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The Lyons review will not ride to the rescue. By the time that it has reported, the report has been published, the Government have formulated their response, there
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has been a consultation on that response and any necessary legislation has been drafted, years will have passed. Although we are all waiting impatiently, the review is not a knight on a charger that will come along and set us free. Therefore the best thing that we can hope for is that the Bill is the first step in a gradualist approach.

I have twin daughters, and about 10 years ago they had a succession of boyfriends. I had nothing particularly against most of them, but I was also not particularly in favour of them, to be frank. I just hoped that something better would turn up, and I am pleased to be able to say that two things better turned up—one for each of them. I have a similar hope for this Bill. I do not think much of it; there is nothing to laugh at, as Albert might have said at Blackpool—or it is “neither nowt nor summat” as they say in my part of the world. However, we live in hope that something better will turn up—that this Bill is the beginning of a process, and that we will be able to look back at it and say “Actually, something did begin at that stage, and an awful lot has happened since.” We hope that that is the case.

5.51 pm

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): I am pleased to follow the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry). His speech was wide-ranging, but mine will be parochial. However, I agree with him that unitary authorities should be relatively small.

I welcome much of the Bill, but the time scale for putting forward proposals is very short, and it concerns me that there is a narrow window of opportunity. The date for proposals is 25 January. Cumbria has one county council and six district councils, and in areas such as Cumbria it will be difficult for the district councils to come forward with a proposal. Therefore, I think that the time scale is too short—although there are those who will say that if district councils were to have a year in which to come forward with a proposal they would find it difficult to do so.

Let me go into the history of Cumbria. It was created in 1974 by a Tory Government. There was no logic behind its formation. It took in Cumberland, Westmorland, the county borough of Carlisle, the Furness part of Lancashire including Barrow, and a little bit of Yorkshire. The intention behind the formation of that county was to create an authority that would not be controlled by the Labour party. It would not have been possible to create it without the M6; it is, in fact, a motorway county. It can take two hours or more to drive from one side of the county to the other, even on the motorway.

Cumbria was never the right solution. The right solution might have been to create Cumberland with the county borough of Carlisle inside it. If we look at the mountain ranges in Cumbria, we can see that that is why Cumberland was formed. We have an affinity with the north-east. Westmorland and the Furness area, which have an affinity with the north-west, should have formed another authority that looked towards the north-west.

I am now going to bore Members by talking about my personal local government history. Before reorganisation, I served on the Carlisle borough
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council—I know I do not look old enough to have done so, but I did—and I was also a member of Cumbria county council and of the Cumbrian health authority. I chaired both the county council and the health authority, so I know the problems that they face at first hand, and one of the problems is the county’s size.

There is no overall media coverage or local newspaper for the county—although there are about six or seven local newspapers. The ITV station for the area covers only half the county. The BBC splits coverage; programmes for the southern half of the county come from Manchester and those in the north come from Newcastle. It tried to put them together in the ’80s, but it had to return to how things were before because nobody watched. People will say, “We have Radio Cumbria,” but those who can remember will remind them that we used to have Radio Furness as well but that that was done away with for economic reasons only.

There is no real affinity. The Minister’s constituency of Oldham, East and Saddleworth is as near to Barrow as Carlisle is to Barrow, and there is more affinity between Barrow and Oldham because they were both part of Lancashire at one time. Therefore, Cumbria is vast, and it is not a county, but a sub-region. A look at the map reveals that it comprises 48 per cent. of the north-west region.

The majority of the population of Cumbria lives on the periphery because of the mountains. We have six district councils, because it was deemed necessary to have six of them to represent the various communities. There are also five distinct accents in Cumbria, of which I have one. It is a very big area.

Because of its size, Cumbria county council has never been particularly successful. I used to be its chairman and a couple of years ago I had an Adjournment debate because the council was so bad. I asked the Government to take back and look after children in social services. Recently—until this week—three secondary schools in my constituency were failing; fortunately, the Roman Catholic school, Newman, has just succeeded in coming out of special measures.

