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Public Bill Committee Debates

Draft Cornwall (Structural Change) Order 2008

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Mike Hancock
Armstrong, Hilary (North-West Durham) (Lab)
Clelland, Mr. David (Tyne Bridge) (Lab)
Cryer, Mrs. Ann (Keighley) (Lab)
Goldsworthy, Julia (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD)
Healey, John (Minister for Local Government)
Heppell, Mr. John (Nottingham, East) (Lab)
Hesford, Stephen (Wirral, West) (Lab)
Howarth, Mr. George (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab)
Hurd, Mr. Nick (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con)
Kilfoyle, Mr. Peter (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab)
Mole, Chris (Ipswich) (Lab)
Neill, Robert (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)
Prisk, Mr. Mark (Hertford and Stortford) (Con)
Rogerson, Dan (North Cornwall) (LD)
Syms, Mr. Robert (Poole) (Con)
Watts, Mr. Dave (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Wilson, Mr. Rob (Reading, East) (Con)
Celia Blacklock, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(2):
Breed, Mr. Colin (South-East Cornwall) (LD)
George, Andrew (St. Ives) (LD)
Taylor, Matthew (Truro and St. Austell) (LD)

Eighth Delegated Legislation Committee

Thursday 7 February 2008

[Mr. Mike Hancock in the Chair]

Draft Cornwall (Structural Change) Order 2008
8.55 am
The Chairman: Order. If hon. Members wish to remove their jackets, they may do so. As hon. Members know, those who are not members of the Committee may intervene, speak and ask questions about the order, but they may not vote; only those who are bona fide members of the Committee may vote. If many members of the Committee wish to speak, I will give preference to them; it might be fairer if other hon. Members were to intervene and ask questions, as we have only one and a half hours.
The Minister for Local Government (John Healey): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Cornwall (Structural Change) Order 2008.
It is a pleasure to welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Hancock; I have not served under your chairmanship previously, and I look forward to doing so.
The order is the latest in a batch. It will establish a new unitary council for Cornwall. It implements a proposal submitted to the Government by Cornwall county council, the locally accountable and locally elected body. The council, representing the people of Cornwall, believes that the proposal will give the best form of governance for the county. Unlike previous local government reorganisations, the proposal does not come from the Government, and it does not reflect some central Government blueprint. It was developed by the county itself.
Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): The message to the councils in Cornwall was that no change was not an option. Paragraph 1.2(ii) of the invitation to all councils states:
“In short, the Government believes that the status quo is not an option in two-tier areas if councils are to achieve the outcomes for place shaping and service delivery that communities expect, and deliver substantial efficiency improvements”.
The proposal was very much driven by the Government, was it not?
John Healey: It was not driven by the Government. The invitation was issued by the Government in October 2006. Certainly, we had previously explained in the local government White Paper what we saw as the clear advantages of unitary councils over what are commonly known as two-tier authorities. Nevertheless, there was an open invitation to all councils and areas to make proposals. That elicited 26 proposals, so the large majority clearly did not feel the sort of obligation that the hon. Gentleman describes. [ Interruption. ] Will the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) let me finish? He asked a question, but he is still chuntering away.
Those 26 proposals were whittled down to 16, but as things stand only six of them are going ahead. The idea that it is a centrally directed, centrally driven and centrally prescribed process is ridiculous.
Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): The Minister for the South West said that one of the key reasons that the Cornish bid went forward, and that the Government approved it, was that it had the unanimous support of all Members who represent the county—all five of them Liberal Democrats. Does the Minister share his ministerial colleague’s view that that unanimous support was an important factor?
John Healey: To be honest, and with no disrespect to the five Members of the House who represent Cornwall, the short answer is no. The most important thing was that support was sufficiently broad to give us the confidence to believe that if we went ahead with the proposal it could be successfully implemented. The reason that the proposal is proceeding is that it met the five tests, the five criteria, which we set in October 2006. We made it clear that we would bring those tests to bear in judging whether a proposal had a reasonable chance of success if it was implemented. It is because this proposal met those tests that we decided to go ahead.
Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): The hon. Gentleman knows what I am going to say, because the Opposition said it on the previous orders. Just for the record, however, will he confirm that there are no objective or numerical criteria to determine whether the tests have been met? We have raised that point on every one of these orders, because the issue of whether the tests are met is essentially a matter for the subjective judgment of Ministers.
John Healey: It is clearly possible to put figures to the financial criteria that we have set for affordability. On the other four areas, we have set yardsticks or benchmarks, but I do not shy away from the fact that a judgment had to be taken, based on the evidence relevant to those criteria. As the Minister, I reached that judgment—that is partly what I am elected to do and partly what I am accountable to the House and others for.
The hon. Gentleman keeps saying that the criteria should be more objective and that the proof should be more conclusive, but it would be interesting to know precisely how he would set objective criteria and what level of proof he would regard as more conclusive. [ Interruption. ] From a sedentary position, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst suggests that it might take him a couple of years to come up with the answer to those questions, but those are the questions that he is posing to me. What I want to do, however, is to explain to the Committee the process that we have gone through and to outline the reasons that the order and the reform of local government in Cornwall are important and will provide the best form of governance for the people of the county.
In reaching our view that the proposals would offer the best form of local governance for Cornwall, we carefully considered all the information and representations that we had against the five criteria that we had set out at the beginning. We judged that, if we proceeded, there was a reasonable chance of the proposal being successful and of the criteria being met.
We set five criteria. The first related to stronger strategic leadership, the second related to genuine opportunities for more neighbourhood decision making and influence and the third related to improving the quality and value for money of the services that could be delivered, while the other two related to affordability and a range of support.
On affordability, the council provided the figures, and the financial case was tested against any comments or criticisms that others had of it, before being assessed by independent financial experts whom I had appointed to advise me on the issue. The expectation is that the order will lead to annual savings of more than £15 million once the unitary authority is established.
We have debated the issue of support in relation to Durham, Northumberland and Wiltshire. To be clear, however, let me add that we made it clear at the outset that our criteria on support are not, and never have been, related to whether a majority of stakeholders, local citizens or any other interest group were in favour of the proposal. The issue is whether there is sufficient support in Cornwall to make the change work, and we are confident that that is the case. That is why we believe that the proposal meets our test of support.
Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): Like many of his predecessors, the Minister will be aware of the strength of feeling in Cornwall about its identity and the possibility of devolving power. Discussions took place with his predecessor on the basis that we were potentially at the beginning of a process in which Cornwall, as a new authority organised along more innovative lines, could bid for greater responsibility. Indeed, the regional development agency has recognised that Cornwall is a special case in the south-west. Does the Minister still agree that there is far more potential for further powers coming to Cornwall through a new innovative authority than there would have been through conventional county and district councils?
