The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1991Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Speech to Conservative Local Government Conference – 2 March 1991

Below is Mr Major’s speech to the Conservative Local Government Conference made on Saturday 2nd March 1991 at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in London.



Mr Chairman, over the last few weeks the conflict in the Gulf has been uppermost in all our minds. Thousands of young men and women from the communities you represent took part in the battle to free Kuwait. Some gave their lives in that cause and all of us have been touched by their loss. Our hearts go out to their families and friends. We will never forget those young men. Nor will we forget what each of those out there in the Gulf has accomplished. Our duty now is to work for a peace worthy of their achievement and to bring those men home as soon as possible. I know this Conference will pay tribute to their courage.

I am delighted to be with you today. I began my political career in local government some time ago. And I am proud of that. I enjoyed it. I learned a lot from it. Local government is important. It is just as much a trust to be elected as a councillor as to hold office in the Government. Because to be elected is to undertake obligations. That is the trust. And it is something that no-one in politics must ever forget.

Lessons from Lambeth: Conservative and Labour compared

Many years ago, I became Chairman of housing in what was then Conservative Lambeth. And I had good reason to know the housing problems far too many people faced. Indeed in some ways I had shared them. I knew that it was the duty of a Conservative council to help. To help obtain for people what they wanted, not provide for them what the Courcil wanted. We were innovators. We built in Lambeth council houses for sale. We opened the first ever Housing Aid Centre. And we took housing officers out to meet the people of Lambeth face to face and hear their problems. And very interesting meetings some of those turned out to be too.

Few people wrote then about what was happening in Lambeth. It was quiet work and efficient – typically Conservative, in fact. How things changed under Labour. Then Lambeth became famous. Famous for putting politics before people, personal ambition before public service. Famous for red flags flying over the Town Hall. For bureaucracy blossoming, while services withered away. For costs surging through the roof, while quality was kicked out of the window. The very worst in local government. That’s Labour’s legacy.

And, sadly, not only in Lambeth. Camden and lslington; Haringey and Hackney; Derbyshire and Liverpool. All Labour Councils. And all bywords for incompetence and waste. Each of them proving that Labour local government – like Labour national Government – never works. It never has. And, what’s more, it never will.

Commitment to, principle of local government: aims of local government

Mr Chairman, we are here for one reason. Not just because we have served or do serve in local government. But because we care about it. Because we know that when it operates well local government is the best way to see that local services fit local needs. Up and down the country Conservative councillors, like those of you here today, have shown what good local government can mean. You have put in long hours and made many sacrifices. You can be proud of what you have achieved.

But seeing that local services fit local needs doesn’t mean councils must themselves provide every service. Far from it. I believe in the principle of the enabling council. A council that acts on behalf of the public, not the providers. Its job is to ensure that good services are delivered, seek out new methods, and call in specialist skills, wherever those are needed. Its job is to buy in the best quality at the best price, whether from its own workforce or outside, and then to put it to the benefit of its local community. That enabling role is the key to good local government.

But if councils are to be confident and perform well, they must also be secure about their role. They need certainty. They need to know what their tasks are. I am determined to see a stable and lasting framework created for local government in the 1990s. And by that I mean a structure that is effective and will endure. A system of finance that is sustainable. For only that will attract people of high calibre into local service. No-one here should be in any doubt. Good local government will be vital in this Governments strategy to widen opportunity and spread responsibility throughout the country.

Past achievements of Conservatives in local government

No-one should question our commitment to that aim. This Party was the principal architect of modern local government.

– from the enhancement of Victorian city centres:

– through the social improvements of Neville Chamberlain and others in the first half of this century;

– to the new ideas and methods of public service pioneered by Conservative Councils today.

This Government will support all of you in building on that great tradition of reform.

Need to look to the long-term, not immediate worries

The last twenty-five years have not been easy for local government. Amidst many pressures it has been damaged. The infiltration of the Loony Left and the shifty centre into too many of our town halls has seen to that.

Local Government has become too defensive, too inward-looking, too much obsessed with means and too little about ends. Over the next years I want us to look again to the longer-term role of local councils. I want to chart out a fresh vision and a better course for local government.

