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Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West) : I do not want to delay the House in any way, because I hope to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I do not think that the Minister is being at all honest with the House. When he answered my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, East in Committee, he almost misled him by the way in which he said that he would introduce amendments to reflect what my hon. Friend said. As I shall show if I catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the amendments in no way meet the points put to
Column 751the Minister by Dundee district council, my hon. Friend and myself. The Minister knows as well as I do that his father is still very disappointed about what he is doing here tonight.
Mr. Stewart : My father always expresses his views with great lucidity. May I say to the hon. Members for Dundee, East and Dundee, West that I do not accept that general criticism ? I accept, of course, that the Government have not agreed to what was proposed by Dundee district council, but in essence we have agreed to all the proposals put forward by the district council except those in relation to Strathmartine, which the community council indicated it wanted to remain in a rural authority.
Mr. McAllion : The Minister knows very well that the Scottish Crop Research Institute at Milnefield is one of the areas which, as I clearly explained in Committee, has been excluded from Dundee--as has the Tay estuary nature reserve. A whole series of areas that were raised with the Minister in Committee have been kept out of Dundee, and very few concessions have been made to the case that I put on behalf of Dundee district council.
Mr. Stewart : I am not disputing the geographical facts with the hon. Gentleman ; I am saying that I believe that, in the face of conflicting arguments, we have responded to the case put by the City of Dundee district council. We have not entirely accepted the case that has been advanced but we have conceded that the case--which I thought was the most important point--for Balgarthno and the industrial estate there was valid. It is clear from the amendments that the Government have listened.
There is a detailed amendment to the boundary in relation to Luss and there is a major change to the Government's proposals in relation to Central region. We decided that there should be three councils in Central region-- Clackmannan, Falkirk and Stirling--based on the existing district council boundaries. That was an extremely difficult decision to make.
It was clear that the Government's original proposal to link Clackmannan, Falkirk and Kincardine was not generally acceptable. We therefore decided that Kincardine-on-Forth should go back into Fife. We then faced a choice between one council or three for Central region.
I emphasise that the fact that we decided in favour of three councils was not a criticism of Central regional council, which has many achievements to its credit. However, there is no doubt that the district councils--and Falkirk and Clackmannan in particular--put forward a very pragmatic case to the effect that they would be able to supply the necessary services to their people, if they were on their own, by co-operating with neighbouring councils and with the private and voluntary sectors.
Mr. Connarty : The Minister must realise that I would express concern because the original amendment, which was tabled by my hon. Friends and me and which was debated and discussed at great length in Committee, proposed that Stirling and Clackmannan should be together ; that was the recommendation of the Wheatley
Column 752commission for the district authority without the education and social services functions allocated to it. That was the proposal put forward in Committee.
The Government must explain at greater length why they rejected the two- council solution. If it was not to be one council, I cannot understand why the Minister should diminish the size and resource base of local government in Stirling, of which I was previously the leader, and of Clackmannan, which I know very well, to the point where we think it will not be viable in the long term.
Mr. Stewart : I fully accept that there is a balanced argument here. However, the view expressed by the hon. Member for Falkirk, East is not the view that Clackmannan district council put to the Government. That council put forward the view that
"As a unitary authority the District Council would continue . . . maintaining a flexible and responsive approach to decision-making and internal management."
It stated that the council
"has enthusiastically embraced the concept of enabling and working in partnership."
It added that that
"has not been solely in response to the Government's view, but was more a result of an appreciation of the needs and aspirations of the area and its people and the need to reach pragmatic, practical solutions which involved working with other interested parties and service providers."
That was the view of Clackmannan district council which, as the House is aware, is not run by the Conservative party. It is a Labour authority. It believed that it could deliver the necessary services as an enabling council.
Clackmannan district council concluded that it believed that "it is uniquely placed to carry this structure of local government forward as a unitary authority and to build on it as a model of quality local government for the future."
Those are not the words of the Scottish Office. They are the words of Clackmannan district council. I accept entirely the point made by the hon. Member for Falkirk, East that different arguments apply and that reasonable people can take a different view. The view that we eventually took was that the question about Central regional council turned on the Clackmannan case. We eventually agreed to accept the view put forward by Clackmannan district council.
