Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 220 - 239)



Mrs Dunwoody

  220. Social and economic partners? What is the difference?
  (Mr Raynsford) That is a phrase that has been fairly widely used to cover a range of organisations including business, trade unions and voluntary organisations, all of which would have an interest in the work of the regional assembly.

  Mrs Dunwoody: People?

Mrs Ellman

  221. When do you expect the first elections to the regional assemblies to be held?
  (Mr Raynsford) It would be too soon to give a definitive answer to that, but I have already indicated that, if we maintain the timetable that we are working to, it should be possible, if a region votes in a referendum for an elected regional assembly, for one to be up and running before the end of this Parliament.

Sir Paul Beresford

  222. If a referendum turnout is exceptionally low, which would not surprise a number of us, say below 35 per cent, would you still count it as valid?
  (Mr Raynsford) We have experience of referendums in Scotland, in Wales and—

Mrs Dunwoody

  223. And also the results.
  (Mr Raynsford) . . . and in Greater London. In none of those cases did we apply a threshold. The turnout did vary quite significantly between those three separate bodies but the problem with a threshold was made rather clear in the later 1970s when a threshold was applied in relation to Scotland which resulted in the aspirations for devolution in Scotland being deferred for some 20 years, although the Scots had voted by a majority in favour of devolution at that date. So there are difficult issues here.

Mrs Dunwoody

  224. It might not be a good example, Minister.
  (Mr Raynsford) It may not but it is one of the examples I have to look at when framing the proposals in—

Sir Paul Beresford

  225. We could possibly learn from our mistakes recently in the three that you read through quickly.
  (Mr Raynsford) I think the people of Scotland and Wales undoubtedly feel that there are considerable benefits from the establishment of devolved government with governance within their countries and I certainly feel that the framework in London for the governance of London is a considerable improvement on the situation that followed the abolition of the GLC which left London alone of all cities in the developed world—

  226. That was not the question.
  (Mr Raynsford) . . . without its own democratic city-wide government.

  227. We could argue that for ages but it was not the question.
  (Mr Raynsford) No, but it was my answer.

Mr Cummings

  228. I am more confused now, Minister, than I was when I came into the meeting! I represent a constituency in the shire county, County Durham. Should we move towards local government, in the shire county we are going to have parish councils, district councils, county councils, parliaments, British Parliament, European Parliament and the regional assemblies. Do you really think this makes sense in an age when we are trying to curtail and streamline? There is certainly in my area no enthusiasm whatsoever to move towards regional government until you have sorted out local government and that means looking towards perhaps European authorities. Can you give us some idea what your vision is for the future. When do you intend to examine in some detail the future role of local authorities? There just seems to me no direction whatsoever. I fail to see how we can move rationally towards regional assemblies of any meaning until local government itself has some meaning and purpose of direction.
  (Mr Raynsford) This is one of the big issues that will be covered in the White Paper and let me just spell out the reasons why it is a particularly important and difficult issue. You have rightly highlighted the fact that, if there were simply the creation of a further tier of government on top of the existing ones, that would appear to be creating an unnecessarily large number of tiers of government —

Sir Paul Beresford

  229. As in London.
  (Mr Raynsford) That is not the same as London because they are only unitary authorities in London. The second consideration is that the experience of the early 1990s was that the process of local government reorganisation, the Banham Commission, was seen as a not entirely happy event in which a great deal of time, energy and effort was exhausted by local authorities concerned about their future and I think it is fair to say that attention was taken away from what we regard as the highest priority, which is ensuring efficient service delivery. We have no intention of returning to a large-scale reorganisation of local government on the Banham scale. We just believe that that would be a distraction from the main priority of raising standards of service delivery in local government. However, it is the case that our Manifesto says that we envisage the opportunity for the creation of regional government to apply in those regions with predominantly unitary patterns of local government.

