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Local Government Reorganisation (Somerset)

Volume 453: debated on Tuesday 28 November 2006

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Kevin Brennan.]

Somerset is again a target for local government reorganisation. The Liberal Democrat-controlled Somerset county council voted to apply for unitary status. That means that it wishes to abolish the five existing district councils and consolidate all power, finance and services at county hall in Taunton. That would create the biggest unitary authority in the country, with a population of more than 500,000 people. I and my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger)—who I am happy is present—believe that that would create a remote, unwieldy and undemocratic structure. Furthermore, the costs of reorganisation would create another burden for the long-suffering council tax payers of Somerset.

Unfortunately, it seems that the Government have been beckoning Somerset down that path. Discussions at official level have been taking place for many months between the relevant Department and officers of the county council to prepare the way for that bid. Most elected councillors have been excluded from those discussions. That is the opposite of open government, and it is frequently a way that bad decisions or ideas take root.

The trigger for the bid was the publication in October of the Government White Paper on the future of local government. It was rather a disappointing document in many respects, but its aim was simplification. In the foreword to the White Paper, the Prime Minister said that it

“commits the Government to a radical simplification of the existing system”,

but the White Paper’s proposals seem to me to be far from simple. There is endless talk of community and partnership and so forth, as though the simple repetition of those words somehow gives them meaning. There is also a bewildering array of initiatives. Each area of the country is to be encouraged to have a local strategic partnership—an LSP—a local area agreement, a sustainable community strategy, a local development framework and probably a multi-area agreement as well, and on top of that a range of regional strategies. That is not simplification; it is completely baffling to the public and shows what happens when the official mind collides with the need for local democracy.

From that fog of strategies, partnerships and acronyms emerges a pattern of what the Government are pursuing for local government. They are going for big unitary authorities wherever possible, with huge regional authorities above them. They are joined in support for that plan by the Liberal Democrats, who of course like unitary authorities. That is why Somerset Liberal Democrats have applied for it, and it has long been Liberal Democrat policy to go for regional government. A rather unhealthy Lib Dem-Labour coalition is developing to carve up the local government map of England to suit such a structure. When the Minister replies to the debate, I would like her to confirm that that is indeed the strategic aim that is buried in the White Paper. That would be a disaster for Somerset, and the regional structure that we have—that we have to live with—is already highly damaging.

The south-west region is a completely artificial entity stretching for hundreds of miles from the tip of Cornwall. The South West regional assembly is a self-important talking shop that absorbs a great deal of time and effort but achieves very little. The South West of England Development Agency has shown complete insensitivity to the needs of local businesses in my constituency. The Government should remember what happened to their plan for an elected regional assembly for the north-east, which was crushingly defeated by 78 per cent. in a referendum a few years ago. These big units might look fine from Whitehall, but the public do not like them. Whitehall loves these units because there are fewer people to talk to, it can control them more easily and they look good on a small map of England, but they are the death of local democracy.

If we want to promote the vitality of local government and to strengthen local democracy, we should be doing the opposite—devolving power to smaller units. Very occasionally in the White Paper, the Government seem to be saying the same thing. With their usual jargon, they talk about “empowering local communities”. How can they empower local communities when they are removing the tier of local government—district councils—that is closest to those local communities wanting to be empowered? It is understandable that the Liberal Democrats want to destroy the district councils, because they usually do not control them. In Somerset, they have only one of the five councils. They do temporarily control Somerset county council, which is why they want to concentrate power at county level, but the county council has not earned the right to monopolise local government in Somerset. In my area, I find that Mendip and Sedgemoor district councils are more responsive to my constituency cases.

Until quite recently, the county council did not even know how many people it employed. It took many years work by the opposition Conservative group to find out how many people were on the payroll. The number has been going up pretty steeply every year, which is another problem, but the fact that the county council did not know how many people it actually employed shows a degree of ineptitude.

There have also been a number of fiascos, which we have lived with over the years. We remember the fiasco whereby more than £2 million of ratepayers’ money was spent putting up a lot of unnecessary and ugly road signs, which did very little for road safety and had to be taken down again at vast cost. I could go on—there have been many other problems over the years. I am quite tolerant of local government making mistakes, but the county council seems to be very slow in correcting them. Meanwhile, the council tax has gone up every year way above the rate of inflation, and the debt with it. There is a problem for the Government; if the unitary bid succeeds, the county council will be exporting this financial structure of high taxes and high debt to the rest of the county, replacing many of the more prudent district councils.

