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24 Feb 2009 : Column 7WH—continued

What I would like to come out of today’s debate is an explanation from the Minister as to why the boundary committee “misdirected itself”.

The exercise has been a total waste of time, money and the passion of the public and the many district councils in Devon, such as the two district councils in my patch, which are doing a good job. East Devon, which sought the judicial review, is an exemplary council. It ticks the Government’s boxes and is one of the few councils in the country that has not carried any debt for decades. It is extremely well run—of course, it goes without saying that it is Conservative-run.

I know that the Minister understands the issues very well. I went with delegations to see him when we went through a similar exercise just over a year ago. The proposal on the table at the time was that the city of Exeter should take itself out of Devon county and become a unitary authority. The way in which the exercise was managed gave me cause for concern.

The Minister was new in post at the time, and I believe that his experience in the Treasury probably helped to bring some common sense to the exercise, and the proposal was rejected. None the less, what particularly concerned me was that, despite the fact that the proposal was rejected, when I tabled parliamentary questions to try to identify just what the outcome was of the consultation—that is, who had wanted Exeter to be a unitary and who had not—I was denied the information in all kinds of spurious replies from the Government. It was almost as if the Official Secrets Act applied and
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there was such high security in the national interest that nobody could be told who was in favour and who was not.

We happen to know that an overwhelming majority of people were against Exeter becoming a unitary, for the reason that Devon is a huge, sparsely populated county. Torbay and Plymouth already have unitary status, so if Exeter were taken out, we would be left with a rag-tag, bobtail county that would struggle to provide services.

The Secretary of State should quickly intervene on a serious matter arising from the proposal that we recently considered, which is the one on which Mr. Justice Cranston commented that, in seeking to make further changes, the boundary committee “misdirected itself”. Mr. Justice Cranston said that

Again, I would like an answer from the Minister. In his judgment, should the boundary committee start all over again in the light of Mr. Justice Cranston’s determination, or should it do the common-sense thing and, frankly, leave things as they are? It is clear from the previous consultation on the city of Exeter and from this latest fiasco that, on many counts, it would be unwise to change the status quo. Furthermore, there is an economic argument for retaining the status quo. It is certainly the view among the population of Devon who would be affected that the status quo is serving them very well indeed.

Mr. Streeter: I am following my hon. Friend’s arguments carefully. Does she agree that one of the many mistakes made in this tortuous process has been the decision at the outset not to allow the boundary committee to consider whether Plymouth and Torbay should be part of the mix? They were excluded from the outset, which narrowed the options. Therefore, does she agree that it is right to conclude that the process should be scrapped completely and that people should be left to get on with delivering services?

Angela Browning: I totally agree. My hon. Friend and I were present with other Devon Members when the Electoral Commission came to the House to discuss how it was going to proceed. We asked its representatives many questions, and my hon. Friend’s point about the position of Plymouth and Torbay was raised, as was the point about whether the commission could consider the status quo as an option. It ruled out all those options, so we know that its conduct of the consultation and the exercise has not only been detrimental to the people of Devon but cost a lot of money. It has considered not what any reasonable person would regard as a genuinely legitimate consultation in the interests of all Devon, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk said, what is party-politically opportunistic for the party in power.

My constituency almost runs right around the city of Exeter; it once surrounded it entirely, which was a very comfortable feeling for me—[Interruption]and for my constituency neighbour, the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), with whom I have a most cordial
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relationship. On the other hand, I have not, as the House will understand, been reticent in putting on the record my concerns about the carpet-bagging tendency of the city of Exeter, its council and its Member, because they have repeatedly tried to encroach on the rural areas that surround them. The reason why is clear for all to see: it is about Exeter, or, as has been written, the possibility of Exeter combining with the town of Exmouth, which is in the seat of my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire), who feels passionately about this but, unfortunately, cannot be here because he is abroad on parliamentary business. The concept of unitary Exeter, or unitary Exeter plus Exmouth, is purely party political. The figures presented to the Government do not add up to make Exeter viable on its own, and, if removed, it would leave the rest of Devon in a parlous state because of its rurality and sparsity.

Mr. Steen: My hon. Friend referred to the meeting between the electoral commissioners and Devon Members. The commissioners did not say that they could not entertain any possibility of Plymouth or Torbay authorities being widened, extended or disbanded; they had been directed by the Secretary of State to exclude any such possibility. That is the point that the Minister must deal with. Why were the commissioners told that the authorities had to be left alone?

Angela Browning: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. His memory of that meeting, which was a while ago, is much clearer than mine. I remember that the issue was raised but ruled out of court, so he is quite right. In fact, towards the end of the meeting, the discussion hardly seemed worth while, because what the commissioners would or would not do was so narrowly defined. There was no real consultation in which Members could put forward their views, and we all left the meeting feeling that our views did not count for much at all. Whatever view we wanted to discuss was immediately ruled out of court, because it was outside the parameters within which they were going to work.

