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Caroline Spelman: Local taxpayers deserve real accountability

Ladies and Gentlemen, let me start by paying tribute to my team.

It’s a great team and we relish the challenge ahead.

We’ve got to change the way we do politics.

We want to revive democracy with the oxygen of localism.

The reason we go into politics is to try and make a difference. And that’s more likely to happen if power is devolved to a local level.

And with my own eyes, I’ve seen Conservative councils really make a difference.

Right here in the North West, Trafford led the campaign against a congestion tax in Manchester.

Despite Labour’s fiddled funding, Conservative councils still offer the lowest council taxes in the country.

And they deliver the best services as well.

Just go through the Audit Commission’s figures and you’ll see – Conservative Councils deliver cleaner, greener and safer streets.

So it’s no surprise that our councils get the highest satisfaction ratings.

But this has happened despite rather than because of Labour.

Their approach is all about Banning / Taxing / Fining / Snooping.

The intrusive state and the clipboard inspector.

Under Labour - if you put your bin out on the wrong day

or don’t close the lid you now get fined more than a convicted shoplifter.

If your home is empty for more than six months it can be seized by the state for seven years.

And now laws – designed to tackle terrorism have got everything from pot plants to unlicensed parrots under surveillance.

Everyday people are harassed and cowed by officialdom.

And there’s always a new quango to bear down on us.

Joint Waste Authorities to impose new bin taxes because no council volunteered to be a pilot;

- The Infrastructure Planning Commission to silence opponents of a third runway at Heathrow; and

- Regional Development Agencies to bulldoze the Green Belt because councils refused to.

Regionalism was John Prescott’s vanity project and if we’re elected it’ll go – lock, stock and barrel.

And let me assure you - a Conservative Government won’t mess around with yet more costly unitary restructuring.

I want power back in the hands of our counties and districts, towns and cities. And we will give people in our 12 largest cities the choice of an elected mayor.

Conference, I can announce today that elected mayors will be able take over the powers of local authority chief executives.

Under Labour, town hall clerks now command six-figure salaries, with football-style transfers from council to council.

So let’s have elected mayors who can hire and fire, and really grip spending – without an unelected officer telling them what to do.

And, across the country, if councils want to return from a cabinet to a committee system – we’ll let them.

Whatever structure it is, we will devolve more power to ward councillors –

- local budgets for their neighbourhoods,

- a proper say over licensing applications in their ward,

- and the end of crazy rules that stop councillors voting on things they’ve campaigned on.

I want decisions taken as close as possible to the community they affect.

I bet like me, you can’t wait for the abolition of

The Regional Spatial Strategies,

The Comprehensive Area Assessments,

And the Labour Jargon that permeates every aspect of lives.

Labour are obsessed with top-down targets – but they just haven’t worked.

House building is now at its lowest rate since World War II.

Labour disguise their failure by scaremongering so let me nail a few of their myths.

We will build more homes. We will stand up for social tenants. History proves Conservatives always do.

But the planning system needs changing.

That’s why we would allow councils to keep the extra council tax from new homes.

And as with planning we need radical action on council tax.

Pensioners have seen a third of their pension increase swallowed up by higher council tax.

For everyone, paying it has become a painful experience.

People simply feel they’re getting less for more.

Under Labour, council tax has doubled, but bin collections have halved.

Labour’s natural instinct is to tax people until the pips squeak.

And they constantly find new ways to do it.

Just look at their planned council tax revaluation –

- a tax bombshell primed to go off after the election.

They’ve done it in Wales – where four times as many homes moved up a band, as down.

They’ve done it in Northern Ireland, imposing a new house price tax.

England would be next.

Labour’s revaluation will mean tax inspectors going round your home listing every detail.

New kitchen, extra bathroom, or a nice new patio?

Whatever it is – it’s being added to the biggest property database in Europe – so that it can be taxed.

So far they’ve

- snapped photos of 1.5 million homes,

- peered into 800,000 conservatories,

- sized up a million homes with more than one garage space,

- and blacklisted one hundred thousand… scenic views.

Only Gordon Brown would tax a room with a view!

Under Labour, TV shows like Changing Rooms and Property Ladder will need a government health warning.

And Liberal Democrats have their own scheme.

On top of a local income tax - which would mean soaring bills for working families and shared flats - they now want a property tax too.

Everyone will suffer.

Vince Cable wants annual revaluations – with

inspectors entering your home every year to tax it.

It’s intrusive, it’s wrong and it proves only Conservatives will protect civil liberties.

So, if we win the next election Labour’s revaluation and inspections will be abolished.

Not only that, we’ll offer a council tax freeze for two years – a tax freeze Labour Ministers have ruled out.

Scotland has done it. Well, it’s time for some tax freezes to come south of the border too.

Meanwhile, we’ll tackle that funding formula and make it fairer, simpler and more transparent.

And we will make public - for the first time - exactly what the Government spends in your area.

We should be able to look at the books.

We have a right to know.

Labour have backtracked on making public how much government departments spend in each location.

I wonder why that could be – just on the eve of an election?

Conference, we will make that information public - and let you see exactly where your money is going.

But I want us to go further and be bolder.

Fifty years ago, Margaret Thatcher - as a backbencher - championed a bill requiring council meetings to be held in public.

It made local politics more accountable and accessible.

The time has come to do the same with the money.

As you might expect it’s our councils who lead the way.

Under Boris Johnson, City Hall publishes all expenditure over one thousand pounds.

And Windsor & Maidenhead already publish all spending over five hundred pounds.

We want the rest to be as good as the best.

If councils are going to be radically empowered, their communities must have the tools to scrutinise them.

We will legislate for councils to publish online all their spending over five hundred pounds.

That will help us get greater value for money in these hard times.

And it’s not just individuals - business has a right to know too.

Not least, since business is facing a lethal tax cocktail:

- deferred rises from this year’s rates,

- new taxes on empty premises,

- a tax clawback on our ports,

- and a painful and flawed revaluation.

A cocktail guaranteed to give firms a thumping hangover.

Business needs pain relief in these hard times.

So we’ll let councils offer discounts on their rates,

We’ll reward councils for business growth,

And we’ll make rate relief automatic for small business.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I believe the battle lines for localism have been drawn. It’s

- Regional bureaucrats or

elected councillors.

- Top down targets or

locally agreed development.

- Council tax revaluation or

a council tax freeze.

It’s between:

- Big Brother powers to snoop on people

or elected police chiefs that are answerable to people.

- Seizing privately-owned empty homes

or releasing state-owned brownfield land.

- and finally, it’s between keeping public spending in the dark or shining a torch on where your money is being spent.

We have a clear choice at this election.

So let’s get out onto the doorsteps,

And make this Conservative change a reality.

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