Committee (3rd Day)

Part of Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 3:45 pm on 29th June 2015.

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Photo of Lord Beecham Lord Beecham Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice) 3:45 pm, 29th June 2015

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.