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May: Conservative councils make your life better

Speech to Conservative Spring Forum 2002

I'm delighted to be responding to this session at the Spring Forum - and my goodness haven't we heard some exciting examples of how Conservatives have been working to improve their local communities - making life better in your areas.

Over the next few weeks we all have the opportunity in the local government elections to take the message we have heard today out onto the streets and show people that up and down the country it is Conservatives who are listening to their concerns and worries, it is Conservatives that are recognising the problems in their local communities and it is Conservatives who are delivering practical solutions that meet people's needs.

The Conservative Party is the party that listens, that cares and that delivers - delivers for all in society, from Bromley to Bradford, from Cambridgeshire to Calderdale.

Local authorities are responsible for a wide range of services that directly affect people's everyday quality of life and often it is the most vulnerable in our society who depend on them most.

Good local government is about improving people's quality of life - about making life better.

Just think about the impact a council has on people's day-to-day life - imagine someone walking out of their front door. Has the uneven pavement been mended? Is the street clean or full of litter? Has the rubbish been properly collected? Do the street lights work?

Have the potholes in the road been repaired? Has the traffic got worse since the council gave permission for that new development on the outskirts of the town? Why did they bring in that one-way system? And now of course the primary school's full. Mrs Smith next door is worried because her husband's still in hospital - they simply can't get him anywhere in a care home locally because they're all closing.

To find answers to these problems - to make life better - councillors need to have the freedom and flexibility to make decisions that suit their local area.

Today that power has been taken away in so many ways. This Labour Government has increased centralisation, increased bureaucracy and increased the regulations local councils have to cope with.

Now I accept that previous Conservative governments do not have a blameless record in their approach to local government. But what started as an attempt by central government to protect people from the worst excesses of bad local councils has now, under Labour, been made a means of control, a tool for imposing Westminster's priorities over local priorities.

In 1997 just over 4% of a council's funding was ring-fenced today, it is 15%. And that's without counting the money that's spent on the extra bureaucracy and regulations imposed from Whitehall.

Central government telling councils how to spend your money.

Today, local authorities are judged against close to 150 performance indicators and must agree up to 66 plans with central government. Such burdens waste money and distort priorities. 66 plans - don't tell me they're a tool for better government - it's just increased bureaucracy and a way of the centre exercising control.

And when it comes to regulations just look at the impact of the directive on fridges - enormous cost to local authorities and the risk of fridges abandoned in our streets and lanes. Abandoned cars will be next and then other white goods.

And against this background of red tape and central control Gordon Brown has made council tax a stealth tax .

Every year since Labour came to power they have promised that there was no need for large increases in council tax and every year council tax has gone up by three times the rate of inflation.

This year the average increase is 8.3% - more than four times the rate of inflation.

What's more the government has slowly increased the amount of council's funding that has to be paid through council tax - from 23% in 1997 to 27% today.

People are on average paying nearly £300 more on a Band D property than when Labour came into power.

Conservative councils are still showing that they can charge less council tax and deliver quality services.

How many of the top 20 councils charging the highest council tax are Conservative - none.

Looking at Band D properties, this year across every tier of local government Conservative councils cost less than Labour or LibDem councils.

In unitary authorities Conservative councils cost £132 a year less than Lib Dem councils.

In London Conservative councils cost £313 less than Labour councils.

On average across all types of council Conservative councils cost £135 less than Labour councils and £159 less than Lib Dem councils.

And which council costs most of all - Tony Blair's own back-yard yes, Sedgefield where for Band D local people pay almost £1,200 a year.

Increases well over inflation and shifting the burden to the council taxpayer - yet another stealth tax.

A stealth tax that hits hardest on some of the most vulnerable in society like the elderly living on fixed incomes.

More red tape, more paperwork, higher cost, less freedom that's the impact of Labour on local government.

The other day Stephen Byers department announced that government would streamline and rationalise the 66 plans they require from councils. Do you believe Stephen Byers - I certainly don't.

Remember the three big lies - (the cheque's in the post, Darling I still love you, and Trust me I'm Stephen Byers).

What better advert for New Labour could there be?

You can't trust him on transport, you can't trust him on local government and you can't trust him on planning.

Just look at what he is promising to do.

He's going to grade councils as high performing, coasting, striving or poor performing, but they will be judged not by whether they are doing what people want, but by whether they are doing what the government wants.

He's going to introduce a new tier of regional politicians. That means he's going to abolish county councils and have to restructure district councils at an estimated cost of £2bn - how many care home places could that fund.

He's heaping yet more regulation and bureaucracy on parish and town councils including a code of conduct that means parish councillors, the unpaid volunteer backbone of our rural communities, have to declare not just their interests, but the interests of their relations, including would you believe it their nephew's partner.

Little wonder parish councillors are threatening to resign across the country.

And on planning he's going to bring in a new system that will increase bureaucracy for business, reduce the voice of local communities and bring in a betterment tax that will particularly hit small local firms.

