HC Deb 21 February 1996 vol 272 cc302-24

11.1 am

Mr. Bob Dunn (Dartford)

I am pleased to have secured this Adjournment debate and I should say at the outset that I have deliberately used the word "review" in the sense given in the Oxford English dictionary, which states that a review is A general survey or reconsideration of some subject or thing. Therefore, for me, it is a rural and urban ride—a general survey of local government in terms of the way in which it is run, and the way in which it might be run, managed and financed in the future.

In relation to that objective, my thoughts have been sharpened and focused by early-day motion 395, entitled the "John Smith memorial lecture", which was placed on the Order Paper by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen). Among other things, that motion refers to a renewal of United Kingdom democracy to include strengthened local Government, democratised regional government, a Welsh assembly and a Scottish Parliament". That motion is very important in the context of a debate about the way in which local government works and might work because it clearly states a policy commitment, as given by the Leader of the Opposition on 7 February in that important lecture.

I must also say at the outset that I am delighted to see so many of my colleagues from Kent—my hon. Friends the Members for Dover (Mr. Shaw), for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) and for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold)—and also a colleague who is not from Kent, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson). I am sure that they will play their part in this debate.

Early-day motion 395 is very significant because it talks about strengthening local government. But in what way is it to be strengthened? Are all the powers, duties and changes that we have introduced liable to be overturned by a Labour Government, allowing local government to run riot and to damage the interests of vulnerable people, as the Labour party has done in local government? If so, heaven help the Labour party, which has caused such damage to the people in the name of the people.

According to the early-day motion, Conservative Members are not alone in the wish to evaluate local government, but clear blue water divides us from the Labour party on this issue, as on so many others. I shall pursue that point further later in the debate. I suspect that what Conservative Members desire for local government is profoundly different from what Labour Members ultimately wish for it. We want to reduce the burden of government, while they seek to impose extra burdens on the local taxpayer. However, I anticipate my later remarks on that aspect, so perhaps hon. Members will have the patience to wait for a short while.

Local government, as the House will agree, is about local services being delivered locally by persons or agencies situated in the communities in which the policies are to take effect. The services are, of course, to be administered according to national policies laid down by Parliament and local policies and expenditure plans approved by locally elected councillors. I do not think that anyone would disagree with that rather rough and not necessarily perfect interpretation. Ultimately, local councillors are accountable, first, to the law of the land, and secondly—and equally importantly—to the people who elected them. That is the textbook version of local government, although the true picture is slightly different, as the House will know.

I return to the urban ride with which I began my speech. I suggest that we start just across the water with the example—as a benchmark for the future—of the London borough of Lambeth. I chose that local authority entirely at random last night when I wrote this speech because it is just across the Thames from here and the nearest point from which to start my short but vivid journey.

Lambeth has a very poor record in a number of areas of service delivery. It is one of the 10 London authorities with the highest number of empty accommodation units, second only to the London borough of Hackney. Needless to say, the other nine local authorities are Labour controlled, while Lambeth, mercifully, has no overall party control—[Interruption.] I wish that the hon. Member for North-West Durham (Ms Armstrong) would be quiet and listen: she might learn something, although she has not learnt much so far.

Lambeth has one of the worst records on the collection of council rents. It came third out of the 10 London boroughs with the worst records on collecting council rents, with £22.4 million-worth of rents in arrears. Its record was beaten only by Hackney, with arrears of £36.8 million, and Haringey with £35.4 million.

In relation to council tax, Lambeth entered a class of its own. It was first—a dubious record, indeed—out of the 10 London boroughs with the worst records on collecting council tax. In 1993–94, Lambeth managed to collect only 48.4 per cent.—less than half—of the council tax levied. The uncollected tax, which remains somewhere out in the London borough of Lambeth, amounted to £29.5 million. If hon. Members find that figure shocking, they will be even more shocked—indeed, they will be astonished—when I tell them that at 31 March 1994 a total of £84.8 million was owed in community charge, and that £12.9 million in domestic rates was not collected.

Lambeth, is of course, a traditional target for Conservative Members, and I make no apology for that. It is traditional in the House to point out areas such as Lambeth and say, "This is an example of the Labour party in government"—and it has been in government in Lambeth for many years.

I welcome the presence of my hon. Friend the Minister. I tabled a question to him recently in which I asked: which are the 20 local authorities with the highest debt levels in England; and in each case what is (a) the total amount of debt and (b) the debt per head of population."—[Official Report, 9 January 1996; Vol. 269, c. 6.] The list of 20 local authorities was produced and, lo and behold, Lambeth was ranked third—second only to Birmingham and Manchester.

Any review of local government must take account of the following facts. At 31 March 1995, Lambeth's total debt was £905 million, which equates to £3,472 per head of population. The fourth authority after Lambeth was, of course, the London borough of Islington, where the Leader of the Opposition lives. It has a total debt of £880 million, which equates to a debt of more than £5,000 per head. That list is quite significant in any review of local government and the services that are supplied and administered.

When I studied the answer from my hon. Friend the Minister, I noticed to my great surprise that 18th in the list of 20 was my own county of Kent, which is controlled by the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, and has been since the previous county council elections in 1993. Kent county council has a total debt of £429 million, which amounts to £278 per head of population. Those on Kent county council may say that that debt is not great at £278 per head—a little baby debt.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

Order. Before the hon. Gentleman's baby grows up, I should point out that one of the essential features of an Adjournment debate is that the matter considered should be the responsibility of the Government. Given the way in which he is developing his speech, I am not too sure where that connection is.

Mr. Dunn

I can help you, Madam Deputy Speaker, if the meaning of my remarks is not yet clear, because in answer to an earlier point of order, you said that an Adjournment debate is a general debate. I am leading to the precise point that will help the House out of difficulty.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I must tell the hon. Gentleman that the two points of order were separate. It is a fundamental part of an Adjournment debate that, whatever the topic under consideration, it should be a responsibility of the Government.

Mr. Dunn

In the sense that Government enact, perhaps I can go on to make it clear where I stand. I shall conclude the first part of my argument by reminding hon. Members of the list that the Minister supplied on 9 January, which is there for them to see, and which revealed that Kent county council has now joined the list of the worst run authorities in England.

If the excesses of Labour in local government were insufficient to weaken the stout-hearted, there are certain Opposition Members now demonstrably arguing the need to impose another tier of government upon us. It is still local, because it is self-evidently not national: they advocate regional government. The best model that we have had of that in the south-east, on which I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will want to comment later, is the former Greater London council, in whose abolition I played a part as a Minister. I am glad to see that the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) is present. He may want to talk about the former GLC as he is the self-appointed sole apologist and defender of it.

