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Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, I understand that the noble Lord quoted from the Reading Deaf Children's Society. Is he aware that the county borough council of Reading, of which I was a member, pioneered the teaching of the deaf? Indeed, it was alone at one time in having as part of its education programme the teaching of the deaf. Therefore, I do not think that what the noble Lord says, and what his correspondents say, bear any relationship to what is happening.
Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, the noble Lord persuades me that it is always foolish to give way to someone who will speak later. I shall leave the noble Lord to make his own speech when it comes to his turn.
There will be problems also for planning and for highways. There will be difficulties for Ministers, for industry and for businesses. They will find themselves confronting different authorities. The new authorities themselves will not find it all that easy to get on with their neighbours--their fellow unitary authorities--and even less with those much larger county authorities with which they will be surrounded and by which they will be outgunned.
The fact that this order was swept quickly through the other place on a favourable tide should not unduly trouble your Lordships in considering this amendment. My noble friend described it as a blockbuster. All it calls for is some attention to be paid to the consequences and the need further to explore opinion in Berkshire.
The Government have made much of the fact that the MPs who represent Berkshire constituencies have supported the order. They have had, however, the difficulty that at the beginning, all the councils concerned, including the county council, supported the measure. For reasons with which I have already dealt the county council has now changed its view. Having taken up that position, very reasonably at that stage, I quite understand that it would be very difficult for Members of Parliament, who represent not the county as a whole but slices of it, to change their views. Moreover, they will have been, I am sure, under considerable pressure from those authorities which will be calling the tune in their own constituencies in the future.
I accept, of course, that there is a widespread desire to have done with argument: that almost anything is preferable to continued uncertainty. However, I believe that the proposed change, simple and easy as it can be made to appear, will bring with it expense, confusion and disruption which those who boldly put forward the proposal will find very hard to handle.
I want to end on a more general note. Without roots it seems to me that a political party can become a very odd and unpredictable affair, bidding for popular support, and seeking to fill its sails with any passing breeze in order to give the impression at least that it is on the move. I find it sad that the Conservative Party should now be seen, if not severing, at least picking at its own roots in an unfriendly way in the shire counties. I hope that by your votes today noble Lords will make the Government pause at least before they insist upon a measure which will be damaging both to themselves and to the communities whose interests it is their duty to sustain. I beg to move.
Moved, as an amendment to the above Motion, to leave out all the words after ("That") and insert ("this House deplores Her Majesty's Government's proposal to abolish Berkshire County Council on the grounds that of the 36 traditional shire county councils subject to the local government review only Berkshire has been
Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, I intervene in the debate as a member of a neighbouring county council--the county council of Surrey. However, I intervene also as someone whose interest in the constitution and the process of good government antedates by a very long time my membership both of the Liberal Party and the Liberal Democrat Party. I wish, therefore, to support everything that the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, said; and if he divides the House, I shall go with him into the Lobby.
From the earliest moment that the review of local government was put forward my concern for and my interest in the nature of good government, and what forms are best suited to it, led me to take a very close interest in it. I believe that it is essential at the local tier--a tier lower than the national level--to provide for two elements of good government: first, the local sensitivity; and, secondly, the strategic overview. Currently in the shire counties we have those two elements represented by the two levels of government.
I believe that if it had seemed likely at the beginning of the review of local government that we might end up with a system of relatively small unitary authorities and a regional authority to take the overall, broadly-based decisions, then I should have supported the Government throughout. But it quickly became clear that that was by no means the purpose of the exercise and that, if the unitary system were introduced throughout the country, there would be no protection for the much smaller authorities against the power of the central state. From an early stage, therefore, I opposed the review.
My concerns now, in relation to the order and the amendment by the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, are with two aspects. One aspect is the process; the second is the aspect of results or consequences. I turn to the process and why I think the amendment is well drafted. I fasten upon the main and obvious fact that at no time have the electors of Berkshire been asked whether they are in favour of six unitary authorities in exchange for their county council. Berkshire is one of only two shire counties in which there was no opportunity at any time for people to show their wish to retain the status quo. That was not on the list of options submitted to the electors of Berkshire by the local government review. They were not allowed to vote for the status quo, nor were they invited to vote in favour or show their approval of six unitary authorities in place of the county council.
At a later stage in the proceedings, the local authorities put forward the suggestion of six unitary authorities, but it was in the context that there would be unitary authorities. The people who were consulted were asked to consider this question: if there are to be unitary authorities, upon what do you want them to be based?
