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economic reality that many consultees perceive splits Cheshire between East and West,
although she was not able to produce the number of consultees or any evidence about them. The existence of the opposite view, however, was very plaineven on the No. 10 Downing street website, which today bore nearly 2,000 signatures defending Cheshires status as a unitary whole.
Cheshire is a powerful economy in its own right. It is independent of the surrounding city regions of Liverpool and Manchester, and it requires a strong and coherent strategic approach to development. There is a fundamental misinterpretation of the economic evidence suggesting a split economy in Cheshire, and the decision on the basis of east-west economic flows reveals a simplistic and partial understanding of the economy.
On Monday, the Minister published the results of his Departments stakeholder consultation, which had resulted in 906 responses. There were 27 responses from local government, 64 from town and parish councils, 67 from the public sector, 35 from the business sector and 35 from the voluntary and community sector, as well as 680 public responses. There were 200 further responses which the Department decided to discount.
The Departments report describes overwhelming support for keeping Cheshire together. The county councils proposal was supported by a quarter of town and parish councils, with only a very small number supporting the alternative. Public sector respondents and all the schools were in favour of single unitary status, as were the majority of voluntary and community organisations, and the business community made it very clear that it did not want the change.
I find it extraordinary that although it is clear that only the single-unitary proposal is capable of meeting the broad cross-section of support criterion, that fact is to be ignored and we are to be pushed into a two unitaries arrangement. The Department has been highly selective in its approach to evidence of stakeholder and public support, which suggests that Ministers were aware that many unitary proposals were unlikely to receive public endorsement. The Secretary of State was entirely wrong not to consult the public directly, especially as the invitation to submit proposals in October 2006 stated explicitly that the Department would undertake consultation before making decisions.
The practical difficulties are such that problems are already being posed to library services for the elderly, to special educational needs teams, to the way in which we plan the development of education for the future, and to childrens care services.
Disaggregation of the county councils engineering services will duplicate activities and increase costs, and the waste problem will increase enormouslyquite apart from the difficulty involved in dividing the assets. I could go on to describe the problems that will be caused to trading standards and staff, and the real problems involved in disaggregating county-based services.
I have been alone in this, and it has been convenient for some of my colleagues to suggest that I have been seduced by the arguments of a Conservative county council. I have been here for a long time, and it takes a bit of effort for any man to seduce me, particularly when it comes to politics and economics. I reflect the views of those who have consistently expressed to me their anger and astonishment at the way in which the issue has been handled, and their total disbelief that a Labour Government could proceed with a project that is neither affordable nor supported, which does not provide value for money, and which will not fulfil the criteria that were originally set out.
I can only say that I am astounded by this behaviour. I am astounded that we are putting my constituency and those of other Members through the mangle at enormous speed by telling them that they must run for a shadow authoritythat they must come up with conclusions, and that they must then go forward to elections to a shadow authority which is not capable of working together and where the two particular committees that have been brought together will find it extraordinarily difficult to come up with any sensible views.
I believe above all that the Minister should have had the guts to say tonight, We wanted to do this. The Secretary of State wanted to do it and took this decision, and has never given a political or economic reason or any argument that would stand up to examination. I cannot believe that this is going ahead, but if it does, it will not do so with my support.
My party is very supportive of the concept of unitary local government where it is appropriate for the area concerned. However, the process that gets us towards that is crucial, and there are a number of issues that we need to bear in mind. The time scales imposed on this particular process have restricted local debate so that consultation has been rudimentary. I welcome the fact that some of the proposals have been discussed
for a long time prior to the process, but the time scales set out under the provisions have restricted proper formal consultation.
In many of the bidding processes that have already been debated in the House, one authority has been advancing one case while another has been advancing another, and they have tended to do so in a self-interested way. As time is constrained, the process has not allowed for a more sensible debate, and people have retreated into silos, which is unfortunate. That is a feature of how the process has been set up. Many of the polls, referendums and consultations that have been undertaken have been seen to be flawed and called into question because they have had to be carried out rapidly and there were limitations on what could be achieved.
The short period available to compile bids may lead to having hostages to fortune later on that come back to haunt the people tasked with implementing the bids, when they come to do so. We have also heard that the time scale has influenced some authorities to react to the response of other authorities. For example, a county council might bid, and districts might feel that they have to react in a certain way. That is another feature of the time-scale constraints placed on the process.
What will happen if the order is passed? In contrast with some other areas, including my own area of Cornwall, in Cheshire the proposal is for a shadow council to be elected, instead of having a period in which representatives of existing authorities come together to draw up how things will move forward. There are arguments for and against both those processes. Clearly, where officers are to be appointed, the shadow authority has the electoral mandate to be able to carry that out. However, with two very new authorities, the situation is different from that which pertains in other bid areas where existing authorities cover the area.