It is worth placing it on record that in the five years to 1985–86 the GLC increased its net terms expenditure by 170 per cent. while prices rose by just 29 per cent. Between 1981–82 and 1983–84 alone, the GLC's precept rose by 118 per cent. while the retail prices index rose by just 14 per cent. By 1985–86, the GLC was responsible for just 11 per cent. of local services in London but had 20,000 employees, 92 councillors and a budget of just under £1 billion, not including expenditure by the Inner London education authority. Indeed, in 1985–86 the GLC police committee had a budget of £2.9 million, which was used to grant aid to 49 anti-police organisations in London.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

Bearing on the matter of local and national government, is it not also true that the GLC set out quite deliberately to attack national Government on every possible occasion, even defiling its own listed building with propaganda?

Mr. Dunn

It did indeed do that, and my hon. Friend may wish to develop that comment later.

The important thing to stress in this debate is the need to leave things as they are. I am not just a Conservative with a big "C" but one with a small "c" as well. We have enacted various changes to local government, but I would argue against any further changes to its structure. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will respond to that.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)


Mr. Dunn

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment. In many ways he is almost a friend, because I have affection for him, as do all my hon. Friends, for the good that he does for the Conservative party.

In its day, ILEA was the highest-spending education authority in terms of expenditure per pupil; yet it managed to produce the worst results in the country. That is a significant fact to bear in mind when one talks about the dispersal, disposition and provision of services, and the power to administer them.

Mr. Banks

I hope to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, to answer some of the points that the hon. Gentleman has made, but I should like to pick up on something that he has just said. He said that he is a conservative in the global sense of the word and that he wants to leave local government structures as they are now. Yet all the recent changes to local government have been made by Conservative Governments. A Conservative Government set up the London county council; then they set up the Greater London council and subsequently abolished it. They made changes in 1972 and more recently. It is always Conservative Governments who throw the pieces up in the air to see where they settle.

Mr. Dunn

That is why I am drawing on our experience to offer a warning for the future. It is true that the Conservatives set up the LCC and then abolished it, as well as ILEA, the GLC and the metropolitan counties. I agree with the hon. Gentleman: there is no blue water between us on that. That is why I want to use this debate to issue a warning about the future.

Local government is about the dispersal and provision of services to local people. The point that I am trying to make is that one needs to ensure that those services are local, and that they are delivered efficiently and cost-effectively by local people to local people.

As a result of the intervention from the hon. Member for Newham, North-West, I am drawn by natural development to refer to the book by Will Hutton, "The State We're In", which I read just this weekend. I was astonished to discover how much of its content has become official Opposition policy. Until now, I was happy to credit the Leader of the Opposition with a certain amount of intellectual independence and originality of thought, but I subsequently found that it was all there in that book. It is Will Hutton who should be leader of the Labour party because all its ideas have been pinched from that essentially flawed book. Reading on, right at the end of the book I found a chapter on stakeholder capitalism. Have we not heard of that somewhere before?

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

That has a lot to do with the debate.

Mr. Dunn

Yes, it has, because on page 324 of that book Will Hutton writes: Every English region outside the home counties, together with Scotland and Wales, wants more power to govern its own affairs. I do not believe that that is the case. I have found no evidence among Back Benchers to support it, and I do not think that the Government would want to support that view. It is important to note that Will Hutton has made that argument. Why does the Labour party want to impose a further tier of local government? It is not alone, because the Liberal Democrats, too, have a policy on regional government. Why do they wish to impose a further tier of local government upon us?

As I said in the early-day motion that I tabled last week, at present we have parish councils, borough councils, county councils, the national Westminster Parliament and the European Union. Those five levels of government bear down upon the individual local and national taxpayer. If a further tier of local regional government were imposed, six levels of government would bear down on the individual. Once set up, a regional assembly, authority or council will want something to do. If it has something to do, where will the powers come from? Will they be devolved downwards from national Government or upwards from the county council, the district or the parish? Who gains and who loses? We want an answer from the Labour party.

More importantly, if a regional assembly is to have something to do, it will want money in order to do it. Will it simply levy a precept, as I mentioned earlier in the context of the GLC, which means that the precepting authority has no responsibility whatever for the collection of money and is not accountable to the people who pay the precept locally? If the authority was indirectly appointed, it could precept the local council, which could mean that the regional authority would have no accountability locally. If the authority were directly elected, it could be situated so far away as to render it meaningless in terms of access.

Wanting to do something and having the money to do so is a great leap forward in the construction and imposition of a further tier of local government, and Opposition Members must be warned about that. It is a notion that their leader has not addressed: there is a gap in the policy announcements. The Opposition are told by their spin doctors that it is a good thing. The truth is that there would be six tiers of government. What will they do? How will it all be paid for? How will they be accountable? Will they have tax-raising powers?

There has been much debate recently about devolution, which I shall not go into now in detail. I should make it absolutely clear that I mention the subject only en route. Although the prospect of devolution may seem completely non-threatening to us in the south of England, the truth is somewhat different. It is a form of local government. It is an attempt to create another tier of bureaucracy regionally, and it has been deployed by the Labour party in response to the political pressure that it is encountering north of the border from the Scottish nationalists. But the only logical outcome for Scottish devolution is the creation of regional authorities throughout the United Kingdom. If Scotland were given its own tax-raising authority, Wales and England would surely follow, creating yet another tier of local government.

If we look at the current Labour proposal, which I hope that the House will condemn, we can see the awful consequences. Despite being funded by a block grant from Westminster, a Scottish Parliament would have the power to raise 3p in the pound. An extra 3p on income tax would cost the average Scottish family £6 per week. People with less to spend would have less to save and to invest. It follows from that that the answer to the West Lothian question is regional Parliaments for Scotland and Wales, and regional assemblies for England. That would solve the West Lothian question and redress the inevitable discrepancy in tax between Scotland and England, but it would be a further tier of government, another set of people spending other people's money, and higher taxes would be the result. While Scotland would labour under a tartan tax, England would suffer the red rose tax. Many of my constituents would face six tiers of government—I shall continue to say that until the message gets home—from parish, borough, county, region, Parliament and the European Assembly—all wanting to levy tax and initiate legislation.

I come to the end of my short speech, and I am grateful for the patience of the House. This is the most serious constitutional issue that we face, next to republicanism and the future of the monarchy. It affects all of our constituents in England, and it must be made abundantly clear that we oppose it. We want to move power back to local level, not to take it away. We want to give people some say in how their communities develop, and regional government is not the way forward.

