I beg to move, That the draft Cambridgeshire (City of Peterborough) (Structural, Boundary and Electoral Changes) Order 1996, which was laid before this House on 12th June, be approved.
I understand that with this, it will be convenient to discuss the following motions: That the draft Cheshire (Boroughs of Halton and Warrington) (Structural Change) Order 1996, which was laid before this House on 12th June, be approved.
That the draft Devon (City of Plymouth and Borough of Torbay) (tructural Change) Order 1996, which was laid before this House on 12th June, be approved.
That the draft Essex (Boroughs of Colchester, Southend-on-Sea and Thurrock and District of Tendring) (Structural, Boundary and Electoral Changes) Order 1996, which was laid before this House on 12th June, be approved.
That the draft Hereford and Worcester (Structural, Boundary and Electoral Changes) Order 1996, which was laid before this House on 12th June, be approved.
That the draft Nottinghamshire (City of Nottingham) (Structural Change) Order 1996, which was laid before this House on 12th June, be approved.
That the draft Shropshire (District of The Wrekin) (Structural Change) Order 1996, which was laid before this House on 12th June, be approved.
That the draft Lancashire (Boroughs of Blackburn and Blackpool) (Structural Change) Order 1996, which was laid before this House on 12th June, be approved.
That the draft Kent (Borough of Gillingham and City of Rochester upon Medway) (Structural Change) Order 1996, which was laid before this House on 12th June, be approved.
That the draft Berkshire (Structural Change) Order 1996, which was laid before this House on 18th June, be approved.
These 10 orders make up the final stage of the local government review. Between them, they will establish 19 unitary authorities in 10 counties. They are—Plymouth, Torbay, Nottingham, Herefordshire, Southend, Thurrock, Gillingham and Rochester combined, Peterborough, Halton, Warrington, Blackburn, Blackpool, The Wrekin, Bracknell Forest, Newbury, Reading, Slough, Windsor and Maidenhead and Wokingham.
In nine of the counties, the changes affect individual districts or combinations of districts, leaving the rest of the county with two-tier local government. In Berkshire, the order will abolish the county council and set up six unitary authorities—one for each of the existing districts. I shall address the position in Berkshire in more detail later.
Some of the changes were recommended as part of the county structure of reviews, and some emerged from the reviews of individual districts that I directed the commission under Sir David Cooksey to carry out last summer. I should like to take this opportunity to thank Sir David and the commission for their work and their prompt completion of the district reviews. Those who have dealt with the commission and Sir David will know the care with which they approached their task. That work has been invaluable in bringing the review to a satisfactory, coherent and, I believe, widely accepted conclusion.
The recommendations that the orders will implement have been fully explained by the commission in its reports. However, there are two orders on which I feel I ought to comment specifically.
Why did my right hon. Friend not use the pause created by the technical revisions required for the order for Hereford and Worcester and the existence of a new chairman of the commission to introduce unitary authorities for Worcestershire as he has for Herefordshire and the other 17 in the list that he has just read out?
My hon. Friend will remember that I sought to remove as much of the uncertainty as I could, while seeking greater coherence in the pattern of local government. All parties in the House believe that the previous proposals lacked the universal coherence that we were looking for. I thought that it was wrong to move further than that and to ask for yet more reviews, particularly where there was no significant pressure for a different outcome. While I understand his disappointment, most people in local government felt that we needed to bring the matter to an end as rapidly as possible so that they could get on with the real job of running their localities.
The recommendations that the orders will implement have been fully explained by the commission, but I want to refer first to Kent and the unitary authority that is proposed, joining together the districts of Gillingham and Rochester upon Medway. I made clear at the beginning of the further district reviews the importance that we attach to the economic development of the Thames gateway in Kent and Essex. I asked the commission to consider the ways in which unitary authorities might benefit such development.
Many hon. Members have seen the important example of regeneration in the royal dockyard at Chatham. It is a vital site and yet, almost inconceivably, it is split between Gillingham and Rochester. I was brought up in that part of the country and, like others, I know that one cannot easily tell when one is in Rochester and when one is in Gillingham, but that development is an essential part of the regeneration of both. The commission concluded that the poor relations between the various local authorities could not be in the best interests of local people and that a single authority would have the capacity to overcome such difficulties and bring a common purpose to the area. I agree wholeheartedly.
The second area is Berkshire. Much is made of the fact that it is the only county council of an historic county that is being abolished as a result of the local government review. We are also told that this means the end of the royal county of Berkshire. I want to put an end to that claim immediately. This order means the end of Berkshire county council, but not of the royal county of Berkshire. After all, it is the county that is royal, not the county council. Berkshire itself is not touched. For example, there will still be a Lord Lieutenant of Berkshire, and I have no doubt that people who live in the county will refer to themselves as coming from Berkshire.
Some people protest that Berkshire county council has been picked out for special treatment. I can do no more than refer to the submission put to the commission in 1994 by the local authorities in Berkshire, including the county council. Berkshire county council was the only county council to press for its own abolition. The summary of that submission, which is supported by the county council, states:
All councils, including the county council, recognise that unitary authorities are the best way of delivering services in Berkshire. The two-tier system has caused confusion since its introduction in 1974,
and there is support for change within the community. Unitary authorities will be closer and more accountable to their communities.
I agree entirely.
What is more, if it was true in 1994 that unitary authorities would be best for service delivery, it must be true now. It is difficult to see what might have happened in those two years to make the county council think differently.
The current Berkshire county council and Wokingham district council are saying that considerable extra costs will be incurred if the reorganisation goes ahead. That is quite a change of position from the one to which my right hon. Friend referred two or three years ago. Can he offer me any reassurance that he will take a strong personal interest in controlling the reorganisation costs, because Berkshire ratepayers would not want money to be spent unnecessarily on what should be a move to increase efficiency rather than spending?
I will certainly give my right hon. Friend that assurance. After all, it would be fair to say that the Liberals, in particular, in both the county and the district councils have the costs in their own hands. It would be possible for them to attempt to make what could be an uncostly operation very costly indeed—it would be in character. I hope that they will act out of character and do it in the way that their Tory predecessors would have done—with expedition and at little expense. I shall use the powers that I have to ensure that that happens.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that the change in the expected cost of the transition in Berkshire has been based on figures given by the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Sir P. Beresford), in a parliamentary answer last week, in which he indicated that the transitional costs were a great deal higher than they were expected to be when the provisional suggestion was made?
Suggestions are based on the information that the local authorities concerned provide. That is the only way to make such assessments. Many local authorities appear to be making the change much more cheaply than even they had thought possible. I understand that the hon. Gentleman supports unitary status for Newbury, but I have not been able to discover whether he supports it for anywhere else in Berkshire. Many find such a degree of parochialism curious. The Opposition and the Government know well that Liberal policy stretches as far as the ward boundary. To find a policy that reaches over an entire constituency is itself a remarkable fact. We can hardly expect it to reach to every corner of Berkshire because no doubt Liberals have to be counted one by one. I understand that he is looking hard to find a way in which he can support unitary authority status for one bit, oppose it for another and be even-handed about it for a third. Those options will be chosen not on the merits of the case but on whether there is an extra vote to be found.
I try to be careful about judging the design of buildings. I would not like to reduce the value of county hall by describing it as a monster. I would believe the figure that my hon. Friend mentioned if it was set to be achieved by a local authority skilled in the ways of the world and able to sell effectively in the market, but I have to remember that we are again in the hands of the Liberals.
I understand the right hon. Gentleman's vitriol towards the Liberal party, but why on earth does he countenance the continued partnership between the Liberal and Conservative parties in Cheshire? Would not the administration be more efficient and better serve the interests of local ratepayers if democracy prevailed and the largest party were given control?
A representative of a party that is hand in glove with the Liberals from one end of the country to the other is in no position to lecture me on that. I suffer from a Lib-Lab pact in my constituency. It can make no decisions of benefit to the Suffolk Coastal area because the parties cannot agree on anything except delay. Sometimes, of course, that is an advantage. For the Labour party to tell me that there is something wrong with pacts with the Liberals beggars description. I have never had any close relationships with Liberals and I do not intend to start now.
I decided to modify the commission's recommendations in this case to make each of the six districts of Berkshire a unitary authority because I was not convinced that a merger between Bracknell Forest—I always think that that name has a wonderful Wildean touch—and Windsor and Maidenhead was necessary or desirable. It would be disruptive and increase the transitional costs. Equally important were the representations that I received after the commission's report was published, which persuaded me that a separate council for each district would better reflect community identities.
The fundamental contents of the 10 orders are all the same and they are the same as those of the orders that the House has considered in the past. They all provide for the setting up of unitary authorities from 1 April 1998 and, in all cases, there will be all-out elections for a new council in the May before reorganisation, that is, May 1997. In some cases, the orders provide for redrawing the ward boundaries. It is important that the unitary authorities start life with the most up-to-date electoral arrangements possible. However, the tight timetable for the reviews did not allow full consideration of the electoral arrangements of the unitary authorities which emerged from the further district structure reviews last year. It is for that reason that I have directed the commission to consider the warding of those areas. It is due to report its conclusions at the beginning of December. That view is widely supported on both sides of the House.
We will make it exactly clear on a ward-by-ward basis, because that is what is necessary, in all the cases where changes will take place such as those in Shropshire, where The Wrekin will come out. It will be necessary to show how each of the councils elected will apply in the period that continues. We will make that clear to each of the counties so that there is no doubt in any circumstances.
My right hon. Friend will undoubtedly recall the representations that he has received from Shropshire county councillors about the election. May I seek his assurance that he will further investigate the matter with a view to making fairer and more equitable electoral arrangements for our county?
I will always look again at these issues, but as I have explained to the county councillors who have approached me on the matter, I am bound by statute. It is most important that the Secretary of State is bound by statute, for the electoral arrangements are the basis for democracy. Therefore, it is important that the House should be assured that we proceed in a way which is manifestly fair. So I am glad that my hon. Friend has used the word "fair". The fact of the matter is that the course of action that has been represented to me as beneficial—however admirable it may be—is not open to me under the law. If it were, of course one would consider it in the non-partisan light that the House would expect. However, if one does not have the opportunity, it is difficult to take it further. I will look again at the matter in case there is any point that I have missed. If my hon. Friend wishes to pass any points to me, I shall be happy to consider them.
Will the Secretary of State give us the benefit of the thinking behind the electoral arrangements in Plymouth and Torbay? Elections will be held in 1997 and the councillors will take over their full duties in 1998, yet they will have only a two-year term of office because there will be further elections in 2000. There will then be an election in 2003 and every fourth year beyond that. So effectively the councillors will have only two years in office before 2000 yet in the future they will be elected every fourth year. What was the thinking behind that?
We attempted to find a way to meld one set of elections in with other sets of elections. It is hard to do that in a way that will be seen not to be unfair to anyone. So far, I have not received any complaints about the package that has been put together, but if the hon. Gentleman feels that there is a better way of doing it, I shall be happy to listen to him. I am genuinely trying to do what is best in the circumstances. I am not trying to make anything more difficult. I am doing what the law tells me I can do and, within that, what seems to be most convenient and, above all, most even-handed. If the hon. Gentleman wants to raise any points with me, I shall be open to it.
There is some suspicion that a certain amount of asset-stripping may take place between now and when the new unitary authorities take their powers in 1998. What powers will my right hon. Friend take to ensure that that does not happen? It is a particular worry in Gillingham, where there may be a great wastage of assets by the present Liberal Democrat majority.
I am very conscious of this matter. For example, I am conscious of the promises that county councils made about subsidiarity when they seemed to be under threat. I am following up those promises to see whether they were carried through to both district and parish councils. I am also looking at whether district council promises to parish councils were fulfilled. In the same way, we shall look carefully at the way in which the assets are dealt with. Happily, we now have a better form than in the past. We have learnt from the past. I hope very much that we can protect my hon. Friend's constituents. I give a warning to those who think that it is a proper way to deal with public assets to spend them while they have them in their hands rather than conserving them to reduce the transitional costs so that there is more to give back to those who have paid for the assets—the council taxpayers.
I am almost entirely at one with the hon. Member for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman) on the thrust of his point. There must be strict policing to ensure that, in my case, Essex county council does not covet plant and offices currently situated in Southend and Thurrock and bring them into the residual county's area. Such things belong to Thurrock and Southend—I am keen that there should be strict policing and control and that there should be no asset stripping from those two areas by the county council.
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that my officials and Ministers—and Ministers do take the subject seriously—will consider those issues. They are not always quite as simple as they are made out to be. County council assets have to be within a district council area—that is one of the characteristics of a two-tier system. If those district councils become unitary authorities there may be some argument as to whether the asset is properly a district area facility that can be reasonably transferred or whether it is part of a wider network and can therefore be treated in a different way. There are difficulties and the matter needs to be carefully watched. I appreciate that it is a non-partisan concern and that we need to watch it on a non-partisan basis.
Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind the position in Lancashire? Whereas the good people of Blackburn and Blackpool can look forward to the benefits of unitary status while remaining in the county of Lancashire, the people of Bolton, who have enjoyed unitary status for 10 years, are still denied their rightful place in the county of Lancashire. The people of Bolton have been in Lancashire for 800 years—it is their overwhelming desire to be in Lancashire: over 99 per cent. were in favour of it according to the most recent opinion poll. Will my right hon. Friend ask the commission to look into restoring Bolton to its rightful place in the historic county of Lancashire?
The advantages of moving back into the historic county of Lancashire are enormously increased if one is a unitary authority that can be in the county without being subject to that particular county council. It is for those who live in the county of Lancashire to consider whether they wanted such large sums of their money to be spent by Lancashire county council in a fruitless attempt to try to stop the people of Blackpool and Blackburn having the unitary authorities that they wanted.
I wonder whether it was worth spending any of that money; all that it has done is to ensure that the House has been unable to look at the issues as it should and the county council appeared to try to stop the House holding perfectly reasonable discussions and making a decision on the matter. I therefore have some sympathy with my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) and will look into the matter as he has asked me to do.
As one of the great admirers of my right hon. Friend's political skills, may I say that he was right to comment that Lib-Lab parties in local government have been all over the place on the subject of unitary authority status—indeed, they have been in Southend, where they were initially against it, then wanted to achieve it more quickly. For the rest of his speech, will my right hon. Friend concentrate on trying to produce unity in the House of Commons? The people of Southend, who are enthusiastic and very much looking forward to the proposals, would be further reassured if those plans were given a welcome and an endorsement from all the Opposition parties. With the great skills that he has, will my right hon. Friend concentrate on achieving unity of purpose in today's debate?
My hon. Friend may have noticed that even when I have had to criticise the action of a particular county council, I have received wide support of the nodding variety from the Labour party.
I know that a number of hon. Members have given public support. People sometimes confuse what is good for their county with what is to their personal advantage. I fear that that distinction has not always been properly made.
