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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 18 April 2007

[Ann Winterton in the Chair]

Local Government (Lancashire)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Steve McCabe.]

9.30 am

Kitty Ussher (Burnley) (Lab): I rise with trepidation to open this Adjournment debate, given the potential contentiousness of the issue in hand and the fact that it affects so many able and committed councillors in Lancashire, many of whom are personal friends. I wish first to thank friends and colleagues on Burnley borough council and Lancashire county council for their help in preparing my remarks this morning. I hope that my contribution will reflect not only my experience, but their experience. I am also grateful for the advice of my hon. Friends who represent Lancashire constituencies. They have been in this place a little longer than I have and have shared their experiences with me. I am particularly pleased to see so many of them here this morning.

I am pleased to welcome the chief executive and the leader of Burnley borough council to the Public Gallery. Their 500-mile round trip to be here today demonstrates the importance of the issue to my constituency. I am grateful to the Minister for the time that she will spend in the Chamber today and look forward to her response. It is a privilege, Lady Winterton, to have secured this Adjournment debate under your chairpersonship.

Ann Winterton (in the Chair): Order. Chairmanship.

Kitty Ussher: Thank you, Lady Winterton. I am grateful for the clarification.

I shall come straight to the point. It is my strong belief that the issues faced by my constituents require an end to two-tier and a return to unitary government. Having consulted widely, I know that the majority of other Members of Parliament who represent Lancashire constituencies—certainly Labour hon. Members—believe the same given experiences in their own constituencies. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House of Commons, who unfortunately cannot be here this morning, summarised his views in a note that he wrote to me yesterday. It states:

My right hon. Friend speaks with authority on the matter, not least because he saw with his own eyes the effects of his constituency moving from a two-tier to a unitary system.

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I shall not argue for a particular map, but rather that my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench accept the principle of what I will call a unitary solution to the Lancashire question and that they should lead a process that will resolve the issue for our generation. As for outcomes, there are many potential options, one of which is a unitary county council. Another is the abolition of the county council and its being replaced by a number of unitaries operating across the geographic county of Lancashire, either with or without alterations to existing local authority boundaries. Furthermore, we could allow a handful of the current boroughs to opt out of county and go it alone, as Burnley and Pendle, Preston and Lancaster have sought to do.

People will have strong views on the various options and no doubt we could be here for several days discussing various permutations, but that is not my aim. Instead, I sought to secure the debate to establish the principle of unitary government, something that our party has long supported. I hope that the Minister will confirm that her Department agrees with that and will offer a process on the way forward to achieve its implementation in Lancashire. It is up to the Government to propose the answers to the Lancashire question by initiating a review of the current two-tier arrangements.

The argument for unitaries is straightforward. First, as described in the local government White Paper, we need local authorities to be both strategic leaders and place shapers. It is no secret that my constituency is one of the poorest in Britain, with specific regeneration issues. To put matters in a nutshell, we have empty boarded-up houses, depopulation and massive health and infrastructure issues that need to be resolved. The far right is active and, while I do not like to mention it because it puts us on the map for all the wrong reasons, hon. Members will recall that we had violent clashes in the streets in 2001.

Cash is now flowing in from central Government as it is to other towns in the north of England: £500 million earmarked for my constituency alone in the next few years. Fragmented two-tier local government is a barrier to the strong local leadership necessary for the effective allocation of those resources. Only strong leaders with a clear vision and with all available resources at their disposal will be able to drive forward the transformation of places such as Burnley, and to create a place that my constituents want and deserve. Lancashire county council delivers services effectively but, in my view, its coverage is too wide to provide the place-shaping leadership role that my constituency requires.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con): Will the hon. Lady say what the people of Lancashire want? Does she agree with her right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister about local government structure and reorganisation—that people who live in counties should hold a ballot if they want a unitary authority? Does that seem fair?

Kitty Ussher: I will indeed come to the point about what constituents want. As far as I am concerned, the main thing is that they find the current arrangements extremely confusing and difficult to understand. I shall also be making some points about what Opposition Members want—they have demonstrated their usual degree of flip-floppery about their intentions over the past few years.

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The second argument for unitary status is that taxpayers’ money and resources are being wasted by disputes between the two tiers of local government. I can think of three immediate and high-profile examples from my local area from the last two years, all of which are a source of immense frustration, but they illustrate the point.

