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Furthermore, the breezy assertion that there would be

is true only in the most literal sense, with “some support” meaning more than no support.

The November summary document continues in the same creative vein. Any reasonable comparison of the document with the raw data would reveal that there has been considerable licence in the interpretation and collation of material.

I do not know whether the Minister has been through all the responses. The Department was good enough to allow me not only to read them, but to photocopy them, and I have been through them all. They confirm my belief, from what my constituents have been telling me for many months, that there is no significant body of support, however he defines it, for the proposals before us. May I challenge the Minister to say how he is able to draw the inferences presented in the November summary document from the responses that he received and I photocopied? If he cannot do so, the second criterion in the October 2006 invitation for unitary bids is not met.

For a more reliable litmus test of public opinion, we must turn to the MORI polling data collected in June 2006. In his letter of 22 November 2007, the leader of West Wiltshire district council, Councillor Graham Payne, says:

That is the case. I asked the Minister specifically about that and he seemed to be under the impression that in some way that poll was reflected, but in fact it is not.

Wiltshire county council misused the information in the same way as the Department for Communities and Local Government appears to have been creative in its interpretation. West Wiltshire district council referred the matter to the district auditor. On 30 July 2007 the district auditor stated in response:

a press release issued by the county council—

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yet that is the body on which the Minister is relying almost wholly in making his assertions.

The matter of consultation is by no means trivial. It is especially important in Wiltshire. Over the past months and years, and certainly since 2001 when I was elected, we have become accustomed to what might be called sham consultations. We have had them particularly in relation to local health care, where it appears that the results of the opinion survey have been more or less determined before the exercise started. That has led to the most disastrous consequences in respect of the scorched earth policy being conducted by Wiltshire primary care trust and, before that, by its predecessor bodies.

This has taken place at a time when we are all trying to establish public confidence in democracy and engage people with politics and with the formulation of public policy in important areas such as local government, health care and practically every other arena. Instead, a climate of cynicism has been engendered among the public, and who can blame them if they put a great deal of time and effort into responding to consultations in good faith, in the belief that those who make a decision at the end of the day will pay close attention to what they say and act upon it? Unfortunately, in the local government consultation, like others in Wiltshire, those who are entrusted with making policy sadly seem to bat away all the time any effort put in by our constituents. They should hang their heads in shame.

Understandably, there has been considerable judicial interest in the matter. Will the Minister outline the possible outcomes of the Congleton and Shrewsbury judicial review and what implications various possible outcomes may have on the local government review process? Will the Minister say why the estimates of costs and benefits have differed structurally from one unitary proposal to another, thus disallowing meaningful comparison? That is particularly important in the present context because Somerset, just across the border—a county that is in many ways similar to Wiltshire—has had a very different outcome from its unitary bid.

Will the Minister tell us why the transition costs, recurrent costs and savings, pension liabilities and extra costs for area governance and pay harmonisation have not been included in the cost appraisal for Wiltshire? Given the absence of a budget for area governance, what did the Secretary of State have in mind when talking in July 2007 of a “real opportunity” for people to “shape their communities”? Will the Minister confirm that area governance under the proposals will be no more than an unfunded “selectocracy” with very little accountability?

In July 2006, the former Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government called local reorganisation “a great distraction”, and in March 2007, in the Government’s own review, Sir Michael Lyons criticised restructuring and recommended more joint working. That is precisely the solution that Wiltshire residents have said they want, and precisely what the MORI polling data confirmed that they wanted. The Local Government Chronicle in May 2007 reported the Treasury fear that unitary bids were a “waste of time” and that it

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the financial risks involved. In 1974, local government was paralysed by reorganisation for up to three years, and I have to say to the Minister that there is good evidence that we are seeing a repeat performance right now in Wiltshire.

My constituents want local government to deliver quality services—which, by and large, it does. However, residents and council after council have responded to the Minister’s consultation by saying that they do not want this expensive, remote, self-licking lollipop that is threatening 1974-style paralysis for months on end. Even at this late stage, I urge the Minister to think again.

11.51 pm

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I rise briefly to explain why, unlike my three hon. Friends who have spoken convincingly of their reasons for being strongly opposed to the order, I shall take a position of principled abstentionism when we vote on this matter tomorrow. The position that I have held throughout the discussions on local government reorganisation in Wiltshire is that there are strong arguments in favour of single-tier unitary authorities. Those are the arguments that we advanced when we were in government and in precisely the Minister’s position. When I was special adviser to the Secretary of State for the Environment, as the post was then known, we brought in unitary status for Swindon. It is nice to see the hon. Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove) in her place this evening. We also abolished the country of Berkshire in the same way, and brought in a variety of unitary authorities across England. They were very much welcomed by the people when we did so. We also abolished the county councils in the whole of Scotland.

The powerful argument for doing that, which we advanced from the Bench on which the Minister is now sitting, was that it was a fundamentally good Conservative principle to have less government and fewer civil servants servicing it, with lower council tax as a result. There are clearly strong Conservative arguments in favour of single-tier unitary authorities. There is no question about that at all, and in some respects I support what the Government have been saying in that regard.

Wiltshire plainly has good local government at the moment, however; I differ entirely from the Government in that regard. Our district councils do a very good job. They are close to the people, and they make good decisions, by and large, although there are some exceptions. I am glad to say that North Wiltshire district council had the good sense recently to throw out the Liberal Democrats who had run the council very badly for the past 10 years, and the council is now doing an absolutely first-class job.

So we have good local government at local level provided by the district councils, as well as by the town and parish councils, which provide a strong service across North Wiltshire. Localism is terribly important. As my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) commented, Wiltshire is an astonishing county geographically, split by Salisbury plain. There is no real homogeneity in the county, and it is therefore vital to have local government, which is provided at the moment by the district councils.

