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That is now happening again. The plan is to get rid of four colleges and turn them into three. Three of our colleges have more than 1,000 pupils. One college has
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about 700. It is planned to turn those into three colleges of 900. I am not great at maths, but even I can work out that that does not work. Nobody has been asked about that. It is going to be done—again. There is no consultation. The people I am talking do not think, they cannot count and they simply drone on.

Councillor Bakewell is the queen bee of a horrendous hive of profligacy. She flaps her wings and pops from flower to flower, like a diva at a comic opera. It is worrying. I suspect that, dare I say it, she can no longer tell the difference between what is right and what is wrong. Her administration is an unhealthy mixture of polyunsaturated policy and political pomposity. She has become the turkey twizzler of England’s town halls. Jamie Oliver would not be proud.

This is a dangerous diversion for democracy. The Government’s White Paper unfortunately leaves out much that should be said. A lot of it is like a blank piece of paper. Frankly, I would not trust the county council with it if it were a fly paper, never mind anything else. I now fear that this dangerous lady’s application for unitary status is pure municipal genitalia measurement. They want it to be bigger just for the sake of it. Have hon. Members ever noticed how many small people drive large cars? It is as though the six cylinders under the bonnet compensate for the lack elsewhere. Is it a case of today Somerset, tomorrow the world?

With the logic of a Dalek, Mrs. Bakewell wheels round like a dustbin shouting, “Exterminate, exterminate!” I have not done much research into the Daleks, but I know that they wanted to take over the galaxy as quickly as possible. However, despite their threatening appearance, they were constructed out of cardboard with wheels on the bottom and sink plungers for arms. The Daleks, like Mrs. B, had ideas way above their station.

So where on earth is the woolly-headed idea going to end up? Could the chief executive of Somerset county council be to blame? Perhaps he has been conducting long late-night sessions with some of the staff to emphasise what they are going to do. I have no idea. Changing local government is a serious process. It is always messy and pricey. It must never be undertaken just because council top dogs have an over-inflated opinion of themselves and what they can achieve.

I invite the House to look back. Both my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome talked eloquently about the Banham report. Yes, it was set up by a Conservative Government. Yes, they wanted to look at the way that local government could be changed. Yes, they wanted to see whether it could be streamlined. However, Banham did his work well. He took one look at Somerset and said that it could not be one unitary authority. It is too big. It cannot be done. Banham was right; Bakewell is wrong. Big is not best. Big is out of touch and out of tune. Big, when it comes to local government, is very bad indeed.

My message to the House and to Ministers is brutally straightforward. If they want chaos, anger, rising costs, uncertainty, worry, and a lack of understanding and clarity, fine—let them get on with it. But the price for the community—the community is what matters—will be unbearable. Democracy in the county will be damaged badly. I cannot agree with the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome when he says that there are too many in
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local government. My experiences of dealing with the few county councillors that I have now can be frustrating because, like us, they deal with a big area and they cannot always know what is going on. District councillors do know what is going on.

Mr. Heath: I fear that the hon. Gentleman is falling into one of the common misapprehensions of this process, if it proceeds, which is that if the decision were to be for a unitary county, the county council, in its present form, would take on district functions—or vice versa, the district council would take on county council functions. The fact is that there would be a new authority, based on new boundaries, with new wards, new structures and—I would certainly expect—rather more councillors than the current county council, but perhaps fewer than the combination of the county council and the district council. That might be to everybody’s benefit.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention. I take his point on board. To come back to what I said earlier, we just do not know at this stage. However, the hon. Gentleman might be aware—if he is not, I apologise—that the county council is thinking of setting up boards that will be consistent with the district council areas. If that is to be the case, why get rid of them in the first place?

The district councils do a very good job. Even West Somerset, which is the largest district council in the United Kingdom, although it has the smallest resources, does a good job, given its size. West Somerset is vast. As I said earlier, London would fit into it without any problem at all—we would burp, but it would go. We already have that problem and the county would make it worse. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome says that there would be more councillors, but how would that work? For example, would there be two in Taunton and two in Bridgwater—they are the bigger towns—and perhaps two in Yeovil? However, would rural areas then get representation?

If the powers of the parishes and the town councils are to be bumped up, what can they do? Let us start with the parishes. They cannot be given the education portfolio—that is not on—and they certainly cannot be given roads because they could not cope. It might be possible to give them some responsibility for recycling, but they could not be given a lot of the functions that are carried out at present by the districts and the county, simply because the resources are not there. So, should one make the parishes bigger? If that were to happen, the local touch would be lost, and I would be really against that.

Mr. Heath indicated assent.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman agrees.

