Good afternoon, Mr. Bayley; it is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair. I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the issue of local government structure in Shropshire. I am particularly grateful for the chance to highlight to the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Basildon (Angela E. Smith), issues that I am sure she will take into account before she and her colleagues make the critical decision on which areas will soon be allowed to proceed down the path towards a unitary authority structure.
Last month, the Minister for Local Government was generous in making time available to meet Shropshire Members and explain the procedure that he and his colleagues were using in reviewing the proposals put forward in the “One Council for Shropshire” submission. Recently, I also had the privilege of serving for several weeks in Committee on the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, when I raised a number of points about how Shropshire might be affected.
This Minister and the Minister for Local Government handled that debate with their customary skill and candour, and I am sure that neither expected that that would be the last that they would hear from Shropshire Members on the issue. When the Minister winds up, I look forward to a similarly candid and straightforward response to the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) and me.
I sought this debate to give the Minister some last chances: a last chance to step back from making a wrong decision—possibly as early as next week—that would fly in the face of Government objectives to allow local decision making, and a last chance to hear from local elected Members about why the case for a unitary authority in Shropshire is flawed. I also have a last chance to put on record why closer co-operation between councils in Shropshire can deliver the benefits sought by the Government through the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill.
I anticipate that next week, before the recess, we shall hear an announcement of which areas the Minister seeks to take down the path towards unitary government—those that she will allow to move forward and those that she will allow to continue to enhance the two-tier system of county and district councils, whether as formal pathfinders or through best practice, which we already have in Shropshire.
Shropshire is not a county in local government crisis—not yet, at any rate—as it is already one of the best-run counties in England. Only last month, the Audit Commission gave its highest performance rating to Shropshire county council for the second year running. Shropshire county council is one of only nine local authorities in the country to achieve a consistent four-star status. The district councils are also not poor performers—far from it. There are two district councils in my constituency, and I shall focus most of my remarks on them and then allow my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham to talk about his constituency.
Bridgnorth district council, most of which is in my constituency, has the 12th lowest council tax in the country and was commended only last week by the Audit Commission for its improved use of resources in moving up to level 3 status. The council has been independently and rigorously inspected as recently as November and December last year and has been praised for working well in partnership, increasing access to its services and continuing to provide good value for money—all aspects that the Government are looking for councils to achieve through restructuring.
South Shropshire district council, on which I still serve as a district councillor, has for some time won awards from the Liberal Democrats for being one of their few flagship councils. More objectively, it has also achieved level 3 status from the Audit Commission on use of resources. My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham will be singing the praises of Shrewsbury and Atcham borough council, which has achieved high results and does so regularly.
I should like to pose a number of questions to the Minister and challenge her to clarify the Government’s thinking and explain how the various issues will be or have been factored into the decision-making process prior to next week’s announcement. I should like to start by taking the Minister back to the object of the exercise. Much of the impetus for changing the structure of local government stems from Government plans for elected regional assemblies, which were so decisively rejected by the good folk of the north-east in November 2004.
The Deputy Prime Minister’s then deputy, the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband), took up the cudgels after that dispiriting experience and sought to provoke the formation of a wave of unitary councils all over the country. As he wrote in the Local Government Chronicle in November 2005, he was
“actively considering the case for reorganisation in the 34 ‘two tier’ English counties”.
I suspect that his motivation had less to do with his claim that two-tier systems were “confusing, inefficient and costly” than with the fact that the majority of councillors in such areas are Conservative rather than Labour.
A clear party political motivation lurks under these proposals. It is no accident that in Shropshire, for example, of the 225 councillors in the six councils of the present two-tier structure, 100 are Conservative, 23 are Labour, 46 are Liberal Democrat and the balance are independent with one or two Greens.
On the basis of the proposed 96-strong unitary authority, which would be achieved by doubling up existing county council wards, the Labour proportion would increase from 10 to 17 per cent. and lead to the loss of 50 Conservative and 24 Liberal Democrat council seats. At present, there are only two Labour councillors in my whole constituency, so abolishing the districts would give a clear party political advantage to the Government. However, as the Department responsible for local government restructuring has itself been restructured in the past year following the effective neutering of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the establishment of the Department for Communities and Local Government, there has also been a revolving door of Ministers with that responsibility, and with that there has been a change in emphasis and in the purpose and scope of any restructure.
