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19 Feb 2008 : Column 312

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD) rose—

Daniel Kawczynski: Oh no!

Julia Goldsworthy: I shall give way very briefly to my hon. Friend. I am aware that other Members are waiting to speak.

Richard Younger-Ross: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I note the comments from the Conservative Benches suggesting that she should not have given way, despite the fact that she gave way so generously to them.

Does my hon. Friend not think it rather ripe that the Conservatives keep intervening on her to suggest that democracy will not be served by this change, when it was the Conservative party of the 1980s that did the most to remove democracy from the UK?

Julia Goldsworthy: My hon. Friend makes a valid point, but I do not want to detain the House any longer because I want to ensure that all hon. Members get the opportunity to speak.

The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst raised the issue of whether it was credible that the proposed unitary authority would be able to deliver the criteria against which the Government assessed their plan. It is important to ask how credible the plan is, but the key question for the Minister is what the Government are doing to assess the new authority’s delivery with regard to that plan. Of the five criteria, the key one that strikes me is neighbourhood empowerment. If we are to engage local communities, convince people that the change is not a county takeover and ensure that it has public support, what happens at neighbourhood level is important. The need for communities at neighbourhood level to understand what is going on is very important. What action will the Minister take if he is concerned that the new authority does not seem to be delivering against the plan it has been given? What steps will he take to respond to and deal with those concerns?

On the implementation executive, despite the serious reservations that have been raised, all parties are working to make the best of what they may consider, to varying degrees, to be a bad job. The Minister owes it to them to be prepared to be as flexible as they are in ensuring that the end result is the best one for the people in Shropshire.

1.7 am

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): When the Minister opened this debate, he stated that there was no pressure from the Government on Shropshire either way and that they would listen to the people. I must state that the Foreign Secretary, when he was the Minister of Communities and Local Government, came to Shrewsbury and cleverly tried to court Shropshire county council to encourage it to try to put in a bid, which I alluded to earlier. This Government had their fingers burnt in the regional referendum in the north-east, so they came up with a very good ruse, which is to pitch one council against another, and to get one council to put in a submission. They can then say, “Oh well, it is you that have bid for this,” when that is simply not the case.

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I asked the Prime Minister his very first question in the House of Commons, and it was about this issue. You always remember the first time that you do something, Madam Deputy Speaker, whether it is your first kiss, or the first time you get elected to Parliament. I very much hope that the Prime Minister will remember the first ever question that he took at Prime Minister’s Question Time. I asked him whether he would meet me to discuss my concerns about the conduct of the Government in this matter. He assured me in this House, at his first Prime Minister’s questions, that he would do that, and that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government would also take the opportunity to do so. Despite numerous written requests, I have not been allowed to have that meeting with the Prime Minister or the Secretary of State. That is different from the former Prime Minister. When I asked to see Mr. Blair, the meeting was arranged straight away and there was some accountability. To where have we descended when the Prime Minister promises to discuss a Member’s concerns about such an important issue, which will fundamentally affect my county, then reneges on the promise, and the Secretary of State repeatedly refuses, despite my written requests, to see me to talk about the matter? That is disgraceful.

Richard Younger-Ross: The hon. Gentleman may be disappointed that he has not had his first kiss with the Prime Minister. Will the hon. Gentleman say—whether he wanted the first kiss or not—whether—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order.

Daniel Kawczynski: As the hon. Gentleman knows, I was not discussing kissing the Prime Minister; I certainly would not want to do that. The hon. Gentleman’s comment was rather flippant, but I was making a serious point.

Eighteen thousand of my constituents came to the ballot box in the referendum to vote against a unitary authority. It is sometimes difficult to get members of the public interested in and participating in what can be rather technical matters. Yet 18,000 men and women in my constituency turned up and voted. They did not want a unitary authority in Shropshire. Nearly 70 per cent. of those who voted voted against.

The Minister has received letters of support and he says that the Government have taken people’s views on board. As I tried to say earlier, some of the organisations that wrote the 47 letters of support are companies that supply the county council with services and goods and therefore have a vested interest. It is fascinating to read some of those letters of support. One said, “Well, we’ll have to work with whatever happens and whatever is the status quo.” Yet that counts as a letter of support. It is breathtaking. Some organisations—I do not want to embarrass them by mentioning them in the House—have told me that they regret submitting letters of support. Some were put under a certain amount of pressure to do that.

I passionately believe in local accountability. My accountability to my constituents drives me on a daily basis. That is why, when I was elected to Parliament, I decided to move to the village of Shawbury in Shropshire, which is only a few miles from my
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constituency office. People can hold me to account when I am in the local supermarket, walking down the street or in my office. That is part and parcel of local accountability.

We have some marvellous councillors in Shrewsbury, such as Mrs. Judith Williams, who has been a local borough councillor since 1982. Those councillors know every flagstone of every pavement in their ward. They are local Shrewsbury men and women, who know the town, feel passionately about it and are accountable to their constituents. They have done an excellent job in running the borough council. They are accountable because they live in their wards, so they are close to their constituents. Most importantly, they are accountable through the ballot box to the people of Shrewsbury.

