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5 Jun 2007 : Column 53WH—continued

her words, not mine. She went on to say:

Actually, I think that she was too frightened of their decision.

The county council is such a large organisation that the leader of the county could walk the highways without being recognised. I am not being derogatory about the leader; it is such a vast county that a directly elected mayor for Cumbria would not be possible. We have no Cumbria-based media. The south of the county gets its BBC regional news from Manchester
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and its ITV from Granada, and the north of the county gets its BBC from Newcastle and its ITV from Border Television, which is in my constituency. There are no Cumbria-wide newspapers. There is nothing to bind the county together.

I agree that there should be changes to make local government more effective and efficient. Personally, I would support two unitary authorities based on the boundary committee’s 2004 proposals, which would split the north and the south. However, that is not to be—it may be for another day, but it will not happen now. However, the Government should insist on the district councils and the county council working closer together. They should say to the councils, “We expect you to work together and we will require efficiency savings from you to ensure that you work together.”

The Government have often been accused of not listening. The choice in Cumbria is to listen to the quangos and, some of us suspect, the civil servants, or to listen to the Members of Parliament, who know their area and the communities and, unlike the councillors on both sides, do not really have an axe to grind. We will say what we believe is right for the area, and we are the experts on Cumbria. I hope that in July, when the Government take their decision, they will turn down the recommendation for a unitary Cumbria but insist on better co-operation between the districts and the county.

Sir John Butterfill (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Gentleman has requested that other hon. Members be called to speak, but there is very little time if we are to hear the Minister reply. I am sure that all hon. Members want to hear her reply, so will those also contributing be extremely brief?

1.11 pm

David Maclean (Penrith and The Border) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute briefly to the debate and I congratulate the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) on initiating it. This is a unique occasion. I have never known four Cumbrian Members of Parliament from three different parties to be in complete agreement, and I suspect that if the relevant Ministers were allowed to speak on the issue, they too would be sympathetic to the points being made.

To pick up on the point on which the hon. Member for Carlisle concluded, the views of the Cumbrian MPs are more representative of the feelings of the people of Cumbria than the county council’s views. The county council is charging down this route at breakneck speed without any proper consultation of the people of Cumbria. Thank goodness some of the district councils are commissioning MORI polls, so that we can get some idea of public opinion. I also agree with the hon. Gentleman that the stakeholders who have backed the county are in the pay of the county or work with it. They are part of the quangos; they are part of the same bureaucracy. The people of Cumbria have not been consulted. I believe that the people of Cumbria oppose this proposal.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the Government should make the county council and the district councils work together. Go for enhanced two-tier working. Give them a good slap if they are not
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working together. The county should be dealing with some of the big strategic issues of inward investment, but are we seriously suggesting that a unitary Cumbria will deal with planning issues in Barrow, Carlisle, Alston and Workington? There will be no savings, because to deal with those matters, it will open sub-offices. Yes, we will lose our district councils, but the buildings will still be there. There will not be a chief executive, but you can bet your bottom dollar there will be deputy chief executives scattered all over Cumbria, as there are at present.

In my experience as a Minister, I have never known any cost savings from local government reorganisation. The Minister should ask her colleagues in the Home Office—the Department responsible for the police. When Cumbria and Lancashire police forces wanted to amalgamate, the savings were initially to be £18 million. Then the figure went down to £10 million. Then the move was cost neutral. Then the cost went up to £5 million, then £15 million and then £22 million extra. The savings that the county projects in Cumbria are bogus; they will not materialise. We will have less efficiency.

Community boards will be created, but what is a community board? There may be 70 or 80 community boards scattered across Cumbria, talking about things, but they will have no money, no votes, no say and no decision. All that will rest with 84 councillors, who will be pushed to the limit to perform their job.

I support the hon. Member for Carlisle on this very important issue. The proposal will take democracy away from the people of Cumbria. Communities will not find themselves as well represented as they are at present, so I say to the Minister: listen carefully to what colleagues are saying.

As a Conservative, I believe that there is only one thing in favour of the proposal in Cumbria, and I deplore it in some ways. I believe that what is proposed would wipe out Labour’s power base on the west coast and in Barrow, but that is not a reason to do it. I have been a Member of Parliament for Cumbria for 24 years. I would like Cumbria to be Conservative controlled, but not under a dictatorship, which this proposal would impose. The proposal is bad for Cumbria, even though my party might end up with political control.

1.14 pm

Mr. Jamie Reed (Copeland) (Lab): This complex issue does not deserve to be subject to indecent haste, but no one—least of all those of us in this Chamber and our constituents who use the councils that we are talking about and the services that they provide—wants the process to drag on indefinitely.

