Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness (Questions 200-219)

MR DAVID CLARK

TUESDAY 9 JULY 2002

  200. I would imagine that you have been as direct and as forthright with the Minister as you have been with this Committee. If so, what has been the response from the Minister?
  (Mr Clark) Very polite.

  201. And the Civil Service?
  (Mr Clark) With respect to Mr Raynsford, not just I but a lot of my serving colleagues who are far wiser than I have been out of the industry, in a sense, now for nearly two years. Actually it went quite well. They were also quite able to come up with some rather good reasons why some of these things are as they are, but I see from your agenda you will have the opportunity to ask him, so I will not tell you what he said to me.

Chairman

  202. Would you like Best Value to be scrapped altogether?
  (Mr Clark) No, I do not think so. I think it just needs to be calmed down a little bit and to be rolled into the CPA process. I think the idea particularly of a challenge—"Why do you think this? Why do you have a role? Is it your health strategy, is it your greening strategy or whatever?"—is actually a perfectly reasonable one. My regret is that it has become professionalised, and I think we could calm it down a little bit.

Mr Cummings

  203. How do you view the Bill in total?
  (Mr Clark) A fine part of the jigsaw, and the direction of travel is okay, but of itself no major changes.

  204. You would not say a missed opportunity?
  (Mr Clark) I did say a missed opportunity. I said that in my memorandum, I think. I think it is a missed opportunity from my point of view, but then I am not accountable to the House of Commons or indeed to other parts of Government.

  205. A missed opportunity according to SOLACE as well?
  (Mr Clark) Yes indeed, that is my view.

  206. Not SOLACE's view?
  (Mr Clark) Sorry, let me answer that. It is not me, it is SOLACE's view.

Mr Betts

  207. To return to one of the issues which you found some favour with—the prudential guidelines—where we have Clause 4 lurking around and the possible powers (though we have not seen the final drafting) that that would give to the Government, are you concerned about that? Do you think that it ought to be amended in any way?
  (Mr Clark) Yes, but I am no expert in how it could be, I do not intend to be, and generally I am not. I am not trying to dodge the question. It seems to me that regulations defining what words mean and regulations that in that particular clause seem to indicate "We're giving with one hand but we'll take away with the other" are regrettable. I think it is characterised by something to do with lack of trust. Also, to be honest with you, it is local government's own fault, because I think far too often local government will go to the Civil Service and say, "What does that mean? Show us the regulations", to which I say, "Why didn't you keep your mouth shut? Why ask a question to which you do not wish to know the answer? If it seems reasonable to you, go with that." So on both sides it is still a bit of "I don't want to be told, but will you just show me what it all means, please?", and I think we have all got to learn something from that.

Mrs Dunwoody

  208. Is not that a useful way of just putting off taking a decision as well?
  (Mr Clark) I think there is certainly an element of dog-on-the-leash syndrome, yes; that whilst on the one hand there are those who believe that local government and local democracy should be greatly empowered, there are those who are frightened by the power and responsibility that gives. That must be right.

Sir Paul Beresford

  209. Has not the Government got a double leash on this dog? You have Clause 4 which we have discussed very briefly. The reality is that capital will be linked to revenue and revenue is linked to the amount that the Government allows. Anyone who needs to predict ahead cannot predict 20 or 40 years ahead in local government, because the revenue cannot be predicted.
  (Mr Clark) That is still the case, it most certainly is.

  210. So saying that capital is free is part of the problem?
  (Mr Clark) I hope I was clear that for me it is not a complete free-ing up, but it is that the direction of travel is right.

  211. You have cornered right, but the traffic is still there?
  (Mr Clark) To a large extent, though having said which, given that I have never yet met anybody who understands the process of local government capital—with respect, I am seeing someone in the corner who does understand local government capital, and I do include myself in the August band of those who do not—any system which appears to be trying to be more transparent and simplified should be welcomed.

Mr Betts

  212. You say it is a move in the right direction, is that right?
  (Mr Clark) Yes.

Mrs Dunwoody

  213. I think he said it was a moving jigsaw.
  (Mr Clark) Absolutely, it is always possible.

Mr Betts

  214. How do you and SOLACE view the proposals on capital receipts then, which seem to be a move away from the local authorities to spend the receipts they get from the sale of their own assets?
  (Mr Clark) I think, to be honest with you, SOLACE does not have a view on that. That is mainly because members of SOLACE have very mixed views on that.

  215. What are the mixed views?
  (Mr Clark) It is quite simple; some say that that is quite reasonable and some say it is not!

  Chris Grayling: Which is which?

Mrs Dunwoody

  216. Have you taken a vote?
  (Mr Clark) We do not do things like that. It depends on the position of authorities, does it not? If one is a unitary authority there are different issues and so on and so forth. So you will notice from ours that we have not taken a view on that and I for one am not in a position to answer too many questions on it.

Mr Betts

  217. Is there not a danger that the authority will come not to the best decision but the decision that fits the system the best when they look at the possibly disposal of land which might be beneficial as part of a re-development, in that they may want to buy another piece of land instead, and they are going to decide not to do it if they are going to have to give up part of the receipts and they have not got the money to buy that piece of land? Does that that sort of thing not lead to distortions?
  (Mr Clark) Of course it does. There is no question that there is not a free market with councils trading in particular ways. Nevertheless, I stick to my view that a good percentage of our members seem to think there is an element of reasonableness in that, a large percentage think there is not.

  218. That leads me to another issue where certainly there seems to be some concern that perhaps we may be moving away from freedom for local authorities. There has been quite a lot of pressure from local government to raise the percentage of the total monies they raise locally, yet by merging the business rate and the revenue support grant it appears that the Government is almost removing the main possibility of transferring back to local authorities the right to raise a significant part extra of their revenue.
  (Mr Clark) Yes, that must be true. SOLACE has not a view but I have so I do not mind sharing that with you, which I think that it is very regrettable. My own view is that the non-domestic rate does better sit with the local authority for a particular, peculiar reason, which is that I can remember very many times where local authorities would have liked to have been able to reduce rating on certain businesses in areas or zones or whatever for economic development purposes. It seems to me that some of this is mired in the history of 1980s conflict which is now really past. It is a sadness that that trust does not exist. I suppose we have not commented on that since I may be wholly incorrect in this, but I have taken the view that trying to argue for the return of the national non-domestic rate is something I shall do in my retirement because it really is not something I can apply myself to since I do not believe it is ever likely to happen.

  219. Do you or any colleague chief officers have any explanation as to why the Government intends to amalgamate?
  (Mr Clark) I have not. Since the draft Bill came out I have not been in a position to talk to either officials or Ministers although I am doing so in two days' time.


 
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