It would indeed be awful when we do not need to, except possibly the odd word or two about those who cannot make up their minds.
The orders trigger the extra powers and duties that are placed on all the county and district councils involved in reorganisation. Those are the powers and duties to prepare for the change and to co-operate with each other. In most cases, the powers and duties are contained in separate general regulations, but in a few cases—Herefordshire and Gillingham and Rochester—they are included in the order because of the extra details needed when a completely new authority is being created.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way so often and so early in the debate.
Further to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham), I declare a non-pecuniary interest as honorary president of the Association of British Counties, which is dedicated to restoring all the old counties for all purposes other than local government. Does my right hon. Friend share my enthusiasm for the news that I received from the Post Office this week that people who live in places like Birmingham, Stafford, Walsall and Coventry can now use in their addresses the ancient pre-1974 counties? Thus for postal purposes, Birmingham can become Warwickshire, Staffordshire can reclaim Walsall and Wolverhampton, and Coventry can use Warwickshire. Does not that help to resolve the question of old loyalties while having new unitary forms of local government? We have the best of both worlds.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. I have lived for some time in Fressingfield, Diss, Norfolk. Fressingfield used to be in Suffolk. Although we join the people of Norfolk when it is a question of arguing with Essex, over the Waveney border, the difference is considerable. I managed to get the Post Office to allow us to become Fressingfield, Eye, Suffolk, which cheered many except those who had bought an engraving block and therefore had to replace it. One or two people with expensive addresses were unhappy about the change, but, in general, people like to keep the ancient link.
The local government review has clearly been controversial in many places and has caused not a little antagonism. However, all the local authorities involved in the 10 orders must now put their differences behind them. Although, as the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle" said, it may sometimes feel that one side or other has possession of the place of slaughter, triumphalism or underground resistance can only hold back the return to normality. Once the orders are made, the time for political posturing will be past. As my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) said, it will be time to work responsibly together so that the changes are implemented smoothly and quickly to the benefit of all who live and work in those places.
Local authorities have worked hard to make a success of the reorganisations that have already taken place or will take place next year. I do not often quote Councillor David Rogers, chairman of East Sussex county council's transition committee, but he is reported in the Association of County Councils' newsletter as follows:
We have started to explore together how we can make local government work better in the future than it has done in the past. This reorganisation represents a real opportunity for local government and our partners in this county to introduce positive changes and serve our local communities better.
I have no doubt that the same will be true for the reorganisations resulting from these 10 orders.
I intend that there will be no more structure reviews for some time. It is right that the unitary authorities should have time to bed down, and the county councils, which have been reduced in size, should have the opportunity to adjust to their new circumstances. All local government should now turn its attention from issues of structure to concentrate on improving services in both unitary and two-tier areas. It is always possible for local government to delegate many of its powers to smaller groups and ensure that the money goes with them. So even when there is no unitary authority, that sort of partnership is a way forward. Indeed, it might be the best way forward in many areas.
The commission's priority over the coming years will be to take forward its programme of periodic electoral reviews, a duty placed on it by the 1992 Act. Because the commission has been concentrating on structural issues, there is now a substantial backlog compared with the timetable set down in the Act, as well as significant electoral disparities in many local authorities.
Finally, I should like to refer briefly to the completed picture of the local government review, for which these 10 orders make up the final component. This is not meant as an apologia as I believe that it is clear that the local government review has resulted in, and will continue to lead to, a number of benefits for local government and its customers. In all, 46 unitary authorities will have emerged in shire England as a result of the review. By April 1998—when the last unitary authorities are in place—about 25 million people, or 54 per cent. of the population of England, will be served by unitary local government, including London and the metropolitan authorities.
The Government have never made any secret of their belief that unitary local government holds out many benefits. It does away with the confusion about which council does what which afflicts many people. Ending that confusion can only be good for the accountability of local authorities. Very often, people do not know who does the job, so when it is not done properly they blame someone else or they get so confused that they blame no one at all. This will make for more streamlined local government so that individual functions, such as social services and housing, can be delivered together where circumstances merit such an arrangement. It provides a wonderful opportunity for innovation across the board.
However, it is not only where the review has resulted in new structures that benefits can be obtained—even where there will be no change, there has been the opportunity for authorities to examine how they organise themselves and how they work with others so that they can deliver their services in the most effective and convenient way. During the review, many authorities made promises about the improvements that they would make. I have made it very clear that I expect the authorities to put the flesh on those bones and that I shall take a close interest in their progress. The Audit Commission is now following up the action being taken by authorities, both to put the promises into effect and, more generally, to improve working between the tiers.
I believe that the review has been a positive discipline and challenge, and that the outcome can only be an improvement in the quality of local government offered to the people of England. The picture will not be complete without the 19 unitary authorities that are under consideration today. These orders will bring the whole review to a proper conclusion and I therefore commend them to the House.
My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham (Ms Armstrong) was supposed to lead for the Labour party in this debate but, sadly, her father—the right hon. Ernest Armstrong, a former Deputy Speaker of the House—is seriously ill in hospital and she has had to go to County Durham. I am sure that all hon. Members who know him will wish him well.
Today is American Independence day—and it is independence day for 19 more unitary authorities. Today, the proposition before us is to return duties and powers to authorities that should never have been taken away from them in the first place—they were taken away by a previous Conservative Government. In recent decades, the Conservative party has had some difficulty holding on to the title "Conservative", because it has been the party of constant reorganisation and then re-reorganisation—which is what we are getting today.
We welcome the changes, which are the product of a review that was originally set in train by the right hon. Member for Henley, now the Deputy Prime Minister. At the time, he said:
We know that most local authorities want unitary status and we believe that such status will provide a better structure for the future in most areas."—[Official Report, 20 January 1992; Vol. 232, c. 37.]
Things have not turned out as the right hon. Member for Henley predicted. Indeed, one of my predecessors pointed out in that debate that it looked as though the commission would roam around the countryside guided by the whim of the Secretary of State, that the recommendations would be subject to the whim of the Secretary of State and that they would leave local government in chaos—and so it has turned out.
In fairness to the Secretary of State, it was not entirely done at his whim—there seemed to be a large amount of whim by the former chairman of the Local Government Commission, Sir John Banham, which is one of the reasons why the Secretary of State and I got together in an unholy partnership to try to put it right again.
We now have 46 new unitary authorities—including Rutland, with a population of 33,000; but it does not include Northampton, with a population of 188,000, Norwich with 128,000, Ipswich with 114,000 or Gloucester and Exeter both with 105,000. It is a bit of a mess. The Secretary of State and I could claim—and we are seldom joined together in anything, other than acrimony—that the situation was improved by our joint effort to refer back some of the proposals to a new commission, led by Sir David Cooksey.
Today we have before us the original proposals from the Banham Local Government Commission—which were held back because parts of the proposals were being referred to the Cooksey commission—and the proposal for Berkshire, where progress was delayed by a legal challenge. This proposition, from the original Local Government Commission, is for independence for the following authorities: Plymouth, which has 256,000 people; Torbay, 123,000; Southend, 170,000; Nottingham, 282,000; Herefordshire, 162,000; West Berkshire, which may pose as Newbury from time to time, 142,000; Reading, 138,000; Slough, 105,000; Windsor and Maidenhead, 138,000; Bracknell Forest, 105,000; and Wokingham, 142,000. We are also dealing with the results of the reference back, which includes independence for Peterborough, with 159,000 people; Warrington, 187,000; Halton, 124,000; Thurrock, 131,000; Blackburn, 140,000; Blackpool, 154,000; Wrekin, 143,000; and Medway Towns—a huge new authority—242,000.
I hope that all hon. Members wish the new councils well and that they succeed and prosper. If we are reasonable people, we have to understand he disappointment and heartache that this involves for the county people—both members and staff—who have worked over the years to provide decent services all over the country. This is especially difficult for county people to cope with. For example, Berkshire disappears altogether; Lancashire, Cheshire and Devon will lose two major boroughs; and Shropshire, Hereford and Worcester will lose a large portion of their original county.
I hope that no one will feel that this is a condemnation of what the counties have done—times have changed and, therefore, the structure has to change. This is not necessarily all for the best—we live in a world where all decisions can be taken only on the balance of advantage. On balance, most hon. Members believe that these changes will be for the better. They will help to resolve some of the problems that exist at present, but they may create other problems and difficulties.
As the Secretary of State has said, this is no time for triumphalism by the districts or for a dog-in-the-manger attitude or a scorched-earth policy by the counties. We have to remember that the transitional period and what follows has to serve the interests of local people—their interests must be the top priority. I hope that there will be the fullest co-operation between the new authorities and the existing counties to the benefit of local people—and the Labour party will do whatever it can to ensure that that happens. Much agitation may have been caused in some areas—for example, Lancashire—but whether the campaign for or against was legitimate, it is finished. It must be finished and everyone must work together. In the areas for which the orders have already gone through, the new authorities are working well. I know that arrangements have been made by some of the beneficiaries of today's orders to learn from the experience of areas that are already a year or more ahead. We do not want people to have to reinvent the wheel.
The Government will have to make a contribution in the form of generous settlements to help the process of change. The Secretary of State should carefully consider the standard spending assessments for the successor authorities and try to ensure parity of treatment. In the most recent round of changes, an extraordinary situation arose. In the new districts, the council tax changes in May this year varied from increases of 10 per cent. in Hartlepool, 14 per cent. in Redcar in Cleveland, 13 per cent. in Bristol and 31 per cent. in north Lincolnshire, to reductions of 8 per cent. in north-west Somerset, 10 per cent. in Hove and nearly 16 per cent. in Middlesbrough. The general idea is that the council tax should reflect the responsibilities of the councils, but those increases or decreases did not reflect anything that the councils had done. They were entirely a product of Government decision making and were seen as grossly unfair by some of the authorities that did badly. I hope that the Secretary of State and his officials will try to ensure that that does not happen again.
We have heard various estimates from those in favour of change and those against. Those in favour of change have said that the ultimate cost will be lower and those against have said that the ultimate cost will be higher. Frankly, I never believe any of the information that is wheeled out by various outfits in the City, because they will produce the figure that the county or the district employing them wants. We all know that. As far as I know, no organisation that has asked for City or accountants' advice about whether changes will be more expensive has ever been told that they will be cheaper, and vice versa. That shows what weight we can give to such estimates.
Common sense says, and anyone who believes himself to be a philosophical Conservative will surely accept, that—whatever the ultimate savings or costs—the process of change, or the transition, is always costly in both resources and the attention that the senior people involved have to pay to their job to try to provide services. It is difficult for people to do their basic jobs if those jobs will disappear or their organisation will be chopped in half. It is important that the Government ensure that the transition is cushioned by adequate funding, or it will be harmful to local people, local services and also to the staff who provide those services.
The bulk of staff in the districts and the counties are hard-working people who are motivated by the public service ethic, which is sometimes not given the value that it deserves. The staff are entitled to some security or compensation or both and I hope that the Government will provide that. We should thank all those who have provided services.
A curious electoral situation will prevail next May because of the delays. In the elections to the shadow councils for those unitary authorities, it is not intended that there should be any elections to the county council from the new districts, but there will be elections to the county council from all other parts of the county. Great care will have to be taken to ensure that any change—I do not necessarily mean a change of political control, but a change of personalities or an influx of people who have not been involved and are not familiar with the problems and relationships—does not damage the delivery of services.
I am sure that the whole House will wish the successor authorities well. I can tell people in those areas that the incoming Labour Government, which will be elected not long after the council elections, will enable and empower councils to provide the services that people want and will give councils a duty to promote the economic, social and environmental well-being of their areas and to provide best value for money. However people vote in the forthcoming elections, it is crucial that everybody who is elected and everybody who works for the new authorities—and for those authorities that feel bereft of the new districts—all remember that their crucial and only role is to serve the people of the area and not their own personal interests or the interests of the institutions that they hold dear.
I assure the House that I will be extremely brief. I am afraid that I will make an excessively dull speech, but I hope that the House will for give me. It will be dull because I agree with what has already been said, and that is rare. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, in particular, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) on about 99 per cent. of his speech. We need not worry about the hon. Gentleman's prophecies about the next election. I congratulate both my right hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman on achieving, if not complete unanimity, a large measure of agreement across the House. My right hon. Friend will recall that the situation was different when the massive local government reorganisation took place some 20 years ago. The current changes have been handled with extreme skill.
It was a great mistake—in retrospect, and some of us thought so at the time—to abolish the county boroughs.
The hon. Gentleman is right to ask whose fault it was, but no political party in the House can look back at that episode with total happiness. We all got it wrong at various moments. In my constituency, the Liberals got it wrong about three times. They were against the reforms and then they wanted to change back to the county borough and the unitary authority. As soon as that happened, they were against it again, and now, I am reliably informed, they are in favour of a unitary authority and they criticise the Government for not having introduced it more quickly. That said, I must admit that the Conservative party's position has also been slightly difficult.
It was a great mistake to have abolished the county boroughs and I am glad that the unitary authorities—which are, in effect, county boroughs—have been brought back. I am also glad that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras said that we should thank the councillors and officials of the old authorities. Those in Essex did much to try to help Southend during the past 20 years. We are not disposed unfavourably towards them, but we are pleased that we will govern our affairs once more. I have had my differences with Essex county council in the past few years—even more so recently—and I do not agree with its social services policy. I do not agree with its education policy and people in Southend are seriously worried about some of its actions, but tonight is not the night to go into those matters in great detail.
I have never before agreed with the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras so often. As he said, today is Independence day—
High as the flag on the 4th of July!
The change will be a wonderful moment for those middle-aged and older people who remember when Southend had a county borough before. They now look forward with optimism and hope to a unitary authority that will be able to run its own affairs in the interests of those living in the town and taking an active part in local life. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Government and I congratulate the Opposition, too, on their virtually bipartisan support. This is an important day for Southend and I am happy that, once more, we shall have a unitary authority.
It gives me great pleasure to speak in the debate in support of the structural change orders.
The order for the boroughs of Halton and Warrington affects my constituency. I am delighted with the recommendations, as I am a long-time supporter of unitary local government. In my maiden speech to the House on 6 May 1992, I said that I hoped to see unitary status for Halton and Warrington within the lifetime of this Parliament. That will happen this afternoon when the order is passed.
My support for unitary local government has been fostered over many years. I was first elected to my local council in 1979. At that time, Warrington borough council was Conservative-led and the then Conservative leader, Councillor John Walsh, was a strong advocate of unitary local government. When political control changed, the incoming Labour council adhered to that objective.
