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Local Government Reorganisation (Northumberland)

– in the House of Commons at 3:22 pm on 10th May 2007.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Alan Campbell.]

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Chair, Constitutional Affairs Committee 3:38 pm, 10th May 2007

I know that the Minister for Local Government, who replied to the previous debate, has handed over responsibility for this debate to his ministerial colleague the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Angela E. Smith. However, while he is here, I want to draw to his attention to the fact that every Member of Parliament for Northumberland is in his place for this debate. They all agree in their preference for a two-district solution to local government in the county, and they do not support the single-district solution that the county council has proposed. The Minister has kept both options on the table and we shall be discussing them in this debate, which his colleague the Under-Secretary will answer.

I declare an interest in that my wife is a member of the county council and, since last Thursday, of Berwick-upon-Tweed borough council, too. The wife of Mr. Campbell is also a county councillor, and we agree with our wives on these issues—as we do on so many matters.

It is a unique situation: four MPs in three political parties are in broad agreement about the direction that Northumberland should take. I defy the Under-Secretary to find another example from the whole round of local government reorganisation in which she is so assisted by unanimity on one proposal. I hope she and her colleagues take that factor carefully into account.

Northumberland is inherently a difficult area in which to implement a unitary system. The advantages of unitary local government are strong and obvious: it is much less confusing for the public, savings can be made and there are more opportunities for the council to deploy its funds to a wider range of services and to relate those services to each other. However, for geographical reasons, we have hung on to the two-tier system until now, even though in parts it is under severe strain and presents real problems in the smaller districts. These days, the county council is not a successful authority—certainly much less so than in my earliest years as a Member of Parliament—and has run into serious problems. I do not say that the problems have nothing to do with who controls the council, but a number of other factors are involved, too.

At district council level, so difficult has been the recruitment and retention of planning officers—for example, in Berwick borough council—that the council faces making a decision on three wind farm planning applications with no planning officers to advise it on its policy. The council has had to hand out that function to consultants who may in future be employed by the very developers on whose applications they are giving advice. That is a deeply unsatisfactory situation.

Photo of Denis Murphy Denis Murphy Labour, Wansbeck

I understand the problems Northumberland county council faces at present, and has faced for several years, but does the right hon. Gentleman accept that one of the main difficulties is that successive Governments have not always recognised the county's super-sparsity, which has a particular impact on education and social services? Recently, the county council tried to get rid of surplus school places, but on three occasions an appeal against school closure went against the council. Is that not a particular problem?

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Chair, Constitutional Affairs Committee

That is one of the factors I had in mind when I said that there are many reasons why there are difficulties with the two-tier system. The hon. Gentleman is right: the financial formula has not worked in Northumberland's favour at all. Indeed, one of the merits of the two-district solution is that sparsity may be taken more into account, instead of being masked by the fact that there is a significant urban population. Furthermore, some of the deprivation factors that apply in urban areas might be given more weight if there were two separate authorities. At present, we miss out on all sorts of things that are intended for rural areas even though we are one of the most sparsely populated areas in the country, because there is a mixture of extremely sparse and highly concentrated areas of population in the same county.

If the two-tier system were to continue, lots of joint working would be needed, but the county has shown no willingness at all to engage with the idea of enhanced two-tier working. There have been approaches from the districts, but the county has shown no interest. There is a danger that we may still end up with a two-tier system and no great prospect of changing or improving it; Northumberland may be put on the "too difficult" pile, because two possible unitary solutions are in play. That would be a pity, because we need to move forward in some way and I am disappointed that the county has not actively pursued the enhanced two-tier alternative.

That all six district councils in Northumberland have agreed that there should be a two-unitary solution is extremely unusual in local government reorganisation. The councils are controlled by different parties and in most cases there is no overall control, but every district and every political party involved agreed on the same solution. The county leadership decided to put forward a one-unitary solution, but it could not get that through its own council, despite having a majority. It had hastily to redraft the resolution supporting a single authority solution to indicate that both proposals were going forward. Without the acknowledgement that both proposals were valid, its resolution would not have got through at all.

