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2 Mar 2010 : Column 222WH—continued

Dan Rogerson: I have always had reservations about the idea of elected mayors. When I served as a local councillor, I always welcomed the fact that we had the
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opportunity to discuss things among ourselves and to work together as a wider group. Of course, I was a councillor under the old committee system, which I thought was very good and served many areas very well. Unfortunately, the Government have forced a narrow range of options on local government.

The people of Torbay will be able to respond to another point on a far more well-informed basis than I can. As the unitary authority there was perhaps struggling in some service areas, I wonder whether the bid for a referendum for an elected mayor was seen in that light. Consequently, whether or not an elected mayor will be the right solution for Torbay remains to be seen.

In response to the question put by the hon. Lady, I am not personally convinced that elected mayors are necessarily the best option. I would prefer a system under which more elected representatives have the opportunity to contribute. However, the problem with unitary authorities such as the one in Torbay is that they are small and it is very challenging for them to provide services. There could have been an opportunity to look at the wider issues relating to the existing unitary authorities. That idea was talked about at one stage, but because of the original timetable that the Government set, that proposal was set aside.

We have also had proposals for county unitaries or super-unitaries, which would perhaps struggle to provide services at the other end of the scale. They would be to remote from local people. Unlike some of the unitary authorities that were created last year, some of those bigger county unitary authorities will find it very difficult to engage with local people. That is why all these proposals were unable to command great support from the local community in each area.

We have had a process that was originally led by local authorities that were trying to get the best for their local areas from what was put on the table by the Government; we had inconclusive results; the boundary committee for England was then brought in to see whether it could sort out the mess that was left behind, and it proposed large county-wide unitaries and one urban authority in Suffolk. Again, those proposals did not seem to meet the needs or aspirations of local people and the local authorities that currently exist.

We are where we are now, and the Government have stepped in shortly before a general election to attempt to impose a solution, particularly in Devon, where they have attempted to impose a solution on Exeter. I understand that all the political parties that are represented on Exeter city council have supported a unitary authority. However, despite that support, there must be great concerns about the ability of a unitary authority of that size to deliver services effectively.

Furthermore, as other Members have already pointed out, there are knock-on effects for the surrounding authorities, too. I think that the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) tried, in effect, to build a wall around Norwich and to say, "These issues affect people in Norwich, but they don't affect the wider Norfolk area". However, that is not true. Quite clearly, there will be significant effects on the area surrounding Norwich.

Mr. Charles Clarke: I was trying to make the point that, if Members argue that there are effects on their own constituents outside Norwich, or for that matter
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outside Exeter, it is incumbent upon them to explain what those impacts are. I have not yet heard-not just today, but ever-any serious argument that the interests of the constituents outside Norwich or Exeter are affected negatively by the decision for Norwich or Exeter.

Dan Rogerson: The right hon. Gentleman has made that point before, and it is clear that representatives of other parts of the areas affected feel differently.

Mr. Bacon: May I invite the hon. Gentleman to suggest another reason why other constituents could be affected by these changes? For example, in my constituency, which immediately abuts the city of Norwich, when the unitary authority proves to be unviable-if it goes ahead at all-because it is too small and run by people who could not run a whelk stall, it will want to expand its boundaries, encroach upon our area and come after my constituents for higher council tax payments in return for a poorer service.

Dan Rogerson: The hon. Gentleman has made the point that, if unitary authorities are created that are ineffective because of their size and their failure to reflect existing communities, we may well return to this issue later on. As I have said, there are other parts of the country where unitary authorities were created some time ago, and we may have had an opportunity to put those authorities right under this round of proposals.

What is on the table has clearly been hashed together rather quickly because of the approaching general election, despite the fact that more time has elapsed than under the Government's original timetable. Other parts of the country where unitary status was achieved recently or where bids were unsuccessful might well have benefited from the constitutional convention approach that is being offered to people in Suffolk. Had that approach been offered at the beginning, it would have avoided much of the mess that we are in.

12.10 pm

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): Welcome to the Chair, Mr. Jones. You have joined a lively debate and we are delighted to have you with us.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on securing this important debate. He has fought valiantly to raise the cause of Norfolk throughout this lamentable process and is a trenchant advocate for the case against the Government's behaviour. I am grateful to him for raising the issues.

