Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise in the House the important subject of the provision of services in the town that I and my hon. Friend James Duddridge represent. I am delighted to see the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Mr Jones, in his place, because he and I were colleagues on the Backbench Business Committee and I know his expertise in this area only too well.
I say to my hon. Friend in a gentle way that, given the huge change in the provision of services by local authorities generally, I am somewhat confused these days about how the Department measures their performance. When I hear that Southend council is doing well, I want to be able to compare it with other councils, but that does not seem too easy at the moment. For instance, there does not seem to be anything in place to measure the health and wellbeing element of local authority provision, and the same goes for education. In my area, none of the secondary schools is under the domain of the local authorities anymore—some of the primary, junior and infant schools are—so I would like to hear something from my hon. Friend about how we would measure them, because it is important to have a yardstick to judge performance.
My hon. Friend knows only too well that I am very committed to Southend. I do not think we need to argue about it: Southend-on-Sea is the finest seaside resort not only in the country but in the world. I have argued that we have been far too modest about just what a great town it generally is. My role and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East is to come here to this Parliament—the mother of all Parliaments—and make the case for Southend to get the maximum provision possible in any moneys that are allocated. That is regardless of who the Government of the day might be.
Let me tell the Minister that I am in confusion about our local authority. I am in confusion about who actually runs it. Is it the wide number of local councillors split into seven different groups? Are they running it, or is it the council officers who are running it? I get so frustrated when I find credit being taken for things that I personally think are not truly down to the local authority. There does not seem to be much praise for central Government initiatives. If the Minister has time to reflect on my points today, I would be glad to hear from him. If not, perhaps he will write to me in due course.
Southend had a Conservative council between 2000 and 2014—for 14 years. The council was responsible for many of the high-profile projects and improvements to the local environment and amenities, which the current administration are claiming credit for. It never says, “Yes, it was five years ago when the now Secretary of State came down to Southend to sign the city deal”. All these years later—we know how long it takes for capital projects to be enjoyed by everyone—no praise is given to the once magnificent leadership of Nigel Holcroft and his deputy John Lamb. So good was that council that in 2012, we were made the council of the year and Nigel Holcroft very nearly became the leader of the year.
The then Conservative administration invested millions of pounds in the pier. Let me tell the Minister that I, together with a few other Essex and Kent Members, met the Chancellor two weeks ago. We spoke about a whole range of issues. I asked him whether, if there were any money available in the forthcoming March Budget, we could have some of it to help the marina. This is the longest pier in the world. We owe the Victorians so much, but it needs a bit of help now. Given that the Chancellor is minded to reflect on the success of the northern powerhouse, which I know is the responsibility of another one of our Ministers, I wondered whether we might be able to do the same thing. Madam Deputy Speaker is an Essex Member. Although she is not quite as near to the coast as one would like her to be, she knows all too well about the points I am making. I think the Chancellor wants to explore some mechanism whereby all organisations can be brought together to promote the Thames estuary. I asked for help in that respect.
The previous Conservative administration managed to bring about improvements on the pier by recycling the Royal Pavilion. A huge boat came down the river, bringing this large structure with it. It was bigger than 30 or 40 whales being washed along. It was absolutely magnificent. The Conservative council also invested in a new swimming and diving centre, which was used as a training centre for the Olympic games—and it is still being used now. Mr Daley apparently regularly dives there, as does my hon. Friend Penny Mordaunt, who took part in the bigger splash. I know she went and practised in that wonderful diving centre at Garon park. We also obtained funding for the first phase of the city beach, another wonderful project.
All that investment was aimed at making Southend an all-year round destination for families and a top visitor attraction. The Minister will know of the problems that many seaside coastal resorts have had. Because it is now possible to get on easyJet for £20 or so to travel to Venice, it makes it very tough to attract British-based residents to spend more than a couple of days in our seaside resorts. We are trying to enhance the wonderful facilities we already have there.
The previous council was also responsible for The Forum project, in partnership with the University of Essex and Anglia Ruskin University. We have a magnificent new library, business support centres and the arts centre, which was opened officially by the Duke of Kent this week—I was there, and he unveiled a bust of his cousin Her Majesty the Queen. It is a wonderful facility. The Forum provides the incubator space for start-up companies and access to tailored business support programmes. There is space for up to 10 businesses at any one time, and these will support more than 110 jobs over a 10-year period. That may not seem like a huge number over that period, but to the families who will be investing in this it means a great deal. That project would never have got off the ground without the energy, commitment, vision and funding provided by the Conservative council.
