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That is frankly not good enough. It is not the partners and stakeholders who will pay for it all or whose democracy will be undermined; it is the public—the voters—who must decide. In other words, we need a referendum if the issue is to be decided democratically.

The Deputy Prime Minister said in evidence to a Select Committee when asked about a similar matter:

If we can interpret his slightly mangled syntax, he is promising a referendum. He was then challenged further by my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) about what would happen if the people did not want a unitary structure. In reply, the Deputy Prime Minister said:


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He confirmed that people will have a vote. I presume, therefore, that that is Government policy. The Deputy Prime Minister was not speaking for himself, but for the Government, so unless there has been a change that we have not noticed, the Government are still committed to public votes on unitary status. That must happen, because the whole exercise is not about the powers of politicians, but about serving the public better. We are talking about their local authorities and their counties, so it must be their vote that decides the matter.

8.47 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) on securing the debate. I had hoped that we would have heard a more reasoned exposition of the arguments for and against reorganisation of local government in Somerset. The people of Somerset certainly deserve a better structured debate than we are likely to have following the introduction from the right hon. Gentleman, who took a somewhat partisan view of the circumstances that obtain in the area. The so-called temporary Liberal Democrat control of the county council has lasted for most of the 22 years since I took control as leader way back in 1985. The right hon. Gentleman seems to wish, forlornly, that his party had control of the county council again, and perhaps he thinks that the reorganisation is one way to achieve that objective. I have to say that he is doomed to disappointment.

What we should be looking at for Somerset is efficient and effective local government which costs the minimum that is consistent with having proper local accountability. That should be the basis for any model of local government reorganisation. A further and very important factor in the context of Somerset is that people do not want to be told that they no longer live in their county. The great mistake that the then Conservative Government made in abolishing part of Somerset and creating the hybrid county of Avon—I remember it well—was to tell people not that their dustbins would in future be collected by a different local authority, but that they no longer lived in the county in which they had grown up and which was part of their cultural and historical heritage. That seems to be an enormous mistake.

I shall end my opening remarks by saying that the Government have not yet got to grips with one other important factor: the role of parish and town councils. They are the building blocks of local government, and the Government have not set out how they will fit into any structure that they may propose.

I agree with the right hon. Member for Wells that we have been here before, and I still bear the scars of the Banham review. However, he omitted to say that it was set up by a Conservative Government—in the person of Michael, now Lord, Heseltine—with the express intention of abolishing county councils and introducing unitary authorities in every part of England.

The Banham commission got to grips with that work, and it shows what a sad person I am that I should have in my office the minutes of Somerset county council committee reports of 20 February 1991. The resolution considered that day was to authorise the committee to formulate and express views on the future structure, function and funding of local government in
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Somerset on behalf of the county council. That was the starting point for the bid to become a unitary county authority. Who was in power in county hall at the time? The Conservatives were. There has been a complete change of attitude by that party, and one wonders why. Could it be opportunism? I suspect that it might be.

I turn now to what the Government propose. At the outset, I should tell the House that I have not yet formed a firm view about what would be the right outcome for the people of Somerset. I suspect that decisions about the lines to be drawn on the map should not be made by me, or by the right hon. Member for Wells, or by people in county hall or in the district council chambers. It is for the people of Somerset to decide what is the right answer.

Moreover, I have significant criticisms of the process in which the Government are engaged. First, the reform is being introduced with reckless speed given that, if it goes ahead, it will affect the way that Somerset is governed for a long time. Secondly, I am very concerned about the lack of consultation. I do not buy the argument that the consultation is with stakeholders. As far as I am concerned, the word “stakeholders” in this context includes every person in the county of Somerset who has a view on the matter. I do not believe that the consultation presently proposed is on that scale.

My third criticism has to do with the fact that the proposed reform is to be carried out within the current boundaries of the administrative county of Somerset. I shall return to the matter later in my remarks, but the proposal seems to me totally illogical for the governance of the county.

What is the outcome that we should be looking for? I do not want to prejudge what the structure of local government in Somerset should be or will be, but I insist that we should show respect for one another’s views, because no one answer is going to be the right answer. A perfectly strong argument can be made for the present three-tier system. It has the benefit that, while strategic decisions are taken at one level, there is also a much more local district council.

Yet the structure has both merits and demerits. For instance, people in Somerset pay for six chief executives, and there are six different offices. The right hon. Member for Wells was happy to praise Mendip district council, whose present offices are the most modern in the county. However, they are apparently not sufficient for the council’s needs and I understand that it is thinking of building a whole new set. I am not sure that that is justified by the functions that the district council carries out.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: The hon. Gentleman worked in local government for many years, and he has also been a Member of this House for a further period. He says that he has still not made up his mind about how Somerset’s local government should be structured. I have one simple question for him: does he support the bid by his colleagues in Somerset county council for unitary status, or not?

