My speech during the debate on Local Government Finance (England), 10 February 2021

I thank the Government for their generous assistance to councils to help us through the pandemic crisis. My constituency is served by West Berkshire Council and Wokingham District Council—both are unitaries. They certainly needed money to assist with the extra costs that covid-19 has caused, and there was a scheme, the pressures grant, to do that. The councils certainly needed assistance to deal with losses of tax revenues, and there was a scheme to reimburse 75% of lost tax revenues during these extraordinary times of business closures and business stress.

There were clearly difficulties with shortfalls on sales, fees and charges, and again a scheme was introduced —I am pleased to see today that that is being extended for another quarter, because it looks as though there still will be an overhang into the second quarter of this calendar year. I am particularly pleased that there is additional assistance to allow councils to be sympathetic to people who are struggling to pay their council tax. The one little niggle that Wokingham has still suffered from is that where the council has brought in private sector management for a leisure sector, there can be difficulties with reimbursement for lost revenues. I would like to see further progress in sorting that out.

In the past, both West Berkshire Council and Wokingham Borough Council have suffered from pretty tight, or low, social care grants, and I am pleased to see a reasonable increase in social care grant going through for the next year. I urge Ministers to continue to look at that grant, because there is growth in demand and need, and we want high standards of care for people who require assistance. Certain councils, particularly the two serving my constituency, which were right at the bottom of the pack in terms of the amount of grant in relation to population, needed some tweaking of the sums. It is a very difficult situation. It is as costly looking after the elderly or children in Wokingham and west Berkshire as it is in the rest of the country, so we need at least as much, proportionately, as other places. We have often suffered from that.

I want to reinforce the Secretary of State’s important message about the role that councils can and should play in getting the country back to work and, in particular, in revitalising, refreshing and renewing our town centres, our village shopping areas and some of the shopping centres in which councils are engaged or have a stake. It is true that councils are very important agents in setting the tone, providing the regulations, sorting out the planning, and sometimes, as co-owners or landlords, creating the right kinds of spaces in our town centres and facilitating or providing the right environment for a return to vibrant life.

Let us be in no doubt: this is going to be a big ask and a difficult task, because the covid crisis and the resulting closures have accelerated a number of trends that were already under way. There will be more online shopping relative to shopping in shops, even after we get some return to normal and people can get out more and more shops can open. People will need to be tempted back to the restaurants and the cafés. We will need to work carefully with the businesses that own and run the shops and manage the cafés and restaurants to make sure that government, where it can, assists them and allows for the adaptation and development of town and village centres so that they can flourish again, with probably a different mix of services and businesses from that which preceded the covid crisis.

For example, as councils are usually the highways authority and they control access to town or village centres, surely the first thing they need to do is to review that access. A lot of families are going to need the car for elderly people, for children or because of the distance they are from the town centre in order to get there in the first place. They may need the car because if they are buying too much shopping to carry easily, they will need the boot to take the shopping back home. We need to make sure that car access is permitted. That requires looking at junctions to smooth them and make them safer, but also to improve the safe flow of traffic. I was pleased to hear the Secretary of State mention that there will be money for bridges, because quite often impediments to getting into towns are created by railway lines and rivers, and we may need more bridging capacity. I hope that the Government will look particularly at light-controlled junctions, because those with the wrong phasing can be clumsy and impede progress for people into town, city and village centres.

Councils often either own the parking provision or are important in making sure that it is adequate, and they sometimes regulate the car parks. I therefore hope that they will understand that in order to tempt people back into these centres to turn them back into the vibrant spaces we want, there may need to be a discount or a generous offer, certainly in the early days, to give people the idea that it is safe to go back into the town, that they are wanted there, and that they can then park for long enough. Increasingly, visits to our towns and shopping centres will not just be for be an hour or so to go and do a bit of quick shopping—people will want to sit down and have a coffee or lunch. They may want to take advantage of some of the services in the town centre, as well as actually buying physical goods. They may wish to enjoy the experience of lingering a bit longer in the shops, having been denied that for so long. I hope councils will look carefully at parking arrangements, and be generous.

I hope planning authorities will look carefully at flexibility so that owners, who may include the councils themselves, are allowed to carry out sensible plans for optimising the use of the building. The Secretary of State has been doing a lot of work on ensuring that planning restrictions and designations do not get in the way of sensible flexibility. Indeed, we will need plenty of flexibility and imagination, because a number of businesses that operated in town and city centres a year or more ago will not be available.

A great number of large chains of shops have gone through receivership or made major reductions, having come to the conclusion, one way or another, that they want fewer physical stores. Even if they have a good online offer, which will work with their favoured locations, we will see a lot of those chains retreat from high streets and shopping centres. I also fear that, wherever possible, a lot of small shops may need a friendly arm around them from the council and the Government, as otherwise we could lose a lot of capacity in the small shop area.

