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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 700- 717)



  700. Can we have a note?
  (Mr Raynsford) Yes.


  701. The 2000 Act was supposed to restore self-confidence and enthusiasm to local government. Almost the whole effect of that was ruined by the fiasco over the regulations coming from secondary legislation. Are you confident that, as far as this legislation is concerned, you are not going to have the same effect? You are going to start off with the enthusiasm that you are giving greater freedoms to local authorities and spoil it all with regulations?
  (Mr Raynsford) It is certainly not our intention to spoil things with regulations and we want to make sure that regulations that are necessary under this legislation are properly considered before they are introduced. Certainly, I will want to see that there is a good opportunity for the key regulations or at least an outline of how we intend to make them to be available for committee scrutiny when the Bill is progressing through parliamentary stages. I would also want there to be a proper opportunity for consultation with the relevant bodies.

  702. When the Bill is put before the House, most of the regulations or at least outlines of them are going to be available?
  (Mr Raynsford) The important ones. There are a large number of very small, detailed regulations and I would not want to be caught out on a mathematical failure to—

  703. If you can give us a note so that we can put in our report that we will have the regulations on these clauses, I am sure that would be very helpful.
  (Mr Raynsford) We will aim to ensure that either the draft regulations or an outline of how those regulations will operate, if they have not yet been drafted, will be made available to the Committee by the time the Bill reaches that stage of detailed scrutiny in its parliamentary passage.

  704. The proposals in clauses 100—104 about the charging. Why do we need such detailed regulations about charging?
  (Mr Raynsford) The issue here is about extending greater freedoms to local authorities to levy charges but at the same time to avoid some of the unfortunate consequences that would flow if an authority failed to understand that this is not something that can be applied to existing services which must be provided free of charge. I am sure you are conscious of the potential scope for misunderstanding, given the very considerable number of different charging regimes that might apply in the future. We want to make sure that local authorities do not use this as an opportunity to introduce charges for services that ought to remain free of charge.

  705. Is it not simple to put that on the face of the Bill? You have just made a simple statement. Surely we could have it on the Bill and not end up with complicated regulations?
  (Mr Raynsford) It does go slightly further than that.

  706. That is the trouble, is it not, with regulations? The claim is that they are there to deal with a possible scandal. They deal with the scandal and then they deal with all sorts of other things which are restrictive and perhaps unfair.
  (Mr Raynsford) That will obviously be for you and others to look at when we produce our proposed regulations but the one other issue which is very important indeed that needs to be covered in this respect is the fact that the charges are designed to cover the costs of delivering the service, rather than to provide a buckshee income stream to local government. Trading is an area where we would expect the authority to offer services and possibly to make a return but in the case of charges we believe they should simply be designed to cover costs, not to generate profits.

Christine Russell

  707. The consultation on council tax discounts and exemptions on second homes and empty homes finished at the end of February. Nothing appeared in the draft Bill, although I think the discounts and exemptions were mentioned in the explanatory notes. As you have now had three months to analyse the responses to the consultation, what do you expect will be put into the final Bill?
  (Mr Raynsford) We have already made clear our aim, which is to give local authorities a greater freedom to reduce the discount that currently is available on second homes and long term empty dwellings. In the consultation, we set out the possibility either of ensuring that this revenue was available to the relevant authority, which is obviously particularly attractive to those in areas with a large proportion of second homes, or the revenue to be part of the overall revenue of local government as a whole and to be distributed accordingly throughout the normal local government system. The former is unusual; the latter would be more normal, but the former was attractive to those areas that have a substantial number of second homes and we received strong evidence in support. There are however practical difficulties because we only know the proportion of properties that are second homes as a result of people reporting that. If they no longer have a financial incentive to do so, the likelihood is they will not notify the authority that it is a second home. We would be left inevitably with information that was becoming increasingly out of date and that would be an unsound basis for decisions about what proportion of the revenue should go to that individual authority. That is the technical difficulty that we have been looking at and that is why we have not been able to give an instant decision. We are working on it. We are confident we can find the solution but it will require a little more time before we have that solution in place.

  708. What about the recommendations from this Committee at the conclusion of our empty homes inquiry, which was that local authorities should perhaps have the discretion to vary the council tax ward by ward regarding empty homes?
  (Mr Raynsford) The policy set out in the consultation on long term empty properties was to allow the authority to charge the full council tax on properties that had been empty for an unreasonably long period of time.

  709. Would you be minded to permit it to happen on a ward by ward basis rather than across the whole local authority area?
  (Mr Raynsford) The danger of the approach that you are setting out is one that might allow decisions to be taken on an arbitrary basis that could be challenged if it was seen that one particular area was being treated in a different way to another for no good reason. I think we would need to give further thought to that.

  710. There were a number of promises in the White Paper that have not yet been acted upon, promises like reducing statutory plans, reducing the red tape, streamlining best value. Are you aware of whether all of those good suggestions can be introduced without primary legislation or do some of them need primary legislation?
  (Mr Raynsford) No. We are confident that can be done without primary legislation. I have already indicated in response to a question from the Chairman that we expect to be able to announce in the very near future our proposals for reducing the planning requirements by 50 per cent. We are working on trying to streamline the best value procedure and we have abolished a substantial number of consent regimes which local authorities were previously subject to and there are proposals for more such abolitions which we will be bringing forward.


  711. How many of those have you abolished?
  (Mr Raynsford) 52 have been identified for abolotion so far.

  712. How many more have you got to go?
  (Mr Raynsford) I cannot give you an absolute figure but we are talking in significant numbers.

  713. You do not need legislation for that?
  (Mr Raynsford) No. We use the regulatory reform procedure.

  714. The target of having them all away by 2004 is going to be met?
  (Mr Raynsford) We will continue to work at removing unnecessary regulations. I would be rash to give an absolute commitment to have abolished all by 2004.

Christine Russell

  715. Are you making good progress on rationalising all the area based initiatives?
  (Mr Raynsford) That is very much a concern of my colleagues who are responsible for regeneration activity.

Mr Betts

  716. There is a real chance to make thousands of people very happy. One thing that is not in the Bill and I am asking whether you would consider putting it in the final Bill when it appears to go to the House is the idea that has been given evidence on from the Central Council of Physical Recreation, that there should be mandatory tax rate relief for the new category of Inland Revenue registered community amateur sports clubs. It is an idea that has been around for some time and it was in a previous local government Green Paper. The Chancellor recognised the problems that small, voluntary sports clubs face in some tax proposals he made in the budget to assist them. Is this something that local government could be asked to do to help as well with a £20 million bill to central government? Is there a chance this could now be taken on board and considered for inclusion in the Bill?
  (Mr Raynsford) I would need to consult my colleagues in the DCMS who would be responsible and would have to meet the financial costs.


  717. Rather than you struggle on, we have been going now for almost two hours and there are rather more questions that we have to ask. What I think would be most useful would be for us to conclude at this point and for you to let us have a written note on the ones that we have promised and if we get in to you by early tomorrow one or two further questions in writing perhaps you could answer those for us. Do you want to say something helpful from that piece of paper?
  (Mr Raynsford) No.

  Chairman: On that note, can I thank you very much for your evidence.

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