Mr. George Robertson : Does the Minister agree that all that verbiage has nothing to do with the real point ? The way in which Central region was divided up had everything to do with a vain attempt at keeping Stirling district as a future fiefdom for the Minister of State, Department of Employment, the hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth). The logical way out of the conundrum in Stirling was to link Clackmannan and Stirling districts together into a functioning local authority. The fact that we now have three unitary authorities in the centre of Scotland has everything to do with an attempt at gerrymandering the map and nothing to do with real local government.
Mr. Stewart : I am very surprised that the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that Labour-led Clackmannan district council is somehow part of a plot involving Tory gerrymandering. I have read out the position of Clackmannan district council--the wee county. Its position is perfectly acceptable. Of course, we had to consider the decision very carefully-- [Interruption.] Opposition Members laugh, but I am saying that, given a difficult choice, the Government eventually accepted the case of Labour-led Clackmannan district council.
Column 753I want now to consider the Government amendments in relation to the split between East Lothian and Midlothian. That again, was a matter of judgment as several considerations pointed in both directions. We received very strong representations from East Lothian which, again, is a Labour-led district council. It argued that it should be an independent council. If Opposition Members are saying that the Labour leaders of Eastwood-- [Hon. Members :-- "Eastwood ?"]--of East Lothian ; that was to make sure that Opposition Members are awake.
Mr. Home Robertson : I must point out to the Minister that there is a substantial distinction between Eastwood and East Lothian. I am grateful for what the Minister is saying and, above all, I welcome the fact that the Government have accepted defeat for their original outrageous proposal which would have split the historic county of East Lothian between Livingston and the eastern borders. However, people in East Lothian very much value the quality services provided for them directly now, not only by East Lothian district council, but also by Lothian regional council. Will the Minister undertake to allow the new, comparatively small single-tier authority of East Lothian to budget to continue to directly deliver that full range of local services that the people value so highly at present ?
Mr. Stewart : Yes, the hon. Gentleman and I have discussed these matters. Given the representations that we have received from East Lothian district council in response to the questions that I asked at the meeting that the hon. Gentleman and I attended, we are convinced that East Lothian can deliver the services of a unitary authority to its people effectively in terms of service quality and costs. The final Government amendment in the group represents a change in Renfrewshire which will be of particular interest to the hon. Members for Paisley, South (Mr. McMaster) and for Paisley, North (Mrs. Adams). The amendment moves the Ralston ward from East Renfrewshire authority to Renfrewshire. Both hon. Members will welcome that proposal.
Mr. Gordon McMaster (Paisley, South) : From the original proposals for Renfrewshire, all the areas except Barrhead, Neilston and Uplawmoor, have now been taken back into what was West Renfrewshire authority. That also means that the new East Renfrewshire authority, as proposed by the Minister, will comprise exactly his parliamentary constituency boundaries. He knows that boundary well. I raised the matter with him in Committee. On 28 April, I received a reply
Mr. McMaster : It is short and relevant, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In a parliamentary answer on 28 April, the Minister said that the A727, which is a boundary listed in the Bill, is no longer a classified route, and when it was a classified route it ran from Clarkston to Cathcart.
Mr. Graham rose
I shall sum up the Government's amendments by saying that all of them respond to genuine concerns that have been expressed on a non-party political basis. On that basis
Mr. Graham : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I accept that we must sit here all night listening to the Minister. However, he has not mentioned the fact that a democratic referendum took place in his constituency
Sir David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale) rose
Sir David Steel : The Secretary of State has not dealt with the other amendments on the list of selection, including my amendment No. 5. I am grateful to him for giving way because it saves me from trying to make a speech, which will particularly delight my hon. Friends.
May I further entice the Secretary of State to accept my simple amendment No. 5 ? As he will know, the co-ordinating committee which is preparing for the new authority of the borders believes that its title should be the Scottish Borders Council to bring it into line with Scottish Borders Enterprise and the Scottish Borders Tourist Board. I hope that he will agree.
Mr. Stewart : I am sorry, but I must disappoint the right hon. Gentleman. I do not agree with the amendment--first, because there may need to be a longer period of consultation ; and, secondly, because the new council will be able to change its name to the one suggested by the right hon. Gentleman if it wishes to do so. On balance, that is a sensible way to proceed.
Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Cromarty and Skye) : I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute briefly, given the number of hon. Members who wish to contribute to the debate. In particular, I shall address my remarks to amendment No. 169 which stands in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan), who is beside me.
I underscore what the Minister said at the Dispatch Box. By prior agreement --I am grateful to all those who were involved in that agreement--we now have the first opportunity in the proceedings, given that there was no highland Member serving on the Committee, to discuss what is in many ways the most radical boundary proposal for local government across the whole of Scotland. Under the proposal, all the existing local government structure in the Highland region at present will be dismantled and replaced by a single council which will cover half the land mass of Scotland--it will be bigger than Wales and, indeed, almost as big as Belgium.
I know that both the Minister and the Secretary of State for Scotland have been good enough to meet delegations from both sides of the argument. My other hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston) is also present and will be hoping to catch your
Column 755eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as will my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland, given the debate that has taken place. I make it clear from the outset--although the Minister and the Secretary of State are aware of this--that my hon. Friend and I speak from a north highland perspective, in particular Caithness and Sutherland and Ross and Cromarty, and we will be recommending a two-council option. My other hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber will wish to speak against that and in favour of what is presently proposed by the Scottish Office. In so doing, he will be representing the views of one of the districts in my constituency, Skye and Lochalsh, which shares the view put forward by the Government. That district does not share the view that I am putting forward this evening, although the other two districts in my constituency, Ross and Cromarty and that part of Inverness district which falls within my parliamentary seat, share that view, as do the Caithness and Sutherland district councils.
I am against the single Highland council that has been proposed, basically, for reasons of gut instinct. It is much too large and, accordingly, it will be much too remote. It as simple as that. It has been argued by some-- indeed, some hon. Members in the Labour party have argued the point ; the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) has argued it elsewhere-- that, in the highland context, the opposition to what the Government are proposing is not as it may have been in certain other areas, but it is a defence of the status quo. I do not agree with that. I am in favour of single-tier local authorities. Like many others in the highlands, I viewed the introduction of the Bill as a great opportunity to bring local government closer to people and to simplify it. In my constituency experience, it is clear that people do not adequately distinguish, or understand sufficiently well the distinction, between the functions carried out by districts and the functions carried out by the existing Highland regional council. Therefore, I do not accept the status quo as a defence.
In asking the Secretary of State to think again, I shall argue a few points. First, I refer to public opinion. As the Scottish Office knows, the Association of Highland Districts commissioned a public opinion poll which showed that no less than 83 per cent. of 1,000 respondents across the highlands were against the imposition of a single Highland council. In a parliamentary answer to me yesterday, the Secretary of State confirmed that almost exactly the same proportion--83 per cent.--of those who had written to the Scottish Office were against what was being proposed and were in favour of the two-council option. Indeed, with an entire year at its disposal, and with the backing of the Highland region, the Scottish Office has been unable to amass more than 51 respondents in favour of what is proposed.
Secondly, I refer to the cost. There will be savings, whatever happens. Under the proposal, we are talking about abolishing eight district councils and having only one local authority for the whole area, so there will be savings, whether there is one Highland council or two. The Association of Highland Districts estimates its savings to be some £2 million per annum.
Column 756Thirdly, as we heard in the earlier debate, the proposal is completely inconsistent with what the Scottish Office is bringing forward elsewhere in Scotland. How can we have one local authority with fewer than 50,000 people in one part of Scotland, yet another local authority with more than 200,000 people for the whole of the highlands ? It does not make sense.
Fourthly, I refer to a strategic overview. We speak against the backdrop of the highlands having secured objective 1 funding. We are all pleased about that. That is an example of a single authority being able to provide a strategic overview and argue its case not only at the national level but at the European Union level, too. I must point out that the campaign for objective 1 status involved more than Highland regional council ; it involved other local authorities both to the north, the west and the south. If there were two Highland councils, that degree of co-operation would be essential. Officially, Highlands and Islands Enterprise has come out in favour of one local authority, but its constituent parts, the local enterprise companies--including Ross and Cromarty Enterprise in my constituency, which favours more than one local authority--are by no means unanimous.
