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

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:34 pm on 22nd November 1993.

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Photo of Mr Dafydd Wigley Mr Dafydd Wigley Leader and Party President, Plaid Cymru 7:34 pm, 22nd November 1993

Other members of my party are here. In a party of four members, sharing out responsibilities is an onerous job and all four members are taking an interest in the debate. Given the Secretary of State's indication that he expects us to play an active part, all four of us will be delighted to be on the Standing Committee. I shall be glad if the Secretary of State would make provision, through the Whips Office, to enable that to happen.

The concept of local government has been developed over the century—local authorities were first set up in the late 1880s and 1890s. A central weakness is that those authorities have been regarded as a devolved aspect of central Government and not as authorities in their own right. When local authorities stand up against central Government, we know what happens—the Greater London council did so and was abolished. Local government is not regarded as an authority or as a tier or authorities in its own right, but it should be. The powers that local authorities should have are powers as of right and should not be conditioned, limited or circumscribed by central Government directive.

Local government should also have finance as of right. For example, a proportion of VAT collected in each area should automatically go to local government so that it has money with no strings attached. That would give local government real responsibility; it is only when local government has such responsibility that it will attract the calibre of councillors needed to undertake the responsibilities and the services which communities need.

Can we have clarification on the eligibility of teachers and others working at arm's length from local government to stand as councillors in the new unitary authorities? Will there be a preference for evening council meetings so that a broad cross-section of the community—not just the retired and those rich enough not to have to work during the day—will be able to serve on local authorities?

I referred to the weakness of the Government's approach to local government structures. The weakness in the White Paper and in the discussion in the past couple of years is that we have failed sufficiently to consider functions and finance as well as structures. Another inadequacy is that possibly not enough attention has been given to the strengthening of community councils.

The major and central failure is the Government's insistence on ignoring the all-Wales dimension to the considerations. There was a consensus in Wales when the Secretary of State's predecessor started the ball rolling a couple of years ago. That consensus was based on having an all-Wales elected authority. We and the Liberals, I believe, would call it an all-Wales parliament, our colleagues in the Labour party would call it an assembly. Certainly, there is a consensus that there needs to be a democratic, elected Welsh tier of government to take over the devolved responsibilities currently undertaken by the Welsh Office, particularly those undertaken by the plethora of quangos, which were mentioned by the hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson).

We need democratic control over the many functions that have been centralised. For instance, housing has been largely centralised by quangos such as Tai Cymru, and local quangos have taken over responsibilities from local authorities, including the responsibility to nominate health authorities. Therefore, we need an all-Wales elected system of government. The establishment of a parliament or assembly should have taken place before the restructuring of local government. That would have enabled a strategic approach to allow smaller unitary authorities to be created without denying a strategic decision-taking capacity. That is the danger of what we have at the moment.

An all-Wales body is relevant in the European context. With regard to the Government's consultation paper on the structure of local government in England, the Audit Commission commented: There are signs that the absence of fora in which local authorities can come together to represent the interests of their broader region is beginning to disadvantage U.K. local government in its representations to the European Commission on the use of structural funds. If that is true, that is another powerful argument for having an all-Wales elected body to give backbone to representations made directly to Brussels.

Many functions have been taken away from local government over the years—certainly since the days when I served as an elected member on Merthyr county borough council between 1972 and 1974. I reinforce the representations made by the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands)—Merthyr Tydfil is an historic borough and town, and the county borough which existed provided a model on which unitary authorities could have been based. There is a powerful argument for Merthyr—in its own right, not in combination with widespread heads of the valleys—justifying its continued individual existence.

The White Paper published earlier this year states that the number of fire brigades in Wales will be reduced from eight to three. Will the Secretary of State give a categorical assurance that no other powers will be taken away from local government? What are his intentions regarding national parks in Wales? Is the Secretary of State satisfied that services such as trading standards and social services can be provided with the same expertise, effectiveness and efficiency as at present, without elaborate and undemocratic joint arrangements?

The White Paper makes a number of references to reserve powers that the Secretary of State proposes to have available to him—for example, for use as necessary to ensure that proper service delivery arrangements are in place". Will the Secretary of State elaborate on the number and nature of the reserve or default powers with which he intends to provide himself in the legislation? Does not the need for reserve powers show either that the proposed structure is fundamentally flawed or that one of the main purposes of the reorganisation is to transfer powers from local authorities to central Government—or possibly even both?

The Secretary of State will be aware of the recent study carried out by a team of top finance officers that showed that the transitional cost of creating 21 unitary authorities amounted to £202 million at 1995-96 prices over a 15-year period. It showed that the running of the new authorities would cost another £6·2 million per annum more than the status quo. Does the Secretary of State agree with the figures? If not, what are his estimates of the transitional and running costs of the new authorities? I have it on good authority that the figures have been accepted by the Treasury—