Limits on local loans

Finance Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:00 pm on 18th June 2020.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

This is another small, technical measure. Clause 103 makes changes to ensure that Public Works Loan Board lending is available to local authorities in order to support worthy capital endeavours that benefit their residents. There is a statutory limit on the total amount that may be lent to local government through the PWLB, a limit that is governed by section 4 of the National Loans Act 1968. That Act allows for two future levels of that limit to be specified in advance through primary legislation and activated through secondary legislation.

The legislation would be exercised through HM Treasury. A date to exercise these powers has not been, and would not usually be, set in advance. The Treasury considers this clause to be a high priority because of the central role the PWLB plays in the capital finance system, supporting local authorities to deliver public services and, still more urgently, supporting communities through the pandemic as the need may arise.

The changes made by clause 103 will amend the predetermined legislated figures in the 1968 Act. The limit is currently £95 billion, and the clause resets the two future amounts to £115 billion and £135 billion. Clause 103 thus ensures the continuity of PWLB lending, which is a key stream of funding for local authorities across the country.

Photo of Harriett Baldwin Harriett Baldwin Conservative, West Worcestershire

I know that Worcestershire County Council finds the Public Works Loan Board very useful. Can the Minister update the Committee on the interest rate charged on that facility?

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

That is a very helpful question. I cannot update the Committee at the moment, because, as my hon. Friend will know, that is a matter for consideration within the Treasury. However, she has usefully put the issue on the record, and I thank her for doing so.

Photo of Wes Streeting Wes Streeting Shadow Exchequer Secretary (Treasury)

Clause 103 gives me an opportunity to speak to some of the challenges facing local authorities and the role that the Public Works Loan Board can play. I also want to knock on the head some of the assertions that have been made about local government finances and the sensible use of borrowing by local authorities across the country to invest in local infrastructure and works that benefit their residents. I speak not just as my party’s shadow Treasury spokesperson, but as a former deputy leader of the London Borough of Redbridge and a current vice-president of the Local Government Association.

Local authorities have done a remarkable job managing their finances sensibly and effectively during a very difficult decade. Not only was the public sector broadly hit by cuts, but local authorities felt the brunt because those cuts were both deep and front-loaded. The local authority response to those challenges over the course of the past decade has, to be frank, been remarkable. The same can be said for the ingenuity of many local authorities in making sensible and wise investments that not only improve the lives of their residents but generate income that can then be ploughed back into frontline services and mitigate the impact of central Government cuts. I think I speak for people right across the Local Government Association, regardless of their party, in saying that, as well as devolving power without resources, the Government have too often devolved blame. I hope that Ministers will consider that. I will address the issue this afternoon, when debate the new clauses.

There have been some rather unhelpful and misleading headlines about local authorities borrowing to invest in local projects. Of course, as with central Government, we will always be able to point to decisions that, though made with the best of intentions, do not work and incur a liability for the public purse. If public funds are not used widely, it is absolutely right that there should be scrutiny, lessons learned and accountability. It is fair to say, however, that in the vast majority of cases where local authorities have drawn on the Public Works Loan Board, their approach has been sensible, effective and well deployed. It is important that the facility continues to be made available to local authorities in the same way.

When Ministers consider not just this Bill but impending decisions by the Treasury, I urge them to recognise the awful impact of covid-19 on local authorities. In responding to the Secretary of State’s plea to do whatever it takes to get their communities through the crisis, not only have their costs risen; their income has also fallen significantly. I urge Ministers to think carefully about the demands they place on local authorities, particularly in terms of loan repayments during this period, and to consider whether more could be done.

Photo of Stephen Flynn Stephen Flynn Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Treasury - Financial Secretary)

I have had a look at the figures. Scottish local authorities are due to repay £793 million of PWLB interest and principal debt over the financial year 2020-21. Given the extreme challenges facing local authorities, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be sensible if the Treasury considered mitigating those debt repayments?

Photo of Wes Streeting Wes Streeting Shadow Exchequer Secretary (Treasury)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The Government have to look very carefully at the liabilities facing local authorities and how they are having to balance them against other demands and challenges. As I have said, in addition to creating cost pressures, the pandemic has had an impact on local authority income, too. In that respect, local authorities really are all in this together, whether they are Labour, Conservative or SNP. There are challenges for local authorities right across the United Kingdom. As we will discuss when we come to the new clauses, some communities have been affected more than others. None the less, the challenges are universal.

I hope that Ministers will take that on board and that they will listen very carefully to the representations from the Local Government Association, which is cross-party but Conservative controlled. We will do our best to remedy that in next May’s local elections. I hope that the representations Ministers receive from Conservative LGA leaders—and not just Opposition party representatives —will help them understand the challenges that local authorities are facing, particularly as they have been unable to collect around £1 billion in combined business rates and council tax income during the crisis so far.

I also impress upon Ministers the importance of Government keeping their word to local government. When local authorities were asked to do whatever it takes—and whatever it took—to get communities through the covid-19 pandemic, they took the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government at his word and they delivered. Now, they expect to be reimbursed, as was promised. The Government have given some additional funding to local authorities, but it is a drop in the ocean when compared with the cost pressures they face and the fall in income.

With that, I am content to support the clause, and I hope that the wider points that it has enabled me to make have been heard and well understood by the Treasury, and not just the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 103 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 104 and 105 ordered to stand part of the Bill.