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Both my predecessor spokesperson and I have been clear that the process should be driven at the local level, not from the Minister’s desk, but we were not convinced when we considered the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill that that was being achieved. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) said, the processes discussed were only a small improvement on what the
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Conservatives had left on the statute book. He raised concerns about not having the right provisions to protect local democracy. That raises the key question that has to be asked of all such statutory instruments that we will have to consider—how do they measure up to protecting local democracy? As we know from some of the interventions, these are controversial proposals, raising real issues about proper consultation and the Minister taking it properly into consideration.

Mr. Gray: The hon. Lady is making some general points, which are no doubt very interesting to her listeners, but will she clarify a very simple matter for us this evening: are the Liberal Democrats, for whom she is a spokesman, in favour of a unitary authority in Wiltshire or opposed to it?

Julia Goldsworthy: As I said, that is a matter to be decided at the local level. I have absolutely no intention of prescribing from here what should or should not happen— [Interruption.] I am asked again from a sedentary position what we would do. We would not have had this process in the first place, but we think it absolutely right that local areas should have a say on how they would best like to be governed. We should celebrate diversity in how that is achieved, because Wiltshire is very different from Cornwall, for example.

I would like to follow up some of the issues that the Minister raised. He was careful to be very clear that the order is not simply a takeover by the county council. However, with this and other orders, real concerns remain that that is what will happen. Unfortunately, the way in which the order is set out will only underline some of those concerns. I am grateful for the Minister’s clarity about the legal reasons, but I wonder whether he can do anything further to counter the perception that, as a result of the order, we will be left with a takeover.

I also want to follow up the issue of the duty of co-operation between district councils and county councils in the implementation executive. The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) has already raised the issue of the lack of parity and an equal duty to co-operate in the implementation executive and in the scrutiny process, but there is also a wider issue. Why is there no duty on the Secretary of State to co-operate to help local authorities to achieve their aims of reorganisation? That lies at the heart of the matter. Perhaps with the authority we are considering and certainly in other cases that will be discussed in the days ahead, there is real frustration because the orders will not help local authorities to achieve all they would want from the reorganisation process. There needs to be a duty to co-operate on Ministers so that they cannot stand in the way of authorities trying to achieve higher ambitions.

This is only the beginning of the process. The position is difficult because we do not really know what will be in the detail of transitional orders further down the line. We do not know what vision the implementation executive will seek to deliver; there is no sense of what the implementation team will be asked to do; and there is no idea of what the scrutiny process will be or what will be considered. The Secretary of State must give the sense that the process will not be directed from the Minister’s desk—there must be a duty to deliver what the proposals want to achieve.

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Another key area that flags up the kind of barriers that could arise is parish elections. Parish elections took place in 2007. My understanding is that the order will delay any further elections until 2013, after the new body is in place. Given that a new authority is likely to seek to give greater control to parish authorities in taking on new roles and responsibilities, I am concerned that parish councillors elected with an entirely different remit will be asked to take on those new powers. Given that there will be a boundary review and all-out elections to the new authority in 2009, will the Minister comment on what scope there might be to enable parish elections to happen at the same time as those unitary authority elections to allow people to seek election knowing what their terms will be?

On the boundary review, will the Minister tell us the time scale under which the Electoral Commission wants to operate? My concern is that we are debating the order close to the deadline that the boundary committee for England has set to be able fully to undertake a boundary review process in time for the 2009 elections.

I hope that the Minister will also respond to the concern about the capacity of the boundary committee to undertake other boundary reviews in areas where there are likely to be other unitary elections in 2009. Will it have the capacity to deliver that number of reviews within the necessary time scale? For a lot of authorities, that will be important in demonstrating that a new authority will be elected. With the existing boundaries, if the change does not take place, that will be a real hurdle.

Fundamental issues need to be resolved. Otherwise, it will be difficult for the process to have a successful outcome. Locally, many people are disputing whether the changes will bring improvements. If they are correct in disputing that point, either the Government have not assessed the proposals properly or the potential lack of success might be down to failings in the process that we are debating. As we have heard, members of the district authorities are participating in the process to try to make the best of a bad job. The Government have a responsibility to ensure that they are doing their best to make something that is practicable and workable, too.

11.27 pm

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Wiltshire never has been, is not now and never will be an easy county to administer. We are proud of our county, but we are not quite sure why. There are as many reasons as the county has areas, districts and river valleys. That pride is very real—we even have a new county flag after all these centuries.

Wiltshire is a disparate county. It is described as chalk and cheese, with sheep farming in the south and dairy in the north. It is the home of moonrakers: the sort of characters who are anti-establishment, or certainly anti-taxman. Salisbury plain is the great divide in Wiltshire, occupied by the Army for 100 years—some say to keep apart the people from north Wiltshire and south Wiltshire.

