[Mrs. Joan Humble in the Chair] — Unitary Authorities

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:50 am on 24th February 2009.

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Photo of John Healey John Healey Minister of State (Department of Communities and Local Government) (Local Government) 10:50 am, 24th February 2009

I congratulate Mr. Simpson on securing the debate. He has certainly been persistent in pursuing his argument, through debate in the House and letters to the Department—and in the queue in the Tea Room. I note that he has marshalled his battalions for this debate in bigger numbers than in previous debates, and I congratulate him on that. I am grateful to him for not doing so in the corridors, where he often ambushes me—but perhaps I speak too soon.

I recognise the high level of interest in the subject, and the concern in some quarters about the process. I also recognise the uncertainty that it creates for local government staff. I am keen to ensure that we put an end to the process as soon as we can. However, because of what is at stake, I must be up front about it and say that I am not prepared to walk away from the process, as it has the potential to offer real benefits for his constituents and for the residents of Norfolk, Suffolk and Devon.

The debate is timely—it is the third of a series—not least because we recently agreed a new deadline for the boundary committee to advise Ministers, and because we are only weeks away from the implementation of nine new single-level councils in other parts of the country. In those areas, it is becoming clearer what the general benefits of unitary councils can be. I have to tell the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk—and Robert Neill, given what he said at the end of his speech—that we are considering the proposals only because they were originally submitted to us by elected councils and the elected leaders of those councils of the areas concerned. Unlike previous reorganisations of local government, it is not centrally driven by the Government or a blueprint devised at the national level and imposed locally.