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10 May 2007 : Column 366

Local Government Reorganisation (Northumberland)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Alan Campbell.]

3.38 pm

Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): I know that the Minister for Local Government, who replied to the previous debate, has handed over responsibility for this debate to his ministerial colleague the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Basildon (Angela E. Smith). However, while he is here, I want to draw to his attention to the fact that every Member of Parliament for Northumberland is in his place for this debate. They all agree in their preference for a two-district solution to local government in the county, and they do not support the single-district solution that the county council has proposed. The Minister has kept both options on the table and we shall be discussing them in this debate, which his colleague the Under-Secretary will answer.

I declare an interest in that my wife is a member of the county council and, since last Thursday, of Berwick-upon-Tweed borough council, too. The wife of the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell) is also a county councillor, and we agree with our wives on these issues—as we do on so many matters.

It is a unique situation: four MPs in three political parties are in broad agreement about the direction that Northumberland should take. I defy the Under-Secretary to find another example from the whole round of local government reorganisation in which she is so assisted by unanimity on one proposal. I hope she and her colleagues take that factor carefully into account.

Northumberland is inherently a difficult area in which to implement a unitary system. The advantages of unitary local government are strong and obvious: it is much less confusing for the public, savings can be made and there are more opportunities for the council to deploy its funds to a wider range of services and to relate those services to each other. However, for geographical reasons, we have hung on to the two-tier system until now, even though in parts it is under severe strain and presents real problems in the smaller districts. These days, the county council is not a successful authority—certainly much less so than in my earliest years as a Member of Parliament—and has run into serious problems. I do not say that the problems have nothing to do with who controls the council, but a number of other factors are involved, too.

At district council level, so difficult has been the recruitment and retention of planning officers—for example, in Berwick borough council—that the council faces making a decision on three wind farm planning applications with no planning officers to advise it on its policy. The council has had to hand out that function to consultants who may in future be employed by the very developers on whose applications they are giving advice. That is a deeply unsatisfactory situation.

Mr. Denis Murphy (Wansbeck) (Lab): I understand the problems Northumberland county council faces at present, and has faced for several years, but does the
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right hon. Gentleman accept that one of the main difficulties is that successive Governments have not always recognised the county’s super-sparsity, which has a particular impact on education and social services? Recently, the county council tried to get rid of surplus school places, but on three occasions an appeal against school closure went against the council. Is that not a particular problem?

Mr. Beith: That is one of the factors I had in mind when I said that there are many reasons why there are difficulties with the two-tier system. The hon. Gentleman is right: the financial formula has not worked in Northumberland’s favour at all. Indeed, one of the merits of the two-district solution is that sparsity may be taken more into account, instead of being masked by the fact that there is a significant urban population. Furthermore, some of the deprivation factors that apply in urban areas might be given more weight if there were two separate authorities. At present, we miss out on all sorts of things that are intended for rural areas even though we are one of the most sparsely populated areas in the country, because there is a mixture of extremely sparse and highly concentrated areas of population in the same county.

If the two-tier system were to continue, lots of joint working would be needed, but the county has shown no willingness at all to engage with the idea of enhanced two-tier working. There have been approaches from the districts, but the county has shown no interest. There is a danger that we may still end up with a two-tier system and no great prospect of changing or improving it; Northumberland may be put on the “too difficult” pile, because two possible unitary solutions are in play. That would be a pity, because we need to move forward in some way and I am disappointed that the county has not actively pursued the enhanced two-tier alternative.

That all six district councils in Northumberland have agreed that there should be a two-unitary solution is extremely unusual in local government reorganisation. The councils are controlled by different parties and in most cases there is no overall control, but every district and every political party involved agreed on the same solution. The county leadership decided to put forward a one-unitary solution, but it could not get that through its own council, despite having a majority. It had hastily to redraft the resolution supporting a single authority solution to indicate that both proposals were going forward. Without the acknowledgement that both proposals were valid, its resolution would not have got through at all.

The Northumberland proposal is a one-size-fits-all approach and is not capable of responding to the needs of the diverse communities of the county. There are two distinct parts of Northumberland. When I say “Northumberland”, I mean the present administrative county. If we were talking about the real Northumberland, we would be talking about areas long since transferred into other authorities such as North Tyneside and Newcastle. This is not an argument about the historic county of Northumberland, which is much bigger and has a much larger population than the administrative county whose future as one or two unitary authorities we are discussing.

Within the administrative county, there is an urban south-east and a rural area of west, mid and north
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Northumberland. Not a single member of the county’s cabinet comes from the rural area and I think that there are only two members on the executive of the county council who come from outside the Wansbeck and Blyth Valley districts. That is an inherent weakness in the way in which things work and its results can be seen in the decisions that the county takes.

