[Mrs. Joan Humble in the Chair] — Unitary Authorities

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr. Ian Austin.)

9:30 am
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Keith Simpson (Shadow Minister, Foreign Affairs; Mid Norfolk, Conservative)

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Humble. For many colleagues present, this is a walk down memory lane, as the consideration by the boundary committee for England of proposals for unitary authorities in Norfolk, Suffolk and Devon has been an issue since October 2006. A vast amount of time, effort and money has been spent by local authorities in that period, and their attention has been diverted from the delivery of good local services. It has also been a time of great uncertainty for the staff of many local district authorities, as they do not know whether they will have a job at the end of the process.

This is the third debate that I have initiated on this issue. The first, a one and a half hour debate on 20 November 2007, and the second, a half hour debate on 9 July 2008, narrowly considered Norfolk and a bit of Suffolk, while today's debate covers all three county areas. I asked for this debate largely as a consequence of the legal challenges that different local authorities have made and of the Secretary of State's decision to extend the deadline for advice to 15 July 2009.

I find it amazing, at this stage, that both the boundary committee and the Secretary of State have conceded that the committee misdirected itself in restricting the publication of its draft proposals to a single scheme, last July, thus making the process unlawful. The boundary committee said that it would have published proposals on more than one scheme if it had thought that it could. With the best will in the world, although colleagues may disagree on whether the principle of having unitary authorities in their county areas is good, that kind of monumental cock-up, at procedural and administrative level, is an absolute disgrace. Either the boundary committee will have to go back to square one and reconsider all the evidence, or, as I shall reiterate at the end of my speech, the Minister should, with some grace, drop the whole proposal as it is fatally flawed.

My approach to this issue has been to consider whether any reorganisation of local government in Norfolk from the current status quo will provide better services and better value for money to my constituents. From the beginning, I have never been convinced that any of the options would do that, but I accept that other colleagues take a different view on different options. From the start of the process, I have believed that it is heavily politically inspired and related to the Government's desire to help the Labour parties in Norwich, Ipswich and Exeter. There is considerable local evidence to support that view, which I have presented in earlier debates.

For me, the two main issues are, first, whether unitary authorities would, in principle, be good for my constituents in Norfolk, and, secondly, how legitimate and efficient the process followed by the boundary committee, as instructed by the Government, has been.

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Henry Bellingham (Shadow Minister, Justice; North West Norfolk, Conservative)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and I am sorry that I cannot stay for long, as I have to attend a Public Bill Committee. Does he agree that a third issue to consider, which the boundary committee has ignored completely, is the views of the wider electorate? Is he aware that in west Norfolk not one parish council is in favour of having a single unitary authority and that a poll commissioned by the borough council revealed that a staggering 75 per cent. of people were against it? At a public meeting on the issue, two weeks ago, 200 people attended, all of whom were opposed to having a single unitary authority, so the wider public have been ignored.

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Keith Simpson (Shadow Minister, Foreign Affairs; Mid Norfolk, Conservative)

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I shall comment on that issue in a moment.

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Gary Streeter (South West Devon, Conservative)

My hon. Friend has raised two important issues, but may I invite him to add a third reason why the proposals should not go ahead at this time—the likely cost? Has he made any estimates of the up-front cost of that restructuring in the teeth of a recession, when Government coffers are running low? Even though there may be clawback over a number of years, can it really be right to charge the taxpayer to restructure in this completely unnecessary way when we simply cannot afford it?

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Keith Simpson (Shadow Minister, Foreign Affairs; Mid Norfolk, Conservative)

My hon. Friend makes a good point, which colleagues have made in previous debates. The two points that my hon. Friends have made, on the democratic deficit and on cost, are absolutely crucial. As far as the democratic deficit is concerned, the irony is that the boundary committee made it quite clear that it was not in the business of weighing up the number of letters coming in expressing an opinion one way or another, and that it was going to consult only stakeholders. That is unacceptable in this day and age. As far as costs are concerned, a series of studies have shown that—my hon. Friend Mr. Spring made this point through a question that he asked—the costs of the process in Suffolk have been £250,000. There is also the issue of whether there will be any savings.

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Anthony Steen (Totnes, Conservative)

May I say what a great service my hon. Friend has done to the House by bringing this matter before it again this morning? I have two points to make. First, is he aware that the committee said that the cost in Devon, not of running the inquiry, but of running Devon after unitary authority status was granted, if that was its recommendation, was not important to it and was at the bottom of the list of priorities? Secondly, it was not concerned about the community either. That is why it planned to put the headquarters of the new Devon unitary authority in Barnstaple.

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Keith Simpson (Shadow Minister, Foreign Affairs; Mid Norfolk, Conservative)

I was not aware of that, and that is a very good point. Like other colleagues, all I know is that in the past two and a half years I have not received one letter, e-mail or phone call from, or had one face-to-face conversation with, any constituent who is in favour of anything other than the status quo. Indeed, if anything, people have written vociferously to oppose all the options that the boundary committee has proposed. All the parish councils in the Broadland district council area have opposed the proposals.

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Charles Clarke (Norwich South, Labour)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that I have received many representations from businesses, citizens and constituents in my constituency who argue strongly in favour of unitary authority status? [Interruption.] I am sorry, but I did not catch that intervention.

Serious business people have seen the argument in favour of a unitary system for cost reasons, because it will be far cheaper, far more effective and far more democratic than the current two-tier system.

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Keith Simpson (Shadow Minister, Foreign Affairs; Mid Norfolk, Conservative)

The right hon. Gentleman may have received such representations; I accept his word on that. All I know is that the business community is divided on this issue. Big business tends to be in favour of the proposals, but most small businesses tend to be against them. I hear a desperate argument from some people in Norwich who want a unitary authority because they fear that local government in Norwich has not been in the top league in the past 20 or 30 years. The auditing of local government accounts, the recent problems with housing allocations, and the fact that, even today, Norwich city council is going to be in the biggest dog fight possible about setting the council tax rate, means that Norwich has specific problems, and I am very sorry for the constituents of both Mr. Clarke and Dr. Gibson.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned cost savings. The problem is that there is no agreed set of criteria by which to judge what savings have been made. That issue needs to be revisited given the economic downturn and the enormous economic pressures on all the councils in all the relevant areas. I suspect that the Treasury will not look favourably on any reorganisation that will cost money. In a previous life, the Minister was a Treasury Minister, under the current Prime Minister, although he might not want that fact publicised in these days of economic turbulence.

When mentioning the alternative proposals being put forward for Cheshire, in a debate on the Cheshire (Structural Changes) Order 2008 on 4 March 2008, Baroness Andrews, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, said:

"It is important to stress from the outset that this is not a choice on which one delivers greater savings or which one has greater public support. It is about which one can better deliver long-term outcomes in a very challenging environment."—[Hansard, House of Lords, 4 March 2008; Vol. 699, c. 1031.]

The problem is that that assessment is subjective rather than evidence-based.

