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Spelman: We will restore faith in local accountability

Speech to Conservative Party Conference 2005

"Ladies and Gentlemen:

Don't let anyone tell you that in opposition you can't make a difference to improve people's lives.

We have just seen a government climb down on council tax revaluation.

You remember how we fought to scrap it at the general election? We also called for a year on year council tax discount for pensioners, so come on Mr Blair if you are in the mood for taking our advice, what are you going to do for pensioners?

I see it as my job to keep this issue on the front pages until we stop the government abusing this tax and the people who have to pay it.

Council tax bills have soared by 76% since 1997.

Under this government council tax has been so abused that it's little more than a national tax - administered locally.

What sort of chancellor manipulates council tax to such an extent that pensioners go to prison for not paying?

The sort of chancellor who has a gaping black hole in his finances.

And what sort of Deputy Prime Minister sits idly by and lets him?

The sort of Deputy Prime Minister who doesn't pay council tax on two of his three homes.

Small wonder they had to postpone the revaluation? They were running scared in the face of what one of their own, Sir Jeremy Beecham, called a 'sustained campaign by the Conservatives'.

That climbdown will save 7 million households £267 every year - so don't let people tell you that being a party of opposition means you can't make things happen.

But we're not going to stop there. What about Wales? Their revaluation was two years ahead of England and the effect was four times as many homes went up a band as went down.

Many homes in Wales are moving up another band next April. So when we debate the legislation required to postpone the English revaluation, I will be tabling an amendment to reverse that affect.

I challenge Labour and the LibDems to support my amendment and defuse the next tax timebomb.

For everyone we need to get council tax back down to sustainable levels.

We need to take the stealth out of this tax. It has been used as a cash cow by the Treasury.

All too often when Tony Blair announces an 'eye-catching initiative' we council tax payers cop it on our bill.

Restoring a proper Council tax will deliver greater local accountability.

We have a system that is punitive and arbitrary, determined by the treasury rather than the true cost of local services.

It's a symptom of the duplicity at the very heart of government and another in a line of blighted policies which has passed through the hands of the deputy prime minister.

We should worry you know when he is put in charge of our country, it's bad enough when his boss is here, but the longer he's left in charge the more damage will be done.

More and more of our precious green spaces are being built at the hands of this government.

Back gardens are now brownfield sites and fast-tracked for development,

farmland is being downgraded to make it easier to build on,

and every year 2500 acres of green belt are buried under concrete.

It was rather ironic when last week John Prescott asked conference delegates to stand up and shake hands with their neighbours.

His advice from one neighbour to another normally consists of

"get planning permission for your back garden

"get it sold to a developer and,

"get a block of flats put on it."

Try shaking hands with your next door neighbour after that Mr Prescott!

The sad reality is that places we know, and love, and choose to live are being changed forever, and all because this government has bought the idea that a massive house building programme will sort the crisis in the housing market.

To say the whole scheme is crude would be unduly flattering.

Of course we need to create more homes, particularly affordable ones, but Mr Prescott you cannot be serious that a soviet style central building plan is the best way of delivering this?

What if there is a crash in house prices? Will we then see the compulsory purchase and demolition of properties in a bid to drive prices back up?

If so, perhaps Mr Prescott had it right when he spoke of 'comrades' at last week's conference.

The whole scheme is based on flawed maths, flawed logic and a flawed understanding of just how much people value the green spaces around them.

And the folly doesn't end there. Because all the while this Government concentrates on concreting over the south, it is ignoring the bigger picture.

It is missing the opportunity to spread economic growth and prosperity more evenly up through the rest of the country and with it usher in a whole new era of regeneration.

The government's approach to development is environmentally reckless on one hand and socially negligent on the other.

I represent a constituency on the outskirts of Birmingham, the heartland of British manufacturing. But we, like other parts of the country, bear the scars of a losing battle to compete - of which Longbridge was the worst casualty this year.

