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21 Mar 2007 : Column 303WH—continued

I am running out of time, so I shall be quick. I am also deeply concerned about Shropshire county council’s chief executive, who has tried to lobby the public directly through public meetings and challenging me and others on television. I have been told that if the council is in favour of unitary authority, the chief executive has every right to lobby on that issue in public meetings and on television, but I disagree, because she is not elected or accountable to constituents in the way that we are. I would like the Minister seriously to consider what guidelines the Government will give to chief executives on the role that they can play in appearing on television and in public meetings in pursuing a certain policy. Chief executives must be totally impartial and independent, because if there is a change of administration, they will have to pursue a totally different course of action. That is why it is so important that they do not appear on
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television or at public meetings trying to convince citizens to vote in a certain way. I would be very grateful for such assurances.

Finally—I have more to say but we are running out of time—I am so concerned that I have been to see the Audit Commission and submitted various statements from me and my constituents, and it is investigating our complaints. I have even been to see Lord Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, the chairman of the Local Government Association, with whom I am pursuing various lines of action. Regrettably, I have been informed that the Government—I hope that the Minister can contradict me—intend to allow all the shire bids to jump the first hurdle. What a shame that we must hear that through rumour. It is something that should be decided by Parliament. We should find out here, not through rumours. How can the Government do it when they have not considered the two-tier system?

We cannot allow the unitary proposal to go forward. At the same time, we should be considering the enhanced two-tier system. I urge the Minister to consider what Shrewsbury and Atcham borough council has proposed—a brilliant two-tier scheme that will save the Government a great deal of money. The Minister should examine that enhanced two-tier scheme of working; it will save the Government more money than the unitary bid proposals. I implore her: please respect the wishes of the people of Shrewsbury and do not force that ghastly unitary authority on us.

3.30 pm

Mr. Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) on securing this debate. He and the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) had a great opportunity to put their side of the case in the arguments for and against unitary authorities in Shropshire.

Shropshire is a fine county. I recently had the opportunity of spending the night there, although it was in somewhat unfortunate circumstances. I was with members of the Select Committee for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and we were stranded there by adverse weather on our way back from a visit to the Centre for Alternative Technology in Powys. None the less, we had a most pleasant evening in Shrewsbury; it is a fine town.

The hon. Member for Ludlow began by outlining the successes of local government in Shropshire. He drew attention to South Shropshire district council and said that Liberal Democrats around the country often congratulate our colleagues there—they are led by Councillor Heather Kidd—particularly on their innovative solutions to tackling the problem of housing affordability for local residents. They have had great success in providing new opportunities for affordable housing—to buy, to part-buy and to rent.

The hon. Gentleman also pointed out the successes and the good assessments made of the county council, which is Conservative led. It is crucial to remind the House that one is a Liberal Democrat-led council and the other is Conservative led, and that both have come out in favour of a bid. It is not that I advocate a unitary authority for Shropshire; I merely say that there are those in Shropshire who make such a case. It is important for us to bear that in mind.

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The hon. Gentleman seemed to make a strange attack on the leader of South Shropshire district council, saying that she had no mandate to speak for people there as the Conservative party had failed to field a candidate against her at the last election. It remains to be seen whether the Conservative candidate at the next local election will be in favour of unitary authority, as is the Conservative-controlled county, or whether he will be against it, as the hon. Gentleman implied that many other Conservatives are. We will have to wait to see what happens.

The hon. Gentleman raised some understandable concerns about centralisation. In many of the debates about potential unitaries, particularly about those county bids that have gone forward throughout the country, that will understandably cause some anxiety. It is up to those who have made a bid to say how they intend meeting those concerns and whether they will provide some measure of devolution within the proposed new structure to ensure both local decision making and that the concerns of local people are borne in mind.

The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham spoke about funding councils in rural areas. He was right to say that many rural areas face a raw deal under recent Government policies. My area of Cornwall could make a similar claim. He issued a plea for the good actions of his council, Shrewsbury, to be taken into account. He also spoke of his support for European initiatives such as the Entente Florale. I know that he is interested in European issues generally.

