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Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): I consider myself to be very fortunate indeed, as I was born in Somerset and lived there for 30 years. That idyll was only blighted in 1974, when my bit of Somerset was moved into Avon. Every morning for the following 18 years until I moved, I had the discomfort of getting up, drawing my bedroom curtains and looking across my garden to the field next door, which was still in Somerset. That made me vow every morning to do everything in my power to wipe Avon from the map at the earliest possible opportunity.

During my time in Somerset, I had the great privilege of representing Somerset folk as an Avon county councillor for four years and as a Wansdyke district councillor for 11 years, six of those as leader. At every election, I stood both as a Conservative candidate and as a Back to Somerset candidate.

My mention of Wansdyke leads to me digress to mention my hon. Friend the Member for Wansdyke (Mr. Aspinwall). I am sure that the whole House wishes him well in hospital, and understands why he is not here tonight.

My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) is here, and, until he took his trappist vows, he too enthused about the abolition of Avon. If he could speak tonight, he might just make the point to the Minister that he would prefer Nempnett Thrubwell to be in north-west Somerset rather than north-east Somerset, but no doubt that debate can continue outside the Chamber.

The order is not just about local issues; it raises a whole range of general issues as well. The constraints of time limit me to mentioning just three of those. First, local government only works well if it is structured on how people feel about themselves. Avon was imposed for administrative and service provision reasons. It was artificial and unloved, and it was never going to work. It proves the point that natural communities are what local government is all about, and I wish that the Local Government Commission had paid more attention to natural communities.

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Secondly, the order abolishes two-tier local government in parts of Somerset and Gloucestershire. The results will be better services, clearer accountability and stronger local government. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to reject all other two-tier solutions which have been suggested elsewhere.

Thirdly, the changes recognise the importance of history. My home town of Midsomer Norton has been in Somerset for 1,000 years, just as my constituency of Spelthorne has been in Middlesex for 1,000 years. I would urge the Government to do for the people of Spelthorne what they are doing for the people of Midsomer Norton. They must restore us to the historic county of Middlesex and abandon the status quo proposals for Surrey.

There are occasions when hon. Members do their duty with little enthusiasm, and when we vote out of loyalty rather than conviction. But tonight I need no persuasion. I do not need the help of the Whips, nor do I require any arm-twisting. I shall vote to abolish Avon with conviction and delight. Avon is unloved. It will not be mourned, and I rejoice at its abolition.

Finally, I send a message to friends in all political parties in Wansdyke. I note that they will have more seats on the new authority than Bath and, in my biased view--I am sure that the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) will understand--that is exactly how it should be. I look forward to watching my friends restore pride in local government and pride in Somerset. I wish them well.

7.49 pm

Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight): One wonders where the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) has been. He accuses the Government of a conspiracy against Labour-controlled county councils, quietly forgetting that the county council on the Isle of Wight was Liberal -controlled and campaigned for a unitary authority. The Liberal Democrat spokesman seems now oblivious to the points that he made in the debate on that occasion.

The Local Government Act 1972 clearly states that a council can be a county council authority or a district council authority. As has been explained many times, the Local Government Act 1992 stipulates that an authority can be a successor authority only if it is not to be abolished and reorganised- -that is the glitch in the legislation. I promised the Minister when we debated the Cleveland order, and before that the Isle of Wight order, that I would try to attend each of these debates to make similar points about parish and town councils. Under this order, I am told that 131 parish and town councils are covered. Of that number, six are parish meetings and five are town councils.

During the Cleveland debate, I promised to keep raising the matter with my hon. Friend until I got a result--and I think that I am getting close to a result now.

I learn from the order that there is to be a different electoral cycle for Bristol, which has no parish or town councils; it will therefore not be affected by the order, because it will be on the county council election cycle, whereas all the other authorities affected will be on the district council cycle--1995 plus four years. The county election cycle is 1997 plus four years. As a result, all the

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parish and town councils will, under the order, be able to come up for elections together with their local authorities, thus saving local taxpayers considerable sums of money.

My hon. Friend has heard me say often enough that the election costs for many parish and town councils amount to more than their precepts; so combining the election cycles is a good idea. I await the day when the Minister will tell us how he intends to get out of the conundrum facing the Isle of Wight.

