Reducing the power of central government
I would like to thank the whole Shadow DETR team for their support on local government issues, but in particular my colleague Tim Loughton for his unstinting work on the Local Government Bill and on regional matters.
I would like to pay tribute to you Chairman for all your dedicated work for the Party and for local government, and in particular for your distinguished service as our Leader on the LGA. In turn, I would like to welcome Cllr. Gordon Keymer to this key role.
But most of all I pay tribute to all of you - councillors and council candidates - for your constancy in difficult times; and your sheer guts, determination and hard work which have restored us firmly to being the second party of local government, and will soon restore us to being the first.
I wish you all well in the battles which lie ahead.
The main battle will be against this Government's centralising, interfering, and patronising attitude to local democracy. Of course we can all agree that local government faces problems, not least the often very low turnouts.
But Labour's answer to the problem is more centralisation and taking more powers and more choices away from locally elected councillors. And perhaps we can't really blame them when you see what Labour (and Liberal Democrat) local government gets up to!
It was Labour controlled Birmingham Council which decided to re-brand Christmas - as 'Winterval' - because they felt Christmas was offensive to religious and ethnic minorities.
Or Lib Dem controlled Colchester which outlawed Punch & Judy - on the grounds that it promoted domestic violence.
Labour Education Minister, Margaret Hodge, endorsed the proposal to ban the children's game of musical chairs
- because they said it encouraged aggression.
And were you as angry as I was to read that Labour-controlled Durham County Council decided to change the name of the Durham Light Infantry Museum to the DLI Museum - DLI standing for 'discover, learn and innovate'.
Or when the Environment Agency tried to blocked the placing of a plaque to commemorate the 'little ships' of Dunkirk, because they didn't want to mention the war.
And then one of the best examples of 'politically correct' attitudes from this Government - Section 28.
Last week in Brighton, Local Government Minister Hilary Armstrong described the scrapping of Section 28 as 'unfinished business'. How arrogant and out of touch can this Government get?
The plain fact is that our Conservative opposition to repealing Section 28 is supported by the common sense majority of people in this country including most parents and religious leaders.
Once again, the Conservative Party have spoken up for the common sense instincts of the British people.
Tony Blair told the British people last week that he was listening. Well Tony - the trick is not just to listen, but to do something about it. By contrast, we have listened, we have learned, and we have devised new policies which will deliver a modern forward-looking local government, well able to meet the challenges of the 21st Century.
Too much interference from the centre has weakened local government and undermined the ability of local communities to develop local solutions to local problems.
That is why we have opposed with vigour the parts of the Local Government Bill imposing unwanted new structures. And we were not alone in fighting this legislation. Many Labour councillors shared our concerns.
No doubt those smaller shire districts who benefit from the eleventh hour climbdown by the Government on structures will be relieved. But it does make a total nonsense of the Act.
If it's alright for small councils - why not large councils too?
Nor should we ever forget the role of the Liberal Democrats in this episode. They were the ones who struck a grubby deal with the Government to ensure that the compulsory new structures got through the House of Lords.
On this as on so much else, they really are Labour's lackeys!
And we have stood up too for parish councils - often the Cinderellas of local government. Thanks to our energetic defence of them, the Govt has backed off plans to replace them with so-called "neighbourhood forums".
So let me make our position absolutely clear.
We believe in parish councils. We do not want to see their role undermined or diminished. Under a Conservative government there will always be a role for parish councils.
One of the gravest threats to local democracy under this government is their regional agenda.
That is why we will abolish Regional Development Agencies and regional assemblies. They have no part to play in a properly accountable local government structure. We are sick and tired of John Prescott's cronies sitting on these bodies and parroting the Labour agenda.
And Labour have said that county councils will be abolished to make way for regional government. The last thing we need is another reorganisation of local government.
By contrast, we believe responsibility for enterprise and economic development should be handed back to local government - where it belongs.
We will cut other bureaucracy too - such as the Best Value regime. We do not oppose the principle - after all, we pioneered CCT - changing the whole culture of local government.
But what has ruined Best Value is this government's
over-prescriptive approach - with many councils facing 160 or more separate performance indicators.
The inspection culture is costing an estimated £600 million a year. No wonder there is a projected national shortage - of auditors!
In short, it is expensive madness, and we shall review the whole working of Best Value when we regain office.
And that is not all.
We propose the most radical shake-up in the planning regime for 50 years.
How many of you serve on your local planning committee, and are told by the officers on controversial applications that if you turn it down the developers will appeal, the Council will lose and it will be very costly? How often do you wonder what the point is of having a local planning committee?
How often do the local people you represent feel they have no real say in the existing planning system?
We mean to change all that. We think the country deserves a 21st century planning system which is sensitive to local needs and devolves power to local communities.
We will end national housebuilding targets. Residents will be fully involved in drawing up plans for their locality. We will allow local councils to decide on the future development in their area - after all they are best placed to do so.
For the first time, local residents will have a right of counter appeal against planning decisions. And we will have a streamlined appeals procedure, ending the role of the Secretary of State. No longer will he have the power to impose unsuitable new development on a local community.
Nor is that all. The next Conservative Government will not cap local authorities. We will trust local government. It should be for the local electorate to punish incompetent or spendthrift councils - not ministers or civil servants.
And I can announce today our firm pledge that the next Conservative government will give back to local councils the choice over their structures.
Those who have adopted the cabinet system, and find it suits their needs, they are welcome to keep it. But those who prefer a committee-based system can have it too.
In addition, we will scrap Labour's regulations for increased secrecy in local government. Conservatives have always believed - local councils should be open and accountable to the people they serve.
But we will go even further.
We announced in "Believing in Britain" that we will establish "Free Councils".
· There will be new freedoms to raise capital and issue bonds for large projects.
· New freedoms from red tape and bureaucracy.
· New freedoms to set their own spending priorities, not the government's.
· New freedoms to spend receipts from council house sales, working in partnership with the voluntary and private sector.
Any council will be able to become a Free Council - provided they have a viable business plan, they are financially efficient, and have healthy levels of democratic participation. Because local autonomy must be underpinned by local accountability.
The sooner Tony Blair calls the Election the better.
We shall be ready for it whenever it comes.
But we do know for sure that we have the county council elections in May.
We will all be fighting hard for control of every single county council in the land. And with the spirit here in this Hall today, I know we can do it!