24 Feb 2009 : Column 1WH

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 24 February 2009

[Mrs. Joan Humble in the Chair]

Unitary Authorities

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr. Ian Austin.)

9.30 am

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Humble. For many colleagues present, this is a walk down memory lane, as the consideration by the boundary committee for England of proposals for unitary authorities in Norfolk, Suffolk and Devon has been an issue since October 2006. A vast amount of time, effort and money has been spent by local authorities in that period, and their attention has been diverted from the delivery of good local services. It has also been a time of great uncertainty for the staff of many local district authorities, as they do not know whether they will have a job at the end of the process.

This is the third debate that I have initiated on this issue. The first, a one and a half hour debate on 20 November 2007, and the second, a half hour debate on 9 July 2008, narrowly considered Norfolk and a bit of Suffolk, while today’s debate covers all three county areas. I asked for this debate largely as a consequence of the legal challenges that different local authorities have made and of the Secretary of State’s decision to extend the deadline for advice to 15 July 2009.

I find it amazing, at this stage, that both the boundary committee and the Secretary of State have conceded that the committee misdirected itself in restricting the publication of its draft proposals to a single scheme, last July, thus making the process unlawful. The boundary committee said that it would have published proposals on more than one scheme if it had thought that it could. With the best will in the world, although colleagues may disagree on whether the principle of having unitary authorities in their county areas is good, that kind of monumental cock-up, at procedural and administrative level, is an absolute disgrace. Either the boundary committee will have to go back to square one and reconsider all the evidence, or, as I shall reiterate at the end of my speech, the Minister should, with some grace, drop the whole proposal as it is fatally flawed.

My approach to this issue has been to consider whether any reorganisation of local government in Norfolk from the current status quo will provide better services and better value for money to my constituents. From the beginning, I have never been convinced that any of the options would do that, but I accept that other colleagues take a different view on different options. From the start of the process, I have believed that it is heavily politically inspired and related to the Government’s desire to help the Labour parties in Norwich, Ipswich and Exeter. There is considerable local evidence to support that view, which I have presented in earlier debates.

24 Feb 2009 : Column 2WH

For me, the two main issues are, first, whether unitary authorities would, in principle, be good for my constituents in Norfolk, and, secondly, how legitimate and efficient the process followed by the boundary committee, as instructed by the Government, has been.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and I am sorry that I cannot stay for long, as I have to attend a Public Bill Committee. Does he agree that a third issue to consider, which the boundary committee has ignored completely, is the views of the wider electorate? Is he aware that in west Norfolk not one parish council is in favour of having a single unitary authority and that a poll commissioned by the borough council revealed that a staggering 75 per cent. of people were against it? At a public meeting on the issue, two weeks ago, 200 people attended, all of whom were opposed to having a single unitary authority, so the wider public have been ignored.

Mr. Simpson: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I shall comment on that issue in a moment.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): My hon. Friend has raised two important issues, but may I invite him to add a third reason why the proposals should not go ahead at this time—the likely cost? Has he made any estimates of the up-front cost of that restructuring in the teeth of a recession, when Government coffers are running low? Even though there may be clawback over a number of years, can it really be right to charge the taxpayer to restructure in this completely unnecessary way when we simply cannot afford it?

Mr. Simpson: My hon. Friend makes a good point, which colleagues have made in previous debates. The two points that my hon. Friends have made, on the democratic deficit and on cost, are absolutely crucial. As far as the democratic deficit is concerned, the irony is that the boundary committee made it quite clear that it was not in the business of weighing up the number of letters coming in expressing an opinion one way or another, and that it was going to consult only stakeholders. That is unacceptable in this day and age. As far as costs are concerned, a series of studies have shown that—my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) made this point through a question that he asked—the costs of the process in Suffolk have been £250,000. There is also the issue of whether there will be any savings.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): May I say what a great service my hon. Friend has done to the House by bringing this matter before it again this morning? I have two points to make. First, is he aware that the committee said that the cost in Devon, not of running the inquiry, but of running Devon after unitary authority status was granted, if that was its recommendation, was not important to it and was at the bottom of the list of priorities? Secondly, it was not concerned about the community either. That is why it planned to put the headquarters of the new Devon unitary authority in Barnstaple.

Mr. Simpson: I was not aware of that, and that is a very good point. Like other colleagues, all I know is that in the past two and a half years I have not received
24 Feb 2009 : Column 3WH
one letter, e-mail or phone call from, or had one face-to-face conversation with, any constituent who is in favour of anything other than the status quo. Indeed, if anything, people have written vociferously to oppose all the options that the boundary committee has proposed. All the parish councils in the Broadland district council area have opposed the proposals.

Mr. Charles Clarke (Norwich, South) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that I have received many representations from businesses, citizens and constituents in my constituency who argue strongly in favour of unitary authority status? [Interruption.] I am sorry, but I did not catch that intervention.

