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Mr. Michael Stern (Bristol, North-West): The hon. Gentleman is too hasty in agreeing with the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Ms Primarolo). He might like to study the details that the Government have announced, which show that there will be nothing other than minor, cosmetic change to the external boundary of Bristol.
Mr. Dobson: I understand that, unless the law is changed, if the Government ask the commission to consider any local government boundaries, the commission can decide for itself the extent or otherwise of the boundary changes. I am subject to correction by the Minister when he has received his information from the civil servants in the Box.
It is obvious that all candidates standing for election in Bristol would prefer the boundaries of Bristol to be wider than they are. The Labour council in Bristol accepts the proposition before us tonight, because it considers that it is confronted with Hobson's choice, so it is thanking the Lord for small mercies. It wants the powers returned to the city of Bristol, but it believes that the boundaries should be wider, so it accepts the best that is on offer. It is understandable that the Labour council in Bristol should accept what is on offer, but I do not think that that can possibly excuse either the commission or Ministers for proposing boundaries that are plainly ridiculous in the eyes of almost everyone concerned.
That is not the opinion only of the Labour party. I quote from the opinions of the Bristol chamber of commerce. It says that it is "of the view that local government in Avon has a critical role to play in providing the infrastructure necessary for promoting and maintaining economic prosperity- -in partnership where appropriate with the private sector."
It says that it is concerned that
"Bristol in its historic boundaries would not have the critical mass to tackle the key strategic issues such as transport and planning, or to deal with acute urban problems and inner city degeneration".
In other words, it believes that the boundaries of Bristol will make it difficult for those elected to run that great city to do their jobs.
The Bristol council of social services shares that view. The south western regional council of the Confederation of British Industry is, if anything, even more strongly of the view that the boundaries are wrong. It said:
"It is vital that any restructuring of Local Government should produce a system which will facilitate the process of wealth creation for the benefit of the South Western Region."
It went on to say, in its original evidence to the Local Government Commission, that it
"favoured a division of the existing County of Avon into three unitary authorities"--
not the four that the Government are proposing--
"with the boundaries of the existing City of Bristol expanded to encompass the economic and social unit generally regarded as comprising Bristol."
It said that that is an area much larger than the area covered by the city council. It was concerned that
"full and specific consultation should take place on the exact location of the boundaries for an enlarged Bristol."
After the commission's proposals were published, the CBI's response was that the commission's proposals did not meet those needs. It believed that
"restricting the proposed Bristol unitary authority to the existing boundaries of the City Council would seriously inhibit economic growth and result in further inner-city degradation."
Column 410Since the publication of the recommendations, it has canvassed its members again. The CBI has been asked by its members to stress their belief that the commission's proposals would have a "damaging effect". It goes on to say:
"We firmly believe that the Commission has not given sufficient weight to the economic interests of the area."
Mr. Curry: The hon. Gentleman has made a strong point about his belief that the boundaries for Bristol are inadequate. He has quoted at length business interests in Avon that have made the same point. Would the hon. Gentleman be kind enough to outline where he thinks the Bristol boundaries ought to lie and whether a Labour Government would review those boundaries with a view to creating a much wider Bristol? That is of great interest.
Mr. Dobson: My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Ms Primarolo) will deal with the question of where local people-- [Interruption.] I am in favour of the people of Bristol and their locally elected representatives deciding where the boundaries should be. I do not have any doubt--scarcely anybody has any doubt--that the boundaries that the Government are putting forward leave Bristol "cabinn'd, cribb'd, confin'd". They are ridiculous boundaries and we should not vote them through.
The boundaries are drawn in that way because this is a political fix. I predict that next week the Government will produce a political fix in the other direction with the proposals for York. Against the views of the people in the area, including businesses, they will create a greater York. This order will produce a lesser Bristol. Both those moves are for squalid party political purposes. That is why I urge my hon. Friends to vote against the order.
