Congratulations to Hilary Benn on his appointment as the Shadow Communities Secretary. I'm afraid his appointment, replacing Caroline Flint, does represent a lurch to the Left. I don't expect to hear much from him on the case for wider home ownership. Nor is he is likely to be a convincing advocate of council housing allocation on the basis of something for something, rather than something for nothing.
Benn is an opponent of transparency. He defended the refusal of Nottingham City Council to publish their spending. He is also an opponent of weekly bin collections which he claims is motivated by his belief in recycling (at least for others.)
Benn does have local government experience. But is it altogether encouraging? He was Deputy Leader of Ealing Council from 1986-90.
This debate recorded in Hansard gives a feel for what it was like. Here are some extracts from the speech by Sir George Young, (MP for Ealing, Acton at the time):
The Labour party now running Ealing is an entirely different animal from that which ran the borough in the 1960s and 1970s, for which a number of people mistakenly thought they were voting.
The biggest cost increase is in the number of additional staff and the office space needed to house them. Sadly, many of them are political appointments. Since coming to power, the council has taken on 750 extra staff, a figure which is due to double by May next year to about 1,225. The majority provide no actual services—they are not teachers, social workers or refuse collectors. Many are political appointments.
There is a large number of press and publicity officers, personal assistants and clerical support to the chairman of committees. We have large numbers of people running the animal rights sub-committee, the gay and lesbian subcommittee, the nuclear disarmament sub-committee, the anti-apartheid committee, the women's committee and the race equality committee—all the municipal apparel that the well dressed Labour council now feels obliged to wear. Those people have to be accommodated, and a new office block has been hired at a cost of £3.1 million a year, to the enormous relief of the developer who put it up. That represents a long-term commitment by the council.
Where else has the money gone? Some £1.3 million a year goes to the GLC in exile. £1 million goes on the de-privatisation of street cleaning, we are to have an antiapartheid festival in Ealing in July at a cost of £12,000 and we have a race equality commit tee with a campaigning role budget and grants of £200,000. The cost of stationery has increased by 44 per cent., and attendance allowance for councillors has gone up by 400 per cent. They, at any rate, do not propose to be worse off.
Last Thursday, the bill for one year's Labour administration in Ealing was added up. The council voted an increase in the domestic rate of 65 per cent. and in the industrial rate of 57 per cent. An alternative Conservative budget involving an increase of up to 10.6 per cent. was voted down. I pay tribute to the Conservative opposition on Ealing council under the dynamic leadership of Councillor Martin Mallam.
I attended part of the council meeting at which the director of finance described the path down which Ealing council has now embarked as an exceedingly high-risk strategy. A higher increase was avoided only by a dubious practice of charging to capital account a number of items conventionally charged to revenue account.
By the way in his response the Local Government Minister Dr Rhodes Boyson noted that Labour-run Hammersmith and Fulham had decided to increase the rates by 127% in 1987. Quite astonishing to more than double the rates in a single year.
Boyson also said:
Ealing is just one of a number of London boroughs that have recently fallen under the control of the hard Left. Once a haven of sensible Tory administration, it has now been infected by the Brent disease spreading across the Great West road and Whitton avenue. Hilary Benn and his cohorts are, by their antics, giving new life and meaning to the noble traditions of Ealing comedy. Life in Ealing, once the heartland of fine old English comedy, has reverted to tragic farce.
> More on the reshuffle over at LeftWatch.