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9 July 2008 : Column 442WH—continued

Sadly, just in relation to one of the options, we know that Norwich city council has not had its accounts signed off by the Audit Commission for the third year running. Surely, on that criterion alone, the council should be ruled out of any unitary authority submission. I am amazed that the boundary committee is putting forward such a proposal, as I would have thought that both the Audit Commission and any judicial review would take that into account. The Under-Secretary will know about the history of local government reorganisation.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): My hon. Friend is right about affordability and value for money. Has he considered the question of administrative efficiency? Instead of the current situation, if the proposal goes through, our neighbours just below us in Suffolk will have three councils trying to deal with one problem common to all of them: coastal protection.

Mr. Simpson: As a member of the Public Accounts Committee, my hon. Friend makes a good point. Numerous other examples such as the one that he has given show how councils throughout Norfolk will be affected. Who will pay for the extra costs that will undoubtedly ensue—the taxpayer? We already know that a £25 million black hole has been revealed in the budget forecast for the Northumberland unitary council. That is in just one area. We have no idea what might occur in Norfolk. We have no answers to a whole raft of questions, and there is no way of making an assessment. I would be interested to know the Minister’s view on that.

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A further point that I wish to raise is that of democratic accountability. From the beginning of the exercise, it was obvious that there is only limited enthusiasm for unitary authorities. With support from the Liberals and Greens, the Labour party in Norwich—not every member of the Labour party or every Labour Member of Parliament for Norwich—pressed hard for a unitary Norwich, preferably with enlarged boundaries. The Labour party in Yarmouth and Lowestoft pressed for a Yartoft solution, but the rest of Norfolk was either hostile or indifferent.

The boundary committee has made it clear that it is not into taking direct account of public opinion; instead, it talks of taking account of the opinion of stakeholders. The problem is that, in narrow political terms, the unitary authority has been rejected in the Norwich area. Labour councillors lost their seats on that issue in May 2007 and in May this year. Indeed, in Yarmouth, the Labour group leader, who is the most fervent advocate of the Yartoft solution, lost his seat as well. That is democratic accountability in the raw, rather than theoretical accountability. Those were real elections, and those of us who are elected representatives know that they are the biggest attention grabbers of all.

We have no way to assess local opinion, and that is wrong. Certainly, the view of local councillors and MPs should be publicly assessed and contested. There would be some merit in having a referendum on all the proposals across Norfolk, rather than just on the three that have been put forward. Our constituents should have their views and opinions taken into account. We are always talking about the democratic deficit, but the boundary committee’s way of carrying out the exercise is the worst kind of establishment quango methodology, and it has rightly enraged local opinion.

It is totally unacceptable for any of the boundary committee proposals to go forward and for one of them to be selected by the Government on the basis of their own criteria or a party political criterion that none of us knows about. I should add that the Government’s own democratic mandate must be in a pretty poor state at present if they have to force through something that the majority of public opinion in Norfolk will perhaps not accept.

I suggest to the Under-Secretary that he halts the boundary committee inquiry, because it is flawed in its terms of reference, in its ability to provide realistic costings and in the fact that there is a democratic deficit. The Norfolk single unitary authority, with its proposal for five local areas and 21 community partnership boards—what wonderful management speak—sounds like quangoism gone mad. If that option were to go forward, given the democratic deficit, I can well imagine that, in two or three years’ time, a future Government or council will come up with the idea that between the parish councils and county council there ought to be another layer of government just for the sake of purpose—not in areas but in what should be called districts. We would then end up resurrecting the current districts and two-tier system of government that, so far, has suited Norfolk exceptionally well. The Under-Secretary has a responsibility in relation to this. My colleagues and I have raised fundamental issues, and I urge him to take action now to restore confidence in government in Norfolk.

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11.15 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Parmjit Dhanda): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Weir. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on securing the debate. This is not the first such debate on reorganisation that I have responded to.

The hon. Gentleman made some interesting points about local support for the schemes and what has been proposed by the boundary committee in Norfolk. I will not go into the detail of what has or has not been put forward because that has to follow a process. As he said, three proposals have been put forward—a favoured proposal and two alternatives—which will be consulted upon over the next 12 weeks. Full consideration must be given to those proposals and I am sure that all hon. Members here today will get their views across.

As hon. Members are aware, the boundary committee will report to the Government and we will consider that from the end of December and make our decisions in January. I do not want to cut across that process in any way, and I am afraid I will have to disappoint the hon. Gentleman by saying that I will not be calling for that process to be stopped or halted in any way.