John Healey: To clarify the matter for the hon. Gentleman, no specific additional powers are attached to this restructuring to establish a single unitary council. Nevertheless, according to the evidence that we received, Cornwall will be better placed to have a strong unified and unitary voice for the county in the future. That is also the view that I take from my knowledge, and the view that hon. Members who represent some of the constituencies take.
For instance, with proposals under the sub-national economic development and regeneration review, we are setting in train a process that will increasingly allow confident, well-led, strategic local authorities, acting sometimes on their own and sometimes with agencies other than local authorities, to do more for themselves. They will increasingly be able to draw down some of the responsibilities that currently sit at regional level, and increasingly we will be looking to devolve more from the centre as well, where there is a good case for doing so. I think that this would be the argument of the hon. Member for North Cornwall: Cornwall should be well placed in the future with the order in place and the restructuring that it proposes.
We prepared the order in full discussion and consultation with Cornwall council. In doing so, we took views from others as well. Where possible, the contents of the order capture a consensus where it exists in the county.
Robert Neill: I do not intend to trouble the Minister much more on the order, but a particular issue arises with Cornwall. He says that there were discussions with other parties and advice was taken. What legal advice did he have about the legal status of the order? Will he deal with the report of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments? That Committee suggested that the order may be ultra vires because of the exceptional and legally questionable use of the general power to annul district elections.
John Healey: I have read the JCSI report. In fact, the hon. Members for Falmouth and Camborne and for North Cornwall got in before the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst yesterday. They wrote to me on that matter and I wrote back to them yesterday. I will send the hon. Gentleman a copy of that letter because it answers the concerns that the Joint Committee raises. It gives me no cause for concern, as the Minister responsible, that we should not be proceeding in this way. If he wishes, I will touch on that again in a moment.
The order provides, first, that from 1 April 2009 there will be a single tier of local government in Cornwall. Secondly, it provides for the existing district councils to be dissolved on that date. From that date, the county council will be transformed into a new unitary authority, having both district and county functions.
Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell) (LD): I think that the Minister is aware that an issue arises in relation to transformation. Perhaps he can touch on it. The bid was about setting up a new authority that brought together district and county. The order, for technical reasons that I understand, in effect keeps alive the statutory basis of the county and not the districts. Can the Minister explain why the order is in that form and give some reassurance, if that is appropriate, that this is intended to be a new authority and not simply the county council expanding its remit?
John Healey: The hon. Gentleman is right to press me on that point. Our intention from the start and our prescription have been clear. We are looking for the establishment of a new authority. We are not looking for the county council in any way to carry on as it has been or for it to see this as a takeover. Everything that we are setting out as an expectation, and that we can require in the detail of the programme of implementation under the order, will underline that.
Of course, new members might be leading the authority from 2009, and the senior managers responsible for it will also be thoroughly overhauled as part of the process. The order, as part of the transition, provides for an implementation executive to be led by the county council as the proposing authority, but with membership drawn both from the county and all the district councils. It requires that the transitional functions should be discharged by the implementation executive until 1 April next year, at which point the functions, assets and liabilities of the district councils are to be transferred to the new unitary Cornwall council.
The first election to the new council will be in May 2009, in keeping with the normal county electoral cycle. That is also set out in the order. The advantage—the proposing authority argued this strongly—of elections in May 2009 rather than May 2008 is that the Electoral Commission could undertake the necessary review of the electoral wards to ensure that the newly elected members would be based on wards that better reflected communities and neighbourhoods in the area.
Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): Will the Minister shed some light on the time scale to which the boundary committee for England needs to work? We are concerned that we are now tightly against its deadline and that if we do not meet it we shall have the worst of all worlds—elections on the existing boundaries in 2009.
John Healey: I have a lot of confidence in the boundary committee. Clearly, it cannot formally start its work until the House and the other place have passed the order. As soon as that is done, the boundary committee will be ready to begin work. It aims to have completed the work by this time next year at the latest, and it is clear that one of the main objectives, certainly with respect to timing, is to ensure that any appropriate changes can be made to enable the 2009 elections to be based on new ward arrangements.
The order also provides for the cancellation of the district council elections that would have taken place in May this year by thirds. That applies to Penwith district council only, where a third of members were due for re-election in May. We now move on to the territory covered by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst about the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. To proceed in May with elections of members to district councils that will be wound up at the end of March next year would in the view of the Government be potentially confusing and damaging to the process of democracy.
There is then the question of whether candidates would be prepared to stand in such circumstances. If they did stand, however, there would then be the question of potential confusion and damage to the election process itself, because people would be invited to vote for candidates whose functions and term of office, which would be less than a year, would be unusually limited. Another, albeit secondary issue, is that there would be a question mark over whether it would be a sensible use of resources to undertake such a process for a relatively restricted and rather unusual purpose.
Andrew George: I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation of the issue. Given that Penwith falls entirely within my constituency, and given his earlier remark that this process is being driven locally, rather than by the Government, will he tell us to what extent his Department consulted Penwith district council before reaching its conclusions?
John Healey: I was prepared to consider any information that I had, but I had to take a decision in the end, and I have set that decision out. There is a powerful case for cancelling Penwith’s election for a third of its members, and it is reasonably widely recognised in Cornwall that that is a sensible thing to do.
There is also the issue raised by the JCSI of whether cancelling district elections in this way would be intra vires. I have explained the position in my letter to the two hon. Members who wrote to me yesterday and I shall certainly copy a letter to the hon. Member for St. Ives, given that Penwith is in his constituency. In our view, the order, which gives effect to the policy, would be clearly defensible if legally challenged. There are clear and reasonable arguments to support the position that the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 contains powers to make such provision, as I detailed in my letter to the hon. Members for Falmouth and Camborne and for North Cornwall, and those powers lie in sections 11, 12 and 13 of the Act.
In short, the order creates new unitary Cornwall council and puts in place the essential elements required for the transition. It provides for an effective transition, which should minimise the disruption to services for the people in Cornwall. It also gives citizens and service users a good deal, as well as protecting and being fair to staff. Above all, it paves the way for the creation of a council that should be at the forefront of implementing top standards and leading practice in English local government.
9.18 am
Robert Neill: May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship and to see you here, Mr. Hancock?
I shall be as brief as a I can, because other hon. Members want to contribute. The Opposition’s stance on all these orders—this is one of a series—is that the premise on which the Government have commenced is flawed. They believe that there is great demand for reorganisation, but we do not think that their case has been made.
Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman realise that there was a huge campaign to get a unitary authority 13 years ago, but the central Administration at the time did not get their act together and pursue the issue?
Robert Neill: In my experience, a lot moves on in 13 years. Recent polls, when people were given a chance to vote in many Cornish districts, seem to have given a very different result.