Serious business people have seen the argument in favour of a unitary system for cost reasons, because it will be far cheaper, far more effective and far more democratic than the current two-tier system.

Mr. Simpson: The right hon. Gentleman may have received such representations; I accept his word on that. All I know is that the business community is divided on this issue. Big business tends to be in favour of the proposals, but most small businesses tend to be against them. I hear a desperate argument from some people in Norwich who want a unitary authority because they fear that local government in Norwich has not been in the top league in the past 20 or 30 years. The auditing of local government accounts, the recent problems with housing allocations, and the fact that, even today, Norwich city council is going to be in the biggest dog fight possible about setting the council tax rate, means that Norwich has specific problems, and I am very sorry for the constituents of both the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) and the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson).

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned cost savings. The problem is that there is no agreed set of criteria by which to judge what savings have been made. That issue needs to be revisited given the economic downturn and the enormous economic pressures on all the councils in all the relevant areas. I suspect that the Treasury will not look favourably on any reorganisation that will cost money. In a previous life, the Minister was a Treasury Minister, under the current Prime Minister, although he might not want that fact publicised in these days of economic turbulence.

When mentioning the alternative proposals being put forward for Cheshire, in a debate on the Cheshire (Structural Changes) Order 2008 on 4 March 2008, Baroness Andrews, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, said:

The problem is that that assessment is subjective rather than evidence-based.

Local opinion in Norfolk and, I suspect, in Devon and Suffolk has become cynical about reorganisations. We have had experience not just of the appalling process of reorganisation of local government, but of the reorganisation of the primary care trusts—we went to
24 Feb 2009 : Column 4WH
six and now we are back to one—and the attempts, which the right hon. Member for Norwich, South supported, to reorganise the police in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, which was greatcoats on, greatcoats off. My hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon), the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) and I have attempted to achieve democratic accountability through the Broads authority, and that has failed. So, local opinion is incredibly cynical about these outcomes.

Having passed briefly over some of the principal aspects of whether unitary authorities are a good idea, I now want to look at the process itself, which has shown ministerial interference and plain incompetence at the level of both the Government and the boundary committee. The committee’s process began in summer 2007 before it received any ministerial instructions: it was found that it was attempting to bully local authorities into coming up with options before any instructions were received. The committee informed us at the time that cross-county proposals would not be considered and were not on the agenda, but in December 2007 ministerial instructions said that they would be. The committee had also said that it was unlikely that it would consider unitary authorities covering more than 500,000 people. Of course, as we know, the first unitary authority to be considered in respect of Norfolk and Suffolk would probably have had a population of between 750,000 and 800,000.

The boundary committee told Members of Parliament and peers that it would cost only those proposals that emerged from an initial sift. No other area that I can think of, either in the private or public sector, would do that. It is rather like the Ministry of Defence having bids for the procurement of a piece of equipment and deciding only to cost them after an initial sift. I find that absolutely incredible.

In July 2008, the boundary committee published its proposals: a single unitary for Norfolk, including Lowestoft, with two alternative patterns; a two-authority pattern for Suffolk; and, in Devon, a single unitary authority, less Plymouth and Torbay. Shortly after those proposals were published, a meeting of Norfolk and Suffolk peers and MPs saw the boundary committee chairman and officials absolutely scragged—to use a Dickensian expression—in terms of their proposals and the process. My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) and the right hon. Member for Norwich, South were forthright in their views on those proposals. Later, we discovered under a freedom of information request that the boundary committee’s own experts had proposed an east-west divide as the favoured unitary authority for Norfolk. Why was that advice ignored? Why have experts if they are going to be overruled? Perhaps the boundary committee, or the Minister, could tell me the criteria by which it overruled its own experts. That does not give us confidence in the process.

I suspect that the proposals for all three areas satisfied no majority of local opinion and, if anything, enraged it. Norfolk district councils went to the High Court to challenge the basis for the boundary committee’s proposals and, as a consequence of a judgment, the deadline for advice was extended from December 2008 to February 2009. Now the Secretary of State has further extended that deadline to 15 July 2009. We were told from the beginning that, like the Mad Hatter, we had to rush and decisions had to be made very quickly indeed. However,
24 Feb 2009 : Column 5WH
I understand, from a judgment in court last week, that the judge said that there appeared to be no deadline and that it could be extended to 2011 or 2012. Once again, there appears to be a muddle about the process.

It was interesting that the Secretary of State’s letter said that she wanted to take into account

That actually means that the Secretary of State keeps refining her advice to enhance proposals for what she wants rather than what the boundary committee wants. As I mentioned at the beginning of my speech, there is a suspicion in Norfolk, Suffolk and Devon that this has more to do with party political issues than the good delivery of local government in our areas.

