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Norfolk, Suffolk and Devon (Local Government)

11 am

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): It is a great pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mrs. Humble. Although it is also a pleasure to see the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett), I must say, with no disrespect to her, that many of us were hoping that the Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination, who is responsible for local government, would be here to answer many of our questions.

The purpose of this short debate that I have been lucky enough to achieve is to persuade the Minister to withdraw the orders for the unitary proposals for Norfolk and Devon or, at the very least, to postpone them. Today in the House of Lords, the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee will be considering the Government's case for these unitaries, and it may be that it will take our proceedings into account and delay the proposals.

Ministers' recent decisions to allow unitaries for both Norwich and Exeter and a second tier for the rest of Norfolk and Devon are subject to a court hearing on 26 and 27 April. Interestingly, we have discovered that the process of the orders in both Houses may continue despite the court hearing at the end of April, so my first question for the Minister is this. What will happen if the orders are passed through Parliament and the courts find in favour of Norfolk and Devon county councils and reject those orders?

Mr. Charles Clarke (Norwich, South) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Simpson: May I make a little progress and then of course I shall let the right hon. Gentleman in?

Let me briefly sketch in for hon. Members, most of whom know it, the background to the current situation. It goes back to October 2006, when the Government invited councils to submit proposals for unitaries. In March 2007 Ipswich, Exeter and Norwich submitted proposals for stand-alone unitaries based on their existing city boundaries. In July 2007, Norwich failed to meet the ministerial criteria, not least in relation to its current boundaries, and the boundary committee for England was instructed to consider the alternatives. That is a very important point because it is the start of the three-year process.

The proposal for Norwich on expanded boundaries was therefore one of those that the Ministers thought the boundary committee should consider. In February 2008, the Department instructed the boundary committee to consider new alternatives including Yarmouth and Waveney. The following July, the boundary committee proposed a single Norfolk including Lowestoft from Suffolk, with alternative proposals including a Greater Norwich and a Norfolk doughnut including Lowestoft, and a wedge merging Norwich, Yarmouth and Lowestoft. To say the least, the proposals just for the area that I am talking about are muddled. I say straight away that I am not examining the detail of the issues relating to Suffolk and Devon. Other hon. Members will wish to comment on that.

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Mr. Clarke: The hon. Gentleman has not so far addressed in what respect the proposals would damage the interests of his constituents. I can see why he may have a general argument about the unitary pattern for Norfolk-he is entitled to make that case-but which specific interests of his constituents would be damaged, in his opinion, if the order was agreed?

Mr. Simpson: I am genuinely surprised that someone as experienced as the right hon. Gentleman, who has been an MP as long as I have and who has been a Minister, should assume that within the first two or three minutes I would get to the point that is coming later in my speech. I will be addressing that point and I am happy to take further interventions from him, but I am trying now to establish the chaotic way in which Government instructions were given to the boundary committee and the boundary committee then had to respond.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that part of the chaos was completely self-inflicted by the Government and that one consequence has been the huge amount of money spent on senior local government management time and the legal cases-money that could have been better spent on hard-pressed local services?

Mr. Simpson: Yes, I absolutely agree. Indeed, in September 2008, three Norfolk councils launched a High Court action against the proposals. In November, the High Court rejected a bid to halt the process but said that equal weight had to be given to all proposals. In March 2009, the boundary committee dropped Lowestoft from its Norfolk plans. In July 2009, three Suffolk councils launched a successful legal challenge, halting the process, but that was overturned by the Court of Appeal in December 2009.

On 7 December last year, the boundary committee published its final advice to the Government for single unitaries in Norfolk, Suffolk and Devon. The Government had a six-week consultation period and, on 10 February, the Minister responsible for local government rejected the boundary committee's advice and announced that Norwich would become a unitary on current boundaries and the rest of Norfolk would stand alone. Suffolk would keep the status quo, but the Minister urged local politicians to establish a constitutional convention to discuss the best form of unitary there. Exeter was to have a unitary on present boundaries, with the rest of Devon standing alone. Therefore, with the exception of Suffolk, the Minister's final decision on 10 February was to go back exactly to the beginning-it was a matter of going forward into the past. All that money, time and effort were wasted.

