Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government

Part of Department for Work and Pensions – in the House of Commons at 4:51 pm on 2nd July 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, The Cotswolds 4:51 pm, 2nd July 2019

I accept what the hon. Lady says. The problem is that it is about not only the amount of money that schools get, but the amount of costs that central Government keep imposing on schools—pensions, the apprenticeship levy or other expenditures. The costs keep going up, so the amount that schools have to spend is squeezed every year.

The Government need to do two things. First, they need to consider the quantum, as the hon. Lady has said. Secondly, when they impose an additional tax or an additional cost on a school, they need to consider very carefully how that school’s budget is being squeezed. We want to give our children the fairest possible start in life, and allocating adequate resources to education is almost the most important thing a Government can do, which is why I feel so strongly about this issue.

I also feel strongly about children’s special needs. The amount that Gloucestershire is spending in this regard is going up and up. I am grateful to the Government for providing an additional £1.35 million this year and next to deal with the problem, but they need to understand the causes of the increased demand in special needs, and education, health and care plans. The Government probably need to ring-fence this budget so that we do not get into the situation that we did this year, whereby Gloucestershire County Council was going to top-slice its general schools budget by up to 0.5% to deal with the problem. It is currently entitled to do so, but that is not fair on schoolchildren in general, which is why the Government need to ring-fence this budget.

Local enterprise partnerships—where local authorities contribute a significant amount of money, certainly some of the expertise and some of the governance—are rather variable, as we discovered from the NAO report. Some work extremely well; some work far less well. Some are governed extremely well; some are governed less well. There is geographical overlap in some, but not in others. If the Government wish to deliver their industrial strategy to the best possible degree, they need to look at the whole matter of LEPs quite carefully.

The fire and rescue service in Gloucestershire is currently run by the county council, but there is considerable pressure from the Home Office to transfer it to the police and crime commissioner. We have already had one inquiry and the proposal was rejected, yet the police and crime commissioner still wishes to overturn the decision. I say to my colleagues on the Front Bench that a considerable amount of resource and effort is being wasted by continually bickering over this matter. The fire and rescue service, I say loud and clear, is well run in Gloucestershire. The county council supports it, as do, I think, most Conservative colleagues—certainly, I support it very strongly. It should remain where it is.

We need to get local government funding functioning properly. This is a really serious problem. The Government wish to move to a new form of funding—the core rate support grant—in local government in 2021. That means that there are vital decisions that they need to make quite quickly. The proposal is that councils should keep three quarters of the revenue, down from 90% originally, but fundamental decisions on how this will work are coming very late in the day. No council should be under financial pressure, because of the tier splits, to move to 75% retention. We need to decide what the distribution system should be. If Westminster Council, for example, keeps 75% of its rate support, it will be awash with money, whereas a council in the north that keeps 75% will be in severe shortage. The councils need to know. As the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon says, it is only fair that the funding system for councils both for next year and the year after are made very clear fairly soon.

The other side of the coin is that the Government have a target for building 300,000 more homes each year. Councils will be able to do that only if they are properly incentivised by the council tax system. They need to be able to work out what that system is going to be. As part of the local government finance reorganisation, what will the incentives be for councils that want to expand their council tax base, as with the incentives to expand their business rate base? Again, the Government need to make some decisions on this. They need to tell us whether the new homes bonus will remain, and in what form, to give councils that incentive.

This is a huge field. I think I have cantered over some of the main areas, and others will do the same.