Previous Section Index Home Page

In the Westminster Hall debate on this subject, the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon), in trying to answer that question, said that he thought there
9 Mar 2010 : Column 246
might be some future land grab. I say that that is a matter for the future, and that if his party were fortunate enough to be in office it could see the problem off at any time. In all seriousness, I believe that the case for damage being done elsewhere has not been strongly made.

The Conservatives have argued the case for unitary authorities since 1986, when the Conservative Government abolished the Greater London Council, the Inner London Education Authority and the six metropolitan county councils, and created 68 new urban unitaries. In 1994, the Conservatives did the same thing again in Scotland and Wales, and then in England the Banham commissioners -to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) referred-broke down counties such as Avon, Humberside, Hereford and Worcester, and Berkshire into smaller unitaries. I am glad to say that, from 2008, this Government have taken the process forward.

In all those cases, the key point that is not accepted by the Opposition is that new authorities were created, with new councillors and officers to deal with the new situation. That was the moment for improvement. Of course, there were historic issues, and by no stretch of the imagination do I seek to defend all that happened, but that new situation is what we are debating this evening. As a result of the changes, many unitary authorities were created that were significantly smaller than Norwich-I will not list them all now, but they include Hartlepool, Darlington and Bracknell Forest-and that leads me to believe that it would be entirely possible to establish an effective new authority for Norwich.

In summary, for 20 years there has been a strong and continuing tide towards unitary local government. The quality has been good, and the move has been supported by the Conservative as well as the Labour party. Of course there have been many local issues-some of them bitter-as private power bases have been dismantled and uncomfortable, but necessary efficiency changes driven through.

I was interested in the remarks by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) in that regard. I do not want to misinterpret him, but he made it very clear that, if he were in office, he would propose no new unitaries if they had to be imposed against the wishes of other people. I take that to be a commitment that a future Conservative Government would never put in place a unitary Norfolk county council if there were opposition from districts in Norfolk. I also noted that he made no commitment to overturn in future any decision that had been made.

Mr. Bacon: The Audit Commission has described Norwich county council's financial management as not fit for purpose. Given that, I cannot understand how a unitary Norwich could be the engine-what the Secretary of State called the potent force-for anything.

Mr. Clarke: For three reasons. First, as I said, it will be a new council-that is important-all-out elected in 2011, with new chief officers and a new situation. Secondly, I believe that there will be genuine economies in various areas as a result of a unitary authority with services working together. Thirdly, the performance of the city council over recent years has been improving significantly from a very bad position, as the hon. Gentleman and others have rightly identified. The case for unitaries is powerful.

9 Mar 2010 : Column 247

Robert Neill: In endeavouring to be helpful, I did not want to inadvertently mislead the right hon. Gentleman. I must confess that I omitted something. I should have stated what I have stated so many times before elsewhere: of course, in office, we on the Conservative Benches will reverse this ill-considered decision.

Mr. Clarke: I am glad the hon. Gentleman has made that clear. I thought that with great subtlety he had ducked the point and not carried it through. I thought there had been a shift of policy, so I am glad he has clarified that.

The reason for unitary local government is that it is much more efficient than two-tier government. It is far more effectively co-ordinated and coherent. The value for money that it offers is far higher, the costs are lower, and the decisions taken by unitary local government are more transparent and much closer to the citizen. We can see the reason for that in Norwich today with the decisions being taken by the county council. The desire for unitary status has been massively increased, even in recent months, by a number of bad and irresponsible decisions taken by the newly elected Tory county council in 2009.

First, the county council has decided to close two important social facilities for the elderly, the Essex rooms and the Silver rooms. It has no idea what commitment to give to support the frightened users of those services or what to do with the facilities. It is in an absurd position, which is so serious that the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Chloe Smith) says that she opposes the council's proposals-she has said that publicly-because those proposals come from people who know nothing whatsoever about Norwich.

Secondly, the county council has decided to reduce the amount of money that it gives to urban schools, including in Norwich, which do not fit in with its county-wide priorities, because it is not concerned. Thirdly, unbelievably, the council has decided to turn off the street lights throughout my constituency between midnight and 5 am, on the grounds that what is all right for small rural villages is also okay for major urban centres. It is a ludicrous decision. It is no surprise that the decision is spreading fear across my constituency. Even my Tory opponent, Councillor Anthony Little, has started distributing leaflets expressing his concern, as he misleadingly implies that that has been a decision of the Labour city council rather than of the Conservative county council, because it is such a bad decision.

Chloe Smith: The right hon. Gentleman may be aware that the county council is not doing as he has just suggested. As my hon. Friends have mentioned, that is rather more a spiel than a point. The decision on street lights was delegated to the director of transportation planning, as the right hon. Gentleman well knows.

