Mark criticises the prospect of higher council taxes and cuts in service

November 5, 2005 12:00 AM
By Mark Hunter in House of Commons - responding to government announcement re. local government financing

I thank the Minister for his statement. It is a pleasure for me to make my first contribution from the Front Bench on this subject, having spent the best part of the past 20 years in local government and as someone who still passionately believes in the case for local government.

It is interesting to see in today's statement the contortions that the Government are going through again to lay the blame for council tax rises squarely at the feet of local authorities. Let me remind the House that it is not local government's fault that Labour has failed to introduce a decent funding system for councils, just as it is not local government's fault that the only way in which it can raise money is through the abysmally unfair and unpopular council tax.

Today, we have another "one-off" bung, although this year it will fall well short of filling the black hole that councils face, which according to LGA estimates could still be the best part of £2 billion. Will the Minister

confirm that this is the third one-off grant in as many years? Perhaps he should consider renaming it an annual grant. Whatever we call it, though, the sad fact is that it will not be enough.

To fill the gap, councils would need to raise council tax by around 8 per cent. Of course, the statement has shown that such rises will not be permitted, thanks to the capping rules that were announced today. The planned cap of 5 per cent., far above inflation, does nothing to alleviate the problems for people who already struggle to pay their council tax bills-nothing will, frankly, except the abolition of council tax itself. Of course, the cap is an affront to local democracy. Perhaps the Minister will explain why Labour, which has boasted of its achievement in ending the Tories' "crude and universal" capping mechanism, now sees fit to introduce a two-year capping regime that is both crude and universal in itself.

Is the Minister aware that, thanks to the combination of spending pressures, tight grants-the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) described this settlement as tight-and no freedom on council tax, councils will once again be forced to cut services? Did the Minister read the social exclusion unit's report, "Improving Services, Improving Lives", which concluded that the quality of services provided by local government is fundamental to tackling social exclusion? Is he not therefore concerned that this settlement, combined with absolute restrictions on council tax rises, will force cuts in services? It is likely to worsen social exclusion. After all, cuts will not be easy to come by in many local authorities; councils are already striving to be ever more efficient. Is he aware that councils are producing £58 million-worth of efficiency savings every month-more than any other sector of government? Why, therefore, are they not believed when they speak of spending pressures?

The Minister has been quick to dismiss the LGA's assessment of spending pressures, but it personally surveys every local authority's finance department; the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister does not. Does the Minister think it wise to scoff at the LGA's estimates, given that the ODPM makes so little effort to establish the situation on the ground? Will he now acknowledge that the LGA is indeed right to warn of a black hole of some £2 billion? For the benefit of councils struggling to balance next year's budget, perhaps he can tell the House where precisely he would like services to be cut. Would he prefer a reduction in care for the elderly or cuts in children's social services; or would he like the streets to be left littered with rubbish and graffiti?

As we are all too well aware, Sir Michael Lyons is conducting a review of local government and local government finance.

Enjoyable though it may be for us to assemble here every year-with the eyes of local council employees, fearful for their jobs and their futures, on us-we Liberal Democrats hope that Lyons will bring an end to this whole sorry charade. Why do we put up with the most centralised and antiquated local government finance system in Europe? Why do the Government ignore all the evidence that demonstrates that the system is failing the people of this country? Given that local government is raising only 25 per cent. of its revenue, and given that it is not even allowed to make decisions about that 25 per cent., this grant statement is councils' only hope of securing adequate resources to serve their communities.

An out-of-date statistic here or a change in Whitehall priorities there can cost councils dearly. Just last year, my own council of Stockport-

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