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Local Government Reorganisation (England)

3.30 pm

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. John Gummer): With permission, I should like to make a statement about the progress of the review of local government structure in England.

My aim is a local government structure that can deliver effective services to its citizens and help build vigorous and self-sustaining communities. I believe that in many places that will involve the creation of unitary local authorities. Equally, I have long recognised that local government needs to reflect local identities, history and tradition. There is room in our system for diversity; different solutions in different areas, to meet different local circumstances. Local government does not need to be neat-- it needs to be effective.

I also want to achieve stability so that local government can plan ahead with confidence; developing the concept of the enabling council, which has done so much to create a new culture in local government. Against that background, I am pleased to be able to announce decisions on 20 of the counties where decisions are outstanding. First, I shall announce decisions on three counties where the commission has recommended change: Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Durham.

For Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire, the commission has recommended that the county councils should be abolished, and replaced by a structure of unitary authorities--three in Bedfordshire, four in Buckinghamshire.

I am sure that it is right that Luton in Bedfordshire and Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire should become unitary authorities. I am, however, not convinced by the argument for unitary local government in the rest of those counties. I have decided, therefore, to retain the existing structure of county and district councils in Bedfordshire outside Luton, and in Buckinghamshire outside Milton Keynes.

In Durham, the commission has recommended that Darlington should become an unitary authority, with the rest of the county remaining two-tier. I propose to accept that recommendation.

I have given a full explanation of the background and reasons for those decisions today, in an answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington). There are copies in the Library and the Vote Office.

I now turn to the other 17 counties, for which the commission has recommended no change in the present structure. Those are Cambridgeshire, Cheshire, Cornwall, Cumbria, Gloucestershire, Hertfordshire, Kent, Lancashire, Norfolk, Northamptonshire, Northumberland, Oxfordshire, Shropshire, Suffolk, Surrey, Warwickshire and West Sussex.

I have decided that, with two provisos, I should accept those recommendations. First, the commission has recommended the status quo for a small number of district councils which are among the largest non- metropolitan towns and cities in England. Many of those councils used to be county boroughs and so have a tradition of unitary local government. They are also often areas where there is a significant need for economic and social regeneration.

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The business community, deliverers of personal social services and the voluntary sector often believe that that need can best be met by bringing all of the responsibilities of local government under one roof. There are some other councils where the commission has appeared to accept that logic. I believe that we must at least test the case for consistency in this matter.

Therefore, I intend to ask the commission to carry out fresh reviews of a short list of selected districts--I emphasise that they are districts, and not counties. The rest of the county in each case will not be subject to any further review. I also emphasise that they are fresh reviews for which we shall issue new guidance to the commission. Before we issue that new guidance, we will consult local government and other interested parties about it. I expect the new reviews to get under way in the summer.

I believe that those new reviews must be carried out by a reconstituted commission which can look at the cases afresh. I am most grateful to Sir John Banham for having offered his resignation as chairman of the commission. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Sir John for the significant contribution that he has made as chairman, particularly in the establishment of the commission, in responding to the acceleration of the review process and in delivering the structure recommendations for all areas by January this year.

I shall be consulting the Opposition parties about a successor, and I hope to announce a name shortly. I will be considering with the new chairman what other changes should be made to the commission, most of whose members' terms of office expire in June.

The areas I have in mind to be covered by the new reviews are: Blackburn, Blackpool, the Medway towns--that is, Rochester upon Medway and Gillingham- -Northampton, Peterborough and Warrington. I also have it in mind to include Thurrock and Basildon in Essex, without prejudice to whatever I may decide on the commission's

recommendations for the rest of the county.

A strong prima facie case has been made for a number of other districts to be considered for unitary status. Five districts almost fully covered by the Thames gateway area do not have unitary status at present. I have already said that I propose to refer three of those--Thurrock and the Medway towns--to the commission. Therefore, there is clearly a case for referring the other two--Gravesham and Dartford--as well.

Exeter and Gloucester are two long-standing county boroughs, in both of which there has been strong pressure for unitary status. The commission has recommended unitary status for the ancient counties of Hereford and Rutland. If those recommendations are accepted, it would seem right to ask the commission to consider the case of Huntingdonshire.

