not suggest that that would necessarily be an entirely sensible way forward. As other Members have rightly pointed out, local authorities have played an increasingly important and integral role in supporting and growing businesses locally.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for acknowledging that the most wealthy local authorities, in terms of business rates, could not possibly keep all those rates. What sensible balance can be struck to ensure that some local authorities do not struggle because of loss of income and that local authorities who are worried, for good reason, have their fears allayed?
I will be coming to that later, and will be asking the Minister to clarify the matter.
I would like the Minister to address a number of concerns. Why have the Government decided to cancel out any natural inflationary growth in the business rates programme? Why are increases in what might be described as revaluation growth not included in the Bill? A major revaluation has particularly affected London local authorities in recent years. Why does the Bill fail to provide for an adjustment in the growth calculation, in order to remove the negative effect of valuation appeals, which might become much more prevalent once the Bill is on the statute book? Under the proposed reforms, every local authority, as has been pointed out, will become a tariff—contributory—or top-up recipient authority, relative to its annual grant. In that regard, I take on board the comments of the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne in relation to the responsibilities on fire authorities. One key question considered through the consultation was whether tariffs and top-ups should be uprated annually by the retail prices index. As the Minister knows, the Bill proposes that business rates will continue to be uprated annually, but taking the same approach to tariffs and top-ups would cancel out any natural inflationary growth that might otherwise have been expected by local authorities.
Why have the Government decided to cancel out natural inflationary growth in business rates? The clauses in the Bill that are subject to consideration today do not allow for revaluation growth, which is regrettable. Inevitably, all Members will use the examples closest to our hearts—our own local authority areas. Westminster city council’s total rateable value at the last five-year revaluation—18 months or so ago—rose by some 60%, but the proposed reforms would allow for none of that increase to count towards growth. In many ways, that is a disincentive to doing a lot of the hard work that went on in the second half of the last decade. As a result, local authorities would receive no benefit for enhancing their commercial environment or making their area a more attractive location for businesses. Having pacesetter authorities with business improvement districts in place at the outset was one of the most important elements of the previous Government’s work in that regard. Such authorities will be almost disincentivised and penalised under the proposals, which does not make much sense.
Given that rental and rateable value growth reflect the relative profitability from which central Government benefit through VAT, corporation tax and income tax, will the Minister clarify the reasons why increases in revaluation growth have not been included in the Bill? On physical growth, one key principle of the scheme, as I understand it, is to enable local authorities to benefit from new building and construction. However, as the Minister knows—although he represents a suburban London constituency—here in the capital, the high levels of rateable value reductions that are granted on appeal often wipe out the physical rateable value growth that has been achieved through new build. A great many appeals may be heard following revaluations, and as they are accepted the total rateable value in a billing may be reduced over time. Since those reductions result from errors made by central Government valuation officers, it seems unfair to penalise local authorities for such mis-valuations. We should also note the uncertainty that would be injected into the final settlement, given that one of the main aims of the scheme is to iron out such uncertainty.
Despite earlier assurances, the Government have failed to provide for any adjustment in the growth calculation to remove the negative effect of appeals, although—dare I say—given the difficult economic constraints that we are experiencing, I fear that there will be an exponential increase in the number of such appeals. It is estimated that Westminster city council has achieved an annual physical growth of about £30 million in rateable value per annum over the last five years, but failure to remove the negative effect of appeals will mean the loss of much of the benefit of that growth, and I suspect that we will hear similar stories from other Members. It is also possible that a significant number of appeals will be processed in 2013-14 and 2014-15 once the valuation office has completed its appeals programme for the 2010 revaluation, and that too could have a significant impact on the final settlement. I believe that the only option for local authorities will be to achieve growth through the adjustment of business rate allowances. The only allowances that authorities are currently permitted to control are discretionary reliefs for charities and non-profit-making bodies, and hardship relief.
When authorities suffer a significant loss in business rate revenue, there will surely be a downward pressure on what the Prime Minister would describe as the big society, in which rate relief is given to charities, sports clubs and all sorts of other organisations that do social good. In the poorer, more deprived areas that will lose out under the new system, will not those organisations will lose out as well?
The hon. Gentleman has almost taken the words out of my mouth. Given the Government’s commitment to the big society and to empowering the organisations about which he has expressed concern, removing discretionary awards would be controversial, and—given that they account for only a small proportion of the business rates that are collected—of little use. I hope that we can be given some clarification about why the Bill fails to provide for any adjustment in the growth calculation to remove the negative effect on valuation appeals.
I do not wish to sound too negative myself. Obviously we are trying to make the legislation better, and I think that the principle of allowing local authorities to retain a greater proportion of the business rates that they generate in their areas is a positive step. Nevertheless, the detailed proposals relating to RPI increases, revaluation and physical growth fail to offer the incentives for growth in high-yield areas for which we had all hoped, and I fear that they may result in excessive penalties for such areas. I realise that Opposition Members may view the issue from the point of view of relatively low-yield areas, but I think there is a risk that high-yield areas will not receive benefits for themselves and that, as a consequence, the Exchequer will not receive them either.
Encouraging economic growth at any level is critical to the national economy. Local authorities are uniquely placed to provide incentives for growth in their areas, recognising what will work even in specific parts of a single authority area—I observe a great variance within the 6.5 square miles of my own constituency—and that creates a bedrock for the national economy. I hope that serious scrutiny will be given to the reasons for the Government’s proposals, in the light of some of their potentially negative implications for areas that would be expected to generate the most significant growth.
Let me take up the point made by Andrew Gwynne about pooling. We are living in a climate in which it will become the norm. I do not wish to pre-empt discussion of a subject that I am sure will be subject to much criticism and debate on the Floor of the House in the years to come, but I suspect that there will also be a reorganisation of local government. I foresee that in particular for London. It currently has 32 local authorities as well as the City of London, and that situation may well be subject to radical reform in the near future.
I hope the Minister gives serious thought to encouraging the pooling of resources. As he will know, in my area the tri-borough arrangements among the City of Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, and Hammersmith and Fulham have worked well in a number of respect, and it is to be hoped that that continues.
It is in the interests of central Government for there to be pooling, but I fear that the proposals in paragraph 9 of schedule 1 will serve to remove any form of incentive for it. I accept that there will be some additional costs, but pooling is the way forward for many local authorities and the Government should encourage it in this Bill.
I am broadly in favour of the proposals, but I hope the Minister gives serious consideration to the points I have made.
It is a pleasure to follow Mark Field, who always has something interesting to say even though I might disagree with him.
My right hon. Friend John Healey gave an excellent speech, in which he set out the reasoning behind the amendments. Our amendments attempt to deal with important omissions in the Bill. There is no mention of levels of need, of the different capacities of local authorities to benefit from business rate growth, or of the different council tax bases of local authorities.
The Government present their case in a way that suggests that there is no difference among authorities, in that they all have the same capacity to raise income and have the same demands on them, and that if a local authority is struggling, it is its own fault and a result of its being lax, rather than of the conditions it has inherited. Everyone knows that that is a myth, but some people are deeply attached to it.
We must acknowledge that the current, admittedly complex, system of local government finance does at least try to take into account the relative needs of different communities and their differing abilities to raise revenue. The Government have sought to erode that in their current local government finance settlement, and the consequent significant reduction in resource equalisation has led to local authorities no longer being able to provide the same level of service by charging the same band of council tax. As a result, the delivery of core services in poorer areas has been hit particularly hard. Despite the Prime Minister’s repeated reassurances, we are not all in this together.
The point I have made is very important, because it is about the base from which this scheme starts. Let me make it clear that we are not against incentives for local authorities to grow their economies.
Does my hon. Friend agree that her point is one of the reasons that the Government do not want any independent assessment of the implications of what they have already done and of what they now propose to do? An assessment would demonstrate that poorer authorities have got poorer and that the richer have got richer.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. When discussing the first group of amendments we said that the fact that this Bill is not going into Committee upstairs means that we cannot take evidence on anything. The Government mindset seems to be, “Let’s get it in, push it through and not bother to have any proper assessment of it.”
The local government finance system may not be quite as complicated as the Schleswig-Holstein question, but is it not a concern that it is none the less very difficult to find anyone who could seriously be said to be independent in this regard? Although I can understand some of the concerns outlined by Mr Watts, having an opportunity to discuss this on the Floor of the House means that more Members can have their say, and that must be a positive step forward.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, although I do not believe it is impossible to find independent people in the sector and of course the Government could have taken the Bill into Public Bill Committee and taken evidence, and then had a long Report stage on the Floor of the House to enable Members to participate.
To go back to my point, we are not against providing incentives for local authorities, but we do not believe that this Bill goes about it in the right way. We believe that any system has to be fair and equitable, and must recognise that weaker local economies find it harder to achieve growth and need help to do so. The Government have signally failed to recognise their responsibilities in that regard and we are faced with a “Leave it to Pickles” Bill. The Secretary of State is going to decide who gets what on the top-ups, the tariffs and so on. That is all being left to regulations, with no indication given as to the factors that he will take into account. As I keep saying, there are no draft regulations for us to look at.
