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Session 2007 - 08
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Public Bill Committee Debates

Draft Bedfordshire (Structural Changes) Order 2008

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Roger Gale
Burt, Alistair (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con)
Dorries, Mrs. Nadine (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con)
Goldsworthy, Julia (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD)
Hain, Mr. Peter (Neath) (Lab)
Hall, Mr. Mike (Weaver Vale) (Lab)
Hamilton, Mr. Fabian (Leeds, North-East) (Lab)
Healey, John (Minister for Local Government)
Hurd, Mr. Nick (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con)
Miller, Andrew (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)
Mole, Chris (Ipswich) (Lab)
Neill, Robert (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)
Rogerson, Dan (North Cornwall) (LD)
Ryan, Joan (Enfield, North) (Lab)
Selous, Andrew (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con)
Stewart, Ian (Eccles) (Lab)
Tipping, Paddy (Sherwood) (Lab)
Watts, Mr. Dave (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Ms A. Toft, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 109(5):
Hall, Patrick (Bedford) (Lab)

First Delegated Legislation Committee

Tuesday 25 March 2008

[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]

Draft Bedfordshire (Structural Changes) Order 2008

4.30 pm
The Minister for Local Government (John Healey): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Draft Bedfordshire (Structural Changes) Order 2008.
Good afternoon, Mr. Gale. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon. The draft order will bring into effect proposals for two unitary authorities for Bedfordshire. All three of the elected Bedfordshire district councils drew up the proposals, which they submitted to the Secretary of State as the form of governance that they believe will best serve the people, businesses and communities of Bedfordshire. Equally, Bedfordshire county council, an elected local council, put forward an alternative proposal. As one would expect, we have considered all the proposals carefully during the past few months, but we judge that the proposals implemented in the order will best serve the interests of Bedfordshire in the long term.
As the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst will recognise and the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire will know—both as a local MP and from his previous capacity as Front-Bench spokesman for his party—the process for Bedfordshire has been more complex than for any of the other areas that we have considered in the current round of local government restructuring, not just because there were competing proposals but because, rightly, we had to issue a further invitation and undergo the process involved.
When we announced last July that we were minded to implement Bedford borough council’s proposal, we were clear that implementing it would render the rest of Bedfordshire unviable as a two-tier local government area. Therefore, we signalled our intention to invite all remaining councils in Bedfordshire, including the county council, to put forward unitary proposals for the remainder of the county. We issued that invitation on 19 November, after the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 received Royal Assent.
As required by the Act, and as I announced in the House on 18 December, we began a further consultation on a new proposal received from mid and south Bedfordshire. We asked stakeholders to comment on the proposal and say which of the alternatives—either the two-unitary option or the single unitary proposal, which was made by the county council—would best achieve our long-term objectives.
Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): It is rather like the Alamo in here; there is an impressive amount of firepower on the Government Benches. I am not quite sure why it is needed, but the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire and I are flattered.
Before the Minister leaves the topic of consultation, what bearing did stakeholder consultation have on his decision? It is quite noticeable that the published remarks on stakeholder consultation contain three references supporting single unitary, or at least two references in support of single unitary and one reference of concern about the Bedford borough unitary, but only the Bedford borough petition is tossed into the scales on the other side. To what extent did stakeholder consultation weigh on the ultimate decision?
John Healey: I was about to come to the matter of support, and I will do so. The element of further consultation after 18 December, to which I referred, was significant. It allowed, in particular, those councils with a view of alternatives that were not in agreement to submit further evidence and their critique of what had been proposed. It allowed me, also, to seek independent financial advice on the financial case that was put forward. I shall come on to that in a moment. If the hon. Gentleman does not feel that I have answered his questions, I am happy to return to the matter later.
To return to the question of support, and the responses to the consultation, our judgment is that if the proposals are implemented, a broad cross-section of support can be expected. I want to make it clear what I mean by that. It was set out in our original invitation in October 2006. Our criterion is not and has never been whether a majority of a particular group of stakeholders, a majority of citizens, or another group of interested people, supports or disapproves of particular unitary proposals. The invitation of October 2006 said explicitly that our principal concern was to establish whether there was sufficient support for a new unitary proposal to make it likely that it would be a successful form of governance, should we choose to go ahead with it. That is not the same—deliberately—as majority popular support.
Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): The issue is one that we have rehearsed, but, for the sake of the record of this debate, will the Minister confirm that there are no objective criteria? Essentially we must rely on a subjective assessment.
John Healey: As we set out in the summary of responses, it is clear that opinion and support are broadly divided. The judgment that Ministers must make is, as I have tried to explain, the one that we described in our original invitation: whether there is a sufficiently broad cross-section of support to make it likely that the proposal will be successful and viable if we go ahead with it. We also said explicitly in the invitation that no single body or group would have a veto over a proposal. To be honest, the responses to both rounds of consultation reflected divided opinion, and in some cases divided politics and loyalties. Stakeholder opinion was, predictably, also divided.
It is on that basis that the Government feel and I maintain, in bringing the order before the House, that we are entitled to conclude that the two-unitary solution that we have set out has sufficient support to enable it to work. That was the criterion by which, from the start, we intended to make our assessment.
Robert Neill: The Minister refers to public sector stakeholders. Could he help me by explaining the Government’s response to the observations of Unison, acting on behalf of the employees of the county and all the districts? The union observed, giving reasons, that an enhanced two-tier model should have been an integral part of the options appraisal, so that in the absence of the objective criteria that I mentioned there could have been an alternative benchmark. Why did the Government reject that course?
John Healey: Quite simply, we assessed the proposals that were submitted to us, and those from this part of the country, as indeed from others, did not include two-tier working. In this process, we set out to consider the viability of reforms to produce unitary government.
Before I discuss the order itself, let me turn briefly to the financial case. In response to the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), I mentioned the independent financial advisers whom I appointed on the advice of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy and the Institute of Public Finance. Those advisers concluded that the two-unitary solution was medium risk, but that it would meet the affordability criteria within a payback period of less than five years. They also concluded that once what they regarded as sufficient provision for risk had been built in, the level of savings would be lower than in the original proposal. Nevertheless, they believed that the two-unitary solution would offer significant annual savings of more than £18 million a year once the reforms were implemented.