Last July, the new Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government told the Local Government Association conference—I shall quote her extensively, if you, Mr. Bayley, will forgive me—that she was
“far more interested in outcomes for citizens than lines on maps. So we will have a short window of opportunity for that small number of councils who are keen for change and who meet our criteria to seek unitary status. But I have no desire whatsoever to create a great distraction of activity on the restructuring issue. In the clear majority of county areas two tiers will remain and in all of these areas we will need better joint working.”
I could not agree more. Local residents want their councils to focus on service delivery and to keep down the cost of council tax rather than being distracted by an expensive and unnecessary restructuring. The saga in Shropshire has been distracting our councillors and council officers for more than a year already, and it has cost considerable officer time and expense. In Shropshire, the councils themselves are evenly divided on the issue—three, including the county council, are in favour, and three are opposed. There is no broad consensus of support, as I shall demonstrate shortly.
Shropshire has one of the best track records in the country of joint working between councils, as I mentioned a couple of times in Committee. That could be extended, and much more could be done to enhance two-tier working without the loss of democratic accountability which would result from unitary status in an area as large and diverse as Shropshire.
However, I detect the clunking fist of the Chancellor in the change of emphasis from the Secretary of State. As we learned from Lord Turnbull this week, the Chancellor determines priorities without any serious discussion with ministerial colleagues. We have been told that the Chancellor’s attitude is, “They will get what I decide.” That was indirectly acknowledged by the Minister for Local Government in the meeting with Shropshire MPs that I referred to earlier. He told us that the rationale for permitting only about eight areas—from the 16 for which applications had been submitted—to go forward to unitary status was due to the budgetary requirements of the Treasury. The cost of restructuring in year 1 needs to be restrained within limits set by the Treasury, so that it does not add unduly to the ballooning public sector debt and breach the Chancellor’s golden rule. The best way to minimise the cost to the Treasury would be to abandon the whole enterprise, certainly so far as Shropshire is concerned.
Let me turn to the specifics regarding Shropshire. I would like to start with a brief geography lesson. The county of Shropshire is the 13th largest authority by geographic area in England, covering some 1,235 square miles. It extends almost 50 miles from north to south and some 30 miles from west to east. My constituency, one of four in the area covered by the county council, is the eighth largest geographic constituency in England. Despite its large area, it is also one of the most lightly populated, with only 288,000 adults, many of whom live in remote rural communities, especially along the border with Wales. With a limited public transport network, access to services is a major issue, and for many people, round trip travel to the county town of Shrewsbury is a two-hour enterprise. That is relevant because of the challenge posed to local accountability and the delivery of services by a unitary model.
Much academic research and Audit Commission evidence shows that big is not always better. The experience of residents—certainly the experiences that can be found in my surgeries and postbag—suggest widespread suspicion of centralised decision making. That will not be overcome by the proposal for 27 local area committees, since their role would essentially be advisory if a unitary model were to proceed.
The Minister has made it clear that proposals will have to meet the five criteria set out in the invitation to bid. I want to consider them briefly as they relate to the “One Council for Shropshire” proposal. The first criterion is affordability. The proposal for Shropshire was based on a top-down financial model, the West Sussex model, which is much discussed and criticised in academic circles as not being sufficiently flexible to take into account the vagaries of specific circumstances. Little cross-checking has been presented to show whether the estimated savings set out in the business case can be achieved. Two detailed third-party analyses have been undertaken, one by Professor Chisholm, a noted academic who focuses on local government structures, and another by Capita, a favourite adviser of the Government. Both have raised concerns that the savings have been overstated and that the transitional costs of achieving them have been understated. Have the Minister’s officials studied those reports, which I know have been made available to her Department, and does she recognise those deficiencies?
For example, on the issue of members’ allowances, no assumption has been made about any increase in allowances for unitary councillors, despite their greater responsibilities, on the basis that that would prejudge any decision, which is clearly not a sensible way in which to build assumptions into a future financial model. Similarly, on the senior staff structure, no increase has been proposed for salary levels commensurate with the greater responsibilities of running a unitary authority. Much has been made in the county of the savings to be extracted from reducing the number of senior staff—for example, having only one chief executive rather than six and similar levels of support staff in each district. However, no analysis has been done of the potential redundancy cost based on the individuals concerned. It has all been based on the West Sussex model, much of which will not apply in Shropshire.
