Examination of Witness (Questions 220
TUESDAY 4 DECEMBER 2001
220. Social and economic partners? What is the
(Mr Raynsford) That is a phrase that has been fairly
widely used to cover a range of organisations including business,
trade unions and voluntary organisations, all of which would have
an interest in the work of the regional assembly.
Mrs Dunwoody: People?
221. When do you expect the first elections
to the regional assemblies to be held?
(Mr Raynsford) It would be too soon to give a definitive
answer to that, but I have already indicated that, if we maintain
the timetable that we are working to, it should be possible, if
a region votes in a referendum for an elected regional assembly,
for one to be up and running before the end of this Parliament.
Sir Paul Beresford
222. If a referendum turnout is exceptionally
low, which would not surprise a number of us, say below 35 per
cent, would you still count it as valid?
(Mr Raynsford) We have experience of referendums in
Scotland, in Wales and
223. And also the results.
(Mr Raynsford) . . . and in Greater London. In none
of those cases did we apply a threshold. The turnout did vary
quite significantly between those three separate bodies but the
problem with a threshold was made rather clear in the later 1970s
when a threshold was applied in relation to Scotland which resulted
in the aspirations for devolution in Scotland being deferred for
some 20 years, although the Scots had voted by a majority in favour
of devolution at that date. So there are difficult issues here.
224. It might not be a good example, Minister.
(Mr Raynsford) It may not but it is one of the examples
I have to look at when framing the proposals in
Sir Paul Beresford
225. We could possibly learn from our mistakes
recently in the three that you read through quickly.
(Mr Raynsford) I think the people of Scotland and
Wales undoubtedly feel that there are considerable benefits from
the establishment of devolved government with governance within
their countries and I certainly feel that the framework in London
for the governance of London is a considerable improvement on
the situation that followed the abolition of the GLC which left
London alone of all cities in the developed world
226. That was not the question.
(Mr Raynsford) . . . without its own democratic city-wide
227. We could argue that for ages but it was
not the question.
(Mr Raynsford) No, but it was my answer.
228. I am more confused now, Minister, than
I was when I came into the meeting! I represent a constituency
in the shire county, County Durham. Should we move towards local
government, in the shire county we are going to have parish councils,
district councils, county councils, parliaments, British Parliament,
European Parliament and the regional assemblies. Do you really
think this makes sense in an age when we are trying to curtail
and streamline? There is certainly in my area no enthusiasm whatsoever
to move towards regional government until you have sorted out
local government and that means looking towards perhaps European
authorities. Can you give us some idea what your vision is for
the future. When do you intend to examine in some detail the future
role of local authorities? There just seems to me no direction
whatsoever. I fail to see how we can move rationally towards regional
assemblies of any meaning until local government itself has some
meaning and purpose of direction.
(Mr Raynsford) This is one of the big issues that
will be covered in the White Paper and let me just spell out the
reasons why it is a particularly important and difficult issue.
You have rightly highlighted the fact that, if there were simply
the creation of a further tier of government on top of the existing
ones, that would appear to be creating an unnecessarily large
number of tiers of government
Sir Paul Beresford
229. As in London.
(Mr Raynsford) That is not the same as London because
they are only unitary authorities in London. The second consideration
is that the experience of the early 1990s was that the process
of local government reorganisation, the Banham Commission, was
seen as a not entirely happy event in which a great deal of time,
energy and effort was exhausted by local authorities concerned
about their future and I think it is fair to say that attention
was taken away from what we regard as the highest priority, which
is ensuring efficient service delivery. We have no intention of
returning to a large-scale reorganisation of local government
on the Banham scale. We just believe that that would be a distraction
from the main priority of raising standards of service delivery
in local government. However, it is the case that our Manifesto
says that we envisage the opportunity for the creation of regional
government to apply in those regions with predominantly unitary
patterns of local government.
230. Minister, as a government, are you not
going to give a definite lead on what is a very confusing situation
at the moment? Are you going to scrap county councils?
