I am grateful for the opportunity to have a short debate on the future of local government in Bedfordshire. May I first welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) to the Front Bench. This is his first innings there. We in Bedfordshire are delighted at his promotion. Who better to answer the problems of local government in Bedfordshire than an adjacent Member? The people in Bedfordshire and I will listen closely to what he has to say.
May I start by saying that the Local Government Commission's preferred option for the future of local government in Bedfordshire is a north-south split, which is extremely unpopular among my constituents.
The Dunstable Gazette of 5 October drew attention to an independent poll carried out on the matter which said that the people of Dunstable and the surrounding area
voted overwhelmingly against the setting up of a 'Super Luton' council
which would be part of a north-south split.
Bedfordshire county council—obviously an interested party in these matters—said in a press release of September 30 in relation to the poll:
This must send a clear signal to the Commission that the residents"—
of Dunstable and the surrounding area—
do not want to be in the same authority as Luton.
I have had a very large number of letters and discussions during the long recess, not only from people in South Bedfordshire who do not want to be merged with Luton, but from people from Mid Bedfordshire who do not want to be merged with Bedford.
I have also received a considerable number of representations from companies, particularly small and medium-sized businesses where the management tend to live locally. Those letters and the discussions I have had express extreme hostility towards a merger with Luton and it is impossible to believe that people would feel comfortable with a South Bedfordshire-Luton merger.
One strong objection to the north-south split is that southern Bedfordshire would have lack of balance, with 48 councillors to 32 for the whole of the rest of the area. Luton's interest with 48 would predominate.
In central Bedfordshire, the balance would be much fairer, with Dunstable and Leighton Buzzard about the same size, with a reasonable balance between South and Mid Bedfordshire towns and with rural areas reasonably balanced against urban areas.
Education reform is clearly of the greatest importance in local government reform. Luton, as a result of its former county borough status, has a different system from the rest of the county for its schools. Although it has proved possible to run the two systems in an area the size of Bedfordshire, it would not be practical to do so in an area the size of the proposed new authority-that is, Southern Bedfordshire. Either Luton or South Bedfordshire would have to change and the considerable cost of that should be taken into account.
There are strong links between Mid and South Bedfordshire now, with Mid Bedfordshire children attending schools in Leighton Linslade and South Bedfordshire children attending Harlington upper school in Mid Bedfordshire. Because of the different school entry ages, there are very few links between South Bedfordshire parents and Luton schools.
I note the commission's suggestion that Luton should not be cut off from its hinterland, but it always has been—first as a county borough and later because most planning decisions are a matter for district councils, rather than county councils. In any case, as most of the available undeveloped land in South Bedfordshire is green belt, it is difficult to see how Luton could expand in that direction. Any attempt to make major changes in the green belt would cause enormous protests. Indeed, even minor changes in recent years have been highly controversial.
On the question of housing, it is doubtful whether South Bedfordshire has enough available land to meet its own needs. There has been very rapid development in recent times, especially in Houghton Regis and Leighton Linslade, and there is considerable demand for housing from the children of those who moved into South Bedfordshire who are now grown up and getting married. We really could not accommodate Luton's needs as well.
It is simply not true to say that South Bedfordshire looks to Luton for its transport needs. Leighton Buzzard has its own station and many people from the rest of the area prefer to use that rather than Luton—a tendency which is growing since the construction of the Leighton Buzzard bypass, which makes it quicker to get to Leighton Buzzard from Dunstable. Others use stations such as Harlington and Flitwick in Mid Bedfordshire or stations in Hertfordshire.
Traffic problems, too, show little in common between South Bedfordshire and Luton, but considerable connections with Mid Bedfordshire. The question whether Dunstable should have an A5 bypass is really of very little concern to Luton. The problems of heavy traffic going through Woburn in Mid Bedfordshire and Toddington in South Bedfordshire are almost identical and need a common solution if one can be found.