7.51 pm

Mr. Rupert Allason (Torbay): I urge Members on both sides of the House to support this order. It is essential for local democracy that we have unitary authorities and do not continue with a two-tier system that nobody understands. In 1977, as an adopted candidate for the Greater London Council elections, I went to see Conservative Central Office and said that, having discovered what the GLC did, we ought to abolish it. I was assured that mine was a disgraceful, heretical suggestion: under no circumstances would it be abolished. Now that the GLC has been abolished, things are better for all Londoners, and the benefits have been immediately visible. People understand what unitary authorities mean--a one-stop opportunity for local accountability and local democracy. I urge the Minister, as he sees this important flagship provision passing into law this evening, to remember that Torbay was recommended by the Local Government Commission for unitary status. I hope that he will bear in mind too that the Liberals, the Labour party and all Conservatives in Torbay are united--unlike those concerned with this order--in hoping that it will also receive unitary status, as recommended by Sir John Banham.

7.52 pm

Mr. Curry: I agreed with my right hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Sir J. Cope), and with my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), who spoke not as a Member representing this part of the world but on the basis of personal experience of it. I heard what he said about Middlesex. It is an example of a county that still exists in ceremonial and sporting terms and which usefully shows that a county can carry on even without a local authority being associated with its name.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Stern) concentrated on the importance of service delivery. This move has been all about service delivery--bringing services to the people, rationally organising services and trying to overcome some of the difficulties of a two-tier structure. This solution would not commend itself in all circumstances, but the commission recommended it in this case, and we thought it the right thing to do.

I well remember the representations made by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin) on the problem that he faced with the parish council, or the charter trustees. I am delighted that we were able to find an outcome that enabled the charter trustees to continue in Weston- super-Mare. I agree with him that it is important that such towns have their ancient traditions confirmed, and have people who can be seen to represent them in their ceremonial functions.

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As many of my hon. Friends have said, continuity is an important aspect of local traditions and democracy. We are trying to reach down to ancient roots and give them modern shape so that they may continue to flourish. That is why local government has always been subject to reform and change, drawing on the best traditions and bringing it into a world in which it can use modern techniques to deliver the services that are now in demand.

My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare also mentioned resources. Of the £50 million that we have nationally for 1995-96, I have deliberately held back more than half, so that we can allocate it later in the year when the authorities have had a chance to develop their plans. So further resources will be allocated to the Avon authorities. Of course I cannot promise to meet in full what they estimate to be their needs, but some additional resources will be available. I thought it sensible to wait and see how their plans developed, and then make the allocations. We shall keep the matter under close scrutiny.

We have made it clear that this reorganisation will be economically financed. We do not intend people to take the opportunity to see whether it would be nice to have a new town hall on the back of the reorganisation. Indeed, one local authority already decided that that would be a good wheeze. We shall ensure that authorities do what is necessary. As everyone agrees, the money needs to go to services. There is little point in reorganisation to improve services if the resources are diverted to structural agglomeration.

Mr. Don Foster: I am sure that many people listening will be delighted to hear that. When should bids be made for the additional money?

Mr. Curry: When the new authorities have been constituted--once the elections are over and the new authorities are in place--I would expect to receive the additional bids. That would seem to be the sensible time.

I was intrigued by the speech made by the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, and especially by the interplay between him and the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry). The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras said that he would defer to his hon. Friend, to allow him to provide us with much greater detail about where the boundaries of Bristol should lie. But answer came there none.

The hon. Member for Kingswood offered no illumination; we were deeply disappointed. It is clearly a case of one general handing over to another, but neither gave the command--

The Minister for the Environment and Countryside (Mr. Robert Atkins): One corporal to another, surely

Mr. Curry: I am being charitable. I am always willing to over- promote Opposition Members.

The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras went on about how wicked all these boundary notions were. We are not changing Bristol's boundaries, because the commission did not recommend such a change, but we have said that the Boundary Commission will be invited to look at anomalies in the boundary.

I would, however, ask the House to imagine what the hon. Gentleman would have said if, contrary to the commission's recommendation, we had changed the local boundaries. Imagine the hon. Gentleman's Miltonic indignation-- the peals of thunder that would have

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emanated from him--had we interfered with the commission's recommendations on boundaries. Yet all the hon. Gentleman's indignation today was because we did not interfere. I should be interested to learn from him in what circumstances we ought to interfere and when we should not interfere in the matter of boundaries.

