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Local Government Finance Settlement — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:22 pm on 9th January 2014.

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Photo of Lord Hunt of Chesterton Lord Hunt of Chesterton Labour 4:22 pm, 9th January 2014

My Lords, I welcome this debate, and congratulate my noble friend Lord Smith.

The importance of local government, as many other noble Lords have commented, is that it has a very large and direct effect on people’s lives—on their health, jobs, education, leisure, environment—and particularly on poorer areas and communities, which may not benefit to a disproportionate extent. However, they are not necessarily the people who are most reflected by opinion surveys. Therefore, the notion that because opinion surveys show that things are getting better might not, for the population as a whole, reflect the key activities of councils. Nevertheless, over the past 20 years everyone has seen a remarkable improvement and a rise in morale in many of the most depressed communities—or in some of the ones I have seen. Increased funding was very much central to that process, so I am not ashamed of the fact that the Labour Government spent considerable quantities of money, as one saw great advantages come from that.

It is also important to realise that local government’s activities are associated not just with spending money, but often with great creativity and with making improvements requiring imagination, as I learnt myself when I was a city councillor introducing pedestrianisation, which cost very little indeed. I was recently canvassing in Stoke—a very important city—where the slag heaps have been turned into green hills and an international cycling arena. However, as the noble Lord, Lord True, and others have commented, there are many rigidities in our local government compared to that of other countries. I put down a Parliamentary Question on the issue that many schools are still unable to use public parks, nor are school playing fields allowed to be used as public parks, as they are in the United States. It is quite extraordinary. I battled on that issue as a councillor years ago.

As the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, has just commented, when the facilities and services provided by local government are insufficient to maintain communities—this is not just a zero-cost effect—there will be other costs, perhaps to health, and perhaps to security and policing. There are areas in cities where we have seen the role of focused funding, in Sure Start centres, youth clubs and social health programmes, which have proved to be very effective for deprived families; those are areas which may be cut in the likely financial outturn. Of course, in richer towns there is a differential expenditure according to whether local people sue them. In a certain rather well-to-do city, which I shall not name, it was well known that pavements in certain areas were always very well maintained, because, if they were not, people would sue the council. So there is another way in which people can have a comeback.

No mention has been made in the debate of the role of the Audit Commission. When I was a councillor—and as a Member of the House of Lords—I saw reports from the Audit Commission about new ideas, progress and problems in local government. I cannot see that the demise of the Audit Commission has led to the creation of an equivalent substitute. All that we see in the Government’s documentation is that they have produced a leaflet of 50 ways in which to save money, which is not quite the same thing.

The Government’s encouragement to local authorities to stimulate new business and housing is, of course, welcome. As a former councillor and a director of a high-tech company in Cambridge, I saw at first hand how councillors working with all local organisations could be very effective in bringing in innovative business—although they could also be very effective in stopping local business—but it had to be done properly. One difficulty in the past three years is that one way in which local government was working with business was through the regional development agencies, which were clobbered when the present Government came to power, although they have now been effectively reinstated under some new name.

The other important feature, as other noble Lords have said, is that no company is going to invest in an area unless there are not only good pavements but high standards of health, environment and education. The Trading Standards Institute, in producing information for this debate, was very concerned about the loss of funding for its inspectors—and the same applies for public health inspectors. To give noble Lords a bit of history at this point, when I became a councillor in Cambridge I met the chief public health inspector, Mr Edwards, who said that Cambridge was a very dodgy place. When he first arrived in Cambridge, which I suppose was in the 1960s, he checked on all the taps in all the famous colleges. Of course, Prince William is going to one of these Cambridge colleges, and I hope that someone has checked the taps—because when Mr Edwards did so, he found that a certain college had very dodgy water. He said that that was probably why Prince Albert died three weeks after visiting a certain college in Cambridge. Those inspectors have a very important role. The Trading Standards Institute has commented on the role of fraudulent actions by people and businesses, which local government inspectors can help to prevent.

More recently, we see another role for local government, working with government agencies in dealing with the issues of floods and the coastline. How can we have businesses moving into these areas if there is uncertainty about whether they will be prevented from flooding, as the noble Lord, Lord Smith, said? There seems to be some real question as to whether there will be ongoing funding for this process and these events look as if they may become more serious and frequent.

Even the most middle-class people, whose pavements are nice and smooth and who live near parks, still have to breathe the same air as those in poorer areas of the cities. There are very considerable developments in that regard; the average air quality in UK cities, as Defra has pointed out, is now worse than the EU recommended standards, and even worse in poorer areas, with high traffic concentrations. The funding for air quality monitoring, forecasting and traffic management is apparently to be cut back. If there are a large number of unhealthy people as a result, that may involve a cost to the NHS and the community. That is just one example of where a cost-benefit analysis would seem to be appropriate when investment decisions are being made.

In conclusion, as legislators in this House of Lords with responsibilities for government, our responsibilities are for the whole of the UK and we must ensure that government looks after the people in all areas of the UK, especially those who are most reliant on government.