Who is going to pay for this reorganisation? The up-front costs are always huge. Staff have to be paid off or relocated, buildings have to be bought and sold, and building leases have to be terminated. There will be bigger salaries and more people employed at the centre. Then there is the cost of preparing the bid itself, which is already diverting officers’ and councillors’ time away from doing what they are elected and paid to do—to deliver good services to voters. Instead, they are engaged in an expensive and time-consuming bid for unitary status. I should be grateful if the Minister addressed the question of what is going to happen when the costs escalate and the council tax goes up even more, or other services get hit. Is that in line with the ambitions of the White Paper? If not, the Government should stop the bid dead in its tracks.

Of course, we have been here before. Those of us with long memories remember the Banham commission of the 1990s, which correctly recommended the abolition of Avon, but when it moved on to the part of Somerset that I have been talking about, it got into a most frightful muddle. It first recommended a unitary county structure exactly the same as the one being bid for now. On closer inspection, that was shown to be a mistake, so it changed its mind and recommended a unitary structure based on three smaller units. On yet closer inspection, that proved to be unworkable, as well, and the whole thing was abandoned.

More recently—the Government, should have fresh memories of this—tried a merger of the police forces in the south-west, which again proved unworkable in practice. That, too, has been abandoned. A great many politicians and officials have worked very hard to try to reorganise the south-west, and Somerset in particular, as regards government and the delivery of services, but it just does not work. So I say to the Government: stop this bid now. It is unwelcome, unnecessary and undemocratic. The districts—certainly the ones under Conservative control—are willing to work more closely with each other and the county council to improve services. There is nothing static about local government and it can always be improved, but the solution is not complete revolution in the familiar structure that is recognised and appreciated by most local people.

I would be very grateful if the Minister answered my final question: who will decide the bid? The invitation to bid document rather coyly says, using the usual jargon, that if it is to succeed, it must be

“supported by a broad cross-section of partners and stakeholders”.

That is frankly not good enough. It is not the partners and stakeholders who will pay for it all or whose democracy will be undermined; it is the public—the voters—who must decide. In other words, we need a referendum if the issue is to be decided democratically.

The Deputy Prime Minister said in evidence to a Select Committee when asked about a similar matter:

“if you want to have a unitary then you can have a ballot, discuss it with the people, but if you want it, fine.”

If we can interpret his slightly mangled syntax, he is promising a referendum. He was then challenged further by my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) about what would happen if the people did not want a unitary structure. In reply, the Deputy Prime Minister said:

“They will vote presumably for that”.

He confirmed that people will have a vote. I presume, therefore, that that is Government policy. The Deputy Prime Minister was not speaking for himself, but for the Government, so unless there has been a change that we have not noticed, the Government are still committed to public votes on unitary status. That must happen, because the whole exercise is not about the powers of politicians, but about serving the public better. We are talking about their local authorities and their counties, so it must be their vote that decides the matter.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) on securing the debate. I had hoped that we would have heard a more reasoned exposition of the arguments for and against reorganisation of local government in Somerset. The people of Somerset certainly deserve a better structured debate than we are likely to have following the introduction from the right hon. Gentleman, who took a somewhat partisan view of the circumstances that obtain in the area. The so-called temporary Liberal Democrat control of the county council has lasted for most of the 22 years since I took control as leader way back in 1985. The right hon. Gentleman seems to wish, forlornly, that his party had control of the county council again, and perhaps he thinks that the reorganisation is one way to achieve that objective. I have to say that he is doomed to disappointment.

What we should be looking at for Somerset is efficient and effective local government which costs the minimum that is consistent with having proper local accountability. That should be the basis for any model of local government reorganisation. A further and very important factor in the context of Somerset is that people do not want to be told that they no longer live in their county. The great mistake that the then Conservative Government made in abolishing part of Somerset and creating the hybrid county of Avon—I remember it well—was to tell people not that their dustbins would in future be collected by a different local authority, but that they no longer lived in the county in which they had grown up and which was part of their cultural and historical heritage. That seems to be an enormous mistake.

I shall end my opening remarks by saying that the Government have not yet got to grips with one other important factor: the role of parish and town councils. They are the building blocks of local government, and the Government have not set out how they will fit into any structure that they may propose.