Alistair Burt: Is the financial advice that the Minister received from CIPFA published and available for external scrutiny? I genuinely do not know.
John Healey: I have not released it publicly because it is advice to Ministers, and such advice is generally not published. However, I have made available and been quite clear about the conclusions that have been reached. As I have just said, the savings—substantial though they promise to be—are less, in the independent financial consultants’ view, than those in the original proposal. The payback period is well below the five-year limit, but it is nevertheless almost a year longer than that in the original proposal. The transitional costs are slightly higher than those in the original proposal, but they are nevertheless such that I have confidence that the proposals in the order will well meet the affordability criteria that we have set. In terms of value for money—not least the benefits for the quality of services, the empowerment of local communities and strategic leadership in the areas involved—the proposals in the order are a good deal for Bedfordshire council tax payers.
As with previous provisions, we prepared the order following detailed consultation with all the councils concerned. The order contains the arrangements that the councils involved believe are best for them as they manage the transition. First, it provides that there will be a single tier of local government in Bedfordshire from 1 April 2009. Secondly, it provides that the existing county council and the district councils of Mid-Bedfordshire and South Bedfordshire will be dissolved. Bedford borough will be transformed into a new unitary authority, and a new central Bedfordshire will be created to cover the old mid and south Bedfordshire district areas.
The order provides for an implementation executive in Bedford, which will be led by the mayor of Bedford and whose membership will be drawn from the county and all the district councils. In central Bedfordshire, the order provides for a shadow authority to be created, comprising all the current councillors, including county councillors for the Mid and South Bedfordshire areas. From that shadow authority, a shadow executive will be drawn to lead the preparations for the new authority. Those executives will exercise the key transitional functions until elections to both new unitary councils are held next year.
The order also provides for a team of officers in each area—again, they will be drawn from the county and all the district councils—to support the implementation of the proposals. It places a duty on all councils to co-operate during the transition, and the indications are that that is beginning to happen in both areas.
One final point about the order is that it will cancel the district council thirds elections that would otherwise have happened in south Bedfordshire and in Bedford borough in May this year. That is necessary to maintain the credibility and integrity of the democratic process, and I strongly argue that it is the only practical solution because if the elections were to go ahead, there would be serious questions about the purpose. Those elected would not carry out the normal functions expected of elected councillors and would in fact serve for 11 months.
Robert Neill: The Minister and other hon. Members will know that the Committee was due to meet last week. The sitting was cancelled because, as the Minister kindly informed me and others, further information was requested by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. The information concerned the point that the Minister has just made on the cancellation of district council elections. Will the Minister say in what respect, if any, the order has been changed to deal with the issues raised by the Joint Committee? Alternatively, what information was provided to satisfy the Joint Committee that there is no longer a problem? It had stated that the cancellation provision was an unusual use of the statutory power, so what has happened to set our minds at rest on that matter?
In light of the Bedfordshire county council judicial review—a challenge that is currently before the High Court—the Merits Committee invited the Government to
“explain more fully what action they would take if the High Court’s ruling meant that the order could not go ahead”.
As I responded to the issues raised by the JCSI, I feel that I should also respond to that point. The county council’s application was heard by the High Court on 22 February. The court is in recess at the moment so we await its judgment. However, in the meantime I stress that it is important for the local authorities, staff and residents that we continue with our original timetable. I argue strongly that it is good administration to do so unless and until a court judgment requires us to do otherwise. Even if the court found against us, it is not at any rate clear what relief and implications would be forthcoming. The reason for that is the challenge is not to the order and what we have decided to do and have done from the late autumn onwards; the challenge is to the 25 July decision of the Secretary of State when she was minded to go ahead with the Bedford borough council proposal. Even if the court decided that that decision was somehow flawed, it has been significantly superseded by the Act coming into force and the decisions that we have taken under the Act since that point of Royal Assent.
Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): Is he saying that the judicial review is, in a sense, irrelevant because what we are doing under this order will have legal effect, is legally watertight and will happen anyway? Is he saying that the judicial review is, in effect, a sideshow to the real business that is being debated today?
John Healey: I would not go so far as to say that. Obviously, it is a matter for Bedfordshire county council as to whether it regards its legal proceedings as reasonable and justifiable to its residents. The point that I am making is this. In these circumstances, there is serious doubt about whether it would be appropriate for the court to grant any relief if it came to the view that our decision was flawed in any way, and it is quite difficult to see what relief it might offer.
My reasoning reflects the view that the court came to in the case of Shrewsbury and Congleton, on a similar basis. The view was that decisions or actions made in advance of the orders coming into force under the Act were no more than preparatory steps. In the court’s judgment in that case, the only issue that ultimately mattered was the legal effect of decisions taken under the 2007 Act. In the case of Bedfordshire and this order, the decision taken under the Act that the order is designed to implement is not subject to challenge. I hope that that is helpful.
Robert Neill: I have one final point in relation to the timetable and the risks. Has the Minister received any advice, and can he assist us on the basis of any advice that he has received, on the risk that might apply if the judicial review were to be successful but the order had passed through both Houses and the district council elections in central Bedfordshire had been cancelled? Has he considered whether there is any risk of a fresh set of parties feeling aggrieved at the cancellation of district council elections under an order that might fall foul of the judicial review?
John Healey: In the end, I take the view, and I have done consistently with other judicial review challenges, that the court is highly unlikely to quash the order. There is little purpose in speculating on entirely hypothetical developments that I think are very unlikely to materialise. From the smile on the hon. Gentleman’s face, I think that he probably accepts that.
We feel entitled to continue with the process. I am convinced that we are right to push on towards implementation of the changes on 1 April 2009. It is right that we look to cancel the elections due in May this year. The implementation timetable will be challenging and complex. I accept that. However, I am encouraged by what I see as the growing willingness of those affected by the decision to make the transition and the changes work.