We believe that the Government are still cherry picking. They are bopping the counties that they do not like. We believe that they should insist on annual elections for the new authorities that are being established. We believe that there is some sensible concern about the cost of reorganisation.
Mr. Curry: The hon. Gentleman said that the Government should insist on annual elections. He just said that the local people should decide where their boundaries lie, although he did not make it clear whether the people outside a boundary should have the same views as those inside. The current rules mean that if a local council wishes, it can ask to have the electoral system changed. Why does the hon. Gentleman believe that in one instance the local people should decide and that in another instance the Government have to tell them? I do not understand.
Mr. Dobson: Some basic principles are involved. It may be that some people who are currently running a council would like the idea of not having an election for another 10 years. We believe that a third or a quarter of the members of every council should face an election each year. It is a sound approach and it works well in the areas in which it exists already. We believe that it should operate everywhere.
We are concerned that the estimates about the cost or savings that will result from the reorganisation are unsound. We are concerned about the inadequate protection that is provided for the staff, but, above all, we believe that the boundaries of Bristol are harmful. We share the views of those who believe that it will make it harder than is necessary in these difficult times for whoever is elected to represent the people of Bristol to do
Column 411their job of looking after the interests of the people of Bristol as well as promoting the economic and social well- being of that great city and the neighbouring areas.
We expect that the Government will vote this through, but we are confident that Labour councillors will be elected to represent the people of Bristol and the other areas. We are confident that they will do their best, but it would be better if they were not doing it in such difficult circumstances.
Sir John Cope (Northavon): I welcome the order and the changes that it puts in place. The commission made the right recommendations and the Government are right to agree to them. The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) made a partisan speech and I do not wish to do that. However, I must respond to what he said. I believe that the commission's recommendation for the boundaries of Bristol was correct and the Government are right to follow it because it is what the people of my constituency want. They do not want to be taken over by Bristol. If the hon. Gentleman wants to follow what the people want, he should know that they want to be governed by South Gloucestershire. They support the proposals, as does the Northavon chamber of commerce.
I want to look back, because it is important to consider why Avon has not worked well as a county and why it scored so low in the public consultation organised by the Local Government Commission. In the past I have criticised individual policies of Avon county council and its management, but I do not believe that the failure of the county to work is essentially a failure of the individuals involved--either the councillors or the officers--over the past 20 years. I believe that the fundamental flaw is the structure that was set up.
Administratively, it makes sense to govern the area around Bristol with the area of Bristol and that is why, in some cases, business people and others have viewed this in the way suggested by the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras. The truth is that it defied people's feelings of place. The clashes between Avon and the six districts in particular have been acute for that reason. There has been particularly intense rivalry between the county of Avon and the city of Bristol. It is important to remember that the city of Bristol was not merely a county borough. It had been a county in its own right since 1373--over 600 years. The Local Government Act 1972 deprived it of that status which it had had for so long.
These matters, which are in some respects emotional matters, may seem unimportant when compared with administrative logic, but they are not. The deepest lesson of Avon's short life is that we neglect those roots at our peril. They go very deep into the fabric of British life. Today, 20 years after Avon was set up, people do not say that they live in Avon. They say that they live in Bristol, or Chipping Sodbury near Bristol. They do not say that they live in the county of Avon because that is not how they feel. The Local Government Commission proved that more scientifically through the opinion polls which it conducted. The old counties may be Anglo-Saxon in origin, but they are not outmoded in people's minds.
At the same time, administrative problems remain. It is undoubtedly more difficult to govern the areas north of Bristol, which I represent, from Gloucester, which is 30 miles away, than from Bristol, which is on our doorstep
Column 412and far larger. That is why the right solution is the proposed unitary authorities. The new districts are an appropriate size and, apart from anything else, if Bristol were allowed against the wishes of the people concerned to extend its boundaries further north, it would leave a very awkward authority as a successor to South Gloucestershire. It is much more difficult to run a large, disparate authority with partial powers than it is a smaller, more geographically unified authority, with all the powers of local government.