The development of Priory park, the new Southend museum and the outstanding Beecroft gallery—I will be there tomorrow, as we are having the opening of a wonderful new jazz centre—were all visualised and carried through by the committed and enthusiastic Conservative councillors. One of the aims of that council was to encourage and nurture the wide range of artistic, creative and literary talent in Southend, and provide venues and support for the many groups of young musicians and artists who make Southend a vibrant community. The Minister will know that next year Southend is the alternative city of culture, and when we celebrate that it is going to be global. The Conservative council was also responsible for pushing through upgrades to the A127, with the new roundabout and junction improvements, providing access to both Canvey Island and Southend airport. They are now much easier and quicker to get to, assisting local businesses and transport companies to do business in a timely manner. Both the arterial routes through Southend, the A127 and the A13, have been improved under the Conservative council. None of the current administration were involved in the bidding process, yet they claim all the credit—I find it so frustrating.
Southend has had a couple of blows at the start of this year. First, we learned that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs will be moving from Alexander house in Southend to Stratford in five years. My hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, a first-class Minister, is doing the best he can to get a good deal out of it all, but that is very challenging. The bigger blow is the disgrace at c2c. I was at the forefront of arguing for the franchise to be renewed for another 15 years, having been told that commuters would be more easily able to get seats and would have faster travelling times, but the complete reverse has happened. That has been a big blow for Southend commuters.
Conservatives also negotiated the Southend city deal, which was signed by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. In the executive summary for the deal, Southend-on-Sea Borough Council was praised for demonstrating
“its ability to deliver effective regeneration programmes of a transformational nature… delivered on time and on budget”.
The city deal obtained, among other things, direct business support for more than 1,300 businesses, creating or safeguarding more than 550 jobs in the area.
In 2014, the Conservatives lost overall control of the council and a “rainbow coalition”—those are not my words—of minor parties came together to keep the Conservatives from forming a minority administration. The Minister will realise that that is extraordinary, because the Conservatives were by far and away the largest group, being double the size of any other group, and had obtained by far and away the largest percentage of the vote. Yet all these others, Labour, Liberal, independents—I do not understand the concept of an independent, as these people must have a political philosophy so let us hear about that—and the UK Independence party joined together. Five UKIP councillors were elected but they have now split into two groups, and the independents have also split into groups.
If I had voted for these individuals in the local elections, I would be upset because it is wrong that they have somehow come together in this way. If we look at the political spectrum, we must ask how it happens that UKIP is working with Labour and the Liberals locally. It is extraordinary and it has been a disaster for the residents of Southend. We have nine Labour councillors; four Liberals; 11 independents, in two groups; and five UKIP councillors, again in two separate groups. It is very difficult to see any cohesive policies at all. Rather than having a vision for the town, as the Conservatives did, they are constantly courting popularity and not taking the hard decisions needed from a responsible council. Their reliance on council officers means there is no overall plan for the future of Southend and no transparency in the decision-making process. They are happy to criticise the previous administration for wasting money, yet they publish “Outlook” magazine, using public money to publicise themselves. There is a constant flow of press releases from their obviously overworked press officer in an effort to convince local residents and, in particular, the local media that they are doing a fantastic job.
Since taking power, this rag-bag administration have raised council tax by 1.95%, despite being offered a Government council tax freeze grant. Parking charges have been raised by 20% in the town centre, hitting local businesses hard. That is despite the claims they made when in opposition that car parking charges were too high and that that was affecting local businesses. Fees and charges for all services and Southend’s top attractions have been hit by an above-inflation rise of 20%. To add insult to injury, cremation charges have been raised by £100, hitting families with additional costs at a time when they are very vulnerable.
The current administration have reduced the waste budget by nearly £900,000. Their miserable record on the environment has seen 55 litter bins removed, and more are threatened with removal. Enviro-crime team officers have been axed, recycling schemes have been scrapped, including the white textile recycling sacks, and weekly rubbish collections are threatened. Four public toilets are threatened with closure; only prolonged pressure from the Conservative group has kept them open. The proposal to close them came from unelected officers, bringing into question whether Southend council is being run by elected councillors or not.
