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Shadow environment secretary Frank Dobson promised to return old powers and give new functions to local government if Labour is elected.

He told the Association of County Councils conference in Eastbourne that Conservative, Labour and Liberal governments this century had all refused to trust local government with important new services such as state pensions or the NHS.

'We've got to break that mindset. We've got to start returning old powers and duties to local authorities,' Mr Dobson said.

Claiming the support of Labour leader Tony Blair, he went on: 'When something new turns up we have to ask the question, can local councils do the job?'

Mr Dobson said recent arguments over who was responsible for Manton primary school in Nottinghamshire showed that 'we can't have five or six bodies making decisions'.

Labour would clarify accountability and give councillors more responsibilities: 'I want more of you to take decisions and carry the can.' However, he added the caveat: 'At the moment I mean it and I hope to stick to it.'

Mr Dobson said he was discussing with shadow health secretary Chris Smith how to 'get some local authority representation into the NHS' and Labour was reviewing the role of training and enterprise councils.

Mr Dobson promised to simplify the planning process. He suggested bringing together several similar submissions of evidence into one submission and restricting the right of defeated planning applications to be heard again.

The finance regime would change to redistribute money away from Tory-controlled Westminster City Council and end competitions for capital allocations - apart, possibly, from 'one or two' schemes.

Mr Dobson accused the government of seeking to increase council tax while cutting grants to councils. Last year the government had predicted council tax bills would rise by 8% but councils kept the increase down to 6%.

'This year's increase could be even higher than the one last year,' Mr Dobson said. At their highest level, rates collected 25% of money spent by councils; council tax now covers around 22% of budgets.

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