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21 Mar 2007 : Column 297WH—continued

In a public meeting in Shropshire, he gave the impression that the decision would be taken by councillors, not by the public. However, that directly conflicts with what we discussed earlier regarding public consultation forming an important part of establishing support for the proposal. Coming from a Government official, such a statement helped those present at the meeting to be confirmed in the belief that unitary was the only option. As time is pressing, I will move on to some of the other points that I wish to make.

The case against unitary and in favour of an enhanced two-tier system has not been put as clearly to the Minster as I would have liked. That is because the Minister has sought representations from those groups that wish to proceed with the unitary option, rather than from those who are opposed to it. I have referred to the two third-party reports from Capita and Professor Chisholm and representations have also been made by those councils that are opposed to the idea. Can the Minister confirm whether the views of the three councils in Shropshire that are opposed to unitary have been taken into account? What respective weight will she give to the fact that we have three councils for and three councils against the proposal?

It is clear from the explanatory documents that went out with the invitation for bid that an individual council or a group of councils cannot prevent an area from becoming unitary if, in other respects, the criteria set out by the Government are satisfied. In light of the overwhelming public view and the view of the three councils, it would be most helpful if the Minister would clarify what criteria she will use to judge whether or not local representatives, through their council decisions, will be allowed a voice.

Local concern about the issue is largely focused on democratic accountability and representation. In this country, we already have the lowest number per thousand of the population of elected representatives of any country in Europe. As I said earlier, the unitary proposal would substantially reduce the number of elected representatives in Shropshire. The attempt to provide some form of local participation through the introduction of 27 local area committees was said in the Capita report to be fundamentally flawed, because the area committees would have very limited resources and, effectively, no powers other than to advise. The feeling
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among the communities of Shropshire, particularly in the area that I represent, which is characterised by a large number of small villages, is that they will lose representation. When I hold surgeries anywhere in my constituency and discuss this matter, I ask people whether they want decisions to be taken by a remote—I try not to use emotive words—by a council based in Shrewsbury, the county town, or by the district council, and people universally say that they would prefer decisions to be taken at a more local level.

In Committee, the Government placed great emphasis on the fact that the objective of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill is to decentralise decision making—to take decisions closer to the people. In Shropshire, if we remove the district councils, decisions will be taken by a council that is heavily dominated by people who live in the county town of Shrewsbury. That might be an attraction for my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham.

Daniel Kawczynski: But we do not want unitary.

Mr. Dunne: Although I am well aware that he does not want unitary. The proposal will deny democratic decision making; it will centralise decision making; it is unpopular. The village voice, which at present is catered for by the district councils, will disappear. District councillors currently represent about 1,000 people. In many parts of my constituency that means a collection of two, three or four villages. If we move to a unitary structure, the councils will represent populations of 5,000, which, by definition, will be centred on the towns rather than the villages. Those villages feel that they will lose out. The local area committees proposed by “One Council for Shropshire” will not provide an adequate voice for villagers to enable them to feel that they are involved in decision making.

In conclusion, if the Minister ignores the ballot of public opinion that has taken place and given such a clear and decisive result, she does so at her peril. She should remember what happened in the north-east. Does she want to go down in history as the Minister who followed up the Deputy Prime Minister’s gaff in going for a regional referendum with a local referendum in Shropshire? That is what the local elections will become. In a meeting that we had last month, the Minister’s colleague, the Minister for Local Government, made it clear that the public consultation period is designed to straddle the local elections in May. If the Minister allows Shropshire to go forward into unitary and ignores the previous ballot, I confidently predict that the decision will go against unitary, because anti-unitary candidates will be elected, will reverse the decisions taken in at least some of those councils that are currently in favour of unitary—the county does not have elections so that would be in the district councils—and the current proponents will in some cases become anti-unitary. As a result the proposals will come back to the Minister to be rejected. I suspect that the agony of that process could be avoided.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Angela E. Smith): From what the hon. Gentleman has said, people
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listening to the debate could be forgiven for thinking that the proposal is some evil deed of the Government trying to force unitary. In fact, the proposal has come from a Conservative-controlled county council. When he says that there will be anti-unitary candidates standing against pro-unitary candidates, does he mean that people within the same party—his party—will be standing against each other to put a unitary or non-unitary point of view during the local elections?

Mr. Dunne: I am not saying that at all. What I am saying is that there will be a number of people standing on a predominantly non-unitary ticket. We have a large number of independents within South Shropshire and Bridgnorth and I anticipate that many of those will be overtly campaigning on an anti-unitary ticket. In addition, there may well be political parties—in my area, I anticipate, the Conservatives—that will campaign on an anti-unitary ticket. That is, indeed, my party’s policy, and that is what I anticipate will happen. If the Minister chooses to ignore that outcome, too, that will bring into sharp relief the Government’s real attitude towards local democracy and accountability.

Daniel Kawczynski rose—

Hugh Bayley (in the Chair): Order. I should tell the hon. Gentleman that I shall start the winding-up speeches at 3.30 pm.

