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Spelman: Lower taxes, local accountability

Speech at launch of Conservative 2005 local elections campaign

"Thanks very much Michael and thank you for coming here today. Let me also take this opportunity to welcome Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, Chairman of the Local Government Association and Leader of Kent County Council, and County Cllr Nick Skellet, Leader of Surrey County Council and County Councillor Representative on the board of Conservative Councillors Association.

The Conservative Manifesto for Local Government is a positive programme to give power to local communities and protect them from the kind of over-taxation they've suffered under Labour.

That's the good news. The bad news is that for people already suffering under excessive council tax bills, Mr Blair plans to send them higher if he is re-elected.

He's got a plan. It's called revaluation. And it will be the most unfair and expensive stealth tax that Labour has yet invented.

It's no coincidence that revaluation will not take place in England until after the general election. When it happened in Wales recently, one home in every three was pushed up a band. In some wards, ninety percent of houses were affected.

Some commentators think that Labour could raise up to £2 billion through revaluation - not to improve local services but to help fill Gordon Brown's black hole.

Labour also wants to increase the number of bands in order to have greater flexibility to increase the burden on local householders.

Taken together, this is a ticking council tax timebomb, primed to go off on people's doorsteps after Mr Blair has faced the electorate.

There's only one way to diffuse it - and that's to vote Conservative.

We pledge to cancel the council tax revaluation in England. This will save £100 million in administration and prevent hardship for many people.

As Michael has said, Conservatives are particularly worried about pensioners who've been hit so hard by council tax rises.

There's something particularly unjust about older, who've saved hard all their lives and budgeted carefully for retirement, being put under pressure in their later years by huge increases in tax.

But we're not just offering just tea and sympathy - we're planning to halve the council tax bills of millions of pensioners.

This is a carefully costed and compassionate measure, funded by central government, that'll benefit five million pensioners, with no-one losing out. And the poorest council tax payers will benefit the most.

Conservatives in local government care about value for money and keeping decision making close to communities.

That's why we intend to abolish John Prescott's unelected regional assemblies and other assorted tiers of regional administration.

This will have two distinct benefits.

First, this will deliver cost savings.

The anonymous regional chambers set up by Labour have no accountability, no mandate and no legitimacy - but they certainly cost money. They're divisive and undemocratic talking shops.

Add to that the bewildering assortment of Regional Housing Boards, Regional Observatories, Regional Sports Boards, Regional Tobacco Control Managers and Regional Transport Boards - all of which we'd abolish - and it's obvious that public money is being wasted on a grand scale.

Second, we'll bring government closer to the people.

It's a shame that Mr Blair has paid so little attention to the result of last November's referendum held in the North East of England. The vote was supposed to cement in place Labour's new regionalism by giving democratic legitimacy to the bloated bureaucracies that have mushroomed in recent years.

Instead, despite frantic lobbying and large scale spending by the political establishment in the area, local grassroots campaigners, backed by the Conservatives, scored a notable triumph and the plan was defeated at the polls.

The reason for the result is clear. People want their local government to be run by people who live in, work in and are accountable to the local community.

Labour has achieved the opposite by pushing power away from elected councils into the hands of unelected regional bureaucracies.

The essential task for a Conservative government will be to hand back the powers snatched by regional quangos. Instead, councils will be encouraged, but not instructed, to work together in clusters on matters which cross local authority boundaries.

Local government is a subject where voters have a genuine choice.

Labour is the party that wants councils to cede more responsibilities to regional bureaucracies, undermine their remaining powers by imposing central diktats from Whitehall and force council tax payers to pay for Mr Blair's spending plans.

The Liberal Democrats are the party that voted for Mr Blair's rigged revaluation, support regional government and promote a tax that will put up local bills by hundreds of pounds.

In contrast, the Conservatives are the party that will keep quality of provision up, council tax bills down and revaluation out.

So for local government by local people at a reasonable cost - vote Conservative."

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