The county council has put forward a proposal to become a unitary authority. It was interesting that the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) did not endorse the leader of the county council, who is a Conservative, in terms of that proposal. I am in a cleft stick because I believe that we need to have unitary authorities. A case can be made for Carlisle to be a unitary authority, but the city council has decided not to follow that path. If any of the districts could become a unitary authority, it is Carlisle. It has a population of about 110,000, and the population in its central urban area is about 80,000.

We have had only one proposal. I can give two options. In 2004, the boundary committee for England recommended that the county be split north and south. That is similar to the boundary proposal that the districts of Allerdale, Copeland, Carlisle and Eden form one unitary authority, and that Barrow-in-Furness and South Lakeland—and I would prefer Lancashire and Morecambe to be included, too—form a southern one. That is one option that we should look
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at. The other option is for there to be a unitary Cumbria with beefed-up area councils.

The current proposal is to run Cumbria with the same number of councillors as Sheffield is run with—this matter is mentioned in the White Paper and the Government did not do justice to Cumbria by doing so. They intend that Cumbria should be run with 84 councillors. The Government talk about front-line councillors. In fact, what they are really talking about in Cumbria—and, I am afraid, in a lot of other places—is full-time councillors. Given that it takes perhaps two hours to drive to a council meeting and two hours to drive back again, young people with children will not be able to become Cumbria county councillors. All those years ago, young people like me were able to get time off from their careers, bring some expertise to the council and give something back to the local community; however, that will not be possible. I know what the public think, but councillors are not well paid and they do not get good allowances. All that a unitary county council the size of Cumbria will get is retired people. Only they will be able to take part in such a council, which will have the functions not only of the existing county council, but of the districts.

Daniel Kawczynski: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Martlew: In a moment. The idea is to increase the number of area councillors to four—one for west Cumbria, one for Carlisle, one for Eden and South Lakes and one for Barrow and Furness—and to delegate massive powers to them while the centre sets the precept and plays a strategic role, thereby providing all the savings that a local authority would provide. However, the problem is that Cumbria county council did not consult anybody; it simply decided that that was the option and that such a council would be run with the same number of councillors. I suspect that they will run it as well as it ran the county council.

So although I am in favour of unitary authorities I cannot support a Cumbria unitary authority, which would be an absolute disaster. In fact, I would prefer the current two-tier local government arrangement. If I have read the Bill right, although the Government are saying that there is only a narrow window of opportunity, the reality is that the powers in the Bill will enable this or another Secretary of State to alter local government boundaries, or to have unitary authorities at a later stage. Before the Minister goes ahead and gives the okay for a unitary Cumbria, will he talk to the county and district councils and bang their heads together? Will he talk to the local MPs and see whether he can come up with a sensible solution that will give us local democracy and save the council tax payer money? That is essential. As I said, I prefer the current option to a unitary Cumbria.

6.2 pm

Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), and I want to present what is a rather simpler picture in Northumberland than the complicated cross-currents of opinion that exist in
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Carlisle. I have been helped in what I am about to say by an earlier intervention from the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell), who, in a slight slip of the tongue, referred to a two-tier option when he meant the two-council option; however, he made his position very clear.

Like the hon. Member for Carlisle, I believe that unitary local government has considerable advantages, not least because it is easier for the electorate to understand, and because local authorities then tend to have a bigger critical mass of services and staff within which they can make changes and adjustments denied under the two-tier system. It is difficult, however, to implement unitary local government in Northumberland; indeed, we have found it difficult every time such a reorganisation has been considered. At the moment we have a county council and six districts, but the size of the county makes things very difficult. It is more than 100 miles from end to end, and contains two very different types of area: a highly concentrated urban south-east core, and a large rural area stretching from Berwick, in the north of my constituency, to Haltwhistle, which borders on Cumbria.

