19 March 2004
Prescott urges faithful to campaign on Labour councils' low tax increases
Labour activists should make the most of the fact that Labour councils have set the lowest average council tax rises in the forthcoming local elections, the party's leadership has said.
Figures touted at the Labour Party's spring conference in Manchester last week showed that the average council tax rise in a Labour-run council was 4.7%, compared with 5.5% in Conservative councils and 6% in Liberal Democrat councils.
Encouraging delegates to get out and campaign, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott acknowledged that last year's 12.9% average rise was 'politically unsustainable'. He reiterated the threat to cap councils whose council tax levels were judged to be unacceptably high.
Despite average council tax rises in line with government demands this year, Prescott told the conference that the problem of local taxation has still not been solved. 'No one believes that the current system is sustainable in the long term … Local government deserves a sensible and sustainable funding system, especially in view of the welcome improvements in service delivery and efficiency acknowledged by the Audit Commission in this year's Comprehensive Performance Assessment,' he said.
Earlier, local government minister Nick Raynsford told a question-and-answer session with party members that the council tax figures were a 'strong campaigning point'. Pointing to the last Conservative administration's local government spending record, he warned that a Tory government would 'stuff' councils. 'Our opponents have nothing to offer but shallow political opportunism,' he said, adding that local government was not covered by the Tories' pledge to protect spending levels on key public services.
Raynsford singled out Tory-controlled Wandsworth council, which has refused to passport all of the funding set aside for schools and has not raised its council tax, for its 'cynical' behaviour.
Schools minister David Miliband agreed that Wandsworth's actions were 'uniquely bad' and said the council's actions undermined confidence in local government. He denied suggestions that 100% passporting was resulting in too much money going to education.
Local Government Association chair Sir Jeremy Beecham said that the question for him was whether money was being spent on the right schools. 'There is not enough flexibility to move money around,' he said.
Brown stresses commitment to public services
Continued investment in public services is crucial to the delivery of both social justice and global economic success, Chancellor Gordon Brown told the conference.
He hinted that this summer's Spending Review would extend and adapt government programmes, such as the New Deal and Sure Start, to meet changing demands and release potential.
'As people's aspirations grow and as the technology develops to meet them, we [must] also use public provision to offer people not just the minimum standards of the past but the maximum possible range of services which fit their requirements – collective provision tailored to personal needs and options,' he said.
In a speech that appealed to the UK's wider international responsibilities, Brown said that commitment to public services made Labour the party that enabled and empowered people. 'If we cannot defeat here in Britain those who oppose public provision to ensure educational excellence for all, what hope is there for the 120 million children in Africa and elsewhere whose only hope today of schooling is through public provision?' the chancellor said.
'If we cannot win the argument that on a foundation of economic strength, that we as a community have a responsibility to reduce and eradicate child and pensioner poverty, what hope is there for the 2 billion people living in poverty across the globe?'
Beecham's fourth way on housing renewal
The Labour Party's senior local government leader has criticised the three options for housing renewal as being too limited.
At a local government plenary session at the conference last week, Sir Jeremy Beecham, chair of the Local Government Association and leader of its Labour group, said that the government should consider introducing a securitisation scheme, which would allow councils to borrow against their future income streams.
Despite the problems that the London Borough of Camden faces following tenants' rejection of an arm's-length management organisation, ministers have ruled out the introduction of an alternative to Almos, the Private Finance Initiative or stock transfer.
But Peter Smith, leader of excellent-rated Wigan council, paid tribute to the success of its Almo, which, he said, had done a 'super job' in transforming the physical environment.
'We're spending £1m a week to improve housing. [The Almo] has delivered a really good service,' Smith said. 'Tenant satisfaction rates are at around 85%.'