Local Government

– in the House of Lords at 11:23 am on 24 November 2005.

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Photo of Lord Waddington Lord Waddington Conservative 11:23, 24 November 2005

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are considering plans to introduce unitary local authorities in place of existing county and district councils; and whether they still propose to introduce elected regional assemblies.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister)

My Lords, a wide-ranging debate is taking place in local government about its future role and functions. We are listening to that debate with interest. Ministers have taken no decisions about whether there should be any reorganisation of the two-tier structure.

There are no proposals to introduce elected regional assemblies. We said after the outcome of the north-east referendum that the Government would not be proceeding with further referendums to establish elected regional assemblies.

Photo of Lord Waddington Lord Waddington Conservative

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply, but is it not plain that having been thwarted in their plans for elected regional assemblies, the Government are at it again? They are plotting, are they not, to put responsibility for more and more public services, from planning to policing and many other public services, at regional level as remote from the people as possible? As to this talk of changes in local government and the introduction of unitary authorities, is it not obvious that whether you have unitary authorities covering the county areas or you merge districts with no counties, local government will be more remote from the people that it is supposed to serve and therefore less democratic?

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister)

My Lords, the noble Lord is being very creative. I can assure him that we are not plotting to do anything. We are being extremely open in all our discussions about how to deliver better services at regional and local levels, and we are taking into our confidence, and working very closely with, all forms of local government.

With regard to the regional level of government, there is a range of issues that can be dealt with only at regional strategic level. They include planning at a spatial level and housing. Regarding what the noble Lord said about unitary authorities, the essential thing is that each level of government should be fit for purpose, which is why in 2004 we began a debate called "Local Vision" to look at issues such as better leadership, better performance, how to connect with local authorities and get people into those authorities to raise the standard and deliver better services.

Photo of Baroness Hollis of Heigham Baroness Hollis of Heigham Labour

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the current two-tier structure of local government, which splits, for example, housing from social services, means that some of the most vulnerable people in our society do not know who does what, who pays for what and who is accountable for what? That cannot be good for local democracy. Does she further agree, given that the majority of local revenues now come from government since the nationalisation of the business rate, and given that most local authorities have now developed purchaser-provider splits of service, that in any possible reorganisation of unitary authorities, it should not be population numbers that count, as they are now less important, but the concept of the local community?

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister)

My Lords, my noble friend speaks from a lifetime of experience in local government. As we look at how we can match services to needs, we will listen closely to those views.

She is right that size is not a determinant, because we have large and very successful unitary authorities. She is also right that splitting services such as social services and housing means that people fall through the net. Equally, when waste collection and planning are split between authorities, there is duplication of purpose. The Government's mind is genuinely open about these things, however, and we have taken no decisions.

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

My Lords, I remind the House of my interest as a member of a district council in a two-tier area. I am therefore one of the people the Minister assures me she is not trying to abolish at the moment but might try to abolish in the future.

Following on from what the noble Baroness has just asked, will the Minister deny that one of the intentions of the Government—as set out in the recent Daily Telegraph article—is to reduce the number of councillors as part of the increase in size of local authorities? Is it not the case that if there are fewer councillors, there will be fewer citizens of this country directly involved in local government, and that the relationship between councillors, electors and citizens will inevitably be more remote and less intimate? Is that not a bad thing?

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister)

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that we have no intention of abolishing him. This is not a question of abolition, or indeed numbers; it is about quality. The debate we should be having is this: how do we re-energise local government? How do we get the best people into it? How do we ensure transparency and accountability? That is something his party, my party and the Conservative Party are concerned about. We might usefully have a lot of discussion around that issue.

Photo of Lord Elliott of Morpeth Lord Elliott of Morpeth Conservative

My Lords, will the Minister assure us that the Government will take into due account that there was a referendum in the northern region where a substantial majority of people requested that we keep our two famous county councils and 18 district councils?

Photo of Lord O'Neill of Clackmannan Lord O'Neill of Clackmannan Labour

My Lords, does my noble friend remember that it was the introduction of single-tier local government in Scotland that removed one of the biggest obstacles to the proposition of Scottish devolution? If there is going to be regional devolution, it will have to be on the basis of less government, not more. To do that, we need to get rid of some of the tiers of local government and make the whole system that much simpler. It was inadvertent on the part of the Conservative government that they did so, but they should be given credit for the massive obstacle they removed on the road to devolution in Scotland.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister)

My Lords, it is worth reflecting that the only two reorganisations we have had, in 1974 and the 1990s, came from the Conservatives. However, I take the point made by my noble friend.

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Spokespersons In the Lords, Local Government Affairs & Communities, Spokespersons In the Lords, (Also Shadow Minister for Women & Equality- Not In the Shadow Cabinet)

My Lords, will the Miliband review be considered alongside the Sir Michael Lyons review? Will it be external to the Sir Michael Lyons review and, if so, who will report and when?

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister)

My Lords, there is no Miliband review. If I may take the noble Baroness through the logic of this, in 2004 we began a debate on a wide-ranging set of issues in local government. That continues and has been very productive in the way we think about leadership and performance management. When we announced it in September, it seemed to us eminently sensible that since Sir Michael was looking at the future funding of local government, it was difficult for him to do so without looking at form and function. He is not looking at structures; neither are we. We are looking at outcomes and whether the structures are fit for purpose. His review was extended in that way. Obviously, it is very important from a strategic point of view that what we do in local government and what he is considering come close together and are co-ordinated. We fully intend to do that. Next summer we shall bring together the strands of our debate across local government and make proposals. It is very important that there is co-ordination, and there will be.