11.23 am
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

I welcome the debate that the hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn) initiated, but from his tone it is quite clear that we are miles away from being able to agree on a more consensual basis the structure and functions of local government, and I wish that we could achieve that, because I find the idea that we should continue to have these old battles acutely depressing.

The hon. Gentleman said that he would start his journey in Lambeth, just walking over the bridge, across the Thames. It was a pity that he walked by county hall and made no mention of the sad state that it is currently in. The Japanese flag is flying above it, the wonderful idea of a luxury hotel has come to nothing, the structure is being stripped out above the listed second floor—the principal floor, as far as I am aware—and an aquarium is being constructed in the basement, for which they still do not have consent. That seems a crazy way to administer one of the great buildings of London. It has been allowed to decline, and the fault for that lies entirely with the Government.

It is interesting to note that, in the latest round of local government reorganisation, the Secretary of State said that the electorate would have a considerable say in the preferred structures for their areas. One thing that he ruled out at the beginning, however, is that whatever Londoners say that they want in terms of citywide local government, they will be ignored. So much for the listening Government who continually talk about freedom of choice, and who set up league tables for just about everything that is capable of movement, except a league table based on their own popularity or honour.

The Secretary of State gave Londoners the political equivalent of Henry Ford's famous dictum, "You can have whatever colour car you want, provided it's black," although I notice from today's newspapers that that has been changed somewhat. I saw an advertisement for Ford cars in which all the black people have become white. Ford's new mission statement now appears to be, "You can have any colour worker you want at Ford, provided he is white."

The debate is appropriate, given that 31 March this year will mark the 10th anniversary of the abolition of the GLC. I still stand firmly by the conviction that its abolition was carried out in total defiance of the wishes of the majority of Londoners. Indeed, opinion polls have been remarkably consistent on that fact, right the way through the abolition battle until today. About two thirds of Londoners opposed the abolition of the GLC and about two thirds still express a wish for some form of strategic citywide structure. Abolition was an act of political malice, carried out by probably the most vindictive, dogmatic, bigoted, authoritarian Prime Minister that this country has had to suffer since the days of the Duke of Wellington—from the iron duke to the iron maiden, linked together through 150 years only by their own personal arrogance.

It is not my intention to refight the old battles, because I cheer myself up with the old saying, "Don't get angry, get even."

Mr. Rowe

I am interested to hear that the hon. Gentleman is not going to fight old battles. Does that mean that, if he were in a position to do so, he would not reintroduce the GLC or anything like it?

Mr. Banks

Far from it. I said, "Don't get angry, get even." That is another matter altogether. I do not intend to get involved in sterile arguments, as we have won the arguments, and I know that from public opinion polls, business leaders, community leaders and from politicians who privately speak the truth outside the Chamber when they talk about the organisation of London. I just do not want to get involved in sterile arguments, as I know that we have won them, and we are getting ready for action. I am glad that Margaret Thatcher is out of the House, and I am quite content that she should spend her declining years lecturing bemused Japanese business men on her own version of flat-earth economics. All I know is that, as the last chairman of the GLC, I am still here and I look forward to the day when the Labour party in government restores London's strategic authority. That is a firm commitment.

The hon. Member for Dartford was right to mention the excellent speech given by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition—the John Smith memorial lecture on 7 February. I quote for greater accuracy and for the record precisely what my right hon. Friend said about a strategic authority for London: It is hard to defend the way London is presently run. This is a great city and a huge asset to our country. It is a fantastic business and cultural centre and a great place to live and work. But it is crucially handicapped in dealing with its problems because it has no elected voice of its own. Unemployment, housing, clogged transport and pollution are just some of the challenges that Londoners face. London has been left to drift, and its quality of life has suffered. And I am not alone. A large majority of Londoners want their own city-wide authority. Even Geoffrey Howe admitted recently that abolishing the GLC was a mistake. I hope that Lord Howe and others who recognise they were wrong in the past will support our plan to establish an elected authority, able to speak up for London and work together with business and the people to give the city the future it deserves. Those were the words of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, who will soon be Prime Minister of this country.

Mr. Dunn

I do not want to stop the hon. Gentleman's flow of oratory—

Mr. Banks

I had finished.

Mr. Dunn

I am glad to hear it.

The hon. Gentleman argues strongly for a strategic authority for London. There is nothing wrong with that; it is entirely consistent with the views that he has expressed in the past. But where will the authority's boundaries be? That has huge implications for Dartford. If the M25 becomes a boundary, half my constituency will be run by London while the rest will be administered from as far away as Reading or Guildford. Is that a sensible arrangement for the people of Dartford?

Mr. Banks

I will deal with that a little later. The hon. Gentleman has identified real problems, however, and I am sure that he will make a constructive contribution to the consultation paper that will be issued shortly by my hon. Friend the Minister for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), the shadow Secretary of State for the Environment.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition made another interesting suggestion. There need not be a strategic authority in quite those terms; there could be another kind of voice for London. The question of its geographical boundaries exercised the House in 1964 when the London county council was abolished, and we shall doubtless return to such arguments when Labour is in government.

One of the upsetting features of our debate about the GLC is the way in which Tory Members of Parliament keep going on about how unnecessary the GLC was, and how no one misses it. When I asked the Minister to list those organisations which have acknowledged that the Government's decision to abolish the Greater London Council was right", he replied: The fact that hardly anyone outside the Labour party is arguing for a return of the GLC seems amply to justify the Government's decision to abolish it."—[Official Report, 9 January 1996; Vol. 269, c. 9.] That was probably written by a civil servant with the mental capacity of a split lentil, but the Minister signed it. Perhaps he even wrote it. He cannot genuinely believe it, however. He need only talk to the CBI, the chambers of commerce, the police or anyone else in London. I defy him to come back and say, with his hand on his heart—assuming that he can find it—that no one is other than content with the current position. That is nonsense; it is balderdash; it is palpably untrue. The Minister knows that—or, if he does not, he is deceiving himself to a breathtaking degree. Those who argue that the GLC had no functions and no purpose merely reveal a profound ignorance of London, exceeded only by their ideological inflexibility.