I am proud to tell the House that, when I was leader of Warrington borough council between 1985 and 1992, I vigorously pursued the aim of achieving unitary status for my authority. My good friend, Councillor John Gartside, who now leads Warrington borough council, has also pursued the goal of unitary status with single-minded determination and vision. My good friend, Councillor Dave Cargill, and his colleagues on Halton borough council have been tireless in their efforts to bring about local self-government for the people of Halton.
I strongly support unitary local government, because it strengthens the democratic process by bringing local government closer to the people. As we approach the new millennium, we must search for better ways of involving people in the decisions that affect the way in which society is run. I make no apologies for saying that democracy demands that we devolve power, responsibility and decision making from the centre to the smaller units of government. Power should be devolved from Europe down the line, past Whitehall and Westminster, to units of local government that are capable of effective decision making and service delivery. That important role for local government will be achieved through the creation of unitary local government. We are debating the practical application of devolution this afternoon.
Decisions about local government services and their delivery and management in Halton and Warrington should be made by councillors who are elected by, and are accountable to, their local communities. I would like to see an end to the two-tier system which the orders provide in favour of a single tier of local government. That would remove confusion and make councils responsible to the communities that they are elected to serve.
I passionately want to see local government for the people of Halton and Warrington provided by the people of Halton and Warrington. A classic example is the provision of social services and education. Those important local government services are delivered and managed locally and their democratic framework should be as close as possible to the people who use them. Unitary local government will achieve that aim.
Although we are approaching the point when the vision of unitary local government will become a reality in Halton and Warrington, the journey to that destination was not all plain sailing. The three main political parties fought the last general election on the promise to introduce unitary local government. That was a central part of my campaign and that of my Liberal Democrat and Conservative opponents at the last general election.
When the Government set up the local government review under the auspices of the Local Government Commission, chaired by Sir John Banham, I had high hopes that a unitary structure of local government would emerge throughout the United Kingdom. I was still more confident that the first review would recommend unitary status for both Halton and Warrington. Both authorities have concentrated areas of population and cover new town areas.
The Runcorn new town and Warrington new town developments have strongly influenced the shape and character of the two boroughs in my constituency. Both boroughs have strong community interests and a sense of place. The current levels of population and population growth show clearly that the boroughs are large enough to take full advantage of unitary status. The geographical location of the two boroughs in the northern part of the county adjacent to the metropolitan unitary authorities of Knowsley, St. Helens, Wigan, Manchester and Trafford is significant in terms of structural planning.
Cheshire county council is preparing to privatise waste disposal operations, which will cause major problems in Warrington and Halton. The council should wait until the orders are passed and we have unitary local government in the two boroughs; the parties could then discuss a way forward that is beneficial to all and that does not put Warrington and Halton in a difficult position in terms of waste disposal.
Halton borough council is different from Warrington, as it has high levels of socio-economic deprivation. It also suffers from a serious labour market imbalance and economic decline. Economic regeneration is the key to a more prosperous future for the borough. I am delighted that the chamber of trade and commerce in Halton and the private sector are behind Halton's move to achieve unitary status. That is an important coalition of the private and public sectors which are working together in the interests of communities in my constituency.
The economic base in Warrington has weathered the recession better than other parts of the north-west. That is due to the success of Warrington and Runcorn development corporation and the economic development activities of Warrington borough council. The challenge for Warrington under unitary authority status is to continue to promote economic development and to expand and diversify the borough's economic base.
A good example of Warrington's proactive association with the private sector is the Business to Business exhibition that is held every year. It is a major event which expands trading links from my local authority into the north-west. I look forward to the unitary authority's achieving great things in the future to enhance the economic base in my constituency.
There was a strong belief that unitary status was tailor-made for the two boroughs as it would reinforce and enhance their development and provide for an exciting and productive future. It was regrettable that the Banham commission failed to recognise the obvious advantages of unitary local government for Halton and Warrington and recommended the status quo.
At this point, I must pay tribute to the Secretary of State for the Environment, to his right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), his hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central (Sir P. Beresford) and to my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson). They determined that there should be a second review, which included Halton and Warrington, under the auspices of Sir David Cooksey. If it were not for the assistance of those on the two Front Benches, I am sure that the orders would not be before the House this afternoon. I thank both sides, on behalf of my local authorities, for their intervention.
It is fair to point out that the creation of unitary local authorities in Halton and in Warrington was not universally popular—far from it. It is a matter of public record that the two reviews conducted in Cheshire were not without their trials and tribulations. Cheshire county council fought tooth and nail against the proposal that Halton and Warrington receive unitary status. I shall not dwell on the council's discredited campaign to retain the two-tier system. However, I believe that the extraordinary amount of local taxpayers' money that it spent could and should have been used to improve service delivery.
One of the more bizarre episodes in the council's discredited campaign involved inviting so-called local opinion formers to a dinner held by the chair of the county council at a school in my constituency. The dinner was paid for with local taxpayers' money. I have written to Cheshire county council asking for a list of the people who were invited to the dinner, a list of those who attended and the cost of the dinner to county council tax payers. As Cheshire county council has a stated policy of
supporting open government and greater accountability in accordance with the Freedom of Information Campaign's objectives",
one would expect my request to receive a positive response. I have written to Cheshire county council six times seeking that information. It has refused to respond on five occasions and my last letter remains unanswered. I do not know what the council has to hide, nor do I know why it has decided to shroud in secrecy a simple matter of who was invited to a dinner and how much it cost. However, it seems to me that the refusal to supply a Member of Parliament—and a Cheshire council tax payer—with information is the action of a remote, unaccountable and undemocratic organisation that is not prepared even to pay lip service to its own policy of open government.
Although my constituency of Ellesmere Port and Neston was not granted unitary authority status, we wish both Halton and Warrington well in their endeavours. I am sure that they will succeed. I hope that the Minister has listened carefully to my hon. Friend's remarks about a problem with which we are faced time and again when dealing with the county council. My hon. Friend referred to one particular issue, but there are others concerning social services and education. Will he comment on the difficulties that he has faced in those areas?
I largely agree with my hon. Friend. Suffice it to say that Cheshire county council's spending on special needs is the second lowest in the country. I hope that the two unitary authorities will spend more on that aspect of education.
I have criticised Cheshire county council—now I will praise it, because it has accepted the recommendations and has issued, with Halton and Warrington borough councils, a joint declaration of commitment to a smooth transition of county-run services and to continuing to provide high-quality, cost-effective services to the people of Cheshire before and after the unitary authorities begin operating. That development and the recommendations are welcomed by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Mr. Hoyle) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Mr. Oakes). The other Cheshire districts have also accepted that the two local authorities in the north of the county should have unitary status, and they are working together to bring that about.
As we come to the end of this long and winding road, the challenge for Halton and Warrington councils is to meet their promise to the people of those boroughs about the benefits of unitary local government—a concept that I support because I believe in the principles of democracy. Devolution is fundamental to strengthening our democratic processes. Halton and Warrington borough councils should not rest on their laurels on achieving unitary status but must devolve power within their communities. The local government review has aroused in both boroughs tensions and fears that must be addressed speedily and positively. Parish areas south of the Manchester ship canal in Warrington must be included at an early stage of planning for unitary status. Those areas have an important role to play in Warrington's joint future and their inclusion is essential if the best possible future for the borough is to be achieved.
One gesture that the council's ruling Labour group could make in that respect is to offer mayoralty to the opposition groups, which would cost nothing but go a long way towards building bridges in the whole borough—a gesture of political reconciliation which I strongly commend to my local authority.
I look forward to the elections to the shadow authority next May and to the implementation of the unitary authorities on 1 April 1998, and I hope that the Secretary of State will ensure that all three reorganising councils have sufficient resources to enable them to deliver high-quality local government. I thank all the organisations that have supported the campaign in Warrington and Halton, and I reiterate that both councils must provide greater accountability, improve access to local services, and provide more convenient local government that responds better to local needs. Those are the challenges facing my two local authorities.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate, on behalf of Conservative Members who represent Berkshire constituencies. Two of them—my hon. Friends the Members for Slough (Mr. Watts) and for East Berkshire (Mr. MacKay)—are Ministers, so are unable to contribute. My hon. Friend the Member for Windsor and Maidenhead (Mr. Trend) is heavily engaged in other duties, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) and my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Sir G. Vaughan) are in their places.
I do not know the position of the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel). I understand that he favours the unitary authority for his constituency, but I am not sure of his attitude towards the county.
I strongly support the proposals before the House. I have always been in favour of unitary authorities, because I started my political life with one. Woking was a big urban district council and we had a lot more power in those days. I was chairman of its education committee, which gave powers to the local districts, and learned a lot from that experience. Reading was an extremely good county borough.
I support the view of my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) that those of us with county boroughs in their constituencies much regretted their abolition. They provided a good service and offered high standards, and it was a pity that they disappeared. I am delighted that they are to return. People need to be near the services that they use. They want to know who is responsible for repairing a hole in the road or for allocating school places. At present, the public are confused.
I thank all those people who have worked in my county council—particularly the county councillors themselves. They have a good record and have worked extremely hard. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that Berkshire will not lose its identity, and it will retain its lord lieutenant. However, Berkshire lost a lot of the county some time ago, including Abingdon. The white horse, which was once the symbol of Berkshire, was also lost in a previous reorganisation. I fought against a white horse candidate in one election, who wanted to return the white horse to Berkshire. He won about 300 votes and it was interesting to have him in the campaign.
A MORI poll found that only 11 per cent. of the people of Berkshire felt that they had any strong connection with the county, which is pretty low. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, the county held some odd views. Initially, it joined the district in saying, "Yes, we want unitary authorities—so we will abolish ourselves." It subsequently took a U-turn, but no one has got to the bottom of the reason for that change of mind. Then it started a campaign and wasted a great deal of public money—all of it from council tax payers—going to court, the High Court and the House of Lords. All the letters that I have received about retaining the county council have arrived since that campaign started.
I made some disparaging remarks about county hall. Perhaps I may withdraw them and make it plain that I was expressing a personal view. It did win an architectural prize, which surprised me at the time. I was speaking for myself, not for everybody else in the county, when I said that the county hall was monstrous.
I accept that costs—there will be some—are an issue, but as the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) said, one can produce any figures one wants, whatever the starting point. It is up to the unitary authorities to control their costs. It is not a matter of their saying, "We cannot do anything. We need a lot more money." The authorities already run many of the services, so I believe that they can keep costs well under control.
I have received the same communication from Reading district council, and we shall keep it to that pledge.
Concern has been expressed about voluntary and similar bodies. Berkshire districts have established liaison committees in advance of reorganisation, to cover planning and technical services, social services, 'the voluntary sector, community cultural services, emergency planning, trading standards, chief executives, finance officers, information technology, land and property, personnel and communications. The sad thing is that the county was originally involved in those liaison committees but withdrew when it started its campaign, which was equally a great pity.
One argument made in the county council's campaign was that the people of Berkshire had not been consulted. A letter from Purley parish council in my constituency states:
Only an authority that is totally out of touch with the people and unaware of what is going on could make such a statement. The public has been consulted extremely adequately … The Parish Council has no wish for its 'Local Government' to be run by a body that up until the last minute was saying it did not wish to put itself forward as a Unitary Authority, and was proposing its own dissolution. At the eleventh hour they changed their minds, and would not appear to be intent on their survival. This indecisive stance hardly inspires confidence for the future.
That expresses the irritation of one of my parish councils.
Unitary authorities are a sensible solution, and I believe that those in Berkshire will be successful. They already have a good history, and I wish the order well.
I regret that some of the speeches made so far in the debate seem to have concentrated on whether unitary authorities are a good thing as an issue of principle. We have had that debate on various occasions in the past; surely it is not the debate that we should be having today. This debate is about 10 orders that affect 10 areas, and whether they meet the requirements of those areas or whether they should be amended in some way and sent back for further consideration. That is what we should be dealing with and, at least for a large part of my speech, I intend to deal with those specific problems.
I realise that the Government and the Labour party are under the impression that they have effectively wrapped up the local government review and that there is little more to discuss. That is a pity, because there are some important points to be made. The fact that the Government and the official Opposition were so eager for 10 of these orders to be swept through the House in only three hours today—originally it was to have happened a week ago—is evidence enough of the low priority that both the Conservative party and the Labour party give local government.
We have three hours, which is only 18 minutes for each of 10 counties.
No; I am going on with my speech.
That would never be enough time for all the hon. Members whose local authorities are affected to have their say. I understand that many of them do not wish to have a say. That is up to them. I am surprised, however, that sufficient time was not allowed for all hon. Members to have a say if they so wished.
We have 18 minutes to decide on the education of thousands of children. We have 18 minutes to decide about the care of the elderly and about the implications for fire services, the police and all the other local services that will be affected by these orders. We have 18 minutes for, perhaps on average, the eight hon. Members in each of those counties, not including the time required by the Minister to make his proposals and for the Opposition spokespersons to reply. That compares with the full one and a half hours of debate that was allowed for each of the first round of counties that were dealt with two years ago.
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman recalls that he was given 30 minutes in a meeting with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration to tell us whether he was in favour of or against unitary authorities for the rest of Berkshire. During all that time, he refused to answer a direct question, which I shall ask him again now: is he or is he not in favour of unitary status for the other districts of Berkshire, or does he have a view only on Newbury?
The Secretary of State is anticipating my speech; I will be dealing with Berkshire in a few moments. I shall of course let him know my views, because he has asked for them. They are in my speech, and I shall provide that information shortly.
Apparently, the Liberal Democrats take local government more seriously than do the Tory party and the Labour party. I make no apology if the Labour party and the Tory party now feel that we are spoiling their party.
The local government review has been a shambles from beginning to end, and today's orders demonstrate how arbitrary the process has been. Some areas have been selected for unitary status against the wishes of the local people, who want to maintain the present structure. Other areas—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Which?"] I shall go through individual areas shortly. Other areas have been left alone, despite local people's clear wish for change.
Running roughshod over local people's views when making what amounts to constitutional change is a recipe for disaster. The main reason for our having yet another review of local government structures is that ignoring local people's wishes did not work in Avon, in Cleveland or in Humberside in the 1970s. It will not work any better now.
As the hon. Gentleman is so determined to demonstrate the commitment of the Liberals to local government, would he like to tell the House where is the rest of his party? He has been the sole Liberal Democrat in the Chamber for most of this debate, although now there are two.
The hon. Gentleman may like to comment on the proportion of hon. Members in my party who are in the Chamber as compared with the proportion of hon. Members in his party who are here.
Because profound changes are being made to the structure of local democracy, and because of the manner in which it is being done, at the very least the Government should have listened to the express views of the general public, but they simply have not listened. They have conducted a prejudiced and sometimes—as has been proved—illegal review.
The Labour party, because of its desire to boost the power of its urban fiefdoms, has colluded with the Government at every step of the way—not, I hasten to add, in an open and co-operative consultation, but behind closed doors and in smoke-filled rooms. Recently, some Labour Members have shown their distaste for Labour Front Benchers—[Interruption.]
