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18 Apr 2007 : Column 85WH—continued

And yet—

Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): I wonder whether it would help the hon. Gentleman in deploying his argument if I advised him that that policy paper was referred back by our conference, and is not yet established party policy.

Mr. Prentice: It should be. It is a disgrace.

I do not want to go into this. I have lived with these changes for too long. However, if local government is to be truly local, and if people are to have a sense of place, as my friend the Member for Burnley said, they should be consulted. Sometimes, my local authority in Pendle, which is Liberal-controlled, as is the authority in Burnley, consults people. I remember getting a form—last year or perhaps the year before; I cannot remember—inviting me to give my views on a proposal to establish new parish and town councils. I thought that that was great. Pendle’s housing has now been floated off, and is no longer the direct responsibility of the district council, but the tenants were consulted. The tenants voted in favour of having the repairs done, and so on. They were persuaded, as there was a public campaign, but I do not have any problems with that, as they were consulted. The idea that we can propose these huge changes to local government just by referring to the views of stakeholders, whoever they might be, and not consulting the people is absurd.

To sum up my position, I am not persuaded that it is necessary to go through huge restructuring and
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upheaval to deliver the better services that people expect, and have a right to expect. I want to see the transformational agenda continue. I want to see local government providing services that are tailored to the needs of local people, and are responsive. I do not resile from that agenda. However, the dividing line is that, before these changes occur, if they do occur, local people should be consulted.

10.19 am

Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): Earlier, I had discussions with councillors from Preston and officials from Lancaster. I want to welcome those who have come here today.

Ann Winterton (in the Chair): Order. It may help hon. Members if I make the point that it is not the custom to refer to people in the Gallery either here in Westminster Hall or in the main Chamber. It has happened twice, but I did not pull up the initiator of the debate as she is a new Member.

Mr. Wallace: Thank you, Lady Winterton. I, too, am a new Member, so perhaps a bit of leeway might be given.

I thought that it might be interesting to make a point about the automatic assumption that unitary rather than two-tier is best, and perhaps echo some of the comments of the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice). He and I have one thing in common: we are both from Scotland. I represented a region in the Scottish Parliament and saw the consequences of the Conservative Government’s changes. Lord Lang, as he is now called, abolished overnight the two-tier system across the whole of Scotland. I can certainly say from experience that that did not lead de facto to better services across Scotland. It is still the case that what make for better local authority services in Scotland are the quality of the councillors and officials, and where the boundaries are drawn.

I represented Aberdeenshire, and the area that I had to cover was more than 10,000 square miles. In larger regions, the urban environment inevitably wins out over the rural. In comparison, services in urban areas are better than those that people in rural areas have to accept. We should not simply assume that two-tier is wrong. It works in other countries. Perhaps we do not have the boundaries right, and perhaps the population thresholds need to change.

I kept in touch with my local authorities, and what I found most disturbing was the process that the Government went through in deciding who should be considered and who should not. It may have led to some confusion for my colleagues in Lancashire and for councillors, as it was not clear what councils had to do to qualify and what they had to promise to deliver in order for their bid to win. That has not helped the situation.

There is a good dose of politics in all local authority reorganisation, whichever Government are doing it. It is no coincidence that the list of the 16 successful bids begins with Conservative, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Conservative, no overall control, Conservative. The vast majority happen to be Conservative, Liberal Democrat or no overall control local authorities.

I could mischievously speculate that Lancashire county council without Preston and Burnley would much more likely be a Conservative-run council.
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Several county councillors would be lost—they would go into the pot—and perhaps that is not desirable. As the Conservatives found in Scotland, if a Government abolish all district councils, overnight they lose party workers who worked for them in the election. At the stroke of a pen, they wipe out hundreds of Labour or Conservative councillors—they are no longer around.

It is interesting that the direction of flow in unitaries has been upwards. I am a devolutionist, which is fairly rare in the Conservative party. I do not have a problem with devolution. I believe in letting people in communities make many of the decisions about boundaries and direction, as they know what they want and how they want to be governed. I find it peculiar that the vast majority of bids in the list involve districts going up to county—they will not be closer to the people but further away. It is a cause for concern that the direction is not towards re-engaging local people but towards making authorities bigger.

The hon. Member for Pendle is absolutely right. One of my borders is with North Yorkshire. In fact, before the 1974 changes, part of my constituency was in Yorkshire. Hon. Members can imagine how many Yorkshiremen there are in my constituency who are happy that they are now in Lancashire.

Mr. Pickles: No.

Mr. Wallace: Is there such a thing as a happy Yorkshireman? Perhaps we should ask ourselves that question.

I certainly think that some of the regions are too big. My experience in Aberdeenshire tells me that North Yorkshire is too big. We must determine what is the right size. In a parliamentary question, I asked for a population guide for authorities making a bid, but the Government do not have one. They certainly did not publish one or say that there was one but that it would not be used. The issue is important, and it needs to be addressed.

