Local Government

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 11:34 pm on 5th February 2008.

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Photo of Michael Ancram Michael Ancram Conservative, Devizes 11:34 pm, 5th February 2008

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.