I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate, in particular the serried ranks of my hon. Friends who represent the three counties involved. They have reinforced the arguments compellingly and I hope that in time they will forgive me for not dwelling on each of their contributions in detail.

The right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) spoke in favour of unitaries and I can understand why, coming from his perspective. Arguments can be made for either side and we will have to beg to differ on their merits. I make only two observations. First, there are compelling grounds for saying that what happens to the two cities will have an impact on the surrounding shire counties. My experience of 16 years in local government is that shared services cannot be disaggregated without
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a knock-on effect. There are issues relating to large cities that are the centres of shire counties, but this is not the right way to deal with them.

Both the cities that we are discussing are estimated to provide about 15 to 20 per cent. of the tax base and revenue for the surrounding counties. Because of the higher costs of delivering services in rural areas, removing them from the authority would be bound to have financial consequences for the surrounding areas.

Mr. Charles Clarke: Is the hon. Gentleman saying he believes that a Norfolk county council covering 85 per cent. of its current area would deliver significantly worse services?

Robert Neill: No, I am saying that that would make life significantly more difficult for the efficient and admirable Norfolk county council, which is doing its best, despite having had bad funding settlements from the Labour Government, as has Devon. It cannot be said that there would be no knock-on effect from such a loss to the tax base. The leader of Devon county council calculated that the removal of Exeter could cause band D council tax to increase by about £200 per year. There are potential impacts on surrounding areas.

The other point that must be stressed is that the procedure has been utterly lamentable and is wholly indefensible; even the right hon. Gentleman conceded that it cannot be defended. The two that we are discussing are part of a round of unitary proposals that started in 2007. Like all the others, they had to meet the five clear criteria set out by the Government and the boundary committee. In July 2007, the then Minister for Local Government, the right hon. Member for Wentworth (John Healey), made it clear implicitly that the Norwich and Exeter bids were not capable of meeting the criteria. That was endorsed by the then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Salford (Hazel Blears). They were right to say that the bids did not meet the value for money criteria. I recall that there was also concern about whether Exeter met another criterion.

The small unitaries were ruled out at the beginning of the process and alternative county-wide unitaries, which were objectionable on other grounds, were proposed. What has happened since then? Nothing has changed in the evidence base. What happened was that the Labour party lost a seat in Norwich. There has been a great deal of effective lobbying to get certain Members of this House off the political hook. The Municipal Journal described the situation thus:

It is a shabby deal. The columnist, Mark Smulian, writing in the Local Government Chronicle, was spot on in invoking the ghost of Governor Elbridge Gerry. This process is scandalous gerrymandering; it has nothing to do with good governance and is being done for political purposes.

I feel sorry for only two people: the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett), who is here to stand in for the Minister responsible for this matter and is picking up the tab for it, and the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for
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Ipswich (Chris Mole), because it is apparent that Cabinet Ministers and former Cabinet Ministers manage to get unitary authorities, whereas Under-Secretaries of State get merely a constitutional convention and a talking shop. Life is unjust even in the workings of government.

As has been observed, Mr. Housden, the permanent secretary, has behaved with absolute propriety. The attacks on him are wholly unjustified and would be withdrawn by any reasonable person. As well as the passage of his letter that has been quoted, he made two other important points. Having concluded that the unitary bids still did not meet the Government's original criteria, Ministers sought grounds to justify their departure from them. Mr. Housden wrote:

Mr. Housden then referred to the Ministers' grounds for departing from the criteria, in particular the suggestion that the unitaries would be able better to achieve economic gains and regeneration potential:

The permanent secretary destroyed comprehensively the two grounds that the then Secretary of State and Minister of State gave for departing from the original criteria. There were no grounds to justify doing so. In passing, it is worth saying that shared service arrangements in all three county councils and a pathfinder scheme in one are already improving services. That has been done without any of this nonsense.

Mr. Housden went on to write:

these decisions-

We now know that judicial review proceedings have been commenced. He went on:

One cannot be much more damnatory than that, yet the Ministers still persist and do not come along to defend themselves in person.

The pros and cons of unitary authorities in local government can be argued in a decent fashion. However, what has happened in this process is not decent. That is why my party has said that, should it come into government, it would reverse the decision and put all of the documentation and advice into the public domain following
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any unsuccessful freedom of information requests. The proposal is a shabby gerrymander and is a disgrace to those who introduced it. I am sorry that Under-Secretary of State, who is not personally responsible, has to defend the decision today. The best one can hope for is that she takes the decision back and, at this very last minute, Ministers remove the shame they have brought upon themselves and abandon such an ill-conceived proposal.

