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My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) has taken three positions on this proposal. She was in favour of the status quo, then of enhanced two tier, and then of a single unitary county council. I might not disagree if the option before us was enhanced two tier, and certainly not if the proposal was for three unitary councils to cover the area covered by the county council and the six districts. However, I agree with the hon. Member for Macclesfield, for whom
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I have huge respect, in that I do not want a single unitary authority for the whole area covered by the county council and the six districts.

I turn now to the important question of affordability. The position adopted by the city of Chester was put forward in a report that was backed up by independent accountants. It was that the pay-back period for the two unitary authority solution for Cheshire would be four years, and that money—£100 for each council tax payer affected—would be available to equalise council tax. That is a very important matter, but the report also stated that money would be made available for new services, if the two unitary authorities wanted to spend it. I think that those are fundamental factors in favour of the reorganisation that we are discussing.

I appreciate that other hon. Members wish to speak in this short debate, so I shall end with two final points. The first has to do with how we take the matter forward. An important debate is under way, but Cheshire county council and the six districts have got together and accepted what the Government are proposing. They have not mounted any legal challenge to the order that is before the House: instead, they have got down to working out how to deliver two unitary authorities in the county, and they are doing a fantastic job.

I want to commend two individuals for the work that they have done. It is not often that civil servants get the recognition that they deserve, but the lead two chief executives for the proposed west Cheshire unitary and the proposed east Cheshire unitary have done a fantastic job in taking the agenda forward, and they have not been held back by the debates that have gone on in some parts of the House today. Mrs. Anne Bingham-Holmes, the chief executive of Vale Royal borough council, is a first-class chief executive. She works for a Conservative local authority that is fully behind the proposals that we are debating, and I commend her. Viv Horton, the chief executive of Macclesfield borough council—the council that my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield represents—is also a first-class chief executive. She is leading the way for that authority to make east Cheshire a unitary authority. Now is not the time to emphasise our divisions; we should be saying, “This is what we’ll do, and what is in the best interests of everybody whom we represent.” We should take that agenda forward in a positive way.

12.45 am

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton) (Con): I shall keep my remarks brief because two of my Conservative colleagues and the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christine Russell) want to speak. I do not disagree with much of what was said by the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall), who has a neighbouring constituency to mine. We certainly want the east and west authorities to work, if the plans for them go ahead. We want the transition to be as smooth as possible, and we want costs to be kept to a minimum. It is alarming that, since the process began, the Government’s estimates of the cost have nearly doubled, and the estimate of the savings has nearly halved. I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the two chief executives that I deal with as a constituency MP, Anne Bingham-Holmes and Vivienne Horton. I wish them well in the task ahead.

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The hon. Gentleman is right that when the members of Cheshire county council to say on the issue, it began the process that led to tonight’s debate. However, we have an opportunity to stop the process tonight—or rather tomorrow, when we vote using the pink slips. We could stop a process that many people in the county, and many Members present who represent the county, believe is wrong, unwarranted, undemocratic and unsupported by the facts. When the original process began, following the White Paper and the invitation to the councils to submit a bid, the Government said that they wanted any bids for unitary status to command broad support. Indeed, I think that the Minister said something similar to that in his opening remarks.

We are about to proceed with a proposal that was initially supported by only one council group on one district council in one part of the county. That council group lost its position as the leadership group on that council in subsequent local elections. It is true that different district councils—faced with the fait accompli, as my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) put it, of Cheshire county council’s decision—then worked on their own proposals for two or three unitary authorities in Cheshire, but let us remember that the proposal that we are being asked to support tonight was originally supported by only one council group on one district council.

Christine Russell: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Osborne: Yes, but briefly, because I want to give the hon. Lady a chance to speak.

Christine Russell: I assure the hon. Gentleman that when Chester city council made its bid in January 2007, there was a Liberal-Labour administration, but the bid was wholly backed by the Conservative group. That group, which took power last May, has had nine months to overturn that resolution, and it has not done so.

Mr. Osborne: As I understand it, a Conservative group on Chester city council made different proposals from those that the previous leadership—[Hon. Members: “No.”] Well, we could debate the issue at greater length if we had the time, but sadly we do not, because of the timetabling.

I return to the point that the proposal was not originally supported by a large number of councils in Cheshire. On every attempt to test public opinion in Cheshire, it has not been supported by the public; that applies to the referendum held in Crewe and Nantwich and the opinion survey carried out in the county. The Government have refused to hold a referendum, even though when we discussed local government reorganisation just four years ago there was a proposal for a referendum, not just on regional government, but on the local government arrangements in Cheshire.