I agree with the right hon. Member for Wells that we have been here before, and I still bear the scars of the Banham review. However, he omitted to say that it was set up by a Conservative Government—in the person of Michael, now Lord, Heseltine—with the express intention of abolishing county councils and introducing unitary authorities in every part of England.

The Banham commission got to grips with that work, and it shows what a sad person I am that I should have in my office the minutes of Somerset county council committee reports of 20 February 1991. The resolution considered that day was to authorise the committee to formulate and express views on the future structure, function and funding of local government in Somerset on behalf of the county council. That was the starting point for the bid to become a unitary county authority. Who was in power in county hall at the time? The Conservatives were. There has been a complete change of attitude by that party, and one wonders why. Could it be opportunism? I suspect that it might be.

I turn now to what the Government propose. At the outset, I should tell the House that I have not yet formed a firm view about what would be the right outcome for the people of Somerset. I suspect that decisions about the lines to be drawn on the map should not be made by me, or by the right hon. Member for Wells, or by people in county hall or in the district council chambers. It is for the people of Somerset to decide what is the right answer.

Moreover, I have significant criticisms of the process in which the Government are engaged. First, the reform is being introduced with reckless speed given that, if it goes ahead, it will affect the way that Somerset is governed for a long time. Secondly, I am very concerned about the lack of consultation. I do not buy the argument that the consultation is with stakeholders. As far as I am concerned, the word “stakeholders” in this context includes every person in the county of Somerset who has a view on the matter. I do not believe that the consultation presently proposed is on that scale.

My third criticism has to do with the fact that the proposed reform is to be carried out within the current boundaries of the administrative county of Somerset. I shall return to the matter later in my remarks, but the proposal seems to me totally illogical for the governance of the county.

What is the outcome that we should be looking for? I do not want to prejudge what the structure of local government in Somerset should be or will be, but I insist that we should show respect for one another’s views, because no one answer is going to be the right answer. A perfectly strong argument can be made for the present three-tier system. It has the benefit that, while strategic decisions are taken at one level, there is also a much more local district council.

Yet the structure has both merits and demerits. For instance, people in Somerset pay for six chief executives, and there are six different offices. The right hon. Member for Wells was happy to praise Mendip district council, whose present offices are the most modern in the county. However, they are apparently not sufficient for the council’s needs and I understand that it is thinking of building a whole new set. I am not sure that that is justified by the functions that the district council carries out.

The hon. Gentleman worked in local government for many years, and he has also been a Member of this House for a further period. He says that he has still not made up his mind about how Somerset’s local government should be structured. I have one simple question for him: does he support the bid by his colleagues in Somerset county council for unitary status, or not?

The right hon. Gentleman will just have to wait until I develop my speech. Does he believe that we should operate local government in Somerset in the most effective and efficient way, which consumes the least amount of resource to achieve local accountability? His comments suggest that he does not believe that, because he is wedded to the idea that temporarily—to use his word—four of the district councils have a Conservative majority, which seems more important to him than having effective governance.

In my town of Frome, which is in Mendip, the district that my constituency and that of the right hon. Gentleman share, there are three county councillors, nine district councillors and 20 town councillors. Do we actually need that many councillors for a town the size of Frome? No. It confuses the people I represent. They do not know at which level they are supposed to go to find the answer to simple problems. There are far more elected representatives than we need for good governance in Frome, so if there is a way of achieving a better outcome, we should look at it.

We should respect the fact that there are different models. The first is the existing three-tier system. Another is the system that the county council may, or may not, decide to propose. The officers have been instructed to draw up a bid, but we do not know whether it will be made. I understand that at present their view is for a single county unitary. Although I understand the arguments for that, the difficulty is the size of the unitary authority proposed, in which proper accountability could be achieved only if it had a highly devolved structure. We would have to go for an area committee structure—the sort of thing that Conservatives gaily abandon when they take control of district councils—but it would mean much greater local decision making in the county structure, with efficiencies of scale in service of delivery. That is a perfectly respectable position, which should be argued and put before the people of Somerset.

A third option is being canvassed among district councils in the authority. The present administrative county of Somerset is a little too big to be a single unitary council, owing to the remoteness of some areas, so perhaps we should consider more than one unitary. That may appeal to some people and was one of the partial outcomes of the Banham inquiry. It would have the benefit of efficiencies of scale as well as the local accountability that is so important. The difficulty is where to draw lines on the map, but a roughly convenient line could be drawn to link south Somerset to Mendip, and Taunton Deane to Sedgemoor and west Somerset, thereby giving an approximate community of interests on either side of the M5.