Mr. Clarke: I beg your pardon. The Tory county council has decided to ask the director of planning, Mike Jackson, to take the decisions because it wants to run away from the responsibilities. It is extraordinary.

My final point is that Norwich is already among the top five shopping centres in the country, and we want to achieve even better shopping centres, so the decision is taken-recommended by that same officer, by the way-to pedestrianise the Westlegate area in my constituency, which five Tory county councillors from out in the sticks have said they want to block.

9 Mar 2010 : Column 248

I cite these four examples not just because they are bad decisions, which they are, but because each of them is a decision which should properly be taken by the city council, by people who are accountable to the electors there, rather than by people who live as much as 50 miles away from Norwich and have absolutely no idea of the condition of life in the city that is Norwich. It is a ludicrous state of affairs. [Interruption.] That is why there is support across the whole of the city for the proposals that are being made. It is not just the Labour party- [Interruption.] It is the Liberal Democrats, the Greens-

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order.

Mr. Clarke: I put a simple challenge to the Opposition parties. Let us add up the votes cast on general election day for the candidates in Norwich, South and Norwich, North, according to their attitude on unitary status. I predict we will find that the overwhelming majority of votes have been cast for candidates who support unitary status in Norwich. I hope that will be honoured. That is a central point in the debate.

Under the current arrangements, which the Opposition support and want to maintain, those decisions will continue to be taken by a county council covering an area-the county of Norfolk-with 85 per cent. of the population size of Birmingham. It is large enough to contain the whole of Greater London twice, parts of the county are more than 50 miles from Norwich and it stretches 75 miles from one end to the other.

We are talking not about a tiny, coherent, local community, but about a state of affairs in which people do not have a purchase on the key decisions in their life. Increasingly, the county council, which was elected in 2009, takes decisions that take not the slightest account of the needs of my constituents. For the judicial review, it has even retained solicitors based in Tunbridge Wells, rather than the excellent solicitors based in Norwich, so much does it care about building the legal system in Norwich.

I have strived and supported unitary local government throughout the county; I have favoured a unitary Norwich that is based on boundaries that reflect the actual built- up area of the city, because the divergence with Norwich is greater than that of any council in the country; I have opposed a unitary Norfolk on the ground that it is far too big to be properly responsive to local communities; and I had hoped and expected that the boundary committee would emerge with a proposal that commanded general support, as I believed was possible.

It was an incompetent process that left the Secretary of State with an invidious choice between a unitary Norfolk, which even the Conservative county council formally opposed, the status quo and a unitary Norwich on current boundaries. He has taken the right decision, which should be supported in the Lobby tonight and when orders are put before Parliament later on.

9.6 pm

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), but as he rightly pointed out the whole process has been a complete shambles. There has been relentless political involvement
9 Mar 2010 : Column 249
and interference in the process throughout, and that is a disgrace. The role of the boundary committee is one of a quasi-judicial body, and we should be very concerned about such political interference in its workings.

The restructuring is a political fix, at the fag end of a Parliament, to try to save the constituencies of one Cabinet Minister and one former Cabinet Minister, and depressingly, as the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) outlined in an intervention, the cost of the process has been huge. The cost in terms of the paralysis in decision making, the diversion of management time and the judicial challenges involves money that could have been spent on local services-on the very services that the right hon. Member for Norwich, South mentioned. They are under pressure because of this Government's woeful mismanagement of the economy, and that money could have been spent helping our constituents.

One thing that has really struck me over the past two years is the extent to which decisions, even in the west of the county, have been put off or delayed because of uncertainty, and the Government knew that that would happen. Norwich city council is still dysfunctional; it is financially incontinent, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) pointed out; its accounts have not been properly signed off; and it has not had a clean bill of health from the Audit Commission. The right hon. Gentleman said that the council has improved enormously, but only a year ago there was a very serious housing scandal, so for him to say that the council has improved so much that it is ready to go unitary beggars belief.

Of all the councils in the country, Norwich city council is the one that should not be given unitary status. It has never been pro-enterprise, pro-jobs or pro-initiative, and for the Minister to say that something has dramatically changed since the original boundary committee report, and now she is absolutely convinced that this is the one council that can drive the jobs and enterprise agenda, is absolutely staggering. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) pointed out, the Department's permanent secretary, who after all is the accounting officer as well, clearly made the point that the argument in terms of jobs and the enterprise initiative is sparse and hollow.

Looking at it from the point of view of someone who sits for a constituency in the west of the county, I have to say that people in my constituency want the status quo. They want a county council that is able to deliver top-quality services. This is a beacon council-one of the very best in the country-that is delivering top-quality services in conjunction with the two-tier system. I also have a top-quality borough council in King's Lynn in west Norfolk. The status quo is working well, although it can work better, of course, through more partnerships and joint enterprises between councils.

