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I could not agree more. Local residents want their councils to focus on service delivery and to keep down the cost of council tax rather than being distracted by an expensive and unnecessary restructuring. The saga in Shropshire has been distracting our councillors and council officers for more than a year already, and it has cost considerable officer time and expense. In Shropshire, the councils themselves are evenly divided on the issue—three, including the county council, are in favour, and three are opposed. There is no broad consensus of support, as I shall demonstrate shortly.

Shropshire has one of the best track records in the country of joint working between councils, as I mentioned a couple of times in Committee. That could be extended, and much more could be done to enhance two-tier working without the loss of democratic accountability which would result from unitary status in an area as large and diverse as Shropshire.

However, I detect the clunking fist of the Chancellor in the change of emphasis from the Secretary of State. As we learned from Lord Turnbull this week, the Chancellor determines priorities without any serious discussion with ministerial colleagues. We have been told that the Chancellor’s attitude is, “They will get what I decide.” That was indirectly acknowledged by the Minister for Local Government in the meeting with Shropshire MPs that I referred to earlier. He told us that the rationale for permitting only about eight areas—from the 16 for which applications had been submitted—to go forward to unitary status was due to the budgetary requirements of the Treasury. The cost of restructuring in year 1 needs to be restrained within limits set by the Treasury, so that it does not add unduly to the ballooning public sector debt and breach the Chancellor’s golden rule. The best way to minimise the cost to the Treasury would be to abandon the whole enterprise, certainly so far as Shropshire is concerned.

Let me turn to the specifics regarding Shropshire. I would like to start with a brief geography lesson. The county of Shropshire is the 13th largest authority by geographic area in England, covering some 1,235 square miles. It extends almost 50 miles from north to south and some 30 miles from west to east. My constituency, one of four in the area covered by the county council, is the eighth largest geographic constituency in England. Despite its large area, it is also one of the most lightly
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populated, with only 288,000 adults, many of whom live in remote rural communities, especially along the border with Wales. With a limited public transport network, access to services is a major issue, and for many people, round trip travel to the county town of Shrewsbury is a two-hour enterprise. That is relevant because of the challenge posed to local accountability and the delivery of services by a unitary model.

Much academic research and Audit Commission evidence shows that big is not always better. The experience of residents—certainly the experiences that can be found in my surgeries and postbag—suggest widespread suspicion of centralised decision making. That will not be overcome by the proposal for 27 local area committees, since their role would essentially be advisory if a unitary model were to proceed.

The Minister has made it clear that proposals will have to meet the five criteria set out in the invitation to bid. I want to consider them briefly as they relate to the “One Council for Shropshire” proposal. The first criterion is affordability. The proposal for Shropshire was based on a top-down financial model, the West Sussex model, which is much discussed and criticised in academic circles as not being sufficiently flexible to take into account the vagaries of specific circumstances. Little cross-checking has been presented to show whether the estimated savings set out in the business case can be achieved. Two detailed third-party analyses have been undertaken, one by Professor Chisholm, a noted academic who focuses on local government structures, and another by Capita, a favourite adviser of the Government. Both have raised concerns that the savings have been overstated and that the transitional costs of achieving them have been understated. Have the Minister’s officials studied those reports, which I know have been made available to her Department, and does she recognise those deficiencies?

For example, on the issue of members’ allowances, no assumption has been made about any increase in allowances for unitary councillors, despite their greater responsibilities, on the basis that that would prejudge any decision, which is clearly not a sensible way in which to build assumptions into a future financial model. Similarly, on the senior staff structure, no increase has been proposed for salary levels commensurate with the greater responsibilities of running a unitary authority. Much has been made in the county of the savings to be extracted from reducing the number of senior staff—for example, having only one chief executive rather than six and similar levels of support staff in each district. However, no analysis has been done of the potential redundancy cost based on the individuals concerned. It has all been based on the West Sussex model, much of which will not apply in Shropshire.

Much has also been made by the proponents of a unitary structure in the county of the experience of the East Riding of Yorkshire, an area that has some similarities to Shropshire in geographic spread and sparsity of population, as well as in the number of district councils that were abolished when the area went unitary. My understanding is that, although there was one chief executive following the introduction of the unitary model, the other chief executives were, at least initially, merely given reduced titles. They were called either assistant or deputy chief executive and continued
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in post on the same salary level. At first, there was no saving, whereas the model proposed in Shropshire assumes that such savings begin immediately.