People talk about Devon, and many people know it because they visit the area occasionally, but I want to put on the record the democratic deficit in Devon. If the unitary proposal were to go ahead, there would be a huge democratic deficit and Devon’s democratic representation would be the worst in the country, with a proposed 100 elected councillors representing 740,000 people—that is, 7,400 electors per councillor. Currently, Bristol has the poorest level, with a ratio of 5,900 electors per councillor. But, in a sparse area, which includes two national parks, representation is not just about numbers; it is about geographic spread, and that is at the heart of our objections to the proposal. There are financial reasons and there are the views of the local population, but the resultant democratic deficit in Devon would be the worst in the country. The distance between electors and decision makers would be most keenly felt in rural communities. People talk a lot about communities today, but rural communities know what community means in its truest sense. People in counties such as Devon like to know whom they elect—their councillors and their Members of Parliament; it matters to them. The divorce of democratic representation from the electorate would be more keenly felt in Devon than in probably any other part of the country, although all rural areas would, I am sure, make the same case.

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The party political imperative of the proposal is there for all to see, and it is not a very attractive sight. It is quite appalling for power to be used in that way. The Electoral Commission has clearly messed up big time, so the Minister should intervene, call the dogs off, leave the status quo as it is and let the people of Devon get on with things. That is what they want.

10.5 am

Mr. Charles Clarke (Norwich, South) (Lab): I shall start by stating the points on which I agree with the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), who secured the debate. I agree with him and others who believe that the boundary committee has made a mess of the issue. He correctly reported me as being very angry with the way in which the first recommendations emerged, and a set of serious issues is involved. I am surprised by that, because I have a high regard for the commission. Over the years, it has performed its functions professionally and effectively, and, therefore, I felt confident that, when the Secretary of State asked it to conduct the process, she was right to do so. Its terms of reference and approach were right, but I was surprised that the boundary committee did not conduct it as effectively as it needed to. That is one point of common ground with the hon. Gentleman. There is, to say the least, an unfortunate set of issues, and they have led to a number of serious problems in relation to the up-hill, down-dale considerations that all our public elected authorities are having to go through on these questions.

I am afraid that that is where the common ground ends, however. It is absurd to claim, as several Opposition Members have, that the issue is all about party political considerations. Unitary local government has become the pattern throughout the whole country—in Scotland, Wales, the former metropolitan areas and, now, an increasingly large number of non-metropolitan areas—irrespective of any party political issue and for very good reasons. The first reason is coherence. Often, there is an incoherent relationship between district and county councils on important matters such as planning and transport, and it inhibits their ability to represent people properly. It runs through basic services such as planning and transport and through issues such as recycling and waste, and all kinds of contradictions arise in various circumstances, so that, on accountability, cost and coherence, it would be far better to run a unitary structure.

I alluded to the cost argument when I intervened earlier on the hon. Gentleman. It has to be acknowledged that, in the longer term, the cost of a unitary system is less than that of a two-tier system, simply because a large variety of functions that are duplicated in the district and county authorities are no longer duplicated in a unitary system. The cost issues are clear in the long term. The hon. Gentleman is right, however, to raise the point that the Treasury will be concerned about the pay-off period for the costs of the change itself, and about how long payback will take before the benefits of a unitary system are established. The Treasury is addressing precisely that issue and, I am sure, is in dialogue with my right hon. Friend the Minister and his colleague the Secretary of State. The point that a unitary authority is more cost-efficient in the long term is hard to argue against, and I also argue in that way on the democratic deficit point. By the way, I do not accept the argument
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made by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning), much as I love her, that rural areas have a greater sense of community than urban areas. Urban Norwich in my constituency has a strong sense of community, as there was when I lived in the London borough of Hackney, where I was a councillor and there were strong local communities. I acknowledge that the characters of those communities are different, but my constituents are no less desirous than hers of having councillors whom they know and who are accountable to them for what they do.

I accept the hon. Lady’s point that people want councillors they know and clarity about how functions are carried out and decisions are taken. I also agree—I have argued this in different areas—that the structure of local government finance makes it difficult for individual citizens to understand how services are delivered in a way that is relevant to them. That is a case for a much more sweeping change than we are discussing this morning.

One problem is confusion between the role of a county councillor and a district councillor in relation to the services that they provide. The average constituent is not entirely clear about which councillor has responsibility for which service—education, social services, transport, housing and so on. A virtue of unitary local government is that it provides more coherent and democratic representation for the people whom we seek to represent.

A good example in Norwich is the development of the Greater Norwich development partnership, which my colleagues from Norwich who are listening to this debate know about and are engaged with in a variety of ways. The dealing between different authorities on obtaining the necessary agreement for serious, long-term plans for the future is made more difficult because we have a two-tier system rather than a single-tier one.

I rest my argument on the case for unitary local government. It is a powerful case that is widely accepted and is not party political. I acknowledge that the question of what is the right form of unitary local government for Norfolk—and for Suffolk and Devon, although I am not familiar with the issues—is a difficult question. It is not straightforward. It is straightforward that a Greater Norwich is the right unitary structure for my part of the county of Norfolk, but I acknowledge that for my colleagues who represent other parts of the county there are different arguments about how to approach the matter. Those arguments must be properly assessed, and the boundary committee was charged to do that and to assess the alternatives from the point of view of feasibility of the options—the mandate did not require a unitary solution come what may—and to recommend the best one.