Mr. Breed: According to my information, 1,750 campaign responses were received—that is from the whole of Cornwall. The weekend before last, nearly 700 people were on the streets in Saltash protesting against a Sainsbury’s supermarket. Getting 700 people from one town really would be public opinion; but 1,750 out of nearly half a million is not.
The Chairman: Order. It is not fair to compare Cornwall to Sainsbury’s.
Robert Neill: That would be extremely harsh on Cornwall.
I am sorry to hear the hon. Gentleman denigrating his county in such a manner—but I am sure it was not intended. Perhaps those hon. Members who represent Cornwall need to talk to some of their colleagues on the matter. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the leader of the Liberal Democrat group in Penwith praised the high turnout in that local poll, which showed 89 per cent. opposition to the proposal; he said that he was pleased that the people had voted for a continuation of grass-roots democracy. The Liberal Democrats should get their house in order before criticising others.
Julia Goldsworthy: Will the hon. Gentleman say whether that poll was independently audited? Liberal Democrat Members would have welcomed such an opportunity, but unfortunately there was not time, so it resulted in a deficient, small and partial poll that was not independently audited.
Robert Neill: As far as I am aware, there is nothing to suggest that that poll was less well audited or less properly conducted than the other polls on which the hon. Lady and I have relied in other parts of the world in relation to grass-roots opinion.
Julia Goldsworthy: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Robert Neill: I have been generous in giving way, but the hon. Lady will get her chance.
In our view, the proposition is fundamentally flawed. The Government have embarked on a series of reorganisations. The general suggestion that it is locally driven is disingenuous because the idea that we really want unitary authorities has been given a heavy steer by central Government—nudge, nudge; wink, wink.
Ministers are probably disappointed that so few proposals were viable, but it sits ill with the Government’s previous stance, as suggested by other heads of this Department. For example, a previous Secretary of State described local government reorganisation as a great distraction; and a former Chief Secretary to the Treasury questioned the economic viability of reorganisation, saying that the risk was that the Treasury might not be able to afford it.
Regrettably, whatever the Government’s good intentions, those who have lived through previous local government reorganisations, as many hon. Members have done, find that transitional costs are often much more than we thought they would be; that the savings are much less; that bureaucracy has grown rather than reduced; and that democratic accountability is hard to maintain, particularly in large rural areas. We are not convinced by the Government’s argument that, either in general or in this particular case, there is a real groundswell of opinion or a consensus. We think that much more caution is necessary.
I am grateful to the Minister for saying that he will send a copy of the letter about the legal arguments. I look forward to reading it, although it is still an issue. I can understand his point that there may be perfectly sound pragmatic reasons, that we can all see, as to whether we should have an election for an authority that might have a short shelf life. I do not think that, but I take his argument on board. However, that does not deal adequately with the question of legal probity, and there may be a legal defence.
In most of the cases that we lawyers come across, a defence can be mounted, but whether it is likely to be successful or viable is a different matter; it may involve expensive and time-consuming litigation. I question whether it is desirable, as a matter of principle, to extend the general power incrementally through the use of legislation, each little bit of which might hold up in court if judicially reviewed, as it might lead overall to a considerable increase. I have a real worry about the principle of using a general power in this case.
Dan Rogerson: I am intrigued as to what approach the hon. Gentleman took on the issue yesterday, with regard to the situation in Northumberland. Did he raise the same issues then? What position did he take when it came to voting on the matter?
Robert Neill: As the hon. Gentleman knows, I took exactly the same approach on the general proposition; we thought it ill-served, as did the Liberal Democrat Front-Bench team. First, there is a difference in relation to the use of the general power under the order, but that is a separate consideration that relates only to Cornwall and Shropshire. Secondly, for purely pragmatic reasons, there is a difference in the time scale for implementation between 2008, the year that is upon us, and 2009. That is why it will not surprise the Minister to hear that we remain unconvinced by the overall scheme. I shall not repeat points that have been rehearsed before; I know other hon. Members want to make more specific ones. We do not believe that the case for change has been made. In any instance, the onus of proof is on those who propose change, and the onus is not met in this case.
9.25 am
Julia Goldsworthy: It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hancock. If I may seek your indulgence for a moment, I thought it would be useful to set the context of the debate. The Liberal Democrats believe that Cornwall is a unique place, and it might help if the Committee could understand that, especially in the light of the comments by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst. It is clear that the Conservatives do not understand the political context and they certainly did not understand Cornwall’s uniqueness when they were in Government.
Cornwall is unique. One can tell simply from looking at a map: geographically it is easily distinguishable. That has had significant knock-on effects for its cultural and economic identity. That was a key reason for Cornwall’s recognition as an objective 1 area for additional funding. The differences between the economies of Cornwall and its immediate neighbour, Devon, were so dramatic that it needed special recognition. Its uniqueness is widely acknowledged.
There is a political heritage associated with that background too. My hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) referred to it earlier. There has been a long history of calls, on a cross-party basis, for Cornwall to have a more distinctive voice, and recognition of its special needs. For many people, Cornwall needed additional powers and strong representation at a county-wide level, to make its views heard and make progress.
In addition to all of that, there is frustration at some of the complexities and duplications in the existing system of local government. In some cases, local government at town and parish level has been seen as devalued. People come to my surgery frustrated about things that are entirely caused by the current local government structure. I regularly give the example of someone who came to see me concerned that the main road along Falmouth sea front was not being maintained properly, and wanting to ensure that it would be. The natural thing to do was to write to the county council, which controls highways and is responsible for keeping them clear.
I was, however, sent on a circular journey, because it turned out that, because the area in question is so crucial to tourism, the town council had wanted more of a say in making sure the road was kept clean. The county council, being entirely reasonable, said that was fine and provided a pot of money to enable that work to be done when it was thought necessary. The money went from the county council to the town council, which subcontracted the cleaning to the district council. To find out who would clean the road, I went round in a circle and spoke to people at every level of local government.
People see the present process as a way of reforming such duplications and inefficiencies, which exist at all levels, such as with regard to numbers of officers. Is it efficient for the county to have seven chief executives? Those questions are valid ones and have framed the debate on local government reorganisation and the opportunities presented by the bid. There was a broad feeling that the invitation from Government to submit proposals was an opportunity to resolve some of those issues and at least to start a process of addressing some of the fundamental ones.
The result was that both the district and county councils submitted proposals in response to the invitation. That demonstrates that both saw the mechanism, albeit flawed and imperfect, as an opportunity to get closer to the aim of a stronger voice and more powers for Cornwall. However, there were constraints on the process. There have been huge frustrations with the time scale and the way in which it constrained more widespread and independently audited consultation on the process.
Some of the early frustrations were about the limitations imposed on the number of councillors that could be suggested in proposals. The options presented were either having the same number of councillors at a county council level as we already have, or having the same number of councillors as we have at district level, both of which were entirely unsatisfactory. Neither the county nor the district bids were perfect because of those constraints, but it was clear to me that the county council bid had the best opportunity of being taken forward successfully.
