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1993 - Mr Major’s Speech to Conservative Local Government Conference

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech to the Conservative Local Government Conference, held in London on Saturday 27th February 1993.


PRIME MINISTER:

Two years ago, at this Conference, I spoke about my roots in Lambeth. It was where I learned how politics shapes people’s lives. That same local government learning curve is followed with benefit by many in our Party - like those who sat in this hall two years ago and now sit in Parliament. They have brought with them the experience of local government: the best experience it is possible to have.

One thing local government taught me was - don’t always listen to the experts. Listen to the people. It was a lesson I relearned at the General Election. All the experts said we would lose - but we won. And won by doing what the wise men said we shouldn't do.

And again, on May 6th, whatever the wise men say, we’re going to see more Conservative Councils and more Conservative councillors. And we’ll do so because Conservative Councils Cost You Less and Serve You Better. And Labour and Liberal Councils cost you more - and serve you right.

Unemployment

In a moment I want to turn to the future of local government. But first let me deal with one of the issues that most concern people at present - the need for jobs.

Every politician cares about unemployment. It’s the trivial politics of simple abuse to suggest otherwise. We all want to see more permanent jobs. But the worst thing any of us can do is to pretend there is some quick fix solution. To kid ourselves and mislead others that with some as yet undiscovered potion there’d be jobs for all.

As the Government, it is our duty to set out the plain truth. So let me do so. But, because it is relevant, let me first put it in context. Unemployment is not just a problem in this country. It is nearly worldwide. Does anyone think the Spanish government want unemployment at nearly 20 per cent? That France wants three million without jobs? That the [indistinct] government are happy that one in six of their population are unemployed? From Canada to Australia, from the USA to France, from Germany to the UK, unemployment has worsened seriously in every country. In recent days, as Leyland-Daf collapsed in Holland with job losses in the United Kingdom, Volkswagen in Germany cut 36,000 jobs, Boeing 28,000 in the US and Nissan and NTT in Japan announced they would shed 35,000 jobs.

When pessimists knock Britain and damage our prospects, I hope you will answer back. Set out the facts that show we are poised for recovery. Remind them that interest rates are at their lowest since 1977; inflation is at its lowest since 1967; mortgage rates for first- time buyers lower than at any time since 1956.

And tell them of our trade prospects. Exports are at record levels. Who would have thought a few years ago that we would be exporting cars to Japan? Yet we’re doing just that - in growing numbers. And now we have the biggest market in the world on our doorstep. More of our workforce in this country are in jobs than Italy, France, Spain, Germany or almost any European country you care to name.

Last year, in the depths of recession, 400,000 new firms set up in business. In Europe five out of the top 10 companies are British. So are 11 Out of the top 20 and 17 out of the top 30. Today, we have the lowest number of strikes in recorded history. These are the conditions that encourage so many foreign companies to invest in Britain, bringing prosperity and jobs with them. Another £100 million worth of American investment was announced just yesterday creating up to 700 jobs. And on the same day, Michael Howard gave the go-ahead to Derby’s City Challenge Action Plan which will create over 4,600 new jobs. I know there are difficulties. In no sense do I ignore them. But don’t let us overlook the good news or we risk perpetuating the bad news.

We don’t help the unemployed by spreading doom, gloom and depression. We help our competitors. Other countries don’t talk themselves down. And neither should we. The best way to help unemployed people back into work is to have confidence in our nation and self-confidence in ourselves.

It has been a long haul to put the economic conditions in place for sustained growth and lasting jobs. Now we must take advantage of them. The European Commission predicts that we will be the fastest growing economy in the EC next year. Let’s prove them right. We have done it before. And we can do it again. And it will help enormously if we ditch this habit of national self-denigration. It isn't necessary. And it isn't helpful.

Getting people back to work will take time and it will take persistence. It will be a hard fight. It will need growth in the economy. But we are determined to achieve it.

The long-term strategy is right. But we have a short term problem to deal with too. So let me tell you what we are doing. We have a massive programme of support for people who are unemployed. Helping them to find work where possible. Keeping them in touch with the labour market. Encouraging them to use their time constructively. We want to do more to keep people in touch with the world of work, either by giving them new opportunities for work experience, or, in some cases, making sure they take advantage of existing opportunities.

Our employment programmes are being expanded further from this April. Expanded to offer opportunities for 1.5 million people to get back into work. We are producing practical measures to deal with this problem. Labour call for us to “do something”. But whenever we bring in programmes to help - youth training, job interview guarantees, training for work, Jobclubs, Restart, and our Jobplan Workshops - what do they do? Labour vote against those programmes. “Do something”, they say. Well, they could do something too. Get Out of the ‘No’ lobby and onto the side of those looking for work. And that’s where they'll find us.

And one other thing. We reject - and will continue to reject - the Social Chapter. France can complain as much as it likes. If investors and businesses choose to come to Britain rather than pay the costs of socialism in France, let them call it social dumping. I call it dumping socialism.