Christine Russell: I assure the hon. Gentleman that there are joint implementation teams in Cheshire that include officers and members of the six districts and the county council. They are working together extremely well and constructively and are on target to deliver the two new authorities.
Dan Rogerson: My concern is that these are two new authorities, and some councillors who are elected to the shadow authorities might be inexperienced; we know that many existing councillors will not stand for re-election because they are not happy with the proposals. As a result, some councillors might have to get up to speed quickly, without existing councillors being able to deal with the work.
There is a great deal of disquiet, particularly among those who have been involved in delivering services at county level, that the two new authorities may not be able to deliver services and that the efficiencies will not be delivered because services will be divided rather than brought together. That problem is crucial
What could have been a positive process has undeniably been a negative one in terms of some of this debate. It has become divisive, and whatever the relative merits of having a single unitary authority, two unitary authorities or a two-tier option, the way in which the process has directed people in Cheshire to participate is unfortunate. It is ironic that one of the
most powerful arguments for having unitary local government is that it simplifies structures and decision making and means that electors have fewer institutions to deal with when they have to resolve a problem with a particular service, because this process is leading to further misunderstanding among people in Cheshire as to exactly what is being proposed. That remains a problem for the county and an important lesson for the Government. Whenever they consider something like this in future, they must allow far greater time scales, so that proper consultation can take place and people can move forward in a far more positive way.
Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): I shall be brief. I want to correct some inaccuracies. A number of hon. Members have said in Cheshire. Cheshire is, of course, an historic county. As the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) will recall, its boundaries included Wirral, Stockport and so on. Those areas disappeared off from Cheshire some time ago. In the early 1990s, Halton and Warrington became unitary authorities. When the hon. Gentleman lived up there, Halton was half in Lancashire and half in Cheshire. The notion that this proposal is splitting Cheshire is fallacious, and we should put that on the record once and for all. Cheshire started to change geographically a considerable time ago.
I have received a number of e-mails telling me that I am destroying 1,000 years of historyI am sure that other hon. Members have received similar correspondence. I have been around the political system for a long time. I was around in the 1974 local government reorganisation, when a substantial part of Cheshire was separated offthat was not quite 1,000 years agoand in the subsequent reorganisation in the 1990s. This proposal does not split Cheshire; it splits the remaining part of Cheshire. For the purposes for which you and I consider counties, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the historic county remains, although Cheshire is a minor county in cricket.
The second misconception is that the proposal splits the county councilit does not. It is about seven authorities becoming two. That is a matter of fact, and the efficiency gains come from it. The third point that I want to makeI mentioned this to the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill)is that it has been the policy of Ellesmere Port and Neston borough council, on the basis of a three-party agreement, to support this proposal. I hope that Opposition Members will accept that that is said with absolute sincerity, because it is an all-party position.
The proposal makes sense because economically Cheshire faces two different ways. The west of the countymy part of the countyis part of an economic unit generally called the Deeside hub which is one of the fastest growing parts of the British economy. We have a little local difficulty with the significance of the Welsh boundary and indeed the Merseyside boundary, but they work, and the area works as an economic unit that transcends the local government boundaries. The reality is that that part of the economy faces into north Wales and into Merseyside. Indeed, when I dealing with the Vauxhall Motors case last year, presenting an argument for support
from General Motors Europe, I discovered that more than 1,000 people working at Vauxhall travelled in from north Wales. That is a dynamic local economy.
The relationships with Crewe and Nantwich are almost non-existent. The good folk of Crewe and Nantwich work in that area and towards the Potteries and Manchester. The economy faces two ways [ Interruption. ] My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) has had her say [ Interruption. ] I can be even ruder.
There is a fundamental argument in favour of a split somewhere down the centre of the county. I would have preferred it to be slightly more to the west, but that would have been the three unitary solution that was dismissed at a much earlier stage by the county. First, we need to remember the history of the countythis is not about splitting into two, but about seven becoming two. Secondly, there is the powerful argument that the economy faces two ways, which is a sound argument in favour of the proposal. Therefore, I ask the House to support it.
This latest local government restructuring has been an extremely painful experience. It has set council against council and councillor against councillor. Some of us believe that it is a way for the Government to reduce the number of Conservative councils and of Conservative councillors, so that the Government can take over the Local Government Association, but I am sure that I must be wrong about that.
The process has been painful. I believe that the Cheshire county council and the six borough and district councils should have embarked on a programme to improve the two-tier system. They should have learned from and built on the experience of the pathfinder authorities, and they should have implemented the propositions in Strong and Prosperous Communities, which was a Government document. The councils should have developed the devolution of real power and responsibilities to parish, town and community councils. Sadly, they did not do that in Cheshire.
The hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall) is right to say that the councils broke ranks. As a result, when it came to the real consultation, instead of being able to negotiate an improved two-tier system of local governmentwhich would have been overwhelmingly accepted in Cheshirewe were left with two options. One was for a single unitary authority, based on the Cheshire county council, and the other was for two unitary authoritieseast Cheshire, and west Cheshire and Chester. The Minister and his colleagues decided that the two unitary proposal was their preferred solution to the problems of local government in Cheshire. On 18 December, the announcement was made that Cheshire would have two unitary authorities, based on the three councils in east Cheshire and the three councils in west Cheshire. I personally regret that, but that is the realpolitik.
I sympathise with the passion with which the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody)
spoke. In many ways, I share her concern. At the end of the day, I supported the proposal for two unitary authorities because Macclesfield borough council was strongly in favour of it. When the third option of the status quo was removed, and the choice was between a single unitary authority and two unitary authorities, my borough council was strongly in favour of having two. I have to say to the hon. Lady, whose passion impressed me, that I felt obliged to support my council and the people of Macclesfield whoby a majority, if letters in the press and other representations are taken into accountsupported the idea that Macclesfield should be part of the east Cheshire authority.
I want to be brief to allow many of my colleagues to get in. I want to say, constructively, that the seven Cheshire local authoritiesthe six borough and district councils and the county councilhave lost no time in establishing joint committees for east Cheshire and for west Cheshire and Chester, as the Minister said. They have also set up related joint implementation teams of officers. That shows a positive attitude. It builds on the preparatory work undertaken by the sponsoring authorities, and is in accordance with the provisions of the draft order that we are considering. The joint committees have met several times informally in advance of the making of the order and a joint liaison committee has also been set up to deal with overarching issues. We cannot always look back on such matters as much as I would personally wish to do so.
The east and west Cheshire joint implementation teams have met weekly since the beginning of this year, with positive and dynamic input, particularlythis will surprise the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich from senior county council managers, who are leading key areas of work, including work in people services, human resources and drafting the implementation plan. Specialists in key services operated by the county council and its partners support that work. In all the arrangements, all seven local authorities and their partners are actively and positively involved with major partners, signalling their desire to be more fully engaged. Good progress is being made.
I regret that the restructuring orders are being introduced. Change is not required, but we were faced with two options. Instead of telling the Government that they would seek to co-operate to achieve a more efficient, improved two-tier system, the six district and borough councils and the county council in Cheshire did not work together. The major part of the county, the county council, broke ranks. As a result, we were faced with the two options. Of those two options, the one that is the subject of the order has my tacit support. I believe that localism in local government is critical. People want to identify with their county councillorsor their councillors, as they will be in the future. That can be better achieved by having the two unitary authorities and a smaller structure, rather than a dramatically large council.
I have every respect for the county council. I have the great honour of being a deputy lieutenant of the county and I want to see much of the tradition of the county retained. Although I deeply regret what is happening, the fact is that we are faced with a fait accompli. Of the two options, I went for the two unitary authorities.
Mr. Mike Hall (Weaver Vale) (Lab): First, I thank the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) for the way in which he has put on the record where we are now in terms of the debate. When I campaigned for unitary local government in Warrington and Halton, Macclesfield should have had unitary status at the same time, and then we might well not have had this debate.
I have been a strong supporter of unitary local government. It brings local government closer to the people, removes the confusion of the two-tier system and places large responsibilities on those authorities that take over. That is the way forward.
I shall be honest with the House: like my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), I originally favoured the three unitary authority approach for Cheshire. That was the agreed position of the six district councils in the county, but the Government said that it was not acceptable. The districts considered the matter again and, following an intervention from Conservative Front-BenchersI make no criticism of them for thatfive of the six districts said that they would support an enhanced two-tier arrangement.
That was against their better instincts, as the districts wanted unitary local government, but they were told in no uncertain terms that they were to support enhanced two tier. The districts had been in agreement, but what broke the mould was the vote taken by the county council in support of a resolution that Cheshire should become a single unitary authority. It put a huge amount of money from council tax payers into the campaign, and that forced the districts to go back to the drawing board.
The districts came up with the two unitary authority solutionthat is, east and west Cheshirethat my hon. Friend the Minister set out earlier from the Dispatch Box. That is the point at which the campaign became difficult. Cheshire county council embraced the campaign for a single unitary authority, but it also began to do some serious scaremongering, saying that the Government were proposing to call the two unitary authorities Manshire and Merseyshire.
That was absolute nonsense, but the county council then claimed that it was campaigning to stop Cheshire being split up. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston said, the county had 15 local authorities in 1974. They were responsible for delivering local government in the traditional shire county of Cheshire, but all that has changed. The county council has now proposed abolishing itself and the six other local authorities to create two unitary authorities, but its premise was that that would save the county council. That incorrect assertion has been repeated again this evening.
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