There is a further option, which I really want the Minister to consider in the context of the consultation, if it goes ahead. I have no brief to speak for areas outside the county of Somerset, but the historical county, as I hope she knows, stretched not to the present northern boundary of the administrative county but up to the river Avon, and comprised the present unitary councils of North Somerset and Bath and North East Somerset—BANES, as it is known. Both those unitaries are relatively small, with populations well below the number that the Government now say is the optimum; in North Somerset, the population is about 190,000 and in BANES, it is about 170,000. The councils have a strong community of interest with some parts of the present administrative county of Somerset. Frome, which I represent, Shepton Mallet and possibly even the city of Wells are Mendip towns and have a strong community of interest with the area represented in BANES. I suspect—though I am less of an expert on the area—that the same would apply to a coastal strip relating more to Weston-super-Mare and the tourism industry in the west Mendip area and Sedgemoor.

I therefore think it is possible to put forward the perfectly sensible proposition that we should be looking at perhaps four unitary authorities within the historical county of Somerset that would have a clear community of interest and clearly defined geographical boundaries. They would all be within Somerset—a point that I emphasise time and again. As a Somerset man, I am proud of our historical and cultural identity and I am not prepared to see it lost simply to allow some invention of a name for which no one has any affection. We live in Somerset, but our administration will be on a scale that is consonant with the demands of modern local government, while at the same time it will retain a degree of local accountability.

The right hon. Member for Wells asked me to draw the lines on the map and decide what is best for Somerset. He may be able to do that, but I cannot, because these are all perfectly respectable options and, as far as I am concerned, it should be for the people of Somerset to decide what suits them best. I have to say that, given that the debate has been opened by the Government, whose intentions are clear, it is something with which we should engage, even if our response at the end of the day is to say no and opt for the status quo because it suits us best in our circumstances. What I reject is the right hon. Gentleman’s contention that the debate should be closed down before it has even started.

I hope that we do not get into the sort of, frankly, unpleasant internecine warfare that characterised the last dose of local government reorganisation in Somerset, where we had county and district fighting like ferrets in a bag about things that they should not have been fighting about, with all sides maintaining a monopoly of truth. No one has that monopoly of truth: there are different models—some good, some bad. If we treat them with respect, examine them dispassionately and put them before the people of Somerset in an effective manner, I hope that we will end up with the right result.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to intervene in the debate. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) makes an interesting point when he asks whether the issue is partisan or bipartisan. The answer is that it is, actually, bipartisan, in so far as the Labour party, a large proportion of the Liberal party and the Conservative party are working together to try to come up with a structure that will do the best that it can for Somerset.

I certainly agree with both my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome that we need strong local government in Somerset. I am deeply offended, however, at the way in which the county council is trying to con the public. Yes, I understand, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that “con” is a rude word, but so are a lot of things and I wonder what would be appropriate. Somerset says that going unitary will save everybody money, but have those who say that actually done the sums? Have they heck! The only arithmetic that they quote was produced, believe it or not, by Shropshire county council.

Councillor Cathy Bakewell, the leader of Somerset county council, says, that Shropshire will save more than £36 million in four years if it goes unitary. But, with all the morals of a fast-talking brush salesman, she conveniently forgets to point out that Shropshire will also spend £3 million on restructuring and end up with 182 job losses. The population of Somerset is 80 per cent. greater than that of Shropshire—even 70 per cent. greater than that of Northumberland, which we all know is a large county. I dread to think how many jobs will be lost in the five district councils given all the add-ons that will happen if this barmy idea goes through.

Let me tell you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the Minister, that the unions are against it. Amicus and other unions, including the trade union council headed by one of my constituents, Mr. Dave Chappel, have made it very clear that they are opposed to it, and so has Unison, as I am sure the Minister knows well. They oppose it not because of job losses, but because they know it will not work. I quiver in my boots at the cost of actually satisfying La Bakewell’s insatiable power. It is time to realise that that lady is conning us all.

