Chairman, Ladies, Gentlemen,
It is a pleasure to respond to this excellent debate - and a pleasure to introduce the new team. On the platform today, we have:
· Eric Pickles, Shadow Minister for Transport and London,
· Malcolm Moss, Shadow Minister for Local Government,
and William Astor, Our Spokesman on Transport in the Lords
The rest of the team, who can't be here today, are
· Nick Gibb, Shadow Minister for Housing & Regeneration,
· and Joan Hannam, our Spokesman on Local Government in the Lords.
Amidst the gloom of the general election result, there was a forgotten success. While we, the Parliamentary party, did not make inroads into Labour's majority. In the local government elections, it was another winning year.
Conservatives regained control of six councils and 125 more council seats. This is a tribute to the often overlooked dedication of our local councillors and associations.
I've been a councillor too. I know that sinking feeling when you hear the dull thud of yet another envelope of council papers hitting the doormat. I know how much time and effort councillors devote, in the interests of representing local residents and their local community. And I know the sacrifices made by councillors - and by their families.
To all of you here and elsewhere, I say thank you. Thank you for your commitment to your communities. Thank you for your work for the Party. Thank you for putting local people first.
And thanks to you, Conservatives are the party of local government in both district and county councils. With 7,000 councillors across the country. From Carlisle to Plymouth, from Bromley to Macclesfield, Conservative-run councils are delivering value for money and quality public services.
It is now clear, more than ever, that the vanguard of the Conservative revival will come through local government. It is here that we find many of our most committed activists and best examples of true, grassroots conservatism.
It is here that we see Conservatives driving forward policy to reflect the needs of local people and improve both public services and the local quality of life.
Places like Surrey, where faced with a failing school that could not be turned round, the County Council was ready to bring the private sector in to run the school -- and the school is being transformed.
Like Wandsworth, which has refused to accept the dirty state of London's streets, which has led a battle against litter and graffiti - and which issues three-quarters of all the fines in England against those who litter our streets.
Or like Kent, a council that did not take Labour's national cuts in police numbers lying down, but instead launched its own community warden scheme for rural areas. A council addressing the public fears of rising theft, vandalism and drug abuse in our towns and our countryside.
Conservative councils tackling real problems, making the difference for the people they serve. Councils we can all be proud of.
Yet, if we are to achieve further success in local elections, we must recognise the importance of local government. And we at Westminster must recognise that successive governments have centralised power too much.
Centralising does not work. Capping may have kept the rates down, but it did not improve the public services or quality of life for those living under Labour or Liberal Democrat authorities.
Nor did centralisation cut back the level of bureaucracy and red-tape. The monolithic state just grows to support that centralisation. Like a many-headed hydra, cut off one bureaucratic head - and a quango pops up in its place.
If we are to reverse the growth of the interfering, over-reaching central government, and get bureaucrats off the back of entrepreneurs and hard-working families, we must learn to trust local communities to govern for themselves.
Our steady success in local elections means that before this Parliament is out we will be the largest party in local government.
That success is important. Time after time in local government, our councillors are showing that it is Conservatives who understand people's problems and who turn those concerns into quality public services and improve residents' quality of life.
Labour may talk about making life better, but they have not delivered. They have just made it more difficult for local communities to help themselves.
They have forced councils to spend massive amounts of time and money on changing to new cabinet or mayoral structures, even if local communities supported the traditional Committee system. If local people want to keep or return to the Committee system - we say - let them do so.
Labour have swamped local councils with more plans, ring-fencing, inspections and directives. Councils are now monitored by four different inspection regimes, costing over £600 million a year. Yet the Best Value regime hasn't delivered -
- We say: it should go.
Labour are overseeing the destruction of green spaces across the country with their regional housebuilding targets. Irrespective of local wishes, their twenty-year plans will mean 40 towns the size of Slough on Britain's green fields. And across the country, Green Belt protection is being discarded -
- We say: scrap these arbitrary targets.
But worse is to come. Stephen Byers' Planning Green Paper is expected effectively to signal the end of local communities' say on large infrastructure projects - projects like new motorways, power stations and incinerators.
I know too well from my own constituency how frustrated people are with the planning process. Like the residents of Shurlock Row, who are battling to stop a motorway service area being built on the Green Belt on the M4. Several years on, they are faced with yet another lengthy planning inquiry.