Mr. Heath: The right hon. Gentleman will just have to wait until I develop my speech. Does he believe that we should operate local government in Somerset in the most effective and efficient way, which consumes the
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least amount of resource to achieve local accountability? His comments suggest that he does not believe that, because he is wedded to the idea that temporarily—to use his word—four of the district councils have a Conservative majority, which seems more important to him than having effective governance.

In my town of Frome, which is in Mendip, the district that my constituency and that of the right hon. Gentleman share, there are three county councillors, nine district councillors and 20 town councillors. Do we actually need that many councillors for a town the size of Frome? No. It confuses the people I represent. They do not know at which level they are supposed to go to find the answer to simple problems. There are far more elected representatives than we need for good governance in Frome, so if there is a way of achieving a better outcome, we should look at it.

We should respect the fact that there are different models. The first is the existing three-tier system. Another is the system that the county council may, or may not, decide to propose. The officers have been instructed to draw up a bid, but we do not know whether it will be made. I understand that at present their view is for a single county unitary. Although I understand the arguments for that, the difficulty is the size of the unitary authority proposed, in which proper accountability could be achieved only if it had a highly devolved structure. We would have to go for an area committee structure—the sort of thing that Conservatives gaily abandon when they take control of district councils—but it would mean much greater local decision making in the county structure, with efficiencies of scale in service of delivery. That is a perfectly respectable position, which should be argued and put before the people of Somerset.

A third option is being canvassed among district councils in the authority. The present administrative county of Somerset is a little too big to be a single unitary council, owing to the remoteness of some areas, so perhaps we should consider more than one unitary. That may appeal to some people and was one of the partial outcomes of the Banham inquiry. It would have the benefit of efficiencies of scale as well as the local accountability that is so important. The difficulty is where to draw lines on the map, but a roughly convenient line could be drawn to link south Somerset to Mendip, and Taunton Deane to Sedgemoor and west Somerset, thereby giving an approximate community of interests on either side of the M5.

There is a further option, which I really want the Minister to consider in the context of the consultation, if it goes ahead. I have no brief to speak for areas outside the county of Somerset, but the historical county, as I hope she knows, stretched not to the present northern boundary of the administrative county but up to the river Avon, and comprised the present unitary councils of North Somerset and Bath and North East Somerset—BANES, as it is known. Both those unitaries are relatively small, with populations well below the number that the Government now say is the optimum; in North Somerset, the population is about 190,000 and in BANES, it is about 170,000. The councils have a strong community of interest with some parts of the present administrative county of Somerset. Frome, which I represent, Shepton Mallet and possibly even the city of
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Wells are Mendip towns and have a strong community of interest with the area represented in BANES. I suspect—though I am less of an expert on the area—that the same would apply to a coastal strip relating more to Weston-super-Mare and the tourism industry in the west Mendip area and Sedgemoor.

I therefore think it is possible to put forward the perfectly sensible proposition that we should be looking at perhaps four unitary authorities within the historical county of Somerset that would have a clear community of interest and clearly defined geographical boundaries. They would all be within Somerset—a point that I emphasise time and again. As a Somerset man, I am proud of our historical and cultural identity and I am not prepared to see it lost simply to allow some invention of a name for which no one has any affection. We live in Somerset, but our administration will be on a scale that is consonant with the demands of modern local government, while at the same time it will retain a degree of local accountability.

The right hon. Member for Wells asked me to draw the lines on the map and decide what is best for Somerset. He may be able to do that, but I cannot, because these are all perfectly respectable options and, as far as I am concerned, it should be for the people of Somerset to decide what suits them best. I have to say that, given that the debate has been opened by the Government, whose intentions are clear, it is something with which we should engage, even if our response at the end of the day is to say no and opt for the status quo because it suits us best in our circumstances. What I reject is the right hon. Gentleman’s contention that the debate should be closed down before it has even started.

I hope that we do not get into the sort of, frankly, unpleasant internecine warfare that characterised the last dose of local government reorganisation in Somerset, where we had county and district fighting like ferrets in a bag about things that they should not have been fighting about, with all sides maintaining a monopoly of truth. No one has that monopoly of truth: there are different models—some good, some bad. If we treat them with respect, examine them dispassionately and put them before the people of Somerset in an effective manner, I hope that we will end up with the right result.

9.2 pm

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to intervene in the debate. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) makes an interesting point when he asks whether the issue is partisan or bipartisan. The answer is that it is, actually, bipartisan, in so far as the Labour party, a large proportion of the Liberal party and the Conservative party are working together to try to come up with a structure that will do the best that it can for Somerset.

I certainly agree with both my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome that we need strong local government in Somerset. I am deeply offended, however, at the way in which the county council is trying to con the public. Yes, I understand,
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Mr. Deputy Speaker, that “con” is a rude word, but so are a lot of things and I wonder what would be appropriate. Somerset says that going unitary will save everybody money, but have those who say that actually done the sums? Have they heck! The only arithmetic that they quote was produced, believe it or not, by Shropshire county council.