I am sure that, if the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff) would like to see the notes that I am working from and compare them with Hansard, he would find that there are many differences.
Some Labour Members have shown their distaste for Labour Front Benchers bending towards the Conservative agenda in recent days. In this case, of course, the Labour Opposition and the Conservative Government have plotted and schemed together in the most cosy fashion, and yet we have heard nothing from those Labour dissenters. I wonder why not? Surely they have not lost their voices already—or perhaps the Hartlepool cat has cut out their tongues?
The underlying problem that has bedeviled the review from its inception is that no real thought was given to the fundamental role and purpose of local government. That was the problem. How can a serious review of the structure of a tier of local government be held without first deciding what that level should be doing and what its powers and responsibilities should be? The issues have simply not been addressed in this review. Because of that, judging which orders should be supported, which should be opposed and which are so controversial that they should be forced to a Division today has been made much more difficult.
Even determining what local people want has not been an entirely straightforward matter. Much of the public consultation that has taken place occurred some time ago—much of it as long ago as 1994. Even then, there was often a stark difference between the direct responses given to the commission and the results of MORI opinion poll testing.
Another important consideration in all these matters is the cost of any change. Previous examples of restructuring have shown that costs always seem to be higher than is expected, which must be a further argument against change where it is not properly supported. That is true not only of the changes implemented in the 1970s and 1980s, but—as the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) has already pointed out—of the latest round of proposed unitary changes and of the changes that have already been made in this structure review. The case must therefore be very strong for consulting local people again—now that we have the Government's final proposals—in those areas that were originally considered under the first review.
It is a shame that the Government have not felt it necessary to carry out that further consultation. We must make do with the information at our disposal—the analysis of the direct responses by National Opinion Polls, the MORI polls and the range of submissions to our offices by local people and by their elected representatives. On that basis, I shall now make some comments on each of the orders before us. The orders for Hereford and Worcester, for Devon, for Essex and for Lancashire are the least controversial.
Will the hon. Gentleman apologise for misleading listeners to BBC radio in Hereford and Worcester last week, when he told them that the local Liberal party had called for unitary authorities in Worcestershire, whereas in fact they fought the idea tooth and nail while the Conservatives, sadly unsuccessfully, argued for them?
I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman is referring to. I would certainly like to apologise if I had said anything wrong on the radio, but I am not aware of having done so, and I would require further particulars first.
As I said, the orders for Hereford and Worcester, for Devon, for Essex and for Lancashire are the least controversial. There is a strong case for separating Herefordshire from Worcestershire. Such a move would be in line with the history of each area, and clearly has the support of local people. The option of no change was not included in the direct consultation that took place at the beginning of the review, but 92 per cent. of respondents supported an option that included a unitary Hereford. The MORI poll found that supporters of a unitary option outnumbered the proponents of the status quo by about two to one.
In Devon, the case for unitary authorities for Plymouth and for Torbay has always received strong support.
I did not say that I would vote against it.
A unitary Plymouth has near universal support throughout Devon. Plymouth is a large city, with problems and challenges different from those in the rest of the county. However, there must be one concern—that at least as much support was shown for a unitary authority in Exeter as in Torbay.
May I remind the hon. Gentleman—remind him, that is, if he has the slightest knowledge of Devon—that the Torbay consultation had the second highest percentage return in the country? In the first consultation exercise, Exeter demonstrated complete apathy, and no interest whatever in unitary status. Only the second time round was there some local feeling in favour of unitary status. As a result, there was a further review, which decided, rightly, that there was not sufficient local support for unitary status. The fact that the hon. Gentleman puts Torbay and Exeter in the same bag demonstrates his complete ignorance of everything west of Bristol.
I understand that the concern of the Local Government Commission is that Exeter is an important county centre—certainly that is a reasonable argument—but similar arguments could have been, and in some cases were, advanced for other areas, such as Leicester, Stoke-on-Trent and several other cities.
The somewhat arbitrary nature of the review process, and the failure to match the proposals to the public will, is clearly highlighted in the Devon order. The Government have also ignored the fears of the people of South Hams that they will be squeezed between the two unitary authorities of Torbay and Plymouth, which lie on either side of it.
The Essex proposals that I want to discuss relate mainly to Thurrock and Southend. In the direct responses—sadly, those too are old data from 1994—the public in Thurrock supported a unitary authority, not by a huge majority, but by 41 per cent. as opposed to 35 per cent. In Southend, there was a higher level of support for a unitary authority—61 per cent. to 36 per cent. The MORI poll in Thurrock found a small majority in favour—43 per cent. to 39 per cent. That may not be especially significant, but in Southend it found a rather bigger majority—41 per cent. to 24 per cent.—in favour of at least some modified form of two-tier system plus a unitary Southend.
In the rest of the county, support was not good, with 33 per cent., as opposed to 19 per cent., favouring the status quo. I have two further points to make about the order for Essex, because the Government have missed two opportunities. In Southend, the new unitary authority has only 39 councillors, and it is clear that local feeling is that that is not enough to cover all the new functions.
The second point is about Billericay, which has not been formed into a new joint authority with Brentwood, although there is considerable local support for that idea. That is another missed opportunity, which 1 he Government would have done well to seize.
The plans for Berkshire are a tragedy, because there was a really good solution for the county, which was proposed at an early stage and widely supported—by the county council as much as by anybody else, as has already been said. That solution would have been supported not only by the county but by all the districts and by the vast majority of the people of Berkshire.
The solution would have been to create four unitary authorities, one each for the districts of Newbury, Slough and Reading, and another to cover the rest of the area. It would have been widely supported, and to my mind was much the best solution. Unfortunately, at that point, the right hon. Member for Wokingham put his oar in and started to insist on a separate unitary authority for Wokingham—an idea that even the recently elected district council there, which is more sensible, has now rejected.
First we moved to five unitary authorities for Berkshire, then, finally, the Secretary of State decided that we should go for all six, and turn all the current district council areas into unitary authorities. That solution has never been put out to proper public consultation. It was never part of the original consultation process.
The direct responses to the original proposals showed little support for the idea of no change. There was considerable support for unitary authorities in Berkshire, and I am sure that there still is. When the MORI poll was taken, there was still strong support for the Newbury area, in particular, to become a unitary authority, and considerable support, although rather less than in Newbury, in some other parts of Berkshire.
The whole thing has become a dreadful mess. For Reading, Slough and Newbury, the solution is much the same as it was always intended to be, apart from minor changes to some of the boundaries. I am sure that we all wish to support those new unitary authorities, but the mess that has been made of the rest of Berkshire as a result of the intervention of some of the Conservative Members involved cannot be supported by the House.
Will the hon. Gentleman explain why it is such a mess to have a unitary authority in Wokingham, but it is not a mess to have a unitary authority in Newbury? If the arrangement is so clearly a mess, will he explain why, during the 30 minutes that he spent with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration, although he was invited every two minutes or so to tell us about it, he did not do so, but has left it until now to come and tell us about it? Why has he been so slow, so trappist, in his views on Berkshire, when he is so ready to judge everywhere else in the country, which he has not visited?
Why is it a mess to have a single unitary authority for Wokingham, which has 150,000 people, but not a mess to have one for Newbury, which has 141,000 people? Why, when the councillors who came with the hon. Gentleman to the meeting about Newbury urged him to tell my right hon. Friend about his views on the rest of the county, did he refuse to do what they wanted? In the end, they were almost as bemused as my right hon. Friend.
I find it quite extraordinary that the Secretary of State should regard the number of people in a particular unitary authority as the relevant criterion, as I understand that a unitary authority of only 30,000 was recently created—very much smaller than Newbury or Wokingham. The point is not the number of people in the area, but whether the area hangs together as a sensible, viable unitary authority area. That is the question to which we must respond. It is quite clear that, whereas Newbury feels strongly that it is part of a whole, the same is not true of Wokingham, which contains large parts of what in effect are the suburbs of Reading, as well as areas that are much more countrified.
I thought that we might hear a fuller explanation of the hon. Gentleman's views on Berkshire, but I see that he does not have any formed views on Berkshire even to this day.
Why does the hon. Gentleman think that Wokingham and Bracknell, with Windsor and Maidenhead, would make a single area that wanted to be governed together? I can tell him that my constituents and those of my hon. Friends in neighbouring constituencies know that that is not the view of our electorate, and we have represented their views.
I am delighted to hear that that is the right hon. Gentleman's view of what his electorate thinks, but he may take a different view when they begin to turn against him, as I am sure they rapidly will if the proposal goes ahead at his behest.
What is wanted in Nottingham—this is the difficulty with this order—is not what is wanted in the rest of the county, which is one of the great problems with the Government's cherry picking solution to the local government review. Nottingham's direct responses to the commission showed that there was no clear call for unitaries, but there was strong support for no change. The MORI opinion poll showed that, in the county as a whole, 20 per cent. supported the unitary city, 35 per cent. supported no change and 45 per cent. supported something else. In the city itself, there was marginal support for a unitary authority to be set up—24 per cent. as against 21 per cent. for no change—but 55 per cent. supported something else. It is significant that, in this case, the further we have gone, and the more time we have taken over the review, the more people seem to have turned against the solution currently proposed by the Government.
For Cambridgeshire, the direct responses from Peterborough showed that only 19 per cent. were in favour of a unitary city, while 71 per cent. were in favour of no change. Even the MORI opinion poll showed that, in the city of Peterborough, only some 40 per cent. were in favour of a unitary city and 40 per cent. were against it, while in the rest of the county it was 40 per cent. to 30 per cent. in favour of the status quo. It is true to say, however, that it would be a viable unitary authority—it hangs together in a way in which the unitary authority of Wokingham does not—and it is not central to Cambridgeshire, which is a further important point.
Indeed, Peterborough city council fully supports this order, so there are some good reasons for allowing it to go through.
In Cheshire, the direct responses were interesting. Organisations in Halton were some 2:1 in favour of a unitary Halton, but organisations in Warrington were 4:3 against. In the rest of the county, some 7:1 responses from organisations were against—a much stronger feeling. Direct responses from the public in Halton were 2:1 against. In Warrington, they were 3:1 against—getting stronger. In the rest of the county, 95 per cent. were against. The MORI opinion poll shows that, in Halton, there was marginal support for the unitary authority—39 per cent. to 34 per cent. In Warrington, people were against it by a similar majority—41 per cent. to 33 per cent. En the rest of the county, they were 2:1 against.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. When a number of hon. Members who wish to speak have been told that they cannot be included because so many hon. Members have already asked to speak, is it in order for the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) to go on and on, covering the whole country in this rather tedious and irrelevant way?
I fear that the hon. Gentleman missed what I said on that very point at the start of my speech: three hours is not sufficient time for adequate debate. If he wished for more, he could have asked for more. [Interruption.]
I am not quite clear what that remark refers to.
In Cheshire, there is clearly no real support for the Government's proposals, and they should therefore be turned down by the House.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, in Cheshire, the Liberal Democrats were party to the campaign run by the county council, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Mr. Hall) referred, at extraordinary cost to the county ratepayer? How does he justify that expenditure? It makes Lancashire look quite small as far as I am concerned.
If there were not so many interventions, I might be able to finish my speech rather sooner and thus help the hon. Member for Reading, East (Sir G. Vaughan).
A number of counties and district authorities throughout the country have felt that, in the best interests of their council tax payers, they should put their point of view as forcefully as they can to encourage a decision that they consider right for their electorates.
I do not necessarily agree with everything that the Tories or the Liberal Democrats say in different parts of the county about the local government review—[Interruption.]—because all parties are split on this issue. The Labour party is split. The Tory party is split, and. to some extent, our party is also split. [Interruption.] It is not a party political matter; it is a matter for the House to decide, in the best interests of the people of this country. The hon. Gentleman should know that.
Shropshire is a particularly interesting case, because one Conservative Member of Parliament is quite openly against the Government's proposals and has put that on the record. The direct responses from organisations and the public in The Wrekin—not in Shropshire as a whole—were marginally in favour of The Wrekin becoming a unitary authority, but in the rest of the county the figures were some 20:1 against. I notice that the Secretary of State keeps harping on about MORI polls as though they were unimportant. If they are so unimportant, why did he ensure that they were taken in each county?
I am sorry. I have given way enough.
As far as The Wrekin is concerned, the MORI polls—the House will be pleased to learn—showed that people were in favour, by 45 per cent. to 38 per cent. That is not a huge amount; it is a marginal vote in favour but, once again, in the rest of the county, we see that this proposal is widely disliked.
Having confirmed that the MORI poll in The Wrekin showed that the majority of those who responded were in favour of unitary local government for The Wrekin, will he explain whether is it Liberal policy to support the minority position? We know that the Liberals support an electoral system that would give massively disproportionate power to minorities, but it is their local government policy to listen to the minority and impose a local government structure selected by the minority?
As the hon. Gentleman ought to have realised, in these matters there are always two types of opinion to listen to. One is the opinion from within the area concerned and the other is the opinion of people who live in the rest of the county who are equally affected. If their opinions are to be overridden as a result of an hon. Member's opinion, as we have just heard, taking into account only the district authority that is to be made into a unitary authority, frankly it would not be democratic. It is clear that the effect on the rest of Shropshire will be so damaging that the unitary authority order should not go through.
I turn finally to Kent. [HoN. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] The direct responses in Kent showed an enormous abhorrence for what was going on. In Gillingham, just 5 per cent. were in favour, and 76 per cent. wanted no change. In Rochester, the number of those in favour was as high as 7 per cent., but 69 per cent. were in favour of no change. The MORI opinion polls showed that, in Gillingham, 63 per cent. and, in Rochester, 53 per cent. wanted no change. In both areas, a mere 30 per cent. of people were in favour of the Government's proposals. It would be absurd to go ahead with such an order when there is such a huge volume of local opinion against what the Government are proposing.
Finally, I shall return to one or two more general points about the 10 orders. In his response to a statement by the Secretary of State for the Environment in March last year, the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) said:
On behalf of the Labour party, I welcome much of the statement, and thank the Secretary of State for the discussions which preceded it. The overall effect of what he has announced should deliver much of what we have been calling for."—[Official Report, 2 March 1995; Vol. 255, c. 1185.]
It has been clear throughout the second tranche of the review that we are facing a Lab-Con pact between the Labour and Conservative parties, which has been stitched up in a back room without anyone else being allowed to have a say. That important point has to be brought out now.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, first, there was nothing secret? Of necessity, the list that was put back before the Local Government Commission was made public. People discussed it, made representations about it, and it was changed as a result of those representations. Secondly, does he recognise that if the Secretary of State and I had not got together, quite a few authorities that are gaining independence as a result of the orders would not have done so? Since the vast majority of people in those areas and their councils want independence, is it not about time that he shut up and let a few hon. Members who represent those areas speak up for them?