As for the result, I do not believe that it will bring the benefits which the Minister put forward in his opening remarks. First, there is a fallacy abroad about the confusion of different levels of local government and the remoteness of the county council. The county council may be a long way from where people live, but the services are delivered to their doorstep, in their houses, in their schools and right where they live. When people receive those services, it hardly matters who delivers them: they are delivered by an individual, a head teacher, a social services worker, the person who responds to a letter about highways.
Through the county council, there is the scope to reduce costs by having a larger organisation. I draw your Lordships' attention to a letter which many noble Lords may have received from the Library Association. I take it as an individual example of a general truth. According to the letter, Strathclyde University has investigated public library services. It concluded that local unitary authorities with populations of less than 250,000 will be less efficient at delivering library services than larger authorities. All the Berkshire authorities have smaller populations; they are all 150,000 people or fewer.
The reasons the university came forward with that conclusion are twofold. First, it is expensive to divide up resources. That is true of information technology, which was never considered, certainly in the early stages, by the Local Government Commission as a cost. The division, relocation and reconfiguration of extremely complicated information technology, which is now universally applied to a wide range of services, is an additional cost. The second reason Strathclyde University came to that conclusion is that specialist services are provided--in this case by libraries--in many areas by county councils. If we start dividing them, the services become almost too small to stand on their own. I could mention the archaeological service and a whole range of different services provided by county councils which operate with no more than two or three people. Nevertheless, they provide a service to people which will be increasingly difficult to provide when the council is divided into unitary authorities. Countryside management may not be a problem in Berkshire; I do not know. It would certainly be a problem in my county of Surrey, and I speak as a member of the county council.
Lord Bancroft: My Lords, I have had a lifelong professional interest in local government. The tide of eloquence of the first two speakers has washed away the Government's last sandcastle. By contrast, I must be brief and dull, but good arguments bear repetition and I shall amplify three.
First, why did Berkshire County Council volunteer a four-way split and then change its mind? The noble Lord, Lord Peyton, covered that. I shall burrow a little further. The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, was hot on the question on 17th June and was warmly embraced by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, apparently to their mutual surprise. The noble Earl said:
He returned to the subject today. The noble Lord, Lord Peyton, went a long way to enlighten him and I shall help him further. Berkshire changed its mind because under its then leadership it was trusting and perhaps even gullible enough to believe in the Government of the day. The Government repeatedly claimed in 1993 that they wanted a widespread single-tier unitary structure. Mr. Gummer said in terms that the Government expected the two-tier structure to be "the exception". Berkshire made the grave error of assuming that that was serious government policy. The Minister for local government, Mr. David Curry, gave the same message time and again, not only to the House of Commons but to all English MPs. He has absorbed more punishment than any other British flyweight.
In the face of a reversal in government policy, as the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, said, a prudent organisation exercises its right to change its mind to comply with the new circumstances. That is what Berkshire--voted one of the ten best administered authorities in the country--wisely did. Three unitary boroughs and one remanet unitary council, for example, might be seen as not unattractive as part of a country-wide unitary system. But it would be a grotesquely weak anomaly in a predominately two-tier system, which is what we have. The noble Earl and the noble Baroness might still regard this as "some funny reason"; more rational people do not.
My second reminder is that the Secretary of State's decision for six unitaries, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, pointed out, has been the subject of neither public consultation nor public endorsement. With great respect to the noble Earl, the reason for that decision by the Secretary of State remains a touch obscure, apart from providing him with a vehicle for a weak joke from "The Importance of Being Ernest" on 4th July last. In fact, the six-unitary system was analysed and decisively rejected by the Secretary of State's own Mark II, hand-picked Local Government Commission. The commission concluded damningly that it:
My third reminder is that Berkshire is the only traditional shire county to be singled out for total dismemberment. Even someone like myself, with a decidedly non-cynical cast of mind, might detect a faint connection between its unique dismemberment and the fact that the then Conservative Berkshire was the first county to petition directly the High Court of Parliament over the heads of its MPs about the iniquities of the poll tax. The petition was presented appropriately on 15th March 1990--the Ides of March, my Lords.
Lord Carrington: My Lords, I do not live in Berkshire and I have no interest to declare. But I live in the neighbouring county of Buckinghamshire, where it was tried to introduce exactly the same proposals as those now before us. A number of us in the county, including a number of your Lordships, decided that they should be opposed because we did not believe that they were right, advantageous, sensible or even that they would work. We argued that for four or five reasons.
