Orders of the Day — Parish Councils (Fareham)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:42 pm on 25 January 1996.

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Photo of Sir Peter Lloyd Sir Peter Lloyd , Fareham 7:42, 25 January 1996

As my hon. Friend the Minister knows, the Local Government Commission recommended the creation of two parish councils in the Warsash and Sarisbury wards of Fareham borough in my constituency. When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment made his response last March to the commission's proposals on Hampshire generally, and recommended to the House, inter alia, that the arrangements in Fareham should remain unchanged, it was naturally taken by those in Fareham who followed those matters, not least myself, as the end of matter—including parishing.

There was, therefore, considerable surprise, pleasant to some but unwelcome to many others, when in July, in response to a written question, the Secretary of State announced that parish councils were to be set up in the two wards. The shock for those opposed was all the greater because they had had no inkling that the Secretary of State was minded to come to such a decision or that he had power to do so without notice, debate or parliamentary approval such as is required for changes to district and county authorities.

I immediately met my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and told him that I did not believe that there was the sort of local support that would justify the decision and hoped that he would consider with care the objections that I was sure that he would receive. Shortly afterwards, all parties on the borough council combined behind a motion to secure a reversal of the decision with 36 out of 38 councillors present voting for the motion and two abstaining. None was against.

The council observed that the meetings to discuss the possibilities of parishing had been sparsely attended and that the commission's consultation leaflet, issued after it had published its provisional recommendation, produced a response from seven people in Sarisbury and 12 in Warsash—insufficient numbers, the council noted, even to man the proposed parish councils in the wards in question.

In addition, the ward councillors stressed to me that their soundings made it clear that there was no general desire for parish councils; rather there was widespread opposition among those who knew of the decision—opposition which they believed would include the overwhelming majority of the local population when the inevitable extra charges were added to their council tax bills.

As my hon. Friend the Minister will remember, we have had a number of exchanges on the matter. In one, he conceded that his Department had received only six letters from the public on the issue, three opposing parishing in Warsash, two against parishing in Sarisbury and one in favour. He explained that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's decision was based on what he described as the strong level of public support expressed to the commission during the consultation exercise. He went on to say, reasonably—I am grateful to him for this—that, if there were clear evidence that the majority of the electorate in the two wards were against the proposed parishing arrangements, he and his colleagues would certainly reconsider the decision. Meanwhile, he would delay implementation of the commencement order so that such evidence might be produced.

I told the six ward councillors of my hon. Friend the Minister's comments and explained that if they were to carry conviction, they would need to provide objective, additional evidence that could not be dismissed as hunch or hearsay. Petitions would not do; generally they are signed only by those in favour so those against are not recorded. Pleas in the press for letters to be sent in are usually ignored and there is no way of knowing whether the people who respond are representative.

The six councillors agreed to select three residential roads at random in each ward and call on every house, going back to houses where no one was in, so that they would have the view of a genuinely representative sample. I have already passed on the result of those surveys to my hon. Friend the Minister. They show that, of those responding in both wards, 84 per cent. were against parishing in Sarisbury and 77 per cent. against in Warsash; 2 per cent. were in favour in Sarisbury and 5 per cent. in Warsash. "Don't knows" were 18 per cent. in Warsash and 14 per cent. in Sarisbury. More than 200 households were canvassed in all.

It is significant that quite a number of those households were unaware that there was a proposal to give them a parish council. I believe that the survey is crucial because it is, I understand, the only genuinely random survey that has been conducted in the whole parish consultation exercise and its results are unambiguous, as my hon. Friend can see.

The Local Government Commission made no such study. After it had published its provisional recommendations for Hampshire, the commission circulated a leaflet with a tear-off reply slip to all houses. The leaflet described the commission's proposals concentrating, properly, on the options for the district and county councils and specifically asked for responses. Elsewhere in the leaflet, there was an easy-to-miss reference to the commission's parish recommendations across Hampshire, to which it did not specifically ask for responses.

The borough council observed that only seven replies were received from Sarisbury and 12 from Warsash. I am told by local councillors that they know of at least four other letters against the proposal that were sent to the commission. It was no doubt because they were not on the official slip that they were not included in the 19 responses I mentioned earlier.