Local opinion in Norfolk and, I suspect, in Devon and Suffolk has become cynical about reorganisations. We have had experience not just of the appalling process of reorganisation of local government, but of the reorganisation of the primary care trusts—we went to six and now we are back to one—and the attempts, which the right hon. Member for Norwich, South supported, to reorganise the police in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, which was greatcoats on, greatcoats off. My hon. Friend Mr. Bacon, Norman Lamb and I have attempted to achieve democratic accountability through the Broads authority, and that has failed. So, local opinion is incredibly cynical about these outcomes.

Having passed briefly over some of the principal aspects of whether unitary authorities are a good idea, I now want to look at the process itself, which has shown ministerial interference and plain incompetence at the level of both the Government and the boundary committee. The committee's process began in summer 2007 before it received any ministerial instructions: it was found that it was attempting to bully local authorities into coming up with options before any instructions were received. The committee informed us at the time that cross-county proposals would not be considered and were not on the agenda, but in December 2007 ministerial instructions said that they would be. The committee had also said that it was unlikely that it would consider unitary authorities covering more than 500,000 people. Of course, as we know, the first unitary authority to be considered in respect of Norfolk and Suffolk would probably have had a population of between 750,000 and 800,000.

The boundary committee told Members of Parliament and peers that it would cost only those proposals that emerged from an initial sift. No other area that I can think of, either in the private or public sector, would do that. It is rather like the Ministry of Defence having bids for the procurement of a piece of equipment and deciding only to cost them after an initial sift. I find that absolutely incredible.

In July 2008, the boundary committee published its proposals: a single unitary for Norfolk, including Lowestoft, with two alternative patterns; a two-authority pattern for Suffolk; and, in Devon, a single unitary authority, less Plymouth and Torbay. Shortly after those proposals were published, a meeting of Norfolk and Suffolk peers and MPs saw the boundary committee chairman and officials absolutely scragged—to use a Dickensian expression—in terms of their proposals and the process. My right hon. Friend Mr. Gummer and the right hon. Member for Norwich, South were forthright in their views on those proposals. Later, we discovered under a freedom of information request that the boundary committee's own experts had proposed an east-west divide as the favoured unitary authority for Norfolk. Why was that advice ignored? Why have experts if they are going to be overruled? Perhaps the boundary committee, or the Minister, could tell me the criteria by which it overruled its own experts. That does not give us confidence in the process.

I suspect that the proposals for all three areas satisfied no majority of local opinion and, if anything, enraged it. Norfolk district councils went to the High Court to challenge the basis for the boundary committee's proposals and, as a consequence of a judgment, the deadline for advice was extended from December 2008 to February 2009. Now the Secretary of State has further extended that deadline to 15 July 2009. We were told from the beginning that, like the Mad Hatter, we had to rush and decisions had to be made very quickly indeed. However, I understand, from a judgment in court last week, that the judge said that there appeared to be no deadline and that it could be extended to 2011 or 2012. Once again, there appears to be a muddle about the process.

It was interesting that the Secretary of State's letter said that she wanted to take into account

"directions contained in the judgment handed down by Mr. Justice Cranston after an application for judicial review by East Devon council."

That actually means that the Secretary of State keeps refining her advice to enhance proposals for what she wants rather than what the boundary committee wants. As I mentioned at the beginning of my speech, there is a suspicion in Norfolk, Suffolk and Devon that this has more to do with party political issues than the good delivery of local government in our areas.

It is unlikely that the Secretary of State will be introducing any orders in Parliament until the new year of 2010 or, if those are passed, bringing any unitary authorities into being in Norfolk, Suffolk and Devon until May 2010—and by then there is likely to be a general election. I suggest that the Minister either goes back to the drawing board, given the failure to reach any agreed solution to the options on the table and given that the process is fatally flawed, or, even better, that he scraps this disastrous process, which has had relatively limited support within the county structures and has been an embarrassment to the Government.

9:46 am
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Norman Lamb (North Norfolk, Liberal Democrat)

I congratulate Mr. Simpson on securing this important debate on a subject that has caused enormous frustration in our county of Norfolk. I will keep my remarks brief, because other right hon. and hon. Members want to contribute to the debate.

I want to deal with three issues that have caused me real concern. First, when the process got under way, I assumed that it would be evidence-driven and that there was clear evidence in support of the case for unitary authorities. Instinctively, I could see a potential case for unitary authorities: one level of local government serving local people and delivering all local services seems to be a sensible way to proceed. However, my confidence in the process was undermined at my first meeting with the boundary committee, when I started the conversation by saying that I assumed that there was clear evidence for the case for unitary local government. The answer, which came swiftly, was no. There is no clear evidence at all. The picture is patchy. Some have worked well and others have failed rather badly. The answer to my questions, "Does it deliver better services and better value for money?" and "Does it deliver services that are more easily understood by the public?" was, on an evidence basis, no. That undermined my confidence in the whole process. Surely this process should be based on evidence and should not be a political process driven from the centre.

Secondly, the process has passed the public by: they have been largely ignored. The views of bodies such as parish councils, as Mr. Bellingham mentioned, appear to have been ignored, too. For me, if there is to be a review of local government—I have an open mind; if there is a better system than the one we have at the moment, we ought to be prepared to consider the evidence—the evidence should be put before the public and the public, locally, should be given the final say in determining the model of local government, delivering their local services, for their area. The public have been excluded from that process.

The process started in Norfolk with a bid from Norwich city council for self-government. One was left with the clear impression that rural areas were an afterthought. Consideration of them was left until after unitary local government was provided for Norwich. To me, as an MP representing a rural part of Norfolk, that was wholly unsatisfactory.

I am conscious that there are some real challenges in Norfolk to do with economic development and, in particular, education, where our county has not been performing well enough. Some review of local government may be necessary in order to deliver the improvements that are so important for the future of our county.

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Ian Gibson (Norwich North, Labour)

For the sake of argument, many people in the outer parts—outside Norwich—are prolific users of the services in Norwich. In fact, Norwich picks up the tab for concessionary bus fares on services for many other parts of the county. Norwich is fighting hard to maintain services where people find it convenient to use them.

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Norman Lamb (North Norfolk, Liberal Democrat)

One reason why I was opposed to the unitary bid from Norwich was that I did not want local government structures to cut north Norfolk off from Norwich. People in north Norfolk see Norwich as the capital of the county. They often use services in Norwich because there are none in rural areas. For instance, when I have constituents who need advice on benefits issues, there is often not sufficient expertise in rural areas, although citizens advice bureaux do a good job, so they gravitate to Norwich. That is where many of the services for people in the rural parts of the county are provided.

My argument on public involvement is that there should have been a Norfolk convention to bring everyone together, both political parties and non-political players, to have a full discussion about Norfolk's needs, and that then the process should have resulted in a vote by the people of Norfolk.

My third point is that the result, as the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk said, has been a monumental and scandalous waste of public money and a diversion of local authorities away from the core jobs that they are there to do. It is outrageous that interference from the centre has forced councils into a botched and incompetent process that has resulted in vast sums of public money being diverted into campaigns on each side of the equation to preserve positions. That money has not been spent on the people who need the support of local councils, and it is often the most vulnerable who suffer as a result of money not being available for them.