It is true that, in some of the areas, there is local support for the proposals, but in other areas, as I have clearly demonstrated, there is no such local support. What is important about my speech is that, sadly, my party is the only one in the House that is prepared to stand up against the Lab-Con pact, which is destroying local government in certain parts of our country.
May I remind the hon. Gentleman that I asked him whether he would explain to my right hon. Friend the Minister his views merely on Berkshire. He could not give any views on Berkshire. A pact with the Liberal party was impossible because it did not know where it was going on Berkshire. He complains that he is not listened to, but when he was asked for his opinion, he did not have one. When the rest of the Liberals were asked for their opinions, they had so many that one could not agree with them on any of them. The only thing that his speech has proved is that if one cannot vote Conservative, for God's sake one should not vote Liberal.
In local government, as in so many other areas nowadays, what is emerging is not so much new Labour but new Tories. The slogan that the British people should fear is not "New Labour, New Danger", but "Old Tories, Old Danger; New Tories, New Danger". The motive shared by the Labour and Conservative parties is clear for all to see. All they are interested in is dividing the country into what they expect to be one-party fiefdoms—towns and cities set up as unitaries to be controlled by Labour, and the surrounding shire counties to be controlled by the Conservatives. In each they hope that any serious opposition from their traditional opponents will fade.
In fact, Labour and the Conservatives are both making a terrible mistake. They have failed to understand, as have so many in the media, that the traditional division of local authorities between the Tory and Labour parties is no more. Although they are splitting the country into areas that they think are natural Tory and Labour areas, in practice they are simply playing into our hands. What will happen is this: in the new town and city unitaries, the Liberal Democrats, as in so many areas already, will be the only opposition to Labour. We shall be able to concentrate our fire on one front instead of two.
Similarly, in the surrounding shire areas, the Liberal Democrats will be, as so often we are already, the only opponents to the Tories. There, too, we shall be able to concentrate our fire in one direction. In an attempt to improve their own electoral fortunes by carving out local authorities where they feel that they can guarantee to retain control, the Labour and Conservative parties are, in practice, playing into our hands. Their gerrymandering will be to our benefit.
The review is finally coming to a close, which will be a great relief to all those involved in local government. Perhaps now, all local authorities can get on with the business of providing high-quality, value-for-money services, which, after all, is what they are there for. Perhaps now, local authorities can set about rebuilding staff morale, which has been shattered by year after year of uncertainty—sadly nowhere more so than in Berkshire.
Although the end of the review is a relief, it leaves all those who are concerned for local democracy with a profound sense of disappointment. Local democracy needs revitalising and rebuilding. Imaginative proposals for structural change and the devolution of power will, of course, feature in such a process, but the cause has been greatly damaged by the review, which was prejudicial and pursued ideological ends towards limited local government.
The task of making positive changes, improvements and enhancements to local government has been made much more difficult. All future discussion of how such structures should be matched to the responsibilities, duties and powers of local authorities will be limited by the bad experience of the review. It leaves a legacy of which the Government should be ashamed. They have set back the cause of local democracy by decades. A number of the orders should certainly be opposed, and I shall be calling on the House to oppose them. I hope that not only the Liberal Democrats support the cause of local democracy in this House.
In all my 22 years in the House, I have never heard a speech quite like that of the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel). The House will be relieved to know that I will not trudge relentlessly around the countryside into areas that I do or do not know, making comments that put up hackles in virtually every part of the House. In his peroration—when it finally came—the hon. Gentleman threatened me and my local government colleagues with "concentrated fire", but his speech was an advertisement for the sort of concentrated fire that we can expect. He may regard himself as some kind of weapon of war, but he has a wonderful facility for self-detonation.
In comparison, I wish to pay a compliment to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I and my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Sir C. Shepherd) have been pursuing him on this matter for about a year, and he has always been kind and considerate in his responses. I congratulate him on the orders, because he has had to deal with all the uncertainty that existed locally. In reverting finally to the speech of the hon. Member for Newbury, let me say that we saw a method of attacking the political enemy in the principal speech, and subsequent intervention, of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that brought smiles to every face—bar one hon. Member, for whom it was too much of an effort to smile. My right hon. Friend showed an elegance of touch that is all too lacking in the House, and I pay tribute to him.
My main point, on which I shall speak briefly, concerns finance. My hon. Friend the Member for Hereford cannot be here because of parliamentary business, but I know that he would wish to join me in my remarks. I shall make many parts of my speech on behalf of us both, as I will address myself to the Hereford and Worcester order. The financing of the new county of Hereford is important, because it relates to the financing of all rural areas under the new arrangements. Although that matter has yet to be touched on directly, I hope that those on both Government and Opposition Front Benches will do so during their winding-up speeches.
It is extremely expensive to deliver local government services in rural areas, and the re-creation of the county of Herefordshire will need funding. The background to this matter is the 1971–72 local government amalgamation of Hereford and Worcester, which was an intensive political issue locally and caused considerable political fall-out. I almost lost my seat as a result of it. The reasons for that fallout—those which were financial—are relevant to the present and to the future. At that time, Herefordshire was not financially viable on its own, and was requiring some 70 per cent. rate support grant. The county did not have a sufficient financial base to deliver services, particularly with the increasing expense of providing services to a very rural county.
The combination with Worcestershire worked, and I want to put on record the fact that I am the only Hereford and Worcester Member of Parliament in the literal sense—I am the only cross-border Member, whose constituency is in the old counties of Herefordshire and of Worcestershire. I have represented both areas for a considerable number of years, and I know that the financial guardianship of Worcestershire has been useful and beneficial. That leads me to deal with the central point of the debate—the change to unitary status and the problems that could arise. On behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford, I must say that the change is welcome, as Herefordshire is a cohesive and natural county. There are no problems, other than financial ones, with the re-creation of Herefordshire.
Delivering services is expensive because the county covers many hundreds of square miles, and is as big as Worcestershire, but with one fifth of the population. We have more roads than Worcestershire and we must pay for them. The cost of delivering social services is enormous by comparison with the more urban counties. I appreciate that I will not get an undertaking at this stage, but I ask that some acknowledgment of those problems be made by those on both the Government and Opposition Front Benches. I speak for wider areas than just Herefordshire and Worcestershire—I am speaking, at least, for the whole of rural England on the future assessment of Government support for rural areas.
Bearing in mind that there is a capping limit to what we can spend, we must remember that services could suffer if we do not have a big financial base and we need to know that those matters will be taken into consideration. After all my time here, I am conscious that a slight twitch on the tiller by the Government can cause a considerable difference to local government.
I had been a Member of the House for only five months when I was in a motor car in Leominster with a placard, shouting at a Government Minister who is now a much-loved Member of the House. For the only time in my life—I had never done it before, nor have I done it since—I was shouting repeatedly, "Oakes out, Oakes out". That was because of the difference in the rate support grant wrought upon the original settlement by the incoming Labour Government. This is not a partisan matter, however, and I welcome the concordat across the Floor of the House on the matter.
The next Government—of whatever colour or formed from whatever party or parties—must look after the county of Herefordshire and the other rural counties, otherwise the change will not work. We say thank you for giving our county back, but without Government support, we cannot afford it.
It is an unusual pleasure for me to be able to speak enthusiastically in support of a local government order from this Government. In my case, it is more than 17 years since I stood up in the House to support a Government order affecting local government. I hope that this will be good practice for me, as I look forward to supporting repeatedly local government orders presented by the Government after the next election.
There has been a long ride, and a roller-coaster. The original Local Government Commission's proposal for The Wrekin recommended the status quo but finally—after many meetings—we have reached the recommendation that is before us today. I speak as a long and enthusiastic admirer of the traditions of English local government. At various times, I have worked as an officer, a councillor and a committee chairman in local government. I believe strongly that democracy should come from the bottom up, and without strong local democracy, it is unlikely that we can have a healthy national democracy.
I welcome the orders generally, but particularly the order applying to The Wrekin. My reasons for supporting unitary local government have been rehearsed in the House, and I shall mention them briefly. The first and most obvious point is that all local authority services are closely interrelated—most obviously, housing and social services. It does not make sense that housing should be in the hands of one authority while social services are in another. Education is another obvious example that relates to many other local government services.
We all know that, in practice, people look for a solution not to a particular local authority but rather to local government generally. I happen to believe that, in any democracy, local government ought to be intelligible. One of the many tables in the original Local Government Commission report showed the split of functions between district and county councils. For example, county councils' transport functions included public transport; highways and parking; traffic management; footpaths and bridleways; and transport planning. District councils' transport functions included unclassified roads; off-street car parking; footpaths and bridleways; and street lighting. That is unintelligible to most members of the public. Indeed, I heard a member of the original Local Government Commission say at the annual meeting of the Shropshire Association of Town and Parish Councils that he had found in practice that many local government officers did not always understand the distinctions between the different tiers of local government.
I strongly support unitary local government, particularly in my area of The Wrekin. When people come to see me at my advice bureaux—this must be the experience of other Members—they want a solution to the problem. They are often baffled by the boundaries between the two local authorities, but they look for a solution to the most local of the local authorities and are much more likely to hold The Wrekin district council responsible for resolving local problems and providing local services.
Briefly, I shall spell out The Wrekin's case. We now have a population of 145,000 and it is estimated to reach 155,000 by 2001. Between 1971 and 1991, we were the fastest growing district in the west midlands. We are by far the largest district in that area without unitary powers. We are bigger than 13 of the towns that have already been given unitary status.
Just as important as population size, however, is the distinctive character and identity of The Wrekin. It is famous as the birthplace of the industrial revolution. Hon. Members will be relieved to hear that I will not give them a history lesson, but will simply say that few hon. Members will not know of the iron bridge and Ironbridge gorge museum, which is known not merely nationally but internationally.
The real growth in the area came in 1968, with the establishment of Telford development corporation, which brought together a number of towns and communities with distinct and rich histories: Madeley, with its record of coal mining going back to the 14th century; Dawley, again with centuries of mining tradition; the ancient market town of Wellington, which has been a market since the 13th century; Oakengates, with its historic base in mining and manufacturing; Hadley, with its manufacturing traditions; and Donnington, with its long experience of employment in the defence industry.
The new town of Telford and the nearby Norman town of Newport, together with the surrounding rural area, comprise The Wrekin local authority, which we are debating. In its draft recommendations, the Local Government Commission spells out our distinctiveness, saying:
The Wrekin's strong community identity is markedly different from the rest of Shropshire. The urban area of Telford is a major growth area for the West Midlands and its needs, in relation to socio-economic and development criteria, are very different to the needs of rural Shropshire. The Wrekin is largely self-contained for employment and leisure. The rural part of the district is connected strongly to Telford.
The commission continues—and I agree—
The present structure of local government in Shropshire is inherently unstable, with considerable divergence of interests between The Wrekin and the rest of Shropshire. The Wrekin will continue to grow and would benefit from unitary status in achieving its full identity as a place, whilst Shropshire County Council could focus on the distinctive needs of the rest of the County.
We are in no doubt that our distinctive history and character and the rapid growth of the past 25 years mean that the time is right for us to run our own range of local services.
I must mention the strength of local support and one or two of the organisations that have been particularly helpful in our attainment of unitary status. First, I must emphasise the consistent all-party political support. I have been on several delegations to a range of Ministers, always with the leaders of the main political parties, and I pay tribute to them for the support that they have consistently given. There has also been strong support from industry and commerce. It is not surprising, as the area is a major growth area, not merely for the county but for the west midlands region, that the Shropshire Chamber of Industry and Commerce has said:
the primary reason for adopting unitary status …is that of economic development".
There has been strong support from business groups and organisations. One local managing director said:
dealing with one local authority—who will provide the full range of services—will be of significant benefit to local business, this is particularly the case for strategic services which have a very local impact such as planning, minerals extraction and waste disposal".
There has also been tremendous support from religious, voluntary and leisure groups—including the Telford Christian Council; the Telford Community Council; the Telford West Indian Association; the Trades Council; the Oakengates Sikh temple; the citizens advice bureaux; the credit unions; the Punjabi Cultural Society—and pensioners' groups—including the Telford Pensioners Action Group and The Wrekin Pensioners Forum. There
has also been support from sporting organisations, including Telford United football club, the Telford athletics club and the Lilleshall sports centre.
There has been backing from the health service, which is important. A spokesman for the Princess Royal Hospital trust said that a unitary authority would:
enhance the integration of all forms of social care locally".
The spokesman also said that a unitary system of local government presents an exciting prospect that will drive local partnerships forward and add value to health service delivery.
We have also had the crucial support of the parish councils. Their involvement and co-operation will be essential in making the new system of local government work, and their support has been overwhelming. There have been many submissions from town and parish councils, but I will mention only that of Oakengates, which said that unitary local government would
lead to improvement in the quality and co-ordination of services with clear objectives and policies with no competition and overlap".
As my hon. Friend knows, I visited The Wrekin a few weeks ago. He is one of the most modest Members in the House. It would not be right for us to proceed after that long list of organisations and individuals who argued for unitary status for The Wrekin without the House noting his support and hard work and the intelligent way in which he championed The Wrekin's cause, which made the Secretary of State review his decision and allow unitary status to proceed. The House should note his immense contribution to that task.
What a glowing tribute. I am grateful to my hon. Friend.
When a change of this importance is proposed, opposition is inevitable. Not unnaturally, the county council has opposed the change because councillors and officers are rightly proud of the many ways in which they have served the whole community for so many years. I pay tribute to the work of the county council. My support for a unitary Wrekin is not a criticism of that council, but a recognition that time has moved on, The Wrekin has grown and developed and, like all other districts of comparable size and in keeping with the traditions of English local government, we have earned the right to run our own affairs.
I have described unitary status for The Wrekin as a coming of age. There was never a coming of age without an occasional backward glance, but the move is inevitable and right and I am certain that it is in the best interests of The Wrekin and the county of Shropshire. I am also confident—this is important—that now that the debate on reorganisation is coming to a close, the county and the district, both councillors and officers, will work together for a smooth transition and with a determination to make the new system work for the benefit of all of us.
I have been pleased to work with officers of The Wrekin council and councillors of all political parties to achieve the unitary status that is enshrined in the order. I have great confidence that between us we have the skills, commitment and enthusiasm to meet the very exciting challenge and opportunity that are being given to us with the right to run locally the whole range of local government services. I am proud to be the Member of Parliament at a time of such significant and important advance in the long, rich history of The Wrekin.