Fifthly, I refer to the quality of democracy. If the proposal goes ahead, how will the authorities live up to the ideals and aspirations that the Secretary of State set out in the White Paper ? There will be a massive democratic deficit. We will be getting rid of scores of local councillors in terms of the total number for the highlands. Even going to the top end of the scale in terms of the number of councillors that there might be, I cannot see how one authority can effectively deliver useful, worthwhile, and genuinely local democracy with a certain number of councillors when set against areas that would be the size of wards, as well as the range of functions that they would have to administer.
Finally, we tabled the amendment tonight almost in a probing sense to find out whether there had been any movement of minds in the Scottish Office, and also to find out whether the Government might yet be amenable to further consideration, with a view to further changes at a later stage in another place.
After the local elections, it was made clear that the Scottish Office was into listening and trying to work with the grain of public opinion. Here is a good issue where the Scottish Office can do just that. It is not even a party political issue in the highlands, as all parties have the divisions of opinion which are clear from my party's ranks tonight. I hope that the Secretary of State will think again and will indicate that when he winds up.
Mr. Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan) : I shall speak to amendments Nos. 289 and 290, and I start by congratulating Clackmannan and Falkirk district councils on securing what they wanted for their respective areas.
Clackmannan waged a spirited, imaginative and energetic campaign which built on the high regard in which it is held by the community. Falkirk district, for its part, never swayed from its view that a unitary authority based in the main town in the district would serve the people better than a council administered from Stirling. I suppose that the hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) is satisfied with the outcome of his campaign since he has won an authority based on the boundaries of his own constituency, along with the villages of Cowie,
Column 757Fallin and Plean from my constituency. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman's cup of ambrosia will be overflowing, and it may become a poisoned chalice. The recent local government results showed that Labour was a clear 13 points ahead of all Tories--both independent and official--compared with only 3.6 per cent. in 1990. The amendments deal with four authorities which currently deliver services to my constituency. For the benefit of the House, I should explain that Clackmannan county constituency covers the whole of Clackmannan district, which has 12 wards in it, and which, in turn, has six Central region wards. On top of that, there are another four district wards--two in Stirling and two in Falkirk--which comprise in turn another two wards of Central region.
When the composition of the new unitary authorities was being considered, one can imagine my surprise when the proposals which appeared first in the White Paper and then in the Bill made such a dog's breakfast of the Central region area. Before the publication of the White Paper, I went to see the Secretary of State to express my concern at the proposed authority, which was rumoured, of Falkirk and Clackmannan districts.
Mr. Lang indicated assent .
Mr. O'Neill : The Secretary of State nods his head. I pointed out to the right hon. Gentleman that the two areas were not linked and that they were separated by the River Forth. He did not know at the time that Kincardine bridge, which is the nearest crossing of the Forth to the two areas, may be in Falkirk in the south, but it lands in Kincardine--hence the name, I suppose--in the north, in Fife. I can only imagine that my brief geography lesson had a salutary effect on St. Andrew's house, since that part of Fife was then put into the new authority. While the Secretary of State had an excuse--after all, he was educated at an English public school--the Minister benefited from the excellent education service which was provided by the old Fife county and therefore had no excuse. Only after the debacle of the Committee, where the Minister could not guarantee a majority for the defence of the clause, did the Government see reason and return Kincardine to Fife. That, of course, resulted in the collapse of the Falkirk and Clackmannan option. I do not want to take up the time of the House with Falkirk, as my two colleagues who represent the bulk of that district may wish to do so. It would be churlish of Clackmannan to say that it was only the Government's desire to create a Stirling authority, or the wrong-headedness of their aim to lump it with Falkirk, which resulted in what we have at present. Although it has resulted in the creation of a unitary authority with a population of about 47,000, it must be said that, since 1980--since when there has been overall Labour control--a series of outstanding councillors have worked with excellent chief executives to provide a local authority that has been imaginative and cost-effective in delivering services.
Every council house has both central heating and double glazing, and while Clackmannan may not be the only authority to offer a mortgage rescue scheme, it certainly is the smallest in Britain to do so.
We have heard about economies of scale. We have not heard about critical mass, but my hon. Friend the Member
Column 758for Fife, Central (Mr. McLeish) could have applied it in his arguments against Clackmannan. We are told that somehow there is a size below which an authority cannot fall. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central is paying attention to this point because it is central to a reasonable assessment of the chances of the authority taking root and giving services.
