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20 Nov 2007 : Column 75WH—continued

20 Nov 2007 : Column 76WH

Once again, we have seen the tactic of acting very fast so that there is little time for those who doubt the wisdom of the proposal to examine the case. The chairman of the boundary committee is going around prejudging what form of government will emerge from the process in a way that is possibly unlawful, as we have heard, and certainly dangerous for democracy and consultation. Astonishingly, councils are expected to provide intelligent answers on local government reorganisation when they have not even been told what the question is.

Finally, a jargon or patter is needed that will at least superficially, on first hearing, make what sounds like a convincing case for change. Fortunately, that is not my job. I await a reply from the Minister, but I remain to be convinced.

11.53 am

Mr. Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): I am conscious that only two or three minutes are available to me so I will keep my remarks brief. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on initiating the debate, which is timely in that we want to get things right for the people of Norfolk.

Does the Minister agree with me that the central aims when determining local government structure should be strengthening local services, bringing decision making closer to the people and improving efficiency? The Conservative party put those three issues to the electorate in Norfolk at the last local elections and received a substantial mandate.

Does the Minister agree that restructuring councils into fewer authorities than the eight that currently exist will create bodies too large to deliver the standard of local services that local people have come to expect within the current structure? That is a point lost, I hasten to say, on the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), who has chosen to leave the debate at this stage. I am sure that we will take that point up with him afterwards.

I have various questions that I should like to put to the Minister quickly. I put it on the record that if he cannot give us responses in his closing remarks, I shall be very pleased if he responds to me in writing. Why is the status quo in terms of two-tier working not an option for Norfolk? When is it anticipated that the boundary committee will be given its terms of reference? What, if any, mandate does the boundary committee have to require councils to engage in a process before receipt of the terms of reference? Subject to the response to the two previous questions, is it realistic and acceptable for the boundary committee to hold local authorities to a submission date of the end of November if it will not receive its terms of reference by that date?

Can the Minister give an insight into any predetermined outcomes, especially with regard to the number of unitary authorities that would be acceptable for Norfolk as a county? If there is no predetermined number, will he provide assurance that all unviable proposals will be discounted after initial consideration in order to avoid the unnecessary use of local authorities’ scarce resources?

What is the status of Norwich’s bid? Is a unitary Norwich a predetermined outcome? Is the approach being taken with regard to Norfolk a precursor to the adoption of that approach in other two-tier areas? If
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not, will the Minister explain why that approach is deemed appropriate for Norfolk in isolation?

Given that the potential reorganisation is imposed rather than requested, will funding be made available to support reorganisation costs? How important are community identity and public opinion when compared with affordability and value for money? Is the review constrained by the Norfolk boundary determined by the boundary committee? Is the Minister willing to meet representatives from the authorities in Norfolk that are working up models in order to discuss their proposals?

From discussions with local residents, there appears to be little appetite for wholesale reorganisation and the implicit costs. However, we have been told by the boundary committee that public opinion is but one consideration and in no way an overriding one. Can the Minister confirm to what extent public opinion will be allowed to influence the decision on the local government review in Norfolk? I look forward to a written response to all those questions if the Minister cannot answer them in full today.

11.57 am

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): All hon. Members who have spoken so far are from Norfolk and obviously have much more detailed knowledge of local circumstances than me or the speakers who are likely to follow. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on securing the debate and on an excellent, detailed exposition of the facts. The one point that was slightly non-factual but on which I agreed with him wholeheartedly came when he referred to the Alice in Wonderland style of the process—sentence is passed first and the evidence is looked for afterwards. That analogy certainly appeals to me. I made that comparison quite recently in the House when debating the rather strange, Alice in Wonderland way in which this place often works.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the boundary committee logo, which is the statement “Democracy matters”, and asked, quite appositely, how that could be when in a review such as this, the views of local people and the various local councils involved were ridden over roughshod or ignored completely. He described the process as a dog’s breakfast, talking about the cost when it is supposed to save money, about the problems of judicial reviews across the country in similar circumstances, about the confusion that arises and about the timelines and time scales that simply are not being met.