The process has been far from perfect and has been incredibly difficult for everyone. There is still huge uncertainty at the parish and town level about what the process could achieve and with understanding its potential. Staff at district and county level face huge uncertainty: they know that the changes will make a significant difference to the way in which the county is governed. There is also uncertainty among the public about exactly what the process will deliver. That is why the Minister must clarify a series of important issues.
There have been successes throughout the process. It is incredibly welcome that a new authority will be created with a different number of members at the county council level. That is fundamentally important because we have a population of 500,000 to represent. The population is dispersed across the county, which is made up of a series of market towns. There is no central hub, so it is important that each area feels that it will have adequate representation on the strategic board and that there will be significant enough momentum at a local level to drive decision making at a local level. Having 82 members simply was not enough, so that is welcome.
There are also huge frustrations with the time scale. We are concerned about what will happen if there is any further delay to the process, because we are very close to the boundary review timetable. I would appreciate it if the Minister commented on this specific point. If instructions are not received shortly, the boundary review will not be completed in time, and I am concerned what impact any further delay in this place could have on that process. We are approaching a recess. If there is a Division today, there will not be a deferred Division until Wednesday. What is the latest date that the order could be laid and what knock-on impact could that have on the boundary review process? We are very worried about that. If that happened and we did not get the boundary review, that would leave us in the worst of all worlds. It is absolutely critical that if we are to have a new authority, it should be delivered with new boundaries and a larger number of councillors.
Having given that potted history of how we reached this point, I emphasise that it has been a difficult history: we have seen some progress, but there are still frustrations. Currently, there is a real sense that the changes will happen and everyone has accepted that there will be elections to the new authority in 2009, so there is momentum. There is also co-operation on the implementation executive from the districts and county; there is real cross-party work to make the best of the situation. That is reflected in the make-up of the implementation executive and its work.
In the context of the order, however, concerns still need to addressed. This was raised earlier, but it is important to re-emphasise it: only the districts are abolished; the county is not. The Minister gave the legal explanation for that, but there are concerns that this will be seen as a county takeover. I would appreciate his comments on what he could do to emphasise that that is the case purely on a legal basis and that in fact the existing councils are being abolished and a new one is being created. That is a very important issue locally, so I would appreciate his comments. Of course it needs to be demonstrated at local level, but the whole process could be supported by what happens in relation to measures that we debate in this place as well.
Parish council elections are another example of an issue on which the Minister could facilitate the process of showing and underlining the extent to which there will be real change and additional powers will be pushed down to a more local level. Parish and town councils need to play a role themselves in maximising the opportunity that the reorganisation presents. To varying degrees, parish and town councils throughout the county are trying to make the most of that opportunity, but that process is being undermined by the proposal in the order not to hold any parish council elections until 2013.
The Minister talked about the importance of matching the electoral cycle. As this process would fit in the existing electoral cycle anyway, why not have the parish elections in 2009 as well as the all-out elections to the new authority? That would mean that the new authority had a mandate and parish and town councils, which will also be working from a new mandate from that date, would have the opportunity to see it as their crunch day to take on the new powers. Otherwise, parish and town councillors who were elected in 2007 will suddenly find themselves working on an entirely different basis. Some people will not even have been elected; they will have been co-opted to that role and they will be working on an entirely different basis. It would be helpful if parish and town councils could be in sync with the process from the outset, rather than the elections being delayed for another four years.
I am grateful to the Minister for responding to the issue that we raised about the 2008 elections. There are concerns about the way in which that process has gone through. We need to be clear that there will be a new mandate from 2009 and that will go right down through all levels of government.
In Cornwall, we are incredibly ambitious about what we want to achieve. When I say “in Cornwall”, I mean that everybody in Cornwall wants to see those greater powers and to have that stronger say. This has been a highly unsatisfactory, frustrating and imperfect process, but we have persevered with it because it provides us with the opportunity to take the first step along that road and it was the only game in town.
Matthew Taylor: I am sure that my hon. Friend is right when she says that people in Cornwall all share the ambition for greater powers for Cornwall. She might reflect on the fact that most of the district councils themselves proposed a unitary authority. There is no disagreement on the principles; there is disagreement on the detail of the implementation. Those are the concerns that we raise today, but our comments do reflect the overwhelming desire in Cornwall for greater power both for Cornwall and, within Cornwall, for local communities.
Julia Goldsworthy: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. To demonstrate the strength of that feeling, 50,000 people signed a petition for a Cornish assembly, which was never delivered on. It shows how little the Conservatives understand that strength of feeling in Cornwall if they can say that they seek to draw back from the whole process. It is an opportunity to begin the process of having a strategic voice for Cornwall in a way that we have not had previously. It is an opportunity to draw down powers from the region, with which people in Cornwall do not identify—they see it as remote and democratically unaccountable. It is an opportunity for powers to be delivered down to local communities in a way that they identify with.
If I asked people in my constituency what the boundaries were of some of the districts, a lot of them would not know. They would know that they lived in Falmouth, but they would not necessarily define themselves as a Carrick resident. They would define themselves as living in Camborne, not as living in Kerrier, but they would absolutely define themselves as living in Cornwall. It is really important to recognise that.
To throw out the order, imperfect as it is and as frustrating as that is, would derail the process that we are a long way down the line with. This is neither the game that we wished to play nor the rules that we wanted, but we know what we want the final score to be, which is why we are still in the game. We need to hear in the Minister’s response that he has that commitment, that he is with us in trying to achieve that ultimate aim and that he will produce further statutory instruments to get closer to it. The issue is summed up by the fact that the order provides for a duty to co-operate with the districts and the county in delivering the new authority. Does the Minister also have a duty to co-operate to ensure that the process is successful and brings us closer to achieving our ultimate aims?
The Chairman: Order. Before we proceed, let me say that I intend to allow everyone to speak and to give the Minister sufficient time to answer all the points raised. To do that, I ask Members to co-operate.
9.41 am
Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): I shall try to be brief, simply because it is quite clear that Cornish Members want to have their say. I am sure that there is a Cornish identity. Poole is in the south-west, and one reason that we do not like being in the south-west is that ours is a relatively prosperous area, whereas the further west one goes, the more difficult things sometimes become—one need only look at income per household and housing problems. Cornwall is very picturesque, but there are certainly many areas of poverty.
There is a good argument for having special arrangements for the governance of Cornwall to help cultivate tourism and to access more funds from Europe. I perfectly understand why 50,000 people would sign a petition for an assembly. I would probably do the same, if I lived in Cornwall. My problem with the order is that, as the Minister said, it will basically mash together the district and county councils, but not give them any more power. At the end of the day, the only benefit will be that, if it saves money, additional money will be available to provide better services.
