Relevant documents: 1st and 2nd Reports from the Delegated Powers Committee, 2nd Report from the Constitution Committee
Moved by Lord Shipley
42A: Before Clause 8, insert the following new Clause—
“Access arrangements to combined authority meetings for the press and public
(1) The Secretary of State shall, by regulations, provide that, where a meeting is held—
(a) between a mayor established under the provisions of this Act and the relevant combined authority;
(b) by the leaders of a combined authority;
(c) by an overview and scrutiny committee of a combined authority,
arrangements must be made, so far as is reasonably practicable, to allow reasonable access to the meeting for the public and the press.
(2) For the purposes of this subsection (1) “so far as is reasonably practicable” means to the extent possible to allow transparency of proceedings and decisions, while taking into account—
(a) the need for unencumbered advice from officials, and
(b) the need to protect commercial confidentiality.
(3) For the purposes of subsection (1), “reasonable access” may include but is not restricted to—
(a) attending and viewing the meeting,
(b) taking notes of the meeting, and
(c) taking a visual or audio recording of the meeting.”
My Lords, Amendment 42A concerns media and public access to meetings, addressing issues around the right of the press and the public to have access to the meetings of combined authorities. Existing statutory requirements enable the press, the media generally and the general public to attend, view or listen to council meetings, council committee meetings and council sub-committee meetings. These regulations are well understood in terms of their requirements and their spirit. Alongside the right to attend meetings, there are rights to receive advance notice of meetings, to see agendas in advance and to inspect relevant documents.
This amendment seeks to ensure that those rights of access cannot be diminished in the case of combined authorities. It requires reasonable access to be ensured and, in subsection (2), acknowledges the need to ensure that commercial confidentiality is protected and for officials to feel able to give essential advice to those who are charged with making decisions. Both criteria are, of course, within the existing regulations for local government.
Why, therefore, does the Bill fail to make any mention of an obligation on the mayoral authorities which it creates to meet in public? Members of the public and the media currently have a general right to attend council meetings, including those of the local authority executive or the cabinet and their committees. They also have the right to film, audio-record, tweet or blog from those meetings. These rights are primarily set out in the Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012 and the Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014. Given the freedom that the Secretary of State will have to set up the new authorities by ministerial order, there is great potential for them to be watered down unless the rights of the public and the press are protected by being placed firmly in the Bill.
Given the importance of overview and scrutiny committees, will the Minister tell us the intention behind Schedule 3, which contains an enabling power allowing the Secretary of State to block disclosure of information to an overview and scrutiny committee and to determine what material it, in turn, can put into the public domain? This amendment seeks to address these concerns. I look forward to the Minister’s confirmation that there will be no diminution of the right of the press, the media generally and the public to attend meetings of combined authorities as they currently do within local government.
My Lords, we are fully committed to openness and transparency in the proceedings of local government and have already moved amendments to that effect. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, said, we need to be sure that nothing in or arising from the Bill could dilute or disapply existing public rights of access to meetings, records and related documents. The noble Lord has also posed a pertinent question on Schedule 3.
There may be a lack of clarity over the precise circumstances envisaged in subsection (1)(b) of Amendment 42A concerning,
“leaders of a combined authority”.
Presumably, the provision applies when they are meeting as members of that combined authority rather than otherwise. Perhaps that needs clarification. We have generally argued for dealing with matters on the face of the Bill, so we look forward to assurances from the Minister that the issues raised here are already covered. To the extent that they are not, we will work with the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, to fill any gaps on Report.
My Lords, this amendment is in my name as well. Yes, it is important to have powerful leadership in metropolitan areas, and yes, it is important that we have transparency. In my own local authority in Liverpool, the elected mayor, in his infinite wisdom, has decided to do away with scrutiny, so there are no scrutiny committees at all. That should not happen in this case, so it is very important to clearly make the point that not only should there be transparency in all actions under the new arrangements but, where papers are relevant, the papers should be freely available to the general public—to the electors—and, where possible, those electors should be allowed to attend those meetings if they wish. If we do that it will give people real confidence about the new arrangements. They will feel that the arrangements are transparent and democratic and, above all, that nothing is being hidden from them behind closed doors.
I, too, support the amendment tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Shipley and Lord Storey. I declare an interest. As I am sure Members of your Lordships’ House may know, I was leader of Norwich City Council, but also I was a member of the Press Council for a number of years under Louis Blom-Cooper. So I come at this from both ends.
At no stage in my time on the Press Council do I recall receiving a complaint about the regional press because it was accountable to its local community for everything from advertisements to news, from fetes to weddings, funerals, baptisms and the like. All the complaints that were sensitive or difficult were about the national press, which was essentially promiscuous in the 19th century sense of the term as it was not accountable to a readership, which fluctuated from day to day and of which it had no intimate knowledge. So the regional press served its community in a way that the national press did not, and served it faithfully.
When I was leader of Norwich council an issue started boiling up while I was in Australia. The Eastern Daily Press would not run with the story until it had contacted me in Australia to get a countervailing view. That would have been unthinkable with the national press. That is why the amendment is so important. If we do not support the amendment and encourage the regional press to scrutinise mayoral and other meetings, as it does meetings under the existing local government structure, I fear that reportage of local government, much like reportage of court proceedings, will die on the vine. Twenty years ago we could expect our court proceedings, local council meetings and some of the important committee meetings to be reported. The press would expect to be briefed on them in advance. What we get now—in national newspapers as well—is sketches rather than reports of debates.
