Tribune, 7 February 1992
Paul Anderson quizzes Labour’s environment spokesman, Bryan Gould, about the election campaign and Labour’s plans for local government
Bryan Gould is a busy man. On top of a massive brief as Labour’s front-bench environment spokesman, which covers everything from standard spending assessments to global warming, he is due to play a major role in Labour’s election campaign, just as he did in 1987.
When Neil Kinnock is out of London, John Cunningham, the party’s campaigns co-ordinator, will take the chair for Labour’s morning campaign press conferences. And when Cunningham is away – as he often will be, not least because his own constituency, Copeland, is anything but safe – Gould will be master of ceremonies.
He also has particular responsibility for the campaign in London, where Labour could win or lose the election and where the reputation of Labour councils is likely to be a major factor. At present, though, there is no doubt what is most on his mind: making sure that Labour wins the campaign battle on local government taxation.
“The poll tax is certain to be a dominant election issue whether the election is on April 9 or May 7,” he says. “I think it has got to be one of those two dates now. If it’s April 9, the election will take place when the bills have just arrived. If it’s May 7, the campaign will start the week the bills go out.
“The question is whether we can repeat our success so far in equating poll tax with the Tory Government. Michael Heseltine will be doing all he can to blame Labour local authorities for high poll tax bills. On everyone’s bill there will be a figure for ‘other adjustments’, which is really a euphemism for non-collection costs, and he will say: ‘That’s what’s pushed up your bill.’
“So we’re working very hard right now and through to the election to explain that these are problems intrinsic to the poll tax. They are not the fault of any local authority, Labour or otherwise. Even the Prime Minister described the poll tax as ‘virtually uncollectable’. We’re going to dump it on the Tories’ doorstep and say: ‘That’s where responsibility lies’.”
In line with this, Labour has done its best in the past fortnight to emphasise the extent of the chaos created by the poll tax. Last week, David Blunkett, the party’s local government spokesman, released figures showing that more than 10,500,000 summonses for poll tax debt had been issued. Both he and Gould have repeatedly blamed government incompetence for the recent breakdown in poll-tax non-payment prosecutions caused by the refusal of several magistrates’ courts to refuse to accept computerised records as valid evidence.
So far, the Labour poll tax assault seems to be working, although it is a moot point what happens if the Tories are panicked into using the budget on March 10 to reduce bills, as they did last year.
There is certainly less mileage for Labour in the council tax, the Government’s replacement for the poll tax from spring 1993. A banded property tax, it is not so radically different from Labour’s own proposed “fair rates” system. Indeed, there has been much speculation that a Labour government might find it useful to adapt the council tax to its own purposes.
Gould says that Labour has considered this option but has now rejected it. “One thing we’ve always been clear about is that we are detennined to get rid of the poll tax as early as possible – which now means, unfortunately, April 1 1993. When we get to office we will pursue whatever course takes us most directly to a position on that date when poll tax ends and the fair rates system begins. Now, we did concede last year, because it made sense and it was reassuring to local government, that, if it had emerged that the council tax preparations offered the quickest way; to get rid of the poll tax and pick up on our fair: rates proposals, we would not be dog in the manger on political or ideological grounds and; say: ‘No, it’s a Tory idea and we’ll have nothing to do with it.’
“But that was only ever a possibility if preparations for the council tax were acceptable to us, if the valuation was a proper valuation and not a Mickey Mouse operation. In the event, the council tax preparations are a lot of rubbish and virtually unusable by us. In almost any conceivable circumstances we will be legislating to pick up the 1973 rates valuations which were in operation until 1990, not because it’s ideal but because it’s the quickest way.”
In anticipation of Tory attacks on the profligacy of Labour councils, the Labour leadership has pulled out all the stops to dissuade Labour local authorities from going on a spending spree in the expectation of a Labour government, as many did in the run-up to 1987. The implicit message is that Labour will not bail out anyone who gets into trouble under the existing Tory rules.
“A lot of people got their fingers burnt last time,” says Gould. “Our message now is that councils should frame budgets and take other decisions on the basis of known facts and not future hopes and expectations. One can’t stop people from hoping, but no prudent and sensible authority will budget other than on the assumption that the current regime will apply during the next financial year. We’re not saying that with a Labour government there would not be some relaxation of rules on spending, but that’s a separate issue.”
The main areas for relaxation are the ending of the “ring-fencing” of receipts from council house sales, which earmarks them for repayment of borrowing, and the abolition of central government “capping” of local government taxation (although not until 1993).
“On the capital side, there’s a total of between £6,000 million and £8,000 million in capital receipts and we think it’s crazy that this should be tied up when it’s desperately needed, especially for house-building,” says Gould. “We’ll progressively relax those constraints, although not overnight. The construction industry resources just aren’t there to use it all.
“On the revenue side, we can promise nothing for the next year. In future years, we’re absolutely clear: no capping. We’re certainly looking to local authorities being responsible when setting fair rates bills, but it will be their judgment as to what they think is a proper programme to put before the electors. Annual elections will subject their judgment to the judgment of the electors. In terms of grant, we’re not promising more taxpayers’ money, but we are promising a better and fairer distribution.”
Tb ensure that councils provide “value for money”, Labour plans to introduce a “Quality Commission” to oversee standards of services, with powers to send in its own management to take over and improve a poor service or to compel the council to put it out to tender. That, says Gould, is the only area where Labour will retain the compulsory element in competitive tendering: in all other cases, councils which want to put services out to tender will be free to do so but will not have to.
That existing councils spend and do is only part of the election problem, however. The Tories have also begun to attack on grounds of cost Labour’s plans for regional government in England. Inside the Labour Party, the scheme has been widely criticised as nothing more than a sop to get northern English MPs to vote for Scottish devolution. Many commentators believe that the commitment to regional government will be quietly forgotten as soon as a Scottish parliament is up and running.
Gould insists that regional government will not be ditched. “The objective will be to lead, within the lifetime of a first Labour government, to legislation which will provide for regional government,” he says. “We can’t be absolutely certain that the legislative framework we will establish will be implemented by that first government.
“But, to give a flavour of the sort of timing we’d be thinking of, it has been suggested, and I wouldn’t dissent from it, that it might be possible to hold the first election for regional assemblies at the same time as the general election after next.” As for paying for regional government, he says it “would be financed by block grant”.
The Tories have attempted as well to raise the spectre of a free-spending “Greater London Council Mark Two” emerging from Labour’s plans for an all-London authority. Gould is keen to emphasise that it won’t be like that at all. “It will have no powers to intervene in what the boroughs do now,” he says. “What we need is a strategic authority which does what is not being done at present and does in a democratically accountable way what these numberless quangos now do.” Land-use, economic and environmental planning, emergency services and transport would come under the new body, but not housing.
If local government is already a focus for the election campaign, the same cannot be said for Gould’s other responsibilities as environment spokesman: carbon dioxide emissions and climate change, destruction of the ozone layer, chemical waste, nuclear reprocessing and so on.
With the economy deep in recession and the Green Party at around 2 per cent in the opinion polls, the received wisdom is that there are fewer votes in green issues than there were three years ago.
Nevertheless, they remain important, says Gould, and, especially in the south-east and among younger voters, they could affect the election result. “One of the reasons that they have gone off the boil is that, while the Tories have lost interest, we have established a good comprehensive position. While I wouldn’t say that the environment campaigners have given up pressing us, they feel they’ve made their number with us. Our job now is to bring these issues back to the fore.” With the profile of environmental politics due to be given a much-needed boost by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, coming up in June, he could be making a shrewd judgment.