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I beg to move,
That the draft Wiltshire (Structural Change) Order 2008, which was laid before this House on 8th January, be approved.
We are tonight considering the draft order for the establishment of the new unitary Wiltshire council. The order implements the unitary proposal that Wiltshire county council itself has made. This is a proposal that the democratically elected, democratically led and locally accountable council has drawn up. It is a proposal on which the council sought the views of local people and the agencies that it deals with in the area, and one that the council has chosen to put forward to the Secretary of State as the form of local governance that best meets the needs of Wiltshire today.
When we launched the process in October 2006, we made it clear that whether councils submitted proposals was a matter for them. Having been clear about the five criteria that we would use to test any proposal, we rightly left it to the councils to decide how best to seek the views in their local areas. That is what Wiltshire county council and other councils that submitted proposals did. The important and distinctive—
May I finish this sentence? The distinctive and different thing about this process is that, unlike previous restructurings of local government, it is not prescribed from the centre, nor was its blueprint drawn up or designed from the centre. I say again that the starting point for the order before us was a proposal prepared and submitted by Wiltshire county council because it believes that it represents the best form of governance for the county in the future.
I want to press the point about consultation a little; after all, this is the first of a number of such orders that we must consider, and a principle is involved. As the five criteria are described conjunctively—the word "and" is used, so we must assume that all five must be satisfied—what, if any, minimum evidential standard is there for any authority in such a position to demonstrate that the criterion of commanding broad support is met in respect of the public and stakeholders?
The question of broad support is a judgment that we made on the evidence submitted to us. Originally, for each of the 16 proposals—some of which we did not believe met the criteria—the question was not whether there was a majority of this or that set of views in favour or not. The purpose of the criterion was to allow us to come to a judgment about whether we could be reasonably confident that, should the proposal go ahead, there would be sufficiently broad support for it to be successful. That was the essence of the criterion of broad support—and, indeed, of the other criteria.
Has the Minister taken any account of the MORI poll conducted among Wiltshire residents in 2006? I suspect not, as there is no reference to it in his summary of consultations published in November last year. Does he not think that he should have taken account of that fairly objective assessment of opinion in Wiltshire?
There was indeed a MORI survey—it was an opinion survey, not a poll. That was an element of the evidence and information that we took, and to which we had regard, to come to a judgment about the level of support. Some thought it important and placed great store by it, but others had concerns about the nature of the supporting information and the nature of the questions asked.
From memory, what was clear was that 78 per cent. of those who responded in that particular sample wanted the councils to work much more closely together; they clearly saw the weaknesses that often exist in two-tier areas. The balance of opinion in respect of a unitary Wiltshire was about 62 per cent. against and 30 per cent. in favour. However, in the end it was an opinion survey—an element of the evidence that we took into account when we considered whether support was sufficiently broad for us to be confident that, were we to move ahead with the proposal, we could make it work.
I have a factual question, to which I hope the Minister can give me a factual answer. He will remember that a paper called "Invitation to all councils in England to submit proposals for unitary status" was sent out. Paragraph 3.5 of that original document states:
"it will be necessary for any proposal to have support from a range of key partners, stakeholders and service users/citizens."
When the results were published, the words "service users/citizens" had disappeared. Furthermore, the notes provided by the Minister's Department for this debate refer to the invitation process and say that one of the criteria was supported by
"a broad cross section of partners and stakeholders".
Once again, the citizens have disappeared. Why did they disappear when he realised that they were going to vote against him?
The citizens did not disappear. Our approach was to look at the range of support that might be expressed for the proposal that was submitted by Wiltshire. There was indeed a response from the public, the majority of it in campaign form. That was part of the representations that we took into account, and we published the summary of responses back in July. There were probably more people in favour of maintaining district councils and not moving to a unitary council than there were in favour of a unitary council. Nevertheless, about a third of the public who offered a view could see the merit of a unitary Wiltshire and would like that to happen.
Let me return to a point that I made earlier. The question about broad support did not relate simply to whether there was a majority view in favour—that was not the judgment that we were trying to come to. We were trying to assess the strength, credibility and potential value of a proposal that the council itself submitted to us in response to the invitation that we issued more generally.
I have listened carefully to what the Minister has said about assessing opinion. Can he tell us, so that it is on the record, whether, on balance, the view represented to him as collected by the county council and the four affected district councils was clearly in favour of or against the proposition? Can he also put on the record whether the Government took any steps to authenticate that view so as to form any view of their own on the balance of opinion of the residents and council tax payers of Wiltshire?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for taking such an interest in what has been going on in Wiltshire. I said a moment ago that it was a matter for the proposing local authority how it chose to seek views and to represent them as part of its proposal. To answer his question directly, we as a Government Department did not undertake any direct opinion polling or checking of residents' views on the proposal. It was never our intention to do so, and I do not think that anyone believed that we would.
The Minister appears to be waving this off as if the Government are not supposed to be taking any view on it and are just blithely accepting the say-so of the county council, yet they set the criteria against which these applications should be judged, and clearly criterion No. 2 falls almost by his own admission. He cannot wash his hands of this. At the end of the day, he is making the decision and needs to be responsible for it.
I am not quite sure what point the hon. Gentleman is trying to make. I have clearly stated that from the outset of this process we had five tests that we required any proposal to meet and to pass. Wiltshire's proposal was one of those that we received. We gave an indication of that in March and confirmed it in July. One of the tests involved a broad range of support sufficient to give us the confidence that were we to give this the go-ahead it would have a reasonable chance of succeeding.
I am sorry to trouble the Minister again, and I am grateful to him for his patience in giving way, but this is an important principle and it will recur. As five criteria are proposed, can he give us an indication of on whom the onus of meeting those criteria rests? Secondly, what are the criteria for saying whether or not the test is passed? Are the same criteria used in relation to every such proposal, or do they vary? What standard must be met by a proposing authority to show that its proposal passes the test?