First, there was no evidence that the people of Buckinghamshire wanted such a change. Indeed, such evidence as there was showed that they did not. There was a poll which showed that three-quarters of the people of Buckinghamshire wanted things left alone. Certainly those with whom I came into contact argued that very strongly. Exactly the same is true in Berkshire.
Secondly, we argued that the change would cost a great deal of money, particularly in capital expenditure, to no particular advantage and indeed probably the reverse. Exactly the same is true in Berkshire.
We argued that the proposed unitary authorities were too small. I believe that that is so. Indeed, some of those in Berkshire with whom I have spoken believe that the unitary authorities proposed are too small to deliver the kind of services which they are asked to deliver.
Fourthly, we said that there would be quite serious knock-on effects on the library service and, for example, the county museum and the county art gallery when it was proposed--I do not know how it would happen--that totally different districts would subscribe to a county which, in effect, whatever the noble Earl says, would no longer exist. I believe that the voluntary organisations would find it much more difficult to operate in the kind of circumstances that are proposed.
Fifthly, we argued, I hope delicately, that nothing antagonises people more than interfering with the fabric of their county and their local loyalties. Those who remember the proposals of Lord Redcliffe-Maud and Lord Walker might do well to think about that. I also speak as an inhabitant of the only county which has a Conservative county council.
We put all those arguments to the Secretary of State and to the Government. I am happy to say that the Secretary of State agreed with us and has left Buckinghamshire as it is, with the exception of Milton Keynes, and I must say that I believe there is a case for Milton Keynes. Buckinghamshire remains and the county council remains. I beg my noble friend to think again, because this order is wrong.
Viscount Tenby: My Lords, I rise to support the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Peyton. I congratulate him warmly on moving it today. In order that I may rebut any charge of being a Luddite in local government matters, let me say straightaway that the solution so far as concerns my own county of Hampshire was fair. Apart from a momentary madness, when the Government toyed with the idea of a unitary authority for the New Forest, and thankfully rejected it, the changes were reasonable. However, that madness has, alas, now been transferred to Berkshire, which the Government propose to abolish as a unit of government. Instead, we are told that six unitary authorities are envisaged, the largest of which has a population of only some 142,000 souls. We used to say "What a way to run a country!" Some still do so, I dare say. Perhaps I may add a new phrase, "What a way to ruin a county!"
In order to bolster that extremely dubious solution, which even the local government commission did not go so far as to advocate, various propositions have been peddled to the outside world. We are told that the county council originally advocated it. The answer is: only because it thought there was a countrywide presumption towards unitary authorities in the early days of the commission's work. It was perhaps naive of the council not to realise that it would be left high and dry once the tide had turned, as so often happens in these matters. It was perhaps naive but not two faced.
We are told that the people want it. In 1994 the MORI survey was a survey to gauge public attitudes to options for a unitary system, and the result of 49 per cent. support for district based unitary authorities should be seen in that context. Predicated questions are not, noble Lords may feel, a sure fire way of discovering public attitudes to anything. In any case, a MORI poll in September last year showed 73 per cent. in favour of the status quo.
We are told that all the local MPs support the Government's proposals, save one. Of course they do. They all sit for the equivalent of unitary authorities. If we had an MP for the county of Berkshire, there are no prizes for guessing the form of local government that he or she would support.
We are told that Berkshire is a county of contrasts, ranging from farmland and rural communities to large conurbations, the implication being that only unitary authorities can adequately service such a rich diversity of human endeavour. I have news for those seeking to use that as an argument. Such a description encompasses about 90 per cent. of all counties in England.
However, there is something special about Berkshire. It occupies the most critical stretch of land west of London. It is an area of immense recent, and future, development, including what has been lightheartedly described as "Britain's Silicon Valley". The pressures on its resources from all sides are accordingly huge and constant. If ever there were a geographical area in this country in need of a strategic overview in terms of planning, minerals policy, transport, housing, waste management and 101 other things of importance, that
Others either have or will talk about various aspects of disaggregation, its effect on the critical services through fragmentation, its costs and so on. I too have received information from the North East. Along the lines that decent tunes are always worth humming over and over again, let me just remind noble Lords of those figures from Cleveland.