I do not want to disparage other areas, but if we have a unitary authority, councillors—from Ludlow, which is 30 or 40 miles away, Whitchurch and places long distances away from Shrewsbury will make decisions on specific parochial issues that affect Shrewsbury. That is a tremendous threat to local democracy.

Let me give an example of a controversial issue. We recently considered the possibility of congestion charging in Shrewsbury. Voting for congestion charging in Shrewsbury is very easy for someone who lives 40 miles away and is not accountable to the people of Shrewsbury. Why? Because someone in that position can vote for something controversial for Shrewsbury knowing full well that their constituents 40 miles away do not really care and will not vote them out in an election. That bond and that accountability will be broken.

We face another important issue: the co-location of the sixth-form college with SCAT—Shrewsbury college of arts and technology—which is a major college. Again, I want local councillors in Shrewsbury, who understand transport issues and some of the infrastructure problems in Shrewsbury, and who are accountable to my constituents, to make those decisions, not people who live so far away from my community.

I want to give another example of why I feel so strongly about the issue. Over the past three years, I have said to many organisations in my constituency that I will give £100 to anybody who can name me the seven Members of the European Parliament who represent us in Brussels, but so far I have not lost a penny. Not a single constituent of mine can name all seven Members of the European Parliament. They are important people, and the Conservative ones are very good— [ Interruption . ] But the Liberal one is terrible.

Mark Pritchard: I would be delighted to relieve my hon. Friend of £100, but—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman may well like to do that, but perhaps outside the Chamber.

Daniel Kawczynski: The reason why I make that point is that none of the MEPs lives in Shropshire and none of them works there. They work in Brussels, so nobody knows who they are, yet they make important decisions, on a daily basis, on issues affecting Shrewsbury and Shropshire. The reason why there are
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such low turnouts in elections to the European Parliament is that nobody really knows those people and they are not directly accountable to constituents. I fear that that will happen with a unitary authority. People will become disfranchised and uninterested in local politics, because they do not have that proximity to their elected officials.

I am a great believer in the saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Shrewsbury and Atcham borough council has been rated as excellent. The Minister will know the extraordinary achievements of the council. He will know of the many times that my council has come to the House of Commons to receive various national awards. All those things have been achieved despite the fact that my council receives £80 less per household than neighbouring Telford and Wrekin council. Despite that, we still provide tremendous services, yet the Minister wants to abolish my excellent-rated borough council and amalgamate it with all the others. As a result of the Minister’s moves, we have lost our chief executive, Mr. Robin Hooper, an extraordinarily professional and dedicated man, who achieved an amazing amount for Shrewsbury and its infrastructure. However, he has left as a result of the Government’s push for a unitary authority.

What worries me now—I want to hear from the Minister about this—is the next 12 months. They will be critical, because many people are working hard at the borough council to provide good services, but they know that it is going to be abolished by April next year. There will obviously be a certain amount of tension among managers, as some of them look for other jobs, perhaps in the private sector. We are therefore in a difficult position. I do not want services in Shrewsbury to suffer as a result of the coming 12-month interregnum.

Mark Pritchard: Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government have failed to recognise the many years of dedicated service to local government that the council workers to whom he has referred have given Shropshire? Is not the clear message from this rushing through of the order that Labour has turned its back on local government officers throughout England?

Daniel Kawczynski: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend on that point.

I want to make a few very brief final points, as I want to give my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) a chance to speak. In Shropshire, the rural areas already have very large wards, because of the nature of rural villages. In the new unitary authority, the wards will be immense—they will often be much larger than whole geographical constituencies in parts of London—and it will be more difficult for the councillors to represent them. In my estimation, the work of the leader and cabinet members of the unitary authority will become full-time jobs, given the nature and power of the authority. The leader of my borough council is a local businessman, Mr. Peter Nutting, who is also a highly respected member of the local community. How is he going to be able to run a business if he has the equivalent of a full-time job on the council? How are we going to encourage young
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professionals and people with families, the very people whom we want to come into local government, to participate if we turn the positions into full-time posts?

This should not have been a political matter, but every single Labour borough and county councillor voted in favour of this measure, against the wishes of my constituents. Almost every Conservative councillor voted against it. I very much regret that it has become a political matter, but the fact remains that every single Labour borough and county councillor rejected the views of my constituents and supported the Government in ramming through this unitary authority. That is an important point, and I wanted to place it on the record. My constituents have urged me to raise it. The county council has said that it will limit any council tax increase to 3.5 per cent. if we have a unitary authority. I look forward to seeing the rates capped at 3.5 per cent., and if they are not, I shall be asking why.

1.22 am

Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): Today is a dark day for democracy in Shropshire. According to the Government, Shropshire has an excellent council. It has just had its four-star rating confirmed for the second year running, and it is improving strongly. I do not know how it can do that if it is already top-rated, but apparently it can. I regret to say that this change is being proposed for no other reason than to put into effect a party political plan to reduce the number of Conservative councillors and, potentially, Lib Dem councillors—Opposition councillors—in Shropshire.

