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5 Feb 2003 : Column 105WH—continued

Unitary Authorities

2 pm

Jane Griffiths (Reading, East): I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss unitary authorities in the broadest sense. They have been with us for several years, and it is now time to take stock of their efficacy and their operation. After all, local government reform and local government review seem to happen almost continuously. We have a review, some changes are made, and almost immediately the next review is upon us.

County councils, which almost seem like a part of history, have not been a local government unit for all that many years. For example, when Berkshire county council was abolished a few years ago, there was much breast beating and hand wringing—if it is physically possible to do both at the same time. People said that our county was being abolished, taking part of our history with it—but that was not really true. It is true that Berkshire, as an entity, existed for centuries, but its boundaries have changed from time to time. Its county town used to be Abingdon, but with boundary changes, that rightly became Reading, which is, of course, the capital of the Thames valley—and which should be a city, as I am sure hon. Members of all parties will agree.

In fact, Berkshire was an artificial county, very much a creature of the Local Government Act 1972, and the move towards unitary local government was the right approach to adopt at the time. Most counties vary in character from urban through suburban to rural, and Berkshire is no exception. It has the urban centres of Reading, Bracknell and Slough, the rural expanse of west Berkshire with its racecourses and rolling downs, and the suburban and commuter towns and villages of Wokingham district. Many other counties are largely rural but contain large towns, so their character varies.

In the 1960s, Bedfordshire, the county in which I grew up, varied from the urban car factories of the south through the brickfields at the centre to the onion fields of the north. It has changed somewhat, and I would not presume to trespass on the territory of the hon. Members who represent the communities of Bedfordshire now, so I shall discuss the unitary authorities of Berkshire, particularly Reading and Wokingham—areas that I have the honour to represent.

I would like to air issues about the provision of services by local government and try to reach a view on the optimum size of population per unit of local government, and on the closeness to the population of those who are elected as representatives and determine council tax and spending.

Let us consider the purpose of local government. Historically, county councils have been responsible for education, personal social services, libraries, museums and art galleries, structure plans, highways and parking, refuse disposal, the control of mineral and gravel extraction, fire and rescue services, civil defence, weights and measures and consumer protection services—a heavy responsibility.

Shire districts have been responsible for housing, environmental health services, refuse collection, local plans and development control, markets, land charges, parks, recreation and leisure facilities generally,

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museums and art galleries—often jointly with county councils—crematoriums and cemeteries and a variety of licensing and registration functions, including public entertainment licensing and taxi driver licensing. They too have a heavy work load and a heavy responsibility, quite different from those of county councils.

Most county councils, because of the variety of communities that they have the duty to represent, will have a variety of representation. A county council member who represents a rural district or division may not be particularly knowledgeable about an urban part of that county and may not be inclined to vote resources in that direction, or wish to divert them there. That is a historical problem that affects county councils as units of local government.

The review of local government really got under way in 1990, when the then Environment Secretary rightly said that the review of local government would

That led to the establishment of the Local Government Commission and to the enactment of the principle that where possible, there should be single-tier government, because two-tier government is likely to produce excessive bureaucracy and duplication of effort. In practice, the process, which tied up councillors and officers for several years in efforts to arrive at sensible solutions for their areas, produced workable unitary authorities only in mainly urban areas.

Outside the metropolitan conurbations, most counties acquired unitary authorities. Cambridgeshire contained Peterborough unitary authority, Bedfordshire contained Luton and so on. I will not weary the House with an account of the lengthy and at times acrimonious debates that took place in Berkshire about the future of its local government. Should there be four, five or six unitary authorities? Should Berkshire county council stay or should it go? If there were four or five unitary authorities, the existing districts would have to expand their boundaries. Would that result in a change of political control in those councils? Did that matter? Berkshire, in common with much of the south of England, is not a one-party state. Its eight hon. Members in the House represent all three main parties and its local authorities are similarly situated.

In Berkshire, we faced the dilemma of arriving at a consensus between those who wanted to retain their existing political control—a natural instinct on the part of anyone who has been elected—even at the expense of effective local government, and those who were prepared to jeopardise their personal political futures, as it might have been seen, to achieve effective representation and provision of services. To cut a long and tedious story short, there was furious lobbying and debate, and the occasional exchange of threats and promise of reward. That was all done in the most punctilious fashion; nothing improper took place.

Eventually, the Secretary of State decided that although the Local Government Commission had recommended the creation of five unitary authorities, there should be six within the existing boundaries of the shire district. In 1996, Berkshire county council was refused leave to appeal against the ruling. Thus were born the Berkshire unitary authorities of Bracknell Forest, Newbury—now renamed West Berkshire—

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Reading, Slough, Windsor and Maidenhead, and Wokingham. Although not typical, in that throughout Berkshire there is only one tier of local government, the Berkshire unitary authorities provide a useful pointer to the future of effective local government and should inform the inevitable review of local government that will, and should, take place sooner or later.

I remind the House of the guidance that was given to the Local Government Commission in relation to carrying out its work. The commission was told that, although reorganisation should be worth while and cost-effective over time, it was not

The commission was

I would suggest that that part of the guidance is salutary for us all to consider, even now. The Local Government Commission did some excellent work, but much remains to be done. How wide and how deep is understanding of local government among ordinary council tax payers?

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West): My hon. Friend is making a good point, and drawing the attention of the Chamber to the fact that it was a Conservative Secretary of State who chose to ignore the recommendations of the Local Government Commission. I have two points on the lessons to be learned from that. First, is the Conservative party not being completely hypocritical when it mourns the impending demise of the counties, because it was a Conservative Secretary of State who abolished Berkshire county council? Secondly, the decision to create six unitary authorities in Berkshire was criticised at the time as a political fix. What are my hon. Friend's views on those matters?

Jane Griffiths : My hon. Friend is right to make those points. The Secretary of State in the Conservative Government of the time was the ultimate decision maker on the future of local government in Berkshire. The decision was indeed criticised as a political fix, and I recall that the two Conservative Members representing the two Reading constituencies applauded the demise of Berkshire county council and the creation of those unitary authorities. It is not for me here to comment on or seek to analyse Conservative party policy; that is for Conservative Members. However, my hon. Friend's points are well made.