I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to address the House, particularly on the third order on the Order Paper. I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) for providing such classic, knockabout cabaret entertainment. Whoever said that local government was boring? His blundering ignorance—wandering around the country, irritating every part of the compass—was breathtakingly astonishing. Even his two colleagues, who, of course, he could not see behind him—the two who came in to support him—were cringing. I am delighted to thank him in one regard. I am fairly confident that he will have organised a defection from his own party. The leader of the Liberal Democrat group on Torbay borough council is in the Gallery and I have no doubt that he will want to make some kind of a declaration—
I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Nevertheless, I am confident that, somewhere in the House, there will be a defection based on that performance.
I pay tribute to the principle behind the order. I became convinced of the principle of unitary authorities back in 1977, when I stood for what was then the Greater London council and, having discovered precisely what its responsibilities were, was appalled. I told Conservative central office that the best platform for me to stand on was abolition of the GLC. Clearly, I was prescient because central office said then that that was out of the question because the GLC was essential.
There is a considerable difference between the responsibilities of the two tiers of local government which is often lost on the general public. It is sometimes difficult to explain it. I have always believed, based on my experience in 1977, in one-stop local authorities.
Torbay is a distinctive community, quite separate from the rest of Devon. Curiously, it has relatively few Devonians or born Torquinians and Paigntonians. The editor of the Western Morning News once remarked that he could probably sell more copies of The Birmingham Post in Torbay than he could of his newspaper. That is because it is a delightful part of the country and many people wish to live and retire there; they are very welcome. However, that makes Torbay distinct from the rest of the county—a fact that was not initially acknowledged by the Banham commission.
The public response in the bay to the first three options in the report, which did not give Torbay unitary status, was universal dismay. An impressive campaign was mounted by the people of Torbay. The initiative came not from the local authority but from the business community, from the grass roots, from all three political parties and from numerous other organisations which joined together to form Torbay United.
The cost to the local authority of the campaign was minimal. I participated in it on the single condition that it would not be a waste of council tax payer's money. It is right that I should pay tribute to the town clerk and chief executive of Torbay borough council. I understand that he is not in the Gallery because there is not one, but I think that he is quite close by.
I will be as brief as I can, but I must say that time was exhausted by the hon. Member for Newbury.
The issue is the future of Torbay and, in particular, of education there. I do not want its unitary authority to be an exercise in empire building. I want no repetition of what happened in the early 1970s when identical jobs were re-advertised and the same people took the same posts but at greater salaries. That reorganisation is generally regarded as having been a mistake. Local people will be vigilant to ensure that such empire building does not happen again.
The relationship between local schools and their democratically elected representatives has, to some extent, broken down in Torbay. I conducted a survey to establish the depth of the breach, and I am concerned that some schools are not aware of the name of their county councillor. They have not been visited by their borough councillors. According to the Rev. Brian Prothero, his councillor turns up only to vote against any suggestion of grant-maintained status. The future of Torbay's children and their education must be paramount, because that is where the largest amount of money will be spent by the new authority.
I am concerned that the transitional committee that considered education decided on a 32-strong education committee. In its final report, there was no statement to preserve excellence or guarantee the future of the three grammar schools, which are remarkable centres of excellence. There was no commitment to focus resources on children rather than administration. The new authority must concentrate on the delivery of high-quality services. Torbay has been disadvantaged in the past by Devon's education authority. A couple of schools in my constituency bear eloquent testimony to the fact that they have been starved of resources over several years.
Many pledges have been made about what the future holds for the unitary authority in Torbay. I welcome the order; I have worked hard to persuade my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to include Torbay. I, the council tax payers of Torbay, the business community, the borough council and all three local political parties welcome it. I give this warning: the people of Torbay will be vigilant. They know the promises that have been made about future council tax levels. Nevertheless, I urge the House to pass the order.
I am pleased to speak in this debate. I shall be as swift as possible. The Liberal spokesperson showed unprecedented selfishness. I regret that the Leader of the House did not meet my request, and that of the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), for more time. If we were dealing with Scottish legislation, we would not have had one day but a Bill with a Committee stage. Such treatment makes the House of Commons seem a sham in dealing with the interests of millions of people.
My borough of Thurrock will be proud to have the orders passed: 84 per cent. of its people recognise that they are part of the borough, which is an important part of Essex. It will remain part of the county of Essex, as the Secretary of State said. However, we are keen to have our independence of county hall, Chelmsford for a variety of reasons. We believe that local government services should be locally based. Chelmsford county hall is sometimes a million miles away from the people and interests of Thurrock, although I pay respect to the county officers and county councillors of all political parties who have given good service to the people of Thurrock over many decades. However, the time has come to recognise that our interests will be better served by the all-purpose authority based at the civic offices in New road, Grays.
My borough is part of the Thames gateway initiative, which has played an important part in our campaign for unitary status, as was acknowledged by the Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) and my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson). I place on record my gratitude to them.
The borough owes a great debt of gratitude to Jimmy Aberdein, who was for many years leader of the council and fought hard for unitary status. I thank the existing leader, Andy Smith, who was supported by the Conservative opposition leader Ray Andrews, by Graham Thomas, the secretary of Thurrock Industries Association, and by John Vesey who, in addition to his involvement with the association, is chairman of Thameside Community Healthcare NHS trust. They did much to buttress our campaign for unitary status. There has been a pulling together in Thurrock—a municipal pride—that is reflected in the order. It has been immensely popular and much demanded, despite the claptrap of the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel).
My borough has some of the highest indices of deprivation in Essex. Unhappily, its health is among the poorest and there is high unemployment. However, we also have a lot going for us. We are in the Thames gateway and we have the last part of the working port of London, the port of Tilbury. We have a vibrant retail sector, most of which is described as Lakeside, although West Thurrock retail park is much larger than that. We occupy a strategic position on the M25 and on the channel tunnel rail route. In addition to our river frontage, we have an attractive green belt area. That all reflects the corporate identity of our proud borough.
I share my borough with the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman), who on other occasions has been kind enough to mention my name when I have been unable to attend the Chamber. I want to acknowledge that we share the representation of the borough. She and I have a large, attractive green-belt area in our constituencies, including some very attractive Elizabethan listed buildings and the nice village of Fobbing, with its historical association with Wat Tyler and the peasants' revolt.
Dickens and Conrad wrote in the borough and the highlanders who suffered immense defeat 250 years ago at Culloden were incarcerated at Tilbury fort. The borough is rich in history. My borough council and the people of Thurrock wish to exploit the great enterprises which are developing on the river frontage and our historical associations and to put the borough very much on the map. We can do that by having unitary status and working with other statutory agencies such as health trusts and health authorities, and with industry, to create a better quality of life in the borough.
Thurrock is a vibrant borough. It has a good record of local government administration, independently audited by the Audit Commission. I know that it is held in high regard by officials within the Department of the Environment. Contrary to his better judgment, even the Secretary of State might give nodding acknowledgment to the great stewardship of Thurrock borough council by councillors of all parties over many years and the vibrant way in which it is run now. It is working with other boroughs along the river frontage and with the Department of the Environment to make a great success of the Thames gateway initiative.
It is a pity that the legislation which gave rise to these orders was flawed. That is not the fault of the current Secretary of State or his deputy. The now Deputy Prime Minister botched the original legislation. One thing on which we are all agreed is that there should have been greater scope for more unitary authorities around the country. As has already been said, it is perverse that Norwich has not been given unitary status. It is a great pity. I look forward to the day when my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras is on the Treasury Bench and gives proud cities and boroughs the opportunity once more to enjoy the unitary status to which they are entitled.
Time is desperately short. It is a great shame that the Government let us down by not making more time available. I conclude by welcoming the orders. I hope that the House will accept them unanimously.
I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Medway (Dame P. Fenner) in her place. She and I will share the Kent (Borough of Gillingham and City of Rochester upon Medway) (Structural Change) Order 1996, which proposes to dissolve Gillingham borough council and Rochester upon Medway city council and to create a new unitary authority to provide the full range of services presently provided by the two district councils and Kent county council.
This has been a contentious issue in my constituency for far too long. It has been a matter not only of contention but of sadness and bitterness for friends from the same party serving on district and county councils who have found themselves on opposite sides of the argument, and for Members of Parliament such as myself who, having stood up to be counted on one or other side of the argument, have lost friends and supporters who took a contrary view.
Change in the way in which we govern local services is rarely popular; we are all conservative with a small "c". I have been consistent in supporting the proposal to create a single tier of local government for Gillingham, Rainham, Chatham, Rochester and Strood, which together have a population of about 250,000. I gave evidence to the first Local Government Commission for England and expressed my support for a unitary authority. That was in line with the support then given to the proposals by both district councils, but against the stance adopted, understandably, by the county council, which was fighting for its survival.
I confirmed to the second Local Government Commission chaired by Sir David Cooksey, which was acting on the Secretary of State's requirement to review some of the final recommendations, that I was consistent in my support for a single authority, despite Gillingham borough council—reflecting the new overall control by Liberal Democrat councillors—having done a complete about-face in its support for such a single authority. Gillingham's Conservative and Labour councillors remain in favour of a unitary authority, as do councillors from all three parties on the city council. The reasons why I expressed support for a single authority to the first commission remain as strong now as they were then.
I served as a councillor on Bexley borough council from 1974 to 1982. The outer London boroughs, despite the unwelcome interference of the then Greater London council, were virtually and are now actually unitary authorities, providing all those services, apart from police and fire services, which are provided by the district and county councils outside London. Bexley was an excellent council in those years, providing first-class schools, social services, housing, roads and civic amenities. It was a viable entity serving the population that it did. It still is viable and is respected for its innovative services. Bexley came out of Kent county council in 1964 and its inheritance from Kent county council was pretty threadbare.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has referred rightly to the geographical integrity of the Medway towns and to the weak nature of the present boundaries between the city council and Gillingham borough council. I believe that a single-tier council serving Gillingham, Rainham, Rochester, Chatham and Strood can be as viable as Bexley borough council, on which I served. Decisions will be taken by people living in those towns rather than people who live from Dartford to Dover and Maidstone to Margate.
The constituent parts of Kent are quite different. The problems and opportunities which confront the Weald or even east Kent are different from those that affect north Kent. Kent in my view is three counties—east Kent, north Kent and what I am pleased to call posh Kent. The council has not always realised that.
Some people have suggested that Gillingham will become submerged in Rochester. I do not believe that for one moment. The pivot for the Medway towns in future is likely to be where it has always been. The former royal naval base and Chatham dockyard, now Chatham Maritime, is where the development is taking place for the towns. Gillingham's business developments, both in Chatham Maritime and the business park, together with its football club, which achieved promotion last year, Hempstead Valley shopping centre and even Gillingham's unique connection with the Japanese mean that Gillingham will remain its own town. However, I believe that Gillingham will remain in Kent for postal purposes and for Kent's heritage and sporting traditions, just as 30 years on Bromley and Bexley remain part of Kent, if not of Kent county council.
It is most kind of my hon. Friend to allow me this interjection. I should like to correct the assertion made by the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) that the order was not a democratic response to the people of Rochester. Five Liberal members of the local authority joined the members of other parties in support of the proposal for a unitary authority. I am sure that the logic of the rest of his speech, little though it was, would count a population of almost 250,000 as large enough to have one authority.
There is one particular burning issue that I wish to raise and about which I wish to be reassured. Article 7 makes provision in respect of the Medway towns specifically for minerals and waste policies. I should like an assurance from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that that includes the minerals and waste policies—
I am sure that my hon. Friend has made her point and that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has heard her. I agree with her contention about the democratic nature of the arrangements. There is a huge irony about the fact that Gillingham Liberals are now against the proposal. The leader of the Gillingham Liberals proposed to the Association of District Councils in Kent that the whole of Kent should be made into unitary authorities, but of course, like other Liberals, he reserves his right to change his view from time to time. I suspect that he may have realised that a unitary authority for the Medway towns would not be dominated by Liberal councillors. That may explain his change of mind.
My hon. Friend is right about the democratic nature of the proposal. The hon. Member for Newbury made great play of the commission's consultation exercise. The commission sent out 650,000 leaflets detailing four options. One in 13 of those many leaflets was returned to the commission—that is about 50,000, a number not unadjacent to the number of people who work for Kent county council and who would have had a heavy vested interest in its retention and maintaining the status quo.
In Gillingham, fewer than 3,000 leaflets were returned out of a population of 96,000. Some 75 per cent. of those were in favour of retaining the status quo—two thirds of the 96,000. People tend to write in if they are against rather than in favour of something. It could therefore be suggested that almost 94,000 of Gillingham's population supported, or did not mind, the concept of unitary status.
The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) also made much of the somewhat bizarre MORI poll that was conducted by the commission. I am not going to follow the hon. Gentleman's comments on that subject; I think that we have yet to reach the parlous state where legislation is based on opinion polls.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been criticised for inviting a second commission to review the final recommendations of the first commission. He has done so for consistency throughout the country; he made that clear in his statement to the House when he set up the second commission, and I support him in that decision.
Throughout a difficult period of controversy, I have tried to respect the opinions of all those who have taken an opposite view. I have been consistent in my support for the proposal, which I believe will result in the best local governance for Gillingham and Rochester, through a time of great change and regeneration, into the 21st century. As the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) suggested, no one can say whether it will lead to a higher or lower council tax. That will depend on a number of complex resolutions about support grant, standard spending assessment and the residual debt—I mentioned that to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State as we are worried about the possibility of asset stripping by the existing authorities. The council tax level will also depend on those who are elected to the new, single-tier authorities. I shall not add my guesstimate to those of the soothsayers who have been so eloquent in their guesses as to whether it will be an expensive option.
I have read the order carefully and there are some points on which I would like my right hon. Friend's guidance. Article 5 sets up a new county of the Medway towns, but without a county council. I presume that that is to allow the transfer of powers and duties from Kent to the new unitary authority. But flowing from that, what are the ramifications for policing the area of the new county and what implications will article 6 have for fire services? Am I right to assume that the postal address will remain Kent, as it does for Bromley and Bexley some 30 years on? Who will represent Her Majesty as Lord Lieutenant? Will it be Lord Kingsdown, who has done such a splendid job in Kent for so long?
Much of Kent's history, particularly its military history, is bound up with the Medway towns—the royal naval base, formerly the royal marines and, to this day, the Royal School of Military Engineering and the headquarters of the Royal Engineers are in my constituency. The history is inalienable and indivisible, but does my right hon. Friend foresee problems in maintaining Kent, within its present boundaries, as the location of such history when the county of Kent becomes the counties of Kent and the Medway towns? What are the ramifications for sporting qualifications? Those are just some of the questions that suggest themselves to me.
I have spoken for too long. I shall have no difficulty in supporting the Kent (Borough of Gillingham and City of Rochester upon Medway)(Structural Change) Order 1996 for I believe that it will ultimately be in the best interests of my constituents and all those who live in the Medway towns. I hope that all concerned—Members, officers and anyone else who is involved in the transition—will now work to make the new council work.