Let Jacques Delors accuse us of creating a paradise for foreign investors. I am happy to plead guilty. Again and again we warned our European partners about the Social Chapter. And now that our warning has turned out to be right we are not changing policy. They can have the Social Chapter. We'll have the jobs.

The importance of local government

I don’t need persuading about the importance of local government. I know and feel it in my bones. It forms a central part of my political beliefs. So let me set out for you my credo for the future of local government.

Above all, I want the 1990s to see a renaissance of local government - with modem, forward-looking local leadership. Rooted in civic pride. Rooted in ideals of public service that made household names of so many Conservative council leaders in the past.

Second, local councils, like central government, must commit themselves to better quality in public service. People won’t be fobbed off any more with the old excuses - and rightly so.

Third, local government must work with central government to give people more responsibility over their own lives.

Fourth, it’s time to set a structure for local government that will last. We need to define its responsibilities once and for all. And then let you carry them out.

Fifth, we must build a new accountability fit for the 21st century - a new accountability that goes directly from those who run public services to those who use them. Many local government services impact directly on the family. In these areas, particularly housing and education, people want to exercise their own choices, not subcontract them wholly to Government - however benevolent and well intentioned Government may be.

Local Government Structure

I believe we have a system of local government finance that will last. Now we must seek a structure of local authorities that will stand the test of time as well. I want this change in structure to be the best - and the last.

There is, I think, a widespread view that the structure and responsibilities of local government are not as clear as they should be. The pattern is too complex. There is a case for structural change.

But a structure that lasts will not be one that Whitehall has imposed. It will be one that grows naturally from people’s loyalties and local traditions. That’s why we have no national blueprint for local government structure.

In the 1880s this Party set out a pattern of local government that endured for a century. In the 1990s I want to agree a new pattern - one that lasts, in its turn, well into the century to come. I want an end to the wrangling and the wrestling about structure and functions. I want agreement about the proper role of local government - where it is, what it is, and how it should perform. I want you to know what that role is. I want the public to know it. Then I want to leave you to get on with the job. My message is straightforward: let’s stop batting one another around the head and get on with good government.

Where the system works well, don’t let’s change it. And let me tell you one other thing, plain and simple. There is going to be no - repeat no - new tier of regional government set above you. That is a cock-eyed idea of our opponents - without identity, without price, without principle and without purpose. And that applies to our opponents as well as that idea. It’s just another half-baked piece of socialism we can do without. We are getting rid of regional monstrosities in Scotland; we have no intention of re-inventing them elsewhere.

Local government in the modern era

We are the Conservative Party. Think what that means. It means we do not change for change’s sake. We only change for improvement. And we look for improvement in local government because we care about it.

I want our reforms to be the friend of local government, not the enemy. The more effective local government is, the more popular it will be. We want to show people which councils are serving them best - and those councils will be Conservative councils.

The public pay their taxes compulsorily. They should be given more information voluntarily. That’s why we are allowing the Audit Commission power to publish more comparative league tables of performance - powers I hope they will use. Local people should have the chance to judge how their councils are doing. Let’s give them straight answers to the questions they ask. They deserve them - and we must give them.

Quality Service from Conservative Councils

I know that not everyone welcomes the new openness. Even some Conservatives are uneasy. We shouldn't be. It is one of the great differences between us and the other parties. We recognise that this is the age of the consumer, not the producer. And the new ethos of public service and value for money must apply as much to the local council as it does in the market place.

No-one here has anything to fear from that. It is in Conservative councils that you'll find the best quality at the best price. I don’t have to look far for proof of that - Huntingdonshire District have set the council tax for a Band C property at minus £4. But I’m the first to concede that my neck of the woods does not have a monopoly of virtue - Hambleton has come in at minus £10, and Wellingborough even lower.

It’s in Labour councils that you'll find the homes left empty, the rents uncollected, the inefficiency and worse.

If you doubt that’s true, consider this. Labour councils are planning to charge nearly £100 more in council tax than Conservative ones. Liberal Democrats are planning £50 more. That’s the soggy Left for you - Labour will take an arm and a leg; the Liberals an arm or a leg. But the poor old taxpayer is clobbered either way. And isn't it just typical of the Liberals? They never did know their arm from their elbow.

Creating a New Accountability

I spoke also of a new accountability. Let me say more about what we mean by that.

We mean direct accountability - of supplier to customer. It is parents who have the strongest interest in the success of their children’s school. So give them the right to ensure that the school delivers. Give them the information about how the schools in their town or district are, doing. Give them the chance to choose the school in the first place.

Council tenants want more control over the management of their lives. So give them the chance to buy - and help them to do so. And if they don’t want to buy, give them the assurance that remote, incompetent and unresponsive management will be shaken up. Give them the information about the standards of service they’re getting, and the right to choose.

Hardly revolutionary, you might think. Yet there are still some in the Labour Party who claim that to give people more information upon which to base their choices is an assault on democracy.