The right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) made a legitimate point from a different perspective; it is possible to see a logical case for cities being unitary authorities. In my county of Derbyshire, some years ago, when a Government of a different complexion tried to impose unitary authorities, the compromise arrived at was that Derby City would become a unitary and the rest of the county would continue with the two-tier county and district or borough structure.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) made many valid points. As he said, if we were starting with a clean sheet—starting afresh—we might well be able to see the logic of a unitary system.
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Other hon. Members made that point, too. However, we are not starting with a clean sheet; we are not starting afresh. The current situation has developed over a long time and is not the clear-cut situation that we would have if we were drawing up plans for something from the beginning.

My hon. Friend asked where the evidence was for going through the process and for the conclusion that we are told we will reach even before the process has begun, which is a unitary system. He made a number of telling points when he spoke with the boundary committee, asking what the evidence was for the process, what the benefits for co-ordination would be and where value for money would be gained. The boundary committee said, “Well, actually evidence isn’t conclusive on that at all.” In that case, why are we going down that expensive, time-consuming, frustrating road in the first place, especially when, as several hon. Members have pointed out, we are facing a considerable squeeze on Government finance that will get much worse in the next three years under the common spending round that has just been announced?

The Government asked for proposals to be submitted before the terms of reference were even laid out. All the authorities involved were supposed to propose their ideas for a costly upheaval and reorganisation without knowing on what grounds they would be judged. We have come across that all too often in various government reorganisation schemes. The point was made several times that the time scale had been rushed.

My hon. Friend made another telling point. He had found out by means of a freedom of information request that two of the authorities involved had already spent more than £500,000 on initial preparations alone. If we add in the cost of all the other authorities’ initial preparations and of the whole process, if we continue down that road, a very considerable amount of money will have been wasted on a bureaucratic process that is supposed to benefit the council tax payers of Norfolk.

I was particularly impressed by the suggestion of a Norfolk convention, to which I shall return, but all options should be considered. How can a genuine consultation be held if some options, such as the status quo, are ruled out from the start? My hon. Friend spoke of the democratic outrage at how we have gone about the matter.

Mr. Charles Clarke: Before he finishes, can the hon. Gentleman clarify the Liberal Democrats’ national policy on unitary local government, particularly in cities but also more generally?

Paul Holmes: I shall certainly do so. It is on the very next page of my notes. From my point of view, both personally and as a spokesman for my party, what should we do? As has been said, we should not start from here. The Redcliffe-Maud report of 1966 to 1969 recommended a completely single-tier unitary system. That was rejected, and the Local Government Act 1972 dumped the issue. There was a major upheaval of local government in 1972; a dozen county councils disappeared and lots of changes were made. It was one of the greatest upheavals of local government in our country’s history, but it dumped the proposals of the Redcliffe-Maud report. Had the bullet been bitten back then, when a major national review was occurring, we would not be in this position today.

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In the 1980s and 1990s, the situation continued. We had a total of 35 years of tinkering, change and messing at the edges from different Governments of all complexions who never tackled the system fundamentally. During those years, I have seen the matter from all angles and from the grass roots. I spent four years as a parish councillor and 12 years as a borough councillor, and I worked for a county council as a teacher for 22 years. I have seen the workings of local government from every possible angle other than city government. I remember well the pressure from the Conservative Government in the 1990s to impose unitary authorities. It caused huge dissension in Derbyshire, just like the dissension we are seeing throughout the country and in Norfolk today. The outcome was a unitary city, with the rest of the county continuing under a two-tier system.

I favour unitary authorities for the logical principle involved, but the issue is how to get there and whether it can be done satisfactorily in the situation we are in. I certainly favour smaller unitary authorities. When the Derbyshire argument was going on many years ago, I argued not for a county-wide unitary authority but for smaller ones in such areas as north-east Derbyshire. We are often told by academics and Government thinkers that that is not efficient. It is very democratic, and it can also be very efficient. I have visited small towns in the USA and all the Scandinavian countries where it works. In Norway, a town with as few as 20,000 inhabitants runs everything—police, health, fire brigade and education—not just the standard local authority services run by a district council in this country. It can be done on a smaller scale, and democracy may well be worth an extra premium if it comes with local accountability.

If a Government of any party believe that unitaries are the way forward, they should say so in their general election manifesto and go on to introduce legislation to that effect. Redcliffe-Maud provided such an opportunity 40 years ago, but no Government has done so since then. The 2005 Labour manifesto did not mention restructuring as such and did not mention the imposition of unitary authorities in any way. It said:

It referred to

It was totally open-ended and non-committal about what that process would involve. That cannot be seen as a democratic mandate to impose unitaries in various hand-picked areas of the country.