In the annals of incompetent government Stephen Byers is a serial offender.

From the Post Office to PPP on the Tube, from increased rights for trade unions to reduced rights for local communities on planning, from Rover to Railtrack, Byers bungles cost us all dear.

But this Government's interference and centralisation doesn't just increase the paperwork in the town hall. It erodes local democracy so fewer people vote and it damages the effective delivery of public services and the ability of local councillors to respond to the needs of their local community.

The Department for Transport Local Government and the Regions is what I call the quality of life department because with transport and local government together it is responsible for the things that so often make the difference between having a good or a bad day.

And across the country it is Conservative councils who are making the difference in their areas.

Just think about the problems we all face in our day to day lives.

What is number one concern for many people today - crime or the fear of crime.

Kent and Westminster have recognised this and delivered for local people.

Kent County Council has introduced rural community wardens in partnership with Kent police. Westminster Council has launched a city guardian initiative to reduce crime, anti-social behaviour and breaches of public safety; and their CCTV van, staffed by trained council officers, has played a significant role in reducing levels of crime in parts of the Borough.

Conservative councils delivering for local people.

But fear of crime is also about the environment in which people live and work. Graffiti ridden streets increase the fear of crime and petty vandalism is often a first step in criminality. We believe that cleaning up our streets is an essential part of the war against crime.

West Oxfordshire District Council has introduced an Environmental Hit Squad to crack down on fly tipping and fly posting. Tandridge District Council brought in a successful graffiti clean up initiative, with a £500 reward for information on perpetrators. Wandsworth Council doubled the number of litter bins on local streets all of which are emptied at least once a day and has a team of uniformed investigators who patrol the Borough enforcing laws on litter, fly-tipping and dog fouling.

Conservative Councils delivering for local people.

People get fed up being held up in traffic jams on the way to work - we all know how much better the roads are in the school holidays so getting school transport right matters. That's why Runnymede Borough Council has introduced yellow school buses and Surrey County Council is soon to launch its Pegasus project for school transport for primary schools.

Conservative Councils delivering for local people.

People want their children to have the best start in life with a good education. Calderdale Council recognised this and has one of the most improved set of academic results at 16 years across the whole country.

East Sussex saw the need for a new university locally - it's just been given the go-ahead and the first students will start in Hastings University in autumn 2003.

Conservative Councils delivering for local people.

People also want to see deprived areas in their towns and cities being regenerated - so the quality of life of people who live there can be improved. In Bradford the council's decision to establish a ground breaking Urban Regeneration Company was described as "the single best piece of news the district has had for many long years". The Council is pushing forward re-development such as the Broadway shopping complex and the plans to transform the Odsal stadium site with a new stadium, leisure and retail development, cleaning up a former landfill site and creating hundreds of new jobs. What a pity Stephen Byers has called the Odsal application in for an inquiry.

A Conservative-led council delivering for local people.

And people worry about those whose lives need re-building. Kent County Council has launched its Dependency Reduction Programme - which aims to support and help people trapped in dependency to lift themselves back into independence, employment and a better quality of life.

A Conservative council delivering for local people.

These are examples of how Conservative councils listen to their local communities, care about the quality of life for local people and deliver to make life better.

But if that is what Conservatives in local government can achieve despite the imposition and burdens from the centre think what more good we could be doing for our local communities if councils had their freedom.

If local democracy is to mean anything then the power to say whether or not a council is doing well should rest with the voters in the ballot box. In stark contrast to Labour's principle of 'earned autonomy' - we believe that all councils should be given freedom.

Of course it is right that there should be powers to intervene where a local authority is clearly failing in its duty, but this should be the exception and we should always presume freedom rather than regulation.

It is now almost five years since Labour were elected. Five years since their warm words of decentralisation - how they would 'give back responsibility to local communities', 'take the shackles off local government' and create 'powerful new roles for all councillors'. Five years on, not only has this not happened, but in many cases, the reverse has been the case -and Stephen Byers Local Government White Paper promises more of the same.

Strong local government unburdened by impositions from the centre is essential to the quality of life and to re-building local democracy. Local authorities need to be able to recognise and respond to local needs, exercising community leadership and championing local interests.

This is our model of local government. A model built on our key principles as a party of freedom, choice and independence.

Unlike Labour we do not believe that Whitehall knows best. We believe in minimal state interference. We want to give people the opportunity to live their lives free from unnecessary and burdensome interference from the state. We want to see government taken down to the level where people can best exercise decision-making and choice.

So the Conservative Party is launching a policy review in local government that will re-define radically the relationship between central and local government.

We will roll back the intervention from the centre, remove regulations and restrictions on local government autonomy, reduce the amount of ring-fenced funding, cut the burdens imposed by central government, and revive local involvement in decision making.

We will be the party that gives power back to local councillors to make a real difference for their local communities.

Conservatives governing for the whole nation - the prosperous and the poor, the north and the south, the rural village, the suburban town and the urban inner city.

Together Conservatives will deliver community government making life better for all.

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