The hon. Member for Dartford said, "Let us leave things as they are." That is a typical Tory sentiment: smash it all up, kick it all around and then say, "Now we must leave it as it is. That is Conservatism—that is tradition." It has always been Conservative Governments who have kicked local government around, broken it up and then complained that it did not work afterwards. It was a Conservative Government who set up the London county council in 1892, and a Conservative Government who got rid of it in 1964 and created the GLC. Because they feared that they would not be able to gain political control of the LCC, they set up a new system. Unfortunately, it did not work: Labour gained control of the new strategic authority. And so it goes on.

Until the abolition of the GLC, strategic government in London had lasted for nearly 100 years. It was six years short of its centenary. How can Conservative Members argue that, having been considered necessary for nearly 100 years, strategic government was suddenly deemed unnecessary? That defies belief, and shows an utter lack of understanding of the way in which London is governed. As I have said, the abolition of the GLC had nothing to do with the needs or wishes of Londoners; it was all down to Margaret Thatcher's personal obsession. As I told the Minister, no one outside the Government really believes that London is better off without a strategic authority.

Lord Howe was brave and big enough to express his view. He was Deputy Prime Minister when the commitment was made to abolish the GLC and the metropolitan councils. When the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) realised that the 1983 Tory manifesto mentioned the abolition of the GLC, he said that he was shocked, and that it had been included by Margaret Thatcher personally: the manifesto had been drafted by her own fair hand. London's government cannot be organised on the basis of the petty obsessions of individuals—even eminent individuals such as Prime Ministers.

Conservative Members often talk of the grants that the GLC gave to the English Collective of Prostitutes. One would think that that was all that it had ever done. Let me list some of the functions that it inherited from the LCC. It was responsible for London Transport, traffic lights, waste disposal, the fire service, civil defence, the south bank arts complex, London's bridges and tunnels, the Thames barrier, the green belt, historic houses, the history of London, scientific services, regional parks and open spaces such as Hampstead heath, Crystal palace and Victoria and Battersea parks, London's strategic planning, museums and art galleries and the national sports centre. The LCC and the GLC built new towns, many of which are represented by hon. Members outside London. They constructed seaside homes. People were able to move around London; we are now experiencing the problems associated with a lack of mobility.

What has replaced that single authority? The Government said that the new system would work efficiently, because local authorities would inherit the GLC's powers. A few have, but the GLC's former responsibilities have largely been taken over by Government offices such as the Departments of Transport and of the Environment and the Home Office. We have a Minister responsible for London, ha ha; we have a Cabinet sub-committee; we have indirectly elected boards such as the fire, civil defence and waste disposal authorities; we have quangos such as the Arts Council, the Port of London Authority and English Heritage; we have private sector initiatives such as London First and London Pride. Conservative Members try to suggest that London is better run now, but that is nonsense, and Londoners know that it is. The hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), whose constituency is way up north somewhere, is nodding; that makes my point all the more poignant.

Labour is committed to the establishment of a new voice for London. It might be a strategic authority. We should have to discuss its role and functions: it must have well-defined purposes and powers. It will not be a recreation of the GLC, but it may be something that I personally favour. Let me return to that superb, excellent, wonderful speech made by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition—[Laughter. ] I must give credit where credit is due. Anyone who thinks that that constitutes an application for a job is not altogether wrong. Yes, I want to stand at that Dispatch Box on the Government side of the House, helping to bring back a strategic authority for London. Then I will really lay the ghost of Margaret Thatcher. I want to be there for the first Government reception, to which I shall invite no Conservative Members unless they are very kind and polite.

Let me return to what my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said about the question of a mayor for London. He said: Though this is controversial, not least among local government itself, and is not yet party policy, I also favour directly elected mayors, at least for our capital city and other large cities. Thanks in large measure to government destruction of local democracy there has been a dangerous loss of civic pride in many areas and this is one way that we might address that. That is an interesting proposal. I proposed a directly elected mayor for London in the 1980s. If Conservative Members want to learn something about the structure of London government and the way in which it may go forward, they should read my speech when I introduced a ten-minute Bill on 2 May 1990. There was not then much enthusiasm in the Labour party for my proposal. It is nice to know that the leader of my party is saying that the idea has to be considered and will be part of the consultation paper that the shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, will issue soon.

It is also nice to know that the Deputy Prime Minister favours the idea, as does the right hon. and learned Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor). The idea is growing. It is nice that one can propose an idea well over a decade ago for one's party leader, the Deputy Prime Minister and the former National Heritage Secretary to follow up years later. On days like this, I feel that I am earning my pittance in this place.

In conclusion, we have won all the arguments over the government of London. Ministers have more or less given up. I have done many television interviews with Ministers where they have virtually packed up because they realise that the weight of evidence is so strongly against them. Public opinion is against them. Informed, impartial and objective opinion is against them. The only people who are still battened down and arguing that we do not need a strategic authority are the inheritors of the wretched legacy of Margaret Thatcher. They cannot admit what many of them know in their hearts because of the great loss of political face involved.

I favour an elected mayor for London, which would call into question the role of the Lord Mayor of the City of London. I do not see how we can have an elected mayor for London and maintain a Lord Mayor of the City of London. [HON. MEMBERS: "Ah."] I have to put that on record. I want something that Mr. Gladstone wanted. It would be nice if my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition could complete the work that the great Gladstone attempted in 1874 of extending the City outwards. The new elected Lord Mayor of London could live in the Mansion House. Perhaps the new executive authority could meet in the Guildhall—by that time, county hall will have been turned into an aquarium for Japanese visitors so that they can see what they are going to have for their fish course.

We could still have the Lord Mayor's procession and make sure that that historic position becomes one with the new elected Lord Mayor of London—a seamless robe stretching back into history. That would be a wonderful solution to the problem of a new voice for London. If that happens, I hope that my humble application for such a position will be duly considered.

11.42 am
Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn) for calling for a debate on the review of local government. That phrase strikes a dreadful chord with his constituents in Dartford and mine in Gravesham. Twice now, the Local Government Commission has originally proposed a joint unitary authority for our two boroughs on well-argued grounds and twice it has backed off under an expensive barrage orchestrated by Kent county council. The grand old Duke of York could not have done it better. Twice it has marched us up to the top of the hill and twice it has marched us down again.

It is logical for north-west Kent to have a unitary council. North-west Kent is in transition from its honourable past in heavy industry to its exciting future in modern light industry and commerce. It is distinct from rural Kent. Our Conservative Government are interested in the welfare of its residents and in this proposal. They have done much to assist us. They have declared the Thames gateway. My hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), who is aptly entitled the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration, frequently visits our area, bringing his enthusiasm and drive to work in support of the redevelopment of north-west Kent.