The commission has recommended unitary status for the city of Nottingham. There are significant built-up areas outside that city's boundaries, and that leads to the conclusion that the commission ought to look at the advisability of giving unitary status to Broxtowe, Gedling and Rushcliffe, given that there is clearly no local demand for a Greater Nottingham council. Finally, if Warrington is referred, the similarly densely populated district of Halton, which has been part of Cheshire only since 1974, may be a suitable candidate for reconsideration.

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[Interruption.] Many of the places concerned are interested in their future, even if Opposition Members are not.

I propose to hold further discussions with those towns and cities and their counties, and if those discussions confirm my present understandings, I shall also refer them to the commission for consideration.

It is, of course, open to me to consider further requests for unitary status, but given the need for stability, I should make it clear that it is very unlikely that I shall want to add significantly to the number of referrals to the commission.

I said that accepting the status quo recommendations was subject to two provisos. The second is this: in their response to the commission and their representations to me, many county and district councils admitted that the two-tier system can and must be improved. Many have made explicit promises about improved co-operation and--where it is appropriate--delegation of functions. Many, indeed, have written such promises in the literature they have sent out in their areas. We are compiling a list of those for each county council. I shall be reminding each of them of the promises that they have made, and I shall be asking them to report to me on the implementation of what are, after all, their own commitments. I am still considering the recommendations which the commission has made for change in the remaining 12 county areas. I am aware that everyone involved is anxious for the position to be clarified quickly, and I shall be making further announcements shortly.

With the decisions I have announced today, we have covered 27 of the 39 counties. In those counties, with the exception of the small number of districts I have mentioned, people now know how their governance will be carried out. Where the two-tier system is to remain, the authorities will be able to move on to the issues that the review has brought to the forefront: closer co-operation between the tiers and greater delegation of responsibility wherever that is possible. Whether the structures are two- tier or unitary, the end result should be improved services and more effective local government.

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras): On behalf of the Labour party, I welcome much of the statement, and thank the Secretary of State for the discussions which preceded it. The overall effect of what he has announced should deliver much of what we have been calling for.

The proposals made by the Local Government Commission were inconsistent, and displayed neither rhyme nor reason. Rutland, with 33,000 people, was to get independence, while Northampton and Blackburn, both with more than 180,000 people, were not. We were seeking consistency. We were also calling for the House to be given an overall view of the likely proposals for the whole country. Today's announcement recognises that the present shambles could not be continued. It creates a reasonable prospect of some consistency across the country, and gives a reasonable indication of the likely outcome of the review in every part of England. As that is what we were asking for, I very much welcome the Government's positive response to the points that we have been making, in public and in private.

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If we take together the decision so far announced by the Secretary of State, the further recommendations for change made by the commission and the list of authorities which the Local Government Commission is to be asked to re-examine, we see that most of the former large county boroughs are likely to regain their former status, and some additional major urban councils are likely to join them. Taken together with the list put forward by the Secretary of State, unitary status seems likely to be achieved by Blackburn, Blackpool, Bournemouth, Brighton, Basildon and Thurrock, Darlington and Derby, Exeter, Gravesham and Dartford, Gloucester, Halton, Leicester, Luton, the Medway towns, Nottingham, Northampton, Milton Keynes, Peterborough, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Reading, Slough, Southampton, Stoke-on-Trent, Thamesdown and Warrington.

