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As a result, the poor public did not know who did what, to what level of service, at what price and whom to hold accountable. There cannot be decent local government if there is not sufficient transparency to produce accountability. From that, I learnt the desirability of unitary authorities. Whether they should be county councils or enlarged district authorities depends on the assessment or judgment in local areas about the appropriateness of service delivery and the needs and cohesion of the local community. I am open-minded about that, but I am convinced that they need to be unitary.

The second point, already touched on briefly by my noble friend, is that you cannot have reorganisation by popular plebiscite. I know it was not done by plebiscite in 1974. As the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, rightly said, Norwich would have been against it and the country would have been for it—plus c’est la même chose. You cannot do it by plebiscite and it was not done by plebiscite in the mid-1990s. There are some good reasons for that—for example, boundary extensions; I remember Plymouth back in the 1950s having boundary extensions. Anyone in the adjacent area who currently enjoys urban services but at lower rates because they are in rural areas—I mean this in no moral sense at all—is effectively free-riding on some of those urban services. I do not criticise them as they are absolutely entitled to use those services, but why would they want to see any such boundary extension when they already receive the services at a cheaper rate than those in the city area?

A second reason for not thinking that a plebiscite is the appropriate way forward is that what makes local government work is not just a head count in democracy—too often councils are composed of the few people who can be bothered to stand, elected by the few who can be bothered to vote—but a community of interest locally. I refer to voluntary organisations, which may be instrumental in addressing social services problems or working with challenged families, faith groups and, above all, businesses, whose ability to work smoothly and easily with the planning authorities ensures that local authorities get the economic growth, the green growth and investment in industry that they want to see. They are major players in the life of the community and there is no way in which one can pick them up in a plebiscite. You have to hear their voices, which is why I very much welcome my noble friend’s remarks about seeing who the stakeholders are. You need to ensure that the major stakeholders and those who in a pragmatic way—I believe that was the word she used—deliver local government services believe that they can make it work in the best interests of the people of their community.

I wish these orders well and I very much hope that the House will support the Government in all ways possible.

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3.15 pm

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I am grateful for noble Lords’ contributions and particularly for the support of my noble friend, who captured precisely why we went about things in the way that we did. In these debates, I am always conscious that I am confronting noble Lords with many years of experience and great commitment to local government. I always feel that I am a relative novice on this, and I stand in awe of that collective experience.

The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, and my noble friend took us through some of that history and made me aware again that the concept of the unitary council has a long and honourable, if somewhat complicated, history. It commands a lot of intrinsic support and receives positive responses. I am equally aware from the passion with which the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, spoke that, as we have searched for better solutions for things, there has inevitably been disruption. I join him in all that he said about the work of local government. He said it with a full heart. It was partly because of our awareness of that sort of distraction, and our desire to minimise it, that we did things by invitation this time.

I assure the noble Lord that we do not have hidden plans for future change or a rolling programme up our sleeves. During the debate on the local government Bill, I said several times that we have no plans for a rolling programme, restructuring or any further invitations to councils. As the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, said, we are where we are now with other aspects of this initiative. We have some way to go with the outstanding councils and there is no rolling programme, but we recognise that in certain areas there might in future be an appetite for more unitary structures and it might be right to issue a targeted and focused invitation, but under specific and exceptional circumstances. This programme has been discrete and sufficient unto itself.

The noble Lord raised a point about the length of elections, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Scott. For those county councils which are moving to hold elections in 2008, we are conscious that when the Electoral Commission and Boundary Committee carry out their review, they might indicate that 2010 is a better alternative to 2013. Our feeling is that we need as much stability as possible. While it is up to the Electoral Commission to make its recommendations—it has the power to do so—our view is that we should be looking for stability. I feel fairly confident that the Electoral Commission and Boundary Committee will take into account the views of the people they are working with as a result of these changes. They will look at the implications, the local geography and so on, and I am sure that they will have regard to the representations they receive. We cannot second-guess them but we have made it clear that, although it is a longer time than usual, it is probably wise to have stability.

