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I was approached by Devon County Council. I had an open mind on this. I met it and listened to what it had to say. It said that job expansion will be on the boundaries of Exeter, and I asked whether that would mean that if Exeter was a unitary authority, the people would need passports to get those jobs. This is about taking forward the opportunities that Exeter and the people of Devon will have. Exeter is a city that can grow that has a rural community around it. Their needs are different. For instance, recently, without any consultation with the councillors in Exeter, a new waste-to-energy building was developed in Exeter. Exeter city councillors were not involved. Exeter City Council wanted to set up a trust foundation for education that was supported by the university, Exeter College and everyone in Exeter. It was stopped by the education department in the county council. That cannot be good. Anyone who has been to Exeter, as I have, will know of the increasing transport and congestion problems and the housing demand, much of which is not being given the priority that it should have.
I support this order. I gather that it has gone through in committee in another place, although I may be wrong about that. Professor Ron Johnston was the local government expert on the Boundary Committee. He resigned because he thought the process was flawed and "biased"-his word-against Exeter and Norwich.
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We need to take a decision this evening, and I think we should decide to support this order. I oppose the Motion moved by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and, with all due respect, I suggest that the Motion moved by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, just defers this and will cause an impasse in the area, which needs a clear decision to get on with it, develop its economy and provide the housing and jobs that are needed. I believe a unitary authority for Exeter is the way to deliver that.
Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I declare an interest because I live in Norfolk, pay rates there and, once upon a time, I was a deputy lieutenant. I find the introduction of these two structural orders remarkable for a number of reasons. Consultation has been going on for some four and a half years. Why is it only now, within a few months of a general election, that these orders are being produced? They say that the Secretary of State had consulted not with ordinary people but with,
One wonders who those people are. I think the Minister let the cat out of the bag when he said "stakeholders". Who, or what, is a stakeholder? It is a dreadful piece of Civil Service jargon that is used all over the place nowadays. It sounds good but it does not describe who is involved. I always feel that a stakeholder is rather like some Viking with a pointed piece of wood which he shoves into the ground and says, "That's mine". Whenever I hear the word "stakeholder", I am taken back to my childhood-something that happens with increasing regularity nowadays-and realised Edward Lear's frustration at not knowing who the Akond of Swat was. Your Lordships may remember his distress, when he wrote:
For "Akond of Swat", your Lordships may read "stakeholder". We do not know who they are. All I know is that most people in Norfolk feel that they have not been consulted, even though the enigmatic "stakeholders" may have been. Perhaps, like snow, they are the wrong type of people to consult.
As a result, as has been said, one sort of consultation exercise found that 85 per cent wanted to keep the status quo and only 3 per cent wanted a Norwich unitary council. Why do we give all this power to Norwich City Council? It is not as though it is particularly
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What happens to the position of Lord Lieutenant? Do these two new counties each get a new Lord Lieutenant? The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, squeaks "No"-the first time that she has squeaked in the whole debate. She made a very forceful speech, on which I congratulate her, but she need not squeak in mine. By proceeding with these orders at the last minute, the Government are going against the recommendations of their own Boundary Committee. They have changed their mind over the assessment criteria to be used, and at the last minute. There was no prior consultation on this, and no one has had the chance to comment on the change of policy. Norfolk County Council is deeply opposed to it, and, as we have heard, your Lordships' Merits Committee pretty well damned the orders.
When Hazel Blears was Secretary of State at the Department for Communities and Local Government, she wrote to both councils, saying that, as they could not meet the Government's test of affordability and ability to pay for the reorganisation within five years, they would not be given unitary status. In other words, it was too expensive, it was not value for money and it would not pay. That is that; forget it. Now the present Secretary of State turns the whole argument on its head and says, in effect, "Oh that doesn't matter. We will go ahead despite it all, and we will disfranchise the people of Norwich by telling them that they cannot have an election for the city council this year as they normally would". I question how any Government can say, "You, oh city, cannot exercise your democratic rights and have an election. We, the Government, will prevent it". It seems a pretty rum business, but that is the way in which the Government seem to be going.
The Permanent Secretary was so concerned about what the Minister wanted his department to do that he had to write and ask his Secretary of State to write back and instruct him to carry out that which he, the Permanent Secretary, thought was wrong. The noble
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This is a most astonishing thing to have to do. Like many of your Lordships, I have been pottering around the ministerial corridors of Whitehall for nearly 20 years-in my case in a very minor capacity. But I have never heard of that happening before. In fact, I did not know that it was ever done or that you could do it. But perhaps that was because I was not near enough to the engine room. It is pretty amazing that a Permanent Secretary should be so horrified by what he is being asked to do to such an extent that it will prevent him properly carrying out his duties as accounting officer for his department that he has to ask his own Secretary of State to give him a written instruction to do what he believes is wrong.