Across the country, people feel under siege from developers, developers who will not take 'no' for an answer, developers who can afford to keep coming back, hoping eventually to wear down the opposition.
Yes, the planning system needs reform and over the coming months we will be talking to you about how we can change the system, to give greater powers to local councils to take decisions over local planning. Local democracy should mean just that.
But planning is not the only way in which the Government is reducing the power of local communities to determine their future. Expect a White Paper on regional government in England before the year is out.
In the words of Labour's own manifesto, regional assemblies will require 'a predominantly unitary system of local government'. In plain English? The abolition of England's Shire counties.
People understand the Shires. By contrast, these English 'regions' are arbitrary Whitehall-determined lines on a map. Where is their common purpose and culture ?
We do not need another tier of politicians in England. More spin doctors will not lead to better government. More bureaucrats will not lead to lower taxes. More talking shops will not improve public services.
We will fight to keep local government just that - local, closer to people. Conservatives are opposed to new regional assemblies; and we want to cut through the existing excess of regional bureaucracy because local people, local communities, local councils, do it better.
In this surfeit of regional bodies, many of us question the role of the Government Offices for the Regions. They consume resources, they are another layer of bureaucracy, and surely many of their functions could be better carried out by local councils - councils who are closer to people and who have a better understanding of local problems and local needs.
We have been committed to reviewing the Government Offices for the Regions. We should go further. We should look at abolishing them - abolition not for its own sake but so that we can pass their functions - such as regional planning, regeneration, local transport - down to local councils and local people.
Such consideration will be part of our policy review over the coming months. During that time, we will work with you to see how we can restore powers from bodies like the Government Offices, to local government.
This is not a conference for making policy announcements. But I hope you can see the direction I would like to take. I can pledge today that councillors will be involved in the process of developing policy. And that's not just policy on the future of local government, but our policies to deliver a better quality of life for all.
For we too must concentrate on the issues that really matter to the British people.
We must listen to the true concerns of the public, concerns about issues that affect their day to day quality of life - the state of schools and hospitals, the crime that runs rampant and unpunished, but also issues like the urban decline of our local neighbourhoods. And nowhere are these problems more acute than in our towns and cities.
Areas which Labour likes to claim as their own. Yet independent Audit Commission figures prove that Labour and LibDem councils have dirtier streets, worse schools and more empty council housing - despite charging up to £300 a year more in council tax.
Conservatives have a vision for our towns and cities:
- a vision that recognises the importance of community and the dignity of individuals,
- a vision that understands that local government matters because it makes a difference to people's quality of life,
- a vision of working with people rather than alienating them behind a barrier of bureaucracy.
Together we can offer a Conservative alternative.
But we must show we can govern for the whole nation. We must once again see a Conservative voice in our cities. Across the whole party, we must address the causes of urban decline - the poor schools, the poor quality of housing and rampant crime - and we need to trust local communities. They will benefit from our approach of devolving power down to local level - giving local people more of a say in decisions about their community.
Such new powers for local government will mean new civic responsibilities.
But we will not get people to serve in local government unless they are able to make a difference. Central government controls too much of what councils do. Pride in one's local neighbourhood goes hand in hand with local democracy and local autonomy. You don't create a community by issuing Whitehall circulars.
We must strengthen the powers of local government to improve the local quality of life. We must allow local communities to protect their greenfields against unwanted development. We must make it easier for urban communities to clean up their graffiti-ridden streets, to renovate the row-upon-row of boarded-up housing. We must breath new life into our towns and cities.
Conservative councillors serve people better because they listen to what people want and deliver solutions.
We are all fed up with red tape and central government interference.
None of us wants to pay higher taxes to fund wasteful spending.
We all want quality public services for our children and the people we care for.
Let us show that Conservatives care about the state of our inner-cities. We speak for them - just as we speak for the suburbs and the countryside.
Let us show that Conservatives are on the side of those who want better public services. We speak for them - particularly the vulnerable and the elderly.
And let us show that Conservatives stand up for the interests of local people.
We speak for them. We make the difference in their lives.
Let us campaign on local issues.
Let us speak the language of people, not of politicians.
And by doing that, let us make both town and country Conservative again.