However, a limited number of other councils clearly qualify for unitary status under the Secretary of State's new criteria. Therefore, I suggest to the Secretary of State that he at least consider the case for Cambridge, Ipswich, Norwich, Oxford and The Wrekin, which seem to meet his overall criteria. I hope that, in deference to other hon. Members, he will agree to consider other borderline candidates for the list of councils to be referred back to the commission. The Secretary of State has recognised that, for this proposal to work, changes had to be made at the top of the Local Government Commission. When Sir John Banham was appointed to chair the commission, the right hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Portillo) said that he was very happy to appoint Sir John, and described him as "a distinguished public servant" with "a tremendous knowledge" of local authorities. The right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), the previous Secretary of State for the Environment, said that he was "delighted to announce" that Sir John Banham had agreed to take up the job. I bet he was not half as delighted as the present Secretary of State is to announce Sir John's departure. His conduct of the affairs of the commission has been quite deplorable. It should have been beyond reproach, but at times it has been beyond belief. Sir John's departure was required if today's proposals were to command any support or credibility across the country. I welcome the opportunity that the Secretary of State has offered us to contribute in due course to setting out the new guidance to the commission. To advise it to use a bit of common sense would make a good start. The Secretary of State will understand that we would expect any new county boroughs to have reasonable and acceptable boundaries, and also we would expect the commission to make sure that the number of elected councillors truly matches the ward electorates in all the new authorities.

I hope that the Secretary of State will accept that the new situation creates a further period of uncertainty for council staff who are affected. Therefore, I hope that he will agree to meet the appropriate national officers of the main local government trade unions in an attempt to work out severance and compensation terms that are acceptable to all concerned.

The statement, welcome though it is, acknowledges that the local government review has sunk into a morass of contradiction, inconsistency, expense and litigation, which could have been avoided if the Government had laid down clearer guidelines in the first place and appointed someone better to do the job. The present Secretary of

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State has to accept some responsibility for the mess, but the bulk of the blame must lie with his predecessors and their principal appointee.

Mr. Gummer: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his general and generous support for what we have proposed. We should look forwards rather than backwards. No doubt all of us could think of different ways of doing many things. Let us accept that the commission has certainly produced its proposals faster than we had expected. It has given us a real opportunity to take these steps, and we should proceed from there.

I shall certainly look carefully at the other districts that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. Of course, I looked at those in trying to draw the line, but that is difficult, as the hon. Gentleman kindly recognised. There are particular examples in terms of size, and we must also bear in mind the effect on the remaining parts of counties if we take the steps that the hon. Gentleman proposes. I shall have to look carefully at the districts and I promise to look at them afresh.

The next step relates to boundaries. I do not envisage any wholesale change in boundaries as a result of what is proposed. It is important for there to be some continuity and security, especially for staff. I should have thought that matters of council wards and the like are traditionally and properly the responsibility of the commission.

Naturally, we are concerned to ensure parity of representation, and it would be proper to draw to the new commission's attention the hon. Gentleman's points. I am certainly happy to meet the representatives of staff organisations, and I recognise that this is a difficult time for all of them.

Sir Trevor Skeet (Bedfordshire, North): Is it not anomalous to grant Luton unitary status and at the same time to deny that status to the county town of Bedford? Is my right hon. Friend aware that, in the county outside Luton, the number of people has been reduced to 360,000, with four local authorities? Is that not over-government locally?

Mr. Gummer: My hon. Friend is right to put forward a case that I know he has espoused for a long time, but perhaps my answer lies within his question. A perfectly reasonable county is left if one takes the one large town out, but if one then takes another area out, one does not have a sensible remaining county.

Although a fine and ancient town, Bedford is a district with considerable rural areas that have much in common with their neighbours. It would find the two-tier system more to its liking. I have tried to make a proper judgment. It is consistent with general policy for Luton to have its own unitary authority and for Bedford to be a proud county town in what is a fine county.

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): The Secretary of State has told us that he intends to refer only districts to the new commission, which he will get to do his bidding as the last one did not. Does he not accept that removing the major town or city from each of the 17 counties that had expected to remain within the status quo will simply prolong for the

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next year or two the appalling disruption to local authorities that this shambles of a Local Government Commission has caused for the past two years?

Mr. Gummer: The House is beginning to find it extremely difficult to know what the hon. Gentleman really wants. Of all parties in the House, the Liberal party has shown itself interested only in electoral advantage in any discussion on this matter. I am finding it increasingly difficult to find any rhyme or reason in what the Liberal party wants. When we talk about inconsistency, incongruity and the lack of reasonable principles behind anything, the Liberal party sets an example unfollowed by others.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): With reference to the county of Cheshire, I naturally warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's decision to request the new commission to consider Warrington, which deserves unitary status--that has my full support. Will he accept, however, that the borough of Macclesfield, in which immense support exists for unitary status not only among individuals, but among charities, voluntary organisations and business, and which produced the best result in the whole of Cheshire in the public consultation on unitary status, should also receive further consideration from the new commission?