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Anthony Steen (Totnes, Conservative)

One of the extraordinary things about the debate on local government is not so much the consultation, which was appalling, but that the fact that people want to pay less council tax—they do not want to pay more—seems not to have been discussed at all.

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Norman Lamb (North Norfolk, Liberal Democrat)

I completely agree. I made a point about achieving better value for money. No one wants to pay more than is necessary for good quality public services, quite apart from the fact, with which I am sure the hon. Gentleman would agree, that the council tax is grossly unfair and regressive.

This is a classic example of top-down, incompetent, politically driven meddling, which drives people crazy because they are not involved. The process has not been evidence-based; it has not involved the people; it has been a scandalous waste of money; and it ought to be scrapped straight away.

9:53 am
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Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton, Conservative)

I am delighted to serve under your stewardship, Mrs. Humble. I apologise for my phone playing the "Flower Duet" from Lakmé a few minutes ago.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend Mr. Simpson for securing a debate on this important matter. Although it is a dry subject, it has gathered the interest of people in my constituency and, I believe, across Devon. People write letters to the local weekly newspaper about it. They do not think that it is just something for the politicians to deal with, but feel passionately about it.

As we know, East Devon district council sought a judicial review to challenge what was happening. I shall quote from the determination of Mr. Justice Cranston on the matter. He found that in deciding that it could consult on only a single proposal—that is, unitary Devon—the boundary committee had

"misdirected itself as to what it could publish, consult on and propose to the Secretary of State".

What I would like to come out of today's debate is an explanation from the Minister as to why the boundary committee "misdirected itself".

The exercise has been a total waste of time, money and the passion of the public and the many district councils in Devon, such as the two district councils in my patch, which are doing a good job. East Devon, which sought the judicial review, is an exemplary council. It ticks the Government's boxes and is one of the few councils in the country that has not carried any debt for decades. It is extremely well run—of course, it goes without saying that it is Conservative-run.

I know that the Minister understands the issues very well. I went with delegations to see him when we went through a similar exercise just over a year ago. The proposal on the table at the time was that the city of Exeter should take itself out of Devon county and become a unitary authority. The way in which the exercise was managed gave me cause for concern.

The Minister was new in post at the time, and I believe that his experience in the Treasury probably helped to bring some common sense to the exercise, and the proposal was rejected. None the less, what particularly concerned me was that, despite the fact that the proposal was rejected, when I tabled parliamentary questions to try to identify just what the outcome was of the consultation—that is, who had wanted Exeter to be a unitary and who had not—I was denied the information in all kinds of spurious replies from the Government. It was almost as if the Official Secrets Act applied and there was such high security in the national interest that nobody could be told who was in favour and who was not.

We happen to know that an overwhelming majority of people were against Exeter becoming a unitary, for the reason that Devon is a huge, sparsely populated county. Torbay and Plymouth already have unitary status, so if Exeter were taken out, we would be left with a rag-tag, bobtail county that would struggle to provide services.

The Secretary of State should quickly intervene on a serious matter arising from the proposal that we recently considered, which is the one on which Mr. Justice Cranston commented that, in seeking to make further changes, the boundary committee "misdirected itself". Mr. Justice Cranston said that

"what must happen is that the Boundary Committee should consider with care whether it would be right to make further alternative proposals for Devon. If it were to decide that that course were appropriate, it would need to comply with the statutory requirements, including that under section 6(4) of consulting on such further proposals".

Again, I would like an answer from the Minister. In his judgment, should the boundary committee start all over again in the light of Mr. Justice Cranston's determination, or should it do the common-sense thing and, frankly, leave things as they are? It is clear from the previous consultation on the city of Exeter and from this latest fiasco that, on many counts, it would be unwise to change the status quo. Furthermore, there is an economic argument for retaining the status quo. It is certainly the view among the population of Devon who would be affected that the status quo is serving them very well indeed.

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Gary Streeter (South West Devon, Conservative)

I am following my hon. Friend's arguments carefully. Does she agree that one of the many mistakes made in this tortuous process has been the decision at the outset not to allow the boundary committee to consider whether Plymouth and Torbay should be part of the mix? They were excluded from the outset, which narrowed the options. Therefore, does she agree that it is right to conclude that the process should be scrapped completely and that people should be left to get on with delivering services?

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Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton, Conservative)

I totally agree. My hon. Friend and I were present with other Devon Members when the Electoral Commission came to the House to discuss how it was going to proceed. We asked its representatives many questions, and my hon. Friend's point about the position of Plymouth and Torbay was raised, as was the point about whether the commission could consider the status quo as an option. It ruled out all those options, so we know that its conduct of the consultation and the exercise has not only been detrimental to the people of Devon but cost a lot of money. It has considered not what any reasonable person would regard as a genuinely legitimate consultation in the interests of all Devon, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk said, what is party-politically opportunistic for the party in power.

My constituency almost runs right around the city of Exeter; it once surrounded it entirely, which was a very comfortable feeling for me—[Interruption]and for my constituency neighbour, the Minister of State, Department of Health, Mr. Bradshaw, with whom I have a most cordial relationship. On the other hand, I have not, as the House will understand, been reticent in putting on the record my concerns about the carpet-bagging tendency of the city of Exeter, its council and its Member, because they have repeatedly tried to encroach on the rural areas that surround them. The reason why is clear for all to see: it is about Exeter, or, as has been written, the possibility of Exeter combining with the town of Exmouth, which is in the seat of my hon. Friend Mr. Swire, who feels passionately about this but, unfortunately, cannot be here because he is abroad on parliamentary business. The concept of unitary Exeter, or unitary Exeter plus Exmouth, is purely party political. The figures presented to the Government do not add up to make Exeter viable on its own, and, if removed, it would leave the rest of Devon in a parlous state because of its rurality and sparsity.

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Anthony Steen (Totnes, Conservative)

My hon. Friend referred to the meeting between the electoral commissioners and Devon Members. The commissioners did not say that they could not entertain any possibility of Plymouth or Torbay authorities being widened, extended or disbanded; they had been directed by the Secretary of State to exclude any such possibility. That is the point that the Minister must deal with. Why were the commissioners told that the authorities had to be left alone?

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Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton, Conservative)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. His memory of that meeting, which was a while ago, is much clearer than mine. I remember that the issue was raised but ruled out of court, so he is quite right. In fact, towards the end of the meeting, the discussion hardly seemed worth while, because what the commissioners would or would not do was so narrowly defined. There was no real consultation in which Members could put forward their views, and we all left the meeting feeling that our views did not count for much at all. Whatever view we wanted to discuss was immediately ruled out of court, because it was outside the parameters within which they were going to work.

People talk about Devon, and many people know it because they visit the area occasionally, but I want to put on the record the democratic deficit in Devon. If the unitary proposal were to go ahead, there would be a huge democratic deficit and Devon's democratic representation would be the worst in the country, with a proposed 100 elected councillors representing 740,000 people—that is, 7,400 electors per councillor. Currently, Bristol has the poorest level, with a ratio of 5,900 electors per councillor. But, in a sparse area, which includes two national parks, representation is not just about numbers; it is about geographic spread, and that is at the heart of our objections to the proposal. There are financial reasons and there are the views of the local population, but the resultant democratic deficit in Devon would be the worst in the country. The distance between electors and decision makers would be most keenly felt in rural communities. People talk a lot about communities today, but rural communities know what community means in its truest sense. People in counties such as Devon like to know whom they elect—their councillors and their Members of Parliament; it matters to them. The divorce of democratic representation from the electorate would be more keenly felt in Devon than in probably any other part of the country, although all rural areas would, I am sure, make the same case.