Shropshire county council happens to be Conservative controlled, but with one district and one borough beneath it—that is all. In other words, it does not compare in any way or form to Somerset county. More to the point, Shropshire is totally united. All three councils want to amalgamate, and all three have done their arithmetic and—surprise, surprise—have made it public. But back to Taunton we go: Councillor Bakewell’s barmy army, which is rooting for the losing side—how pithy that is at the moment—needs a calculator, and it is making enemies all round. Every district council in the county—including South Somerset, which was alluded to by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome—thinks that the plan is barking.

There are so many unanswered questions, and both my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells and the hon. Gentleman have alluded to that fact. What will happen to the parish council in Bakewell’s brave new world? Will they go up; will they go down; or will they go sideways? Will they get extra power? Will they? The silence, as usual, is deafening. What about all the real estate? Again, as has been suggested, if the district councils are flushed away, who will benefit from the sale of their offices? If that is a sensible business, I suspect that those involved will have done their calculations and worked out the answers already.

Let us face it, Somerset is not a sensible business. Somerset already behaves like a crackpot, spend, spend, spend lottery winner. It is wasteful, greedy and completely inefficient. It is millions in the red, but who cares? Let us remember the rumpus over the road signs that has been alluded to. Somerset council invented the so-called speed management scheme, saying that it would save lives. Unfortunately, it did not. But the council did not consult anyone, least of all the police—a good starting point one would think.

The first that people in Somerset knew about the scheme was when a load of muscular men from the county council turned up and started hammering in new road signs everywhere—thousands of them. In one village in my constituency, the signs said that drivers should go from 60 mph to 50, down to 20 and back up again in under a mile—remarkable. Even Michael Schumacher would be proud of that. Our country roads were littered with new metal signs. Even the national park glittered in the sunlight of that glow. But, eventually, even the county council realised that it might be a good idea to ask people what they thought. So people told it, and the silly signs were removed. Unfortunately, £2.5 million has been spent—wasted. What a fiasco!

Now we have the small matter of windmills. Renewable energy is marvellous, so one cannot complain. My party leader is sticking one on his roof, so they must be all right. But Somerset county council believes that the divine right is to save the planet: forward and upwards, onward Christian soldiers. So Bakewell’s blunderings now include building a forest of those things over the county farms and across Glastonbury tor. Every hon. Member knows the tor—it is the home of Avalon and allegedly the birthplace and burial place of Arthur—and the council wants to stick windmills on the top. Great—that will go down well at Glastonbury festival. The council also wants to put them on the Quantocks, which is the first area of outstanding natural beauty, and it is not going to work. To let the Minister know, the council is talking about putting them near schools in my constituency along the M5. What do people think? We have never been asked. We do not know.

There are other examples. There has been a massive change in special needs teaching in Somerset, as my right hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman know, and it has not been for the better. In West Somerset—the most rural district in England, into which London would fit very comfortably—that role has been cut: £80,000 has been taken away. Children now have to travel for an hour to go Taunton or Bridgwater to get special needs teaching. The county never asked anyone about that. It said that it was going to happen. We are being offered a team in two year’s time—I can hardly wait—and I wonder whether those involved know where West Somerset is. We wait with bated breath, and yet again, we are quivering in our boots.

Things got even better. Just after I became the MP—I took over from Lord King—the county council said, “In line with Government proposals, we are going to get rid of all the schools in Sedgemoor. We are going to have three super-schools. So you go in as a kiddy and you come out as an adult. We will do it all the way through.” The council did not ask anyone in Sedgemoor. It thought that that did not matter; it thought, “They will love it.” Every school rebelled, but that did not matter. “Onward and upward, utopia!” was the cry. Luckily, the Minister’s former colleague Mr. Stephen Twigg, who is no longer in the House, said, “This is mad. It is ridiculous.” He stopped the process dead in its tracks because there was no consultation. There was no feeling of hopefulness.

That is now happening again. The plan is to get rid of four colleges and turn them into three. Three of our colleges have more than 1,000 pupils. One college has about 700. It is planned to turn those into three colleges of 900. I am not great at maths, but even I can work out that that does not work. Nobody has been asked about that. It is going to be done—again. There is no consultation. The people I am talking do not think, they cannot count and they simply drone on.

Councillor Bakewell is the queen bee of a horrendous hive of profligacy. She flaps her wings and pops from flower to flower, like a diva at a comic opera. It is worrying. I suspect that, dare I say it, she can no longer tell the difference between what is right and what is wrong. Her administration is an unhealthy mixture of polyunsaturated policy and political pomposity. She has become the turkey twizzler of England’s town halls. Jamie Oliver would not be proud.

