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20 Nov 2007 : Column 81WH—continued

I have two concerns about this reorganisation. The key one is democratic accountability. It is clear that the council submitted its proposal under the formula and the timetable, but that it failed utterly on every ground to convince the Government of its case for it being a unitary authority. The Government’s invitation to councils to take part in the process, published in October 2006, gave a clear indicative timetable. It said that by July 2007 a final announcement—no ifs, no buts—would be
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made of those areas that would be restructuring into unitary authorities. Well, it was not final. Out of the shambles of the application came the invitation to the boundary committee to proceed.

I task the Minister with this question. If all the other councils in Norfolk say that they do not want a change, and if they say that they want to remain with the status quo because it delivers effective and efficient local government in Norfolk, is he seriously prepared to allow the case being made by only one authority to override the views of those who are democratically elected in other parts of the county? I should be grateful if the Minister were to answer that.

My second concern is the invitation to the boundary committee. Most of us are quite surprised, given the width of its remit, that it has taken the job on. On what basis or criteria did the Government decide to invite the boundary committee to do the job? There is no doubt that they have the power, but I have heard no explanation of why, in some cases, it was decided to call a halt to the process and why, in others, it was decided to involve the boundary committee. It seems difficult to avoid a sense of arbitrariness.

I conclude by raising publicly the questions that I asked the Minister in a letter dated 14 November. They adequately sum up the concerns that have been expressed today. My first question was about the remit given to the boundary committee in relation to Norfolk, and whether the Minister would publish it. It is extraordinary that the committee is beginning work with no one else knowing what it has been tasked with. I do not see the point of that.

The second question was what time frame had been set for the review to be conducted, where it was set out and when it would be made public. The third point was that the timetable set out in the original invitation to councils in England had proved valueless for a number of proposed reorganisations. I asked what guarantee the people of Norfolk would have that the current timetable of the boundary committee, should we ever know it, would be adhered to.

The fourth question was about the powers that the boundary committee has to compel local authorities to submit information to it while it is conducting its review. We heard of the sense of menace with which the boundary committee is asking for information. That is a reflection of what has happened to local government. Many Members are concerned about that, and if the Minister can do anything about it in the years to come, it would be appreciated.

There is a sense that local authorities now look upwards to those from the Government and partnership agencies that are running them—and that they are afraid of not doing what they are asked to do—rather than looking outwards to those who elected them. That fundamental change in local government has been emphasised over the past 10 years, and it desperately needs to be cracked into.

My fifth question was whether any options for the structure of local government in Norfolk had been ruled out. We hear about the status quo not being a viable option. Who said so? Where does it say that it cannot be allowed? I have not seen it said in any Government document that two-tier local government is no longer acceptable in Britain. Of course it is. Why is it being ruled out in this case? Who said so? And who
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told him to say so? Is it possible for the local authorities to argue that the retention of the status quo is the best solution to the structural review?

My sixth question was about who is to pay the costs of the work of the local authorities engaged in the review at the request of the boundary committee and the Government. It is not that the majority of councils in Norfolk accepted the invitation and that the financial costs should therefore be on their own heads. They have been sucked into it, through matters completely outside their choosing.

My seventh question was about what intention there is to consult the public by way of a referendum to seek their views on the existing structure of local government and any proposed changes. The eighth was about whether the change would be implemented without the public being consulted by way of a referendum?

Those questions sum up our concerns. The Minister has a clear sense of them. Having been to a meeting in Dereham last week with a number of councillors from all the Norfolk authorities, I can say that their concerns have been more than properly expressed this morning. The real concern is that people have not asked for the change, they were not consulted about it, and they are unaware of any benefits. They do not know what they are being asked for or why. They do not know why the man who is asking them has the powers to do so, because nothing has been published. If the Minister can help us this morning, we would be much obliged.

12.19 pm

The Minister for Local Government (John Healey): I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on securing the debate. It is clearly a matter of great concern and interest to him and his colleagues. I thank him also for his kind words in welcoming me to the debate. I take my duties in the House seriously, although the 300 people that I left at the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre may take a slightly different view.

I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s concerns and have discussed many of them with Members representing constituencies in the east of England and with local authority leaders—district and county. The timing of the debate is important because I am working on the terms of reference and the guidance that will be given to the boundary committee to take the next stage of the process further. That is not yet done, so the terms of reference are not sealed. I want to make it very clear, therefore, that the outcome of that process is not a done deal. Nothing is prejudged. I welcome what he expressed as his desire for an honest debate with all options under consideration. I understand and accept that he is in favour of the status quo, but I take those comments to indicate that he is not necessarily against serious consideration of change from the two-tier system.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) is, and has been for some time, a strong advocate of a unitary authority, as he has shown in this debate. I am pleased that he has welcomed our proposed steps. He is right: opinions are mixed. Opinions within councils and local authorities are mixed, as are those among the public. My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Chris Mole) reminded me that during the election in May in one of his constituency wards, an anti-unitary candidate polled just 80 votes.

