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Local Government (Consultation)

8. Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): What consultation process is being utilised to decide on the form of executive local councils adopt; and if he will make a statement. [13559]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Dr. Alan Whitehead): Our approach is that it is for people to choose how they are to be governed locally, and that councils thus need to listen to the views of their local communities.

To help English councils we, together with the Local Government Association, have produced consultation guidelines to support our statutory direction that councils should use both quantitative and qualitative methods in consulting on proposals for new constitutional arrangements. The introduction of new council constitutions in Wales is a devolved matter, and I understand that the National Assembly for Wales has issued similar material to assist Welsh local authorities.

Mr. Llwyd: I thank the Minister for that reply. For obvious reasons, I will not mention Ipswich.

I have a non-political point to make. Councillors from across the political spectrum tell me that back-bench councillors feel excluded from the decision-making process on the four options. Are there proposals to increase the role of back-bench councillors in that process?

Dr. Whitehead: The new council constitutions, which are being adopted throughout the country as councils consult on their preferred options, include a substantial role for back-bench councillors in, among other things, the local authority scrutiny process. It is up to authorities to ensure that their scrutiny processes operate well and accord with the guidelines on constitutions. Back benchers have, in a variety of ways, a central role in ensuring that local authorities work well.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): Does the Minister agree that, whatever the structure of local councils, their funding is central to the delivery of high quality services? Urban districts in the north of England continue to be at a huge disadvantage in the existing funding system. We welcome the Government's decision to change the system of standard spending assessments on 1 April 2003, but can my hon. Friend say how the system will change, and how quickly?

Dr. Whitehead: The Government's settlements have been systematically favourable to local authorities in general, but I accept that the SSA system has meant that they have not always been perceived as transparent or equally applied throughout the country. Consequently, the Government have pledged fundamentally to reform the SSA system in the financial year 2003–04. We will simplify the system and ensure greater transparency, so that people who are concerned about funding can see how settlements have been worked out.

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire): Does not the Minister realise that there is considerable public concern that the executive structures are far more secretive than the old committee system, a fact confirmed by his predecessor last December, when she said:

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Dr. Whitehead: I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman can make a very good case by comparing new constitutional arrangements with previous systems of local government. The new arrangements ensure that executives can make decisions crisply and in the interests of local electors. They also ensure transparency: decisions will be properly reported and, above all, properly scrutinised in public. That is how the new constitutions are working throughout the country.

Seaside and Coastal Towns

9. Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South): What assessment he has made of the impact of transience and population mobility on the ranking of seaside and coastal towns within the index of local deprivation. [13560]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Ms Sally Keeble): There is no assessment of transience or population mobility in the Indices of Deprivation 2000, although it was considered. We are confident that the index picks up deprivation in seaside and coastal towns, as 18 of the 81 most deprived districts in England are coastal local authorities.

Mr. Marsden: Bearing it in mind that Blackpool is currently the 51st most deprived in that index, does the Minister agree that many of the people coming to seaside towns, particularly for employment, present with multiple deprivation problems? Will she therefore give an undertaking to work closely with her colleagues in other Departments on cross-cutting measures that will improve the analysis of the standard spending assessment for education and social services, on which coastal and seaside towns are currently at a disadvantage?

Ms Keeble: I pay tribute to the work that has been done by my hon. Friend and other hon. Members who represent seaside towns in looking at the difficulties in their areas. One reason why we did not accept the argument about transience and population mobility is that it is not necessarily a sign of success if a population remains in an area for a long time, and indeed it might be a sign of disadvantage. In recognition of the difficulties in coastal and seaside towns, the Government are spending over £297 million in those areas through neighbourhood renewal funds and the single regeneration budget. The groups studying local authority funding are also considering some of the issues that my hon. Friend identifies.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): Is the Minister aware that many members of the transient population visiting towns like Hunstanton in west Norfolk often like to play machines in amusement arcades? Is she aware that the future of those arcades is threatened by the

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Budd report, which may possibly lead to a significant loss of jobs and a rise in local deprivation indices? What is her view of the report and the damage that it may well do?

Ms Keeble: Quite a few of us have been lobbied on the report, but it is not for my Department to consider; the decision is being taken by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Dr. John Pugh (Southport): Would the Minister support, or at any rate consider, a cross-departmental regionally based regeneration unit as advocated by the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) in a debate in the Chamber last week?

Ms Keeble: I have already set out the amount of money that is going into seaside areas. If the kind of scheme for the coalfields were available to seaside towns, it would have two elements. One allows for discretionary spending of about £80 million, which is much less than seaside towns currently receive. The larger element of the coalfields funding is for land decontamination, which is a completely different issue. I appreciate the difficulties that seaside towns have; the Government recognise them and are providing funding. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport is looking at some of the problems faced by those areas; in total, there is a very good package to deal with their problems.

Fire and Civil Defence Authorities

10. Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey): What representations he has received regarding reform of the fire call element of the standard spending assessment for fire and civil defence authorities; and if he will make a statement. [13561]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Dr. Alan Whitehead): A number of representations have been received from hon. Members and fire service interests supporting removal of the calls indicator from the fire SSA funding distribution formula. We recognise those concerns and are committed to removing the calls indicator. As part of the overall review of local government finance, we are working up proposals, in partnership with local government, on a way of funding the fire service from 2003–04 by a means of distribution that is fair and free from perverse incentives.

Mr. Truswell: I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. Does he accept that, until the formula is revised, West Yorkshire fire authority will continue to be heavily penalised for its success in reducing the number of fire calls? Does he acknowledge that that authority is one of the most efficient in the country? Will he take steps, as in the past, to mitigate the effects on its income so that it is not forced either to make unacceptable cuts in services or to introduce a huge hike in the council tax precept?

Dr. Whitehead: I accept that overall the fire service is succeeding and is efficient; generally, it gives excellent value for the money paid by local council tax payers. We are engaged with local authority representatives in considering changes to the SSA formula. I accept that an indicator that appears to penalise local fire authorities if they are successful in ensuring that fires are prevented,

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in addition to putting out fires, is not the best way of ensuring that they carry out their duties as efficiently and effectively as possible.

My hon. Friend will be aware that in this year's settlement floors and ceilings will be applied to the grants settlement for fire and police authorities. I hope that that will provide comfort by ensuring that settlements are appropriate to the costs incurred by fire authorities.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove): The Minister will be aware that if the Hereford and Worcester combined fire authority were to operate at the level funded by the Government, it would be operating an illegal service. In his forthcoming review, will he promise the people of Hereford and Worcestershire that they will not have to top up that service from a central Government grant that could be used for other services? Will his review ensure that he funds the service at a level at which it will be legally viable?

Dr. Whitehead: The hon. Lady will be aware that reviews are based on attempting to ensure that funding for fire authorities and local authorities in general is fair and properly distributed. On the suggestion that I should promise today particular funding for one authority, which would be unique as far as the review is concerned, I do not think that she seriously expects me to come out with such a statement. However, the review that is currently being undertaken of fire call indicators, and especially the proposals that are being put in place to replace them, will ensure that fire service funding is more fair and transparent, and that fire services overall can do for the future the job that they are succeeding in doing at the moment.

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