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10.26 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir Paul Beresford): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. Banks) on stepping into the breach on an urgent basis. I note that he has the heavy brigade behind him in the form of my hon. Friends the Members for Blackpool, North (Mr. Elletson) and for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans)--and, of course, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West(Mr. Hunt), who is pushing a similar case to which we must give consideration. I am delighted to respond to the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Southport has made so emphatically. Unusually but effectively, his wife has supported him, campaigning vigorously.

Since 1974, when the change came about, people in Southport have objected to being part of Merseyside. It is not just being in Merseyside rather than Lancashire that is unpopular; given Southport's former status as an independent county borough, people also dislike being part of the larger metropolitan borough of Sefton, along with Bootle and Crosby. My hon. Friend's wish for Southport to be returned to Lancashire is long-standing: he spoke of it on the first occasion he spoke in the House, and he has continued to speak of it ever since.

The Local Government Commission's remit covers structural, electoral and boundary changes. When it was set up in 1992, its first priority was the structural review of the English shire counties; however, in September 1993, we made it clear that the commission would be able to review the metropolitan areas when the shire reviews were completed, where there was pressure for change. There has certainly been strong pressure in Southport, perhaps to a unique degree--aided, abetted and pushed by my hon. Friend.

In September 1993, the Local Government Commission received the results of the ballot carried out in Southport. Of 35,000 ballot papers delivered, an extraordinary 23,000 were returned in favour of a review and less than 1,000 against. That was a positive response rate. From an area with an electorate of 72,000, it must be taken as a dramatic indication of local opinion.

The commission has concluded the shire structure reviews, including the further district reviews in counties such as Lancashire. Its main priority now is the periodic electoral reviews. It is bound by statute to undertake those and, as far as practicable, within no more than 15 years since the previous review. Those are becoming increasingly urgent in a number of places, and that work should take precedence. However, there will be room in its programme to carry out a few other reviews.

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My hon. Friend met my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State before Christmas, and he knows that we are aware of the strength of feeling in Southport. I can confirm to him that one of the commission's additional reviews will be that of Southport.

Any review, except for a periodic electoral review, needs a direction to the commission from the Secretary of State. We are considering whether the direction will tell the commission to consider Southport or the whole of Sefton. It is important, however, that it is clear that the commission is not being directed towards a particular outcome.

It will also be necessary, as with the individual district reviews, which have just been completed, for the commission to consider the viability of the remnant authority that might result. That is not to say that it will not know what pressures led to any particular review. I suspect that my hon. Friend will not allow it to forget.

The basic procedures that the commission has to follow in any review are set down in the Local Government Act 1992. There must be two intervals for consultation and representations--before and after it produces its draft recommendations. Although guidance can expand on that procedure, the detail of how it conducts a review should be left to the commission to decide. That would include how it might measure the attitude of the general public. My hon. Friend might like to approach the commission directly to find out what methods it would like to use for the boundary review.

The recommendations at the end of any review are, of course, a matter entirely for the commission. In the case of a review of a metropolitan area, however, some constraints arise from the Act. For example, it defines a structural change only as a change from a two-tier system of local government to a one-tier system; there cannot be a change in the opposite direction.

In addition, a unitary authority cannot be part of two-tier county area. In other words, a unitary Southport self-evidently could not be part of a two-tier Lancashire under Lancashire county council, although the two could be deemed to be joined for ceremonial purposes, such as the lord lieutenancy. It is therefore helpful that the shire structure reviews are now complete--subject to my right hon. Friend's decisions on the commission's final reports on the district reviews--so that the context is clear.

I said that there is room in the commission's programme for a few boundary or parishing reviews and that one of those will be of Sefton. We hope to be able to announce soon what the others will be. That will be when the commission announces its programme of periodic electoral reviews. We are working on the direction and guidance to the commission. We will also be discussing with it what would be an appropriate length of time for the review, given the issues that have to be addressed in metropolitan areas.

Once again, I congratulate my hon. Friend on the force and energy that he has put into this subject, in the face of the failure of his predecessor, and on his success in ensuring that local government in Southport will be considered by the commission.

Question put and agreed to.

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