If a Government believe that local communities should decide, they should have a proper process to allow that. That is certainly not what is happening with the process that is under way in various counties, which involves preconceived Government preferences and rules out some options, such as the status quo. It asks for proposals without stating the terms of reference and conditions by which they will be judged. It gives the power to unelected, unaccountable boundary committees. That is not the way to do it. The communities affected should decide what system of local government they want.

The proposed Norfolk convention is an echo of what happened in Scotland, where the Scottish convention led to devolution and the Scottish Parliament. It has involved all parties and extensive consultation in the
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community, and it took some time to achieve an answer that had widespread support across Scotland—from the Scottish people; we shall leave aside England. The proposal for a similar convention in Norfolk is excellent and should be employed throughout the country wherever such measures are proposed. Preconceived ideas should not be imposed from the top, there should not be a closed list to pick from and, above all, the local community should be involved in maximum consultation, rather than the sham that is taking place at the moment.

12.7 pm

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr. Chope. If I did not know the Minister better, I would be inclined to say that he should simply stand up and give in. If this were a decently refereed boxing match, it would have been stopped long ago on points. The tidal wave of good sense that has come his way in expressions of huge concern about the proposals that we are debating would convince any neutral observer that something has gone badly wrong with the process of government for us to be here discussing them in this way. I should be grateful for a few minutes to illustrate some of my concerns.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on his opening speech, which touched on many of the points that have been amplified during this debate. I thought that he spoke with suppressed outrage on behalf of his constituents and, I suspect, the vast majority of the people of Norfolk. He spoke of his constituents’ views, expressed both to him and through the ballot box, and of the quality of performance of local authorities, which may be swept away in a reorganisation. He spoke of the bullying—let us be plain about the word—of the boundary committee in how it started and has gone about its work. He spoke about the concerns that this might be a done deal, raised the issue of whether the people would be consulted and mentioned the boundary committee’s motto, “Democracy matters”. Well, we shall see.

The right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) spoke of his belief in the importance of the unitaries in Norfolk. He is entitled to do so—anyone is entitled to put their view in this debate—but neither he nor the council that he is promoting are entitled to be the tail wagging the dog. There is neither the numerical majority to do that, nor, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) made clear, the moral authority, given the quality of the councils being wagged by the unfortunate tail of Norwich city. The right hon. Gentleman is entitled to express his views, but it should be borne in mind that the tail should not wag the dog.

My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser) made a key point about the democratic base and the case that had recently been put to the electorate, and he ended with a series of questions to the Minister that I shall reiterate.

The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes)—he is an outsider in this debate, as I am—admirably summed up our concerns. He made a key point about Labour’s manifesto, saying that it gives the Government a completely open-ended chance to reorganise local government, with no parameters. It effectively gives them the opportunity
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to do what they want, no matter what the opinion of the majority might be in any particular place—an utterly wretched situation.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) raised many questions about the way in which the process had been put together. His contribution was not only illuminating but entertaining. I agree with him on the process and about the timetable problems that have already arisen. The reorganisation has not run according to the timetable. Indeed, it is already well off it. The trouble is that it will result in a rushed process that could be dangerous to the processes of democracy.

My hon. Friend was joined in that concern by Sir Michael Lyons in his consideration of the future of local government. In page 11 of his executive summary about local reorganisation, he said:

Most on this side of the Chamber would say that that opportunity ought to remain in the minds of the Minister and of the boundary committee; it is a much better way forward than what seems to have been proposed. My hon. Friend stopped short of declaring the whole thing a shambles, but what is in process might yet turn out to be one.

The hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) asked whether there was any evidence about costs. He spoke of asking the boundary committee, with regard to its evidence-based process, what evidence it had for going forward. He got the honest answer, “Well, it’s a bit mixed.” He could have gone to others. He could have asked the previous Minister for Local Government, now Minister for the Environment, for his views. I did so when the Public Bill Committee was debating the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007. We spoke about the costs of the process of reorganisation, and I asked whether we should be wary, on the basis of our collective experience, of those who wave cost savings at their electors as the potential good news behind restructuring. The Minister answered:

If even the Minister cannot see that as a key point to be taken forward, none of us should be under any illusion about the matter. If a reorganisation or restructuring is not being pursued for financial reasons or efficiency, what is it about?

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