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My Lords, I will speak in particular about local government, whose problems did not largely feature in what passed for debate in the recent election campaign. I refer to my local government interests in the register.
I begin by congratulating the Minister on her appointment and, since we are fated to have a Conservative Government, by welcoming the appointment of Greg Clark as Secretary of State. Not only has he demonstrated a constructive interest in local government but he hails from the north-east, having been born in Middlesbrough. It would also be churlish not to congratulate his predecessor, Eric Pickles, who has been knighted—although some of us have thought him benighted for a long time.
I welcome the principle of the devolution of powers envisaged by the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill and the potential for carrying forward the concept of “total place”, which was proposed originally by the LGA and adopted by the Labour Government, but which has rather withered on the vine in the last five years. It is a principle that should be extended across the whole of local government, not just a few essentially urban areas.
However, it should not depend on the adoption of a mayoral system, which was rejected by all but one city when the Government required referendums to be held in 11 areas in 2012 and which three authorities—Stoke, Hartlepool and Doncaster—have abandoned after experiencing the system in practice. Tower Hamlets is a reminder of the dangers of concentrating too much power in a single pair of hands, and that is a relatively small authority.
To establish such a powerful position without express public support would be unacceptable, especially when, remarkably, it appears that the role could include that of the police commissioners, elected only three years ago on turnouts, I remind your Lordships, of all of 15%. A fundamental change to a mayoral system should be implemented only with public support, perhaps after securing that support in a referendum and requiring a majority within each constituent area.
It is clear that the proposed Greater Manchester Combined Authority deal will go ahead, and I urge the Government—in the light of that, and potentially further expanding the concept—to take this opportunity to reinstate the concept of government regional offices, created originally by a Conservative Government in the 1980s. This would help to facilitate effective collaboration between Whitehall departments and agencies and local authorities. Providing a two-way conduit for that conversation proved very successful in the past.
However, while recognising the potential benefits of a devolution package—to which Labour was also, and in fact earlier, committed—it is necessary to ensure that sufficient finance follows the transfer of responsibilities; or, to repeat a phrase I have used more than once in your Lordships’ House, to ensure that the Government, or any Government, does not pass the buck without passing the bucks. It is all very well to talk of councils retaining business rates or perhaps levying other taxes, but that will avail little if the relevant tax base is low and insufficient to meet the area’s needs.
Moreover, there must be a concern that when it comes to issues such as social security benefits, which may be, as it were, delegated under a devolved structure, we will see a further move away from national standards towards a variable 19th-century Poor Law pattern of provision. Any transfer of responsibilities in this area should be based on having minimum national entitlements.
Councils are already facing unprecedented pressures on their budgets and services, with the expectation of worse to come. Across the country, and across the political divide, councils and their leaders are warning the Government that the position is unsustainable. From Surrey to South Tyneside, Dorset to Doncaster, the situation is the same, and the now Conservative-led Local Government Association reflects the concerns of its members. Will the Government at last listen?
In Newcastle alone, the council has had to contend with cuts in specific grants and the main revenue grant of more than 41% in real terms, with significantly more to come, and with a severe impact on services: both in visible services, for example the state of the roads and the environment, and in the less immediately obvious but perhaps in some respects more important ones such as adult and children’s services.
The pressure on the least well off in our communities is unrelenting. In Newcastle, 4,879 households—25% of them working households—are being hit by the pernicious bedroom tax at a cost of £3.66 million a year. In addition, the appalling changes to council tax benefit have resulted in arrears of £2.175 million for 2014-15 alone; 45% of that is from people in employment—a mark of the low wages that they have. Some £6 million has been lost to the local economy from people who previously did not have to pay full council tax but who now have to pay it. So the money is lost not only to them but to the local economy. How can the Government justify that kind of outcome at a time when they are prepared to buy votes, for instance by increasing the inheritance tax threshold for the 10% best-off people in the country? That is another lamentable example of buying votes ultimately at the expense of those most in need.
There is also an issue around local government that may not have received much attention—that is, how the Government have generally distributed their support, which has had a particularly damaging effect on areas most affected by the cuts, notably the inner city but also coastal towns. Will the Government reconsider the distribution mechanism? For how much longer will council tax be based on evaluations already 24 years old, in a system that after all embodies an element of the poll tax, in which the difference between the lowest and highest bands results in those in the latter paying only three times that paid by those in the former?
I shall touch on a couple of other matters. It is clear that the Government are determined to press ahead with their relentless promotion of academies and free schools, irrespective of local need and at the expense of investing in local authority provision. We are seeing a continual erosion of local council involvement—I stress that it is involvement that is at stake, not control of schools, which ended long ago—in a crucial public service. Wherein lies the local accountability for our children’s future?
Then there is housing, where the Government’s record has been one of unredeemed failure. I entirely concur with the passionate statement made by my noble friend Lady Hollis. The proposal about housing association homes is quite intolerable and totally unlikely to have any impact on housing waiting lists. In my own authority in Newcastle, for example, lists have grown by 37% in the past three years to 5,800. Nothing in the Government's housing policy is likely to help these people—quite the reverse.
I am sorry to say that DCLG Ministers have failed for the last five years to defend local government and the people whom it serves. I hope that under new management the department will recognise and support the crucial role that democratically elected councils play in the life of their communities and the nation. There is, sadly, and notwithstanding the potential of the proposals in the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, all too little evidence of such an intention—or none that emerged in the election campaign or, indeed, in the gracious Speech.