Dan Rogerson: I appreciate the fact that the hon. Gentleman recognises some of the specific circumstances pertaining to Cornwall. Is he aware that the Conservative-controlled town council in Newquay, in my constituency, has expressed its support for the new proposals? It has never felt that citizens of Newquay belong in the Restormel borough, which it sees as an artificial construct. Actually, many people, from all parties, and particularly from his, are in favour of the new arrangements.
Mr. Syms: I am delighted to hear that we control some tier of local government in Cornwall. That has cheered me up.
I agree that the districts are artificial constructs. I think that I have paid car parking charges to Restormel borough council and to just about every other borough council in Cornwall. I do not say that those are ideal, but my basic point is that we are mashing everything together. We will lose quite a lot of councillors and local council headquarters nearer to communities—it is a very large county. We will end up with a single-tier authority, which will benefit the county only if it saves money.
I am a sceptic on savings in local government, particularly after the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981 and everything else is taken into account. The only argument for heading in that direction is that it represents the first stage of trying to get more power. I get the feeling from some of the Cornish Members that that is where they want to go. However, the order will provide for the same local government, except that it will be based, I presume, in Truro. I am therefore sceptical about the order, which is why I shall probably follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst and vote against it. However, I understand the special needs of Cornwall and I think that a lot more could be done. I am not sure that the order is the answer, but time will tell.
The Chairman: Order. This is becoming a speech.
Hilary Armstrong: I am simply trying to say that there is reason to move in this direction, in relation to this county and others. Everybody wants the perfect way, but no previous Government have been able to find any way.
Mr. Syms: I want to wind up my remarks, otherwise others will not get a chance to speak.
The Government were brave when they tried to reorganise the north-east and have a regional assembly, and put forward alternative proposals for local government. They had a vote, and they lost it. My concern about the proposals is that whatever the arguments about opinion polls, the case would be stronger if there were a proper test of public opinion to find out, one way or the other, what people actually wanted. I will be interested to hear what other members of the Committee say.
9.46 am
Dan Rogerson: It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hancock, to discuss a matter of huge importance to my constituents and people across Cornwall.
My hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne has set out the history of the matter. I do not wish to labour the point, but it is crucial to acknowledge that there is huge support in Cornwall, and has been for many years, for a recognition of its specific status. Many of my constituents are proud to talk of Cornwall as one of the constituent nations of the United Kingdom. People outside Cornwall sometimes do not appreciate just how seriously people take that—it is something alien that they cannot understand. If we look at how Wales and the Welsh language was treated in the past, we see that the resurgence of people’s pride in their regional and national identity has been recognised elsewhere in the UK but not in Cornwall. I hope that that will be addressed, and I am grateful that the Government have finally given some cash to support the language—there have recently been announcements on the language’s single written form. There is great potential for recognition of people’s spirit and aspiration. I shall not return to that specific matter, but the order necessarily reflects it.
For the past 100 years or so, Cornwall has been officially recognised as a county, with a county council. Many laws that are still on the statute book mention a different status for Cornwall, but perhaps that is a debate for another time. The Minister was present in the Planning Bill Committee when I mentioned the constitutional position of the duchy, and we might wish to return to that. That awareness of Cornwall’s status has meant that tens of thousands of people in Cornwall have supported having an assembly.
I do not intend to argue that the authority that the Government plan will be an assembly, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne has acknowledged, it is the beginning of a process. Unless we begin that process, we will get nothing. Cornish people have travelled all over the world and taken with them a spirit of ingenuity. They will apply whatever is to hand to get the job done, and that is the spirit in which they approach this matter. The tools are not the ones that they want to deliver devolution to Cornwall, but they are what is available. People in Cornwall have therefore grasped them and will seek to use them as the beginning of something more significant.
I have mentioned Conservative councillors in Newquay, who support the idea, as do many members of my party, although not all. I am aware of Liberal Democrat district and county councillors who have reservations about it, so the matter is not party political. Something of such significance is bound to cause discussion and debate within parties as well as between them. Certainly, the pain that we heard about from the right hon. Member for North-West Durham is off-putting—there is pain as well as gain, and many people are concerned that the pain is not worth going through. However, as I shall argue later, the bidding process and the debate in Cornwall have already caused a considerable amount of that pain.
District council officers have had a tough time considering their future, but, from talking to them, it seems that many now recognise what is coming. They are looking at it as an opportunity for their own careers and as an opportunity to achieve what they have always worked hard for, which is the delivery of excellent public services. They are relishing the opportunity that the proposals could present, if enacted in the way that I hope they will be, to deliver new opportunities for innovation in Cornwall.
Through discussions that the Minister’s predecessor had with local MPs, the Government agreed that there is a prospect of further recognition of Cornwall’s position, and I am grateful for what the Minister said earlier. He did not go as far as I would like, but there was a cautious acknowledgment that without some form of strategic authority for Cornwall, opportunities might not be available. With it, they should be, but it is up to us in Cornwall, and it is up to the Minister and his colleagues, to respond to that.
We have had discussions with the Minister’s colleagues in the Department of Health about the greater scrutiny role that we would like in respect of health and other local services. There is a great willingness in Cornwall to engage and to make the process work. What we are looking for from the Government, not just today but in the future, is a continuing engagement to respond to that call from the people of Cornwall.
I have great concerns about some aspects of the order, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne. The parish council issue was raised. I represent a constituency that contains 70 parish councils. When I mentioned that in the Planning Bill Committee, some Labour Members were quite stunned that such a constituency could exist. The parishes range hugely in size, from Newquay, which is the largest town in the constituency, down to parishes such as Trevalga, which has 50 or 60 electors. Clearly, they will all respond to the challenge in different ways.
John Healey: This question is relevant to the point that the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne were making. What proportion of the seats on those 70 parish councils were contested in the last election?
Dan Rogerson: Sadly, not as many as we would have liked. One of the many reasons for that—there have been many studies looking at people’s attitude to serving in public life—was a cynicism about what those authorities are actually able to do. One of the crucial parts of this proposal is the potential for devolving power from the new authority in Cornwall to parishes, or groups of parishes, to encourage them to take greater responsibility. We have not discussed that in much detail today, although there has been a great deal of discussion about it in Cornwall.
My hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne referred to the Falmouth seafront, and I am sure that the town council takes a great deal of pride in it. There are many more significant areas, which some parishes are keen to take on immediately, while others may want to work in groups.
That has a bearing on parish council elections, because with powers and partnership arrangements with the new authority and other parish councils, parish councils will be different creatures. They will have the potential to do far more, and I believe that that will encourage a greater number of people, of all parties and of none, to come forward and contribute to their communities. That is why, as my hon. Friend rightly said, 2009 will be a crucial date not just for the new authority in Cornwall but for parishes as well.
