Local Government Reorganisation (Somerset)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:47 pm on 28th November 2006.

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Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 8:47 pm, 28th November 2006

The right hon. Gentleman will just have to wait until I develop my speech. Does he believe that we should operate local government in Somerset in the most effective and efficient way, which consumes the least amount of resource to achieve local accountability? His comments suggest that he does not believe that, because he is wedded to the idea that temporarily—to use his word—four of the district councils have a Conservative majority, which seems more important to him than having effective governance.

In my town of Frome, which is in Mendip, the district that my constituency and that of the right hon. Gentleman share, there are three county councillors, nine district councillors and 20 town councillors. Do we actually need that many councillors for a town the size of Frome? No. It confuses the people I represent. They do not know at which level they are supposed to go to find the answer to simple problems. There are far more elected representatives than we need for good governance in Frome, so if there is a way of achieving a better outcome, we should look at it.

We should respect the fact that there are different models. The first is the existing three-tier system. Another is the system that the county council may, or may not, decide to propose. The officers have been instructed to draw up a bid, but we do not know whether it will be made. I understand that at present their view is for a single county unitary. Although I understand the arguments for that, the difficulty is the size of the unitary authority proposed, in which proper accountability could be achieved only if it had a highly devolved structure. We would have to go for an area committee structure—the sort of thing that Conservatives gaily abandon when they take control of district councils—but it would mean much greater local decision making in the county structure, with efficiencies of scale in service of delivery. That is a perfectly respectable position, which should be argued and put before the people of Somerset.

A third option is being canvassed among district councils in the authority. The present administrative county of Somerset is a little too big to be a single unitary council, owing to the remoteness of some areas, so perhaps we should consider more than one unitary. That may appeal to some people and was one of the partial outcomes of the Banham inquiry. It would have the benefit of efficiencies of scale as well as the local accountability that is so important. The difficulty is where to draw lines on the map, but a roughly convenient line could be drawn to link south Somerset to Mendip, and Taunton Deane to Sedgemoor and west Somerset, thereby giving an approximate community of interests on either side of the M5.

There is a further option, which I really want the Minister to consider in the context of the consultation, if it goes ahead. I have no brief to speak for areas outside the county of Somerset, but the historical county, as I hope she knows, stretched not to the present northern boundary of the administrative county but up to the river Avon, and comprised the present unitary councils of North Somerset and Bath and North East SomersetBANES, as it is known. Both those unitaries are relatively small, with populations well below the number that the Government now say is the optimum; in North Somerset, the population is about 190,000 and in BANES, it is about 170,000. The councils have a strong community of interest with some parts of the present administrative county of Somerset. Frome, which I represent, Shepton Mallet and possibly even the city of Wells are Mendip towns and have a strong community of interest with the area represented in BANES. I suspect—though I am less of an expert on the area—that the same would apply to a coastal strip relating more to Weston-super-Mare and the tourism industry in the west Mendip area and Sedgemoor.

I therefore think it is possible to put forward the perfectly sensible proposition that we should be looking at perhaps four unitary authorities within the historical county of Somerset that would have a clear community of interest and clearly defined geographical boundaries. They would all be within Somerset—a point that I emphasise time and again. As a Somerset man, I am proud of our historical and cultural identity and I am not prepared to see it lost simply to allow some invention of a name for which no one has any affection. We live in Somerset, but our administration will be on a scale that is consonant with the demands of modern local government, while at the same time it will retain a degree of local accountability.

The right hon. Member for Wells asked me to draw the lines on the map and decide what is best for Somerset. He may be able to do that, but I cannot, because these are all perfectly respectable options and, as far as I am concerned, it should be for the people of Somerset to decide what suits them best. I have to say that, given that the debate has been opened by the Government, whose intentions are clear, it is something with which we should engage, even if our response at the end of the day is to say no and opt for the status quo because it suits us best in our circumstances. What I reject is the right hon. Gentleman's contention that the debate should be closed down before it has even started.

I hope that we do not get into the sort of, frankly, unpleasant internecine warfare that characterised the last dose of local government reorganisation in Somerset, where we had county and district fighting like ferrets in a bag about things that they should not have been fighting about, with all sides maintaining a monopoly of truth. No one has that monopoly of truth: there are different models—some good, some bad. If we treat them with respect, examine them dispassionately and put them before the people of Somerset in an effective manner, I hope that we will end up with the right result.