Political coverage is shrinking in this country because it is not regarded as sufficiently amusing for people with only 30 seconds’ attention span. The regional press has held on, trying to make both Westminster and local authorities accountable and transparent to the members of their community, to whom it also feels accountable.
At the moment, the leader of a local authority will be monitored by his or her group, the opposition or the press and also by the chambers of commerce and local pressure groups and lobby groups such as the local branch of Age UK, the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society or whatever, for example, on access to buildings. There must be stringent protection of the right of access of the press. We must not accept one person’s view of what counts as confidential or private, or what he or she would rather was not made public because it might be faintly awkward or embarrassing. Without that protection, I fear that the regional press will continue to opt out of the coverage that we absolutely need if we are to grow a healthy democracy in our localities.
My Lords, as the speeches so far have come from the opposition Benches, I gently remind your Lordships’ House that the first legislation to allow the general public to attend council meetings in committee was introduced by my late noble friend, Baroness Thatcher. I would not wish my noble friend the Minister to feel lonely at this moment. It is a notable piece of history to which I allude. The Minister for Housing and Local Government at the time was my late noble kinsman, Henry Brooke, who encouraged the new Member of Parliament for Finchley to become involved at an early stage in introducing legislation. It was her first legislative achievement, and he sat on the Front Bench throughout when she took the Bill through the House. I would not wish the metaphor to be misunderstood, but it was a good case of picking out a dark horse before it got into the limelight.
My Lords, Amendment 42A seeks to insert a new clause regarding access for the press and public to combined authority meetings. Whatever the whys or wherefores of the press’s engagement with council meetings, I am happy to confirm that legislation already exists on these issues. As my noble friend Lord Brooke has pointed out, the Local Government Act 1972 provides that all meetings of a combined authority must be open to the public except in limited, defined circumstances.
A meeting of a combined authority, as with other council meetings, may be closed to the public in only two circumstances: if the presence of the public is likely to result in the authority breaching a legal obligation about the keeping of confidential information; and if the authority decides, by the passing of a resolution of its members, that exempt information—for example, information relating to the financial affairs of a particular person—would likely be disclosed.
The Conservative-led coalition Government made new regulations in 2014 to make it absolutely clear that a combined authority is required to allow any member of the public or press to take photographs, film, audio record and report on all public meetings. This openness helps to ensure that combined authorities are genuinely accountable to the local people they serve. It also ensures genuine transparency in this digital age, where our democracy can be enhanced by the use of social media and blogging to communicate widely and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, said, to capture the market that does not want to spend more than 30 seconds reading such matters.
These requirements apply equally to any committees or sub-committees of a combined authority, including any overview and scrutiny committees. Sub-section (1)(a) of the proposed amendment refers to a meeting between a mayor and the relevant combined authority. I should clarify that the mayor will be a member of the combined authority—indeed, will be the chairman—so such a meeting would simply be a meeting of the combined authority and is covered by these rules. Similarly, a meeting of the leaders of a combined authority, if I understand the noble Lord’s meaning, will be a meeting of the members of a combined authority, who are most likely—although not always—to be the leaders of the constituent councils.
The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, asked about Schedule 3. This is an enabling provision which ensures that there is flexibility to decide which information can be appropriately disclosed or must be discussed. For example, certain information may be commercially confidential or contain sensitive personal information.
I hope that, with these reassurances, the noble Lord will agree to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, can the Minister explain what the Government plan to do if all the members of a combined authority are members of the same political party and hold informal pre-meetings prior to the meeting of the combined authority which is being held in public? Let us say that the meeting of the combined authority ends up being a short meeting and the private meeting beforehand ends up being a long one. What steps do the Government plan to take to deal with such situations should they arise?
The noble Lord raises an important point, but it has always been thus—informal meetings between people are not obliged to be held in public. The point on transparency is that the decision-making has to be in public and the public can be there to see it. However, informal meetings have never been subject to those rules.
Amendment 42A withdrawn.
Clause 8: Funding of combined authorities
Moved by Baroness Janke
43: Clause 8, page 10, line 2, at end insert—
“( ) The Secretary of State may by order make provision for conferring on a combined authority, upon the request of that authority in relation to its area, the full retention of business rates, business rate supplements, council tax, stamp duty land tax, annual tax on enveloped dwellings, capital gains property disposal tax, and multi-year finance settlements.”
My Lords, I wish to speak to Amendments 43 and 44. I know that the Bill is important to local government. Coming as I do from the city, I urge everyone to think of the world-class cities we have in our country and how we can make them even more competitive internationally.
The raising of funding locally is important. The developments in the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and the deal that has been agreed are a good step forward. I hope the Bill is the start of a journey in building capacity in our city and county regions, in order to have local economies that flourish due to the their leadership. I have looked at some of the written material on this subject, which the London Finance Commission took evidence on. One marker it looked at is how much money central governments give to capital cities, particularly London. One report tells us that Madrid gets 37%, New York 30.9%, Berlin 20.5% and Tokyo 7.7%, but that 73% of London’s budget comes from central government, as the Mayor of London made clear. I think Boris Johnson said that in this country we are comparatively “fiscally infantilised”—his quotes are fairly unique.
