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Local Authorities: Essential Services - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:33 pm on 24th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 2:33 pm, 24th January 2019

My Lords, I am most grateful for all the valuable contributions to this debate. It has been frank and honest and, obviously, it has given us much to consider and ponder. I will ensure that any particular points of detail, or indeed anything else that I have missed, are covered in a letter to noble Lords. I am sure that it is understood that this debate has covered many different areas of governmental activity, and quite correctly I would not want to mislead. I will also ensure that the debate is brought to the attention of all government Ministers because it has touched on so many subjects. I want in particular to thank the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, for introducing the debate so effectively and enabling us to discuss these very important issues.

I certainly concur with what has been said about the vital importance of local government at all levels, as the noble Lord said in opening the debate. That work is important not just for local government; it is vital for everyone living in our communities. We all benefit from the considerable work that is done by councils. I should like to thank all those who work for our councils and, indeed, councillors of all political persuasions and none.

I also agree with the comments that have been made, most recently by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, that in so far as there is blame to apportion—and I am sure that that is the case—no party can walk away from this scot free. Only the right reverend Prelate can leave with his head held high, not having been steeped in the blood of any mistakes which have been made. It is best that we are candid about this, so I will say no more on that. However, it is an important point to make.

I shall first cover matters of local government finance and council tax and then say a little about the structure of local government. Finally, I will deal with the many issues relating to local services which have been raised.

First, I understand what has been said about local government finance over the years. All the political parties have been in government during a time when incredible pressure has been put on to local government—that is undoubtedly the case—and, again, at all levels. I would also agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, said about how we should be grateful to local councils for doing what they have done, given the pressures that are there. He is right to point out that our thanks are due to local authorities for what they have done.

I shall make a couple of points which I do not think have been articulated in the debate. Whatever one thinks about local government, the last settlement was a step in the right direction. The chairman of the Local Government Association, my noble friend Lord Porter, who is not in his place at present, welcomed the settlement as a good one. Newcastle will see a 1.36% increase in core spending power and an increase in real spending power. Bristol, the area of the noble Baroness, Lady Janke, gets 2.24%. Lewisham will receive a 2.74% rise, Kirklees will receive 1.75%, while Watford, not doing quite as well, will see an increase of 0.8%. I am not saying that this will solve the problem, but in the spirit of being open-minded and fair, we should acknowledge that it is a step in the direction that the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, for example, is keen for us to pursue, and correctly so.

I should also say what the Chancellor and others have said: we have come to the end of austerity. I do not want to go over the history and look at the reasons for taking that action. It was needed; at least two political parties—and I think possibly three—accepted that there was a need for austerity. However, we are coming to the end of it, and that needs to be said as well.

I have referred to the cash increase, and I will touch briefly on the 50% business rates retention scheme that is due to come forward in 2021. As is currently the case where pilots are being run, that should lead to an increase in spending power for those councils.

Much has been said about the consultation on the fair funding formula, which of course sets the objective that this should be brought forward in 2021. We are still looking a little way ahead, although it is getting closer by the day. Noble Lords know that this is a consultation, so there will be ample opportunity to express views. The noble Lord, Lord Liddle, asked when the consultation is to come to an end. It is important to know when that will be, and I think that it is 21 February. There is an opportunity for people to participate in that consultation. Obviously, we will look at and consider the responses in detail. The importance of deprivation is expressly recognised in four areas in the consultation—adult social care; children and young people’s services; fire; and public health—although that is without prejudice to people to mention other issues in the consultation, if they feel that it is important that they are considered elsewhere.

Mention was also made of council tax and the local referendum restricting increases. The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, touched on this and said how important it was that we recognise that there is the power of the ballot box to restrict increases. He was thinking of council elections, which is presumably why this has not been tested by local councils—they know what the outcome would be. We are not stopping local increases but saying that a referendum should be called if local increases are beyond this. All three political parties have lived with this system, so I hear what is said but I would caution that it is there for reasons.

I have noted a couple of other stray but important issues. The noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, talked about dissatisfaction with local services increasing. I see that too. Complaints about services arise from time to time, but the latest survey taken—I have no reason to doubt it—shows that satisfaction remains relatively high, with nearly four out of five people, 78%, saying that they are very satisfied with the level of local services. I just wanted to put that in perspective. Yes, we should be concerned and wherever there is any concern with a local service we should look at it, but the level of satisfaction remains very high. If a political party got 80% satisfaction, I think we would all say, “Whoopee!” —though I cannot remember the last time that happened.

On local government structure and reform, there has been much talk—the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, raised it first of all—on devolution. The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, talked about the patchwork of devolution. He did not seem to approve of the metro mayors, but to my knowledge he has voted in favour of every order that has come before the House on this. That does not mean he does not think we could do better, but I suggest that it shows he thought it was at least a step in the right direction. I am open to challenge on that.

The noble Baroness, Lady Janke, also talked about centralisation. We are a centralised country—that is perfectly true—but on the metro mayors we have tested opinion and proceeded where it is in favour. As I recall, the most recent exercise on regional devolution—in the north-east, admittedly some time ago—did not exactly find overwhelming support, so I once again caution a little trepidation at putting much more than a toe in the water on this. That said, we seek to redress the balance—with what admittedly is a magnet of activity to the south—with the northern powerhouse, the Midlands engine and the metro mayor system.

Mention was made of unitarisation, and in a very fair contribution the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, said this is a way of councils saving money and also potentially responding to local feeling. It might not be about just money, and in the process one of the considerations will be local support. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, also discussed this but without the same approbation.

I turn to a general point on services before I look at the particulars. The noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, touched on working innovatively, which we should always be doing even if there are not significant cost pressures. I pay tribute to what local authorities have been doing in this regard. Pendle is an example. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, is not in his place, but I am sure he would take great pride in the back-office systems and processes review that has led to significant savings and a significant increase in efficiency.

I turn to housing. I thank noble Lords for their approbation of the raising of the housing revenue account borrowing cap, which has been widely welcomed. That is absolutely right and a step in the right direction. The noble Lord, Lord Best, whom I thank very much for his contribution and for all that he does in this area, asked for a response on lifting the cap in relation to housing associations. It is not a straightforward matter, but I will get a detailed response to the noble Lord and ensure that that is in the letter copied to all noble Lords. I thank him very much for that contribution.

In this regard, mention was made of the Homelessness Reduction Act. The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, also mentioned it briefly. All parties supported this. We can all take credit for this measure and thank the noble Lord, Lord Best, for piloting it through this House and Bob Blackman for piloting it through the other House. To my knowledge, we are funding the extra burdens, but if there are specific issues that the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, would like me to look at, I am happy to look at them.

Having talked about innovation, I once again say that Birmingham City Council is a housing exemplar. It has done some very good things in mixed-tenure schemes, including affordable and social rent, as has Ashford Borough Council, and that is important.

Social housing was mentioned specifically. I know that £9 billion was committed in the spending review period as recently as autumn 2018.

Rough sleepers was also mentioned in different ways. Extra funding was announced last year, because this is very serious. I understand what noble Lords are saying: this is very evident on our own doorstep. But I would not want noble Lords to think it is just our own doorstep. That may be where we see it most obviously—we certainly should not forget that—but it is much more serious and widespread than that. We are tackling it.