Like many hon. Members, I started out in politics by serving as a local councillor. I served four very enjoyable and informative years on Cornwall Council, including as part of the cabinet. There is no doubt in my mind about the importance of local government in delivering essential services to our communities, and they are some of the services that our residents care about the most. However, as with all parts of the public sector, it is vital that local government is held to account to ensure that it delivers value for money for the taxpayer.
In recent years, when we have been dealing with record deficits and have needed to bring the public sector finances back into balance, given the mess we inherited in 2010, it is right that local government has also had to cut back its spending. That has largely been a positive process for both councils and the taxpayer. Councils have had to make efficiencies, innovate and, where appropriate, work together to find the savings required. That has pushed councils into finding better and more efficient ways of working to deliver those services—ways that they might otherwise never have considered. It has also encouraged councils to focus on delivering the core services that residents really want their councils to deliver, rather than wasting money on what are often vanity projects.
However, even with the financial challenges that councils face, there are often still cases of councils wasting money and getting their priorities wrong. Just last week we learned that Liberal Democrat Cornwall Council spent over £46,000 on sending five officers to a property developers conference in Cannes. That is a huge sum of money, and it included £23,000 for renting an apartment for four days for those officers. For people in Cornwall, where the average salary is £17,000 a year, that is a huge amount of money.
That spending might have been questioned even when councils had plenty of money, but my office contacts Cornwall Council virtually every week to ask it on behalf of residents to re-paint some yellow lines, cut some grass or trim some hedges, and the answer we get time and again is, “We don’t have any money to do that because of central Government cuts.” It is funny that the council still manages to find money to do the things that it wants to do. It is therefore important that we continue to focus on councils to ensure they are getting their priorities right, delivering value for money and the things that the taxpayer wants their hard-earned tax pounds to be spent on.
I am sure that the Minister would be surprised if I did not use the time I have left to mention the underfunding that we have experienced in rural councils for far too long. I do not have time to go into all the figures—I know that he is familiar with them—but rural residents pay more in council tax, receive fewer services and on average earn less than those in urban areas. That inequality is unacceptable and has gone on too long. The Government need to deliver on the needs review to make sure we get the baseline right before it is hard-baked in, when 100% retention of business rates is introduced, so that rural councils get a fair deal and receive the funding they rightly deserve. They face increased pressure on their budgets—often far more than urban councils—particularly with the huge rise in social care costs that we are experiencing. I urge the Minister, ahead of the next settlement period for local councils, to get the review in place, reset local government funding and give rural councils a fairer deal.