In the local government report on the north-south split proposal, there is considerable comment on Dunstable and Houghton Regis, but very little on Leighton Linslade, which I find quite amazing. Leighton Linslade and Dunstable are of similar size. The people of Leighton Linslade really have nothing in common with Luton. There is no common employment base; shopping outside the town tends to be done in Milton Keynes; Leighton Linslade people have their own railway station and they use Buckinghamshire hospitals. I suspect that many people who live in Leighton Linslade practically never go to Luton at all. There is also nothing in common between Luton and the villages. On the other hand, there are considerable links between South and Mid Bedfordshire through the various farming organisations.
It is traditional to consider Dunstable, Houghton Regis and Luton as linked industrially, but many of those links no longer exist. I note the commission's reference to the Bishop of Wolverhampton's report in 1988, but much has changed since then. General Motors is, alas, no longer a major employer in Dunstable, with the Bedford Trucks plant first sold off and then collapsing. Now, the component plant of AC Delco has been sold off. General Motors still has land in South Bedfordshire, much of it used for storage, but so it does in Mid Bedfordshire with its test track at Millbrook. In any case, the 1988 report referred to links with part of South Bedfordshire, not Leighton Buzzard and most of the villages.
There is another example of the difference between Luton and Dunstable. We recently had a visit from the chief executive of English Partnership to see how he could help with the problems in Dunstable resulting from the failure of Bedford Trucks. The chief executive immediately identified the major problem of lack of access to the site and the need for the A5 bypass. That has nothing to do with Luton at all.
There are considerable links between South and Mid Bedfordshire. I have already mentioned schools, rail and roads. The parliamentary constituencies, too, cross the border, with parts of Mid Bedfordshire in my Bedfordshire, South-West seat, and both Mid and South Bedfordshire villages in Luton, North.
As for where people identify with, I suspect that everyone identifies with their smallest unit, be it town or village, and that identification with Luton or Bedford by their inhabitants is with the town rather than with the local authority.
Perhaps I might suggest to my hon. Friend that in terms of the regeneration of industry within the south of the county, links have occurred on the basis of applications for European grants, and so on. Perhaps in his eyes, on that basis alone, there are advantages for the south of the county being as one. He will know that the South Bedfordshire district council, of which I am also a representative, has put certain initiatives to Luton. On that basis alone, my hon. Friend might think that that could be of great assistance to the southern part of the county.
I am all for co-operation with Luton, as my hon. Friend will know. I am all for talking to Luton, co-operating with Luton and thinking with Luton, but I am utterly opposed to domination by Luton, and there will be domination by Luton if we have a north-south split.
I conclude with some questions and suggestions. Why was not the status quo suggested by the commission as an option? It is for Hertfordshire, as my hon. Friend the Minister knows. What is sauce for Hertfordshire should be sauce for Bedfordshire, as an adjacent county with many similarities. Why did not the commission consider the status quo, minus Luton, with Luton being a unitary authority, and the rest of the county staying as it is?
Although my first preference is for three unitary authorities—I make it clear that that is my preference—Bedfordshire minus Luton, that is two unitary authorities, one Luton in its own boundaries and the rest Bedfordshire, is infinitely preferable to a north-south split.
If the commission is wondering, after three torrid months, how to proceed, let me make a final suggestion to it. I refer it to a speech that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made on 27 February 1993 to the Conservative local government conference. He said:
But a structure that lasts will not be one that Whitehall has imposed. It will be one that grows naturally from people's loyalties and local traditions.
The Prime Minister added:
In the 1990s I want to agree a new pattern—one that lasts, in its turn, well into the century to come.
Let me say straight away that a north-south Bedfordshire split does not grow naturally from people's loyalties and local traditions, and there is no way that a north-south split could last well into the next century.