I am one of those who represent a constituency that will not be a unitary authority once the orders have been approved—I speak particularly in relation to the eighth order that involves Lancashire.
I do not enthusiastically welcome the provisions being implemented through the orders. The hybrid solution for Lancashire is not the best or the right one. I have always believed in unitary local government. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) was absolutely right when he said that the legislation was flawed as, at the end of the review, not all the country will have unitary local government.
I have been involved in politics and local government in Burnley for well over 30 years. In the old days, Burnley was a county borough; it was extremely successful, although it was one of the smallest in the country at that time. Even now I can still see the historical problems caused by the local government reorganisation of 1973–74. There have been problems with the high school admissions places, particularly at Briercliffe, which had previously been in the county, but was not in the county borough; Padiham was a separate urban district council. As a result of admissions policy and the way in which education systems were developed all those years ago, the schools were not in the right places for the children to attend. Owing to lack of money, those problems have still not been solved, and they cause considerable problems for many people.
When people look at their council tax bill they will see that more than 80 per cent. of it goes to the county council. Six county councillors represent Burnley. Less than 20 per cent. of business is dealt with at borough council level, where we have 48 councillors. We do not believe that that is democratic.
I am not one of those who attack Lancashire county council. I believe that it has done an extremely good job in many ways. But two-tier local government is not the best form of local government. Unitary authorities can better represent people's needs; people understand where to go with their problems. My heart often tells me that Burnley should be a unitary authority in its own right. I recognise that it is probably too small and we need to join with other authorities. I do not blame John Banham alone for the mess that we are in, nor do I solely blame the Secretary of State responsible for the legislation—there were failures on the part of county councils and local people who failed to discuss the matter. However, the current form is not the best one.
If the House divides, I have no intention of voting against any of the orders. Burnley borough council and I share the view that enough time has elapsed: Blackburn and Blackpool should attain unitary status. We wish them well and we hope that the system will succeed. Lancashire county council has a responsibility to ensure that the transmission goes smoothly and that it works. It must recognise that it will bring financial and service problems for the rest of Lancashire. Lancashire and the 12 other districts that will remain as non-unitary authorities should get together to ensure that service is better delivered until, I hope, a further local government reorganisation tackles the problems that remain in Lancashire and other parts of the country without unitary authorities.
The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) made some wide, inaccurate comments and he has been roundly criticised in the House for the inaccuracy of some of his supposed statistics. He was absolutely wrong when he said that only one Conservative Member of Parliament was opposed to the order. I regret that the other Member who represents Shropshire, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Biffen), who is as opposed to the order as I am, is not in his place this evening, for family reasons. Although I cannot speak for him, I venture to suggest that he will not disagree with the burden of my argument. I have little doubt that, if the House were to divide on the issue, my right hon. Friend would vote against it, as I would and as would my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Stourbridge (Mr. Hawksley), who was formerly the Member for The Wreckin.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was scathing about those who "cannot make up their minds". It would have been infinitely preferable had he followed the example of my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Wales and for Scotland and acted positively and decisively on local government in England by putting proposals that the House could either vote for or reject, rather than subcontracting consideration of the matter to the local government commission. The first time around, the commission recommended the status quo for Shropshire. That commanded popular support among the majority of my constituents and certainly among my councillors, although I readily concede that it was because they felt that it was the lesser of the two evils on offer.
I support the principle of unitary authorities. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, they end the confusion about who is responsible. I pay tribute to the eloquent defence of that principle made by another Shropshire Member, the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott); but what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander and it is ironic that I, a great advocate of unitary authorities throughout my career in Parliament, will now have the worst of all worlds.
In the rump of Shropshire, we shall now be the smallest county council with less than half the average population. That tiny population will retain two tiers while supporting a system of local government that we did not seek, and picking up the tab for the cost of a reorganisation that we did not want. We shall be extremely disadvantaged in terms of our standard spending assessment. The Wrekin's share of the county council budget is slightly less than the SSA, but the new Shropshire share will be significantly above the SSA.
I make an impassioned plea to the Secretary of State that, when he calculates the next revenue support grant settlement, he looks seriously at the sparsity factor. Unless it is adjusted to take account of the unique difficulties of sparsely populated areas such as the rump of Shropshire, we shall be in an extremely difficult financial position.
I assure my hon. Friends the Members for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) and for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) that I shall look carefully at the sparsity factor in the two counties that they represent and elsewhere.
It was not I who decided that England should be dealt with differently from Wales or Scotland. The House passed legislation, which I have followed. It was not open to me to take the steps that my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow wanted.
I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend, not only for that clarification but for his undertaking to look at the sparsity factor.
May I continue the point about the local government review? The local government commission is unelected and unaccountable and does not have the democratic legitimacy of Members of Parliament. My right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Biffen) and I regret that a greater attempt was not made to consult us on those important matters. I very much regret the decision that has been reached and the manner in which it has been reached. I take this opportunity to repeat the plea that I made to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State a moment ago about the sparsity factor because, unless he can ensure that the financial consequences of the review are fully reflected in future SSA calculations and RSG settlements, there will be great unhappiness in the county of Shropshire.
I welcome my right hon. Friend's assurance. Shropshire Members of Parliament and county councillors will provide him with as much information as possible or necessary to justify the case that we shall undoubtedly present to him.
It is a curious and happy coincidence that, whenever I am fortunate enough to be called to speak on the Floor of the House on issues concerning Plymouth, you, Madam Deputy Speaker, are in the Chair. I shall make my comments brief this evening, mainly because the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) took a fifth of the time available. I assure him that he spoke not for the rest of us but instead of the rest of us. He may reflect on why we do not have Liberal Democrats on Plymouth city council.
I am pleased to say a few words in favour of order No. 3 on unitary status for Plymouth and Torbay. The issue has united Plymouth. Plymouth has a proud history of serving its local people and of serving the nation through the Royal Navy. The people of the city have been served since the beginning of the century, when the three towns of Devonport, Stonehouse and Plymouth came together. But in 1974. many people felt extremely bitter that responsibilities, particularly for education and social services, were taken away from Plymouth and moved 40 miles down the road to Exeter, which is half the size of Plymouth. That has had a serious psychological effect on how people regard their city.
I welcome the changes, which present a challenge to Plymouth to do better. It is a testimony to the excellent officers and the councillors of various parties that have served us over the years that Devon has served us well as an education authority, but that lays down a challenge to us to do better in the future. Moreover, it is a testimony to Devon county council that only seven of the 500 schools have gone grant maintained.
I also welcome the order for Torbay. However, it leaves Exeter in an awkward position, as it deserves unitary status. It also leaves the rest of Devon in a difficult position with the two-tier system that remains. Although I am pleased that the decision has been made, many of us in Plymouth were disappointed about the year's delay in putting the order through Parliament. However good local government is, it depends on good local government officers, and their loyalty is not enhanced by uncertainty. The delay in the reorganisation has created uncertainty. People need to know what will happen to their jobs in the future if they are to deliver high-quality local services. However, I am glad that we have now reached the point at which reorganisation will go ahead. I applaud those officers who have been working hard to prepare for the changes on Devon and Plymouth councils over the past two years while all that uncertainty has existed.
We can now look forward with confidence to the future. Services to the people are best delivered near to the people at the lowest possible level. Education and social services will now be delivered by the city of Plymouth rather than to our neighbour down the road, Exeter. Plymouth has many fine schools, both primary schools and, since reorganisation in the late 1980s, community colleges; indeed, we now have some of the best community colleges in the country.
The hon. Gentleman mouthed the words "grammar schools" to me. I remind him that, some years ago, when he was a member of the Tory city council, the Conservative county council closed six grammar schools in Plymouth.
I shall not detain the House, except to say that the city has been served by excellent officers and councillors over the years. In particular, I pay tribute to the current leader of the council, Councillor John Ingham—a local man of understanding and vision. He has the respect of the local community. We can all look forward to the elections next year with confidence. This is truly a challenge for the councillors, for the officers and for the people of Plymouth.
I did not anticipate that I would speak in this debate whole-heartedly in support of the comments of the Secretary of State for the Environment, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal, and so profoundly in disagreement with the comments of the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel)—the House never fails to contribute to my education. In terms of this playing into the hands of the Liberal Democrats and allowing them to concentrate their fire, I wish that the hon. Member for Newbury had asked the two Liberal members of the council in Nottingham what their advice might be. I suggest that it would have been that their Front Benchers could best help if they did not concentrate their fire on their own troops, who support the change.
I welcome this long overdue change. Nottingham is the largest city in England that is currently administered under a two-tier system of local government, and it has been in the pipeline of review and re-review longer than any other city. It would be a travesty if hon. Members did not understand that this change of status is in the interests of a devolved system of local government, and of restoring the credibility and value of local government. Nottingham hopes to lead the way in showing what devolved local government can do.
Yesterday, the House decided to return the stone of destiny to Scotland. It is entirely appropriate that today the House will, I hope, decide to return the seat of authority to a unitary council in Nottingham. In Nottingham, the city council has already established the momentum to provide better co-ordination of its services and to guarantee local people a more open and accountable system of local government. I hope that the change to unitary status will allow it to deliver that in ways that the public can understand. As someone who served as a county councillor for a city ward for eight years, I know that local people do not understand the difference between the two separate authorities. I hope that the basis of that misunderstanding can be swiftly removed when the change is brought about.
I urge those on the Front Benches—who have co-operated on this issue—to look more widely at the challenge that they are now posing to devolved and unitary local government in the years ahead. I hope that they will listen to the calls of local authorities which have said that it is about time we got rid of the doctrine of ultra vires. I hope that they will also look at local government in other parts of Europe, where local authorities are assumed to have powers of general competence. I hope that they will look at models in Scandinavia, where local authorities are deemed to be able to function as municipal enterprises. These are the challenges that local government will have to face in the decades to come if they are to respond to the demands of their local population.
I pay tribute to the leader of Nottingham council, Graham Chapman, and to the other councillors who have contributed to the pressure for reorganisation and the restoration of unitary status to Nottingham. I also pay tribute to the local authority staff—both the city and the county—for working towards the transfer process. I am sure that all hon. Members would urge the two local authorities involved to work constructively to provide a seamless transfer of front-line public services to that unitary authority—no one will benefit if that does not occur.
This should not be dismissed as an undesirable change; it should be seen as a change that is long overdue. The change will be welcomed by the people in Nottingham, whose arguments were not necessarily about unitary status but about whether the boundaries of a redefined Nottingham should be enlarged—we may or may not return to that issue in the future.
I welcome these changes. If we can get the local authorities to work in harmony with the order—which will, I hope be passed tonight—we will ensure that the city that is the "Queen of the Midlands" then has the rightful throne restored, from which it can reign.
I apologise to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and to the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) for not being present in the Chamber earlier.
I shall address the concerns of a few of my constituents in relation to motion No. 4 on the Order Paper—the changes to the boundaries between Colchester and Tendring in my constituency. The proposal to move Dene Park in Wythenhoe from the district of Tendring into the borough of Colchester, with the rest of Wythenhoe, is supported in Wythenhoe and in the borough and the district concerned.
The problem concerns two roads—Keeler's lane and Alresford road—which are just outside Wythenhoe. During the consultation, they were considered to be part of Dene Park, so when the residents were asked whether they wanted Dene Park to be transferred they assented because they did not consider themselves to be in Dene Park. When they were transferred out of the district of Tendring and into the borough of Colchester, they expressed concern. Unfortunately, that concern was expressed to me too late in the process for the boundaries to be altered and for the order to be changed.
I fully understand the restraints that Ministers face in this respect. However, I ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to record for posterity that, when these matters are considered again, the residents of these two roads would very much like to be taken back into the Tendring district. The Conservative party believes deeply in there being authorities in which people feel they belong. Although this is a minor matter in the scheme of things, these people feel slighted by what has happened. We must do our best to restore order in this matter next time it is considered.