We once had excellent co-operation between the two borough councils of Gravesham and Dartford, but that was when they were ably led by Conservative leaders—Peter Dyke at Gravesham and Kenneth Leadbeater at Dartford. They worked together for the good of our area. That co-operation was exemplified by Kent Thames-Side, where local councils worked well with local landholders, such as Blue Circle Properties, and the Dartford and Gravesham NHS trust, to decide how our area could best be developed.

The unity and co-operation in north-west Kent was best exemplified by the Kent Thames-Side Groundwork Trust, which combined local interests and volunteers who were financed by local councils and by national agencies, such as English Partnerships and the Government's imaginative single regeneration budget scheme. It produced many valuable environmental and regeneration projects, such as Waterton park, in Denton in Gravesend and the imaginative projects in Northfleet at The Hive and St. Botolph's. Throughout that period, the trust had an outstanding leader and chairman in local county councillor Frank Gibson. Not only have the Government supported us in all that; they decided that the rail link intermediate international station will be at Ebbsfleet and have given generous SRB awards to projects in north-west Kent.

The tragedy is that both Gravesham and Dartford councils are now under Labour control. Kent county council is also in Labour hands, thanks to the collaboration of the Liberal Democrats. The result for local government in north-west Kent has been squabbles, lack of vision and downgrading of co-operation between the two boroughs—exemplified by the sidelining of the Groundwork Trust's work. Why should that be?

The lack of co-operation—the shambles—under the three Labour councils has come about because my constituents are the victims of a plot by the Labour party to use them as mere pawns in a far wider national game. Originally, a unitary authority for north-west Kent had the passive support of the Labour opposition on both local district councils. In its 1993 manifesto for the Kent county council elections, Labour expressed its intention to abolish Kent county council. The manifesto states: KCC under the Tories has seemed remote and uncaring. Sharing responsibilities between county and district councils can confuse residents. Labour believes that ideally one local authority should be democratically accountable for local services in its area. We say Kent is too large a county to function effectively as a unitary authority. The secret additional reason why the Labour party wanted to abolish Kent county council was to clear the decks for a new layer of regional government, which has long been a Labour obsession. Imposing regional government on England was the only way that the Labour party could think of to avoid the West Lothian question, which would arise from the establishment of a Scottish Assembly. Scotland is already over-represented in the House. If it had its own assembly, there would be a case for under-representation, or at least parity of representation, with England. With such a change, the over-representation of Labour would end and with it the theoretical possibility of a majority for a Labour Government, were one to be established.

To offset that, the Labour party proposes regional government in England. That is why it proposed the abolition of Kent county council and the creation of unitary authorities. Labour's environment spokesman supported unitary authorities for Kent in the first round.

When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment referred Kent back to the Local Government Commission, he had the support of his Labour opposite number, the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), who mentioned Dartford and Gravesham by name in his response in support of the reference back and of a unitary in north-west Kent. I hope that in her reply the Labour spokeswoman will explain why the Labour party could not control local Labour activists. After all, the case was right, Labour's national interests required it, the Labour environment spokesman had put his name to it and Kent Labour had won control of the county council by pledging to abolish it.

Mr. Dunn

We are not liable to hear anything from the Opposition Front-Bench spokeswoman today. I have here a letter dated 27 February 1995 from the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford), who spoke for Labour on local government matters, in which he promised a consultation paper on the functions and boundaries of the Greater London authority by the end of 1995. The implications of that letter for the territorial integrity of Kent are huge.

Mr. Arnold

Exactly, and that pledge has not been carried out any more than the pledge given by the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, as spokesman for the environment, on the abolition of Kent county council.

If the Labour party Front-Bench team wanted a unitary authority for north-west Kent, why did not the Labour party locally deliver the means rather than oppose it? The answer is simple. To put it at its most basic, two council leaders into one council do not go. In the case of Kent county council, Labour went from opposition to mindless advocacy—from thinking that it would not be able to end 102 years of Conservative rule of that council to enjoying the fruits of temporary office.

When the Local Government Commission produced its proposal, Labour spent more than £1 million—in terms of direct spend, officers' time and use of the facilities and infrastructure of the county council—of council tax payers' money on a campaign of opposition to local government reform.

When I asked Kent county council to tell us the cost of that enormous, illicit campaign, I was told that the figures were not available. We hear so much from the Labour Front-Bench team here about open government and availability, but when Labour is in office the figures are not available.

Frankly, the Labour-controlled county council's campaign went far beyond the limits of propriety, for instance, in whispering to the staff, "You will have to re-apply to the new authority for your jobs." We should remember that Kent county council has thousands of employees, including teachers, social services staff and so on. The whispers went out from Labour to the voluntary organisations and other receivers of grants and awards from the county council that they would have to apply for that money to the new authorities, which would not have sufficient money to support them. Kent county council went further and told people to write to the commission, giving them the exact name and address, to tell it of their opposition to the reforms.

Labour in Kent argued that Kent would come to an end. The proud county of Kent has existed for centuries, whereas Kent county council has been with us for only 102 years. I do not think that we should confuse the two. To do so is either historically ignorant or deliberately and selfishly misleading.

Not to be outdone, Gravesham borough council did a U-turn and beat the drum for parochialism. It has been busy whipping up rivalry and dislike of our neighbours in Dartford. Recently, it even picked a sordid squabble over which council should have the valley of Ebbsfleet and with it the international station. It has been totally disreputable to see the two Labour leaders of Dartford and Gravesham councils squabbling in that manner, potentially doing damage to those developments.

I reiterate that two leaders into one council do not go. Clearly that is the case. The leader of Kent county council is a Gravesend councillor, as is the leader of Gravesham borough council. Frankly, it is despicable that two petty ambitions have done so much to derail, not only hopes in north-west Kent, but the wishes of the national Labour party.

The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras has had to tell the Leader of the Opposition, "I'm sorry, I can't deliver the English regions." What has happened? The Leader of the Opposition has backed off and is now talking about a referendum. My constituents would never vote for English regional government for the south-east. They already resent the remote county hall at Maidstone, which is wasting money on a vast bureaucracy. Why have parents voted overwhelmingly to go grant-maintained in eight out of nine secondary schools in my constituency? Because they believe that their schools can spend that 15 per cent. of money far better than the remote education administration in Maidstone.

If the Labour party held a referendum, my constituents would object to yet another layer of politicians and bureaucrats and the imposition of yet more taxation by a regional administration for the south-east located all the way over the other side of London in Reading, Berkshire.

