Andrew Percy: Room for sensible debate on council savings

BEFORE I came to the House of Commons, I served for 10 years as a city councillor in Hull . In fact, I was exactly one half of our group on the council – I doubled its size when I arrived.

However, our lack of electoral success does not mean that we were not involved closely in running the local authority. Our council was originally run by Labour and then eventually became one with no overall control, so we were heavily involved in running it for several years.

Labour cannot have a serious debate on any subject regarding public spending unless they come forward and say what they would do. All we know is that their plan is to protect local services. Is that still the case? If so, something else would have to be cut: is it to be schools or the health service?

Lots of references have been made to going back to the 1980s, or to the 1970s and Life on Mars, but some of the contributions have been like listening to The Twilight Zone.

In my 10 years serving as a councillor under the previous Labour Government, I seem to recall the picture not being quite as rosy as that painted by Labour MPs. We have heard many comments about Conservative and Liberal councillors criticising this Government's settlement, although we do not know what it is yet. In my 10 years on the council, Labour, Liberal and Conservative councillors tended to criticise the settlement coming forward from any government. That is the way of local government, largely because the formulae are so complex that there is always something that one is not happy with in any settlement.

When I was a local councillor, our authority went through a number of assessments, first, through the corporate governance inspection regime, and later through the comprehensive performance assessment regime. Labour cannot possibly be defending the millions of pounds that went into those schemes. At the beginning of the Labour administration in 1997, Hull had some of the most deprived communities in the country, and still had them 13 years later.

The council, which was Labour-run, was judged to be a failing council. There was some fair criticism, no doubt, but I do not know whether we needed the expensive regime process that came in to tell us that the authority was not necessarily being run as it should be. One of the most appalling recommendations was that we should appoint five corporate directors, but they were not to be employed on the same salary as our previous service area directors – no, we were to employ five corporate directors on salaries of 105,000.

This is a sum which most people in the city of Hull, and indeed across East Yorkshire and northern Lincolnshire, can only dream of. Then, in time, we had to appoint a new chief executive. Needless to say, they were not appointed at the same salary as the previous chief executive – there was a massive salary increase that had a knock-on effect on other local authorities in our area, which judged themselves against how much the neighbouring authority was paying. If we cannot get people to work in local government on salaries lower than that of the Prime Minister, we are doing something badly wrong.

I also well remember the settlements that we used to get from the Labour government – it was a case of giving with one hand and taking away with the other. Nowhere was that more clear than in the best value process, which required us to measure 100 to 200 different things and report back to central government.

One of our best value performance indicators was to measure how many of our park benches had arms. I am sorry, but when I go drinking in my local pub, people want their council to be providing services – over the past couple of weeks, gritting, snow ploughing and so on. They do not want it to be spending hundreds of thousands of pounds every year reporting back on such silly measures.

We all understand that there has to be some measurement of public services, whether they are in schools, the health service or local authorities, but we have to consider the proportion of time, money and resources spent on that. Under the previous Government, it got out completely out of hand – some of it was well meant, but it had unintended consequences. It was alleged at that time that money was thrown at some councils, but it was not always thrown to provide better services; often it was spent on employing more people to sit behind desks and measure things that the public would, frankly, not consider to be a priority.

There is a sensible debate to be had about local government funding, but attempts to create division are unhelpful. There are some very good people working in local authorities and providing services. The challenge for local authorities is to navel-gaze, to look closely at what they are doing at the moment and to decide whether they can do that better.

Andrew Percy is the Conservative MP for Brigg and Goole. This is an edited version of a speech that he delivered on local government in the House of Commons this week.