I am sad to say that the hon. Gentleman also made some odd remarks about some sort of plot by Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors. That argument was somewhat bizarre. As we heard earlier, the Conservative-led council put forward the proposal for a unitary authority, although members of other parties supported it. It is most important to bear that in mind.

From my party’s perspective, any consideration of local government structure must be a matter for local people, through their elected representatives—and through the consultation that will doubtless have to take place under the Government’s proposals. If any proposal from Shropshire meets that first hurdle, it can move on to further consideration.

When considering how unitaries from the last round of local government reform have progressed, it is fair to say that there have been some arguments about size—whether some unitaries were the right size to deliver the services requested. Retrospectively, we could say that some of those unitaries were smaller than they might have been. That presents particular—though not necessarily insurmountable—challenges, and it certainly puts extra pressure on those councils to deliver.

The important thing is that there must be good local political leadership and engagement with people. I stress that it is all about the vision that people have for their communities and not necessarily about the structure. Whether the structures work or fail depends on the leadership provided by the locally elected members.

The unitary issue in Shropshire is a cross-party one. It is important to make that point consistently. It is unfortunate that the word “Stalinist” has been bandied around about various political parties and political
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figures. It has not escaped my attention that the leader of the Conservative party wrote to councillors around the country urging them to reject unitary bids, and setting that rejection as party policy. That seems a slightly odd action for a party that claims to have been persuaded to localism.

Daniel Kawczynski: There is a clear distinction between the Conservative party and the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties. In our party, different and contrasting views have been expressed by councillors, but that is not the case for Labour and the Liberal Democrats. To a man, and to a woman, they have all been in favour of a unitary authority. Whereas there has been genuine healthy debate in our party, local debate has been Stalinist among the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties.

Mr. Rogerson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, but it was somewhat undermined by his earlier comment about a particular Liberal Democrat who took a different view.

Mr. Pickles: The hon. Gentleman says that the leader of the Conservative party has written to all councillors; that is not true. He made those comments in a speech to the Local Government Association conference in July last year. No letters have been written.

Mr. Rogerson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for correcting me, although I understand that fairly strong pressure has been exerted by the Conservative local government team, of which he is a member, to imply that unitaries are very much not the policy of his party and therefore that councillors should not make a bid. However, some in Shropshire clearly have done so.

We will soon have the results of the bidding process and discover which bids are to move beyond that first hurdle. We then need genuine consultation and engagement, in Shropshire and elsewhere, to ensure that there is support for such a bid—that, having made an economic case, it has local support.

I must also criticise the Government over the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, which is now making its way through the House. It is not just about structure; it is also about leadership.

Mr. Dunne: I take the hon. Gentleman back to his comments about public support. Does he accept that a ballot has already taken place in Shropshire?

Mr. Rogerson: I know that ballots have taken place in some parts of the county, but I am not in a position to comment further as I do not know whether the questions were the same in each ballot or the extent of the turnout in each area. Clearly, there has been some expression of opinion in both directions.

Let me revert to the point that I was making. The question is not just one of county structure, it is also about how leadership is demonstrated within that structure. It is unfortunate that the Government consistently propose centralisation of power in local authorities, because it might present problems for authorities that progress toward a unitary structure if such moves are perceived as centralising.

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I congratulate the hon. Member for Ludlow once more on securing the debate. It is clear that a discussion is taking place in Shropshire about whether the proposals constitute a move in the right direction. I hope that hon. Members and members of local authorities across the county will ensure that all views are fairly represented in moving towards a decision after the Government’s announcement on the Shropshire bid.

3.40 pm

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con): It is a pleasure to appear before you, Mr. Bayley. The debate has been enjoyable, not least for the opportunity to listen to my hon. Friends the Members for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) and for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski). Their battles on behalf of their constituents have drawn admiration from all parts of the House, as have their persistence and the quality of their arguments, and today has been no exception.

Like the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), I have visited Shropshire. However, when I was walking there with my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on a sunny December day when buzzards were rising on the thermals, I would never have believed the amount of turbulence that was being caused by the restructuring of local government. It is a pleasure to see my hon. Friend in his customary place. However, what a pity that restructuring has become such a terrible distraction—that was the point that I think my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition was making to the local government conference. We have been bedevilled in local government by moves backwards and forwards between reviews, including on structure and finance. Today has seen the publication of the report by Sir Michael Lyons, which I was reading a few moments before I arrived in the Chamber. We have again been left with a timid response on what he thinks the Treasury will want him to do.