This is a dangerous diversion for democracy. The Government’s White Paper unfortunately leaves out much that should be said. A lot of it is like a blank piece of paper. Frankly, I would not trust the county council with it if it were a fly paper, never mind anything else. I now fear that this dangerous lady’s application for unitary status is pure municipal genitalia measurement. They want it to be bigger just for the sake of it. Have hon. Members ever noticed how many small people drive large cars? It is as though the six cylinders under the bonnet compensate for the lack elsewhere. Is it a case of today Somerset, tomorrow the world?

With the logic of a Dalek, Mrs. Bakewell wheels round like a dustbin shouting, “Exterminate, exterminate!” I have not done much research into the Daleks, but I know that they wanted to take over the galaxy as quickly as possible. However, despite their threatening appearance, they were constructed out of cardboard with wheels on the bottom and sink plungers for arms. The Daleks, like Mrs. B, had ideas way above their station.

So where on earth is the woolly-headed idea going to end up? Could the chief executive of Somerset county council be to blame? Perhaps he has been conducting long late-night sessions with some of the staff to emphasise what they are going to do. I have no idea. Changing local government is a serious process. It is always messy and pricey. It must never be undertaken just because council top dogs have an over-inflated opinion of themselves and what they can achieve.

I invite the House to look back. Both my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome talked eloquently about the Banham report. Yes, it was set up by a Conservative Government. Yes, they wanted to look at the way that local government could be changed. Yes, they wanted to see whether it could be streamlined. However, Banham did his work well. He took one look at Somerset and said that it could not be one unitary authority. It is too big. It cannot be done. Banham was right; Bakewell is wrong. Big is not best. Big is out of touch and out of tune. Big, when it comes to local government, is very bad indeed.

My message to the House and to Ministers is brutally straightforward. If they want chaos, anger, rising costs, uncertainty, worry, and a lack of understanding and clarity, fine—let them get on with it. But the price for the community—the community is what matters—will be unbearable. Democracy in the county will be damaged badly. I cannot agree with the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome when he says that there are too many in local government. My experiences of dealing with the few county councillors that I have now can be frustrating because, like us, they deal with a big area and they cannot always know what is going on. District councillors do know what is going on.

I fear that the hon. Gentleman is falling into one of the common misapprehensions of this process, if it proceeds, which is that if the decision were to be for a unitary county, the county council, in its present form, would take on district functions—or vice versa, the district council would take on county council functions. The fact is that there would be a new authority, based on new boundaries, with new wards, new structures and—I would certainly expect—rather more councillors than the current county council, but perhaps fewer than the combination of the county council and the district council. That might be to everybody’s benefit.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention. I take his point on board. To come back to what I said earlier, we just do not know at this stage. However, the hon. Gentleman might be aware—if he is not, I apologise—that the county council is thinking of setting up boards that will be consistent with the district council areas. If that is to be the case, why get rid of them in the first place?

The district councils do a very good job. Even West Somerset, which is the largest district council in the United Kingdom, although it has the smallest resources, does a good job, given its size. West Somerset is vast. As I said earlier, London would fit into it without any problem at all—we would burp, but it would go. We already have that problem and the county would make it worse. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome says that there would be more councillors, but how would that work? For example, would there be two in Taunton and two in Bridgwater—they are the bigger towns—and perhaps two in Yeovil? However, would rural areas then get representation?

If the powers of the parishes and the town councils are to be bumped up, what can they do? Let us start with the parishes. They cannot be given the education portfolio—that is not on—and they certainly cannot be given roads because they could not cope. It might be possible to give them some responsibility for recycling, but they could not be given a lot of the functions that are carried out at present by the districts and the county, simply because the resources are not there. So, should one make the parishes bigger? If that were to happen, the local touch would be lost, and I would be really against that.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman agrees.

How much more could the town councils be given? Again, they could not really be given education, unless that was at a very local level. They could possibly be given roads, but where would that start and stop? Again, recycling would be a possibility and refuse collection probably would not be a great problem, although that is a problem in rural areas. The lines of demarcation are not set or obvious. Again, I come back to saying that this is a barmy idea.

