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ENVIRONMENT QUESTIONS ROUND UP

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-------------------------------------------------------------------- The Urban Programme - local government funding...
-------------------------------------------------------------------- The Urban Programme - local government funding - the area cost adjustment - council tax - standard spending assessments - corruption - compulsory competitive tendering --------------------------------------------------------------------

Bristol East MP Jean Corston and Wrekin MP Bruce Grocott attacked the government's plans to cut Urban Programme funding. Environment Secretary Michael Howard rebutted them, insisting that local authorities would continue to benefit from the scheme next year. His defence was bolstered by friendly questions from Poole MP John Ward and Hendon MP John Marshall who suggested that the authorities which received the funds were not fit to do so.

This line on inner city authorities was maintained by junior local government minister Robin Squire, when Islington North MP Jeremy Corbyn expressed concern about the level of funding for London councils. Mr Squire said the grant was not the problem, but the local authorities themselves. Islington received the fifth highest amount per head in the country, but it was the third worst at collecting local taxation, he said.

Cheltenham MP Nigel Jones raised the question of area cost adjustments. 'Is the minister aware that there is widespread concern in the historically low spending areas that the workings of the area cost adjustment are leading to severe cuts in services?', he asked. Local government minister John Redwood suggested Gloucestershire CC followed the example of Hampshire CC which is recruiting 700 new staff because 'it runs its affairs well'.

A friendly question from Ealing North MP Harry Greenway brought up the subject of council tax. Mr Redwood said the average headline charge from the first 193 authorities to set a charge was £450. This prompted shadow environment spokesman Jack Straw to join the fray, reminding Mr Redwood of Mr Heseltine's prediction of an average £400 band D figure. Mr Redwood deflected labour's attack saying it will cost £100 per household more to live under a labour council.

Standard spending assessments were the next topic of debate with York MP Hugh Bayley suggesting that his local council had been 'knocked for six' by spending cuts. Mr Squire insisted that Mr Bayley had misunderstood the figures.

A friendly question from Vale of Glamorgan MP Walter Sweeney introduced compulsory competitive tending to the debate. Mr Sweeney asked Mr Squire to ensure the CCT was applied with equal vigour by all authorities. This opened the way for questions from Swansea MP Alan Williams and Labour's local government spokesman Doug Henderson on the subject on the transfer of undertakings regulations. Mr Williams said the government would be liable to compensate low paid workers who had 'been cheated out of their wages' because of CCT. Mr Henderson said it was time for the public to know where the government stood on the issue. Mr Squire replied; 'Each case must be examined on its merits. There is no question of a blanket inclusion or exclusion. Let me say again that if there is any question of local authorities seeking to apply such measures to each and every transaction, we shall investigate the possibility of anti-competitive behaviour'.

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