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The right hon. Member for Norwich, South seems to believe that the debate will be an election winner for him. In case anyone missed his contribution, I must tell them that his dividing lines are probably visible with the naked eye from space. The great majority of my constituents in Norwich, North oppose the proposal. I have barely heard a single positive case being made for it in the street by a citizen of either Norwich city or the Broadland areas that I represent. That is probably on the ground of cost, as well as on the serious grounds of the capability of Norwich city council-of which more in a second-and the lack of democratic consultation on the changes. I agree with the comments made by many hon. Members on that.
I will limit myself to two points. I shall make a swift point about the double-think surrounding the lack of regard for local people's views during the Government's shambles of a journey to get to this stage. Secondly, I shall examine in slightly more depth the capability of the existing city council to act as a preparing authority and a future guardian for education, social services, and the many other services that others have highlighted.
On consultation, the Government have ignored the Department for Communities and Local Government's accounting officer. They have also ignored the boundary committee. They have ignored the people, because only 3 per cent. of those who took part in the only consultation available want this proposal for a unitary authority for Norwich on the existing boundaries. They have also ignored hon. Members in this House and in the other place. The point is, however, that they believe that they have consulted and gained support.
I shall give the House one example of that before I move on to my second point. From the Secretary of State's answer to my question at oral questions this afternoon, I learned that the Government have "an indication of support in key places". What is that based on? According to the Secretary of State, it is based on the support of three out of four political parties on Norwich city council, the ambitious authority itself. That is not a broad cross-section of support. As Norwich city council would like to suggest, the proposal has "a strong broad cross-section of support", but that is not the same thing.
The truth is that this Government have failed to hold any kind of individual consultation on the orders for Norwich. The one to which they have had access, conducted by the boundary committee, shows a tiny 3 per cent. in favour of the proposed decision, with 85 per cent. in favour of retaining the status quo-and my constituents agree with that. The huge majority of those constituents who have expressed a view to me have very little faith in the proposed changes delivering anything other than a political fix.
On the capability of Norwich city council, I share my constituents' delight and pride in living in a fine city. Like them, I hope that we shall soon walk away with the UK city of culture prize. I put it on the record that I congratulate the city council on its work with its partners in getting us this far in the process. I do not slate the council for everything it does, but I do slate it for its record on the delivery of public services so far as my constituents and I, as a resident, are concerned, as there is more at stake than the arts.
Constituents living in the four wards of Norwich city council that I represent who come to my surgeries with housing problems and wanting to reduce antisocial
behaviour, to remove rubbish and to cope with so many other problems, both small and large, have very little faith in the city council's ability-past, present and future-to provide services of a decent quality.
Chloe Smith: I thank my hon. Friend for that. The city council is on top of its ability to leave bins full and, as already mentioned, is well known for the failure of its housing department, which led to the "Greyhound Opening" scandal in 2008-09, in which a senior employee and other staff were allowed to move into decommissioned sheltered housing and rent at social housing rates.
The Audit Commission's report after that scandal awarded the city's services a zero rating and the council is undergoing challenging improvement requirements. This year is the first for five years in which the council's accounts have been officially approved. The city now wishes the new council to focus on
"priorities that will maximise the future economic and social development of the city"-
all well and good-including economic development, co-ordinated growth strategy, educational attainment and aspiration, health improvement, climate change and sustainability, and waste collection and recycling. Those are all laudable, but I note that the competent provision of social housing is explicitly not on that list. For a city authority with a 33 per cent. proportion of social housing, an improvement order and a rock-bottom reputation to overcome, I am concerned.
Residents of the city area, myself included, do not want new "strategy, people and place". They want housing that has no damp climbing the kitchen walls; they want a cashier at city hall who takes honest rent money from honest social tenants, not one who will force people into direct debits, which are very difficult for some people on low incomes to manage, as my constituents have told me; they want a council that answers the phone; and they want low council tax, not a bill for costly reorganisation.
Put simply, current public services from this city, which wishes to be the preparing authority, is not good enough, and we do not believe that this process will make it better. Why should it have control of the vital areas of education and social services-make-or-break services for the most vulnerable in my constituency-because Labour in Norwich and Whitehall want to expand their political empire?
I wrap up by observing that much has been made of the "democratic deficit" by the Labour party in Norwich. It feels in some sense that it is engaged in a David and Goliath struggle against the county council. There is no democratic deficit apart from the one created by this Government and their cronies. There is a deficit because people are ignored. There is a deficit in our national Budget. There is a deficit here in poor public services. That is my concern.
Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): As we have heard, the history of changing the boundaries and structures of local authorities is long and intricate, but the restructuring in Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk began life back in 2007. As events and tonight's debate have shown, the Government's handling of these proposals has been utterly shambolic and disingenuous.
We have all heard how councils were asked to make proposals for the formation of unitary government, subject to five criteria that Ministers themselves set. By 2007, the Secretary of State had expressed the view that the unitary proposals for Norwich, Exeter and Ipswich were unlikely to meet all those criteria, but that alternative unitary proposals might. At that point, proposals were referred to the boundary committee. Following legal challenges and delays, as we heard, the boundary committee finally ruled at the end of last year that the city unitary proposals should not be implemented.
That was not good enough, and Ministers nevertheless chose to press ahead with their city unitary proposals, totally ignoring the boundary committee and what it had said about Norwich and Exeter. Ministers even admit that the city unitary proposals failed to meet the established criteria that they themselves had set for granting unitary status.