What is the moral to be drawn from that saga? There has been a series of tests of Labour's fitness to govern and it has failed from top to bottom. Why do Labour Members want a Scottish Assembly? Because they are scared of the nationalists. How would they finance it? With a tartan tax. Would such a tax be popular? They back off when asked that question and answer, "Only if people voted for it." They suggest that there would be a margin of 3 per cent. on income tax for that tax, but if they asked people whether they wanted to pay an extra 3 per cent., the answer would be no, so the Labour party says, "Ah, but it could be 3 per cent. lower." As English Members of Parliament, what are we to think about that? We already subsidise the Scots considerably. Are we also going to subsidise them so that a Scottish Assembly can use our English subsidy to reduce the tax bills of Scotsmen?

Basically, the Labour party has not thought these things through. We have asked Labour Members how they respond to the West Lothian question. Is it by reducing Scottish representation in this House? Of course not. They will not face up to that question, because self-interest precludes that logical conclusion. What do they propose in its place? Imposing regional government on England. Would that be popular? Only if people voted for it, they say. Frankly, if the vote is no, which is likely to be the case, we are back to the West Lothian question, and have they an answer to that? No.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford said, were people to say yes to regional government, my constituents would suffer six layers of government: Europe, Westminster, regional, county, borough and parish. Would the Labour party abolish Kent county council? The national Labour party says yes, but the local Labour party says no.

What can one say amid all that confusion? The Labour party is not in government, but responsible for preparing for government. Judging by all that the Opposition have said, however, they have clearly not thought things through and, in the few places that they appear to have done so, they have buckled under pressure from the Scottish nationalists and local government leaders in county and town halls.

The real power in the Labour party lies, not with the local party, but with the Islington glitterati. We have been offered a welter of tax time bombs—the tartan tax, the regional levy, and uncapped council tax—and I submit that Labour is not fit to govern.

11.58 am
Mr. David Rendel (Newbury)

Like other hon. Members, I am grateful to the hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn) for raising today the review of local government. It staggered me, however, that he spent more than 20 minutes talking about anything but that subject. He spent a considerable part of his speech talking about the debts that local government owes and blamed them on the Labour administrations in the areas that he mentioned. He failed, however, to mention the debt owed by national Government. If he blames Labour for local government debts, he should, presumably, blame the Conservatives for national Government debts.

The hon. Gentleman spent the second part of his speech talking about a review of national government, and how the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party want to change it by devolving powers to Scotland, to Wales and to the regions of England. That has nothing to do with the review of local government. A review of local government has been taking place since 1992—something that the hon. Gentleman failed to mention.

The review no longer grabs the national headlines because it has dragged on for so long. It is unfortunate that many people in the community and in the media have lost interest. That is a measure of the review's failure. The mistake made by the Government at every stage has been to look at the structure, rather than the powers and responsibilities, of local government. The review should have started with the role and function of local authorities.

The error has been further compounded by a succession of conflicting—and, in one case, illegal—guidelines produced by the Government for the Local Government Commission. When the commission was finally forced to take account of local people's views, it overwhelmingly switched from proposing unitary authorities to proposing the status quo. When the Government were thwarted the first time around by the change in the commission, they went in with a Con-Lab pact and decided to set up a second tranche of reviews, discussed it all in advance with Labour, and came to conclusions about which areas they wanted to review and where they wanted to impose unitary status. That even happened if the council concerned—in this case, Gillingham—wanted no part in the Lab-Con grand design.

After wasting millions of pounds on a bungled review and having diverted substantial additional human and council resources into the review process, what is the latest twist to this catalogue of incompetence? In areas where orders have not yet been made, the Secretary of State has decided to keep the local people and their councils guessing for another year. That will waste more money and more time. There is no possible defence for that.

The Minister's defence is that the Government's timetable was always tight and they had run out of time to get the orders through before the elections this year. The Secretary of State set the timetable in the first place.

The commission's draft report of September 1995 made it clear that, when it started work on 4 July last year, it had a completion date of 2 January this year. In fact, the commission completed its recommendations by mid-December, earlier than it expected. If the Government argue that, from mid-December, they had insufficient time to lay the orders, the response must be that they should have known that when the commission originally set the completion date of 2 January. Why have local authorities been put on hold for another year?

Let us be honest about this: the review has been running since 1992 and Torbay, Herefordshire, Plymouth and Nottingham have been waiting for months to settle their future—I shall not mention the fiasco of the proposed changes in my home authority of Berkshire. Authorities want to get on with the job of providing decent services. Why will the Government not let them?

There are two reasons why the review has been put on hold, which are not the same as the Government's weak excuses. First, the Government are petrified of significant losses in elections to unitary authorities in May—had they got their act together and laid the orders in time, they would have been faced with huge losses in the unitary authorities. The elections will not now take place until the day of, or possibly after, the general election. The Government hope to avoid a series of embarrassing defeats in elections to unitary authorities by prompting people to vote on national issues rather than on local ones.

The greatest damage to the Conservative party over recent years has been its decimation in successive local elections, not least by the Liberal Democrats who have ploughed a deep furrow through Tory heartlands—from the west country, to the east coast and up to north Yorkshire. The Tory grass roots have all but disappeared in many areas. It is no wonder that the Government are running scared, but that is no compensation for local people or for council officers whose careers continue to hang in the balance.

The second reason for the Government's putting off the orders is that they simply have not allowed sufficient money in the Budget to finance structural change in the areas still under consideration. The tight settlement, coupled with unprecedented pressure from central Government to direct local authority spending, simply offers no room for manoeuvre—certainly not enough to pay for an expensive restructuring of local government.

It is worth noting that every one of the changes the Local Government Commission recommended in its second review entails significant on-going and set-up costs. It is clear from last November's Red Book that credit approvals are significantly down for 1996–97 compared with 1995–96 and previous approval plans. One can only assume that, within those figures, the Government have not made sufficient provision in supplementary credit approvals to allow reorganisation to go ahead this year.

I notice that approvals for 1997–98 are projected to be slightly increased. Will the Minister explain whether he has known for months—certainly well before last year's Budget—how much money has been in the Budget for these reviews and that the review orders would have to be postponed? If so, why did he not tell the people in the affected areas that their review was to be postponed for another year? Is that why he calculated the Budget credit approvals so low? Did he know that he was not going to put through the orders in time for elections this year?

Perhaps the Minister will also make it clear when the orders will now be laid. The uncertainty continues. The least local authorities should be able to expect from the Government is a clear timetable that will be adhered to. The local government review has for many years exemplified Tory incompetence, but that is no reason to make matters worse by continuing to dither and to fudge. The Government have pledged more openness and more freedom of information—let them start here.

