Previous Section Index Home Page

I profoundly disagree with the decision that the Government have taken, and I will do what I can to oppose and block it. It is an outrage that deserves to be dumped as quickly as possible. The process that has led
9 Mar 2010 : Column 252
to this point has been scandalous, and it has been the most appalling waste of public money. That is partly because of the evidence-building exercise by a body that the Government created to conduct the process, but we must also take into account the money spent on lobbyists by councils on both sides of the debate and on lawyers in legal actions and judicial reviews. All that money-millions of pounds-should have been spent on delivering services to vulnerable people in Norfolk at a time when services in local government are under intense strain because of the state of public finances. It is a disgrace, and the Government should be condemned for it.

Mr. Charles Clarke: The hon. Gentleman has said that he will use his powers to block the proposal in whatever way he can. Does he accept that in so doing, he will be explicitly going against the positions of the Liberal Democrat candidate in Norwich, South and the leader of the Liberal Democrat group on Norwich city council?

Norman Lamb: One does what one believes in. I have a strongly held view that the decision is wrong and that it is not based on evidence. It would therefore be utterly irresponsible for me, as a parliamentarian, to support the proposal, and I have no hesitation in opposing it.

I argued at the beginning not that we should sit on the fence, as the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) outrageously suggested, but that we should build an agreed way forward for the future of local government, and there is a genuine case for people and civic society in Norfolk contributing to the process in a proper way over a reasonable period. However, the Government were not interested in that. The process that they have pursued is designed to impose change from on high. I appreciate that decisions must be reached, but the process did not involve people locally at all. Excluding the public from the process is utterly outrageous.

A constitutional convention is now proposed as a way forward for Suffolk because-we are told-there is no consensus, but that is also true in Norfolk. Only 3 per cent. of respondents to the consultation supported the case for a unitary Norwich, and two thirds of voluntary organisations opposed the original proposals for a unitary Norwich, which came from Norwich city council, as did the majority of businesses, a substantial number of town and parish councils, most members of the public, and seven out of eight councils in Norfolk. There is no consensus in support of the proposal.

Contrary to what the right hon. Member for Norwich, South said, the proposals have profound implications for the rest of Norfolk. The hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) made the point that we are creating a council that would mean one-party rule for the rest of Norfolk for ever and a day. Whichever party that is, that is not good for local government or democracy; it is an outrage.

As I have said, the process should be condemned by everyone. The Government rejected the original proposal for a unitary Norwich on the current boundaries, and yet now, following that lengthy process, we get to the point at which they accept it. How crazy is that?

My key criticism, as the Liberal Democrat health spokesman, is that three years ago, the Government lauded the fact that they were amalgamating primary care trusts so that we had close to coterminosity between
9 Mar 2010 : Column 253
health, social care and children's services. That was a good thing, and it meant better joint working between social services and the NHS. Three years later, as so often happens with this Government, we are moving on again, destroying the arrangement that had been established and creating two organisations to deliver adult social care in Norfolk and two to deliver children's services.

As I have said, the evidence is that smaller councils do not deliver good-quality services, and my fear is for children's services and services that deliver care for older people if we have a small unitary Norwich alongside the rest of the county. Splitting the two is a wrong decision, and it should be opposed.

Mr. Keith Simpson: As the Liberal health spokesman, the hon. Gentleman will know that every report resulting from the brutal death of a child invariably says that one of the most important factors was the duplication of services and nobody taking responsibility. That is what we fear.

Norman Lamb: I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. We must ensure that children's services are robust, and that they are of a scale that enables them to recruit quality officers with the necessary specialisms. To destroy that in the county of Norfolk will put children at risk, which is a disgrace. For all the reasons that I have expressed, I will strongly support the motion tonight, and I will do everything that I can to stop this outrageous decision being implemented.

9.25 pm

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): I wish to home in on the two compelling reasons about which we have heard so much in the debate on this important issue, although the Government have not disclosed what evidence lies behind those compelling reasons. The reason why Ministers felt able to depart from the criteria- [ Interruption. ] It is very appropriate that as I am about to speak about the situation in Exeter, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw) should grace us with his presence.

The first reason given by the Minister of State is economic regeneration, because, she claims, a unitary Exeter would be a far more potent force for delivering positive outcomes, both for the city and more widely, than the status quo two-tier local government. What is the evidence for that? I asked the Minister that question in an intervention, and she said that when the Exeter city councillors came to see her, they made a very good presentation. But that is not evidence to support the proposition that a unitary Exeter would be better at attracting inward investment and economic regeneration than the situation that has prevailed for many years and has been astonishingly successful over the last few years-the two-tier system of Devon county council and district councils working alongside it.