Under virtually every criterion which one could choose to apply to the size of a service-delivering body, Clackmannan seems to be below it. As for its being a district authority and providing the range of services which districts are required to do, size has not been a disadvantage so far. Indeed, it has been able to secure leveraged financing arrangements for a number of projects which, through input from outside agencies in both the public and private sectors, have realised ambitious schemes.
I shall mention only one which is contained in the excellent publicity material that has been provided for the debate. An investment of £100,000 by Clackmannan district council in the Tillicoultry urban renewal project has attracted support from other agencies to the order of some £5 million.
The authority has become noted for its pragmatism and its willingness to work with the private and public sectors. There are those who say that such a small authority will not have the resources or expertise to operate a proper education service or to make adequate social work provision. I have to say that the jury is still out on those charges. The problems certainly would have been far greater had it not been for the excellent facilities and staff which it will inherit from Central region.
It seems that, in the restructuring, Central region will be swept aside. It, too, fought a hard and straight campaign to defend its record. Unfortunately, such was the Government's commitment to creating the Tory island in the central belt around Stirling that Central was sacrificed. But why did the Government think that they could carve up Central and preserve Fife ?
The two authorities are roughly the same size and they are coterminous in a number of areas. I realise that the answer is not simple and certainly there are problems with which Central region has had to deal with over the years. For a start, the name is not particularly attractive and the officers and councillors of Central region, in adopting the heart of Scotland concept as a defence, gave an indication of that.
There were other problems. Certainly in my area there was a view that insufficient attention had been paid to road development in Clackmannan and that the administration was too remote. It must be said that the news about substantial road improvements, the opening of local offices and the attempts to create local advisory groups was welcome, but I suspect that it will, sadly, be too late to mend the damage that has been caused by bruising disagreements on planning matters.
In the early stages of its life, Central region had a decade of apparent inertia and indifference. As one who has represented a constituency within Central region for the past 15 years, I must say that, if we had had the purposeful dedication and fight that we have had in the past five years for resources and services by Central region in the preceding 10 years, we might have seen a different authority emerging from the review procedure.
I am happy, however, that last night the Labour group of Central region for the first time appointed two members
Column 759from Clackmannan to be the leaders of the planning and economic development functions. I recognise that the region has attempted to bridge what has become a gap with some of the areas. That must be put on record as evidence of Central region's good intent and of the fact that it is a shame that the region will not feature in what goes ahead.
As the debates of previous months have shown and those during the Bill's remaining progress will show, the changes that we are discussing are, frankly, neither wanted nor needed. I am conscious that the people of Cowie and Fallin and Plean, for whom Tory politicians are as relevant as the dodo or the dinosaur, are in danger of being consigned to a right-wing- controlled Stirling district, if the Government's assumptions about the electoral outcome are correct.
I am greatly worried about fragile communities, where one in three of the men is out of work, being sacrificed as some sort of adventure playground, which is what we would have in a Stirling unitary authority. The resolution of that problem is not to be found by splitting that part of Stirling off from Stirling. The resolution of a problem of that character would be the combination of Stirling and Clackmannan in one authority, where there could be a proper mixture of industry, commerce and the like.
Nothing said in Committee or this evening and nothing that is likely to be said in the days ahead will alleviate the fears and anxieties of my Catholic constituents in Clackmannan district, whose children will have to go to St. Modan's in Stirling--outwith the area where they can exercise any democratic control--to a school to which they will have to travel and for which the provision is unclear in a number of respects. I raised the matter on the day that the White Paper was published, but we have yet to receive the sort of assurances that will satisfy that community in my constituency. While I congratulate my colleagues in Clackmannan on their achievements and wish them well, they will now have to prove the doomsters wrong. When Labour--in office--looks at local government, it will direct its attention to authorities like Clackmannan and Falkirk. If the administrative hurdles that lie in the way of change are overcome, the hardest thing about the changes might be that those small and potentially under-resourced authorities will have to make them work. If the Bill is enacted and they have to face that challenge, I can only wish them all the best. Their problems may well be greater, however, than any of us assume at present.