12.5 pm

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)

I shall give the House the opportunity to move away from the Kentish men and to visit our friends up north, particularly our Labour friends up north. It is right that people in the north-east of England should learn what Labour policy is for a regional assembly—and whether Labour is in favour of it.

The same situation exists in the north-east as exists in Gravesham in Kent—the Labour party is hopelessly split over what it wants to do. The hon. Member for North-West Durham (Ms Armstrong) is shaking her head, but just before Christmas the northern group of Labour Members—of which she may well be a member—gave an ultimatum to the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) that their price for supporting Scottish devolution was a northern assembly. The hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam) said: The northern group supports devolution for Scotland, but our price is devolution for England. The implicit criticism here is of a minority of members of the shadow Cabinet who don't believe in devolution at all. Does the hon. Lady support that statement?

When the people of the north-east of England consider a northern assembly with the tax-raising powers that the Scottish Parliament is meant to have—a sort of Geordie tax, as opposed to a tartan tax—they will be against that imposition. It would again draw a frontier between the north-east of England and the rest of the country. Long-suffering ratepayers in the north-east already have enough layers of government. Are they to have yet another one inflicted on them?

Recently, the right hon. Member for Sedgefield said categorically on television that if there were a regional assembly for the north, one layer of local government would have to go. The members of the northern group of Members of Parliament would say that there is no need for a tier of local government to go, because they do not want the Labour-controlled county council or the Labour-controlled district councils to fall out over the future of a northern authority.

The Leader of the Opposition has said that one level of local authority control will have to go. Which level would that be? Would it be the district councils, of which there are six in Northumberland, two of which are controlled by Labour; or would it be Northumberland county council, which has been controlled by Labour for a considerable length of time? In a fight between district councils and county councils, county councils would win.

The ratepayers in Northumberland would have a stark prospect—of a tax-raising regional assembly based somewhere like Durham, Teesside or Berwick and a county council to look after local government matters that may be a considerable distance away. That would be the outcome of a northern assembly. I hope that the hon. Member for North-West Durham, who is no doubt a member of the northern group of Members of Parliament, will make Labour's plans clear to the people of the north-east. If the Labour party is to propose that extra level of bureaucracy, it should be clear about what it wants.

12.9 pm

Ms Hilary Armstrong (North-West Durham)

The debate has been interesting. I was astonished at the speech of the hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn). I assumed—naive as it may have been—that in an Adjournment debate on the review of local government, he would want to talk about his constituency and the wishes that he had expressed during the review for the future of his constituency and the unitary tier. However, he did not mention Dartford or the review of local government in Kent. The hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) mentioned that subject. I know that he and the hon. Member for Dartford have disagreed about the way forward for Dartford and Gravesham, so perhaps that is why the hon. Member for Dartford did not raise the subject.

Today's argument has supposedly been about the review of local government. In the debate, most Conservative Members have attacked local democracy. They do not seem to like the fact that the people have spoken—

Mr. Jacques Arnold

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Armstrong

No, I have only a short time in which to make my speech.

The people have left this country with only 13 Conservative-run councils. There could not possibly have been 20 Tory authorities on the list of 20 authorities that the hon. Member for Dartford held up because there are no longer that many Tory authorities in the country. He seems to be concerned that the people of Britain have voted Labour at local level and that that stark fact leaves him with no arguments about the future of local government.

As I have argued from the Dispatch Box on several occasions, the Government have landed us with a more centralised system of government than any other country in Europe. We hoped that the Local Government Commission would attack that state of affairs—we have tackled the issue when debating regional assemblies. Conservative Members seem to forget that there has been a considerable devolution from Government of functions, but not of accountability and democracy. We have a strong regional tier of government: it comprises civil servants who operate within the regions with considerable powers and with responsibility for vast sums. They decide on single regeneration budgets and on the money that comes from Europe. They have incredible powers and are accountable only to Ministers, who have little time to spend in those regions or to deal with problems there.

I thought that in today's debate hon. Members from Kent would want to raise an issue that involves the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration, the hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), who is not here today. He is the Minister with responsibility for the Medway towns, but he has also had to make decisions about the Local Government Commission and take responsibility for them. There may be a conflict of interest there.

We have a strong regional tier of government that is simply not accountable. I do not believe that people in this country want money to be spent without any accountability and without their being able to have a say locally. The hon. Member for Dartford's most telling point was when he railed against regional proposals. He hit the nail on the head when he said that there was no support from Back Benchers and that he could not detect any support in the Chamber or, thankfully, from Government. Regional government is not meant to make life easier for us in Westminster; it is meant to represent effectively the people in the regions.

The hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) and I "share" a village. I represent one street in the village of Blanchland and he represents the rest of the village, which is north of the Tyne. People there feel that they are not adequately represented in Whitehall and Westminster. Decisions are being made in which they want to participate and they want a clearer understanding of how money from Europe is distributed and topped up. When villagers in my constituency do not benefit from RECHAR because the Government have pushed the money into other regions, they want to know why the Government take decisions centrally that do not reflect the way in which money from the European Community should be distributed throughout the regions. The Government are far too centralised; strategic decision making occurs at regional level, but there is no accountability for it.

The hon. Member for Hexham is new to the region in comparison to some of us oldies, so I shall explain what happened in the early 1980s. The Confederation of British Industry in the region, the Trades Union Congress in the region and local authorities in the area came together and recognised the need for a regional response to the de-industrialisation of our area. I moved the resolution at the Labour party conference and the regional TUC conference to set up the Northern Development Company. We set it up ourselves; it eventually won support from the Government and now receives backing from them. It has played a significant role in attracting inward investment to the north and in ensuring that the north has been able to fight back against de-industrialisation and its consequent heavy job losses and depopulation. The region recognised that it needed a coherent voice and a strategic arm. The company has always recognised—as would the proposed northern regional assembly, which is also to be set up on a voluntary basis—that there should be a more accountable voice working alongside it, which is what our regional assemblies are designed to provide. We have proposed a referendum to bring such voices into the process.

Such matters do not involve serving politicians or servicing the needs of politicians; they involve responding to the needs of people locally.

Mr. Jacques Arnold

The hon. Lady said that the issue should not involve serving politicians. Does the Labour Front-Bench team support the serving politicians—the Labour leaders of Kent county council and Gravesham borough council—or does it continue to support the opinion of the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), the Opposition's spokesman on the environment, who told the House that he supports a unitary authority for north-west Kent?

