Thank you Cllr Clarke, district council leaders and chief executives. Since taking up this role in May, I have had chance to speak to many of you, but this is my first opportunity to address the District Councils’ Network. So, speaking as a former district councillor, thank you for inviting me, and it is an absolute pleasure to be here.
My experience as a councillor does not make me an expert on all things local government but it does help me to view the challenges and opportunities you face from local and a central perspective.
I value the experience, knowledge and capacity that you have, and that this network has and the work it does to collaborate with others. I am especially referring to the statement of Intent you signed in May with the County Council Network committing you to work together on growth and other collaborative endeavours.
It is your experience, knowledge and capacity that will help to drive local growth and district-led transformation work, and get some devolution deals done. You will need to work not just across council tiers but with other sectors, voluntary, private, education and, of course with central government, if we are to drive local growth and improve local services.
This government was elected in May of this year with a clear agenda:
- to support working people
- to keep Britain on the road to economic recovery
- to give everyone the best chance of living a fulfilling and good life
I want to talk to you today about real progress we have made so far, and to look ahead to next year and the rest of the Parliament. You will understand that I am still constrained by the ongoing Spending Review, but I will try to be as open as I can.
I’d like to concentrate on 3 areas, each of them critical in securing a better future for our people and our country:
- firstly, the challenges facing local authority finances, and the reforms we announced at conference
- secondly, our far-reaching plans for devolution
- and thirdly, how we increase home ownership and housing supply
For each one, I will also say something about the vital role of district councils in tackling these issues.
Many of you have worked hard over the past 5 years to deliver a better deal for your local people in times of austerity and I would like to thank you for that.
But we all need to continue to work even harder. We all need to find new innovative ways to deliver services for our residents whilst tackling the deficit to ensure economic recovery continues.
We have already enabled you to raise more income by retaining a share of business rates growth. But we don’t want to stop there.
As you will have seen in the Chancellor’s announcement last week, by 2020 you will be able to keep 100% of your local taxes, including, for the first time, 100% of your business rates.
With the deficit in mind, this offer must and will be fiscally neutral. While a system of tariffs and top ups will remain, the current Revenue Support Grant will be phased out completely and you will be expected to take additional responsibility: more detail on this will be provided in the Spending Review announcement.
We have to work together to understand how you can meet that challenge, and we will look closely at opportunities for refocussing other central government grants. There will be practical issues to consider, such as how business rates is divided between districts and counties - I can assure you that we will work with you to make sure that this new system is fit for purpose.
These changes to business rates represent an historic change. For the first time since 1990 you will have the power to reduce business rates across the board to support businesses in your area. You will have even greater opportunity to benefit from growth that you generate. I hope you will seize that opportunity.
In the meantime, there is plenty of work to do in this parliament to continue to be more productive and efficient to help balance the budget and ensure the services the public relies on are not undermined.
Smarter working and sharing back office services, senior leadership teams and chief executives must continue to be a focus. There are still opportunities to sharpen procurement, put more services online, tackle fraud and make better use of assets.
We want to work constructively with you on these issues, hear about your successes and understand any barriers you face. I will help you where I can.
Let me turn then to devolution. From the beginning we made it clear that we would like to reverse centralisation of government in order to drive growth and secure a better future for all. I think that we are on track achieving this not only through the 100% business rates retention commitment, but also through our devolution bill and our plans for devolution deals.
Our devolution bill is now receiving its second reading in the Commons today, with the intention that Royal Assent will be achieved by the end of the year. It will be the enabler that will give us the powers we need to offer devolution deals.
As for the deals themselves, you will have heard that last week a devolution deal was agreed with the Sheffield City Region.
We are now actively working through the 38 proposals we received on 4 September from right across the country.
I was particularly delighted to see so many districts putting themselves forward in partnership with others. For those of you that did submit those bids, in partnership with others, thank you very much for doing so, and we will be working with you.
I have said before, devolution is as much about districts as about counties and cities. For those of you who have not yet put forward bids, we are still open to hearing from you. We expect devolution of powers to local areas to happen throughout the Parliament, with deals dependent on the strength of the proposals received.
Devolution should inspire 2 tier areas to come together with vision of a shared future. There are opportunities for areas to take on new powers, and to have more funding devolved now – regardless of what we plan to offer in 2020. So I would encourage areas to come forward with ambitious proposals.
Hand in hand with devolution of powers and funding, and economic growth goes the need for more housing and more opportunities for home ownership.
We have already made real progress. There are 800,000 more homes now than in 2009, including over 260,000 affordable homes since 2010. But we want do much more.
Our landmark Housing and Planning Bill was introduced to Parliament yesterday. 200,000 new Starter Homes. And an ambition to build 1 million new homes over the next 5 years.
Our Help to Buy schemes have already supported over 120,000 people into home ownership and we intend going further by meeting our manifesto commitment to extend Right to Buy to housing association tenants.
You, as local government, again have a vital role as masters of a streamlined planning process with the tools and confidence to deliver more homes in appropriate places.
Again, we have seen progress in the last Parliament. The number of Local Plans in place has more than trebled since 2010, and since we introduced the National Planning Policy Framework, the number of new homes planned for in Local Plans has risen by 23%.
However, not every local authority has made the same progress towards getting their Local Plans in place. I hope that those authorities which do not yet have a plan in place will be urgently taking steps to address this.
Where areas still prevaricate and fail local people and don’t produce a local plan by early 2017, we will intervene to arrange for a Local Plan to be written in consultation with local people.
We also want to see up-to-date Local Plans that are shorter, clearer, and faster to put in place.
That’s why on 15 September Brandon Lewis commissioned a group of experts to examine what measures or reforms may be helpful in ensuring the efficient and effective production of Local Plans.
I’m delighted that the DCN, alongside others such as the Planning Officers Society, have already made specific proposals in this area.
I understand that the expert group have already approached you with a view to discussing your ideas for improvement.
We want the planning system to continue improving, especially as we devolve more powers to local areas, and hope you will work with us on this.
You can take pride in the fact that you are now achieving more with less and are in better shape to meet future challenges.
Whilst the resources available to you have changed, and public demand and public expectations have risen, you have been able to maintain public satisfaction with local services. This is a great achievement that I would like to thank you personally for.
But as I said before, both central and local government still needs to do more, whether that means doing your bit to make savings, or working with your partners on a devolution deal.
The ambitious plans which I have outlined to you today are part of creating what the Prime Minister recently called a stronger economy and a stronger society. It’s a vision of a world where this country lives within its means, where local communities are free to create growth and improve local services without central oversight, and ordinary people have a chance to own their own home.
I’m not going to pretend this will be easy to achieve it but I can reassure you that we will work closely with you all the way.