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The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) said that the Government’s interest in unitaries is politically driven. Over the past year, we have not looked at any proposals for unitary status and reform and reorganisation unless they were developed and submitted from the areas affected. We received 26 proposals under that process from all political parties. Those were led rightly by politicians in local authorities, but were not party-politically driven.

Norman Lamb: Will the Minister give way?

John Healey: I shall give way once, but if hon. Members will forgive me, I want to deal with the many points that have been made in the small amount of time that has been left to me.

Norman Lamb: Is the Minister concerned that local authorities in Norfolk are expected to come up with their own vision of a unitary Norfolk before the terms of reference have been set? Is that not nonsense?

John Healey: I knew that I should not have given way. If the hon. Gentleman will give me the time, I shall deal precisely with that point. Other hon. Members have made it, including the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk.

The hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) brings his considerable experience from the Public Accounts Committee to the wider perspective on this debate, and we have debated before many of the issues that he raised. The steps taken over the past 12 months have met precisely the lessons that he draws from his PAC experience. We have studied proposals, some of which were based on benefits. The risks have been considered and there has been, and in some cases continues to be, a very close examination of the costs and financial viability—given my background, I ensured that that happened. The timetable for views and comments is far from being rapid and compressed. In fact, I am being urged by many to ensure that it does not take too much longer. I realise that delaying this process will not make many of these difficult decisions any easier, but I want to ensure that I take into account fully all the information and representations that we have received when coming to final decisions, just as I propose to do with the terms of reference and guidance for the boundary committee.

The hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser) set out three tests: efficiency, better services and decision making closer to the people. That is quite right. Each unitary proposal that we are proceeding with has met those tests, which will continue to be applied to any proposals that might emerge from the process led by the boundary committee. Either I shall cover the questions posed by the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), or they will be contained in the terms of reference. I have met leaders of local authorities that might be affected and am ready to do so again at appropriate stages of the process.

On the general question of unitary authorities, I would like hon. Members to think back to the relevant White Paper and the invitation to submit proposals. Those were in response to evidence and arguments put to us at the time that, in some two-tier areas, existing arrangements simply did not deliver the governance that we require from our local communities and authorities in this modern day. There can be a duplication of services, confusion and inefficiency between the two tiers—the points outlined by the hon. Member for
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North Norfolk (Norman Lamb). We were also told that for some areas a move towards a unitary authority could improve accountability, create stronger leadership, and improve efficiency and services to local people. Those have been the objectives throughout the process and the criteria against which we have judged any proposals. That is very far from change for change’s sake.

On Norwich in particular, far from failing on every count, as the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire suggested, the Secretary of State judged—I confirm this—that there was a reasonable likelihood of the unitary proposal from Norwich meeting three of the five criteria: strong, effective and accountable strategic leadership; neighbourhood flexibility and empowerment; and support from a broad cross-section of partners and stakeholders. The problems were with value for money and affordability. By looking at the boundaries, we can take a closer look at whether there is a viable unitary option based on Norwich but, perhaps, encompassing a wider city boundary. From meetings that I have had recently, I am quite clear about the interests that will be in the terms of reference and guidance, and I shall reflect on points put to me in this debate and meetings before issuing those terms of reference, which I aim to do in January, so that the boundary committee can formally begin its work on the review.

The boundary committee has begun a preliminary process of contacting local interested parties and authorities to explain the process of the review and to instigate informal discussions to get background and ideas for the future. I deplore the accusations that the boundary committee has acted with menace, harassment or bullying. The plain fact is that if local authorities do not participate, they cannot play a part in and influence the debate.

The boundary committee does not have powers to compel local authorities to submit information. It is a matter for local authorities to decide how to respond. The terms of reference and guidance will set out the boundary committee’s remit, which will be made available in the House Library. I will also make them public and send copies to all hon. Members who have participated in this debate and who are affected by the constituencies covered. The time frame will be set out in the terms of reference as well. To be clear, the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 does not require us to conduct referendums, but the process will last a number of months, and there will be plenty of opportunity for local authorities and the public to make their views known throughout.

I shall address a point about which the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk was particularly concerned. When asked for advice, under the terms of the 2007 Act the boundary committee can recommend that the Secretary of State implements the proposal without modification or that she does not implement it—in other words, that the status quo should remain—or it may make an alternative proposal. If it does the latter, it must undertake clear consultation.

In summary, there is no predetermined number of local authorities at the end of the process, which will be open and widely consultative. The way that it will be conducted is set out in statute and there will be plenty of opportunities for hon. Members to play a full and influential part in the House and in their constituencies.