The Local Government Commission did its work and made its provisional parish recommendation in its normal manner, not—this is vital to the argument—by trying to make its own assessment of local opinion. It did not regard that as its job. It thought that its job with parishing was to give a fair wind to proposals from local groups that convinced it that they had put together a well thought-out proposition, were seeking to involve local people and had evidence of some local support.

In that respect, the Warsash and Sarisbury residents' associations, with the advice and backing of the Hampshire Association of Parish Councils, deserve praise for setting the ball rolling, convening public meetings and endeavouring to interest local residents in the issue. It was their proper role to do so and they obviously made great efforts to discharge it as well as they could.

Warsash residents held a public meeting in March 1993. Some 300 people attended, although many had left by the time a vote was taken and the decision to set up a steering committee to investigate the matter further was made with a comparatively small majority. Later that year, 2,000 questionnaires were distributed. Of those, 214 were returned-145 in favour of setting up a parish council and 74 against. A local census was also taken with similar results. It is worth noting that Warsash has more than 6,000 electors.

Similarly, the Sarisbury residents' association called a public meeting in June 1993, which representatives of the Hampshire Association of Parish Councils addressed. Some 20 to 30 people attended and agreed unanimously to set up a steering committee to examine further the proposition for a parish council. Many local organisations were then invited to send representatives to join the steering committee, and seven or eight did so.

The steering committee decided to place a questionnaire with a reply slip in the local free magazine, The Informer. It received 37 replies in favour and one against. The committee held a final open meeting in October 1993, at which the 20 to 30 people present decided unanimously to submit its proposal for a parish council to the Local Government Commission. Sarisbury has some 4,500 electors.

It is clear that both associations and steering committees made genuine attempts to involve the wider public and canvas residents' views and support, but, in the light of those figures, I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will want to look again carefully at the advice that he received that there was a strong level of local support for parishing expressed during the consultative exercise". Despite the spirited endeavours of the residents' associations, there was clearly very little.

There was undoubtedly some interest in parishing and, in the early days of the commission's work when all the talk was of boroughs amalgamating into larger, single-tier authorities, more people were prepared to see merit in a new, very local elected body. That mood passed with the Secretary of State's widely welcomed decision to leave the borough and county structure unchanged.

My hon. Friend the Minister will agree that that review of local government was special in that, unlike its predecessors, it sought to take note of local preferences. County and district councils are needed to deliver services efficiently and effectively, so the Secretary of State cannot surrender his final judgment on them to an opinion poll, however seriously he takes public opinion. With parishing, however, it is different. Parishes are not essential for providing services. If they were, there would be a national policy to set them up throughout the country. The uneven pattern of parish distribution clearly depends on history and local preference, not on utility or policy.

Parish councils are valuable in local communities that want them. I should be happy to have them in Warsash and Sarisbury if I were convinced that they would be welcomed, and so would the local councillors. Indeed, I have them in the rural Winchester parts of my constituency, where some city councillors also sit on parish councils and find it rewarding and useful to do so. This debate, however, is not about the merits or otherwise or parish councils; it is focused narrowly on the question of local support for the Local Government Commission's recommendation for Sarisbury and Warsash.

On that essential point, local opinion is such that there is no basis on which the Secretary of State can reasonably confirm the order to set up the councils. I am sure that he does not want to impose them on an unwilling electorate. If he did, I fear that he would simply ensure that the majority thought extremely unkindly of him whenever it paid the extra on its council tax bills. However, I am certain that his objective in the matter is the same as mine: to ensure that his decision corresponds with the general tenor of local opinion.

My hon. Friend the Minister and the Secretary of State postponed implementation of the original recommendation so that they could look carefully at the evidence. If they still feel that they do not have enough, I should be glad if they would speedily commission some more independent research or studies on another genuinely representative sample, perhaps through the good offices of the Local Government Commission. I would be content with the suggestion, put to me in a personal capacity by the chairman of the Warsash residents' association, to hold an officially organised referendum. I suppose that it could be along the lines of a town vote, which used to be a feature of local government between the wars.

However, I am certain that no one—locally or in Government—would be in favour of another long, drawn-out consultation. Some of those most in favour of parishing would prefer a clear-cut decision soon, even if it is no, which, as I believe that I have shown, is the only decision that my hon. Friend the Minister can properly come to on the considerable evidence that I have put before him.