The commission was told that when it recommended the creation of unitary authorities, it should aim to make them responsible for all local government functions rather than passing existing authorities' functions to joint boards—an idea that was considered at the time. That is because the potential benefits of unitary authorities are lost if those authorities, and the

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communities that they represent, do not have direct responsibility. Although it was probably right to jettison the notion of joint boards in almost all cases, the aim of making a unitary authority responsible for all local government functions, although it has technically been achieved, has not really been fulfilled in terms of local council tax payers' appreciation of how such services work.

We have all failed in some measure if what we want is truly participative local democracy. The local government that we now have is an improvement on the previous structure—certainly in Berkshire it is—but there is a very long way to go.

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge): Does the hon. Lady have any data to hand on participation rates in elections in unitary authorities compared with those in two-tier authorities? If so, it would reinforce her point.

Jane Griffiths : I know that participation rates in local elections are higher in unitary authorities than in county council elections. County council elections are often held on the same day as other elections, perhaps general elections. That affects participation rates. Most unitary authorities are largely, if not entirely, urban, and participation rates tend to be a little lower in urban than in suburban or semi-rural areas. I am not sure what conclusion can be drawn from those points, but participation rates in different types of district would merit further study.

The commission was guided as follows:

Did that happen with unitary authorities and the new structures? Do they enable those functions to be performed cost-effectively? I shall explain later that in some ways they do not. That is not necessarily the fault of unitary authorities, and certainly not usually the fault of elected members and officers of those authorities, but in some cases the fact that they are unitary can work against cost-effective provision of local services.

There are problems in Berkshire—I am referring to Reading and Wokingham rather than the other local authorities in Berkshire. Two areas in which unitary authorities face particular difficulties are transport infrastructure and education provision, as well as the ever vexed question of local government finance. Just about every unitary authority, and many others, will tell anyone who will listen that they believe themselves to be underfunded, but it is difficult to make judgments about that from the outside.

Reading is typical of small unitary authorities in that in this era of parental choice, its secondary schools cannot accommodate all its school-age population. There is no comprehensive school in east Reading, so 11 to 18-year-olds, by and large, go to school in Wokingham district. The present nature of local government finance means that Wokingham receives less for each child it educates than Reading does. The reasons for that are various, but largely concern particular needs that are suffered by more young people in Reading than in Wokingham district, because the

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character of those two districts is different. Thus Reading children travel outside the borough to school and Wokingham must consider the needs of Reading children when it plans its education services. Under Berkshire county council that was not the case—although Berkshire county council as an education authority had serious deficiencies.

Three quarters of my constituents live in Reading borough, but considerably fewer are educated there. It is logical for any local education authority to plan to educate the children of its council tax payers. Neither Reading nor Wokingham can do that, so the arrangements must be examined again. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will consider the difficult issues that face small authorities when they are trying to plan education provision. Perhaps he will discuss the matter with his colleagues.

Mr. Salter : On education provision, my hon. Friend will recall that the recommendations of the Local Government Commission for England in respect of Berkshire, particularly Reading, envisaged a sensible expansion of Reading's outdated 100-year-old boundaries, which would have picked up many of the schools built subsequently on the periphery of the urban area of Reading. Had the absurd decision to create six unitary authorities not been made, many of the education problems to which my hon. Friend refers would not have occurred.

Jane Griffiths : That is certainly the case. My view at the time was that the six proposed unitary authority boundaries were much too tightly drawn. Many thousands of people who do not live in the borough of Reading consider that they live in Reading, because they work and shop there. Their children may be educated in Wokingham, but they use Reading to meet just about all their other needs.

I have referred to schools in east Reading, but the problem is greater in south Reading. I apologise if I sound parochial, but the issues facing Reading and other authorities in Berkshire are pertinent to unitary authorities—throughout England, at least. South Reading has two comprehensive schools: Reading girls school and Thamesbridge college, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter). Just over the border in Wokingham is Ryeish green school, more than 60 per cent. of whose pupils live in Reading borough. Wokingham needs secondary school places elsewhere in its district, and has been considering whether Ryeish Green school should be relocated to meet that need. That proposal, which was considered by Wokingham quite recently, led to a campaign, run by Reading councillors and by my hon. Friend, for the school to be retained in its present location in the interests of the children who go there. The future options for that school and others in Wokingham district are being considered. Wokingham had hoped for a private finance initiative for its schools, but that has not so far been authorised. I hope that, with his colleagues, my hon. Friend the Minister will find an opportunity to reconsider that.

My view is that the two schools in south Reading within Reading borough are not well served by the existence of Ryeish Green school in its present location.

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We are left with that piece of history: there are three schools, the people of south Reading need to send their children to school, and the money is in the wrong place—I believe that one of the schools is in the wrong place too.

The families who have the greatest choice in educating their children, because of transport and other factors, tend to choose Ryeish Green and other schools outside Reading borough. That makes it extremely difficult for Reading girls school and Thamesbridge college to fulfil their potential and that of the children who attend them. This factor creates a burden for Reading borough council, which is responsible for those two schools. That means that things are difficult for Reading borough council in the present funding regime, and my constituents who live in south Reading are not well served. Education provision is a continuing problem for Reading and Wokingham unitary councils, and could usefully be scrutinised by my hon. Friend the Minister and his colleagues. Size does matter; education does matter.

The transport infrastructure is also a burning issue for unitary authorities.

Mr. Hammond : The hon. Lady has just said that size matters. I shall ask the Minister later about size in relation to unitary authorities. From her experience, and that of her neighbours and colleagues in what used to be Berkshire, does the hon. Lady have a view on the minimum size, and perhaps the maximum size, of an effective unitary authority?

Jane Griffiths : It would be difficult to arrive at a population figure and say no fewer than that—or no more than that. That could cause problems. The density or sparsity of population would affect the number of people who could receive good governance from a unitary authority. The population of the borough of Reading is about 150,000, whereas the usership of the borough is a quarter of a million, possibly more. That anomaly needs to be addressed.

