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Local Government Reform

Volume 227: debated on Wednesday 30 June 1993

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To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment how many representations he has received in support of the Local Government Commission's report, "The Future Local Government of Avon, Gloucestershire and Somerset".

At this stage of the review, representations are to be made to the Local Government Commission and not to me.

Is the Secretary of State aware that his proposals have gone down like a lead balloon and that the commissioners have been lucky to escape alive from public consultation meetings? Will he change the guidelines to commission and explain why he is prepared to spend large amounts of money on the review at the same time as cutting spending on front-line services such as education and police?

I have received representations from all over the House. Some of the recommendations have been well received—for instance in Avon, Humberside and Cleveland—and some have not been well received. However, we are only at stage 1 in a long process of consultation. The commission has to bring forward revised recommendations, the Government have to judge them and the House of Commons has to accept them. People have plenty of opportunity to make clear their views. To write off the thing now would be silly and it certainly would not be the views of the Liberal councillors whom I met at the Association of District Councils meeting in Bournemouth.

Is my hon. Friend aware of early-day motion 2153, signed by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones), which suggests that we should stop the local government review and retain both county and district councils? Does my hon. Friend accept that everybody in Gloucestershire wants unitary authorities, for their increased efficiency and the savings that they will make, and that that opinion is shared by the county council and the district council—everybody in the county except the hon. Gentleman?

We should have to reflect hard before we decided that we were simply going to call the review off, as the hon. Gentleman's early-day motion says. It would be a wrong decision and it would be difficult to explain why in certain authorities, such as Cleveland and Avon, people were to have the opportunity of successor unitary authorities, but in other parts of the country that may have similar characteristics, that was not to be available. The sensible thing is to consider the review and how we should take it forward to ensure that it reflects local opinions and the need to deliver local services effectively, rather than to spend too much time on the competing territorial ambitions of councillors.

Is the Minister aware that the Labour party conference and the national executive have long and consistently supported the principle of unitary authorities and of the commission to examine those proposals? I therefore welcome what he has said. Does the Minister understand, however, that there is widespread anxiety about the commission's interpretation of its guidance, especially on the issues of cost and of community identity?

Does the Minister share the Labour party's view that the commission's current policy for local elections to be held once every four years only, in place of annual elections in most places, would be a disaster for local democracy and would greatly reduce the accountability of councils to their local electorates?

The Government have no religious views on how elections are to take place in successor organisations and we shall be willing to listen to representations on how that would make councils more accountable and effective.

The hon. Gentleman's comments on unitary councils reflect the opinion of many people. It is important that people have the opportunity to express what sort of councils they want. In all the debate about the review, we should not lose sight of the fact that the essential purpose is the delivery of services to people. If there is an overwhelming feeling that the review needs to be looked at to see how it can be taken forward, the Government are open to that. Sir John Banham has made similar comments. We do not want to lose sight of the fact that the review is about the delivery of services to people, and how best that can be done in an efficient way that reflects the opinions, feelings and identities of people.

May I ask my hon. Friend to grasp Sir John Banham warmly by the throat and to ask him not to tinker with history and our heritage? He will be cheered to the echo if he gets rid of the aberration of Avon and restores the traditional county boundaries for all purposes other than local government, but if he carries on inventing history, or reinventing history, by, for example, creating an East Riding of Yorkshire that bears no resemblance to the original, those proposals will be as hated as the current counties of Humberside and Avon are.

I agree with my hon. Friend that one of the essential purposes of the review is to have regard to where people feel they belong and their identities. I know that there is a great anxiety over certain reunification movements. My hon. Friend will know that West Craven, in Yorkshire, has been put into Lancashire for reasons that—speaking as a Yorkshire Member—are always incomprehensible, but there is a move to return it to Yorkshire. It is up to people to express what they want from the review. It is at an early stage. The final recommendations must reflect local opinion and prove that they have done so. The Government have the discretion to accept the recommendations, to send them back to the commission or to make modifications within its spirit. There is a lot of work to be done. I listen carefully to what my hon. Friend and other hon. Members say about the feelings expressed by their constituents.