In addition, the Permanent Secretary also warned his Secretary of State that the risk of these orders being taken for judicial review and succeeding is very high. What a warning and what a mess. Yet the Government still go on trying to force-feed their orders through Parliament on two unhappy and unwilling counties, and at the last moment. That is not the way in which to change local government and the Government know this. I will not be voting with the noble Lord, Lord Tope, because it is a pretty damning amendment, but I will be voting with the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, in the hope that at least the Government will think again.
Lord Rennard: My Lords, the much quoted Merits Committee drew our attention to the intention to cancel forthcoming council elections in the area. Cancelling elections at very short notice is something of which people should always be very suspicious and it is about this principle that I wish to speak. In the normal course of events, nominations for local elections in Norwich and Exeter would close at noon on 8 April. Failing tonight to approve the amendment from my noble friend Lord Tope will mean that this House is allowing the Government to halt the elections that those of us who are involved in campaigns and elections would know are in many respects already under way. We can only assume that the Government are fearful of the outcome of those elections. The Minister said that he wants to "preserve the integrity of the democratic process".
Halting elections on the grounds that you may do badly in them is not democratic and should not be supported. Nor should it be something about which you only express regret. As my noble friend Lord Tope said, at the end of April the High Court action may well result in these orders being declared unlawful and being overturned. But by that stage, it will be too late to reinstate the local elections that would have given local voters their say in the running of these two councils for the first time in two years. It seems to me that there is no good reason for denying local voters the chance to have their say on how their councils are run over the next 12 months.
This, of course, is exactly the argument that noble Lords opposite would have made when the Greater London Council was abolished by the noble Baroness,
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The Minister tonight may argue exactly the opposite case. He suggests that there is no point in holding local elections for Norwich and Exeter if the nature of those councils may change in 12 months' time. However, that is a very weak argument in democratic terms. First, we do not know the outcome of the legal proceedings at the end of April; and, secondly, we do not know the outcome of the general election. So if these orders are approved tonight, all that they are guaranteed to achieve is the sudden halting of local elections that are planned and, in many senses, under way.
In response to this, there is simply no point in expressing "regret" about the Government's plan. Earlier, the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham, quoted the Eastern Daily Press; I wonder whether she has read the Eastern Daily Press today, which states that,
It is right to say that this is ill-conceived legislation, and we should vote accordingly. The Western Morning News this morning argues that Ministers should, "listen more carefully". Its editorial states:
There may be some who are wondering when it is right to oppose rather than regret government orders. It must be right to vote against government orders when there is a clear abuse of process as so clearly outlined in this debate.
I had strong support from the Conservative Benches when the Government tried, in my view, to fiddle the election rules for the election of the first Mayor of London, and also very strong support when the Government forced through compulsory postal voting in the local and European elections in 2004. We thought then that there was a clear abuse of process and that it was right to vote against the Government. Those with longer memories than mine may also recall the stance taken by this House in 1969 when an outgoing Labour Government attempted to influence the Boundary Commission process to their own advantage just prior to the 1970 general election. That was an abuse of process. When a process is fundamentally wrong and anti-democratic, we should say no to it, not just regret it.
I would be the first to say that my serious involvement in local government was a long time ago. I was chairman of two major committees on the Norfolk County Council and was very much involved in the 1976 local government reorganisation and the resulting county structure plan, which I took to public examination. However, I am still in touch with a wide variety of people in the county through voluntary as well as public organisations and have had many representations
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My Norfolk comment would be, "Hold you hard". The translation for those who are not fortunate enough to come from Norfolk is, "Wait a while". Wait for the results of the general and local elections, wait for more representations to be made, wait for the guarantee that this is affordable and wait for the legal challenge. We have waited nearly five years; to wait a little longer will not be any problem and will save a lot of money and a lot of trouble. I shall support the amendment of my noble and learned friend Lady Butler-Sloss.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, I rise at this late stage because I have a screed of reasons why we should accept these orders and I want to speak on behalf of the fair city of Exeter. I would ask the House at this stage to concentrate not on the process but on the substance of the matter and the will of the people of the two cities concerned.
I shall make just two points on process. First, it has taken a long time and it has been fairly disastrous. However, it is not the process that now matters; it is the decision on the substance. I started to have some sympathy with the noble Lords, Lord Tope and Lord Rennard, on elections. However, if the city elections proceeded and the cities returned roughly the balance of councillors that they have now-in the case of Exeter, the council recently voted by, I think, 31 to two in favour of unitary status-would the Benches opposite then support unitary status for those cities, or would they ignore public opinion in those cities, as they have done up until this date?
