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I believe that the current arrangements provide for just those things. I make no partisan point, because Devon county council is temporarily under the stewardship of the Liberal Democrats. It received a three-star rating from the Audit Commission in its 2007 comprehensive performance assessment, and the commission reported that the council was working with partners and improving the economy and the environment. I have my disagreements with Devon county council, as does my district council, but on the whole it is working well. The system whereby some of my district councillors are also county councillors is good, and it encourages co-operation. It is not ideal, but then show me a system that is better and I will support it. Certainly moving towards unitary status is not better.

In proposing the single Devon unitary option, the boundary committee has flown in the face of submissions from a number of experienced local councils, including my own, which contends that a unitary council would not be as efficient and would be too remote for a dispersed urban and rural community. I cannot conceive of how a unitary would represent my more remote communities, including some of my more remote urban communities, if that makes sense, in the same way as the present council.

The third criterion for a review is that it must deliver

A county-wide unitary authority that had a population of approximately 704,000 and covered an area of 1.6 million acres would be one of the largest authorities, geographically, in England, so a council that is both distant and remote from the people whom it is meant to serve would be created. All the proposals that I have examined for Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk are fundamentally flawed; in each case, power is being taken away from local people. The real effect of such vast areas of unitary administration would be to deprive towns of their individual and distinctive voices in representative local government.

One of the proposals in moving to some form of unitary status is the setting up of community boards, but I simply do not understand what they will do. They
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will be locally based committees of the unitary council; their meetings would be where local concerns are discussed, community priorities are agreed and decisions are taken about what the unitary council’s local budget should be spent on. However, democratically elected parish councils already do an extremely good job locally. In addition, the Devon Association of Parish Councils has regular meetings, hosted, in rotation, by all the towns and parishes in the area. The meetings are attended by: county, district and parish councillors; the police; the fire brigade; health officers; and representatives of the voluntary sector. The meetings achieve nearly all the objectives of the proposed community boards and, thus, another forum is simply unnecessary.

The fourth criterion is to

That seems to be the kernel of the argument. I am not sure whether the affordability and value for money criteria can be met in the current circumstances. Debt has increased, particularly that of the Plymouth, South Hams and Exeter authorities—I believe that Exeter city council has £20 million in Icesave alone. Lessons should be learned from the places where these unitary changes have taken place, not least Cornwall and County Durham. Everyone, even the Liberal Democrats, would admit that Cornwall’s authority is not working properly, and County Durham’s went completely over budget, as we have heard. My hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, who spoke from the Front Bench, alluded to Professor Chisholm and Professor Leach’s book “Botched Business”, which articulates in an almost frightening way what has gone on with these changes.

Another thing that no one has touched on is staff morale. We have paid lip service to staff by saying what a great job they do in local government. I would argue that some of them do a great job in local government. On the whole, people working for local authorities do the job that they are set to do. If they do not do so, they should not be doing the job. There is an enormous degree of uncertainty among employees. I am not talking about the councillors, who will move on to whatever council organisation is in place—if they are lucky enough to get selected. That is part and parcel of being a democratic politician. The existing structures contain people who have devoted their careers to working for the organisations, and feel closely associated with them. Their morale is very low, and they will be delivering their services in a difficult time. So, the sooner the Government can scotch this approach, the better.

The changes should be affordable. I alluded to why the Exeter city council bid for unitary status was turned down; it was not affordable or workable. I do not believe that any of these changes would be workable. East Devon district council, my local body, is debt free, whereas Devon county council is more than £500 million in debt. Its debt has risen steeply, from £365 million in 2003 to £614 million now. That is an increase of about £250 million in five years. When the Minister talked about the effects of a credit crunch, he was perhaps underestimating the effect that the economic downturn will have on the delivery of local services.

One needs only to look at the different sections of the front page of The Times today, which state:

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Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, articulated the union’s fears when he said:

The article also states:

It also states that cuts in jobs in the prison, probation and court services,

That is just the beginning. To use an Icelandic analogy, it is the tip of the iceberg. Things will be very serious for local authorities in the months ahead. It is more important than ever that they should deliver first-class services in an affordable and efficient manner while they are under that great strain.

Others have spoken in far greater detail than I shall about the emergency intervention that the Government will make with the LGA, about the £300 million of English and Welsh councils’ assets that it is hoped will be recovered from the two Icelandic banks and about the 116 councils and other organisations that are affected by that problem.

In this debate, we are talking about what local government is meant to deliver in these difficult times. In my local council area, there are concerns about the move by Government to help first-time home buyers, which will take millions of pounds out of the regional budget for business investment according to the South West of England Regional Development Agency. Ministers have decided that the £300 million HomeBuy Direct scheme to support first-time home buyers should be funded through a partial reallocation of existing RDA budgets. That will mean that £20 million or £30 million will effectively be taken out of the RDAs’ budgets for their current projects. That reallocation will largely affect the RDA expenditure in 2010-11 as things stand.

