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2 Mar 2010 : Column 217WH—continued

For example, the Met Office relocated from Bracknell to Devon, and there has been an expansion of Exeter airport's industrial base. There is also the proposal to go ahead with the new town of Cranbrook, virtually on the same site; that will be an enormous development in that part of the county in the coming years. However, there is no new economic growth in Exeter that was not apparent under the existing two-tier system. It has not stultified economic growth and it has not stopped major companies redeploying to the Exeter catchment area.

I represent that rural hinterland that the city of Exeter wishes to bring within its city boundaries. It is a travel-to-work area. Many of my constituents travel from the Mid Devon and East Devon areas to work in the city. In that regard, the city of Exeter, Devon county council and the two district councils have had a good working partnership-we often hear the word "partnership" bandied about. I am astonished that the Government wish to destroy that partnership in order to railroad through something that can only be politically motivated.

11.44 am

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): I shall be mercifully brief, Mrs. Humble. I refer to a letter of 10 February 2010 sent by the Minister's Department to all Devon authorities that justifies the extraordinary decision to grant Exeter unitary authority status.

The Minister agrees with her predecessor that the case for Exeter does not fit the criteria, but none the less goes on to say that there are two compelling reasons for going ahead. Those reasons are not qualified, but she still finds two reasons to depart from normal procedure and grant Exeter unitary authority status. First, she refers to economic regeneration. She says that a unitary Exeter would be a far more potent force for delivering positive outcomes for the city and more widely than the status quo of two-tier local government. My hon. Friends the Members for East Devon (Mr. Swire) and for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) both spoke about that.

My question to the Minister is this: what is the evidence for making that statement? If it is a compelling reason, surely it must be backed by evidence. However, no evidence is given in the letter. Indeed, it flies in the face of common sense and the experience of the last few years, as my hon. Friends have said. It is not a compelling reason. It is a blind leap of faith, and it is certainly not sufficient to set aside the normal criteria.

Perhaps I am being unfair. Perhaps the second reason is more compelling. The Minister says that a unitary Exeter could open the way for improvements to the quality of public services. She gives no evidence for that startling assertion, but she does not say that it will happen or why the Government are convinced about it. She says that it could happen, meaning that it may happen-meaning, of course, that it may not. What kind of compelling reason is that?

I agree with my hon. Friends. This extraordinary decision is not motivated by a desire to give the city of Exeter some kind of economic regeneration or to favour
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its status over the rest of Devon. It is a cynical political decision. Frankly, it is beneath the Government to stoop that low.

Mr. Swire: Is it?

Mr. Streeter: I like to give people a fair chance. Even after 18 years in the House, I have not come across such a political and cynical decision. It will not benefit the people of Exeter. It will be to the detriment of the rest of Devon. It should not proceed.

11.47 pm

Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on introducing the debate.

I wish to speak for Suffolk and to consider the process of this extraordinary decision. In February 2008, the boundary committee began to consider a structural review for local government in Suffolk. In July 2008, it presented its first draft proposal. It bore no relationship to the historic entity of the county. For example, Lowestoft was taken out. In March 2009, the committee released a second set of proposals. A one-Suffolk proposal was formally made, but once again Lowestoft was excluded.

One of the first criticisms that come to mind over the idea of a unitary authority that covers the whole of Suffolk is that decision making would be remote. My constituents in places such as Brandon, Mildenhall, Newmarket and Haverhill would find the idea of local services being concentrated in Ipswich and the eastern part of the county of little appeal.

The boundary committee has been charged with considering the proposals for reform. According to the district and borough councils with which I have been in contact, it has steadfastly refused to listen to their concerns. The so-called three council alliance spoke of the committee being inconsistent by attempting to say that it is listening to and considering all proposals yet simultaneously refusing to engage in any dialogue about proposals other than its own. A poll commissioned by the three councils found an overwhelming rejection of the committee's proposals. The people of west Suffolk are against the change.

The serious question is one of cost. The counter-proposal advanced by the three council alliance claims that more than £34 million savings of net outgoings can be made by the three unitary authorities. 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. This is at a time when councils are under considerable pressure. In addition, there are the costs of the boundary committee. According to the answer to one of my past parliamentary questions, the boundary committee had spent £282,535 up to March last year, and budgeted a further £269,782 for the current financial year. What has been the result? The Government have ignored the recommendations of their own quango and announced that consultations will continue. Repeated reorganisations of public services cause considerable dislocation and a great deal of cost. The irresponsibility of such a move is made all the more acute by the fact that the Conservative party has made its position clear on the matter of reorganisation. We are close to a general election, and it is the height of irresponsibility to be proceeding on any basis at all. This should be a matter of party political consensus.

