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Lancashire has been promised a good number of things over the years, and I look to my hon. Friend the Minister in saying that. For quite some time, both before the Labour party came into office in 1997 and afterwards, the north-west was promised regional government, but those plans have taken a back seat—possibly indefinitely. Recently, we were also promised that the Lancashire and Cumbria police forces would be merged, but again those ambitious proposals have taken a back seat. Now, with the local government White Paper, several local authorities will be granted unitary status. Unfortunately, those bids that came from Lancashire have not yet been accepted. We want that promise of unitary status to be upheld by the Government and to be realised through the review and discussion that was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley because there is still a very strong case for creating unitary authorities across Lancashire.

Preston, in particular, is working very closely with South Ribble and Chorley on issues such as the local government framework and the regional spatial strategy. There is already a good deal of horizontal co-operation between those three authorities, and in the future I can see us working more closely with West Lancashire. Therefore there is a good deal of good will, good co-operation and sharing of best practice across central Lancashire at the moment. As my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley pointed out, what is not working very well is the idea of two-tier government—the vertical relationship between the county and the districts. It is that problem that the unitary solution would address.

The logic behind unitary status is clear. As has been said, two-tier working is outdated, inefficient and bureaucratic. We want local people to have control over their own affairs through locally elected councillors who are familiar with and relate to the areas that they serve. That includes the extremities of that authority area. The idea of having somebody at one end of Lancashire making decisions that affect the other end of the county when they probably do not have much affinity with that particular area is an outdated viewpoint and one that would be addressed by unitary authorities.

The other point is that there are a good number of economic drivers in central Lancashire that make a great deal of sense. For example, shopping and the economy are very much affected by what happens in Preston. Much of the housing is provided in South Ribble, Chorley and parts of West Lancashire, but all look to Preston for economic activity and generation. Many residents of those areas will probably work in Preston, and Preston people will probably work in the outlying authorities as well. Transport and the general infrastructure are very much interrelated and interdependent. Therefore, central Lancashire as an economic unit is functioning very successfully. It is functioning as well as Manchester and Liverpool and, if I dare say so in present company, better than the rest of Lancashire. Unitary government will bring a lot to central Lancashire and its time has clearly come.

Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): The hon. Gentleman has given a very good justification for granting unitary status, but is there any reason why he believes that having lots of small unitaries is a better
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way to use taxpayers’ money than having one larger unitary, perhaps countywide or even two per county?

Mr. Hendrick: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I think that the county is too big to be a unitary. We want a local council, but one that is big enough to be able to provide services and give economies of scale to ensure value for money for the council tax payer. I think that Preston is too small to become a unitary and Lancashire county is too big. We need something in between. I believe that four or five unitaries across Lancashire offer that balance between localness and economies of scale and efficiency that local councils could provide.

As a result of the local government White Paper, all the major conurbations in Lancashire are either bidding to become unitary or, as in the case of Blackpool and Blackburn, are already unitary. In my view, if it is good enough for Blackpool and for Blackburn then it is good enough for the only city within the county boundaries, which is Preston, to become a unitary authority through a new central Lancashire authority. In solving this problem, one of the oversights by Ministers in the past—

Mr. Pickles: The hon. Gentleman is speaking powerfully for the people of Preston. Will he give the Chamber an indication of how much of an additional population needs to join the Preston borough to create something that has sufficient size and sufficient weight to be able to run? What addition does he think is necessary?

Mr. Hendrick: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and I should put the situation to him plainly. Before I represented the central Lancashire area as a Member of a Parliament—I was a Member of the European Parliament before I became a Member of the House of Commons—I served as a city councillor in Salford. That is an authority in Greater Manchester, which itself had a county council until that was abolished in the mid-1980s by the previous Conservative Government. An authority that had about 250,000 inhabitants was created in Salford. We have seen that authorities of a similar size work well in Greater Manchester, and such an authority can sustain effective, good local government. Having said that, anything between 150,000 and 300,000 people is a reasonable size for a unitary authority, and would balance localness with the efficiencies of scale that being a unitary authority would bring. In addition, there would be the efficiency of having just one tier of decision making.