There are messages, I may say to the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, for those who want to foist on us an elected regional tier of government. The inhabitants of my constituency do not think that they live in the same part of the country as Bournemouth, even if both places are in the south-west economic planning district. That feeling is even more evident when comparing the inhabitants of Newent, for instance, in the Forest of Dean, with those of Newquay. As I have said, it is important to consider the administrative complications of separate authorities in the relatively small area that has been the county of Avon. It is very important to stress that the new councils being set up under the order must work together on matters of common concern and, indeed, with neighbouring councils in the adjacent counties. I have every hope that that will work well, as my hon. Friend the Minister suggested when he moved the order. There will be four councils instead of seven and they will be fully competent bodies dealing as equals with one another. In particular, there will be no more duplication of functions and overlapping rivalries, which have bedevilled the relationships between Avon and the districts within it. Incidentally, they will also be seen to be directly accountable to the electorate, with fewer excuses that their authority did the right thing and some other authority did not. If one asked the man in the street whether powers fell under the county council or the district council, he would have an awful job replying accurately.
My hon. Friend the Minister referred to the question of what is a county and what is a district. For ceremonial purposes, South Gloucestershire will go back to being part of Gloucestershire. There has been some correspondence about the duties of the lord lieutenant. I think that it is right for Bristol to have a separate lord lieutenant, even though in the past, when it did, it was usually held in plurality with the lord lieutenancy of Gloucestershire. It has in the past also been held in plurality with the lord lieutenancy of Somerset, which would not be a bad idea now. Certainly, Bristol should have a separate position of lord lieutenant, even if it is held in plurality with one of the adjacent counties.
I would like to say a word about the name of the district, to which my hon. Friend the Minister also referred. I believe strongly, as a result of my experience over the past few years, that old names are the best. I have found that, since 1983, when the name of my constituency was changed to Northavon, whenever I am more than a few miles away from the constituency and people ask me what constituency I represent and I reply Northavon, they invariably say, "Where is that?"
People do not take on board all these new names all over the country. Indeed, they have not even been taken on board by whoever drafted the order. There is a misprint on page four, which describes the district as Northwood
Column 413as opposed to Northavon. That would not have occurred with Bristol, for example--the proof reader would have spotted it at once--but because of all the invented names that we have had to put up with over the past few years, such mistakes occur.
I am therefore strongly in favour of using the old name where possible. The name South Gloucestershire used to cover the entire proposed authority. It should be the name of this district and I very much welcome the creation of it.
Mr. Roger Berry (Kingswood): I opposed Conservative policy on the previous reorganisation of Avon and I oppose Conservative policy on the current reorganisation for exactly the same reasons. In 1972, when the House debated the Local Government Bill, the Conservatives reorganised matters quite specifically to take control of services such as education, social services and public transport away from Labour city councils, including Bristol. Of course the purpose of that exercise was not to improve services or local accountability; it was to achieve precisely the opposite. That is what we have before us today.
I could not imagine that anyone in the House or elsewhere would think that, after 15 years of the Conservatives attacking local democracy, reorganisation under this Government would do anything other than continue that process of service cuts and redundancies. We have had capping, we have had cuts in rate support grants then revenue support grants, we have had the poll tax, we have had the virtual dismantling of local education authorities and we have had compulsory competitive tendering. After 15 years of measure after measure designed to undermine local democracy, nobody can claim that reorganisation under this Government at this time is anything other than a continuation of that process.
I do not oppose the motion because I oppose in principle unitary local authorities, although I note that Sir John Banham, who chairs the Local Government Commission, told the Association of County Councils in November:
"I know of no evidence that smaller unitary authorities will be better placed than county councils to deliver effective and convenient local services".
Sir John Banham was on television--I think--yesterday advising us all about the importance of performance-related pay for senior executives. I would like to see a little performance-related pay for Sir John Banham based on the way in which he has dealt with the local government review.