I trust that councils and the Government will work to make the situation as attractive as possible. A bit of money may need to be spent on beautifying towns and village centres, and ensuring they are in good order to welcome people back. Councils often have town or shopping centre managers, who need to be given backing in order to come up with imaginative solutions.

This huge task is in everybody’s interests, including shoppers, landlords, employees and the councils. Above all, councils need to help the Government to rebuild the tax base of our towns, cities and village centres, and ensure that there will be that flow of business revenue in future—not just business rates, but the trading revenues that the national taxation system can collect and reroute to local government. Without prosperity there is not sufficient money for great public services, and councils must be part of the process through which that prosperity is rebuilt. I thank the Secretary of State for the help he has offered local councils. I urge him to please be generous on social care, and to do everything he can to promote the recovery we desperately need.


  1. MiC
    February 11, 2021

    What a pity that John’s party were so zealous in removing the powers from local authorities to enact the democratic wishes of their voters with municipal and other such enterprises, and those to raise revenues locally in more flexible ways.

    And to think that they were the first and the loudest to shriek about what they claimed was the “centralisation” of the European Union.

    Go on, reflect on the irony of this. You can if you try.

  2. Fred.H
    February 11, 2021

    Wokingham wasted a lot of money in road narrowing measures simply to create more pedestrian width, when a one-way restriction would have been cheaper and simpler. The measures were largely ignored by pedestrians who continued to pass within 2m of one another. Councils all over the country applied similar traffic restriction, yet compulsory mask wearing was never introduced. I see people avoiding passing each other by stepping briefly into roads and often crossing to the opposite pavement.

    ‘A bit of money may need to be spent on beautifying towns and village centres’ – – little point when so many shops will be boarded up, Business closed stickers etc. Lockdown has caused the end of shops in ‘high streets’ which will not recover.

  3. glen cullen
    February 11, 2021

    If we can afford HS2 we can afford anything

  4. No Longer Anonymous
    February 11, 2021

    Sorry O/T

    Here we go again. Flip flop Boris (roadmap out of lockdown.)

    So if we can’t get out of lockdown and the virus keeps mutating tell me one reason why the young, healthy and at low risk should take a rushed vaccine into their systems ?

    It didn’t want it in the first place so I’m not taking it now.

    1. No Longer Anonymous
      February 11, 2021

      And on the first sunny day this year I’m going to be on the beach with everyone else.

      We simply cannot go on. We cannot aim for zero Covid at ALL costs.

      Who runs Britain ?

      The virus runs Britain. We don’t need a PM or politicians anymore.

    2. glen cullen
      February 11, 2021

      Concur – and yet there are still less than 5,000 under 65yrs deaths due to covid ??? also why has the ONS stopped recording the age related deaths ???

    3. Cheshire Girl
      February 12, 2021

      Answer: Because the young and healthy can pass it on to others – or doesn’t that matter?

  5. Sakara Gold
    February 11, 2021

    This was a very good speech, up there with some of your best. Thank you for posting it.

    Of course, what is going to happen is that the councils will reduce service provision and increase council tax by the maximum 5% in April. A pity, because I enjoy using the library services – they can often get me a book that I want to read within a fortnight.
    Unfortunately, there are many residential wards with rats and other vermin plaguing residents currently so I hope they manage to maintain and improve refuse collection services. I wonder if the recent cold weather is forcing the rats to so bold as they search for sustenance in broad daylight?

  6. Jim
    February 11, 2021

    You have a problem Sir John. Council income is going to be reduced for some time to come. Schools will still need to be run even if you ignore those who missed classes. The old will still end up in nursing homes, the halt, lame and druggy will still need looking after. Potholes still need filling etc etc etc. And nowhere for that money to come from except Dishy Rishi.

    Put up taxes – but we are all self employed or unemployed now. Put up property taxes – just a heap of rubble now. You can trim the military and chop back the Lords and cheap dinners in the HoC but forgive me – that’s peanuts. What you need is a big insurance payout – you will have to roll those printing presses a bit longer. Not to worry, everyone else is in the same boat.

    1. Fred.H
      February 12, 2021

      But people are NOT in the same boat. Perhaps you have never noticed, but some people can go a whole year even 2 or 3 unemployed and live comfortably on other income or savings. For many RISHI seems unaware of or worst, their families are riven, mortgages under threat, rent going into arrears, children unsupported with little real home education nor social mixing. The social fabric and mental damage plus family discord will show its ugly side for years to come. Even those with money can still buy health intervention privately while average income people are denied by NHS.

  7. Everhopeful
    February 11, 2021

    The problem has been the response to whatever is supposed to ail us.
    That response has been entirely down to the government and opposition.
    Let them pay from their own pockets.
    We the people will levy a tax on them.