I apologise for not being able to be here for the earlier part of the debate. My hon. Friend knows my constituency well. Does she agree that unless we make a provision along the lines of amendment 19, which deals with need, the capacity to benefit from business rate growth and the council tax base of the authority, areas such as Knowsley are likely to be badly penalised?
My right hon. Friend, who has been a doughty champion of his constituency for many years, hits on exactly the point that we are trying to make: unless the distribution of the central and local share is based on a number of factors, inequality will be built into the system—indeed, it is built in already because of the starting point. We do not believe that this approach is good enough. The future of communities and of the services available, particularly to the poorest people in this country, cannot simply be left to chance. If the Government believe in fairness and really believe that they would take into account the factors we mention in any case in determining central and local shares, I cannot see why they would have a problem in accepting our amendment. After all, the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister told us during their now forgotten love-in back in May 2010, before the romance had gone and they started squabbling, that they
“will ensure that fairness is at the heart of…decisions so that all those most in need are protected.”
That is all we are asking for in this amendment and the others that follow it.
Unfortunately, the Bill does not provide that fairness. If it goes through as drafted, service provision will, as my right hon. Friend John Healey said, increasingly be based on the ability to raise local business rates and council tax. As council tax increases will often be subject to a referendum, most of the demand will be put on local business rates.
Does my hon. Friend also recognise that, for authorities such as South Tyneside council, which has nearly 50% of its properties in band A—that compares with a figure of 2% for Kensington and Chelsea—the existing system makes it more difficult to raise any additional money from the domestic side of the rates?
Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is one of the reasons for including the council tax base as one of the measures that ought to be taken into account. I shall say a little more about that later.
My hon. Friend is very generous in giving way and I am grateful for that. Let me extend that point and return to those made about shires and districts. Where is the incentive in a scenario in which there are a large number of band A properties, for which council tax cannot be used, and in which the receipt will be only 15%, such as in my district authority? It seems to me that the system has not been thought out.
My hon. Friend has hit on another flaw in the Bill and that is one reason for our complaining earlier about it being rushed through. Such matters need to be considered in detail.
If service provision is to be increasingly based on the ability to raise local business rates and council tax, this Bill has nothing to say about the levels of need. For example, parts of the area I represent used to be heavily industrialised. It is now a mixed area because a new town was built, but part of it was a mining community and we had heavy industry. Many other local authorities have much worse problems than my area, but all those areas are still dealing with the long-term health issues linked to heavy industry and poverty. That is why in an area such as Halton, a neighbouring authority to mine, one in five of the population has a limiting long-term illness. That is why the north-east has higher levels of deprivation, child poverty and poor health than the English average. Sunderland, for example, has 34 neighbourhoods that are in the top 10% most deprived areas of the country. The legacy of poor health, deprivation and poverty is what many local councils are constantly striving to deal with. There is no lack of effort on their part or lack of will. The failure is not theirs, but results from a long industrial heritage followed by the collapse of much heavy industry in the ’80s and ’90s.
My hon. Friend is making a very good point; there is a risk in the system. She mentioned Sunderland—not my area—and Nissan is a very large employer in that region. Who is to say that in five years’ time the company will still be present there?
Indeed—my hon. Friend makes a very good point. Later, we will debate the provisions for safety nets and how the Bill can cope with risks.
Will not some of the disparities about which my hon. Friend is talking be exacerbated by the new system? The analysis from the special interest group of municipal authorities—SIGOMA—shows that there will be an absolute decline over the next two years in funding across all local authority areas, that by 2015-16 some of those authorities will have recovered their position and that by 2020 there will be a huge disparity between the most rich and the most poor.
My hon. Friend highlights a real risk of the Bill. All the modelling shows that the gap between rich and poor will become wider. That is a problem because, in my experience, local authorities have worked relentlessly to tackle these issues and to regenerate their communities. It is a long-term project, however, and it is much more difficult in some areas than in others for a whole host of reasons, including poverty, a local authority’s inheritance, its location and so on.
Some years ago, I was an assistant director of education in the city of Sunderland and, despite its massive challenges, the attainment of the children was well above that of their statistical neighbours and was close to the national average. That demonstrates that such places can have massive challenges but still deliver well for their communities.
My hon. Friend highlights the role of local authorities in achieving such gains. I believe that those authorities are constantly working to improve things for their communities and that the assumption underlying much of this Bill—that they do not want to do that—is simply untrue.
Returning to the issue of need, Durham council spends more on older people than a similar council such as Surrey because it has higher levels of deprivation and ill health. That means not only that it faces a greater requirement for social care but that it has fewer people who are able to finance their own care. Fifteen times as many people per 1,000 population receive a community service in Durham compared with Surrey, and 2.4 times as many receive a home care service. That kind of variation in need exists right across the country.
A similar pattern can be seen with children’s services and the level of child poverty, which all experts estimate will rise as a result of many of the Government’s actions. In Hartlepool, 29% of children are in poverty, whereas in Newcastle the figure is 27%, as it is in Liverpool—more than 91,000 children. In comparison, the figure in Wokingham is 7%. I defy anyone to argue that there should not be some resource equalisation to deal with that, but nothing in the Bill requires the Secretary of State to take account of the level of need when he determines the central and local share of non-domestic rates.
My hon. Friend is talking about the growth in demand for council services that might occur in future and about the need to have some way of assessing that growing demand. It is relevant to services such as adult social care, particularly elderly care, that the geographical distribution of older people in our country is not the same across every local authority. In the shires, for example, there will be more of an ageing population than in my local authority. Does my hon. Friend think it is important to find a way of assessing those differing growth rates in need, which are often for services that are highly resource-intensive?
My hon. Friend makes the valid point that the need for all these services varies across authorities; more to the point it is not within councils’ control. A council cannot control how many elderly people are going to need social care, or how many children are going to need intervention from their children’s department. That is the real problem. There are huge variations in demand for children’s services and educational services across the country, and that is often linked with poverty.
Middlesbrough, which is the ninth most deprived local authority area in England, has almost seven times as many children receiving free school meals as Wokingham. Almost all councils showed a huge increase in referrals and in the taking into care of children following the tragic baby Peter case, which we all know about. That was not under their control, but the differences between the numbers of children in care across the country are still stark. Surrey has 32 looked-after children per 10,000 population, whereas Wokingham has 22. In Middlesbrough, the figure is 104 and in Newcastle it is 100. In Liverpool, there has been a 60% increase in child safeguarding referrals since 2009-10, whereas the average national increase is only 10%.
I keep being struck by the tension between, on one hand, the Government’s stated support for localism and the retention of business rates that they want to bring in and, on the other, the retention of powers by the Secretary of State. My hon. Friend is describing extremely well the growing gap among different local authorities and it seems to me that unless the Secretary of State addresses the issues in amendment 19, he will not be able to avoid that growing gap. I cannot understand why the Government would not want to support amendment 19.
My hon. Friend is right. His intervention highlights the fact that no matter how much we want to make local government finance simple, it is never going to be simple because of the variation in need and the difference in resources. There is a balance to be struck between simplification and unfairness, and we do not think the Government have got that balance right in the Bill.
Some councils are coping with huge demands on their resources. Some form of equalisation will be necessary if, for example, children in poorer areas are not to be placed at risk. The idea that children’s services or the care of the elderly should depend on the number of businesses persuaded to relocate to a particular area is difficult to get to grips with.
In the debate on Second Reading the shadow Secretary of State said that there were far too many points in the Bill where the Secretary of State could interfere. As I said earlier this afternoon, there are mechanisms built into the Bill that ensure that revaluation and re-rating will take place. We can quibble about the date, but there are provisions to do that. There are safety nets built in. There is also at the first setting of this level of support a built-in bias towards communities that need more, as there should be. A calculation that I did showed that there was one public sector worker for every 88 people in Hampshire, because there is much less deprivation there, and I understand that, but one public sector worker for every 19 people in Manchester. Where we start clearly reflects the level of need.
I know the hon. Gentleman made a thoughtful speech on Second Reading, but he is wrong on both counts. First, there is nothing on the face of the Bill about resets. Secondly, resetting the whole system is different from the way in which the system is run in the meantime. The baseline has nothing to do with the number of public sector workers anywhere. The baseline is the current local government financial settlement, which we argue is completely unfair to many local authorities anyway.
Because many of the children’s services that my hon. Friend mentioned are statutory, is it not the case that local authorities will have to find the money to provide them? The real pinch will come in the budgets for non-statutory services. There will be huge differentials from local authority to local authority, with some able to provide libraries, parks and other wonderful things, and other local authorities barely able to make their statutory arrangements.
Indeed. My hon. Friend hits on a point that is important to local government as a whole. Local authorities cannot avoid their statutory responsibilities, so other services are squeezed. In future we may well see richer authorities developing a Pickles park here and there and naming public libraries after this beneficent Secretary of State, but it will be very hard for other authorities.