The party political imperative of the proposal is there for all to see, and it is not a very attractive sight. It is quite appalling for power to be used in that way. The Electoral Commission has clearly messed up big time, so the Minister should intervene, call the dogs off, leave the status quo as it is and let the people of Devon get on with things. That is what they want.

10:05 am
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Charles Clarke (Norwich South, Labour)

I shall start by stating the points on which I agree with Mr. Simpson, who secured the debate. I agree with him and others who believe that the boundary committee has made a mess of the issue. He correctly reported me as being very angry with the way in which the first recommendations emerged, and a set of serious issues is involved. I am surprised by that, because I have a high regard for the commission. Over the years, it has performed its functions professionally and effectively, and, therefore, I felt confident that, when the Secretary of State asked it to conduct the process, she was right to do so. Its terms of reference and approach were right, but I was surprised that the boundary committee did not conduct it as effectively as it needed to. That is one point of common ground with the hon. Gentleman. There is, to say the least, an unfortunate set of issues, and they have led to a number of serious problems in relation to the up-hill, down-dale considerations that all our public elected authorities are having to go through on these questions.

I am afraid that that is where the common ground ends, however. It is absurd to claim, as several Opposition Members have, that the issue is all about party political considerations. Unitary local government has become the pattern throughout the whole country—in Scotland, Wales, the former metropolitan areas and, now, an increasingly large number of non-metropolitan areas—irrespective of any party political issue and for very good reasons. The first reason is coherence. Often, there is an incoherent relationship between district and county councils on important matters such as planning and transport, and it inhibits their ability to represent people properly. It runs through basic services such as planning and transport and through issues such as recycling and waste, and all kinds of contradictions arise in various circumstances, so that, on accountability, cost and coherence, it would be far better to run a unitary structure.

I alluded to the cost argument when I intervened earlier on the hon. Gentleman. It has to be acknowledged that, in the longer term, the cost of a unitary system is less than that of a two-tier system, simply because a large variety of functions that are duplicated in the district and county authorities are no longer duplicated in a unitary system. The cost issues are clear in the long term. The hon. Gentleman is right, however, to raise the point that the Treasury will be concerned about the pay-off period for the costs of the change itself, and about how long payback will take before the benefits of a unitary system are established. The Treasury is addressing precisely that issue and, I am sure, is in dialogue with my right hon. Friend the Minister and his colleague the Secretary of State. The point that a unitary authority is more cost-efficient in the long term is hard to argue against, and I also argue in that way on the democratic deficit point. By the way, I do not accept the argument made by Angela Browning, much as I love her, that rural areas have a greater sense of community than urban areas. Urban Norwich in my constituency has a strong sense of community, as there was when I lived in the London borough of Hackney, where I was a councillor and there were strong local communities. I acknowledge that the characters of those communities are different, but my constituents are no less desirous than hers of having councillors whom they know and who are accountable to them for what they do.

I accept the hon. Lady's point that people want councillors they know and clarity about how functions are carried out and decisions are taken. I also agree—I have argued this in different areas—that the structure of local government finance makes it difficult for individual citizens to understand how services are delivered in a way that is relevant to them. That is a case for a much more sweeping change than we are discussing this morning.

One problem is confusion between the role of a county councillor and a district councillor in relation to the services that they provide. The average constituent is not entirely clear about which councillor has responsibility for which service—education, social services, transport, housing and so on. A virtue of unitary local government is that it provides more coherent and democratic representation for the people whom we seek to represent.

A good example in Norwich is the development of the Greater Norwich development partnership, which my colleagues from Norwich who are listening to this debate know about and are engaged with in a variety of ways. The dealing between different authorities on obtaining the necessary agreement for serious, long-term plans for the future is made more difficult because we have a two-tier system rather than a single-tier one.

I rest my argument on the case for unitary local government. It is a powerful case that is widely accepted and is not party political. I acknowledge that the question of what is the right form of unitary local government for Norfolk—and for Suffolk and Devon, although I am not familiar with the issues—is a difficult question. It is not straightforward. It is straightforward that a Greater Norwich is the right unitary structure for my part of the county of Norfolk, but I acknowledge that for my colleagues who represent other parts of the county there are different arguments about how to approach the matter. Those arguments must be properly assessed, and the boundary committee was charged to do that and to assess the alternatives from the point of view of feasibility of the options—the mandate did not require a unitary solution come what may—and to recommend the best one.

I regret the way in which the boundary committee's work has gone. The Secretary of State had no choice but to extend the time, and that was right, but we must stick to what I think will be a superior form of local government for the citizens of Norfolk. That is why I support the Government in their approach and why they should be rigorous in going through the thinking necessary to evaluate the choices. I am confident that a better solution will eventually emerge for local government in the county of Norfolk than what we have at the moment.

10:13 am
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Richard Spring (West Suffolk, Conservative)

I add my warm congratulations to my hon. Friend Mr. Simpson on making the case so admirably. Obviously, I speak on behalf of Suffolk residents.

In February 2008, the boundary committee began a structural review of local government in Suffolk, and came up with two proposals, including excluding Lowestoft from Suffolk, of which it is historically part, and including it in a different area. Another option was a one-Suffolk proposal for a unitary authority covering the whole county. As we have reflected on the proposals, it has become clear that the result would be unwieldy, undemocratic and frankly remote from my constituents in the western part of the county. We know all too well the cost when the Government decide to reorganise elements of our national life.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk referred to the national health service. When I became a Suffolk Member of Parliament in 1992, we had two health authorities. We then acquired five primary care trusts against all the local advice. That number then fell to three and then back to one. We had an extraordinary magic roundabout of huge costs, closed buildings, additional construction and pay-offs for individuals with golden goodbyes. All that was a huge cost for taxpayers, and I remain to be convinced that changes in the structure of taxpayer-funded bodies have added anything substantially or materially to the welfare of the people whom they are supposed to serve.

I have witnessed huge structural changes in the delivery of services while I have been a Member of Parliament, and the disruption for staff, services and local people has been wholly disproportionate to any benefits accruing from the restructuring. That will happen again if the unitary bid is successful. The up-front costs are huge, staff will have to be paid off or relocated, buildings will have to be bought and leases will have to be terminated.

It has been estimated that the cost of transition and implementation for the one-Suffolk option, which would be an enormous unitary covering the entire county, would be at least £25.5 million, and I am sure that that is an underestimate. As my hon. Friend has said, people are being asked to pay more in taxation for less representation without being properly consulted in first place. It is difficult for many of my constituents to understand and accept that. The people of Suffolk simply want the Government to listen, but they have not done so. Local residents want their councils to focus on service delivery and to keep the council tax as low as possible.