Mr. Gummer: Of course I shall look again at Macclesfield, but it is a town of 49,000 people. The district of Macclesfield is a mixture of town and country. It is not dissimilar to many other districts. It is a fine town, and its name is often well presented in the House. It does not, however, stand in quite the same role as, say, Warrington or Northampton, in terms either of size or of historic governance. I shall reconsider the matter, but I think that that town should fall outside the group of councils that I have decided to refer to the new commission.

Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw): Is the Minister aware that, in his further proposals for Nottinghamshire, he has announced that district councils in suburban areas such as Broxtowe, Gedling and Rushcliffe will be considered for unitary status, but that areas such as Bassetlaw, Mansfield, Newark and Ashfield will not? The only thing wrong is that the areas that he has proposed for unitary status are Conservative, and that the areas that he has said will not be considered further are Labour. I do not want to accuse him of being politically biased--no hon. Member would want to do that--but could he not add a further request that the fresh review should consider all the district councils of Nottinghamshire? All eight of them want to be unitary authorities. That is the best way to sort the matter out; it is better than just basing proposals around the city.

Mr. Gummer: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. A very large proportion of the councils on the list that I read out are Labour councils, but one cannot make the division between Labour and Conservative councils in that way. The councils that I have suggested are part, or an extension, of the conurbation of Nottingham itself, which is at one end-- the southern end--of the county. The particular districts that he mentioned would have to be considered to some extent because of the residuary council.

I know that the hon. Gentleman lives in a county council which is not greatly loved by anyone. There is no doubt that Nottinghamshire county council has been unsuccessful, and has done a number of things which have upset everyone. I shall, of course, examine the matter

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again, but I think that, if the hon. Gentleman reads my statement, he will find that the councils to which he referred are quite different in terms of make-up. Were I to include them, I should open the way for a wide range of differences and not achieve the coherence that I seek. However, I shall re-examine the issues, because we should try to reach a consensus if possible.

Dame Peggy Fenner (Medway): I thank my right hon. Friend. Is he aware that the people who live in the rural areas of my constituency were not overwhelmed by the idea of unitary authority status? However, I am in fairness bound to say that the Medway towns, which I think comprise the largest conurbation in Kent and which deserve the review that he is going to grant, think that they can form a good unitary authority. I support them in that.

Mr. Gummer: I thank my hon. Friend. This is a review, not a decision, and it is for the commission to look at this again. The Thames gateway councils will be involved in seeking money for exciting new projects, arguing among themselves about where those projects should be located and searching for money from the European Union and elsewhere. That means that there is a case to be made for those who are going to affected to have the opportunity of at least equal representation. To exclude them would be wrong.

Several hon. Members rose --

Madam Speaker: Order. I understand that the statement lends itself to a great deal of local flavour but many hon. Members wish to ask a question and I can call them only if they and the Minister are brisk. There is another statement and further business to come.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): Does the Secretary of State recognise that many people in Lancashire will be less inclined to remain in a Lancashire county council that no longer contains Blackburn and Blackpool? Does he accept that Burnley was an extremely successful county borough, and exactly the same size as Darlington, to which he proposes to give unitary status?

Mr. Gummer: It is curious how enthusiasm for Lancashire county council is busy waning as I offer an alternative. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will find that the balance that has been struck reflects the fact that, in their discussions with the commission, Blackpool and Blackburn showed considerable support for unitary status, which outweighed other parts of the county of Lancashire. It therefore seems right to try to reflect that fact, and I think that the general outcome was probably right.

Mr. Jim Lester (Broxtowe): I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments about Nottingham. Once the decision has been made to give unitary status to the city of Nottingham, is it not important to balance that power with the review for Broxtowe, Gedling and Rushcliffe? I wish my right hon. Friend well in his attempts to get a consensus on the future of Nottingham.

Mr. Gummer: I thank my hon. Friend.

