|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
The noble Earl said: My Lords, in moving the Motions on the Order Paper I should like to speak to all nine orders, which are tabled in my name. The orders provide for changes in the future structure of local government in the counties of Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Derbyshire, Dorset, County Durham, East Sussex, Hampshire, Staffordshire and Wiltshire.
I hope that it will be of assistance to your Lordships if I take together the principal issues relating to each of the orderswhere they are common to all of themand that I may do so in the following sequence. First, the proposed new local government structure in each of the areas; secondly, the powers and functions which they will be given; thirdly, the electoral arrangements, staffing and planning; and, fourthly, how the proposals will affect the future role of the Lord Lieutenants and High Sheriffs in those areas. Where different arrangements are being proposed in specific areas, I will also briefly outline how and why they differ.
The structural changes which are to be made by the orders will come into effect on 1st April 1997not next year, 1996, but in 1997. Bournemouth, Darlington, Derby, Durham, Luton, Milton Keynes, Poole, Portsmouth, Southampton and Thamesdown, which may be more familiarly known to your Lordships as Swindon, will become unitary authorities on their existing boundaries. The remainder of the counties within which they are located will remain two tier, retaining both district and county councils. Similarly, the City of Stoke-on-Trent will become a unitary authority on its existing boundaries, except for a very minor change to tidy up the boundary between Stoke and Stafford Boroughs.
There will be a new unitary authority of Brighton and Hove, comprising the areas of the existing districts of Brighton and Hove. The remainder of the county of East Sussex will remain two tier. In the case of Brighton and Hove, the existing Brighton Borough Council and Hove Borough Council will be abolished and will be replaced by a single new council for Brighton and Hove combined. In all the other cases, no new councils will be created. The existing councils will continue, but they will have unitary powers.
Except for the East Sussex order, the orders do not contain the provisions for co-operation and preparation which were included in previous orders. We have decided that, rather than repeat those provisions in each separate order, we should remove them and place them in general regulations. They will be tabled tomorrow and are subject to negative resolution.
I would stress, though, that there is no change of substance. The powers and duties which authorities will be given will be the same as in the orders which have already been made. We have consulted the affected local authorities, and the local authority associations, twiceonce on the draft regulations and once on each of the draft structural change orders.
In the case of East Sussex, the provisions need to be expressed a little differently because, as I have explained, we are abolishing two old authorities and replacing them with one new one. For that reason, the East Sussex order contains specific provisions for co-operation and preparation; it does not rely on the general regulations.
I know that some noble Lords feel strongly that the role which the local authorities' staff will play in the re-organisation will be crucial to its success and that the interests of the staff must be safeguarded. I agree with that concern. We expect that newly-elected councils will pay close attention to staffing matters. Of course, it will be for them to decide on their staffing structures in the light of the new functions that they will be taking on.
That is not a process in which the Government will, or should, interfere. But, for all that, we have taken a number of steps in order to help to ensure that the transition to the new structures is as smooth and as fair as possible. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has had a constructive meeting with representatives of the local authority unions.
We believe that the elected members of authorities which are to be given unitary status should be given a fresh democratic mandate. Therefore, except in Brighton and Hove, all of the current district councillors will retire in May 1996, and there will be elections to the whole council in May 1996.
In Brighton and Hove those matters are more complex. The existing councillors will continue in office right up to 1st April 1997. Meanwhile, there will be elections in May 1996 to a shadow unitary authority. During the period up to 1st April 1997, this shadow authority will plan for the unitary functions which it is to inherit. On 1st April 1997, it will take over as the unitary authority and the old Brighton and Hove councils will be abolished. Between May 1996 and April 1997 it will, therefore, be possible for the same personif electedto serve both as a member of one of the old borough councils and as a member of the shadow unitary council.
The orders also provide transitional arrangements which return the authorities to electoral cycles prescribed in the Local Government Act 1972. Derby, Stoke-on-Trent, Portsmouth, Southampton, Thamesdown and Milton Keynes will be returned to their current arrangement of elections by thirds. In Brighton and Hove, Darlington, Poole, Luton and Bournemouth there will be elections in 1996 and 1999, and every four years after that. If any of those authorities wish to apply to the Secretary of State to change to a system of election by thirds, they may do so following the passing of a resolution by the council which must be passed by not less than two-thirds of the members.
