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Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab):
It is not for me to interfere in counties such as Devon, but, listening to the Opposition, it strikes me that they are against unitary authorities in principle. The real reason they are opposed to a unitary authority at a county level is that they are opposed to regional authorities in the first place-they have always protested against them. So we have to see through their argument. They use collaboration with local authorities in general-they
are doing it in the west midlands-as a substitute for regional government. That is the real Opposition coming out.
Ms Winterton: My hon. Friend makes a good point. The other point to make is that the Conservative party has never really grasped the importance of economic interventions, whether at national, regional or local level. Any idea, therefore, of the advantages that there might be for Exeter-
When we announced the decisions, I said that we would be inviting all existing councils in Devon and Norfolk to work together with the Government to develop the new service delivery models that, with the advent of unitary councils for the cities, will enable the best quality and more efficient public services to be provided to the cities and the wider county areas. That is the whole point of the letter that I wrote today. I also undertook to invite all the Suffolk councils, with their Members of Parliament, while consulting other stakeholders, to a county constitutional convention, in order to reach a consensus on a unitary solution for that area.
Ms Winterton: Under our proposals, implementing a unitary Exeter and Norwich will cost £400,000 over five years, but thereafter there will be a saving of £6.5 million a year. As I have said, my point is that we are working with all the councils involved to ensure that they are looking at not only the advantages that can be gained from Total Place, but other ways in which they can work together. When Conservative Members came to see me, they made the point over and over again about how well that working together was going. I find it extraordinary that all that is being turned on its head.
Mr. Ronnie Campbell: The Minister talks about criteria. Returning to Northumberland, the criterion then was to save £18 million a year in golden services, but quite the opposite happened after the first year. We have had rate rises, cuts and debt up to our necks. So I do not know where these criteria come from. Everybody should be warned. It might come from the civil service-fair enough-but they should be warned that the things being put in front of them are a pack of lies.
First, let me highlight that the representations we received went beyond the question of whether the proposals would deliver the outcomes specified by the criteria. This included many issues that, in the event, we considered were material to our decisions on Exeter and Norwich. Representations were made that highlighted the wider economic benefits of city unitaries. For example, while recognising that the Exeter proposal did not meet the affordability criterion, representations were made to us that the proposal should be implemented-this goes back to my earlier point-because Exeter city council was the driving force in the area, providing coherent strategic leadership on urban needs, growth and development, and that the two-tier system did not allow urban residents' views and political preferences to be heard at county level.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Before the hon. Gentleman intervenes, may I say that time is moving on? I understand the need for debate and interventions, but a number of people who have intervened several times are also seeking to catch my eye. I hope that they appreciate that the time taken in interventions means that fewer hon. Members will have the chance to make their own points. I hope that that is understood.
Mr. Simpson: The case for a Norwich unitary would be strengthened had it effectively been in care for about the past five or six years and had its accounts been qualified. Any idea-sadly-that Norwich could provide economic leadership is ludicrous. Only last year, the chair of housing had to be sacked for incompetence and what could be best described as corruption. I am afraid that the right hon. Lady's main message about Norwich does not stack up, as the Lords Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee concluded.
Ms Winterton: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has decided to condemn the council in that way. I must say that representations in favour of a Norwich unitary said that the city's urban needs were very different from those of the surrounding rural county, and that only a unitary city council would ensure that those specific needs important for Norwich's growth-for example, jobs, the green knowledge economy and business growth-are recognised and addressed. Representations were also made to the Secretary of State highlighting the importance and relevance of Total Place to his decisions, as I have said.
In short, for the proposals for Exeter and Norwich, we concluded that the benefits for the local economy and how services could be delivered across the new unitaries and the wider county areas in the context of Total Place outweighed the risks of affordability. For Suffolk, we concluded that we would not now take a statutory decision on the proposals before us, but invite all the Suffolk councils, along with their Members of Parliament, consulting with other stakeholders and through a county constitutional convention, to reach a consensus on a unitary solution for that area. We reached that conclusion, because it was clear from the representations that we received that although there should be a unitary
solution in some form, neither of the unitary proposals that we considered to have met the criteria was supported by all the principal councils in the county. We wanted to try to reach a solution on the basis of consensus.
Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): I am listening carefully to what the Minister is saying, but if I have got what she has just said right, how can the Government reconcile the unaffordability of the original Norwich city bid with the decision to take it forward regardless? How does she see the affordability problems that were initially identified being overcome? If she could respond in detail for us all, I would be most grateful.
Ms Winterton: That is exactly the point that I have spent about the past 20 minutes on. We have taken our decision based on the evidence currently before us, which is why we judged that the economic benefits, combined with the Total Place approach, would give the outcome that we wanted.
Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): I appreciate the Minister giving way, but could she explain why the Government have chosen to pilot Total Place across county boundaries, including in cities? The Total Place pilot for Coventry, Warwickshire and Solihull precisely demonstrates that the benefits accruing from the Total Place model are certainly not confined to just one city.
Ms Winterton: I do not understand the point of that intervention. If the hon. Lady is saying that there are benefits from Total Place-which she might like to tell her hon. Friend the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) about-it is obvious that they would count in that respect.
Let me now turn to the direction that the Secretary of State gave to the Department's accounting officer on 10 February. There are two issues that I would like to deal with. First, the process of seeking a direction is a standard part of the administrative processes of government, and one that recognises that accounting officers have certain responsibilities and that Ministers' responsibilities range more widely. In short, it was proper for 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 him to deliver the best value for money. However, it was equally proper for me and the Secretary of State to adopt the approach that we have, and to set out our reasons for those decisions. Of course my right hon. Friend and I gave careful consideration to the permanent secretary's advice before taking our decisions on all the proposals, recognising that accounting officers have certain responsibilities and that Ministers' responsibilities range more widely.
Let me turn to the accusation that now is not the right time for such important decisions to be taken because we are in some kind of pre-election period. We
need to be clear about our conventions. Until an election is called, the Government of the day have both the duty and the right to pursue and implement the policies that they believe are best for the people of this country. Likewise, Parliament continues to have the duty and the right to scrutinise those policies and, where legislation provides for this, to decide whether or not to approve them. It would be wrong for us at this stage not to face up to our responsibilities and take the decisions that we have. It would be equally wrong for Parliament not now to consider them. In the meetings that right hon. and hon. Members attended, we were told over and over again, "Please take a decision quickly on this, so that there is an end to uncertainty."
To conclude, we considered each of the unitary proposals before us on its merits. We did not accept any implication that the public interest lies with adopting the cheapest option across all three counties. We adopted the approach whereby we carefully assessed each proposal against the five criteria. In all circumstances we gave careful consideration to whether there were compelling reasons to depart from the presumption that proposals that meet the criteria are implemented and that those that do not are not.
Richard Younger-Ross: The right hon. Lady talks about the cheapest option, but that will lead to pressure on council budgets. Representations were made to her Department that such budgetary pressures would lead to an inability to employ staff of the necessary quality, because of being unable to pay for higher grade staff that other authorities can pay for. Exeter will have exactly the same problem that other small authorities have had, in relation to having the right calibre of staff to undertake the necessary functions. This decision is not going to do Exeter a service; it will do it a disservice.
We are clear that the decisions that we have taken on the unitary proposals for Devon and Norfolk are in the best interest of the people of those areas, and that there is a genuine local appetite for the measures. We believe that these decisions will give the cities of Exeter and Norwich the governance arrangements that are best suited to deliver economic, social, and environmental success for the cities and their surrounding areas. We have listened carefully to what people have said; we have considered carefully the evidence available to us; we have weighed the competing cases that we have heard; and we are confident in the judgments that we have made. I therefore urge the House to reject the motion and support the amendment in the name of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.
Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD):
We find ourselves involved in the second instalment of a three-round discussion on these proposals. Thanks to the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), we had an opportunity to discuss them in Westminster Hall last week, and the order itself will be discussed in Committee within a matter of days. In Westminster Hall, however, we did not have the benefit of the Minister's view of where we
had got to. As has been pointed out, the advice that she is sending out to councils appeared in writing a few hours ago. I hope that we will hear a slightly more cogent argument-[Hon. Members: "And some evidence."] Absolutely. We need to hear the evidence for why these proposals had to be brought forward at this juncture and rammed through before the general election. Sadly, however, I do not think that we are any further forward than we were at the conclusion of the proceedings in Westminster Hall.
As the Minister rightly said, this has been a lengthy process, but the problem is that throughout it, the goalposts have continually been moved. It started with a tight fixed time scale, and other parts of the country wished to participate in the process at that stage. Bids from those areas therefore came forward quite rapidly, but they might have been of a different nature if there had been more time to consider which proposals were most appropriate. Those areas were under the impression that that was the only game in town, however. It then transpired that that was not the case.
The next process entailed the boundary committee for England being asked to get involved, if the Government were unhappy with the bids. The boundary committee then looked at the evidence and came up with proposals for unitary counties, with which no one in the counties concerned was happy. There really was not a huge argument for unitary authorities in those areas.
Mr. Sanders: The process was flawed right from the beginning. Four out of every 10 homes in the county of Devonshire were not involved in the process, because the people who live in Plymouth and Torbay were not allowed a say, even though the proposals will have an impact on them.
Dan Rogerson: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is the problem with the process. The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) talked about the arguments for and against unitary authorities, and he was right to say that people take different views. In my view, there is a strong case for unitary government where the boundaries make sense. However, it is ludicrous for the boundary committee-which was not involved at the start of the process; that was something that the Government hit upon halfway through-to draw lines round parts of an area and say that they should not be included.
We should look at the case of Torbay in passing, because many people would describe it as a unitary authority that was bound to fail, because it is quite small and tightly drawn. It is difficult, under any administration, for a small unitary to deliver its services effectively, for all the reasons that hon. Members will no doubt wish to talk about tonight.
Richard Younger-Ross: If we look at Torbay or Devon, and officers working for one or the other, we see that they can work for either a small unitary authority or for a very large county authority. Which does my hon. Friend think will be able to pay the better salary and provide the better promotion prospects for anyone working for these authorities?
Unitaries are proposed-and indeed accepted by the Government-in dubious circumstances, as already mentioned, for two parts of the counties involved, but the third county of Suffolk, which has not yet been much debated, has been offered the possibility of having a county constitutional convention. My hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) said publicly at the beginning of this process that he felt that this would be a way forward for Norfolk. If people across Norfolk had had the opportunity to make proposals with the prospect of gaining some measure of consensus, this might well have been an entirely different exercise.
Mr. Charles Clarke: The hon. Gentleman talks about attitudes to this issue and the idea of having a convention, so does he concede that the leader of the Liberal Democrat group on Norwich city council, Councillor Brian Watkins, and his colleagues, and my Lib Dem political opponent at the general election, Simon Wright-this is the 24th Lib Dem target seat in the country-both strongly support the unitary option for Norwich? Will the hon. Gentleman support them in that? When he decides what he is going to do tonight, will he support them or do something that effectively stabs them in the back in their efforts to put their views forward? [Interruption.]
It is clear that in all political parties, people have different views. For anyone active in opposition, in government or seeking to get there, one has to look at all the evidence relating to the case. There are preferences in certain local areas and parts of counties for particular proposals, as people feel a great loyalty to the institutions to which they are elected. That is one consideration, but far more importantly, we must judge how effective any unitary authority created within these boundaries would be. That is where the proposals before us are called into question.
Norman Lamb: My hon. Friend's answer to the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) was perfect. The reason why I put forward the case for having a constitutional convention was that I could see a Stalinist process emerging that would completely ignore the people of Norfolk. I thought that there would no process to engage people about the future of local government for our county. I am not instinctively against unitary government at all; I think that it makes a lot of sense in many ways. The problem is that the people of Norfolk have been ignored in this process, which is why it caused outrage.
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