Mr Cummings

  230. Minister, as a government, are you not going to give a definite lead on what is a very confusing situation at the moment? Are you going to scrap county councils?
  (Mr Raynsford) No, we are not going to scrap county councils and, as I have already said in my answer, it would be, in my view, a serious disruption to embark on a wholesale review of local government in England.

  231. You have been quite specific that you do not intend to scrap county councils. Therefore, if we move towards regional government in the north-east of England, the shire counties will be six tiers of government.
  (Mr Raynsford) No. What I have said is that the commitment in our Manifesto is to allow the opportunity for regions that vote for it in a referendum to have an elected regional assembly but this should apply only in regions with a predominantly unitary pattern of local government. There must therefore be a mechanism for considering whether or not that test is satisfied.

  232. What mechanism will be used?
  (Mr Raynsford) That will be spelt out in the White Paper, as I have said. If I can just paint the context. We know at the moment that, in Yorkshire and Humberside, about 89 per cent of the population are living in unitary authorities. That might be considered to be a predominantly unitary pattern of local government. In the north-east and north-west, around two-thirds of the population are living in unitary authority areas. In other parts of the country, it is very different. In the eastern region, less than 20 per cent of the population live in unitary authorities. Therefore, there will inevitably be a need to approach this issue in a way that takes account of those very significant regional variations and that, as I said, is one of the difficult issues. I have openly shared with the Committee the potential difficulties there, the conflict between the commitment to have a predominantly unitary framework if regional tiers of government are introduced as against the disruption caused by an extensive review and reorganisation of local government which would divert attention away from the prime priority of efficient service delivery.

  233. Has the department carried out an evaluation of the effect of using the power mix of two-tier unitary authorities?
  (Mr Raynsford) We are constantly assessing the performance of local government at all tiers and that is—

  234. Time is running very short here, Minster.
  (Mr Raynsford) The overriding priority, as I have already said, is to ensure that local government, in all its forms, delivers high quality services and the experience of the Banham Review in the early 1990s was that a disproportionate amount of time and energy was spent on considering reorganisation which did not help local authorities to deliver services efficiently and which caused very, very expensive changes in structure and organisation. We have no wish to repeat that experience.


  235. Very expensive? Can you tell us how much it cost?
  (Mr Raynsford) I cannot offhand but I could certainly get the figures and send them to you.

Mr Betts

  236. Can I ask you about what you said regarding the situation in North Yorkshire. What you were saying to the Committee this morning was that, in North Yorkshire, even though it is predominantly two-tier, because it happens to sit in a region where the rest of the region is unitary, it might well be okay for them to proceed to regional authority in their current situation without any change to local government circumstances. In Norfolk, a similar sort of county, predominantly or wholly two-tier, because that happens to sit in a region where most of the rest of the counties are two-tier as well, it is inappropriate for them to proceed—
  (Mr Raynsford) What I am saying is that this is one of the issues that has to be covered and will be covered in the White Paper because we are approaching this in a very pragmatic way. We are not trying to impose a blueprint and say that a single pattern must apply everywhere. Implicit in our pledge that regional governance will only be introduced where people vote for it in a referendum is the assumption that some regions will opt for it and others will not. That therefore does inevitably mean variation between the patterns of government in different regions.

  237. Some regions may opt for it and, in opting for it, the eastern regions may say "north of this county" and then having implemented it—presumably there is going to be a test about what predominantly means—if they are going to go through the procedure, it is a very expensive local government change . . .
  (Mr Raynsford) I think that flows automatically from the proposition that I put and I would accept that interpretation, but all I would say is that we do not at the moment have very much evidence of any great appetite in the eastern region for a regional assembly. We know by contrast in the north-east and in some of the other northern regions, there is significant interest in the possibility.

Mr Cummings

  238. Significant interest, Minister, from whom?
  (Mr Raynsford) I have had meetings, the Deputy Prime Minister has had meetings, my colleagues in the Cabinet Office have had meetings with a range of people in—

  239. All of whom have a vested interest in promoting regional government.
  (Mr Raynsford) No.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 24 May 2002