Mr. Alan Milburn (Darlington): May I thank the Secretary of State and his ministerial team for their support for a single-tier Darlington council? He will be aware of the overwhelming popular support in the town for a return to the principles of self-government that were

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undermined 21 years ago in the previous local government review. When does he intend to bring an order to the House to bring into being the new Darlington council, so that we can make progress as soon as possible?

Mr. Gummer: I shall produce such an order as soon as possible, although it cannot come into being immediately.

Mr. Bob Dunn (Dartford): I thank my right hon. Friend for taking the trouble to visit Dartford a few days ago. When he makes his recommendation to the new chairman of the commission, will he recommend that, if north- west Kent is given unitary status, that status should be given within the existing boundaries of what is now the borough of Dartford? We have no wish to be part of a Thames gateway authority stretching from Crayford to beyond Gillingham.

Mr. Gummer: I much enjoyed my visit to Dartford. I have no intention of suggesting the establishment of such a large authority, stretching from Crayford to Hempstead and Bredhurst; I would not dream of it.

I shall suggest to the commission, in the first place, that it review the possibility of a new authority relating to Rochester upon Medway and Gillingham. I shall also suggest, if further discussions take place with the councils concerned, and the county council, that they review the possibility of a new authority covering Gravesham and Dartford--or, if they think it right, a separate authority for Gravesham. That, however, will be for them to propose. I am not making the proposition; I am offering them the opportunity to consider the matter. I doubt, however, that they would want an authority the size of the one that my hon. Friend fears, which would be out of line with anything else that we are proposing.

Mr. Mike Hall (Warrington, South): I thank the Secretary of State for his announcement about the county of Cheshire, and welcome the reference to Warrington. May I stress that I feel that Halton borough council should also have unitary status? It fulfils all the criteria outlined by the Secretary of State in relation to popular support, a good identity and social and economic regeneration to support business and the voluntary sector.

May I echo the points made by the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton)? Macclesfield also fulfils all the criteria. I urge the Secretary of State to look again at Chester as well: it too has a complete identity. You will gather, Madam Speaker, that I believe that a unitary solution for the whole of Cheshire would be appropriate.

Mr. Gummer: I understand that there are those who would prefer the whole cake to half of it. I am trying to ensure that the widely differing views of local government are taken into account, and that we provide reasonable answers that will satisfy most people. I accept the hon. Gentleman's views about Halton; that is why I put Halton in the second list. I shall discuss the matter more widely, and if it turns out that the hon. Gentleman's proposal seems to be more generally accepted, I shall act accordingly.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I visited the area recently--in fact, I have been there several times--and I am much impressed by the partnership between local authorities and the private sector, and by the use to which elements of the single regeneration budget have been put.

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I was pleased to note the changes that have taken place, and I hope that any new form of local government will enhance and increase opportunities.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his statement, and for tidying up what was a rather mucky exercise.

The county council campaign in Leicestershire has caused some anxiety and concern about whether the county of Rutland can afford county status. Will my right hon. Friend therefore allow some extra time, so that--basing its assessment on the proper costs rather than on county council propaganda-- that small county can establish whether it can afford such status, and the division that has been caused can be replaced by unity?

Mr. Gummer: I thank my hon. Friend. I am sorry about some of the extreme propaganda that has been put out by some councils; I do not think that it has helped the discussion. In my statement, I tried very hard to provide an opportunity for people to secure a more sensible and permanent answer.

I shall certainly consider the possibility of extra time. I have always felt that we ought to be able to obtain the advantages of unitary authorities with more sharing. When it seems best for services to spread across two unitary authorities, I do not see why we cannot find ways in which to allow that. We shall consider ways in which we can help.

I do not want people who have long sought independence and control over their affairs, for all sorts of historic reasons, to feel that they can choose that independence and control only at huge expense--particularly if the expense has been calculated by those who do not want them to have it.

Mrs. Audrey Wise (Preston): Will the Secretary of State explain why he has taken so little notice of the fact that the majority of citizens in Lancashire, according to the consultations, prefer the status quo; and why he has not taken account of the fact that his present solution will increase the costs of local government for all people in Lancashire? We will be paying for Blackpool achieving unitary status.

