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10.10 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir Paul Beresford): My hon. Friend the

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Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) made the key point of ceremonial or sporting purposes. I am beginning to feel that I am the target of the ceremonial purposes, and that is certainly so of the sporting.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, and on raising the interesting and emotive subject of local identity. If nothing else, I shall attempt to clarify the position on formal recognition of the traditional county of Lancashire, and the limits on what could realistically be done to meet my hon. Friend's requests.

On the point of most concern to my hon. Friend, that of common ceremonial arrangements for historic Lancashire, we had an historic lesson this evening-- perhaps a lesson of history would be more accurate. We do not have the power simply to return former parts of Lancashire for ceremonial purposes. The relevant primary legislation allows us to make changes to ceremonial arrangements only as a consequence of structure or boundary changes following a review. I think that my hon. Friend is aware of that.

Changes to ceremonial arrangements for an area where there has been a recommendation for no change, for an area that has not been reviewed, or one which is not affected by changes happening elsewhere, are therefore not possible. As my hon. Friend knows, the outcome of the recent structure review of the present county of Lancashire, carried out by the Local Government Commission, was that there should be no change to the existing two-tier structure of local government in the county, and that there should be no change either to the ceremonial and related arrangements.

Following completion of the county reviews in England, we asked the Local Government Commission to carry out further reviews of districts to test the case for consistency. In some instances, the commission recommended different outcomes for what seemed to be very similar districts. Among the 21 districts referred back to the commission for further review were Blackpool and Blackburn in the present county of Lancashire, and Halton and Warrington in the present county of Cheshire.

In its draft recommendation for public consultation, the commission recommended unitary status for all four districts, with no change to the present arrangements for ceremonial and related issues. That means that Blackpool and Blackburn would be deemed to be part of the present county of Lancashire for ceremonial purposes. Similarly, Halton and Warrington would be deemed to be within the present county of Cheshire. The commission is due to submit its final recommendations to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State at the beginning of January next year.

With the completion of the structure reviews of counties and the further district reviews, the only way in which some of the ceremonial changes called for could be further considered is if there were a boundary review of the metropolitan areas of Greater Manchester and Merseyside. That must lead to a wry smile from behind me.

Legislation does not permit the commission to recommend structural changes to areas which are already unitary. It could, however, recommend boundary changes to abolish a metropolitan county, establish the metropolitan districts within it as counties in their own right, and recommend as a consequential arrangement that those new county areas should be associated with existing counties for ceremonial and related purposes.

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We are considering the commission's future timetable for reviews, but given its statutory duty to undertake periodic electoral reviews, some of which are increasingly urgent, it is unlikely that it will be able to carry out the metropolitan reviews to cover all Greater Manchester and Merseyside in the near future, particularly tomorrow, as has been requested. However, as we have always said, it is possible that, in due course, we shall direct the commission to review certain metropolitan areas where there is pressure for change. Southport, in the Merseyside borough of Sefton, is an area where we are aware of strong--[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear!"]--as reinforced this evening--and widely shared pressure for a review.

I know that my hon. Friend presented a petition of 20,000 signatures to the House in April 1994, seeking the abolition of the metropolitan counties of Merseyside, Greater Manchester and Cumbria. I appreciate the feeling that that represents, but the fact is that we cannot act on that petition alone. We have to consider it against the diversion that it would represent of considerable resources from other reviews that the commission is under pressure to undertake.

I should also emphasise that, with the further district reviews due to be finished shortly, we are seeking to conclude the major local government reviews, in the interest of minimising disruption and uncertainty. We do not wish to launch another major review unless there is an outstanding reason for doing so.

I recognise that there will be some disappointment at this response to what is undoubtedly a heartfelt issue for many people in historic Lancashire. However, as my colleagues have pointed out in the past, local government boundaries are concerned essentially with administration,

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and changes, whether arising from the 1974 reorganisation or as part of the current review, need not affect ancient loyalties and affinities.

I need hardly name some of these. Lancashire county cricket club was mentioned, and continues to have Old Trafford as its main ground and headquarters, and has managed to do quite well on it in the last season, despite being within Greater Manchester. Participants in the rugby league Lancashire cup are drawn from across the traditional county, and, as far as I am aware, the performance of the individual teams is unaffected by the fact that they come from the administrative areas of Halton, Wigan and so on. In fact, I recall a very well known Lancastrian--Tuigamala--who, I believe, plays for Wigan.

The Queen's Lancastrian regiment continues to maintain its traditional affiliations with areas such as Warrington, Bury and Oldham, despite their incorporation into Cheshire and Greater Manchester.

The matter of postal addresses was also raised. I doubt whether the presence of the metropolitan counties makes much of an impact on the level of misdirected mail where correspondents choose to use the traditional county rather than the administrative county in an address. Indeed, as I understand it, the Post Office is unconcerned whether letters are addressed using the administrative county or the traditional county, as long as the postcode is correct.

I hope that those examples, of which there could be many more, serve to demonstrate that an area does not have to have a formal structure in order to maintain a clear identity.

Question put and agreed to.

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