As I said, all the major conurbations—Lancaster, Burnley, Pendle, Preston—have bid, and Blackpool and Blackburn are already unitary authorities. One of the oversights of Ministers when they put forward these proposals, to which authorities obviously responded, involved what would happen to the rump of what is left of Lancashire county should those bids be accepted: what should be done with the remaining authorities that did not bid to have a unitary authority and did not give an indication?

I hope that a process is now under way, partly as a result of this debate and partly because of discussions that I and my hon. Friends have had with Ministers about what to do with the remaining authorities. I understand that the remaining authorities, which have not bid, will be consulted and asked which neighbouring
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authorities they feel most closely associated with. I hope that leads to a process whereby the major conurbations join with a variety of other authorities to become a unitary solution for the whole of Lancashire that would fit together like a neat jigsaw. I hope that in my area, Preston, South Ribble and Chorley will come together to form a unitary authority along with either the whole or part of West Lancashire, which we would not want to be left out on a limb and subsumed into Merseyside or Greater Manchester as a whole.

These are important issues and the people of Lancashire have unfortunately been left to deal with them for many years. The time has come for the Government to make these things a reality, not just a promise. I hope that the Minister takes the views expressed in this debate back to the Department, because I think that she will find that the overwhelming number of Labour Members are fully supportive of a unitary solution for the whole of Lancashire. That does not necessarily mean a unitary solution for Lancashire county as it stands at the moment, but one where four or five authorities spread from east to west across the county.

Ann Winterton (in the Chair): I was about to call “Pope Gregory”, which is the name that I normally use as a joke. I call Gregory Pope.

9.59 am

Mr. Greg Pope (Hyndburn) (Lab): Either way, I am grateful to be called by you to make a brief contribution in this important debate, Lady Winterton, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Kitty Ussher) for securing it.

When I was first elected to this House, I thought that two things would not be around for very long. One of them was me, because I had a very small majority—it was the same as the year of my birth—and I thought that I would be in this place for only a couple of years. I thought that the debate over the future of Lancashire would not be around for much longer either. As it turns out, 15 years on, both are still here.

The uncertainty over structures in Lancashire is unhelpful and bad for morale. If one talks to officers of almost any district, or indeed of Lancashire county council, the issue of reform dominates the conversation—it is always at or near the top of the agenda—and when one talks to councillors, the same issue is raised.

I represent the whole of the borough of Hyndburn, part of the borough of Rossendale and part of the Lancashire county council area. I want to make the point at the outset that none of my comments are meant to be criticisms of those authorities. Over the last 10 years, all those councils have improved hugely. Generally speaking, there are hard-working councillors and officers. I would like to single out, in particular, Hazel Harding at Lancashire county council, who has made a huge improvement in the time that she has been its leader. The county is much improved and is far more responsive than it was previously.

It is the structure that lets these authorities down. They cannot deliver the level of service that my constituents and I want, because the structure fails them. In short, the two-tier system imposed by the Local Government Act 1972 has proven, over time, to be a failure. As my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick) so eloquently put it, the county is simply too big and the districts are too small.

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The conundrum for the Government—my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley spoke of this—is that there is a fierce pride in the towns and districts and people identify with the towns. My hon. Friend knows this better than most, because we are currently going through a health service review, part of which involves centralising accident and emergency services in Blackburn and maternity services in Burnley. The truth is that people in Burnley do not want to be patched up in Blackburn, and people in Blackburn do not want their babies to be born in Burnley. There is fierce pride in both, and whenever the two football teams meet, the pride that people have in their districts is all too evident. It sometimes seems to me that people’s pride in their districts is almost in inverse proportion to the ability of the district structurally to deliver the level of service that is needed.