The Local Government Commission has some days to consider what I have said and what my hon. Friend the Minister may say before it makes its final recommendation. I say to it this: abandon the north-south split and please come up with something for Bedfordshire that avoids local uproar and is for the benefit of the people of Bedfordshire as a whole.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire, South-West (Sir D. Madel) for initiating the debate and giving me the opportunity to deliver my maiden speech as a Minister. I do so in response to an hon. Friend who, if I may say so, is twice as important as other hon. Friends because he is not only a distinguished Member of the House but a constituent of mine.
I am also glad to see in their places my hon. Friends the Members for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle) and for Bedfordshire, North (Sir T. Skeet), as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman), who has been a tower of strength during my entire time in the House.
It is thoroughly appropriate that I should speak on this subject not only because I am a neighbouring Member of Parliament but because I was born in the county of Bedfordshire, in the town represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire, North—a Bedfordshire lad.
As a Bedfordshire lad, I am well aware of the differences of outlook of the towns throughout the county—of their different traditions, different cultural backgrounds and so on. But I hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire, North says.
Understandably, my hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire, South-West has used this opportunity to make clear his own views on the future local government of Bedfordshire, and I have listened very carefully to the points that he has made. I am sure that he will appreciate that it is not open to me to speak with the same freedom at this stage. It would not be right for me to comment on suitable local government structures for the county while the commission is still considering these matters.
The commission published its draft proposals for Bedfordshire on 17 June. There then followed a period of some two months for local residents and others to make their views known to the commission, which is required to take into account all the representations that it receives during that period as it draws up its final recommendations to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State later in the year. The Government play no formal part in the review process until we receive that final report. We shall then, of course, consider very carefully the commission's recommendations and the arguments and evidence in support of them.
As for my hon. Friend's point about the failure of the commission to consult on the status quo, I understand that, in its leaflet for Bedfordshire residents, it explained that it must recommend that there should or should not be change.
It may, however, be helpful to the House if I restate the principles which underlie the review and which we shall have very much in mind as we decide whether to accept, reject or modify the commission's final recommendations, for Bedfordshire and for all other review areas. I shall also comment briefly on the progress of the review and on some of the implications for local government services and the staff who provide them.
One understands that my hon. Friend cannot refer specifically to Bedfordshire and the Local Government Commission's report at this stage, but perhaps he will indicate that Her Majesty's Government are intent on going ahead with the commission's recommendations, whatever they might be, and that there will be no pulling back at this stage—or, indeed, later—from its excellent recommendations not only in respect of Bedfordshire but for local government throughout the country.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will have to consider each proposal on its merits. So far, of course, we have had the opportunity to judge the proposals only in respect of two counties. My hon. Friend must be patient and see what happens in respect of the other counties on which we have had final reports, and he must wait even more patiently in respect of areas where we have not yet had final proposals, such as the county of Bedfordshire.
After all, the review is not about change for the sake of change. We have not asked the Local Government Commission to draw up a national blueprint for reform or to create a uniform pattern of local authorities. Among other things, we expect it to consider local views and local circumstances, as it is conspicuously doing, and to recommend the most suitable structure for each review area. We shall look at each set of recommendations on its merits, and we shall consider carefully all the arguments that are put to us in each case.
We believe, of course, that there are strong arguments in favour of unitary authorities. In a unitary authority, the public know who is responsible for the delivery of local services. That clarity of responsibility in turn improves accountability. When services are delivered well, or indeed badly, voters know who in local government is responsible and can express their approval or disapproval clearly through the ballot box. Having a single layer of central support services rather than two can reduce bureaucracy and enable more resources to be concentrated on the front line, and bringing services together under one roof opens possibilities for co-ordinating them in a way which gives consumers a better deal.
The review is not simply about creating more unitary authorities, however. It is about providing local authorities and local people in each area with a chance to consider the best means of delivering effective and convenient local government which reflects local needs and identities. There is room for diversity, taking into account local preferences, history and tradition.