How much more could the town councils be given? Again, they could not really be given education, unless that was at a very local level. They could possibly be given roads, but where would that start and stop? Again, recycling would be a possibility and refuse collection probably would not be a great problem,
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although that is a problem in rural areas. The lines of demarcation are not set or obvious. Again, I come back to saying that this is a barmy idea.

I echo the view of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells that we should be working in partnership and more closely together on the two-tier system. We already work in partnership. I believe that all the districts councils are working with either each other or the county very effectively. I have certainly not heard any complaints. Unless something has happened in South Somerset district council or Mendip of which I am not aware, I think that they are working well. If that is the case, will the Minister empower us to do more in a partnership and as strategic partners, but not chuck out the baby with the bath water by saying that the whole thing is going to be great because that will not happen—like with the Daleks, because they cannot go up stairs? I am afraid that the unitary megalomaniacs must be stopped now, because if we carry on like this, it will be too late.

9.18 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Meg Munn): I am not quite sure how to follow that. I am informed that in the latest series, the Daleks can go up stairs, so things do change.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) for giving us the opportunity to debate this issue. Our debate comes at an important time for local government following the recent publication of the local government White Paper. The White Paper is devolutionary and about rebalancing the relationship between central and local government and citizens and local government. I was a little surprised to hear the right hon. Gentleman expressing the view that somehow Somerset was the target of that and suggesting that it would become the largest unitary authority. I do not know whether he was referring to population size, because Birmingham is certainly the largest unitary authority. My city of Sheffield has a population of 500,000, but if the right hon. Gentleman was talking about physical size, that is a different matter. It was interesting to reflect on what he said, because Sheffield became a unitary authority thanks to the Conservative Government’s abolition of South Yorkshire county council.

Moving on to the issues raised in the debate, the White Paper proposes a new settlement for local government, offering a stronger role for local authorities, so that they can lead their communities and bring local public services together. Local authorities and other local service providers will be able to innovate and respond to local needs with a stronger focus on their top priorities. In short, our proposals ensure more accountability to citizens and communities, and will create stronger and more visible leadership. The White Paper offers local government the means to tackle the challenges of today, and to fully achieve its potential.

In five years’ time, local government will have a new look. It will be more proactive and innovative, and more responsive to local communities. However, if we are to achieve that, relationships need to change, including the relationship between central and local
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government, and between local government, its local partners and its citizens. Of course, in the case of two-tier local government areas, that includes the relationship between county and district. The status quo in two-tier areas is not an option.

Across the country, people have told us that the arrangements in some two-tier authorities simply do not deliver the governance needed for today. For some time now, we have been engaged in an active, extensive public dialogue with local government and others about governance and restructuring. Ministerial discussions and round-table events were held last spring in each of the eight regions, all of which cover a number of counties, and we have been exploring the future of local government with local politicians, officials, businesses and residents. In some areas, there is real determination to make the current system work better, but in several other areas there is a strong feeling that the current system cannot be made to work.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: Can the Minister enlighten us on whether Somerset said that it would be interested in moving down such a route, and which officials from the county of Somerset went to the meetings? I accept that she cannot give those answers now, but could she do so in the near future?

Meg Munn: I shall be happy to provide the hon. Gentleman with any information that my Department has on meetings in his area, after the debate.

As I was saying, in some areas there is real determination to make the system work, but people have also told us that they find the current system confusing, inefficient and ineffective. To take a small example, maintaining grass verges might be a matter for the parish council, but keeping the pavement clean might be the responsibility of district councils, and keeping the road clean might be up to the county council. The Government’s response to such difficulties is to allow restructuring. There is no doubt but that there are risks and challenges for two-tier structures. There is the risk of confusion, duplication and inefficiency between the tiers, and there are challenges for small districts with small budgets and restricted boundaries that do not reflect social and economic patterns in the area.

We know that many councils are working hard to overcome those risks and challenges, but it is important for councils in all two-tier areas to consider new ways of working. In some areas, there is a widely held view that moving to a unitary structure would be the best way of dealing with the risks and challenges. That would improve accountability and create stronger, more focused leadership. It would improve efficiency and, most importantly of all, it would improve outcomes for local people. In those areas, people have the opportunity, until 25 January, to give us proposals for unitary local government, and we expect to receive a small number of proposals that meet the criteria. That will not be the best route for everyone, but we expect the same outcomes, and the same level of efficiency gains, for areas and their citizens, regardless of whether councils choose the unitary route, or look to make improvements in the two-tier structure by providing stronger leadership and better co-ordinated services, and by making efficiencies through integrated service delivery and the sharing of back-office functions.

