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Lord Ewing of Kirkford: Shame!

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, it is a very nice place to live, but Reading is very handy.

I have been involved in public life in Berkshire since 1954. I was a member of Reading County Borough Council for 18 years and was leader of that council for a number of years. I was also a member of many joint bodies, including the Thames Valley Water Board, the Thames Valley Police Authority and the Berkshire and Reading Fire Authority. I was a candidate for the Newbury parliamentary constituency in 1959 and 1964. Therefore, I can probably claim a personal interest as well as an overall public interest in what happens in Berkshire. I think that I can also claim some knowledge of what is best for the residents of Berkshire.

The amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, refers to Berkshire as a "traditional" county council, but I should emphasise that Berkshire County

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Council was doomed in 1974 by the 1974 reorganisation which transferred its northern area, including Abingdon, Wantage, Wallingford and Faringdon to Oxfordshire, and which left Berkshire as a narrow unviable strip, stretching from Lambourn in the west to Slough in the east, bisected throughout its length by the M4 motorway. That is Berkshire at present.

In fact, I was opposed to that reorganisation. I imagine that the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, voted for it when he voted for the Local Government Act 1972 because he was a member of the Government who imposed that Act on the country to the detriment of local government throughout the country. I was not in favour of Berkshire being dismembered at that time.

As I have already said, Berkshire is not a "traditional" county council. In any event, Berkshire did not have a county council until the Local Government Act 1888. It was only then, in 1888, that Berkshire got a county council at all. The fact of the matter is that Berkshire is unviable as an administrative entity, as Berkshire County Council itself has recognised.

Lest noble Lords have been taken in by the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Bancroft, that the county council was naive, I quote (I am afraid extensively) from the supplementary submission of the county council and the five local authorities:

    "The present geographic area of Berkshire contains many diverse communities--the major towns of Reading and Slough, the older urban settlements of Maidenhead, Newbury, Windsor and Wokingham, the modern town of Bracknell and suburban areas with a clear individual identity, such as Woodley.

    Fifty six per cent. of the land mass of the present County falls to the west of Reading...

    These various communities, while sharing in the history of Berkshire which extends back, albeit not on its present boundaries, 1,000 years, now share little common identity. This is borne out by the evidence deduced from the 1991 census data, which was included in the collated pre-submission material. In addition, while Slough in the east is undoubtedly drawn to London, Newbury in the west has more affinity with Oxfordshire, Wiltshire and Hampshire."

That was what Berkshire County Council said in its supplementary submission. With regard to unitary councils, it said the following:

    "The County Council resolved in May 1992 that unitary councils offered the best way forward for local government. The Council sees the benefits of such a system as one single point of contact for all the local government services the public needs; a single voice to represent areas; no opportunity for 'passing the buck' between the tiers of local government; the avoidance of duplication of effort and, therefore, opportunities for greater economies and efficiency.

    Having reached that conclusion, the Council, in recognition of the diversity of the County area mentioned above, believes that a sub-county pattern of unitary authorities would best serve the residents of Berkshire".

I let Berkshire speak for me and for the order which the noble Earl has tabled today. There is nothing naive about that. It is a considered statement by Berkshire county council. Therefore, it was astounding that in those circumstances the county council completely reversed its position in 1995 and demanded the status quo. It no longer wanted unitary authorities; it wanted Berkshire County Council--which I have shown is completely unviable as an administrative entity--to remain as it was with six district councils and a two-tier authority. Since then Berkshire County Council has

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conducted a spurious and expensive campaign in order to put over its case. That campaign has cost the ratepayers of Berkshire over £100,000. I fear that it was a dishonest campaign to destroy the unitary concept in Berkshire.

We have heard a great deal about polls. About which polls are we speaking? Referring to some of the independent polls undertaken by the commission, MORI showed that 69 per cent. were in favour of unitary authorities; NOP showed that 72 per cent. were in favour of unitary authorities. When Berkshire County Council undertook its own poll it did not do so on an independent basis. It asked leading questions, and it was criticised by many, including the local press, for doing so. For example, it suggested that if people voted for unitary authorities it would cost them an extra £54 a year. If one asks a question like that one is almost certain of the answer. These polls need to be examined in the context in which they have been conducted. When the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, winds up perhaps he will tell us how he intends the Government will test opinion in Berkshire. Is there to be yet another poll? Will all of the people in Berkshire be consulted through a referendum so that the issue can be argued out properly? I hope that he will provide a reply to that question.