The local government commission thought that it would cost £18 million. So far, the Government have approved £32 million in supplementary credit and the people on the spot predict that the final total will be £42 million. I hope that the noble Earl the Minister in his reply will refer to the fallacy of the estimates generally--not just there but generally--and why they are invariably pitched too low. It makes one wonder what the add-on content of the £25 million estimate for Berkshire will be and just how much additional burden the wretched council taxpayers will have to bear.
As a way of illustrating the folly of what is being suggested, perhaps I can take up and run with the thread of what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, about libraries. I accept that some may feel that things like libraries and archives may not be in the front rank of importance. But either we are a civilised country or we are not. They are therefore important matters.
It can be said with confidence that under the proposed arrangements the library service will cost more and provide less. At present there are two central libraries in Slough and Reading, housing, among other things, various specialist collections with 37 per cent. of the stock in circulation. What will happen now? Is the stock to be divided neatly into six equal parts? Or will some districts be more fortunate than others? For example, will Slough get all the Jeffrey Archers and Newbury the complete works of Karl Marx? We should be told, as a famous editor used to say.
What happens to the economies of scale? Bulk buying is advantageous, especially since the abolition of the net book agreement. It is highly unlikely that the new individual unitary authorities will, in the foreseeable future, have sufficient funds available to fill the enormous gaps created by the break-up. As in so many other areas, joint arrangements will have to be made; they will be protracted, cumbersome and inevitably lacking a central vision.
I greatly fear that it will not be possible to provide a service equivalent to the service now provided by the county. I fear too that that goes for nearly every other aspect of local government in the present county of Berkshire, unless this rash proposal is put on hold so that further soundings can be taken. Just for once cannot we let the people who will have to pay more for less decide on what the future for Berkshire should be instead of being subject willy-nilly to the irrational whims of Whitehall? I strongly urge all noble Lords in the Chamber today to support the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Peyton of Yeovil.
Lord Gilmour of Craigmillar: My Lords, I listened with great care to my noble friend the Minister in an attempt to discover from him why Berkshire, alone of all the historic counties, should be treated in this way. Why, for instance, should it be treated differently from Buckinghamshire, which I was lucky enough to represent for 20 years when, as my noble friend Lord Carrington said, there is no difference between the two counties yet Buckinghamshire has been excluded.
The reason why Berkshire is being treated differently cannot be because of public opinion, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, so ably said. When, in the debate introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Bancroft, last month, it was pointed out to the Minister that public opinion appeared to be against him in relation to what the Government were proposing on the evidence of the MORI polls, the Minister said that he could cite other polls the other way. Rather wisely today he reneged on that position and did not cite other polls--I suspect because there are none. Instead he took a different position. He said that one could not pay much attention to opinion polls because they are affected by substantial publicity campaigns. One could say exactly the same about a general election. I do not know whether my noble friend would discount a general election result because there had been a lot of publicity. The point is that so far as we know public opinion is against what the Government are proposing.
My noble friend the Minister waxed eloquent on the advantages of unitary authorities and cited in their favour the man who runs North Somerset unitary authority who, to your Lordships' enormous astonishment, is in favour of unitary authorities. If we do not obtain any better evidence than that, I cannot believe that we are being taken very far.
Of course there are good arguments for unitary authorities if they are of a proper size. Lord Redcliffe-Maud put forward ideas for unitary authorities of the proper size. Everybody knows--except perhaps the Government--that one cannot run education with a unitary authority of 150,000 people or less; that is crazy.
I wish to refer to one point that has not been raised. Before I was a Buckinghamshire MP, I was a Norfolk MP. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, will be aware, there was a great deal of trouble in the 1960s between Norwich and Norfolk relating to the boundaries. Norwich was a county borough and wanted to expand. Norfolk was a county. I represented the entire collar around Norwich. The last thing we wanted was to enter Norwich. If unitary authorities are introduced in Berkshire, the same problem will arise with Reading. For the Government therefore to propose a state of civil war, which will arise in a minor way between Reading and the surrounding county, seems to me almost as insane as the rest of what they are proposing. I hope the House will support the amendment so ably moved by my noble friend Lord Peyton.
As far as I can see, every local government reorganisation has been attended with an underestimate of the cost. I strongly suspect, having heard the figures and read the literature, that this is no exception. We must expect the attendant costs to be at the higher end of the estimates we have seen in the papers that have been distributed. That will not only mean higher taxes. As we know from the remarkable letter from Councillor Bob Pitt, which was sent to many of us, it will mean cuts in services. They always go hand in hand on occasions of this kind. Judging from what he told us, those cuts will fall on the most vulnerable members of our society.