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For all areas continuing with two tiers, there will be significant change. We are asking all principal councils in those counties committed to aiming for an improved and innovative two-tier approach to act as pathfinders. The aims of the two-tier model pioneered by the pathfinders should be the same as the outcomes that can be achieved by a move to unitary structures. They include unified service delivery, so that there is no need for service users to understand whether the country, district or, indeed, other service provider is responsible; stronger leadership; effective accountability arrangements, so that people know who is responsible for which decision; shared back-office functions; and integrated service delivery. We are seeking new ways of working between the tiers, and we are asking for outline proposals by 25 January, after which we will designate pathfinders to develop the proposal.

The pathfinders will be subject to evaluation at intervals—perhaps after two, four or six years. To achieve a proper comparison, we will make a similar evaluation of new unitaries. Until that is complete and we have the results, we do not intend to instigate change again. Proposals for unitary structures must be in accordance with the terms of the invitation. In submitting a proposal, councils must have regard to the guidance in the invitation that states that proposals should be presented in the form of a business case with a supporting financial framework. Until we have received and considered the bids, I hope that the right hon. Member for Wells and the hon. Members for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) and for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) appreciate that it is inappropriate for me to comment on the merits or otherwise of any particular proposal.

I can, however, say something about the criteria that will be used to assess proposals. They must be affordable. Change must represent value for money, and it must be met from councils’ existing resources. Bids must be supported by a broad cross-section of partners and stakeholders, service users and citizens. We will consider whether proposals provide strong, effective and accountable strategic leadership; and whether they deliver genuine opportunities for neighbourhood flexibility and empowerment, as well as value for money and equity in public services.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: Will the Minister answer my specific question about the need for a vote? As I pointed out, that was promised by the Deputy Prime Minister earlier this year. Is it still Government policy to allow a referendum on proposals for unitary status?

Meg Munn: The Government are seeking a clear statement of support for that proposal. The document sets out the broad range of support that councils that wish to submit a bid must demonstrate. Councils are the elected democratic representatives of their areas, so it is appropriate for them to submit bids and demonstrate that they meet those criteria. Apart from that, the Government are not prescriptive.

We will assess the proposals against the criteria that will be set out in more detail in our invitation. Once the proposals have been made, and depending on their number and quality, we hope to announce preliminary decisions by the end of March 2007. We want to consult stakeholders and make our final decisions by
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early July 2007. Councils that do not submit proposals for unitary status or to pioneer as a pathfinder still need to develop more effective working relationships to overcome the risks of confusion, duplication and inefficiency that can exist in two-tier areas. Our message to local authorities is that the status quo is not an option. We require them to continue to make improvements for their area and to their citizens’ quality of life.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: One of Somerset’s great achievements, as all Somerset Members will agree, is the partnership working between the district councils. However, it is difficult to demonstrate, because councils assess it with internal systems. Such working is effective, so I do not know what the Minister meant when she said that councils do not always work in that way in Somerset. I can assure her that, in my experience, that is not the case in any of the district councils in Somerset.

Meg Munn: With regard to their becoming two-tier pathfinders, we want to see what councils can demonstrate, particularly in that relationship between the tiers. Wider co-operation across local authorities is also to be welcomed. At the outset the right hon. Member for Wells mentioned multi-area agreements. Those are mechanisms whereby areas that go across more than one local authority can determine that they have interests have common. They may represent natural communities, so they may want to set out how they propose to work on priorities together, with the benefit of being able to require other agencies and organisations to co-operate with them in that, as set out in the White Paper.

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Government support that, but this evening we are discussing the relationship between the tiers of authorities. We want to achieve positive outcomes for local communities, regardless of the structure of local government in the area, so we are putting a much greater emphasis on local areas to ensure that they focus on the outcome and, if they have two tiers, on working together more efficiently and effectively. That was one of the aims of local government set out by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome.

We have taken the view that we will not be prescriptive about a particular area, which is why I thought the right hon. Member for Wells was off the mark in his characterisation of the Government as having set their sights on Somerset again. Local areas know what makes sense for them, but they need to be able to demonstrate that and demonstrate how they will achieve the aims of the White Paper within the appropriate structure for their area.

As I said, councils that do not submit proposals for unitary status or to pioneer as a pathfinder still need to develop more effective working arrangements to overcome the risks of confusion, duplication and inefficiency that can exist in two-tier areas. We want local authorities to make improvements for their area and to improve the quality of life for citizens. We will support councils in getting there, either by moving to unitary status or by making the two-tier structure work much better. But in line with our emphasis on devolution to local government—this is where I agree with the right hon. Friend—the choices as to how to go about that are for councils, their partners and their citizens to make.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes to Ten o’clock.

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