The House is left to decide whether to impose on the people of Cheshire a form of local government that has not received any public support. We can make many arguments for and against the proposed changes, but striking warnings have been made by, among others, members of the education system in Cheshire—teachers, head teachers and governors. The concern of the fire authority is striking, and it is also striking that
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the majority of Members of Parliament representing Cheshire oppose the local government reorganisation. We can make all these points, but the central point is surely this: in the end, democratic arrangements and local government structures should be based on identities that people have in their hearts, not in the minds of Whitehall Departments.

The current system is broadly supported by local people. There is the identity of Cheshire. Although bits have been chopped off over the past 30 years, as the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) pointed out, the historic heart of the county remains and there is a county council based on that. Then there are local arrangements, which in my case mean that constituents can look to Macclesfield or Vale Royal borough council. We are about to throw away these arrangements in pursuit of a proposal that does not command public support. That is not the way to conduct our business in a democratic system.

Of course we will try to make the arrangements work if they are voted through tomorrow, and we will do everything we can to ensure that disruption for local people is kept to a minimum, but in the deferred Division that will come later today, we have an opportunity to stop the proposal in its tracks and get on with delivering services such as education, social services and housing, which people want us to be talking about both in Cheshire and in the House of Commons.

12.51 am

Christine Russell (City of Chester) (Lab): In view of the time, I shall make a few quick points that have not been made by colleagues. I hope I have clarified the position regarding the political stance in Chester. When the bid was put in, all three political parties backed it. The party now in charge of the town hall has not overturned that resolution.

The City of Chester has a proud history that dates back 2,000 years. Up to 1974, the borough council—the city—ran all its public services. As hon. Members have said, there was huge disappointment in the city in 1995, when the previous Government, after consulting on local government reorganisation, decided to award Warrington and Halton boroughs unitary status, but left the rest of Cheshire as two tier. I have been involved in politics in Chester since 1980 and I can assure the House that the aspiration of the people whom I represent and have always represented is for local government to be local in Chester.

The proposals in the order before us complement the current delivery pattern for local services. The Western Cheshire primary care trust entirely supports the policies because its boundaries mirror the boundaries of the proposed City of Chester and West Cheshire new unitary authority. Cheshire constabulary has three command units. One covers Halton and Warrington, one covers west Cheshire and one covers east Cheshire. The fire service is organised on similar lines. My constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) and the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) share most of the same local health services. We have a joint magistrates bench. So the delivery of all those services replicates the proposal before us.

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I emphasise how confusing the present system is. I say that from the perspective of the Member of Parliament for City of Chester, where there is a visible landmark, the town hall. County hall is only half a mile away, but is invisible to most people. The assumption is that the town hall delivers the services. It is visible and it sends out the council tax bills. But the reality is that 80 per cent. of local service funding comes from the county council.

The present two-tier system is totally confusing, and I could give many examples of that. People are confused by the fact that the city council collects their rubbish while the county council is responsible for waste disposal, and the city council is responsible for granting planning permissions while the county council is the transport authority. That does not make for good local government. One good example of that is that four years ago, the Government awarded Cheshire county council £4.8 million to provide an extra care facility for elderly frail people but, after four years, those two authorities still have not got their act together. I am led to believe that a site has finally been identified, but the present two-tier system does not work. There is no joined-up working.

As other hon. Members have said, the joint implementation teams are already working well together. I hope that all hon. Members recognise that this is a time of anxiety for the thousands of employees who work for the seven local authorities across Cheshire. It has been suggested that we should defer the decision because there has been insufficient consultation, but I can assure the House that people in Chester have been talking about local government reorganisation ever since the last round ended in 1995.

12.56 am

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury) (Con): I shall be extremely brief in the hope that my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) will have an opportunity to make a brief contribution.

It is clear that Cheshire does not want this worst of all options imposed on it, as testified to by five of the eight Members of Parliament from Cheshire who are present today. They are the majority and they are representing their constituents in showing that they do not want this measure to be rammed through. The only way we will defeat the Government is if the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) has done a wonderful thing and managed to persuade enough of her colleagues to sign the pink form at the deferred Division later today to reject the order, or if the Lords defeat it.

Mrs. Dunwoody: I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the measure is subject to a three-line Whip.

