Local Government Reorganisation (Somerset)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:02 pm on 28th November 2006.

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Photo of Ian Liddell-Grainger Ian Liddell-Grainger Conservative, Bridgwater 9:02 pm, 28th November 2006

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to intervene in the debate. Mr. Heath makes an interesting point when he asks whether the issue is partisan or bipartisan. The answer is that it is, actually, bipartisan, in so far as the Labour party, a large proportion of the Liberal party and the Conservative party are working together to try to come up with a structure that will do the best that it can for Somerset.

I certainly agree with both my right hon. Friend Mr. Heathcoat-Amory and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome that we need strong local government in Somerset. I am deeply offended, however, at the way in which the county council is trying to con the public. Yes, I understand, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that "con" is a rude word, but so are a lot of things and I wonder what would be appropriate. Somerset says that going unitary will save everybody money, but have those who say that actually done the sums? Have they heck! The only arithmetic that they quote was produced, believe it or not, by Shropshire county council.

Councillor Cathy Bakewell, the leader of Somerset county council, says, that Shropshire will save more than £36 million in four years if it goes unitary. But, with all the morals of a fast-talking brush salesman, she conveniently forgets to point out that Shropshire will also spend £3 million on restructuring and end up with 182 job losses. The population of Somerset is 80 per cent. greater than that of Shropshire—even 70 per cent. greater than that of Northumberland, which we all know is a large county. I dread to think how many jobs will be lost in the five district councils given all the add-ons that will happen if this barmy idea goes through.

Let me tell you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the Minister, that the unions are against it. Amicus and other unions, including the trade union council headed by one of my constituents, Mr. Dave Chappel, have made it very clear that they are opposed to it, and so has Unison, as I am sure the Minister knows well. They oppose it not because of job losses, but because they know it will not work. I quiver in my boots at the cost of actually satisfying La Bakewell's insatiable power. It is time to realise that that lady is conning us all.

Shropshire county council happens to be Conservative controlled, but with one district and one borough beneath it—that is all. In other words, it does not compare in any way or form to Somerset county. More to the point, Shropshire is totally united. All three councils want to amalgamate, and all three have done their arithmetic and—surprise, surprise—have made it public. But back to Taunton we go: Councillor Bakewell's barmy army, which is rooting for the losing side—how pithy that is at the moment—needs a calculator, and it is making enemies all round. Every district council in the county—including South Somerset, which was alluded to by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome—thinks that the plan is barking.

There are so many unanswered questions, and both my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells and the hon. Gentleman have alluded to that fact. What will happen to the parish council in Bakewell's brave new world? Will they go up; will they go down; or will they go sideways? Will they get extra power? Will they? The silence, as usual, is deafening. What about all the real estate? Again, as has been suggested, if the district councils are flushed away, who will benefit from the sale of their offices? If that is a sensible business, I suspect that those involved will have done their calculations and worked out the answers already.

Let us face it, Somerset is not a sensible business. Somerset already behaves like a crackpot, spend, spend, spend lottery winner. It is wasteful, greedy and completely inefficient. It is millions in the red, but who cares? Let us remember the rumpus over the road signs that has been alluded to. Somerset council invented the so-called speed management scheme, saying that it would save lives. Unfortunately, it did not. But the council did not consult anyone, least of all the police—a good starting point one would think.

The first that people in Somerset knew about the scheme was when a load of muscular men from the county council turned up and started hammering in new road signs everywhere—thousands of them. In one village in my constituency, the signs said that drivers should go from 60 mph to 50, down to 20 and back up again in under a mile—remarkable. Even Michael Schumacher would be proud of that. Our country roads were littered with new metal signs. Even the national park glittered in the sunlight of that glow. But, eventually, even the county council realised that it might be a good idea to ask people what they thought. So people told it, and the silly signs were removed. Unfortunately, £2.5 million has been spent—wasted. What a fiasco!

Now we have the small matter of windmills. Renewable energy is marvellous, so one cannot complain. My party leader is sticking one on his roof, so they must be all right. But Somerset county council believes that the divine right is to save the planet: forward and upwards, onward Christian soldiers. So Bakewell's blunderings now include building a forest of those things over the county farms and across Glastonbury tor. Every hon. Member knows the tor—it is the home of Avalon and allegedly the birthplace and burial place of Arthur—and the council wants to stick windmills on the top. Great—that will go down well at Glastonbury festival. The council also wants to put them on the Quantocks, which is the first area of outstanding natural beauty, and it is not going to work. To let the Minister know, the council is talking about putting them near schools in my constituency along the M5. What do people think? We have never been asked. We do not know.

There are other examples. There has been a massive change in special needs teaching in Somerset, as my right hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman know, and it has not been for the better. In West Somerset—the most rural district in England, into which London would fit very comfortably—that role has been cut: £80,000 has been taken away. Children now have to travel for an hour to go Taunton or Bridgwater to get special needs teaching. The county never asked anyone about that. It said that it was going to happen. We are being offered a team in two year's time—I can hardly wait—and I wonder whether those involved know where West Somerset is. We wait with bated breath, and yet again, we are quivering in our boots.