Cumbria is an extremely diverse county, a fact that has traditionally posed a series of difficulties—whether through geography, politics or the nuclear industry—for the machinery of Whitehall but, frankly, that is Whitehall’s problem, not Cumbria’s. However, the sign of a mature, effective, functioning region or sub-region must be that problems are identified and efforts are made to resolve them for the mutual benefit of all concerned. A former leader of the county council, the
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late Bill Minto OBE, understood all that when he began the process of council structure modernisation in 1997. In my view, he was the greatest leader the county council has had, and we should seek to apply the wisdom and integrity that he would have brought to the debate to solving the problems before us today.

Essentially, councils exist to serve the public, and it is the interests of the public, not the interests of the councils, that must drive change. Let me get to the heart of the matter. Whether they live in Copeland or Carlisle, ordinary people, public service users, businesses and others want better local government. They want local government to be more effective, accountable and flexible. They want local government to facilitate progress, not obstruct it. They despair of the bunker mentality that local authorities often display, passing problems from one department to another, seeking to shift blame and escape accountability. People want their local councils to be problem solvers, not problem avoiders. They probably also want fewer councillors, while at the same time wanting democratic representation to be as local as possible, but that tension must be acknowledged and addressed.

People want their councils to work in partnership with the local NHS to improve health services and health outcomes. They want their councils to work in partnership with business to grow the local economy and to protect and create jobs. They want their local council to be unrelenting in pursuing excellence in schools, in social services and in protecting and serving the elderly. They want their council to provide clean streets, safe roads and value for money through the lowest possible council taxes.

People are right to want all that, and I believe that every hon. Member in this Chamber wants it, too. They do not want locally funded organisations using money that should be spent on local front-line services to fight one another over models of governance or representation. The public will not forgive that; it is not why they pay council tax.

Copeland borough council is a good and improving council, with an excellent council leader, Elaine Woodburn, and chief executive, Liam Murphy. As the MP for Copeland and a former Copeland councillor, I will not countenance moves that lead to the loss of jobs in my constituency or the diminution of services currently provided. Nor will I contemplate any model that facilitates an anti-nuclear agenda or reduces the unquestionable primacy and moral legitimacy of Copeland borough council and the people of Copeland in matters relating to the nuclear industry.

In truth, both of the models proposed by the county council and the borough councils have some real merit. A solution that will satisfy all parties is waiting to be found, and it is incumbent on the county council and the borough councils to work together, in their mutual interest and, more importantly, in the interest of the council tax payer, to find and implement that solution. The present arrangement is not a good one; it does not serve the public as well as it should. I congratulate the Government on instigating the process of change. I believe that all parties agree that change must occur—the status quo is not an option. That is the basis on which to move forward. I trust that the Government will make it clear to all the councils involved that they must work together without delay.

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1.18 pm

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) on securing the debate and on being so generous with his time. I will attempt to use it efficiently to give the Minister ample time to reply.

I declare an interest as a member of South Lakeland district council, although I believe that MPs and members of councils, whether county or district, ought to think first of the people who put them where they are, rather than the synthetic bodies to which they happen to be elected. It is remarkable that in this Chamber there are four MPs from different parties all singing from the same hymn sheet. Looking at the issue objectively, I add my voice to the calls opposing the Cumbria unitary bid. I shall concentrate on three reasons and much of what I say will overlap with what we have already heard, so I will be quick.

First, a unitary Cumbria would separate local people from their council. The centralisation of power in Carlisle—no offence intended to the hon. Gentleman who represents that great city—would increase people’s resentment towards their local government and their sense of remoteness from it. Not only would the council be remote from its citizens, but councillors would be further removed from the people they represent. Three quarters of the county council wards in my constituency are significantly larger than the average parliamentary constituency. The county council is sensitive towards that line of attack, so it is trying to address it, as the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) pointed out, via local boards, but essentially we are talking about mini-quangos that will duplicate work currently done by parish councils but will not be elected and will have no mandate and, in the end, will be even less efficient.

The second reason for objecting to the unitary bid is that the increased sense of remoteness and distance from the electorate is a principal reason why public support, as we have heard, is pretty close to zero. The MORI poll that showed that 72 per cent. of people opposed the proposal understates the level of opposition to the Cumbria county bid. My postbag reflects unanimous opposition. I have not had a single letter or a comment at a surgery that is in favour of the unitary bid—a huge majority of people are opposed to it. The Westmorland Gazette conducted a poll recently and found that readers overwhelmingly oppose the bid.

Thirdly, any attempt to reorganise local government, particularly in Cumbria, must take account of traditional identities and the likelihood of a new system winning the support of local people. With the best will in the world, as we have heard, Cumbria is an amalgamation of the counties of Cumberland, Westmorland, Lancashire over the sands and, in my patch, the West Riding of Yorkshire. Imposing upon the peoples of Cumbria a local government structure that flies in the face of their sense of identity, centralises power and removes accountability is a recipe for failure.

I would support the campaign for enhanced two-tier working, because it could lead to more efficiencies than the county is able to claim for its own proposals. I shall finish by saying that a unitary Cumbria would be a contrived entity. It would be doomed to be the first up
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for the chop the next time that local government is reorganised. On behalf of the residents of my constituency in Westmorland and Lonsdale, I call on the Minister to save time and to put the bid out of its misery now.