I very much regret that limitation in the order. It tempts me to oppose it—I shall return to that. There is a limit in scope, which, as I said, does not reflect the ambition of the people of Cornwall or the ambition in the bid, and that is unfortunate. Many things in the bid are not covered in the order; it is not a fair reflection of what the bid from the county sets out in terms of what it wants to achieve.
My hon. Friend said that there were two bids from Cornwall. My local district authorities, Restormel borough council and North Cornwall district council, which cross the boundary of my constituency, were not signatories to one of them. It is only fair to reflect that. The district council has been a fantastic local authority, and nothing that I have done in support of the county bid as an alternative to the fairly ridiculous bid from the other four districts is any reflection on what I think of North Cornwall district council. But if four district councils say that they want a unitary authority, and if the county council wants a unitary authority, change is coming, as long as it stacks up with what the Government have set out in respect of financial probity. The district bid did not stack up, but the county one did, which is why it has my support—not to mention the fact that it was also far more ambitious in terms of devolution.
I regret the pain that district councillors, and particularly officers, are going through, but there is no way around that; experience across the country has shown that such things are a factor in the transition process. However, there is a growing awareness at all levels that there is a huge gain to be made, and it would be utterly disastrous to stop the process now that it is under way. We should be honest about the fact that we could not go back to where we were even if we stopped the process today.
Local authority members of all parties are working on the joint group that is implementing the proposals. Graham Facks-Martin, a Conservative district councillor in my constituency, is a great supporter of the South West regional assembly, in contrast to his party and, indeed, to me—I believe that we should have a Cornish assembly—and we have corresponded on the issue. He opposed the bid, but he is now working with others to deliver it and make it work, and that is a mature and responsible approach. It would be utterly disastrous to tell district council officers, “Actually, it’s all off again,” when they have started to change their careers on the basis that everything is going ahead.
The order does not go far enough. We need more and I hope that we will get more. Today, however, I shall support the order.
9.56 am
Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): I shall be brief because people with a greater interest in the issue have things to say.
I have an interest in the process of regional government. I did not support my party’s attempts to bring about statistical regions, particularly in the north-west, part of which I represent. We seem to be heading in the direction of two separate kinds of development, the first of which is taking place in large urban areas such as Merseyside. I represent part of Merseyside and I would support creating a Merseyside-wide authority that could take strategic decisions along the lines of the Greater London authority. The Government are increasingly looking at city regions as an interesting and useful way forward.
That leaves the rest of the country, which I have struggled with a little. What people are supporting—there is support for this in Cornwall—is the idea of pooling resources into one strategic authority for an existing county, with each town and village maintaining its unique identity within that. What we really have, therefore, is some kind of federal structure in which a lot of different interests can be represented, and that is really interesting. On the basis of what I have heard today, I am happy to support the Government.
9.57 am
Mr. Prisk: I rise to speak against the order. In my view, and that of many fellow Cornishmen, it is half-baked, undemocratic and of dubious legality, and I shall look briefly at that last point.
The proposals have been promoted by the Liberal Democrats on Cornwall county council against the wishes of 80 per cent. of the Cornish people, not to mention some of the party’s own councils.
Dan Rogerson: First, I take issue with the fact that the hon. Gentleman is talking just about Cornish people, because it is people in Cornwall who should have the final say. He also says 80 per cent. of people oppose the proposal, but no serious survey was conducted to show that, and there was certainly no poll of any significance in the district and borough that cover my area. I would seriously question the biased poll that was carried out by the district council and the evidence that it put before people.
Mr. Prisk: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but if he is a little more patient, I shall come to the figures, which I have with me for the Committee to consider.
The Minister is a decent man, but the measure that he is being asked to promote will not, on examination, deliver the improvement in public or financial services that has been promised. Let me start, however, with the democratic deficit.
Cornwall county council’s public consultation got into serious difficulties and had to be abandoned when the council managed to get just 665 replies from a county council area that contains about 250,000 households. Of those 665 replies, 246 supported unitary status. By contrast—the hon. Member for North Cornwall referred to this—four district councils organised a poll of 263,000 people and got replies from 72,000 of them. In that survey, 81 per cent. of people rejected unitary status. A fifth council in the constituency of the hon. Member for North Cornwall did a random survey of a further 6,000 households, in which 82 per cent. said no. Those were different surveys that were done in different ways, but they covered the vast majority of the community. The popular evidence is clear: the Cornish people have said no.
Equally, the town and parish councils are deeply sceptical. In one district alone, 19 out of the 20 town and parish councils that were asked did not support the bid. Even at the county hall, the Minister might be surprised to learn, only 32 of the 82 county councillors voted to support the measure.
Julia Goldsworthy: Is the hon. Gentleman aware how members of his party on the county council voted and how many of them attended the vote on that authority, because there were some who were not there to register their opinion?
The Chairman: Order. I remind the Committee that interventions are taking up time. I want to get everyone in, so be fair to each other.
Mr. Prisk: The clear point here is that it has been argued that there is a strong swell of support on the ground, but I do not think that the evidence shows that. I am happy to take further interventions, but they will be at the expense of other hon. Members who are yet to speak, so I hope that the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne understands that. It is important to realise that we have seen town councils, the public and stakeholders ignored. Unison itself has denounced the Secretary of State for ignoring the wishes of local people, and I hope that the Minster will respond to that.
The second reason for opposing the measure is that the projected savings that were suggested are wrong. The bid for the reorganisation shows an estimated net annual saving by the county of about £15 million, and they think that the one-off transition costs would be £19.3 million. The problem is that the independent analysis has shown that that is not the case and that annual savings could only ever be £9 million, while the likely transition costs would be nearer £28 million. The reason for that difference is that there are serious flaws in the county’s bid. For example, it left out the costs of running the shadow authority and, although it talks about the need for a network of community officers, it has not put in the budget for either setting those offices up or running them.
The Minister might not be aware of those problems, and equally might not be aware of one of the more fundamental differences: the county’s bid specifically assumes savings of £11 million and does so by bringing the expenditure on services down to the lowest costs across all the districts, regardless of circumstance. That assumption is false for one simple reason. The North Cornwall district, as an example, has 86,000 people in 463 square miles and is a long and rural area. Kerrier, where I was born and bred and which the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne represents, is an urban area that has 96,000 people living in an area of only 183 square miles. Members will realise immediately that because both areas—one is largely rural and one is largely urban—are fundamentally different, the ability to deliver them on the same cost basis cannot be achieved. It could be achieved by driving down the costs, thereby sharply reducing the accessibility and quality of services. If that is the purpose of the exercise and what the bid is based on, the Minister will realise immediately that it contradicts the purpose of the reorganisation.
Hilary Armstrong: The hon. Gentleman does not take account of the fact that if the service is organised by one authority with effective devolution, all the back office costs are combined, and that is where the savings come from. The evidence on that is extremely strong and some councils have co-operated to do that. That has happened neither here, nor in my own area, but there are good back office savings to be made by doing it, thus improving delivery without increased costs.