I echo the view of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells that we should be working in partnership and more closely together on the two-tier system. We already work in partnership. I believe that all the districts councils are working with either each other or the county very effectively. I have certainly not heard any complaints. Unless something has happened in South Somerset district council or Mendip of which I am not aware, I think that they are working well. If that is the case, will the Minister empower us to do more in a partnership and as strategic partners, but not chuck out the baby with the bath water by saying that the whole thing is going to be great because that will not happen—like with the Daleks, because they cannot go up stairs? I am afraid that the unitary megalomaniacs must be stopped now, because if we carry on like this, it will be too late.

I am not quite sure how to follow that. I am informed that in the latest series, the Daleks can go up stairs, so things do change.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) for giving us the opportunity to debate this issue. Our debate comes at an important time for local government following the recent publication of the local government White Paper. The White Paper is devolutionary and about rebalancing the relationship between central and local government and citizens and local government. I was a little surprised to hear the right hon. Gentleman expressing the view that somehow Somerset was the target of that and suggesting that it would become the largest unitary authority. I do not know whether he was referring to population size, because Birmingham is certainly the largest unitary authority. My city of Sheffield has a population of 500,000, but if the right hon. Gentleman was talking about physical size, that is a different matter. It was interesting to reflect on what he said, because Sheffield became a unitary authority thanks to the Conservative Government’s abolition of South Yorkshire county council.

Moving on to the issues raised in the debate, the White Paper proposes a new settlement for local government, offering a stronger role for local authorities, so that they can lead their communities and bring local public services together. Local authorities and other local service providers will be able to innovate and respond to local needs with a stronger focus on their top priorities. In short, our proposals ensure more accountability to citizens and communities, and will create stronger and more visible leadership. The White Paper offers local government the means to tackle the challenges of today, and to fully achieve its potential.

In five years’ time, local government will have a new look. It will be more proactive and innovative, and more responsive to local communities. However, if we are to achieve that, relationships need to change, including the relationship between central and local government, and between local government, its local partners and its citizens. Of course, in the case of two-tier local government areas, that includes the relationship between county and district. The status quo in two-tier areas is not an option.

Across the country, people have told us that the arrangements in some two-tier authorities simply do not deliver the governance needed for today. For some time now, we have been engaged in an active, extensive public dialogue with local government and others about governance and restructuring. Ministerial discussions and round-table events were held last spring in each of the eight regions, all of which cover a number of counties, and we have been exploring the future of local government with local politicians, officials, businesses and residents. In some areas, there is real determination to make the current system work better, but in several other areas there is a strong feeling that the current system cannot be made to work.

Can the Minister enlighten us on whether Somerset said that it would be interested in moving down such a route, and which officials from the county of Somerset went to the meetings? I accept that she cannot give those answers now, but could she do so in the near future?

I shall be happy to provide the hon. Gentleman with any information that my Department has on meetings in his area, after the debate.

As I was saying, in some areas there is real determination to make the system work, but people have also told us that they find the current system confusing, inefficient and ineffective. To take a small example, maintaining grass verges might be a matter for the parish council, but keeping the pavement clean might be the responsibility of district councils, and keeping the road clean might be up to the county council. The Government’s response to such difficulties is to allow restructuring. There is no doubt but that there are risks and challenges for two-tier structures. There is the risk of confusion, duplication and inefficiency between the tiers, and there are challenges for small districts with small budgets and restricted boundaries that do not reflect social and economic patterns in the area.

We know that many councils are working hard to overcome those risks and challenges, but it is important for councils in all two-tier areas to consider new ways of working. In some areas, there is a widely held view that moving to a unitary structure would be the best way of dealing with the risks and challenges. That would improve accountability and create stronger, more focused leadership. It would improve efficiency and, most importantly of all, it would improve outcomes for local people. In those areas, people have the opportunity, until 25 January, to give us proposals for unitary local government, and we expect to receive a small number of proposals that meet the criteria. That will not be the best route for everyone, but we expect the same outcomes, and the same level of efficiency gains, for areas and their citizens, regardless of whether councils choose the unitary route, or look to make improvements in the two-tier structure by providing stronger leadership and better co-ordinated services, and by making efficiencies through integrated service delivery and the sharing of back-office functions.