That shows the gap between the self-sustaining nature of other international cities, particularly capital cities, and our own. The Minister has been the leader of a council and I am sure she has had the same experience as many of us: when we meet the mayors of our twin cities or attend international gatherings, the feeling from that contingent is one of shock at the very few powers that leaders and mayors in this country have in comparison with others. We must look at this issue. When we discussed the local government bond last week, it did not receive as welcoming a response as we had all hoped. I recognise that the Government feel that they must be cautious and satisfied with the capacity of local government to take on these greater responsibilities, but the Bill’s vision needs to include something on what the future may be and what is desirable. There is plenty of evidence. The City Growth Commission fully recognises in its report that not all cities, counties and regions are ready for full powers. Indeed, many are not as ready as the Greater Manchester Combined Authority is. Nevertheless, we must be ambitious and aspire to giving our regions and cities greater powers.
If we look at what is happening in Scotland and Wales, it is understandable that many people in England, particularly in our cities, feel that powers are being given away which are not available to them. The national economy could benefit from more financially independent cities leading their own economies. I urge the Government to give some thought to including something in the Bill—even if it is not as explicit as the amendments—to show what the scope, potential and ambition could be. I hope to hear some more encouraging remarks from the Minister.
I am perhaps not as hopeful about that after previous days, but I hope we can all see the potential of fiscal independence for some of the great cities and counties of this country, and that we will see as a result improved local accountability, and improved ownership and participation from the people living in those regions. Having finance and powers meted out from the centre is not a good recipe for local participation or for pride in one’s area. The leaders and mayors of those international cities will have ample evidence of why we need to set some of our cities and regions free. I beg to move.
My Lords, we agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Janke, that we should give some thought to this issue, although I hope she will understand if we are unable to support the amendment as it stands. I will spell out some of the technical issues in a moment. But it does provide an opportunity to probe the Government’s intention on the devolution of fiscal resources to local authorities, including combined authorities—that is, where they are going on their journey.
My noble friend Lord Beecham will set out shortly the policy position we reached before the election on the growth of business rate retention. It accords with Amendment 43 in supporting multiyear finance settlements, for the obvious reason of enabling more effective long-term planning. However, we might consider fiscal devolution over three areas. First, we should look at the current funding arrangements: business rates, council tax, revenue support grants and specific grants. Secondly, we should look at how devolution budgets are to be made available—if functions are being transferred, what is happening to the money? Thirdly, we should look at whether any national taxes are to be devolved to local authorities and combined authorities. We seek to understand the Government’s policy on each of these matters.
National taxes are the thrust of Amendment 43, which appears to focus on property taxes, which have an unambiguous attribution to a specific area. This would appear to be perfectly possible for stamp duty land tax, which is levied on the purchase of residential and non-residential land and property, and for the annual tax on enveloped buildings, which applies to UK residential property put in a corporate wrapper. But capital gains tax appears to be more problematic because a tax liability could arise from netting off losses against gains—for example, a loss on a building in Birmingham against a gain on a building in Manchester—and making it more specific would be difficult. Similarly, the use of an annual allowance that is available generally against gains, and the taxation of corporations in relation to capital gains and how that is identified within an overall assessment, could also be problematic.
It would doubtless be possible to introduce rules to govern all of this, but with further significant complications to the tax system. On compliance, these taxes are geared to a national system and it would be necessary to disaggregate such matters. What is the rationale for attributing these taxes to a combined authority: is it the practicality of a ready additional source of revenue being made available, or because the focus of the combined authority’s activity can positively influence the tax outcome? It is presumed, of course, that the proposition is not to change the tax rates.
Nationally, stamp duty land tax raised just short of £10 billion in 2013-14 and capital gains tax just shy of £4 billion. I do not have the figure for corporation tax on capital gains. But these taxes can be volatile. Stamp duty land tax increased that year by 36%. Of course, it is not easy to predict. Is the growth in stamp duty land tax a good thing? The volume of property transactions in an area might be indicative of a thriving local economy—which could attract investment—but in so far as it is attributable to rising prices, it might simply reflect a failure to tackle supply.
We know the total spending power of local authorities in 2014-15 was in the order of £49 billion, including—though we do not have the precise figure—£10 billion-plus in revenue support grant. If the revenue support grant were, effectively, to be at least replaced by directly accruing property taxes and all business rates were to be devolved, what would be the mechanisms for dealing with the differing needs and resources of the local authorities? Presumably, business rates would continue to have tariffs, top-ups, levies and safety nets, which would help, but it is a little unclear whether the proposed full retention of business rates would be at individual authority or combined authority level. Is the noble Baroness suggesting that this could be done by pooling or by another mechanism? I think it could be done by pooling. The amendment refers to “business rate supplements”. Do these not already accrue to the relevant county or unitary district councils? Does the noble Baroness’s amendment contemplate that additional, erstwhile national revenues would substitute for devolved budgets, or eliminate the revenue support grant?
The Independent Commission on Local Government Finance set out the reasons why local government in England and the services it provides are no longer sustainable in the current form. It called for urgent devolution of powers, funding and taxes to groups of local authorities. We know from the Manchester agreement and our debates the main policy areas that central government appear to be willing to negotiate deals on for transferring functions, but we do not know whether they are willing to do anything on fiscal devolution. Is anything being contemplated, particularly with regard to existing national revenue streams such as stamp duty being devolved to local government? To what extent do the Government plan to adopt the recommendation of the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, in brigading key national budgets and passing these as single parts to combined authorities, to do with as they see fit? In his No Stone Unturned report, the noble Lord argued the need to bring together separate funding streams which support the building blocks of growth into a single funding pot for local areas. He said that the model could be applied across England, but could not be introduced before 2015-16. We are now there. What are the plans? Is the noble Lord’s advice being rejected?