I regret the way in which the boundary committee’s work has gone. The Secretary of State had no choice but to extend the time, and that was right, but we must stick to what I think will be a superior form of local government for the citizens of Norfolk. That is why I support the Government in their approach and why they should be rigorous in going through the thinking necessary to evaluate the choices. I am confident that a better solution will eventually emerge for local government in the county of Norfolk than what we have at the moment.

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10.13 am

Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk) (Con): I add my warm congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on making the case so admirably. Obviously, I speak on behalf of Suffolk residents.

In February 2008, the boundary committee began a structural review of local government in Suffolk, and came up with two proposals, including excluding Lowestoft from Suffolk, of which it is historically part, and including it in a different area. Another option was a one-Suffolk proposal for a unitary authority covering the whole county. As we have reflected on the proposals, it has become clear that the result would be unwieldy, undemocratic and frankly remote from my constituents in the western part of the county. We know all too well the cost when the Government decide to reorganise elements of our national life.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk referred to the national health service. When I became a Suffolk Member of Parliament in 1992, we had two health authorities. We then acquired five primary care trusts against all the local advice. That number then fell to three and then back to one. We had an extraordinary magic roundabout of huge costs, closed buildings, additional construction and pay-offs for individuals with golden goodbyes. All that was a huge cost for taxpayers, and I remain to be convinced that changes in the structure of taxpayer-funded bodies have added anything substantially or materially to the welfare of the people whom they are supposed to serve.

I have witnessed huge structural changes in the delivery of services while I have been a Member of Parliament, and the disruption for staff, services and local people has been wholly disproportionate to any benefits accruing from the restructuring. That will happen again if the unitary bid is successful. The up-front costs are huge, staff will have to be paid off or relocated, buildings will have to be bought and leases will have to be terminated.

It has been estimated that the cost of transition and implementation for the one-Suffolk option, which would be an enormous unitary covering the entire county, would be at least £25.5 million, and I am sure that that is an underestimate. As my hon. Friend has said, people are being asked to pay more in taxation for less representation without being properly consulted in first place. It is difficult for many of my constituents to understand and accept that. The people of Suffolk simply want the Government to listen, but they have not done so. Local residents want their councils to focus on service delivery and to keep the council tax as low as possible.

I have made it clear from the outset that people are familiar with the existing structure and tiers of local government in Suffolk. There is no appetite for change, yet the status quo was never an option during the wholly flawed consultation process. The consultation on the draft proposal ran from July to September 2008, when the boundary committee invited views from anyone who wanted to express them and held some meetings with stakeholders, but there was no overall comprehensive attempt to canvass the views of the public, and I say that with real passion and irritation. If there were a referendum tomorrow, the proposals would be thrown out. The majority of Suffolk residents do not support
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any of the options recommended by the boundary committee, despite the criteria that any successful unitary proposal must meet, including

I am firmly against any change, but if it goes ahead, I hope that we shall end up with something equivalent to an east-west Suffolk split, which would at least have some historical precedent, and a west Suffolk council would at least have some relationship with the towns in my constituency such as Haverhill and Newmarket, which are quite remote from Ipswich. That proposal, which was supported by five district councils during the initial concept statements that they submitted, was completely ignored. That is incredible. It would have been reasonable to expect the draft proposal to contain at least a critique of an east-west split, but there was little mention of that idea in the draft proposal. The matter has been raised at meetings, but satisfaction has not been achieved. It is ironic that the committee has said that it is listening, consulting and considering the proposals with no comprehensive dialogue. The whole review has been an absurd exercise and a waste of taxpayers’ money.

In response to a parliamentary question, it was revealed that the review in Suffolk had cost £218,757 since March last year. Taxpayers are therefore footing a bill of £5,000 a week. Salaries account for £109,948, in addition to consultants’ fees, financial consultants, printing, mapping, couriers, staff training and so on. That money should be invested for the benefit of the whole county for services such as education, transport and even health at a time when there is clearly considerable stress in the provision of those services that people want.

I welcome the news, but the saga of the announcement of the delay in Suffolk has been distracting for our councillors and council officers for more than a year already. Of course there are benefits to be gained—I absolutely accept that—from more joint working among existing councils. That could be extended. Indeed, that is taking place and is something to be encouraged. We could do more to enhance two-tier working without the loss of democratic accountability that would result from unitary status in an area as large and diverse as Suffolk. Wholesale local government restructuring is simply unnecessary to achieve it.

The county of Suffolk is the eighth largest authority by geographical area in England, covering 3,800 sq km. My constituency is a large chunk of that. This is important because people want to have a sense of ownership of local services provided locally and they want to have a sense of local accountability for those services, which cannot be provided by a distant unitary model. From talking to people in my constituency and from the many letters that I have received, it is clear that people are unconvinced that big is better. In fact, the legacy of the present Government will be a widespread increase in centralised decision making.

I am pleased that the Secretary of State has again agreed to a delay. I hope that the proposals are now kicked into the long grass for good. The Government’s tinkering with local government structures is in nobody’s interest. It is simply a case of change for change’s sake.

10.21 am

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