Mr. Dobson: It would be a rebate.
Mr. Berry: My hon. Friend is right. It would be a rebate of gigantic proportions, which would help us preserve essential services.
I emphasise that I am speaking against the motion not because I oppose the principle of unitary authorities, but because I am opposed, as all sane people must be, to further cuts in essential local services and yet more redundancies which this Government policy will bring about.
Column 414There will be cuts because of the substantial costs of reorganisation, which should be met by central Government, but which will not. That is not only my view and the view of local councils in Avon, it is the view of the local branch of the Confederation of British Industry. In its submission to local government commissioners, the CBI said:
"In the event of structural changes being introduced, considerable transitional costs would be inevitable. Local revenue would not be in a position to absorb additional costs other than by means of an inordinately large increase in the Council Tax. This would entirely distort anticipated benefits of the structural changes and have the effect of discrediting any new arrangement." I am sure that the Government have thought about that. The CBI continued:
"This paper summits, therefore, that the costs of changes should be funded by central Government."
The costs of reorganisation, to which the CBI and others refer, are substantial. The bids that the local councils in Avon submitted when seeking credit approval to cover the costs of reorganisation totalled £24 million for 1995-96 alone. I pause to contemplate what local services could be improved, or at least protected, if that £24 million were to be spent on services, not reorganisation. But that £24 million is already significantly higher than the total transitional costs estimated by the Local Government Commission for Avon. It said that over all the years that it could anticipate, the costs would be £13 million to £18 million. The local councils say that, in the year before reorganisation, transitional costs will come to £24 million.
Before anyone says, "They would say that, wouldn't they--they would put in bids on the basis of overestimates of expenditure," I should say that the people who are placing the bids are those who are likely to be responsible for running the unitary authorities afterwards. They are the people who believe in reorganisation. It is inconceivable that those who anticipate running a unitary authority and who want to make it work after reorganisation could submit bids that are overestimates. It is well known that, in Avon, the councils are collectively seeking about £50 million to cover the costs of local government reorganisation.
What has the Government's response been? In 1995-96, instead of meeting the £24 million bid, the Government are allocating £6.8 million--a little over a quarter of the amount required to fund reorganisation. That shortfall--let alone the repayment of debt in subsequent years--will inevitably mean service cuts and more redundancies. It is undeniable that there will be substantial redundancies as a result of the reorganisation-- at a time when local government staff are frequently stretched to breaking point. I have lost track of the number of senior officers in Avon who have left or retired, and the number of teachers and social workers who are leaving the profession for reasons of stress and overwork. The inevitable implication of not meeting the cost of reorganisation will be that Government policy will ensure further reductions in services and further redundancies.
The councils in Avon are aware of that. As part of the bid, they have already included an estimate of £7.5 million to cover redundancy costs in 1995-96--before reorganisation. In case anyone thinks that the amounts come from the existing Avon county council, that is not true--some £2.6 million is from Avon and £5 million
Column 415from existing district authorities. They anticipate, collectively, that £7.5 million will be spent on redundancy costs before reorganisation. It is as inevitable as night follows day that there will be more redundancies after reorganisation.
I spoke in the last debate on regulations on local government redundancy payments following reorganisation, and I do not want to repeat the points that I made--not least because I have only about two minutes left. The redundancy terms being offered to local government employees are, as my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) said, worse than in 1986 when the metropolitan counties were abolished. They are worse than under Mrs. Thatcher. Much has happened since 1986--it is not just that Ministers have given themselves better redundancy payments, but there is more unemployment. That is a shameful way to deal with staff who have given good service to their communities.