Finance: cutting costs and relieving needs, attack on non-payment

Many of you, of course, are already involved in the debate about finance. Michael Portillo has already discussed that with you this morning. I want to make just three points today:

First, no system of local government finance can last if the public think their money is being wasted and their services are poor. More Conservative Councils are proving to the public that charges can be cut, yet services developed further. They deserve our praise for that. And the rest of our Party must follow their lead.

Secondly, we have already made considerable efforts to see that most help with local costs goes to those who most need that help. We are now improving support for those whose bills were most affected by change through the Community Charge Reduction Scheme.

Take Lancashire, for example, where as we all know particular problems were faced. There, the relief available next year for couples living in smaller properties – half average rateable value – will in some cases be up to £500. On average across the nation people will pay £100 less than the headline community charge. The help we are giving will benefit some 18 million people nationwide. It deserves to be far better known. And in the next few weeks we must ensure that it is.

The point I will make on finance is this. Conservatives help people in need in practical ways and with practical solutions. How different from those in the Labour Party who posture about solidarity, but push others into breaking the law. Non-payment can be justified in no circumstances. Never by Labour councillors claiming attendance allowances paid out of the community charge. And least of all by Labour MPs. What they don’t pay, others less well off have to pay for them.

It is a disgrace that Labour MP after Labour MP is trooping into the courts to proclaim his defiance of the law. Of this I’m sure: those who break the law have no right to make the law. It should be a source of lasting shame to the Labour Party and its Leader that no action has been taken to crack down on behaviour like theirs.

Bad management discredits local government

But it’s not just over the community charge that Labour leadership has failed. Labour Council after Labour Council and Liberal Council after Liberal Council has wasted the public’s money and let their services run down. You all know some of the examples:

– The council that spent millions of pounds on a new civic centre – and forgot to include a council chamber. Big spending on bureaucracy; no accountability to the public. The very model of modern Labour local government.

– There was the council that lost over £5 million in running a time-share operation. Only the Labour Party could give the time-share sharks a good name.

– And then there was the council that sent a member and an officer on a fact-finding trip about football. What a coincidence that the trip was to Italy during the 1990 World Cup. Labour’s version of the penalty shoot-out; the council shoot out to the sun; and the public pay the penalty.

It is this sort of nonsense that has cast discredit on local government. Because of this sort of nonsense the good work of the many has been missed among the excesses of the few.

The Conservative Agenda: less government, more service

We in this Party must now set a new agenda, provide reforming leadership, and rebuild confidence in local government. Many of you have already begun. Conservative Councils have led the way in cutting back bureaucracy, bringing in private sector skills, and concentrating attention on service to the public.

But we need to do more. There are still attitudes that are wrong. Still too many who see competitive tendering as a threat. Still too many who think the answer to a problem is to appoint an officer. In my experience the better answer is often to disappoint an officer. And still too many committees, too many reports, too many members struggling in piles of paper and mountains of unread bumph.

What we need in local government is less paper and more action. Less empire-building and more innovation. Less government and more service. That must be the Conservative way.

Simpler local government

The very essence of local government should be variety. Some people feel there are too many layers of local government in some areas. It may well be that we need to simplify the structure and reduce the number of bodies we now have overall. We have that position under review. And here, too, your views will count.

But some change surely must come. I do not think that the pattern of local government has to be uniform. Why should it be the same everywhere? Differing structures might be right for different parts of the country. Local opinion must play its part. But on no account will we create wasteful new tiers of local government as Labour and Liberals propose.

Finance and structure are important. But in my view they should be part of, and not control, the arguments about local government as a whole. The key questions are simple. They are about functions. What is local government for? What is the proper range of its activity? Who is it seeking to serve? And how best can it achieve those ends?

Those are the key issues. And in developing new ways to answer those questions, I want our party to stay in the lead. There are two areas, above all, where I want new ideas to be felt – in education and in housing.