Will the Minister also tell us whether, as part of the devolution agenda, any fundamental change is contemplated to the current business rate and council tax regimes? Will the reset of the business rate retention scheme not happen until 2020? What is the latest position on the revaluation, which had already been deferred by the previous Government?
On fees and charges, it is estimated that local authorities raise some £10 billion a year. Some of these are locally determined and some are not. Is work under way to remove central government’s control over some of these? What scope would there be for a combined authority to seek increased freedom in this regard as part of a devolution deal? Addressing these fiscal issues is a test of how much central government trust local authorities and combined authorities.
My Lords, this is a brief intervention. One of the most attractive features underlying this legislation is the restoration of local pride up and down the country in the communities and neighbourhoods involved. I have always regretted from my time as Higher Education Minister that the relationship between universities and their surrounding communities, which had been very strong in the 19th century, gradually declined as the years went on and were not nearly as effective as they had historically been.
In the light of the amendment which has been moved, I wish to make a generic remark rather than a technical one. I can recall the circumstances in which decisions were taken at national level to reduce the amount of money retained by a local authority in terms of the resources raised within it. The local authority’s powers to have that retention were diminished. I recall that those circumstances arose because of the view of local business that it was perfectly possible for the economic situation in which it had to work to be changed overnight by a large switch in the power of an authority. I shall therefore be interested in what sense emerges from the Government, when my noble friend comes to reply, of not going backwards on that consequence of the circumstances which they replaced.
My Lords, our intention is to devolve far-reaching powers where strong, accountable and transparent governance, delivery and capability can be demonstrated. We are open to discussing proposals from all places, including towns and counties, where there are clear lines of accountability and decision-makers can properly be held to account. Amendments 43 and 44 suggest giving mayoral combined authorities access to a wide range of important taxes and charges. We have always said that we are interested in hearing proposals from authorities, and that nothing is off the table. We have also included provisions in the Bill for a council tax precept to meet the costs of functions undertaken by the mayor. This will be subject to the normal referendum principles as part of the council tax for the area, ensuring that not only will the mayoral combined authority be properly resourced but local council taxpayers will be protected.
Moreover, the Bill will mean that, in future, mayoral combined authorities will become major precepting authorities for the purposes of the local government finance regime. This means that through the existing powers that govern the rates retention scheme, to which the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, referred, we will already be able to give mayoral combined authorities their own share of local rates income and ensure that they benefit from local growth. We do not need powers to put in place multi-year settlements for authorities; we can already do this administratively, as part of the wider local government finance settlement. Of course, any decision to make use of the existing powers to extend the rates retention scheme or put in place multi-year settlements would be taken alongside part of the wider transfer of powers and functions to mayoral combined authorities.
To devolve the wider basket of taxes referred to in Amendment 43, however, goes further and would represent a significant change to the existing tax landscape, with potentially significant legal, economic and fiscal implications. The other taxes mentioned play an important part in reducing the deficit and restoring the nation’s finances to a more secure footing, so it would not be right to include in the Bill powers to direct these taxes to mayoral combined authorities.
Additionally, such far-reaching powers would have potential consequences not just for the combined authorities but for other authorities, large and small businesses, and taxpayers up and down the country. Given the importance and fiscal character of such matters, we would need to consider whether any proposals would receive the correct level of scrutiny if provided through secondary legislation. I am not convinced, therefore, that it would be appropriate for these matters to be the subject of powers in the Bill or considered outside the Government’s normal fiscal and budget-planning cycle. Nevertheless, we are open to proposals for the transfer of resources as well as power and would give detailed consideration to any scheme that strikes the right balance between encouraging growth and protecting taxpayers.
The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, asked about any proposals to remove central Government influence on local fees and charges. It would depend on individual deals. The noble Lord also asked about brigading national budgets. I cannot read the writing—
I would not dare. What part of budgets is devolved and how devolved budgets might be handled are all matters for the discussion in reaching each devolution deal. What is clear is that in all cases where powers are devolved, there will be an appropriate devolution of budgets.
In conclusion, and in respect of the other amendments in this group, I assure noble Lords that we will consider all proposals for devolution deals involving the transfer of both resources and powers and that the framework that would allow for funding from business rates retention is already in place, if needed, in addition to the existing powers for a council tax precept.
My Lords, I suspect I may know the answer to this. Would it be possible for a local authority in the negotiations with the Secretary of State for devolution and financial arrangements to, for example, have the right to include extra tiers of council tax bands when raising their council tax for their area?
My Lords, I think they would have to have a discussion with the Secretary of State.
Given everything the Minister has said, that proposal, which has had a fair degree of support in this Chamber in the past, would be one way in which a local authority could raise funds within the existing structure in a way that most of us would think was fair and progressive.
My Lords, it could indeed and it would be a matter for discussion between that group of local authorities and the Secretary of State.
I know that we deal with situations where the best can happen in the best of all possible worlds, which is where we are on the Bill. However, could the noble Baroness confirm that in a whole range of functions being devolved to a combined local authority and the budgets to go with it, the prospects of those budgets being aggregated—with freedom for the combined authority to spend as it wishes, given those particular functions, and not have to follow the Bill above those amounts—would be perfectly possible, feasible and welcomed?
My Lords, the noble Lord gives a theoretical example, which I am not in any position to stand at the Dispatch Box and confirm. I know I have reiterated this during the course of the Bill, but it really would be for a group of local authorities to prove that whatever proposal was put forward would result in growth and be fiscally neutral.