There are a number of technical issues that I should like to have commented on, but I clearly do not have the time. I am aware, as is the Minister, that Avon county council and the Association of County Councils have diligently pursued a number of technical points which I hope that the Minister will take on board. I pay tribute to the way in which Avon county council has pursued matters on behalf of services and the people who provide them. Councillor Valerie Davey and her colleagues deserve credit for dealing with difficult problems in the best interests of the services and those who provide them. I came into politics to secure better, not worse, public services. I wanted to secure more employment opportunities, not fewer. These proposals are a recipe for more cuts in services and more redundancies. They constitute another nail in the coffin of local democracy. I urge the House to oppose the motion.
Mr. Michael Stern (Bristol, North-West): I have never made any secret of the fact that, when I was first elected to the House for Bristol, North-West in 1983, I had been living in Bristol for only a few months. During my first general election campaign, at my final election meeting on the night before I was elected, I said that one of my ambitions during my time in Parliament was to see the return of the city and county of Bristol. Like anyone embarking on a crusade, I did not expect to see that ambition realised in as little as 12 years. I am delighted to welcome the realisation of that ambition. Judging by the response to my comments, it was probably the most popular pledge of any that I made during that election campaign. Much has been said tonight on the technical aspects of the change. I should like to look back further and try to explore why Avon never worked--clearly, it did not. I think that there are two reasons, both of which are inherent in the reasons for the moves to the successor authorities which we are contemplating tonight.
The first reason is that Avon clearly never had, and never had the hope of achieving, the consent of the people that it governed. As an authority, it was seen from its first day as being imposed on the people of Bristol and its surroundings. It was resented from the first day and, despite all the strong efforts of the officers and councillors
Column 416to achieve acceptance for the county of Avon, the problems that beset it were inherent in its nature and the way in which it subsequently developed.
Many of the problems with us today--for example, the problems that I recently highlighted in the House on choice in secondary education--stem from the fact that a previous Conservative Government sought to impose on the people of Bristol and its surroundings a form of local government that they felt was alien to them.
There is another reason why Avon was such a conspicuous failure. It has often been said by councillors and officers of Avon that it was formed with no financial assets; it was stripped by the district councils of any assets that it might otherwise have chosen to inherit. Avon has not noticed that the same is true of many more successful councils in other parts of the county. As a result of Avon's belief that it had been hard done by, it developed a financial inferiority complex.
In my years in the House I have noticed that the effect of that attitude, which was developed in the early years of Avon's history, is that every year, without fail, instead of trying to plan financially on the basis of the resources that it had and knew it could achieve--as a more relaxed authority might have done--Avon put most of its effort into trying to obtain more. Like many fictional characters, Avon could not come to terms with the facts of its formation, particularly the financial facts. Every year, Avon's arguments for trying to find ways of obtaining more money for itself became more desperate, hopeless and unbelievable. Avon was doomed from its formation, and few people will mourn its passing. The system with which we are replacing it has a number of advantages, and we must ensure that they are not squandered. The first advantage--in direct contradiction to the point made by the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson)--is that the new authorities have the clearly expressed support of the people whom they are being set up to govern. The hon. Gentleman suggested--in a manner of which the current dictator of Iraq would have been proud--that, because certain people in Bristol feel that they have a divine right to rule the surrounding areas, that view should be heard. The last thing that the people outside Bristol want is to be ruled by Bristol, but the hon. Gentleman suggested that their view should be ignored.
We shall be quoting the comments of the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras during the local election campaign in May in areas that have made it quite clear that the last thing they want is to be taken over by a city whose style of local government they regard as wholly alien. I strongly deprecate the hon. Gentleman's opinion--and, by implication, that of the Labour party--that only the view of Labour-controlled areas count and that the areas that they seek to govern are not entitled to hold a view at all.
I welcome the order. Tonight I am wearing a tie that bears the coat of arms of the city of Bristol. When the order is passed, I shall be wearing a tie that bears the arms of the city and the county of Bristol. I am the first Member for Bristol, North-West since the late Martin McLaren to be able to make that claim. Having achieved the abolition of the county of Avon, I shall go home and play a recording of Haydn's "Te Deum". As I listen to it, I shall reflect that, even after 22 years, it is possible for a Government to admit that they got something wrong and to make a determined effort to set it right.