The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, raised a point about parishes. Parish council elections are usually held at the same time as elections to the principal authority. That is a sensible use of resources and sensible timing. The problem is that parish councils

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are not always successful in finding people to stand, so one has to look at the conservation of resources as well. Most parishes held elections in 2007 and we think that having to hold elections again in 2008 or 2009 would be disruptive. Most local authorities agree with us, and many parishes that responded also agree. The order cancels parish elections so that they can be held at the same time as future elections.

[The Sitting was suspended for a Division in the House from 3.20 to 3.30 pm.]

Baroness Andrews: I was explaining what we intended to do about parish councils. My right honourable friend said this in the other place in response to similar concerns; we have always recognised that six-year terms are not ideal, so with the 2009 elections we would ask the implementation executive to consult the parishes and county and consider moving parish election dates if that is wanted locally. These long and indefinite periods are not set in stone.

The noble Baroness raised important points about the nature of Northumberland. I appreciate that the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, is not here, as she would speak very eloquently on these matters. We recognise the sparsity and the differences between parts of a very large county, but there are a lot of cross-commuter flows these days; it is not as if those rigid distinctions and barricades are as high as they used to be. There is a high degree of strategic co-ordination. One thing that is most encouraging about the process is the way in which each of these authorities has come forward with community governance arrangements.

The noble Baroness referred to the character of Northumberland. The area partnerships of local partners and stakeholders will be based on area committees, based on three characteristic communities: the urban south-east, the rural commuter belt and the genuinely rural north and west. Underneath those, they are creating what they rather beautifully call “belonging communities”—26 community areas that will have some powers and opportunities devolved to them, which will also include people from councils and the VCS, and so on. It will give people who feel the loss of their district councils another form of local influence, visibility, profile and connection. We have seen that in all the different proposals that have come forward in different ways. I hope that that will help to make that transition more comfortable for people and that they will be effective bodies.

The noble Baroness also raised the question about what to call the new council in Durham. In the order, as she said, the authority is called the County Durham Council. The order adapts its approach to reflect the new start and specifically provides that all members of the current Durham County Council cease to hold office on the fourth day after the 2008 election day. There should be no doubt that that is what is intended.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: The letter that I have from the City of Durham informs me that the decision has been taken—one assumes by the implementation directive—to,

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In other words, it is acting in contravention of the order. This could be seen as angels dancing on the head of the pin over a name, but locally it is particular important given the sensitivities of Durham city and Durham county. It is also important because of the legal position, which has led to the city seeking an injunction to stop the county using the term “the county council”; it wants the county to use the term expressly set out in the order.

Baroness Andrews: I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for drawing that to our attention, and our officials will write to follow up that point. I think that I have addressed most of the issues that were raised. With regard to the point about capability, if the orders come into effect by 26 February, the Electoral Commission and Boundary Committee assure us that they will be able to complete their work in time for the elections in 2009. They expect the reviews to be completed by February of that year. Those bodies are very efficient and I think we can take comfort from that.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Wiltshire (Structural Change) Order 2008

3.35 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Andrews) rose to move, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Wiltshire (Structural Change) Order 2008.

The noble Baroness said: This order, which was laid on 8 January, establishes the new unitary Wiltshire Council. It implements a proposal which Wiltshire County Council submitted to us in response to our invitation to councils issued in October 2006 in parallel with our White Paper. We have judged its proposal against the same five criteria set out in our invitation to councils, against which, as I discussed earlier, we assessed all 26 of the proposals that we originally received.

As I informed the House on 5 December, our judgment is that, if the proposal for a unitary Wiltshire were implemented, there is a reasonable likelihood that it would achieve the outcomes specified by all five criteria in the invitation—that is, we believe that the proposal, if implemented, would achieve the outcomes on strategic leadership, neighbourhood flexibility, empowerment, delivery of value for money and efficiency in public services as specified in the criteria. Equally, we believe that, if made, the change would be affordable and would be supported by a broad cross-section of partners and stakeholders.