I pay tribute to the three Bedfordshire Members on the Committee for the work that they have done in discussing the matter with local authority leaders. I pay tribute also to the local authority leaders most directly affected, because irrespective of the view that is held of the decision that we have taken—perhaps in some cases there is disagreement with that—there is recognition, which provides a strong basis for the future, that once the decision has been taken and particularly when Parliament gives the go-ahead, as I hope it will, to these measures, the important thing in the interests of the people of Bedfordshire is that we make the transition work and that the new authorities give a fresh lead and a fresh start. As Minister responsible, I look forward to playing my part, with local authority leaders and hon. Members, in helping to make that happen over the next year.
4.54 pm
Robert Neill: It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Gale. It is interesting for those of us who regard ourselves as men of Kent or Kentish men, depending on which side of the Medway we come from, to be considering what is happening north of the river by quite a long way. I am grateful to the Minister for the courtesy and care with which he has dealt with the presentation of the order, as always. The official Opposition’s concerns can be summed up fairly succinctly: we accept that there seems to have been an acceptance of a unitary structure in Bedfordshire from the responses that have been received, but the proposal was not benchmarked against any viable alternatives. Unison made a viable point—a point of principle—that it would be good idea in future for proposals for unitary structures to be benchmarked against the alternative of enhanced two-tier working as a matter of course. It such an option were floated, it might well command greater support and offer an alternative way forward.
That is all the more important because, as the Minister confirmed, the criteria are set out in the consultation document in broad terms but, ultimately, the matter comes down to a subjective ministerial judgment on the likelihood of success. That is a vague set of criteria and it runs the risk of causing uncertainty. We think that a policy of benchmarking against enhanced two-tier working should have been pursued from the start.
Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab): I do not quite follow what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Is he proposing benchmarking something that has not yet happened against something that does not exist?
Robert Neill: I commend Unison’s appraisal of unitary options in Bedfordshire to the hon. Gentleman—he might well have had rather more dealings with the local branch of Unison than me. The appraisal sensibly points out that an enhanced two-tier model should have been an integral part of the options appraisal. Instead of leaving the options to pass or fail, the Government should have required each proposal to be accompanied by an enhanced two-tier model. That would have presented a genuine option to the public rather than the current crude contest between unitary and two-tier status—between change and no change. An enhanced two-tier developmental approach to unitary government must be considered as a viable option and an alternative to imposing a partially suitable unitary organisation. I think that there is a lot of merit in that, and that it would sensibly be borne in mind in future to avoid the conflicts between districts and counties that we have seen in such cases.
That said, we will not be voting against the order, because there seems to be a view that there should be unitary status, although there is a difference of view about what form that should take. That could have been avoided had the Government played the situation differently. The people of Bedfordshire’s concern is the length of time that the process has taken to come to fruition. After all, the invitation for proposals went out in October 2006, and it was initially proposed that there would be a final decision by July 2007. The Government had to go back and redo the consultation because of some errors, which has added to the uncertainty. My hon. Friends who represent constituencies in the county will wish to point out that the concerns created uncertainty and, in some cases, staff losses and difficulties for the existing local authorities. Ironically, a process in which everybody seemed to agree on unitary status has been made a dog’s breakfast—with every respect to dogs that we know and love—due to the way in which the Government handled it. In turn, that gave rise to a judicial review. It might be that the Minister, fortified by the Shrewsbury decision, is right when he says that the prospects for success are not great, but the fact is that we do not yet know. The Government criteria mention minimising risk factors, but going ahead with a proposal when there is an outstanding judicial review increases rather than minimises those. I hope that lessons on handling such proposals can be learned for when we go through the process in future.
The Minister was right to refer to the hard work done by local authority leaders in Bedfordshire to ensure that the proposals work. I associate myself with that because local authority leaders from both tiers have worked extremely hard. I am sure that the people of Bedfordshire and their elected representatives will ensure that the very best possible outcome is achieved for the people of the county, but the Government have not persisted in that regard.
Will the Minister clarify a couple of further points about the cancellation of the district council elections in central Bedfordshire? Again, the handling of that matter has raised uncertainty. It is worth noting that due to the delays with the running of the order, the cancellation of the previous hearings and so on, we are in a situation in which the order must be passed by both Houses by 5 pm this Thursday because, otherwise, the returning officer will be obliged to issue the notice of poll for the district council elections in central Bedfordshire.
That is a pretty high-risk situation for the Government to get themselves into. However much we in this House co-operate, there are still risks elsewhere. The situation is entirely of the Government’s making, and that cannot be left to pass without remark. Bizarrely, the other place will consider the order before we have heard the result of any deferred Divisions that might be called—if not by us, by others—in this House. With respect, that is a bit of a mess to have got into, and it is something that I sincerely hope we will never see again in relation to any such statutory instrument.
From the look of it, it seems that the new local authority in central Bedfordshire will initially have a two-year term of office—from 2009 to 2011. Can the Minister clarify the rationale behind that? Is it to bring the time frame into line with the joining of the unitary authorities, as unitary authorities do not always stick to a uniform electoral cycle? Also, although it is pretty clear from the order that the Bedford unitary authority will have all-out elections every four years—I know that the Minister will correct me if I am reading that wrongly—I understand that either central or south Bedfordshire, or both, has elections by one third. Will that option be open to the new Central Bedfordshire unitary? If so, at what point will the option be exercised? Can it be undertaken by the shadow authority in advance, or will it have to wait for a decision to be taken at the 2009 election, perhaps for implementation after 2011?
The other concern that many of us have is that it is perhaps an undesirable state of affairs for the leadership of a local authority in its infancy to have a short term of office, because the local authority is most vulnerable when it is setting up its processes. To have people in for a comparatively short term of two years and then to make wholesale political change is, again, a fairly risky process in terms of ensuring a smooth transition. For all those reasons, although the Government say that risk is an important criterion that they take into account when assessing proposals, it seems to us that they might have taken views on financial risks, but created a lot of other needless risks through their handling of the matter.