Much has also been made by the proponents of a unitary structure in the county of the experience of the East Riding of Yorkshire, an area that has some similarities to Shropshire in geographic spread and sparsity of population, as well as in the number of district councils that were abolished when the area went unitary. My understanding is that, although there was one chief executive following the introduction of the unitary model, the other chief executives were, at least initially, merely given reduced titles. They were called either assistant or deputy chief executive and continued in post on the same salary level. At first, there was no saving, whereas the model proposed in Shropshire assumes that such savings begin immediately.
It is instructive to consider some of the comparative costs of achieving the savings that have been put forward by other areas that are contemplating such a change. Bedfordshire, a county about which we heard a great deal in Committee on the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill—I will not go on about Bedfordshire today—has four districts and a population roughly double that of Shropshire at 560,000. I understand from its application that the anticipated costs will be about £10 million to £15 million. Cumbria, another area that has put in for unitary status, has six districts, a population of 495,000 and estimated costs of £15 million for the change. Northumberland has six districts and a population closer to Shropshire’s at 307,000 and anticipates costs of £16.9 million. Shropshire has five districts with a population of 288,000 and—because of the inadequacies of the financial model, in my view—the anticipated transitional costs are a mere £3 million. Those costs have been questioned in the reports that I mentioned.
The next aspect of affordability is the question of council tax rises being limited to the lowest increase prevailing. Again, some fairly heroic assumptions have been made about the savings that will be achieved to allow for those modest council tax increases, with a maximum of 3.5 per cent. for the Bridgnorth area, because it has such a low council tax at present. I say “heroic” because it is anticipated, particularly by those who have studied the subject externally, that a great deal of the savings that are claimed for unitary status will be eroded by action that the councils have already taken. As I mentioned at the beginning, a great deal of joint working has already been done in Shropshire and some, in my view, has been double counted.
The second criterion, which is the focus of my concern and my challenge to the Minister, is support for the proposals. The invitation to bid referred to the requirement for a broad cross-section of support from partners and stakeholders. It went on to expand that requirement to include citizens. I raised that point directly with the Minister for Local Government in Committee, and he confirmed that his interpretation of the criterion was that it included residents and the people who would be most directly affected—that is, the public.
The Government have decided that it is up to local councils to determine how they measure the broad cross-section of support required to fulfil the criteria. Shropshire is unique among all the areas that have made a bid for unitary status, I believe, as it held ballots of public opinion prior to submitting the bid. As the Minister will remember, the results were delivered on the Floor of the House before the deadline for the submission of bids. I shall rehearse them again in a moment. Can the Minister confirm that she will give the results of the ballots proper consideration? Will she help us by explaining what that will mean?
Following comments by the Minister for Local Government, I have concerns about the way in which the Minister and her civil servants will interpret the ballot results. I am worried that, because the ballots were not undertaken by all the proponents of unitary status but by a council—South Shropshire district council—that was one of the three in favour of the unitary model, and by two that were opposed to the model, the results will somehow be set aside. I fear that the Government will say that they were looking for support from those who made proposals and are less concerned about the views of those who opposed proposals. They have set up a two-stage process, and a 12-week public consultation to take place after the decision has been made about which areas will go forward in the process. I am, therefore, anxious that they will use that fact in some way to negate the effect of the ballots that have taken place.
Would my hon. Friend agree that if the Government were to allow the unitary bid by Shropshire county council to go forward at this stage, it would be in direct contradiction of the rules that they have stipulated? As he will know, the residents of Shrewsbury overwhelmingly rejected unitary authority proposals. Nearly 70 per cent. of those who voted in the recent referendum rejected the proposals.
Surely my hon. Friend is being grossly unkind to the Government, given the nature of the vote, the overwhelming number of people who turned up and the clearly stated message in the ballot. Surely to turn it down would be truly Stalinist.
As usual, my hon. Friend puts his finger on the point. Such a response would be in direct contrast to the Government’s statements in the invitation to bid, and during progress of the Bill through Committee. I hope that the Minister will find it in her power to put my fears at rest on the issue. Unless she would like to intervene on me now, we may have to wait until the end of the debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham referred to the overwhelming vote in Shrewsbury. I remind the Minister that it was even more overwhelming in Bridgnorth, where many of the leading proponents of the argument for unitary are councillors on the district council. The vote in that district was extraordinary. Of those who voted, 85.6 per cent. voted for an enhanced two-tier structure and against a unitary structure. That must be one of the highest percentages that the country has ever seen in a ballot on local government restructuring. Even in South Shropshire, where the council is one of those that submitted in favour of the bid, there was a 56.7 per cent. vote against from the people.
