Local Government Finance

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:00 pm on 22nd February 2017.

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Photo of James Heappey James Heappey Conservative, Wells 5:00 pm, 22nd February 2017

I absolutely agree. There is something very empowering and very Conservative about giving councils the opportunity to be masters of their own financial destiny, and giving them the means by saying, “If you go out and attract business into your area, the rewards are yours to keep and spend on improved public services for your communities.” We just have to be aware that when we get that going, we need to have stacked the growth deals in favour of areas where the challenge is greatest so authorities really can take things into their own hands and grow their economies as keenly as the areas that already benefit from better connectivity, infrastructure and skills.

It is sad that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and the Chancellor have already left their seats because I was going to make one other plea in order to alleviate Somerset’s problems in the short term. The Government have encouraged local authorities to do as they wish through mechanisms such as the new homes bonus and the community infrastructure levy. Not too long ago, there was an aggregates levy designed so that the minerals and aggregates that were extracted in certain areas would be taxed. Some 10% of that was supposed to stay locally in order to fund local betterment and mitigation, but it has drifted off into the centre and is no longer benefiting communities that suffer from hosting those industries. Why does that matter to us in Somerset? Well, in Somerset the Chancellor raises £24.7 million a year from the aggregates levy, and the 10% that we have lost is worth £2.47 million. That is an awful lot of bus routes, youth centres, community support for the elderly, library hours, recycling centres, bin collections, and everything else. As the Government offer the community infrastructure levy to communities that might find fracking appealing, and offer the new homes bonus as an incentive for communities who might want to host more housing, will the Chancellor let us have back the 10% of the aggregates levy that was supposed to have been the incentive for hosting quarrying?

In my constituency, we are doing an awful lot to facilitate national infrastructure projects. In Cheddar valley, the lorries going towards Hinkley Point now number more than 300 a day as it has gone on to 24-hours-a-day building. The pylons that National Grid will soon need to build to connect Hinkley into the national grid will roll through my constituency very shortly. All that building work means that all those quarry lorries are having an impact on our roads, causing potholes and congestion. Yet we are getting zero in mitigation while also getting a very poor deal on local government finance.

Public services in Somerset are being squeezed right down, but the adult social care requirements will continue to grow and grow. We should not see libraries, bus services, support groups and day centres as things that can simply be cut in order to divert money towards adult social care. That is a false economy. Those bus routes, day centres, community support groups and libraries allow people to lead independent lives, staying in their own homes independent of the adult social care system. It is only when we make them so isolated and so lonely that we end up needing to spend more and more on adult social care.

Let us move as quickly as we can to carry out the review that the Secretary of State has promised. It is very welcome announcement for which I and, I am sure, many colleagues are extremely grateful. I have every confidence that that review will make a huge difference to rural areas, perhaps in terms of the money that we get, but much more importantly, in terms of our constituents’ perception that the system is not stacked against them—that they get a fair cut of the Government’s cash. I know that the Secretary of State wants to be bold in the scope and scale of the review that he embarks on, but I also urge him get it done this year so that when we have this debate next year we can offer our councils much more certainty on what full business rate retention looks like and what the advantage to them will be.