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We have no plan to abolish the county councils. It may be the caseI do not knowthat the Boundary Committee may put forward options for single-tier unitary county councils; I do not know. It is for that committee to look at the six or seven county councils on the list that I mentioned. There is no sub-plot to abolish county councils.
We have considered all of the "relevant responses". I believe that that phrase was included because the lawyers considered that some of the responses that were received were not relevant. That includes many from business, individuals and organisations; they had a variety of views all of which have been considered.
I have dealt with the costing issue and the level of responses. On the soundings exercise, people might chaff about it but the fact is that one can run a well-respected opinion poll in this country with, I believe, about 1,700 people, so long as they are classified correctly and virtually mirror exactly the population of this country. That is tried and tested and scientific. Many more people were involved and it was split on a regional basis. The regions are not all the same size. They are not the same; they do not look the same, they do not act the same and they do not sound the same. I say: thank goodness for that. My question for the Opposition is: if the assemblies are set up, will they abolish them?
Lord Waddington: My Lords, does the Minister recall that two or three years ago the Prime Minister was reported as saying that we needed local government and elected regional assembles like a hole in the head? Does he know what caused the Prime Minister to change his mind? What sort of madness is it when a government grant people referenda on regional government for which there is no great groundswell of support but refuse a referendum on proposals from Europe that affect our very independence as a nation? Has the world gone completely mad? Does not our present local government set upespecially our county councilshelp maintain a balance between urban and rural interests? Is it not disgraceful that the Government are prepared to risk all that being set at nought in the
Lord Rooker: My Lords, on the latter point, as we made clear during the passage of the Bill, all polices, whether from regional assemblies, central or local government, must be rural-proof. The rural element of those policies should be an integral part of them, not tacked on at the end.
The original White Paper sets out that, should there be a "yes" vote and a Bill establishes a regional assembly, the electoral system for that assembly would not be based on a quota system for the size of constituencies, such as that in another place. The Boundary Committee has the powers to change, alter and keep discreet figures for electoral numbers for rural areas to take special account of the dispersal of the population. That would not happen in elections for membership of another place. The idea is an integral part of the plan and I will not accept that there is an argument between urban and rural interests.
Ultimately, the people will decide. If they choose to have an elected regional assembly, that is their choicenot that of this House, the Government or another place. We have set up the procedure to give people the choice. That is it. There is now a set of rulesa statutory frameworkfor governing referendums that was not available for the earlier referendums, which will lead to a fair result. As for the first question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, about the quote from the Prime Minister, the noble Lord gave no chapter, quote or reference, so I will not answer it.
The Lord Bishop of Blackburn: My Lords, I thank the Minister for the Statement, which I welcome. Several right reverend Prelates on these Benches have supported the policy over the past few years. I signed the letter from the bishops and Church leaders of the North West, largely because I wanted an end to the uncertainty. The North West is a region surroundednorth and southby devolved government. The citizens of the North West have the right to a similar government.
I chair the North West Rural Affairs Forumthe Defra bodyand I share the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, about rural and urban interests. Therefore, will the Minister assure those of us who will vote in the referendum about what the body will actually do and about the interests of the rural areas and shire counties, which cover a vast area over and against the heavily populated conurbations of Greater Manchester and Merseyside. Will he assure us that the Statement will be well publicised so that people are well aware of what will happen post-referendum?
Lord Rooker: My Lords, on the last point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn, which I hope was covered in the Statement, the criteria given to the Boundary Committee have been published today. Details of the direction that has been given to the committee should be available in the Library. There is no secret about themnothing has been done behind closed doors.
On what will happen post-referendum, as much information as possible will be made available before the referendum, during the campaign and over the coming months. It is difficult because, in areas in which there is two-tier local government, a decision will have to be made about the new structure. Obviously, the Boundary Committee will take a whileperhaps six or nine months or even a yearto complete the reviews in each of the three regions for the local government changes that would be on offer for the present two-tier areas, where only people in those areas will have the second vote.
Full information about what matters will be dealt with by the regional assemblies and how they will operate will be available, based, one hopes, on the draft Bill. The public will receive information through letter boxes.
I can only repeat my earlier comments about the urban/rural split. I hope that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn does not go down the same road. The idea that only people who live in rural areas care about those areas is a scandalous lie. It is a calumny on all the other people. We all care. A quarter of the population of this country lives in rural areas, although many of those people work in urban areas. However, rural areas are not just a playground. The chocolate box image imagined by people who know nothing about the countryside is false. We are talking about vibrant, sustainable communities.
Policies must be rural-proof. The Countryside Agency's chair and chief executive, as well as Ministers should be held to account. Along with the Deputy Prime Minister, I have been on the receiving end of ensuring that all our policies are rural proof. We assured ourselves that they were not only an add-on or afterthought to the overall policies of the department.
Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, is the Minister aware of the Constitution Select Committee's report on devolution? Has he read it? Has he seen the annexed report that shows widespread disillusionment about the consequences of devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? Is he aware that, in Scotland, the cost of the Parliament has increased from £40 million to £400 million, that half the electorate failed to turn out for the election, and that the Northern Ireland Assembly is not sitting? Only this week, there has been huge resentment in Wales and Scotland about the proposed changes in the offices of Secretary of State for those countries.
Would it not be more sensible for the Government to get the constitutional changes that they have made right before embarking on another, like the Frank Spencer figure in "Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em"? Would it not be better to make what they have done work before setting out on a new agenda?
Lord Bridges: My Lords, the planning process will be severely affected by these proposals. The reference to the creation of new unitary authorities is a clear indication of that. I have therefore been trying to find out what has happened to the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill that featured in the gracious Speech at the beginning of this Session and has been stuck in another place for some months. We were promised that it would be here in June. It is not here. I learn from an article in the Financial Times a week ago that the Government have decided to withdraw that Bill and delay legislation until the next Session. Is that true? Some of us have been working hard to prepare for its arrival and the absence of information is worrying.
Lord Rooker: My Lords, I say with the greatest respect that there is no absence of information about the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill. Everything is known. There was a debate in another place on Tuesday last week in which the orders for what we propose for the Bill, that were announced the previous week, were approved. We have not withdrawn it at all, but referred it back to the Standing Committee in the House of Commons. We are taking the opportunity to include the long-awaited removal of Crown immunity in planning matters, add parts of the Bill that could not be included in the original Bill in respect of compulsory purchase to make the process easier and make minor changes to the setting up of urban development corporations relating to community plan growth areas.
Those matters were all agreed last week and are on the record. When the House of Commons has considered it, they will use their new procedure to carry over legislation from one Session to another. Therefore, the Billnot a new Billshould arrive in this House just before Christmas or in the first week of January. With all the additions that we want to make, we cannot proceed with the Bill as drafted because it does not fit the procedures of this House.
The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill will probably get Royal Assent four months later than originally planned. It would not have received Royal Assent until November anyway. In order to achieve decent consideration in this House, the Bill will probably now receive Royal Assent at the end of March next year. It will be a much better Bill than the one we kicked off with.
The Government think that it is wise to take the opportunity to add those extra elements. It was not thought appropriate to include all those major additionsalthough there are no changes of policyon Report.
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