3.10 pm

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) on securing the debate, not simply because it is standard procedure to do so, but because this is an extremely important subject. He and I have been approaching the Speaker’s Office for a considerable number of weeks, and I am extremely pleased that my hon. Friend has secured this debate.

The invitation to bid document has frustrated me greatly; indeed, I am starting to get my first grey hairs as a result of it and the whole unitary debate. Shropshire taxpayers have spent a huge amount of time, energy and money considering the document, although it may not even come to fruition. The document is a fig leaf to cover the Government’s lack of funding and attention for the shires. They have deliberately neglected Conservative areas and shire counties, and as a result of their direct underfunding for Shrewsbury and Shropshire, they have come out with the invitation to bid document, which puts the emphasis on getting us to make cost savings, rather than on scrutinising their lack of funding for shire counties. That is an absolute disgrace and one of the worst travesties in our area under this Government—after their lack of funding for the Royal Shrewsbury hospital, of course, which is their No. 1 crime.

The increase in the local government contribution to Shrewsbury and Atcham borough council this fiscal year is 1 per cent. When one thinks that inflation is 2.7 per cent., one realises that the Government are actually cutting funding to Shrewsbury and Atcham. On top of that, they are giving neighbouring Telford and Wrekin council an extra £80 for every household.
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We therefore have two constituencies side by side, but one gets £80 more than the other for every household.

The Government’s response, however, is always the same, “Our policies are skewed to ensure that areas of deprivation get more funding. We socialists want to give areas of deprivation more funding.” I must tell the Minister, however, that there are significant areas of deprivation in Shrewsbury. When the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) kindly came to Sundorn to see a new library being opened, she told me, “I didn’t realise you had areas like this in Shrewsbury.” The standard reply from socialists who come to Shrewsbury is to say, “We’re amazed. We didn’t know you had council estates.” The standard prejudice among socialists is that Shrewsbury is a prosperous county town of beautiful flowers that does not need help. That is an absolute disgrace.

Angela E. Smith: Is the hon. Gentleman accusing my hon. Friend—

Daniel Kawczynski: I am not accusing the hon. Lady of anything.

Angela E. Smith: Can I just finish the sentence? It may help the hon. Gentleman if I suggest what I think he is accusing my hon. Friend of, because he seems to be accusing her of saying that Shrewsbury is a nice place.

Daniel Kawczynski: The Minister is wasting our time by saying that. We all know that Shrewsbury is a beautiful place, but I am trying to intimate to her that we have areas of significant deprivation, which the Government do not fully comprehend.

Despite the 1 per cent. increase and the lack of funding, Shrewsbury and Atcham is still rated an excellent council. It has recently built a state-of-the-art theatre and has a sports village in Sundorn, which is a regional facility. It has recently built a new livestock market, which is the most modern in the country. It has been rated an excellent council. It has funded and constructed a new guildhall. It has £50 million in the bank and its economic management is financially sound, despite below-inflation grants from central Government. It has been awarded beacon status for election practices and Investors in People status for its organisation and relationships with staff. It is the winner of the Britain in Bloom competition and is now going forward as Britain’s entrant in the European Entente Florale competition. It has also instigated a request for Shrewsbury to be included in the extension of the west midlands high-tech corridor. Finally, it is an instigator and financier of the northern regeneration corridor study, which is a major regeneration initiative in the northern area of Shrewsbury.

I invite the Minister to come and look at the way in which Shrewsbury and Atcham borough council operates. It has an excellent chief executive and a formidable council leader, Peter Nutting. It is a truly excellent council, and it would be a great disservice to the people of Shrewsbury if it were dismantled, destroyed and thrown out in favour of an untried and untested unitary authority.

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I came into politics because of a genuine interest in democracy—I have a passion for democracy—and I am deeply concerned that Shropshire county council is pursuing the unitary bid despite the fact that my constituents have so clearly rejected it. What right does the county council have so publicly to pursue the bid, when my constituents are so overwhelmingly opposed to it? And what right does Oswestry borough council have to promote it? This is a forced marriage—an arranged marriage—and Shrewsbury is an unwilling partner. We should not be dragged into a unitary organisation against our wishes, and I shall go to Shropshire county council’s next full meeting formally to ask for this outrageous bid to be withdrawn.

Some Shropshire county councillors—this is an important point for the Minister—have told me that they deeply regret voting for the unitary authority and that the issue was not fully explained to them at the time of the vote.

Mr. Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is very reminiscent of his party’s decision to vote for the Iraq war?

Hugh Bayley (in the Chair): Order. That is not relevant to the matter under discussion.

Daniel Kawczynski: I thank the hon. Gentleman, because that gives me the opportunity to state that I was against the war in Iraq at the time—

Hugh Bayley (in the Chair): Order. We are not discussing the Iraq war in a debate about local government in Shropshire. All hon. Members should stick to the subject.

Daniel Kawczynski: I am grateful for that ruling, Mr. Bayley.