I have been getting used to the hon. Gentleman in the short time he has been in his shadow role. He brings a lawyerly turn of phrase to the debate. The criteria were set as a test that would help us and others come to a judgment about whether the proposal could succeed, whether it has a reasonable chance of doing so and whether we should give it the go-ahead. The extent and the nature of the evidence that any proposing authority submitted in order to meet those tests clearly varied. Some failed; others that passed would have gone about their task by meeting those five tests and demonstrating that they could meet them in different ways, and they did so.
With the exception of some of the financial analysis that we did, where it was possible to subject numbers to a test, a matter of judgment was inevitably involved. That is the judgment that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I, as elected politicians charged with this job, made. We made that judgment on the back of consistent evidence, clearly set out in published criteria, and we made it in a process that gave all interested parties, particularly councils, ample opportunity to submit their views, to know the views of those arguing for an alternative, and to offer a counter-argument or counter-evidence if they wished to do so. We weighed all that together with any other representations that we received during the process in coming to our final decision.
I presume that there is some underpinning evidence that unitary authorities perform better than two-tier systems. As someone who has always felt that two-tier systems—in my case, three-tier—are completely misunderstood by the general public, I do not see why the Government do not realise that there is a need for consistency throughout the country. They should encourage all areas to seek sensible and rational provision of local government. Then we would not need debates like this because there would be clarity, which I am sure the general public would welcome.
My hon. Friend is right, and because he follows such matters closely he will be able to track this back not just to the invitation we issued in October 2006, which reflected our belief that unitary local government was a way of removing many of the weaknesses he mentions in two-tier areas, but to the White Paper that we published on local government, which set out clearly the general case for unitary local government. He is right about the weaknesses: people are often confused about what different councils at different levels do. Often, services can be fragmented, leadership can be in competition and confused, and there is a degree of duplication, inefficiency and a lack of co-ordination.
My hon. Friend no doubt speaks from his own experience. Our approach has been set out for some time, and it was reflected in the invitation to those authorities that wanted unitary status.
Before I move on, two or three Members have said, "The county council submitted the proposal. Surely you didn't just take the evidence that the county council submitted to support its proposal."
The answer is that of course we did not. That is why we invited a wide range of consultees to give their views, especially about the way in which the county council's proposal stood up to the criteria that we established.
Despite what Mr. Ancram said earlier, paragraph 5.10 of the consultation did not include the question of citizens. It dealt with the broad range of support that we sought and made it clear that it was up to each proposing council to consult local people when they felt that that was an important part of their case.
I intervene diffidently because I am halfway towards supporting the Minister's position and I perhaps take a different view from my Wiltshire colleagues on the subject. I am puzzled by one part of his argument. If he wants to show that the people of Wiltshire, as demonstrated by any body, are strongly in favour of the proposal, will he explain why the MORI poll showed that approximately 71 per cent. opposed it? All four district councils also opposed it. If someone supported it, will the Minister oblige the House by identifying them?
There was wide support from business in the area. The association of local councils expressed a range of support, as well as concerns, and that also applies to the parish councils.
I thought that I had been clear. A range of views was expressed—some were supportive and others were concerned. Several important agencies and bodies, with which the council needs to work increasingly closely in developing and providing better services, were strongly in favour of a county council because they perceived the ability to work closely with the local authority as more likely in those circumstances.
Annexe B of the Department's impact assessment lists 53 organisations, which are described as "stakeholders" and were consulted. They include Sport England, the Highways Agency and the Audit Commission. In its victorious proclamation that it would go ahead, Wiltshire county council listed only the primary care trust and the chambers of commerce as in favour. In other words, 51 organisations did not agree.
If the hon. Gentleman wants more detail, I shall provide it later.
I have dealt at some length with hon. Members' questions about support and I want to move on because it is important to explain one or two points in setting the scene, not least the contents of the order, what staff who may be affected can expect and the financial case.
We made the decision that we wanted Wiltshire county council's proposal to go ahead with reference to the five criteria that we set out at the start. We also had to consider not only whether there was a sufficiently broad cross-section of support that could make the proposal work but whether the change was affordable.
Our judgment, as I told the House on
We subjected the figures that the councils provided to independent financial advice, in order to assess both what the county council was telling us and, in light of what I said earlier, the flaws that others felt were present in those figures. On the basis of those figures, the advice that we were given by independent financial experts suggested both that the council's figures and the expectation that the proposal might lead to savings of more than £18 million a year were sound and that the overall financial case was a low-risk one that imposed no barrier to proceeding.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again. I want to raise a point that is not unique to the situation that we are debating. As far as I can see, no account is taken in the assumptions from the county council of any potential loss of grant. All local authorities receive £325,000 by way of grant for the costs of being in business. There are currently five local authorities in Wiltshire that receive such grant. What assurances can the Minister give that there will not be just one payment of £325,000 for the costs of being in business when we move to one council in Wiltshire? On the face of it, there appears to be a risk that we will lose those four elements of grant, which go to the existing authorities. Is there to be a different level of grant? That does not appear to be permissible under the rules, so how is it to be achieved and how will that shortfall be made up?
I will take your advice to the House as applying to my responses, too, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise if I am going on, but I am trying to answer questions as they are put to me.
We consulted on the issue of grant and the allocation of resources to the authorities last year, in preparation for the financial settlement. If Robert Neill is particularly interested in the detail, I can let him have it. In essence, when we move to create the new authority in Wiltshire, all being well in 2009, the allocation of budgets, set out for the next three years under the formula settlement that the House debated and approved last night, would automatically be pooled with that of the county council's budget, to create the total budget for the new authority to carry out its new range of functions and responsibilities.
Let me turn to the order. Rather like the process that we conducted for encouraging proposals, we tried to take an approach in the order that will allow each area to adopt the arrangements that are best suited to it. We therefore prepared the order following consultation and full discussion with the councils concerned, not just the county council. Our aim was to ensure that the arrangements were those that the local people most directly involved would consider best suited to their circumstances.
