HC Deb 27 June 1979 vol 969 cc422-4
10. Mr. Adley

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what steps he is taking to advise elected representatives of local authorities how best they may assist the Government to implement reductions in local authority expenditure.

Mr. Heseltine

A joint departmental circular will today set out the overall reductions the Government are seeking. It is for individual authorities to decide how best to make savings in their expenditure plans.

Mr. Adley

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Is he aware that many of my constituents ask me what I can do to stop what they regard as extravagant expenditure by local authorities in our part of the world? Does he recognise that while the circular brines these matters to the attention of the officers, something has to be done? Can he say something today in this direction to draw these matters to the attention of the elected councillors in our constituencies so that they may know that our constituents expect local authorities to cut their expenditure just as central Government are cutting their expenditure?

Mr. Heseltine

I am sure that my hon. Friend will understand what I mean when I say that I have never found it necessary to give him advice on anything in terms of communicating with his local people. I have no doubt that my hon. Friends will lose no opportunity to communicate with their local councils on the need to implement Government policy.

As our policies are working through I shall undoubtedly have to ask my hon. Friends to support the Government on the implications of public expenditure constraint.

Mr. Stoddart

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his advice and circulars so far have provoked the Wiltshire county council into announcing that there will probably be a 30 per cent. rates increase in April and the Thamesdown borough council to announce that there will be a 40 per cent. increase in the rates next year? Will he send them further advice on how this Government's policy—the Robin Hood policy in reverse—will help services for ratepayers and how it will help to keep their bills down?

Mr. Heseltine

The hon. Member may not have been in the House when I said much the same as he is saying now in a speech that I made from the Opposition Front Bench in December last year when the former Secretary of State was urging local authorities to increase their expenditure. I made it clear that I thought that this was an impossible ambition for the local authorities to harbour. It has now transpired that the previous Government, had they succeeded in being re-elected, would have been forced to reduce local authority and all other public expenditure. It must be clear that we face the danger of a substantial rates increase next year if urgent decisions are not taken now. We have taken many decisions early in order to avoid the worst of the difficulties that would otherwise arise. Right hon. and hon. Members will shortly find, when I announce the figures, that the number of people employed by local government is now at an all-time high.

Mr. Robert Atkins

When my right hon. Friend advises representatives of the local authorities, will he bear in mind authorities such as mine in Preston which, in three years of Conservative control, has reduced the rates from over 30p in the pound to 8p in the pound? The view that these authorities hold is that their good housekeeping should not be penalised by any major cutback in local government expenditure.

Mr. Heseltine

I realise that there are local authorities which have tightened up on recruitment of additional staff. But the House must accept the implications of the fact that the number of people employed in local government is at an all-time high. That means that recruitment has been proceeding apace throughout local government on a scale which the national economy cannot sustain.

Mr. Hattersley

In his reply to the original question the Secretary of State said that it was up to the local authorities to decide how they implement his policy. In his answer to a supplementary question by me 10 minutes before he said that he was contemplating legislation to circumscribe their choice. Which does he mean?

Mr. Heseltine

I explained quite clearly that I want local authorities to reduce expenditure as opposed to passing it on in the form of higher rates.