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Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): I do not wish to detain right hon. and hon. Members for too long, because my colleagues are well represented here this morning and want to contribute. I shall talk about the economics of the matter; others will rehearse the political
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side and the influence of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who is the Member of Parliament for Exeter. He has made extremely unfortunate remarks about the permanent secretary at the DCLG, which I agree should be looked into. Ministers simply cannot go around making accusations about senior civil servants, and the right hon. Gentleman should know better.

I am in despair about the idea of Exeter going it alone as has been proposed, and I can do no better than to quote paragraph 5.5 of the advice that the boundary committee gave the Secretary of State on unitary local government in Devon, in December 2009, which stated that

That is one view. Another view is that Exeter alone would not be able to function usefully as a unitary. That is not only my view. It is also the view of Councillor Saxon Spence, the leader of the Labour group on Devon county council, who said:

After 11 or 12 year of Labour Government I say "Hear, hear." Times are not promising.

It is extraordinary that such an amount of money should be spent on something that I believe will not happen, when there are areas in all our constituencies that are crying out for funding for front-line services. I am concerned about the future of the Rolle college site in Exmouth, of Exeter college in Exeter and of Bicton college in my constituency, which is threatened with merger because of lack of funding from the Learning and Skills Council. Does the Minister, in her heart of hearts, think that the exercise provides value for money for the taxpayer? Given that the Conservative party has said it will not implement the proposal, is not it better, even at this late stage, to heed the advice of the permanent secretary and many bodies and accept that it should not go ahead?

Finally, let me comment on the idea that Exeter can grow, as a city and a vibrant economic entity, as a unity authority. Exeter is a great city and the capital city of our county, which is one reason many of us do not want it to be ripped out of the county. As I said in an intervention, much of the economic success on which it relies can occur only through the use of land that is now in East Devon. I am thinking of Exeter airport, the proposed new science park, the intermodal rail-freight terminal, the new business park and Cranbrook, the new town. The highways authority will continue to be Devon county council, outside Exeter. In other words, all the projected areas for growth in the area will remain under the jurisdiction of Devon county council, largely in East Devon.

A line between Exeter and that development will be an impediment for the constituents of Exeter and will be unworkable-unless Exeter's plan is eventually to try to expand the city boundaries to include the airport and the surrounding areas of economic growth. However, we must take the proposal to be what we have been told, and on the face of it, the answer to the question of
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whether Exeter will be better off on its own, without that land, must be no. Will Devon county council function better without Exeter? The answer is no. Are the existing district councils working better? The answer is yes: enhanced two-tier working is working extremely well. East Devon district council works closely with South Somerset district council and is beginning to make economies for the taxpayers of East Devon.

I suspect that it will be as a result of freedom of information requests and a change of Government that we finally discover what has really gone on in the Department and what influence current and past Secretaries of State have had on Ministers. To make this decision so late in the day is a great shame, and it will be to Ministers eternal shame if they go ahead with it.

11.26 am

Mr. Charles Clarke (Norwich, South) (Lab): I apologise for having a cold today; I hope it does not spread to too many Opposition Members.

Perhaps I may begin with the fundamentals of the argument, which are that the case for unitary local government is very strong. It is accepted all across Scotland, Wales and urban England, and many other parts of England, for reasons of the efficiency, co-ordination, transparency and costs of government. That is the reason for the process. I am a strong supporter of unitary local government and think that it is generally the right way to go. It gives citizens greater purchase over the decisions of the organisations that take decisions about their lives, and is more efficient and effective. I could give myriad examples of the truth of that from the city of Norwich, and I think it is true elsewhere.

However, I have some common ground with the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) in that I concede that the process in the case that we are debating has been incompetent to a great extent. Both in the time taken and in its operation, it has been damaging. I found the decisions of the boundary committee at various stages incomprehensible. I think that all hon. Members in the House would probably agree that its original preferred option of a unitary Norfolk plus Waveney had no support at all, anywhere.

The process gives rise to serious issues, but I do not think that that extends to the final decisions, which will be debated in the House in due course. However, I must concede that the process has been time-consuming and has taken great energy and resource, and that that was very serious.

I do not associate myself with those who criticise the permanent secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government. I knew Peter Housden extremely well when he was the deputy secretary responsible for schools and I was Secretary of State for Education and Skills. He is a civil servant of great integrity and experience of local government, and he will have had his own views on the matter, and expressed them. I do not think, however, that that concession on my part undermines the case for the Secretary of State's decision and the way that he needs to take it.

Mr. Cox: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is wrong, in the light of the remarks that he has just made, for a member of the Cabinet to accuse senior civil servants of bias, leaking information and seriously
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mishandling the situation for years? Does he not agree that Ministers should take responsibility for their Departments' decisions, not pillory civil servants for their Departments' mistakes?