We have included unemployment in the factors that the Secretary of State must take into account. There are a number of reasons for that. Unemployment increases ill-health, it forces more families into poverty, and it is an indicator of the state of business in an area. But high levels of unemployment also increase the demand for local authority services. As one of my hon. Friends said earlier, it will increase the demand for council tax benefit, for example. As more people become employed, many more rightly receive discounts on other services, such as leisure services. So unemployment increases demand at the same time as locking the authority into a cycle of falling revenue.
The theory behind the Bill is that local authorities can resolve that problem simply by expanding their business rate base and attracting more jobs. This was the theory that the Deputy Prime Minister set out when he explained the Government’s proposals to council leaders. He said:
“The new system will start on a level playing field—where you progress from there is up to you.”
It is a wonderful thing to be a Liberal Democrat. They can conduct politics exactly as if they are writing a “Focus” leaflet. But in the first place, there is no level playing field. We have debated endlessly what we see is the unfairness of the current local government financial settlement, which forms the basis for rate redistribution and penalises the poorest local authorities most. The simplest statistic is the most telling and it bears repeating. The 10% most deprived authorities lose four times as much as the 10% least deprived. The cumulative cuts in per capita spending hit the poorest hardest.
I quoted some statistics on Second Reading, but let me quote a few more now. By 2012-13, South Tyneside will have lost £183 per person in spending power and Middlesbrough £156. The national average is £47. The average in the south-east is £31. A few councils actually gain. Basingstoke and Deane gains more than £6 per person. But the Government simply refuse to look at local council resources as a whole, and inexplicably they refuse to consider the varying council tax yields from local authorities, which is why we want to put that in the Bill.
In the north-east, 85% of properties are in bands A to C. In Surrey, 75% of properties are in band D and above, compared with just 9% in Sunderland, which means that it will raise a lot less from the same level of council tax. For example, South Tyneside has 66% of its properties in band A, and its council tax base per person is 0.2966. In Kensington and Chelsea, fewer than 2% of the properties are in band A, and the council tax base is 0.5524. From a national standard band D tax of £1,439, Kensington and Chelsea would raise £795 per person, South Tyneside just £427.
Earlier, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne picked up the Bexley and Barnsley problem, where Bexley and Barnsley have a similar population, but Bexley raises about £37 million a year more in council tax. As I said, resource equalisation used to try to compensate for that up to 2010-11, but it is now being eroded. Inequalities will be entrenched unless these things are taken into account when the central and local shares are decided.
I come now to the second of the Deputy Prime Minister’s assertions, which was that once the scheme had started, how far a council progressed was up to it. I do not believe it is, and that is why we would like to put the ability to benefit from business rate growth as one of the factors to be taken into account in the Bill. First, such a statement ignores the Government’s responsibility for promoting growth. It has been estimated that 80% of growth is down to Government actions, and only 20% down to what the local council does.
But it also ignores the fact that many areas need infrastructure investment in order to grow. For example, Northumberland, the most beautiful county in England, has a sparse population, a large part of its area is national park, thus restricting the kind of development it can have, and it has a poor infrastructure. It needs national investment in that infrastructure in order to grow. That some local authorities find it easier to grow than others has to be recognised and provided for in any system of distribution.
It is no good the Government simply pointing to their proposals on tax increment financing as a solution. TIFs cannot provide a high-speed rail link to the north-east. They cannot give it a big new road system. Yet transport is the key to unlocking some of the regional inequalities in the economy.
Secondly, we have to acknowledge that for a number of reasons it is much easier to attract new businesses to some areas than to others. Westminster is a prime example. It has a multi-million pound base of national and international company headquarters. It is much easier for them to attract new investment than, say, Consett.
Cambridge has a wonderful high-tech hub centred on its university. Because in business like tends to follow like, attracting more businesses is much easier for such places than it is for local authorities starting from scratch. My hon. Friend Heidi Alexander gave a good example in her excellent speech on Second Reading. She suggested that Catford was less likely to develop in the way that Old Street had because Catford was not on the tube map, and that makes things more difficult.
The Government say that this issue will be dealt with by their proposed levy system, but they suggest that the levy will take back only a proportion of disproportionate growth, rather than compensate for it completely, so inequalities will grow, and they will grow even if the top-ups and tariffs are uprated by the retail prices index, as was noted earlier. It is estimated that, even with the uprating, the cash funding growth over four years could be 139.6% in the City of London, but 21.1% in Bury. It could be over 90% in Westminster, but 21.9% in Knowsley. The reason is obvious: a highly geared authority with an existing large tax base, relative to its funding levels, will do better from a business rate retention scheme than an authority with a lower tax base even if the rates grow by the same percentage.
The Government have recognised that in part through their proposed levy, but it will not compensate for all the unfair growth. We believe that it would be fairer and better if the local and central shares were decided on the basis of all the things listed in the amendment, especially an assessment of need.
I am listening with interest to the hon. Lady’s explanation of the amendment. It suggests a whole series of different factors that the Government would have to take into account in deciding how much money a local authority would be given. Who would conduct that assessment? Would it be the Government, some independent body, the Opposition or the whole House? Otherwise, the amendment would simply put into the Secretary of State’s hands the power that she is accusing him of taking already in the Bill?
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, as an independent assessment would be a good idea. However, assessments of local authority need are already done by the Department for Communities and Local Government, so I see no reason why they should not be done in future. As he will hear when I move on in my speech, we have tabled further amendments requiring the report to be laid before the House so that it can be debated.
Amendments 37 and 38 would require the Secretary of State not only to announce central and local shares for each authority for a year, but to give indicative totals for the following year after consultation with local government. Despite the Government’s rhetoric, the Bill is a hugely centralising measure, as the Opposition have said several times. We are seeking to mitigate that by inserting a requirement that the Secretary of State consult local government before making his decision, which seems fair and proportionate and reflects the fact that what we are engaged in is a partnership between central and local government.
Amendment 37 would require the Secretary of State to give an indicative announcement for the subsequent two years to allow local councils to plan their services and make the right preparations, rather than working from year to year. Recently, all parties seemed to have accepted that it is much more sensible for local government finance announcements to cover a number of years. The previous Government introduced three-year settlements, and even this Government announced a two-year settlement, knowing that they expected to change the system.
Amendments 37 and 38 simply attempt to introduce a little more certainty into a very uncertain system. They would not change the power of the Secretary of State to decide the shares and they seek only indicative shares, not shares set in stone. In our view, that would produce better governance in local authorities and help them to plan. As it is, the Secretary of State can change the shares from year to year with little warning for local authorities. As we require local authorities to deliver statutory services, as has been said, we ought to allow them to plan the support that their community needs. Local authorities are constantly lectured by Ministers about the need to manage their resources, yet how can they manage their resources properly without any indication of how their finances will change from year to year?
Amendment 36 is merely a probing amendment. It is designed to tease out an explanation for the wording in the Bill. The Government intend to determine the baseline for non-domestic rate income in an authority by using the total that would be payable if it had “acted diligently”. We would like clarification from the Minister of what is meant by that. We all accept that an authority has to have an efficient collection system and that it should pursue debtors vigorously. However, what happens if an area finds itself in difficulty and its businesses are struggling because of the Government’s policies? Many businesses are in that position now and are finding it difficult to pay their rates. Is an authority expected to pursue such businesses to the limit? Will a council be penalised if it offers more discretionary reliefs? We would like clarity on that. We would also like clarity on the position of councils generally in offering discretionary rate relief. For example, will a council be penalised if it offers rate relief to too many non-profit organisations? Will “too many” be defined somewhere by the Secretary of State? What will be the position on hardship relief, which is also discretionary? Will a council in a difficult situation that tries to help local businesses be penalised because its baseline is set much higher than its actual income?
If I move on to amendment 39, I might be able to answer the point made by Bob Blackman. We believe that it is vital that the Secretary of State not only makes an assessment of need before setting the central and local shares for each authority, but publishes that assessment and lays it before the House. That would bring transparency and openness to the system. We want the debate on the local governance finance report in the House to be informed by information on the level of funding for local authorities and the level of need within them.
There are, of course, variations in services because there are variations in circumstances. The main difficulty in dealing with local government finance is the belief held by many people that they should get roughly the same from certain services wherever they are because, as they see it, they are taxpayers and ratepayers. Elderly people who need care in their own homes have a reasonable expectation that they will get a certain standard of care wherever they live. If anybody was told that they could not have that standard of care because businesses had not grown enough in their area, we would soon hear from them. It cannot be right for looked-after children in Middlesbrough to receive a different standard of care from children in another authority.
By requiring the Secretary of State to prepare and publish a report, the House would be able to take account of the needs of groups that are not the most vocal, especially children and the elderly. Those groups do not always have access to journalists to argue their case. When they are written about, it is sometimes as if they are a different species. Many such people do not come to our surgeries or write to the local newspaper. After all, a society is judged not by how it treats its most affluent people but by the way in which it treats those most in need and those without a voice. We tabled amendment 39 to ensure that those matters are debated, and we hope that the Government will accept it.