Wiltshire has no natural boundaries, unlike Cornwall. It has no natural county town, unlike Devon, which has Exeter. It has no homogenous identity, unlike, for example,
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Kent. None of the boundaries of the different authorities seem to coincide and they have not for a very long time—even the ecclesiastical one. The county of Wiltshire is not in the south-east and not really in the south-west either. It may be in what could be described as central southern England, which is pretty unromantic. Wiltshire is an edge county and Salisbury is an edge city. If we are anything, people in Wiltshire still belong to Wessex, the ancient kingdom that is a romantic idea as well as a fact. Interestingly, the recent creation of an Earl and Countess of Wessex showed a deep understanding by the royal family of the nature of the county and of how we feel about where we are.

I believe that unitary authorities can work well, in the right place. I used to be a Local Government Minister, so I have fairly wide experience, at least across England. I know that it was right for Swindon, for example, to become a unitary authority. The structure might have worked in Wiltshire when it was proposed, some 12 years ago, that we should have two unitary authorities—one for north Wiltshire and one for south Wiltshire. However, when we look at the context of the order and the proposed revolution, it is important to remember that, before the 1974 local government reorganisation and in what is now Salisbury district council, we had a Salisbury city council, and rural district councils for Salisbury and Wilton, Amesbury, and Mere and Tisbury.

That was localism, and local decision making. All four authorities had planning powers, although they did not include the county council’s reserve powers on highways and minerals, for example. Back in 1974, we saw the beginning of the end of true local democracy when those four councils became one. Now, Wiltshire’s four district councils are to become one, and using the same sort of dodgy maths that the Government are using to support the order, some might say that the people of south Wiltshire were 16 times better represented in 1974 than they will be by the new Wiltshire council.

The point about stakeholders has been argued about quite a lot, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) and my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) will expand on it. However, it is terribly important to remember that only 53 per cent. of county councillors voted in favour of the unitary authority proposal. None of the district councils voted for it, and most of the district councillors voted strongly against it, unless they happened to be the double-hatted councillors who served on both local authorities—a practice of which I disapprove very strongly. One of the few benefits of the proposed system will be that we will no longer have double-hatted councillors.

The Minister said that part of the enterprise was a “toss-up”, and he is right, although some people might also describe it as a gamble. The explanatory memorandum states that one of the proposal’s criteria is “strategic leadership” and it talks about a “reinvigorated strategic partnership”. That means that the existing Wiltshire strategic partnership will be broken up into a public service board and a Wiltshire assembly of 20 area boards. The Minister said that he believed that the new 20 area boards would be the answer to local participation in the democratic process. It is true that local people will be able to influence local
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events and to help shape their communities. The police and the primary care trust will be able to join in, along with the parish and town councils, but will they be able to decide anything? No: they will be barred from making decisions. That power will reside exclusively with the 98 Wiltshire councillors, who will take all the decisions.

For the time being, the councillors will be stuck with existing local plans and development frameworks, so the planning function will remain within the existing district council boundaries. However, the area planning committees that have given decision making to local regional bodies will go; as a result, decisions will be taken by the smaller number of Wiltshire councillors who will represent the district council areas that we have now.

The memorandum states:

Well, I do not know whom that evidence compelled, but it does not compel me or my constituents. It is likely that the unitary council will save back-office costs such as human resources costs. If it saves the forecast £75 million a year, however, it will be the first time in recorded history that a local government reorganisation has saved anyone a penny.

I oppose this order in principle. I think that it is wrong for Wiltshire, but I expect that the Government will get their way and so it is my duty to make the proposal work to the advantage of my constituents. If anyone can make this extraordinary idea work, it is Councillor Jane Scott, the leader of Wiltshire county council, who is a hugely talented person. If the order goes through I shall support her and wish her well in the enterprise. I shall do my best to minimise the pain and realise any gain.

In Wiltshire we take the long view. The first MP for Salisbury arrived in this place in 1265. I have been the holder of that office only since 1983, so I shall try to remember the old political adage: “Things are never as good and never as bad as they seem at the time”.

11.34 pm

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): I am glad to follow my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key), who strongly set out why we should oppose the order. He has been a Wiltshire Member of Parliament for rather longer than I have, so I bow to his superior knowledge of the history of Wiltshire, even if neither he nor I quite go back to 1265.

I congratulate the Minister. If he loses his seat at the next election he will have a fine career as a stand-up comic; never have I seen anyone deliver such rubbish with such a straight face. I shall not repeat arguments that have already been made, but I want to explain the situation for the following reason. I went to see the Minister’s predecessor, as did my colleagues, and we also went to see the Minister himself. We told him about the state of public opinion in the county and he listened, as did his predecessor. Neither of them gave
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any indication that they would contradict what we were saying, yet suddenly, out of the blue, we received what I can only describe as a perverse decision in relation to the evidence we had given them.

