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31 Jan 1996 : Column 1100

Local Government Reform (Southport)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Brandreth.]

10.14 pm

Mr. Matthew Banks (Southport): It is a great honour to be a Member of Parliament, and a particular honour to represent the delightful seaside resort of Southport. As you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, before 1974 my constituency was a unitary authority that looked to Lancashire, not to Liverpool. But since 1974, it has been swallowed up by Merseyside and lost its independence.

The Southport county borough was proudly independent and self-governing throughout most of this century, from the 1900s to 1974. During that time, Southport had some of the lowest rates in the United Kingdom, and, I am pleased to report, was controlled by an efficient Conservative council.

In 1974, when Southport was swallowed up, a new authority called Sefton metropolitan borough council was created, including the parliamentary constituencies of Crosby and Bootle. Because of the geography and the make-up of the area, I have never believed, and nor have my constituents, that the metropolitan borough council works in their interests, or in those of Southport as a whole.

From the time when I was selected as a prospective parliamentary candidate in early 1989, I pledged that, if I were elected--and, indeed, up to and including the election--I would work unceasingly to find a mechanism to ensure that the local government structure for Southport was reviewed. Not content with that pledge, I went further. I publicly promised that I would ensure that such a review would begin in the lifetime of this Parliament, not at some unspecified date in the future. It is now time for that process to commence.

I look to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State to make such a commitment at the end of the debate. Recently, in answer to yet another of my parliamentary questions, the Secretary of State said that the Local Government Commission had completed its review of the structure of local government in the shire counties, and that he was now considering the recommendations in the commission's final report, which was published on19 December. No doubt my right hon. Friend will spend some time considering the report, but I believe that it is now time for the structure of local government in my constituency to be reviewed.

Southport county borough under the Conservatives had the among the lowest rates in the country. It was well run and efficient, and took much pride in itself and in the town. But since Merseyside swallowed up my constituency, that pride has been a little tarnished, and I am determined to reverse that trend so that Southport can be proud and independent in Lancashire again.

I place on record my thanks to the independent cross-party Southport borough campaign. With my assistance, it organised a referendum within the town, which took place over a period of one month. Before that, in one of a series of meetings that I have had over several years with the Secretary of State, the Local Government Commission and other Ministers at the Department of the Environment, I was asked whether I could demonstrate that at least 5,000 of my constituents wanted a change. I told my right hon. Friend that I could do rather better than

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that--and indeed, over the month of the referendum, about 23,000 of my constituents made it clear that they wanted that change. I was determined, on their behalf, that the change should come about.

Despite that large number, I do not believe that the Local Government Commission gave me the kind of response for which I would have wished. In fact, in my view the then chairman did not keep his verbal and written promise to me. Since then, I have felt very much alone in my battle with Whitehall and Westminster to ensure that the matter remains on the agenda, culminating in tonight's debate.

I would like to thank also my hon. Friends who have joined me in the House tonight. Blackpool has sought to move away from the control of Lancashire county council, and I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Elletson) is in his place, as is my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans). I am particularly pleased to see my right hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West (Mr. Hunt), as he has fought so hard for his constituency and for the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Porter).

Mr. David Hunt (Wirral, West): Does my hon. Friend agree that there are similar strong feelings about the need for a review of the structure of local government in Wirral, and particularly in the constituencies of Wirral, West and Wirral, South? Thousands of representations have been received over a lengthy period from local people. He has our strong support, and I very much hope that we will have his.

Mr. Banks: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. He knows full well that he has my support. We have stood together in these discussions, and I very much hope that at some future date--not too far away--the Local Government Commission will, as a result of my right hon. Friend's efforts, review the structure of local government in the Wirral also.

I should like to place on record my thanks to my former parliamentary assistant and great friend Roderick Brown, my agent, Mr. John Critten, and my parliamentary secretary here at Westminster, Jane Banks, for all their help behind the scenes in bringing this matter to a satisfactory resolution. I am pleased to see that Jane, who doubles as my wife, is here tonight. I am only sorry that, as I did not have a great deal of notice of the debate, other constituents have not been able to be present to see the debate. No hon. Member has a more supportive or politically astute spouse, and Southport is extremely lucky to have her.

May I also place on record my thanks to my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Ryder), the former Chief Whip, who had to bear the brunt of my sometimes gritty determination. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) and to my former Whip my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown), who know how hard I have had to battle behind the scenes on this issue.

I read with great interest today my local newspapers in Southport--the Advertiser, the Visiter and the Champion. I noticed a front-page article in the Southport Champion with the headline: "Town to quit Sefton? MP Banks pushes for Southport to go it alone."

Further down the front page, there were some comments from the former Member of Parliament, Councillor Ronald Fearn. I quote what he said in the article:

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    "I have campaigned for this for 20 years. I hope Mr. Gummer gets his finger out and does something. We do not want any more vague promises, we want action."

That comes from a man who, in 1973, voted as a councillor to go into Merseyside in the first place and did nothing in the intervening years. In February 1992, he voted with the Labour party in each and every Division in this House against the creation of the very Local Government Commission that is our only chance of gaining independence from Merseyside.

Mr. Harold Elletson (Blackpool, North): Is my hon. Friend aware that Councillor Fearn was in this House for four years, but did nothing to get Southport back into Lancashire? My hon. Friend has fought his campaign valiantly to get Southport back where it belongs--in the red rose county of Lancashire.

Mr. Banks: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As I mentioned, Blackpool will be gaining its independence from Lancashire county council very shortly, as will Blackburn and, I hope, other places.

The importance of the size of a particular potential unitary authority has also been brought into question. Blackpool and Blackburn have gained independence that they did not have before 1974, and a town such as Hartlepool--of a similar size to Southport--has done so also. I have no truck with those who say that Southport will not be big enough to run its own affairs. It did so before 1974, and it can, and--if I have anything to do with it--will, again.

The only issue of contention has been put about by those with a vested interest, who say that senior citizens will not be able to benefit from the generous current concessionary travel schemes. I do not believe that any successor authority would want to do other than continue to opt into the concessionary travel scheme that currently exists in Southport and the metropolitan area. Any candidate from any political party who said otherwise would not be elected.

Breaking away from Sefton and ceasing to be run by Bootle will allow the tourist industry in my constituency to develop properly. At present, Bootle councillors do not give a damn about what happens in Southport. It is nonsense for them to suggest that we might come third, behind Blackpool and St Anne's as a resort. We have our own product: it is different from Blackpool's, and we are very proud of it.

I believe that, if the Minister is prepared to give the go-ahead tonight, a review can not merely get under way in the lifetime of the present Parliament but begin in a matter of weeks. I should like the Local Government Commission to institute a referendum, so that local people can give their views, to arrange public meetings and consultation, and to take sufficient time to listen carefully to local opinion.

Such reviews take a long time. The shire review has taken at least a year, and it may well take longer than that to complete the review of Southport and Sefton. My constituents must remember that this Government, and this Conservative party, will give them the opportunity of a review and the chance of independence. Mindful of the actions of my predecessor--a Liberal Democrat--and his party's and Labour's policy for regional government, I fear that, in the unlikely event of a Labour Government,

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those two parties would not complete the review I seek. The interests of my constituents will best be served by the re-election of the present Government.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and to his ministerial team for the way in which, over a number of years, they have listened to the arguments that I have advanced, sometimes forcefully. Now, however, the time for debate is over, and the review should begin. We want our independence in Southport to be considered as soon as possible, and I look to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State to announce the review for which I have asked, so that, once again, my constituency can run its own affairs and get out of Sefton and Merseyside once and for all.

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