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I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. Looking at Devon, for example, it is important to point out that the position already mentioned in respect of Torbay and Plymouth and the surrounding area was brought about under a Conservative Government. In those areas, the job was only half done and left hanging by the Conservative Government, whereas we should have considered proposals relating to the whole county of Devon. There was an opportunity in Devon's
case to examine the circumstances, look afresh and see what could have been done slightly better or differently. As has already been pointed out, however, that offer was not on the table.
Mr. Bacon: We should have warned the hon. Gentleman before that although the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) looks cuddly, he is actually the sort of bull who brings his own china shop with him. The hon. Gentleman should sup with a long spoon, but will he acknowledge that we on the Conservative Benches are not at all surprised by what he said? As already mentioned, we are familiar with Liberal Democrats whose backsides are nailed so firmly to the fence that the iron has entered their soul, and they not only say different things in different parts of the country, but, even more commonly, say different things at opposite ends of the same street.
Dan Rogerson: If the hon. Gentleman had listened to what I said earlier, he might not have risked returning to the issue of splits in his own party over these issues. Throughout our earlier debates on the creation of unitary authorities throughout the country, we heard his colleagues on the Conservative Front Bench saying that it was a terrible process without really engaging with the fact that the unitary authorities that now exist in Wiltshire and Shropshire were proposed by the Conservatives.
The point is that people should be able to come forward and present proposals for measures that will work in their areas, and the Government should be able to decide whether those proposals stack up financially. Different considerations will apply in different parts of the country. Some of the larger unitary authorities may not meet with favour locally, even if they are more financially viable.
Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): As my hon. Friend has said, the experience of the process has been difficult for all parties. I well remember our debates on some of the unitary authorities that now exist, when there were divisions between all the parties. I think that this is a missed opportunity. If we want to engage people in politics, should we not encourage them to unite on the changes that they want rather than being fractured over those that they do not want?
Dan Rogerson: As always, my hon. Friend has made a good point. We are having this debate against the background of a general election, rather than pushing the issues into a future time when they could be discussed more calmly. We are working to a timetable of the Prime Minister's rather than the Department's choosing.
Norman Lamb: I must respond to the outrageous goading by the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon), whom I would almost call my hon. Friend. The Conservative county group, which supported a unitary Norfolk, was opposed by Tories in district councils across the county. The Tory party in Norfolk was split completely down the middle, and the leader of the Conservative county council was deselected as a result of his support for a unitary authority. We will take no lessons from the hon. Gentleman on this issue.
My hon. Friend has confirmed what I said earlier. All the parties have understandably found themselves having an internal debate, because people in
different parts of counties are bound to take different views. It would have been more helpful if, at the start of the process, everyone in the areas concerned had been allowed to discuss the issues through a constitutional convention. A constitutional convention has, in fact, been proposed in Suffolk, but more for reasons of desperation than might have been the case had it been proposed at the outset.
Mr. Swire: The hon. Gentleman mentioned division within parties. He will know that the Labour leader of Devon county council, Saxon Spence, has said that the system is unworkable in Exeter. Indeed, even some Conservative members of Exeter city council who are in favour of unitary government in principle recognise that this is not the time for it because of the changed economic circumstances, and because they see it as a party political move by the Labour party for the benefit of the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw) and no one else.
Dan Rogerson: The hon. Gentleman seeks to build on a point made by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) about potential gerrymandering. I recall that Governor Gerry's name was mentioned earlier. However, I fear that the Government's action may be mistaken, because I do not think that it is particularly to their advantage in either case.
Christopher Fraser: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the Conservatives in Norfolk are united on one issue-the delivery of good services to the people of Norfolk at a sensible price? Anything that adds cost is anathema to all Conservatives, whatever the level at which they represent people in Norfolk.
Dan Rogerson: The hon. Gentleman was dangerously close to saying that they were disunited on every other issue. We have had quite a debate already, and the issues that seem to be resolved are that unitary authorities on the scale proposed will have real difficulty in delivering services effectively, and that there is a huge question mark over the process that has been followed. Local people in those areas, regardless of what their views may have been at the beginning of the process, will feel that they have been served badly by that process, which has been done to them, as opposed to being one in which they have been engaged.
I should pick out one slight inconsistency in the Conservative position. The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst referred to academic research, in particular that by Professor Chisholm, showing that unitary local government and the transition to local government is problematic. A great deal of research shows that this can work effectively, so I have a problem with the motion, which in effect says that there are question marks over the whole process of transition to unitary authorities. That is not defensible.