I have made it clear from the outset that people are familiar with the existing structure and tiers of local government in Suffolk. There is no appetite for change, yet the status quo was never an option during the wholly flawed consultation process. The consultation on the draft proposal ran from July to September 2008, when the boundary committee invited views from anyone who wanted to express them and held some meetings with stakeholders, but there was no overall comprehensive attempt to canvass the views of the public, and I say that with real passion and irritation. If there were a referendum tomorrow, the proposals would be thrown out. The majority of Suffolk residents do not support any of the options recommended by the boundary committee, despite the criteria that any successful unitary proposal must meet, including

"a broad cross section of support".

I am firmly against any change, but if it goes ahead, I hope that we shall end up with something equivalent to an east-west Suffolk split, which would at least have some historical precedent, and a west Suffolk council would at least have some relationship with the towns in my constituency such as Haverhill and Newmarket, which are quite remote from Ipswich. That proposal, which was supported by five district councils during the initial concept statements that they submitted, was completely ignored. That is incredible. It would have been reasonable to expect the draft proposal to contain at least a critique of an east-west split, but there was little mention of that idea in the draft proposal. The matter has been raised at meetings, but satisfaction has not been achieved. It is ironic that the committee has said that it is listening, consulting and considering the proposals with no comprehensive dialogue. The whole review has been an absurd exercise and a waste of taxpayers' money.

In response to a parliamentary question, it was revealed that the review in Suffolk had cost £218,757 since March last year. Taxpayers are therefore footing a bill of £5,000 a week. Salaries account for £109,948, in addition to consultants' fees, financial consultants, printing, mapping, couriers, staff training and so on. That money should be invested for the benefit of the whole county for services such as education, transport and even health at a time when there is clearly considerable stress in the provision of those services that people want.

I welcome the news, but the saga of the announcement of the delay in Suffolk has been distracting for our councillors and council officers for more than a year already. Of course there are benefits to be gained—I absolutely accept that—from more joint working among existing councils. That could be extended. Indeed, that is taking place and is something to be encouraged. We could do more to enhance two-tier working without the loss of democratic accountability that would result from unitary status in an area as large and diverse as Suffolk. Wholesale local government restructuring is simply unnecessary to achieve it.

The county of Suffolk is the eighth largest authority by geographical area in England, covering 3,800 sq km. My constituency is a large chunk of that. This is important because people want to have a sense of ownership of local services provided locally and they want to have a sense of local accountability for those services, which cannot be provided by a distant unitary model. From talking to people in my constituency and from the many letters that I have received, it is clear that people are unconvinced that big is better. In fact, the legacy of the present Government will be a widespread increase in centralised decision making.

I am pleased that the Secretary of State has again agreed to a delay. I hope that the proposals are now kicked into the long grass for good. The Government's tinkering with local government structures is in nobody's interest. It is simply a case of change for change's sake.

10:21 am
Photo of Richard Bacon

Richard Bacon (South Norfolk, Conservative)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate, to congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Simpson on securing it and to endorse the last comments of my hon. Friend Mr. Spring. He said that it is a mistake to think that big is necessarily better. That speaks directly to the points made by my constituency neighbour, Mr. Clarke, when he adduced arguments of both cost and coherence. At least he had the grace to admit that there would be an up-front cost and that there was a discussion to be had about the payback period. That point was made by several of us in the previous debate on this issue.

Indeed, I endorse the comments by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk about this feeling like a trip down memory lane. It reminds me of Yogi Berra, the baseball star of the New York Yankees, who said, "This is like déjà vu all over again", not just because the subject of the debate is local government, but because of the Minister who is responding to it. The first time that I came across him was in this Chamber, when he was again trying to defend the indefensible—the actions of another Secretary of State, Mr. Blunkett, in relation to an adult training scheme. It seems to be his lot in life to have to go round picking up the pieces after various Ministers above him have made a complete mess of things. That was one of those cases of "Never mind the quality, feel the width." Someone—perhaps it was even me—quoted Stalin, saying that quantity has its own quality. The headline in that case was that the 1 millionth individual learning account holder had been secured, never mind that there was fraud all over the place.

In this case, I have my doubts about the argument of the right hon. Member for Norwich, South about size. After all, when he was trying to push through the police constabulary changes, it became apparent that one of the best constabularies was also one of the smallest—Gloucestershire. It had some of the best indicators in terms of value for money, but also in the degree of compliance with its key performance indicators and acceptance by the public.

Photo of Charles Clarke

Charles Clarke (Norwich South, Labour)

Will the hon. Gentleman accept that in my intervention earlier I did not mention size? I think that there are arguments about size to be had, but I did not make the case about size. I made the case, as he said, about coherence and cost. I do not in general believe that bigger is best; I do in general believe that to have one authority providing all the services in a locality is better than to have two or three different authorities doing that.

Photo of Richard Bacon

Richard Bacon (South Norfolk, Conservative)

I accept that the right hon. Gentleman did not mention size, although he did refer to Greater Norwich, and Greater Norwich would of course be bigger than the present Norwich and would involve quite a lot of parishes in the north of my constituency going into Greater Norwich. They do not want to be part of Greater Norwich. They do not want to be part of Norwich city council, not least because their council tax would probably go up by about 50 per cent. from the already considerable level that it has reached in recent years after many years of Liberal Democrat control of the district council, but also because it is not clear to anyone that Norwich city council knows how to run a bath. Until that becomes clear, no one—no one with any sense, at any rate—seems to think that it should be given responsibilities additional to those that it already has.

I do not want to take up much more time, but I want to make two final points. One concerns the relationship between the Department for Communities and Local Government and the boundary committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk mentioned that the committee did not seem to realise that it could have come up with other options than the one that it did, which speaks to an extraordinary lack of communication between the Department and the boundary committee.

That was made even more manifest in a letter that the Minister wrote on 9 February 2009, which is worth quoting at length. In it, he says that

"the Secretary of State made the request for advice, accompanied with Guidance to the Boundary Committee on 6 February 2008"—

just over a year ago. He goes on to say:

"We included the term 'in aggregate' in the request to make clear that any alternative proposals for unitary local government must have the capacity to meet the five criteria across the specified area. The February 2008 request for advice was quite clear in its terms. If the Secretary of State had intended that each part of the proposal had to meet the criteria independently, then she would not have needed to specify that the proposal in aggregate had to meet the criteria as well. If each part of the proposal met the five criteria it would follow that the proposals for the county area as a whole would too. I set this out clearly to the Chair of the Boundary Committee in correspondence I copied to him in March 2008."

This is the extraordinary part. The letter continues:

"We then had no indication that the Boundary Committee might be taking a different approach until we saw the financial information published by the Boundary Committee on 21 November 2008. Having considered that information"—

this goes back to my point about the unfortunate Minister having to clear up after various Secretaries of State

"it was not clear to the Secretary of State that the Committee was approaching the assessment of alternative proposals on the basis she had envisaged."

