Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government

Part of Department for Work and Pensions – in the House of Commons at 6:45 pm on 2nd July 2019.

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Photo of Rishi Sunak Rishi Sunak Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 6:45 pm, 2nd July 2019

It is a great pleasure to conclude this debate, which I agree with Andrew Gwynne has been very thoughtful. I congratulate Layla Moran on opening it and thank the Backbench Business Committee for securing time for us to discuss a subject that is close to my heart. She can rest assured that the latest report of the Public Accounts Committee on local government sustainability is bedtime reading for me; I have it with me at all times. I thank all hon. Members who contributed to the debate.

We are all here because we value and recognise the invaluable work conducted by councils up and down the country. I join all hon. Members on both sides of the House in paying tribute to our hard-working councillors, and I thank them for everything they do for our local communities. Let me also take this opportunity, on the first day of the Local Government Association conference, to thank the noble Lord Porter for his tenure as chairman of the LGA. He is a genuine giant in the world of local government, he has been a strong champion for the sector, he is respected across the spectrum, and I know he will be sorely missed.

Shortly after I became local government Minister, Lord Porter’s successor, Councillor Jamieson—whom I wish every success too—handed me a document that contained an incredible statistic. He had calculated that councils provide an amazing 800 different services. They really do touch every aspect of our lives as citizens. We heard about a range of those services today.

I will try my best to answer as many of the queries that were raised as possible. Many of them relate to areas that are not my direct responsibility but that of our fantastic Housing Minister. I am pleased to say that he has been here for most of the debate and has heard and absorbed all those queries. With his tagline “more, better, faster”, I know he is relentlessly committed to ensuring that everyone has a safe, decent and affordable home to call their own.

As I reflected on those 800 different services from where I stood, I came to see that there were three major, overarching areas for which councils have responsibility: driving economic growth; helping the most vulnerable in our society; and building strong communities that we are all proud to call home. I am pleased to say that this Government are supporting councils to do all three.

Before addressing the various points that were made in the debate through the prism of those three areas, I want to acknowledge that, of course, local government has been through a challenging period financially. I do not disagree with that; it would be wrong to do so. I agree that the balance of spending has shifted from non-statutory services to statutory services, and it is right that that is addressed in the upcoming spending review. Members can rest assured that, working with Departments such as the Department for Education and the Department of Health and Social Care, we are providing an evidence-based and robust account to the Treasury to inform those spending review conversations.

It is important to note why local government was put in that position. As my hon. Friend Kevin Hollinrake pointed out excellently, it is incumbent on all Governments to balance the books. The task this Government inherited was significant. As my hon. Friend Rachel Maclean pointed out, local government had a difficult set of circumstances to deal with. It made some difficult decisions and did extremely well. I join my right hon. Friend Priti Patel in saluting not just her husband but the entrepreneurship of all local councillors up and down the country in responding to that climate. They truly have done us proud.

I agree with the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon that at this point we should look forward, and I am pleased to say that the tide is turning. This year, local councils will have access to over £46 billion in core spending power. That represents not a cut or a fall, but a 3% cash increase on the funds available last year, and a real-terms increase in money available to councils to spend on services.

We heard from Opposition Members about the burden of council tax. The Government and this side of the House will always be on the side of hard-pressed taxpayers, and determined to keep council tax as low as possible. Since the coalition Government came into power in 2010, council tax has risen at an average of just over 2% per annum. We can all remember that under the last Labour Government council tax doubled, going up at a rate of more than 6% every year. Our residents need to know one thing: if they are focused on low council tax and better services, it is a Conservative Government that will deliver them.

A recurring theme in the debate—it was raised by my hon. Friend Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon, and the Chair of the Select Committee—was governance. They were right to raise that issue. Like me, the hon. Lady was not here during the coalition Government, but they decided to abolish the Audit Commission and replace it with a more decentralised framework for oversight and accountability. The Secretary of State confirmed at the LGA today that the Department plans to enhance its role in oversight and leadership of the local authority governance system. His aim is to be able to spot problems more easily and sooner, to support councils and to protect our residents. The Secretary of State is committed to outlining to the Public Accounts Committee by the end of the year the specific steps that he will take in that regard. I know that that is something that many hon. Members have raised today and I hope they will be reassured by that. In conjunction with that work, the Secretary of State has committed to a review of the local audit framework. Again, he will report soon to the Public Accounts Committee on how that should be achieved.

My first theme is economic growth. The money that funds our public services has to come from somewhere, and the only sustainable way to generate those funds is to drive economic growth. Councils play a critical role in that, incentivised and supported by central Government. Our business rates retention scheme means that every authority in England stands to reap the rewards of increased growth in business rates income and will be able to use those rewards to invest in their local economy and community. Through business rates retention, councils now have access to nearly £2.5 billion in additional funds, on top of their core spending power, to fund local services.

Our successful 75% business rates retention pilots were incredibly popular, and 14 pilots are now in operation, benefiting over 100 different local authorities. My hon. Friend Lee Rowley reminded us of the importance of all councillors embarking on a journey of efficiency to ensure that their taxpayers’ money is spent incredibly well. Where we can find those efficiencies, we absolutely should.

The Government are championing authorities that are putting digital innovation at the heart of their service delivery and transformation and efficiency programmes. That has the potential to be hugely significant, which is why our new digital declaration is so important, and that ambition is backed by a £7.5 million local digital innovation fund. That is funding projects that have the potential to save money and transform services on the ground. The programme is also providing digital leadership training for hundreds of senior councillors and officers up and down the country, building the local government leaders of tomorrow.

I turn next to councils’ crucial role in helping the most vulnerable in society, and again the Government’s record is strong. We fully back councils that are on the frontline in helping those in need, supporting children, the disabled and the elderly.