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Economic Development (Falkirk)

12.30 pm

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Lab): I want to talk about the economy of Falkirk, because that is my constituency. However, to some degree, it is a false construct, because economies in our constituencies—local, regional, national and global economies—are increasingly interdependent. I shall make two points and ask two questions. I shall ask my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Scotland Office about the enterprise strategy, because it seems to be one of the Government’s most important tasks. The Government are consulting on the strategy, and that will result in a White Paper early next year. I shall also raise the issue of the reorganisation of an agency in Scotland. It is primarily a devolved issue, but it still has important implications for many businesses and industries throughout my constituency. Some organisations that I shall mention operate within my constituency, but they may be based in colleagues’ constituencies. If I refer to such an organisation, I shall explain that it is in a colleague’s constituency, but that it employs my constituents.

I shall start by putting the issue into a localised context for my hon. Friend the Minister. I am absolutely confident that he will want to hear a good deal about Falkirk, so I shall give him some of that action. Employment in Falkirk is at 78 per cent., against the Scottish average of 76 per cent. Historically, Falkirk was an iron town: it supplied the shipbuilding and related industries on the Clyde and in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Until the late 1970s, the general assumption locally was that people would continue to be employed in the iron and related industries, and in the tertiary manufacturing industries that went with them. The typical pattern was for a man to start work at a bus factory—Alexander Dennis, for example, which still exists—and work there for his entire life. Frequently, that was the sole family income, and it was the model of employment for a good chunk of my constituency. Ironically, unemployment was higher and employment was lower than today, so when people look back to the golden age of Falkirk’s iron and related manufacturing industries, which were far greater then, they look back to a period of higher unemployment and lower mean family incomes. Generally, people were less well off.

Today, my constituency’s economy is much more service-based, and based on the fact that it is a 25-minute train ride from Falkirk to Edinburgh or Glasgow. I call the whole area, “Glasburgh”, because it is increasingly becoming one large economic entity of its own, rather like a large metropolitan area in England. Glasgow and Edinburgh are growing economies, and my constituency benefits hugely from that. Many commuters travel to service industry jobs in banks in Edinburgh and—to some degree—in public bodies in Glasgow. Many private sector organisations are based in Glasgow, too, but there is a general pattern whereby more people tend to travel to Edinburgh to work in the private sector.

The claimant count in Falkirk has decreased by 2.2 percentage points in the past half-dozen years. Falkirk is more reliant for employment on large enterprises than others, and many of my constituents are employed in the chemical industries. There is a refinery at Grangemouth in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael
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Connarty), and he does a great deal of work with the companies in those industries. In particular, there is a very large company called INEOS, and it is expanding. It has a very successful business story, and the company employs many of my constituents. Unlike Members, they do not often care about travelling across boundaries to do their jobs, so they travel two or three miles out of my constituency and work in the chemical industry.

It is artificial to remove the chemical industry and related industries—the refinery—from the economic footprint of my constituency, or indeed of central Scotland, because if we consider the patterns of employment and the way in which the economy operates, those industries make all the difference to the local economy. If we discount the refinery and the effect of the chemical industries on the Falkirk economy, none the less, there is a varied pattern: a range of industries and companies, large and small, and their future will increasingly shape Falkirk’s future.

Falkirk has a programme called, “My Future’s in Falkirk”, which is a 10-year economic development initiative to transform the area into a diverse and modern economy, and also make it a nice place to stay. Last week, Falkirk acquired a lottery fund living landmarks grant of £25 million, the biggest ever awarded, which will go towards building two, big, nodding kelpies. A kelpie is a big horse, in case there is any doubt. It will be a fabulous landmark, sitting alongside the Falkirk wheel, which was built with funding of £80 million, much of which came from the lottery and from Europe. The wheel is one of Scotland’s foremost tourist landmarks. It does some good for the local economy, but these things take time, and the strategy of all local agencies, including the local authority, Falkirk council, Scottish Enterprise and private sector agencies that help develop the economy, will ultimately—one hopes—generate about 3,000 to 4,000 jobs. It had not gone to quite that extent until now.

The “My Future’s in Falkirk” initiative has generated a commitment, on paper at least, of £750 million of private-sector investment in the area. That is significantly ahead of its original target, which was to generate £200 million by the end of 2012. By then, 4,250 new jobs are expected. That is quite a specific projection, and I never know how those projections are made, but the significant expectation is that the initiative will generate a large number of jobs, and an additional £50 million a year is expected to be generated for the local economy.

I shall mention a couple of points about my constituency’s profile. The economy is significantly affected by Grangemouth’s refinery and chemical industry, but it is proving successful at diversification. It has its first strategic community plan, and it has notched up successes of late, with many more in sight—they are at the planning stage. The general idea is to make it clear far and wide that Falkirk is an excellent place to live, and that it has a growing economy. A masterplan has been unveiled for a 60-acre eco-friendly village. Planning is a devolved issue, and I shall not wax rhapsodic about it, but we must recognise that if one has a service economy, and many commuters hoping to travel to Edinburgh and Glasgow, where land values are high and prices are expensive, we must build houses where we can so that people can live in such locations and travel to work. We must strike a balance of course, because we want to encourage industries locally and people not just to live but to work locally.

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