1.21 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Angela E. Smith): I thank all hon. Gentlemen for their comments, but particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) for securing today’s debate. He has achieved something that does not happen terribly often in the House in that he has secured support from all quarters and from colleagues from all parties.

I do not have time to go through some of the detail, but I should like to comment on some of the things that have been mentioned. My hon. Friends the Members for Carlisle and for Copeland (Mr. Reed), the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) and the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) have all spoken and put a powerful case for their views on the issue. It is clear that there is a strength of feeling among MPs. I can say that my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham)—the silent one who has sat beside me today—has also made his views known to me and to the Minister for Local Government. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), who cannot be with us today, has brought a delegation from his local council, Barrow-in-Furness borough council, to see me. Indeed, I shall also have meetings with representatives of one of the other districts and representatives of Cumbria county council.

A great deal of debate and consideration is taking place on this issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle said that he hopes that the Government do not make a mistake. So do I—but I can assure him that whatever the decision, it will be taken after a careful consideration of all the factors, including those that have been raised today.

To give the background, right hon. and hon. Members will be aware that in response to the invitation that the Government issued to local authorities, we received a total of 26 proposals from local authorities for the creation of unitary authorities. One of the bids was from Cumbria county council. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will understand that I am somewhat constrained in what I can say today. We are in a legal process and matters of propriety must be taken into account, so I cannot get into the merits of specific proposals. I think that that is understood.

The reasons why the Government judged that 16 proposals could go forward to stakeholder consultation were set out in letters that were sent to councils on 27 March. The invitation for bids for unitary status was a response to the long-standing debate and consultation on the future of local government. My hon. Friend highlighted that in some cases, the existing two-tier arrangements are not as efficient and effective as we might wish. There are risks involved in a two-tier structure. There can be confusion, duplication and inefficiency between the tiers. There is a view that in some areas the appropriate
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way forward is to move to a unitary structure. We are looking to create more focused and better outcomes for local residents. Allowing councils that wish to take that route to come forward to make a bid is the Government’s response to such views, and 16 were shortlisted for further stakeholder consultation.

The 26 proposals that we initially received were whittled down to 16, and we are using a set of criteria to consider them that it might be helpful to explain. A change to unitary structure must be affordable and represent value for money, and costs must be met from a council’s existing resources. Proposals have to be supported by a broad cross-section of stakeholders in and partners of the local authority. In addition to the affordability and support criteria, the councils have to provide strong, effective and accountable strategic leadership; give genuine opportunities for neighbourhood flexibility and empowerment; and deliver value for money and equity on public services. The 16 shortlisted proposals were examined and taken forward.

We are now in the process of a public consultation, which lasts for 12 weeks up to 22 June. I welcome today’s debate as a contribution towards that consultation. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will also make their views known during the more formal process. The Government have said that we would welcome responses to the consultation from key partners and stakeholders in the areas that would be affected by the proposals. That means that we welcome views from local authorities, the wider public sector and the business, voluntary and community sectors, but it is open to anybody who has a comment to make to respond to the consultation. I assure all hon. right and hon. Members that we will carefully consider all the views that are put to us before a decision is taken.

I also take on board the comment that whatever happens with unitary structures, if anything, there have to be better ways for two-tier local authority areas to work. My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle and the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border said that. In some areas, authorities have offered to be pathfinders. We must recognise that, although a
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unitary structure would be the most appropriate structure in some areas, it is not the case in every area. We need to see more effective working arrangements that overcome the risks of confusion, duplication and inefficiency. Those risks must be dealt with.

The process is based on a devolutionary principle. The bids come not from above from the Government, but bottom up from local authorities. That is why we issued an invitation to local authorities to come forward with their views on whether they thought that the process was appropriate for them. Those of us who are committed to the public sector and public service want to ensure that we get the best possible outcomes for local residents, whatever the structures and whatever the outcome of the process. That is why we are asking all local authorities, whether or not they have a unitary structure, to have better working relationships across local government.

My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle asked a specific question about expenditure and read an extract from the brochure from Cumbria county council’s bid for unitary status, in which it stated that it would ensure that the rate increase was capped at 4 per cent. for the first three years, I believe. It is for county councils to set their own expenditure plans, but a new authority would have the ultimate say on the expenditure plans because it would be a new authority. The implications of that are being worked through and a working group has been established to look at those specific issues. Key stakeholders such as the Local Government Association and the unions are involved. The Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill will enable flexible arrangements, subject to its passage through Parliament. At the end of the day, although plans are set by county and district councils, any new authority would have the authority to make its own expenditure plans and to decide on the appropriate rates.

Although I have not had long to speak, I have rattled through. This debate might get the world speed-speaking award. I thank all Members for their comments. I assure them that all the comments made today will be taken into account.

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