The Northumberland proposal is a one-size-fits-all approach and is not capable of responding to the needs of the diverse communities of the county. There are two distinct parts of Northumberland. When I say "Northumberland", I mean the present administrative county. If we were talking about the real Northumberland, we would be talking about areas long since transferred into other authorities such as North Tyneside and Newcastle. This is not an argument about the historic county of Northumberland, which is much bigger and has a much larger population than the administrative county whose future as one or two unitary authorities we are discussing.

Within the administrative county, there is an urban south-east and a rural area of west, mid and north Northumberland. Not a single member of the county's cabinet comes from the rural area and I think that there are only two members on the executive of the county council who come from outside the Wansbeck and Blyth Valley districts. That is an inherent weakness in the way in which things work and its results can be seen in the decisions that the county takes.

Many regional organisations say that unitary status is needed and that they will work effectively with whatever structure is implemented, because they think that it will be more efficient than a two-tier system. The White Paper is all about allowing citizens the opportunity to shape the communities that they live in. In that case, why are we still considering a single unitary proposal that does not have the support of Northumberland residents, its community organisations, its district councils or its Members of Parliament? Instead, we have the option of having a rural Northumberland authority, with a population of 164,000 and a south-east Northumberland authority, with a population of 142,000. Let me just underline the difference between the two. The population of the rural area works out as one person for every 3 hectares; the population of the urban south-east proposed authority works out at 10.6 people per hectare. That gives an indication of the fundamental difference.

On 27 March, the Department for Communities and Local Government announced which proposals were going forward to stakeholder consultation. To quite a lot of people's surprise, in Northumberland two proposals went forward: the county's proposal for one unitary authority and the districts' proposal for two unitary authorities. I think that all the councils in Northumberland would probably have preferred the Secretary of State to identify a single preference, but, along with Bedfordshire and Cheshire, we have two potential solutions and probably a longer period of uncertainty.

Why is that so, when the people of Northumberland have already voted on the matter? In the referendum in November 2004 on regional government, they were given the opportunity to decide between a two- authority solution and a one-authority solution in exactly the format that they are now proposed. Some 56.2 per cent. voted for the two-unitary option and only 43.8 per cent. opted for a single council. Far from there being any evidence that opinion has moved in favour of a single authority since then, an ICM opinion poll in December 2006 showed that 67 per cent. were in favour of a two-council option.

Photo of Denis Murphy Denis Murphy Labour, Wansbeck

The right hon. Gentleman's point about the number of organisations, including political organisations, that support the two-unitary system is well made. Is he aware that the boundary committee, in its report published in May 2004, stated:

"We consider that the division of the county into two unitary authorities could help address the differing needs and priorities of the urban and rural communities in Northumberland. It could enable each council to gear responses to the specific issues of residents in its area, providing a local focus and a close link to the public."?

Does he think that that statement takes the argument forward?

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Chair, Constitutional Affairs Committee

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to quote that statement from the boundary committee. I agree with it.

The Government have put forward assessment criteria against which the authorities have to be measured. Both bids qualified as capable of delivering savings. Some people expressed concern about whether there is an element of cross-subsidy from the urban to the rural area that might be lost if we had a two- authority solution. My belief is that that will almost certainly be offset by what happens with the funding formula—for the reason that I gave earlier. At present, the rural area is deprived of the provision that the Government rightly make available for sparsely populated rural areas because its figures are buried within those of a larger area with a substantial urban component.

Three different marks could be given for the likelihood that the outcomes specified in the criteria would be satisfied: a high likelihood, a reasonable likelihood and little likelihood. Both bids passed on all counts, so it was judged that there was at least a reasonable likelihood of each of the criteria—affordability, cross-section of support, strategic leadership, neighbourhood engagement and service delivery—being achieved. However, I am puzzled by how the scoring was done. For example, the proposal for a single unitary council got a reasonable rating for cross-section of support, but there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that there is a cross-section of support in Northumberland for the county's single-council solution. In fact, there is a great deal of evidence to the contrary. The districts' two-council bid also got a reasonable rating for cross-section of support, even though all the evidence shows that there is a high cross-section of support for that proposal.

Councils have not yet been given any information about the rationale behind the scoring, except for that in the Department's letter of 27 March. Having scored the criteria, the Department seems to be saying that the really important issue is whether the overall threshold is passed, rather than the scoring of the individual criteria. However, during some of the discussions, a lot is being made of the scorings that have been achieved.

