The House may not be surprised by the subject about which I will be speaking. I will be speaking about it because the Government have just announced that two councils are to be merged, and I will be speaking on behalf of my constituents.
I was very pleased to hear from Ian Mearns about the festival of the north. I have a slight vested interest in Newcastle, and I think that it is fantastic news. I urge colleagues to go to Newcastle, which is a very beautiful city—partly because we built it.
I welcome the chance to contribute to the debate, although what I have to say will not please everyone. I want to tell the House about a town hall in Somerset that is being spoon-fed huge sums of public money and, I am afraid, wasting every penny. The name of the waster is Taunton Deane Borough Council—unfortunately, because it has just been announced that it will be amalgamated with my local council, West Somerset. It had ambitions to take over the council, and last week the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government gave it the thumbs up.
Most people shook their heads in disbelief and shock, including the locals in Taunton Deane, as they read the latest letters in the local paper. The Taunton Deane councillors plan to change the council’s name, sack more than a third of the workforce, spend millions of pounds that, unfortunately, we do not have on computers that do not seem to work, make themselves comfy in new offices on which they are spending £11 million although they are worth £5 million, and then come begging to Whitehall when it all goes wrong. Even the unions, which have been instrumental in providing information, agree with that.
In these dark corners of local government, incompetence rules, and we often find greed as well, not to mention sharp practice in many cases—not just in my area—and occasionally, I am afraid, corruption. Taunton Deane Borough Council has been making a dodgy name for itself for many years, long before my time, and has been rattling its tin in Whitehall for ages. The Government recently handed it £7 million to pay for a new road, which runs along the edge of my boundary. It never occurred to anyone that you cannot sanction a brand-new housing estate unless you build a brand-new road first.
What Taunton Deane is very good at is dishing out planning permission to builders. It is a tiny council, but, believe it or not, it wants to build 17,000 new houses. The effects of that on the roads and the infrastructure will be devastating for my constituents. A great many of those houses will be erected by people—dare I call them mates?—in the local area. The hon. Member for Gateshead will recall the days of Poulson and others. The council leader, believe it not, is a builder. Mates’ rates matter big time in Taunton, and these mates all work around Taunton.
What gets my goat is that, while laying concrete on its green fields, the council has the bare-faced cheek to pretend that it has an environmentally friendly master plan. The Government have rewarded it with a few hundred thousand pounds, which, admittedly, is not a lot in the scheme of things, but it is pretending that a few more badly planned housing estates will add up to a shiny garden town. The idea of garden towns is to build something new, and to aspire, but that does not apply in this case. Taunton Deane specialises in dreams in my area, which is a bit worrying, especially with Glastonbury down the road. Its latest lunacies include borrowing millions of pounds to tart up its headquarters, and trying to buy a hotel. Why a local council should want to buy a hotel is slightly beyond me.
The council’s leadership is rather like Arthur Daley, in a three-wheeled Reliant, flogging “cut and shut” Cortinas to unsuspecting civil servants. They will probably all end up in the canal. What saddens me is that the Government so often cave in too quickly and pay up. I would say the same about Governments on either side of the House. We must stand up against petty bureaucracies. Underfunding may be a problem, but overfunding is a downright scandal.
The future of West Somerset council, in my constituency, is being dictated by a group of people who have no interest in it whatever. It has 28 councillors, and the number will go down to roughly 15, perhaps 14. Taunton Deane has demanded red lines. It has no code of conduct, and no precept for any of its parishes. There is no town council in a town that contains about 100,000 people. The whole thing is run by someone who has a pointed beard and looks like Arthur Daley.
The point I am making is that this is not the way to conduct local government. My area is the sparsest part of England, because we have Exmoor and the Quantocks, which is an area of outstanding natural beauty. We cannot build on the coastline. We have enormous flood plains, which, as many of my colleagues will remember, have been affected rather devastatingly. Our room for manoeuvre is very tight. We have one secondary—we do not need any more, to be fair—