Those results were not on insignificant turnouts. There has been the most extraordinary attempt by some of the proponents to argue that, because the turnout was less than 50 per cent., the results were in some way not an appropriate mandate, or a proper expression of views. That is particularly surprising since one individual, the leader of South Shropshire district council, has rarely been elected herself. She was unopposed—at least at the last two elections that I am aware of—but seems to regard mandates to be given only if more than 50 per cent. of the people vote. Perhaps she should not be sitting on the council. There was a 42 per cent. turnout for South Shropshire and 47 per cent. for Bridgnorth.
In their submission, the proponents of unitary relied, in their evidence for the cross-section of support, very heavily on a focus group undertaken by an opinion poll firm that conducted extensive interviews—I will grant that—but with only 44 people. I have undertaken my own opinion poll through an online panel that I set up in January, and my first panel was on this subject.
My hon. Friend mentioned that interviews were held with only 44 people from the whole of Shropshire, but, for the record, the views of those 44 people were mixed. Even though it was a tiny sample, there were still many people who were against unitary.
Indeed. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that crystal clear.
My survey supported the overall ballot—perhaps not surprisingly, as I was dealing with a much larger number of real people, some of whom made interesting observations. One of the criticisms of the ballot—again, levelled by those who were in favour of unitary—was that the issues involved in deciding whether to move from a two-tier to a unitary structure were too complex to be put to a simple ballot of opinion. That criticism was levelled repeatedly throughout the ballot process, despite the fact that information was provided by each of the councils conducting the ballot.
In the case of South Shropshire, there was a special edition of South Shropshire Matters, which is a well put together, professional piece of literature. In a 16-page leaflet, space was provided on two and a half pages for the opponents of unitary to state their case, and the remaining pages of the document were for those in favour. Despite that, the result in South Shropshire was as I have said.
My survey asked:
“Do you think the issues are too complicated, as suggested by the Proponents of Unitary, to allow ordinary people to have a view?”
Eighty-seven per cent. of people replied that they did not think that that was a legitimate argument. Indeed, there was another overwhelming vote opposed to unitary. I shall give the figure as soon as I find it—among a number of questions. To the question,
“Do you believe that a Unitary Authority will deliver better services for less cost?”
71 per cent. said that they did not believe that.
The other main plank of the argument for a broad cross-section of support comes from a consultation exercise that the county council organised around the district, much of it taking place after the date for submission of the bid. The argument has been presented as take it or leave it, as in the comment from the Secretary of State that
“the status quo is not an option”,
which appears in the invitation to bid and has appeared in several statements from Ministers on the subject in intervening months. That was taken as gospel, but, in my view, there was a clear misunderstanding as to what it meant. I would be grateful if the Minister would explain the statement for the benefit of people outside this place who are listening to this debate.
I expect that the misunderstanding revolves around the fact that the Government have recognised that they cannot afford to compel the whole country to move to unitary, and are therefore considering an alternative structure and have allowed for pathfinder enhanced two-tier areas. They are anticipating that those areas that do not go unitary or become part of a pathfinder area will seek to encourage closer working together to extract maximum efficiencies from a two-tier structure. I would be grateful if the Minister would confirm that that is the Government’s interpretation of
“the status quo is not an option”.
Like those councils that are opposed to unitary, I regard that objective as being entirely appropriate, and it is one that Shropshire is well on the way to delivering. As I mentioned in the Committee, Shropshire is one of the leading advocates of joint working in local government. The Shropshire waste partnership has been established with all but one of the areas co-operating together on collection and disposal of refuse. In my area, Bridgnorth and South Shropshire last year merged their revenue services departments. South Shropshire had one of the most efficient council tax gathering departments in the country. Bridgnorth has taken advantage of that, and considerable savings are accruing to both councils from combining the management of that function. A great deal more can be done across the county through closer co-operation and joint working, and it would help enormously in resolving the uncertainty if the Minister would confirm that that is indeed a perfectly legitimate way forward.