Let us consider the cross-section of support again. I have mentioned the referendum and the opinion of the four Northumberland Members. More than 100 local organisations support the two-authority option. That bid has as wide a cross-section of support as could be achieved for any reorganisation proposal. However, the county council's bid was only just supported by that council when it was considered alongside the other bid, so the support was very qualified. Some regional stakeholders said that they were doing no more than commending unitary government in principle, rather than distinguishing between the proposals.

Most of the regional bodies that have indicated support for the county's bid are much bigger than the county itself. It suits them to have fewer local authorities to deal with, and their structure does not address the problem that we are examining: how to keep local government reasonably local. The arguments about the police are sometimes cited. The police force covers a much larger area than the existing county and it wants to be bigger still. It wanted to amalgamate with two further police forces, but the Government wisely decided that that would not be a good idea. I do not think that the police authority is the best body on which to rely in this matter, given that the Government have not seen fit to support the authority's record. The White Paper is about putting communities at the centre of decision making, so the scoring should have reflected that more accurately.

Curiously, the scoring received by the proposals on strategic leadership did not seem to be entirely accurate. However, perhaps even more doubtful is the scoring on neighbourhood engagement. Some councils have scored extremely well on neighbourhood engagement. Blyth Valley is a beacon council for community engagement, while Wansbeck district council's LIFE—local initiative for everything—model has been praised. The county's neighbourhood engagement takes place through a system of area committees. While that could work well, the authority is not taking much notice of the area committees in some parts of the county, so even the existing mechanism is not being used.

I realise that the Under-Secretary will not be able to say a lot in response to the debate because she is part of the consultation process. However, if the Government were to adopt the county's proposal for a single authority, would the county be treated as a continuing authority under the Local Government Act 1992? If it were, the existing county apparatus would essentially survive, and rather than having new authorities in which all positions would be up for open competition to allow people with the experience and qualifications to do the job to be selected, the county's staffing structure would be preserved to a large extent. I hope that the Minister will address that matter, even though I hope we will not face such a situation because I want the Government to go for the two-council option.

The next criterion I want to consider is service delivery. Satisfaction levels and residents' experiences of the authorities demonstrate that the county council's services are, in a number of respects, worse than those of most of the district councils. There are a number of respects in which having an authority the size of the present county manifestly does not work. We have experienced particular problems with education and school transport. The county council has failed every attempt to win Government support for its projects under the building schools for the future programme. Every single bid that it has made has been turned down. It now looks as though it will be 2014 before we are even in with a chance. There must be something wrong, and I put that to the Minister for Schools, who came up to the region. Clearly, officers in the relevant Department do not regard the county's bids as satisfactory. There is a serious element of the Government not valuing the kind of proposals that the county makes. That may partly reflect the difficulties of running education services in such a diverse county.

To take the case of school transport, the county failed to bid for funds that it would have received from the Learning and Skills Council, and so deprived itself of money that was available. Partly as a consequence, it is charging everyone over 16 who needs school transport £360 a year to get to school or college, and that is in an area where the take-up of post-16 education is low. It has denied college students from Berwick rail passes to get to college in Newcastle. Instead of a 45-minute train journey, they face a bus journey of an hour and a half, or an hour and three quarters, and many of them simply opt out, or pay to travel on the train. Those points illustrate the fact that the county is not able to administer some of its services satisfactorily in such a diverse area. That is one of the drivers behind people feeling that they would be better off with two authorities, rather than one.

Photo of Ronnie Campbell Ronnie Campbell Labour, Blyth Valley

May I raise the issue of the vulnerable, including the homeless and old people? The county got zero stars in that area, and in fact I received a ministerial letter the other week to tell me that a team is being sent to the county council to try to lift its performance so that the vulnerable can have some sort of representation in Northumberland.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Chair, Constitutional Affairs Committee

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. He knows the area well, particularly the strains and stresses in the urban area around Blyth Valley. It gives me no pleasure to say that the county is letting us down on a number of key services. There are some difficulties that have made that the case. However, people should take certain things into account before they assume that because we have a county council it could be the basis for a unitary authority and that everything will work well, including all the services now run by the district councils, including housing. Recently, there was a sharp increase in charges for home help and community care. That really hits vulnerable people in the area. I hope that the Government can help the county council to do better in various ways, but the examples that I have given do not represent evidence that running a single authority on the basis of the present county would be a good idea.