Mr. O'Brien: I am downcast and very disappointed.

It is clear that there was no demand for this measure. There has been no identification of anything that has been so bad that it needs to be changed and fixed. Two-tier working has improved over the years and it could have been improved further. According to objective tests, the delivery of services was excellent all round, and education and social services were excellent. Both of those are now at risk because of the confusion of this rammed-through and imposed solution.

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Mr. Mike Hall: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. O'Brien: I will not give way, given the length of time for which the hon. Gentleman spoke. However, he put his finger on one problem, which was that once anybody admitted that there had to be a unitary approach, not least when the county council voted, the difficulty of maintaining the consistency of the argument for an improved two-tier system was lost. It was a great shame that many people were tempted to support that and fell for the trap that was laid for them by a Labour party, politically driven agenda, which was to halve the number of Conservative activists through councillors in the county, and to ensure that there was a real problem in identifying where there would any kind of local accountability as part of the great aftermath of having lost any ability to impose a regionally elected solution on Cheshire.

This is all part of a political agenda where inevitably no one ever votes for lower pay, lower pay-offs and lower pensions. This will all cost a lot more than the Government are pretending that it will. Therefore, when this happens and the council tax is under pressure, it does not matter who is in charge—I would like to predict that it will be the Conservatives—it will be the Government’s fault, and we will be able to say that with truth, because it is the Government who have engineered this expensive, unnecessary solution. We should reject it and take this last opportunity to stand up for our constituents and not fall for this terrible trap set by the Government, who do not like the idea of good, local democracy operating in Cheshire.

12.59 am

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): Most of the major points have already been made, but I should like to say a few words on behalf of my constituents, who ask me, “Why Cheshire? Why can it not be like Derbyshire or Staffordshire and not have to go through this dreadful process in which one part of the county is set against another and one set of councillors is set against another?”

There has been no support for the Government’s proposals; most would have preferred the status quo or an improved two-tier system. Frankly, the consultation has been lacking—yes, there is a great long list of so-called stakeholders, but I want to know why the ordinary people have not been consulted. They want to know that too.

A MORI poll revealed that in Congleton constituency, there was 16 per cent. support for a single county unitary authority, only 27 per cent. support for a two-unitary solution, but 55 per cent. support for improved working of the two-tier system. In addition, my council has gone to the High Court about the unlawfulness of the process. It lost its case, but was given permission to appeal. That appeal has been heard and we are awaiting the outcome. We know, of course, that this process will not be stopped.

The cost will be ginormous. When has anyone ever known a reorganisation to cost less? It never has, and that cost will have to be borne by my constituents among other local town council tax payers of Cheshire.

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Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I shall call Mr. Andrew Stunell if he respects the fact that I need to call the Minister in one minute’s time.

1.1 am

Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): I shall take only that minute, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The financial and community cases do not stand up and the timetable is far too short. My constituents’ children go to schools in Cheshire and many of my constituents work there. I lived there for 24 years and was an elected representative there for 12. Having said that, I rest my case.

1.2 am

John Healey: With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to reply. Tonight, we have heard views from all sides, put with passion, reason and concern in varying combinations depending on the contribution. I should like to correct some significant inaccuracies and try to deal with some important concerns that have come up. The invitation to councils across England was made in October 2006. It asked for both unitary proposals and proposals for pathfinders to improve two-tier arrangements. We received five proposals for improving two-tier working, none from Cheshire.

I should say that we have not disclosed the detail of the independent financial assessment; that was conducted as advice to Ministers and was therefore covered by section 35 as an exemption from freedom of information requirements. However, I have made clear the principal conclusions of the assessment. In the view of the independent experts, the transition costs were certainly greater than those in respect of the proposing authorities, at £25 million. However, the payback comes within just over three and a half years and the annual savings are more than £16 million a year.

Opinion is divided about support, as we have seen tonight. However, there is a cross-section of support, which gives us confidence that if we go ahead we can make a go of the two unitary authorities. Not only the three district councils back the two-unitary solution—important businesses in the region, such as AstraZeneca and the Cheshire building society also do, and six of the 20 parishes that expressed a view do. The chief constable is neutral but marginally in favour of the two-unitary option, essentially because it would be more coterminous with his basic command units. One of the advantages is better strategic leadership; that is why East Cheshire NHS Trust and West Cheshire primary care trust also support the proposal, as does the West Cheshire college, the Highways Agency and Age Concern East Cheshire.

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