Mr. Prisk: I am grateful to the hon. Lady, and the principle that she raises is right. The problem is shown in the analysis of Professor Michael Chisholm, for example, who has looked carefully at the issues independently of all the local authorities involved—[ Interruption. ] Hon. Members may laugh, but he is an independent commissioner, was on the Banham commission and knows the issues involved. He has looked at this and said that the bid to which the Ministers have had to respond has some fundamental flaws. My concern is that if we proceed with this particular bid, there is danger that we will not get the quality of service that the right hon. Member for North-West Durham and I both want. I take her point because she is right in principle, but the problem in this case is that it is wrong in practice.
There is a transition team in place, so May would be the right time to put the proposal to the people of Cornwall. Its proponents could then say what its merits are, its detractors could say what its flaws are, and the people could speak. To postpone the elections until after the key decisions have been made would be wrong in principle and foolish in practice. It would create a council that the public had not sought. In fact, it would create a council that most had opposed.
In addition, as we heard from the Minister and in earlier contributions, the very legality of the measure has been questioned by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. It is extraordinary that the Committee has reported that it doubts whether the order, if approved—we shall vote on it shortly—would be intra vires. It is the opinion of the Joint Committee that such a significant intrusion into the liberty of the subject cannot be effected legally by this means, so it is open to challenge. The Minister said that the Government had a reasonable defence, but as the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst rightly pointed out, everyone has a reasonable defence. The question is whether it will end up in the courts. Those who choose to vote for the measure should be very clear that they may be supporting a measure that proves to be ultra vires.
On all those grounds, this measure is wrong. It has been poorly prepared, it is financially flawed, and it is being pushed through without a public mandate. Its legality is dubious, so I ask all hon. Members to think carefully about what they might be voting for, and what the impact of the measure would mean. Let me be clear. I strongly support giving back to the people of Cornwall more powers and choices. I want to get rid of the regional assembly—regional planning—and give back to people in Cornwall the opportunity to decide what is built in their communities and where.
This measure is not about devolving power from Whitehall. The Minister made that clear. It is about centralising power at county hall. The people of Cornwall have a strong sense of identity, as hon. Members and I know well. They are rightly proud of their heritage and their unique status as a county and a duchy. Scrapping local councils without the public’s approval will not empower the Cornish; it will be swapping one arrogant bureaucracy for another. I hope that all hon. Members will join me in opposing the motion.
The hon. Member for St. Ives said in The Cornishman that he hopes to speak against and to vote against the measure. I hope that he will have the chance to do both, and that his colleagues on the Liberal Democrat Front Bench will also have the courage of their convictions, and vote against it.
The Chairman: Order. I intend to call the Minister at 10.20. The two remaining speakers have until then between them. I hope that they will be generous to each other.
10.8 am
Andrew George: Thank you, Mr. Hancock. I shall certainly do my best for my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and St. Austell.
The order is a major change for Cornwall, and we must ensure that we proceed with care, because it is not just a matter of speed. I very much appreciated the contribution made by the hon. Member for Poole, who clearly understands the nature of Cornwall, including its poverty, its identity and its distinctiveness.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall made it clear that Cornwall’s ambitions to draw down reasonable and modest powers on economic development, planning, health management and so on is not about cutting ourselves off. It is about cutting ourselves into the celebration of diversity. Cornwall has a distinct history and culture, and I am grateful to the Government for having recognised that through their support for the Cornish language. Its constitutional history is unique, with the duchy, the stannary and other things that currently lie dormant but remind us of Cornwall’s unique status.
I said earlier that the order was largely driven by the Government. The Minister said that it took local authorities to bid into the process, but the advice that I quoted made it clear that if local authorities did not undertake the process themselves, the Government intended to rearrange the structure of local government in those areas where there are two tiers. In other words, no change was not an option.
Overall, the order is a catastrophe for the aims that the majority of people in Cornwall are ambitious to achieve. The order does not contain any provision for drawing down powers, and if the Minister says that they are not appropriate, we need a parallel process and dialogue that provides Cornwall with a clear timetable, a route map and a means by which those ambitions can be achieved. Even if the provision is not in the order, we must ensure that the dialogue is enabled.
On double devolution, and on the local side of the issue, the order not only creates a big county council, which symbolically sends the wrong message to Cornwall, but draws power up to create an authority that will result in the micro-management of local communities from Truro. Nothing in the order enables parish and town councils to cluster their administrative arrangements to achieve economies of scale locally, or to draw down powers from the centre when it is appropriate for local communities to start running services themselves. The principle of subsidiarity is straightforward, and decisions that affect only one community and no other should be made in that community, not by people outside it. We want to apply that simple principle throughout Cornwall, provided that we have the structure to do so.
I do not want to slog it out in the gutter with the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford, who seems to want to turn the debate into an occasion for political opportunism. He may think that it is a jolly good hoot to come along and take advantage of what is an extremely difficult situation for all concerned, but he must be reminded that, as my hon. Friend for North Cornwall said, two bids came from Cornwall: one from the county council, and one from the district councils—certainly from the council covering my area, which included Conservative members who bid for a single unitary authority. When the districts failed with their unitary bid, they decided that they were against the measure. Ultimately, when it was decided that the measure would go ahead, they joined a joint committee to make it work, while at the same time Penwith district council pursued the matter through the courts. There is a serious and substantial issue about the future of, and the delivery of power to, Cornwall. The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford is smiling now, because he thinks that it is a jolly good hoot to make such politically opportunistic comments, but this is not about tribalism; it is about trying to achieve genuine progress in Cornwall.
The order is not only technically and, potentially, legally defective, but politically defective. Although I appreciate that some will say that we should be concerned about the boundary committee’s timetable so that it can get on with its work, we, as Members who sincerely want to ensure that the order goes forward properly, cannot be blackmailed by administrative niceties, which is why I have concluded that the order is defective. It fails to achieve our objectives, and it is so important to get the matter right, rather than to go ahead with a botched job. It is a minimalist order.
Dan Rogerson: Will my hon. Friend confirm, however, that the deficiencies are in the order, and not in the bid?
Andrew George: I agree that, fundamentally, the original bid was clear about the ambition to draw down power, which was important. The order is defective, however, and if I had the opportunity to vote against it, I would. I hope that the Minister will ensure and promise that, whatever happens to the order, and it seems that it will go ahead, he will continue the dialogue to achieve the double-devolution outcomes that, as he has heard clearly today, we in Cornwall want to achieve.
10.15 am
Matthew Taylor: In the time remaining, I shall touch on two or three key points. I was involved in some of the discussions on reform that took place during the Banham review. I know that John Banham, who is himself a Cornishman, believed that there was real value in having a single authority for Cornwall. However, he was well aware of the disputes between district and county and that, although the people of Cornwall might have wanted change, councillors, district officers and county officers were not prepared to go for it because the status quo is always more comfortable. As long as the process needed agreement between those groups, it was never likely to progress.