Many regional organisations say that unitary status is needed and that they will work effectively with whatever structure is implemented, because they think that it will be more efficient than a two-tier system. The White Paper is all about allowing citizens the opportunity to shape the communities that they live in. In that case, why are we still considering a single unitary proposal that does not have the support of Northumberland residents, its community organisations, its district councils or its Members of Parliament? Instead, we have the option of having a rural Northumberland authority, with a population of 164,000 and a south-east Northumberland authority, with a population of 142,000. Let me just underline the difference between the two. The population of the rural area works out as one person for every 3 hectares; the population of the urban south-east proposed authority works out at 10.6 people per hectare. That gives an indication of the fundamental difference.

On 27 March, the Department for Communities and Local Government announced which proposals were going forward to stakeholder consultation. To quite a lot of people’s surprise, in Northumberland two proposals went forward: the county’s proposal for one unitary authority and the districts’ proposal for two unitary authorities. I think that all the councils in Northumberland would probably have preferred the Secretary of State to identify a single preference, but, along with Bedfordshire and Cheshire, we have two potential solutions and probably a longer period of uncertainty.

Why is that so, when the people of Northumberland have already voted on the matter? In the referendum in November 2004 on regional government, they were given the opportunity to decide between a two- authority solution and a one-authority solution in exactly the format that they are now proposed. Some 56.2 per cent. voted for the two-unitary option and only 43.8 per cent. opted for a single council. Far from there being any evidence that opinion has moved in favour of a single authority since then, an ICM opinion poll in December 2006 showed that 67 per cent. were in favour of a two-council option.

Mr. Denis Murphy: The right hon. Gentleman’s point about the number of organisations, including political organisations, that support the two-unitary system is well made. Is he aware that the boundary committee, in its report published in May 2004, stated:

Does he think that that statement takes the argument forward?

Mr. Beith: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to quote that statement from the boundary committee. I agree with it.

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The Government have put forward assessment criteria against which the authorities have to be measured. Both bids qualified as capable of delivering savings. Some people expressed concern about whether there is an element of cross-subsidy from the urban to the rural area that might be lost if we had a two- authority solution. My belief is that that will almost certainly be offset by what happens with the funding formula—for the reason that I gave earlier. At present, the rural area is deprived of the provision that the Government rightly make available for sparsely populated rural areas because its figures are buried within those of a larger area with a substantial urban component.

Three different marks could be given for the likelihood that the outcomes specified in the criteria would be satisfied: a high likelihood, a reasonable likelihood and little likelihood. Both bids passed on all counts, so it was judged that there was at least a reasonable likelihood of each of the criteria—affordability, cross-section of support, strategic leadership, neighbourhood engagement and service delivery—being achieved. However, I am puzzled by how the scoring was done. For example, the proposal for a single unitary council got a reasonable rating for cross-section of support, but there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that there is a cross-section of support in Northumberland for the county’s single-council solution. In fact, there is a great deal of evidence to the contrary. The districts’ two-council bid also got a reasonable rating for cross-section of support, even though all the evidence shows that there is a high cross-section of support for that proposal.

Councils have not yet been given any information about the rationale behind the scoring, except for that in the Department’s letter of 27 March. Having scored the criteria, the Department seems to be saying that the really important issue is whether the overall threshold is passed, rather than the scoring of the individual criteria. However, during some of the discussions, a lot is being made of the scorings that have been achieved.

Let us consider the cross-section of support again. I have mentioned the referendum and the opinion of the four Northumberland Members. More than 100 local organisations support the two-authority option. That bid has as wide a cross-section of support as could be achieved for any reorganisation proposal. However, the county council’s bid was only just supported by that council when it was considered alongside the other bid, so the support was very qualified. Some regional stakeholders said that they were doing no more than commending unitary government in principle, rather than distinguishing between the proposals.

Most of the regional bodies that have indicated support for the county’s bid are much bigger than the county itself. It suits them to have fewer local authorities to deal with, and their structure does not address the problem that we are examining: how to keep local government reasonably local. The arguments about the police are sometimes cited. The police force covers a much larger area than the existing county and it wants to be bigger still. It wanted to amalgamate with two further police forces, but the Government wisely decided that that would not be a
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good idea. I do not think that the police authority is the best body on which to rely in this matter, given that the Government have not seen fit to support the authority’s record. The White Paper is about putting communities at the centre of decision making, so the scoring should have reflected that more accurately.

Curiously, the scoring received by the proposals on strategic leadership did not seem to be entirely accurate. However, perhaps even more doubtful is the scoring on neighbourhood engagement. Some councils have scored extremely well on neighbourhood engagement. Blyth Valley is a beacon council for community engagement, while Wansbeck district council’s LIFE—local initiative for everything—model has been praised. The county’s neighbourhood engagement takes place through a system of area committees. While that could work well, the authority is not taking much notice of the area committees in some parts of the county, so even the existing mechanism is not being used.

I realise that the Under-Secretary will not be able to say a lot in response to the debate because she is part of the consultation process. However, if the Government were to adopt the county’s proposal for a single authority, would the county be treated as a continuing authority under the Local Government Act 1992? If it were, the existing county apparatus would essentially survive, and rather than having new authorities in which all positions would be up for open competition to allow people with the experience and qualifications to do the job to be selected, the county’s staffing structure would be preserved to a large extent. I hope that the Minister will address that matter, even though I hope we will not face such a situation because I want the Government to go for the two-council option.