I want to suggest to the Minister how he might consider the bids that will emerge from Northumberland. To start with, he should remember that when the unitary question was put to a referendum at the time of the regional referendum, there was a clear vote—some 56 per cent.—in favour of two unitary authorities for Northumberland, not one. The votes were broken down according to the way in which the regional referendum was conducted, and in my own rural area the majority in favour of two authorities was much higher even than in the referendum as a whole. It was clear that there was no consensus for a single county-wide unitary authority.

The Labour leadership of the county council simply ignored that fact and decided to go ahead and put to the Minister a proposal for a single unitary county authority—against the wishes of many of their own councillors. Indeed, the leadership did not even seek the council’s support for the proposition until last week. The Minister will have received letters, deputations, visits and all sorts from the Labour leadership of Northumberland county council, but they never sought the support of the council for their proposition.

Meanwhile, the Northumberland districts showed surprising consensus. Bearing in mind all the past difficulties, I was surprised that all six districts agreed that a twin unitary authority solution was the right way to go.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell: The right hon. Gentleman is right to mention the decision that the Labour group took last week. In fact, it was a very narrow decision; the leadership were about to lose the vote, until they reached a compromise. Labour councillors were not going to vote for it, which shows how far apart the leadership were from their own council.

Mr. Beith: Indeed, and I shall deal with this point in a little more detail in a moment. Perhaps both the hon. Gentleman and I should declare an interest, in that both our wives happen to be members of the county
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council. We both disagree with the view that the county leadership have been putting forward. [Interruption.] We both agree with our wives about this issue; indeed, all four of us agree with each other. In fact, all four of the county’s Members of Parliament agree on this issue, as I shall shortly explain.

The districts put together a proposal for two unitary authorities, which is an impressive feat of consensus. What really struck me was the fact that they had recognised that different issues would confront the two authorities. The more urban of the two authorities, they said, would primarily face issues such as health inequality, low educational attainment, access to employment, crime and disorder, and synergy with the wider city region based in Newcastle, whereas the dominant issues for the more rural authority would be access to services, market town sustainability, tourism and economic diversification, affordable housing, transport and the condition of the highways. There were different strings of issues, from which I have merely cited some examples.

That was a revealing analysis. We are talking about two different areas that face rather different problems. They obviously have some problems in common with other parts of the country, but there are some striking differences. The financial calculations, which are notoriously unreliable in any local government reorganisation proposal, did not show huge differences between what could be achieved by having two authorities and by having one.

I turn to the point that the hon. Member for Blyth Valley so vividly portrayed. When the county leaders put their single-council plan to the council, they realised in the end that they could not win—that they simply did not have the votes—although extremely strong letters had been sent to Labour councillors, saying that if they did not toe the line they would be expelled, and would not be allowed to stand in the district council elections later this year. That was a pretty serious threat, which they nevertheless continued to withstand. I should explain that in the meantime, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) had written to Conservatives in the area, saying that they should not support any change at all, although quite a number of them were by that time firmly committed to the two-council option.

The council’s Labour leadership realised that they were not going to get their proposal through, so at the very last minute a revised motion—it was not on the agenda paper; councillors did not have it beforehand—was produced, containing the following wonderful words:

In other words, they could take their pick. As the county leader said at the meeting, the Government are going to decide which one to have, anyway. So the council leadership could not get their own proposal through their own council.

The bid was very complex, involving adding 22 neighbourhood structures. One factor that influenced a lot of people was the county’s failure to deliver for rural areas. Opinion probably swung even more behind the two-authority solution when it was realised that the
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county had an institutional inability to cope with some of the rural problems. The Minister for Schools has taken a close interest in a very vivid example of such problems, and he has recognised that further work needs to be done. In trying to deal with school transport issues, the county ended up imposing a very high charge for school transport for over-16s. It decided to charge £360 per child aged over 16 for transport to school in the rural areas of the county. That does not happen in Cumbria. The council also withdrew train passes from students from Berwick who were travelling to college in Newcastle and told them to go on the bus, which took one and three quarter hours. The usage of the bus has fallen to five people, because it is such an impossible way to travel to college. That is one example of how the decision-making structure of the county did not enable the rural aspects to be considered.