We tabled amendment 26 to ensure that the level of service provision is taken into account when any amending finance report is placed before the House. We accept that all Governments need amending reports from time to time. Local authorities make representations about the basis of calculation, and sometimes simple errors are discovered—we have all experienced that. Yet we also believe that the system that the Government propose is so complicated that it has an in-built capacity for error. There is a real possibility that those errors could be substantial. London Councils called the proposed new system “fiendishly complex”, and there are good reasons for believing that, in many ways, it is more complicated than the current system. That complexity, coupled with the lack of any consideration of need in the Bill, makes it possible for any amending report to have a real impact on services in a local authority. There will be more volatility in the system, and we believe that the House should have an opportunity, when it receives an amending report, to debate it along with the impact on services. We hope that the information would be put before the House in advance of any debate. The two reports taken together would provide Members with the information they needed to debate the subject sensibly.
I hope that I have explained the thinking behind the amendments. It might be useful if I notify you now, Mr Robertson, that we will seek Divisions on amendments 19 and 39. I commend the amendments to the Committee.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Robertson. It is also an honour to follow Helen Jones.
The key issue is that local government finance has changed radically and dramatically in the past few years. I congratulate the previous Government on introducing three-year settlements. Having served in local government for some 24 years before becoming a Member of Parliament, I know that the certainty that gave local authorities was extremely welcome. However, the financial arrangements have changed dramatically and will do so again.
I can speak for London authorities. The average London authority has £1 billion in revenue going though its books. It has discretion over probably only a quarter of that because roughly a third goes on housing benefit and 40% goes on education spending—schools and colleges. Now, that 40% for education passes through with the local authority doing virtually nothing but act as an agent of the Government in putting the money into the hands of the schools. Equally with housing benefit, under the proposed change to universal credit, local authorities will no longer administer that money. However, there will still be the surfeit of discretionary or statutory services that local authorities provide and that need to be funded by them. There will be different streams of income—council tax, other charges that local authorities levy for their services and, importantly, the business rates.
The key issue, which the Opposition have not started to understand or appreciate, is that there is a deliberate and perverse incentive for local authorities to retain deprivation in their areas. If there is deprivation, money flows from Government for that particular purpose.
I will give way in a second. I will cite an example from the past few years, when the previous Government decided to change the rules on the amount of money that was given through the formula for local authorities with large concentrations of black and minority ethnic communities. All of a sudden, funding for local authorities throughout the country with large BME populations would have been decimated because it was one of their great income streams. Huge lobbies took place and the Government backed down.
I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Can he give a specific example of a council anywhere, irrespective of its political persuasion, that has wanted to turn prosperity away from its area?
The key is not that local authorities turn away business or prosperity; I am pointing out that there is an in-built presumption that areas of deprivation follow extra grant from Government. As a direct result, there has been hardly any change in areas of deprivation across the country. Despite the fact that local authorities—of all political persuasions—with areas of deprivation have had huge amounts of money put in over 30 or more years, those areas of deprivation remain the same.
I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying, because the implication is that local councillors and local authorities want to maintain deprivation in their areas because they get more money into their coffers. Is he really saying that? In my experience, local authorities and local councillors do the jobs they do because they want to make the lives of the people whom they serve better; they are not interested in getting money into their coffers to serve their own purposes.
I am not saying that councillors, council officers or local authorities of any persuasion deliberately decide that they want their areas to be deprived. I am saying that there is a perverse incentive for those areas to be deprived. The Bill changes that presumption. It will be for every local authority where there is deprivation to encourage and promote prosperity and businesses to set up in their areas, so that there is a deliberate move to create economic growth in areas that have been unfairly deprived for far too long.
The hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way on that point. I realise that he is under a lot of pressure given the comments he has just made. Does he accept that what we actually see in deprived areas is better partnership working between local authorities and businesses? That is certainly the case in Lancashire. Relationships and partnership working between the business sector and councils are not as good in West Lancashire, which is an affluent area. Councils in the east of Lancashire have an exemplary record, because there are deprived areas that need business. The answer in those deprived areas is not grants from the Government, but businesses, which is why those local authorities pursue that avenue.
That did not happen only in deprived areas. I come from somewhere that had areas of great deprivation and which formed local strategic partnerships and other such organisations. However, those areas still have huge deprivation and are among the most deprived parts of London and the country, even though they have had huge amounts of money pumped into them by Governments of all persuasions. The key issue remains: there has been no incentive for economic growth in those areas.
The hon. Gentleman makes a self-defeating point, because he reminds the Committee of local strategic partnerships, which were mandated only in areas of deprivation, and to which the previous Government handed out grants. His point is that the previous Government instructed local authorities in deprived areas to work, through LSPs, with the business community and the private sector, and the supply and education chains.
I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, but we have to consider cause and effect. I do not decry what the last Government instructed local authorities to do, but the key point is that it failed. The areas of deprivation then are still the areas of deprivation. This Government are trying to introduce a direct incentive to business growth and economic growth in those areas and right across the country. They are giving local authorities an opportunity to change their view and see the direct incentive to have economic growth. Local authorities will keep the money, which they can then invest in the local services that people need. That does not mean that there is not a need for national investment in local areas when infrastructure improvements and regeneration are needed, but that is very different from creating economic growth.
There is a danger that we will get locked into a discussion in which we simply assume that the current system has always been in place. Prior to the poll tax local authorities kept all their business rates, yet since 1945 and probably before, the difference and disparities in deprivation have continued to grow. Local economies in different parts of the country have performed very differently, despite local authorities having had the incentive of business rate retention prior to the poll tax. The hon. Gentleman’s argument therefore lacks a little if it is taken beyond the particular complications of the current system.
One of the key historical points is that local authorities used to set their own business rates, but then pressure from the House changed that situation for the simple reason that large local authorities saw the opportunity to milk businesses and set exorbitant rates, because business did not have a vote. They could then keep local tax low because they had increased business rates to milk businesses. That was why the national business rates were introduced.
I do not believe that there is an argument for changing the position so that local authorities determine the level of business rates, but there is a very strong argument, which the Government are advancing, for their retaining the money that is collected locally. I believe that the Government are being a bit timid in their approach, because I would like more money to be retained locally, possibly with a slightly less complex formula to make it more transparent. However, I recognise that the Government are taking the first step along the way.
I intervene briefly on a factual point about what happened prior to the poll tax. Probably one of the reasons why it was brought in was the very large rate increases made by some authorities, such as the one in Sheffield of which I was a member at the time. It is not true that authorities sought to pile all the pain on businesses and keep their other taxes low. Actually, the domestic and non-domestic rates were linked and could be increased only in line with each other. It was not possible to increase one without increasing the other. Domestic ratepayers had a vote, of course, and in many cases were prepared to vote for large increases to protect services.
That, of course, is local democracy—if people want to pay higher taxes, they are welcome to do so. I am personally a great advocate of annual elections to local authorities instead of referendums, so that if councillors want to raise local taxes exorbitantly they will be voted out at the ballot box. I therefore take the hon. Gentleman’s point.
The hon. Gentleman has argued that incentives have not previously existed for local authorities to stimulate economic growth in their area. He is a distinguished former leader of a large London local authority, Harrow. Given that those incentives did not exist, did he not do anything in his time as leader to stimulate the local economy in Harrow?
I was actually the leader of Brent council, not Harrow, but I thank the hon. Lady for making that point. I was the chairman of a city challenge company that was part of the London borough of Brent, and for five years we had Government money flowing in. We retained every job that we had and expanded the number of jobs in the area, but by the end of the five years unemployment in the area had increased, not reduced. We had had huge amounts of money but, perversely, unemployment had risen, which meant that we could go back to the Government and say, “We need more money.”
I will cite another example given to the Communities and Local Government Committee when it considered the matter. When the mayor of Newham was challenged over this cycle of deprivation and investment, he said,
“We’d love to be out of the cycle of deprivation. Just not yet. We need another 25 years of money coming in from the Government to enable Newham to grow and develop.” But despite the huge investment—because of the Olympics and investment from Governments of different persuasions—it remains one of the most deprived areas in London and the country. My hon. Friend Eric Ollerenshaw, who used to lead Hackney council, will attest to the fact that every year in Hackney the local authority was required to identify areas of deprivation and amplify them so that it could appeal to the Government for yet more funding.
My hon. Friend is making an important point. Was not one problem that there was almost an incentive for a whole band of an officer class to prove deprivation rather than an incentive to prove and create success? That is how we ended up in this appalling game in London of trying to prove who was the poorest borough.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. I return to my central argument, which is that there was a perverse incentive for deprivation to continue. Here, in the Bill, we are taking the first step—it is not perfect by any means—towards saying, “Instead of failure, success will be rewarded.” That is the approach that we seek to take, and it is the right approach to take.