Mr. Salter : Before my hon. Friend moves away from the subject of education, I thank her for drawing attention to the successful campaign, run by myself and by local councillors and parents, to allow freedom of choice, and to allow the people of south Reading to choose Ryeish Green school for their children. Does she acknowledge that the campaign was supported not only by the Labour party in Reading but by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) and by the Minister, who made the position of the Department for Education and Skills clear to Wokingham council? The proposal to move Ryeish Green school some eight miles to Finchampstead has now been dropped. That has been acknowledged in a press release from Wokingham district council. Will my hon. Friend clarify her position? Does she believe that parents in south Reading should be denied the opportunity to send their children to a school outside the boundary, such as Ryeish Green?

Jane Griffiths : I would never say that parents living anywhere should be denied the opportunity to send their children to the school of their choice, whether it is in the borough in which they lived or not. My point about Ryeish Green school is that the other two schools in

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south Reading are not well served by its existence. The fact that more than 60 per cent. of its pupils live in Reading borough shows the choice that parents in Reading are making. That is their privilege, and I would not seek to deny anyone that choice.

Under the Greenwich judgment, it would not be lawful to limit the geographical origin of the pupils of any school. I do not believe that the question arises. At Ryeish Green school, things have moved on and various options for the future are being considered. When the debate being held behind closed doors emerges and conclusions are reached, it will be salutary for all of us, because that debate goes to the heart of the problems of small local authorities. This is a question not of the quality of the schools concerned, but of where the money goes.

I want to talk about transport infrastructure, which is a burning issue for unitary authorities. The near impossibility of planning and implementing transport infrastructure projects for unitary authorities, especially small authorities, is well known. That is one reason for the widespread support for regional government, which I share—but we are not here to debate regional government today, although I hope that there will be opportunities to do so in the future; we are here to debate unitary authorities.

The Thames valley is one of the most affluent areas of the country, and as a consequence has one of the severest traffic congestion problems. It is imperative that the local authorities in the Thames valley work together to plan, manage and minimise that congestion.

The Thames runs through the north of my constituency. There are only two crossings of the river in Reading, which contributes greatly to the traffic congestion in the north and centre of my constituency. Much of the traffic does not need to be there, but is there because there are only two realistic ways to get across the Thames. There is almost no public transport alternative across the Thames, if one lives outside the borough of Reading. People drive in from South Oxfordshire because they work in Reading. The catchment are of Reading is about a quarter of a million people, some of whom live in villages in South Oxfordshire.

The issue of a third Thames crossing has been debated among the various local authorities in their changing guises since the 1920s, and no solution has yet been found. Most local authorities in the area favour a new road bridge across the Thames, but the more rural authorities to the north do not want it to be in their territory. That position is untenable. If we want a road, it has to go somewhere.

In transport planning, as hon. Members will know, there is never one solution to a problem. There is always a range, each of which will do something—but not everything—to reduce congestion and make journeys easier. My own solution is a light rail system. Light rail is an excellent transport mode for urban areas such as greater Reading. In Reading, we are greatly envious of the excellent system enjoyed by Croydon—and we felt better able to commiserate with Croydon when both towns failed to achieve city status. We will get over it.

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Light rail, however, is unlikely to provide a good solution in sparsely populated rural areas. That is why the Berkshire unitary authorities, and the neighbouring authorities in Oxfordshire, cannot agree. While they fail to agree, traffic congestion increases week by week. Parts of my constituency, such as central and east Reading, achieve—if that is the word—severe pollution and dangerously low air quality on far too many days of the year. All the best efforts of Reading borough council to encourage alternative modes of transport, excellent though they are, will never remove the problem. Unitary authorities will never be able to plan transport infrastructure effectively acting alone, because there are too many factors beyond their control.

Upon the demise of Berkshire county council, a body was set up—the Reading urban area package, comprising Reading, Wokingham and West Berkshire councils. If small unitary authorities were really the answer, why was the package necessary? The Reading urban area package does some very useful work of benefit to all, which none of the unitaries could have done alone. This is not an argument for the return of Berkshire county council—far from it. Unitary authorities need to join together to achieve outcomes that are of benefit to all. It may be difficult for them, with different political colours and strategies, much like the three councils that I have just mentioned.

Mr. Hammond : Is the hon. Lady sure that she has drawn the right conclusion? She said that she was not calling for the return of Berkshire, but that the unitary authorities within the county were too small. Is she sure that small unitary authorities working together is the right solution? How did she arrive at the conclusion that larger unitary authorities—perhaps countywide—are not the solution?

Jane Griffiths : Our experience in Berkshire leads to my strong conviction that a county council model is not the right solution. I will not waver from that. I tried to highlight the problems faced by small unitary authorities. If they were larger—obviously there would be fewer of them—the problems would be less difficult to tackle. However, they would still be there, and there would still have to be joint working. The realisation that joint working had to take place was an immediate acknowledgment, upon the demise of Berkshire county council, that the new authorities were too small. Some of us said that all along, but it fell on deaf ears.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): I apologise to the hon. Lady for arriving in the middle of her speech. Perhaps she could help me with two questions. First, has the Electoral Commission reviewed the boundaries of the unitary authorities in Berkshire, or is Reading making such a proposal? Does she feel that there could be a better arrangement of unitary authorities in Berkshire? Secondly, what would be her advice to authorities that do not have adjoining unitary authorities?

Jane Griffiths : We do expect a review of the boundaries in Berkshire, but exactly when we shall have one I do not know. Part of the reason for today's debate, ahead of any review, is to highlight some of the issues. I appreciate the difficulties that the hon. Gentleman

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might face. For geographical reasons, his unitary county—I believe it is the only one—has no other to join with and so works alone. I also appreciate that he might have a very heavy constituency work load, because he represents more people than most of us do. He has my sympathy. I am sure that he does an excellent job.

We must find a new way to encourage unitary authorities to work together, or to oblige them to do so if they are unwilling. Otherwise, all their council tax payers are let down. Central Government take full account of that. Ministers often receive delegations and are lobbied on issues that, if local authorities were of sustainable size, could be resolved at local level, without the need for ministerial intervention.

