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12 Nov 2008 : Column 327WH—continued

We have to be more magnanimous and consider what is best for the area. From figures in areas that are going unitary, we know that money can be saved and that there is better government to be had. I therefore hope that a debate can take place. Sadly, although Stroud district council has considered the issues, there seems to be something missing from Gloucestershire. Even though leading councillors there wanted to go along the unitary
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route, there seems to be no mention of it on council websites. It has fallen off the map, and I want to put it fairly and squarely back on it.

I feel strongly that we have lost out because we do not have unitary local government. I will also say in passing that I feel quite strongly about the redoubling of the Swindon to Kemble railway line. One of the problems there was that Gloucestershire as a whole ended up looking both ways. It should have looked at the prime railway line—the Stroud Valley line—that needed redoubling, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester agrees with me. We have ended up with the North Cotswolds line, which is far less important. It is also the line that is represented by the Leader of the Opposition. I mention that merely in passing. That is an example of us not doing the right thing at the right time.

I have four examples of areas in which unitary authorities—or a unitary authority—in Gloucestershire could have done better. Unsurprisingly, the first one is waste. Sadly, Gloucestershire has seven authorities with seven waste plants. I hear that we may be moving towards a waste authority, but we have heard that before. The issue is highly pertinent: today, the county received the go-ahead for the £92 million private finance initiative credits, which will allow it to try to resolve its waste problem. However, my hon. Friend and I feel that the county is going in the wrong direction, because it is considering building an incinerator in my constituency, which I am not terribly pleased about. Again, if we had clarity over how waste collection authorities and waste disposal authorities worked, we could move in the right direction and listen to our local populations.

Last Thursday, we had an important meeting at Quedgeley in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Just like the problems in Gloucestershire, there is no strategy, no joined-up thinking, let alone action, and no coherence in how we are taking things forward. Therefore, waste is a wonderful example of how unitary local government takes the responsibility for the collection and the disposal of waste. Even if it is working with other authorities, it is able to command and to exercise proper responsibility, and that has not been happening in Gloucestershire.

My second example is concessionary bus fares. I would challenge anyone to come to Gloucestershire from outside and be able to explain exactly what is going on. We welcome what the Government have done and the money that they have put in, but authorities in Gloucestershire are quibbling over the money that they have received. Part of the problem is that we have different systems. Cheltenham has a different system from Gloucester and from the rural areas outside. A pensioner in my constituency catches a bus in Dursley in the south of my constituency before 9 o’clock. If he gets to Gloucester before 9 o’clock, he has to get off the bus, because there is no joined-up thinking or action. We have a dispute with Stagecoach over what money is being paid in Stroud district. We need a uniform system in which pensioners and other people who are entitled to use concessionary bus fares know what the system is and do not face the silly bureaucratic rules that damage the effectiveness of the system.

My third example is planning. Again, my hon. Friend and I bear the scars of that. We tried to oppose the idea that Stroud district came up with—I think it is still a mad idea—of plonking 1,500 houses south of the city
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of Gloucester. That number has now been increased to 1,750. Those houses will not be built, because of the current problems, but the plans have had a huge impact. Subsequently, the regional spatial strategy came up with the idea of using the next-door site of Whaddon, which is also in my constituency but south of the city, as a future site. We have had a private argument about whether the RSS should have done that. However, the decision was wrong. It showed three authorities doing three different things: Stroud district council proposing the site, Gloucester city council opposing it and the county council sitting on the fence, saying, “We’re not really in favour of it, but there’s no alternative.” Having talked to MPs and leading councillors, the alternative was to look at some element of dispersal. Many rural areas in my constituency suffer from a lack of affordable housing, yet that was not considered.

The problem is that the councillors just blame the Government, via the RSS, and my hon. Friend the Minister knows that, because he was in the firing line for that particular debate. That is wrong, as it is an abdication of responsibility by local government in the first place. Local government members sit on the RSS and in the regional assembly that created the RSS. If we had taken the right decisions locally, we could have moved forward in respect of the coherence of local government.

Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester) (Lab) The system is so crazy at the moment that those competing authorities that are for ever disagreeing with each other often have the same members sitting on both authorities.

Mr. Drew: I agree. I have done it myself; people take one hat off and put another one on. It becomes increasingly ludicrous to pretend that one person can play two different roles; it would be much better if one person played one coherent role, so I totally agree with my hon. Friend on that.