Mr. Clarke: I have not seen the remarks that the hon. and learned Gentleman refers to, so I will not comment on them. I agree that Ministers should take responsibility for their decisions. I have carried that through in my own political career; it is important not to offload on civil servants. That is one reason why I commend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government for taking the decision that he has, having heard the advice and rightly exchanging correspondence with the permanent secretary. That is the perfectly correct process. The Secretary of State is entitled to make the decision that he has, and I am glad that he has done so.

Throughout this process, I have favoured a solution founded on a unitary Norwich based on wider boundaries, rather than on either one, two or more unitaries for the rest of Norfolk. I have always thought that that was more logical, and I hoped that the boundary committee would come to that view, because it would have been a preferable situation to the one we have at the moment. In that context, it is laughable to suggest, as the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk did, that all this is happening because of some process of political advantage. Any political aspects of it are certainly not advantaging the Labour party in Norwich, or anywhere else, and that is even more the case on a wider boundaries basis.

Anybody who makes such an allegation is perhaps not looking too carefully at the twin-hatters in their own constituencies-members of their constituency associations-who are collecting their two payments as district and county councillors. The hon. Gentleman should look carefully before making allegations about political interest in that regard.

Mr. Keith Simpson: Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that, as a consequence of the proposals, the May elections are to be cancelled in Norwich, when there was every likelihood that the Labour party would be wiped out?

Mr. Clarke: I do not concede that in any way. For a long time, Labour's view in Norwich has been that it is better for local elections to coincide with general elections because turnout is higher in general elections, and that is what we, as a Labour party, generally favour. These orders take away the elections that would have coincided with the general election and replace them with a new election in a year and couple of months' time-May 2011-which will not coincide with a general election, unless there are extraordinary circumstances. That is not in Labour's interests. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would be pleased about that.

The orders will also lead to the re-election of the whole of Norwich council. If the hon. Gentleman was concerned about the efficiency or otherwise of Norwich city council under Labour leadership over this period, I would have expected him to welcome the fact that within just over a year there will be a chance to have a whole-scale election of a new authority, in which his political colleagues can make those cases against Labour. I do not accept, therefore, the issue of political advantage in this context.

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The position that the Secretary of State is faced with-I think we are faced with it, too-is whether we prefer the status quo or the proposal that he has, I am glad to say, made for a unitary Norwich on existing city boundaries. As I have said, that is not as good as a unitary Norwich on extended boundaries, but nevertheless it is significantly better than the status quo.

I have made representations. I wrote to the Secretary of State during the consultation that took place after the boundary committee recommendations were made, saying that I favoured going for unitary on current boundaries-no doubt that will be published in due course. That is my position publicly, privately and in every other way. Why? Because there are benefits to unitary local government, and they will affect and benefit my constituents directly.

We have an example in the centre of Norwich right now, in the proposals for urban pedestrianisation of Westlegate, which were blocked by the Tory county council and will now, I am glad to say, be carried through. Opinion in Norwich has been fired up by the decision of the Conservative county council to close two day centres in my constituency, turn off the street lighting in just about every street in the city between midnight and 5 am-based on the experience of rural villages-and cut out the money that comes to schools in particular difficulty in areas of poverty, which affects my constituency in particular. That is a string of Tory county council decisions that take no account of the needs and desires of the citizens of Norwich. That is why those citizens-I speak only for Norwich-believe that unitary local government is better for them, as indeed it is. It is more efficient, transparent and cost-effective, and that is why I support the order.

The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk talks about Norwich's incapacity to take such decisions. If unitary councils such as Hartlepool, Darlington, Bracknell Forest and Halton, which are significantly smaller than Norwich, and ones of broadly the same size-Middlesbrough, Cleveland and Redcar, Blackburn with Darwen, Blackpool, and Reading-can take such unitary decisions, I do not accept that Norwich cannot. If there are arguments about the competence or incompetence of Norwich city council, let those arguments be resolved by the electors of Norwich in the election in May 2011. That is the right way to do it.

Mr. Simpson: There has been no real test of opinion in Norwich. A survey was done about three years ago by the Eastern Daily Press, which showed a minority in favour. Neither the right hon. Gentleman nor I has any basis of opinion, apart from the replies that were sent in to the Department for Communities and Local Government, so any idea that there is popular support is questionable, to say the least.

Mr. Clarke: With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I think that I am in a better position to comment on that than he is, as far as the city of Norwich is concerned. The challenge I put to him and his Front Benchers is that they look to the general election when it comes on 6 May, as I believe it will, because I, as the Labour candidate, and the Lib Dem and Green candidates will support unitary Norwich on current boundaries. I think that the Conservatives will not.