Some small local authorities own land and property outside their boundaries. It might have come to them from the previous county council or might simply be there for historical reasons. That is the case in Berkshire. Reading borough council owns a considerable number of properties in Woodley, in the Wokingham district, which is in my constituency. I doubt that that situation is unique. The residents who live there find it difficult to understand why they must pay their council tax to Wokingham and their rent to Reading. If they have nuisance neighbours they must contact Wokingham to complain about noise or environmental health hazards. If they need housing repairs they must contact Reading. That is not a customer-friendly provision of local government services. I mean no disrespect to Reading borough council when I say that there is no great incentive for Reading, with its limited resources, to prioritise putting money into property that is outside the council's boundaries. The brutal political reality is that no one who lives in those houses can vote in the Reading borough council elections. Tenants of one council who live in another often lose out on services, through no fault of their own. We must do whatever we can to tackle that problem.

That was the experience of my constituents in Woodley. Fortunately, the matter has now been resolved, and I am glad to say that they are getting their housing repairs. However, such circumstances must exist elsewhere to a considerable extent. I am sure that hon. Members of all parties often encounter such problems in their casework.

I would like to highlight another issue that particularly affects Reading and other small unitary authorities with urban centres that attract a great many people for work, shopping or entertainment. The people who come in do not pay council tax to the authority. Although they make a welcome contribution to the economy of towns such as Reading, they place a considerable burden on local services, for which the people who live in the town must pay.

There are more people on Minster street in Reading, which is pub and club land in my constituency, at 1 am on Fridays and Saturdays than there are at 1 pm. Managers of local authorities did not anticipate such inflows of people, but they are increasingly common. Few people would want Reading to return to the sleepy market town that it was many years ago, but at any given time most of the people on the streets of Reading are people who live outside the borough, but fairly close to it.

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I was very pleased by the recent launch of the business improvement districts, which will include Reading. That programme, which is very welcome, will go some way to redressing the balance, but it does not entirely solve the problem. Size does matter. How should the council tax payers of Reading reconcile their wish for a lively local economy with the fact that they are subsidising residents of Wokingham, West Berkshire and South Oxfordshire councils who want to have a good time?

Mr. Hammond : Is the hon. Lady suggesting that the people who flood into Reading do not spend any money or contribute to the local economy?

Jane Griffiths : Not at all. They contribute greatly to the local economy and create job opportunities. Reading university is popular, partly because students who are struggling but do not wish to incur large debts know that they can get jobs. The entertainment economy—the evening economy—in Reading is staffed by students. It is an asset to the town, but services such as the police, and, to some extent, general emergency services, are called on in places with a lively evening economy.

Reading also has a rock festival and the Womad festival, to which tens of thousands of people come to enjoy themselves. The cost falls disproportionately on the council tax payers, many of whom may not be able to afford to enjoy themselves in the pubs and clubs of Reading. That is a problem.

That brings me to the vexed issue of local government finance. The population of Berkshire is growing, as it is in much of the south of England. There is a problem of data lag—a new piece of jargon—in areas in which the actual population is greater than the planned population. If one uses census figures to project house building and to plan how many people will live in a district, they will always be behind. If the population is static, there is not a problem. If it is declining, there may be empty homes. We do not have a significant number of empty homes in Reading and Wokingham.

I can do no better than share with the House a letter that was sent by Wokingham council to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. It is headed "Revenue Support Grant 2003/04":

We can see that a whole flurry of jargon is threatening to overwhelm us. The letter continues:

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I am sharing that with hon. Members because Wokingham is a small unitary authority in an affluent area. It incurs high costs when providing services, because skilled workers are hard to find. However, low-paid workers, such as care workers, are even harder to find, because they cannot easily afford to live in such districts. That is also largely true of Reading—although we were pleased to find that the rise in council tax may not, after all, be as prohibitive as we had thought.

Mr. Hammond : That problem exists throughout the high-pressure areas of the south-east. It certainly exists throughout Surrey. It has nothing whatever to do with unitary structures. We have two-tier arrangements throughout Surrey, and we have exactly the same problems in recruiting and retaining lower-paid staff.

Jane Griffiths : The hon. Gentleman is right, and I simply mention the issue in passing because unitary and other authorities—regardless of whether they are single-tier or two-tier—tend to raise it with Departments when they discuss finance levels. I did not highlight it earlier, because, as the hon. Gentleman said, it is not specific to single-tier local government. None the less, the issue does arise.

After it became clear that I would be introducing this debate, I was contacted by Telford and Wrekin unitary authority, which is very concerned about the issues before us, and I am happy to share a little of what it had to say:

I am inclined to agree. The authority continued:

It noted that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

However, the effects of the census have skewed population numbers. The data are not real—they are rapidly outdated.

The authority continued:

rate support grant—

Speaking as someone from outside Telford, I pass the authority's points on at face value, because they show that the issues that affect unitary authorities in Berkshire also affect many other authorities in England.

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The final issue that I shall mention is licensing, which will place a disproportionate burden on small unitary authorities. We may see a change in legislation—I hope that we do—to modernise licensing laws in the near future. When that happens, the decision-making burden will fall on local authorities. Much of what was previously done by magistrates will be done by local authorities, but people who live in Reading, for example, will expect the enforcement of licensing laws to continue at least at the same level. It will be difficult for small unitary authorities, which have a limited tax base, to fulfil their responsibilities, and I shall raise that matter again on other occasions.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will consider those issues. I look forward to hearing from him whether he agrees that small unitary authorities often experience many difficulties, not of their making, in providing local services effectively. I hope that he will agree to discuss with his colleagues ways in which good and effective unitary authorities, such as Reading and Wokingham, can be helped to become even better and more effective.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Frank Cook): Order. It might be as well if I reminded hon. Members that it is customary practice in 90-minute Adjournment debates to commence the first of the three winding-up speeches 30 minutes before the conclusion, which means that there are 14 minutes left for general debate.

2.46 pm

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West): I assure the Chamber that I shall not speak for 14 minutes. I imagine that my colleagues have heard more about Reading than they ever thought they would, and I apologise for the fact that they are about to hear a little more. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) on securing the debate. Frankly, given the number of unitary authorities that exist, and notwithstanding the obvious difficulties that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) would have in contributing to the debate, I am surprised that more hon. Members have not decided to participate. Unitary authorities have been in place for sufficiently long for us to conclude certain things about their inception and operation. Perhaps we can learn lessons from the past and rectify mistakes. I am certainly looking forward to a boundary review in Reading, but I shall deal with that later.

