Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 83) (HC No. 88) On Maintenance of Roads Grants 2001-2002

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Tim Loughton: That is a very good point, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I was moving on to that point, and I shall do so more swiftly, as we want answers to what I fear is a long list of questions. However, that is the problem of taking four special grant orders together.

Mr. Don Foster: The hon. Gentleman raises the difficult of dealing with four statutory instruments in one sitting. Will he confirm whether that was at a request of his party?

Tim Loughton: I am not aware that it was at a request of my party. We are always prepared to spend as much time as is necessary on scrutinising statutory instruments in Committee. The proposal was that the four should be taken together, and I am always prepared to accept a challenge. I know that the hon. Gentleman will want to return to the matter, and the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold about large grants—

The Chairman: Order. For clarification, the Question was put at the start of the debate. The Committee had the opportunity to decide whether it wished the motions to be taken separately or together. I called the relevant motion and there were no objections.

Tim Loughton: Thank you for that clarification, Mr. Gale.

In relation to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold about large grants, special grant No. 40 is the largest of the lot. The council of the royal borough of Kingston upon Thames—a local authority which, I believe, has an unhealthy proliferation of Liberal Democrat members—is due to receive, if we rubber-stamp the measure this afternoon, £3.5 million. That seems to be a large chunk of the funds on offer, with little detail about what the punters are getting for their money. The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) may be able to enlighten the Committee as to why the good burghers of the royal borough of Kingston upon Thames should receive such enormous munificence from this Government. We shall wait until he responds on the matter.

If I may backtrack slightly, I also wanted to mention project No. 23 in Nuneaton and Bedworth borough council, which has the amusing title ``Silver Surfers''. It is aimed at increasing internet access to elderly people—I think that everyone gets the joke intended—and provides a big grant of £1.3 million. Can the Minister realistically tell us how many elderly residents of Nuneaton and Bedworth borough have access to the internet?

Dr. Whitehead: I have no idea.

Tim Loughton: I am disappointed that the Minister proposes that the Committee should spend £1.3 million on a project when he has no idea how many people will have access to it. Realistically, the number of elderly people who have access to the internet is relatively low compared with other age groups. If the project is intended to wire up a lot of elderly people to the internet, that is acceptable. However, if the project is going to support internet services to the elderly, to which very few of those elderly people have access, I would suggest that it is not money that is being efficiently spent.

Project No. 21—which provides £1.2 million to Manchester city council—is a good-sounding project in principle and relates to the delivery of maintenance services to houses. There is a serious point about the people to whom it is available—will it be available purely to tenants of council houses run by Manchester city council or will it be open to housing association tenants as well? Given large-scale voluntary transfers and the move to social housing not under council management, that is especially important. There are many other fascinating projects on which I could ask for further detail. I have a growing hunch at this stage that the Minister will not be able to provide that detail in his reply shortly.

I will move swiftly to the last of the special grants, which is special grant No. 86. It deals with foot and mouth. Committee members who belong to my party will want to raise many questions about the matter, but I wish to ask questions about two concerns.

The scheme has been criticised for failing to include many local authorities that, although they are predominantly urban, also include substantial rural areas within their boundaries. Those authorities are unduly penalised. Is there any further news concerning grants that are available for consequential loss for enterprises that are not specifically engaged in agriculture, such as for businesses that are indirectly affected by foot and mouth because they are suffering from reductions in the numbers of tourists visiting their areas?

Conservative Members of Parliament have pleaded long and hard for the Government to provide a more generous scheme of interest-free loans that are based on company turnover, rather than the less generous high rates of interest that the Government proposed. Those grants, which are not 100 per cent. reclaimable by local authorities when they are exempted from rates, will weigh unduly on smaller rural authorities, which is precisely the type of authority to which the special grant report applies. Will they receive special consideration, so that they do not lose out so heavily?

That is a brief synopsis of some of my party's questions and concerns, and I would be grateful if the Minister will give us detailed answers.

5.16 pm

Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting): I wish to speak on special grant report No. 85, bid No. 217, which refers to the London borough of Wandsworth's three-year ISB funding of £95,000.

My constituency is located in the London borough of Wandsworth, as are those of my hon. Friends the Members for Battersea (Martin Linton) and for Putney (Mr. Colman). The project is described as follows:

    ``A project designed to offer a fully automated, electronically accessible parking/traffic appeals service. The project will provide 3 additional facilities for appellants, namely: on line submission of appeals, on-line payment of penalty charges and remote hearings of appeals via on-line video links.''

I have deep reservations about that kind of grant being made to the London borough of Wandsworth. Does it really need the money? For many years, Wandsworth council has deliberately introduced the lowest council tax in the United Kingdom. I have frequently joined residents and organisations in my constituency to try to secure funding for many local projects. However, we have often been told that the money is not available, so we do not receive the funding, and we do not get the projects.

Tim Loughton: The hon. Gentleman has made an interesting point. By how much does he want his constituents' council tax to rise?

Mr. Cox: I can answer that. Since I became a Member of Parliament, I have had numerous consultations with constituents and local organisations, and they would welcome a reasonable increase in their council tax—although I will not state a precise figure—to provide the services that are lacking. The residents of Wandsworth, and the people who run those services that exist in the borough, say that extra funding is required to develop the kinds of services that are needed. I and many of my constituents have cried out for many years for a modern day centre to be built in Tooting, but we have received no sympathy or financial support from Wandsworth council.

I could say much more about that subject, but I want to return to the project under discussion. I know plenty about parking and penalty charges. I have here my file of complaints made against the London borough of Wandsworth by my constituents about its parking policies. The director of technical services tells me that large sums—hundreds of thousands of pounds, and possibly well over £1 million—will be made from the introduction of parking charges in the borough. Hundreds of people attended two public meetings in my constituency to express their opposition to the council's parking policies.

I listened to the opening remarks of my hon. Friend the Minister. In the list under consideration are some excellent projects that I would willingly support, because, as he said, they provide genuine services to residents living in a variety of boroughs. However, I wonder whether a borough such as Wandsworth needs that sort of money. What consultation have his officials had with the London borough of Wandsworth on how it will spend the money? We know what the project outlines and what is proposed, but when I have taken up with senior officers at Wandsworth council what they accept will be vast sums coming into their revenue each year from parking control charges, they cannot tell me what the money will be spent on. Why should that sort of money be paid to the authority when it already receives via parking charges enormous sums that will continue year after year and when it has deliberately introduced the lowest council tax of any authority in the country? I hope that my hon. Friend will answer my points, because many of my constituents will ask me why that sort of money was allocated to the London borough of Wandsworth.

Several hon. Members rose—

The Chairman: Order. During his speech, the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) held aloft a file. The Chair generally deprecates visual displays, simply because they are difficult to record in Hansard. For it to be verified, the hon. Gentleman will need to make his file available to Hansard. [Interruption.] Order. I realise that the file probably contains confidential constituency matter, and I am sure that Hansard will not want to record that in detail, but I impress on members of all parties, especially new hon. Members, that neither here nor in the Chamber is it considered appropriate to hold aloft visual displays that cannot be recorded.

5.23 pm

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I am delighted to serve once again on a Committee under your chairmanship, Mr. Gale. I noted your declaration of several interests. No member of the Committee would question the impartiality of your chairmanship; I merely note with interest that you have several interests to declare. I have none, as my local authority has been singularly unsuccessful in obtaining any money under the various special grants under discussion.

 
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