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1995 - Mr Major’s Speech to the 1995 Local Government Conference

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech to the 1995 Local Government Conference, held at the International Maritime Organisation at 4, Albert Embankment in London. The speech was made on Saturday 4th March 1995.


PRIME MINISTER:

Everyone in this room believes in service. Many of you have a long record of service in local government. In recent years that has been against a difficult political and economic background. But that is now changing.

We are now into a comprehensive economic recovery. It hasn't been easy. It’s involved difficult and often unpopular decisions that have had a backlash for you in local government. I know how unfair that is. But the decisions we made were necessary and now we need to capitalise on them. To make sure that it is widespread and that it improves the security and livelihood of people as well as the health of industry and commerce.

I was given the wise advice that politics is about people when I entered local government. I learned in local government that too many people have too little self-esteem. There is a poverty of ambition.

Yet local government can help with many of the causes of that: education, housing, social services. So local government matters. It matters in the delivery of the services and in creating the choices and opportunities that people deserve. And it is not an accident that these are found more often in areas with a long tradition of Conservative local government.

When I am with Conservatives in local government, I know I’m with people who share the values and instincts that brought me into our Party. You and I joined the Party for the same reason.

It spoke a language people can understand. Not the language of protest, of rights, of obligations by others - but the language of opportunity and hope and service.

Our party has beliefs but, like the British people, we’re not ideological. We’re not defined by grand theories handed down from on high. We'll never have a Clause IV to abolish. We grow from shared values and experience. We speak to people about their aspirations and their futures. We are not little Englanders nor are we blind nationalists. But we do share a deep love of country. We want it to do better. We care about its traditions and its future. We are a commonsense party, pragmatic when necessary and we find answers in practical action.

Always remember, we are different from other Parties. We see people first and foremost as individuals not as part of a group. To us, they’re people, not a block vote. We don’t set one part of society against another with the politics of envy. We don’t trade politically on social divisions. We don’t pigeonhole and categorise on the basis of class, colour, gender or creed. Our Party is open to everyone. And it always must be.

When times have been difficult, as they have, we are wise to remember our virtues and our strengths because they are what set our Party apart.

Economy

Let me now turn to the fact that should be central to public debate at present - but isn't. The fact that we are now well into the broadest based, most secure economic recovery we have seen for generations.

I know that for many people, this recovery isn't apparent. It would be much more evident if it were led by house price rises and consumer spending. But we know where that leads. We are better with what we have: a long-term recovery led by investment and exports.

All around the world people can see how well the British economy is doing. Only here in Britain is that not recognised. That matters. It matters politically. It matters economically too. Because confidence is a key ingredient in taking advantage of our recovery.

You can help us and yourselves by taking this message out onto the doorsteps. When people ask about the feel good factor invite them to look at the lengthening job columns in your local paper, point to the falling dole queues, to the local businesses that have won new export orders.

To the fact that employment in manufacturing is growing for the first time in generations. To the fact that we are beating the performance of the best economies in Europe. These things matter to local government because your spending and your services depend upon the growth of the British economy.

And herein lies one of the ironies of government. We need growth to pay for services. But to make sure we have that growth we must hold down spending to what we can afford.

That is why this year’s spending round was tough. The local government settlement is tight. It had to be. This means choosing the right priorities. Let me illustrate the point.

Is it really more important to expand top management in town halls or to put money into services? You know the answer. But an extra £500 million has gone into top management over recent years.

Is it really defensible that in some authorities, employees take twice as much sick leave as in others? Of course not. But it happens.

Is it really the right priority that for every three teachers in the classroom, there are two others in the education service who are not teaching?

And why in times of stringency, is it always the front line teachers that we are told will be cut back?

The responsible local government position is to say: yes, it’s a tough settlement so we’ll pick our priorities and our teachers are among the first of them. That’s the way local government acts best in the interests of local communities.

Of course setting the right priorities is difficult. But that plays to our strengths. Many Conservative councillors bring to local government invaluable experience in business. You know what it’s like in the market place. You know how intense are the competitive pressures out there. Local government cannot be divorced from the real world.

Regional Assemblies

Nor should it be too divorced from its electorate. The virtue of most local government is its closeness to the electorate. But that link with people would be gravely weakened if local government were to lose many of its services to the new regional assemblies that the Labour Party would like to inflict on us.

Frankly, the last thing our communities need now is Labour’s plans to put you under the control of regional government. Another whole tier of government would make Britain the most over-governed country in Europe.

And why are they doing it?

Because they've promised a Parliament in Scotland and an Assembly in Wales and they don’t want an English backlash.

And why have they offered these?

Because they’re running scared of the Nationalists. And why are they running scared of the Nationalists? Because they need to win a large majority of seats in Scotland and Wales to win a General Election at Westminster.

So there you have it.

Because of their partisan political interests at Westminster Labour are prepared to inflict a whole new higher tier of Regional Government, at unknown cost, with a huge increase in bureaucracy and weaken the powers of genuine local government.

And “once regional government is up and running the demand for more services will be unstoppable.”

Don’t take my word for it - that’s a straight quote from Labour’s policy document.

And at whose expense will that be? It will be at your expense. Let me tell you why. According to dear old Frank Dobson, Labour’s policy would ‘probably’ - note that - suggest that a few responsibilities for delivering services should be transferred from local government to regional assemblies. So, these new Assembly’s won’t just take devolved powers from Westminster - they will inevitably suck up powers from the present system of local government. A new principle - devolution upwards.