Things got even better. Just after I became the MP—I took over from Lord King—the county council said, "In line with Government proposals, we are going to get rid of all the schools in Sedgemoor. We are going to have three super-schools. So you go in as a kiddy and you come out as an adult. We will do it all the way through." The council did not ask anyone in Sedgemoor. It thought that that did not matter; it thought, "They will love it." Every school rebelled, but that did not matter. "Onward and upward, utopia!" was the cry. Luckily, the Minister's former colleague Mr. Stephen Twigg, who is no longer in the House, said, "This is mad. It is ridiculous." He stopped the process dead in its tracks because there was no consultation. There was no feeling of hopefulness.

That is now happening again. The plan is to get rid of four colleges and turn them into three. Three of our colleges have more than 1,000 pupils. One college has about 700. It is planned to turn those into three colleges of 900. I am not great at maths, but even I can work out that that does not work. Nobody has been asked about that. It is going to be done—again. There is no consultation. The people I am talking do not think, they cannot count and they simply drone on.

Councillor Bakewell is the queen bee of a horrendous hive of profligacy. She flaps her wings and pops from flower to flower, like a diva at a comic opera. It is worrying. I suspect that, dare I say it, she can no longer tell the difference between what is right and what is wrong. Her administration is an unhealthy mixture of polyunsaturated policy and political pomposity. She has become the turkey twizzler of England's town halls. Jamie Oliver would not be proud.

This is a dangerous diversion for democracy. The Government's White Paper unfortunately leaves out much that should be said. A lot of it is like a blank piece of paper. Frankly, I would not trust the county council with it if it were a fly paper, never mind anything else. I now fear that this dangerous lady's application for unitary status is pure municipal genitalia measurement. They want it to be bigger just for the sake of it. Have hon. Members ever noticed how many small people drive large cars? It is as though the six cylinders under the bonnet compensate for the lack elsewhere. Is it a case of today Somerset, tomorrow the world?

With the logic of a Dalek, Mrs. Bakewell wheels round like a dustbin shouting, "Exterminate, exterminate!" I have not done much research into the Daleks, but I know that they wanted to take over the galaxy as quickly as possible. However, despite their threatening appearance, they were constructed out of cardboard with wheels on the bottom and sink plungers for arms. The Daleks, like Mrs. B, had ideas way above their station.

So where on earth is the woolly-headed idea going to end up? Could the chief executive of Somerset county council be to blame? Perhaps he has been conducting long late-night sessions with some of the staff to emphasise what they are going to do. I have no idea. Changing local government is a serious process. It is always messy and pricey. It must never be undertaken just because council top dogs have an over-inflated opinion of themselves and what they can achieve.

I invite the House to look back. Both my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome talked eloquently about the Banham report. Yes, it was set up by a Conservative Government. Yes, they wanted to look at the way that local government could be changed. Yes, they wanted to see whether it could be streamlined. However, Banham did his work well. He took one look at Somerset and said that it could not be one unitary authority. It is too big. It cannot be done. Banham was right; Bakewell is wrong. Big is not best. Big is out of touch and out of tune. Big, when it comes to local government, is very bad indeed.

My message to the House and to Ministers is brutally straightforward. If they want chaos, anger, rising costs, uncertainty, worry, and a lack of understanding and clarity, fine—let them get on with it. But the price for the community—the community is what matters—will be unbearable. Democracy in the county will be damaged badly. I cannot agree with the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome when he says that there are too many in local government. My experiences of dealing with the few county councillors that I have now can be frustrating because, like us, they deal with a big area and they cannot always know what is going on. District councillors do know what is going on.

Annotations

mike pitt
Posted on 1 Jun 2007 12:20 pm (Report this annotation)

Very interesting, I had my ballot paper through this morning, decided to do a little research and found this debate..I think I will be voting NO thank you very much. Agreed, something should be done but not under the present conditions and not until the council chiefs have listend to all concerned...EVERYBODY.

Mike Pitt (30)

Anthony Sutcliffe
Posted on 2 Jun 2007 12:46 pm (Report this annotation)

I used to live in Somerset and I have crossed swords with Cllr Bakewell on a couple of occasions.

I was a school governor for some years at a large Junior school. In the late 90's, we were told that the council thought it appropriate to merge us with the infant school to create an "all-through" primary of over 800 pupils 5 - 11 years old. This would have made the school one of the 10 largest in the country, despite only being in a town of around 45,000. The plans were not fully costed out, the consultation consisted of telling us what they wanted to do without really providing a valid reason for the project and a number of documents related to the affair was either mislaid or removed from the public domain to try to force the plans through. The project failed and we were never told the final cost although estimates put it around £0.75 million.

A few years later they tried a similar project involving most of the schools in the area (from memory, 15 of them). The consultation was at best poor, and involved no more than a handful of people. The project would have had a serious impact on the local economy, the transport system (which was and still is totally unable to handle the changes) and without any real justification in terms of improving the childrens education. Again the project failed having spent funds estimated over £2 million.

It may sound bizarre that they cannot state what thse projects cost; their excuse was that they do not specifically account for these things separately and they are part of the normal education budget. I note that the year before I left the area, over 40% of the schools were running on a deficit budget.

On this basis, I would agree with Ian Liddell-Granger that the current county administration is far from suitable for forming a single unitary authority; I dread to think what they would do if given the sole control of the county.