Photo of Ronnie Campbell Ronnie Campbell Labour, Blyth Valley

That brings me to another point: the council put up the charges for home help for old people by £5. That increase was to generate £1 million. My wife, who is a county councillor—I declare that as an interest—has three times asked what had happened to that money. The argument was that it would go back into services for old people, but it disappeared and no one could find out where it had gone. I know where it has gone, but of course no one wants to say. My wife is still hanging on to that question; she still has not had an answer on where the money that the old people were charged went.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Chair, Constitutional Affairs Committee

Given the exchanges that have taken place, the Under-Secretary must be beginning to understand that there are four people in the Chamber who have an intimate knowledge of the problems that the county council faces. We have all been led to the conclusion that there is no basis for a single unitary authority in Northumberland, and we have given a number of examples of why that is so.

If the Government opt for a single authority, I confidently predict that there will be a vigorous campaign against the idea. The district councils have a mandate for such a campaign, and local organisations will want to back that campaign. On the other hand, if the Government opt for two unitary authorities, the county council will have no mandate to campaign against the proposal, as its own resolution actually supports both proposals. I do not think that Northumbria police or any other regional authorities are going to go to the barricades to try to save a proposal that has been so widely criticised. If the Government want to win the confidence and support of people in Northumberland, they should opt for the two-authority scheme. If they were so unwise as to try to promote the single-authority scheme, they would face severe opposition.

Photo of Denis Murphy Denis Murphy Labour, Wansbeck

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way again. The county council's problems are compounded by the fact that in its proposal it suggests that a political status quo exists in the single unitary authority—that is, it would be quite happy if a leader were elected from the cabinet—whereas the two-unitary system obviously proposes that there should be elected mayors, which is very much in line with the White Paper.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Chair, Constitutional Affairs Committee

The hon. Gentleman reminds me of a point that I should have made earlier. On those grounds, the two-unitary solution proposed by the district councils satisfies the Government's criterion for strategic leadership much more closely than the county's own proposal. It is a much more explicit attempt to meet that particular demand from the Government.

If, after all that, the Government said, "Oh, it's too difficult. Let's just leave it alone", there would be a great deal of disappointment among people on all sides of the argument, and there would not be a very promising atmosphere in which to achieve an enhanced two-tier system, which is the only viable alternative. It would be a system in which authorities would have to share services a great deal. I am not saying that it would be a bad thing, but it would be necessary to plan the sharing of services, staff and so on. It would require a big change of attitude in the county council and in the district councils, too. I have not seen any evidence in discussions that the county is willing to undertake such lateral thinking. All the indications—certainly everything that my three colleagues would want to propose—suggests that a two-unitary authority solution is the right way forward.

Photo of Ronnie Campbell Ronnie Campbell Labour, Blyth Valley 4:12 pm, 10th May 2007

Briefly, I had better declare an interest, as my wife is a member of the county council. She is a willing turkey, unlike those whose seats and jobs are vulnerable.

I want to make a couple of comparisons. When my hon. Friend Mr. Murphy and I went to see the Prime Minister, he said that he backed a one-tier system in Durham. However, I must remind the Minister that Durham is an entirely different county from Northumberland. She should not fall into the same trap as the Prime Minister and think that Northumberland is the same as Durham, because it is not. Northumberland has one Tory Member of ParliamentMr. Atkinson—as well as Mr. Beith, who is a Liberal, my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck and me. That is the make-up of Northumberland. The make-up of Durham is solid Labour. Whether Durham had five tiers, three tiers, two tiers, or one tier, it would be Labour. When decisions are being made, those things should be looked at first.

