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Caroline Spelman: At the fork in the road localism is the path

Thank you for joining us this morning, I know this time before the election is precious - so thank you for taking the time out.

So I want to spend this session answering one simple question, a question you'll have met on doorsteps when you canvass:

"What difference will it make?"

The answer is simple -

"The choice is between a Conservative Party which will give people real, tangible powers over the decisions that affect them, or a Labour Party that will use quangos and distant bureaucracy to force decisions on them".

And what do we mean by that?  Here's three examples.


Let's start with planning.

I know from the visits, just what a potent issue planning is.

That's because communities have been completely alienated from the planning system.

You know how it goes - fantasy housing targets are conceived in Whitehall and forced on neighbourhoods with no regard for sustainability, the environment or the infrastructure.

Planning applications that local people have legitimate objections to are forced on them either by planning laws which leave councils powerless, or an appeal system which over-rules council decisions anyway.

The planning system has become a powerful symbol of the old discredited politics, which is top-down, unaccountable and bureaucratic.

And for all that is hasn't even delivered the new homes we so desperately need.

Despite a property boom and grand plans for huge new housing targets, this government has actually delivered less new housing than at any time since World War II.

The planning system is broken and we will mend it.

Last week we published Open Source, our Planning Green Paper, which sets out in clear detail how we will abolish regional housing and planning targets.

We will have local communities coming together with a local architect and local councillors to draw up plans for how they would like their neighbourhoods to evolve.

Local people will be plugged directly into the process which decides the location, scale and type of new development we need.

Once the local plan is agreed, everyone will know where they stand - developers, local communities, people on the waiting lists for housing and businesses looking for new premises.

It will be the product of real collaboration between neighbours and communities, and it won't be second guessed by national interference or appeals to the planning inspectorate.

Putting people at the heart of planning decisions will get people enthused at the prospect of new development.

We will give them and their communities a direct stake in the benefits of new development.

Under a Conservative Government people will see the gain rather than the pain of new development.

So we will match from the centre the council tax on all new housing for six years, and for affordable housing match it to the tune of 125%.

And while we are talking about social housing  - I'm just going to take this opportunity to nail two myths being peddled by an increasingly desperate Labour Party and their paymasters - the trade unions.

We have no plans to undermine the security of tenure or drive up rents to market levels.

It is Gordon Brown's Smith Institute which wants to abolish council tenants' security of tenure.

Conservatives will protect and respect the rights of social tenants, and reward the pride they have in their homes and neighbourhoods.

Under Labour housing lists have nearly doubled, but our policy of matching council tax will see the creation of new homes and it will give communities a direct financial return for delivering them.

That financial return can be reinvested in infrastructure, local services, keeping council tax down - whatever local people want.

<h2>COUNCIL TAX </h2>

And one thing we know people want more than ever is to keep council tax down.

We've all felt the fury that exists because Gordon Brown has doubled council tax and halved symbolic frontline services like bin collections.

What links that anger about council tax with the anger people have about planning is that sense of being powerless to influence the outcome.

Labour's approach to local government finance - which has been nothing more than a smash and grab on Town Hall coffers - really drives home how detached the machinery of government has become from the people it serves.

Spending commitments - some of them huge like as Gordon's recent social care policy - are liberally handed down from Whitehall with not as much as a by or leave.

What funding there is, is now heavily ring-fenced and dependent on dancing to the tune of Government departments rather than local communities.

Then - when councils have no option but to increase council tax to make ends meet, the Secretary of State uses capping powers.

At no point - anywhere along the line - do local people get a say over what they are paying for.

It is any wonder they're angry?

We will change that.

We will abolish capping powers and instead give local people the right to veto high council tax rises.

It will set up a genuine dialogue between local people and councils about what they are being asked to pay for.

We will give councils the power to freeze council tax for two years by offering to match fund a rise of 2.5% from the centre.

And we will give councils a whole range of measures by which they can bring council tax back down.

The alternative, under Gordon Brown, is not only more of the same year on year rises - it is a great deal worse...

...it is a council tax revaluation whereby every home will have an internal inspection and will then be taxed on any improvements to that home or that neighbourhood.

Be in no doubt - the contracts have been signed for that revaluation and it is set to go ahead if Labour get back in.

We have pledged to cancel that revaluation and take away the powers of entry for council tax inspectors so that people's homes can remain a private sanctuary. <h2>LOCAL SERVICES</h2> But you know, it's not just how much people forfeit in council tax that gets them angry, it's the lack of say over how it is used because service provision is so prescriptive from the centre.

Local government is shackled with process targets, tick-boxes and inspection regimes which marginalise local priorities and concerns.

Just like planning and council tax, local service delivery has been riven away from local decision-making through top-down interference.

That fissure has been so damaging to our politics, because it has been filled with cynicism and apathy.

Our Party has been very clear about how to reverse that process.

We will abolish top down-process targets, lift the heavy burden of inspection regimes - including abolishing CAA - and give councils a bold new 'General Power of Competence'.

At a stroke that will empower councils and their communities to define their priorities and innovate their services in line with what people want.

And to make sure communities shape how services are delivered we will grant new powers to hold local referendums, to scrutinise local spending and to challenge the way it is used.

This will go hand in hand with implementing local spending reports so people can see where all government spending is being used in their area.

Where local services or facilities are in jeopardy...

- local people will be able to form cooperatives to take them over

- councils will be able to throw them a lifeline with business rate discounts

- and there will be an emphasis on devolving more funding to the local ward so it can filter down to genuine local need. <h2>CONCLUSION</h2>

So let me bring you back to my original question.

The difference at the election boils down to this;

-          A choice between Labour's old broken politics which is state-heavy, unaccountable and divisive...

...Or a bold new politics where communities are empowered, public spending is transparent and decision making is local.It's a choice between Labour's "computer says no" culture of bureaucracy and quangos...

...Or a fresh, modern approach which gives people real power over planning, council tax and local services...

Our country is at a fork in the road.

At that fork is a choice is between five more years of Gordon Brown...

...Or the change we need under David Cameron and the Conservatives.

Our job is to go out - sell that choice - and call on people to vote for change.

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