The leader of my district council, Sara Randall Johnson, has asked the Minister for the South West and the RDA to ensure that that money is spent in the south-west. It is important, if money is to be taken out of the south-west’s RDA, to ensure that that money is spent in the south-west region. We have yet to receive an answer, so I would be grateful if the Minister could respond in due course.

East Devon district council, incidentally, is also asking to use the £5.4 million that it has in housing revenue subsidy, which is paid back to Whitehall, to fund new housing initiatives in east Devon. Other local councils might take note of that. It will be enormously important if the council can get that money back to fund housing because we already have about 4,500 people on the housing waiting list in east Devon. That figure grew during the last financial downturn. Inevitably, people with small businesses borrow against their properties and when the business closes the mortgage becomes unaffordable. That means that they hand their key back and turn up at the housing authority asking to be housed. We will see that happen over the coming months. The Government should consider seriously the bid made by East Devon council, as a locally and democratically
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accountable organisation, to be given back that £5.4 million to spend on the ground, where the council is best able to identify the need.

The Secretary of State was asked yesterday, I think, about the accountability of regional Ministers. It seems to me that regional Ministers are phantom Ministers. In my case, the Minister for the South West, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), has a pretty full-time job, I should imagine, at the Department of Health. There is no way in which one can hold a regional Minister to account in his capacity as regional Minister. He is not accountable to Parliament and I do not believe that he has an additional secretariat provided by Parliament to do his job. If he is a spokesman for the south-west, why do we not hear him speaking up for the south-west a little more than he does? I am not singling out the Minister for the South West—I would make the same comment about every regional Minister.

We know that there is an internal Government wrangle between those who want to set up regional committees to hold the regional Ministers to account and those who resist the idea of such committees. We do not know how much they will cost or how they will be staffed. Would employing professional staff mean that Government grew even bigger?

The present situation is hopeless. The Prime Minister is committed to setting up the unelected and unaccountable regional assemblies that are the brainwave—if that is not an oxymoron—of the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott). We would be glad to see the back of those, but getting rid of them would mean that planning and other powers were transferred to the RDAs, which are far from satisfactory in other ways.

We need to look at how local services are delivered. There was an extremely good debate on 7 October in Westminster Hall on regional spatial strategy in the south-west. More than 20 Members of Parliament attended, but none had any clear idea about who would be responsible for the delivery of local housing and budgets after the regional assemblies were abolished. The Minister and the Government need to look urgently at how local democracy is delivered.

I shall end by saying that this is not the time to look at changing local government in my county of Devon. To paraphrase what the Minister for Local Government said at the start of the debate, local government should do what is written on the tin. In Devon, it is working: it could do better, but the two-tier enhanced system is by the far the best and most affordable. In these times of economic uncertainty, affordability must become the key criterion.

6.1 pm

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): There seems to be a consensus that Government at all levels will need to consider some belt tightening, given the rocky state of the world economy, and we could contribute to that by looking at the number of politicians that we have. There are far too many in Britain today: there are not too many in the Chamber at the moment, although the total of 16 who are here is akin to the number who would turn out for a debate in local government in some areas. However, reducing the presently vast numbers of MPs to 400 would be a good first step in cutting our cloth to fit the times, and reducing the membership of the
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House of Lords from more than 700 to a maximum of 100—I could be persuaded that it should be zero—would be a good second step.

Local government is the third area where there are too many politicians, and we all know that all political parties in many parts of the country struggle to find sufficient people—not just people of the right calibre, but sufficient people full stop—to stand for local government elections. As well as having too many national politicians, we also have too many local ones, and there may well be a consensus in society that politicians should be seen to cut their cloth appropriately.

One problem that is exacerbated in local government is that many of the politicians at each level are employed. The fact that increasing numbers of them are paid for the position that they hold is a change of culture, and it is not necessarily a change for the better. One reason why changes have progressed more slowly than they should have in some parts of the country is that the turkeys have not voted for Christmas—that is, the people involved in local government have not opted for irrational amalgamations in size or structure.

There are two arguments for having unitary authorities in areas such as mine. The first is that neighbouring unitary authorities in south Yorkshire can charge an average of £200 per household more for a band C property, whereas we have to pay for a two-tier structure. Where does the money go? The chaos of the floods showed us that; we saw officers from the district and the county councils meeting to discuss who had the responsibility for sorting out the problems arising from the flooding. It was a classic example of how an irrational local government structure leads to the involvement of too many people, and I hope that the Government will continue to pursue the policy of establishing unitary authorities. The unitary structure is the rational one, and it would be very welcome in areas such as mine. Indeed, I would go further: if councillors are not prepared to move forward on that issue, we should make it much easier for the local electorate to determine whether they wish to have a unitary authority, whether the councillors like it or not. In some parts of the country, that would be welcome.