The current administration have left Shoeburyness residents—I referred earlier to my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East—open to flooding because they are not prepared to make unpopular decisions regarding the improvement of sea defences. They promised a review of flood defences when they were in opposition, but two years later it is still under review while residents’ homes and livelihoods are at risk. Their lack of leadership and experience has led to council officers having to take more and more responsibility for such decisions.
In April 2013 responsibility for public health functions was transferred to councils. Southend council’s health and wellbeing board, which really should be overseeing what goes on at Southend council—the Care Quality Commission and Monitor are currently doing that—should be a robust body responsible for holding service managers to account, but it seems to be used as just another council committee. I am aware that it is chaired by a UKIP councillor, or perhaps he is part of the break-away movement—I do not understand all the internal machinations of these political groups. Funding is seen as an opportunity to promote council schemes, to the detriment of local health services. The health and wellbeing board should be holding local health service providers to account to ensure that local residents get the best possible care, yet only yesterday I received notice that CQC has put a GP practice in my constituency into special measures following an inspection in September 2015.
In conclusion, this administration have tried to claim the credit for everything achieved by the previous Conservative council, including The Forum, despite having accused the previous council of borrowing and wasting too much money. Having claimed that the previous council’s borrowing was out of control, they have increased borrowing by £9 million. They are currently looking to outsource development work on the pier, which will completely change its wonderful character, despite opposition from residents. Entry charges to the pier have been raised by 20%. Local businesses, which rely on the flow of holidaymakers and day-trippers, have been dismayed as that has a direct impact on them, including the famous Rossi’s, which makes the best ice cream in the world. Extortionate parking charges in the town centre are also having an adverse effect on local shops and places of entertainment, including the Palace theatre and the wonderful Cliffs Pavilion.
The only policies that this council has come up with since being elected have been in search of media plaudits and good soundbites. It takes the credit for projects in which it had no input and blames national Government when the money runs out. It is wrecking all the good work done by the previous Conservative administration and letting local residents down. Therefore, what criteria does the Minister’s Department use to judge the performance of local councils? With more powers being delegated to local authorities, what provision is being made to ensure that local services are properly run and that elected officials are held accountable for their actions on behalf of the residents who elected them? Who decides when enough is enough, and what redress do local residents have when their council lets them down so badly?
I congratulate my hon. Friend Sir David Amess on securing the debate. He has a great passion for his constituency and the interests of the people whom he represents. I represent a constituency that is probably about as far away from the sea as anywhere else in the country, so I will not challenge his assertion that Southend-on-Sea is the best seaside resort in the country.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me this opportunity to talk about something that I feel strongly about. Local services, whether in Southend, my constituency of Nuneaton or anywhere else in the country, are crucial to local people. He raised interesting points about finance; from what he says, it seems that a bit of a blame game is going on at times. We all know that there are challenges with the public finances. Local authorities account for a quarter of public spending, and it is only right that local government should find its share of savings. We need to reduce the largest deficit in our post-war history.
To date, neither my hon. Friend nor I have had one letter complaining about the allocation of funds. To whom are representations being made?
Surely my hon. Friend agrees that they should be made through local Members of Parliament if the situation is to be addressed. Will he let me know or write to me about that?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I may need to write to him about a number of things that he has raised in today’s debate.
It is important that we recognise that one reason for where we are with the public finances is the profligacy of the last Labour Government, who put the public finances at risk. In the same context, at the last election the Labour party stood on a manifesto in which it said it would reduce funding to local government. That is an important point.
Overall, councils have done a good job of achieving savings while balancing budgets, in many cases keeping council tax low and maintaining satisfaction with services. However, more savings need to be made. We have listened carefully to councils while preparing both the spending review and the local government finance settlement. I thank everyone who took the time and effort to respond to the recent consultation with considered comments about our proposals. Even in the context of tougher public finances, we have given councils extra help to protect services such as those that support the most vulnerable in our society.
Through our £5.3 billion better care fund, we are spreading best practice to all areas of the country and have put national clinical experts into the most challenged areas to help them improve. Over the life of this Parliament, we will maintain the NHS contribution to the better care fund in real terms, including additional local government social care funding worth an extra £1.5 billion by 2020.