First, the order provides that from
Will the Minister explain why the county council will, in fact, continue in a legal sense, even if it is to metamorphose in the way that he has described?
I am perfectly open about this. Essentially, it was a toss-up. There was an argument for saying "Let us, at the point of creating the new authority, dissolve all the existing authorities and create what will be legally a new entity." On balance, however, we felt that the advantages of that were outweighed by the complexities involved in transferring assets and staff, and the legal complexities. We decided that by allowing the county council formally to be a continuing authority—while making clear that it would be run differently and would constitute a new authority—we could achieve a much smoother transition and still achieve our aim of creating a new authority rather than allowing a takeover, which I have been extremely keen to avoid.
Thirdly, there will be a fresh senior management team, and once elections are held there will potentially be an element of new political leadership as well. The process of change is not a simple transfer of functions; this is a more radical, far-reaching change in the governance, leadership and service delivery arrangements in Wiltshire. The right hon. and learned Member for Devizes shakes his head. The order requires an implementation plan. We will monitor that plan, and staging posts along the way will ensure that we can create the fresh governance, leadership and service delivery arrangements that I mentioned, including scope for the community involvement set out in the proposals. The plan will cover budget, structure, staffing, transfer of assets and neighbourhood arrangements.
Fourthly, the order provides for some of the key transitional arrangements. Principally, it provides for the setting up of an implementation executive whose role will be to develop the necessary plans and budgets to drive the development of the new council. It will be led by the county council, and its membership will be drawn from members of the county council and all the district councils. Its composition is specified in the order. It was discussed in detail with all the affected councils, and it is based on consensus. To provide the necessary support for the executive, the order provides for a team of officers, again drawn from the county and all the districts.
The order sets out exactly how many people should be on the implementation executive and from which local authorities they should derive, but it also says that the nominations
Will all the main parties be represented as set out?
That is certainly the intention, and it is clear in the order that that should be the case.
The order specifies that elections will take place in Wiltshire in line with the usual county cycle, in May 2009. There was complete agreement between the county and the districts in Wiltshire that the elections should be held in 2009, not 2008, principally because, by that time, we expect the Electoral Commission to have been able to undertake an electoral review, so that the arrangements for that 2009 election can be based on new wards that better reflect the community and neighbourhood pattern of the county. The order creates the new unitary Wiltshire council, and it puts in place the key elements of the transition.
I said earlier that I am keen to say a few words about the position of the employees. We all recognise that this is inevitably an unsettling time for employees of the affected authorities, and while the detailed arrangements are for local councils as employers to consider, they will be developed within a set of national principles that we will put in place to ensure that all staff are treated fairly. We have made it clear that all staff who are employed immediately prior to
Our approach provides for an effective transition that is as efficient as possible, and one that avoids as far as it can disruption to services, gives a good deal to citizens and service users, is fair and equitable to council staff, and, above all, opens the door to creating what in Wiltshire could be one of the future flagship local authorities of our country. I commend the order to the House.
The Minister is certainly right to observe that restructurings of this kind are naturally unsettling. They naturally bring with them risk—in both financial and organisational terms. My party therefore takes the view that such restructuring should not be undertaken unless compelling evidence of significant advantage is demonstrated. To restructure on the basis of a hope and a wing and a prayer is simply not good enough. Important practical, technical and constitutional issues arise.
Does the hon. Gentleman not believe that the system of 20 community forums and the strength of the strategic leadership set out in the proposal, and for local taxpayers not least the £18 million a year in annual efficiency savings, are grounds enough for going ahead?
Because there is regrettably a dearth of specific evidence to back up those assertions, I must say that there is a lack of objective evidence to support them. The key point is that because of the implications, such a change should be undertaken only if there is compelling objective evidence. What we managed to get from the Minister was the fact that there are no objective tests to see whether the five criteria are met in any given place. An entirely subjective exercise is being carried out. That is unsatisfactory, and it sets an extremely dangerous precedent.
The hon. Gentleman is clearly setting out his party's cynicism about the proposed unitary reform across the country. Will he just remind me which party is in control of Wiltshire county council and who put forward this proposal?
I am sorry that the hon. Lady uncharacteristically seeks to take a cheap shot on that issue. The principle that I am discussing would apply regardless, because parties of an entirely different complexion are in control in other parts of the country, so it does not apply to any one place.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. It may engender a modicum of silence from further down the Chamber, and it proves the virtue of doing one's local homework. It also sits rather ill with the Government's contradictions on this issue, because this is part of a process of reorganisation that will involve a number of areas. Back in 2006, the previous Secretary of State, who is still in the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Transport, described the whole question of local government reorganisation as a great distraction. I suspect that she was nearer the mark than her successor and the current ministerial team, for the reasons that we have set out.
May I return to the real concern? If one is going to make changes, there must be strong evidence to support them. Such evidence has not been set out in respect of this order. The suggestion that it will bring significant financial advantage depends on a particular case that has been put together, and it is challenged by a number of the other parties. When one examines the detail of that case, one sees that it rests on a number of assumptions about how the transitional costs work out and what the savings will be. Those are not borne out by close examination of the evidence.
I was interested to hear the Minister say that there will be a particular treatment of grant. I assume it will apply across the piece, but that was the first time that we had heard about it. That grant treatment was not taken into account in the proposal in setting out the savings. The districts have put forward their own contention, which would tend significantly to undermine the one put forward by the county council—the point being that there is conflicting evidence and, to return to my principal point, there are no objective criteria by which to judge it. It is thus difficult to see how the case for change can possibly be made against that background. We will return to that issue throughout this process, because the same principle seems to apply across all the orders that the House will have to consider in due course.
