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Mr. John Butcher (Coventry, South-West): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way so often and so early in the debate.

Further to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham), I declare a non-pecuniary interest as honorary president of the Association of British Counties, which is dedicated to restoring all the old counties for all purposes other than local government. Does my right hon. Friend share my enthusiasm for the news that I received from the Post Office this week that people who live in places like Birmingham, Stafford, Walsall and Coventry can now use in their addresses the ancient pre-1974 counties? Thus for postal purposes, Birmingham can become Warwickshire, Staffordshire can reclaim Walsall and Wolverhampton, and Coventry can use Warwickshire. Does not that help to resolve the question of old loyalties while having new unitary forms of local government? We have the best of both worlds.

Mr. Gummer: I very much agree with my hon. Friend. I have lived for some time in Fressingfield, Diss, Norfolk. Fressingfield used to be in Suffolk. Although we join the people of Norfolk when it is a question of arguing with Essex, over the Waveney border, the difference is considerable. I managed to get the Post Office to allow us to become Fressingfield, Eye, Suffolk, which cheered many except those who had bought an engraving block and therefore had to replace it. One or two people with expensive addresses were unhappy about the change, but, in general, people like to keep the ancient link.

The local government review has clearly been controversial in many places and has caused not a little antagonism. However, all the local authorities involved in the 10 orders must now put their differences behind them. Although, as the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle" said, it may sometimes feel that one side or other has possession of the place of slaughter, triumphalism or underground resistance can only hold back the return to normality. Once the orders are made, the time for political posturing will be past. As my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) said, it will be time to work responsibly together so that the changes are implemented smoothly and quickly to the benefit of all who live and work in those places.

Local authorities have worked hard to make a success of the reorganisations that have already taken place or will take place next year. I do not often quote Councillor David Rogers, chairman of East Sussex county council's transition committee, but he is reported in the Association of County Councils' newsletter as follows:

I have no doubt that the same will be true for the reorganisations resulting from these 10 orders.

I intend that there will be no more structure reviews for some time. It is right that the unitary authorities should have time to bed down, and the county councils, which

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have been reduced in size, should have the opportunity to adjust to their new circumstances. All local government should now turn its attention from issues of structure to concentrate on improving services in both unitary and two-tier areas. It is always possible for local government to delegate many of its powers to smaller groups and ensure that the money goes with them. So even when there is no unitary authority, that sort of partnership is a way forward. Indeed, it might be the best way forward in many areas.

The commission's priority over the coming years will be to take forward its programme of periodic electoral reviews, a duty placed on it by the 1992 Act. Because the commission has been concentrating on structural issues, there is now a substantial backlog compared with the timetable set down in the Act, as well as significant electoral disparities in many local authorities.

Finally, I should like to refer briefly to the completed picture of the local government review, for which these 10 orders make up the final component. This is not meant as an apologia as I believe that it is clear that the local government review has resulted in, and will continue to lead to, a number of benefits for local government and its customers. In all, 46 unitary authorities will have emerged in shire England as a result of the review. By April 1998--when the last unitary authorities are in place--about 25 million people, or 54 per cent. of the population of England, will be served by unitary local government, including London and the metropolitan authorities.

The Government have never made any secret of their belief that unitary local government holds out many benefits. It does away with the confusion about which council does what which afflicts many people. Ending that confusion can only be good for the accountability of local authorities. Very often, people do not know who does the job, so when it is not done properly they blame someone else or they get so confused that they blame no one at all. This will make for more streamlined local government so that individual functions, such as social services and housing, can be delivered together where circumstances merit such an arrangement. It provides a wonderful opportunity for innovation across the board.

However, it is not only where the review has resulted in new structures that benefits can be obtained--even where there will be no change, there has been the opportunity for authorities to examine how they organise themselves and how they work with others so that they can deliver their services in the most effective and convenient way. During the review, many authorities made promises about the improvements that they would make. I have made it very clear that I expect the authorities to put the flesh on those bones and that I shall take a close interest in their progress. The Audit Commission is now following up the action being taken by authorities, both to put the promises into effect and, more generally, to improve working between the tiers.

I believe that the review has been a positive discipline and challenge, and that the outcome can only be an improvement in the quality of local government offered to the people of England. The picture will not be complete without the 19 unitary authorities that are under consideration today. These orders will bring the whole review to a proper conclusion and I therefore commend them to the House.

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4.41 pm

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras): My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham (Ms Armstrong) was supposed to lead for the Labour party in this debate but, sadly, her father--the right hon. Ernest Armstrong, a former Deputy Speaker of the House--is seriously ill in hospital and she has had to go to County Durham. I am sure that all hon. Members who know him will wish him well.

Today is American Independence day--and it is independence day for 19 more unitary authorities. Today, the proposition before us is to return duties and powers to authorities that should never have been taken away from them in the first place--they were taken away by a previous Conservative Government. In recent decades, the Conservative party has had some difficulty holding on to the title "Conservative", because it has been the party of constant reorganisation and then re-reorganisation--which is what we are getting today.

We welcome the changes, which are the product of a review that was originally set in train by the right hon. Member for Henley, now the Deputy Prime Minister. At the time, he said:

Things have not turned out as the right hon. Member for Henley predicted. Indeed, one of my predecessors pointed out in that debate that it looked as though the commission would roam around the countryside guided by the whim of the Secretary of State, that the recommendations would be subject to the whim of the Secretary of State and that they would leave local government in chaos--and so it has turned out.

In fairness to the Secretary of State, it was not entirely done at his whim--there seemed to be a large amount of whim by the former chairman of the Local Government Commission, Sir John Banham, which is one of the reasons why the Secretary of State and I got together in an unholy partnership to try to put it right again.