Which few responsibilities are they going to take? Well, we don’t really know. Planning? Transport? Education? These are all functions local government now has. Is Frank Dobson suggesting that Labour is likely - wholly or partly - to suck them up into regional assemblies? He seems to be. And, of course, the appetite of these assemblies will grow with the feeding.

I wonder how many Labour candidates for the local elections realise that Labour wish to disembowel the Councils they’re standing for.

And these regional authorities will also have an appetite for spending. They'll spend. You'll precept. So they'll get the money and you'll get the pleasure of sending out the Bills.

Or will you? Because who do you think said this:

“You could not conceivably establish elected regional assemblies as well as having a tier of shire counties and districts underneath that”.

Jack Straw said that. Does that mean that they'll suck up all your powers? We don’t know. That’s the latest revisionism. So presumably it’s official Labour policy. Probably. But what does it mean? Are you to be abolished? Heaven alone knows.

Now, you'll have noticed that what poor old Frank Dobson has been saying is quite different from what Jack Straw said.

But if they can’t agree on what these assemblies will do, surely they can say where they’ll be established. Well you’d be disappointed. They have - and I quote - ‘no fixed views’.

It’s not as if they can plead ignorance of local government. Frank Dobson has plenty of experience. He was Leader of Camden Council, among the most inefficient and expensive in the land. The Council, not Frank. Well, maybe Frank too. In any event, I think he was the Leader. He would say he was ‘probably’ the Leader.

So there we have it. I have never known such a total shambles as Labour’s plans for Regional Parliaments and Assemblies. They are a complete mess. Farcical, amateurish, ill-thought out and contradictory. The plain fact is instead of rambling around the country addressing carefully selected audiences on Clause IV, a dinosaur that has been dead for years, the Labour leader should be explaining this nonsense to Local Councils. 16 years in opposition and they’re still making policy on the hoof. They have lots and lots of options. No one can say their local government policy is in a straitjacket. But perhaps the person who wrote it should be.

Call me old fashioned, but when I was a councillor in Lambeth the people who emptied the bins were called dustmen. And it was an honourable calling. Then the politically correct decided dustmen had to be called refuse collection operatives. Now I understand Labour authorities call them environmental hygienists. Well, I suggest we give our environmental hygienists a copy of Labour’s plans and tell them to pass it to honest, down to earth dustmen and they’ll know exactly what to do with it.

What nonsense their plans are. We don’t need yet another tier of councils, more politicians, more bureaucrats, more directives, more frustration and more costs. They want councils that:

- deliver low council taxes;

- put the frontline first;

- play a role in making our streets safe;

- back local business.

There’s a clear choice here, First, lower council taxes. If you want to pay over £75 more, vote for your Liberal candidate. If you want to pay about £150 more, vote for your Labour candidate. But if you want to spend more of your money on your groceries, your clothes, your holiday, your family, then vote Conservative.

But, paying less doesn't mean getting less - if you give priority to frontline services. Conservative councils work for higher standards in the classroom. Labour Sheffield doubles its leisure budget and cuts its funds for education.

And Wigan spends £1/4 million of its education budget on vintage traction engines, including the splendidly named Lively Lady. Frankly, I’d sooner money went on lively pupils.

Conservative councils give priority to better homes. Labour Sheffield admits it takes twice the national average time to prepare properties for new tenants.

Conservative councils give priority to fire services. Labour Dudley apparently thought it more important to send its councillors to Delhi to see how the Indian Fire Brigade works.

And good Councils, too, are involved in the fight against crime. They have a pivotal responsibility in making our streets safe. The best way to fight crime is to make sure it doesn't happen in the first place. It is not just a matter of leaving everything to the police. Better street lighting, more closed circuit cameras in streets and shopping malls - the electronic bobby on the beat. Intelligent use of the planning laws. And it also means backing the active citizen. In many ways local authorities can play a role which makes streets safe for the law abiding and dangerous for the criminal. You, as leaders of our communities, need to give the message loud and clear. We are all on the same side in the fight against crime.

We must always be the party that backs local business. You know that it is the factories that create the local jobs, it is the shopkeepers who create the bustle, vitality and character of our town centres. But how often, as councillors, do you hear of over-zealous officials imposing petty restraints which make life difficult for business and drive shops from the centres of our towns? It is you, as Conservative councillors, who can exercise the restraining arm. With your help, you can help local business prosper and create jobs.

Peroration

Conservative councils stand for commonsense, not politically-correct nonsense. Stories about the antics of Labour councils pandering to political correctness well might be funny. But, it’s not so funny if it’s your money going down the Swanee.

I have a great trust in the commonsense of the British people. I don’t believe they'll be taken in by clever-dick sound bites. They want a rational explanation of the great issues. They want to know what is at stake. We've got to get out and tell them. Now more than ever we must go on the attack and end the easy ride that Labour and the Liberals have had.

A General once said: ‘Wars are not won by evacuations’.

They are won by winning the battle of ideas.

By offering the best services at the lowest cost

By taking our case, undiluted, out to the doorsteps.

It’s an old fashioned concept. It’s hard work. But it’s the right thing to do and I believe it will bring you the success you deserve.