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Rail Network (Nottingham)

5. Vernon Coaker (Gedling): What assessment he has made of the development of the local rail network in Greater Nottingham. [49397]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. David Jamieson): We have established the Strategic Rail Authority with a fundamental purpose to secure the development of the railway network. The authority has published its first strategic plan, which lists the developments being taken forward—a number of which will benefit Greater Nottingham.

Vernon Coaker: May I tell my hon. Friend that Nottingham station is full, and that we shall not be able to develop the local rail network until that problem is overcome and, in particular, until the Trent junction signal box is improved to an adequate standard? Will my hon. Friend try to give some impetus to that plan? It has been around for a number of years and it needs—for want of a better word—a bit of oomph behind it to try to get it moving. We have old pit lines and a local rail network—we have everything in place—but the signalling needs to be improved so that we can use Nottingham station and have a properly functioning, expanded local rail network, which will help to address the commuter problems in Greater Nottingham.

Mr. Jamieson: On the important subject of the railway station, I know that the Nottingham councils have funded a feasibility study, in partnership with Railtrack and the train operating companies, into improving passenger capacity and integration, particularly with the Nottingham express transit service. I hope that it will be a candidate for railway passenger partnership funding. My hon. Friend will know that the complexities of the rail system in the area around the Trent junction are considerable, and I am

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afraid that there is no single, simple solution to that problem. However, the SRA will be trying to get some oomph behind the problem by working with Railtrack on the feasibility study to achieve incremental improvements in performance and to increase capacity to benefit rail users in the area. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be around later in the year when my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport is due to open some of the new improvements to the Robin Hood line.

Local Government Finance

6. Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): What steps his Department is taking to analyse the council tax and spending patterns of local authorities. [49398]

The Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Stephen Byers): Over the past five years, the Government have increased the grant to local authorities by 20 per cent. in real terms. This compares to a cut of 7 per cent. in the last four years of the Conservative Government. As part of our changes to local government finance, we will be considering the relationship between the levels of council tax, the Government grant and the amount actually spent on the provision of services.

Ms Walley: It is extremely important that we have properly funded public services, particularly after all the inequalities of the last 12 years. It is important that my right hon. Friend looks at the review of the standard spending assessment, and, in particular, at authorities such as Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent—which I represent—to see how we can put right the problem of our per capita spending being 5.4 per cent. below the national average. What people really want is proper standards of rubbish collection, green spaces to be properly attended to, and back alleyways—of which there are many in Stoke- on-Trent—to be made good and kept clean. That is what we need the money for. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that his review gives councils such as Stoke-on-Trent the opportunity to have their say and the certainty for future spending?

Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, as she often does, on behalf of her constituency and of Stoke-on-Trent more generally. I am aware of the difficulties and pressures faced by that area because of certain closures that have taken place in recent years and because of the historically low levels of wages provided to those in employment there. It is right that, when we come to review the distribution of Government grant, we should take into account many of the issues that bring pressures to bear on local authorities such as Stoke-on-Trent. It is also important that, when we consider the steps that we want to take for an overall community, we also look at other sources of funding that we might be able to target more specifically in a locality, to focus on the areas of greatest need. That is certainly what we intend to do as we carry forward our review of local government finance distribution.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): When the Secretary of State looks at council tax levels, will he bear it in mind that one thing unites all the shire authorities, whether they are controlled by the Conservatives,

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the Liberal Democrats or, indeed, as in the case of Durham, Labour? What is common to shire authorities and other authorities, such as York, is that they have to respond to the chronic underfunding of social services. Is the Secretary of State comfortable with the Chancellor of the Exchequer's proposals to fine local authorities if they cannot meet obligations for which they have not been funded?

Mr. Byers: When the right hon. Gentleman has the opportunity to look in detail at the figures that were revealed in the Budget last week, he will see that there is to be an increase in personal social services spending of more than £1.1 billion next year. That is made up of £766 million that had already been identified, which is an increase well above the rate of inflation, and the additional sum of £360 million, which the Chancellor announced last week. There is thus a real-terms increase of 6 per cent. for personal social services. In that context, local authorities—county and unitary—should be able to meet the demands that are being made on them by using the generous increase in funding that is being made available.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): While my right hon. Friend is looking at patterns of spending, will he pay particular attention to Conservative-controlled Calderdale council? In spite of an excellent financial settlement, it has seen fit to increase home care charges by 33 per cent, to withdraw funding from Scope, an excellent outreach service for people with disabilities, and to introduce one of the highest council tax charges in Yorkshire.

