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Local Authorities: Essential Services - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:14 pm on 24th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Patten Lord Patten Conservative 12:14 pm, 24th January 2019

My Lords, I did not have the long and distinguished career in local government that the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, obviously had, but I did spend a period in the chamber of Oxford City Council. I learned a lot from those experiences, such as the excellence of many local government executives. When cutting my teeth as a local councillor, I also learned a lot from those who are now in your Lordships’ House, such as the noble Lords, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath and Lord Liddle; I am pleased to see the latter in his place. Indeed, they cut their teeth on me with some inspired heckling over the years—all forgiven, but never forgotten, I assure them.

I should also make a declaration of interest: not in the conventional sense but rather, a declaration of residence or work—and as a consumer of local authority experiences—in three different places. First, I work in the City of London, which is an extraordinary place. You would not invent the governance of the City in a month of Sundays, but in an amazing and largely non-partisan way, it works. There are the streets that you could almost eat the apocryphal breakfast or lunch off, and it delivers very good services both within the City and to its outliers in a broadly non-partisan way, which is good.

Secondly, I award a mark, with some temerity, to the City of Westminster down the road, where I first moved when I went to another place and have lived ever since with my wife, who also works in London. It is clear that the City of Westminster behaved pretty disgracefully in the past, mucking about with the sale of council houses, which was a shaming event. But it has served its time, worked its way out of the situation and now, extraordinarily—it is hard to work out quite how—manages to deliver level council tax demands with a very high level of services, including the street cleaning that I mentioned. It is funny how you judge local authorities by the things that first hit you in the face, and street cleaning is obviously one.

Thirdly and lastly, we have long lived in the West Country, in the area of that Liberal bastion, South Somerset District Council, which was turned into a Lib Dem stronghold thanks to the magic political touch of the late and highly respected Paddy Ashdown. It still is, despite our best attempts. A nonpartisan evaluation of the South Somerset area would include the worry locally about scary suggestions that we will have our wheelie bins collected only every three weeks. I think that is probably a wheelie bin too far for many of us. Although the council is building more in the local area, which I support and have supported publicly—no nimby here; we must build more houses—it has sometimes lacked understanding of the need to provide new housing estates built for sale with shops and all the rest. It has not really attempted to soften the edges of housing estates with better landscaping that reduces complaints from local people and makes high-quality building more acceptable and welcome in their area.

None of those issues will be solved just by more money. We need imaginative leadership from high-quality men and women in local authorities—such as the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, I am sure, in his day, in Sheffield. Sometimes they are there; sometimes they are not. There are problems with the quality of some who work in local authorities, despite the reasonable remuneration and pensions on offer. How adequate is their training? I do not know the answer to that; perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, and other noble Lords can help us by explaining what the training is really like.

One way forward may be to do what many charities do: hire people leaving professions and businesses who have the high energy levels for one more big job, particularly given that people being expected to work into their late 60s and 70s. There is no magic in good management; it is pretty transferable from one place to another. Perhaps such a transfer to the world of local government would add to efficiency. It is not all about money; ability capital is just as important.

Please do not think it unnecessarily combative of me to say how surprised I was when, in his largely non-partisan speech, the noble Lord, Lord Scriven—and perhaps other noble Lords—seemed to airbrush from history the fact that back in 2010, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives were in what I thought was a very welcome coalition. We did some good, between us. This cannot be airbrushed: I must take responsibility for what we have and have not done, as must the Liberal party—particularly Mr Nick Clegg, who has now fled to the west coast of the United States of America.

There is a linguistic problem in that, as I understand it, “essential” does not exist in the local authority dictionary: something is either “mandatory” or “discretionary”. Using those words leads to a conceptual cop-out. Anything can be represented as an essential service if local people and councillors say that it is, and that they should have this, that and the other. We must be very careful in our use of language.

Like talented people, money helps local authorities a lot, but once one has beaten a path through the dense thickets of local authority finance, which I have heard gloriously described with masterful understatement as a “somewhat complex subject”, money must be found from somewhere—but where? We know that in Europe at the moment, we are in low-growth mode: this week, the IMF told us that Germany and France are unlikely to grow faster than the UK in the next two years. Indeed, just as the City of London accelerates despite the current political shot and shell, official labour market data published on Tuesday by the Office for National Statistics shows the highest employment rate ever, with more people in work. That means more tax for the Treasury to spend in local areas.

Of course money is vital, but where should it come from? Out of whose pockets and how? Through extra taxation or a higher amount? If so, how much? The Liberal party needs to be open about both its chequered past in this area during the coalition, and what it proposes to spend and where it will come from in future. We need to be efficient and realistic in the use of both our money and our language. After all, there is no universal declaration of local authority rights, of which we must be well aware.