We are supposed to believe that from February or at least March 2008 right up until 21 November, the boundary committee thought that it was doing one thing and the Secretary of State thought that it was doing another, so for eight or nine months she had not realised that it was not doing what she thought it was doing. It is no good the Minister saying—if he does respond by making this point—that the boundary committee is independent. Of course it is independent. The Electoral Commission is independent. That does not mean that it does not have constant discussion with political parties. The National Audit Office is independent. That does not mean that it does not have constant discussion with the various Departments and Executive agencies that it is auditing; it is in dialogue with them all the time. It is extraordinary that that miscommunication could have been allowed to sit there for nine months. Such confusion between the Secretary of State and the boundary committee is inexcusable. I hope that the Minister does not try to defend it; it is indefensible. The best thing that he could do is simply apologise.

My final point is about the financial condition of this country. We have just heard that the Treasury tax revenues for the month of January are £7 billion below where they were expected to be, compared with last year. Of course, that will have an impact on local government. It can hardly not, when 75 per cent. of the revenues for local government come from the centre. Local government itself has considerable financial problems. I sat down with the chief officers of South Norfolk district council only a few weeks ago, and it was evident that on any number of fronts, the income stream of the district council was being adversely affected. I am sure that the same applies throughout the country. Planning fees are down. Goodness knows council tax income will probably be lower as more people are unemployed and claiming council tax benefit. There are any number of ways in which local government, through its own income, will be suffering financially.

Even if the right hon. Member for Norwich, South is right about the proposal—I doubt that he is—he at least acknowledged that there was a discussion to be had about the payback. We so often hear about proposals for restructuring and for churning local government and, indeed, central Government structures as though it is the structure and the change itself that produces the benefit. Sir Michael Barber, in his book on the Prime Minister's delivery unit, "Instruction to Deliver", says that what matters most is not the structure, but routines and good working relationships, and that is exactly what we have with joint working. My hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk was right to say that that could be extended. It is being extended, and it is working quite well. It could work better. Relationships between planning and transportation at county level and district council planning departments are getting better. They know each other; they know their responsibilities; they know how they interact. That can certainly be developed without a huge up-front cost, for which the payback will potentially be over many years.

The best thing that the Minister could do, after this Horlicks that has been going on for several years now, is gracefully withdraw and acknowledge that now is not the right time to be pushing forward these proposals.

10:29 am
Photo of Julia Goldsworthy

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne, Liberal Democrat)

I congratulate Mr. Simpson on raising this issue. Listening to the debate has made me think of the last year or so that I have spent covering local government and reminded me—I am sure that the Minister will sympathise when I say this—that the real danger for those of us covering such issues is that we get sucked into discussing only local government structures and finances and acquire a pointy head. There is a risk that we miss the bigger picture, which is ultimately about the people who consume public services and benefit from their delivery. From the comments that we have heard today, it seems that the only thing that is more disruptive than reorganisation is the threat of reorganisation. Authorities turn inwards on themselves to consider the issues, but they do not stand to benefit from the changes that might derive from any local reorganisation.

There have been failures in the process. As a result, we have not only introspection, but further delays. Until a few weeks ago, people in all the areas affected thought that they could have elections to a new authority as early as June, but those have now been put off again. The threat is that people will lose faith in the whole political process and think, "What is the point of elections? There are going to be local elections in June, but we don't know how long the local authority will exist." There is a lack of certainty.

From the point of view of people working in local service delivery, the appeal of looking purely at structures is even stronger. I took part in a New Local Government Network conference, where I sat on a podium with representatives from the health and police sectors. We talked mainly about how to improve local accountability for public service delivery, but what struck me was that they were vehemently in favour of unitarisation across the country. They said that it would be much easier to deliver public services if those involved knew that they were working on the same boundaries, but that missed the whole point. Coherent boundaries might be more convenient for people working in the police and health sectors, but those who receive services on the front line just want to know that they work, not whether the boundaries completely match up. That is the approach that my colleagues and I take: there should be no dogmatic presumption for or against changes to local government structures, as long as they provide people with improved services. Bigger is not always better, but we must not presume that smaller is always better either.

What stands out for me—I am sure that other hon. Members will have had similar experiences—is that changes can create duplication, even where there is co-operation. Let me give an example. A road runs along Falmouth beach, and the town council is preoccupied with ensuring that it is regularly cleaned because that is where most of the tourists go. However, responsibility for cleaning it lies with the county council. Cornwall county council therefore gives a pot of money to Falmouth town council, which then subcontracts the cleaning of the road to Carrick district council. That arrangement is fine, as long as it works, but it did not work. Somebody came to me and said, "The road's not being cleaned. Can you help me sort it out?" I ended up going round in circles about three times before somebody would accept responsibility and make a commitment to resolve the issue. Such issues need to be addressed, and local government reorganisation might be able to address some of them.

Unlike Mr. Spring, I am not against all change in any form at any time.

Photo of Angela Browning

Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton, Conservative)

Cornwall has, of course, already become a unitary authority. Is it not the case that its transition costs have already trebled to £60 million?

Photo of Julia Goldsworthy

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne, Liberal Democrat)

What I do know is that, in the first year alone, the new authority will save £2 million a year simply from the chief executive's offices, so there is the potential for substantial savings. Ultimately, however, this is not just about money; it has to be about improving service delivery. I supported the unitary proposals in Cornwall because I felt that they were the first step towards giving people a stronger voice and getting more powers for Cornwall. The limitation of the Government's proposals is that they are purely about changing the structure and do nothing about changing the powers.

The proposals that we are discussing demonstrate that the Government do not really know where they are going. The initial proposals were from more urban areas, and the Government acknowledged that simply pursuing those would have implications for the rural hinterlands, but they do not quite know what to do about that, so we have a sense of prolonged uncertainty. The Government have missed the big picture. They have been quite clear about how they see the city region structure working and about how it could give larger cities and their immediate commuter hinterlands greater powers, but they have no idea how an equivalent process would work in rural areas. That is the dilemma being played out in Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk. The reason why that is causing so many problems is that the Government do not have a vision of what the rural counterpart to city regions is. As a result, many rural areas are being left in limbo.

Another problem is that the Government's focus is entirely on cost-effectiveness, which is, of course, important, but it should not be the sole determining factor. In the cases that we are discussing, there is a strong argument that the time spent investigating the various proposals and deciding to delay a further decision is a huge waste of resources and undermines the Government's case for the need for cost-effectiveness—a huge cost has obviously been involved just in considering the change.

Clearly, there have also been failings in the consultation process, and that is symptomatic of some of the unitaries that will come into existence on 1 April. What made things difficult in Cornwall was the fact that the time scale was so tight that it was not possible to consult the public in the way that many people would have liked, and that has caused the new authority problems. In Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk, things are almost the other way round: the way in which consideration of the proposals is being drawn out and the lack of certainty make it difficult for people to understand exactly what is on the table and when—or, indeed, if—they will have a new authority. That is causing huge problems.

To draw on points that other hon. Members have made, there have been problems across the board in Cornwall with including parishes in the decision-making process. The implementation executive in Cornwall has representatives from the district councils and the county council, but there is only one representative—the chair of the Cornwall Association of Local Councils—from all the parish councils in Cornwall, and she has only observation rights. We are talking about a process in which councils are expected to push more powers down to a local level and to ask town and parish councils to take on greater responsibilities, so it is completely ridiculous that parish councils are not allowed to participate in a discussion of what form those responsibilities will take. That experience has probably been mirrored in Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk, and it is very difficult to deal with the issues involved when the goalposts keep moving.