Berkshire County Council has produced figures for transitional and on-going costs which bear no relation to reality. In compiling them it has had no discussions with the proposed unitary authorities. It has refused to discuss these matters with the unitary authorities. How can one take such an authority seriously when it will not discuss matters of great importance with those who have just as great an interest, if not greater, in the matter?

I have already said that I was leader of Reading County Borough Council, whose first charter was granted by Henry III in 1253. I have cause to know how well unitary authorities can work. I know that they work more efficiently and better than two-tier authorities. I shall tell your Lordships about some of my experiences. I interrupted the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, in relation to the teaching of the deaf. Reading, comprising 125,000 people, was a very successful education authority. People used to move from Berkshire into Reading to take advantage of the better educational facilities in Reading. People from all over the country moved to Reading so that their children could be taught in Reading schools. Reading was a pioneer in the teaching of the deaf. If it is said that a unitary authority of 125,000 is not able to cope, I point out that Reading coped very well--and far better than the county council.

There are many other instances. We have heard of the library service. It is suggested by the Library Association that libraries cannot be run successfully with a population of less than 250,000. Reading with a population of 125,000 ran one of the best library services in the country--far better than Berkshire. People from Berkshire used to go to Reading if they wanted a rare book because Reading could get it from anywhere in the world. That was a service which Berkshire County Council was not prepared to provide. Library services can be and are run extremely well by unitary authorities throughout the country.

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One can also refer to art galleries. The best art gallery and museum in the county was in Reading. Experience shows that services can be carried out efficiently by unitary authorities.

What about democratic accountability? That is important, too. When one is operating a unitary authority in a county borough it is known that there is only one body which is responsible for all services. One knows where to go. There is one point of contact. One takes a greater interest in local government affairs. At the time of local elections in Reading, which was the county borough and the all-purpose authority, the turnout was 55 per cent. In the county council it was 18 per cent. So when we talk about democratic accountability, surely we know the truth. We know that the all-purpose authority wins every time.

I have had a lot of experience of Berkshire County Council. I hate to criticise but I have to say that it is a remote, out of touch, inefficient and officer-driven county council lacking any sort of reasonable democratic accountability, so much so, in fact, that at one period even the local MPs had difficulty arranging meetings with the chief executive.

Another place agreed the order before us today without a Division, not even Mr. Rendel, the Liberal Member of Parliament for Newbury, attempting to force a vote. He was clearly in favour of a unitary authority for Newbury although he would not commit himself about any other unitary authority in the area.

I could continue for a very long time but there are other people who want to speak. I must however say this. It would be intolerable and unprecedented if this House were to set aside an important order which had been agreed by all but one of the districts and unanimously--I emphasise that--by the House of Commons. To do so would cause administrative chaos and confusion in Berkshire and its districts. It is not the Government that will be defeated if this amendment is agreed but the people of Berkshire who have already suffered intolerable delay and expense as a result of the petulant irresponsibility of the Berkshire county councillors who put their own survival above the real and long-term interests of Berkshire ratepayers.

5.42 p.m.

Lord Renwick: My Lords, I do not have the local government experience of the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon. To compensate, I shall speak for a very short time. It was with some conviction that I presented a petition from the Royal County of Berkshire to your Lordships' House on 13th June. It is with the same conviction that I support the amendment of my noble friend Lord Peyton of Yeovil.

My experience of that Royal county is, in fact, less than a year, which is when my wife and I moved there. But my family has lived there since just after the last war. Now that Slough has come into the Royal county, I think there must have been some connection because my father's middle name was Burnham. I believe that came from the Beeches--from my grandfather.

It really is a sadness to me to have to support an amendment against my noble friend the Minister and his order today. I find it inconceivable and incomprehensible

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that the only reasoned argument he seems to be able to put against the amendment of my noble friend Lord Peyton is that there is a resistance to change.