12.20 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Barbara Follett): I have only 10 minutes left and have a dreadful cold, which I am more likely to have got from the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) than my right hon. Friend for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), because we tend to spend quite a lot of time together one way or another.

I would like to record my gratitude and that of my right hon. and hon. Friends to the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) for giving us the opportunity to debate the very contentious issue of the unitary proposals for Norfolk, Suffolk and Devon. I understand the hon. Gentleman's disappointment with having to make do with a mere Under-Secretary of State in the unavoidable absence of the Minister for Local Government. However, as a Local Government Minister and as Minister for the East of England, I have taken a great interest in the proposals and, indeed, have heard some of the representations from both Exeter and Norwich.

I would like to try to deal with the "why now" question asked by so many hon. Members, particularly the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning). The answer is Dickensian in its simplicity and content. The advice from the boundary committee about the process, which started in 2007, as the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst mentioned, was requested by the Secretary of State more than a year ago in February 2008. Thanks to a succession of judicial reviews, the advice could only be provided by 7 December last year. The delay therefore arose because of the law and, to some extent, from those who sought to use the law to delay the implementation of the proposals.

The Department received the advice a year and 10 months after requesting it. Someone once said to me that the Opposition's only power is to delay. I do not think that that is true-although sometimes their behaviour makes me wonder-but a year and 10 months is a long time in the 60-month maximum life of a Parliament. Just because we are in an election year, the Government cannot stop making decisions or implementing proposals. It is perfectly reasonable of the Secretary of State and the Minister for Local Government to take the decision at this time, given the delay.

On the vexed question of how the decision was made and relations between Ministers and civil servants in my Department, first, it is a myth that, in some way, the Secretary of State and officials are at loggerheads. Nothing could be further from the truth. The process of seeking a direction is part of the normal administrative process that recognises that accounting officers-in other words, the permanent secretary-have certain responsibilities, which differ from those of Ministers, whose responsibilities do and should range more widely.

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Mr. Bacon: When the Minister says that what happened is part of the normal administrative process, is she saying that it is routine and occurs normally?

Barbara Follett: I am not saying that such a situation occurs routinely, but it is part of the normal administrative process for the person who is responsible for value for money to point out when a Minister has gone against specific recommendations by officials, which, in this case, we acknowledge that we did.

Mr. Bacon: Will the hon. Lady give way again?

Barbara Follett: I have to make some progress. I regret not being able to give way, because the hon. Gentleman made some good points.

I wish to make it clear that it was proper of the permanent secretary, as accounting officer for the Department, to draw attention to the fact that Ministers had not chosen the option that appeared to deliver best value for money. However, it is equally proper of the Secretary of State to set out his reasons for taking the decision. In other words, all those involved behaved properly and there is no question of official advice being biased in any way.

I also want to dispel the myth that the correspondence between the Secretary of State and the accounting officer was somehow leaked; it was not. In accordance with the relevant civil service rules, those letters were, in fact, shared openly on the day Ministers made their announcement with the head of the National Audit Office and, subsequently, with members of the Public Accounts Committee.

Mr. Keith Simpson: The Minister is generous to give way. She mentioned a point that I raised about whether the advice that the Secretary of State received, which obviously contradicted the advice given by the permanent secretary, can be put into the public domain. This is the centre of the debate: the permanent secretary believes that the Secretary of State's proposals do not meet the fundamental criteria. In his letter, the Secretary of State talks about advice that he has received. Can we see what that advice was?

Barbara Follett: The advice was in the form of the many representations that the Secretary of State, the Minister for Local Government and I received. I am not privy to other advice that the Secretary of State may or may not have received. The main reason for going against the criteria was the changed economic circumstances, as I think right hon. and hon. Members know.

Mr. Swire: Given that the Minister says nothing was leaked and that the permanent secretary behaved in an entirely proper manner, will she take the opportunity to apologise on behalf of her Government colleague, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, for his scandalous remarks?

Barbara Follett: I shall decline that opportunity, as I do not even know what remarks the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport made. All I can reiterate is that officials and Ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government behaved entirely properly and the letter was not leaked.

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