The arguments presented in the meetings that I referred to were one-sided because no time or space were given, even in the submission itself, to the alternatives available to the council. Unitary was presented as the only option, and, as a result, those people who decided to support unitary took the view in most cases that it was the only option, and that they were being asked to vote in a Stalinist manner, to quote my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar, when only one candidate was put forward.
That is a good example of the conduct of the proponents of a unitary council in seeking to make their case as one-sided as possible. The local radio station, BBC Radio Shropshire, conducted an online poll that invited people to say whether they were in favour of or against the unitary proposal. The director of communications of the county council issued an instruction to employees of the county council by e-mail to encourage them to participate in the poll; fair enough. However, he also gave them the clues—or cookie to use the technical expression—to circumvent the device within the poll that prevented people from voting more than once.
Indeed, that was precisely what he was suggesting. Consequently, he was suspended from his post and I have been pressing the chief executive of the county council to let me know what disciplinary action will be taken against him.
One of the officials from the Minister’s Department, Mr. David Prout, who is the director of communities and local government, came to speak in Shropshire about the White Paper, “Strong and Prosperous Communities”. During that session he was asked a question, which I will quote from Councillor Tina Woodward’s letter to the Minister:
“As councils in Shropshire have had a ballot and the results were a unanimous ‘no’ to unitary, why was it now that the Government were deciding to consult the public?”
In his answer, Mr. Prout stated that
“he was aware ballots had taken place, however it would be for elected members to decide as they were elected to do so”.
In a public meeting in Shropshire, he gave the impression that the decision would be taken by councillors, not by the public. However, that directly conflicts with what we discussed earlier regarding public consultation forming an important part of establishing support for the proposal. Coming from a Government official, such a statement helped those present at the meeting to be confirmed in the belief that unitary was the only option. As time is pressing, I will move on to some of the other points that I wish to make.
The case against unitary and in favour of an enhanced two-tier system has not been put as clearly to the Minster as I would have liked. That is because the Minister has sought representations from those groups that wish to proceed with the unitary option, rather than from those who are opposed to it. I have referred to the two third-party reports from Capita and Professor Chisholm and representations have also been made by those councils that are opposed to the idea. Can the Minister confirm whether the views of the three councils in Shropshire that are opposed to unitary have been taken into account? What respective weight will she give to the fact that we have three councils for and three councils against the proposal?
It is clear from the explanatory documents that went out with the invitation for bid that an individual council or a group of councils cannot prevent an area from becoming unitary if, in other respects, the criteria set out by the Government are satisfied. In light of the overwhelming public view and the view of the three councils, it would be most helpful if the Minister would clarify what criteria she will use to judge whether or not local representatives, through their council decisions, will be allowed a voice.
Local concern about the issue is largely focused on democratic accountability and representation. In this country, we already have the lowest number per thousand of the population of elected representatives of any country in Europe. As I said earlier, the unitary proposal would substantially reduce the number of elected representatives in Shropshire. The attempt to provide some form of local participation through the introduction of 27 local area committees was said in the Capita report to be fundamentally flawed, because the area committees would have very limited resources and, effectively, no powers other than to advise. The feeling among the communities of Shropshire, particularly in the area that I represent, which is characterised by a large number of small villages, is that they will lose representation. When I hold surgeries anywhere in my constituency and discuss this matter, I ask people whether they want decisions to be taken by a remote—I try not to use emotive words—by a council based in Shrewsbury, the county town, or by the district council, and people universally say that they would prefer decisions to be taken at a more local level.
In Committee, the Government placed great emphasis on the fact that the objective of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill is to decentralise decision making—to take decisions closer to the people. In Shropshire, if we remove the district councils, decisions will be taken by a council that is heavily dominated by people who live in the county town of Shrewsbury. That might be an attraction for my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham.
Although I am well aware that he does not want unitary. The proposal will deny democratic decision making; it will centralise decision making; it is unpopular. The village voice, which at present is catered for by the district councils, will disappear. District councillors currently represent about 1,000 people. In many parts of my constituency that means a collection of two, three or four villages. If we move to a unitary structure, the councils will represent populations of 5,000, which, by definition, will be centred on the towns rather than the villages. Those villages feel that they will lose out. The local area committees proposed by “One Council for Shropshire” will not provide an adequate voice for villagers to enable them to feel that they are involved in decision making.