The hon. Gentleman said directly that he believes that there should be a significant widening of Bristol's boundaries. I understood him to say that it should follow consultation with the people of Bristol. I should be interested to know whether he has any plans to consult people outside Bristol, and to find out where they think the boundaries should be. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. It is therefore perfectly reasonable to consult all involved. I have an inkling that the answers will not be unanimous.

Mr. Stern: Such consultation did take place. The result was an overwhelming negative in terms of Bristol. It is clear that that does not matter to the Labour party.

Mr. Curry: The Labour party's technique is clear. There are many Opposition Members who wish to see unitary authorities. They bring their delegations to us to ask for unitary authorities. Many local Labour leaders want to see unitary authorities. They come and ask for them. The Labour-led local authority associations also want to see unitary authorities. They say, "Please can we have more unitary authorities?"

There is a great deal of private canvassing for unitary authorities. The only thing that Labour will not do is to be seen to vote for unitary authorities. Labour wants them, pleads for them and leads delegations to ask for them, but it wants to have it both ways. That is arrant hypocrisy. If Opposition Members believe in something, they should put their money where their mouths are, along with their votes in the House. They do not do that. That is dishonourable, and I hope that their electorates note it. I commend the order to the House.

Question put: --

The House divided: Ayes 290, Noes 202.

Division No. 83] [8.00 pm


Column 424

Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey)

Aitken, Rt Hon Jonathan

Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby)

Allason, Rupert (Torbay)

Alton, David

Amess, David

Ancram, Michael

Arbuthnot, James

Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)

Arnold, Sir Thomas (Hazel Grv)

Ashby, David

Atkins, Robert

Atkinson, David (Bour'mouth E)

Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)

Baker, Rt Hon Kenneth (Mole V)

Baker, Nicholas (North Dorset)

Baldry, Tony

Batiste, Spencer

Beith, Rt Hon A J

Bellingham, Henry

Bendall, Vivian

Beresford, Sir Paul

Biffen, Rt Hon John

Bonsor, Sir Nicholas

Booth, Hartley

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Boswell, Tim

Bottomley, Peter (Eltham)

Bowden, Sir Andrew

Bowis, John

Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes

Brandreth, Gyles

Brazier, Julian

Bright, Sir Graham

Brooke, Rt Hon Peter

Brown, M (Brigg & Cl'thorpes)

Browning, Mrs Angela

Bruce, Ian (South Dorset)

Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)

Burns, Simon

Burt, Alistair

Butcher, John

Butler, Peter

Butterfill, John

Carlisle, John (Luton North)

Carlisle, Sir Kenneth (Lincoln)

Carrington, Matthew

Carttiss, Michael

Channon, Rt Hon Paul

Chapman, Sydney

Chidgey, David

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Churchill, Mr

Clappison, James

Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)

Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ru'clif)

Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey

Coe, Sebastian

Colvin, Michael

Congdon, David

Conway, Derek

Coombs, Anthony (Wyre For'st)

Coombs, Simon (Swindon)

Cope, Rt Hon Sir John

Cormack, Sir Patrick

Couchman, James

Cran, James

Currie, Mrs Edwina (S D'by'ire)

Curry, David (Skipton & Ripon)

Day, Stephen

Deva, Nirj Joseph

Devlin, Tim

Dicks, Terry

Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen

Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James

Dover, Den

Duncan, Alan

Duncan-Smith, Iain

Dunn, Bob

Durant, Sir Anthony

Eggar, Rt Hon Tim

Elletson, Harold

Evans, David (Welwyn Hatfield)

Evans, Jonathan (Brecon)

Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley)

Evans, Roger (Monmouth)

Evennett, David

Faber, David

Fabricant, Michael

Fenner, Dame Peggy

Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)

Fishburn, Dudley

Forman, Nigel

Forth, Eric

Foster, Don (Bath)

Fox, Sir Marcus (Shipley)

French, Douglas

Gale, Roger

Gallie, Phil

Gardiner, Sir George

Garnier, Edward

Gill, Christopher

Gillan, Cheryl

Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles

Gorman, Mrs Teresa

Gorst, Sir John

Grant, Sir A (SW Cambs)

Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)

Greenway, John (Ryedale)

Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N)

Grylls, Sir Michael

Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn

Hague, William

Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archibald

Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)

Hampson, Dr Keith

Hanley, Rt Hon Jeremy

Hannam, Sir John

Harris, David

Harvey, Nick

Haselhurst, Alan

Hawkins, Nick

Hawksley, Warren

Hayes, Jerry

Heald, Oliver

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