We now have 46 new unitary authorities--including Rutland, with a population of 33,000; but it does not include Northampton, with a population of 188,000, Norwich with 128,000, Ipswich with 114,000 or Gloucester and Exeter both with 105,000. It is a bit of a mess. The Secretary of State and I could claim--and we are seldom joined together in anything, other than acrimony--that the situation was improved by our joint effort to refer back some of the proposals to a new commission, led by Sir David Cooksey.

Today we have before us the original proposals from the Banham Local Government Commission--which were held back because parts of the proposals were being referred to the Cooksey commission--and the proposal for Berkshire, where progress was delayed by a legal challenge. This proposition, from the original Local Government Commission, is for independence for the following authorities: Plymouth, which has 256,000 people; Torbay, 123,000; Southend, 170,000; Nottingham, 282,000; Herefordshire, 162,000; West Berkshire, which may pose as Newbury from time to time, 142,000; Reading, 138,000; Slough, 105,000; Windsor and Maidenhead, 138,000; Bracknell Forest, 105,000; and Wokingham, 142,000. We are also dealing with the results of the reference back, which includes independence for

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Peterborough, with 159,000 people; Warrington, 187,000; Halton, 124,000; Thurrock, 131,000; Blackburn, 140,000; Blackpool, 154,000; Wrekin, 143,000; and Medway Towns--a huge new authority--242,000.

I hope that all hon. Members wish the new councils well and that they succeed and prosper. If we are reasonable people, we have to understand the disappointment and heartache that this involves for the county people--both members and staff--who have worked over the years to provide decent services all over the country. This is especially difficult for county people to cope with. For example, Berkshire disappears altogether; Lancashire, Cheshire and Devon will lose two major boroughs; and Shropshire, Hereford and Worcester will lose a large portion of their original county.

I hope that no one will feel that this is a condemnation of what the counties have done--times have changed and, therefore, the structure has to change. This is not necessarily all for the best--we live in a world where all decisions can be taken only on the balance of advantage. On balance, most hon. Members believe that these changes will be for the better. They will help to resolve some of the problems that exist at present, but they may create other problems and difficulties.

As the Secretary of State has said, this is no time for triumphalism by the districts or for a dog-in-the-manger attitude or a scorched-earth policy by the counties. We have to remember that the transitional period and what follows has to serve the interests of local people--their interests must be the top priority. I hope that there will be the fullest co-operation between the new authorities and the existing counties to the benefit of local people--and the Labour party will do whatever it can to ensure that that happens. Much agitation may have been caused in some areas--for example, Lancashire--but whether the campaign for or against was legitimate, it is finished. It must be finished and everyone must work together. In the areas for which the orders have already gone through, the new authorities are working well. I know that arrangements have been made by some of the beneficiaries of today's orders to learn from the experience of areas that are already a year or more ahead. We do not want people to have to reinvent the wheel.

The Government will have to make a contribution in the form of generous settlements to help the process of change. The Secretary of State should carefully consider the standard spending assessments for the successor authorities and try to ensure parity of treatment. In the most recent round of changes, an extraordinary situation arose. In the new districts, the council tax changes in May this year varied from increases of 10 per cent. in Hartlepool, 14 per cent. in Redcar in Cleveland, 13 per cent. in Bristol and 31 per cent. in north Lincolnshire, to reductions of 8 per cent. in north-west Somerset, 10 per cent. in Hove and nearly 16 per cent. in Middlesbrough. The general idea is that the council tax should reflect the responsibilities of the councils, but those increases or decreases did not reflect anything that the councils had done. They were entirely a product of Government decision making and were seen as grossly unfair by some of the authorities that did badly. I hope that the Secretary of State and his officials will try to ensure that that does not happen again.

We have heard various estimates from those in favour of change and those against. Those in favour of change have said that the ultimate cost will be lower and those against have said that the ultimate cost will be higher.

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Frankly, I never believe any of the information that is wheeled out by various outfits in the City, because they will produce the figure that the county or the district employing them wants. We all know that. As far as I know, no organisation that has asked for City or accountants' advice about whether changes will be more expensive has ever been told that they will be cheaper, and vice versa. That shows what weight we can give to such estimates.

Common sense says, and anyone who believes himself to be a philosophical Conservative will surely accept, that--whatever the ultimate savings or costs--the process of change, or the transition, is always costly in both resources and the attention that the senior people involved have to pay to their job to try to provide services. It is difficult for people to do their basic jobs if those jobs will disappear or their organisation will be chopped in half. It is important that the Government ensure that the transition is cushioned by adequate funding, or it will be harmful to local people, local services and also to the staff who provide those services.

The bulk of staff in the districts and the counties are hard-working people who are motivated by the public service ethic, which is sometimes not given the value that it deserves. The staff are entitled to some security or compensation or both and I hope that the Government will provide that. We should thank all those who have provided services.

A curious electoral situation will prevail next May because of the delays. In the elections to the shadow councils for those unitary authorities, it is not intended that there should be any elections to the county council from the new districts, but there will be elections to the county council from all other parts of the county. Great care will have to be taken to ensure that any change--I do not necessarily mean a change of political control, but a change of personalities or an influx of people who have not been involved and are not familiar with the problems and relationships--does not damage the delivery of services.

I am sure that the whole House will wish the successor authorities well. I can tell people in those areas that the incoming Labour Government, which will be elected not long after the council elections, will enable and empower councils to provide the services that people want and will give councils a duty to promote the economic, social and environmental well-being of their areas and to provide best value for money. However people vote in the forthcoming elections, it is crucial that everybody who is elected and everybody who works for the new authorities--and for those authorities that feel bereft of the new districts--all remember that their crucial and only role is to serve the people of the area and not their own personal interests or the interests of the institutions that they hold dear.

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