I thank the Minister for her response. I am perhaps not as discouraged as I thought I might be. However, I hope that the complexity of the tax system will not be a barrier to giving local powers and local accountability to achieving local projects. Transport is a particular issue in this country. To give a practical example, we in Bristol had to wait something like 15 years to be told that we were not going to get a tram whereas our twin city of Bordeaux not only conceived of its tram but built it and had it in operation within a fraction of that time.
I understand from the Minister’s remarks that should a combined authority wish to make proposals that might include a tourist tax or differentiated VAT or some kinds of local tax, these would all be considered. At the moment, while there is a central allocation determined by government, there is not a great deal of incentive for those who are more entrepreneurially minded in local authorities to create revenue streams to pay for important projects. That is what I have understood. Equally, the equalisation element would need to be looked at. We have very different circumstances in different parts of the country but, again, it should not be a barrier, and we need only look at our international competitors to know that this is the case.
I hope that we can pursue this a little further and that we might revisit it on Report. In that case, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 43 withdrawn.
Amendment 44 not moved.
Moved by Lord Beecham
44A: Clause 8, page 10, line 2, at end insert—
“( ) The Secretary of State may by order make provision for conferring powers on a combined authority to set multi-year finance settlements and retain business rates revenue in relation to its area.”
My Lords, I find myself in the somewhat unusual position of agreeing with the Minister in her analysis of the impact of what the noble Baroness, Lady Janke, proposed in Amendment 43. As my noble friend Lord McKenzie pointed out and as the Minister implicitly confirmed, the impact of allowing the combined authorities to retain money on what is essentially a nationally based taxation would be formidable and difficult for the Wigans and Kirkleeses of this world as compared to the Westminsters and Kensington and Chelseas, and I was very glad to see her not adopting that position.
Having said that, I must say that there is a certain synergy between the amendments that we have just debated and the one that I am now moving, particularly in relation to multiyear finance agreements, which must be common sense, and to business rates growth. However, I am in another unusual position in having to confess that Amendment 44A as printed is actually in error, because it should have referred to the growth in business rates rather than the implicit retention of an entire business rate. In that way, we are agreeing again with only a part, but an important part, of the amendment that we have just debated. However, the critical factor here is that of the fairness or otherwise of the distribution of the funding. That is the subject of Amendment 44B. Of course, if we had suggested, as it appears on the Marshalled List, that the entire business rate would revert to individual councils, it would be disadvantageous. Even the 50% retention rate is inequitable, unless there are other measures to compensate those authorities in need.
The Independent Commission on Local Government Finance has illustrated this position by comparing Hillingdon, which currently collects £101 million of business rates, and Wigan—and my noble friend Lord Smith will be conscious of the fact that Wigan collects just one-third of that, at £34 million a year in business rates. If we had a more equitable system, and if it was based on need, that would result in Hillingdon receiving £42 million and Wigan £62.9 million. That was the finding of the independent commission. That is an illustration in respect of only that one area of financing, because action is desperately needed across the whole system of local government finance. Local authorities have suffered massive cuts as a result of government policy, which singled out the sector for the biggest cuts in public expenditure in the last five years, a process that is far from complete—and we may hear more next week about what is in store. In any event, even the cuts that are still inchoate and beginning to take place will lead to substantial further difficulties.
What is particularly galling is the unfairness of the way the burden has fallen on those areas with the greatest need. The 10 most deprived councils in the country, as defined by the department’s own measure, have suffered cuts 10 times greater than the 10 least deprived. Liverpool, the authority with the highest deprivation score of all—I repeat that these are on the department’s own measure—has suffered a loss just under 30 times greater than Hart District Council, the least deprived authority.
Interestingly, 14 councils were lucky enough to receive an increase in government funding over the past few years, and by sheer coincidence all but one of these have Conservative MPs, including Michael Gove, Chris Grayling, Philip Hammond and Jeremy Hunt. Some of us think that one or two of those have been lucky to have been in the Cabinet for these past few years, but certainly their constituents have been lucky to have received this benison from the Government.
If the Government’s ambitions for cities in the context of devolution are to be carried out and are not to suffer the same signal failure as their northern rail transport policy, as was revealed last week, or, in the light of last week’s belated disclosure of a three-year-old report, the fate that may be awaiting HS2, their philosophy about devolution must be accompanied by a needs-based funding formula and not rely on a continuation of the present system, which is so damaging to so much of the areas that could most benefit from the Government’s well-intentioned approach to devolution. That is why Amendment 44B calls, initially at any rate, for a report on the fairness of the distribution of funding, taking into account the cumulative cuts so far—and, indeed, those that are pending—in spending power and resources per household. I beg to move.
Will my noble friend read into the record, if he happens to have the information to hand, the 10 most rewarded local authorities and the 10 most deprived, in terms of grant, and their political complexion?
I am afraid that I am going to have to follow the usual ministerial procedure and say that I shall have to write to my noble friend. I do not hae the information. I copied the report to my noble friend this morning and I think it runs to 163 pages. I do not have it immediately to hand, or anything big enough to contain it, but I will communicate with my noble friend.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, for clarifying the wording of Amendment 44A: that it is about the growth of business-rates revenue. I was slightly disappointed that these two amendments were degrouped from the two amendments moved a moment ago by my noble friend Lady Janke, because they are all in the same area. They all relate to the question of whether we are dealing with decentralisation or with devolution. I have heard the Minister say that this Bill is primarily to do with decentralisation, but there is an overall context that is to do with devolution. However, I do not think that fiscal powers are about decentralisation where they can be varied from a national norm, so we are talking here about fiscal devolution.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, that this is set in the context partly of multiyear financial settlements, which I think all parties would benefit from, but also, crucially, of fair funding. It is therefore in part about the level of cuts that have been imposed on poor authorities, but it is also about the absolute level of funding. The issue of needs-based allocation will not go away, however much fiscal devolution we have, because even with the powers that we have set out in Amendments 43 and 44, there would clearly need to be some needs-based reassessment of the total sums involved. That is why, of course, Amendments 43 and 44 use “may” rather than “shall” in relation to the powers of the Secretary of State, as clearly there would need to be significant flexibility in those powers.