Hon. Members might have seen that the Electoral Commission was extremely sceptical and scathing about the postponement of the elections. I fear that if these changes are forced through in the fag end of this Parliament, we will be faced with a county council that will lose part of its council tax-raising base, and services will suffer in my constituency and in other constituencies. This is a complete farce and a disgrace, and it has to be stopped; we have an opportunity tonight to go into the right Lobby and stop it.

9 Mar 2010 : Column 250
9.11 pm

Mr. Anthony Wright (Great Yarmouth) (Lab): I am 100 per cent. behind unitary authorities. Indeed, I am envious of the position that Norwich finds itself in of being offered the opportunity to have unitary status. My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) and I were fully supportive of a unitary authority for Great Yarmouth and Waveney, but that was not to be the case. We held that position some 13 or 14 years ago, when my hon. Friend and I were leaders of those respective councils and we were told, under the Conservative Administration, to look positively towards a unitary authority in which both those authorities would come together. We have been actively seeking the opportunity to take that forward, but have been prevented from doing so.

I accept that in the three years that have passed with the matter going backwards and forwards in the boundary committee, the situation has been flawed in many respects. However, we were let down very badly on the question of why Great Yarmouth and Waveney were unacceptable as a unitary authority. The boundary committee said that both local authorities were weak in political leadership and financial management. Opposition Members have claimed that that is so in Norwich, South. I ask the Minister to respond on the opportunities that there may well be to open up the matter again following the election of a Labour Government at the next election.

Opposition Members, including the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Christopher Fraser), have said that Norfolk county council is delivering good services. However, the history in Great Yarmouth means that I differ from that point of view. Five or six years ago, the council closed village libraries in my constituency, despite opposition from the public and Conservatives on the local authority. It is trying to downgrade Gorleston fire station by taking away the retained firemen and replacing them with a crew from Yarmouth fire station. That is an absolute disgrace. Political opponents are trying to make out that it is a plan by the Labour Government, yet it is down to the fire committee of Norfolk county council.

Christopher Fraser: How does the hon. Gentleman justify the extra cost to the taxpayer of a new unitary status for Norwich, which is not accepted by the rest of the county but which the rest of the county will be paying for?

Mr. Wright: I do not think that the rest of the county has put its views forward on that, and the hon. Gentleman is not justified in saying that there will be such extra costs.

I am looking forward to somebody promoting and supporting the concept of unitary authorities. I live in hope that one day in the very near future Yarmouth and Waveney can join together in a unitary authority and bring value for money and decent services to my constituents in Great Yarmouth and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney in Lowestoft.

Dr. Starkey: Does my hon. Friend accept that the point that Opposition Members have made both to him and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke)-that the formation of a unitary authority in Norwich would somehow cost everybody else in the county much more money-can only really
9 Mar 2010 : Column 251
be true if the county council is taking considerably more income out of Norwich to subsidise services in the rest of the county than it is spending on services in Norwich?

Mr. Wright: My hon. Friend makes a valuable point about value for money. I do not believe that the situation that she describes is the case. I have a fear for the future, which is that a Norfolk without Norwich will leave us somewhat devoid of democratic accountability. I am concerned that we will be left with the two-tier system in the rest of the county council area, which will still fail to deliver services in my area. That said, I firmly believe in the concept of unitary authorities as the way forward.

The switching off of lighting after midnight has been mentioned, and it is happening at a time when safety is of paramount importance. Crime levels have reduced extremely fast in my constituency, and the change will put that in jeopardy. Where was the consultation with my constituents before the decision was taken? There was none whatsoever.

It is time to move on. Previous Conservative Administrations have accepted the concept of unitary authorities, and we should push ahead with this one. I accept that the boundary committee has taken decisions that could be questioned. I have suggested to it on several occasions that a unitary authority in my constituency would have worked extremely well, but we have to move on from that. I support the concept that Norwich deserves unitary status, and I believe that the rest of Norfolk should move on and work towards unitary authorities in the rest of the county.

9.16 pm

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk) (LD): The Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination said that the Secretary of State had concluded that it is in the best interests of the people of Norfolk to go with this proposal. I regard that as high-handed arrogance of the worst sort, particularly as the people of Norfolk have had no opportunity at all to express our view through the entire process.

To take up the point made by the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), I acknowledge that there are strongly held views on both sides and that some people genuinely argue with some passion for a unitary Norwich. I have no objection to the principle of unitary local government, although I have to correct one thing that the right hon. Gentleman and the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey), said. They argued that there is overwhelming evidence that unitary local government always produces good results; it does not. The Audit Commission tells us that the evidence is mixed. Some unitary authorities have worked very well and others have not, and the most important factor is the size of the local authority, whether it is unitary or two-tier. Larger local authorities tend to perform better than smaller ones, which is the concern in the case of Norwich.

Next Section Index Home Page