It is unlikely that the Secretary of State will be introducing any orders in Parliament until the new year of 2010 or, if those are passed, bringing any unitary authorities into being in Norfolk, Suffolk and Devon until May 2010—and by then there is likely to be a general election. I suggest that the Minister either goes back to the drawing board, given the failure to reach any agreed solution to the options on the table and given that the process is fatally flawed, or, even better, that he scraps this disastrous process, which has had relatively limited support within the county structures and has been an embarrassment to the Government.

9.46 am

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on securing this important debate on a subject that has caused enormous frustration in our county of Norfolk. I will keep my remarks brief, because other right hon. and hon. Members want to contribute to the debate.

I want to deal with three issues that have caused me real concern. First, when the process got under way, I assumed that it would be evidence-driven and that there was clear evidence in support of the case for unitary authorities. Instinctively, I could see a potential case for unitary authorities: one level of local government serving local people and delivering all local services seems to be a sensible way to proceed. However, my confidence in the process was undermined at my first meeting with the boundary committee, when I started the conversation by saying that I assumed that there was clear evidence for the case for unitary local government. The answer, which came swiftly, was no. There is no clear evidence at all. The picture is patchy. Some have worked well and others have failed rather badly. The answer to my questions, “Does it deliver better services and better value for money?” and “Does it deliver services that are more easily understood by the public?” was, on an evidence basis, no. That undermined my confidence in the whole process. Surely this process should be based on evidence and should not be a political process driven from the centre.

Secondly, the process has passed the public by: they have been largely ignored. The views of bodies such as parish councils, as the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) mentioned, appear to have been ignored, too. For me, if there is to be a review of local government—I have an open mind; if there is a better system than the one we have at the moment, we ought to be prepared to consider the evidence—the evidence should be put before
24 Feb 2009 : Column 6WH
the public and the public, locally, should be given the final say in determining the model of local government, delivering their local services, for their area. The public have been excluded from that process.

The process started in Norfolk with a bid from Norwich city council for self-government. One was left with the clear impression that rural areas were an afterthought. Consideration of them was left until after unitary local government was provided for Norwich. To me, as an MP representing a rural part of Norfolk, that was wholly unsatisfactory.

I am conscious that there are some real challenges in Norfolk to do with economic development and, in particular, education, where our county has not been performing well enough. Some review of local government may be necessary in order to deliver the improvements that are so important for the future of our county.

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): For the sake of argument, many people in the outer parts—outside Norwich—are prolific users of the services in Norwich. In fact, Norwich picks up the tab for concessionary bus fares on services for many other parts of the county. Norwich is fighting hard to maintain services where people find it convenient to use them.

Norman Lamb: One reason why I was opposed to the unitary bid from Norwich was that I did not want local government structures to cut north Norfolk off from Norwich. People in north Norfolk see Norwich as the capital of the county. They often use services in Norwich because there are none in rural areas. For instance, when I have constituents who need advice on benefits issues, there is often not sufficient expertise in rural areas, although citizens advice bureaux do a good job, so they gravitate to Norwich. That is where many of the services for people in the rural parts of the county are provided.

My argument on public involvement is that there should have been a Norfolk convention to bring everyone together, both political parties and non-political players, to have a full discussion about Norfolk’s needs, and that then the process should have resulted in a vote by the people of Norfolk.

My third point is that the result, as the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk said, has been a monumental and scandalous waste of public money and a diversion of local authorities away from the core jobs that they are there to do. It is outrageous that interference from the centre has forced councils into a botched and incompetent process that has resulted in vast sums of public money being diverted into campaigns on each side of the equation to preserve positions. That money has not been spent on the people who need the support of local councils, and it is often the most vulnerable who suffer as a result of money not being available for them.

Mr. Steen: One of the extraordinary things about the debate on local government is not so much the consultation, which was appalling, but that the fact that people want to pay less council tax—they do not want to pay more—seems not to have been discussed at all.

Norman Lamb: I completely agree. I made a point about achieving better value for money. No one wants to pay more than is necessary for good quality public
24 Feb 2009 : Column 7WH
services, quite apart from the fact, with which I am sure the hon. Gentleman would agree, that the council tax is grossly unfair and regressive.

This is a classic example of top-down, incompetent, politically driven meddling, which drives people crazy because they are not involved. The process has not been evidence-based; it has not involved the people; it has been a scandalous waste of money; and it ought to be scrapped straight away.

9.53 am

Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): I am delighted to serve under your stewardship, Mrs. Humble. I apologise for my phone playing the “Flower Duet” from Lakmé a few minutes ago.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) for securing a debate on this important matter. Although it is a dry subject, it has gathered the interest of people in my constituency and, I believe, across Devon. People write letters to the local weekly newspaper about it. They do not think that it is just something for the politicians to deal with, but feel passionately about it.

As we know, East Devon district council sought a judicial review to challenge what was happening. I shall quote from the determination of Mr. Justice Cranston on the matter. He found that in deciding that it could consult on only a single proposal—that is, unitary Devon—the boundary committee had

Next Section Index Home Page