(Mr Raynsford) No, we are not going to scrap county
councils and, as I have already said in my answer, it would be,
in my view, a serious disruption to embark on a wholesale review
of local government in England.
231. You have been quite specific that you do
not intend to scrap county councils. Therefore, if we move towards
regional government in the north-east of England, the shire counties
will be six tiers of government.
(Mr Raynsford) No. What I have said is that the commitment
in our Manifesto is to allow the opportunity for regions that
vote for it in a referendum to have an elected regional assembly
but this should apply only in regions with a predominantly unitary
pattern of local government. There must therefore be a mechanism
for considering whether or not that test is satisfied.
232. What mechanism will be used?
(Mr Raynsford) That will be spelt out in the White
Paper, as I have said. If I can just paint the context. We know
at the moment that, in Yorkshire and Humberside, about 89 per
cent of the population are living in unitary authorities. That
might be considered to be a predominantly unitary pattern of local
government. In the north-east and north-west, around two-thirds
of the population are living in unitary authority areas. In other
parts of the country, it is very different. In the eastern region,
less than 20 per cent of the population live in unitary authorities.
Therefore, there will inevitably be a need to approach this issue
in a way that takes account of those very significant regional
variations and that, as I said, is one of the difficult issues.
I have openly shared with the Committee the potential difficulties
there, the conflict between the commitment to have a predominantly
unitary framework if regional tiers of government are introduced
as against the disruption caused by an extensive review and reorganisation
of local government which would divert attention away from the
prime priority of efficient service delivery.
233. Has the department carried out an evaluation
of the effect of using the power mix of two-tier unitary authorities?
(Mr Raynsford) We are constantly assessing the performance
of local government at all tiers and that is
234. Time is running very short here, Minster.
(Mr Raynsford) The overriding priority, as I have
already said, is to ensure that local government, in all its forms,
delivers high quality services and the experience of the Banham
Review in the early 1990s was that a disproportionate amount of
time and energy was spent on considering reorganisation which
did not help local authorities to deliver services efficiently
and which caused very, very expensive changes in structure and
organisation. We have no wish to repeat that experience.
235. Very expensive? Can you tell us how much
(Mr Raynsford) I cannot offhand but I could certainly
get the figures and send them to you.
236. Can I ask you about what you said regarding
the situation in North Yorkshire. What you were saying to the
Committee this morning was that, in North Yorkshire, even though
it is predominantly two-tier, because it happens to sit in a region
where the rest of the region is unitary, it might well be okay
for them to proceed to regional authority in their current situation
without any change to local government circumstances. In Norfolk,
a similar sort of county, predominantly or wholly two-tier, because
that happens to sit in a region where most of the rest of the
counties are two-tier as well, it is inappropriate for them to
(Mr Raynsford) What I am saying is that this is one
of the issues that has to be covered and will be covered in the
White Paper because we are approaching this in a very pragmatic
way. We are not trying to impose a blueprint and say that a single
pattern must apply everywhere. Implicit in our pledge that regional
governance will only be introduced where people vote for it in
a referendum is the assumption that some regions will opt for
it and others will not. That therefore does inevitably mean variation
between the patterns of government in different regions.
237. Some regions may opt for it and, in opting
for it, the eastern regions may say "north of this county"
and then having implemented itpresumably there is going
to be a test about what predominantly meansif they are
going to go through the procedure, it is a very expensive local
government change . . .
(Mr Raynsford) I think that flows automatically from
the proposition that I put and I would accept that interpretation,
but all I would say is that we do not at the moment have very
much evidence of any great appetite in the eastern region for
a regional assembly. We know by contrast in the north-east and
in some of the other northern regions, there is significant interest
in the possibility.
238. Significant interest, Minister, from whom?
(Mr Raynsford) I have had meetings, the Deputy Prime
Minister has had meetings, my colleagues in the Cabinet Office
have had meetings with a range of people in
239. All of whom have a vested interest in promoting
(Mr Raynsford) No.