On this occasion, both county and district believed that a unitary authority was the right decision. Four of the six districts, the county and, incidentally, most of the major bodies operating in Cornwall—private and public sector—took exactly the same view. A remarkable transformation has taken place as a result of two fundamental facts. Local government right across the country, not least in Cornwall, is struggling with a lack of resources. We see that at county and district levels. I have sat in rooms at district councils where people talk to me about how they will find, for example, £250,000 for one service or another. The officers who were in the room were probably paid substantially more than that. Such councils are top-heavy because they are small. The costs of running them are huge and they struggle to deliver the services that they need to. Although the county council is much bigger and has less of an imbalance between the costs of the bureaucracy to run it and the services that it delivers, it also suffers hugely from inability to deliver.
One fundamental change that has taken place is that as finance has been increasingly squeezed, the opportunity to come together is considered to be the only solution to the delivery of front-line services. That is basically the answer to the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford, who talks a lot about being a Cornishman when in Cornwall. I judge from his website that he talks a lot about being from Hertfordshire when he is in Hertfordshire. If he is a passionate Cornishman who cares about Cornwall, he should do what the five Cornish people sitting here did: stand in Cornwall and put himself before the electorate. If he has the courage of his convictions and really wants to talk about Cornwall, he should stand as a candidate in Cornwall; otherwise, we might as well pay no attention to him.
The second thing that has changed in Cornwall, which is a fundamental driver of the change that has taken place, is that people have come to understand that there is an opportunity as well as a risk. The opportunity is for an infinitely more powerful voice for Cornwall and a single elected authority that can champion the county and bid to draw down the powers that are currently exercised in the Government’s artificial region, originally set up by the Conservative party. Such powers do not currently exist at a local level, where the voice of local people is taken into insufficient account, whether in relation to health, strategic planning or many other issues. There is the opportunity to deliver on that and most of all to deliver, through a Cornish development agency, the convergence programme—hundreds of millions of pounds that are for Cornwall and should be spent in Cornwall, for which the regional development agency, Government office for the south-west and half a dozen different Government Departments are currently answerable. That opportunity is not in itself delivered by the programme, but people have realised that it will be created by a single strong council that is able to argue for it.
The hon. Member for Poole rightly identified the artificial constructs of the districts. During the 20-odd years that I have represented Cornwall, people have never felt that they lived in Carrick, Kerrier or Restormel, unless they were a councillor or an officer of the council. People believe that they live in and around Truro, Falmouth or St. Austell and that they live in Cornwall.
The second part of this programme is the opportunity to devolve powers to those local communities to give them a greater say over what they can do. I hope that the role of the district councils, in recognising that this programme will happen and in taking part in it, can be to help us to ensure that devolution takes place at the local level to the maximum degree possible. The district councils have a key experience of doing such work. They can bring that experience to the table; I wish they had done so right from the start, rather than pulling out at the moment that their particular bid for a unitary authority did not get accepted, and then opposing the idea of a unitary authority as if they were never in favour of it in the first place.
Those opportunities are there. I believe that they can be delivered. However, the Minister has to persuade us that the Government are also committed to all of that programme.
10.20 am
John Healey: This has been a good and rather hard-argued debate, which is not always the case with Statutory Instrument Committees. I welcome the fact that we have had 10 good contributions today—and my own—including contributions from all five serving Cornish Members and an expatriate Cornishman who is serving as the Member for Hertford and Stortford.
There have also been good contributions from my right hon. Friends the Members for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East and for North-West Durham; the latter has, of course, served with distinction as a senior Minister.
A number of hon. Members, including the hon. Members for North Cornwall, for Truro and St. Austell and for Falmouth and Camborne, made it clear that the thrust of the order is generally supported across all parts of Cornwall and across all parties in Cornwall, although the order does not go as far as many people would have liked. However, that is an argument for another day.
I want to pay tribute to the councillors and officers of all parties and in all councils who are already working to make a success of implementing the new council, and we should be conscious of their efforts as we consider our deliberations and our votes this morning.
I must say that the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford showed traces of the time that he spent in the shadow Treasury team in the way that he made his points. I have looked at Professor Chisholm’s analysis of the finances, to which I think that the hon. Gentleman referred. I am aware of that work, and that is why I got independent financial advisers through the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy and the Institute of Public Finance to advise me on the claims and counterclaims on the figures. I am satisfied that there will be savings and that the payback period for the change will be only about two years, and that it is therefore sensible and affordable.
The other point made by the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford was about the legal grounds; the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst laboured this point too. Let me say to the Committee that we have good legal grounds, and very good practical and electoral grounds, for acting in this way. Contrary to the comments of the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford, in doing so we would not somehow be extending the general powers, because we can see that the general powers are well-precedented. For example, the 1995 order that abolished the Humberside authority made a similar provision to the one that is proposed in this order.
The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne said that she was concerned about towns and neighbourhoods, as other hon. Members are. I suggest that towns and neighbourhoods need to make sure that this plan for community network areas is developed to the full. If that happens, there is great potential in these proposals.
The question of whether there should be more county councillors is clearly a matter for the Electoral Commission, which will reach its conclusions as it reviews the electoral arrangements for May 2009.
Regarding the question of parish council elections, which will not take place until 2013, parish councillors were elected last year; furthermore, as the hon. Member for North Cornwall said, in many areas there were not even candidates for some of the seats. Having said that, once this order is passed I am perfectly willing to consult the implementation executive, and if there appears to be a widespread sense that we should have parish council elections in 2009 we could bring forward an amending order to make that change.
The Government have previously discussed this draft order with all the councils involved, including Penwith council, addressing all the elements of its content, including the cancellation of the May 2008 elections. Therefore, I hope that the Committee will support the order this morning, so that the preparations to set up the local governance that Cornwall needs for the future can truly begin.
Question put:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 11, Noes 4.
Division No. 1 ]
Armstrong, rh Hilary
Clelland, Mr. David
Cryer, Mrs. Ann
Goldsworthy, Julia
Healey, John
Heppell, Mr. John
Howarth, rh Mr. George
Kilfoyle, Mr. Peter
Mole, Chris
Rogerson, Dan
Watts, Mr. Dave
Hurd, Mr. Nick
Neill, Robert
Prisk, Mr. Mark
Syms, Mr. Robert
Question accordingly agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Cornwall (Structural Change) Order 2008.
The Chairman: May I thank everyone for their co-operation in getting through our deliberations today? Everyone who indicated that they wanted to speak got to do so. I thank hon. Members for their co-operation, for their good humour and for the pleasantries expressed to the Chair.
Committee rose at twenty-six minutes past Ten o’clock.

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