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Given the Government’s majority, it is extremely likely that the order will go through. Now is not necessarily the time to make strong, principled arguments on either side; we should be doing precisely what the Conservative-controlled North Wiltshire district council has done and Wiltshire county council is doing. We should say, “This thing is going to happen. The Labour Government have created it. There is no question but that there will be a single-tier unitary authority in Wiltshire. We should not fall out with each other over it or battle over who will be councillors in a particular place or how functions will be carried out. We should set in place structures so that the localism that currently exists through district councils is continued in one way or another.”

County Councillor Jane Scott, to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury paid such warm tribute a moment ago, has that very much in mind. She realises that it is vital that there should not be a centralised structure, based in Trowbridge, that ignores local authorities, and that the structure should take real account of very local concerns by setting up appropriate other structures across the county. That is why I am ready to accept what the Government propose. I cannot bring myself to go into the Labour Lobby and support them—there are strong arguments against the proposal—but I will abstain during the deferred Division tomorrow.

The Minister might like to refer to one matter in his response. The boundary committee will examine local government boundaries in the run-up to the elections for the single-tier unitary authority. There is one boundary in Wiltshire that to me is more important than all others—the eastern boundary that borders Swindon. We love Swindon, a first-class town in many ways, but we do not want it to move into North Wiltshire in any shape, size or form. Will the Minister please reconfirm in his response that when the boundary committee considers the borders, it will be specifically tasked with doing that within the current rural county of Wiltshire, excluding Swindon? Will he confirm that the border between Swindon and North Wiltshire will remain the same? I think that that will be the case, but I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed it.

Leaving party politics and strong statements aside, we need to find the best means of delivering good, first-class services at a local level in Wiltshire and a lower council tax. I say to Councillor Jane Scott, and the new-look local authority when it is set up, that the reason why I do not oppose what she proposes is that I look to her to provide better services for my people in North Wiltshire—above all, at a lower rate of council tax.

11.57 pm

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): I hope that my colleagues from Wiltshire will forgive me for speaking for a minute before the Minister responds. I am a former leader of North Wiltshire district council and I served 12 years on the county council. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) mentioned the winding-up of the rural districts and boroughs. There are many proud towns in Wiltshire that still have the sign of when they were boroughs in the middle ages. It is a pity that the winding-up occurred; it took local government away from people.

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As leader of North Wiltshire district council, I was always aware that it was an administrative area without any natural affinity, apart from being in Wiltshire. However, it had one big advantage: we discussed areas that we travelled to and knew. Wiltshire county council was a great, strategic council but those of us from the north of the county would often talk about areas in the south that we rarely visited. It can take one hour 20 minutes to get from Cricklade to the south of Salisbury and we did not go to the south often. I fear that the new arrangements will be unwieldy. It is a long way from Tidworth to the Somerset boundary, and I do not think that we will be close enough to the people. I am suspicious of the savings figures; I do not think that we will make savings. I hope that things work out well. I am sure that there are some very good councils in Wiltshire, but I fear that we are moving local government too far from the people.

11.58 pm

John Healey: I shall attempt to deal with the points that have been raised. First, I should like to pay tribute to the fact that all who have spoken have done so with strong feeling about their areas and a remarkable pride in their county—its history, richness and royal and military connections. The hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) and, although I had not realised it, the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray), speak with experience of local government reorganisation and recognise that it is not easy. Sometimes one has to believe that the prize in going through the process will indeed deliver the gain that is worth some of the pain that is necessary.

Let me say to the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) that he answered his own question as regards scrutiny. He said that districts will ensure that there is proper scrutiny, and they have done. A joint scrutiny and overview board has been set up, with nine members from across all five councils, and they will do the job that we need them to do.

The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) asked about the boundary committee. It aims to complete the work to set the new wards in the county by February 2009, which means that they can be in place for elections in May 2009.

I will check the point that the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) raised about the district councils’ concern about the order and write to him if there if is any cause for concern. I appreciate that he has some scepticism about this process. However, we made the general case for unitaries in the White Paper, and there are some very good unitaries as a result of reorganisations, including Stockton-on-Tees, Hartlepool and the East Riding of Yorkshire. We used the term “Wiltshire council” in the order deliberately to exemplify the fact that we were not creating Wiltshire county council but an authority for the county of Wiltshire.

The hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) asked about the judicial review brought by Shrewsbury, Atcham and Congleton, which was dismissed by the court in September. They have appealed, the hearing took place last week, and we await the judgment. However, nothing that they have done in the judicial review process so far has delayed us or deflected us
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from our process, and I do not expect that to happen again, although that will of course depend on the court’s judgment. All the costs were taken into account in the independent financial advice that we received.

In reply to the hon. Member for North Wiltshire, the work of the boundary committee will be within the county of Wiltshire and will not stray over the boundary into Swindon.

Area boards may be the answer to the concern expressed by the hon. Member for Salisbury, as they are set up in the proposal as forums for local decision making. Perhaps he and the scrutiny board may wish to ensure that the new council delivers on that. Finally, the savings in Wiltshire are destined to be £18 million a year, not £75 million a year, as was suggested.

I hope that all Members will fall in behind this and support those who, once this House passes the order, will look to lead the change and put in place a new council that can better serve and well serve the people of Wiltshire for the future.

Question put:—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I think the Ayes have it.

Hon. Members: No.

Division deferred till half past Twelve o’clock tomorrow, pursuant to Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions).

delegated legislation

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I propose to put together the Questions on the four motions.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Delegated Legislation Committees),



Representation of the People

Constitutional Law

Question agreed to.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(9) (European Standing Committees).

5 Feb 2008 : Column 930

Freight Transport Agenda

Question agreed to.

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