In conclusion, if the Minister ignores the ballot of public opinion that has taken place and given such a clear and decisive result, she does so at her peril. She should remember what happened in the north-east. Does she want to go down in history as the Minister who followed up the Deputy Prime Minister’s gaff in going for a regional referendum with a local referendum in Shropshire? That is what the local elections will become. In a meeting that we had last month, the Minister’s colleague, the Minister for Local Government, made it clear that the public consultation period is designed to straddle the local elections in May. If the Minister allows Shropshire to go forward into unitary and ignores the previous ballot, I confidently predict that the decision will go against unitary, because anti-unitary candidates will be elected, will reverse the decisions taken in at least some of those councils that are currently in favour of unitary—the county does not have elections so that would be in the district councils—and the current proponents will in some cases become anti-unitary. As a result the proposals will come back to the Minister to be rejected. I suspect that the agony of that process could be avoided.
From what the hon. Gentleman has said, people listening to the debate could be forgiven for thinking that the proposal is some evil deed of the Government trying to force unitary. In fact, the proposal has come from a Conservative-controlled county council. When he says that there will be anti-unitary candidates standing against pro-unitary candidates, does he mean that people within the same party—his party—will be standing against each other to put a unitary or non-unitary point of view during the local elections?
I am not saying that at all. What I am saying is that there will be a number of people standing on a predominantly non-unitary ticket. We have a large number of independents within South Shropshire and Bridgnorth and I anticipate that many of those will be overtly campaigning on an anti-unitary ticket. In addition, there may well be political parties—in my area, I anticipate, the Conservatives—that will campaign on an anti-unitary ticket. That is, indeed, my party’s policy, and that is what I anticipate will happen. If the Minister chooses to ignore that outcome, too, that will bring into sharp relief the Government’s real attitude towards local democracy and accountability.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) on securing the debate, not simply because it is standard procedure to do so, but because this is an extremely important subject. He and I have been approaching the Speaker’s Office for a considerable number of weeks, and I am extremely pleased that my hon. Friend has secured this debate.
The invitation to bid document has frustrated me greatly; indeed, I am starting to get my first grey hairs as a result of it and the whole unitary debate. Shropshire taxpayers have spent a huge amount of time, energy and money considering the document, although it may not even come to fruition. The document is a fig leaf to cover the Government’s lack of funding and attention for the shires. They have deliberately neglected Conservative areas and shire counties, and as a result of their direct underfunding for Shrewsbury and Shropshire, they have come out with the invitation to bid document, which puts the emphasis on getting us to make cost savings, rather than on scrutinising their lack of funding for shire counties. That is an absolute disgrace and one of the worst travesties in our area under this Government—after their lack of funding for the Royal Shrewsbury hospital, of course, which is their No. 1 crime.
The increase in the local government contribution to Shrewsbury and Atcham borough council this fiscal year is 1 per cent. When one thinks that inflation is 2.7 per cent., one realises that the Government are actually cutting funding to Shrewsbury and Atcham. On top of that, they are giving neighbouring Telford and Wrekin council an extra £80 for every household. We therefore have two constituencies side by side, but one gets £80 more than the other for every household.
The Government’s response, however, is always the same, “Our policies are skewed to ensure that areas of deprivation get more funding. We socialists want to give areas of deprivation more funding.” I must tell the Minister, however, that there are significant areas of deprivation in Shrewsbury. When the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) kindly came to Sundorn to see a new library being opened, she told me, “I didn’t realise you had areas like this in Shrewsbury.” The standard reply from socialists who come to Shrewsbury is to say, “We’re amazed. We didn’t know you had council estates.” The standard prejudice among socialists is that Shrewsbury is a prosperous county town of beautiful flowers that does not need help. That is an absolute disgrace.
The Minister is wasting our time by saying that. We all know that Shrewsbury is a beautiful place, but I am trying to intimate to her that we have areas of significant deprivation, which the Government do not fully comprehend.
Despite the 1 per cent. increase and the lack of funding, Shrewsbury and Atcham is still rated an excellent council. It has recently built a state-of-the-art theatre and has a sports village in Sundorn, which is a regional facility. It has recently built a new livestock market, which is the most modern in the country. It has been rated an excellent council. It has funded and constructed a new guildhall. It has £50 million in the bank and its economic management is financially sound, despite below-inflation grants from central Government. It has been awarded beacon status for election practices and Investors in People status for its organisation and relationships with staff. It is the winner of the Britain in Bloom competition and is now going forward as Britain’s entrant in the European Entente Florale competition. It has also instigated a request for Shrewsbury to be included in the extension of the west midlands high-tech corridor. Finally, it is an instigator and financier of the northern regeneration corridor study, which is a major regeneration initiative in the northern area of Shrewsbury.