Councillor Cathy Bakewell, the leader of Somerset county council, says, that Shropshire will save more than £36 million in four years if it goes unitary. But, with all the morals of a fast-talking brush salesman, she conveniently forgets to point out that Shropshire will also spend £3 million on restructuring and end up with 182 job losses. The population of Somerset is 80 per cent. greater than that of Shropshire—even 70 per cent. greater than that of Northumberland, which we all know is a large county. I dread to think how many jobs will be lost in the five district councils given all the add-ons that will happen if this barmy idea goes through.

Let me tell you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the Minister, that the unions are against it. Amicus and other unions, including the trade union council headed by one of my constituents, Mr. Dave Chappel, have made it very clear that they are opposed to it, and so has Unison, as I am sure the Minister knows well. They oppose it not because of job losses, but because they know it will not work. I quiver in my boots at the cost of actually satisfying La Bakewell’s insatiable power. It is time to realise that that lady is conning us all.

Shropshire county council happens to be Conservative controlled, but with one district and one borough beneath it—that is all. In other words, it does not compare in any way or form to Somerset county. More to the point, Shropshire is totally united. All three councils want to amalgamate, and all three have done their arithmetic and—surprise, surprise—have made it public. But back to Taunton we go: Councillor Bakewell’s barmy army, which is rooting for the losing side—how pithy that is at the moment—needs a calculator, and it is making enemies all round. Every district council in the county—including South Somerset, which was alluded to by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome—thinks that the plan is barking.

There are so many unanswered questions, and both my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells and the hon. Gentleman have alluded to that fact. What will happen to the parish council in Bakewell’s brave new world? Will they go up; will they go down; or will they go sideways? Will they get extra power? Will they? The silence, as usual, is deafening. What about all the real estate? Again, as has been suggested, if the district councils are flushed away, who will benefit from the sale of their offices? If that is a sensible business, I suspect that those involved will have done their calculations and worked out the answers already.

Let us face it, Somerset is not a sensible business. Somerset already behaves like a crackpot, spend, spend, spend lottery winner. It is wasteful, greedy and completely inefficient. It is millions in the red, but who cares? Let us remember the rumpus over the road signs that has been alluded to. Somerset council invented the so-called speed management scheme, saying that it would save lives. Unfortunately, it did not. But the council did not consult anyone, least of all the police—a good starting point one would think.


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The first that people in Somerset knew about the scheme was when a load of muscular men from the county council turned up and started hammering in new road signs everywhere—thousands of them. In one village in my constituency, the signs said that drivers should go from 60 mph to 50, down to 20 and back up again in under a mile—remarkable. Even Michael Schumacher would be proud of that. Our country roads were littered with new metal signs. Even the national park glittered in the sunlight of that glow. But, eventually, even the county council realised that it might be a good idea to ask people what they thought. So people told it, and the silly signs were removed. Unfortunately, £2.5 million has been spent—wasted. What a fiasco!

Now we have the small matter of windmills. Renewable energy is marvellous, so one cannot complain. My party leader is sticking one on his roof, so they must be all right. But Somerset county council believes that the divine right is to save the planet: forward and upwards, onward Christian soldiers. So Bakewell’s blunderings now include building a forest of those things over the county farms and across Glastonbury tor. Every hon. Member knows the tor—it is the home of Avalon and allegedly the birthplace and burial place of Arthur—and the council wants to stick windmills on the top. Great—that will go down well at Glastonbury festival. The council also wants to put them on the Quantocks, which is the first area of outstanding natural beauty, and it is not going to work. To let the Minister know, the council is talking about putting them near schools in my constituency along the M5. What do people think? We have never been asked. We do not know.

There are other examples. There has been a massive change in special needs teaching in Somerset, as my right hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman know, and it has not been for the better. In West Somerset—the most rural district in England, into which London would fit very comfortably—that role has been cut: £80,000 has been taken away. Children now have to travel for an hour to go Taunton or Bridgwater to get special needs teaching. The county never asked anyone about that. It said that it was going to happen. We are being offered a team in two year’s time—I can hardly wait—and I wonder whether those involved know where West Somerset is. We wait with bated breath, and yet again, we are quivering in our boots.

Things got even better. Just after I became the MP—I took over from Lord King—the county council said, “In line with Government proposals, we are going to get rid of all the schools in Sedgemoor. We are going to have three super-schools. So you go in as a kiddy and you come out as an adult. We will do it all the way through.” The council did not ask anyone in Sedgemoor. It thought that that did not matter; it thought, “They will love it.” Every school rebelled, but that did not matter. “Onward and upward, utopia!” was the cry. Luckily, the Minister’s former colleague Mr. Stephen Twigg, who is no longer in the House, said, “This is mad. It is ridiculous.” He stopped the process dead in its tracks because there was no consultation. There was no feeling of hopefulness.


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