I have talked previously in your Lordships’ House about the difference between powers and responsibilities. It is one thing to give local authorities and combined authorities increased powers, but this is about them using those powers to take on additional responsibilities. We have heard the suggestion a number of times in your Lordships’ House that there should be a local government finance commission. I have come to the conclusion that that is the right thing to do, because I do not think that we would get full agreement otherwise about what the devolved powers of combined authorities might be compared with those in other levels of local government. We also need to think about how we ensure that the money from central government is fairly distributed on a needs-based allocation, the basis of which everybody understands.
I hope very much that we will return to this issue on Report. Perhaps in the next two weeks we can look more broadly at this area to see what might be possible for all parties to agree on. I hope that it might be possible for the Government at least to think again about whether the issue of fiscal powers should be in the Bill. There is not much willingness to put things into the Bill. I think there should be something in relation to Amendments 43, 44, 44A and 44B in the Bill, and I hope it will be possible to enter into discussions to see how there might be agreement in all parts of your Lordships’ House to deliver that.
My Lords, one of the amendments put forward by my noble friend Lord Beecham has reminded me that in Greater Manchester we had an argument with the Government about getting back our share of growth in business rates for the actions that we were taking. Through the city deal process we managed to convince Ministers that it would be a good scheme to take up, but unfortunately we then had to go to the Treasury and it took 18 months or more to get agreement on that. However, it is a model by which we can clearly demonstrate that the growth created through the work of the combined authority could be used for further investment to benefit and create further growth in the area.
I am certainly a supporter of fiscal devolution, which in a sense is the missing clause in this Bill. We need to think about what it is and what we mean to achieve. However, if we are to get the allocations of money from central government, which is a form of decentralisation, we need further freedom to agree with the Government what would be provided by the money. We can transfer funding from one field to another in a different and more effective way in some areas, provided that we do what was agreed in the deal with the Government.
I have said a number of times in this House—sometimes late at night a couple of years ago when my noble friend Lord McKenzie and I were talking to the Government about the change to business rates—that our system of local government finance in the UK is now a busted flush. There are two main taxes that we rely on. The revaluation means that business rates are no longer justifiable. There needs to be a major review and I am pleased that the Government are carrying that out. The other main form of taxation—council tax—has not been revalued since 1991, so a new house built in 2015 has to be valued as though it was built in 1991. A connection to broadband would not be a feature, because clearly in 1991 such things were not invented. There obviously has to be all-party agreement on this, because we do not want a system that is going to be changed when there is a change of government. We have to have a system, built for the 2020s, that gives local authorities the independence and freedom they need.
On fair funding, I am surprised that my noble friend Lord Beecham and the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, did not quote their former council, Newcastle City Council. It has done some wonderful work on this and produced what it referred to as a “heat map”, which shows in red the areas that have had the greatest reduction in council funding and in green those that have had the least. Guess what: most of the red areas are in the north or in urban areas, and this could be substituted for political control.
I wish to emphasise what my noble friend Lord Shipley and the noble Lord, Lord Smith, have just said. In Committee last week, I said that the real elephant in the room was the issue of fiscal devolution; otherwise the Bill is about decentralisation. I listened to the Minister and I agree with my noble friend Lord Shipley and the noble Lord, Lord Smith, that this will ultimately get lost unless there is something specific in the Bill. I hear what the Minister says about this being an enabling Bill, but there needs to be something in it that gives a framework—not a straitjacket—to understand the kind of fiscal autonomy that local authorities could have. If there is not, then we are, fundamentally, talking about a local government finance system that is not fit for the 21st century possibly being reallocated in a different way.
I accept that there is talk about TIF or business rate growth being able to be held at local level. However, it is fundamentally much more than this. As my noble friend Lady Janke said, it is about different approaches. Last week, the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, spoke about the Mayor of Tokyo talking to potential international investors in his city. I am a former council leader who talked to international investors. As I said last week, they do not necessarily ask about the nameplate on your door. They want to talk about what tax incentives my area can give compared to elsewhere, rather than there being a national scheme. In the real world, those are the kind of issues being looked at.
So I ask the Minister to reconsider. This is so important; we are talking about a brand new deal for devolution and for local areas to become much stronger and authors of their own destiny. But we need some framework in the Bill. Otherwise, like the noble Lord, Lord Smith, I fear that when the Treasury gets hold of this, it will not treat it, as the Minister wishes, from a local government perspective.
My Lords, I support the comments made by my noble friend Lord Smith about the increasing frailty of the existing council tax structure to bear the responsibility we ask of it. I believe I am right in saying that, had the older rates system remained in place, the most expensive properties, compared to the median average, would be in a ratio of something like 20:1. In fact, the ratio of the top band to band D—the fulcrum point on the council tax scale—is only 3:1. That shows just how narrow the redistributive effect of council tax has become.
