As the Minister knows, we are very much against this whole part of the Bill. Why go through a process of enabling costs to be recovered from the local authority when it receives so much largesse from the Department for Transport in the first place? Would it not be better not to give the local authority so much money in the future?
I rise to explain to those watching our proceedings why my colleagues and I have voted against clause after clause. It is because these clauses are particularly centralising and we have not been satisfied that the balance is right. I accept that there is a duty on the Government, which is being strengthened by this proposed legislation, to ensure good governance in local authorities—specifically, in this case, to encourage better traffic management. That is an aim that I willingly endorse. However, Conservative Committee members want to make the point that we think the balance has gone too far.
It is visible in clause 30 that whatever cost the national centre decides to incur must be levied on the local authority, even though the national costs may be higher than the realistic costs for that locality and even though that may mess up the budgets for that local authority for the year or years in question.
The issue of local authority finance is always hard fought between Government and local government. The battle can be quite tough, even when local and national government are of similar parties; it is always stronger when there is a party element. My point is not party political; it is that endless arguments over money are inherent in the nature of the relationship between local and central government—whomever the Government are.
It is worrying for local government that the central Government are seeking to take a power that in certain circumstances removes from local government's control an element of its budget. That comes in a year where there might be tight budgeting anyway because of the nature of the local authority settlement. The Minister urges us to accept that these necessary powers will be little-used reserve powers, but I remember that when I was Minister for Local Government, there was an in-built tendency in the world of quangos and central officials always to urge Ministers to use or retain powers, even when those Ministers wished to give powers back, as I did. I had many arguments over urban development corporations' powers: I always wanted to give back areas from UDCs to elected local government, and when we considered taking new areas under control, I wanted them to be areas with no resident population, just derelict land. I found it easier to justify that to myself than taking over areas with large numbers of people, who would normally look to an elected body.
In the quango world, there was an in-built resistance among officials to my view that, wherever possible, things should be returned to democratic control, not taken away. I worry that, under well-intentioned and less well-intentioned Ministers, a similar in-built tendency to use central powers too often will be in the central machine. It is particularly worrying if that central power will be allied with the right to charge anything on to local authorities, whatever their budget circumstances and wherever we might be in the budget year. That would be difficult for local authorities because most of their money comes from the centre, and I doubt that there will be a proportionate increase in the central vote for the relevant local authorities, to take into account the
possibility that the traffic intervention costs more than the local authorities spend on traffic management. I accept that only local authorities that the Government think are managing traffic badly will be affected, but such authorities will have difficulties if the Government impose on them an extra cost, which may be in excess of their budgets for that year, without making any alternative arrangement.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch put forward the attractive idea that the budget should be adjusted in some way, and that a fair view should be taken of the financial situation, which will have been changed by central Government's intervention in a budgetary year. I hope that the Minister will reconsider that potential financial problem.
I do not doubt that the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Christchurch and the right hon. Member for Wokingham, are sincere. They would trouble me, too, were it not for the fact that in clause 30(2), the word ''may'' is used. When an intervention order is made, it is absolutely discretionary whether, from thereon, all the administrative and other costs of the traffic director and of intervention, are borne by the relevant local authority. That is not an obligation. The national authority might decide not to recover the costs from the local authority, and to bear the cost itself. It may well be that the financial state of the relevant local authority is such that to persevere in trying to recover those costs from it would decrease its capability to recover from its parlous position in terms of the traffic management network duty, rather than enhance its ability to overcome those difficulties. That is the degree of flexibility.
If the money is to come from the centre, it is a matter for debate for the national authority whether it should come from the local transport plan process, the standard spending assessment process, or elsewhere, although hon. Members will know that a goodly deal of the Department for Transport's money that goes to local authorities is in capital rather than revenue. That will have to be borne in mind. That should allay the right hon. and hon. Gentlemen's fears about flexibility in the recovery of traffic director costs after an intervention order has been served. There is flexibility: it will not be simply an imposition at local level when a traffic director is appointed. I commend clause 30 to the Committee.
Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 4.