Our judgment on affordability reflects Wiltshire County Council’s proposal. Having regard to all the other material and representations we have received, including the advice which our independent financial experts provided on the financial viability of the

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proposals, the expectation is that the change in Wiltshire will lead to savings of more than £18 million.

Our judgment is that the proposal meets the support criterion which we discussed earlier in this debate. In the case of Wiltshire, the consultation last spring revealed both support and concerns. There is wide support from the business community. Most local chambers of commerce, for example, express support for the proposal. There was a substantial response to the consultation from members of the public, the vast majority of it in campaign form and by postal ballot. Two-thirds were opposed and one-third in favour. There was also an Ipsos MORI survey, which showed that 78 per cent agreed that councils should work together more closely. That was the only conclusion supported by subordinate questions.

Many public sector stakeholders who responded cited the benefits of a single unitary council for Wiltshire. These benefits included coterminosity with its own boundaries and the gains that would arise through rationalised partnership working. Many of the local strategic partnerships welcomed the idea in Wiltshire’s proposals for area boards.

Some voluntary and community sector respondents felt that a unitary Wiltshire Council would eliminate confusion over roles and responsibilities, although the majority were concerned that the unitary council might be too large and remote.

The district councils had concerns about the affordability of the proposal and about the support for it. The Wiltshire Association of Local Councils consulted its membership, which expressed a range of views from welcoming a unitary Wiltshire to having concerns about it.

It is clear from that that there was a wide range of views across all sectors. However, in the terms of the criterion discussed above, our judgment is that the proposal would command a broad cross-section of support from a range of stakeholders, both in the public and private sector as well as some support from the general public, and that this would make the proposal workable and effective.

Turning to the order, as with the Northumberland order and all the orders we are discussing today, it is by no means a “one size fits all” approach, but one which allows each of these authorities to adopt the arrangements best suited to it. This order, on Wiltshire, was prepared following consultation and full discussion both with Wiltshire County Council and all the other affected councils in the area. The order provides that, from 1 April 2009, there will be a single tier of local government in Wiltshire and that the existing district councils will be dissolved and the county council transformed into a new unitary council having both district and county functions. It makes provisions for the key transitional arrangements, and provides for the establishment of an implementation executive to be led by the county council, whose membership will be drawn from the county and all the district councils. As in all the areas for which we are considering orders today, the membership and make-up of the implementation

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executive was discussed in detail with all the affected councils and a consensus reached. That is reflected in the order.

The order provides that the county council will have the function of preparing for and facilitating the economic, effective, efficient and timely transfer of the district councils’ functions, property, rights and liabilities to the new council. It requires that these transitional functions be discharged by the implementation executive, which will remain responsible for these functions until April 2009 when the functions, assets and liabilities of the district councils are transferred. It provides for the creation of a team of officers in each area, again drawn from the county and all the district councils, to provide the necessary support to the implementation executive.

Where this order differs from that for Northumberland is that, in Wiltshire, elections to the new unitary Wiltshire Council will take place in line with the usual county cycle in May 2009. There was agreement between the county and the district councils that elections should be held in May 2009. As I said, we understand that the Electoral Commission will be able to undertake an electoral review by this time, and put in place electoral arrangements that have regard to the new community and neighbourhood arrangements reflected in that proposal.

In short, the order establishes a new unitary Wiltshire council that will have the form of local governance that local people should expect and demand. It will empower local communities, promote prosperity and deliver high quality services. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Wiltshire (Structural Change) Order 2008. 6th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, 7th Report from the Merits Committee.—(Baroness Andrews.)

Lord Geddes: I intervene not as an expert—I am in a minority of one on that score—but simply as a resident of Wiltshire. I have four brief points for the Minister, and then a request.

The first, smallest, point is that the Minister said in her opening remarks that there has been consideration in detail in another place. That rather depends on the definition of “detail”. Others might take a slightly different view.

