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Local Government Review

3.42 p.m.

Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, with the leave of the House I should like to repeat a Statement made in the other place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. The Statement is as follows:

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    remain in a two-tier structure. I have decided therefore that in the New Forest, as in the rest of Hampshire, the two-tier structure should be retained.

    "Similar considerations have affected my decision for the neighbouring county of Dorset. I agree with the commission that the boroughs of Bournemouth and Poole should be given unitary status. But elsewhere in Dorset I note that the existing authorities are not enthusiastic about the commission's proposals. On balance, I have concluded that the rest of Dorset will be better served by the two-tier system.

    "Finally, for Berkshire the commission has recommended the replacement of the county council by a structure of five unitary authorities. I agree that the county council should be abolished. But I disagree with the commission's recommendation that the districts of Bracknell Forest and Windsor & Maidenhead should be combined. I am satisfied that each of the existing districts in the county is capable of operating as a unitary authority and I propose to modify the commission's recommendations accordingly. The county area of Berkshire will be retained, together with the Lord Lieutenancy, but it will no longer have a county council.

    "Although my decision for Berkshire follows a different pattern from other counties, I am satisfied that the difference is well justified. I note that it has the support of all the district councils concerned; and that until recently the county council also favoured a unitary structure for the county. I have said previously that different structures may be appropriate in different areas to meet different local circumstances; Berkshire is a case in point.

    "I have given a full explanation of the background and reasons for these decisions today in an Answer to the honourable Member for Eastbourne. There are copies in the Library and the Vote Office.

    "My officials will now start work on drafting the orders which are needed to put these decisions into effect. The local authorities and their associations will of course be consulted. I hope that the first orders will be ready to bring to the House soon after the local elections on 4th May. In the meanwhile we shall also be consulting on draft guidance to be given to the Local Government Commission for the fresh district-based reviews.

    "In my previous Statement I announced that a small number of districts will be referred to the commission for further review and that I was considering whether to refer a limited number of others. Given the need to minimise uncertainty—and for there to be a clear end to the review process—I should perhaps repeat that, apart possibly from the two districts that I mentioned at the beginning of my Statement, I am unlikely to want to add to the list.

    "The decisions I have announced today reinforce the pattern which has emerged from the review. In broad terms: abolition of the unloved 'artificial' counties created in 1974, which have never commanded the loyalty of local people; creation of unitary local government in many large non-metropolitan towns and cities which will be well placed to benefit from the extra coherence and

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    effectiveness that unitary local government can bring; and elsewhere, the two-tier system retained, but with improved co-operation between the tiers.

    "With these changes I hope that the House will agree that local government will be in better shape to meet the challenges that undoubtedly lie ahead."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.52 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I am sure that we all thank the Minister for the Statement which he has just read. It completes the Government's reception of the recommendations from the outgoing Local Government Commission and a series of recommendations which, broadly, we welcome. I am not sure about my position in regard to an interest but perhaps I may make clear that I speak as a former city councillor of Norwich and a former county councillor of Norfolk, as well as vice-president of the ADC.

So far there has come before your Lordships the abolition of the three counties dating from 1974: Cleveland, Avon and Humberside. At the beginning of March the other House was given by the Secretary of State the broad statement of strategy, which was broadly welcomed from the Labour Benches. In it, the Government proposed to restructure the Local Government Commission, give it new guidelines and effectively reinvent county boroughs within a two-tier local government structure for the rest of rural England. In the process they proposed to establish a decent exit strategy from the current shambles. Thirdly, we have the Statement today on the rest of the counties so far affected by the local government review.

We all commiserate with the present Ministers on the mess which they inherited. One is reminded of the phrase from "Yes, Minister". Sir Humphrey Appleby says: "We must do something. This is clearly something, therefore, we must do it". The mess that was left behind has been a local government commission without proper guidance. I have to say that it was because the Ministers at the time refused the amendments from our Benches which would have given proper guidance to the Local Government Commission. When the Minister did give such guidance, it was promptly overturned by the courts. Secondly, not only was the Local Government Commission lacking in proper guidance, despite the Opposition's efforts to give it some; but also the Local Government Commission had a maverick chairman in Sir John Banham. In consequence, over the past two years no decision seems to have borne any relationship to any other decisions. Local authorities, councillors, staff members, local authority associations could none of them predict the outcome of any review.