One final thing worries me about the Minister's stance, although I appreciate that he may have inherited this situation. He said that there must be consistent evidence, but a few breaths before, he said that the evidence will vary from authority to authority; so it is difficult to have any great faith in the process.
I should also ask some questions about the order itself, because it concerns me. The Minister hits on a point about this not being a takeover. He has been at pains to stress that, and it is set out in the explanatory memorandum. The reality is that if he looks at it fairly, he will see that it is difficult to say to anyone outside this process that it is anything other than a takeover, given the construction of the implementation executive whereby the chairman, who has the casting vote, shall be the leader of one particular authority—of the county council, as opposed to anything else—whether or not there is consensus. There is no obligation to seek consensus. The fact that there has been willingness on the part of the members of all the district councils to try to work together to make the best of the bad job that has been foisted on them is to their credit, rather than to the credit of the Government, who have set forward this unsatisfactory proposition. It is difficult to sell a built-in working majority in favour of one partner as a collaboration of equals, rather than a takeover.
I am also concerned that the work of the implementation executive will not be adequately scrutinised. That is important because it is at the time of the transition that the hoped-for savings are most likely to be lost and costs are most likely to overrun. Scrutiny at that stage is therefore especially important. There is, interestingly, a duty on the districts to co-operate on implementation of the transition plan in both paragraph 6.7 and paragraph 11, but surprisingly there is only an option for collaboration on scrutiny. I do not understand why the scrutiny provision—in paragraph 8.6—is not also an obligation. The provision on scrutiny is not as rigorous as that on the duty to take executive action, but both are important. From all that I know of what happens in Wiltshire, the districts will ensure that there is proper scrutiny, but the orders do not guarantee that—and they should. That is a technical concern about the nature of the orders.
The political composition of the implementation executive also raises concerns. It is an odd creature, because it does not follow the normal requirements of proportionality. It provides certain guaranteed places, but there seems to be no precedent for that, and I would be interested to know why it has been set up in that way. It is perhaps significant that the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments says, of an identical provision in one of the other orders:
"The use of the powers in the manner proposed is an unexpected use of the powers conferred by section 13(1) of the 2007 Act".
It is an odd departure, and I would like to know the justification for it. On the face of it, it appears to be an arbitrary use of the procedure.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will make that point in subsequent debates, but I hope that he will make it clear that the comment from the Joint Committee that he quoted was not made about this order and this restructuring.
Order. Before the hon. Gentleman responds, may I just say that while it is obviously important that the Front Benchers set out their position on the matter, this is a short debate and I am sure that several hon. Members from the county concerned wish to make their contributions.
I made that caveat, but the provisions are very similar and run through all the orders. I wished to flag the issue up for the future.
There is a dearth of supporting material to make a compelling case for the need for change. My right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Ancram asked the Minister to detail those who support the proposition, and he was unable to do so. Against that background, it seems that the case is not made. The evidence base is too thin to embark on this proposal on its own merits or on a course of action more generally in relation to the orders, which potentially set significant precedents. For that reason, at the appropriate time, we will oppose the order.
I shall keep my remarks brief as I know that many hon. Members wish to speak on matters that are of great importance to their constituents.
The statutory instrument is the beginning of a process to outline the move to local government reform. In this case, we are seeing the replacement of two-tier authorities with a single unitary structure. I would like to emphasise that the Liberal Democrats have no dogmatic opposition, as we believe that it is very much up to local authorities to decide what is best for their areas. Liberal Democrats in district and county councils have been absolutely right to emphasise that point.
Both my predecessor spokesperson and I have been clear that the process should be driven at the local level, not from the Minister's desk, but we were not convinced when we considered the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill that that was being achieved. As my hon. Friend Andrew Stunell said, the processes discussed were only a small improvement on what the Conservatives had left on the statute book. He raised concerns about not having the right provisions to protect local democracy. That raises the key question that has to be asked of all such statutory instruments that we will have to consider—how do they measure up to protecting local democracy? As we know from some of the interventions, these are controversial proposals, raising real issues about proper consultation and the Minister taking it properly into consideration.
The hon. Lady is making some general points, which are no doubt very interesting to her listeners, but will she clarify a very simple matter for us this evening: are the Liberal Democrats, for whom she is a spokesman, in favour of a unitary authority in Wiltshire or opposed to it?
As I said, that is a matter to be decided at the local level. I have absolutely no intention of prescribing from here what should or should not happen— [Interruption.] I am asked again from a sedentary position what we would do. We would not have had this process in the first place, but we think it absolutely right that local areas should have a say on how they would best like to be governed. We should celebrate diversity in how that is achieved, because Wiltshire is very different from Cornwall, for example.
I would like to follow up some of the issues that the Minister raised. He was careful to be very clear that the order is not simply a takeover by the county council. However, with this and other orders, real concerns remain that that is what will happen. Unfortunately, the way in which the order is set out will only underline some of those concerns. I am grateful for the Minister's clarity about the legal reasons, but I wonder whether he can do anything further to counter the perception that, as a result of the order, we will be left with a takeover.
I also want to follow up the issue of the duty of co-operation between district councils and county councils in the implementation executive. Robert Neill has already raised the issue of the lack of parity and an equal duty to co-operate in the implementation executive and in the scrutiny process, but there is also a wider issue. Why is there no duty on the Secretary of State to co-operate to help local authorities to achieve their aims of reorganisation? That lies at the heart of the matter. Perhaps with the authority we are considering and certainly in other cases that will be discussed in the days ahead, there is real frustration because the orders will not help local authorities to achieve all they would want from the reorganisation process. There needs to be a duty to co-operate on Ministers so that they cannot stand in the way of authorities trying to achieve higher ambitions.
This is only the beginning of the process. The position is difficult because we do not really know what will be in the detail of transitional orders further down the line. We do not know what vision the implementation executive will seek to deliver; there is no sense of what the implementation team will be asked to do; and there is no idea of what the scrutiny process will be or what will be considered. The Secretary of State must give the sense that the process will not be directed from the Minister's desk—there must be a duty to deliver what the proposals want to achieve.