I ask the Minister to consider two final points. First, there is concern about how the scheme will be administered and about its fairness and transparency. It is right that we consider the elements of the scheme and undertake to conduct a review to ensure that it is working appropriately, fairly and transparently, so that not only the House but every local authority in the county can say, “Yes, this system works.”
The hon. Gentleman is being exceptionally generous in giving way. I thank him for that. He referred to success. What does he mean by “success”? Does it mean a local authority that leans back in its chair as a large employer turns up, or a local authority—presumably like the one he ran in Brent—that fights to defend and save jobs? There might not be growth, but an awful lot of work goes in to maintain the position. Which model would he describe as successful?
That is exactly my second point. In large parts of the country, particularly in suburbia, there has been a gradual leakage of businesses, as business land—areas designated for business land and investment—have been turned over to housing. There is an incentive for local authorities to do that, because it increases the council tax base and makes it easier for local authorities to get new homes bonus money. It does, however, reduce the business rate income. At the moment, those local authorities suffer no penalty for doing that.
Under the new system, there can still be a leakage of land and employers. I am talking not about a catastrophic failure where one major employer closes down—that would obviously be a huge loss to the local authority—but a gradual process, over a number of years, under which industrial land has been turned over to housing, resulting in a leakage in business rate income. Has the Minister considered that point? How will it be looked at in the round? I raised the matter on Second Reading but so far we have not had an answer.
Finally, one thing that will be true in this brave new world is that there are risks associated with both the income and expenditure of local authorities. We know that there are huge numbers of demand-led services that every local authority must provide—they have been mentioned already: adult social care, children’s care, and so on—and I recognise that. It is also the case that income levels can sometimes be unpredictable. The more predictable they are, the better. However, there is the pooling approach. I wonder whether the Minister can say what directions will be given if certain local authorities just sit back and say, “We’re alright, Jack. We’re fine. We’ll just keep the money. We’re not going to pool our risk. We’re not going to pool our opportunity. We won’t co-operate with our neighbours.” That is an important point, which Graham Jones raised. How will the Government direct local authorities to pool resources, in order to spread risk across a number of authorities?
I want to speak about set-aside—the principle and the calculations—and, in particular, to draw attention to my amendments 44 and 45. This is the first opportunity that I have had during the Committee stage to talk about the new, simplified system of local government finance that the Government are proposing. [ Interruption. ] Is that a smile from the Minister? We have to have a laugh about the terminology, but it was the terminology that the Secretary of State used when introducing the consultation proposals. He called it a simplified system, but I do not think that anybody, even—
Perhaps the Minister is going to talk about the new, simplified system.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will be glad to know that I was smiling just to say how pleased we are to see the Chairman of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government among us.
It is very nice of the Minister to say so, so I will smile in return. However, even he could not rise now and say that this is a simplified system. It is a new system—it is a radical departure—but it is certainly no less complicated than what went before it; rather, it is complicated in a different way.
Let us talk about transparency. By that I mean the possibility that when a development is put forward in part of a local authority area, it is possible to say to residents, “If that development is granted, these will be the financial consequences”. There is no chance of that happening with this piece of legislation. It will be very difficult for local authority treasurers to explain to their members collectively what the implications of the new legislation are, let alone for a local councillor to tell residents looking at a planning application, “These are the financial consequences of accepting this proposal.”
I have no problem with the principle behind the Bill; indeed, I think there is a shared principle across the Committee. We all realise that there must be more incentives in the system to reward local authorities for encouraging and promoting growth in their areas. There is no problem with that principle at all. The difficulty, which is reflected in the responses to the consultation on the legislation that we are considering today, is that the authorities with a relatively high business rate base, or the potential to develop one and grow their business rate relatively easily, are obviously all arguing for lower tariffs and top-ups, whereas those that have lower business rate bases and more difficulty in attracting growth to their areas, perhaps including those with the greatest need, are arguing for more top-ups and tariffs.
As I said on Second Reading, the Government have a fundamental problem. Because of the effective removal of Government grant to local authorities from 2013-14, they are now trying to use the business rate to do two potentially contradictory things. They are trying to use the business rate as a mechanism to encourage growth and development, rewarding authorities by allowing them to keep the business rates that are raised from development and growth, but they are also trying to use it as a method of redistribution to help authorities that cannot achieve development and growth easily, and that have problems of deprivation. The Government are trying to do two things with one tax, which is a problem. That is why we have such a complicated arrangement.
If there was a separate element of Government grant that could be used for redistribution and if authorities were then allowed to keep their business rates, separately—as was the case with the old system, which we have just discussed with Bob Blackman—that would be relatively easy. There would be a business rate that was an incentive and a Government grant for redistribution. The fact is that we do not have the second of those; complications thus arise.
Some of us can remember the GREAs—the grant related expenditure assessments—the SSAs or standard spending assessments and other complicated arrangements like regression analysis that used to be done on all these matters. On every consultation, local authorities in various parts of the country would have different views about the allocation of resources and the finance system—of course they did, and the same applies on this occasion. What the Secretary of State and this Government have managed to do this time, however, is to unite the whole of local government on one fundamental issue—a feat that I do not think has been achieved before by any Government or any Secretary of State in relation to local authority finance.
Every local authority association and every local authority in the country has united against the principle of set-aside. They all view this as central Government putting their hands into the local authority pot and taking money out of it for themselves. When we used to debate local government finance, as we still do, most people rightly assumed that it was a debate about finance for local government. Now the debate is going to be about finance from local government, as local government will be contributing to national Government and the national Treasury. We will no longer talk about a business rate that is collected locally and distributed nationally, but a business rate that is collected locally and spent nationally. That does not strike me as a terribly localist move.
The Government have created a fundamental problem for themselves with set-aside. One can see the Secretary of State sat in his office, snaffling local government resources and getting into the Chancellor’s good books by passing those resources over and saying, “Look, I’ve done it again, Chancellor. I’m the good guy in all this; I’m giving you lots more money to spend.” Perhaps it is more like good cop, bad cop. We generally see the Secretary of State coming along to join the Minister for these debates, with the Secretary of State doing the broad sweep and the Minister knowing the detail. Perhaps they will go along to the Local Government Association in future when the pantomime season is in bloom. The Minister will go along as the wicked uncle, describing how much the set-aside is going to be worth in that year and how much is going to be taken away, while the Secretary of State will come along as the fairy godmother to say, “Look at all the goodies I’m going to give you back when I spend the set-aside. The problem is that when I wave my magic wand, what you get might not be what you thought you were going to get, because the money is going to be spent on things for which you would previously have had a grant.” This is the delusion being created.
The reaction on the part of local government is obvious. It says, “You are asking us to accept 28% cuts to Government funding over a four-year period and to cut our fundamental services.” Despite what the Minister said to the Select Committee today, there is not a local authority in the country that is not having to cut social services and social care. That is what is happening. At the same time as local authorities are being asked to make profound cuts to front-line services—it is happening to authorities of all persuasions up and down the country—the Government are saying, “By the way, we are now going to take away from local government resources that could be spent on local services, by means of the set-aside”.
All this explains why I tabled the amendments. Amendment 44, for example, is an attempt to make the point that something must be wrong when a Government say that they are going to take the set-aside away—irrespective of the real needs of local authorities, which they are clearly unable to meet in the current financial situation.
On the same argument, would my hon. Friend add to that the housing benefit and council tax cuts, which are on top of the 28% and have a disproportionate effect on deprived areas? Does this not mean that we are talking about cuts of 28% plus—and they are growing rapidly?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we should look at the totality of the effects of the cuts on local authority budgets. Before the Secretary of State takes this set-aside from local authorities, he should look at what is happening to social care and with council tax increases, which authorities will have to impose after the freeze or deferment comes to an end. He should look at what is happening to concessionary travel for young people, which gives them their independence and mobility, and to care for the elderly and to road safety schemes, which cannot now go ahead. He should look at what is happening to proper protection for private sector tenants from rogue landlords, which authorities will probably not be able to fund, or at the diminishing possibility of providing weekly bin collections across the country—something close to the Secretary of State’s heart. Before looking at set-aside, surely the Secretary of State ought to consider how far local authorities have been able to meet such needs.
As a genuine point of discussion, let us imagine a situation in which set-aside is used for reasons that everyone could sign up to, and directed to local government services—an ideal world, I admit. Despite our desire to march towards localism, would not holding back on full localisation in the first few years be a prudent approach that would reduce uncertainty?
I am not sure, because how the set-aside ends up being used is fundamental. Will it simply go to the Treasury, and we never see it again? Alternatively, will Department for Communities and Local Government or other Ministers say, “We used to fund certain council services, and now we will use set-aside for that.” It will save central Government money. A classic example is the requirement on local authorities to fund 10% of the cost of council tax benefits in the first year—that will almost certainly rise if unemployment rises. What will stop Ministers saying in future, “We have already established 10%, so next year it will be 20%, 30% or 40%”? That will bring no benefit in council services or to local taxpayers or councils; it is just a saving to the Treasury. From a Minister’s point of view, however, it is a neat way of linking two parts of the Bill together.