As we slide down the ranks of economic competitiveness, Blair's claims of uninterrupted growth ring hollow, and especially hollow to people in areas not fashionable enough to interest New Labour.

In many city centres it may be boom time with new apartment blocks and bistros, but beyond that lies a collar of decline characterised by run down housing and a growing culture of under-achievement.

In some places the first people hear of Blair's bold new Britain is when they have a demolition notice served on their home as part of the Government's ludicrous new 'Pathfinder' scheme.

Labour are illiterate when it comes to reading a market, these houses earmarked for demolition have a value, which is rising. They also have memories and character, and history teaches us their time can come again.

What people living in these areas need isn't uprooting from their homes and the people they know, what they need is the opportunity to share in our nation's economic growth and the opportunity to improve the places they live.

The reason I went into politics was because I wanted to do something about a whole generation of people who were not fulfilling their potential, and most worryingly not even aspiring to.

As a child I was shocked by the contrast of catching the train through the rolling Essex cornfields into the grimy decaying outskirts of London's East End.

Thirty years later as I travel from city to city I have to ask how much has really changed from the days when George Orwell so graphically described the hopelessness of being poor in 'The Road to Wigan Pier'.

I have to say, if we are not in politics to change that, then what are we in politics for?

The Labour Party has tried to create a monopoly on social issues like deprivation, poverty and welfare. Well I've got news for them - nobody has a monopoly on compassion and I for one will not yield this ground to Labour.

Conservatives have a proud history of helping improve communities - from the slum clearance programmes of Disreali through to the life-changing effect of city challenge in the early 1990s. And places like Newcastle's quayside are there to prove we care.

We understand that effective and lasting regeneration is at its best when it is delivered by local people in response to local needs and local priorities.

Now we are the largest party in local government we have a great opportunity to empower people and communities.

We need to be the party that lets local government live up to its name.

We need to draw power down from central government.

We have one of the most centralised political systems in Europe.

Whitehall has local government in chains.

It has stifled the scope councils have to innovate and diversify with the deadweight of CPA, Best Value and the other twelve inspection regimes.

But we would free them from this, it is councils who would be best placed to deliver improvement where it's most needed.

The call for new localism represents a real opportunity for us as a Party. This should be natural territory for us.

Decentralisation is the practical effect of trusting people. It means resisting the temptation to concentrate power at the centre and trusting the competence of local government.

Proper decentralisation doesn't come without risks. I know many of our councillors will rise to the challenge and do great things, but realistically others may not.

However the same will be true for the other parties - and let's face it we out-perform our rivals in local government, you prove that time and time again in local elections.

Labour have fewer councillors than at any time since 1978, and the Lib Dems can't hold onto the ones they've got!

They admit in their own publication - 'Who's Who in the Liberal Democrats' (which I can assure conference is a light read), and I quote: "one significant disappointment in recent times has been our record in defending councils."

Nor can the Lib Dems lay claim to localism - they are wedded to levels of European integration which would make national government nothing more than a hand-wringing bystander.

Not only that, the Lib Dems are devoted to regionalisation. When will they realise that regional government is a barrier to localism not a means to it?

Unelected and unaccountable regional bodies can remove green belt protection and decide the location of new housing estates.

But they answer to no-one except John Prescott and to my astonishment - they aren't even covered by the Freedom of Information act.

We're paying for them, we're living with the decisions they make, I think we have a right to know what they're up to - and today I've written to Lord Falconer demanding that they're opened up.

Our plans to reverse the tide of regionalism, along with the reform of council tax go hand in glove with decentralisation.

We can deliver that as just the taster on a whole menu of localism. We are uniquely placed to grasp the decentralising agenda and make it our own.

Conservatism is about trusting people and helping people to help themselves. If it wasn't, I wouldn't be standing here now.

It's time to scrap Prescott's regional empire, reign back in the sprawling Whitehall state and restore faith in local accountability, local democracy and real local government."

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