I have in the past said a few harsh words about the boundary committee, but it has my deepest sympathy for the amount of nugatory work that it undertook. In some respects, one could not make this tale up. The whole process has, I believe, reflected the Labour Government's determination to establish unitary proposals that would benefit the Labour party. That was the view in Norfolk and Norwich back in 2007. After nearly three years of work by the boundary committee, we are back to square one. As my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) says, a vast amount
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of money and effort have been expended, which in the past year, given the economic downturn, could have been better used for the benefit of our constituents.

From the very start of the process, I was sceptical about the Government's intentions and did not believe that the proposals would benefit my constituents. I was fortunate enough to be able to initiate two debates on the unitary proposals for Norfolk, on 20 November 2007 and 9 July 2008. Rereading those debates, I have to say, with some degree of modesty, that I and others who opposed the Government's process were proved absolutely right.

The Government's final proposals for Norfolk and Devon have to be set against the five extremely strict criteria laid down in the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007. First, the proposals must be affordable-that is, it must be established that the change represents value for money and can be met from the councils' existing resource envelope. Secondly, the proposals must be supported by a broad cross-section of partners and stakeholders. Thirdly, they must provide strong, effective and accountable strategic leadership. Fourthly, they must deliver genuine opportunities for neighbourhood empowerment. Fifthly and finally, they must deliver value for money and equity in public services. Those strict criteria had already been questioned by local councils, MPs and outside experts. I will return in a moment to the failure to meet the criteria.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): I do not want to prejudge what my hon. Friend will say, but does he not find it incredible that the then Secretary of State rejected both proposals in 2007 because they failed at least one of the five essential policy tests for implementation?

Mr. Simpson: Yes, I agree absolutely and I shall expand on that point briefly in a few moments. I want to flag up the criterion on gaining local support to emphasise that the Government's own legislation-the original Act-specifically excluded public consultation. They talk about the need for support by a broad cross-section of partners, but they never at any time decided to test public opinion in any of the three areas.

All the arguments against unitary proposals might have been brushed aside by Ministers had not letters exchanged between Peter Housden, the permanent secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government, and the Secretary of State been placed in the public domain. We are all grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon), whose letter to the permanent secretary asking whether he was seeking a ministerial direction expedited that revealing correspondence.

We know from a written parliamentary question of 10 February, submitted by my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd), that no direction had been asked for or given in the Department or its predecessor since 1997, so the Secretary of State's direction is pretty unique. An article in the Financial Times suggested that there have been only nine such directions throughout Whitehall since 1997. What prompted the permanent secretary to write to the Secretary of State?

Mr. Geoffrey Cox (Torridge and West Devon) (Con): Does my hon. Friend find it as astonishing as I do that the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport
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should have accused the permanent secretary and other civil servants in the DCLG of being biased, seriously mishandling the situation and deliberately leaking the documents to undermine Ministers? Does my hon. Friend not think, as I do, that that warrants an inquiry?

Mr. Simpson: Yes, I find that incredible, given that the permanent secretary wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk-he may want to comment on this later-enclosing not only his letter to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, but the reply.

What prompted the permanent secretary to write to the Secretary of State? In his letter of 8 February, the permanent secretary addressed the ministerial decision to allow unitaries on the current boundaries for Norwich and Exeter. He wrote:

He noted that

On the Secretary of State's argument that a unitary Norwich and a unitary Exeter would eventually achieve economic gains, the permanent secretary wrote:

The permanent secretary concluded:

On 10 February, the Secretary of State replied, spelling out the reasons behind the ministerial-that is, the political-decision and giving the permanent secretary a direction. The Secretary of State argued:

The Secretary of State kept referring to advice that he had received as the basis of his decision. Who gave that advice? It certainly was not the boundary committee or the permanent secretary. What was that advice? A Freedom of Information request looking into all the letters, e-mails and notes of telephone conversations in the Department would perhaps be revealing. I have in mind the names of one or two external people who might have given that advice. At the very least, the Minister should publish the advice.

The Secretary of State admitted:

That refers to the nub of the ministerial case that in the case of

That partially economic and partially political argument overrides all the other evidence produced by the boundary committee and, indeed, previous ministerial advice.

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Mr. Swire: I hope to enlarge on this later, but is my hon. Friend aware of the fact that most of Exeter's predicted growth area-the airport, the Skypark and the business park-falls outside the current city boundaries and will be under the jurisdiction of the excellent Devon county council?