I tried to secure a referendum, but the proposal failed because it was too late. If the county wanted to hold a referendum, it could have done so in March, but it did not go down that road. It huffed and it puffed, but it did not do so. If it had done, we might have had a proper referendum in Northumberland, although we have already had one, as the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed said. That proposal failed, but I have decided to run my own survey in my constituency. In fact, I have the honour of being the first Member in the House of Commons to use the communications money in that way. I phoned the authorities straight away and said, "Can I use it for a survey and an article in the newspapers, and ask people to indicate which tier of local government they want in Northumberland?" That was duly done, and the first advert appeared last week—the second one will appear this week. There was an overwhelming response. I am just counting the responses, which stand at 200 in favour of the two-tier system and 49 in favour of the single-tier system. A pattern is emerging, as the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed said. There is support for a two-tier system. It is a pity that we cannot have a referendum throughout Northumberland. That would give a better picture, but there is already some information from Blyth. As soon as the survey is finished, I will send the results to the Minister, as they are a reflection of people's views.

Turkeys do not like an early Christmas, and of course members of the county council are fighting. They have good jobs and we all know what happens when reorganisations and boundary changes take place. Even Members of Parliament lose their seats. Council members must accept that such things happen, although I do not blame them for fighting to keep their seats. However, the county council is not a gravy train for them. It is for the people of Northumberland to decide what they want, and they are overwhelmingly in favour of a two-tier system.

I have seen the submission. I do not want to speak untruths, but some of it reads like Walt Disneyland. When I met the Minister to discuss schools in Blyth, I asked him, "Who told you that?" The county council or the civil servant in question obviously told him.

The county council is clutching at straws, as the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed said. The services that it runs are just about zero. It has not got many stars for anything. It has two stars for two services and none for services to the vulnerable, which I mentioned earlier, because it has closed all the homes. The council acted rashly and, I think, made a big mistake. The Government did not give the county money for the schools programme. I believe that all the money, including the £1 million that was supposed to be saved for the old people's home helps, was put into education.

In the budget a couple of years ago, transport was cut by half and the money put into education. I am sure that that is what the council is doing with all the other services, so all the other services suffer in order to get the schools building programme on the agenda. That is a big, big mistake. When the council said that it would do that, I remember telling it, "If you haven't got the money, don't do it." The Minister responsible for schools at the time told me to keep out of the argument. How a Member of Parliament can keep out of an argument like that beats me.

I believe that that is where the council went wrong. It has problems because it is overstretched trying to provide transport and schools in rural areas, which is very difficult. Transport in rural Northumberland is almost non-existent, and it is not good in Blyth Valley or Wansbeck. My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck and I have been trying to get a train service there. We are having difficulty, although there is a train line. All we have in Blyth Valley and Wansbeck is a bus service, which runs a lot better than in some areas of Northumberland.

The question is the best way forward for the people of Northumberland. I am glad to say that they are thinking the right way. They think the county should be split into rural and urban areas so that something can be done. A lot of cross-border activity takes place. We will work together—that is a racing certainty—and go forward. I hope the Minister and the Cabinet will take that on board.

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Conservative, Hexham 4:19 pm, 10th May 2007

I am grateful for the opportunity to debate local government in the House. I am also grateful for the fact that not many Members of Parliament were interested in discussing empty commercial buildings, so we can have a proper Adjournment on the subject.

I am pleased to see the Minister in her place. After Northern Ireland, the affairs of local government in Northumberland should be much easier to crack. I strongly urge her not to put this to one side and say that it is too difficult.

Local government reform in Northumberland has been around for many years. Mr. Beith will correct me if I am wrong, but I think that this is the third attempt. Under the Conservative Government, Lord Heseltine, as he is now, had a go at it, but eventually walked away when there was no final agreement about its shape. This time, we have some solid agreement between all four Members of Parliament and all six district councils.

I want to reinforce one or two points that have been made. Local government reform in Northumberland has always been bedevilled by the geography. We have a population of some 300,000—about the size of a small London borough—yet the county is one of the biggest in England. As we heard, students at Berwick take an hour and a bit to get to Newcastle. Getting to one of the hospitals in the east of the county used by my constituents takes a drive of an hour and 20 minutes. We are talking about very substantial distances—probably 70 miles from north to south and 50 miles from east to west.