I would like to be proved wrong, but I fear that the Government's intentions in creating a Tory Stirling will force everything else into second place. That is why I can give only a mixed welcome to the success of my colleagues in Falkirk and Clackmannan in achieving what they wanted. I wish them well and will work with them to achieve the best, but on balance I am a little pessimistic.
The amendments concern the establishment of Banff and Buchan as a unitary authority within the new set-up, taking it out of the proposed Aberdeenshire option which
Column 760is favoured by the Government. There are a number of arguments behind the amendments and I shall deal with them as quickly as possible.
First, public opinion is overwhelmingly on the side of the amendments. In a survey of 3,332 residents in Banff and Buchan, 93.6 per cent. were in favour of the Banff and Buchan option. The options presented were either Banff and Buchan or Aberdeenshire, as proposed by the Government. Among the remaining 6.4 per cent., there were more "don't knows" than people who supported the Aberdeenshire option. In the regional elections, a week past Thursday, there was a further test of opinion on the options because, in the Cruden, Ugie and Boddam ward in my constituency, a sitting district councillor, who supports the Aberdeenshire option, ran against a sitting SNP regional councillor, who supports the Banff and Buchan option. I do not pretend that that was the only issue in the campaign, but it was none the less an interesting test of opinion. The sitting district councillor came bottom of the poll and was even beaten by the Conservative candidate, which was no mean achievement in my constituency.
On that test of opinion, there has been a resounding vote in favour of the Banff and Buchan option. The community councils in the constituency are in favour of that option ; 17 out of 18 of the sitting district councillors and eight out of nine of the newly elected regional councillors are in favour, as is, of course, the Member of Parliament.
Therefore, as far as we can ascertain, public opinion is overwhelmingly in favour of a unitary authority in Banff and Buchan. The Minister had the grace to acknowledge that fact in Committee. In his remarks on the amendments he made it clear that he did not dispute the fact that public opinion favoured the Banff and Buchan option. Two months ago, when a cross- party delegation from the Banff and Buchan campaign met the Minister, he acknowledged the public opinion argument, but wanted to see some detailed financial estimates. As he can confirm, he was presented with a detailed assessment within a week from Richard Blackburn, the chief executive of Banff and Buchan district council.
That assessment considered the capital and revenue implications of the Banff and Buchan option compared with the Government's Aberdeenshire proposal. It was no macro-aggregate garbage in, garbage out, model, where one plugs in certain numbers and, given the assumptions, gets certain numbers back out. It was a detailed estimate--a detailed look at the proposed committee structure, the cost of amalgamating computer systems and the travel costs of the various options. Each and every aspect of the finances of the two proposals was examined.
The Blackburn report concluded that there would be an immediate £5 million saving on capital costs with the Banff and Buchan option and a stream of revenue savings, equivalent to a £25 saving in the council tax in the district. Significantly for other hon. Members who might be interested, there would also be savings in the other two component authorities concerned--Kincardine and Deeside and Gordon. As far as I am aware, that was the only detailed financial assessment of the proposals. It was not a global overview, but a detailed blow-by-blow assessment of the proposals' implications and it is a very powerful document.
What is wrong with the Aberdeenshire authority proposal ? It has attracted very little public support. In the original consultation document only five responses were in
Column 761favour of that option, compared with 63 in favour of Banff and Buchan. The Aberdeenshire option therefore has little or no support. However, the hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Kynoch) has given it support and caused great offence in my constituency, given that in the Standing Committee he was able to make a case--with cross -party support--on grounds of public opinion for the adjustment of boundaries that immediately concern his constituency.
There was some annoyance in my constituency about the fact that he professed in The Press and Journal today his opposition to Banff and Buchan as a unitary authority. If the Government maintain their position, which is totally against public opinion in my constituency, fingers will be pointed in the direction of the hon. Gentleman as someone who put a spoke in the wheel of a proposal that has overwhelming public support.