The next criterion I want to consider is service delivery. Satisfaction levels and residents’ experiences of the authorities demonstrate that the county council’s services are, in a number of respects, worse than those of most of the district councils. There are a number of respects in which having an authority the size of the present county manifestly does not work. We have experienced particular problems with education and school transport. The county council has failed every attempt to win Government support for its projects under the building schools for the future programme. Every single bid that it has made has been turned down. It now looks as though it will be 2014 before we are even in with a chance. There must be something wrong, and I put that to the Minister for Schools, who came up to the region. Clearly, officers in the relevant Department do not regard the county’s bids as satisfactory. There is a serious element of the Government not valuing the kind of proposals that the county makes. That may partly reflect the difficulties of running education services in such a diverse county.

To take the case of school transport, the county failed to bid for funds that it would have received from the Learning and Skills Council, and so deprived itself of money that was available. Partly as a consequence, it is charging everyone over 16 who needs school transport £360 a year to get to school or college, and that is in an area where the take-up of post-16 education is low. It has denied college students from Berwick rail passes to get to college in Newcastle. Instead of a 45-minute train journey, they face a bus
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journey of an hour and a half, or an hour and three quarters, and many of them simply opt out, or pay to travel on the train. Those points illustrate the fact that the county is not able to administer some of its services satisfactorily in such a diverse area. That is one of the drivers behind people feeling that they would be better off with two authorities, rather than one.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) (Lab): May I raise the issue of the vulnerable, including the homeless and old people? The county got zero stars in that area, and in fact I received a ministerial letter the other week to tell me that a team is being sent to the county council to try to lift its performance so that the vulnerable can have some sort of representation in Northumberland.

Mr. Beith: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. He knows the area well, particularly the strains and stresses in the urban area around Blyth Valley. It gives me no pleasure to say that the county is letting us down on a number of key services. There are some difficulties that have made that the case. However, people should take certain things into account before they assume that because we have a county council it could be the basis for a unitary authority and that everything will work well, including all the services now run by the district councils, including housing. Recently, there was a sharp increase in charges for home help and community care. That really hits vulnerable people in the area. I hope that the Government can help the county council to do better in various ways, but the examples that I have given do not represent evidence that running a single authority on the basis of the present county would be a good idea.

Mr. Campbell: That brings me to another point: the council put up the charges for home help for old people by £5. That increase was to generate £1 million. My wife, who is a county councillor—I declare that as an interest—has three times asked what had happened to that money. The argument was that it would go back into services for old people, but it disappeared and no one could find out where it had gone. I know where it has gone, but of course no one wants to say. My wife is still hanging on to that question; she still has not had an answer on where the money that the old people were charged went.

Mr. Beith: Given the exchanges that have taken place, the Under-Secretary must be beginning to understand that there are four people in the Chamber who have an intimate knowledge of the problems that the county council faces. We have all been led to the conclusion that there is no basis for a single unitary authority in Northumberland, and we have given a number of examples of why that is so.

If the Government opt for a single authority, I confidently predict that there will be a vigorous campaign against the idea. The district councils have a mandate for such a campaign, and local organisations will want to back that campaign. On the other hand, if the Government opt for two unitary authorities, the county council will have no mandate to campaign against the proposal, as its own resolution actually supports both proposals. I do not think that Northumbria police or any other regional authorities
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are going to go to the barricades to try to save a proposal that has been so widely criticised. If the Government want to win the confidence and support of people in Northumberland, they should opt for the two-authority scheme. If they were so unwise as to try to promote the single-authority scheme, they would face severe opposition.

Mr. Denis Murphy: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way again. The county council’s problems are compounded by the fact that in its proposal it suggests that a political status quo exists in the single unitary authority—that is, it would be quite happy if a leader were elected from the cabinet—whereas the two-unitary system obviously proposes that there should be elected mayors, which is very much in line with the White Paper.

Mr. Beith: The hon. Gentleman reminds me of a point that I should have made earlier. On those grounds, the two-unitary solution proposed by the district councils satisfies the Government’s criterion for strategic leadership much more closely than the county’s own proposal. It is a much more explicit attempt to meet that particular demand from the Government.

If, after all that, the Government said, “Oh, it’s too difficult. Let’s just leave it alone”, there would be a great deal of disappointment among people on all sides of the argument, and there would not be a very promising atmosphere in which to achieve an enhanced two-tier system, which is the only viable alternative. It would be a system in which authorities would have to share services a great deal. I am not saying that it would be a bad thing, but it would be necessary to plan the sharing of services, staff and so on. It would require a big change of attitude in the county council and in the district councils, too. I have not seen any evidence in discussions that the county is willing to undertake such lateral thinking. All the indications—certainly everything that my three colleagues would want to propose—suggests that a two-unitary authority solution is the right way forward.

4.12 pm

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) (Lab): Briefly, I had better declare an interest, as my wife is a member of the county council. She is a willing turkey, unlike those whose seats and jobs are vulnerable.

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