Mr. Simpson: My hon. Friend is quite right. There are so many contradictions in the proposals. When I lectured Army officers, it was clear to me that the Army was very good at lessons learned, and that was true of both successes and failures. In terms of lessons learned, the current proposals would come under the heading of a big failure. Indeed, our friend Mr. Peter Riddell of The Times, who is a powerful influence in the Institute for Government, should use them as a case study of how not to conduct local government.

Despite recognising all the weaknesses in the ministerial case, the Secretary of State concluded:

It is game, set and match, just on the basis of that exchange of correspondence.

Mr. Charles Clarke: Fifteen minutes into his speech, the hon. Gentleman has not identified one single respect in which the proposal for a unitary Norwich could damage his constituents' interests. Will he address that?

Mr. Simpson: As an old student activist, I recognise the right hon. Gentleman's concern that he is on a sticky wicket. I am about to do as he asks. I have already damaged his main case and I will happily expand, without taking too much time, on how the proposals will damage my constituents' interests; indeed, I will tell him how they have damaged them over the past four years. I say that because he and Baroness Hollis have been two of the leading advocates of the proposals and any FOI request may well discover the heavy influence that they have brought to bear on Ministers.

Ultimately, the ministerial proposals come down to the vague assertion that a unitary Norwich and a unitary Exeter could be a potent force for delivering positive economic growth. In the case of Norwich, there is absolutely no evidence for that-indeed, the exact reverse is true. As somebody who was born and bred in Norwich, I say with great sadness that Norwich cannot meet the proposed criteria under a Labour council.

Under Labour, Norwich city council has been an unfortunate example of local government incompetence. Recently, it has effectively been put in special measures, with a chief executive drafted in. It gets low scores on nearly every criterion by which local government can be judged. Last year, the director of housing was sacked because of a housing scam. That is the example that the Government want to give us in terms of economic growth. I have sympathy with the right hon. Gentleman, who would have a much stronger case if Norwich city council was a five-star council that really would be an engine, rather than a sheet anchor, for the rest of Norfolk

What will happen to the rest of Norfolk-to my constituents and those of the majority of Norfolk MPs-under the Government's proposals for a unitary Norwich?
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The Government do not know; it has not been spelled out. It is assumed that there will be working groups involving the current leaders of Norwich city council, who have avoided an election in May, and the leaders of Norfolk county council and the district councils.

There will be a widespread break-up of common services, which will cost more and lead to more duplication. My constituents will feel the impact in education services, because there will presumably be two directors of education and two education services. In outlying districts of my constituency and the constituency of Norwich, North, such as Spixworth, Old Catton and Taverham, that will cause major problems for parents trying to get their children into school.

What about support for children? We have a big enough problem now with cases of child abuse and, sadly, child murder. The one lesson that comes out of all the studies every year is that the existence of too many authorities is invariably a weakness. However, we are going to add another authority. I hang the proposals around the heads of those urging us to implement them as the worst kind of example.

Libraries, the fire service-everything will cost more in the short term. There will be more posts of one kind or another, and some people will do very nicely, but my constituents will not. Unless the Minister can argue that the proposed services-we do not, of course, know what they will be-will be the same as, if not better than, the services currently provided by Norfolk county council, I would certainly reject the proposals.

Ministers are keen to talk about empowerment and stakeholders, and the senior civil servant at the Department who is responsible for unitaries even has the title "Deputy Director, Local Democracy", but there is no support of significance for the proposals throughout Norfolk or even in Norwich: there has been only a lukewarm response. There were approximately 1,424 responses to the Department's consultation on the boundary committee's proposals for a Norfolk unitary, held between 8 December 2009 to 19 January 2010. I accept that that is not a proper survey and the Government are not interested in holding a referendum on the question, but just on the Norfolk proposals, 85 per cent. of those who submitted comments wanted the status quo, 10 per cent. were in favour of a Norfolk unitary, and 3 per cent. wanted a Norwich unitary. Is that what local democracy is all about? I am concerned not just about the likely impact on my constituents, but about the impact on the people of Norwich. The proposal would not provide them with what they want. It would mean two or three years of chaos, confusion and reorganisation, to the detriment of constituents across the board.

I urge the Minister to withdraw the proposals. My hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), who is our Front-Bench spokesman, says that in the event of our winning the general election, we would reverse the proposals. Most people in Norfolk would say amen to that.

11.21 am

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