Whatever structures the Local Government Commission recommends, they must enable proper provision to be made for all local government functions. We shall be looking at that aspect of the reports very carefully, with colleagues in other Departments. Our advice to the commission on functions is set out in our policy guidance. We have drawn the commission's attention to the fact that strategic, regulatory and enforcement functions will often be promoting the welfare of the wider public; and we have said that special consideration should be given to the maintenance of teams of experts, such as child care workers, and specialist assets such as archives. But we have also reminded the commission that one of the benefits of unitary authorities would be the greater scope for looking at functions in the round, while another would be clearer accountability. Both those benefits would be diluted by statutory joint authorities for specific functions, other than the law-and-order and fire services. We are encouraging authorities to develop voluntary arrangements for dealing with functions; statutory joint authorities would be very much a last resort.
The cost of change is, of course, an important consideration about which many people are understandably concerned. Local government reorganisation should be worth while and cost-effective over time. We have always accepted that some investment will be needed to secure the benefits of change, but existing local authorities and their successors have a clear responsibility to keep transitional costs to a minimum and do their utmost to realise the full benefits and savings associated with reorganisation. We recognise that there will be a time lag between the incurring of transitional costs and the accrual of savings and receipts, and we are considering proposals to allow authorities to borrow to meet transitional costs pending realisation of those savings and receipts.
Naturally, there has also been concern among staff who are employed in local authorities that may be affected by reorganisation, and who are consequently uncertain about what the future holds for them. Let me make it clear that we intend to ensure that staff are treated fairly: that is why last year we set up an independent staff commission to look carefully at, and advise us on, the staffing issues that arise from reorganisation. The staff commission has made a series of regional visits to authorities; it has also issued a useful circular, which sets out the rules for deciding which authorities will be transferred automatically to successor authorities by statutory transfer order. The circular also describes the scope for open competition for senior posts, and defines which employees will be eligible for prior-consideration appointment to posts.
Most staff will, of course, simply transfer to successor councils on existing contractual terms and conditions by means of a statutory transfer order. The staff commission will be advising on the categories of staff who will transfer automatically in that way, but we expect them to include nearly all the operational staff—such as teachers, care workers and housing officers—who provide services directly to the public. As for staff who do not transfer by transfer order, it will be for successor authorities, in consultation with outgoing authorities, to decide whether any of them will nevertheless transfer under existing employment legislation.
We are also considering the responses to our consultation exercise on the Government's proposals for a redundancy scheme specific to local government. Our proposals seek to set levels of compensation for staff who leave local government employment which are both fair to those individuals and affordable to the taxpayer. The proposals give protection to staff by providing a guaranteed minimum floor of payments, while giving local discretion and flexibility to employing authorities to pay above that up to a specified ceiling.
As for the progress of the review programme, I am pleased to report that it is still very much on course. We have received the commission's final recommendations on 10 review areas; we have laid—and this House and another place have approved—an order implementing the commission's recommendations for a single unitary authority for the Isle of Wight, where the authorities are now in the process of planning for change. We have also accepted the commission's recommendations for the establishment of four unitary authorities in Cleveland, and we shall shortly be laying an order before the House to implement change there. The commission is undertaking further reviews of Gloucestershire, Derbyshire and Durham; we shall announce our decisions on its outstanding final recommendations in due course.
The commission has now published draft recommendations in respect of the remaining counties under review, including Bedfordshire. As I have explained, it would be wrong for me to say anything at this stage which might give the appearance of prejudging the outcome of those reviews. The public consultation periods on all but four of the areas have now closed, and the commission is drawing up its final recommendations. We look forward to receiving those recommendations by the end of the year.
Make no mistake: we are firmly committed to structures which meet local needs. Our aim remains to give local people a structure of local government that meets their needs and wishes, and one that can use its resources effectively. I hope that all those with an interest in local government in Bedfordshire, and in the other areas under review, have taken the opportunity to inform the Local Government Commission of their views. We want structures to be based on local consensus, and that can be achieved only if all those involved have taken part in shaping their local government for the future.