John Stevenson: Before I make my general comments, may I gently remind the House of the economic mess of 2010 and the financial difficulties that this country was in at that time? Opposition Members seem to forget that.
First, I congratulate the Government on the overall budget increase to local authorities, which I think helps councils to plan for the future and creates some stability for them. We often underestimate the importance of local authorities and the role that they play in providing leadership in their communities, helping to develop localities and, most importantly of all, providing services to their areas. I also welcome the Government’s various initiatives on social care, the new homes bonus and—this is of particular importance to me—business rates retention. That is a very important incentive to local authorities to be business-friendly, and I am just sorry that Cumbria is not part of one of the pilot schemes.
I want to touch on some wider issues, one of which is the relationship between central Government, local government and MPs. We often underestimate the importance of such relationships and the great change that can be made when people work together. I would like to put on record my thanks to the Secretary of State, the Minister for Housing and the Minister with responsibility for the northern powerhouse, my hon. Friend Jake Berry, for their positive and proactive approach to dealings with me and my local authorities to improve our region.
These are exciting times for my city of Carlisle and for the region. Traditionally, we have in many respects punched below our weight. We are the regional capital and the only city in the area, yet for many years we appear not quite to have reached our potential. I genuinely believe that that is starting to change. We have had investment from Pirelli, the Edinburgh Woollen Mill, 2 Sisters, Pioneer and McVities—to name some very important companies in our area. That demonstrates that the Government are interested in rebalancing the economy and in the northern powerhouse, which is relevant to Carlisle and beyond.
There is further evidence of such support from central Government, and of the relationship between central Government, local government and MPs. We have an enterprise zone, where businesses are now expanding and growing. We have the garden village with 10,000 new houses—a real vision for the future for Carlisle—and financial support from the Government is helping local authorities to make appropriate plans for that village. As the Secretary of State is well aware, we have made a housing infrastructure fund application that, if successful, will unlock the garden village. It will be the biggest significant infrastructure investment in Carlisle in a generation, and it will be a huge boost to the region, not just to the city. Of course, there is also the borderlands initiative, which goes beyond Carlisle to south-west Scotland and the rest of Cumbria and Northumbria. That really exciting opportunity for the area demonstrates that a positive relationship between councils, MPs and central Government can bring real benefits to a locality.
I give credit to the Labour leader of the city council in that he has been willing to be proactive, but an awful lot more can be done. We have all-out elections in Carlisle in May. If we achieve what I hope will happen—a Conservative council—I think that we will see even more happening when there is working between a Conservative council, a Conservative MP and a Conservative Government.
My final observation is about the devolution of powers and the reform of local government structures. As Ministers are well aware, Cumbria is in need of reform. We are over-governed and over-represented, and there is a real opportunity for rationalisation and savings. The way forward is unitary, but not with a single authority. Cumbria is too large a geographical area with a small population, so something else needs to be done, but clearly reform is required.
I support the Government’s direction of travel on local authorities. It is the right approach and I will support it. My real message today is that with proactive central Government, with a responsive local government and with MPs willing to work with local and national Government, an awful lot can be achieved. I therefore look forward to welcoming Ministers to Carlisle in the near future.