Another key area that flags up the kind of barriers that could arise is parish elections. Parish elections took place in 2007. My understanding is that the order will delay any further elections until 2013, after the new body is in place. Given that a new authority is likely to seek to give greater control to parish authorities in taking on new roles and responsibilities, I am concerned that parish councillors elected with an entirely different remit will be asked to take on those new powers. Given that there will be a boundary review and all-out elections to the new authority in 2009, will the Minister comment on what scope there might be to enable parish elections to happen at the same time as those unitary authority elections to allow people to seek election knowing what their terms will be?
On the boundary review, will the Minister tell us the time scale under which the Electoral Commission wants to operate? My concern is that we are debating the order close to the deadline that the boundary committee for England has set to be able fully to undertake a boundary review process in time for the 2009 elections.
I hope that the Minister will also respond to the concern about the capacity of the boundary committee to undertake other boundary reviews in areas where there are likely to be other unitary elections in 2009. Will it have the capacity to deliver that number of reviews within the necessary time scale? For a lot of authorities, that will be important in demonstrating that a new authority will be elected. With the existing boundaries, if the change does not take place, that will be a real hurdle.
Fundamental issues need to be resolved. Otherwise, it will be difficult for the process to have a successful outcome. Locally, many people are disputing whether the changes will bring improvements. If they are correct in disputing that point, either the Government have not assessed the proposals properly or the potential lack of success might be down to failings in the process that we are debating. As we have heard, members of the district authorities are participating in the process to try to make the best of a bad job. The Government have a responsibility to ensure that they are doing their best to make something that is practicable and workable, too.
Wiltshire never has been, is not now and never will be an easy county to administer. We are proud of our county, but we are not quite sure why. There are as many reasons as the county has areas, districts and river valleys. That pride is very real—we even have a new county flag after all these centuries.
Wiltshire is a disparate county. It is described as chalk and cheese, with sheep farming in the south and dairy in the north. It is the home of moonrakers: the sort of characters who are anti-establishment, or certainly anti-taxman. Salisbury plain is the great divide in Wiltshire, occupied by the Army for 100 years—some say to keep apart the people from north Wiltshire and south Wiltshire.
Wiltshire has no natural boundaries, unlike Cornwall. It has no natural county town, unlike Devon, which has Exeter. It has no homogenous identity, unlike, for example, Kent. None of the boundaries of the different authorities seem to coincide and they have not for a very long time—even the ecclesiastical one. The county of Wiltshire is not in the south-east and not really in the south-west either. It may be in what could be described as central southern England, which is pretty unromantic. Wiltshire is an edge county and Salisbury is an edge city. If we are anything, people in Wiltshire still belong to Wessex, the ancient kingdom that is a romantic idea as well as a fact. Interestingly, the recent creation of an Earl and Countess of Wessex showed a deep understanding by the royal family of the nature of the county and of how we feel about where we are.
I believe that unitary authorities can work well, in the right place. I used to be a Local Government Minister, so I have fairly wide experience, at least across England. I know that it was right for Swindon, for example, to become a unitary authority. The structure might have worked in Wiltshire when it was proposed, some 12 years ago, that we should have two unitary authorities—one for north Wiltshire and one for south Wiltshire. However, when we look at the context of the order and the proposed revolution, it is important to remember that, before the 1974 local government reorganisation and in what is now Salisbury district council, we had a Salisbury city council, and rural district councils for Salisbury and Wilton, Amesbury, and Mere and Tisbury.
That was localism, and local decision making. All four authorities had planning powers, although they did not include the county council's reserve powers on highways and minerals, for example. Back in 1974, we saw the beginning of the end of true local democracy when those four councils became one. Now, Wiltshire's four district councils are to become one, and using the same sort of dodgy maths that the Government are using to support the order, some might say that the people of south Wiltshire were 16 times better represented in 1974 than they will be by the new Wiltshire council.
The point about stakeholders has been argued about quite a lot, and my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Ancram and my hon. Friend Dr. Murrison will expand on it. However, it is terribly important to remember that only 53 per cent. of county councillors voted in favour of the unitary authority proposal. None of the district councils voted for it, and most of the district councillors voted strongly against it, unless they happened to be the double-hatted councillors who served on both local authorities—a practice of which I disapprove very strongly. One of the few benefits of the proposed system will be that we will no longer have double-hatted councillors.
The Minister said that part of the enterprise was a "toss-up", and he is right, although some people might also describe it as a gamble. The explanatory memorandum states that one of the proposal's criteria is "strategic leadership" and it talks about a "reinvigorated strategic partnership". That means that the existing Wiltshire strategic partnership will be broken up into a public service board and a Wiltshire assembly of 20 area boards. The Minister said that he believed that the new 20 area boards would be the answer to local participation in the democratic process. It is true that local people will be able to influence local events and to help shape their communities. The police and the primary care trust will be able to join in, along with the parish and town councils, but will they be able to decide anything? No: they will be barred from making decisions. That power will reside exclusively with the 98 Wiltshire councillors, who will take all the decisions.
For the time being, the councillors will be stuck with existing local plans and development frameworks, so the planning function will remain within the existing district council boundaries. However, the area planning committees that have given decision making to local regional bodies will go; as a result, decisions will be taken by the smaller number of Wiltshire councillors who will represent the district council areas that we have now.
The memorandum states:
"The strong link to place, through the establishment of 20 "Community Area Boards", provided compelling evidence that a unitary authority would not be too remote from all of its communities."
Well, I do not know whom that evidence compelled, but it does not compel me or my constituents. It is likely that the unitary council will save back-office costs such as human resources costs. If it saves the forecast £75 million a year, however, it will be the first time in recorded history that a local government reorganisation has saved anyone a penny.