I hope that I have flagged up our concerns to the Minister in a genuinely constructive spirit. I have made it clear that we will not oppose the order today, but I hope to hear some response to the concerns that we have raised.
5.3 pm
Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Gale. The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst spoke of the keen interest that Members from Kent take in the order. I suppose that hon. Members might also question the interest of a Member from Cornwall. Many people who grow up in Cornwall end up spending time in exile, sometimes all over the world. In my case, happily, it was in Bedfordshire for six years. Indeed, I was a member of Bedford borough council for one term.
I echo some of the concerns raised by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst about the process that has led to the order. As it is one of many such orders that have come before the House as a result of the 2007 Act, many of the arguments have had an airing before, but it strikes me that certain issues surrounding this order and the situation in Bedfordshire have led to uncertainty. We are having something of an 11th hour debate. I understand, as the Minister explained in response to an intervention, that that was not entirely within his control and that questions were being asked. That was a problem, but we can contrast the situation with the speed at which the whole consultation process on the request for bids for unitary status has been handled.
The Minister and other members of the Committee served on the Planning Bill Committee, on which we talked a great deal about the benefits of a pre-application period so that people could settle all sorts of things in advance of an application going in. The Minister might want to reflect on what has happened in the process that we are talking about and on whether a pre-application process might ensure that all sorts of questions, some on emotive subjects such as people’s livelihoods and participation in local governance and democracy, could be settled in a more constructive manner than through the competitive nature imposed by the bidding process.
The order is the culmination of a process that began when Luton was taken out of Bedfordshire in the previous round of unitary bids that took place under the Conservative Government. I was in Bedfordshire at the time, and I recall that people who were elected to serve on a shadow authority for the newer, smaller Bedfordshire said that the authority might have problems delivering services because of its size, so I am not surprised that the matter has returned. That is not in any way to criticise the work done by officers and members of the authority, but we are at the natural culmination of a process that began with Luton’s exit.
I am sure that the process will be watched closely by people in parts of the country in which further consultations are ongoing and where part of a county has submitted a bid for unitary status. There are consequent questions for what happens in the rest of such counties. There are such processes in Devon, which is close to my area, and elsewhere, and people in those places will be looking at how this order goes forward.
There is a clear indication and direction of travel, so people in Bedfordshire know what is going to happen. The important thing is that they just want to get on and do it. The elections issue, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, is key to that. That process will shortly be under way. I have spoken to local councillors and former colleagues on Bedford borough council. They are watching closely what happens this afternoon—I shall not speak for too long because hon. Members from the area will wish to contribute—and they would welcome a little clarity on the process.
I understand that there will be boundary ward issues for the new authorities. That is not directly a matter for the Minister, but I hope that he will signal, on record, that such arrangements should not disadvantage certain communities, such as urban communities against rural communities, and should ensure that the ward numbers of the new authorities are representative of the population.
Although the order refers to parishes and parish council elections, the Minister did not talk about them. They will clearly be affected by what is happening today. Will he say something about the term for members of town and parish councils?
The Liberal Democrats will not oppose the order. We have heard from local people on the ground in Bedfordshire who want to get on and deliver the two new local authorities. The process has been painful, and that can be laid at the foot of the Government for their not allowing a better, more open and longer process at the beginning to ensure that there was more adequate opportunity for consultation prior to the bids going in. We have had a longer process at the end, which has been less helpful. I hope that the Minister will take things forward from this and other examples that the House has considered so that, in future, we can have a longer period at the beginning of the process that would result in a speedy and efficient process at the end.
Several hon. Members rose
The Chairman: Order. Precedent requires that I call voting members of the Committee before other Members present, but I am sure that hon. Members will realise that the hon. Member for Bedford is present. Although he is not a voting member of the Committee, I trust that he will have time to speak.
5.10 pm
Andrew Selous: As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Gale.
The same is true of the local government officers who will not survive the reorganisation because some will lose their jobs. I think that we all understand that that might be necessary for reasons of value for money and efficiency. Nevertheless, they are decent men and women who have perhaps given their whole careers to public service, so it is appropriate that we pay tribute to them.
With particular regard to the local councillors who will not be part of the new authority, I very much hope that public life in Bedfordshire will not lose their services altogether, because there are many ways to make a contribution to community and public life locally. I hope that the people who find that they are not members of a new authority will consider serving in another way.
I echo the two Opposition Front Benchers in saying that it is very unfortunate that there has been such a delay in relation to the Government’s timetable. We heard earlier that there should have been a clear decision on this matter by July 2007. I know for a fact, from talking to the leaders of the local authorities concerned, that we have lost very good local government officers in Bedfordshire, who, because of the uncertainty, have upped sticks and gone elsewhere. None of us can blame them, given that it was not at all clear whether they would have a job.
I also know that some key decisions on investment in local services have been put on hold because we did not have a decision. That, too, has been unfortunate and has not served well my constituents and those of the other Bedfordshire Members here. As a Bedfordshire MP who has watched the process going through Parliament, I hope that MPs for local authority areas concerned will be a little more closely involved in the future. I have great respect for the Minister. He has been unfailingly courteous and helpful throughout the process, but in terms of the dealings of the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee, I for one, as a Bedfordshire MP, have had no contact with it. I do not know what representations it has sought from within Bedfordshire. I should like to put on record my view that it might be appropriate for that Committee at least to have some form of contact with all Members of Parliament for local authority areas concerned before it delays, passes judgment on, or comments on any orders before the House.
I am grateful for the Minister’s comments about the effect of the judicial review. An e-mail that I received from a senior officer of South Bedfordshire district council on 6 March states:
“We do still have to wait for the passage of the Bedfordshire Change Order through Parliament, and also the County Council's own judicial review.”
Later in that e-mail, the officer states, in relation to the judicial review, that
“we should have a result by Easter.”
