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18 Apr 2007 : Column 142WH—continued

5.6 pm

Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell) (LD): I shall speak briefly as the Minister needs time to respond. I thank her for agreeing to allow flexibility in the timings. I passionately believe that Cornwall has a great future and that the people of Cornwall are better able to determine their future on the many issues that they face than people elsewhere. Many of the issues are unique to the county due to its geography, its isolation from London and its high poverty levels.

I welcome the fact that the White Paper has provided the opportunity to change the way that Cornwall is governed. It is great news that that has happened and that the Government have begun to recognise that local solutions and local strength of decision making are important. I suspect that Ministers agree that there has been too much movement over the years in the opposite direction towards centralisation. The Minister should understand that there is excitement about this move. There is willingness in the county to grasp the opportunity and we want to see the process move forward. There is huge support for that.

I want to stress strongly that Cornwall’s proposals are built on a notion of natural communities. They are communities of interest in which people come together; they understand the community in which they live and work and they understand its shared interests. Double devolution, which is proposed by the Cornwall bid, is a significant part of that process. The first level of devolution is to provide Cornwall with a stronger voice in its affairs and with those who govern it at national and regional level. In the county, there is no sense of a shared community interest in the artificial bureaucratic construct—it was originally Conservative, more recently it has been Labour—of the wider, south-west region. Bluntly, telling anybody in a street in my constituency that they share an agenda with people in Swindon will ring no bells whatever.

The first part of the bid is to say, let us have a greater say in our future, with our particular identity and interest and our relative isolation from London. We want to devolve down some of the powers that are held at regional level, the best example of which is the arcane, bureaucratic, objective 1 process, now the convergence funding process, that we have to go through for agreement
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on European funding. Half a dozen Departments and the region can all have a say in decisions on relatively small amounts of expenditure that are specifically allocated to the community of Cornwall. The process has not had a good track record; there have been some good projects that were supported in Cornwall, but some pretty dodgy deals, not supported in Cornwall, have slipped through the net, blown up in the faces of the region and Departments and caused huge embarrassment. I could point to other examples, such as the strategic housing agenda on which I have commented today, where willingness on the part of central and regional government to let go and allow the process to take place would make sense. That process would be based on the natural community of interest in Cornwall.

However, there is a second natural community of interest, in the more local community in which people live—in the villages and towns of Cornwall. Here we have to go back to another major Conservative mistake. The 1974 changes to local government boundaries merged, by placing together different towns in single districts, communities that in practice operate relatively separately. Within Cornwall, yes, but there is no reason why Newquay should have been put together with St. Austell in a borough council, or Truro with Falmouth in a borough council, and the same applies to the other main towns.

The bid that we are discussing, which is probably unique in the country, is not only about creating a unitary authority; it is about devolving down to local communities as well. Much as the district councils may argue that it is centralisation, the truth is that it is to go below the district councils, so that local services are delivered at a more local level and are more answerable to the local community. I am referring to some 16 major towns and the surrounding rural communities across Cornwall. This is not just about a unitary authority bid for Cornwall; it is also about handing power down from county hall and the district offices to the local communities across Cornwall. That is why I am so excited about the bid. It is why I think that it is very different from many of the other bids around the country and why I hope that the Government will warm to what I hope will in future be a model not only for Cornwall, but for other parts of the country.

5.11 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Angela E. Smith): I congratulate the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) on securing the debate. He put his case in a very reasoned manner. There is no doubt from the contributions that he and his colleagues have made that a passionate debate is taking place in Cornwall and that there is great commitment from hon. Members to the unitary structure.

I take issue with the hon. Gentleman on one point. He said that there had been no change in his area in the past 10 years. He perhaps contradicted himself, because he went on to list the areas of investment by the Government, which no doubt have made a difference to his constituents. I take issue with the idea that there have been no improvements in health. If he looks at health outcomes throughout the country and in Cornwall, and the additional investment and staff in the health sector, he will find that his constituents have benefited from that.

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That aside, I want to use the debate to set out how we have reached the current position and how we intend to make our assessments, and then respond to the comments about the truly devolutionary nature of what we are doing. I welcome the comments that have been made. The hon. Gentleman made the point that things should not be dictated from on high. However, this has been the only opportunity that I can remember within a local government reorganisation for the bids to come from councils themselves. The Government issued an invitation to bid, and local authorities came forward if they wished to bid to make their areas unitary and to have a different structure. That is truly devolutionary and follows the principles in the White Paper. The hon. Members for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor) and for St. Ives (Andrew George) raised that point.

This is very important. When we talk about leaders of councils now, we do not in fact talk about the leader of the council. Under the White Paper and the legislation going through the House, they become the leader of the place. Their powers, responsibilities and influences are significantly greater. We are looking for much stronger strategic leadership across the authorities. I welcome Opposition Members’ comments on and support for that approach.

Hon. Members will be aware that, acting under our wide prerogative powers, we published alongside the local government White Paper last October an invitation to local authorities to make proposals for unitary local government. We are now holding a stakeholder consultation on 16 of the 26 proposals that we received. In due course, and subject to the will of Parliament, the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill will provide us with the powers to implement any of the 16 proposals that, having regard to the outcome of consultation, we decide meet the criteria set out in the invitation. Clause 21 allows us to implement, after Royal Assent, any proposal received before that date.