The term “democratic deficit” has been mentioned; that is an issue that does not get enough of an airing in the Chamber. There is a democratic deficit, but the problem goes much deeper than whether central Government are taking powers from local government. There is a different level of democratic deficit. Let me illustrate the point with a couple of examples.

The village of Misson in my constituency has got the country’s only mushroom composting operation. That agricultural operation repeatedly creates a rather pungent odour. The legislation to deal with that is national legislation, but the authority that has to police the legislation is a small district council that is loth ever to spend any money on taking anybody to court, be it to impose an antisocial behaviour order or to deal with companies that pollute the air—illegally, in most people’s estimation. It is clear that when the parish council and all local people wish action to be taken, they should be able to get national Government to override the powers that they gave to local government and take power at
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the behest of the parish council, which represents the views of the local community. That would be democracy in practice. For many years, there has been circular argument about how one gets the district council, which has no specialism in the subject—and why should it?—to police and monitor a specific, bespoke operation.

Let me give a second example: the aggregates levy. In Nottinghamshire, that levy—taken from and paid for, of course, by those quarrying aggregates—goes, via central Government, back to local government and into a central pot. The money is not earmarked for areas affected by aggregate extraction or transportation, but is in a central pot. That is clearly nonsense. Again, the local community and local parish councils in Misson and Scrooby, in transport areas such as Harworth, and in Sturton le Steeple should be able directly to request an element of the aggregates levy, rather than it being circulated back into a central pot for one tier of local government to spend as it wishes.

I give a third example: neighbourhood renewal money. I represent two neighbourhood renewal areas, Warsop and Manton. The money goes to a neighbourhood renewal team. In one case, there is a parish council, and in the other there is not. The funding is managed by the district council on the basis that the money goes to local people. Perhaps that money ought to go through a parish council. I would be interested to know whether the Conservative party even intends to maintain the neighbourhood renewal money; perhaps the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) could give us an answer in his winding-up speech.

On the local authority business growth initiative, Bassetlaw district council has £1.5 million from the Government for local business growth, but half that money—£800,000—has been earmarked in its budget for job evaluation. The answer that I got to my written question on the subject was, “It’s up to local government to decide how the money is spent.” Why is money to promote local business growth being spent on job evaluation? Of course job evaluation needs to be paid for, but not from money that is critically needed for business growth. At this of all moments, it is absurd for local councils to make secret decisions to squirrel away business growth money. It is precisely now that we need businesses to grow, so that we can ensure that jobs are available for local people.

The Travellers policy in my locality is a classic case. All the local authorities in Nottinghamshire came together to decide on their Travellers need assessment. There was to be one assessment and one need determined for all Nottinghamshire. Bassetlaw, in its ultimate wisdom, went it alone, and went first. Surprise, surprise, it suggested that it needed 43 Traveller emplacements. There is currently only one Gypsy living in a caravan in the district, but based on a perceived Gypsy/Traveller requirement, it seems that 43 places are needed. That was put in without any consultation with anybody. I asked the Minister to intervene, because local people were not consulted—the matter did not even go to a meeting of elected councillors; the decision was made arbitrarily by one cabinet member—but central Government have no powers to intervene.

Who should receive applications, such as the Showman application to build a site three times the size of Oldcotes village, but Oldcotes parish council? Out of the blue, it
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received that planning application, because Bassetlaw arbitrarily assigned it that way. That is not local democracy at work.

The ability of local parish councils and communities to approach central Government directly and have their views considered needs to be greatly strengthened. In planning especially, we need proper powers for local parishes, especially when they have gone through the whole rigmarole of determining their own local development plan and having it agreed as part of the local plan. They should have a bigger statutory role in such matters.

My final, and best, example is the Elkesley bridge. The villagers of Elkesley have needed a bridge over the A1, which has left their village almost inaccessible to the outside world, for 30 years. The decision has to be made by central Government, but the district and county councils do not make that bridge a priority in the regional transport plan. It is left to me and the local parish council to persuade central Government that they should fund that bridge. If we took out those two tiers of local government and allowed the parish council to access central Government directly for a decision, it would enhance local democracy.

My final point concerns the Icelandic situation. The Fitch report for 22 May, given out to local authorities by Butlers, is straightforward. It unequivocally gives the Icelandic banks a negative rating for the first time. We need a proper investigation—at a later stage, as it is not a priority now—to discover why the handful of councils that took decisions after that date did so. Why did they not read the ratings from Fitch? If they did read them, why did they ignore them? Such speculation with council taxpayers’ money is a step too far for any authority.

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