My most substantive point, to which the Minister has just referred, is about consultation and its results. As we know, the Department for Communities and Local Government has, as its second objective against which it is meant to assess the plans for unitary councils, the requirement that they,

In another place, my honourable friend the Member for Westbury said,

My honourable friend has told me, and he repeated it at col. 924, that he has photocopies of all the responses that came in from Wiltshire. There is no doubt that, by any criterion, the vast weight of those responses was against the order.

3.45 pm

My second point is brief but pertinent and regards costs. Wiltshire County Council’s submission did not cost the proposal for area governance based on 20 areas. The county submitted a costing of some £868,000 as the cost for its area governance proposals. Her Majesty’s Government were apparently content to accept that neighbourhood empowerment could be obtained for that sum, which works out at some £43,000 per area. I repeat that I am not an expert in local government, but that seems to be an astonishingly low sum. The Minister may want to comment on it.

My final point before my request regards the pending appeal to which the noble Baroness referred. It relates directly to Shropshire but, although I am talking only for Wiltshire, I am sure that it has clear implications for the other orders. It seems extraordinary that Her Majesty’s Government would press forward with the orders when the result of that appeal hearing is imminent. In this context, I genuinely try to help Her Majesty’s Government by saying that there have been instances in the not too distant past where the Government have fallen foul of the law and have had to backtrack. It might help the Government quite a lot if there were a slow-down in the process pending the result of that appeal. It could save a lot of embarrassment and it would not do a lot of harm.

I do not expect that the Minister will agree with my first request but I shall make it for the record: it is that Her Majesty’s Government withdraw the order for Wiltshire or, to use her terminology, “do not progress with it”. If she is not able to help me in that respect, I earnestly ask her to postpone consideration, or at least approval, of the order pending the result of the appeal to the High Court.

Lord Dixon-Smith: I hesitate to intervene but I have a general question about all the orders. The wording in Article 6 of each of them is similar, stating:

Nowhere in the orders or the Explanatory Notes is it explained, apart from implicitly in Article 9, where they are to be transferred to. Having looked at what happened with Northern Rock, I found myself naughtily wondering about that. I am sure that the Minister will explain that this is a standard way of drafting the orders, but it is a peculiarity to which I would have objected.

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I turn to my noble friend’s point. I have had a long correspondence with the Government Whips’ Office on what to do about the Cheshire orders, which are due to come forward in about a fortnight. I shall summarise the correspondence: “Would you agree a date?”. “Hang on a minute. That is subject to a judicial appeal. I don’t think we should hear it until we have the result of the appeal.” “Do you know something I do not know?” One thing that the Whips’ Office knew that I did not was that the judicial review was heard and the Government won, as the noble Baroness said. It has since been appealed. However, the judge said, in accepting the situation, that none the less it was thought that the audit should progress. I said, “Fine, I understand that, but what happens if the judgment goes against the Government? Will the Government have to backtrack?”. The reply was, “Well, it would depend on the terms on which the judgment was made”. That is why my noble friend’s point is important.

The judge would have the power to find against the Government but, because of administrative and other costs already incurred, would not stop the process going forward. That struck me as an improper use of force majeure. I was told that, even if that were so, there was still no reason for the orders not to go forward because we did not know what the judge was going to decide and when he was going to decide it. Therefore, after two and a half pages of swapping e-mails, I had to climb down and agree a date for Cheshire. This is the dilemma that we face: the Government are in a procedurally correct situation that is not satisfactory, but there is nothing that we can do about it, so there we are. I do not know whether I have saved the Minister some trouble, but that is the position we are in.

Baroness Andrews: I am grateful to the noble Lord for going through that process. He was absolutely correct about the judgment that we had before Christmas. We were able to proceed. However, as I said in my opening speech, we wanted to reduce the delay and disruption as much as possible to give some certainty to those authorities with which we had agreed proposals.

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