The whole question of the functioning of local government has lain in aspic for the best part of 100 years. My view is that reform of local government should be about its function, and that structure and finance should flow naturally from that. I deeply regret that the Government have rejected what I believe to be a growing consensus in local government that change should take place on the basis of reform of function. That consensus could have been extended, and an opportunity has been missed. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government was right when she said that local government should be issue-led. The outcome is the most important matter for citizens to consider.

Along with other authorities, Shropshire took part in the survey whose results were recently published by the Local Government Association. Concern was expressed about council care services. Four hundred councils took part in the survey, and 40 per cent. said that their financial situation was worse than in the previous year, while 51 per cent. believed that the financial situation with regard to care services would stay the same or get worse in the next financial year.

Lord Bruce-Lockhart said that

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for people in care. It would make far more sense to deal with those matters than to spend an enormous amount of time worrying about unitary authorities.

I spent the best part of 11 years of my life with the fourth largest unitary authority in the country—the latter part as leader. My experience is with unitary authorities, and I had a wonderful time. However, I recognised when I moved to a more rural area than Bradford that the partnership between county and district could be a dynamic one.

I had an opportunity to go to West Sussex and ask about the model that is used there. It has been the subject of some discussion. I was interested to hear that the folks of West Sussex are surprised that other people are taking up that model, because it was produced largely on the basis of a guesstimate. My right hon. Friend from Ludlow—I beg his pardon, my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow, although no doubt he will be right honourable in due course—referred to the work of Michael Chisholm, the Cambridge university emeritus professor, who has outlined the cost of restructuring. Professor Chisholm reckons that the cost is something in the region of £121 per head, and that

That strikes me as a very large sum of money indeed.

I went to listen to the Deputy Prime Minister at the time when he still had a Department and was appearing before the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. In giving evidence as to whether people would be consulted, he said:

That is what my colleagues have been proposing. The Deputy Prime Minister continued,

The hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) was on the Select Committee panel. He asked the Deputy Prime Minister:

The Deputy Prime Minister replied:

I am worried that the whole thing has been pulled back from people despite clear Government statements on it. There has been tremendous turmoil, not just in Conservative authorities but in Liberal Democrat and Labour authorities. I am greatly indebted to Ann Black of the Labour party national executive committee, who has a blog on NEC meetings. She reports that, at the national policy forum on 3 February:

The press were asked to leave at one point, after which, she reports:

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According to the blog, when the Prime Minister addressed the issue with that usual fluency, he said that he was aware of differences between county and district councils on local government reorganisation, but urged people to concentrate on issues that voters cared about.

I am not entirely sure that voters at the Dog and Duck care enormously about the issue. However, the voters in Shrewsbury were consulted, and they followed the advice that was given by the Deputy Prime Minister, by the Prime Minister and by the Minister for Local Government. They cannot have their views so easily dismissed—that would be a travesty. It would make a mockery of democracy.

It is not impressive that a council has consulted 44 people and has based a policy on that consultation. When I visited Ironbridge, I saw a fish and chip shop with a queue that had more than 44 people in it. Ballots with turnouts of 46.5 per cent, 37 per cent., 41 per cent. and 40 per cent., however—they are impressive. No one can dismiss them. I understand that tomorrow the announcement will be made. I may be wrong about that, but it would be an insult to ignore the views of a substantial proportion of the people of Shropshire.

Let me explain one of the things bedevilling us. I would be grateful if the Minister responded to this; I shall put it to her as delicately as I can. There is a suggestion that the chief executive of Shrewsbury, Carolyn Downes, has some kind of special access to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and that a back-door deal is being sought to circumvent the will of the people of Shropshire. I would like the Minister to give a clear assurance that everything that will be done with regard to unitaries in Shropshire will be above board, that there will be no back-door deals and that no person has a greater say than the people of Shropshire, who have been asked a question in a ballot and have given a very clear mandate.

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