Local Government: County Councils

– in the House of Lords at 11:14 am on 18 May 2006.

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Photo of Lord Kimball Lord Kimball Conservative 11:14, 18 May 2006

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they support the retention of county councils.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, the Government are engaged in a wide-ranging debate about the future of local government, including county councils. As part of that debate, we are discussing with local government the changes to local governance arrangements that it believes are needed. We will conclude the debate in the White Paper that we will publish later this year.

Photo of Lord Kimball Lord Kimball Conservative

My Lords, I am quite certain that the noble Baroness is genuine in her reply, but could we see some positive action? Why go on spending £18 million on the unelected regional councils in eight areas? The money is used to override the county councils' planning decisions. The Government are taking powers away from the local people in all 34 counties and they will have to pay for it through their council tax.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, let me take the opportunity to say that no decision has been taken on local government reorganisation; it is still a very lively debate indeed. As to the noble Lord's supplementary question, there are functions which we believe can be best exercised at a regional level—planning functions, for example, which take into account the impact across a region and a sub-region of transport and housing. No powers have been taken away from local authorities in that sense, and I think that the 200 or so local Conservative councillors who serve on regional assemblies would very much support the work that they do.

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Shadow Minister, Scotland, Shadow Minister, Transport, Shadow Minister, Communities and Local Government

My Lords, when Ruth Kelly was appointed as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the Prime Minister wrote:

"I would like to see a radical, devolutionary White Paper".

This White Paper has been heralded for some time. The noble Baroness has just said that it will appear later in the year. The last time I asked her this question, it was going to appear in July. Do we have any idea when the White Paper will be produced and what it will encompass? An enormous number of things are being discussed with regard to structure. How much will be included?

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, the new Secretary of State has made it absolutely clear that she is as committed to our White Paper to improve local government as was her predecessor. David Miliband has extended the dialogue to many county councils, district councils and chief executives, and the dialogue continues. The noble Baroness would not expect a new Secretary of State to rush into making a decision or giving a timetable before she has had time to continue the dialogue and consider the options. So while we do not have a timetable, there is complete certainty that we will have a White Paper.

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

My Lords, I remind the House that I am a member of a local authority in Lancashire which is one of those areas, if rumours are to be believed, where the Government are intent on imposing a costly and disruptive local government reorganisation which will, as far as one can see, do nothing to improve services. Would it not be better for the Government to concentrate more on sorting out some of their own departments, such as the Home Office and Defra, which appear to be suffering from endemic, shambolic inefficiency, than on imposing this rather Maoist concept of permanent revolution and permanent reorganisation on everybody else?

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

That is rather strong language, my Lords. I shall be rather boring and say, once again, that no decision has been taken about the restructuring of local government. I will say, however, that this is not a conspiracy in any sense to impose anything on local authorities; it is not a conspiracy to abolish counties or districts. It is about creating better services for the future. It is a dialogue in which we have complete unanimity with our local government partners. We want local government to be fit; we want it to be more transparent so that people understand what it does and are more likely to vote for it. We want it to deliver the sort of services that meet the challenges of, say, an ageing population or climate change.

Photo of Lord Harris of Haringey Lord Harris of Haringey Labour

My Lords, is it not the case that whenever local government reorganisation is proposed, the county councils mount a vigorous defence of their existing powers, duties and responsibilities. I hope that my noble friend will agree that in any future changes in the structure of local government, the principle must be what will deliver most effectively the best services for local communities.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

Yes, my Lords, that is absolutely right. There are a number of views on the value of two-tier authorities. Some are very effective and some less so, partnership is more difficult, and so on. We are looking at this debate objectively and listening extremely closely to what people are saying. It has been and will continue to be a very wide debate.

Photo of Lord Dixon-Smith Lord Dixon-Smith Shadow Minister (the Environment), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

My Lords, the noble Baroness will not be aware that I once served on a body called the south-east regional economic planning council. When the time came for that body to be abolished, I have to say that nobody noticed its passing. I suspect the same might apply to the regional structure that we have at present.

For the 40 years that I have been involved in local government, we have been involved in a process of constant ferment as governments have tried to reform local government with a view to improving local services. I find it remarkable that the 40-year process has stopped. Has the Minister any idea how much money has been expended by local authorities not on providing services to their local community but on defending their structures and services for that entire period?

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, I am sure that Conservative Members would notice if the regional assemblies were abolished. Many of the changes that we have seen over the past 20 years have been driven by Conservative Administrations. We are not in the business of change for change's sake. There is an argument about the best way of reducing inequalities between regions—because there is no doubt that some of our regions are still lagging behind, just as some of our largest cities are lagging behind their European counterparts. That is the task that we have to address. We are using our partnership with local government to get it right.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Shadow Minister (Food & Rural Affairs), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

My Lords, how does the Minister balance the concept of the Government trying to push governance and service provision as locally as possible with trying to do away with county councils, which are actually the nearest source compared with regional government?

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, we are not in the business of abolishing county councils. No decision has been taken about restructuring and any future shape. We all agree—I know that the party opposite agrees with me, as does the Local Government Association—that the more we can get decisions taken at local level in neighbourhoods by local agencies, the more effective it often is for local people. Local government is extremely committed to passing on power through local strategic partnerships, not least because it knows that the voluntary and statutory sectors can be more effective at that level.