I invite the Minister to come and look at the way in which Shrewsbury and Atcham borough council operates. It has an excellent chief executive and a formidable council leader, Peter Nutting. It is a truly excellent council, and it would be a great disservice to the people of Shrewsbury if it were dismantled, destroyed and thrown out in favour of an untried and untested unitary authority.
I came into politics because of a genuine interest in democracy—I have a passion for democracy—and I am deeply concerned that Shropshire county council is pursuing the unitary bid despite the fact that my constituents have so clearly rejected it. What right does the county council have so publicly to pursue the bid, when my constituents are so overwhelmingly opposed to it? And what right does Oswestry borough council have to promote it? This is a forced marriage—an arranged marriage—and Shrewsbury is an unwilling partner. We should not be dragged into a unitary organisation against our wishes, and I shall go to Shropshire county council’s next full meeting formally to ask for this outrageous bid to be withdrawn.
Some Shropshire county councillors—this is an important point for the Minister—have told me that they deeply regret voting for the unitary authority and that the issue was not fully explained to them at the time of the vote.
I am grateful for that ruling, Mr. Bayley.
Shropshire county councillors told me that they were not fully aware of the facts and mentioned other concerns. That is an important matter, because some people were under the impression that Shropshire county council would lose money in some way if it did not vote for a unitary authority. It is a serious issue for a county councillor to be told, “If you don’t vote for the unitary authority, Shropshire will lose out on funding, and local taxpayers will have to pay more.” I shall be putting that point to the county council’s monitoring officer, because I am extremely concerned that some county councillors were under that impression.
I was so concerned about the issue that I went to see the Minister for Local Government. He and his senior civil servants told me unequivocally that if Shropshire rejected the unitary authority, there could not and would not be any funding cuts under the local government settlement. Indeed, it is impossible for the Government to cut that funding because the mechanism is in statute. Some of my county councillors were not aware of that, and now that I have given them assurances on the issue, they very much regret voting for the unitary authority. When I go to Shropshire county council to ask it to withdraw its bid, I shall also ask it to consider another vote to see what councillors will do now that they know all the facts.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) has suggested that there is something Stalinist about the Government. I am very concerned that when the vote took place at the county council, everyone present voted for a unitary authority. I am concerned when there is total unanimity on a vote, because there should always be a certain amount of dissension. I am worried about how that vote was carried out, what information was given and why councillors all voted in that way.
What worries me more than that is the behaviour of Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors. Every single one of them without exception voted for the unitary authority. They want to abolish the strong Tory-controlled Shrewsbury and Atcham borough council and are behaving with a political perspective. Every Liberal Democrat and Labour councillor in my council voted to prevent my constituents from even having a referendum, apart from Councillor Farmer from Bagley, who is a very honourable Liberal Democrat gentleman and our former mayor. On the one hand, the Government, in their invitation to bid, are saying, “Well, in order for this to go ahead, there must be a certain amount of public acceptance”, but on the other hand, every Labour councillor voted to prevent constituents from having a say. That is an absolute scandal.
Why are the socialists and Liberals so keen on that? The answer, of course, is quite clear: after the next election, I expect that we will have a Conservative Government, but if we do not there is a small chance—God forbid!—of another Lib-Lab pact. If that happens, the price that the socialists will have to pay the Liberals will be proportional representation in local government. If that is introduced, and we have a unitary authority, the socialists and Liberals will control Shropshire in perpetuity, because that is the nature of proportional representation. It is an absolute scandal that socialist and Liberal councillors are acting so politically.
Shropshire county council should be focusing on improving educational facilities and, in particular, on providing better care for children with autism, about which I feel passionately and about which my constituents talk to me. It should be focusing on our care homes and other issues that affect constituents on a daily basis. It frightens me to death the amount of time, energy and money that has been spent on the invitation to bid document, rather than on the bread-and-butter issues that affect my constituents on a daily basis.