Ministers have argued that additional economic benefits and public service improvements through Total Place would result from the unitary status that they wanted Norwich and Exeter to have. I shall deal with the credibility of those claims shortly, but the simple fact is that Ministers changed the rules governing their own criteria halfway through their game. They may claim that those criteria were not legal requirements set in stone, but they were certainly widely perceived as the basis on which unitary decisions would be made.
"Whilst there is no statutory basis for the criteria, there is a legitimate expectation that they will be the basis of your decisions."
The Government ignored that. They are now also subject to legal challenges to the proposals from the county councils involved, and the permanent secretary believes that there is a "very high" chance that judicial review proceedings would be successful. As we have heard, the Government's handling of the process has been appalling. An additional question is whether there was any valid case for unitary proposals for Exeter and Norwich, and there is overwhelming evidence that that was never the case.
Did the proposals represent value for money? As my hon. Friend pointed out, the Department's permanent secretary did not think so. He had to write to the Secretary of State requesting a direct instruction to undertake proposals that he considered to be unjustifiable. Commenting on the Secretary of State's view that the economic benefits of city unitaries would offset any additional council running costs, he said:
"The evidence for such gains is mixed and representations that you have received provide no evidence to quantify such benefits."
The permanent secretary was not alone in expressing concern. The House of Lords Merits Committee was doubtful about Ministers' claims, while Devon and
Norfolk county councils criticised the claims about value-for-money savings, also citing a lack of evidence. The money spent on this process could have been channelled into front-line services for the communities affected. It seems that everyone apart from Ministers is unconvinced of the existence of any value-for-money benefits from the unitary proposals for Norwich and Exeter.
Tonight hon. Members in all parts of the House have repeatedly expressed concern about the proposals and made clear that they are desperately keen for them to be dropped. A future Conservative Government would ensure that that happened. My hon. Friends the Members for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) and for East Devon (Mr. Swire) and the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) all said that the proposals should be ditched, as indeed they should be.
Interested parties have been equally scathing about the Government's claim that unitary structures would lead to public service improvements. Both the permanent secretary and the House of Lords Merits Committee felt that there was a distinct lack of evidence for that claim. As we heard from Members representing seats in Norfolk and Norwich, communities there are fundamentally worried about what will happen to their local services if the plan goes ahead. We heard an excellent speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Chloe Smith). She has not been in the House for many months, but she did a fantastic job in representing her constituents this evening.
It is bad enough that the Government fudged and then ditched their own criteria, and that they failed to make the case for the new imagined benefits from unitary councils in Norwich and Exeter, but the proposals could have even more damaging effects. As we have heard, they could lead to a rise in council tax across the county of Devon, and we need to see them dropped.
Once again, however, we have heard from the Minister that she will press ahead with these deeply unpopular measures on the eve of a general election. This decision is born of Ministers' ignorance of everyone. They have ignored the boundary committee, they have ignored the House of Lords Merits Committee, they have ignored their own criteria, they have ignored their own permanent secretary, they have ignored Members of this House, and, most of all, they have ignored members of the public. That is a totally unacceptable way of going about the business of government. The Minister talked about the duty and rights of government, but this Prime Minister has no mandate. It is time for us to vote against this undemocratic measure.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Barbara Follett): This has been a lively and occasionally passionate debate, with feelings running high in all parts of the House. Feelings are running equally high on the ground in Exeter and Devon, in Norwich and Norfolk, and in Suffolk. The proposals have a Marmite-like quality: people either love them or hate them. Tonight we have heard a great deal from those who "hate that black fudge kind of stuff."
We have heard some thoughtful contributions, but most have completely ignored the fact that the proposals have had huge cross-party support in both Norwich
and Exeter. People in those proud and ancient cities want, and have wanted for almost half a century, the right to control their own affairs. These proposals are localism carried to its logical conclusion, and I am sorry that Opposition Members cannot see that. Many seem to feel that there is an element of force in the proposals. The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) referred to their being rammed through, thus completely ignoring the fact that the boundary committee only reported to the Secretary of State on 23 December, two years after the process had started in 2007. He also ignored the fact that the delay has not been caused by the Government but by expensive and lengthy litigation on the ground, which has led to the timing of the Secretary of State's decision.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) gave an outline of that expensive and lengthy process, and its background, in a contribution that was both forceful and clear. The hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) flatly contradicted my right hon. Friend's assertion that this was something the people in the area want, feeling that the people of Norfolk had been ignored. As someone who saw the extent of this consultation and who knows that it received 2,800 representations, I simply cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman. Nor can I agree with the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) that the creation of a unitary Norwich would not benefit Norfolk. As my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) pointed out in her incisive contribution, Buckinghamshire has certainly benefited from the creation of Milton Keynes.
The hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) illustrated the non-party-political nature of these decisions. He is against a unitary Exeter, despite the fact that his Conservative colleagues in Exeter are for it and that I saw them. He ignored the fact that until 1974 Exeter was independent of the county council and had been so for 800 years until the Conservatives changed it. We heard from the Opposition that the Labour leader of Devon county council is opposed to unitary change. In Norwich, the unitary proposal is supported by a coalition of Liberal Democrats, the Green party and Labour. In Suffolk, the Conservative leader of the county council strongly supports a unitary county.
The issues are not simple and it is the task of Government to weigh these matters carefully, to balance competing arguments, to take a wider view in assessing the evidence and differing claims and, finally, to reach a judgment on the best way forward for all concerned. That is exactly what my right hon. Friends in the ministerial team have done and they have done it in the knowledge that before any unitary structure is created, these issues must be fully debated in this House and by another place. They must be agreed here. In the representations today, we have heard graphically from Exeter and Norwich just how the existing system has failed them.
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