The unitary authorities which we propose will all be responsible for strategic as well as local land-use planning for their areas. In Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Dorset, East Sussex, Hampshire, Derbyshire, Staffordshire and Wiltshire, we have concluded that it is desirable for strategic planning to continue across the existing county area. In the cases of Derbyshire and Staffordshire, that would exclude, as it does now, the Peak District National Park. We are, therefore, asking the new unitary authorities, as structure planning authorities, to work together with the county council in each case to maintain a joint structure plan for their combined areas.
In Durham, the commission proposed that the Darlington Council should establish joint structure planning arrangements with the unitary authorities which are to be established in Cleveland. The order, therefore, provides for the transfer of County Durham's strategic planning responsibilities for the area of Darlington to the Darlington Council. That will enable Darlington to make voluntary arrangements with the Cleveland authorities to work on a joint structure plan for their combined areas.
Each order provides for the existing county police authority to continue to cover both the area of the unitary authority and the residual area. It also provides for the members of the particular police authority to be appointed by both the county council and the unitary authority.
There will be combined fire authorities covering the new unitary authorities and the remaining county councils so that the existing brigade areas will be preserved. In order that the Home Office can make fire combination schemes under the Fire Services Act 1947 to achieve this, the orders each provide for the relevant unitary authority to become a fire authority.
Several noble Lords have expressed concern that the orders do not provide for the appointment of Lord Lieutenants or High Sheriffs for the areas which are the subject of the orders. I can assure your Lordships that we will be making separate provision for that in general regulations.
Under those regulations, each unitary authority which is created under the orders will be deemed to be part of the relevant historic county for ceremonial and related purposes, and will therefore remain within the jurisdiction of the Lord Lieutenant and High Sheriff of that county. I hope that I can also reassure your Lordships that there will be no hiatus. The regulations will be made at the earliest opportunity after 1st April
The Government believe that the changes for which the orders provide will create better, more accountable local government in the areas which they affect. I hope that your Lordships will also be of that view. I commend the orders to the House.
Baroness Gould of Potternewton: My Lords, I rise to support the case for a unitary authority for Brighton and Hove as provided for under the ninth order on the Order Paper. However, I have one caveat to add; namely, that I am not happy about the four-yearly cycle of elections. I hope that the new authority will apply to the Secretary of State to be able to continue with the existing system of annual elections. I have no problem with transitional arrangements and I believe that the safeguarding of the staff is something which both Brighton and Hove authorities are extremely concerned to do.
At present, as a fairly new resident of Brighton, I find it very difficult to determine where the boundary between the two places actually is. If it were not for the statue on the front which everyone tells me is the boundary, it would indeed be most difficult to identify. It certainly seems to me to be completely irrelevant to the economic and social life of the two towns and is completely invisible, as I said, not only to newcomers like myself but also to visitors. Voluntary groups, social organisations and business organisations all operate across the two towns and to be able to deal with one authority will make things much easier for them.
The counter argument that has been put locally is that polls conducted by Hove Council and East Sussex County Council have called for the status quo. However, it is important to put on the record that in both instances the survey methodology was flawed. It was entirely self-selecting in response, did not enable more than one view per household to be putit would be interesting to know which member of the household put the viewand offered no contextual information. Certainly the view of Hove Council was not supported by the electors at the May elections.
and to, "increasing class sizes". Yet, more accurately, the county council had previously analysed in great detail the effect of the proposals for change on service provision and had concluded, in its report to the county council local government review panel, that authorities which had between 500,000 and 250,000 population would be self-sufficient local authorities. The new Brighton and Hove unitary authority fits nicely into that category with a population of about a quarter of a million.
The county council also reiterated its view that Brighton and Hove should be a unitary council in its submission to the Local Government Commission, the main reason beingI think this is importantthat it would provide savings of £3.4 million which would accrue year on year. While estimating the financial implications of a new council structure is somewhat hazardousI would not attempt to do thatas I understand it, certainly Brighton Council agrees with the commission's calculations that there will be an annual impact from £2 million savings to £2 million costs.