In the past, the Government have resisted looking at council tax revaluation, even though a full-scale revaluation went through fairly smoothly in Wales, without any great hiccups in the procedures. A few years ago, some of us did some work on this. It was clear that it would be desirable to revalue all properties—but at the very least, you could fish the top band. I was advised, by the Valuers’ Association and the Government’s valuation service that that would represent less than the valuations which happen now whenever a flat becomes a shop, a shop becomes a flat or a house is sold and is given a new valuation. So the amount of work required to allow local authorities to increase the bands above the current top band would be quite modest—I am assured of that by the district valuers who carry out this work, day in, day out, on other use changes and so on and so forth—and would allow us to stretch more fairly and produce more revenue in a way that was more reasonable.
Certainly the compression that has come from council tax bands compared to the old rate bands is probably, in my understanding, the narrowest in the OECD. In America, Australia and most of the countries in Europe, the property range of bands is far wider than we now have in the UK as a compression of council tax. As I said, we have only about three or four bands above the band D fulcrum compared to the 20:1 ratio that we used to have under the old rates system. So it is a perfectly serious proposition that this would be a fair and appropriate way to increase revenues to local authorities and to reflect local need and local ability to pay.
My Lords, perhaps my noble friend would agree with me that a major part of the problem is that the council tax embodies a significant element of the poll tax, and that that is what leads to such narrow banding.
I agree with my noble friends on our side of the House who have spoken about these issues. Council tax is in urgent need of reform. As for anyone who defends its existing basis—it is indefensible. It needs reform, as my noble friends Lady Hollis and Lord Smith have suggested.
I applaud the Government’s commitment to devolution, as I have said before in this House. But the elephant in the room is how to devise a scheme of fiscal federalism within the United Kingdom and within England. That is a very tricky question. It is tricky politically because once we start to look at these issues we see that London and the south-east are transferring considerable amounts of money to the rest of England. The transfers within England are probably much greater than the much talked-about transfers under the Barnett formula to Scotland and Wales.
Some years ago, in my own area of Cumbria, a study was done of all government spending and the estimated tax contribution from all sources. It came to some pretty alarming conclusions. In terms of total government commitment to Cumbria, roughly twice as much money was being spent by the Government in one form or another—this includes the nuclear plant at Sellafield, not just local government—as we were paying in. This issue has to be honestly addressed.
It is also the reason why there is an absolutely compelling need for local authorities to have the powers to contribute to local economic regeneration. That is the way to start building a tax base, rather than living off this drip-feed from London and the south-east.
Some very big issues are being touched on here. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister whether there is any interest from the Government in launching a major study of these questions—royal commissions are rather out of fashion, but I suggest that this would be a suitable subject for one—or whether we will continue with the terribly unfortunate “ad-hockery” that we have. I am sure the Minister agrees with me about the unfairness of the current local government arrangements. I remember, in a meeting in Cumbria County Council when the last settlement came out, quoting that the authority that did best of all was Elmbridge in Kent.
My apologies—I meant Elmbridge in Surrey. I looked on my iPad at the description of Elmbridge, which started by saying that that part of Surrey,
“is known as the ‘Beverly Hills’ of England”.
The Minister, who is a fair person, must admit that such extraordinary unfairness is where we end up. We need a much more independent and objective look at these questions, and that is of real importance if we are to get an effective devolution of power in this country.
My Lords, as worded, Amendment 44A would allow the Government to confer powers on a combined authority to set multiyear finance settlements and to retain business rates. In introducing this amendment, the noble Lord made clear that the intention behind it is to allow central government to put in place multiyear finance settlements, thereby allowing a combined authority greater certainty over its budget-setting process. In fact, we already have the powers we need to do this administratively as part of the wider local government finance settlement.
A combined authority is already able to set a multiyear budget; it is not necessary for central government to confer powers upon it allowing it to do so. Nor, as I have made clear in responding to Amendments 43 and 44, do the Government need new powers to allow a combined authority to retain some of its local business rates. The Bill will already set up a mayoral combined authority as a major precepting authority, and therefore we will be able to use our existing powers under the Local Government Finance Act 2012 to give the authority a share of its locally raised business rates, should we decide to do so.
Of course, any decision to make use of the existing powers to put in place multiyear settlements or to allow the retention of local business rates, or business rates’ growth, would be taken alongside any wider transfer of powers and functions to mayoral combined authorities. I further assure noble Lords that we will consider all proposals for devolution deals involving the transfer of both resources and powers.
Amendment 44B would require the Government to publish a one-off report about the impact on combined authorities of how resources had been distributed through the local government settlement, particularly with regard to levels of deprivation. I do not think the amendment would add anything to the information that we already provide. By looking only at the resources distributed through the settlement, the reports required by this amendment would separate government funding from other sources of income available to local authorities. By isolating deprivation from other drivers of spend—for example, the impact that population sparsity plays in rural areas—it would fail to present a properly rounded picture of the settlement.
As noble Lords know, we already publish annually an assessment of the impact of the settlement on authorities’ wider spending power and an equalities statement on the settlement’s effect. Moreover, the settlement is subject to wide-ranging consultation and comes before Parliament for approval. I am not persuaded that anything further is needed.
The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Leigh, talked about Manchester’s gains from economic growth. The devolution deal for Manchester illustrates what the city has gained as a result of its growth. A reformed “earn back” deal can earn up to £900 million over 30 years.