Lord Teverson: I appreciate what the noble Lord is saying, but surely the people of Devon and Norfolk count in this, too. Surely it is matter not just for the citizens of those two cities, even if they were unanimous in agreeing to unitary status.
Lord Whitty: I have known and loved the city of Exeter since I was a child. In those days-the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, has gone-you would drive into Exeter and see a sign which said, "The City and County of Exeter". That is what the people of Exeter wanted. Yes, it does have implications for others, but the main implication is for those who live and work in, and draw their living from, Exeter. Overwhelmingly, those people have demonstrated through their votes, their council representatives and their businesses their support for unitary status. Institutions, civic and educational, all support unitary status. An article written by the chair of the chamber of commerce a few days ago indicated all the frustrations which businesses in Exeter city have with the two-tier process. They oppose the kind of red tape that I would normally expect the Benches opposite to raise as a problem for the operation of businesses. Others have asked where the localism is in the opposition to the orders. If we are to devolve to the lowest possible level of community decisions which mean something to the community, then let us do so in relation to the citizens of Exeter and of Norwich.
I make my second point on process. It was quite proper for the Permanent Secretary to write the letter. It was equally proper for the Secretary of State to override it, because the option which would have met most of the criteria, and the cheapest option, is not on the table, because no political party, no major institution and no major business representatives in the city of Exeter-I believe the same to be true in Norwich-supported a double unitary solution. It is either a unitary solution for Exeter, with Devon remaining two-tiered, or it is what is proposed. The Permanent Secretary's letter is therefore to some extent irrelevant; the process is at this stage irrelevant; the timing is at this stage irrelevant. Parliament has had a substantial debate on local government issues. I would love it to discuss these things in more detail and more frequently. We do not want to be hung up on process; we want to take our decision on the basis of what the people of Exeter and Norwich want and what is best for them. That is encapsulated in the orders before us. I have heard no argument tonight that should be sufficient to deny the people of Exeter and Norwich their wishes.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: I nearly always agree with the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. However, having lived in north Devon for the past five years in a town, Bideford, which has some of the poorest wards in the UK, I am shocked that the noble Lord and the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, whose previous work I respect, believe that this decision is only about the city of Exeter. I beg your Lordships to look again at what the NHS trust and the police authority said in evidence to the Merits Committee about the effects on towns such as Ilfracombe, Holsworthy and Bideford, which can ill afford any cuts for the reasons that I have given. When the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, did her study, it was in the good times. We are not in the good times now; we are in the bad times. For that very reason you have to look afresh at these issues and not ignore the people of the rest of Devon.
Lord Howarth of Newport: I live in Norwich, which, like Exeter, is a cathedral and a university city. It is an anciently established capital of its region and a modern driver of the regional economy. Both cities are significant cultural centres and both contain significant urban deprivation. Both have the experience of many hundreds of years of self-government and matured civic identity. The history of those two cities since 1974 when they were stripped of their county borough status and unitary powers has been, in the view of those cities, an aberration from their proper course. Surely it should be axiomatic that cities of this character, stature, complexity and size should be self-governing. The onus is on those who object to the restoration of self-government to these cities to make their case, and to do so, as my noble friend Lord Whitty has just said, with substantive arguments and not just bureaucratic, procedural or accountancy objections or complaints about the Secretary of State. Certainly, suggestions that it was improper on the part of the Secretary of State to proceed with these orders or that Parliament should not proceed with them are wrong.
The Merits Committee is at pains to stress that it is not the committee's role to reach a definitive view on
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We should debate the real merits of the issue-that is what we should have been debating-but I have heard no explanation this afternoon why the people of Devon and Exeter and Norfolk and Norwich would be worse off if the two cities had unitary status. If anybody can make a convincing case that unitary status for Exeter and Norwich would be detrimental to the people of Devon and Norfolk-
Lord Burnett: I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I think that I said that the changes, if made, would cost the average band D council tax payer £200 per year more. That is a fairly compelling reason.
Lord Howarth of Newport: The noble Lord brings me to the very point that I was about to make. If he is correct on that, it must follow that Devon has been siphoning off funds from Exeter that should have been used there and that there has been an inequitable distribution of resources within the county. It has been suggested that rural council tax levels would rise in Norwich. If that is so, it is because Norfolk has been draining resources away from Norwich that rightly should have been expended in Norwich but have not been. No; we have seen the attitude that what we have, we hold. We have seen nothing more rational or more generous, and we have certainly not had any explanation of what the unacceptable consequences, of which the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market, spoke, would be.
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