My hon. Friend talked about the optimum size of an authority, and discussed the matter with the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman. I have not researched the subject, but I seem to remember that the criteria to which the commission was working, or which it published, referred to a unitary authority with a population of no fewer than 120,000 people and up to 250,000 or 300,000. I have a similar relationship with West Berkshire to that which my hon. Friend has with Wokingham, in that one third of my constituency is in West Berkshire—and has the misfortune of coming under Liberal control, although I am not sure for how much longer—and the other two thirds are well represented by Reading borough council. The recommendations of the Local Government

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Commission did not envisage that West Berkshire and Wokingham would exist in their current form. Two options were proposed: one was a four-authority option and the other was a five-authority option. Wokingham did not exist in either option. It is worth putting it on record once again that a political fix occurred. The fact that the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) had an influential position in the Government, which he was able to use in alliance with the then Conservative leader of Wokingham council, is a political fact of life, but it led to the creation of that political fix of unitary local authorities created outwith the criteria that the commission set down.

Mr. Hammond : I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but I shall not rise directly to the bait. However, I shall ask him whether he will tell the Chamber his view on the maximum viable size of a unitary authority in an area the size of rural and suburban Berkshire.

Mr. Salter : I was not attempting to bait the hon. Gentleman; I was merely reading a bit of political history into the record. I am a great believer in making statements when I actually know something about the subject. I know a little about local government in Berkshire, having been a Reading borough councillor for 12 years and deputy leader of the council. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East was a senior councillor there at the same time.

I must say that one look at the map of Berkshire would suggest that the natural expansion of Reading council's boundaries would take in Greater Reading, which includes areas under Wokingham and West Berkshire councils and a few other places besides. That would give Reading a population base of more than 200,000. It may vary elsewhere. Medway Towns council is considerably larger, and it would be an entirely different question were we to look at the old metropolitan boroughs and districts in the midlands and north-west. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution.

However, as my hon. Friend was saying, there is an issue of economic scale. Is it possible to deliver an efficient tie-up between housing and social services if there is an unnaturally small boundary? Can people be provided with the educational choice that we would like to give them without there being internecine war across the boundary divide?

One of my favourite campaigns was for a unitary Reading in which my hon. Friend and I were heavily involved. I have still got the stickers that say, "One town, one council and a third Thames bridge." It was a very punchy campaign. One of my favourite photos of my hon. Friend, and I have many, is of her holding a huge bag of petition forms outside the civic offices in Reading in support of the campaign. I may have taken the photo.

Sadly, we have not got our third Thames crossing, although we have our one council. We have not got city status, and Reading council remains built on 100-year-old boundaries. We are hemmed in. We cannot deliver park-and-ride services to the west of the town without getting co-operation from Liberal Democrats in West Berkshire. Anybody who has worked with Liberal Democrat councillors knows that it is like herding

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chickens—it is impossible to get consensus. A former leader of a Liberal Democrat-controlled council gave me that soundbite. He knows how difficult it is to herd chickens so he should be believed.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East said, it is absurd that we have housing stock outside our borough boundaries and conflict over where children should attend school. I must tell my hon. Friend that our well-publicised difference on the Ryeish Green school has now been given another public airing. The fact remains that had Wokingham been able to get away with moving Ryeish Green school from south Reading to Finchampstead, the catchment area would not have included the south Reading area. Many of my constituents—and hers—would not have had the option of choosing schools, which would have been a great shame. That said, the education provision in Reading must be resolved and it is a victim of our absurd 100-year-old boundaries.

How absurd are those boundaries? I have a constituent who pays, I think, 25 per cent. of her council tax to West Berkshire council and 75 per cent. to Reading council because the boundary goes through a corner of her house and across her garden. She pays Reading for a few hundred bricks and West Berkshire for a garage and a shed. It was a moot point, of course, as to whether she was entitled to a bus pass or 75 per cent. of one. As one can imagine, there is tremendous difference between the standard of public services delivered by a Labour-controlled authority in Reading, which has one of most generous bus pass schemes in the country, and the paltry token service that the Liberals in West Berkshire offer. I was able to get common sense to prevail and, despite only paying 75 per cent. of her council tax to the people's republic of Reading, she obtained a full bus pass. That is another triumph that we can tick off.

Mr. Andrew Turner : Will the hon. Member give way?

Mr. Salter : No, I will not; I am just warming to my theme.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East made a pertinent point that the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) failed to grasp: the burden on the council tax payers of the urban centre. This is not just about Reading; I am sure that it applies to Nottingham and to many other towns. Yes, it is great that people come into our town centres to use our pubs and clubs and to shop. Sadly, that revenue does not necessarily flow into the coffers of the local authority. Every piece of litter dropped in Reading by a resident of Wokingham, albeit accidentally, is picked up by a council tax paid employee of Reading borough council. The police funding formula is often based on the residential economy as opposed to money generated by passing trade. A great many issues must be bottomed out on that front. That is not to say that we disagree with or condemn our town centres for being lively and exciting, but we must acknowledge that the funding formulas do not reflect reality. I will give way to the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight and then to the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge if they will be brief.

Mr. Turner : I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I am interested to hear that his local authority can

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distinguish between litter that is dropped by residents of Wokingham and that dropped by residents of Reading—[Interruption.] A different class of litter.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is easier, albeit that it has not yet happened in Reading, to define the boundary of an urban area than it is to define boundaries in rural areas? To create a rural unitary authority large enough to be viable often means extending it beyond people's reasonable travelling distance.

Mr. Salter : Yes, I certainly do, and I will come to that point in my conclusion.

Mr. Hammond : The hon. Member for Reading, East also referred to policing costs. I did not intervene then but I wish to now since both Members for Reading mentioned the subject. Perhaps there is something peculiar about police funding in the Thames valley. However, my understanding is that the Thames Valley police were funded by all the council tax payers in the Thames valley, so people living in Wokingham will be contributing to the policing of Reading. Is that not correct?

Mr. Salter : I refer the hon. Gentleman to a speech that I made last year on police grants. I think that it may be coming up again today. It is not just about the funding of the police; it is about the allocation of police resources. We end up in the absurd situation whereby my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East pay the same as everybody else towards the precepts levied by the police authority on the council tax. In effect, because of the requirements of policing Reading town centre, we end up with one police officer per—and I used this figure purely for example—2,000 head of population; whereas somebody else will be paying precisely the same and get one police officer per 1,000 head of population. As I say, I use those figures purely for illustration, but the point is clear.