The most important point about this amalgamation is that, economically, Brighton and Hove are considered as one and together they face considerable economic challenges. People who visit the town as holidaymakers are often surprised to discover that unemployment levels are exceptionally high, as are levels of multiple deprivation. In an attempt to overcome these serious problems the two borough councils have for the past two years worked closely together with the private sector through the Brighton and Hove Economic Development Company and have been supported by it and its board which has made it absolutely clear that a single unitary council for Brighton and Hove would be a major step forward in the area's ability to resolve many of the complex and interrelated economic development problems facing the area. It is vital that business confidence is rebuilt and that new business investment is attracted and retained. That view has also been supported by the Sussex Chamber of Commerce and Industry and many of the area's key employers who believe that a unitary authority is a necessary condition for the area's economic regeneration.
Being the largest authority on the south coast, the new authority will be able to provide a comprehensive range of services and a strong strategic unit for the coastal conurbation without having to resort to complex or fragile joint arrangements that might currently exist. I appreciate these will continue as regards the fire and the police services. It has been suggested that the residual county which is still under a two-tier structure would suffer. However, I believe it is clear that many of the current tensions created by Brighton and Hove's disproportionate pull on resources would be resolved.
The amalgamation of Brighton and Hove into a unitary authority makes sense. It will provide tremendous opportunities for delivering a better future for residents in the area, improved council services, clearer accountability, a more effective and coherent approach to economic regeneration, and, more importantly, better value for money. I therefore hope that the order will be supported.
Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, it is with pleasure that I see the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, on the Government Front Bench. That is a pleasure not unmixed with some trepidation as his reputation for dealing briskly with the Opposition causes us great amusement and is well deserved. I hope that I do not cross him in any way.
I have been opposed from the start to this whole process of review. I do not propose to go into the reasons for that because we have gone past that stage. However, what did not occur to me at the beginning of the review was that in implementing it, whatever the results were, we would encounter problems which would indicate that that implementation may not have been properly thought through. The problems were particularly great possibly becauseI daresay unexpectedlyof the move towards hybrid change; that is, changes where some authorities become unitary and the existing county councils still remain, was perhaps not foreseen. However, it is quite widespread. There are 15 county councils which are currently affected by hybrid change and that number could increase to 23 of the existing county councils after the next phase of the review.
The whole business of hybrid change has increased the costs of this exercise. These costs have been estimated by the Local Government Commission to be between £55 million and £93 million for the existing 15 county councils I mentioned; but those costs are probably not capable of being funded by long-term savings, particularly in the context of capping. The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, mentioned the importance of staff and staff effectiveness in ensuring that the changeover from one authority to another was smoothly carried out. But, however hard the staff work, they cannot "magic" money off trees, and the financial problems will still remain. Moreover, as I understand it, those costs will rest with the existing county council at a time when it will be facing possibly reduced efficiency in the provision of its services and therefore increasing costs.
Some other curious anomalies are being brought to light which affect county councillors. As I understand it, Draft Regulation 6, which will replace the previous individual indications of how authorities should manage change, prevents some councillorsthat is to say, those councillors whose areas will in the future be part of unitary authoritiesfrom taking part in the budget decision-making process next year. One can see a logic in that except that it is probably true to say that all budget processes these days concern themselves not merely with the next year's budget but also with implementing much longer term programmes and budget approaches. Further, for the purpose of budget making, most county councils regard themselves as corporate bodies. The corporate body in these cases will continue. Further, those county councillors have been elected to represent their people, and they will still represent those people even if decisions are to be taken in a different way in the future. Finally, by not permitting certain county councillors to take part in the budget making process, one may affectI do not know how this will happen as I have not calculated the statisticsthe political balance of the council as it takes those decisions in a way which may or may not reflect the way in which people wish their budget decisions to be decided. That is one of many infelicities which surround the present change.
However, a number of other factors come into this calculation. County councillors each represent many more people than either present local councillors or councillors who will be elected to the unitary authorities. Furthermore, some of the new unitary authorities will have more members than existing county councils. Therefore, on balance, Thamesdown, for example, should have more members on the police authority because it has more councillors than the existing and continuing county of Wiltshire, although the population of Wiltshire is many times that of Thamesdown.
Perhaps I may take the example of Bedford and Luton. I could read the entire figures, but it would be better if I select the more important figures and then perhaps leave the paper with Hansard in case they want to include the full figures. I hope that that will be agreeable to your Lordships. Is that a satisfactory way of dealing with the matter or must I read them all out if I want them to be included in Hansard?
Back to Table of Contents
Lords Hansard Home Page