Local Government Finance (England)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:43 pm on 10th February 2021.

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Photo of Adam Afriyie Adam Afriyie Conservative, Windsor 6:43 pm, 10th February 2021

I am delighted to follow my hon. Friend Sir Robert Neill; my grandparents and my mother lived in his constituency for most of their lives.

I very much welcome this local government settlement. The Government have been flexible. I dare not use the word, but they have generous in how they have responded to the recent demands caused by the pandemic, and that is certainly welcomed by me, by the public, by my constituents and by local authorities. Our local authorities are the first responders—they are the frontline—particularly in delivering services and responding to what people perceive to be the challenges on the ground.

When the coronavirus pandemic began, it was striking from my interaction with my three local authorities just how on the ball they were; they knew where the businesses were, and if they did not, they physically went out to find them to ensure that they had access to the important schemes that the Government had created to support local business finance. The Government took a wonderful stance on homelessness, which has meant that across the country, homelessness has almost ceased to exist at the moment. It was local authorities, local housing charities and trusts and support mechanisms that brought that policy into reality. I want to thank the Pilgrim Hearts Trust and Windsor Homeless Project.

It is right that in these very challenging times, this is a one-year settlement, because any settlement beyond one year would involve speculation about the state of local government finances after that period. It is also right that the Government’s policy is that, if any local authority wants to increase its council tax rates, it needs to take that to the people to get their consent. Overall, I congratulate the Government on their flexibility and their approach during these really trying times.

I have three local authorities in my constituency, and I want to briefly focus on two. The Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead has pretty much the lowest council tax in the entire country outside London boroughs, and Bracknell Forest Council is pretty close behind it. I want to say a big thank you to Duncan Sharkey and Tim Wheadon, who run those local authorities, and, in particular, Andrew Johnson, whose behaviour has been to be commended in leading the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead.

We have not only the lowest council tax in the country but the highest rated services in both Bracknell Forest and the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead. We have fabulous state schools, with a particular focus in Bracknell Forest on special educational needs, and the local authorities are managing them incredibly well, to ensure that our young people are very well taken care of. It is, I would argue, the most beautiful constituency in the country, and again, that is largely thanks to the local authorities. The green spaces, public spaces and parks and gardens are incredibly well maintained in a very cost-effective manner.

Our town centres were amazing before last year, particularly Windsor town centre, with its café culture, castle, massive hospitality sector and lots of tourist attractions. The commercial focus of the local authorities has been on developing commercial and retail properties, so that the council tax payer is subsidised by those commercial activities to a degree and people keep their jobs, which in the current circumstances means that they keep their homes. That is a wise approach. Parking has been improved immensely. We still have weekly bin collections. Quite often the only thing that people recognise as coming from local authorities is that their bins are collected, so it is really important to try to keep it that way. Despite the challenges with adult social care budgets, our care homes are some of the best run in the country and had the fastest response in the current climate.

Business rates are a challenge. It is good that a large proportion of the rates is retained locally, to keep down council tax, serve residents and ensure that businesses and the local authority can thrive. However, it is a challenge, particularly in the pandemic, because we do not know how much of the business rates or the commercial rents to the local authority will survive. It is important that we look at business rates, to ensure in particular that if retail is suffering on the high street, we redress the balance, potentially by increasing rates on the out-of-town warehouses of Amazon and other big online retailers. Otherwise, wonderful department stores such as Daniel of Windsor will go out of business, because people use them as a shop front to view products but then go and buy them online, enjoying the benefits of lower business rates out of town centres.

I want to flag three things with the Minister, the first of which is flooding. Sadly, the part of the lower Thames alleviation scheme that is in my constituency has not gone ahead because the local authority was not allowed to raise a flooding precept, which I think local people would have accepted because a number of houses and businesses would be protected. I ask the Minister to look at that.

The second is rewards for good behaviour. Why is it that Lib Dem and Labour local authorities that waste money on initiatives that never work out and rack up their council tax year on year get the reward of being able to increase their council tax more than careful and efficient Conservative authorities that keep council tax low because it is a percentage rate rise? I ask the Minister to have a quick look at whether there can be some mechanism for rewarding local authorities that have kept the council tax low for their residents but now find that they cannot increase it by a sufficient amount to even vaguely catch up with those reprobates in Labour local authorities across the country. With that, I would like to say thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I thank the Government for such a good settlement.