I have some experience in this area, because much of the future development land for Exeter lies outside the city boundaries, and in my constituency there is a place called Langage, which is a significant growth point for Plymouth. It is currently virgin land, but it is intended that factories and commercial buildings will be built, creating many thousands of jobs and employing many of my constituents. That site is within Devon county
9 Mar 2010 : Column 254
council's area and on South Hams district council land, but it is a growth point for Plymouth. I have attended many meetings with the regional development agency, someone from South Hams, someone from Devon and someone from Plymouth, all trying to reach agreement on the development of that land. As it is intended to be the site for much of Plymouth's growth, it would be better if that land were inside Plymouth city's boundary. My point is that it is much easier to try to make decisions when fewer local authorities are involved.

The Minister proposes that Exeter should have not two authorities-the county and Exeter district-making decisions, but three local authorities, just as we have on the outskirts of Plymouth. Those will be the unitary Exeter council, Devon county council and whichever district council covers the area. How can that be a more potent force in attracting inward investment and economic regeneration? It simply does not make sense, and it is definitely not a compelling reason. Instead, it is a blind leap of faith.

We have also heard much about the second so-called compelling reason. The Minister has told us that a unitary Exeter could open the way to improvements in the quality of public services, and she places great store on the whole concept of Total Place. As we understand it, Total Place is all about different agencies and Departments-health, police and local authorities-working together to deliver services to the local community. It is about joined-up thinking, joined-up Government and joined-up delivery of services.

However, the Minister is now claiming that that can be better achieved by a unitary council, which seems to defeat the purpose of Total Place. If the police, the health authority, councils and other agencies can work together, so can a county council and a district council. It is all part of joined-up thinking and the delivery of services. Citing Total Place as another reason why this decision has been taken in the face of the five prevailing criteria does not make sense. The Minister has gone against the independent boundary committee, against her predecessor's judgment and against the advice of her permanent secretary.

No wonder the permanent secretary has written such a strong letter, which was read out earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill). It is couched in civil service-speak, but those of us who have been Ministers know exactly what the permanent secretary is saying to the Secretary of State. He is saying, "Are you out of your mind? Do not do this, because it will be a disaster. If you proceed, you must instruct me in writing so that I have a get-out when it goes belly up, which it will." He is saying, "Don't do this. You're making a huge mistake." We have asked about the evidence, but answer came there none.

It is instructive and useful to look at what has happened in the rest of Devon and Cornwall in the transition to unitary authority government. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) made a few comments the other day, and in part she is right: it has taken time for Plymouth to settle down as a unitary authority-possibly five years. During those five years, a lot of taxpayers' money was wasted. It is fair to say that it has now settled down as a unitary authority, and is improving and giving good value for money. Torbay is also improving, but it has had its challenges. One reason why it has not really prospered is
9 Mar 2010 : Column 255
that, for a unitary authority, it is very much on the small side. Yet Torbay is larger than Exeter, and there is no guarantee that Exeter can deliver the services. Cornwall has recently become a unitary authority, but it is taking a great deal of time to settle down, and the cost was far higher than was ever anticipated.

I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett), in her winding-up speech, will address a point that the Minister did not mention earlier. It is commonly accepted that the transition to a unitary authority in Exeter, if it goes ahead, will cost £25 million. Where will that money come from? It is certainly not in the current coffers of Exeter city council. The proposal is not viable, and flies in the face of common sense.

Then we come to another point. This decision will not just affect the people of Exeter; it will profoundly affect the people of the rest of Devon. I cannot imagine a Devon county council without its county town-it is like ripping the beating heart out of a living body. It is difficult to anticipate how it will continue to function, and Devon county council estimates that it will cost every council tax payer in Devon £200 per annum more-simply to appease the Government's strange desire to bring about this outcome. It will affect not only the people of Exeter but the people of Devon.

The Minister might say, "You all came to see us to say that you don't want unitary authorities in Devon. Okay, but what is the right way forward?" The right way forward is staring us all in the face: co-operation between Devon county council and the district councils, enhanced two-tier status, the sharing of services, the reduction of overheads and working together in partnership, which is happening more and more every year. Devon is becoming an exemplar of how councils can operate together. The Government would have been well advised to leave this all alone. I hope that this proposal will be rejected in another place-and if it is not, I hope that the law courts will throw it out.

9.33 pm

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): I think that I find myself in a unique position in the House, in that at the forthcoming election I will be fighting a new seat, and if I am successful, I will have Exeter city council, East Devon district council and Devon county council to look after-and I am perfectly satisfied with that, because they work extremely well together.

I wish that we were concentrating on making life better for the people of our county. The right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), who is here today, knows as well as anyone about the problems facing Bicton college, in my constituency, and Exeter college, in his, and the fiasco over the attempt by the Learning and Skills Council to change the conditions for the hard-earned merger of those two colleges at the last minute. That is a vital issue for East Devon. We should be working together on such matters, rather than mucking around at the 11th hour trying to change and gerrymander boundaries. Nobody wants that.

In the Prime Minister's amendment, the Government talk about recognising

9 Mar 2010 : Column 256

but as we have heard during this debate, at no stage has any Minister or, indeed, anyone speaking from the Government Benches, even attempted to outline the methodology, to identify the compelling reasons for change or to show any evidence or business plan-anything that would stand up as evidence in any business situation-to justify the proposed changes.