I shall speak about why the process exists and why unitaries are making a difference where they exist. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and other local stakeholders will make sure that their voices are heard during the consultation process in the coming weeks. In relation to support, I note that even today—just this morning—there was the following quote in the local media in Norfolk:

That was a comment by Julie Garbutt, chief executive officer for the NHS in Norfolk. Peter Barry, president of the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce, has said:

He went on to say that to do so it must

Mr. Bacon: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Dhanda: In a moment. There is one more quote that I am sure the hon. Gentleman is eager to hear. It is from his chief constable, Ian McPherson, who said:

Mr. Bacon: I, too, am familiar with that quote. Julie Garbutt, Peter Barry and the chief constable are fine public servants, but none of them is elected. The right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), a member of the Minister’s own party and a former Cabinet Minister, is elected. He called the proposal for unitary stupid. Furthermore, Ian McPherson, the chief constable, said

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Mr. Dhanda: The hon. Gentleman is talking about one specific proposal. As he is aware, more than one proposal is being considered, although there is a favoured option from the boundary committee. I am sure that during the process, hon. Members will make further proposals. He is right to say that not everyone is totally satisfied.

The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk does not believe that there will be any savings. I think that he has been quoted as saying that he thinks that such a move could cost local constituents £100 million. I am a Member of Parliament in Gloucestershire, where there is two-tier local government, and his area is not dissimilar to mine. I am sure hon. Members will accept that some confusion is caused among constituents by having one authority responsible for roads and another responsible for the humps on those roads, and by having one authority responsible for pavements and another responsible for the shrubbery on those pavements.

I have known that to cause some confusion among local councillors who serve on the authorities. I have even known the question of which authority is responsible for which powers to cause confusion among Members of Parliament, not least in debates in this Chamber. I do not think that anyone would seriously suggest in this day and age that no savings can be made by bringing those powers together.

Dr. Gibson: My hon. Friend the Minister might not know the answer to this question immediately. Do boundary committee recommendations ever get turned over at a later stage in the process? Is there a record of that?

Mr. Dhanda: As I said, I will not prejudge what the boundary committee will come up with after its consultative process. It will make its recommendations, which will have to be considered by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State before being considered by the House. There is a democratic process that has to take place, and rightly so.

The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk has spoken about a figure of £100 million. I understand that the combined one-off transitional costs for the seven areas that will undergo such transitions—Bedfordshire, Cheshire, Cornwall, Durham, Northumberland, Shropshire and Wiltshire—will be £138 million, so I have to disagree with the suggested figure of £100 million. I do not think that that is realistic. Those seven authorities anticipate annual savings of about £100 million.

A short time ago, I responded to a debate in this Chamber initiated by the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski). The plans for and the change to a unitary Shropshire authority have been led by local Conservative councillors. They have been at the vanguard of those proposals because they believe that they will result in annual savings of about £14 million to their local electors.

Mr. Simpson: Will the Minister come back to the central point? Whether or not one agrees with the boundary committee is not the question. Whether or not it is supported by members of the Conservative, Labour or Liberal parties is not the question. Having declined to put forward perhaps eight or nine other proposals, how can it put forward for consideration
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three proposals for which it has done no costings whatever? From what I understand from my right hon. Friend Lord MacGregor, a former Treasury Minister, and from our questioning of the boundary committee on the issue, the costings will be undertaken by a private outside firm. That is not done in any other area of private practice or Government.

Mr. Dhanda: It is difficult for people to make costings when there is a plethora of proposals before them. The costings need to come now, when there are one, two or three serious options to consider. That is the appropriate time. To say that we cannot anticipate savings when there are currently two tiers of local authorities is not a realistic position. That is where the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk and I probably disagree, but I will go into more detail on costings in a moment.

I will try to respond to as many as possible of the points that have been raised. There is no role for Government at this stage in the boundary committee’s process. We have to go through the consultative process. Hon. Members are aware of the independence of the boundary committee. I am sure they will appreciate that at this time I cannot comment specifically on the draft proposals, although one point that has been made by hon. Members is about how the cross-border proposition came about. I can only assume that because two Members of Parliament who are also serious stakeholders in the process have been making such proposals, they have been considered during the process. [Interruption.] That is only an assumption on my part. It was the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk himself who said that two local Members of Parliament wanted to see a cross-border relationship.

On cost, we heard the figure of £100 million from the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk. Perhaps his views on that need to be fleshed out in greater detail in the course of the debate over the next 12 weeks. [Interruption.] If I am mistaken and the hon. Gentleman did not refer to £100 million in costs, I apologise to him. I do not see such a figure as being based in reality.

It is for the boundary committee to judge the affordability of any proposals for Norfolk. The committee has clearly stated that it has not sought at this stage to assess the affordability of its draft proposals, not least because of the resource cost to local authorities of providing the necessary financial information in relation to the large number of unitary patterns that were put forward during stage 1 of the process. It is difficult to do that when there are almost as many sets of propositions as there are Members of Parliament, and councillors who have their own views, too.