We talked about the absurdity of the boundaries of Reading; we talked also about some of the problems in education, transport, joined-up services and economies of scale and about the need for a boundary review and for change. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East, I welcome the creation of business improvement districts. This is an opportunity for a little bit of municipal socialism, if we are still allowed even to conceive of such a thing. Of course, it must be done with the consent of the business community, but how I would love to see an opportunity for Reading and for other lively, vibrant urban centres to be able to levy a modest tax on some of the profits of the breweries, the clubs and the other centres of entertainment to help to fund CCTV, extra police and all the other measures that are needed to keep the population of the town centre, visitors and residents safe and secure. It is far too easy to profit from lively town centres yet not put enough back into the security that we all seek.

As a nation, our record on local government reform is pretty poor. I remember my days as a politics student studying the Redcliffe-Maude report of 1974 on the reorganisation of local government. Sadly, we fudged it last time round. I believe in the unitary format; I believe

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it needs to be large enough to create economies of scale, and sometimes that means grasping the nettle of a local authority. After all, it did apply to county authorities being beyond the normal scope of people's travelling patterns. I believe in strengthening parish and community councils and I believe in effective regional government with real powers that could bring together the disparate boundaries that affect health, education, the police, the fire service and strategic planning.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East for giving us the opportunity to debate this issue. I hope the Government will accept that what was done by the previous Administration was only half done, and that there is much further to go if we are going to have proper, radical and effective reform of unitary local government.

3 pm

Matthew Green (Ludlow): We have heard a great deal about Reading; it was most interesting, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) on securing the debate. However, wider issues are at stake, and some that are pertinent to Reading are also pertinent to other parts of the country.

We are talking as though the term "unitary authority" appeared on the face of the Bill, but I recently discovered in Committee that the term does not exist. The definition is "districts in areas in which there is no county"—or some such phrase.

Mr. Hammond : I think that the hon. Gentleman is thinking of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill—and he may know that the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), has now corrected his assertion that the term did not exist in legislation: it exists in the Dogs (Fouling of Land) Act 1996.

Matthew Green : I thank the hon. Gentleman; I am delighted to hear that.

In principle, unitary authorities are probably the best way of delivering local services. However, local needs and considerations must always be taken into account before unitary authorities are imposed. There should not be a top-down solution. I shall now touch on the reasons why unitary authorities are a good way forward.

In two-tier areas, housing and social services come under different authorities. We need joined-up thinking. In some areas that can be achieved with local authorities working together, but in general it works better in unitary authorities. It has sometimes been linked with health. In Herefordshire, before the strategic health authorities were set up, the unitary council had housing and social services under the same roof, but the chief executive of the Hereford health authority was also the chief executive of the council. It was a tight-knit authority. In Shropshire, the director of social services is the deputy chief executive of the primary care trust, and is currently acting chief executive as well. That close synergy makes a great deal of sense.

On other matters such as environmental health, economies of scale would mean some of the smaller districts disappearing into the unitary authorities, but that makes a great deal of sense. The same applies to

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waste management, which is currently divided into waste collection and waste disposal. That division has resulted in a number of perverse effects—but again, unitary authorities get round the problem.

We have mentioned the history of Reading and the local government review, but I have a great deal of sympathy with Shropshire, which suffered similar perversities under the last local government review. It has been said before, and it is worth saying again, that the pressure in Berkshire was for four or at most five unitary authorities. The Local Government Commission's recommendation was for five, but political pressure from local Conservatives, including a Berkshire Member of Parliament, resulted in there being six unitary authorities, which was probably too many.

Now that we have those six unitary authorities, the problem is that Reading wants to expand. I understand that it approached the Deputy Prime Minister for a local government review but was turned down. I know exactly why the Deputy Prime Minister did that: he does not want local government reviews, except when regional referendums are due. We have mentioned that in Committee on the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill. Another problem is that the neighbouring unitary authorities are not keen on Reading expanding and taking over parts of their areas. That is an ongoing, long-term problem.

Should there be reviews of local authority boundaries outside the scope of the Regional Assemblies (Referendums) Bill? Of course there should. In some areas there is demand for changes to existing unitary or two-tier authorities. In Shropshire, we want a unitary authority to cover the area currently covered by Shropshire county council. There are five district councils and the county council. All three political parties would like to see the abolition of the five districts, and a unitary authority. However, we have been told that there will not be a chance of doing that until there is a referendum in the west Midlands, which could be years away. The mess that the Government have made of their regional policy is causing a problem at a local level.

We now need a unitary authority in Shropshire, because in the last review Telford was taken out, against the recommendation of the Local Government Commission, which recommended the then current two-tier system structure of six districts and one county. Taking Telford out of the equation left the rest of Shropshire without a large chunk of the population of Shropshire, which made less economic sense. We now need a unitary authority in Shropshire, to make the economies of scale work.

The Government have missed out on an opportunity. The Minister needs to address how they will deal with the various demands for reviews of local government outside the regional process. In the south and the midlands, it will be many years before we get to that stage, so it would be useful if the Minister gave us some encouragement that there might be some reviews outside that regional process. With our amendments to the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill we gave the Minister in the Standing Committee opportunities to decouple the process of local government review from the regional reviews. It is unfortunate that the Government did not take up that opportunity.

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We have heard a fair bit about the appropriate size of unitary authorities. We should be cautious about saying what the appropriate minimum size should be. The Local Government Commission's preferred size was, I think, between 150,000 and 300,000. Herefordshire is below that size, and is a successful, efficient, Liberal Democrat-run unitary authority.

Mr. Salter : I have spent some time in Herefordshire, and I agree that it is well run. I make a public plea for the hon. Gentleman to come to West Berkshire and do a workshop for the Liberals there on how to run a successful council.

Matthew Green : I am not sure that my schedule would permit me to do that—or, even if it is what is needed, that I am the person to do it.