I oppose this order in principle. I think that it is wrong for Wiltshire, but I expect that the Government will get their way and so it is my duty to make the proposal work to the advantage of my constituents. If anyone can make this extraordinary idea work, it is Councillor Jane Scott, the leader of Wiltshire county council, who is a hugely talented person. If the order goes through I shall support her and wish her well in the enterprise. I shall do my best to minimise the pain and realise any gain.
In Wiltshire we take the long view. The first MP for Salisbury arrived in this place in 1265. I have been the holder of that office only since 1983, so I shall try to remember the old political adage: "Things are never as good and never as bad as they seem at the time".
I am glad to follow my neighbour, my hon. Friend Robert Key, who strongly set out why we should oppose the order. He has been a Wiltshire Member of Parliament for rather longer than I have, so I bow to his superior knowledge of the history of Wiltshire, even if neither he nor I quite go back to 1265.
I congratulate the Minister. If he loses his seat at the next election he will have a fine career as a stand-up comic; never have I seen anyone deliver such rubbish with such a straight face. I shall not repeat arguments that have already been made, but I want to explain the situation for the following reason. I went to see the Minister's predecessor, as did my colleagues, and we also went to see the Minister himself. We told him about the state of public opinion in the county and he listened, as did his predecessor. Neither of them gave any indication that they would contradict what we were saying, yet suddenly, out of the blue, we received what I can only describe as a perverse decision in relation to the evidence we had given them.
I remind the Minister of what we said. We told him about the Ipsos MORI poll, which is worth looking at again, because he has created the impression that it was not definitive. In fact, 78 per cent. of people said that they wanted the status quo, but with a bit more co-operation; 71 per cent. felt that a single council for Wiltshire would be remote and less in touch with local people and local issues; 64 per cent. saw Wiltshire as too big to be served by only one authority; and two thirds of the respondents said that the current system of local government worked well for them. If that is not a clear indication of public opinion against the proposal, I do not know what is.
We all received many letters and I received a petition, too. I did not receive a single letter in favour of the unitary council proposal, but I received dozens of letters against it, so I do not know where the impression of popular support has come from. At our meeting with the Minister, we told him that our understanding was that only two parish councils of all the 80 parish and town councils in the county were positively in favour of the proposal—only two, yet the Minister tried to give the impression this evening that local communities were in favour.
All the district councils were originally against the proposal. There has been a little movement since, but although they are co-operating now they basically believe that it would be bad for local government in Wiltshire. Three of Wiltshire's MPs have opposed the unitary order throughout; my hon. Friend Mr. Gray will have to decide how he will vote tomorrow, but three of us have made our position clear.
The Minister said that the county council wanted a unitary authority, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury has just said, only 25 of the 49 county councillors voted for the proposal—hardly a massive majority in favour, yet that is the piece of opinion on which the Minister founds his case.
My hon. Friend correctly indicated that I did not go to see the Minister and that throughout I have taken a different stance on the matter from my three Wiltshire colleagues. I believe that there are strong arguments in favour of a unitary authority in Wiltshire but there are also strong arguments against, and for that good, rather Liberal Democrat, reason I shall abstain in the vote tomorrow.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making his position clear— [ Laughter. ] —and I said it with a straight face.
I twice wrote to the Secretary of State asking whether stakeholders and key partners actually included people, but I never received a straight answer. I then began to inquire about the stakeholders who were apparently so important in the consultation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury said, we know of only one stakeholder who has positively supported the proposal. It was the primary care trust. Do you know why it did so, Mr. Deputy Speaker? A year ago, the primary care trust was created from four others, which led to a disastrous diminution of medical provision in our area, so the only way it could justify its position was by supporting a similarly disastrous proposal for local government. All the other stakeholders, including the fire and police authorities and the local housing association in my constituency, refuse to take a position, because they do not believe that a strong enough case has been made for the change. Again, I ask the Minister: where is that support? Where does it come from? When the Prime Minister took office in June, he said that he would be a listening Prime Minister. Who have the Prime Minister and the Minister listened to on the subject?
I do not want to take up much more time, but I want to raise one technical point. The order states that the implementation executive is to set
"such budgets and plans as it considers necessary or desirable to facilitate the economic, effective, efficient and timely discharge of the Wiltshire council's functions on or after 1st April 2009."
My local district authority informs me that, under the order, it will not have the authority to do that; it will have no locus to take such action. I want the Minister to look into that, because if the order is passed I do not want there to be a complete muddle and mess as a result of its not being properly thought out.
I want to ask the Minister what the difference is between Wiltshire county council and "the Wiltshire council" mentioned in the order. The first page of the order says:
"That proposal was made by Wiltshire County Council."
In the rest of the order, the reference is to "the Wiltshire council". The definition says that
"'the Wiltshire council' means the council of the county of Wiltshire".
It does not say "Wiltshire County Council", as it does on the first page. That is another issue on which there could be massive confusion.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury, I have probably been in politics far too long. We have experienced a number of local government reorganisations, and I have seen a number of similar centralisations. We are told over and again that money will be saved, that things will be far more efficient, and there will be all sorts of benefits. In every single case costs have gone up, empires have been built, and people whom we thought would lose their jobs got a new title and remained in office. Ultimately, it has always cost the local taxpayer more. I predict that that is exactly what will happen now. The Government's majority will probably ensure that the order is passed. We will go through all the rigmarole and have a unitary council, but I predict that in 10 or 15 years we will revisit the issue because the unitary council does not work.
The proposals will not work because the Minister has not listened to the people, who have told him that they do not want a remote council in our big county, as they will not be able to get to their council as easily. They do not want services to be inaccessible and at a great distance. They want local government that represents them where they are, and for all the Minister's semantics and rhetoric the proposition before us will not achieve that. I ask him seriously to think again. Very few people in Wiltshire want the change. What is driving him to give my constituents, and the constituents of my hon. Friends, what they have clearly said they do not want?