First, Burnley college and the university of central Lancashire, which was supported by the borough council, wanted to build a new sixth-form college, university faculty and business park on some land that was leased to the county council and which was being used for a waste depot. The issue led to considerable acrimony between the two institutions and the wasting of many hundreds of man hours in an attempt to find a non-legal resolution—all to no avail. Only when the borough had to forcibly evict the county council from the site did a solution began to appear—when there were no other options.

Secondly, while that was happening, the county council had a compulsory purchase order served on the borough council for a strip of land on which to build a new secondary school despite having outline planning permission. Thirdly, both sides have taken legal advice about the site of a second new school.

All those disputes have been pursued using taxpayers’ money and they have all helped to dwarf the otherwise positive ratings for service delivery that both institutions received from the Audit Commission—the county is currently rated as excellent and the borough as good. If there had been a unitary structure, the problems could have been solved internally and in the interests of the town, as opposed to the interests of the respective institutions.

There are democratic issues. Because Burnley has a strong local identity, my constituents automatically look to the borough council to solve their problems. My constituents’ sense of place is to Burnley and the surrounding towns and valleys, not to Lancashire as a whole. For its part, the borough council clearly sees itself as having a leadership role in bringing local partners together to address the many and varied challenges facing the town, yet the vast majority of the money my constituents pay in local taxation goes to the county council.

Two things follow from that situation. First, while the six county councillors wield most of the power, the 45 borough councillors feel the democratic pressure and get the majority of the casework. Secondly, my experience is that sometimes Lancashire officers who advise county councillors on the decisions that affect my constituents live and work many miles away and have no desire to speak to local residents, no links in the local community and no understanding of local sensitivities. Perhaps that goes some way towards answering the point made by the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), but it is a state of affairs that feels all wrong. Also, the problem is compounded by the fact that many of our talented local politicians seek career advancement by standing for the county council, for which offices they are better remunerated.

Mr. Pickles: The hon. Lady seems to think that she satisfied me, but my question is straightforward: who should decide? Should it be her preferred option, that the patricians decide for the people, or should the people themselves decide?

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Kitty Ussher: I am grateful for the opportunity to clarify my remarks. By leading this debate, I am attempting to secure from the Government the initiation of a process by which to resolve the matter. Once we have some proposals to which the stakeholders can agree, I am comfortable for them to be put to the population as the final stage of the process, but that is not something that I wish to address today. I am making the point that the current two-tier system is in many ways anti-democratic.

As I was saying, the problems are compounded by the fact that many of our talented local politicians seek career advancement by standing for the better remunerated county council, thereby spreading their experience and expertise more thinly, as far as my constituents are concerned. It should be possible for some of our best councillors to get career satisfaction from resolving the large and well documented regeneration issues in their own communities, but the current structure of local government militates against that. The stronger our local leadership, the more effective could be our efforts to improve community cohesion, which is a key issue in my constituency.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): My hon. Friend has secured a very important debate and I thank her for giving way. However, in the end, what is happening today is the raking over of the ashes of Government decisions on the future of unitary status—or the absence of such a future, in Lancashire’s case. Does my hon. Friend agree that we expect a clear message from the Minister about whether a flame will be reignited from the fire, so that Lancashire can decide? If not, let us be told that it will be 10 years before the matter can be considered. Let us have a clear message for the people of Lancashire; then we will know where we are going.

Kitty Ussher: I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. I have several questions for the Minister, which she will be delighted to know are only a few paragraphs away.

Mr. Hoyle: Clear messages.

Kitty Ussher: Absolutely. We want clear messages.

Having established the case for unitary government, I want to consider why the issue is one to consider now, which picks up on the point made by my hon. Friend. In a sense we have been here before, quite recently. When we had the prospect of elected regional assemblies, it was Government policy, rightly, that those should be accompanied by an end to two-tier authorities. A consensus-building exercise was conducted, and two options were drawn up to be put on the ballot paper, to enable people to decide alongside the referendum on a regional assembly. I remind hon. Members that the first option was a unitary Lancashire county council, and the second was the expansion of Lancashire’s existing unitary councils and the creation of three new ones, including one that would have covered Burnley and Pendle and neighbouring areas, with Rossendale. When the referendums were put on hold, so was the process for agreeing a structure for unitary government. However, by then it had acquired a certain momentum and a broad buy-in, and my argument is that we should now pick up where we left off.