Herefordshire is a successful unitary authority with fewer than 150,000 people. If the Government are too dogmatic about the minimum size, places such as Northumbria, when they are considered in the review of the north-east, will be split up into large unitary authorities—large in terms of area, that is—in order to achieve the minimum population. Those authorities will be so large that people will not naturally feel part of that community, and could be a long way from their nearest centre.

Mr. Andrew Turner : The hon. Gentleman has spoken at some length about reviews. However, did he not say earlier that unitary authorities have to be the best way, and that there should be local consultation before they are imposed? That suggests that under Liberal Democrat policy, they would be imposed.

Matthew Green : That is not quite what I said. I said that the unitary authority was the best way forward, but should not always be the solution, because local considerations needed to be taken into account. That is why we have sought the decoupling of local government reviews from the regional process. If the Government carry out their regional process along those lines, all two-tier authorities will eventually go, for no other reason than the form of local government that has come in.

I have covered most of the points that I wanted to make. I welcome the fact that we have been able to talk about unitary authorities again, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister how we might have reviews without having to wait for the regional reviews.

3.9 pm

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) on having secured the debate on unitary authorities, although it has occasionally seemed to be a debate on the woes and opportunities of Reading. I thought that I knew the area well, but I have been apprised of the woeful state of my geographical knowledge. I now know about Ryeish Green school, and I shall take the opportunity of mentioning it to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), in a display that will astound him. While the two hon. Members who represent Reading were intervening on each other, I felt rather like a voyeur at a

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meeting of the management committee of Reading Labour party—but I am sure that they will sort out their differences.

We have heard about the pros and cons of unitary authorities from the hon. Members for Reading, East and for Reading, West (Mr. Salter). The hon. Member for Reading, East focused on the diversity within counties and suggested that smaller unitary authorities might have a better focus. She also mentioned the "diseconomies" of small scale, and made particular reference to the problems of small education authorities. She made many interesting points, and I shall address the Minister about them shortly.

Both Reading Members mentioned institutional change and institutional structures. Those are important. In this country, we have a bit of a history of thinking that we can solve problems by changing the institutions that deal with them. Experience has shown, however, that changing institutional structures does not necessarily solve the real problems that bother people. The conclusion is clear: there is no "one size fits all" policy, and structure must be locally determined. If it is a widely held view in Shropshire that people want to have a unitary county, then we in Whitehall and Westminster should be cognisant of it.

A unitary structure might be best in urban areas, where distance is not a great issue. I was reminded yesterday that the largest metropolitan authorities have populations well in excess of 1 million, and function very well. However, they have the benefit of high density of population, and thus relatively small geographical areas. When we consider more sparsely populated areas, the minimum size of unitary authority required to deliver effective and efficient services might well, as the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) suggested, be too large to allow people that essential sense of relationship with the place from which they are governed that is the advantage of district councils—our lower-tier authorities in the current two-tier areas.

I want to talk to the Minister about two issues. The first is choice. We can conclude that the Government think that unitary authorities are the structure of choice, because they propose to impose them on any region opting for elected regional assemblies. I understand the Government's natural desire not to be lambasted for creating an extra tier of government in existing two-tier authorities, but in some regions—certainly in the north-east, likely to be one of the first regions to have a referendum—some 68 per cent. of the population already live in unitary authority areas. In those areas, an extra tier will be created by the introduction of elected regional assemblies. That is slightly peripheral, however.

It is extraordinary that the Government have introduced a double hurdle for a yes vote in a referendum. I am still quietly puzzled as to their motive for making it more difficult to achieve a yes vote for a principal Government policy project.

Presumably we all agree that change is traumatic and tends to undermine the principal function of local government—good, efficient public service delivery. However beneficial the outcome of the change may be,

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the process is difficult. One problem that may arise from the Regional Assemblies (Referendums) Bill is constant uncertainty about whether that change will take place.

Worse still, in my view, is the fact that the Government's proposals for a boundary committee review of areas opting for referendums for regional assemblies may produce a sub-optimum pattern of unitary government, because the Government will not allow the current unitary council boundaries to be reopened. In other words, the existing two-tier areas in the north-east, which contain 32 per cent. of the population of that region, must be organised into unitary authorities that fit round the existing ones. That may not in every case be the most logical solution.

My question to the Minister mirrors one put by the hon. Member for Ludlow: do the Government propose an alternative mechanism for achieving unitary status, if that is what a local community wants? It would be bizarre if the Government were to say that a community must have a unitary authority if it is to have an elected regional assembly, but that it cannot have a unitary authority without opting for an elected regional assembly. If they did, it would be inappropriate and lop-sided. The Government may argue, although I would not agree with them, that a unitary structure is necessary to accommodate elected regional authorities, but they cannot argue the other way round, because unitary authorities already operate in areas that do not have elected regional assemblies.

My second question to the Minister is about size. That is an important issue, and I have tried in a couple of interventions to draw out hon. Members' views on the size of unitary authorities. With few exceptions, the creation of unitary authorities of a workable size in the shires will sound the death knell of the counties. It seems to me—we have heard some evidence for it this afternoon—that a minimum size will be required to enable them to work. However, there should also be a maximum size—perhaps not in population terms, because in our metropolitan areas there are large populations in a single authority area, but in geographical terms—so that people are not too distant from the point from which they are governed.

If an authority such as Wokingham, with a population of 150,000, is acceptable at the bottom of the size scale, it is difficult to imagine that an authority such as Essex or Kent, with a population of 1.3 million or 1.4 million, could be a plausible unitary county. That is why I assert that the Government's "unitarisation agenda", as part of its elected regional assemblies programme, necessarily means—in some cases at least—the death of the counties as we know them, because they are too big to be effective unitary authorities.

The Minister for Local Government and the Regions has gone to great pains to muddy the water on that issue, and to suggest that nothing has been ruled out in advance and that counties could be unitary authorities. Perhaps Shropshire could be; I do not know the detailed facts. What work has the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister done on the effective size of unitary authorities at the top and bottom end of the scale? Has it considered the minimum size needed to deliver public services economically, and the maximum size, in terms of population or geographical area, necessary to ensure that local government is still local government and will be delivered close enough to the people to ensure that

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there is a genuine sense of ownership? I should be grateful to the Minister if he would address head on the position of the counties in an all-unitary structure, and tell the Chamber bluntly whether he is asserting that a county the size of Kent or Essex is a viable and plausible unitary authority area.