We do not call for uniformity. After all, local government is about local difference. But in local government we have needed a coherence of approach, a strategy which commands consent, which is workable, which offers value for money and which offers a chance of staying power, stamina, robustness. We hope that, in the light of the strategy announced on 2nd March, today's recommendations and the subsequent smaller districts referred back for review, the forthcoming

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settlement of local government will meet those criteria. Of course, we wish the new chairman, Sir David Cooksey, well. The Statement means that we now have the outcome for every shire county, apart from some individual districts on the Government's "A", "B" and "C" list.

I have some points and comments to make. First, I hope that the Secretary of State will now move quickly, that he will lay the statutory instruments for the 13 counties not affected by the individual district reviews. Secondly, as to the recommendations, we support the Minister in pursuing the strategy of county boroughs within a two-tier framework. We are glad to see that Derby City will have unitary status and that the Government are not going for a political fix in the rest of Derbyshire. We support the recommendations for Hampshire, Portsmouth and Southampton, but anxieties will remain about the New Forest. With a population of 165,000, it remains the largest of the districts not to be included in the review.

As to Wiltshire, I am sure it will be of considerable pleasure to my noble friend Lord Stoddart to hear the results for Swindon, which we support. We also welcome a unitary state for Hertfordshire. We endorse the strategy for Berkshire. Despite the petition today, I believe that we all accept that so far there has been no strong support for Berkshire County Council and until recently the council itself sided with and supported its own demise. If one pulls out Slough and Reading, let alone Newbury, one cannot justify a two-tier octopus-shaped county for the rest of Berkshire.

It is worth reminding ourselves that Essex will probably remain problematic. I am not sure that the Government have yet got it right. Needless to say, we are delighted that Norwich and The Wrekin have, as a result of representations made to Ministers, been included in the areas for further consideration.

Given that we have an outcome similar to what we on these Benches called for in the late 1970s as an organic change, perhaps we may have some assurances from the Minister. The first problem is that some districts not named by the Minister ought, by any criterion, to be considered for further review. We welcome the decision on Norwich and The Wrekin, but what about Oxford and Ipswich? Most of the authorities in the Minister's "C" list are larger, older and more used to self-government than the districts which will go for review. How can one defend reviewing Gloucester with a population of 92,000—a decision which we support—but not Oxford, with a population of 128,000? How can one support re-reviewing Exeter, with a population of 103,000—which we support—but not Ipswich, with a population of 114,000? How do we justify the inclusion of Rushcliffe—a decision which we certainly support—with a population of 103,000? Of course, it does have the charm of being represented by the current Chancellor of the Exchequer.

It would be helpful, first, if the Minister could give an assurance that, so far as possible, some of the outstanding historic county boroughs of a decent size and with strong traditions of self-government should continue to be included in the list, in order that we have

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an acceptable exit strategy. Secondly, can the Minister tell us whether this is correct? I believe that an additional 3½ million people are now coming into unitary government. Can the Minister say what the total population of England will be within unitary government, including the existing metropolitan districts and the new ones coming in?

Thirdly, can he give us additional assurances about staffing matters? It has rightly been a major concern on all sides of the House throughout the local government review. Will the Minister reassure us that the existing arrangements so far achieved for Avon, Humberside and Cleveland on staff transfers, redundancy, retirement issues and no-detriment packages will be furthered for the forthcoming reviews? Local authority services are about staff; they are about teachers, home helps and road engineers. The shambles that we have seen over the past two to three years has, sadly, affected local authority services.

Finally, we hope that with the proposals today, within the framework of the strategic settlement that was outlined by the Minister earlier, we shall see a new settlement for local government that will have some stamina and robustness. It would then be helpful if the Minister could say that, in addition to the new structural settlement, local government could enjoy a new financial and constitutional settlement as well. Now that we have, as it were, the physical shape of local government established, it is time for the Minister to settle the rest of the issues associated with local government. That means reviewing the standard spending assessments. It means returning the business rate to local communities. It means the end of capping, and allowing local people—not the Secretary of State—to determine what represents value for money each and every time that they vote (unlike the Secretary of State).

Now is the time to encourage public and private enterprise through municipal schemes. Now is surely the time to rebuild a strong, confident people-focused local government which enhances, as we would all wish, a pluralistic democracy in England today.

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