For example, the budgets of these district councils are tiny and the councils are constrained by this. I do not have the exact figures to hand, but Hyndburn borough council’s total budget this year is something like £14 million. Burnley’s will be slightly larger than that, and Rossendale’s slightly smaller. These are tiny amounts of money, yet the burden of expectation that is placed on the districts is huge, because people identify with them far more than they do with the county council.

Why has this not changed over time? I think that it is partly because the Government have pursued the chimaera of consensus when in fact there is no consensus at all, and partly because of the fierce pride that people have in their districts. When we went through this process a few years ago in the run-up to the plan for regional government, the Accrington Observer in my constituency effortlessly compiled a huge petition against Hyndburn being merged with Blackburn. People in Hyndburn perceived that Blackburn would be a larger neighbouring authority, a big brother, which would swallow them up. I think that it is also safe to say that, at that time, Lancashire county council ran an effective, if perhaps disingenuous, campaign, which managed to muddy the waters. It was able to say that people identified strongly with Lancashire. Of course people in Lancashire identify strongly with Lancashire; that is not the same as saying that they identify strongly with Lancashire county council administratively, which has different borders from the traditional palatine county of Lancashire.

There are also powerful vested interests. There are hundreds—possibly in excess of 300—district councillors across Lancashire; there are, I think, 84 county councillors on Lancashire county council; and there must be well over 100 councillors in the unitary authorities of Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen. If we go for a unitary system, all those council seats will be abolished and replaced with far fewer seats, which will not only be more efficient for the people of the county of Lancashire but will be damaging to the careers of the councillors who serve in those wards. There are powerful vested interests against it. It sometimes seems to me that the Government look like they want this problem to go away. They give every indication that they think that, somehow, this is not solvable. It is perhaps the Schleswig-Holstein question of the 21st century.

Hon. Members will recall that Lord Palmerston said that only three people understood the Schleswig-Holstein question. One was Prince Albert, who was dead; one
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was a German professor, who was in a lunatic asylum; and the other was Lord Palmerston himself, who had forgotten the solution. I put it to hon. Members that in this scenario my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government is, not for the first time, Lord Palmerston, because he has forgotten the answer to the problem.

We should make it easy for the Government by saying that they should ask themselves this simple question: would unitary councils in Lancashire deliver better services than the current two-tier system? The answer is, emphatically, yes. Let us consider the boroughs that have left Lancashire recently: Blackburn with Darwen, and Blackpool. Does anyone anywhere believe that the people of those areas would be better served by those councils giving up 90 per cent. of their budgets and services and returning to a two-tier system? Nobody believes that; it is simply unthinkable.

I echo the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Preston. If it is good enough for the people of Blackburn with Darwen and of Blackpool to have quality unitary local government, I am pretty sure that it is good enough for the people of Hyndburn, Burnley, Pendle and Rossendale too—perhaps not in individual unitary authorities, but in amalgamations of authorities under the existing system.

I was going to say that it was telling that not a single Member of Parliament in the whole of Lancashire believes that the current two-tier system is that effective. I stand to be corrected, but I am fairly confident that nobody will stand up to defend the status quo. Given the length of their experience—I think that there are 12 MPs in Lancashire—that is a fairly stunning comment. Again, these are criticisms not of the hard-working councillors but of the structures.

The solution is fairly straightforward. The Government should stop dithering, bite the bullet and get on and do this. They should announce that there will be unitary local government in Lancashire. They should state at the outset that the county is too big to be considered a unitary authority and that the districts on their own are too small to be considered unitary authorities, and they should invite bids based on something in between.