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It is with weary alarm that I look at the current plans for local government and the controversy and in-fighting that is accompanying them. The Secretary of State has decided against the introduction of the so-called one-Suffolk council, or the boundary committee's preferred alternative of an Ipswich-Felixstowe unitary authority, on the grounds that

That sentiment is to be greatly welcomed. However, one wonders why such a decision was not reached much earlier, particularly when one considers the arguments that I have been proposing. It should be noted that the issue has been left up in the air. Forest Heath district council and St. Edmundsbury borough council said:

The drift, the uncertainty, the waste and continued expense of trying to fight an unwanted and uncalled for reorganisation that has run for years and failed to come to a conclusion, still rolls onwards to who knows what end. We simply could not make up such a fiasco.

11.52 am

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): I am grateful to have the opportunity to take part in this debate. I want to focus on the narrow issue of the correspondence between me and the permanent secretary of the Department for Communities and Local Government, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) referred in his introduction. Since that correspondence, there has been an extraordinary and indefensible outburst from the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw). I should like to hear the Minister, on behalf of the Government, condemn what was said and state, on the record, that civil servants have done nothing wrong in relation to such matters.

I wrote to the permanent secretary, Mr. Peter Housden, on 3 February. As a member of the Public Accounts Committee, I see permanent secretaries from various Departments twice a week, and have done so for the eight-and-a-half years that I have been a member of the Committee. I am familiar with the fact that one of the titles of the permanent secretary-it is the reason why the permanent secretary is the witness before the Public Accounts Committee-is accounting officer. Permanent secretaries are legally, as opposed to politically, responsible to Parliament for the effective, efficient and economic use of public funds.

This morning, I was at a seminar, which was chaired by the admirable Peter Riddell, at which a former senior Labour Cabinet Minister, who has only recently stepped down from the Cabinet, said, "Ministers are there to represent the public interest first and foremost in obtaining value for money in the use of public resources. That is their job. It is the job of accounting officers, of permanent secretaries, to stand behind them to make sure, if there is any falling short from that standard, that they notify it to the appropriate authorities."

The right hon. Member for Exeter accused Mr. Peter Housden of being biased and said that he was not surprised that the documents had been leaked. May I
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say for the record that the documents were not leaked? They were sent to me in response to a letter that I had written to the permanent secretary. Mr. Housden copied them to the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell. I can hardly think of a less likely way to leak something than to send a copy of what one is doing to the Cabinet Secretary. In his letter, which he also attached to the Secretary of State, he said that

that is the approach currently proposed by the Secretary of State-

Far from leaking the documents, he did the right thing.

As for seriously mishandling the situation, I have since had a letter from the Comptroller and Auditor General to whom I also copied the correspondence. It is a fact of the nature of requesting a direction from a Secretary of State that the permanent secretary will also send copies of it to the National Audit Office and the Comptroller and Auditor General. In his letter, Mr. Housden alludes to that. He says:

In his letter to me, which I received yesterday by e-mail, the Comptroller and Auditor General said:

which is a Treasury guidance document-

[Mr. Martyn Jones in the Chair]

In other words, there is no question but that the permanent secretary has acted properly.

The reason he acted properly is that he was concerned that the approach being proposed by the Government was improper, an indefensible use of public funds, unfeasible in the sense of being undeliverable, and almost certainly unlawful. In such circumstances, he did exactly the right thing. I see that Mrs. Humble has transmogrified into you, Mr. Jones, in the last couple of seconds, so I will address my concluding comments to you.

I repeat my request to the Minister to ensure that we all understand, on the record, that the behaviour of that civil servant has been in the finest traditions of the civil service rather than against them. We all understand that the career of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has, in some ways, been an anger management therapy and a working out of his feelings towards his former employer at the BBC, but that is not a reason to lash out at civil servants, and I hope that the Minister will confirm that.