The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, talked about the relative impact of cuts in different areas. I know we could argue about this all day and all night. People have different views about cuts, but comparing regional spending in terms of spending power per household shows that in the north-east it is £2,154, in the south-east it is less, at £2,023, while in the north-west it is £2,230.
The noble Lord, Lord Smith, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, talked about the revaluation of council tax. I understand the comments about this but, in practice, since 2010-11 council tax in England has fallen by 11% in real terms, and a total of £5 billion has been provided for five successive years of freezes that are worth up to £1,059 for average households. The noble Baroness mentioned the revaluation of just one band, the top band. As far as I can recall from my local government days, a simple revaluation has to be revenue-neutral. In the light of those comments, I would ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
I understand that a revaluation would have to be revenue-neutral, and obviously it is up to the local authority to make the total proceeds exactly the same, so that if you get more from X you can reduce the imposition on Y. However,
I do not think that the noble Baroness should rejoice on behalf of local government for the freeze in council tax over the past few years. Obviously, it has helped council tax payers, but what they have gained by not having to pay council tax increases, they have lost in the social wage of the services that have been cut as a result. You need only go to cities to see exactly what that means when children with no books at home no longer have a library to which they can go because it has been cut. Their hopes of social mobility have, to that extent, been depressed. I think that was a much more contentious remark than perhaps the noble Baroness intended.
My Lords, I do not rejoice and I did not intend to be contentious. I was simply illustrating the effect of the council tax freeze and the money the Government have given to that. In difficult times, council tax payers will have been glad of lower council tax.
My Lords, while individual council tax payers might well feel a little more comfortable, of course the impact on services for their communities has been very marked, particularly in adult care and children’s services, as we are increasingly seeing. In any event, most of the £5 billion has been top-sliced from moneys that would have gone in the local government finance settlement in any event. It is a bit much for the Government to claim credit for the freeze. It is more than a freeze for some services because it is actually inflicting a cut.
That brings us to the central question about the impact of these devolution proposals between different areas. One of the objectives of the amendment, although perhaps we will need to look again at the wording, is to ensure that in the process of devolving functions and resources to the combined authorities, both of which would be welcome, fairness in respect of other areas and between the combined authorities themselves is a cardinal objective and is something that the Government will address. It is that which we want to see in terms of the report that Amendment 44B seeks to advance. Looking at it again and listening to the Minister, perhaps the objective was not made sufficiently clear in the amendment, so it is something to which we may have to return on Report.
Unless we have a fairer funding system for local government services and the people who depend on them across the piece, including those in combined authority areas, then, in our submission, the talk about devolution will prove to be more of process than of outcome, and that would be unfortunate. Let us credit the Government, and particularly the present Secretary of State, with good intentions in this respect, but unless this is accompanied by a much more rigorous examination and the necessary change in the funding of local government, including the combined authorities, those objections will not be met. Having said that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 44A withdrawn.
Clause 8 agreed.
Amendment 44B not moved.
Clause 9: General power of competence
Moved by Lord Beecham
44C: Clause 9, page 10, line 7, leave out “may” and insert “shall”
My Lords, Members of your Lordships’ House will have observed that I am short. I intended this speech to be equally short, but I will give it a minute or two, in order to allow this debate to be kept to five minutes or thereabouts. Then we can proceed with the very important Statement which is to follow. Between us, the noble Baroness and I will no doubt get the clock to 4.30 pm.
It would be anomalous if the existing general power of competence which applies to local government in its manifestation across the country was not to be matched with a similar power for the combined authorities. The whole point of the combined authorities is to give them a wider range of functions than local government generally enjoys and for them to take on a wider role across the provision of a range of public services. Therefore, a general power of competence would facilitate the implementation of the Government’s objectives, which are shared by Members on all sides of your Lordships’ House. I hope that the Minister will concur with that view at some little length. I beg to move.
My Lords, the Localism Act 2011 provides that local authorities have the general power of competence. This is the same power to act that an individual generally has. All principal councils and eligible town and parish councils have this power. The provision in this Bill is designed to give the Secretary of State the discretion to decide whether or not to confer this same general power of competence to a particular combined authority. This is likely to go hand in hand with an arrangement in which the combined authority is to take on wider powers and functions, thus supporting the case for a general power of competence.
Flexibility, however, must remain in conferring this general power of competence to combined authorities, as it may not be appropriate to give the full power to act that an individual has to all combined authorities. For example, for combined authorities with relatively limited specific powers, it may not be appropriate to grant them a wide general power of competence. This is so given that Section 113A of the 2009 Act already gives them a power to do anything they consider appropriate for the carrying out of the specific functions that have been conferred on them.
This amendment is a further example of moving away from the enabling character of the Bill. It is an example of another centralised requirement which an area may not want, recognising that in its circumstances this would not be appropriate. So I ask the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, if the noble Baroness is right, the general power of competence would seem to be more limited than, on the face of it, it appears to be. Certainly it might inhibit a kind of development across a combined authority area that might be thought to be most appropriate. For example, in another area in which I have an interest, the justice arena, a combined authority might be in a good position to develop schemes for assisting the rehabilitation of offenders. That is not a duty of local authorities at the moment but, particularly given the area involved in a combined authority, they might well have something to offer which they should be able to carry out. Their potential partners in the Prison Service or the probation service might want to join them in such an effort. I am a little puzzled as to why the noble Baroness should be reticent about extending a power in that sort of area.
My Lords, I do not think that it is reticence; it is about flexibility and what might be appropriate in different circumstances. I hope that the noble Lord does not take it as reticence.