Local Government Finance

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:38 pm on 22nd February 2017.

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Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Chair, Justice Committee 5:38 pm, 22nd February 2017

I start by welcoming the Secretary of State’s statement, which was constructive both in content and tone, and I am personally grateful to him for the assurance he gave me earlier following my intervention regarding his willingness to work with my London Borough of Bromley on a pilot for business rates retention. Bromley is ambitious to grow its business base and has the scope, the ability and the connections into central London, as he probably well knows, to do so. So we will be pleased to work with the Government on that.

I also support the philosophy that underpinned the statement—the continuation of the move towards four-year planning, as longer term planning for local authorities is desirable, and the completion of the move towards 100% business rates retention. When I was at DCLG, the then Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend Sir Eric Pickles and I were able to make a start on that with the Local Government Finance Act 2012, and I am delighted to see my successor, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Mr Jones, in his place and taking through the final bit of that legislation now. It is an important devolutionary step, which I welcome. I hope it will not be the end of devolutionary steps for local government finance.

As we look at devolution deals, it is important to recognise the strong argument for more and more local authorities to become dependent on raising their own resources rather than central Government grant. Compared with many of our competitor countries, we have a narrow suite of revenue-raising powers for local government. We should perhaps think further about whether other taxes could be localised in a cost-neutral way. Obvious examples include stamp duty land tax and so on. That is further down the track, but it is important to be prepared to look seriously at that option.

I am sure that the Secretary of State will be aware of the work of the London Finance Commission—I declare my interest as a member of it—which is a cross-party commission established by the Mayor of London, following on from the previous London Finance Commission established by my right hon. Friend Boris Johnson when he was the Mayor of London. Sensible suggestions have been put forward to build on the devolving approach that Ministers are currently developing. That is desirable.

Given the financial constraints that the Government have inherited, the settlement itself is sensible, and I particularly welcome the way in which a number of grants will be rolled into business rate retention, which makes for a more sensible and appropriate approach. I am glad, too, that following representations made by local government, the devolution of attendance allowance funding will not happen. Authorities such as mine have a growing elderly population. In fact, Bromley has the highest population of pensioners in London—I have not quite tipped over yet, but I sometimes regard it as forward planning—and such pressures are important.

I welcome the commitment to doing more work to join up health spending and adult social care. I hope that the Secretary of State will talk repeatedly with his colleague, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, about implementation. All too often, I have found, in my own area and from contacts elsewhere in local government, that it is not working on the ground as one would wish. The better care fund was a good initiative, and the principle is right, but these services are not being joined up in the way they should. Unfortunately, I have to say that that is all too often not for want of willingness on the part of local authorities of any complexion. The very ‘silo’ and hierarchical nature of how the health service and health economy work means, I am afraid, that there is a considerable lack of willingness to engage on that side of the equation—and it takes two to tango.