Mr. Gummer: I am proposing Blackburn as well as Blackpool, if the hon. Lady wishes to be--

Mrs. Wise: I will add Blackburn as well.

Mr. Gummer: I am glad that the hon. Lady is even-handed about this. The majority of people in Lancashire will have the status quo. I am suggesting only that the commission looks again at these two authorities, where there is evidence of very considerable support and where, in both cases, there is a large population, closely knit, which would have unitary status in other parts of the country. I merely think that it is good idea that that should be looked at carefully. I understand that I have the support of very many members of the Labour party, who live in both those areas, for this reference.

Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham): Like my hon. Friend the Member for Medway (Dame P. Fenner), I welcome the decision to call for the new or revised commission to review the Medway towns. My right hon. Friend will know from his personal knowledge that the

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redevelopment of the Medway towns is absolutely critical to their future prosperity and that for planning, transportation and urban redevelopment, the Medway towns are seen as a whole.

The call will be welcomed by all the political parties, with the exception of the Gillingham Liberals, who got up to some extraordinary stunts during the consultation. Will my right hon. Friend tell me a little about the time scale that he foresees for the review, and when he thinks that there will be elections to a new county borough of the Medway towns?

Mr. Gummer: I thank my hon. Friend. I hope that we will have the guidance ready in June, when the old commission will cease and the new commission will be appointed. I hope that it will then get on with the job as quickly as possible, but it is up to its members, of course, to decide how.

I very much agree with my hon. Friend: the great and ancient towns of Chatham and Rochester joined to make a single authority--with rural areas about them, but centrally those two authorities--because they knew that it was necessary for the future of their community. In many of the regeneration areas of the Medway towns, it is difficult to draw the line between Gillingham and Rochester upon Medway. Indeed, only those who have long lived there--it is probably why the Liberals do not understand this-- know where the boundary is. Those who care about Rochester upon Medway and Gillingham are very concerned about the regeneration possibilities and the great hope that comes to that area of the country. I think that they will want at least the advantages--as well as the disadvantages, for there may be some--of unitary status to be considered.

Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin): I join my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) in welcoming a number of the points which were made by the Secretary of State. May I have clarification on the question asked by my hon. Friend about The Wrekin, which the Secretary of State knows is one of the largest district councils which has not so far been give unitary status? Will the Secretary of State confirm that his answer suggested that The Wrekin will be reconsidered, and will he bear in mind the fact that, with a population of 145,000, it is larger than many authorities which have already been granted unitary status? Will he give some indication of when, after the review process starts in June, he expects it to be completed?

Mr. Gummer: I have recently been to The Wrekin. I understand the hon. Gentleman's comments, and thank him for his support. It is, I think that he will agree, a rather different area from most in the country. That is in the nature of that new town, with its ancient heart and the connections which have been very successfully built. I shall certainly, as I have said, look at it again and consider whether it ought, like the others, to be referred to the commission. I cannot say when the commission will finish its work, but I hope to press it to finish its work as rapidly as is consistent with sensible and consistent decisions.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Blackpool, South): I thank my right hon. Friend on behalf of the people of Blackpool

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who voted in such substantial numbers for the unitary status option. May I also thank my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration for taking such care in listening to the representations made to him by members of all political parties when he visited Blackpool shortly before Christmas?

In particular, while recognising that Blackpool, as an historic county borough, has now to make its case to the reconstituted commission, will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Councillor Maxine Callow, the Conservative leader, for her hard work on Blackpool council? Will he also confirm that one reason why there was such a substantial vote in Blackpool for unitary status was because of the appalling way in which the socialist- controlled Lancashire county council misused council tax payers' money in an appalling propaganda campaign--and even then it lost in Blackpool and Blackburn?

Mr. Gummer: In my unaccustomed role of extreme reticence on party political matters, I will miss out that last but obviously heartfelt comment. I hope very much that Blackpool will have the opportunity to present its case, and the commission will no doubt then consider it very carefully. I noted the very successful campaign which showed that Blackpool felt strongly about recovering its ancient status. We shall have to see what the commission thinks about that.