I remind the Minister of what we said. We told him about the Ipsos MORI poll, which is worth looking at again, because he has created the impression that it was not definitive. In fact, 78 per cent. of people said that they wanted the status quo, but with a bit more co-operation; 71 per cent. felt that a single council for Wiltshire would be remote and less in touch with local people and local issues; 64 per cent. saw Wiltshire as too big to be served by only one authority; and two thirds of the respondents said that the current system of local government worked well for them. If that is not a clear indication of public opinion against the proposal, I do not know what is.

We all received many letters and I received a petition, too. I did not receive a single letter in favour of the unitary council proposal, but I received dozens of letters against it, so I do not know where the impression of popular support has come from. At our meeting with the Minister, we told him that our understanding was that only two parish councils of all the 80 parish and town councils in the county were positively in favour of the proposal—only two, yet the Minister tried to give the impression this evening that local communities were in favour.

All the district councils were originally against the proposal. There has been a little movement since, but although they are co-operating now they basically believe that it would be bad for local government in Wiltshire. Three of Wiltshire’s MPs have opposed the unitary order throughout; my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) will have to decide how he will vote tomorrow, but three of us have made our position clear.

The Minister said that the county council wanted a unitary authority, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury has just said, only 25 of the 49 county councillors voted for the proposal—hardly a massive majority in favour, yet that is the piece of opinion on which the Minister founds his case.

Mr. Gray: My hon. Friend correctly indicated that I did not go to see the Minister and that throughout I have taken a different stance on the matter from my three Wiltshire colleagues. I believe that there are strong arguments in favour of a unitary authority in Wiltshire but there are also strong arguments against, and for that good, rather Liberal Democrat, reason I shall abstain in the vote tomorrow.

Mr. Ancram: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making his position clear— [ Laughter. ]and I said it with a straight face.

I twice wrote to the Secretary of State asking whether stakeholders and key partners actually included people, but I never received a straight answer. I then began to inquire about the stakeholders who were apparently so important in the consultation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury said, we know of only one stakeholder who has positively supported the proposal. It was the primary care trust. Do you know why it did so, Mr. Deputy Speaker? A year ago, the primary care trust was created from four others, which led to a
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disastrous diminution of medical provision in our area, so the only way it could justify its position was by supporting a similarly disastrous proposal for local government. All the other stakeholders, including the fire and police authorities and the local housing association in my constituency, refuse to take a position, because they do not believe that a strong enough case has been made for the change. Again, I ask the Minister: where is that support? Where does it come from? When the Prime Minister took office in June, he said that he would be a listening Prime Minister. Who have the Prime Minister and the Minister listened to on the subject?

I do not want to take up much more time, but I want to raise one technical point. The order states that the implementation executive is to set

My local district authority informs me that, under the order, it will not have the authority to do that; it will have no locus to take such action. I want the Minister to look into that, because if the order is passed I do not want there to be a complete muddle and mess as a result of its not being properly thought out.

I want to ask the Minister what the difference is between Wiltshire county council and “the Wiltshire council” mentioned in the order. The first page of the order says:

In the rest of the order, the reference is to “the Wiltshire council”. The definition says that

It does not say “Wiltshire County Council”, as it does on the first page. That is another issue on which there could be massive confusion.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury, I have probably been in politics far too long. We have experienced a number of local government reorganisations, and I have seen a number of similar centralisations. We are told over and again that money will be saved, that things will be far more efficient, and there will be all sorts of benefits. In every single case costs have gone up, empires have been built, and people whom we thought would lose their jobs got a new title and remained in office. Ultimately, it has always cost the local taxpayer more. I predict that that is exactly what will happen now. The Government’s majority will probably ensure that the order is passed. We will go through all the rigmarole and have a unitary council, but I predict that in 10 or 15 years we will revisit the issue because the unitary council does not work.

The proposals will not work because the Minister has not listened to the people, who have told him that they do not want a remote council in our big county, as they will not be able to get to their council as easily. They do not want services to be inaccessible and at a great distance. They want local government that represents them where they are, and for all the Minister’s semantics and rhetoric the proposition before us will not achieve that. I ask him seriously to think again. Very few people in Wiltshire want the change. What is driving him to give my constituents, and the constituents of my hon. Friends, what they have clearly said they do not want?

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11.43 pm

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram). I cannot compete with 1265, but the battlefield site of Ethandune, near Edington, is in my constituency. That is where King Alfred defeated the Danes in 878 and set up the kingdom of Wessex. If anybody knew about local government reorganisation, it was King Alfred.

Let us be clear: there is no support worthy of the name for the proposal in the county of Wiltshire. There are no grounds for the Minister’s opinion, which was given in his letter of 25 July 2007 to Wiltshire county council’s chief executive, that the proposals would

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