Easter has been and gone. Members might have chomped their way through more Easter eggs than are good for them, but we still do not have a decision. I do not think that any of us would want to live in a society in which the Government were not subject to the proper and due process of the law. It is right that they are subject to that process because it provides an important safeguard against tyranny from a Government of any colour. However, it does not serve our constituents or local councils’ employees and councillors well when the judicial process takes place in one silo, with a time scale of its own, and the parliamentary legislative process happens in another silo, with its own time scale, especially when that time scale has to move pretty fast to meet certain deadlines. Although we, of course, acknowledge the authority of the courts to question the Government’s decisions, some co-ordination between the two processes is necessary. I do not know in what forums conversations could take place between the Government and representative of the judicial process, but looking at the matter as a Bedfordshire MP, given the uncertainty, it seems slightly cack-handed that the current process is continuing.
Coming down from the constitutional level that might leave some Bedfordshire residents unmoved, I would like to talk about some of the services that are dear to their hearts. If we have a shadow authority, what will be the position regarding school closures and reorganisation over the next year? The Minister might be aware that we have just been through a bruising debate in Bedfordshire about whether our schools should move from the three-tier to the two-tier school system. In my constituency and, I think, those of other hon. Members present, there is considerable attachment to the three-tier process. Is it in order for a county council in its last year of existence to make changes to school organisation in Bedfordshire? In that last year, and perhaps without reference to the new Central Bedfordshire shadow authority, will it be in order for the county council to decide to close a school? Brooklands middle school in Leighton Buzzard, which is in my constituency, is scheduled for closure. On such incredibly important matters, I would be interested to hear what the Minister feels should be the appropriate balance of consultation between the outgoing county council and the new Central Bedfordshire council.
The police authority is currently made up largely of county councillors. Policing matters are extremely close to the hearts of my constituents, so will the Minister say how the arrangements for the police authority will work over the next year? Will there be a shadow police authority to which the police constable should pay attention? Finally, on local health services, the Minister will know that the county council currently takes a lead on local government scrutiny of our health services. Will there be arrangements for the new Central Bedfordshire shadow council to scrutinise health provision over the next year? Those are important matters. Health issues are key to my constituency and over the next year, Leighton Buzzard will seek to have some form of major primary care facility. I will be grateful if the Minister responds to my points about local services.
Several hon. Members rose
The Chairman: Order. Although it is delightful to see the hon. Member for Weaver Vale here, it has become apparent that he was appointed to the Committee in place of his namesake, the hon. Member for Bedford. It is important that that should be placed on record, as I would not want the good burghers of Bedford to think that that was in any way the responsibility of their Member of Parliament. The Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury, the hon. Member for St. Helens, North, might wish to raise that matter with the Committee of Selection in due course.
In the interest of fairness, I propose to call the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire, as I properly should. I will then call the hon. Member for Bedford, and then the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire. I hope that all hon. Members will bear that in mind in light of the time available to us.
5.21 pm
Alistair Burt: I echo the comments of others about serving under your chairmanship, Mr. Gale. The efficacy of your chairmanship has been demonstrated by the fair manner in which you have handled the situation. We Conservatives are mindful of the role of the hon. Member for Bedford in these matters, and of course there will be time for him to speak. I shall do my best to speak briefly.
As the hon. Member for North Cornwall said in his remarks, there is an element of unfinished business. Again, the hon. Member for Bedford will know that very well. In Bedfordshire, political debates are intense and last for a long time, and memories are equally long. That the process has been divisive is of no surprise to anyone connected with the county or anyone with a knowledge of Bedfordshire politics during the past 20 years. The fact that we are moving to unitary will at least remove one source of dispute among politicians in the area, and to that extent, it will benefit all.
I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst: I also would have supported Unison’s position. As the Minister knows, I am not a fan of the reorganisation process. I therefore find myself at odds with all the Conservative councillors in Bedfordshire who have supported the unitary process, but I defer to their local knowledge and their desire to move to unitary. I only express a little sadness that the opportunity to consider further an enhanced two-tier was not taken forward. I say that because in the memorandum “Summary: Interventions & Options”, dated 6 March 2008, when the Government were asked, “Why are you doing what you’re doing?”, one of the reasons that they gave was:
“to overcome the weaknesses found in the existing council structures”.
In all fairness, in relation to Bedfordshire, what weaknesses? The four councils that make up Bedfordshire all have good, strong or excellent ratings. Its county council is the fastest improving in the country, Bedford borough council is excellent and both Mid Beds and South Beds are good authorities. I do not think that there were many weaknesses in the structure, and I would like to have seen that tested by the consideration of an enhanced two-tier process. However, that was my personal view, and after due debate among colleagues in Bedfordshire, it was not the majority view held. Colleagues decided that unitary status was the one to pursue, and the only question that arose was which unitary it would be. That has understandably divided opinion. Having taken a position not to support the unitary process in the first place, I hope to take a neutral and detached position between the respective bids.
I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire. I thank those who have made their contribution to political life through our local authorities generously and warmly, as has the Minister. They have made an excellent contribution. Of course Bedfordshire county council will feel it harder than most. The other two authorities will go on in some way. Although they are for all intents and purposes new authorities, the feeling is that Bedfordshire county council has lost out because it has lost its battle for single unitary status. There was a sense that this was a zero-sum game and that winner would take all, and it feels that most keenly. Its performance in the past few years has been excellent, and it was fully entitled to put forward what was a strong case for single unitary status—it was clearly a strong case because it has taken so long to reach a decision. I should like to thank members of the county council in particular for their extraordinary service to Bedfordshire over many years and for the many good things that they have done in the area. I sincerely hope that their skills and expertise will not be lost to the new councils in future.
Those within the North East Bedfordshire constituency, the Conservative group on the borough council, which is led by Nicky Attenborough, and the leader of Mid Beds district council, Tricia Turner, have done an excellent job. Tricia Turner leads a very good council, and I am sure that the prospects for the new authorities are good. However, it is important to pay tribute to those who fought hard for their particular cause but who were not as successful as they would have wished.