Mr. John Evans (St. Helens, North): Is the Secretary of State aware that 21 years ago today I was elected for the then parliamentary constituency of Newton which included an enormous part of the borough of Warrington? Is he aware that the mid-Mersey belt of north-west England is dominated by the three great towns of St. Helens, Wigan and Warrington, and that a Warrington borough, as a unitary authority working in conjunction with the metropolitan districts of St. Helens and Wigan, would have an enormous impact on improving the quality of life and the regeneration of the north-west?

Mr. Gummer: Although I do not know the area anything like as well as the hon. Gentleman, I know it well enough to see that there is a seeming inconsistency with the kind of structure that has been recommended by the boundary commission. That is why I think it would be a good idea if we considered the matter in the way the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham): May I thank my right hon. Friend for recognising the significance of the Thames gateway, the rail link and the Ebbsfleet station announcement, all three of which will bring about massive change in north-west Kent? It is quite clear that, by making that a coherent planning whole, it would be very much better carried out by one council than by three.

Mr. Gummer: I was much impressed by the problems that Gravesham would have if it did not have pretty direct control over the way in which planning operates in that part of north Kent. I am also very impressed by the argument that, with the coherence of neighbouring unitary authorities, both Gravesham and Dartford would find themselves less able to deal with the issues that beset

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them. After I have discussed the matter with the councils and the county council, the commission may well want to recommend something different.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): The Secretary of State will agree that it is important that the proposals gather the most widespread bipartisan support. Against that background, and while I welcome the statement regarding Warrington and

Halton--incidentally, half of Halton has been part of Cheshire all its life --will the Secretary of State ensure that the whole of Cheshire is reconsidered in the light of his comments about Halton and Warrington, so that that important bipartisan element is maintained?

Mr. Gummer: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point, and I respect the way in which he put it. The difficulty with the bipartisan element is that it is not one which has to be maintained simply in his area. It must be maintained very much more widely. Therefore, in seeking the right answer, I have tried to take into account the views that I have received from all parts of the House. Sometimes, that is difficult, because one has heard contrary views from neighbouring areas, not just across the boundaries, but within parties. I have tried very hard to get the balance right. I think that I have it right in this respect, but no doubt the hon. Gentleman will write to me to ensure that I do not miss another opportunity to consider the matter.

Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North): Bearing in mind what my right hon. Friend has said about Norfolk, does he recall that, throughout Norfolk, there was a clear majority for the status quo, in response to the commission, both in local polls and in MORI polls? That was also true in Norwich. Therefore, if my right hon. Friend, at a later stage, looks again at the city of Norwich, will he make sure that there really is a clear majority of people within that city who are in favour of any variation?

Mr. Gummer: If I considered Norwich--I have promised my hon. Friend that I will look at the list he gave me--and if I presented it to the commission, I have no doubt that the commission would want to make sure that there was local support, and that local government would be improved by anything that it proposed. I should certainly draw to its attention all the relevant details I have, and that would obviously include any reference that my hon. Friend would like to give me.

Mr. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood): Does the Secretary of State accept that the Local Government Commission was a creature of his own Department's making, and that today's announcement will create further uncertainty? Will he try to remedy matters by ensuring that there is a quick timetable to resolve issues? Staff will be concerned about the matter; they have had a rough deal. Will the right hon. Gentleman increase redundancy terms for affected staff?

Mr. Gummer: I have done my best throughout the discussions to show that I wanted as speedy an answer as possible. I speeded up the matter, and I now propose that we should act as quickly as possible. The hon. Gentleman speaks less than fairly about what is a complicated matter to try to find the next stage on in local government, which is a continuing, evolving system, and I want to get the best answer. The hon. Gentleman speaks with a certain

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sourness, because the county council of which he was a member is without doubt one of the least popular county councils in Britain.

Mr. George Walden (Buckingham): Is my right hon. Friend aware that, although it is true that Aylesbury Vale district council put up a not unreasonable case for unitary status, we needed the disruption involved in the demolition of Buckinghamshire county council like a hole in the head? Is he aware also that many of us are greatly relieved to be released from between the nutcracker of the county council and the district council?

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