I represent the constituency of Lancaster and Wyre, a large part of which is the borough of Wyre. My constituency is predominantly rural. My right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) are not here, but theirs are large rural constituencies in Lancashire.

Why have the urban conurbations been quicker to queue up for the unitary system? It is because, as we all know, a lot of services in rural areas are more expensive to deliver. Such services include health care; in Cumbria, for example, historically there have been funding problems, right back to the Black report, about delivering health care at the primary and acute levels in rural settings. We know that delivering social services and school transport is more expensive in rural areas.

I am a Unionist and I worry that we get into the “every man for himself” routine when it comes to drawing up unitary boundaries—“You know, we would be much better off if we just got rid of those people along the road. We do not want them.”

Mr. Hendrick: The hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) seem to
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make continual reference to authorities elsewhere in the country, and some in other counties are not so far away. A number of Labour Members including me, would like unitary authorities to be based not necessarily only on the conurbations about which we have spoken—those that have made the bids—but on much wider and bigger ones that also encompass rural areas. There are huge rural areas in places such as West Lancashire, South Ribble and Chorley. We have nothing against rural areas. If unitary authorities are good for a conurbation such as Preston, they are good for rural areas as well. We are not being exclusive.

Mr. Wallace: I have not said that I am against unitary authorities—nor, if I am not mistaken, did the hon. Member for Pendle. It is interesting that we would all be in a different position if the Government said, “You must find 300,000 or 250,000 people before you get through the front door of a unitary status bid.” That would force a lot of us in this Chamber to work together to find an applicable boundary. It would make us say, “We have to have Wyre or Ribble Valley”, or Ribble Valley might have to find somewhere else.

That would have been a good starting point, but I am afraid that we did not get it. We got a lot of warmish words and a few targets, but nothing specific. That is what I meant in saying that we should try to clear up any confusion before going along the path. There is confusion about who the stakeholders are and how they should have to consult—a local referendum? Like the hon. Member for Pendle, I did not get lots of requests and forms. I was not asked lots of questions. I was not particularly consulted. We should have had a clear consultation process as well.

How much of the issue is also about disappointment in the county delivery of services and performance?

Rosie Cooper: I had hoped to have made a longer contribution in this debate. It is really important that we recognise the difficulty that constituents face because of the two-tier system and whether county or district should be responsible. In talking about bringing representation down to the local level, people have forgotten the Government’s recent decisions about parish councils. Constituencies such as mine—and, I am sure, the hon. Gentleman’s—also face the big city regions such as Liverpool, Manchester and Preston. We are not important to such areas and will not be unless we become a bigger player. We need the weight and size to be able to have a strong voice. My constituency loses out time and again.

Ann Winterton (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Lady is making an over-long intervention.

Mr. Wallace: Lady Winterton, I shall be brief, because I recognise that the summing up will have to start soon.

To answer the hon. Lady, a lot of the strategies that affect our constituents are now regionally-based anyhow. In respect of economic development, we are constantly frustrated that Manchester, Liverpool and Warrington seem to be involved and the rest of us can go hang. That is one of the problems.

In summary, unitaries should be formed on a case-by-case basis; we have to accept that. We need clearer guidance from the Government on where to go,
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how to qualify and what they are trying to achieve. We should not throw everything out because we think that two-tier is wrong and unitary is good. I do not accept that; my experience has not been that. The Government could have been clearer about what they were trying to achieve and about all the different points in respect of how to qualify for a bid to become accepted as a local authority. If that is so, Lancashire may come up with some solutions in future. I do not know. I hope that the Minister will indicate today that that will be so. We have to ask some questions about the delivery for the county and how much that drives people’s frustration at the moment.

10.30 am

Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): This has been an interesting debate for those of us whose specialist subject is local government in Lancashire from 1970 to 2007. It has a parallel with the Schleswig-Holstein question, although I am not sure whether the Danes or the Germans will come out on top in this particular matter. I appreciate the strength of feeling in the Chamber and I am sure that that will be one of the problems that the Minister and her Department encounter in deciding what should happen and what they should do next.

The hon. Member for Burnley (Kitty Ussher) is to be congratulated on advancing a sane, calm and reasoned case on behalf of the Burnley and Pendle application and on considering her constituents. That is her right and it is proper that she should do so. She prayed in aid Lord Heseltine and she could have mentioned the Liberal Democrats, as the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) was kind enough to do, because it is true that they believe that, normally, a single tier of authorities at local government level would be appropriate. However, we have an essential, vital qualification, which is that reorganisation should be validated by clear evidence of public support locally. We in the House have to remember the damage that the impatience of rulers does, whether we take Thomas Becket as our example of when things go wrong or more recent examples, even in respect of the current Administration. If there is not public consent and public validation, the reorganisation of representative democracy, particularly, is likely to fail.

The hon. Member for Pendle was not a million miles away from expressing my view: where there is clear local consent there should be a move towards unitaries, and where there is not there definitely should not. We are not just talking about a mechanical process for the delivery of services but a representative, democratic system, so things have to be done with popular consent.