I should like briefly to put on record my concern about the process and how the matter has been handled, which the Minister will know well. It is not his fault—he arrived when the process was part way through—but there are some unfortunate things in the background papers. The Secretary of State for Transport, then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, spoke on Second Reading of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill—a record of which is included in the memorandum—about a
“short window of opportunity”—[Official Report, 22 January 2007; Vol. 455, c. 1148.]
for councils to put forward their proposals. The memorandum refers to the need to
“keep to a minimum”
the period of uncertainty for councils. In the invitations to councils to tender for the new boroughs, much was made of the time scale. July 2007 was referred to as a final date in the invitation and it was not considered that some processes would go on after that if decisions could not be made. In the end, I believe that the July 2007 decision was botched, which prompted the judicial review from the county. It was fully entitled to head for judicial review based on the decision, because it was not really a decision at all. Had a decision been made, the new councils in Bedfordshire would have had the same length of time as other councils to prepare for new councils in 2009. Nothing can be done about that now, but it was disappointing. Those of us who expressed concern about the process of the invitation to reorganise and how it would be handled have been justified.
On costs, I am grateful for what the Minister said on his financial advice which, of course, I fully accept. However, what elements of the private advice that he has received can be put in the public sphere? Savings from the unitary process are often brought forward by those in local government as a significant reason for undertaking the kind of process that we are talking about, but there is concern about whether such savings are actually realised. Local government finance being the labyrinth that it is, as you know, Mr. Gale, it is easy to hide costs over a period, and the electors of Bedfordshire are entitled to see how the costs and savings will be devolved to them and whether they will derive any benefits. Some in Bedfordshire feel that they have been told that the process will mean that the pound in their pocket is not only safe but enhanced by the process.
I put that to the Minister for the Environment, the hon. Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth (Mr. Woolas), who was the Minister’s predecessor at the Department for Communities and Local Government, when he gave evidence to the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill Committee on 1 February 2007. When I raised the issue of cost and reorganisation, I asked him whether he could recall any reorganisation that saved money. He thought carefully and produced the East Riding of Yorkshire as an example, but no others. Further to that, I asked him:
“Do you think that we would be right to wary of those who wave cost savings at their electors as the potential good news behind a restructuring, going by all our collective experience?”
He replied:
“The answer to that is yes”.——[Official Report, Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Public Bill Committee, 1 February 2007; c. 89, Q147.]
Hansard does not record the smile on the Minister’s face that revealed what we all knew to be the case. On behalf of my constituents, I want to see that this reorganisation, which has been strongly pushed by the hon. Member for Bedford, means that there will be cost savings to electors at the end of the day. Accordingly, if the Minister would examine the advice that he has been given and see what he can publish, that would help the process.
Andrew Selous: Does my hon. Friend expect the cost savings to be in the form of reduced council taxes for our constituents, by any chance?
Alistair Burt: My hon. Friend makes a point that has been made to me by many constituents. Straightforward folk though they are in Bedfordshire, they seem to feel that if there is a cost saving to the council, it might trickle back into their pockets. Despite evidence to the contrary over many years, they are on this occasion holding to the view that this reorganisation, which has been sold to them partly on this basis, will result in what my hon. Friend mentions. Like him, we hope that that will be the case. If the Minister could help on that, I would be grateful.
I also have one or two questions and would be grateful for the Minister’s views. Both new authorities—first, the continuing one in Bedford borough and, secondly, the new Central Bedfordshire authority—are required under the Act to produce implementation plans. First, could he let us know whether those implementation plans will be published and available to the public, so that they can trace through what is going to happen? If that will be the case, when will the process start? When can the public expect to see how all this will be managed?
Secondly, my understanding from Conservative colleagues in the area is that we should agree with the Minister that elections are not wanted, and there is no pressure from Conservatives to delay the orders in order to have the election process for no particular purpose. Normally, most of us are keen to fight elections on all available occasions, or at least that is what we claim, but I think everyone is agreed on this occasion that it makes good practical sense not to do so. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said, the orders have been taken to the wire. We are crossing our fingers that eagle eyes in another place do not find a further problem with them and thus force us into reconsideration and perhaps even a quick Bill pushed through the House to remove the elections, but we have no objection to the cancellation of the elections.
Thirdly, in relation to staff and co-operation, I again echo the Minister’s sentiments. This has been a bruising process. Inevitably, part of the process of one council making the case for a particular end has involved not only promoting its own case, but having to deal quite sharply with arguments advanced by the other councils. It would be disingenuous to suggest that that has been done without pain. I think that all of us in Bedfordshire who represent constituents in Parliament would say to those involved on local councils, “You fought your case as hard as you could. Please now do everything you can to give your full support to the new authorities. Do not remember what has been said and written. Your staff have been caught up in the process. They have found themselves in great uncertainty and have been loyal to their respective councils throughout the process. Could you now put them first and foremost in your considerations and make every attempt to co-operate, one council with another, in the new processes?” That would be warmly welcomed.
Lastly, I want to raise a point touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire in relation to education. In parts of my constituency that are covered by the new Bedford authority, Bedford borough, there has been renewed interest in a change from three tiers to two tiers. That relates partly to the new schools funding being brought forward by the Government. An argument is being promoted that only a change from three tiers to two tiers will unlock and release that money. As my hon. Friend said, the decision about three tiers or two tiers was quite divisive and firmly fought. When a decision was made, everyone assumed that it would last for at least four years, although I would have wished it to be longer, such are the issues at stake. However, it is back on the agenda barely a year afterwards. Which authority should be able to make a decision, if at all, in the intervening 12 months on such an important issue? I do not believe that Building Schools for the Future is dependent on a move from three tiers to two, and I should be grateful if that were confirmed. In view of the uncertainty, however, will the Minister provide some clarity about which authority might be able to make a decision about the issue, or whether any decision should be held over until a new education authority is fully fledged from April 2009?
I have appreciated the opportunity to make a few remarks. This has been a difficult process in Bedfordshire, but the Minister’s good sense and good grace will no doubt help it along, because now that we have had all the discussion and debate for so long—20-plus years as far I can see, if not even longer—this is an opportunity for a fresh start for Bedfordshire. Conservative councillors, who dominate Bedfordshire, have made a significant contribution to the county, district and borough councils over the years and have done a tremendous job. I have absolutely no doubt that their successors will be able to do so in the new authorities, and we are determined to ensure that they do, but whoever fills the council seats, I am sure that they will do a terrific job for Bedfordshire. I personally wish the new authorities very well.