Column 4177.31 pm
Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): We have said before that the local government reform programme has turned into a shambles, but it is obvious that this case is one of the most shambolic of all. The Government admitted that drafting errors in some of the original legislation caused real problems when considering the question of Avon and its future, and clearly areas of concern remain to be resolved.
We all agree that Avon is a very unpopular county, even after 20 years of existence. From the beginning, it was an artificial creation which was never well loved. As it moves towards its grave, the House should at least pay tribute to the valuable work performed by a number of Avon councillors and officers over the years. Their contribution should not be forgotten.
Serious points and questions about the order must be addressed, one of which taxed the Minister in his opening remarks. For the first time, the reorganisation involves two continuing authorities and two new authorities. That is clearly still causing problems for the Minister, and I for one do not accept the points that he made in reply to earlier interventions.
Mr. Don Foster (Bath): Is my hon. Friend concerned that, although the Minister appears to have moved in the right direction, he has not yet made it clear to the House whether any progress towards the appointment of new staff in either the new or the continuing authorities will be possible before vesting day? Perhaps my hon. Friend would like to put that question to the Minister.
Mr. Rendel: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point, and perhaps the Minister will respond to it straight away.
Mr. Curry: I realise that time is limited, but I shall make the position clear now in case I am not able to do so in my winding-up speech. As soon as the order is made, all the authorities involved will have new powers and duties to start preparing for
reorganisation. They must co-operate because the order enjoins them to do so--for example, Bath and Wandsdyke can start working towards reorganisation at the same time as Bristol.
The decisions about how the new authorities will run their affairs should be made only after a new mandate has been obtained. The order says that authorities cannot make decisions or appointments until after the elections in May. In May, all four unitary authorities will have identical powers to do that. The essential point is that, when the new powers are provided, they are provided equally to all involved.
Mr. Rendel: As it will clearly be more difficult for the two authorities which are joining to form one authority to make even preparatory arrangements before that authority is set up, I believe that the situation is clearly unfair. The new authority which will be created from amalgamating two existing authorities will be disadvantaged compared with the continuing authorities. It is unfair to the staff concerned and to the authorities themselves. It is odd that, in spite of opting for unitaries, the Government have managed to make an enemy of not only the unitary authorities but the Association of District Councils, which is concerned about that point.
Column 418Various estimates of the short-term costs of the transition are circulating. The costs are ill-defined; that is perhaps not surprising when we consider what happened in Cleveland, when much higher estimates were made immediately after the order was passed. The Minister should promise--I hope that he will refer to the matter in his winding-up speech--that, if the costs turn out to be much higher than the Government and the commission expected, the Government will help the new authorities to meet the extra costs. Consultation in this case was clearly inadequate and muddled. When the consultation process began, people were told that they would become part of Somerset or part of Gloucestershire, which later proved to be untrue. That must have been confusing for the people involved and the consultation process might have produced a different result if that point had been clear from the beginning. It is now impossible to gauge the extent to which that confusion might have affected people's view of the reorganisation, and I wish that the Government had engaged in more consultation after the point had been clarified fully.
The question of whether South Gloucestershire and North Somerset will become real counties has muddied the water further. I am glad that the Minister discussed that point earlier, although I do not believe that he clarified it fully.
The Government should have started from scratch in examining the role of the new authorities instead of simply talking about what areas they would cover. The fact that the Government did not consider the new authorities' role properly has led to other difficulties. They have not detailed how strategic services--strategic planning, transport, the fire service, the probation service and the police--will be managed or even how the coroner's office will work in the future.
The Government said today that they want the services to be handled in a voluntary manner because that is more flexible. I suspect that they really mean that they do not know how the services will be handled and they intend to go ahead on a wing and a prayer. That will only increase the administrative burden of those who eventually become the unitary councillors.