The point that I was making was that the academic research by Professors Chisholm and Leach demonstrates that the methodology adopted by the
Department for Communities and Local Government in relation to the current round of unitary restructuring is highly suspect.
Dan Rogerson: That clarification is helpful-not that that dimension would have encouraged my hon. and right hon. Friends to have voted against the motion anyway, because we feel that common sense should reign, and we should have the opportunity to point out how the process has been flawed throughout. None the less, I am glad of the clarification, because unitary local government is beneficial in areas where those who create it get it right, where the boundaries are sensible, and so on.
In summary, the Liberal Democrats' position is that although we feel that there is a case for unitary government in many parts of the county, the proposals being pressed by the Government in this unseemly way just before a general election are not helpful, and we shall therefore be happy to vote for the motion.
Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): I note, Madam Deputy Speaker, that Conservative Members appear to be challenging your ruling in calling me, and I sure that they did not intend to do that and would wish to rephrase their sedentary comments.
When listening to the peroration of the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), I felt that he had lost his knowledge of what had happened in the past on local government reorganisation. I simply point out to him the experience that many of us had of the Banham reorganisation under the previous Conservative Government. Although it is true that criteria were used then, the point is that the criteria were simply different as the commission progressed around the country and it was never terribly clear which set of criteria the Banham commission was using when it came to the area in question.
I had direct experience of that as the then leader of the Labour-controlled Oxford city council. The council came to an agreeable arrangement with the four Tory-controlled district councils in the rest of the county. A very civilised discussion was held and we reached an agreement, which we presented to the Banham commission, on a proposal for three new unitary authorities. We understand that although we made an excellent case-each of us had the support of all the parties within each council and of a very large proportion of the population in each council area-at the last minute the proposal was rejected largely because of the principled, or unprincipled, intervention of the then Member for Witney.
Other cities across the country had their own experience of the Banham reorganisation, when similar political considerations were considerably more powerful than the stated criteria against which everybody was operating. All the strictures given by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst about the process ring rather hollow
given that, frankly, 'twas always thus and 'twill always be so. There will always be political considerations and it ill behoves Conservative Members to pretend that it happens only under Labour Governments and never happened under Conservative Governments. I also point out that it was under the previous Conservative Government that unitary authorities were imposed on Scotland and Wales without so much as a by your leave or any semblance of consultation. Pots and kettles come to mind.
I found the peroration of the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst very strange when set against the Conservative party's avowed commitment to localism, which appears to have a completely different meaning when it is applied to the desire of Exeter and Norwich to be unitary authorities and seems to stretch to the whole of a county. That is not normally what people out there believe to be localism.
The overriding priority for the Opposition, it would appear, is the cost of the arrangements. There is no consideration for democracy. I am sure that if we scrubbed every local authority in the country and, indeed, this Parliament and just had a dictatorship, it would be immensely cost-effective and hugely cheaper than the democratic system that we operate in this country, but nobody-not even the Conservatives, presumably-would pursue cost-effectiveness to that level. There is a balance to be struck between democracy, localism and community identity, and cost. To simply say that the only thing that matters is cost-effectiveness seems to me not to run with the avowed commitment of the Conservative party to localism. It rather suggests that localism, as far as the Conservatives are concerned, is only about planning and stopping housing and not much about anything else.
Let me turn to the issue of Exeter, as I know that at least one of the Members of Parliament for Norwich will doubtless speak about Norwich, if called. Opposition Members were suggesting, I think, that the Conservative councillors in Exeter were perhaps not as committed to the unitary status for their city as they had been before. I have a letter dated 2 March, which is not very long ago, signed by the leader of the Conservative group and the Conservative chairman of scrutiny resources of Exeter city council. It makes it quite clear:
"An independent Exeter, with its own government, elected by and in touch with its own people, can make such decisions much more successfully. The city's voters will enjoy a much clearer idea of where responsibility lies and who to go to for help and advice.
A single-tier authority will cost less in the longer run...and enable the new council to focus on generating the prosperity which will benefit both Exeter and the surrounding county of Devon."
That is the view of local Conservative councillors on Exeter city council. It is also the view of the other groups on Exeter city council and I am surprised that Opposition Members have been laughing at that and belittling the views of their colleagues in the Conservative party, who are standing up for their city of Exeter.
I think that we know slightly better than the Chairman of the Select Committee what our councillors in Exeter are thinking, and most of them think that this is entirely party political and that it is not the right time, economically, to waste vast amounts of money. Is she
aware of what the leader of the Labour group of councillors on Devon county council thinks about Exeter going unitary at this point?