Very quickly, my fourth example is something that I feel passionately about: the relationship between health, housing and social care. Housing is allocated within the districts. Health is in the domain of the primary care trust, which is now unified. That unified trust has done a much better job than the three primary care trusts that existed in the county. Social care lies with the county council.

I could wax lyrical, although I will not because of the shortness of time, about the way that that division impacts badly on the voluntary sector. I am a trustee of Care and Repair, which is a home improvement agency. A simple example of the problems that are created relates to the work of occupational therapists. Occupational therapists work for each of those authorities, and they often end up not knowing which of them should do a particular job, because of the way that the responsibilities are divvied out. More importantly, it cannot be good that those professionals are asked to work in that way.

So what are the advantages of a unitary authority? I have given four clear examples of where we could see improvement. The advantages to me are that we could clarify the strategy of local government, the delivery mechanisms, the responsibility and the accountability. Parish and town councillors should have a greater role. As many hon. Members know, I am a committed devolutionist. I believe that we should offer more
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responsibility to the first level of government, because it is often the best and most appropriate. I see that type of devolution as a real gain, and I know that I have the support of many of my parish and town councillors who want clarity in this area.

What we need to hear from the Minister today is how we can start the process in Gloucestershire. How can the people of Gloucestershire, rather than politicians and other people in established positions, have a view on this issue? The Government’s preferred aim is to move to unitary local government, at the speed of whoever happens to be the slowest on the train. In Gloucestershire, we are among the slowest, but we want to go a bit quicker and find some form of coherent local government—better local government and government fit for the 21st century.

6.18 pm

Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester) (Lab): I want to make one brief point about the savings that could be made by introducing unitary authorities.

The Government have been introducing a raft of unitary authorities around the country. In Shropshire, I believe that the savings made are of the order of £12 million. Cheshire is a local authority with six district councils and a county council. Its population of about 600,000 people is very similar to that of Gloucestershire. Cheshire is being divided into east and west, which is similar to the plan for Gloucestershire which my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) has described. In Cheshire, people are anticipating savings of £16 million a year.

I know that my constituents are very interested in what they could do with that kind of money. First, they feel that taxpayers could benefit, because there would be the option to return some money to our taxpayers. There is also the option to do more in terms of flood defences, if that kind of money is available each year. Also, there are major projects, such as making the railway subway in the city of Gloucester disability-compliant, by putting in a ramp where we have steps at the moment. Such projects always seem to get left behind or fall through the gaps between different local authorities.

Big projects like that could come about. I have run surveys on this in my constituency, and I have had more than 200 responses, with 70 to 80 per cent. of people consistently saying that they want to reduce bureaucracy and take out a tier of local government. They want unitary authorities. I believe that Andrew North, the chief executive of Cheltenham borough council, is a brave man, who should be congratulated on what he has done. He has opened up a debate in Gloucestershire.

6.20 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): It seems a long time ago now, but I opened the parliamentary day with your good self, Mrs. Dean, and now I am closing it, somewhat later than expected, with your good self.

It has been a real pleasure to listen to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), and I congratulate him on securing the debate. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) caught
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your eye, Mrs. Dean. He was a fine ministerial colleague, and I pay tribute to the impressive way in which he represents his constituents in this House and elsewhere.

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud is passionate about this issue and that he has raised it in the House several times. He spoke in a Whitsun Adjournment debate in 2006, when he set out his views favouring a two-authority unitary solution for Gloucestershire, but acknowledged the merits of having a single unitary authority for the county, if necessary.

The debate takes place at an extremely significant time for local government in general and in relation to local government process. It is important for local government in general because of the economic situation. I think that everyone in the Chamber would recognise that local authorities have a role to play in helping us through the current situation. The problems underline the need for active government and an active public sector to protect the most vulnerable in society, correct flaws in the market and exert leverage to secure the proper role and contribution that is required from our private sector.

I believe passionately that local authorities are best placed to understand the needs of their local communities and to bring together public sector partners and business to tackle problems. They have a new leadership role in the sub-national review of economic development and regeneration, as well as the ability to determine local priorities and bring together partners within local area agreements, with the flexibility of funding that that entails. Local authorities therefore have the opportunity to help their local communities to mitigate the effects of the current situation and to lay the foundations for sustainable long-term recovery.

This is an equally important time for the process of local government restructuring. We are fast approaching 1 April 2009, when new unitary authorities will replace the existing two-tier structures in their areas. We have already heard that Gloucestershire is not part of the current round of restructuring, but the points that my hon. Friends have made are pertinent to the objectives of the restructuring process generally. Before I address the important issues that they have raised, I shall provide some background to the current round of local government restructuring.