That makes a difference in achieving a local government system that is efficient as well as local. Getting that balance right has been extremely hard and has defeated us on the previous two occasions. Now we think that we have got it right and that the two-authority system will work. In fact, it offers an opportunity to do some new things, because it is a model that does not exist anywhere else in the country. It may be possible for two authorities co-operating on several matters to deliver the efficiencies of scale that people say would be delivered by a unitary county. We have heard about the loss of services. In Northumberland, social services are already provided jointly with the NHS. We should also put into the picture—perhaps unhappily for a Conservative—the fact that we now have a fairly strong regional dimension, so decisions on matters such as planning and transport infrastructure, which could have been taken at county level, are taken at a higher level. The two authorities should be more than capable of co-operating to deliver efficient services.

Let me cite a slightly controversial example of where the system would work. The county council has determined that the three-tier school system, which we still have in Northumberland, should change to a two-tier system. There are arguments for changing to two-tier and for maintaining three-tier, but the arguments for two-tier are undoubtedly stronger in the urban, more densely populated areas than in the rural areas. The consequence of moving to a two-tier system in my constituency—I am sure that it is the same for the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed—would be that nine-year-olds would have to travel for more than two hours a day in coaches to get to school. After reorganisation, a three-tier system would have to exist anyway. That is an illustration of how the education system in a rural area would be better determined by a rural authority than by a unitary authority.

I accept that our funding problems arose because the formulae have never properly taken population sparsity into consideration. It always amazes me that Northumberland has a lower sparsity than Norfolk. That is based on some spurious system invented by somebody long departed who took with him or her the secret of how to calculate it. It is apparently calculated on the basis of parishes, but it seems to affect rural areas very much. There is a chance of getting some better funding into our area, which is much needed to provide services.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Chair, Constitutional Affairs Committee

Was the hon. Gentleman surprised that the Government added to their list of consultees the county councils group in the Local Government Association but not the association that gathers together sparsely populated local authorities, which has done a lot of work on this? Does not that make us worry somewhat that the Government are still not taking sufficient account of the factors that are relevant to rural Northumberland?

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Conservative, Hexham

Indeed. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. It was surprising that that body was left out of the consultation. The provision of services in rural areas has increasingly moved up the political agenda. The Government need to take account of that when they consider the final outcome to the matter.

Photo of Denis Murphy Denis Murphy Labour, Wansbeck

The hon. Gentleman mentioned one or two innovations that the two unitaries introduced. Does he agree that one of the better ones is their decision, although they are financially independent, to share most of the costs that are currently covered by the county of Northumberland? An independent, not-for-profit company would be set up to deliver many of the services on behalf of both unitaries, thus substantially reducing the council tax for the people of Northumberland.

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Conservative, Hexham

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Some good ideas have been presented and I believe that the two-tier system will be a model for other parts of the country. I am sure that it will work—the council officers in the district councils, who are enthusiastic about it, will make it work. I am confident that we will end up with a good system that best serves the people of Northumberland.

Photo of Angela Smith Angela Smith Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 4:25 pm, 10th May 2007

I congratulate Mr. Beith on securing the debate on what is obviously a key issue for the people of Northumberland. I appreciate the strong feelings that have been expressed. There are few occasions in the House when all three parties agree and it is a rare opportunity for a Minister to respond to such a debate. I am grateful to all four hon. Members who took part—my hon. Friends the Members for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy), and for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell) and Mr. Atkinson, as well as the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed—for their contributions.

Let me first provide some context. As hon. Members know, we initially received 26 proposals from local authorities for the creation of unitary authorities, in response to the invitation that we issued alongside the local government White Paper in October last year. After careful consideration, it was announced that 16 proposals could be taken forward to be short listed and we could then proceed to a stakeholder consultation.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed said that he understood the constraints on what I can say today because we are in a legal process about consultations. Much as hon. Members might like me to go into detail about the merits or otherwise of the specific proposals or the authorities involved, I cannot. The reasons for our judgment were set out in the letter of decision that was sent to councils on 27 March. Many points that hon. Members made tonight are on the merits of the proposals.