5.36 pm
Patrick Hall: Thank you for your comments about my status in the Committee, Mr. Gale. As you would expect, I, as a Member with a constituency in Bedfordshire, had been in touch with the Department and the Minister’s office for months, and I was told that it was normal practice for a Member who represents an area affected by such orders to be a voting member of the Committee. That was what should have happened, but it seems that the Committee of Selection does not know that Weaver Vale is not in Bedfordshire. It would have been quite embarrassing and somewhat outrageous if, because of that, my constituents had been denied the opportunity to be represented, should there have been a vote—which there will not be—or, indeed, I had been denied the opportunity to speak. I thank you for your attempts to correct the situation, Mr. Gale. You have indeed acted fairly.
Earlier, reference was made to the fact that there was a great battalion on the Labour Benches to deal with the matter. There is no longer such a battalion, but if I had been able to speak earlier, I would have said that that demonstrated the wide understanding, at least among Labour Members, of the importance of Bedfordshire, which is something that the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire should welcome.
Many have said that we are dealing with unfinished business from the mid-1990s, when the then Conservative Government launched the Banham process to examine the reorganisation of local government throughout the country. The process was divisive and much more drawn out than that which this Government launched: a limited opportunity, for those parts of the country that wanted to, to opt in and consider reorganisation. They were facilitated to do so if they opted in, but in the 1990s, there was a longer process, which was highly divisive in Bedfordshire—far more so than the current one.
The proposals for Bedfordshire were for three unitary district councils: Luton, Central Bedfordshire and a Bedford borough or North Bedfordshire. The then Government, however, accepted only the Luton proposal, leaving Bedfordshire county council much reduced in population and revenue and with three districts. Four councils in a reduced territory was clearly going to become a difficulty, and many of us in Bedfordshire thought then, and continue to think now, that the county was weakened by that process.
I have good memories of being a member of Bedfordshire county council, but in such matters, we must think about what is good for Bedfordshire and our constituents, and I have no doubt that there were too many councils in Bedfordshire. Today, we are back to the unitary question, on which the previous Government opted out of making a decision, despite inviting Sir John Banham to put forward proposals. What a shame that it has cost a decade of time and effort to do so.
It is clear that the reduced Bedfordshire county council struggled. For many years, it performed poorly and had one of the highest tax rates in the country. In recent years, it has improved its performance, but it is too little too late, so we are where we are, with the opportunity to opt in. Since autumn 2006, we have gone through a process that has had its problems. I have been critical of elements of it, but none the less here we are.
Others have performed along the way but have not helped. Although we contemplate moving forward, the process is not yet entirely over as far as some people in Bedfordshire county council are concerned, particularly its leader, Councillor Madeline Russell. I have got on well and worked constructively with her on many issues over the years, but until very recently—I do not know if she has changed her mind yet—she has seemed unable to accept the reality of the situation, and the county continues to press on with its judicial review. I think that the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire said that he supported the review, but he also expressed concern about costs. We now know that the process of judicial review has cost well over £500,000, not including the staff costs of members of Bedfordshire county council.
Alistair Burt: I pay tribute to Councillor Madeline Russell for the effort that she has made in the past couple of years to improve the county council’s performance, as the hon. Gentleman said. As I said, I entirely support the county council in taking the judicial review forward, because of the botched decision made in July 2007. If a clear decision had been taken by the hon. Gentleman’s Government, we would not be here, and if there had not been a case for judicial review, it would have been thrown out at the earliest possible stage. The costs that he mentioned should be laid at the Minister’s door, and the hon. Gentleman should, like me, be asking for the money to be returned to the taxpayers of Bedfordshire, as the costs were caused by not the county council, but the Government.
Patrick Hall: What happened in Bedfordshire last summer was led by Bedfordshire county council. All three districts and the county council agreed before the decision was announced in July that whatever the outcome, they would all respect it. The decision was initiated by Bedfordshire county council, and the districts went along with it, but when it came to the actual decision, the county council was the first to renege on it, and was then minded to launch its judicial review. That is where we still are—unfortunately, the matter has not yet been resolved—and until the order takes effect, Bedfordshire can still waste vast sums of money. Once the order takes effect, its spending on single projects will be capped—at £100,000, I believe. However, we are not quite finished yet.
I noted the comments of my hon. Friend the Minister about all the council leaders in Bedfordshire, but a bit more co-operation is needed to reassure the districts that the county council will co-operate on the shadow executive arrangements at both officer and councillor level so that we can put behind us some of the nonsense that has gone on, in terms of campaigns, advertisements and all sorts of things that waste public money, and get on with our task in the remaining months of reassuring staff, local businesses and local voluntary organisations such as parishes that there will be as strong a set as possible of two unitary district councils working for the people of Bedfordshire from April next year. Unfortunately, the current mood has promoted too much instability and uncertainty, and the time for that is at an end. I hope that the House, in the vote tomorrow night, and the other place, in its vote the day after, will send a clear message that people need to work together.
After the next couple of days, I hope that the message will finally sink in in Bedfordshire, including at county hall. The time for posturing and gestures is over. The people of Bedfordshire want the best for the future and expect elected politicians of whatever party to try to deliver that. From April next year, it is important that we have the best possible arrangements for local government in place. Many staff will still be required to continue with their jobs. However, there will be some changes and, of course, there will be opportunities for efficiencies.
My final point is about cost savings. A number of people have made promises about cutting council tax, but I have never associated myself with such statements. Council tax cuts will not necessarily happen, but the important point is that more efficient council structures could lead to a more cost-effective use of existing resources. After all, Bedford is part of a growth area and the county town. It will now be a county town with enhanced powers, rather than being reduced to town council status, as would have happened if Bedfordshire had become a unitary.