Dr. Starkey: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman can tell me, but I am talking about Exeter. He is talking about a county council that is seeking to impose its views on the city. He is belittling the views, published in the local newspaper in Exeter, of two Conservative Members of Exeter city council. He is in danger of suggesting that those Conservative councillors are writing one thing in their local paper and saying another in private to other Conservative members.
On unitary authorities in general, I have always been a supporter of unitary authorities, including when I was the leader of Oxford city council. I am even more strongly in favour of them now that I am a Member of Parliament for Milton Keynes because I have seen the huge difference that it has made to Milton Keynes to have a unitary authority and not be part of Buckinghamshire, which never looked after the interests of Milton Keynes, which has a wholly different population from the rest of Buckinghamshire with a wholly different culture.
Cost considerations are important, but the huge benefits to Milton Keynes and other unitary cities of having councils that focus singly on the issues of those urban areas, that are clearly accountable to the populations of those areas and that work with other service providers in those areas override mere cost considerations. I absolutely understand why councillors in Exeter and the majority of councillors in Norwich want unitary status. Unlike Conservative Members, I believe that those cities would benefit enormously from that focus if they were to get unitary status, and I do not think that the surrounding counties would be impoverished at all. Buckinghamshire is much happier without Milton Keynes, just as we are happier not to be part of it, and I think that the same would be the case in Exeter, Devon, Norwich and Norfolk.
Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): I want to speak on behalf of my constituents in my constituency, which wraps around the northern outskirts of Norwich. I have spoken on this issue in three separate debates in Westminster Hall and I am obliged to make a few points on it now.
I must say to the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) that this is not just about cost and money. It is about democratic deficit, as my constituents were never asked their views. The Bill by which the unitary authority is being established specifically excludes constituents. Stakeholders, business groups and all kinds of quangos-but not our constituents-may be consulted. The only test that we have ever had, although I accept that it was not objective, showed that, if anything, the overwhelming majority of people in Norwich and the rest of Norfolk preferred the status quo.
Julia Goldsworthy: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that parish councils, which are an important part of local democracy as they are the closest to the communities that they serve, have been specifically and explicitly excluded from the process?
If the change goes ahead, certainly in Norwich-I shall not comment on Exeter-it will have an impact on my constituents and, I suspect, on constituents in other parts of Norfolk. First, there will be disruption and many services will be duplicated. Also, the financial criteria do not seem to add up. The fact that the House of Lords Merits Committee attempted to get further details and that the Department was unable to provide them stacks that up. The process has been a disgrace from the very beginning, and Ministers have finally produced the orders in desperation, but it is wrong to go ahead with them just before a general election. The Government have no manifesto claim on this issue at all. I suspect that the majority of people in Norfolk will judge the change on whether it delivers better quality services and whether their council tax goes up.
In an intervention on the Minister, which she kindly took, I said that the argument for a unitary Norwich would be strengthened if it were a five-star council-if it were Norfolk county council-but, sadly for the people of Norwich, it is not. It has always struggled. It has had poor leadership, it has not been able to manage its accounts and it has had all kinds of major problems. I honestly cannot see that a Norfolk unitary authority will be the engine to drive forward any form of future economic expansion for Norfolk. If anything, in fact, past criteria show that it will be a sheet anchor and that it will have an immediate impact on my constituents.
I shall make one final point, as I know that other hon. Members wish to speak. The Minister and her colleagues have made great play of the fact that the permanent secretary is there only as an adviser but, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) said, he is actually the accounting officer. There is ministerial responsibility to consider. The whole issue should be referred to the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee, and Ministers should be held responsible-both personally and financially-for these decisions. What has happened has been shown, by both the permanent secretary and the Merits Committee, to have got close to breaking the law. I hope that Ministers will be held personally responsible. I also hope, in the event of a change of Government, that future Ministers will look into this matter and make certain that those people are held responsible.
Mr. Charles Clarke (Norwich, South) (Lab): I am delighted that this debate is taking place. First of all, and following the remarks of the Chair of the Select Committee, it is important to say that it directly affects the constituents of just three constituencies-my constituency of Norwich, South, and the constituencies of Norwich, North and of Exeter.
There may be indirect effects on other constituencies, and the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) has suggested that his might be one, but I do not believe that the argument has been made. In the case of Norfolk, the Opposition have to make the case that the services provided by a new Norfolk county council that is 85 per cent. the size of the current authority would be significantly less good and represent less value for constituents than now. I do not believe that that argument has been made.
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