There are also points in favour of the order. It looks as though it will produce at least some long-term cost savings. I welcome the extra efficiency and effectiveness in service delivery which may be created as government is brought closer to the people. It is a long-standing principle of my party that government should be brought closer to the people and I look forward to seeing that happen with the new authorities.
Mr. Berry: Can the hon. Gentleman explain to the House why the Liberal Democrats in Avon do not support the order?
Mr. Rendel: I am not sure to whom the hon. Gentleman refers. There are members of all three parties who are for and against every local government order we have had so far.
Mr. Berry: The hon. Gentleman just said that it was a matter of principle.
Mr. Rendel: It is a matter of principle that we should bring government down to the lowest possible level.
Column 419A further point which must be made in favour of the order--perhaps the most important point--is that there is clear public support for it. Some 72 per cent. of people made it clear that they were in favour of the principle of unitary authorities in the area, while only 16 per cent. were against. That is very telling.
The fact that representations to the commission came out four to one favour was also a telling point in favour of the order. Some people said that that was a self-selected sample, and so it was. What was interesting in this case was that the self-selected sample was in favour of something. Usually, such a sample is unreliable only when it is made up of protesters.
In summary, the Government have made a mess of the order, as they made a mess of the reform of Avon. It is also clear that the public in general are behind the order and want it to be passed. There are many uncertainties about the order and, therefore, as it is passed many of its supporters-- including, no doubt, the Government--will say a silent prayer that the worst fears of those who oppose it will not come true.
Sir Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare): This is a day of great rejoicing for Weston-super-Mare. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on tabling the order. I also congratulate the Boundary Commission, and in particular the two commissioners responsible who took an immense amount of trouble to see that all the appropriate people were visited, and who came up with the right answer. In olden days, there would be dancing in the streets, the church bells would be ringing and the fountains would be running with best Somerset cider. Dare I say, if I could claim any credit, a small public subscription would have raised a modest statue to the Member in gratitude for the death of the ogre of Avon county council. Avon has been disliked and derided ever since it came into being in 1974. I am the only Member in the Chamber who was in the House at the time that local government was reorganised in 1974. As a junior and thrusting parliamentary private secretary, I abstained on the vote which brought the council into being. My only regret over many years has been that I did not vote against, and hand in my cards. This order means that my conscience is clear again.
At long last, we will be back to running our own affairs. Weston-super-Mare is the largest town in Somerset, and it does not want to be run from Taunton. It definitely does not want to be run from Bristol. I believe that my hon. Friends have analysed most sensibly the reason for the failure of Avon--it was the domination of Bristol. When a town the size of Weston- super-Mare is made to feel like a second-rate suburb, it is hardly surprising that its residents would wish to make a change.
I think that I also speak on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), who, despite being silenced by his high ministerial office, will know that opinion also runs similarly in the north part of what is to be the new district.
Of course, we do want a little more money for the costs of transition. We have had a supplementary credit approval for £2.5 million, but we asked for £5 million. I am told by those in the know that there is still £27 million in the national pot, so we are hoping for some more money.
Column 420There is a minor dispute in my constituency about second-tier councils. Having got rid of Avon, there was a recommendation by the Boundary Commission for a town council. I think that that was a misapprehension. Previously, the charter trustees were told that they could not survive, and they opted naturally for the only alternative. Town councils are normally only given to towns with a population of less than 20,000, and having three town councils would be disastrous for the town.
I was delighted to learn that the Minister has allowed the charter trustees to continue. We need a mayor for a seaside town, and we need a body from which to elect him or her. If that body were to be consulted on planning permissions and have a touch more power, everybody would be totally satisfied. There is pressure to go for a town council on the basis that, if one asks somebody whether they want a town council, they will say yes. But there is no logic in having another tier of government in a town the size of Weston-super-Mare.
Once again, I express my strong support for the introduction of this order. It is something which I have looked forward to for 20 years, and I am delighted to be able to speed it on its way tonight.