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Spelman: Give freedoms back to local government

Speech in the House of Commons responding to the Local Government White Paper

"Let me begin on a note of consensus.

I entirely agree with the Rt Hon Lady when she said this morning 'local government is in much better shape since 1997'.

The reason, of course, is that the Conservative Party is now the largest party of local government, and the Labour councillor is now an endangered species.

Timing of the paper

This Paper begs a lot of questions and the logical place to start is with the timing.

The timing of this White Paper is quite extraordinary, coming barely a month before the Lyons Review into local government finance and ahead of the Barker Review into planning.

How can a White Paper on local government mean anything without dealing with finance?

Would the Secretary of State not agree with me that 'function and finance' of local government are two sides of the same coin?

If she does agree, then does she accept that without the financial dimension this paper is incapable of addressing the real concerns of people outside Westminster?

The true test of this paper is not whether it delivers enough localist soundbites; the test is whether it will deliver tangible changes for the majority of people - who are not interested in the machinery of local government or its incomprehensible jargon.

Local services

So let me ask her about the things that really matter for people receiving services from their council.

- What will this Paper do for those people worried about how they are going to pay for care in old age?

- What will this Paper do for people struggling to pay council tax bills which have soared for most people by 84% under Labour ?

- What will this Paper do for people who desperately want to have a say in about where new housing goes and the character of their neighbourhood?

The answer I fear is precisely nothing.

It is toothless because it is a series of compromises and half way houses.

Real localism

Would the Secretary of State appreciate that the rhetoric on localism will be treated with scepticism - because of the poisoned chalice she received from her predecessor's obsession with regions.

The fact is month by month, more power and money is going to regional quangos - bypassing local councils.

Is it not the case that until unelected regional assemblies are abolished and powers returned to elected local councils these localist pledges are not worth the paper they are written on?

There are things of course we can agree with in the paper precisely because they are harmless.

We warmly welcome the decision to cut the number of directives from Whitehall to Councils, from 1200 to 200, but we will carefully monitor what this means in practise.

It will be good to see power devolved to Parish councils to pass by-laws but where are the resources coming from to enforce them?

Government in a muddle

What worries me about this White Paper is the level of compromise, which is the symptom of a Party unsure of its direction.

Would the Secretary of State agree that empowering council leaders is a fudge between the PM's stated preference for directly elected mayors and the Chancellor's opposition to them?

Isn't the reduction in the number of performance targets an admission of government failure - that the inspection regimes imposed by the Local Government Acts of 1999, of 2000 and of 2003 were a mistake ?

Aren't City Regions just a muddled, and ill-defined, hybrid between a failing regional agenda and real local autonomy? And how does this fit together with the powers enjoyed by RDAs?

Isn't talk of the business case for unitaries just a strained bridge between the original big idea of The Hon Member for South Shields - characterised b the headline of "Restructure or else" - and the SoS's more realistic description of restructuring as a "distraction"?

Doesn't the Secretary of State feel embarrassed that the PM charged her in an open letter with the need for a radical and devolutionary white paper, but that her department now describe it as "more evolutionary then shock and awe"?

• restructuring was in, now it is out,

• elected mayors were in and now they are out,

• targets were in, and now they are out

This is not progress, this is not radicalism, this is the politics of the hokey-cokey.

And while the Government chops and changes the real opportunity to make changes that will improve people's quality of life is being missed.

That is the tragedy of this paper.

It provides not a crumb of comfort to people worrying about how to pay for mum in a care home?

Isn't it the case that people already scrimping and saving to meet their council tax bills will find nothing in this paper for them?

And, isn't it the case people who want to have a say over the scale and shape of new development in their community will still find their views ignored?

This paper is a wasted opportunity from a government that has squandered its third term. A few pious platitudes and a bonfire of past Labour mistakes are no substitutes for policy.

The Rt Hon lady must do better than this; councils are straining to be set free.

She should not be so timid; she should give local government back their freedoms; give them back to local people."

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