|Division No. 170]||[7.07 pm|
|Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey)||Conway, Derek|
|Aitken, Rt Hon Jonathan||Coombs, Anthony (Wyre For'st)|
|Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby)||Coombs, Simon (Swindon)|
|Allason, Rupert (Torbay)||Cope, Rt Hon Sir John|
|Allen, Graham||Couchman, James|
|Amess, David||Deva, Nirj Joseph|
|Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale)||Devlin, Tim|
|Arbuthnot, James||Dobson, Frank|
|Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)||Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen|
|Atkinson, David (Bour'mouth E)||Dover, Den|
|Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)||Duncan, Alan|
|Baker, Nicholas (North Dorset)||Duncan Smith, Iain|
|Baldry, Tony||Durant, Sir Anthony|
|Banks, Matthew (Southport)||Dykes, Hugh|
|Bates, Michael||Elletson, Harold|
|Bellingham, Henry||Evans, David (Welwyn Hatfield)|
|Bermingham, Gerald||Evans, Jonathan (Brecon)|
|Booth, Hartley||Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley)|
|Bottomley, Peter (Eltham)||Faber, David|
|Bowis, John||Fabricant, Michael|
|Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes||Fenner, Dame Peggy|
|Brandreth, Gyles||Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)|
|Brazier, Julian||Fishburn, Dudley|
|Bright Sir Graham||Flynn, Paul|
|Brooke, Rt Hon Peter||Forman, Nigel|
|Brown, N (N'c'tle upon Tyne E)||Forth, Eric|
|Browning, Mrs Angela||Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman|
|Bruce, Ian (South Dorset)||Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring)|
|Burns, Simon||Fox, Rt Hon Sir Marcus (Shipley)|
|Burt, Alistair||Freeman, Rt Hon Roger|
|Butler, Peter||French, Douglas|
|Butterfill, John||Gallie, Phil|
|Carlisle, John (Luton North)||Gardiner, Sir George|
|Cash, William||Garnier, Edward|
|Channon, Rt Hon Paul||Gill, Christopher|
|Chapman, Sir Sydney||Gillan, Cheryl|
|Clappison, James||Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles|
|Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ru'clif)||Gorst, Sir John|
|Colvin, Michael||Greenway, Harry (Eating N)|
|Congdon, David||Greenway, John (Ryedale)|
|Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N)||Pickles, Eric|
|Grocott, Bruce||Pike, Peter L|
|Grylls, Sir Michael||Porter, Barry (Wirral S)|
|Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn||Powell, William (Corby)|
|Hall, Mike||Prentice, Bridget (Lew'm E)|
|Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archibald||Quin, Ms Joyce|
|Hampson, Dr Keith||Rathbone, Tim|
|Hawkins, Nick||Robathan, Andrew|
|Hawksley, Warren||Robertson, Raymond (Ab'dn S)|
|Heald, Oliver||Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)|
|Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David||Rowe, Andrew (Mid Kent)|
|Hendry, Charles||Sackville, Tom|
|Higgins, Rt Hon Sir Terence||Sainsbury, Rt Hon Sir Timothy|
|Horam, John||Scott, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas|
|Howell, Rt Hon David (G'dford)||Shaw, David (Dover)|
|Hughes, Robert G (Harrow W)||Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)|
|Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne)||Shersby, Sir Michael|
|Hunter, Andrew||Simpson, Alan|
|Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas||Sims, Sir Roger|
|Jack, Michael||Speed, Sir Keith|
|Jamieson, David||Spellar, John|
|Jenkin, Bernard||Spencer, Sir Derek|
|Jessel, Toby||Spicer, Sir Michael (S Worcs)|
|Jones, Robert B (W Hertfdshr)||Spink, Dr Robert|
|King, Rt Hon Tom||Sproat, Iain|
|Kirkhope, Timothy||Squire, Robin (Hornchurch)|
|Knapman, Roger||Steen, Anthony|
|Knight, Rt Hon Greg (Derby N)||Straw, Jack|
|Knight, Dame Jill (Bir'm E'st'n)||Streeter, Gary|
|Lait, Mrs Jacqui||Sweeney, Walter|
|Lawrence, Sir Ivan||Sykes, John|
|Lennox-Boyd, Sir Mark||Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)|
|Lidington, David||Taylor, Ian (Esher)|
|Lilley, Rt Hon Peter||Taylor, Sir Teddy (Southend, E)|
|Lord, Michael||Temple-Morris, Peter|
|Luff, Peter||Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)|
|Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas||Townsend, Cyril D (Bexl'yh'th)|
|MacKay, Andrew||Trend, Michael|
|Mackinlay, Andrew||Twinn, Dr Ian|
|Malone, Gerald||Vaughan, Sir Gerard|
|Martin, David (Portsmouth S)||Vaz, Keith|
|Mawhinney, Rt Hon Dr Brian||Viggers, Peter|
|Meale, Alan||Waldegrave, Rt Hon William|
|Mellor, Rt Hon David||Walden, George|
|Merchant, Piers||Waller, Gary|
|Mills, Iain||Waterson, Nigel|
|Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)||Watts, John|
|Mitchell, Sir David (NW Hants)||Wells, Bowen|
|Moate, Sir Roger||Whittingdale, John|
|Nelson, Anthony||Widdecombe, Ann|
|Neubert, Sir Michael||Willetts, David|
|Newton, Rt Hon Tony||Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)|
|Nicholls, Patrick||Winterton, Nicholas (Macc'f'ld)|
|Nicholson, David (Taunton)||Wood, Timothy|
|Norris, Steve||Yeo, Tim|
|Ottaway, Richard||Young, Rt Hon Sir George|
|Page, Richard||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Patnick, Sir Irvine||Mr. Sebastian Coe and Mr. Patrick McLoughlin.|
|Alton, David||Maclennan, Robert|
|Banks, Tony (Newham NW)||Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)|
|Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)||Nicholson, Emma (Devon West)|
|Carlile, Alexander (Montgomery)||Rendel, David|
|Chidgey, David||Skinner, Dennis|
|Davies, Chris (L'Boro & S'worth)||Taylor, Matthew (Truro)|
|Harvey, Nick||Tyler, Paul|
|Hughes, Simon (Southwark)||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)||Mr. Archy Kirkwood and Mr. Don Foster.|
|Kennedy, Charles (Ross, C&S)|
|Division No. 171]||[7.19 pm|
|Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey)||Devlin, Tim|
|Aitken, Rt Hon Jonathan||Dewar, Donald|
|Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby)||Dobson, Frank|
|Allason, Rupert (Torbay)||Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen|
|Allen, Graham||Dover, Den|
|Amess, David||Duncan, Alan|
|Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale)||Duncan Smith, Iain|
|Arbuthnot, James||Durant, Sir Anthony|
|Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)||Dykes, Hugh|
|Atkinson, David (Bour'mouth E)||Elletson, Harold|
|Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)||Evans, Jonathan (Brecon)|
|Baker, Nicholas (North Dorset)||Faber, David|
|Banks, Matthew (Southport)||Fabricant, Michael|
|Banks, Tony (Newham NW)||Fenner, Dame Peggy|
|Bates, Michael||Fishburn, Dudley|
|Bellingham, Henry||Flynn, Paul|
|Bermingham, Gerald||Forman, Nigel|
|Booth, Hartley||Forth, Eric|
|Bottomley, Peter (Eltham)||Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman|
|Bowis, John||Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring)|
|Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes||Freeman, Rt Hon Roger|
|Brandreth, Gyles||French, Douglas|
|Brazier, Julian||Gardiner, Sir George|
|Bright, Sir Graham||Garnier, Edward|
|Brooke, Rt Hon Peter||Gillan, Cheryl|
|Brown, N (N'c'tle upon Tyne E)||Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles|
|Browning, Mrs Angela||Gorst, Sir John|
|Bruce, Ian (South Dorset)||Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)|
|Burns, Simon||Greenway, John (Ryedale)|
|Burt, Alistair||Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N)|
|Butler, Peter||Grocott, Bruce|
|Butterfill, John||Grylls, Sir Michael|
|Carlisle, John (Luton North)||Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn|
|Cash, William||Hall, Mike|
|Channon, Rt Hon Paul||Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archibald|
|Chapman, Sir Sydney||Hampson, Dr Keith|
|Clappison, James||Hawkins, Nick|
|Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ru'clif)||Hayes, Jerry|
|Coe, Sebastian||Heald, Oliver|
|Colvin, Michael||Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David|
|Congdon, David||Hendry, Charles|
|Coombs, Anthony (Wyre For'st)||Higgins, Rt Hon Sir Terence|
|Coombs, Simon (Swindon)||Horam, John|
|Cope, Rt Hon Sir John||Hughes, Robert G (Harrow W)|
|Couchman, James||Hunt Sir John (Ravensbourne)|
|Deva, Nirj Joseph||Hunter, Andrew|
|Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas||Rowe, Andrew (Mid Kent)|
|Jack, Michael||Sackville, Tom|
|Jamieson, David||Sainsbury, Rt Hon Sir Timothy|
|Jenkin, Bernard||Scott, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas|
|Jessel, Toby||Shaw, David (Dover)|
|Jones, Robert B (W Hertfdshr)||Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)|
|Kirkhope, Timothy||Shersby, Sir Michael|
|Knight, Rt Hon Greg (Derby N)||Simpson, Alan|
|Knight, Dame Jill (Bir'm E'st'n)||Sims, Sir Roger|
|Lait, Mrs Jacqui||Skinner, Dennis|
|Lawrence, Sir Ivan||Speed, Sir Keith|
|Lennox-Boyd, Sir Mark||Spellar, John|
|Lidington, David||Spencer, Sir Derek|
|Lilley, Rt Hon Peter||Spicer, Sir Michael (S Worcs)|
|Lord, Michael||Spink, Dr. Robert|
|Luff, Peter||Sproat, Iain|
|Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas||Squire, Robin (Hornchurch)|
|MacKay, Andrew||Steen, Anthony|
|Mackinlay, Andrew||Straw, Jack|
|McLoughlin, Patrick||Streeter, Gary|
|Malone, Gerald||Sweeney, Walter|
|Mans, Keith||Sykes, John|
|Martin, David (Portsmouth S)||Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)|
|Mawhinney, Rt Hon Dr Brian||Taylor, Ian (Esher)|
|Meale, Alan||Taylor, Sir Teddy (Southend, E)|
|Mellor, Rt Hon David||Temple-Morris, Peter|
|Merchant Piers||Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)|
|Mills, Iain||Townsend, Cyril D (Bexl'yh'th)|
|Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)||Trend, Michael|
|Mitchell, Sir David (NW Hants)||Twinn, Dr Ian|
|Moate, Sir Roger||Vaughan, Sir Gerard|
|Nelson, Anthony||Vaz, Keith|
|Neubert, Sir Michael||Viggers, Peter|
|Newton, Rt Hon Tony||Waldegrave, Rt Hon William|
|Nicholls, Patrick||Waller, Gary|
|Nicholson, David (Taunton)||Waterson, Nigel|
|Norris, Steve||Watts, John|
|Ottaway, Richard||Wells, Bowen|
|Page, Richard||Whittingdale, John|
|Patnick, Sir Irvine||Widdecombe, Ann|
|Pawsey, James||Willetts, David|
|Pickles, Eric||Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)|
|Pike, Peter L||Winterton, Nicholas (Macc'f'ld)|
|Porter, Barry (Wirral S)||Wood, Timothy|
|Powell, William (Corby)||Yeo, Tim|
|Prentice, Bridget (Lew'm E)||Young, Rt Hon Sir George|
|Robathan, Andrew||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Robertson, Raymond (Ab'd'n S)||Mr. Derek Conway and Mr. Roger Knapman.|
|Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)|
|Alton, David||Kennedy, Charles (Ross, C&S)|
|Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)||Maclennan, Robert|
|Carlile, Alexander (Montgomery)||Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)|
|Chidgey, David||Nicholson, Emma (Devon West)|
|Davies, Chris (L'Boro & S'worth)||Rendel, David|
|Foster, Don (Bath)||Taylor, Matthew (Truro)|
|Gill, Christopher||Tyler, Paul|
|Harvey, Nick||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Hawksley, Warren||Mr. Archy Kirkwood and Mr. Simon Hughes.|
|Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)|
|Division No. 172]||[7.30 pm|
|Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey)||Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N)|
|Aitken, Rt Hon Jonathan||Grocott, Bruce|
|Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby)||Grylls, Sir Michael|
|Allason, Rupert (Torbay)||Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn|
|Allen, Graham||Hall, Mike|
|Amess, David||Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archibald|
|Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale)||Hampson, Dr Keith|
|Arbuthnot, James||Hawkins, Nick|
|Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)||Hawksley, Warren|
|Atkinson, David (Bour'mouth E)||Hayes, Jerry|
|Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)||Heald, Oliver|
|Baker, Nicholas (North Dorset)||Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David|
|Banks, Matthew (Southport)||Hendry, Charles|
|Bates, Michael||Higgins, Rt Hon Sir Terence|
|Bellingham, Henry||Horam, John|
|Bermingham, Gerald||Hughes, Robert G (Harrow W)|
|Booth, Hartley||Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne)|
|Bottomley, Peter (Eltham)||Hunter, Andrew|
|Bowis, John||Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas|
|Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes||Jack, Michael|
|Brazier, Julian||Jenkin, Bernard|
|Brown, N (N'c'tle upon Tyne E)||Jessel, Toby|
|Browning, Mrs Angela||Jones, Robert B (W Hertfdshr)|
|Bruce, Ian (South Dorset)||Kirkhope, Timothy|
|Burns, Simon||Knight, Rt Hon Greg (Derby N)|
|Burt, Alistair||Knight, Dame Jill (Bir'm E'st'n)|
|Butler, Peter||Lait, Mrs Jacqui|
|Butterfill, John||Lawrence, Sir Ivan|
|Carlisle, John (Luton North)||Lennox-Boyd, Sir Mark|
|Cash, William||Lester, Sir James (Broxtowe)|
|Channon, Rt Hon Paul||Lidington, David|
|Chapman, Sir Sydney||Lilley, Rt Hon Peter|
|Clappison, James||Luff, Peter|
|Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ru'clif)||Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas|
|Coe, Sebastian||MacKay, Andrew|
|Colvin, Michael||Mackinlay, Andrew|
|Congdon, David||McLoughlin, Patrick|
|Conway, Derek||Malone, Gerald|
|Coombs, Anthony (Wyre For'st)||Mans, Keith|
|Coombs, Simon (Swindon)||Martin, David (Portsmouth S)|
|Cope, Rt Hon Sir John||Meale, Alan|
|Couchman, James||Mellor, Rt Hon David|
|Devlin, Tim||Merchant, Piers|
|Dobson, Frank||Mills, Iain|
|Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen||Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)|
|Dover, Den||Mitchell, Sir David (NW Hants)|
|Duncan, Alan||Moate, Sir Roger|
|Duncan Smith, Iain||Nelson, Anthony|
|Durant, Sir Anthony||Neubert, Sir Michael|
|Dykes, Hugh||Newton, Rt Hon Tony|
|Elletson, Harold||Nicholls, Patrick|
|Evans, Jonathan (Brecon)||Nicholson, David (Taunton)|
|Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley)||Norris, Steve|
|Faber, David||Ottaway, Richard|
|Fabricant, Michael||Page, Richard|
|Fenner, Dame Peggy||Patnick, Sir Irvine|
|Flynn, Paul||Pawsey, James|
|Forman, Nigel||Pickles, Eric|
|Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman||Pike, Peter L|
|Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring)||Porter, Barry (Wirral S)|
|Freeman, Rt Hon Roger||Powell, William (Corby)|
|French, Douglas||Prentice, Bridget (Lew'm E)|
|Galloway, George||Rathbone, Tim|
|Gardiner, Sir George||Robathan, Andrew|
|Garnier, Edward||Robertson, Raymond (Ab'd'n S)|
|Gill, Christopher||Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)|
|Gillan, Cheryl||Sackville, Tom|
|Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles||Sainsbury, Rt Hon Sir Timothy|
|Gorst, Sir John||Scott, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas|
|Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)||Shaw, David (Dover)|
|Greenway, John (Ryedale)||Shaw, Sr Giles (Pudsey)|
|Shersby, Sir Michael||Townsend, Cyril D (Bexl'yh'th)|
|Simpson, Alan||Trend, Michael|
|Sims, Sir Roger||Twinn, Dr Ian|
|Skinner, Dennis||Vaughan, Sir Gerard|
|Spearing, Nigel||Waldegrave, Rt Hon William|
|Spencer, Sir Derek||Waterson, Nigel|
|Spicer, Sir Michael (S Worcs)||Watts, John|
|Spink, Dr Robert||Wells, Bowen|
|Sproat, Iain||Whittingdale, John|
|Squire, Robin (Hornchurch)||Widdecombe, Ann|
|Steen, Anthony||Willetts, David|
|Straw, Jack||Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)|
|Streeter, Gary||Winterton, Nicholas (Macc'f'ld)|
|Sweeney, Walter||Wood, Timothy|
|Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)||Yeo, Tim|
|Taylor, Ian (Esher)||Young, Rt Hon Sir George|
|Taylor, Sir Teddy (Southend, E)||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Temple-Morris, Peter||Mr. Roger Knapman and Mr. Gyles Brandreth.|
|Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)|
|Alton, David||Maclennan, Robert|
|Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)||Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)|
|Carlile, Alexander (Montgomery)||Nicholson, Emma (Devon West)|
|Chidgey, David||Rendel, David|
|Davies, Chris (L'Boro & S'worth)||Taylor, Matthew (Truro)|
|Harvey, Nick||Tyler, Paul|
|Hughes, Simon (Southwark)||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)||Mr. Archy Kirkwood and Mr. Don Foster.|
|Kennedy, Charles (Ross, C&S)|