Back in November 2013, the Government selected 14 localities in the UK as integrated care pioneers. Southend—then under Conservative control—was one of them. Steps were taken to promote the prevention agenda, reduce unnecessary hospital admissions and keep patients independent in their own homes for longer. Our aim is for local government and the NHS to work together in a genuine partnership and to be held accountable for delivery. There must be a commitment to achieve that ambition on both sides.
That brings me to localism. We are committed to giving local authorities even greater control by the end of this Parliament. By 2020, local government will be entirely funded by its own resources—council tax, business rates, and fees and charges. Many people never thought that possible until very recently. Alongside all the new flexibility, we have to be clear that all public bodies should adopt maximum openness and transparency, which are the foundations of local accountability and democracy.
Since 2010, we have put in place a number of strong measures to improve town hall transparency. People should have access to their local authorities’ meetings and information. We live in a modern, digital world, where filming and social media should be embraced in reporting on public council meetings. That is why we introduced the Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014, which give any member of the public the right to take photographs, film and audio recordings in public council meetings, and to report on them.
In addition, the local government transparency code now requires local authorities to publish information about their financial transactions and assets. That enables the public more effectively to engage with and challenge their local authority. The code places more power in the hands of the public by increasing democratic accountability through wider access to information. With greater availability of information, not only can members of the public better understand and challenge their local authority’s performance, but greater transparency can lead to better and more efficient services.
The public rightly expect high standards of behaviour from their elected representatives, including local authority members. In 2012, the Conservative-led coalition Government did away with the discredited standards board regime, which had become a vehicle for malicious, vexatious and politically motivated complaints. New arrangements were put in place, giving local authorities control over how they promote and maintain high standards of conduct, and ending top-down, centralist control.
Every authority, including parish councils, was required to put in place a code of conduct that is compliant with the seven Nolan principles of standards in public life: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. When it is found that a local authority member has failed to comply with their authority’s code, the council can censure that member. At the same time, we introduced tough new rules on pecuniary interests to ensure that local authority members cannot put their own interests ahead of those of the public.
Wilfully ignoring the national rules, giving false or misleading information, or taking part in the business of the authority when that is prohibited by the rules is a criminal offence punishable with a fine of up to £5,000 and with being disqualified for up to five years from standing for or holding office in England. With those new localist, proportionate and robust arrangements in place, we are confident that local people will be able to hold their elected representatives to account for their conduct. A criminal sanction will ensure that elected members always put the public’s interest ahead of their own interests.
When people are let down by their local authority, it is important that there is swift and effective redress so that things are put right. A good complaints process can not only enable somebody who has been let down by their council to get swift and effective redress, but be a useful intelligence gathering mechanism for local authorities, alerting them to a problem with one of their services, actions or decisions. Where redress cannot be achieved, the local government ombudsman can consider complaints from members of the public who consider that they have suffered personal injustice as a result of maladministration in a local authority.
There are also routes of redress where services for vulnerable people are concerned. For example, if there is evidence of systematic failure in the provision of good-quality social care, the Secretary of State for Health has the power to require the Care Quality Commission to investigate. Should the CQC consider that the council is failing in its functions, a range of improvement options are available, from a notice requiring specific action, with a deadline for completion, through to the recommendation that the Secretary of State should impose special measures on the authority.
If my hon. Friend would like to write to me with further details of the GP practice that is being put into special measures, I will ask my officials to look into the issue and involve their counterparts at the Department of Health. As he says, local residents must be able to rely on the NHS to provide the best possible care, and we cannot tolerate poor standards of care.
The measures I have outlined ensure that we have a strong, 21st-century local democracy, where local government bodies are clearly accountable to the people they serve and to the taxpayers who help fund them. On my hon. Friend’s final point about redress for members of the public, I would say to him and to his constituents that if the public are so dissatisfied with the situation at Southend council, their final point of redress is, at the next set of elections, to vote in a Conservative administration that will provide high-quality administration for local people.
We recognise the challenges that lie ahead for local government. At a time of big opportunity, we want local government to take that forward, but we also expect it to be responsible, to be accountable, and to be open and transparent.
Question put and agreed to.