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I note that the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Chloe Smith) is not in her place, and I am not sure what her view on the situation is, but I would be interested to hear it because about 40 per cent. of her constituents are in Norwich-[Interruption.] She is apparently on a visit to Auschwitz. I did not know that. I respect that. It is obviously a good reason not to be here, and perhaps a better thing to do than be here. The argument that Norwich cannot run its own affairs is not warranted, however.

My final point is that I do not accept what the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk said about the interests of his constituents being damaged by a decision about Norwich. He is entitled to make an argument for his own constituents, but it is wrong to say that a unitary Norwich on current boundaries damages his constituents. It leaves Norfolk county council with about 85 per cent. of its current responsibilities across the rest of Norfolk, and the argument that he has to make is that Norfolk county council, which is generally an efficient county council, will not be able to deliver services to the same level to his constituents in Mid-Norfolk when it is running 85 per cent. of the county compared to 100 per cent. I see no argument for that whatever; it simply does not stack up.

The hon. Gentleman is entitled to his view that a unitary Norwich is wrong-he knows Norwich very well and can come to that view perfectly reasonably-but I do not believe that he can come to that view and at the same time claim to be speaking for his constituents. His constituents' interests will not be affected one iota by unitary status for Norwich, and I hope that the Secretary of State's orders go through Parliament and that he maintains his position on the matter.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the judicial review process, and I was amused that Norfolk county council decided to join with Devon county council to go through that process together, as though they were the same case, which they are not. They had to take solicitors from Tunbridge Wells to represent their case, rather than from the myriad effective law firms in Norwich. I do not think that they are on strong ground; they should not be. The change will advance the residents of Norwich, and I hope that it goes through.

Several hon. Members rose-

Mrs. Joan Humble (in the Chair): Order. May I point out to those Members who wish contribute to the debate that I intend to start calling the Front-Bench speakers at about 12 o'clock? I would be grateful if speakers limited their contributions.

11.39 am

Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): The Government originally set five criteria for unitary status: strategic leadership, neighbourhood empowerment, value for money, affordability and a broad cross-section of support. We have had many discussions with Ministers over the past four years about the proposal for a unitary Devon, or a unitary Devon minus Exeter. We already have unitary authorities in Torbay and Plymouth, and have made the case that unitary has not been a great success in Devon. Anyone who has witnessed what has happened in Plymouth and Torbay will admit that those areas do not have the critical mass to be totally successful. As we see at every election, that results in a change of-

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Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con) indicated dissent.

Angela Browning: My hon. Friend disagrees with me; he will no doubt make the case for Plymouth.

Ideally, we need a critical mass. In setting those five criteria, the Government were right to turn down previous applications, for a unitary Devon or a unitary Devon minus Exeter, because they simply did not meet the criteria. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) reminded the House, the Government have suddenly changed the criteria without giving any evidence of the analysis on why a change was necessary.

Ministers simply say that they are compelled to depart from the presumption that the five initial criteria are necessary, without acknowledging that there has been no analysis. That gives rise to the question, from those on the Opposition Benches and the members of the public we represent: why did they change their mind without the proper analysis? There must be another reason for suddenly rushing it through on the eve of a general election. It comes close to breaking the ministerial rules about making significant changes in the run-up to an election.

One therefore questions what is behind the change. There is clearly something behind the decision to which we are not privy but Ministers are. That not only raises concerns about the way in which the Government have conducted themselves over the matter, but it adds to our concern about what may be left in Devon if the Government are successful in making the change and if a future Conservative Government did not overturn it, as has been promised. There is no doubt about our discussions with Ministers. Indeed, a Minister who came to the Department straight from the Treasury considered the matter in some detail a couple of years ago, and decided that it clearly did not meet the criteria. He therefore turned down the latest proposal.

Those who have seen the details and the financial analysis have rejected the proposal, but suddenly all the rules have changed, and on the eve of an election the Government want to rush it through. There must be another objective to the outcome that the Government claim for it. It is not in the interest of the city of Exeter, nor is it in the interests of the rest of Devon.

My constituency surrounds Exeter, and covers both the Mid Devon and East Devon district council areas, but after boundary changes my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire), will have responsibility for the East Devon council area, which includes the airport and the new town of Cranbrook. It is a carpetbagging exercise. It is essential, in the early stages, that Exeter should have the critical mass to make it viable.

I bring to the attention of the House some of the comments made in a letter to the House of Lords Select Committee on the Merits of Statutory Instruments, by Sara Randall Johnson, the leader of East Devon district council. I totally endorse her comments. She said that

as do I-

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So say the Government.

The letter continues:

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