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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:53 am on 24th February 2009.

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Photo of Angela Browning Angela Browning Conservative, Tiverton and Honiton 9:53 am, 24th February 2009

I am delighted to serve under your stewardship, Mrs. Humble. I apologise for my phone playing the "Flower Duet" from Lakmé a few minutes ago.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend Mr. Simpson for securing a debate on this important matter. Although it is a dry subject, it has gathered the interest of people in my constituency and, I believe, across Devon. People write letters to the local weekly newspaper about it. They do not think that it is just something for the politicians to deal with, but feel passionately about it.

As we know, East Devon district council sought a judicial review to challenge what was happening. I shall quote from the determination of Mr. Justice Cranston on the matter. He found that in deciding that it could consult on only a single proposal—that is, unitary Devon—the boundary committee had

"misdirected itself as to what it could publish, consult on and propose to the Secretary of State".

What I would like to come out of today's debate is an explanation from the Minister as to why the boundary committee "misdirected itself".

The exercise has been a total waste of time, money and the passion of the public and the many district councils in Devon, such as the two district councils in my patch, which are doing a good job. East Devon, which sought the judicial review, is an exemplary council. It ticks the Government's boxes and is one of the few councils in the country that has not carried any debt for decades. It is extremely well run—of course, it goes without saying that it is Conservative-run.

I know that the Minister understands the issues very well. I went with delegations to see him when we went through a similar exercise just over a year ago. The proposal on the table at the time was that the city of Exeter should take itself out of Devon county and become a unitary authority. The way in which the exercise was managed gave me cause for concern.

The Minister was new in post at the time, and I believe that his experience in the Treasury probably helped to bring some common sense to the exercise, and the proposal was rejected. None the less, what particularly concerned me was that, despite the fact that the proposal was rejected, when I tabled parliamentary questions to try to identify just what the outcome was of the consultation—that is, who had wanted Exeter to be a unitary and who had not—I was denied the information in all kinds of spurious replies from the Government. It was almost as if the Official Secrets Act applied and there was such high security in the national interest that nobody could be told who was in favour and who was not.

We happen to know that an overwhelming majority of people were against Exeter becoming a unitary, for the reason that Devon is a huge, sparsely populated county. Torbay and Plymouth already have unitary status, so if Exeter were taken out, we would be left with a rag-tag, bobtail county that would struggle to provide services.

The Secretary of State should quickly intervene on a serious matter arising from the proposal that we recently considered, which is the one on which Mr. Justice Cranston commented that, in seeking to make further changes, the boundary committee "misdirected itself". Mr. Justice Cranston said that

"what must happen is that the Boundary Committee should consider with care whether it would be right to make further alternative proposals for Devon. If it were to decide that that course were appropriate, it would need to comply with the statutory requirements, including that under section 6(4) of consulting on such further proposals".

Again, I would like an answer from the Minister. In his judgment, should the boundary committee start all over again in the light of Mr. Justice Cranston's determination, or should it do the common-sense thing and, frankly, leave things as they are? It is clear from the previous consultation on the city of Exeter and from this latest fiasco that, on many counts, it would be unwise to change the status quo. Furthermore, there is an economic argument for retaining the status quo. It is certainly the view among the population of Devon who would be affected that the status quo is serving them very well indeed.