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Spelman: Action on freedom for local government and local people

Speech to Conservative Party Conference 2004

"Ladies, Gentlemen, Conference,

I don't know about you, but I'm feeling pretty upbeat. Upbeat about winning the European Elections. Upbeat about winning the London Assembly Elections. Upbeat about running Welsh councils for the first time. Upbeat about defending 14 by elections in Scotland.

And of course, upbeat about winning in the local elections - a result you helped us to deliver in June.

Fair enough, I guess I would be upbeat about the local elections - as Shadow Secretary of State for Local and Devolved Government, it's my job - but the fact is that those election results were - terrific.

On June 10th over 4 million people put a cross next to the Conservatives on their ballot paper - a ringing endorsement of Conservative local govt.

Before we go any further I'd like to welcome 15 representatives of the councils we gained in June to join me here on the platform.

Welcome….

West Lindsay - one of many where we have snatched power back from the Lib Dems

Swindon - where Conservatives are reclaiming and rejuvenating urban areas

Peterborough and Worcester - cathedral cities where Conservatives are winning

Horsham - where we took back control at a by election.

Eastbourne and Worthing - both coastal towns now with Conservative Councils

Trafford - a key win in the North West

Brentwood and Thurrock - I'm an Essex Girl, so I take particular pleasure in those wins!

Monmouthshire - our first gain in Wales

And of course, winning a clutch of councils in the West Midlands: Coventry, Dudley, Tamworth and Walsall.

These are of course only 15 of the 151 councils which we control, but I'm sure you'd agree they reflect a broad cross-section of the different territories where we have made gains. But, lets just take a moment to show our appreciation to representatives of all of the 151 councils we control - here they are - please take a bow.

Make no mistake. These were not easy wins. They were wins that show we are on our way back in towns and cities. Labour's complacency in urban Britain has cost them dear. We won because people trust us to make a difference where Labour and the Liberal Democrats have failed.

I have an admission to make - I listened to part of the LibDem conference the other week, and with growing disbelief I heard them bragging about their supposed success in local government.

Let's set the record straight for a minute - under Charles Kennedy the LibDems have fewer councillors and control barely half the number of councils that they did under Paddy Ashdown.

The Lid Dems simply aren't a credible alternative government - let's nail that myth now.

And let's not forget Labour - the slump in their party membership mirroring their slump in local government|. They have fewer councillors than at any time since the late 1970s - hardly a ringing endorsement for Tony Blair.

So, let me pay tribute to all our councillors, candidates, activists and supporters who made this possible. We are now the largest party in Local government and it is a Conservative - Cllr Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart - who now chairs the Local Government Association - for the first time ever.

The Conservative Councillors' Association now has record numbers thanks to the strenuous efforts of Gordon Keymer.

In the battleground ahead our objective is to achieve at a national level what we have done so successfully at local level.

And now let's take a look at one of our excellent councils in a bit more detail, followed by Theresa May, who is working with Eric Pickles to spread best practice between all our councils.

[video clip]

So there you have it - "winning Conservatives" - delivering practical, down to earth solutions to improve people's everyday lives.

Conservative councils cost you less and deliver better services - it's as simple as that.

In local government we show we stick to our promises and get things done, and in national government we'll do exactly the same.

I'd now like to welcome on stage three examples of Conservatives getting things done.

[video clip]

Bradford Council Leader Margaret Eaton

Trafford Council Leader Susan Fildes

And

Westminster Council Leader Simon Milton

Thank you - you are doing a great job for us, and more importantly for the communities you serve.

Our vision for local government is one where councils are released from the shackles of Whitehall and given the freedom to prioritise, innovate and excel in response to the individual needs of their communities.

People want their politicians to be accountable to them in a way they are not now and that is exactly what we intend to deliver.

What a contrast between our approach and New Labour - with it's stranglehold on local government through micro-management, fiddled funding and bloated bureaucracy.

To add insult to injury, at the same time as John Prescott is busy turning councillors into mere agents of Whitehall, he is covertly whipping powers away to regional assemblies just to satisfy his obsession with jobs for the boys.

Bernard Jenkin has revealed the grave threat to local government which regional assemblies pose. Across the North East, North West and Yorkshire & the Humber, the talk down at the local pub is not about a regional assembly - it is about crime, tax and the need for more police, doctors and teachers (granted - occasionally football crops up as well).

If the answer to the problems of these regions is more politicians, more bureaucrats and more taxes, I have to ask - what on earth is the question?

We want to deliver on the real issues that people are concerned about, and we want to give power back to local government. We are serious about local government being local. When we win the next General election we will not sit about paying mere lip service to local government.

On day one, we will put a stop to the hated inspection regimes These now cost over a billion pounds a year and I can think of a billion ways to give taxpayers better value for money than clipboard inspectors harassing well-run councils.