Education – local authorities to assist not obstruct, change

I have spoken elsewhere of my belief that education must be top of our agenda for the 1990s. We are now giving more influence to governors and parents. The best local authorities encourage that change; the worst stand in its way. I deplore the way in which some councils have held back funds from schools keen to take on local management.

In some places too much of the schools budget goes into administration and too little into the classroom. We need to shift that balance. The role of LEAs is changing. There will still be crucial tasks to perform. But we Conservatives believe that it is the wishes of parents, not the politics of the councillors, that must determine priorities in school.

Housing – putting people first

In housing, too, changes must come. And, again, Conservative councils are in the lead. Conditions on far too many of our housing estates – owned, managed and maintained by local authorities – are an absolute disgrace. Since 1979 we have set out to tackle those problems:

– Giving tenants the right to buy.

– Developing the role of housing associations.

– Offering new freedoms to those unable to buy their own homes.

Competition, choice and freedom are as always the public’s friend. So what is it that we want to see? In housing I want to see home ownership and our housing reforms go further. But I also recognise that for the foreseeable future many families will remain in properties under council control. They, too, deserve the best service. All too often they are left with the worst.

As one former Labour MP said of Labour Hackney Council, “tenants were not treated as people at all.” Tenants not treated as people at all. What does that tell you of the arrogance of Labour Councils” It tells me that nothing has changed since I lived under the control of Labour’. And it tells me, too, that if there is one thing this Party must do, it is to sweep out of our town halls the outrage of attitudes like those.

Housing management is one of many areas where more use should be made of outside skills. Here, too, the job of councils is to choose the best way of providing what people want. It is to protect their own staff if they are not performing up to the mark. Where there is patronising of tenants, or slow response to repair jobs, it needs to be exposed, not excused.

Yet, all too often, Labour councils react the other way. If a council’s housing management is not delivering results, then it is high time to bring in a new management team. That is true of many other white collar as well as manual tasks. Legal departments. Computer services. Conveyancing. Aspects of planning. All these could be on the competitive tendering list. And when new management is brought in I for one don’t want to hear that every one of yesterday’s administrators have become today’s monitors, and that life in the old town hail is as cosy as ever before.

More contractorization

Conservative councils are making those changes voluntarily. But Labour councils are not. So what we will be looking at in Government is how well compulsory competitive tendering has worked so far, at where we need to revise existing legislation, and in what new areas contracting should be applied. These techniques offer new opportunities for councils to improve their services and provide better quality for the public.

It is not just because we back private sector approaches in themselves. It’s not only private we back; it’s quality and cost- effectiveness from wherever it comes. But we cannot – and will not – accept that the public should be denied the most efficient service their council can provide.

So what is the system of local government we want to see? It is a system that reacts to the choices of the public and which doesn’t deny them. It is a system where those who check on quality are independent from those who provide it. It is a system where information on how services are doing is shared with the public and not hidden from them. It is after all that very same public who depend on and pay for the services themselves. Above all, I want a system in which a good new idea is seen, not as a threat to the workforce, but an opportunity for the public. The principle of competitive tendering will help carry forward all these objectives. And that is why you in Conservative Councils have been the first to embrace it.

It is because Conservative councils have always been leaders in innovation and change, that Conservative local government is trusted, while Labour local government is feared. You can have pride in the part you have played to bring that about.

Neil Kinnock skulks away when the Press ask him about his own local council. Hardly surprising that he does. We took Ealing from Labour last year. Then there were changes. The gender advisers, whatever they were, in every council department were moved. The animal rights officer who was trying to close pet shops – he lost his job. But the key facts are these. Thanks to a Conservative Council Neil Kinnock pays less and receives more than he did under Labour. Funny really that he never mentions it. He’s uncharacteristically silent when the Press come to call.

Well, we in this hall are not going to stay silent. We are going to tell people what Conservative local government has achieved and will achieve in future. We are going to set out our commitment to first- class local services. Together on May 2nd we are going to drive Labour and Liberal councils out of office throughout Britain. And we are going to put into office Conservative councils, committed to the principles we have set out today, and ready to restore integrity and pride to local government in every part of our country.