3.19 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Christopher Leslie) : I am not sure whether, in the time available, it will be possible to address all the wide-ranging issues raised in the debate. I place on record my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) on securing the opportunity to debate so many issues, especially on the wonderful town, area and district of Reading and the various people living therein.

Common themes among all speakers have been the nature of local authority institutions, and structural and boundary issues. It is important to say at the outset that at the heart of the Government's approach is performance and whether local authorities—regardless of their composition, nature and size—can perform and deliver high quality services for their people. Our aim is systematically to achieve a more uniform and higher level of local government performance throughout the country. That is why we have put in place reforms such as best value and new constitutions and are building on those reforms by embarking on the process known affectionately as comprehensive performance assessments—CPA—and performance management. We are committed to higher performance and determined that local councils should deliver quality public services. People want them, and have a right to expect them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East raised questions about education and the nature of schooling in her council area. I was interested to note, when reading the formula for allocation of education funds, that characteristics of the block for education spend reflect not only population but deprivation and the costs of paying people in high labour cost areas. That has all come together in my hon. Friend's constituency to result in a comparatively good settlement. Reading has had an 8.8 per cent. grant increase and Wokingham an 8.4 per cent. grant increase, which are towards the upper end of the scale for unitary authorities throughout the country.

Mr. Salter : We are extremely grateful for the very good grant settlements in the Thames valley, but my hon. Friend the Minister must bear it in mind that for many local authorities, this year saw the end of other income streams from central government. Reading is actually losing some £3 million as central Government funding for other projects comes to an end. On the face of it, the settlement seems wonderful and one might hope for a council tax increase of 1 or 2 per cent. but, sadly, other factors have been brought to bear.

Mr. Leslie : I assure my hon. Friend that that is still a wonderful settlement. We have moved away from ring-fenced grants, which have, in a sense, tied local authorities' hands, because we want to give more in general grant to those councils so that they can make their own local decisions, as they are best placed to, on how to allocate and spend money. My hon. Friend the

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Member for Reading, East referred to the PFI bid and the question of capital for education, and I shall certainly draw her comments to the attention of the Department for Education and Skills. She also mentioned population growth statistics, how those feed into the formula and the time lag in feeding the data into the system. The new formula grant arrangements are based on the most up-to-date data and evidence that we could muster. The new census figures are accurate and the Office for National Statistics is proud of them. The per head element of the formula gave her local authorities a relatively good result.

My hon. Friends the Members for Reading, East and for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) mentioned the extra costs for Reading of daytime and, in particular, night-time visitors. We have tried to take that into account in our allocation of resources to local authorities, and I can tell them that the formula allocation for environmental services, highways services and policing reflects the number of daytime visitors. For highways and policing, that also applies to night-time visitors. We have not been blind to that point and have taken the issue into account.

Performance cannot be improved simply by considering issues such as local government structure, boundaries or the size of local authorities. Structure and boundary reviews can, in some circumstances, distract local government from the real work at hand, which is the delivery of quality local services and the provision of leadership to communities. Of course, there may be some evidence to suggest that some functions can be more easily delivered by larger authorities. We recognised that in the draft guidance that we gave to the boundary committee about the local government reviews that might take place before any referendum on an elected regional assembly.

The guidance states that many of the most significant factors that determine the ability of authorities to deliver quality services have little direct relation to the geography, structure or size of the authority. However, there is some evidence to suggest that the quality of political management, a willingness to innovate and a sound corporate structure and capacity are the most significant determinants of high-performing councils. None of that means that quality services are beyond smaller authorities, albeit that they might sometimes work in partnership with others.

Indeed, the recent CPA results on the quality of performance of local authorities show that there are smaller authorities—Reading is one—that are judged as being of good quality. Hartlepool is nearly the smallest unitary council in England, yet it is in the excellent category. The same is true of Blackburn with Darwen, which is similar to Reading in size. Some large authorities are classified as weak or poor. Conversely, there are small authorities that are not performing and larger authorities that are performing well or better. To coin a phrase used by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East, size does not always matter in that respect.

Mr. Hammond : The Minister is concentrating on the economies of scale and service delivery. Will he address the issue of potentially large unitary counties, such as Northumbria, in terms of geography, and Essex and Kent, in terms of population? If they were to become

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unitary authorities on a county-wide basis, there might be a problem of remoteness from the people and communities that they are supposed to serve as local government.

Mr. Leslie : I am not quite sure what point the hon. Gentleman is making. Does he think that unitary authorities need to be large in order to preserve the county characteristic? Or does he think that they should be small? I shall come on to the fact that we have not been as prescriptive as he might like when giving guidance to the boundary committee about structural reviews that might take place in relation to elected regional assembly referendums.

Partnership between authorities is important and can take place. My hon. Friends have touched on some of those issues. Regardless of size and boundaries, joint working is always welcome. There will always be an element of local discretion. Local authorities are independently elected, autonomous bodies; each local authority has its own priorities. However, they need to work together on more strategic issues.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East raised the question of transport. I understand that there is some feeling that the size of Berkshire authorities might be hampering their ability to co-ordinate transport provision across authority boundaries. However, each of the six authorities produces its own local transport plan and I note that, although Department for Transport guidance urges neighbouring authorities to consider having joint plans, the Berkshire authorities have not done so. I would encourage Berkshire authorities to carry out more joint work in that area, which could lead to more joint local transport plans.

Structure and boundaries are not central to the delivery of quality local services. However, we recognise the importance of getting boundaries right. Although other factors, such as leadership and corporate capacity, are critical to the creation of high-performing local authorities, we accept that the ability of authorities to develop or sustain those attributes may be affected by their geography, structure and size. Nevertheless, before we could alter structures or boundaries of local authorities, including the boundaries of existing authorities, we would have to invite the Electoral Commission to carry out a review. Only if and when it recommended change would the Government act. At present, we do not believe that such reviews should be a priority for the Electoral Commission. There are other issues to be addressed such as periodic electoral reviews, which are a priority. In considering that question, structural reviews are not on the agenda, but we have not closed the door for ever on boundary matters. We have a strong agenda of reform and improvement in local government that will benefit all our constituents. I urge all hon. Members to focus on that agenda.

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