Shropshire county councillors told me that they were not fully aware of the facts and mentioned other concerns. That is an important matter, because some people were under the impression that Shropshire county council would lose money in some way if it did not vote for a unitary authority. It is a serious issue for a county councillor to be told, “If you don’t vote for the unitary authority, Shropshire will lose out on funding, and local taxpayers will have to pay more.” I shall be putting that point to the county council’s monitoring officer, because I am extremely concerned that some county councillors were under that impression.

I was so concerned about the issue that I went to see the Minister for Local Government. He and his senior civil servants told me unequivocally that if Shropshire rejected the unitary authority, there could not and would not be any funding cuts under the local government settlement. Indeed, it is impossible for the Government to cut that funding because the mechanism is in statute. Some of my county councillors were not aware of that, and now that I have given them assurances on the issue, they very much regret voting for the unitary authority. When I go to Shropshire county council to ask it to withdraw its bid, I shall also ask it to consider another vote to see what councillors will do now that they know all the facts.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) has suggested that there is something Stalinist about the Government. I am very concerned that when the vote took place at the county council, everyone present voted for a unitary authority. I am concerned when there is total unanimity on a vote, because there should always be a certain amount of dissension. I am worried about how that vote was carried out, what information was given and why councillors all voted in that way.

What worries me more than that is the behaviour of Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors. Every single one of them without exception voted for the unitary authority. They want to abolish the strong Tory-controlled Shrewsbury and Atcham borough council and are behaving with a political perspective. Every Liberal Democrat and Labour councillor in my council voted to prevent my constituents from even having a referendum, apart from Councillor Farmer from Bagley, who is a very honourable Liberal Democrat gentleman and our former mayor. On the one hand, the Government, in their invitation to bid, are saying, “Well, in order for this to go ahead, there must be a certain amount of public acceptance”, but on the other hand, every Labour councillor voted to prevent constituents from having a say. That is an absolute scandal.

Why are the socialists and Liberals so keen on that? The answer, of course, is quite clear: after the next election, I expect that we will have a Conservative Government, but if we do not there is a small chance—God forbid!—of another Lib-Lab pact. If that happens, the price that the socialists will have to pay the Liberals will be proportional representation in local government. If that is introduced, and we have a unitary authority, the socialists and Liberals will control Shropshire in perpetuity, because that is the nature of proportional representation. It is an absolute scandal that socialist and Liberal councillors are acting so politically.

Shropshire county council should be focusing on improving educational facilities and, in particular, on providing better care for children with autism, about which I feel passionately and about which my constituents talk to me. It should be focusing on our care homes and other issues that affect constituents on a daily basis. It frightens me to death the amount of time, energy and money that has been spent on the invitation to bid document, rather than on the bread-and-butter issues that affect my constituents on a daily basis.

I need to inform the Minister that Shropshire county council’s bid fails on two key criteria according to its own invitation to bid document—my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow alluded to some of this. The first criterion is public support. We need to prove some semblance of public approval. As my hon. Friends have said, the county council’s way of showing that was to interview just 44 people. How ludicrous! It is an absolute disgrace! In comparison, Shrewsbury and Atcham borough council held a public referendum, the wording of which was audited by the Electoral Reform Society, which also counted the votes. Everything was done scrupulously and independently.

More than 27,000 of the great men and women of Shrewsbury took part in that referendum on a relatively difficult question, in which not everyone is necessarily
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interested. Think about it—more than 27,000 of my constituents actually made the effort to look into the matter and cast their ballot. And nearly 70 per cent. of them voted against the unitary authority. That is despite the fact that Shropshire county council promised to cap council tax to 3.5 per cent. for the next two or three years—the biggest carrot that has ever been dangled in front of my constituents. Nevertheless, still my constituents, knowing that, decided to reject the unitary authority proposals.

I have said that I am concerned deeply about the behaviour of Labour and Liberal councillors, and I shall continue to pursue that. I have been jumping up and down during Prime Minister’s questions for the last few weeks trying to be called—unsuccessfully. When I am called, I shall ask the Prime Minister directly whether, if they put that criterion in an invitation to bid document, he will respect the wishes of the people of Shrewsbury, and ensure that his Government behave honourably.

The second criterion is the business case. Shropshire county council’s business case does not hold water. I have been quoted in my local newspaper saying that it is like a Swiss cheese—it is so full of holes, it simply does not hold water. My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow mentioned the Capita report and Professor Chisholm of Cambridge university. I had an extensive telephone conversation with Professor Chisholm the other day. He is a leading expert on local government and has assured me, having read Shropshire county council’s report, that it simply does not stack up. The Government said that the business case must stack up before moving to the next stage.

The Government cannot pursue that because the proposal will be liable to judicial review. I assure the Minister that if she allows it to move to the next stage, Shrewsbury and Atcham borough council and I shall ensure that it goes to judicial review. We will do everything in our power to ensure that the Government are highly embarrassed. It would be “a very courageous move”—as Sir Humphrey Appleby once said—on her part to allow that to move forward. She will have egg on her face when the judicial review takes everything into account. How can we trust the Government, if they set guidelines in the invitation to bid document and then ignore them?

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