It could be; we are not sure where that funding is coming from. In future, a whole variety of things, such as police grant, could be paid for out of set-aside. Things that Government would have paid for through another source could be paid for out of set-aside, saving the Treasury money. We do not know, because the Bill does not contain the detail. All that we can say is that there will be no power at local level, or among local government collectively, to decide such things. Will there be any power in the Chamber to decide such things, or will it all be up to Ministers?
The hon. Gentleman makes a crucial point. We discussed earlier the uncertainty around incentivisation—we do not know what that will lead to—but we can completely remove the uncertainty around the levy account and the safety nets in the central share if the Minister makes a clear statement about what they will be used for.
We could, but I am not sure that Ministers will be able to give such an assurance. I say to the hon. Gentleman that it is his Government who are taking these measures, so he may have more influence over Ministers than those of us on the Opposition Benches do.
Is it not possible for a future Government to say, “We will use that set-aside money to reduce council tax”? If so, that money would disappear from local authorities’ spending level, and overall they would have less money to spend on vital services.
Absolutely. We just do not know. All the power and the decision making are going to Ministers in a completely opaque way. We have a right to ask certain questions.
The Government initially introduced the principle because the comprehensive spending review, in placing limits on local government spending as a whole, created a problem for them. It was and is quite possible, with the rise in business rate linked to inflation, for the business rate and council tax collection after 2013-14 to amount to more than the spending control totals. The Government had to find a way of dealing with that problem, but there is no reason why it need continue after the current comprehensive spending review round. In future, the Government could make an assessment of the likely increases in business rates on the basis of their new system and accommodate that within the spending control totals, thus removing the need for set-aside altogether.
I understand the difficulties that the Government have got themselves into in the current spending round, but why continue the principle after that? In amendment 45, I have tried at least to raise the possibility of not allowing the set-aside to become an ongoing, potentially increasing amount of money that is decided by Ministers for ever and a day.
London Councils describes the existence of the central share beyond the current comprehensive spending review period as
“a cynical attempt by the Government to limit the extent to which local government can benefit financially from the growth it will drive through its economic development activity and engagement with the business community.”
Does my hon. Friend consider that to be a fair assessment of what the Government are doing?
What the Government are doing is twofold, because two problems are being exacerbated by the set-aside. By limiting the amount of money in the local government system, they are reducing not only the incentives for councils but their own ability to do some redistribution. If they did not use the set-aside and allowed more money to remain in the local government system, they might be able to resolve the conflict caused by their attempt to do two things with one tax. The less tax that they have in the system and the more restrictions they impose, the more that conflict will come into play—the conflict between the retention of money to encourage investment and more growth, and the need for redistribution and the mechanism enabling it to take place.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He is being extremely generous with his time.
A number of Members have pointed out, both today and on Second Reading, that there is a relatively limited amount that local government can do to encourage business growth. It occurs to me, from a more philosophical viewpoint, that economic growth can be a public good, and that Government investment elsewhere in the economy can allow that growth to go ahead. Is it therefore entirely unreasonable for central Government to keep some of that business rate growth?
I think it would be considered so by a localist who wants it to be possible for money that is raised at local level to be spent at local level. The complicating factor is that there must still be some element of redistribution. In the past that would have been dealt with by means of a Government grant, but it is now being dealt with through business rates. If central Government take away any element of that business rate growth, by definition they are reducing the incentives to encourage development and reducing the amount of money available for redistribution, thus worsening the problems that they are creating for themselves.
Let me issue a challenge to the Minister. Will there be any limits to, or criteria for, the determination of set-aside in a future comprehensive spending review, or will the Chancellor simply come up with a figure? Will business rates grow according to the level of the RPI, and will the difference between them constitute the set-aside? Will no more thought be given to it than that? Will there be any criteria on the basis of which the Government may review the system annually, or will the Secretary of State simply say, “I am not giving enough to the Chancellor this year, so we will have to amend the set-aside arrangements”?
I return to the question asked Annette Brooke. Will there be any criteria governing what the money can be used for? Will it be possible for it simply to go to the Treasury, or will there be some understanding that it will be spent on local initiatives? Will there be some understanding that if it is transferred back to councils to do certain things, they will be given power to do them? It may well be that there are things to be done by local government in the future that are not being done now. We have seen no evidence that any of that will happen.
Will we be given an assurance that the set-aside will not mean a further dispensation of largesse from the Secretary of State and the Minister in the shape of more specific and ring-fenced grants? The Government have almost completely abandoned ring-fenced grants, and I support that as a principle. May we have an assurance that the set-aside will not be used as a mechanism enabling the Secretary of State to say, “Look what I am giving you: more ring-fenced grants and more specific grants”—thus providing a photo-opportunity for a Minister to draw attention to what good things are being done with them by every council in the country?
May we also have some assurances that the Local Government Association and local government in general will be properly consulted on this each year? They should be consulted about the criteria, the proposals and the arrangements by which set-aside will be used and the amounts will be determined. Will there be transparency about where set-aside funding comes from and how it is spent across the country and which local authorities will benefit?
Finally, will we have assurances that this will not be simply a Government matter? This is the House of Commons of a sovereign Parliament. The annual decisions about set-aside and how it will be spent must be subject to discussion, debate and a vote in this House. We must have assurances that the ultimate power will remain with Members of Parliament, not Ministers.
Today’s debate reminds me of the Second Reading debate in that, as my hon. Friend said, Members on the Government Benches are trying to have their cake and eat it. They want the nirvana of councils keeping all the business rates while also recognising that there should be some redistribution. Bob Blackman made some strange comments about perverse incentives for councils to remain poor. I am yet to meet such a council, but he tried to get his colleagues to help him come up with an example. Councils in my area work very hard to attract business and prosperity, as they want to make their areas not only pleasant places to live in but economically active. The Government talk about localism a lot, but this Bill centralises more powers in the hands of the Secretary of State than any other local government reform of recent years.
On fairness, if we are to have a system whereby the contribution from national Government to local government is wiped out and we rely on business rates to provide the gap in funding, we must address the fact that different parts of Britain have different needs. Amendment 19 is important as it would ensure that that is reflected in the system.
From listening to some Members on the Government Benches, people would think some parts of the north are responsible for their own unemployment. Those Members fail to remember what happened in the late 1980s, when huge swathes of industry in the north-east were wiped out. Many areas are still recovering from that today.
There are also issues to do with population movement, which can lead to extra demands on local councils such as Durham county, where there is a large elderly population and many people who worked in heavy industry. Health needs in such areas are inevitably greater. Moreover, as County Durham is quite a rural community, even those in work often cannot move from place to place as easily as people in large cities.
I give credit to councils of all political persuasions throughout the country that have tried to encourage business into their areas. I am not convinced that keeping a small slice of the business rate is going to have a major impact, however. We should consider what the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have done in the north-east in doing away with One North East. It was very effective at working with local councils and other partners to get inward investment and business growth. Mark Field is not in his place at the moment, but he admitted that it is much easier to get business growth in his constituency than it is in mine or in those of many other hon. Members from the north of England.
My hon. Friend raises a crucial point that has not been mentioned—the role of local enterprise partnerships. Lancashire has had a terrible problem with LEPs, which are skewing investment in certain areas and not interested in other areas—those who have been involved have said as much. The role that LEPs play across these district areas is not promoting business in certain parts, and that is having an adverse consequence. How can business be promoted and how can success be obtained in those conditions? Again, the Government are accountable for this.
Again, that is part of the contradiction in the Government’s thinking and policy. As we have seen, LEPs are toothless tigers. They are not going to produce much growth or investment, as I know from the ones in the north-east. Certain people in the business community are becoming increasingly cynical and feel that LEPs are just going to be talking shops, rather than organisations that will do things to regenerate areas or attract growth.
Amendment 19 refers to “need” and, as my hon. Friend Helen Jones said, it sets out the important issues that we need to take into consideration. I know from my north-east constituency that unemployment is a very important issue to take into account. The level of unemployment stands at 11.7% in the north-east of England, which is 3.5% above the national average. As my hon. Friend said, unemployment means that additional services are required and it puts further strains on local councils, which is why it is important to take it into account.
This debate is also about where we start from, which is why it is important to take the council tax base level into account. In the north-east, 50% of properties are in the lowest band, band A, whereas the corresponding figure for Surrey is just 2%, with 75% of properties there being in band D and above. It is very difficult for councils in the north-east to raise extra finance outside the business rate, so we are not starting on a level playing field. Mention has been made of South Tyneside, where 66% of properties are in band A, and that must be compared with the figure for Kensington and Chelsea of less than 2%.