In the extraordinary letter that we received from the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett) this afternoon, headed "The Future of Local Service Provision in Devon", she kindly offered to appoint a senior official to act as a champion in Whitehall for all the Devon councils. One can only hope that that would be the old friend of the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), the permanent secretary Mr. Peter Housden, who is so cynical and nervous-and on the record publicly as such-about the entire series of changes.

We do not think that people in Devon need champions in Whitehall: they have Members of Parliament who are championing them right now, and those seem to be mainly on the Conservative side of the House. At no stage has a Minister accepted that the enhanced two-tier system is working; and, because it does not suit their naked political purposes, at no stage have Ministers said that for East Devon, which is about to share a chief executive and other officers with South Somerset council, the winner in all this will be the East Devon taxpayer. Instead, through political gerrymandering, the Government are trying to appease an existing Cabinet Minister and a past Cabinet Minister-the only two members of the Labour party who are satisfied with what is proposed.

When we speak about Exeter expanding, I would be grateful if the Under-Secretary of State could share with the House her views on where Exeter is going to expand. Perhaps she could have a quick word with her colleague on her left to identify some areas. If she or any of her colleagues take the trouble to find out, they will find that all the significant growth in the Devon structure plan is outside the city-that is, outside the city today, and outside it even if unitary proposals go ahead for Exeter. The growth is planned to the east of the M5 in my constituency, in Cranbook, a new community of at least 3,000 dwellings, which will include a 30-hectare business park-Skypark-a 25-hectare science park, an inter-modal freight terminal, the expansion of Exeter international airport and a further 500 dwellings in East Devon, an area that covers 315 square miles, and not in Exeter, a city covering 18.5 square miles.

We are talking about the economic benefits to our city, but it is our county city. I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) that to strip out our county city from our county is at best a dereliction of duty, at worst political vandalism. However, to strip out Exeter from the county will not benefit the people of Exeter at this time, and it will manifestly not benefit the rest of the people of Devon either, because as we have heard, there is no provision for additional funding for any restructuring costs incurred by the rest of the county. It will fall to the council tax payers to make up the deficit, and I suspect that a deficit will indeed be incurred in setting up Exeter as a unitary.

Hon. Members should not take just my word for that. They could perhaps take the words of the leader of the Labour party on Devon county council, who was closely involved for many years with Exeter city council. Councillor
9 Mar 2010 : Column 257
Saxon Spence has said in evidence that there is effectively no way that Exeter can be set up as a unitary without central Government support. If the money is available to set up an Exeter unitary, and if we accept that central Government support will be needed, that means, ergo, that there is Government money around somewhere. As a Devon Member of Parliament who is satisfied with the status quo, please may I bid for that money, for my hard-pressed social services, for the survival of Bicton college, the only land-based agricultural college in the south-west, for the potholes in our roads, so that people can get about, or for capping council tax, which our hard-pressed pensioners are finding it increasingly difficult to pay?

That is not just my view: if Ministers talked to anybody representing a constituency in Devon, from any party other than the Government party, or to any Member of Parliament representing a Norfolk seat, I suspect that they would say the same. However, because this Government have squandered the golden economic legacy that they inherited- [ Laughter. ] The right hon. Member for Exeter laughs, but it is true. Otherwise, why are we in the worst recession that any of us has ever seen or is ever likely to see in our lifetime? At the moment, there is no money to waste on Government schemes to shore up the political careers of two Ministers-or rather, one ex-Minister and one soon-to-be ex-Minister. This proposal should have no place. The Government have run out of time, and it will be a disgrace if they force it through. I pray that when the election eventually comes, the people of Devon will recognise it for what it is.

9.40 pm

Chloe Smith (Norwich, North) (Con): My constituency straddles the boundary of the proposed new Norwich unitary authority and the remainder of Norfolk, covering wards of Norwich city council and Broadland district council. I believe that I have the joy to be part of what the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) has referred to as the trio of affected constituencies.

I, and about 40 per cent. of my constituents, live in the city of Norwich and, in answer to the point about civic pride made by the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), I am very proud to do so. That, however, has zero to do with my stance on the political, financial and ethical aspects of what we are debating. I part company with my city comrade, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South, on his point that only he and I, and the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), have the right to comment on the proposals. Opposition Members have laid out in detail, many times in many different places, the economic, financial, social and political effects of the proposal on the remainder of the county. I suspect that that is as true for Devon as it is for Norfolk.

Following the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire), I do not hesitate to note the effect of the proposal on the remainder of the country as well. I strongly believe that the proposal on the table in Norwich will be costly and unnecessary, at a time of staggering national budget deficit. When the interest payments on the national debt are greater than the schools budget, it is utterly beyond me to understand why anyone would spend cash on something as unnecessary, unwanted and unreasonable as these proposals.

Next Section Index Home Page