Change is something upon which I have concentrated for many years. It is difficult to handle change. It is usually pushed by technology. It is usually better to have a good understanding of technology so that one can understand the process of change. In view of what happened to the City in the 1980s, we know that imposed change is very damaging and very destructive. Managed change is, of course, what we like to look for. It has always been my view that to give a successful example of change is a much better way to promote change. But I have heard no example of where unitary authorities have been successful. The costs of implementing the unitary authorities in various places have been enormous and I hope that I shall not have to enjoy the increased costs of living in Berkshire.

5.46 p.m.

Baroness Flather: My Lords, may I first of all say that I do not live in a neighbouring county; neither do I have friends who cannot be present in your Lordships' House; and nor have I entered into a mutual support agreement with other Members of the House.

I speak as someone who has lived in the Royal County of Berkshire for the past 30 years. Fifteen of those I have served as a borough councillor for the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead. My title carries "Windsor and Maidenhead in the Royal County of Berkshire", all of which I am extraordinarily proud.

I have seen many occasions in your Lordships' House when big guns have been brought in to bear on a cause which might not stand up without their presence. I think this is one such occasion. I have never seen such an array of illustrious big guns in support of something which should not be supported at this stage.

There has been a great deal of sentimentality and very little reality. I am sure that if your Lordships read Hansard very carefully tomorrow you will see that there is very little substance in the arguments that you have heard for retaining the county council. May I reiterate that it is only the county council which is going, not the royal county. I hope to finish my days in the Royal County of Berkshire, whatever shape it is in.

Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, with respect, it is unlikely that he was born in the county town of Berkshire because Reading was not the county town of Berkshire unless he is extremely young and should not be here. Abingdon was the county town. We lost that in 1974. We lost the Vale of the White Horse in 1974. The White Horse was the emblem of the royal county. I do not know where your Lordships were, but judging from the ages of many of your Lordships you should have been here protecting the real Royal County of Berkshire instead of trying to save a county council which has no chairmen at the moment for its committees because it cannot do a deal with the other parties. It appoints ad hoc chairmen to committees for each meeting. If you do not believe me, you can check it for yourselves.

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That is why we are not in favour of retaining our county council, unlike the people of Buckinghamshire. That is another strange paradox that I have heard in your Lordships' House. We are not the people of Berkshire; there is some other mysterious entity that has not been consulted. All the people of the unitary authorities are not the people of Berkshire because they support the unitary authorities. There is some other large pool of people who have not been consulted, and they are the very people who should be consulted because they will be the ones who will support the county council. Who are those people? I thought that we were the people of Berkshire; the people of six unitary authorities.

Another question that I find interesting is: what will happen to the libraries, the collections and the archives? The archives will be in Reading. The ceremonial aspects of the Royal County will be looked after by the Royal Borough and--dare I say?--it will probably be much better looked after than at present by the county council.

We are not declaring UDI. We are not saying that each unitary authority is to produce a wall around itself and have nothing to do with its neighbours. That is not what will happen. Ever since the unitary authorities were mooted, the six have been working together enthusiastically and successfully, trying to put in place the preparations for providing the services which cannot be duplicated in each one. We are not as stupid as your Lordships may imagine. We do not believe that there can be six separate education authorities and entirely separate social services. No, we are not suggesting that. We are working together. We have had in place over a long time a number of initiatives for working together and now they are being developed.

The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, should not be seduced by the figure of 73 per cent. I doubt whether he knows how many people were consulted. In fact, 1,800 people were consulted and the county council had to admit that the questions were loaded. Out of the 1,800, 73 per cent. were in favour. The polls are not entirely satisfactory, but all the independent polls have come out in favour of the unitary authorities in Berkshire.

We wish to retain our Royal County. We wish to be part of our Royal County, but we do not wish to fund a defunct and useless county council which cannot reach agreement with other members to provide proper government. I am surprised that more noble Lords have not taken the trouble to find out what kind of a county council they are supporting here today. It would have been much more satisfactory if your Lordships had been able to do that. It comes to your Lordships from a position of weakness at this last moment when all legal challenges have been concluded. The House of Lords has refused it leave to appeal further. It comes to your Lordships from a gross position of weakness, not a position of strength, and I hope that your Lordships will remember that when you vote later tonight. The people of the Royal County of Berkshire will not thank you for retaining this defunct county council.

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