Orders of the Day — Local Government (Scotland and Wales)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:15 pm on 22nd November 1993.

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Photo of Mr Piers Merchant Mr Piers Merchant , Beckenham 7:15 pm, 22nd November 1993

Perhaps the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) was insinuating that a Scottish parliament would be a branch of local government—I do not believe, however, that that is part of the argument in favour of it. If not, that parliament would have no relevance to the structure of local government within Scotland because it would perform some other role, presumably by exercising devolved powers from this House.

Single-tier local government will deliver for the people of Scotland and Wales a better quality of service and greater accountability. The reforms have been carefully calculated by the Government to ensure that the structure of that single tier will match the traditional natural communities that exist. I welcome the fact that the flexibility within the proposals reflects that. Such a structure will be closest to the people and therefore properly in touch, yet large enough to be efficient as regards economies of scale. It therefore provides the best compromise.

My support for that approach is strengthened by the argument for single-tier authorities that have been shown to work effectively in England. When I first sat in the House I represented a north-east constituency—Newcastle, Central—where local government was provided by two tiers: first, Newcastle city council, which provided a major structure of local government for the large city of Newcastle and which seemed capable of handling all aspects; and, secondly, a metropolitan council, Tyne and Wear, which was imposed over the top of the city council and took on certain strategic functions. It was never clear where the dividing point came and it often seemed that those operating within the metropolitan council, councillors or officials, had nothing better to do and needed to set up committees to invent functions to justify their existence.

The Government then rightly decided that a unitary authority would better provide facilities for people in metropolitan areas, so the county council there and similar county councils elsewhere were abolished. It produced one or two unfortunate side effect, because the people involved in local government at that level then had nowhere to go and had to find something else to fill their time. The then deputy leader of the council decided to stand for the seat that I represented and he now represents that seat in this House. Nevertheless, the experience convinced me that single-tier authorities work more effectively.

Now that I represent an outer London seat, I experience exactly the same thing. My seat has its local government provided by a London borough—a single-tier authority—and it operates much more effectively, directly and democratically than when there was a second tier in the form of the Greater London council. This House must look after the refugees who left the GLC when it was abolished, which may be a less attractive feature of reorganisation. For the ordinary citizen, however, the quality of local government has improved as a result of that reorganisation.

Those lessons can be transferred to the debate on Scottish and Welsh local government and show the successful benefits that will flow from the proposed reform. Not everyone who lives in Scotland and Wales fully realises the real benefits that will flow from the change. In any case, ordinary citizens may not be entirely au fait with the different responsibilities carried by local government units. But the operation of a slimmed-down local government—lean, effective and efficient—will prove extremely popular.

By virtue of being a single-tier authority, my local authority of Bromley borough has been able to take clear steps forward in providing local services. Bromley is a great believer in the concept of the enabling authority that accepts its responsibility but devolves the executive responsibilities that go with it to agencies, to which it contracts out services. It has been in the lead of that process and has gone as far as the law allows it to go, encouraging changes in the law to enable it to continue with the philosophy of an enabling authority. It has proved to be extremely popular to provide services of a greater quality more efficiently and therefore be able to charge less council tax and become a debt-free authority, to all intents and purposes.

I have no doubt that the reform suggested for Scotland and Wales will enable the same forward-thinking approach to local government which Bromley has illustrated. I pay tribute to Denis Barkway, the leader of Bromley borough council, who has been at the forefront of that movement.

The same objectives drive the current local government reform proposals in Wales and Scotland. On the basis of that experience, and the experience of people who have lived in areas that have benefited from single-tier local government, I thoroughly commend that policy and that part of the Gracious Speech to the people of Wales and Scotland.