11.57 am

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Jones. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on securing this debate. He, like many hon. Members, has pursued this issue throughout the process on which
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local authorities in many parts of the country have embarked. Some issues were settled earlier on to the satisfaction of some and the dissatisfaction of others. In these three counties, however, the process has been particularly poorly handled. It has dragged on, and the goalposts have changed repeatedly. The Government's guidelines have been altered, and various bodies have been asked to examine a problem that is essentially of the Government's own making.

The hon. Gentleman referred in his opening remarks to the chaos that has been generated by the process, and I agree with him. We have a process that effectively paralyses local government at a time when it faces hardship, particularly in the provision of services. Speaking both on behalf of my party and in a personal capacity, I wish to say that there is a logic to unitary local government. In some places, it works very successfully. We have just embarked on the process in my own area in Cornwall. The issue facing us today is not necessarily one of two-tier authorities or unitary authorities being better able to cope with the problems facing an area. It is about how one considers the process of change and whether local people or local organisations have been able to influence the debate on matters that deeply affect them.

It is perhaps also important to reflect on the fact that the areas where these issues were settled some time ago were sticking to the Government's original timetable. Although the process may have been chaotic in the parts of the country that we are discussing today-the three counties of Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk-people in other areas may well look back and think differently.

Mr. Swire: Given what we have heard the permanent secretary say and given the fact that the Conservative party has said that it will not allow these changes to happen, does the hon. Gentleman not take the view that other hon. Members have taken today that now is not the right time for any of this change to go ahead?

Dan Rogerson: My view is that, having had a process that has been dragged out and having had a timetable that has been altered on several occasions, it seems rather strange that we are suddenly having a conclusion brought with undue haste just before a general election. When issues remain to be settled, or even addressed, there is a very good case for looking at the process after the general election that we are likely to have in the next few weeks or months.

Mr. Charles Clarke: Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that, in the case of Norwich, this process was initiated some years ago, when the Liberal Democrats ran Norwich city council and strongly supported the process? It remains the case that the Liberal Democrats in Norwich support the proposal of a unitary Norwich authority, based on current boundaries. I wonder whether he acknowledges that and whether he accepts that the case for these changes is being made not only by the Labour party, but by the Liberal Democrats and the Green party.

Dan Rogerson: The point that I was making, in response to the previous intervention by the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire), was about timing; it was not necessarily about the merits of an individual case,
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because those who are best placed to determine the merits of a case are the people in the areas concerned. So I am not seeking in any way today to wade in and intervene in local grief or local triumph.

My purpose in my contribution today is to say that the process has been handled incredibly badly and that, when something such as this change is happening, there is an opportunity to encourage local people to come forward, take a view and become involved in a process that may lead to more efficient local government in their area. However, there is nothing so frustrating for people who have taken part in such a process as feeling that it is a tokenistic exercise and that whatever they have to say will not be listened to and, in the great scheme of things, not count for very much.

We could perhaps draw a parallel with the regional spatial strategy process, whereby people have made an input to a document that, in theory, could have huge implications for a local area if those strategies are enforced for very long, which remains to be seen. Again, people who have responded to consultations, such as those on the RSS, have said that they have not felt that those responses have been taken seriously. One therefore wonders whether, on a future occasion when any Government are consulting on serious proposals such as these changes, people will be encouraged to engage with that consultation process, regardless of the merits of the proposals.

We started out with the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007, which enabled the creation of further unitary authorities. As I have said, I am sure that some people in certain parts of the country will welcome such authorities, because there is a logic to unitary government and unitary authorities can be very successful.

We have had a bidding process, but, as I said earlier, it has had a tight time scale. There was huge pressure to bring forward bids from different areas, without people in those areas having an opportunity to discuss whether or not they felt that making a bid was the right thing to do. So county councils of different political complexions around the country put in proposals, and district councils did the same thing. In a lot of those areas, the bidding process became one whereby people were divided one against the other.

I suppose that it is quite natural for an authority's officers and members to feel some loyalty to it and, when they are threatened with change in a very short time frame, to dig in their heels and say immediately that they want to preserve the status quo. Some of the bids were therefore perhaps not as imaginative as they could have been. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) referred in particular to issues in Torbay, where a small unitary authority has switched political control and where people are now experimenting with the elected mayor concept. Of course, we will see what happens in a future election there.

Angela Browning: I noticed that the hon. Gentleman's party colleague, the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders), suggested on television yesterday that we get rid of the mayor of Torbay. I hope that he does not agree with that suggestion.

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