With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the structure of local government in Scotland.
In my statement to the House on 23 April I said that there would be separate consultation on the structure of local government in Scotland. As the first stage of that process I am publishing today a consultation paper. A wide range of interests will receive copies of the paper, and I look forward to receiving comments on it.
I believe that the time is right for a move to a single tier of unitary authorities throughout Scotland and the consultation paper explains why I take this view. It describes the many changes which have taken place in local government since Lord Wheatley's commission presented its report in 1969 and since the subsequent establishment of our present two-tier system in 1975. It sets out the case for change and the case for a single tier. It also seeks to establish the principles upon which the new system should be based. It invites views on these and on a range of other issues, including how we can minimise the costs and disruption of reform. In order to allow time for these important matters to be considered properly, the consultation period will last until 31 October.
There are good arguments of principle for single-tier local government, and in my view the time is now ripe to make the change. A single tier of local government is more readily understood than two tiers, which create confusion about who is responsible for what. That inevitably clouds accountability. Avoiding the overlap also cuts out a degree of duplication and waste. It is also clear that some regional councils are seen as too large and remote from the communities that they serve, while allegiances to the old counties remain strong in some areas. A single-tier system will be simpler, clearer and more local. As the role of local government evolves, now is the time to make the change. This paper sets out the case for reform, and the principles on which it should be based.
As the paper makes clear, this is a genuine consultation exercise and it will not be rushed. I intend to consider very carefully the comments received in response to this paper before moving on to the next stage which will seek to identify the options for change, establish what the new structure should be and whether any changes in the management and organisation of the new authorities are desirable or necessary.
I have received representations arguing in favour of an independent commission to advise on structural change. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has concluded that this is the appropriate way forward for the circumstances of England. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales takes a different view in considering the needs of the Principality, as we have just heard. My approach is tailored to Scottish circumstances. If consultees wish to express views on how the next stage of the exercise should be conducted in order to achieve the best and most informed result, I should be happy to consider them, but I am not at present persuaded that an advisory commission is necessary.
I believe that the proposal of a move to single tier and the principles outlined in this paper will command widespread support throughout Scotland. All of the main Scottish parties now support a single-tier system for local government. Some, of course, see it only as an adjunct to a Scottish assembly. I reject the argument that local government reform is necessary only if there is to be a constitutional upheaval off that kind. I am not prepared to debase the currency of local government by treating its reform simply as a by-product of the assembly debate. I view local government reform as a major and separate issue in its own right which requires—and will receive from us—thorough and careful examination. I very much hope that all those with an interest in local government in Scotland and who ought to have local government's interests at heart will play a full and constructive part in the consultative process.
At the end of the process we intend to ensure that the new local government system which emerges is strong, efficient, and cost-effective. We intend to ensure that it is one with which the people of Scotland can identify. We intend to ensure that it will stand the test of time.
The consultation paper I am publishing today takes an important step along that road. I commend it to the House.