For all areas continuing with two tiers, there will be significant change. We are asking all principal councils in those counties committed to aiming for an improved and innovative two-tier approach to act as pathfinders. The aims of the two-tier model pioneered by the pathfinders should be the same as the outcomes that can be achieved by a move to unitary structures. They include unified service delivery, so that there is no need for service users to understand whether the country, district or, indeed, other service provider is responsible; stronger leadership; effective accountability arrangements, so that people know who is responsible for which decision; shared back-office functions; and integrated service delivery. We are seeking new ways of working between the tiers, and we are asking for outline proposals by 25 January, after which we will designate pathfinders to develop the proposal.

The pathfinders will be subject to evaluation at intervals—perhaps after two, four or six years. To achieve a proper comparison, we will make a similar evaluation of new unitaries. Until that is complete and we have the results, we do not intend to instigate change again. Proposals for unitary structures must be in accordance with the terms of the invitation. In submitting a proposal, councils must have regard to the guidance in the invitation that states that proposals should be presented in the form of a business case with a supporting financial framework. Until we have received and considered the bids, I hope that the right hon. Member for Wells and the hon. Members for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) and for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) appreciate that it is inappropriate for me to comment on the merits or otherwise of any particular proposal.

I can, however, say something about the criteria that will be used to assess proposals. They must be affordable. Change must represent value for money, and it must be met from councils’ existing resources. Bids must be supported by a broad cross-section of partners and stakeholders, service users and citizens. We will consider whether proposals provide strong, effective and accountable strategic leadership; and whether they deliver genuine opportunities for neighbourhood flexibility and empowerment, as well as value for money and equity in public services.

Will the Minister answer my specific question about the need for a vote? As I pointed out, that was promised by the Deputy Prime Minister earlier this year. Is it still Government policy to allow a referendum on proposals for unitary status?

The Government are seeking a clear statement of support for that proposal. The document sets out the broad range of support that councils that wish to submit a bid must demonstrate. Councils are the elected democratic representatives of their areas, so it is appropriate for them to submit bids and demonstrate that they meet those criteria. Apart from that, the Government are not prescriptive.

We will assess the proposals against the criteria that will be set out in more detail in our invitation. Once the proposals have been made, and depending on their number and quality, we hope to announce preliminary decisions by the end of March 2007. We want to consult stakeholders and make our final decisions by early July 2007. Councils that do not submit proposals for unitary status or to pioneer as a pathfinder still need to develop more effective working relationships to overcome the risks of confusion, duplication and inefficiency that can exist in two-tier areas. Our message to local authorities is that the status quo is not an option. We require them to continue to make improvements for their area and to their citizens’ quality of life.

One of Somerset’s great achievements, as all Somerset Members will agree, is the partnership working between the district councils. However, it is difficult to demonstrate, because councils assess it with internal systems. Such working is effective, so I do not know what the Minister meant when she said that councils do not always work in that way in Somerset. I can assure her that, in my experience, that is not the case in any of the district councils in Somerset.

With regard to their becoming two-tier pathfinders, we want to see what councils can demonstrate, particularly in that relationship between the tiers. Wider co-operation across local authorities is also to be welcomed. At the outset the right hon. Member for Wells mentioned multi-area agreements. Those are mechanisms whereby areas that go across more than one local authority can determine that they have interests have common. They may represent natural communities, so they may want to set out how they propose to work on priorities together, with the benefit of being able to require other agencies and organisations to co-operate with them in that, as set out in the White Paper.

Government support that, but this evening we are discussing the relationship between the tiers of authorities. We want to achieve positive outcomes for local communities, regardless of the structure of local government in the area, so we are putting a much greater emphasis on local areas to ensure that they focus on the outcome and, if they have two tiers, on working together more efficiently and effectively. That was one of the aims of local government set out by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome.

We have taken the view that we will not be prescriptive about a particular area, which is why I thought the right hon. Member for Wells was off the mark in his characterisation of the Government as having set their sights on Somerset again. Local areas know what makes sense for them, but they need to be able to demonstrate that and demonstrate how they will achieve the aims of the White Paper within the appropriate structure for their area.

As I said, councils that do not submit proposals for unitary status or to pioneer as a pathfinder still need to develop more effective working arrangements to overcome the risks of confusion, duplication and inefficiency that can exist in two-tier areas. We want local authorities to make improvements for their area and to improve the quality of life for citizens. We will support councils in getting there, either by moving to unitary status or by making the two-tier structure work much better. But in line with our emphasis on devolution to local government—this is where I agree with the right hon. Friend—the choices as to how to go about that are for councils, their partners and their citizens to make.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes to Ten o’clock.