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Written Answers

Thursday, 14th March 1996.

Local Government: Structure

The Earl of Shrewsbury asked Her Majesty's Government:

    When they will announce their decisions on the recommendations made to them by the Local Government Commission on 19th December 1995, following their review of the structure of 21 districts in England.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Earl Ferrers): My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has announced our decisions on the recommendations made by the Local Government Commission following their review of the structure of 21 districts. In reaching these decisions we have considered the commission's report and the representations which we have received. We have also taken account of the estimates of transitional and ongoing costs, and the viability of the structures which will result--both the unitary authorities and the remaining two-tier arrangements. In each case we are satisfied that on balance my decision will best reflect the identities and interests of local communities and will best secure effective and convenient local government.

We are accepting the commission's recommendations that there should be no structural change in Basildon, Broxtowe, Dartford, Exeter, Gedling, Gloucester, Gravesham, Huntingdonshire, Northampton, Norwich, Rushcliffe, and Spelthorne. We are satisfied that the case for a single tier of local government has been properly considered; we have no plans to direct the commission to carry out any further reviews of local government structure. Local authorities in all areas where there is no structural change now need to concentrate on developing and improving the delivery of services within the existing system. In most cases local authorities have given undertakings on this, however, we shall not hesitate to intervene if it appears that those undertakings to work together are not being fulfilled.

The commission made recommendations for unitary authorities to be created in nine of the districts reviewed. We have decided to accept their recommendations for the reasons set out below.

Blackburn

We have decided to accept the commission's recommendation that there should be a unitary authority for Blackburn.

As a former county borough it has a history of unitary local government. There is good evidence that Blackburn would operate effectively as a unitary authority. There is strong local identification with the two towns of Blackburn and Darwen within the borough, and support for unitary status. With a population of 138,300 the

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borough would be able to provide the full range of services, and its economic future could, we believe, be more effectively addressed by a strong unitary authority.

Blackpool

We also accept that Blackpool should be a unitary authority. It too is a former county borough. Its separate identity from the rest of Lancashire is well-defined and is both local and national. Blackpool has clear and distinctive socio-economic problems, and tourism brings additional service pressure not shared by adjacent districts. Local residents identify strongly with the town. With a population of 152,100 it would be able to provide the full range of services. We have therefore concluded that a unitary authority would be viable and better able to address the needs and aspirations of local residents.

We are satisfied that without Blackburn and Blackpool, Lancashire County Council would be of sufficient size and strength to be viable, and to readjust its service provision to operate with no loss in cost effectiveness.

Gillingham and Rochester upon Medway

On north west Kent, we have concluded that the balance of evidence lies in favour of accepting the commission's recommendations; that there should be a joint unitary Gillingham and Rochester upon Medway but that Dartford and Gravesham should remain within the current structure of local government.

The case for a joining the Medway towns in one unitary authority is strong. It is a significant urban area, one of the largest in the south east outside London, with a population in excess of 240,000. The two boroughs form a continuous conurbation with strong cross community interests and common physical and economic interests. Uniting the two authorities would provide a clearer focus and impetus to the Medway area and its size would ensure that the new authority would be well able to deliver the full range of local services. Kent County Council would still be one of the largest county councils in England.

The commission, however, judged that on balance the case for Dartford and Gravesham was not so strong and had not been made out. It felt that the more diverse characters of the two districts along with the lack of wider support, particularly in Gravesham, would make a joint unitary authority more difficult to establish.

We strongly endorse the commission's conclusion that all the local authorities concerned should support and promote a development partnership for the area to manage change and growth. We shall not hesitate to intervene if it appears that those undertakings to work together are not being fulfilled.

Halton

We accept the commission's recommendation that Halton should become a unitary authority. It has an internal cohesion and a high level of self sufficiency with most residents staying within the borough for shopping, work and leisure. It has a socio economic profile more akin to that of neighbouring metropolitan

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areas and is quite distinct from the rest of the county. Both Runcorn (as a new town) and Widnes (as a town expansion scheme) have experienced substantial inward migration from Merseyside in the past 25 years, contributing to the relatively low level of community identity with Cheshire.

The authority is well placed to forge alliances and co-operative arrangements with neighbouring unitary authorities. There would be major advantages for Halton in being able to adopt a more locally focused approach to the co-ordination of services within an area which has a high level of deprivation and requires substantial regeneration.

Warrington

Also in Cheshire, we accept that Warrington should also become a unitary authority. As a large maturing new town, it has the size (population 187,000) and experience (a county borough prior to 1974) to suggest that it would be well placed to deliver the full range of local authority services. It has grown rapidly since its designation as a new town, emphasising its separateness from the rest of Cheshire. Warrington itself is the main focus for the majority of residents in the borough.

We are satisfied that without Halton and Warrington Cheshire County Council would remain of sufficient size, with a population of 665,300 to deliver county services. Without these two very urban and quite distinct areas, Cheshire County Council would be able to focus more effectively on the remaining, more rural, county area.

Peterborough

We accept that Peterborough should become a unitary authority. The city area has a long history of being distinct from the rest of Cambridgeshire. It is also geographically marginal, situated on the edge of the county. It has a strategic importance with respect to communications, being situated on the main east coast railway link and on two major roads.

It is at the heart of an area covered by the greater Peterborough partnership, and is a major employment and retailing centre serving areas beyond the city. Its sphere of influence extends beyond the boundaries of the county. Peterborough has experienced rapid growth as a new town, and its highly urban character makes it distinct from the rest of the county. It has the size (158,300 population on present boundaries) to be capable of delivering a full range of services, and unitary status would enable it to focus on its specific urban needs.