Mr. Byers: I shall certainly do that. However, Calderdale is not a Conservative administration in isolation; its actions reveal a trend in Tory local authorities up and down the country. The figures speak for themselves. The average council tax in Labour councils is £738; in Liberal Democrat-controlled councils it is £824; and in Tory-controlled councils it is £833. The position is this: Tory councils cost more and deliver less.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): But following on from the very point that average council tax rises have been greatest in Conservative-controlled councils, as the Minister for Local Government generously explained to the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss), will the Secretary of State confirm that the lowest rise in the past four years has been in Liberal Democrat-controlled councils?

More important, will the Secretary of State acknowledge that regardless of which party is in control of a local council, the greatest cause of any increase in council tax is the issuing of diktats by an increasingly centralising Labour Government? To avoid making matters worse, will the Secretary of State tell the House precisely what plans he has to help local authorities mitigate the increase of £300 million that will be imposed on them as a result of the Chancellor's decision on national insurance, which almost wipes out the increased support to social services?

Mr. Byers: I suggest that the hon. Gentleman looks carefully at the figures. He will see that the additional costs of national insurance contributions for personal

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social services will be between £40 million and £45 million. Those are the true figures. He can dispute them, but that is the case.

The fact is that we have made a generous settlement for local government. We added to it last week by providing £360 million specifically for personal social services. The other aspect of local government funding will be dealt with in the spending review, the outcome of which will be announced in July this year. The hon. Gentleman should wait for that. He proclaims the low charges that are imposed by Liberal Democrat county councils, but he will be aware that the highest average council tax per dwelling in England is in Liberal Democrat-controlled Richmond upon Thames, with a figure of £1,208. I am sure that when the electors in Richmond upon Thames go to the polls a week on Thursday, they will be acutely aware that they are paying the highest price in the whole country for being Liberal Democrat-controlled.

Tony Cunningham (Workington): Tax relief for amateur sports clubs was announced in the Budget, but council tax is of course the responsibility of local authorities, so will the Secretary of State consider advising local authorities to give 80 per cent. mandatory rate relief to such clubs, which are very important to the community?

Mr. Byers: I know that amateur sports clubs have made a positive response to the announcement made by the Chancellor in the Budget last week, and I am sure that local authorities will want to respond in a way that is equally as positive as the Chancellor's action. Lobbying by people such as my hon. Friend means, I hope, that the important role played by sports clubs in the community will be recognised by local authorities, and they will be as generous as possible.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): Yet again the Secretary of State is being economical with the facts that he gives to the House. It is all very well him standing there talking about a £360 million increase in funding for local authority social care, but that will be wiped out by the Chancellor's increase in national insurance bills for local authorities. In his assessment of council tax, has the Secretary of State made any assessment of the impact of the Chancellor's stealth tax on pension funds?

Mr. Byers: We have made sure that the funding for local government is generous and above the rate of inflation, and we added to that in last week's Budget. Additional costs that may be borne by local authorities, whether through national insurance contributions or changes to pension funds, are more than made up by the additional funding given by the Government.

If the hon. Lady and the Conservative party oppose national insurance contributions, they must say where the money will come from. There are three options: there will be cuts in health service spending; other taxes will be raised which are being kept secret; or people will be charged or will have to take out private insurance. Those are the options, and I hope the hon. Lady will tell the House which of them the Conservatives favour.

Mrs. May: Yet again the Secretary of State failed to answer the question that he was asked, but it is obvious

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that he has made no assessment of the impact on council tax of the Chancellor's stealth tax on pensions. I can tell him that it is costing council tax payers the equivalent of a 1.5 per cent. increase in council tax every year.

Every year under Labour, Ministers have said that they have generously funded local authorities, and every year council tax has gone up by three times the rate of inflation. That is bad news that the Secretary of State cannot bury, because people see it every time they pay their council tax bill. Under this Government, the typical single pensioner has seen council tax increases wipe out one third of the rise in the state pension. Is not the sad truth that Labour's double whammy of stealth taxes and soaring council tax is hitting hardest the most vulnerable in our society?

Mr. Byers: I made it clear in my reply that we had taken into account the increased costs arising from pension changes, and I am sorry that the hon. Lady chose not to hear that. It is interesting that she talks, as the record will show, of the increase in council tax affecting a third of the state pension increase, yet she chooses to ignore the other funds that the Government are making available to pensioners, such as the £200 a year, which is not taxed, and the free TV licence.

When pensioners look at the benefits that they are getting, in the round, from this Government, they will know that they can trust Labour, but they cannot trust the Conservatives. When they come to vote a week on Thursday, they will know who they can trust. They distrust the Conservatives because they know that, after 18 years of Conservative rule, pensioners had got nothing and were no longer able to live in dignity and security, as they now can because of the measures that this Government have introduced.

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