Mr. Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): I am grateful for the Minister’s generous comments about the genuine wish in Cornwall for change and progress on a better form of local governance. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor) was trying to get across what we see as the different nature of the bid from Cornwall, in that we hope that it will be not just a bid on a par with existing unitaries and the aspirations of other parts of the country to have unitaries, but a bid for a new form of local strategic authority. I would welcome anything that the Minister could say about meeting local government leaders, Members of Parliament and representatives of other organisations from Cornwall to take forward that agenda of something slightly different and greater than a unitary authority.

Angela E. Smith: The hon. Gentleman pre-empts my comments. I will come on to that point later. First, let me make it clear that I am always happy to meet to discuss those issues. Either I or the Minister for Local Government will be happy to meet the hon. Gentlemen and the county council representatives on the issue. However, I am somewhat constrained in what I can say today because we are in a legal process. For reasons of propriety I cannot debate the merits of specific proposals. I hope that that is understood. I am not being evasive at all. Bids have gone forward in the decision letters and we
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are now in that consultation period in which decisions have to be taken, so I have to be careful about what I say.

In the debate, I was asked whether there was flexibility around the bid. Any council that made a proposal during the consultation period can develop that proposal further. We have also made it clear that council chief executives can meet our officials during the consultation period to discuss their bid. Therefore, there is flexibility. The important thing is that we discuss the bid and ensure that we get the right bid and that it works well for that area.

The hon. Member for St. Ives asked whether there could be flexibility in the length of time. As much as I like to be flexible, there are some things that I cannot be flexible on. I cannot be flexible on the time limit. Final decisions have to be taken within the agreed time frame. The consultation ends on 22 June in time for implementation by the end of July. Having heard the arguments from the hon. Gentlemen so far, I do not think that they need any extra time to put the points that they have made.

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): I am reassured to hear that there will be a degree of flexibility. Some of the proposals include flexibility around Departments that are not directly under the control of the Minister’s own Department, such as the Department of Health and the Department of Trade and Industry through the regional development agencies. Will the Minister include in her comments details about what is going on between other Departments to allow for that flexibility to extend beyond the Department for Communities and Local Government?

Angela E. Smith: I hope that the hon. Lady will forgive me, but I think I made it clear that I was not able to discuss specific instances within the bids. I think that her question goes into that particular area. If we look at the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, we will find that there is far greater co-operation between Departments under that Bill than there ever has been in any other local government Bill that I have seen before the House. As a former councillor and former local government officer, I very much welcome the Bill. It seems to me that it extends the remit far more.

Going back to the specific bid, chief executives can meet with my officials and Ministers are happy to meet with Members and councillors as well. It is better that those discussions take place under that remit because we are constrained in what we can say now, as I made clear earlier.

We published the invitation in response to the views that we received about the future of local government. It became clear that in many cases the two-tier system has the capacity to be confusing, inefficient and involve additional costs. There are additional risks and challenges in a two-tier system that also cause duplication and inefficiency.

There was, and still is, as evidenced by the number of bids that we received, a real drive to say that we can do things better and differently. We can be more focused, stronger and more strategic. We can look across the piece and not just at narrow interests to improve outcomes for local people. Allowing restructuring was our response to that, and that was made clear by the number of bids that we received. In reaching decisions, we had to take into account all the relevant information—the submitted
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proposals, any supplementary material submitted by the proposers themselves and other available relevant information.

We have written to all councils that submitted bids, setting out the reasons and the basis on which decisions were reached. All 26 proposals were carefully assessed against the five criteria that we set out in our invitation. The judgment we had to make was which councils were most likely to meet the specified criteria. In the light of the comments made by hon. Members earlier, I think that it would be helpful to say what those criteria are. The proposals have to be affordable, and that is very clear in the invitation document. The change to a unitary structure must represent value for money and must be met from councils’ existing resources. The proposals must also be supported by a broad range of partners and stakeholders.

In addition to affordability and support, the proposals must provide strong, effective, accountable and strategic leadership. They also should deliver genuine opportunities for neighbourhood flexibility and empowerment. The point was made strongly by hon. Members that the council must be at the heart of the community and involve local people in decision making.

5.20 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

5.35 pm

On resuming:—

Angela E. Smith: I think that, before we were interrupted, I was talking about the devolutionary principle. This process is not top-down from the Government; it is very much bottom-up. That is why the invitations were issued and why we are consulting. We never sought to impose changes.

The emphasis is on local authorities, and good local authorities really want to effect change in their area and to make life better for their citizens. I was particularly pleased to hear from the hon. Members for St. Ives and for Truro and St. Austell about the ambitions that they have for their areas. What I can say to them, which I think may help, is that unitary councils can help to fulfil those ambitions. One of the issues that they raised with me is that consideration on all these matters must be across Government and that it is a Government decision. The decisions have to cover all local services.

Generally, the White Paper has opened the door for a new devolutionary approach and the key to that approach is getting the right authorities and the right bodies in place so that, if new powers are to be devolved, those structures and bodies, showing strong leadership, are in place to ensure that that can be done effectively. That discussion is taking place in terms of civic cities. I must say that there are no specific proposals at present, but the unitary strategy for Cornwall might well enable that door to be opened and that discussion to happen. That is a discussion that Opposition Members will be having with officials. I appreciate their longer-term objectives in that area, but this is a truly devolutionary measure that is going forward.

I hope that, with no further interruptions, I have addressed the comments and the issues raised by Opposition Members.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes to Six o’clock.

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