  8. Hope
    February 11, 2021

    JR, please clarify, I thought Leisure facilities are not a legal requirement for councils to provide? If correct any lost revenue is a matter for them. As you highlight many businesses will go bust, jobs will be lost because your govt deliberately closed them! Council staff and,councillors will not and have not had their pay reduced.

  9. acorn
    February 11, 2021

    Can I refer the Rh Hon Member to my previous reply at “Town Centres and Councils
    FEBRUARY 11, 2021” on his social media platform. Where I highlight the decade of damage caused by the mistaken application of the ideology known as “neoliberal austerity”. Cleverly inflicted on the UK electorate at sub-national levels of government, particularly the English level; such that the electorate will never notice or ever understand, that they are the latest participants proving the classic “boiling frog theory”.

  10. forthurst
    February 11, 2021

    There is a clear need to look at the overheads experienced by physically located businesses in comparison with those operating online. In my locale, the local council, in addition to rates, has very high parking charges as well as charges for rubbish collection and licences for all manner of extras for which the need or legality is questionable.

    However, the government should look first at the issue of landlords of commercial property and whether some of the clauses in their contracts belong under the category of unfair, such as upwards only rent reviews. The government should also compare typical British towns with typical continental towns to see to what extend legislation abroad has protected town centres from decline by limiting landlord and local authority imposts.

    There needs also to be a beefing up of the legislation that deals with monopolies and mergers to prevent good British companies becoming foreign owned and put into packing cases (despite the promises extracted by the government which have no effect whatsover every time) or an everlasting source of rental income in the case of infrastructure, or part of a group with a single owner whose idiocy, dishonesty or sloth can destroy tens of thousands of jobs and pension entitlements. It is far too easy for unscrupulous people and organisations to go to a bank, obtain millions created out of thin air, and then use a successful British business which may have been built up over very many years as a source of short term financial extraction. Its not only aero engines or submarine power plants we need, neither of which is much use without platforms.

  11. London Nick
    February 11, 2021

    On the issue of finance (I hope you like my segue) I see that because of the EU’s hostile and malevolent refusal to allow the City equivalence, Amsterdam has now overtaken London when it comes to EU company shares traded. Unless Boris intends to continue his cowardly and treacherous impersonation of a doormat, it is time for us to fight back. There is an excellent article in today’s Telegraph that explains exactly how this can be done very easily – see here:

    In a nutshell, here are the five simple steps that the government must now take:

    1. Scrap stamp duties to make London cheaper than any rivals;
    2. Link up with Zurich to create a European financial super-hub;
    3. Create a legal framework for cryptos to grab the fastest growing market;
    4. Design a fast-track ‘finance visa’ so banks can bring in talent from around the world hassle-free;
    5. Opt-out of the stupid EU red tape rules, such as Mifid II and GDPR.

    Well, Sir John, are you willing to press the government to take the fight to our vile EU enemies?

    1. dixie
      February 13, 2021

      I would also like to see measures to attract ETFs being UK or UK-friendly domiciled rather than Ireland, if needed in addition to the above.

      1. hefner
        February 13, 2021

        You might want to check the tax implications for the UK investor if all ETFs presently domiciled in Ireland and Luxembourg (Jersey?) were to be repatriated to the UK.

        1. dixie
          February 14, 2021

          Thanks for the heads up, I am aware that ETF tax aspects vary with type and domiciles where Irish/Luxembourg domiciles exempt withholding taxes, but I’d rather have the option not to contribute commerce to economies that are anti-UK. My goal is not to avoid tax but to be able to invest in a wider range of companies.

  12. William Long
    February 11, 2021

    It is clear from ministerial comments about the inadvisability of booking holidays, even in the UK, that the Government is not interested in promoting recovery, but just in maintaining total control over our lives.

    1. Fred.H
      February 12, 2021

      And we acquiesce like lambs to the slaughter, except like pigs they are not being slaughtered.

  13. Peter
    February 11, 2021

    ‘Increasingly, visits to our towns and shopping centres will not just be for be an hour or so to go and do a bit of quick shopping—people will want to sit down and have a coffee or lunch. ’

    That is what developers believe. So we see lots of mid market chain restaurants in certain towns. However many of them soon go into liquidation. Customers don’t value what they offer or the novelty wears off. Coffee shops do seem to make money with people queueing to buy coffee in lockdown towns and then having to drink it outside. I don’t really understand the appeal. Another thing I do not understand is how many traditional markets have been overrun with ‘street food’ stalls while traditional fruit and veg traders decline in numbers.

  14. Peter
    February 11, 2021

    Council tax irregularities need to be addressed. A friend in Wandsworth pays a fraction of what my council demands. They seemed to get preferential treatment for party political reasons and this has never been rectified. We are written off as a ‘leafy suburb’ yet Wandsworth property prices are high and residents can afford to pay a similar amount for services.

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