My hon. Friend is making a superb point about the ability of local authorities to raise income from council tax. Is not a major issue for local authorities such as his and mine the fact that the formula grant for 2013-14 will lock in those very real cuts that such local authorities will have had to face from 2011-12 onwards?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning that, because I was about to discuss the baseline, as it has been set at 2011-12 levels. Durham county council had a grant reduction last year of some £10.9 million, which represents about a 4% loss, and that is now going to be set in stone for the next 10 years. Let us compare that with the situation in Wokingham, in Berkshire, whose authority actually had an increase in its grant of 0.2% and each person living there got an extra 30p in grant.
As I said on Second Reading, it is quite clear—I take my hat off to the Conservatives and do not know why the Liberal Democrats are turning a blind eye to this—that the Conservatives are looking after their own. They used to accuse the Labour party of doing so, but the Secretary of State makes no bones about the fact that he will help the people who voted for him. Does he give a stuff about the north-east and other places? No, I do not think he does.
It is important that we consider need because, as I said and as my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North said earlier, with unemployment, a more elderly population and deprivation, people use council services more in such areas. Some 31% of the people living in County Durham, for example, live in the top 20% of the most deprived areas in Britain and 21.8% of children in the county live in homes that are classed as in poverty. In Wokingham, that figure is under 7%. The demand for local services in Durham is obviously a lot higher. Likewise, eight people go for every job in County Durham. A good example is looked-after children: in Wokingham, there are 22 per 10,000 children whereas in Middlesbrough, in the north-east, there are 104 per 10,000.
It is not just about the numbers but about the types of services. Elderly care and services for looked-after children are very expensive to provide. There is no cheap way of looking after elderly people or vulnerable children in care, so that puts added pressure on those councils. That must be taken into account in any assessment, as otherwise we will do exactly what my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North said that we would. We will start from the premise that this Government like to put out, which is that irrespective of where a local government organisation is in this country, there is a level playing field. There is not. Any system must take need into account and that is why amendment 19 is important and why I do not understand the Government's not being in favour of it.
Another issue that we heard about on Second Reading and that we have heard about again tonight is the idea that by retaining a certain percentage of the business rate councils will be able to incentivise and develop business. That might well be the case in some areas, but councils must cater for other factors, one of which is location. My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North mentioned Consett. Consett has actually done very well in attracting businesses, but it is a damn sight harder attracting jobs there than it is in parts of the south-east and London.
Does my hon. Friend agree that a local authority cannot possibly be incentivised to do more—most of them want to do quite a lot—by reducing the overall level of resources? The contention that a little incentive on one hand and a huge loss of grant on the other will mean that they work harder is extraordinary.
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. It is a double whammy for local authorities, really, as even if they could keep some of the money and use it for incentivisation, the huge proposed cut through the 10% reduction in council tax benefit that they will have to administer will fall disproportionately on areas with large numbers of unemployed people and the elderly. Absorbing that will be very difficult for a lot of councils, certainly in the hard economic times we are in at the moment. As unemployment goes up, the pressures on the councils will increase, too.
Is it not the case that if a deprived local authority gets less grant, one way or the other, it will still have to provide the key services that my hon. Friend refers to, which will mean that it will have less money to develop economic development initiatives in its areas? That will go counter to the Government’s stated intention for this proposal.
Indeed. When local businesses in my constituency want to expand, the first thing they will ask is, “Where are the grants?”, but there are none any more because One North East has gone and the amount that the council or anyone else has to give to help is usually small. There is a perception that this change will make a real difference to most areas, but it will not; the effect will be marginal at most. My hon. Friend is also right that councils cannot just stop providing elderly care and other services. In the present round of cuts, the problem is trying to explain to people what is statutory and what is not. This Government know exactly what they are doing—[ Interruption. ] My hon. Friend Graham Stringer chuckles, but what I mean is that they know exactly what they are doing politically on this issue.
A bit far, perhaps. The Government know exactly what they are doing. As I said on Second Reading, their strategy is quite clear: they want to give freedoms to local councils, push decision making down as far as possible and then, when they have cut grants, as they will with council tax benefit and others, they will say to local people, “Well, it’s your local council that has to decide how and where the cuts come.” The Government will stand back and say, “We’re sorry, but it’s nothing to do with us.” That is the clever side of it. Part of their strategy is about making sure that they save money and cut it out of the system but that local councils, rather than themselves, get the blame for implementing the cuts.
Does my hon. Friend agree that an unforeseen consequence of the Bill could be that local authorities become overly dependent on one type of economic development—the type they can generate the most from in business rates? In an area such as mine, that would mean an overdependence on retail.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. In terms of economic development, local authorities might go for what will generate income rather than what will create the right mixture. Although retail shopping and warehousing produce business rates, they do not produce large numbers of local jobs, but there might be a growth in those types of business in some areas.
We should not be fooled into believing that the Government do not know what they are doing, because they do know. They are passing legislation down to local government and making sure that those in central Government do not get the blame. We need to be saying that these cuts have been implemented because of the Government—including the Liberal Democrats. It amazes me that Liberal Democrats in Durham can complain about the closure of leisure services or a leisure centre while stepping back and saying, “It’s nothing to do with us,” even though their representatives on the Front Bench in government and others are going through the Lobby to vote for such measures, as they will tonight. Without amendment 19, and without some assessment of need in the Bill, I have little faith that the Government will not do what they have a track record of doing: rewarding the areas that vote for them.
The debate on these amendments has been lengthy and wide-ranging, and I shall do my best to do justice to the points raised. Some of them were specific, technical and helpful, whereas others seemed to seek to reopen elements of the Second Reading debate and, perhaps, the debate on the finance settlement. I am afraid that sometimes they were rather wide of the mark. In general, I regret to say that I shall ask the Committee to reject all these amendments if they are not withdrawn because they seem to miss some fundamental points. First, the system already recognises a balancing of need and resources: that happens now and will continue to happen. Secondly, if we are to move away from a system of excessive dependency by local government on central Government grant in order to reduce reliance on central Government grant and create incentives for growth at a local and national level, we have to move away from the current, highly centralised system. Nothing has been advanced to suggest that the current system produces the transparency—
The hon. Gentleman has been very vocal, so I shall make a little progress and perhaps give way in due course. Serious points were raised in debate, and I will do my best to respond to them, if I may.
I accept some of the points made by Mr Betts and John Healey about the objective of, and a desire for, greater localisation, but that has not happened under the current system. Sadly, despite the fact that some Members would deny it, there is force to the point made by my hon. Friend Bob Blackman and others that perverse incentives in the current system sometimes lead to perverse behaviour, with more emphasis placed on ticking the boxes that can demonstrate need than harnessing the undoubted energies that local government has—[Interruption.] and in which I have faith to drive forward economic growth. [Interruption.] Mr Jones is, as usual, very vocal from a sedentary position, which is his more usual form of contribution to debate.
Order. Mr Jones, please stop shouting across the Chamber. Either try and intervene or please be quiet.
Before I give way to the hon. Gentleman, he might like to reflect on this. He has been very vocal about the Second Reading debate. I remind him of this passage, when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, following this very point, said:
“Economic success is not a southern phenomenon”,
and the hon. Gentleman intervened and said:
“Yes, it is.”—[Hansard, 10 January 2012; Vol. 538, c. 81.]
Would he like to explain that?
My hon. Friend specifically gave the example of his own council. The point that the hon. Gentleman and many other Opposition Members do not get is that the Bill is not just about dealing with the short-term issues of one-year funding settlements. It is about creating a system that certainly has an element of equalisation in it, because as we all know, all local government finance systems going back many years have always had a degree of equalisation. The hon. Member for Sheffield South East, the Chairman of the Select Committee—
I will make a little progress before I give way again.
The hon. Member for Sheffield South East took us a little way down memory lane with GREs and SSAs. There has always been an element of equalisation and that will continue. The rather complicated and highly prescriptive process that is built into the amendments does not improve on what is set out in the Bill. Indeed, it would undermine some of the key objectives of the Bill.
Helen Jones and her hon. Friends are seeking to place what we regard as an unnecessary requirement on the Secretary of State to undertake multiple and frequent assessments of needs. That undermines the key objective of long-term certainty which provides the incentive and also stability in a local authority’s funding. As it is, the needs and resources elements are taken into account at the setting of the baseline. The baseline is set and then it runs forward. They are taken into account. Some people say, “Go back to a previous year on the baseline”, even though that would involve more out-of-date data and formulae. Many would say that that was not fair.
Let me finish the point and hon. Members may find that their intervention falls into place better.
Local authorities’ baseline funding levels are set on the basis of the 2012-13 formula grant. The calculation of the tariffs and the top-ups will then ensure that the funding at the outset of the scheme is in line with that assessment of relative need and resource. That is in our system. After that, the baseline levels, tariffs and top-up funding remain fixed and the budgets grow in line with the incentive.
If the system is reset too frequently, that undermines the incentive that we wish to achieve, and in particular it severely diminishes the value of the important introduction in the Bill of tax increment financing. For tax increment financing, which the local government world has wanted for a long time and which the Lyons review advocated introducing, it is important to have a reasonable degree of certainty about the income stream against which we can securitise. That is undermined if interference and change in the system are too frequent.