The Minister knows that we have argued strongly in the Committee on the recent local government Bill against giving the Government continuing powers to return to this topic time and again. It is right that there should be an opportunity to discuss the proposals, but there should not be an ever-open door allowing them to rattle around. The cost and destabilisation of returning to this matter every three or four years means that that should not be attempted. Reorganisation should not be carried out lightly or repeatedly and it certainly should not be done punitively.

The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace) suggested that there might be some ulterior motives in
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the choices that the Government have made. I am sure that the Minister will deny that. Clearly, reorganisation should not be carried out because of expected political outcomes or as punishment for previous political outcomes. The Conservatives did that with the abolition of the Greater London council and they lived to regret their choice. It should not be done, either, on the basis of poor performances or perceived failures to meet Government targets; it should be done to reinforce and enhance democratic representation.

It is not my job as a Front-Bench spokesman to support or reject any set of options for Burnley and Pendle, but the hon. Member for Burnley made an interesting case. I understand that all three mainstream political parties in Burnley are in favour of the bid and in Pendle the Liberal Democrat and Labour members are in favour of it, although I understand that the hon. Member for Pendle is not.

Affordability was good, neighbourhood engagement was excellent and strategic vision was good too. The problem seemed if anything to be with service delivery, which, as the hon. Member for Burnley observed, was a problem for the rest of Lancashire rather than being attributable to the inability of the authority—if it comes into being—to deliver services. Will the Minister therefore carefully consider the case that has been put to her for reconsidering the Lancashire situation? If she is minded to approve or push forward any of the bids that have been submitted to her for Lancashire—not just Burnley and Pendle, but Lancaster and Preston—will she attach a strong condition that there should be clear evidence of local popular support for that measure?

As other hon. Members have mentioned, failure to do that will lead to real difficulties. I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope), and he had the impatience of rulers—writ large. Having explained how none of his constituents wanted to be born in the wrong hospital, or indeed cross over the border, he then said that he thought the real solution was an east Lancashire authority that should be imposed on people whether they liked it or not. That is absolutely the wrong approach to the problem. There should be an organic bringing together of communities that have taken decisions in common—not some shotgun marriage, imposed from Whitehall or from this building.

It will be interesting to hear the Minister’s response, and I hope that her colleague the Minister for Local Government has left her a few jottings for this morning on whether the Danes or the Germans should take control of Fylde and the Ribble under the new arrangements.

10.37 am

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con): It is a great pleasure to appear before you in this important debate, Lady Winterton, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Burnley (Kitty Ussher) on successfully securing it. She started by saying that she had a degree of trepidation, but I had the opportunity of seeing her arrive in the building, and she was wearing a bright yellow, fluorescent flak jacket. I hope that that was not an indication of how things will develop. [Interruption.] I know—I was making a joke. I knew the jacket was for the hon. Lady’s bike and I was just being nice. I did not really think that she required bullet-proofing but I am grateful for the correction.

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Don’t politicians just love restructuring? They find it fascinating. If it was up to me I would draw the boundaries of my own constituency. Heck, I would even do the same for the Minister, my neighbour. We like to discuss restructuring because it reminds us of canvassing and stops us getting involved in really important things such as policy, care for the elderly, education, or the problems of sheltered housing. We can spend and waste millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money trying to find the right structure for an organisation that will go into limbo for year upon year until that right structure is actually found.

I might be doing the hon. Member for Burnley an injustice. However, as far as I understand it, the hon. Lady’s justification for her position is that her constituents are confused. She believes that all the decent councillors want more money, and that rather than spend time serving the people they would disappear to the county council to get a few extra bob.

I do not know what motivated you, Lady Winterton, but the amount of money that I receive as a Member of Parliament is not my predominant motivation, and I can say the same about most councillors. They are not that bothered about the amount of money that they receive; civic duty and putting something back into the community motivate most people in local government. To her eternal credit, however, the hon. Lady thinks that when there has eventually been a decision on the right structure there should be some consultation with the odd member of the public.

The hon. Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick)—who I suppose is seeking expansion, as Bismarck was—is looking toward a greater or 1/4ber-Preston. He thought that adding two might make up a central Lancashire city. There is a good reason why Preston was a Nobby no-mates when the application came for a unitary system: nobody else wanted to join.

I am most obliged to a redoubtable local campaigner, Mrs. Lorraine Fullbrook, who led a very successful campaign in South Ribble to persuade the council—Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat—not to join. The reason why she was so successful was that she had a clear idea of what the situation was likely to be. She said, “First of all, let’s consider the cost. The cost for the people of South Ribble is likely to be £350 per household a year for no extra teacher, no extra policeman, no extra health service and no extra paper clips”— £350 so that we politicians can be happy just for moving the process around. She then asked whether it would be an equal partnership. She read the regional and sub-regional strategy updates of the Cabinet meeting, which said that South Ribble would be used to

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