Everybody I have spoken to—every MP, every councillor, every officer, everybody—knows that Lancashire can and should be split into four or five separate unitary authorities. My constituents deserve what the people of Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen already have—that is, to be covered by a unitary authority. My personal view is that it should be a unitary authority covering the whole of east Lancashire. We are the size of a city, with getting on for 500,000 people, yet we are fragmented into four or five tiny boroughs, which cannot make the difference that we all want to see. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take away from the debate the message that the representatives of the people of Lancashire want the Government to find the political will to make that happen.

10.8 am

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): I have just a few observations. I congratulate my friend next door, the Member for Burnley (Kitty Ussher), on initiating the debate, which comes at a very appropriate time. I do
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not want to sound a discordant note, but let me say at the outset that I do not believe that two-tier systems are necessarily anomalous. There are two-tier local government systems across the developed world and they function well.

One of the curiosities of what the Government propose is that the new unitaries that may be created will largely be county-based. Sixteen proposals have been waved through to the second stage, and of those, 10 will be county unitary authorities. My constituency is next to North Yorkshire county council, which it is proposed will be a county unitary. The idea that such a vast county that stretches from Craven, which is next door to where I am in Pendle, through Harrogate, all the way to Scarborough, should have a unitary authority is astonishing. That is not local government—such a huge county unitary is not what local government is about.

My preference is for local government that is actually local. The bigger the authority, the fewer councillors there are and the shallower the connections are with local people. I want to see local government that is local. However, I also want new ways of working. As my friend the Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope) said, the old ways of working did not reflect the new realities. People want openness, transparency, and responsiveness in their local authorities, and they want to know who is carrying the can. The leader of Lancashire county council, Hazel Harding, has made a qualitative difference, and that council is now a much better authority than it used to be. The problems that we remember with Lancashire county council in the past—the closure of care homes, difficulties with social services and so on—have been turned around. The council now trumpets that it is an excellent four star performing local authority and we should echo that.

Compared with other local authorities, Labour-controlled Lancashire does quite well. However, the transformational agenda that I have talked about must continue so that people feel comfortable and at home with the idea of a Lancashire local authority. It has just published a document on improving two-tier working between district and county councils, at the back of which are practical examples of how the two-tier system can be improved.

I remember the local government reorganisation of the 1990s. Sir John Banham, who was in charge at that time, memorably said of local government that

That is true. The opportunity costs of restructuring and of drawing up plans are absolutely huge—whether those costs relate to the health service or to the abortive plans to merge Cumbria and Lancashire police forces. Chief executives and leaders of councils, who have come all the way down from Burnley and Pendle, are here. The amount of time that must have gone into preparing the document, “Burnley and Pendle: reaching for new heights” is legion. It says in the document that Burnley and Pendle councils are proposing the creation of a new unitary authority, which arises out of an exciting vision that was developed and shared by their citizens, partners and elected members.

I think that that is a complete fantasy. The document was not developed and shared by citizens. I was never consulted; people in Pendle were never consulted; and
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of course people in Burnley were not consulted either. Yet a leading member of Pendle council, who is a friend of mine, John David—I like him although he sometimes says silly things—said to the Burnley Express that I was a disgrace for not supporting the Member for Burnley. The article stated that he

That is completely over the top. We had a difference of opinions. I had a difference of opinion with the previous Member for Burnley, my old friend Peter Pike, who constantly harked back to the glories of the county borough of Burnley and long believed in having a unitary authority to cover the whole of east Lancashire. He had a different view from mine, but I do not think that he is a disgrace or that my friend the Member for Burnley is a disgrace; we just have different views.

There are different views between political parties as well as within them. I wonder what the Liberal Democrats in Craven, Harrogate or Scarborough will say when those district authorities are swept away and we have this possibly huge new creation of North Yorkshire county council. While I am on the subject of the Liberal Democrats, allow me to say this—

Mr. Pope: The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) is a nice guy.

Mr. Prentice: He is a nice guy. He is also a friend, and I get on well with him. Nothing I say is ever personal.

The Liberal Democrats published their policy paper on local government less than a year ago. The ink is still wet. It stated:

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