It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Robert Key and my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Ancram. I cannot compete with 1265, but the battlefield site of Ethandune, near Edington, is in my constituency. That is where King Alfred defeated the Danes in 878 and set up the kingdom of Wessex. If anybody knew about local government reorganisation, it was King Alfred.
Let us be clear: there is no support worthy of the name for the proposal in the county of Wiltshire. There are no grounds for the Minister's opinion, which was given in his letter of
"command a broad cross section of support from a range of stakeholders".
Furthermore, the breezy assertion that there would be
"some support from the general public" is true only in the most literal sense, with "some support" meaning more than no support.
The November summary document continues in the same creative vein. Any reasonable comparison of the document with the raw data would reveal that there has been considerable licence in the interpretation and collation of material.
I do not know whether the Minister has been through all the responses. The Department was good enough to allow me not only to read them, but to photocopy them, and I have been through them all. They confirm my belief, from what my constituents have been telling me for many months, that there is no significant body of support, however he defines it, for the proposals before us. May I challenge the Minister to say how he is able to draw the inferences presented in the November summary document from the responses that he received and I photocopied? If he cannot do so, the second criterion in the October 2006 invitation for unitary bids is not met.
For a more reliable litmus test of public opinion, we must turn to the MORI polling data collected in June 2006. In his letter of
"I can see no reference in your report about the MORI poll that was undertaken to assess the views of the public in Wiltshire."
That is the case. I asked the Minister specifically about that and he seemed to be under the impression that in some way that poll was reflected, but in fact it is not.
Wiltshire county council misused the information in the same way as the Department for Communities and Local Government appears to have been creative in its interpretation. West Wiltshire district council referred the matter to the district auditor. On
"I agree with you that it"— a press release issued by the county council—
"represents a misinterpretation of the MORI findings. It is highly selective in its use of information from the poll and excludes information that would provide a more accurate representation. As such, I consider that it fails to comply with the Publicity Code in that it is not objective or balanced", yet that is the body on which the Minister is relying almost wholly in making his assertions.
The matter of consultation is by no means trivial. It is especially important in Wiltshire. Over the past months and years, and certainly since 2001 when I was elected, we have become accustomed to what might be called sham consultations. We have had them particularly in relation to local health care, where it appears that the results of the opinion survey have been more or less determined before the exercise started. That has led to the most disastrous consequences in respect of the scorched earth policy being conducted by Wiltshire primary care trust and, before that, by its predecessor bodies.
This has taken place at a time when we are all trying to establish public confidence in democracy and engage people with politics and with the formulation of public policy in important areas such as local government, health care and practically every other arena. Instead, a climate of cynicism has been engendered among the public, and who can blame them if they put a great deal of time and effort into responding to consultations in good faith, in the belief that those who make a decision at the end of the day will pay close attention to what they say and act upon it? Unfortunately, in the local government consultation, like others in Wiltshire, those who are entrusted with making policy sadly seem to bat away all the time any effort put in by our constituents. They should hang their heads in shame.
Understandably, there has been considerable judicial interest in the matter. Will the Minister outline the possible outcomes of the Congleton and Shrewsbury judicial review and what implications various possible outcomes may have on the local government review process? Will the Minister say why the estimates of costs and benefits have differed structurally from one unitary proposal to another, thus disallowing meaningful comparison? That is particularly important in the present context because Somerset, just across the border—a county that is in many ways similar to Wiltshire—has had a very different outcome from its unitary bid.
Will the Minister tell us why the transition costs, recurrent costs and savings, pension liabilities and extra costs for area governance and pay harmonisation have not been included in the cost appraisal for Wiltshire? Given the absence of a budget for area governance, what did the Secretary of State have in mind when talking in July 2007 of a "real opportunity" for people to "shape their communities"? Will the Minister confirm that area governance under the proposals will be no more than an unfunded "selectocracy" with very little accountability?
In July 2006, the former Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government called local reorganisation "a great distraction", and in March 2007, in the Government's own review, Sir Michael Lyons criticised restructuring and recommended more joint working. That is precisely the solution that Wiltshire residents have said they want, and precisely what the MORI polling data confirmed that they wanted. The Local Government Chronicle in May 2007 reported the Treasury fear that unitary bids were a "waste of time" and that it
"simply cannot afford to bear" the financial risks involved. In 1974, local government was paralysed by reorganisation for up to three years, and I have to say to the Minister that there is good evidence that we are seeing a repeat performance right now in Wiltshire.
My constituents want local government to deliver quality services—which, by and large, it does. However, residents and council after council have responded to the Minister's consultation by saying that they do not want this expensive, remote, self-licking lollipop that is threatening 1974-style paralysis for months on end. Even at this late stage, I urge the Minister to think again.
I rise briefly to explain why, unlike my three hon. Friends who have spoken convincingly of their reasons for being strongly opposed to the order, I shall take a position of principled abstentionism when we vote on this matter tomorrow. The position that I have held throughout the discussions on local government reorganisation in Wiltshire is that there are strong arguments in favour of single-tier unitary authorities. Those are the arguments that we advanced when we were in government and in precisely the Minister's position. When I was special adviser to the Secretary of State for the Environment, as the post was then known, we brought in unitary status for Swindon. It is nice to see Anne Snelgrove in her place this evening. We also abolished the country of Berkshire in the same way, and brought in a variety of unitary authorities across England. They were very much welcomed by the people when we did so. We also abolished the county councils in the whole of Scotland.
The powerful argument for doing that, which we advanced from the Bench on which the Minister is now sitting, was that it was a fundamentally good Conservative principle to have less government and fewer civil servants servicing it, with lower council tax as a result. There are clearly strong Conservative arguments in favour of single-tier unitary authorities. There is no question about that at all, and in some respects I support what the Government have been saying in that regard.