Mr. Simpson: The Minister is generous in taking interventions. The Government set down some instructions and criteria for the boundary committee to work to. If it is not working to those, or it cannot explain how it came to its conclusions, what are we to think? When we met the boundary committee, it could not even define strategic leadership. Like pronouncements from the Pope, do these things just emerge? What are the criteria? That is what I am trying to get at.

Mr. Dhanda: I was not at the meeting with the hon. Gentleman and I do not want to do the boundary committee’s job for it. He makes a good point about
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being able to demonstrate the savings. That will be part of the committee’s role. It will need to do that, and now that it has narrowed the possibilities down to a favoured option and other variants to look at, it will have the opportunity to do so.

I assure hon. Members that all costs incurred as a result of reorganisation must be met locally without increasing council tax. That is an important point to make to reassure our electors. The request for advice clearly states that any change to a unitary structure should deliver value for money and be self-financing, so transitional costs overall must be more than offset by savings over a period—the payback period—of no more than five years.

We heard that there is a democratic deficit, as no one in Norfolk wants unitary authorities. Again, we have been clear on that issue. No proposals for unitary local government will be implemented unless there is a broad cross-section of support. Perhaps that will not be to the tune that the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk would like. We recognise that a change to a unitary structure might not carry consensus from or within all sectors. That’s life, unfortunately.

The hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) has taken part in debates in this Chamber in which we discussed issues such as fire control. We may not have across-the-board agreement on such issues, but sometimes it is important to make changes where there is good support across the board. I mentioned the views of the local health service, the chief constable of Norfolk and others, and hon. Members agreed about the importance of those views in the debate that will take place. The chief constable has made his view clear, as have the East of England strategic health authority, the Norfolk Coalition of Disabled People, and Crossroads, an organisation that delivers personal care to enable carers in Norfolk to have a regular break.

It is not my role during the debate to say that a particular proposal should be accepted. I genuinely hope that all Members of Parliament will be involved in a constructive debate during the consultation process over the next 12 weeks. When the boundary committee has had the opportunity to consider what all hon. Members, their constituents and other stakeholders have had to say, I am sure there will be a positive set of proposals for the Secretary of State to consider at the end of the year, and I am sure the debate will go on, not least in this place. It is appropriate for hon. Members to have their say, but I hope I have got across the message that that needs to be done in a balanced way—

Mr. Mike Weir (in the Chair): Order. We have run out of time.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended.

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Severn Barrage

2.30 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I am delighted to have the opportunity to debate the economic costs of the Severn barrage. I am delighted also to have secured a debate of an hour and a half. I hope that all right hon. and hon. Members have the chance to speak.

The topic was carefully chosen. I do not want to discuss the biodiversity impact; that has been debated both here and in the other place. The Westminster Hall debate was instigated by the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb), and there was a debate in the other place in December. I want to concentrate on the costs.

I bring to the attention of the House a report—the Minister knows of it—by Frontier Economics, which is a wonderful name for such an organisation. The report was commissioned by eight non-governmental organisations that are opposed to the barrage. I shall speak a little about some aspects of that report. I know that some hon. Members will want to talk about other matters.

I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Dr. Naysmith) in his place. If my hon. Friend catches your eye, Mr. Weir, he may want to tell us about the views of the port of Bristol and the impact of the barrier on that important organisation, which will save me the effort.

I hope that this will be the third of my recent successes—I like to help the Government whenever I can. The Minister was gracious enough to find time to allow the Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Act 2006 (Sources of Energy and Technologies) Order 2008 through last week. That order will allow ground source pumps to be part of the panoply of wonderful microgeneration activities that are now possible, and I am eternally grateful to him for that. I am also grateful to the Department for Communities and Local Government team, which listened to my pleas for community land trusts to be included in the Housing and Regeneration Bill. I am now going for a hat trick. The Minister will hear me appealing for changes to be made in the way in which we consider the barrage. I hope to move the debate forward. However, I am aware that others want to speak, so I shall not take too long.

In my part of the world, the barrage is controversial. Of all its possible effects, my constituency will probably face the greatest impact. We have a port—the wonderful port of Sharpness. I suspect that it would not survive, even if the great port of Bristol does, because of where the barrage is likely to built—if it is to be built. Even if it were built upstream, the barrage would still have an impact on Sharpness.

We also have the wonderful facility of Slimbridge, home of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. Although I do not want to discuss biodiversity, one cannot help seeing the downside of the probable impact of the barrage. I know that we have said that there are likely to be advantages as well as disadvantages, but we will not be able to recreate those wetlands. Tomorrow I shall be taking a canoe trip on the wetlands. That is completely irrelevant, except for the fact that I might come back if I am supportive of the wetlands; that would be better than being tipped out if I were to make horrible comments in support of the barrage.

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