Other concerns that have been raised concern the extent to which the new authorities and the new ward sizes relate to real communities. There is a question about how effectively a councillor in a rural area could represent 7,000 individuals, which is the case in Devon, as Angela Browning said. The scale is similar in Suffolk and Norfolk. It is suggested that there could be one councillor per 5,000 voters in Suffolk and one per 9,000 in Norfolk, if Lowestoft is included. It is obvious that there would be a democratic deficit, which would not help voter engagement with the authority that delivers the services.

The biggest frustration for me is the lack of ambition. The proposals are a missed opportunity. The initial invitation went out to councils that were interested in becoming a unitary authority, but such a process is purely about reorganising services—it is not about greater ambition for local authorities. As Mr. Clarke said, why not open a discussion about local government finance? If we truly want to empower local communities and local authorities we must talk about their powers and resources—not purely the boundaries within which they operate. There is an opportunity to be more creative, which would be of real value in a downturn. I strongly believe that the organisations in the best position to respond to the downturn are the most local ones. The present time is a prime opportunity to give them greater powers.

The biggest disappointment, as I have said, is that the Government have missed an opportunity for innovation. The entire process is in danger of stifling any success that we might have seen.

10:40 am
Photo of Bob Neill

Bob Neill (Shadow Minister, Communities and Local Government; Bromley and Chislehurst, Conservative)

I add my congratulations to those of other hon. Members on your presence in the Chair, Mrs. Humble, and on keeping us in order almost all the time. I also congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Simpson on initiating the debate. He is persistent in raising the matter for the third time in the interest of his constituents. I am grateful to him, and I know from my visits to Norfolk that his constituents are grateful as well. It has struck me on my visits to all three of the counties that we are concerned with that there is frustration and exasperation about the handling of the matter. Neither the Government nor the boundary committee for England comes out with any credit.

There is a book by two well known academics, Michael Chisholm and Steve Leach, which I am sure the Minister has, like me, read—he sighs, because he knows it is not exactly complimentary; it is called "Botched Business". That term is a polite summation of what has happened. What we have heard from hon. Members is compelling evidence of a farce of misunderstanding—I was tempted to say of black comedy—between the Department, and the Secretary of State must take personal responsibility for that, and the commission. The issue has been ill handled and the question of conducting any sensible debate, as suggested by Mr. Clarke, has been made impossible by the way it has been dealt with. A disservice has been done.

I work from the premise, as did, I think, Mr. Justice Cranston in his latest judgment in the East Devon case, that the process should be driven by the evidence and that the decision should be evidence-based. It should be based on evidence and an adherence to the five criteria, which he restated in the judgment, and there should be a proper and adequate consultation, which he found had been lacking in the Devon case and the preceding cases.

The Government already stand condemned. They are fortunate that Mr. Justice Cranston decided that it was premature to intervene at this stage, because if one reads behind the headlines of that decision the findings of fact are damning. My hon. Friend Mr. Bacon referred to extraordinary confusion, and that comment is reinforced by Mr. Justice Cranston's judgment, in which he points out that at the very beginning of the making of requests in relation to the three counties, as would naturally be expected, preliminary discussions were held between officials of the Department and the Boundary Commission. Why on earth the extraordinary confusion was not picked up at that stage beggars belief. It raises questions of the basic competence of those responsible, politically and administratively. That farce was compounded by the Secretary of State's U-turn about what was meant by an aggregate. Having started by saying that the criteria should be considered in aggregate, she had to explain herself and say that "aggregate" did not mean aggregate, but capacity. That did no service to sensible government.

The criteria are not met for the other issues that are raised. The democratic deficit was mentioned by practically every hon. Member. The fact that the counties in question are large and rural makes that worse. In addition, the question of cost has allegedly been at the forefront of the Government's consideration, but the relevant formulations have been comprehensively destroyed. Professor Chisholm and Mr. Leach effectively destroyed them in "Botched Business". In previous debates the Minister has rejected their figures, but the subsequent evidence proves, if anything, that not only were they right, but they may have underestimated them.

I shall present two figures to the Minister. As has been pointed out, the unitary bid for Cornwall estimated transition costs at £19 million. Professor Chisholm suggested that they would be more—about £28 million. The Minister pooh-poohed that in a previous debate. In fact, the One Cornwall transition costs have just, in a public document made available to the implementation executive, come out at £42.5 million. Northumberland was in the previous tranche of six, and the Minister himself has had to write complaining that rather than producing a saving, the new unitary council has produced a £10 million deficit. The Government's own figures on cost are incredible and the methodology used by their independent financial advisers is discredited. A future Conservative Government will place no reliance on it.

My hon. Friend Mr. Pickles was said to keep a pearl-handled revolver in his cupboard to use on anyone who mentioned local government reorganisation to him. When he left the shadow team for his current job he left the revolver behind, and my hon. Friend Mrs. Spelman and I know exactly where it is; so anyone who is tempted to think of applying for a lucrative post within a unitary authority should be on notice that, if the legislative process is not finished, our incoming Government will stop it and will ensure that there will be no more nonsense of that kind in the future. It is possible to achieve cost savings, and I take the point that has been made about the importance of achieving them. However, the irony is that of the councils in question, Norfolk has an excellent shared services agreement, which has been in place for some time, that highlights how costs can be saved by joint working, and Suffolk has a pathfinder scheme for joint working that has achieved beacon status. Why on earth not let those excellent systems of collaboration run their course, rather than interfere with them? "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is a maxim well worth remembering in politics.

Secrecy is another matter of concern that has been raised in relation to costs. My hon. Friend Angela Browning explained her difficulty in getting information from the Department. She is not alone. Although the Department has sought to rubbish the figures given by Professor Chisholm and his colleague in "Botched Business", it has never issued a rebuttal, and it has declined at least two freedom of information requests in addition to that from my hon. Friend: one from the late hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich, Mrs. Dunwoody, and another from those distinguished academics. What have the Government got to hide? The methodology on which they rely does not hold water.

I shall conclude, because I want to give the Minister ample time to reply. The criteria, whether they are taken individually, on aggregate or as a matter of capacity, are not met in any of the relevant cases. The idea that large rural counties can meet the democratic requirement with 100 councillors per 700,000 is regarded by most people as ludicrous. It might be worth remembering why in many continental countries local government is in better health, and there is far more local pride in it. It is because often the units are more coherent and are closer to the individual. Generally, as it happens, they are two-tier as well, but joint working and procurement are the norm. Perhaps there is a lesson that we should take from that.