At present, the two-tier system provides representation close to the people. With one county council and five district councils, we have a total of 244 councillors in Shropshire. That will be reduced to 75 under the proposals. We shall go from having one county councillor representing approximately 4,000 people, and one or two district councillors representing between 1,000 and just over 2,000 people, to one unitary councillor representing 3,000 people. So most people will lose the opportunity to be represented by at least two—in some cases, three—councillors, and will instead be represented by only one.

My constituency, the eighth largest geographical constituency in England, will change from having 58 district councillors and 15 county councillors—a total of 73—to having about 20, depending on what comes out of the boundary committee proposals. Inevitably, by definition, there will be less local knowledge available to those councillors and therefore less local representation. That point was made forcefully by my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski). The decisions will be taken remotely. The base for the new council will be in Shrewsbury, which is some distance from my constituency. Some people will have to travel for more than an hour just to attend a council meeting— [ Interruption. ] The hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) suggests that that is already happening in Herefordshire, and I take it that he is not particularly happy about that.

Mr. Keetch: The old Hereford and Worcester.

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Mr. Dunne: I have taken a position against unitary councils primarily because of the lack of democratic accountability, and not for any other reason. I am not opposing them simply for opposition’s sake. I believe that it is fundamentally wrong to remove decision making from a location close to the people and, to a degree, to centralise it in the county.

I have been encouraged in my position of principle by the response to the ballots across Shropshire. The Minister made the point that some independent assessment was made of the quality of questions and responses to the ballots. The ballots were on questions agreed with the Electoral Commission. The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) tried to argue that there was an unfairness in the way in which the questions were presented. South Shropshire district council, which was then Liberal Democrat-controlled, put out a 16-page booklet, “South Shropshire Matters”, along with the ballot paper. The council was in favour of unitary, so the opponents were given a total of two and a half pages to make their case, while the proponents—as it happens, the Liberal Democrat proponents—had 13 and a half pages. Where is the fairness in that? Despite the overwhelming information bias in favour of unitary, the people who bothered to vote—it was a high turnout of 57 per cent. rather than the 56 per cent. I mentioned earlier—voted against unitary. That makes me feel that I am in touch with what people in my constituency want.

The greatest support, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) mentioned earlier, has come from stakeholders. The stakeholders obliged to be included in the consultation were by and large public sector bodies paid for out of the public purse, so it is no surprise that they came up with the answer that the Government wanted—they are paid to do so. The whole consultation exercise has been a complete sham.

As to democratic accountability, one of the arguments in favour of removing a tier of local government was that it would be more transparent, simple and clear for the people to understand to whom they should be talking about what. Yet under the proposals Shropshire is moving from a two-tier authority in some areas to a four-tier authority. Let me explain that to the Minister in case he has not understood how that will happen.

The unitary council will be at the top. The councils have decided that it will not be practical to run some of the committees on a unitary basis, particularly regulatory committees for planning and licensing, so they are going to set up three areas—north, central and south—underneath the unitary tier. As part of their submission, they had to say that there would be local area committees underneath that. We are to have 27 of those; we are to move from five district councils, which managed the regulatory function and everything else in the past, to the new system of three tiers in the unitary authority. In addition, because some areas with significant populations—Shrewsbury and Atcham is a case in point—did not have a town council, a new town council will be established underneath the three tiers of the unitary. Where is the simplicity in that? It fails that basic test of the Government’s own making.

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I want to touch on some of the practical implications of what the Minister is proposing. He said that he understood the imperative—I think that that was the word he used—of setting out clear orders in respect of which officers’ jobs will be subject to open competition and that he would publish that shortly. I am afraid to say that here we have yet another example of the Government’s difficulties in introducing this legislation, which have arisen ever since the parent Act was first published.

I have already referred to the public involvement in health clauses, which were tacked on as an afterthought; they had nothing at all to do with local government reorganisation. That characterised the passage of the Bill. This has been a second-rate piece of legislation pushed through at the back end of all the other bits of legislation, partly because the Ministers responsible have been chopped and changed every six months—I think that we are on the third Secretary of State from the Department responsible. That is causing considerable concern among the very officers who, as the Minister rightly pointed out, need some clarity about their position. They have no knowledge from one week to the next of when the orders will be made.

The legislation was originally to be concluded before the election that never was—that pushed it back into the latter part of last year. Then it was pushed into the early part of this year. We were supposed to be debating these measures on 4 February and here we are on 19 February. The boundary committee has told the authorities in Shropshire that if the passage of the measures is not concluded by the end of this month, it will not be able to introduce the boundary changes in time for the elections in May 2009. It is saying—and the Government have endorsed this—that the unitary authority may have to be established on existing county council boundaries, with a doubling up of councillors, because that would be the easiest way to proceed. What a way to set about reorganising local government. It is completely shambolic, and it is a direct result of the way in which the legislation has been handled. The lack of clarity is causing considerable frustration among the officers who must deal with this.

Mr. Keetch: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dunne: I hope the hon. Gentleman will excuse me if I do not. My time is very limited.

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