Don’t you find that astonishing? Is that not really a perversion of logic and language. How can giving choice be an assault on democracy? How can giving more information be an assault on democracy? So much for the fine talk from Labour about being the Party of the individual. What they mean is that Labour is the Party that likes to tell individuals what to do.

Let us be the Party that tells individuals what Government is doing.

We give them information.

We give them choice.

And we give them power.

These are the policies that people want. And if Labour really understood individuals they would know that. All of us here today have a sense of common purpose. Michael Howard and his team have been working hard to build an ever closer relationship between Conservative councils and a Conservative Government. And what you have done to introduce the Council Tax smoothly is a tribute to that new spirit as well. We serve the same people in the same country and we serve them best when we work together.

Enabling Businesses to Grow

Let me tell you of some of the other key areas where I want Conservative government - central and local - to be working in partnership in the '90s.

All of us in public service have our part to play in getting the economy growing again. You know - as I know - that we are entering a very difficult time for public sector spending. But the truth is that for the economy to grow, we have to reduce the cost of the public sector.

This year’s local authority settlement is tight. So is public spending as a whole. We have a 1.5 per cent limit on public sector pay. I know many of you are being very robust in your budgeting this year. But with inflation now down to 1.7 per cent, there is no better time for pushing through tough decisions on spending and pay.

And, in our battle for more jobs, there is more we can do to help business. Take planning. Of course we must cherish and protect our heritage. No one doubts that. But restrictive planning policies can shut the door on business opportunities. Wherever possible, we should be helping new businesses locate in our areas, and help people to move where jobs are available - not stand in their way.

And you can help, too, by getting unnecessary regulation off businesses’ backs. I acknowledge that we in government have often gone too far in imposing unnecessary regulatory duties on local councils. Well, that’s going to stop.

But I need your help too. Some council departments enforce such regulations with too heavy a hand. We must stop that as well.

So here are some questions for you to ask your Environmental Health Officers and your social services departments. And perhaps they should ask their clients too.

Why do so many nursery schools complain about social services inspection? Do Environmental Health Officers really take account of local needs when they inspect the local shop? Do they insist on higher standards for the private and voluntary sectors than they do in the public sector?

We have to make deregulation effective. So I ask for your help to do so. It is one sure way of helping businesses to grow. Prospects to grow. And jobs to grow.

Better Housing

And, in local government, you have other ways to join us in extending choice and opportunity to all.

In housing, it was Conservative, councils who pioneered the right to buy. They saw an opportunity to help people achieve their dreams of home ownership. And they did so. And government followed where local government led. As a result, nearly one and a half million council tenants have become home owners under Right to Buy since 1979.

And don’t believe it when people say that the demand for home ownership is past. I don’t accept that for a second.

That is why the Housing bill, now before Parliament, gives tenants a new right to become home-owners by converting their rents into mortgage payments.

And now - with mortgage rates for first time buyers the lowest since 1956 - now is the time to remind tenants that they can have huge discounts when buying their home.

Michael Howard and his team will be launching a new campaign to spread the Right to Buy. They will be taking that message to more than a million tenants this spring.

I want you to help them spread that message. Help those people to know the pride of ownership. To have their very own piece of Britain. And to build up something for themselves and for their children.

Better Education

We must also give parents a bigger say in the education of their children. More schools are going grant maintained. All schools are running more of their own budgets. And I don’t expect to hear of Conservative councils standing in their way. We must always remember what we are fighting for - and what we are fighting against. In the 1980s, housing was the chosen battleground for the Left. The Right to Buy challenged their biggest power base. Why? Because it gave people what they wanted - independence and a stake in our country’s future. That policy brought great dividends to the Party, our Party which made it possible.

Education is still a battleground for the Left and for the same reasons. Education can liberate. An educated person is hard to oppress. It is education above all that makes a society of opportunity and breaks the bonds of class. To parents it brings that most priceless gift: the certainty that their children will have better opportunities than they ever had.

That’s why the Conservative Party - in central and local government alike - must recognise that our education reforms are the most vital of all for our country. Don’t listen to those who want to cloak exam results in secrecy. Don’t listen to those who want to keep parents locked outside the school gate. I won’t mince my words: the campaign against testing is a disgrace - a smokescreen thrown up to cover the disastrous results of failed educational theories.

So let’s make parents and pupils the driving force in our schools. Let people in years to come look back and remember that it was we - we in this Party - who set the course for a revolution in the standard and quality of education. Who threw away the nostrums of the '60s. Who let our teachers do the job as commonsense tells them best. There’s a lot at stake in this battle. So go out and win it.

The Message of Conservatism

This Spring, we face County Council elections. Take this message with you as you campaign.

If you want to keep the Council Tax low, vote Conservative.

If you want high standards in schools, vote Conservative.

If you want local government that puts people first, vote Conservative.

Our councillors know no equals in dedication, determination and commitment. You get involved to make things better. You don’t turn away and leave it to others. So don’t be bashful. Go and get out there. Tell them what you stand for. Tell them what you have achieved. Tell them what you plan for the future.

That is what you've always done. That is why you win. And that is why you'll deserve to win again on May 6th.