I should like to deal with the questions that have been asked in the debate and set out how we reached our current position and the way in which we proceed from here. We published our invitation in response to the views that had been expressed during a long-standing debate on the future of local government. However, as the hon. Member for Hexham said, it has not lasted as long as the debate on the future of Northern Ireland, which reached a successful conclusion this week. Existing arrangements in some two—tier areas do not deliver the governance that places need today. All hon. Members made that point, especially the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed. He outlined the risks, challenges and difficulties in a two-tier structure. There can be confusion, duplication and inefficiency between the tiers.

There is a view that moving to a unitary structure could improve accountability, create a stronger, more focused leadership in the local authority, improve the local authority's efficiency and especially improve the outcomes in service delivery for local people. My hon. Friends the Members for Wansbeck and for Blyth Valley stressed that point.

Allowing restructuring was our response to that, and that view was held in several areas, as shown by the 26 proposals that were made to the Government. On 27 March, my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government announced that 16 proposals were being taken to stakeholder consultation, including the two proposals from Northumberland. In making that decision, the Government had to have regard to all the relevant information—the submitted proposals, any supplementary material from the proposers and any other available relevant information.

We have written to all the councils that submitted proposals, setting out the reasons and the basis on which the decisions were made. All 26 proposals were judged against the five criteria that the Government published earlier. Our judgment is that there is at least a reasonable likelihood that the 16 proposals, if implemented, would achieve the outcome specified by the criteria. I shall not comment on the specific proposals, as I have already said, but I would like to set out the criteria and say something about them, while also responding to some of the questions.

First, we were clear that the proposals had to be affordable. The changed unitary structure had to represent value for money and had to be met from a council's existing resources. They also had to be supported by a broad cross-section of partners and stakeholders. Comments were made about the relative value and relative merits of the amount of support for each proposal, which will be taken into account in the consultation that proceeds. At this stage, all that was being requested was that there was support for the proposal from some stakeholders.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed asked about the previous referendum in November 2004. I have to say that that took place in a different context and a different backdrop in 2004, but that does not mean that it can be dismissed. It, alongside other information, can be taken into account and it has been submitted in evidence as part of the consideration. The weight that can be attached to referendums and other such polls—the metropolitan area of Blyth Valley has been mentioned—depends on the question asked and how far it can be judged to be impartial and not to lead people a certain way, on how easily it can be understood by voters and the ease with which they can make a judgment on the information, and on the efforts taken to provide a fair and balanced explanation of the complex issues involved. All those matters can be taken into account. Indeed, they have been and are being submitted as part of the consultation on the proposals.

In addition to those two criteria of affordability and support, the proposals have to provide strong, effective and accountable strategic leadership; they have to offer genuine opportunities for neighbourhood flexibility and empowerment; and they have to deliver value for money and equity on public services. After consideration, it was decided that 10 of the proposals should proceed to stakeholder consultation. Having regard to the relevant information, the judgment was that there was not a reasonable likelihood that, if implemented, the proposals would achieve all the outcomes specified in the five criteria.

The hon. Member for Hexham and the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed asked why certain bodies were consulted and others, particularly SPARSE—Sparsity Partnership for Authorities Delivering Rural Services—left off the list. The list of consultees is not a definitive list of the only bodies that can be consulted. The chairs of local strategic partnerships and many other bodies were also consulted. Every chief executive in all the local authorities that had put proposals forward was contacted and told that any other body or group could be consulted and information passed on to others if appropriate. We said that we would have regard to all the representations received from any quarter. No group of organisations was disbarred or prevented from responding to the consultation.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Chair, Constitutional Affairs Committee

May I take the Minister back to the scoring of the criteria? Is she saying that the criteria were established to decide which bids should go forward and that as long as they had a reasonable likelihood of satisfying the outcomes, they went forward—and that that was the end of it, so wider consultation is now taking place? Alternatively, is she saying that the grade achieved in the scoring remains a key factor in the Government's eventual decision? If she is saying the latter, we will want to question the basis on which the scoring was done, because it is manifestly wrong in relation to cross-sectional support for the county proposal, for example, and in a number of other cases that I cited.

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Northumberland County Council has not only shown disregard for the views of its public but has actually shown very biased use of information submitted to it, for instance by Community Action Northumberland, which deliberately did not wish to show bias but which NCC has misquoted as being in support of its one unitary authority arguement.Where it has quoted "extensive consultation" some meetings have been one on one with the...

