Minister faces ‘hypocrisy’ claims

Sir Bob Kerslake
Sir Bob Kerslake
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THE Lib Dem Minister who made unguarded criticisms of his own department’s policies stands accused of hypocrisy after it emerged he gave precisely the opposite view in the House of Commons last month.

Labour last night rounded on the “extraordinary” comments from Local Government Minister Stephen Williams, who used a fringe event at the Lib Dem party conference in York on Saturday to attack several of his own policies.

The Yorkshire Post revealed how the Minister dismissed a £1bn scheme to boost housebuilding as “incoherent” and “unfair”, and described the Government’s refusal to allow council tax hikes of more than two per cent without a local vote as “absurd”.

Mr Williams also admitted some smaller councils will face “severe financial difficulties” due to his own department’s cuts, and said one of his Conservative colleagues, Planning Minister Nick Boles, is “hated by Tory MPs”.

Labour yesterday pointed to Mr Williams’s most recent pronouncements on the New Homes Bonus, a £1bn fund designed to boost housebuilding handed out to councils on the basis of how many homes are built locally.

On February 12, Mr Williams told MPs the scheme was an “incentive” for new homes.

But he told activists on Saturday: “I don’t think it’s an incentive, necessarily, for local authorities to give planning permission. I don’t think it’s actually driving decision-making on the ground.”

Hilary Benn, Labour’s Shadow Local Government Secretary and the MP for Leeds Central, said: “Stephen Williams has thrown a flagship policy into chaos by admitting the £1bn New Homes Bonus is unfair, and not an incentive for housebuilding.

“We are used to Lib Dems criticising their own Government’s policies while voting for them – but it is extraordinary for a Minister to comprehensively rubbish his own department’s approach.”

Mr Williams’s admission that some councils face “severe financial difficulties” owing to coalition cuts was also at odds with previous statements made by his departmental colleagues.

Clive Betts, the Sheffield MP who chairs the Commons local government committee, said Mr Williams had painted a “completely different” picture to that offered by other Ministers.

“These are the most truthful comments from a Local Government Minister I’ve heard for a long time,” Mr Betts said.

“But it is astounding. You obviously have nuances of opinion on slightly different things in any Government – but to have such fundamental differences on things like the viability of local councils, for a Minister to be sat in Government agreeing with policies he believes are going to bring councils effectively to the point of collapse, I think is astounding.”

James Alexander, the leader of York Council, said he agreed it was “absurd” for the Government to try to stop council tax rises of more than two per cent.

“My Labour colleagues and I were elected with a majority and mandate to protect public services,” he said. “We are held to account at every election. The Conservative-Lib Dem Government has no such mandate – and yet we do not receive a referendum on the bedroom tax, or tax breaks for the wealthy.”

A spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government defended the New Homes Bonus scheme, saying: “Prior to 2010 councils could lose central government funding as a result of building new homes.

“Thanks to the New Homes Bonus, which was part of the coalition agreement, communities are now given a share of the economic growth from new housing.”