It is instructive to consider some of the comparative costs of achieving the savings that have been put forward by other areas that are contemplating such a change. Bedfordshire, a county about which we heard a great deal in Committee on the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill—I will not go on about Bedfordshire today—has four districts and a population roughly double that of Shropshire at 560,000. I understand from its application that the anticipated costs will be about £10 million to £15 million. Cumbria, another area that has put in for unitary status, has six districts, a population of 495,000 and estimated costs of £15 million for the change. Northumberland has six districts and a population closer to Shropshire’s at 307,000 and anticipates costs of £16.9 million. Shropshire has five districts with a population of 288,000 and—because of the inadequacies of the financial model, in my view—the anticipated transitional costs are a mere £3 million. Those costs have been questioned in the reports that I mentioned.

The next aspect of affordability is the question of council tax rises being limited to the lowest increase prevailing. Again, some fairly heroic assumptions have been made about the savings that will be achieved to allow for those modest council tax increases, with a maximum of 3.5 per cent. for the Bridgnorth area, because it has such a low council tax at present. I say “heroic” because it is anticipated, particularly by those who have studied the subject externally, that a great deal of the savings that are claimed for unitary status will be eroded by action that the councils have already taken. As I mentioned at the beginning, a great deal of joint working has already been done in Shropshire and some, in my view, has been double counted.

The second criterion, which is the focus of my concern and my challenge to the Minister, is support for the proposals. The invitation to bid referred to the requirement for a broad cross-section of support from partners and stakeholders. It went on to expand that requirement to include citizens. I raised that point directly with the Minister for Local Government in Committee, and he confirmed that his interpretation of the criterion was that it included residents and the people who would be most directly affected—that is, the public.

The Government have decided that it is up to local councils to determine how they measure the broad cross-section of support required to fulfil the criteria. Shropshire is unique among all the areas that have made a bid for unitary status, I believe, as it held ballots of public opinion prior to submitting the bid. As the Minister will remember, the results were delivered on the Floor of the House before the deadline for the submission of bids. I shall rehearse them again in a moment. Can the Minister confirm that she will give the results of the ballots proper consideration? Will she help us by explaining what that will mean?

Following comments by the Minister for Local Government, I have concerns about the way in which the Minister and her civil servants will interpret the ballot results. I am worried that, because the ballots were not undertaken by all the proponents of unitary status but by a council—South Shropshire district council—that was one of the three in favour of the
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unitary model, and by two that were opposed to the model, the results will somehow be set aside. I fear that the Government will say that they were looking for support from those who made proposals and are less concerned about the views of those who opposed proposals. They have set up a two-stage process, and a 12-week public consultation to take place after the decision has been made about which areas will go forward in the process. I am, therefore, anxious that they will use that fact in some way to negate the effect of the ballots that have taken place.

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): Would my hon. Friend agree that if the Government were to allow the unitary bid by Shropshire county council to go forward at this stage, it would be in direct contradiction of the rules that they have stipulated? As he will know, the residents of Shrewsbury overwhelmingly rejected unitary authority proposals. Nearly 70 per cent. of those who voted in the recent referendum rejected the proposals.

Mr. Dunne: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding the Minister of the percentage of residents who took the view that unitary was not for Shrewsbury. I am trying to tease out from the Minister whether the Government actually mean what they say.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con): Surely my hon. Friend is being grossly unkind to the Government, given the nature of the vote, the overwhelming number of people who turned up and the clearly stated message in the ballot. Surely to turn it down would be truly Stalinist.

Mr. Dunne: As usual, my hon. Friend puts his finger on the point. Such a response would be in direct contrast to the Government’s statements in the invitation to bid, and during progress of the Bill through Committee. I hope that the Minister will find it in her power to put my fears at rest on the issue. Unless she would like to intervene on me now, we may have to wait until the end of the debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham referred to the overwhelming vote in Shrewsbury. I remind the Minister that it was even more overwhelming in Bridgnorth, where many of the leading proponents of the argument for unitary are councillors on the district council. The vote in that district was extraordinary. Of those who voted, 85.6 per cent. voted for an enhanced two-tier structure and against a unitary structure. That must be one of the highest percentages that the country has ever seen in a ballot on local government restructuring. Even in South Shropshire, where the council is one of those that submitted in favour of the bid, there was a 56.7 per cent. vote against from the people.

Those results were not on insignificant turnouts. There has been the most extraordinary attempt by some of the proponents to argue that, because the turnout was less than 50 per cent., the results were in some way not an appropriate mandate, or a proper expression of views. That is particularly surprising since one individual, the leader of South Shropshire district council, has rarely been elected herself. She was unopposed—at least at the last two elections that I am
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aware of—but seems to regard mandates to be given only if more than 50 per cent. of the people vote. Perhaps she should not be sitting on the council. There was a 42 per cent. turnout for South Shropshire and 47 per cent. for Bridgnorth.

