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Janet Anderson (Rossendale and Darwen) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) for allowing me to speak in this debate for what will necessarily now be a very brief time. He has put forward an interesting proposal, but I am astonished that he has done so. I am especially surprised because my hon. Friend is no stranger to the Rossendale valley. He of all people should therefore understand that rural Rossendale and urban Bury have very little in common.

Recent research on behalf of the boundary committee found that 68 per cent. of Rossendale residents feel strongly about belonging to Rossendale. Some 71 per cent. feel strongly about belonging to the county of Lancashire and 71 per cent. have stated a preference for one of the options put forward by the boundary committee. I must also refute my hon. Friend's allegations that Rossendale borough council has not undertaken the widest possible consultation: it has. In fact, only 4 per cent. of residents expressed a preference for another option. In any case, there is no other option. The third option exists only in the fertile imagination of my hon. Friend. Our priority must be the delivery of services and effective local government for the people of Rossendale.

Rossendale council gives the highest priority to the improvement of its delivery of services. The September 2002 corporate governance report found that the council delivered unacceptably poor services at high cost. That has been followed up by the recent comprehensive performance assessment process, which has identified Rossendale borough council as poor, although it is now making significant improvements. However, Bury council, as my hon. Friend has stated, has recently moved up from "weak" to "fair" in the comprehensive performance assessment. He can argue that that a "fair" assessment is unfair, but that is the assessment at the moment. By contrast, both Pendle and Burnley are already rated as "good". We consider that these ratings and the sustained quality of service that they represent form a sound basis for the delivery of high performance in a new unitary authority of Rossendale, Burnley and Pendle. That is why the controlling Labour group on the council has been unanimous for a Burnley, Pendle and Rossendale authority, and that is why the majority of councillors of all parties support that option. My hon. Friend referred to Conservative support, but only three Conservative councillors gave that support.

I urge the Minister to listen to the people of Rossendale and to consign this madcap fantasy to the dustbin where it rightly belongs.

7.55 pm

Mr. Greg Pope (Hyndburn) (Lab): I shall be very brief. If we wanted evidence for what a madcap scheme merging Bury with Rossendale would be, it is provided by the fact that the idea is supported by three Rossendale Conservative councillors.

There is a compelling case for unitary local government in east Lancashire, and I hope that the Minister will take on board the good case for decoupling it from regional government. Unitary authorities are a good idea or they are not—I think that they are. There
 
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is a strong case for a unitary east Lancashire authority, but I take the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) that such an authority may be too large. In that case, there is a compelling case for a unitary authority of Burnley, Pendle and Rossendale.

The people I represent in Haslingden do not want to be run from Bury. I do not think that my hon. Friend has made a case and, as time is short, I shall leave it at that. However, I hope that the Minister and the boundary committee will take note of the fact that the people of Haslingden do not want to be run from Bury.

7.56 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Phil Hope): In the short time allowed to me to reply, I shall congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) on securing the debate and on enabling my hon. Friends the Members for Rossendale and Darwen (Janet Anderson) and for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope) to participate, however briefly.

The Government are committed to offering the people of the north-west the choice of establishing an elected regional assembly, and we have had many debates in the House on the benefits that such an assembly would bring. We have made it clear that elected regional assemblies will draw most of their powers from central Government, their agencies and quangos, and not from local government. However, there will be implications for local government. If a region establishes an elected assembly, it will also move towards wholly unitary local government. If we left things as they are, elected assemblies would add a third tier of elected government below the national level. That would be a tier too many.

I have listened carefully to the arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North and to those made by hon. Members in favour of alternatives. The boundary committee has been charged with recommending the options that can be put to voters in any local government referendum. The Secretary of
 
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State cannot add "options" that are not recommended. The only power that the Secretary of State has is to accept, reject or modify the committee's recommendations. Much will depend on the recommendations put to us, but in most circumstances the scope for modification is limited. A modification cannot materially alter the essence of the recommendation.

Once the Secretary of State has received the committee's final recommendations, which may include options different from the draft recommendations that are currently being considered, there will be a further opportunity for interested parties to make representations to the Secretary of State for a period of up to six weeks. I can therefore assure my hon. Friend and all colleagues in the House that any comments that they wish to make at that stage will be considered, along with any other representations received, before any order stating the local government options to be included in the referendum is made.

I emphasise that the judgments as to what options can be brought forward are judgments to be made by the boundary committee, having regard both to the need to reflect the identities and interests of local communities and to secure effective and convenient local government. The judgments must also conform to the guidance issued by the Secretary of State. While the boundary committee undertakes the reviews, the Government play no part in the process. Clearly it would not be appropriate for me to comment until the boundary committee's final recommendations are made. The Government will take no view of any prospective scheme for reorganisation until we receive the final recommendations from the boundary committee in May.

Although I have not be able to tell my hon. Friend the Government's position on any of the proposals that are being discussed, he and other hon. Members will have the opportunity to make representations once the boundary committee brings forward its recommendations.

Question put and agreed to.




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