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Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Baroness, but I think that in this Chamber we should be very careful not to cast aspersions on people in that generous-handed way. I think it a most unwise thing to have said. I beg the noble Baroness to withdraw those remarks.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, on the contrary, I said that I know, and I do know. I do not know whether it applies to Berkshire, as I said, but from my own knowledge I know that this has happened. The noble Baroness may have a very different experience from mine; I am speaking to what I know.
Finally, we come to the point of costs. Examples from Middlesbrough have been much quoted. Let us stay with Berkshire, because there the transitional costs of reorganisation have been estimated by the Local Government Commission at up to £16 million with running costs of up to £8 million. I do not wish in any way to suggest that the figures are negligible--indeed, they are not--but what has not been mentioned is the Written Answer to Andrew Rowe, MP, from the Minister in the other place in June which confirmed that the transitional costs of £16 million should be more than covered by the capital receipts from the sale of County Hall, a modern building by the side of the M.4. Its value is estimated at £25 million. As for the ongoing costs, Reading, for example, estimates that there will be something like £1.9 million or £270,000 a year amortised over seven years, or about one-quarter of 1 per cent. of its budget of £100 million. Reading says--it may be wrong--that it expects its council tax to remain the same. So much for all the scare stories of "£100 on your bills". It is quite extraordinary. I have looked at a number of county council reports regarding the extra costs that will be generated by reorganisation. All suggest that it will be precisely £100 on the council tax bill. If it is not the same figure then, given that 85 per cent. of Reading's expenditure is funded by central government, any increase in council tax expenditure, or reduction in council tax expenditure, is much more likely to be due to alterations in the revenue support grant--for good reasons or bad--than to local expenditure decisions. We wish the new boroughs well. We believe that they will offer good local government which is effective, economical and accountable. We hope that they deliver services to the public that the public want and support.
We have had today the sort of debate that we usually have on Wednesdays. Noble Lords have discussed the advantages of unitary authorities and single or two-tier government or the advantages of MORI polls or other kinds of Gallup polls. Noble Lords have asked why the people were not asked about this measure, and have discussed how we ought to ask them. It is difficult to acquaint all that your Lordships have said with what we are talking about, which is a simple order which has been passed by another place and has come before your Lordships for consideration today. Many different views have been expressed today. Someone has to decide something. So what did we do? We set up a commission. We told the commission to discuss the matter and think about it and then tell us what it thought. That is exactly what it did; the commission reported.
My noble friend Lord Peyton said that anything is better than continual uncertainty. That is precisely what we are trying to avoid. But who is causing the uncertainty? It is my noble friend behind me. Here is an order that has been passed by another place--
Earl Ferrers: My Lords, half a moment, I am in full flood. As I said, the order was passed by another place and now my noble friend says that it does not matter about any conventions, we should chuck the order back at the House of Commons, and that we should not agree with what the House of Commons has decided.
Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, the excuse of being in full flood is hardly a good cover for misleading the House. Let me be quite clear about what I said. I said that it is understandable that people may come to say that anything is better than uncertainty. From that point I went on to say that the damage and the cost of what is now being proposed is something which in future people will find hard to handle, and ought now to be considered.
Earl Ferrers: My Lords, as they say, I shall have to read in Hansard what my noble friend said. However, as he referred to what other people might say, I assumed that he had associated himself with those thoughts. However, if have misconstrued him, I am sorry about that. My noble friend Lord Renwick said it was a sadness to support the amendment against the Government. However, he need not do so. He is entirely free not to do so. He is free to support the Government which, if I may say so, is the right thing for him to do.
I agreed with what my noble friend Lord Elton said in an excellent speech when he said he thought it looked as if I might have a rough time. I thought so too, but various cohorts have helped and have put the Government's point of view, or have supported the Government in what we are doing. I am grateful to my noble friends Lord Finsberg and Lady Flather for
Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I am sorry if I have disturbed the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition. Yesterday the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, was in good robust form. He was in good robust form today. He accused the Government of acting like a commissar over Kent. That was not a nice word, but that is what he accused us of. He said the Government had a master plan to impose consistency, or rather uniformity. Today we are criticised for accepting that different approaches are right for different counties. My noble friend Lord Peyton asked why Berkshire alone had been selected out of 36 shire counties. We have been through that. That is what the Local Government Commission suggested and that is what Berkshire County Council agreed with and supported. Berkshire County Council supported unitary authorities. If it wishes to change its mind, it can do so.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, will the Minister please confirm that the second Local Government Commission was appointed because the Government were concerned that across England there was a lack of coherence in the proposals that were being put forward?
Earl Ferrers: My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right. There was a second commission. The reason for that was because it was not just the Government who were unhappy about a lack of consistency in some of the recommendations of the first commission. That applied to the Opposition too and to most independent commentators. In any event that is irrelevant as regards Berkshire because it is the first commission's recommendations which we are implementing and not those of the second commission, with the minor exception of the merger between Windsor, Maidenhead and Bracknell Forest, which we rejected.
My noble friend Lord Peyton said that Berkshire had changed its mind. The noble Lord, Lord Bancroft, in what I thought, if I may say so, was an extraordinary remark, said that Berkshire went along with the Government's view because my right honourable friend the Secretary of State had said--I paraphrase what the noble Lord, Lord Bancroft, said, and not what my right honourable friend said--that the two-tier structure would be an exception, but when that was not the case, it changed its mind. I find that quite extraordinary. I cannot believe that Berkshire County Council said it wanted unitary authorities because that was what it thought the Secretary of State wanted, but when the commission proposed something different Berkshire then said it would change its mind. It is important to
The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, said there was no consultation on change. I believe the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goff, said he was surprised by the response. The Local Government Commission carried out two rounds of public consultation and the Government allowed time for people to make representations to Ministers on the commission's final recommendation. As the review progressed across England it was clear that no change was an option which could be considered in every case.
I now turn to my noble friend Lord Carrington for whom I have always had the greatest admiration. When I was a junior Minister I knelt at his feet and I looked up at him in admiration. I still do. There was a small hiccup this afternoon in that admiration but I have no doubt that it will continue. My noble friend said that the unitary authorities were too small. Up to 1974 there were many equally small, and smaller, county borough councils which provided in effect unitary services. Many were renowned for the good services which they provided. It is not the size of the authority which matters but the quality of its councillors and its officers. None of the proposed unitary councils for Berkshire is unusually small by comparison with some existing metropolitan boroughs which have been unitary since 1986. My noble friend said there was nothing that antagonises people more than tinkering with local services. I can understand that. We have had a reflection of it this afternoon. My noble friend referred to the reorganisation in 1974 involving Lord Walker and Lord Redcliffe-Maud. That issue caused a bit of an upset. However, my noble friend was a member of the Government in those days. He supported those changes, even though in retrospect he can quite reasonably take a different view.
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