Separately the result of the opportunities created by last year’s local government White Paper was that bids were received by the Government for unitary local authorities in Burnley and Pendle, Preston and Lancaster.
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All were turned down, but the general question of what to do about the case for a unitary solution across Lancashire as a whole was not addressed. Indeed, the Burnley and Pendle bid, which I supported, passed on every criterion, apart from the effect with regard to service delivery across Lancashire. Other bids with the same extrapolated points score were able to proceed but ours was not. My first question to the Minister is what failing in that category actually means. Does it mean that the bid cannot be supported because it would weaken the county’s ability to deliver services to the residual area of Lancashire? If so, surely the logical next step is to consider a new unitary solution for the whole county, rather than to dismiss an otherwise good bid from part of the county. Perhaps the Minister would care to respond to that point.

My main question is this: does the Department support the case for unitary government in principle? I presume that the answer is yes, or my hon. Friends on the Front Bench would not have proposed its introduction in the event of regional assemblies being accepted. Indeed, the White Paper, which was published in October, states that a move to unitary government would

If that is indeed the case, my third question is what the Government intend to do to explore which unitary solution is best for the geographic county of Lancashire. Will they ask the Boundary Commission for England to investigate the various options and report back? Will they use the powers in the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, once it receives Royal Assent, to direct Lancashire local authorities to state which of the various unitary solutions they would prefer, perhaps on the basis of the work done before the aborted referendum on the regional assembly? Will they meet me to discuss a way forward, with urgency? I ask the Government to tell us what they believe, and to act out of conviction.

After all, there is nothing particularly brave or radical about supporting unitary authorities. I remind the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar that Governments of all hues have done so for some time. It may be worth reminding all Opposition Members of the words of Michael Heseltine in April 1991, when he announced his forthcoming consultation paper entitled “The Structure of Local Government in England”. He said:

Perhaps Opposition Members could therefore enlighten me during the debate as to precisely what has happened between now and then to cause them to do an about-turn and oppose those Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors up and down the country who now support a move to unitary government.

Perhaps it was the Conservative party’s gut preference for unitary structures that led the then Government to ask the independent Local Government Commission to look again at the case for unitaries in Blackpool and Blackburn after it had returned a negative proposal in
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1995. As a result, two new unitary governments were created in Blackburn and Blackpool, but it is worth noting the Local Government Commission’s words about Blackburn at the time. It said that Blackburn’s

but added:

In summary, my argument is simple: it is time to recognise that the consequences for east Lancashire, which were set out 12 years ago, are ones that we can no longer accept. It is time to pick up where we left off during the debate on regional assemblies and to come up with a coherent view of the structure of local government in Lancashire. The Government have kicked off the process by inviting local authorities in Lancashire to express their interest, and four local authorities from all corners of the country have responded positively. That demonstrates that there is real demand, which raises all sorts of new questions that need to be resolved for the county as a whole. The strength of feeling among my hon. Friends will be demonstrated in the next hour or so, and I believe that the Government’s preference for unitary authorities was implicit in their response to those who made bids.

Let us now consider the wider questions and come up with a process that resolves the issue of unitary government in Lancashire once and for all in the interests of our constituents and the places that we represent.

9.47 am

Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Kitty Ussher) on securing this important debate. Discussion of this issue has been raging in Lancashire for some years, and certainly since well before I became the Member of Parliament for Preston. Obviously, I concur with much of what my hon. Friend said about the logic and rationale behind introducing unitary authorities in Lancashire. As Preston’s Member of Parliament, however, I should like to put things in a different perspective and particularly to give Preston’s point of view.

As many hon. Members know, Preston bid for unitary status, along with Burnley and Pendle, and Lancaster. Initially, it was meant to make a joint bid with the borough of South Ribble, and that would have proceeded quite well. Indeed, I would also have liked Chorley to be included, because the size and population of the resulting area, which would eventually have become a unitary authority, would have given it some rationale and allowed it to achieve efficiencies and economies of scale. However, Preston bravely made a bid on its own.

Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): Where does my hon. Friend see West Lancashire fitting into the geographical designation?

Mr. Hendrick: I was talking about what would have happened had things moved along quite quickly, and I shall come to West Lancashire a bit later.

As I said, Preston made a bid on its own, so its bid did not have the necessary gravitas to be accepted first time. We are therefore here today to map a way forward that will allow us to achieve unitary solutions across Lancashire as a whole.

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