Ms Armstrong

I thought that the hon. Gentleman was going to ask that question. We have never moved from supporting, in principle, the idea of unitary authorities—

Mr. Arnold

In north-west Kent?

Ms Armstrong

In north-west Kent or wherever there is local support for it. Our complaint, like that of the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel), is that the Government set up the review in such a pathetic and ineffective way that they have ended up with another dog's breakfast.

Local government is sick of being tinkered with and local people are sick of never being allowed to work out a solution that meets their needs. If the Government had identified the functions and decided the size of authority that they wanted, we should not be in the present position and the people of Kent would not be in their present position. Lack of clarity from the start is the reason that the problems have not been solved. [Interruption.]

It is no good Conservative Members trying to blame us. We have not been in government. Conservative Governments have landed local government and local people with the mess, and it is about time that they recognised that they must work more effectively and democratically.

Signs in the past week have given no cause for hope that the Government are recognising people's crying need and demand for proper democratic accountability. Tragically, the Government move daily away from that.

Local government must be given the support and opportunity to respond effectively to local demands and needs. In that spirit, we shall open government to people at local level and give them, if they want, the right to a regional strategic voice.

12.20 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir Paul Beresford)

The debate has been much more interesting than I expected. It has moved from one side of the country to the other and from Scotland to the far south—indeed, I thought that we would cross the channel at one point. My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn) must be thanked for initiating the debate and for broadening it.

There was not much discussion of the review, which I believed was the theme of debate, but the debate became much more interesting. As hon. Members are aware, there was an opportunity for my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) to argue the case for his area, which has been argued with some force during the consultation period. I note the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) returning to the Chamber; he made a similar case.

The consultation period has just ended. Decisions will be taken and an announcement made soon. I suspect that debate about that will continue for some time and that the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) will continue to whinge, as he has today, with little opportunity to gain anything from it.

The hon. Member for North-West Durham (Ms Armstrong) was slightly caught out because she seemed to be hurt by the two-minute speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) and concentrated on him.

There was some mention of the fact that Labour-controlled and Liberal-controlled councils are slightly more numerous than previously. Of course, local elections will go that way, but local people are learning that that is an expensive option. It means increased and high regulation and high interference. People must learn that classic lesson to help them assess the merits of the argument made by the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), who sought more centralisation of local government and greater control. I shall return to that.

The hon. Member for North-West Durham spoke about Government offices. Government offices are in the regions so that we achieve closer contact and a closer feel, but the hon. Lady views that in a paranoid way. The old saying that she always perceives the light at the end of the tunnel as an oncoming train is appropriate. She must recognise that the siting of those offices gives Ministers the opportunity to obtain useful local information from people working in the area, but ultimately decisions are made by Ministers.

The most interesting, and the major, part of the debate was about centralising local government and inserting another managerial tier. I have a natural tendency to support the idea of unitary authorities because I suffered under the Greater London council and the Inner London education authority, and I emphasise that we did suffer under local and central government in those days.

The hon. Member for Newham, North-West spoke of wishing to be mayor. That does not surprise us. One has visions of Labour Members waving a mayoral chain and waving a jester's stick and deriding London's importance. It is an extremely important capital. It is vital to the country and it is vital that it continues to be as competitive as it is now without all the interference that we had before.

The interference was staggering. I remember the Greater London council interfering in decisions about numbers on doors in housing estates. That is not the role of regional government. It never had any power. It was absolutely—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)


Sir Paul Beresford

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The Greater London council sought a strategic role and it was largely self-invented. The search amused me occasionally. I remember the GLC's leader riding round the rose garden in Battersea park on an elephant. It was the first time that he had taken any interest in a mammal—certainly a four-legged mammal. It was an intriguing effort to invent a function for the GLC.

The GLC ended up as a middleman, fighting everyone. It fought those above, regardless of the political complexion of the Government and regardless of the political complexion of the GLC or the London county council before it, and it fought the lower tier.

It is said that the GLC had a strategic role. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West will recognise the old battle that we had when docklands was set up under the Greater London council with the "co-operation" of local Labour-controlled authorities. That was a long period of stagnation.

Since then, the London Docklands development corporation has turned things around. There are 36,000 jobs on the Isle of Dogs, compared with fewer than 20,000 in 1992. Jobs in docklands have increased from slightly more than 51,000 to almost 66,000. If the rate of growth continues, now that the link is in, those may soon be 70,000 plus. There has been a more than 70 per cent. increase in let office space. About £6 billion of private investment has been attracted since 1981, compared with £1.7 billion of public investment. That is what we want.

The area is growing. We have had 73 per cent. growth since 1981. It is now up to 68,000 and by the year 2000—

Mr. Tony Banks


Sir Paul Beresford

The hon. Gentleman spoke at some length and I have four minutes left so, if he does not mind, I will not give way; I am trying to speak and breathe at the same time, which is a feat that one learns.

We should acknowledge the importance to the country of a London with fewer regulations, without the havoc that the tax-making power of an additional authority would create. The Economist considered that issue in August 1995. It conducted a detailed review of the government of London. It did so because London is more vital to this country than other capital cities are to their countries. It is vital that it has the freedom to move.

The Economist said that a big central authority for London was likely to damage, not enhance, London's long-term economic interests and that the city could continue to adapt and grow flexibly without central planning. It said that London's fragmentation was a source of strength rather than weakness and that the lesson for rising magna-cities was that a central strategic authority was not essential for prosperous growth. Self-governing neighbourhoods worked better than a single city hall and were a safer base for an urban economy.

That is what is happening; that is the way in which London is making progress. We now have co-operation between the Cabinet Ministerial Sub-Committee on London, the private sector and other independent organisations. A single group of local authorities is starting, without the dead hand of the Greater London council, to co-ordinate activities extremely productively.

That is why land is being regenerated, businesses are coming to this country and business men from overseas are coming to London. They come to London because London has the freedom. London is, in the opinion of many of those business men, the most deregulated capital city in Europe. That is why about 40 per cent. of American and Japanese investment in Europe comes through London. That is why it is worth while—I emphasise arguments by some of my hon. Friends—having a link between London and Europe; it is our passageway through.

The hon. Member for Newham, North-West was asked where the boundaries should be, but he did not answer. He cannot answer that question because the location of the boundaries would depend on the function of the London authority. He must recognise its taxing power. We are talking about a strategically important capital city and, as such, we must acknowledge that no regional London authority—whatever its political power and that of central Government—has had or will have the control that it desires. Such an authority would stagnate London.