In their submission, the proponents of unitary relied, in their evidence for the cross-section of support, very heavily on a focus group undertaken by an opinion poll firm that conducted extensive interviews—I will grant that—but with only 44 people. I have undertaken my own opinion poll through an online panel that I set up in January, and my first panel was on this subject.

Daniel Kawczynski: My hon. Friend mentioned that interviews were held with only 44 people from the whole of Shropshire, but, for the record, the views of those 44 people were mixed. Even though it was a tiny sample, there were still many people who were against unitary.

Mr. Dunne: Indeed. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that crystal clear.

My survey supported the overall ballot—perhaps not surprisingly, as I was dealing with a much larger number of real people, some of whom made interesting observations. One of the criticisms of the ballot—again, levelled by those who were in favour of unitary—was that the issues involved in deciding whether to move from a two-tier to a unitary structure were too complex to be put to a simple ballot of opinion. That criticism was levelled repeatedly throughout the ballot process, despite the fact that information was provided by each of the councils conducting the ballot.

In the case of South Shropshire, there was a special edition of South Shropshire Matters, which is a well put together, professional piece of literature. In a 16-page leaflet, space was provided on two and a half pages for the opponents of unitary to state their case, and the remaining pages of the document were for those in favour. Despite that, the result in South Shropshire was as I have said.

My survey asked:

Eighty-seven per cent. of people replied that they did not think that that was a legitimate argument. Indeed, there was another overwhelming vote opposed to unitary. I shall give the figure as soon as I find it—among a number of questions. To the question,

71 per cent. said that they did not believe that.

The other main plank of the argument for a broad cross-section of support comes from a consultation exercise that the county council organised around the district, much of it taking place after the date for submission of the bid. The argument has been presented as take it or leave it, as in the comment from the Secretary of State that


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which appears in the invitation to bid and has appeared in several statements from Ministers on the subject in intervening months. That was taken as gospel, but, in my view, there was a clear misunderstanding as to what it meant. I would be grateful if the Minister would explain the statement for the benefit of people outside this place who are listening to this debate.

I expect that the misunderstanding revolves around the fact that the Government have recognised that they cannot afford to compel the whole country to move to unitary, and are therefore considering an alternative structure and have allowed for pathfinder enhanced two-tier areas. They are anticipating that those areas that do not go unitary or become part of a pathfinder area will seek to encourage closer working together to extract maximum efficiencies from a two-tier structure. I would be grateful if the Minister would confirm that that is the Government’s interpretation of

Like those councils that are opposed to unitary, I regard that objective as being entirely appropriate, and it is one that Shropshire is well on the way to delivering. As I mentioned in the Committee, Shropshire is one of the leading advocates of joint working in local government. The Shropshire waste partnership has been established with all but one of the areas co-operating together on collection and disposal of refuse. In my area, Bridgnorth and South Shropshire last year merged their revenue services departments. South Shropshire had one of the most efficient council tax gathering departments in the country. Bridgnorth has taken advantage of that, and considerable savings are accruing to both councils from combining the management of that function. A great deal more can be done across the county through closer co-operation and joint working, and it would help enormously in resolving the uncertainty if the Minister would confirm that that is indeed a perfectly legitimate way forward.

The arguments presented in the meetings that I referred to were one-sided because no time or space were given, even in the submission itself, to the alternatives available to the council. Unitary was presented as the only option, and, as a result, those people who decided to support unitary took the view in most cases that it was the only option, and that they were being asked to vote in a Stalinist manner, to quote my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar, when only one candidate was put forward.

Mr. Pickles I recall visiting the BBC website where a poll had been attempted that it was not possible to complete. Would my hon. Friend remind hon. Members what happened to that poll?

Mr. Dunne: That is a good example of the conduct of the proponents of a unitary council in seeking to make their case as one-sided as possible. The local radio station, BBC Radio Shropshire, conducted an online poll that invited people to say whether they were in favour of or against the unitary proposal. The director of communications of the county council issued an instruction to employees of the county council by e-mail to encourage them to participate in the poll; fair enough. However, he also gave them the clues—or cookie to use the technical expression—to circumvent the device within the poll that prevented people from voting more than once.


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Mr. Pickles: So, vote early and vote often.

Mr. Dunne: Indeed, that was precisely what he was suggesting. Consequently, he was suspended from his post and I have been pressing the chief executive of the county council to let me know what disciplinary action will be taken against him.

One of the officials from the Minister’s Department, Mr. David Prout, who is the director of communities and local government, came to speak in Shropshire about the White Paper, “Strong and Prosperous Communities”. During that session he was asked a question, which I will quote from Councillor Tina Woodward’s letter to the Minister:


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