Major likely to face attack from Tory councillors

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JOHN MAJOR is likely to face a wave of criticism from his own party when he meets local authority associations this week as both Tory and Labour-controlled councils struggle with government-imposed limits on spending.

The Prime Minister called in a recent speech for a 'renaissance' in local government and an end to 'head-butting' with central government, a tendency he hopes to nail at a meeting with association leaders on Wednesday.

But a leading Conservative local government activist claimed yesterday that the Government's spending limits and capping rules were depriving councils of their independence. The fact that councils raised only 20 per cent of their funding locally was 'obnoxious'.

Many Conservative-controlled shire councils have announced large-scale job losses or cuts in services, while Bill Dixon-Smith, the Conservative chairman of the Association of County Councils, yesterday raised concerns over the whole future of local government.

The capping regime had significantly affected local government's role, Mr Dixon-Smith said during an interview with BBC Television's On the Record. 'In effect, even the level of the council tax is also set by the Government instead of independent local government and that's wrong. It must always be wrong and personally I will always fight against it.'

Local councils now raise only about a fifth of their money from local taxation. Capping rules mean that even this is controlled by the Government.

Mr Dixon-Smith said: 'The man who pays the piper calls the tune. The Government is paying up all the money. They're saying we have an absolute right to say what should happen.

'I find that obnoxious. The purpose of local government is to judge what is necessary locally and do it. But at the moment I don't think they have the independence that I think we ought to have.'

Mr Dixon-Smith's comments augur badly for the 6 May county council elections, but John Redwood, the local government minister, insisted Mr Dixon-Smith agreed with a great deal that the Government was doing. Some district councils had set zero council taxes, he said. 'The big difference . . . lies in the attitude in the past towards borrowing and expansion of services,' Mr Redwood said.

'Whether they've done it recklessly or sensibly. Some councils have gone on borrowing year after year. They've never had good years in which they've repaid borrowings.'

Mr Redwood pointed to Tory- controlled Hampshire County Council. 'Hampshire don't get a great deal of grant by national average standards, but this year they are setting the lowest council tax as from April and they are hiring 900 extra people.'

Mike Grealy, finance under- secretary of the Tory-controlled association, said Goverment was not only deciding spending levels, but also how money was spent.

'At a stroke, the Secretary of State for Education decided that further education should be run from the centre. There was no prior discussion, no White Paper.'

Mr Grealy said that all but a handful of the 39 counties would have to introduce budget cuts this year.