Submitted by Lynn Roxburgh Continue reading

Photo of Angela Smith Angela Smith Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

I shall come back to the right hon. Gentleman if I am wrong, but my understanding is that the former is the case and that we have moved forward to stakeholder consultation, which will now inform the decision making. I am receiving an enlightened nod, so I am right that it is the former. Decisions were taken and have since proceeded. Consultation is now under way and judgments will be made about which part of the proposals will go forward, if either go forward, on the basis of that consultation and subsequent evaluation and judgment. I hope that that satisfies the right hon. Gentleman on that matter. He also asked why we are still consulting on the county proposals, but perhaps the answer that I gave to the last question also addresses that issue for him. We are now making a judgment on the relative merits of proposals from the consultation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck mentioned the Electoral Commission's proposals from 2004. Again, those may be submitted and taken into account as part of the consultation. The consultation will last for 12 weeks, finishing on 22 June. As I have said, we welcome comments, information and views from key partners and stakeholders who have an interest in the areas affected by the two short-listed proposals. As the invitation explains, partners and stakeholders include all local authorities, the wider public sector, the business community, and the voluntary and community sector. Anyone may respond. There are copies of the consultation document in the Library of the House and it can also be obtained from the Department and from the Department's website.

After the stakeholder consultation, we will need to consider carefully all the representations that we have received. All the information provided to Ministers will be considered in the course of the examination of the issues. I want to give an assurance to the four MPs who are here in the Chamber that the views that they have expressed today will be taken into account, but they might wish to make formal submissions as well.

The proposals will move to implementation if, and only if, when the final decisions are taken, we are satisfied that they meet the criteria and that they remain affordable. We will also need to be satisfied that they have taken into account all the possible risks involved in the implementation. Careful consideration will be given to the findings of the consultation.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Chair, Constitutional Affairs Committee

I think that we concluded earlier that both bids had passed the basic tests—that they had both crossed the threshold. I have not seen any new information to date, and unless any emerges the Government must surely now be considering what the people of Northumberland actually want—I submit that their view is more important than that of large or outside organisations—and what quality can be achieved. We are not really going back to whether the proposals are affordable, because that has already been established.

Photo of Angela Smith Angela Smith Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

We have established the likelihood of affordability, and we are satisfied. That is why the proposals have gone forward. However, we cannot discount any new information that might come to light. We shall take into account the views of the people of Northumberland, and of organisations—there are many organisations in Northumberland that clearly want to make their views known—but I shall not discount any new information that is relevant to all the criteria that have been set out. It would be wrong to write off any information that we might receive on the range of issues that we have to take into account.

Whether or not councils move to unitary status, all councils at district and county level will have to develop far more effective ways of working together. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed made a point about the problems of inefficiency and ineffectiveness in some areas with a two-tier system. That proposal will not change for the areas that do not get a unitary system; they will all have to work better and more effectively, whatever the outcome.

We are talking about the devolutionary principle, and about the Government giving local authorities the opportunity to make a bid for unitary status. We have received two bids from Northumberland. This is a new era of local government, and when it comes to the choices about how we move forward, it is down to local councils, their partners and their citizens—in this case, the citizens of Northumberland—to make responses to the Government.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Chair, Constitutional Affairs Committee

I did ask the Minister a question of which I gave her office notice earlier today: if the Government were unwisely contemplating acceptance of the single authority proposal, would that be treated as a continuing authority under the 1992 legislation, as that has pretty serious implications?

Photo of Angela Smith Angela Smith Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

We are jumping ahead a little bit in presuming the outcome; decisions have not been taken. The right hon. Gentleman used the term, "continuing authority", which has sometimes been used in the past during reorganisations. Any unitary authority implemented as a result of the current process would be, as generally understood, a brand new authority; it would not be a continuing authority. The use of the term "continuing authority" was for a technical reason in relation to proceeding with a new organisation. No decisions have been taken on how a particular proposal would be implemented. A working group of stakeholders has been set up to examine all the implementation proposals. Within the limits of the legislation, we are prepared to be flexible on that. His point is noted, but no decision has been taken on implementation.

I thank Members for their contributions and I assure them that their comments will be taken into account.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes to Five o'clock.