The specific point I wish to stress, already dwelt upon by many noble Lords, is the extraordinary proposition that the strategic council in the county should be abolished and that those services which it renders at the moment--I believe very well--can effectively and sensibly be performed by six different bodies in the same area. I find that an almost impossible proposition to accept. With great respect to the Minister I heard nothing which fell from him that gives me any reason to believe that it is a sensible proposition. How can minerals, highways, housing and all the rest be dealt with in such a sensitive area as Berkshire by six different authorities scattered throughout the county?
I should like to give one example from my own experience. I live in a parish called Chieveley, in the North Wessex Downs--an area of outstanding natural beauty. There was a proposal warmly supported by our district council to build a gigantic building in our parish which was in breach of all applicable planning guidelines and in particular the county structure plan. We were fortunate to receive strategic objections from the county council, both on the basis of protecting the structure plan and also on grounds of traffic.
I am glad to say that the application was called in by the Secretary of State. It may be, we do not know, that the objections from the county council played a part. It was announced later that the highways authority would appear at the inquiry to oppose the proposed development. The application was then withdrawn--obviously because it was going to be turned down by the inspector and in due course the Minister.
I tremble to think how a parish would cope with that kind of treatment if it did not have the strategic planning authority to assist in cases of need. I tremble to think also of what will happen to the county structure plan. Who will decide what goes into it? Will there be horse-trading between the unitary authorities to work out what it should contain? I do not understand how it can work. I urge earnestly upon your Lordships to bear that consideration in mind as being extremely important
Lord Finsberg: My Lords, in the light of what the noble Lord, Lord Bancroft, said, I had better bring my bucket and spade to the protection of the castles that my noble friend the Minister erected because I do not believe that they have been knocked down yet. My noble friend Lord Peyton, with whom I frequently agree, made a very interesting case, but much of it was built on shifting sand. He said that one of the reasons why the Conservative Party had lost control of almost every local authority was because of its legislation. With the greatest respect, and although I believe he has been in politics longer than I--I started in 1949--he must know that in local elections people vote against a government; they are not really interested in all the good things done by the local authority.
Perhaps I may give two examples in my own case. In 1949 I fought the then staunch Labour county council seat of North Islington. Sir Stafford Cripps produced a Budget two days before polling day and we had a recount in that constituency. In 1952 I fought the marginal London County Council seat of Stoke Newington. Conservative Ministers reduced the cheese ration two days before polling day and turned it into a safe Labour seat. So, I believe that we can discard the argument that it is legislation that causes these problems.
Let us be clear about Berkshire. It did not, as my noble friend said, accept its own demise. It supported it for three years. I am not sure why it changed its mind. I am sure that that was not because there was a change of political control. What is suggested is one more unitary authority. I listened with great interest to my noble friend Lord Carrington. I have to declare an interest. I am chairman of the Milton Keynes liaison committee and deputy chairman of the Commission for the New Towns. That Milton Keynes has become a unitary authority is to be welcomed.
Much of the argument that I have heard here I heard over the abolition of the London County Council and the Greater London Council. "You cannot break up the education authority of London. It is marvellous. It cannot be done by the boroughs". Ill-advisedly, my Conservative friends in the Government created the Inner London Education Authority. When that was broken up it was said, "You cannot do that; it will not work". The London boroughs are running very good education authorities and no one is now asking to have back the former system which antagonised a lot of people.
I had 25 years in local government. The constant complaint was that "them" at County Hall were always interfering with "us" at borough level. That has to be prevented. We heard the arguments about charities. I assure your Lordships that the charities that operated across London are operating perfectly happily now with the new London boroughs. In many cases I believe that they are getting stronger support.
I cannot conceal from your Lordships the fact that I have been a lifelong supporter of single-tier authorities in local government. In earlier days it was the county boroughs and today it is the unitary authorities. I probably would not have spoken in this debate had I not seen my noble friend's amendment, which stirred me up. I have had many letters for and against from Berkshire. I have just reread the debate on this matter in the other place. The Commons did not divide on the Berkshire order. In a moment I shall quote from one or two points made by my honourable friend Sir Anthony Durant who spoke on behalf of all the Berkshire Conservative Members of Parliament. Perhaps I may give your Lordships just three quotations. First, talking about Berkshire, he said that it had already lost a lot of the county some time ago when Abingdon went.
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