Let's just take a look at some of these inspection regimes for a moment. We all know about Best Value and Comprehensive Performance Assessments. But we also have:

- The Food Standards Agency, auditing and monitoring minimum targets for trading standards officers - in other words, inspectors inspecting the inspectors.

- The Commission for Social Care Inspection - enforcing regulations which have forced so many care homes out of business.

- And let's not forget, the Orwellian-sounding Office of Surveillance Commissioners

Well I don't know about you - but I haven't bumped into many people saying "Whatever did we do before the Surveillance Commissioners were invented?".

Labour have abused local government, loading the budgets of councils with new duties yet no additional funds. Is it any wonder council tax levels have been driven higher and higher.

Council tax has become the ultimate stealth tax under Labour - is just one of a staggering 66 stealth taxes introduced by this government, and arguably one of the most pernicious.

Council tax has soared by 70% since Labour came into office and as ever it is the people on fixed incomes, such as pensioners, who are bearing the brunt of it.

Whenever Labour make promises to pensioners, let's remind them that for the typical pensioner, one of third of the basic state pension increase has been snatched back in council tax alone since Labour came to power.

What a cowardly way to behave. If Tony Blair believes in a high tax economy - which he clearly does - he should have the guts to say so. Instead he and Gordon Brown - in a rare moment of unity - have connived to use council tax as the ultimate revenue raiser, hoping that no-one would notice.

People have noticed and I am going to make sure they continue noticing.

Labour also hoped nobody would notice the third term tax rises they plan if they win the next election - and guess what - council tax is again their weapon of choice.

Labour plan to introduce a range of new higher council tax bands. They've done it in Wales - where 1 in 3 homes are now in a higher band - look out it'll be England and Scotland next!

Labour will punish pensioners and families whose only crime is to have lived in a house whose value has risen due to house price inflation.

If elected regional assemblies came into being, there will also be regional council taxes to add to the bill. They've done it in London - with Labour's Ken Livingstone levying £241 a year on top of borough's bills.

I don't know about 'fat government' - on the basis of those tax rises I would say this government is bordering on morbidly obese.

Enough about this government - let me tell you some of the things the next Conservative government will do; we have developed a clear timetable for action.

In the first week we will instruct the department to start drafting a Local Government and Housing Bill. Labour have presided over a housing crisis. All of us will know someone struggling to get on the housing ladder - many of us will worry about the prospects of our own children getting on the housing ladder.

The fact is - it has proved not safe to save under Labour, so people have invested in property - driving prices up and availability down.

Labour ignore the high aspiration people have to own their own home.

I well remember with what pride I carried our baby daughter into our starter home.

We want to help people realize that dream. This party, our Party, understands this better than any other. We will extend the right to buy, but take it further with 'The Right to Own'.

Together with John Hayes, our Housing Spokesman, we have developed new policy to promote more flexible ways of buying a home. If you can't afford the whole of your home to start with, we will help you, by expanding shared ownership and bringing the property ladder back within the reach of many who have had no choice under Labour.

In the first month -

We will abolish regional planning - something that has done so much to rob local people of their say over local planning issues. We will stand up for local people and return planning decisions to local councillors so that they can be held accountable at the ballot box for the decisions they make.

We will make mobile phone masts subject to full planning permission, taking into account the environmental and safety concerns of local residents and giving them stronger voice over where the masts are located.

We will fast track development of derelict land to spare our green fields and Green Belt. Everyone can think of a derelict dump spot which blights the area around. Under a Conservative Government their time for a new lease of life has come drawing on the opinions of local residents and the expertise of local social entrepreneurs.

And when Labour claim they want to regenerate 'brownfield' sites, just remind them that John Prescott now class suburban green spaces as brownfield - bulldozing leafy back gardens to cram in ever more buildings.

We will change those planning rules to allow communities to protect the character of residential neighbourhoods and to ensure higher quality and design in new developments.

But don't get me wrong - I am not advocating a NIMBY's charter - we need more houses, to buy and to rent, but local people should decide where they go, not regional inspectors or Whitehall bureaucrats.

In the first year -

We will tackle the decline in Britain's towns and cities,•with radical regeneration extending beyond the café culture of the centre into the suburbs beyond.

We will deliver ways of helping people move through social housing and into home ownership, thereby freeing up more social housing for those in greater need. To Labour's shame homelessness has doubled under Tony Blair's watch. It's hard to think of a more vulnerable group who Labour have let down. No excuse there Tony - words don't put a roof over people's head.

Housing and planning are not the only ways to give back power to local councillors- we will also enable councils to ditch the cabinet system and return to the traditional committee structure, if they wish.

At the heart of all this is one clear objective - standing up for local people and standing up for local government.

Labour doesn't listen - it views local government as an obstacle rather than an asset - We see councillors as our greatest asset.

You know how to win. You have been elected because you are trusted to get things done. You are winning Conservatives and your success is catching.

I want to catch that winning vision and role it out across this land.

So that the Conservative Party is not only the Party of local government - it is once again the rightful Party of national government."

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