5.47 pm
Mrs. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): I join other hon. Members representing Bedfordshire in expressing my gratitude for the members who have worked as councillors and the officers who have been in a state of uncertainty over the past 18 months or so. They have not known whether or not their jobs would continue and, as has been said, many have already left. That raises again the difficult issue of the procrastination that has taken place throughout the whole process. What has concerned me about the procrastination is the expense, as has been highlighted. Whenever local authorities and government are involved and nothing seems to happen for a long time, there will always be large amounts of money involved. That has been the case and I would like to see an end to it.
We know that the change order and the judicial review are going through, so everything is not yet in place. In relation to the change order, if we need further legislation or a Bill to be introduced, I urge the Minister to do so with some speed. I would like to see a new broom sweeping through Bedfordshire. If we are to have the unitary authorities, let us make the most of the change that is about to take place. I would like to see education and health working hand in hand in some kind of renewed partnership, particularly in relation to children with special needs. I would like there to be more synergy between the education and health departments in relation to speech and language therapists. Provision should be made for children with special needs. However, that does not happen to a great degree in Bedfordshire or in any borough across the country.
A new unitary authority is a way of saying, “Let’s have a new drawing board and look at how services are provided, who provides them and how they’re paid for, and let’s improve on them.” In some areas, those services are not as good as we would like them to be. I see this as a great opportunity that needs to be seized, particularly in relation to children with special needs. Good decisions happen only with momentum and with a sense of urgency and speed. If we enter a longer period of procrastination, some of the urgency and importance attached to these decisions and the new provisions may be lost in the indolence of procrastination. For the sake of better services, for the benefit of children with special needs, for the benefit of the services and the people who will be working in those departments, I urge the Minister to let us move with some speed.
Regarding policing, Bedfordshire police did not do terribly well in a recent poll. It is not the best performing police force in the country. The chief constable has identified the weak spots, and she has introduced some good measures to address those and to try to bring the force back up to a good standard of provision. The last thing the force needs is continued uncertainty, or further procrastination. For the sake of the policing in Bedfordshire, I ask the Minister for speed.
Almost every provision for residents in Bedfordshire, the primary care trust, the strategic health authority, the setting of their council tax banding, the emptying of their bins, and their health, education and social services and services for the more needy are all dependent on how well the authority is formed, the working between the existing councils and authorities, the efficiency of handover of services and the speed with which it all happens. Everything that benefits residents in Bedfordshire is dependent on the Minister guaranteeing and ensuring that an efficient process takes place from now on. Unfortunately that has not happened up to now. I will now conclude my speech, and would like the Minister’s reassurance that he will personally supervise what happens in the new unitary authorities and keep an eye on the detail and on the speed with which it happens.
5.52 pm
John Healey: We have had a good debate. I pay tribute to Members on all sides for the constructive contribution that they have made, while still raising some of the difficult questions that are part and parcel of the Committee’s scrutiny role.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bedford described this as “unfinished business” from the previous local government reorganisation, under the previous Government. The Committee can finish that business this afternoon. I welcome the reassurance from both Opposition parties that they do not propose to oppose the order. Regarding the time that it has taken to get to this point, I explained in my opening remarks the complexities of the situation in Bedfordshire, and have at each stage looked to make decisions but also to allow proper consultation and a chance for views to be expressed. With Bedfordshire, we have rightly been required to go through stages that were not required elsewhere. I reassure the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire that although I will not personally supervise the arrangements over the next year I will follow them closely. I am conscious of the uncertainty that there has been, and I hope that this afternoon will signal a fresh start, which will allow things to move smoothly and rapidly towards the establishment of the new councils.
The hon. Member for North Cornwall mentioned the impact on parish council elections. He will see that the orders specify that the parish council elections that were due to be held in 2008 will be cancelled along with the district ones, and moved to coincide with elections to the new unitary authorities in 2009. The term of office for parish councillors will be amended accordingly, to avoid unnecessary duplication. The election cycles of all other parishes will be brought into step with the proposed cycle for elections to the unitary councils, which will be in 2011 and then every four years.
I made it clear in my opening remarks that all councils concerned were consulted on the content of the draft orders and they all wanted whole-council elections, which is reflected and provided for in the order. Doubtless the Chairmen of the Select Committee on the Merits of Statutory Instruments and the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments will take note of the comments that the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire made about Members in the areas affected not being consulted as part of their deliberations.
I should answer the three questions on schools, police authorities and NHS scrutiny that the hon. Gentleman asked. The order requires that all councils co-operate during the transition period, not only with each other, but with the shadow authorities. Any decisions on school reorganisation that are taken in the next year should be taken in the context of that expectation and duty. Such decisions should therefore be taken in consultation with the implementation executives in the two potential unitary areas. I see no reason why council reorganisation should delay any schools reorganisation if decisions are approached in such a way.
Clearly, the police authority membership will need to be adjusted in future to reflect the fact that members will not be drawn from the existing county council but from the two new unitaries, and there are plans, which hon. Members may wish to take up with the implementation executives, for joint arrangements to establish good scrutiny of the NHS in the Bedfordshire area.
On costs, which the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire mentioned—I appreciate that he did not press me to publish the advice that I have received as a Minister—I shall write to him the main details of the assessment of savings and the financial case that were provided to me. The financial case is only part of the reorganisation case set out in the order. As the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire suggested, the new unitaries provide an opportunity to deliver services and involvement to reflect community aspirations in a different way, which is precisely what we are looking for. The implementation executives will prepare and publish their plans as soon as practicable following the approval of the order by Parliament.
This is fresh start for Bedfordshire, as the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire said. I hope that all the councillors on the current councils will offer their full support to the transition preparations and that we get the full co-operation, as the order requires, that is necessary for implementation from the current councils. If that happens—I will work as closely as necessary with them—the new unitary authorities should become the flagship authorities that we want to see in this country, providing good governance for the residents, communities and businesses of Bedfordshire.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Bedfordshire (Structural Changes) Order 2008.
Committee rose at two minutes to Six o’clock.

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