The concept that we are discussing is fundamentally flawed, as are the particular proposals and the process. The criteria are not met. There is no clear cross-section of support as was required, and, as several of my hon. Friends have said, it is a bizarre priority in the middle of a recession. The Minister should stop it now, because if he does not, we will. If he will not take it from me, may I give him a gentle hint from an independent source? Judges of course would never dream of telling Ministers what they should do. However, sometimes, in their judgments, as experienced and sophisticated people, they can give a subtle hint. At the very end of his judgment in the East Devon case, Mr. Justice Cranston quoted, in the last paragraph, what he described as "a significant passage" in a letter from Councillor Sara Randall Johnson, the leader of East Devon council, in which she said that leadership

"brings with it an understanding or acceptance that concerns are shared and understood and that the leaders are not so far removed from those that they govern that a sense of alienation and disempowerment or irrelevance is experienced. On this basis it is my genuine belief that a unitary County Council would be too big and too remote to provide effective leadership".

The judge then said:

"In my view, all these matters deserve the closest attention of both the Boundary Committee and the Secretary of State. For East Devon, Councillor Randall Johnson is in a sense the most important consultee, elected by constituents, and then by her colleagues to be leader of the council. I hasten to add that there is no reason for me to think that her response will not attract that attention. But I make these remarks because of what I said at the beginning: this is an area where legal sensitivity to meaningful consultation is heightened—the future of local, representative assemblies is at stake."

That is a subtle but clear judicial hint. I urge the Minister to take the hint and pull the plug.

10:50 am
Photo of John Healey

John Healey (Minister of State (Local Government), Department for Communities and Local Government; Wentworth, Labour)

I congratulate Mr. Simpson on securing the debate. He has certainly been persistent in pursuing his argument, through debate in the House and letters to the Department—and in the queue in the Tea Room. I note that he has marshalled his battalions for this debate in bigger numbers than in previous debates, and I congratulate him on that. I am grateful to him for not doing so in the corridors, where he often ambushes me—but perhaps I speak too soon.

I recognise the high level of interest in the subject, and the concern in some quarters about the process. I also recognise the uncertainty that it creates for local government staff. I am keen to ensure that we put an end to the process as soon as we can. However, because of what is at stake, I must be up front about it and say that I am not prepared to walk away from the process, as it has the potential to offer real benefits for his constituents and for the residents of Norfolk, Suffolk and Devon.

The debate is timely—it is the third of a series—not least because we recently agreed a new deadline for the boundary committee to advise Ministers, and because we are only weeks away from the implementation of nine new single-level councils in other parts of the country. In those areas, it is becoming clearer what the general benefits of unitary councils can be. I have to tell the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk—and Robert Neill, given what he said at the end of his speech—that we are considering the proposals only because they were originally submitted to us by elected councils and the elected leaders of those councils of the areas concerned. Unlike previous reorganisations of local government, it is not centrally driven by the Government or a blueprint devised at the national level and imposed locally.

Photo of Keith Simpson

Keith Simpson (Shadow Minister, Foreign Affairs; Mid Norfolk, Conservative)

Does the Minister accept that, for Norfolk, the district and county councils preferred the status quo but that they were informed that that option was not on the table? Indeed, it was implied that, if they did not put forward proposals, they would be in trouble. The Minister's is a false argument.

Photo of John Healey

John Healey (Minister of State (Local Government), Department for Communities and Local Government; Wentworth, Labour)

No change has always been an option. If no decision is made to change, no change is clearly what remains.

In terms of the accusations and arguments about political opportunism, if Angela Browning were to speak about Northumberland to my colleagues in the House or in local government, many of whom have served on Labour councils that will end on 1 April, she will understand that it is not a question of political opportunism. Looking across the country, we took our decision because we believe that it will lead to better local governance.

The economic downturn has been mentioned. Reports of the councils that come into being on 1 April consistently say that they are able to manage the current pressures of the downturn better as a result of the reorganisation and not despite it. It has been said that it will cost a lot and save little, but evidence emerging from those councils belies that argument, as it does for doubts about value for money, better control of council tax, improved services and clearer accountability. The evidence is increasingly against those who argue for no change. The arguments are increasingly in favour of the general benefits of having a single level of local government, as my right hon. Friend Mr. Clarke clearly set out.

If the Opposition could, they would stop the process in its tracks. Without prejudging the boundary committee's proposals, and having taken account of all the representations that we have received, there are some decisions that we will probably take. If an order is made to implement a restructuring proposal under the powers in the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007, it cannot be revoked by another order. As a matter of law, a power to make an order normally includes the power to amend or revoke it; that is the effect of section 14 of the Interpretation Act 1978. However, the implied power to amend or revoke does not apply when such a power would be inconsistent with the statutory framework under which the order is made.

Because part 1 of the 2007 Act sets out a detailed process under which the Secretary of State makes her statutory decisions and does not provide any basis for reopening that decision once made, the implied power to make an order to revoke or amend the earlier order does not apply in this context. That would mean that any orders made under the 2007 Act and approved by Parliament to establish unitary local government could not be revoked by secondary legislation; it would require primary legislation. I want to make the legal position clear to the House.

Increasingly, the compelling case is not to stop such reforms. I was in Northumberland last week, and creating a unitary council there would mean that about 60 highly paid senior posts will go, leading to an annual saving of more than £4 million per annum. It will mean that central bureaucratic and administrative council staff will be reduced by 200 people, saving £7 million each year. If there were a move to one or two councils in Devon, Norfolk or Suffolk, are Opposition Members seriously saying that they would not want to see such savings and the benefits that would result from using that money to improve services or keep council tax down?

On the question of costs, I hope that Opposition Members are asking challenging questions about the cost of the legal process being pursued by some councils. Last week, we were in the Court of Appeal for three days; there were five QCs, five junior counsel, numerous instructing lawyers, and public officials from local and central Government. One local paper estimated that Breckland council's legal costs for that legal challenge mounted to six figures.

Photo of Keith Simpson

Keith Simpson (Shadow Minister, Foreign Affairs; Mid Norfolk, Conservative)

But you were guilty.

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John Healey (Minister of State (Local Government), Department for Communities and Local Government; Wentworth, Labour)

In fact, the judgment was entirely helpful in confirming exactly the advice that we set out on 6 February 2008 about how the boundary committee should conduct its process—and that is what it will do. [Interruption.]

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Joan Humble (Blackpool North and Fleetwood, Labour)

Order. I remind hon. Members that interventions should not be made from a sedentary position.

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John Healey (Minister of State (Local Government), Department for Communities and Local Government; Wentworth, Labour)

I return to the general case for a single level of councils, and will try to do so in the least partisan way. For instance, without a move to unitary local government, and being able to make savings of £10 million this year, Conservative-controlled Shropshire council's budget for next year would have required a 9 or 10 per cent. increase in council tax or savage cuts in services. Instead, the new authority has been able to recommend a zero rise in council tax. It says that restructuring is helping it to manage better the current pressures of the economic downturn.

Liberal Democrat-controlled Cornwall council will have an average increase in council tax next year of 2.6 per cent.—the lowest council tax increase in the area for some years. I was in Labour-controlled Durham last week, and saw the call centre where staff will be operating the single number for local residents to gain access to all council information and all council services. The increase in average council tax in Durham is 2.9 per cent., with a cut in some areas. Those are some of the benefits that a single unitary council can bring to local people, alongside better leadership and arrangements for ensuring that local people are better involved in decision making. Until we have received the advice, or the deadline for that advice has passed, we have no powers.