I listened carefully to the words of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and I must say that his claims that the Government support local government and that they believe all changes should be led from the ground up will ring very hollow in Christchurch, where he has announced his decision to abolish an independent sovereign council, which has been in existence effectively since 1216, against its will. Back in November, he said that there was insufficient local consent. The local council then decided to hold a local referendum, in which 84% of the people voting were against the council’s abolition and the enforced merger with Poole and Bournemouth. Yet, despite that, the Secretary of State decided, after the poll had been announced, that there was now sufficient local consent.
The Secretary of State has asserted, incorrectly, that savings will be made all across Dorset as a result, yet we know that just on the issue of the negative revenue support grant, Dorset stands to lose over £10 million a year. Despite having received assurances in private from him that that would be sorted out, we have still to see the detail and see whether he will deliver on that assurance.
Back in December 2015, my right hon. Friend’s predecessor, who is now the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, assured the House that the Government would not abolish councils against their will. The Government have reneged on that promise, to their eternal shame, and have in so doing encouraged council chief officers to be distracted from their responsibilities to deliver good-quality local services.
One of the perverse consequences of the Government’s policy drive towards unitarisation is the destruction of small local councils that have been prudent and are debt-free, as is Christchurch. Christchurch has raised from local tax payers the money that is necessary, while the neighbouring authorities—Poole and Bournemouth—that are now going to take it over, together with its assets, artificially held down their council taxes for many years. The consequence is that the council tax in Bournemouth and in Poole is about £200 less at band D than it is in Christchurch. Those authorities are being rewarded for putting forward false budgets, while Christchurch is being penalised for having been prudent and responsible.
The Secretary of State is intent on adding insult to injury by forcing tax payers in Christchurch to carry on cross-subsidising those in Poole and Bournemouth even after the unitary authority is established. That will, for example, force my constituents in one of the poorest council estates in the whole of the west country to subsidise people living in Canford Cliffs and Sandbanks.
It is totally unacceptable and, frankly, a cause for shame that I, as a Conservative Member of Parliament who campaigned against this, have been let down very badly by my own Government. This has not been helped by the fact that the Department has kept on moving the goalposts. Originally, officials at the Department assured section 151 officers across Dorset that harmonisation, as it is called, over 20 years would be perfectly acceptable. Last autumn, they changed their view, and their advice then was that it would be for a maximum of five years, while I was told by a departmental official that it would be two years at the longest, and that it might be less.
We still cannot get any firm information from my right hon. Friend or his Department about the period of harmonisation they have in mind. However, it seems that the consultation that went out some 18 months ago, based on a 20-year harmonisation period, was a false prospectus. It has caused people across Dorset to reach a conclusion on the basis that they would all be much better off financially, when in fact they will not be; that particularly affected people in Poole.
My right hon. Friend has told me that he will try to limit exit payments for local government officers to £95,000, in accordance with the Government’s pledge. At my behest, he did go off and ask council officials in Dorset about that, and the response from them was, “Bollocks!” and “We have worked our bollocks off—no way are we going to allow our exit payments to be limited to £95,000.”
The savings being suggested are unreasonable, and this is all leading to a failure and breakdown in good-quality local government. As I think I have probably made clear during my speech, I am an extremely dissatisfied bunny as Easter approaches, because I believe in localism.