The remaining county would be more coherent without the highly urban Peterborough, and will be of sufficient size to be viable. It will however be important for the whole area that the county council and the unitary Peterborough address the issue of revised service arrangements, and that the existing economic development partnerships involving the various agencies, local authorities and the private sector are maintained, in order to maintain the quality of service delivery.

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Thurrock

We have decided to accept the commission's recommendation that there should be a unitary authority for Thurrock. Thurrock has a community identity which is distinct from the rest of Essex. Its strategic importance extends beyond the county boundary, a result of its location on the periphery of London and the presence of the Lakeside complex. There is good support from residents and local organisations for change and, with a population of 131,000, we believe Thurrock would be able to provide the full range of local government services.

We are satisfied that Essex--without Thurrock and Southend, which is also to become a unitary authority--would still be large enough for the county council to be a viable and cost effective provider of services for the rest of the county.

The Wrekin

In Shropshire, we have decided that The Wrekin should become a unitary authority. It has a good case for unitary status on the grounds of both community identity and convenient and effective local government within the district.

The Wrekin has a character which is distinct from the rest of Shropshire, founded in its industrial history and the more recent development of Telford New Town. The commission found that the district is largely self-contained for employment and leisure, that there are strong links between Telford and the rural part of the district, and that the population looks more towards the West Midlands conurbation than to the rest of Shropshire.

We believe that unitary local government would help The Wrekin to develop its full potential as a major growth point for the West Midlands. The benefits would extend beyond the authority's boundaries to the rest of the area. With a growing population, currently some 143,000, and a good infrastructure, we consider that a unitary council would be capable of delivering the full range of local authority services.

We are, though, mindful of the concerns which have been expressed about the impact of a unitary authority on the rest of Shropshire. I look to the new unitary authority to co-operate with Shropshire County Council and the neighbouring districts to ensure that the economic and other benefits of unitary local government in The Wrekin are felt throughout the county.

Non-structural recommendations

Where we have accepted the commission's recommendations for structural change, we also propose to accept its recommendations for associated changes.

On strategic land use and planning, we accept the recommendations that the unitary authorities in Halton, Warrington and Thurrock should be enabled to prepare unitary development plans for their areas. We consider that unitary development plans offer the best way forward for the planning in these areas which are adjacent to metropolitan areas which already prepare unitary development plans.

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In the other areas which will gain unitary status, we accept the commission's recommendation that the new unitary authorities should work jointly with the county council to maintain a joint structure plan for the combined area.

In these areas, the commission's recommendation provides for alternative approaches to minerals and waste local planning. It recommends that these planning responsibilities should be discharged through joint arrangements with the county council, but that the unitary authorities should be authorised to include such detailed policies in their local plans, if that would secure greater efficiency without prejudicing the county-wide strategic policy. Section 101 of the Local Government Act 1972 would enable joint arrangements to happen where they suit local circumstances. On the other hand the joint structure plan would include strategic policies for minerals and waste planning while the unitary authorities' local plans must be in general conformity with the structure plan; this would ensure that any detailed minerals and waste policies included in those local plans did not prejudice the jointly prepared strategic policies. We therefore accept both of the alternative approaches. We agree that these recommendations offer the best way forward for planning in these areas.

We accept the commission's recommendations on the police, fire, probation and magistrates' courts services in the unitary authorities.

The commission also made a number of recommendations for boundary and electoral changes. One, in the Basildon area, would have involved a particularly large transfer of population between Basildon, Brentwood and Rochford. This was first put forward in 1994 by the commission, following its review of Essex. Despite some local support we consider that the proposals need further examination, especially with regard to the financial consequences. We are not satisfied that the commission was able to do this within the timing constraints on the district reviews. We therefore intend to direct the commission to look again at this matter, and at other boundaries in Essex, when it conducts its periodic electoral review of the county.

The commission also recommended a number of other smaller changes involving transfers of land between Huntingdonshire and Peterborough in the area of the southern township development. Given the southern township's strategic relationship with Peterborough, and the need to facilitate effective planning and service provision there, we are satisfied that this boundary change is desirable, and we accept the commission's recommended changes. We are also provisionally accepting the recommended changes to the warding in Peterborough, which reflect the proposed boundary change, although, as mentioned below, we shall be directing the commission to carry out an electoral review of the city.

The recommended warding change in Gloucester City will rectify the under-representation in a number of the existing wards, and even out councillor to elector ratios; we accept this recommendation. The recommended boundary change in Surrey between Spelthorne and Runnymede districts takes account of

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changes in the course of the river Thames; former islands would be part of the district whose area they now join, thereby easing service delivery. We accept this recommendation also.

This concludes the commission's current review of the structure of local government in England, and we are grateful for its thorough and expeditious work.

As we foreshadowed on 5th March, we shall be directing the commission to undertake immediate reviews of the electoral arrangements in the areas which will acquire unitary status as a result of my decisions today. Unlike the earlier county reviews, the commission did not have time in these district reviews to consider the electoral arrangements in detail. There remains considerable variation in the councillor to electoral ratios in many of these areas, and we are concerned that suitable electoral arrangements are in place in time for all out elections to the unitary authorities.

We shall be consulting very shortly on draft orders to give effect to the decisions which have been announced today, with a view to making the orders before the Summer Recess.


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