Wiltshire plainly has good local government at the moment, however; I differ entirely from the Government in that regard. Our district councils do a very good job. They are close to the people, and they make good decisions, by and large, although there are some exceptions. I am glad to say that North Wiltshire district council had the good sense recently to throw out the Liberal Democrats who had run the council very badly for the past 10 years, and the council is now doing an absolutely first-class job.
So we have good local government at local level provided by the district councils, as well as by the town and parish councils, which provide a strong service across North Wiltshire. Localism is terribly important. As my hon. Friend Robert Key commented, Wiltshire is an astonishing county geographically, split by Salisbury plain. There is no real homogeneity in the county, and it is therefore vital to have local government, which is provided at the moment by the district councils.
Given the Government's majority, it is extremely likely that the order will go through. Now is not necessarily the time to make strong, principled arguments on either side; we should be doing precisely what the Conservative-controlled North Wiltshire district council has done and Wiltshire county council is doing. We should say, "This thing is going to happen. The Labour Government have created it. There is no question but that there will be a single-tier unitary authority in Wiltshire. We should not fall out with each other over it or battle over who will be councillors in a particular place or how functions will be carried out. We should set in place structures so that the localism that currently exists through district councils is continued in one way or another."
County Councillor Jane Scott, to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury paid such warm tribute a moment ago, has that very much in mind. She realises that it is vital that there should not be a centralised structure, based in Trowbridge, that ignores local authorities, and that the structure should take real account of very local concerns by setting up appropriate other structures across the county. That is why I am ready to accept what the Government propose. I cannot bring myself to go into the Labour Lobby and support them—there are strong arguments against the proposal—but I will abstain during the deferred Division tomorrow.
The Minister might like to refer to one matter in his response. The boundary committee will examine local government boundaries in the run-up to the elections for the single-tier unitary authority. There is one boundary in Wiltshire that to me is more important than all others—the eastern boundary that borders Swindon. We love Swindon, a first-class town in many ways, but we do not want it to move into North Wiltshire in any shape, size or form. Will the Minister please reconfirm in his response that when the boundary committee considers the borders, it will be specifically tasked with doing that within the current rural county of Wiltshire, excluding Swindon? Will he confirm that the border between Swindon and North Wiltshire will remain the same? I think that that will be the case, but I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed it.
Leaving party politics and strong statements aside, we need to find the best means of delivering good, first-class services at a local level in Wiltshire and a lower council tax. I say to Councillor Jane Scott, and the new-look local authority when it is set up, that the reason why I do not oppose what she proposes is that I look to her to provide better services for my people in North Wiltshire—above all, at a lower rate of council tax.
I hope that my colleagues from Wiltshire will forgive me for speaking for a minute before the Minister responds. I am a former leader of North Wiltshire district council and I served 12 years on the county council. My hon. Friend Robert Key mentioned the winding-up of the rural districts and boroughs. There are many proud towns in Wiltshire that still have the sign of when they were boroughs in the middle ages. It is a pity that the winding-up occurred; it took local government away from people.
As leader of North Wiltshire district council, I was always aware that it was an administrative area without any natural affinity, apart from being in Wiltshire. However, it had one big advantage: we discussed areas that we travelled to and knew. Wiltshire county council was a great, strategic council but those of us from the north of the county would often talk about areas in the south that we rarely visited. It can take one hour 20 minutes to get from Cricklade to the south of Salisbury and we did not go to the south often. I fear that the new arrangements will be unwieldy. It is a long way from Tidworth to the Somerset boundary, and I do not think that we will be close enough to the people. I am suspicious of the savings figures; I do not think that we will make savings. I hope that things work out well. I am sure that there are some very good councils in Wiltshire, but I fear that we are moving local government too far from the people.
I shall attempt to deal with the points that have been raised. First, I should like to pay tribute to the fact that all who have spoken have done so with strong feeling about their areas and a remarkable pride in their county—its history, richness and royal and military connections. Robert Key and, although I had not realised it, Mr. Gray, speak with experience of local government reorganisation and recognise that it is not easy. Sometimes one has to believe that the prize in going through the process will indeed deliver the gain that is worth some of the pain that is necessary.
Let me say to Robert Neill that he answered his own question as regards scrutiny. He said that districts will ensure that there is proper scrutiny, and they have done. A joint scrutiny and overview board has been set up, with nine members from across all five councils, and they will do the job that we need them to do.
Julia Goldsworthy asked about the boundary committee. It aims to complete the work to set the new wards in the county by February 2009, which means that they can be in place for elections in May 2009.
I will check the point that Mr. Ancram raised about the district councils' concern about the order and write to him if there if is any cause for concern. I appreciate that he has some scepticism about this process. However, we made the general case for unitaries in the White Paper, and there are some very good unitaries as a result of reorganisations, including Stockton-on-Tees, Hartlepool and the East Riding of Yorkshire. We used the term "Wiltshire council" in the order deliberately to exemplify the fact that we were not creating Wiltshire county council but an authority for the county of Wiltshire.
Dr. Murrison asked about the judicial review brought by Shrewsbury, Atcham and Congleton, which was dismissed by the court in September. They have appealed, the hearing took place last week, and we await the judgment. However, nothing that they have done in the judicial review process so far has delayed us or deflected us from our process, and I do not expect that to happen again, although that will of course depend on the court's judgment. All the costs were taken into account in the independent financial advice that we received.
In reply to the hon. Member for North Wiltshire, the work of the boundary committee will be within the county of Wiltshire and will not stray over the boundary into Swindon.
Area boards may be the answer to the concern expressed by the hon. Member for Salisbury, as they are set up in the proposal as forums for local decision making. Perhaps he and the scrutiny board may wish to ensure that the new council delivers on that. Finally, the savings in Wiltshire are destined to be £18 million a year, not £75 million a year, as was suggested.
I hope that all Members will fall in behind this and support those who, once this House passes the order, will look to lead the change and put in place a new council that can better serve and well serve the people of Wiltshire for the future.