As part of the wider debate about governance and the future of local government in England in the 21st century that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs initiated when he was a Minister in this Department, a ministerial dialogue and round-table events were held to discuss these specific issues in early 2006. Interestingly, the second of the county dialogues took place in Gloucestershire and involved local authority members and officials from both tiers of local government as well as a range other local government stakeholders. Those events provided local government and its stakeholders with a genuine opportunity to discuss options and to put forward their views on the subject to central Government. It was not a debate about local government reorganisation per se, but the events took place in the light of changes occurring across the public sector spectrum.

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Anecdotal evidence indicates that the ability of some local authorities to shape their communities, improve economic prosperity and provide high-quality services to local people can, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud has so eloquently demonstrated, be complicated by the two-tier structures in some shire county areas. In some cases, those arrangements have caused confusion and hampered the delivery of cost-effective services that addressed the needs of local people. We have heard examples of such cases today.

Having listened to the views that were expressed by all parties concerned at the time, the Government finalised their position in summer 2006. In October 2006, they published the local government White Paper, “Strong and Prosperous Communities”, and the accompanying “Invitation to all councils in England”. In issuing that invitation, the Secretary of State sought from local authorities proposals that would either enhance existing two-tier local government working arrangements, by creating pathfinders, or establish new unitary local authorities.

The invitation was about seeking proposals for new local government structures that local people could better relate to and engage with, and that could better provide the leadership necessary to promote the social, cultural and environmental well-being of places. It was about seeking structures that could provide the stronger strategic leadership necessary to promote economic development and regeneration. As I said, that strategic leadership is even more important in today’s economic climate.

That original invitation outlined five criteria for successful proposals: strong, strategic leadership, effective neighbourhood empowerment, value for money and equity in public services—my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester raised that point—affordability and a broad cross-section of support from partnerships and stakeholders. Throughout the process, those have been our criteria against which proposals have been judged. More importantly, they will form the basis of the judgment that local people will make about their new unitary councils and those who lead them.

It was left to individual local authorities, or groups of local authorities, to respond to the invitation as they saw fit. I understand that by the closing date of 25 January 2007, the Secretary of State had received five outline pathfinder proposals and 26 outline unitary local government proposals. For whatever reason—I do not know the local circumstances—there seemed to be no appetite for local government reform among any Gloucestershire authorities, and they chose not to respond to the invitation.

Mr. Drew: I hear what the Minister says, but sadly it was because of inertia. Even at this late stage, however, if one of the authorities concerned were to press forward with the idea of unitary government, would central Government respond to that?

Mr. Wright: I am coming to the key point that will respond to my hon. Friend’s question.

At present, as my hon. Friend is aware, we have no plans for any further programme of invitations to councils to submit unitary proposals. However, we recognise that in some specific cases there might be areas where circumstances are such as to warrant a focused and
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targeted invitation to the councils concerned. Legislation allows for that, particularly the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007. I should make it clear that, as the Government explained in debates on that Act in the other place, such circumstances would be exceptional. For us to issue such a targeted and focused invitation, councils would have to make a very good case and present compelling arguments as to why there needed to be a move to unitary local government at that particular time. It would need to explain the special circumstances of the two-tier area involved and why it should be treated specially and subject to an invitation to the councils concerned to make their unitary proposals.

I shall be blunt: it would be wrong of me to encourage councils in general to work on unitary proposals, but in direct response to my hon. Friend’s question, if we receive representations from a council wanting us to consider issuing an invitation to it and its neighbouring councils, we are legally obliged to consider that and to decide whether to do so. I hope that that clarifies the matter and helps him.

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Local government has a vital role to play in shaping and leading the communities that it serves. It is the sphere of governance that is closest to the citizen, and I think that my hon. Friend agrees that as such it is best placed to hear and address the needs of local residents, and to understand and provide the local services that communities need. As I hope I have demonstrated, the leadership that it provides is essential to the economic, social, cultural and environmental well-being of places and communities.

Local government in all its forms, whether unitary or two-tier, is vital in creating and shaping successful places where people want to live, work and play. In the absence of structural reform in Gloucestershire, I would encourage all the local authorities and local partners there to work together with commitment and creativity to serve the needs of their residents to the best of their abilities, as my hon. Friends the Members for Stroud and for Gloucester have tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Six o’clock.

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