Aberdeenshire is a doughnut option--not because the hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside supports it, but because, like a Polo mint, it will have a hole in the middle. The proposed authority will have no centre, because its natural centre is the city of Aberdeen. The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) made an excellent point in Committee--to the irritation of some of his colleagues--when he demanded to know of the Minister where he thought the headquarters of the proposed Aberdeenshire authority would be. Any detailed assessment would prove that there are no suitable chambers or headquarters within the proposed Aberdeenshire area equipped to cope with an authority of 46 members, who on a reasonable estimate would require 6,300 sq m of accommodation at their headquarters. Currently, in Aberdeenshire there are a number of headquarters and district councils. Viewmont in Stonehaven accommodates 12 members of Kincardine and Deeside district council. Gordon House in Inverurie copes with 16 members of Gordon district council. The biggest of the current headquarters is county hall in Banff in my constituency which, in the old Banffshire authority, coped with 30 members. But none of the current headquarters buildings could remotely cope with the sort of council that is being suggested in the Government's current proposals.
That means that the first act of the new Aberdeenshire authority, if it comes to fruition, will be a straight choice of either establishing its headquarters in the present regional headquarters of Woodhill house in Aberdeen, outside its own local authority area ; or, alternatively, building a purpose-built, high-cost new local authority headquarters somewhere in the new Aberdeenshire. I cannot believe that anybody would seriously argue that the new authority will endear itself to the population either by headquartering outside its own area or by embarking on a high- cost building scheme. It is a nonsense proposal.
The authority area, as suggested by the Government, encompasses 630,000 hectares. It is only marginally smaller in size than Dumfries and Galloway and, under the current proposals, only Highland is bigger in size than these two. While Highland and Dumfries and Galloway are existing regional councils, the proposal would involve the creation of a new authority of that enormous size.
As I understand it, the argument in favour of Aberdeenshire put by the hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside is for a strong buffer authority around the city of Aberdeen. Yet Aberdeenshire without Banff and Buchan would still have a population of 125,520--not just a substantial authority in terms of the Government map, but
Column 762much bigger than the authorities around the city of Edinburgh, for example. That is bigger than West Lothian, Midlothian and East Lothian. Absolutely crucial to the calculation is the fact that both Gordon and Kincardine and Deeside have rapidly growing populations. In the comprehensive submissions that have been put forward by the Banff and Buchan campaign committee, a number of examples have been given to demonstrate why Banff and Buchan--although it has some similarities--is quite different in complexion from the two authorities, Gordon and Kincardine and Deeside, with which it is proposed to lump it. One difference is obviously population change. From 1981 to 2001, both Gordon and Kincardine and Deeside are projected to be rapidly growing population areas, with growth rates of 30 per cent. and 40 per cent. In contrast, Banff and Buchan has a relatively stable population, with a projected population growth of only 5 per cent.
Figures in the census for commuting demonstrate the difference between the authorities. In Banff and Buchan only 6 per cent. of the working population commute, presumably, to the city of Aberdeen. In Gordon and in Kincardine and Deeside, the percentages of commuters are 35 per cent. and 32 per cent. The Government are proposing to lump together two fast-growing commuting authorities with an authority which has a more stable, non-commuting population. The tensions implicit in that arrangement, with the natural demands for capital resources of the two authorities which have growing populations and will require increased capital costs, are evident for all to see.
I suspect that we could approach the local government map in terms of unitary authorities in two ways. According to the proposal that has been put forward, Banff and Buchan would be by no means the smallest unitary authority on the map--certainly not after the new changes have been made. In fact, it would be only the tenth smallest. It would be bigger than Orkney and Shetland, Western Isles, Stirling, Moray, East Renfrew, Clackmannan, East Lothian and Mid-Lothian. I do not think that the Government can hold the argument that a population area with gross domestic product per capita of £10, 000--which is very high in Scottish terms-- and a substantial economically active and enterprising population is not capable of sustaining a unitary authority.
The choice in terms of unitary authorities seems clear. The Government could go for a strategic unit which would allow local authorities to have strategic planning roles. If it did that, the natural authority would not be Aberdeenshire ; it would be the Grampian region. Alternatively, it could go with the argument which tries to meet community interests--a unitary authority that commands the loyalty and support of the people who live in that authority. If that is the path which the Minister wants to go down, there can be no gainsaying the fact that the appropriate unit in the north- east corner of Scotland is Banff and Buchan.
In its 20 years of existence as a district, Banff and Buchan has commanded an enormous degree of loyalty from its population--as has been demonstrated by the number of people who have rallied to the cause of seeing it survive as a unitary authority. I hope very much that the
Column 763Minister will be able to give some indication that the Government will now pay some attention to the force of public opinion in my constituency.