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Local Government

Volume 264: debated on Wednesday 18 October 1995

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To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what proposals he has to strengthen the local accountability of local government in the highlands. [36037]

All new councils are required to prepare decentralisation schemes within the first year of being set up.

Does the Minister accept that if there is to be an effective decentralisation, in the highlands region especially, bearing in mind its enormous size, there needs to be some budgetary decentralisation to districts as well as administrative management? Does he recognise the immediate need to tackle the problem of consolidation of premises, which is costly if there is to be area management?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The Highland council area is very large and I am well aware of the difficulties and the importance of decentralisation proposals. The council has a year to come up with those, but I know that the new Highland council is keen to have those in place by April 1996 rather than 1997. To that end, the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that this afternoon I have approved a bid from the new Highland council of £275,000 of capital resources for its accommodation needs so that it can provide one stop shop public access information facilities in small towns and villages in Badenoch and Strathspey, Caithness, Inverness, Lochaber, Skye and Lochalsh and Sutherland. By that means, the council should be better placed to have those decentralisation proposals off the ground for April 1996.

While the Minister is considering accountability of local authorities, will he consider the accountability of central Government in the decision that may yet be made in America to send nuclear fuel elements through Scotland at anything up to—

Order. I am very tolerant to new Members who have not been here a long time, but this question refers specifically to local government in the highlands of Scotland. If the hon. Lady can relate a question directly to that, of course I will listen to it.

Perhaps I can rephrase my question. If local authority accountability is to be considered seriously by the Government, would the Minister please advise Highland council and other planning authorities in Scotland, how they can in any way be accountable to their populations for the planning implications of the consistent transport of nuclear fuel elements through Scotland without advance warning to the emergency planning officers? That problem will become even more acute if the American Government take the decision that they might, which will result in one of those shipments per week coming through Scotland for the next 10 years.

The hon. Lady of course is keeping up the honourable tradition—or dishonourable tradition—of her colleagues in trying to scaremonger and trying to deprive people in the highlands of jobs in connection with that product.

Planning matters are a matter for local district councils and they will be for the new unitary authorities. Indeed the whole planning process is under review at present, and I hear the arguments that the hon. Lady has made.