Another example is the executive, which does not have a single member from either the Alnwick district or the Berwick borough, and has only one from Tynedale. That reflects the partisan differences between the different areas, but those differences would be writ large in a single unitary authority. Whichever part of the authority managed to gain control of the executive, the rest would feel very left out. The two-council alternative is more attractive and more popular.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that if we were to have a referendum, support for the two unitary authorities, in his area and mine, would be overwhelming?

Mr. Beith: That is true, and reminds me of the old saying, “Why look in the crystal ball when you can read the book?” We have already had one referendum decision that reached exactly that conclusion, and nothing that has happened since has made it likely that opinion would shift away from it. In fact, if anything, opinion has probably strengthened in that direction.

If the Government decide that the area is not one that they should choose and if they are not prepared to accept the two-council bid, the alternative will be to make a reality of a new kind of two-tier system, and make it work properly. That was ruled out because the county leaders were so concerned to get the one authority bid, that they would not have a serious discussion about making the two-tier system work. For it to be made to work, and some of the problems to be addressed, it is clear that—as the districts have recognised—they will have to share more services and staff and work more closely with the county. That discussion never got off the ground, because the county said that it would not play that game because it was interested only in a single county bid. It was up to the district councils to make a different bid if they wanted to—

Mr. Campbell: Turkeys do not like Christmas.

Mr. Beith: Indeed. The options that would be widely acceptable are the two unitaries option, or making the two-tier system work properly.

I wish to suggest to the Minister criteria for considering bids for unitary authorities. If all four MPs from a county, representing all three parties, are against
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a bid, all the districts are against, a referendum in the area voted against it and the county council leadership cannot get its proposal through, a Minister might want to think about rejecting that bid, looking to see whether another bid is on the table and deciding whether to proceed in that area at all. I suggest to the Minister that he meet the four MPs from the county—the hon. Members for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell), for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy) and me—as we all agree in our opposition to the county option.

Patrick Hall: In the circumstances that the right hon. Gentleman has just described, how could any council put forward that bid?

Mr. Beith: Well, the county managed to get through a peculiar motion that said that it recognised both bids, but that the officers were authorised to prepare a single county bid—which they had already done anyway, presumably on the basis that somebody had to do it—but the substantive bit of the motion effectively puts forward both bids. It is clear that to accept the county leadership’s bid for a single unitary authority would not make any sense. Most of the elected representatives in Northumberland, both urban and rural, take the same view.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) addressed the more general issues raised by the Bill, but I wished to consider one aspect that I hope does not feature in any bid and is not forced on any council—the directly elected executive. That strikes me as the most barmy proposal for local government that I have ever heard. Interestingly, the Secretary of State did not advance it or explain it when she spoke earlier. It would involve all the parties putting forward a slate of candidates for those posts. If there were eight executive posts, all three parties—perhaps even the independents, too—would put forward a slate of eight candidates. If a party thought that it had a good chance of winning, but was not certain, it would be likely to put up the same people to be members of the council. Indeed, knowing the difficulty that we all have finding candidates, it is likely that the parties would do that. So on election day, one of the slates would be elected and the eight candidates would become members of the executive. Immediately, those people would have to resign from the council, leading to eight by-elections to replace them. That used to be the situation in the House of Commons. Ministers used to have to resign after they were appointed and a by-election would be held, which they took part in. The House abolished that procedure some 60 or 70 years ago, and nobody has ever thought to reintroduce it.

Mr. Woolas: First, I remind the House that it was the right hon. Gentleman’s party that argued to retain that system. Secondly, the proposal for the directly elected executive was one of the models suggested to us by local authorities. I will not mention the political colour of those local authorities, but I think that the House can guess.

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