I understand the point made by my hon. Friend Mark Field about uprating in line with the RPI, and I accept that there has to be a degree of trade-off in this. It means that top-up local authorities will have a degree of assurance throughout the period of the reset that their income levels will grow by inflation. That is particularly important in the case of two-tier areas, where the county councils responsible for a large number of personal services will be predominantly top-up authorities. Much the same will apply to other precepting authorities, such as the combined and stand-alone fire and rescue authorities. I accept that arguments were made on either side, but, as is always the case, a balance has to be achieved, as I know my hon. Friend will recognise.
I accept that revaluation too often can cause a problem, but does the Minister agree that the valuation process has not been changed for many years and the longer the period without a revaluation, the more likely it is that no Government will do it because it will make such a difference and there will be winners and losers? There has to be some sort of judgment between how long is too short and how long is too long for a review, and is not 10 years too long?
I do not think that 10 years is too long. We think that it gives a sensible balance. But it is a good reason not to put such matters in primary legislation and to say instead that they should be developed through regulations, which, as we know, will be subject to scrutiny by the House. I should have thought that that meets the hon. Gentleman’s point. An assessment is built into the system, which is then taken forward. That is why the updating report is there.
A second point concerns the question of the central share and the set-aside. I am sure that when hon. Members reflect upon this they will realise that we have always made it clear that over time, particularly when we have put the public finances back on track, we would hope to increase the proportion of business rates to the part of the rates retention scheme. But it would be imprudent to suppose—Opposition Members would not have done so when they were in government—that there might never be an occasion when the central share might need to be maintained, or on occasion, heaven forbid, increased. I believe that the economic policies of the Government will mean that it is not necessary, but legislation has to cater for various eventualities. As I say, it is our aspiration that that should increase, but equally, as hon. Members will know, the Government have, and will always have, an interest in the totality of public spending. To expect the Government to have no control over local government finance, when it is such a significant percentage of public expenditure, would be unrealistic. That is not the case under the current scheme, and it would not be realistic in future. In that regard, some of the amendments would constrain the Government unrealistically, and I hope hon. Members will understand why.
I accept that the straitened financial times make things very difficult, but do I take from what my hon. Friend has said that there is a longer-term aspiration, if not necessarily a fully fledged commitment at this stage, that we should look to allow local authorities to raise the council tax in future to ensure that there is a little more of a balance; that some more of the money that they are expending comes from local residents? I accept that this is not a short-term measure given the financial constraints that we are under, and I understand why the Government have tried to provide such incentives to freeze the council tax at the moment, but in the longer term, the rebalancing to which he refers should ensure that local government has other full sources of income possibly to rely upon.
I understand my hon. Friend’s point. He refers to the council tax, which is a separate part of the income stream from the business rates. Of course, we have ourselves removed capping and substituted the ability, even under current circumstances, for a local authority to go to its voters by way of a referendum, which is a move in the direction of giving greater flexibility. It is the authority’s local call. In relation to the business rates element of its income, I restate that it is our desire to ensure that there is flexibility for the future. This is not intended to be a system that lasts for two or three years. I am in favour of multiple-year funding settlements, which I think we all agree on, but our system is intended to last for a much longer period. I hope that that reassures hon. Members.
I thank the Minister for the slight reassurances about his thinking on the future of the set-aside, but will he reflect on the fact that many countries manage a different relationship between central and local government with more flexibility for local government? Can he think of any other advanced western democracy where local government taxes are used by central Government for their own purposes, rather than for those of local authorities?
It is perfectly fair to observe that the local government finance system in this country is highly centralised, and many of us have often said that we want to make it less so. The Bill will do precisely that. I am reminded of the old phrase, “Half a loaf is better than none.” As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Lyons inquiry into local government, which the previous Government established, found that the system was too centralised, but Opposition Members conveniently ignored that when in government. We are doing something about it, so his ambition is being met at least in part.
I will say something about how this will operate. The central and local shares will have to be set out in the annual local government finance report. We will consult local government on the draft report, as we currently do, which will then be laid before the House and subject to the rigour of parliamentary scrutiny. A statutory consultation, as proposed in amendment 38, is unnecessary, as that will happen as a matter of course. We do not envisage that the shares, once they have been set at the outset, will be changed from year to year. That gives certainty that the uprating for the top-ups and tariffs will be protected until we come to a reset. We have already debated what will be the most appropriate period before a reset. That is why amendment 37 does not give any greater clarity.
The Government’s intention is that the money that comes into the central share will be returned in its entirety to local government, as currently required by the Finance Act 1988. We will do so by funding local government by grant that is outside what is currently formula grant and will now be in the rates retention scheme. There are plenty of examples of localised grants that are made in that way—for example those relating to neighbourhood policing and homelessness grants. The suggestion, from the authors of the current system, that that is centralising should win the award for chutzpah of the year so far, although it is only
These changes are an important step towards localisation. There is a great deal of detail and we have undertaken to consult on the regulations, and I assure hon. Members that they will be subject to the scrutiny procedures of the House. As I said earlier, we have set up a working group at official level to talk through the details with the local government sector.
I have a great deal of respect for John Healey, who is no longer in his place but, for the reasons I have set out, I do not believe that amendment 46 is necessary to achieve a degree of fairness in the system. It would have a perverse effect, as it would prevent any of the central share money from being used to fund transitional protection arrangements under the transitional rate relief scheme. Schedule 1, as drafted, permits that, which means that transitional payments under the rate relief scheme would not fall on local government. Central Government would be in a position to pick up the cost if disparities arose. Under the amendments, the costs would have to fall on local government, which is not his intention. I hope that he will consider withdrawing the amendment before we come to vote.
I will turn briefly to the two Government amendments in the group. They relate to seriously technical parts of the schedule. I apologise for that, but they are important. First, they increase the amount that can be debited from the main rating account to include payments received in respect of central list contributions and payments that are made as contributions in aid. Those payments are made directly to the Secretary of State.
The central list relates essentially to occupiers of network property. That is entered not on any individual local authority’s rating list, but on the central rating list. Contributions in aid relate to certain property that is exempt from rating and is occupied by central Government, such as that for visiting forces, international headquarters and so on. We want to ensure that that is not counted in a way that is to the detriment of local government in determining the appropriate shares. By allowing those sums to be included, the amendments will reduce the central share and allow local government to keep more of the local rates that they raise. They are technical amendments, but they work to the advantage of the local authority sector as a whole.
Secondly, the amendments will ensure that central Government cannot debit any sums that need to be repaid in respect of an earlier year. It sometimes happens that in the course of a year, authorities are expected to pay their central share contribution on the basis of an estimate made at the start of the year. That happens to some degree now in the calculation of business rate payments and there is a reconciliation at the end of the year. The amendments will simply ensure that reconciliation works in a way that allows payments to be made back to local authorities. Again, that will ensure that local authorities keep a bigger share of the local rates that they collect. These are both benign amendments that, in a modest way, strengthen the position of local authorities even further. I accept that this is a marginal part of the system, but it is none the less important to get it right.
I urge Members to support the two Government amendments and hope that they will reject the amendments of Opposition Members if they are pressed to a vote.
Amendment 46 negatived.
Amendments made: 1, page 11, line 31, after ‘exceed’ insert ‘—(a)’.
Amendment 2, page 11, line 32, leave out ‘(1)(c)’ and insert
‘(1)(a), (b) and (c), minus
(b) the total amount debited for the year under sub-paragraph (2)(a)’.—(Robert Neill.)
Amendment proposed: 19, page 12, line 20, at end insert—
(c) in determining the central share and the local share for any relevant authority, the Secretary of State must have regard to—
(i) the level of need in that authority,
(ii) the likely capacity of the authority to benefit from business rate growth, and
(iii) the council tax base of the authority.
Any assessment of the level of need in the authority shall include—
(iv) the ranking of the local authority in the Index of Multiple Deprivation,
(v) the level of unemployment within the authority’s area,
(vi) the proportion of adults with a limiting long-term illness within the authority’s area,
(vii) the number of adults in receipt of social care within the authority’s area,
(viii) the number of looked-after children within the authority, and
(ix) the level of child poverty within the authority’s area.’.—(Helen Jones.)
Question accordingly negatived.
Amendment proposed: 39, page 15, line 17, leave out from ‘must’ to end of line 19 and insert
‘prepare and publish an assessment of the level of need in each local authority, as defined in paragraph 4(c) above. The Secretary of State must—
(a) lay the report containing the assessment before the House at least 14 sitting days in advance of the publication of the Local Government Finance Report, and
(b) notify such representatives of local government as the Secretary of State thinks fit of the publication of the report on need and the detail of the basis of calculation in the Local Government Finance Report.’.—(Helen Jones .)
Question put, That the amendment be made.
The Committee divided:
Ayes 228, Noes 318.