I need to inform the Minister that Shropshire county council’s bid fails on two key criteria according to its own invitation to bid document—my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow alluded to some of this. The first criterion is public support. We need to prove some semblance of public approval. As my hon. Friends have said, the county council’s way of showing that was to interview just 44 people. How ludicrous! It is an absolute disgrace! In comparison, Shrewsbury and Atcham borough council held a public referendum, the wording of which was audited by the Electoral Reform Society, which also counted the votes. Everything was done scrupulously and independently.
More than 27,000 of the great men and women of Shrewsbury took part in that referendum on a relatively difficult question, in which not everyone is necessarily interested. Think about it—more than 27,000 of my constituents actually made the effort to look into the matter and cast their ballot. And nearly 70 per cent. of them voted against the unitary authority. That is despite the fact that Shropshire county council promised to cap council tax to 3.5 per cent. for the next two or three years—the biggest carrot that has ever been dangled in front of my constituents. Nevertheless, still my constituents, knowing that, decided to reject the unitary authority proposals.
I have said that I am concerned deeply about the behaviour of Labour and Liberal councillors, and I shall continue to pursue that. I have been jumping up and down during Prime Minister’s questions for the last few weeks trying to be called—unsuccessfully. When I am called, I shall ask the Prime Minister directly whether, if they put that criterion in an invitation to bid document, he will respect the wishes of the people of Shrewsbury, and ensure that his Government behave honourably.
The second criterion is the business case. Shropshire county council’s business case does not hold water. I have been quoted in my local newspaper saying that it is like a Swiss cheese—it is so full of holes, it simply does not hold water. My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow mentioned the Capita report and Professor Chisholm of Cambridge university. I had an extensive telephone conversation with Professor Chisholm the other day. He is a leading expert on local government and has assured me, having read Shropshire county council’s report, that it simply does not stack up. The Government said that the business case must stack up before moving to the next stage.
The Government cannot pursue that because the proposal will be liable to judicial review. I assure the Minister that if she allows it to move to the next stage, Shrewsbury and Atcham borough council and I shall ensure that it goes to judicial review. We will do everything in our power to ensure that the Government are highly embarrassed. It would be “a very courageous move”—as Sir Humphrey Appleby once said—on her part to allow that to move forward. She will have egg on her face when the judicial review takes everything into account. How can we trust the Government, if they set guidelines in the invitation to bid document and then ignore them?
I am running out of time, so I shall be quick. I am also deeply concerned about Shropshire county council’s chief executive, who has tried to lobby the public directly through public meetings and challenging me and others on television. I have been told that if the council is in favour of unitary authority, the chief executive has every right to lobby on that issue in public meetings and on television, but I disagree, because she is not elected or accountable to constituents in the way that we are. I would like the Minister seriously to consider what guidelines the Government will give to chief executives on the role that they can play in appearing on television and in public meetings in pursuing a certain policy. Chief executives must be totally impartial and independent, because if there is a change of administration, they will have to pursue a totally different course of action. That is why it is so important that they do not appear on television or at public meetings trying to convince citizens to vote in a certain way. I would be very grateful for such assurances.
Finally—I have more to say but we are running out of time—I am so concerned that I have been to see the Audit Commission and submitted various statements from me and my constituents, and it is investigating our complaints. I have even been to see Lord Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, the chairman of the Local Government Association, with whom I am pursuing various lines of action. Regrettably, I have been informed that the Government—I hope that the Minister can contradict me—intend to allow all the shire bids to jump the first hurdle. What a shame that we must hear that through rumour. It is something that should be decided by Parliament. We should find out here, not through rumours. How can the Government do it when they have not considered the two-tier system?
We cannot allow the unitary proposal to go forward. At the same time, we should be considering the enhanced two-tier system. I urge the Minister to consider what Shrewsbury and Atcham borough council has proposed—a brilliant two-tier scheme that will save the Government a great deal of money. The Minister should examine that enhanced two-tier scheme of working; it will save the Government more money than the unitary bid proposals. I implore her: please respect the wishes of the people of Shrewsbury and do not force that ghastly unitary authority on us.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) on securing this debate. He and the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) had a great opportunity to put their side of the case in the arguments for and against unitary authorities in Shropshire.
Shropshire is a fine county. I recently had the opportunity of spending the night there, although it was in somewhat unfortunate circumstances. I was with members of the Select Committee for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and we were stranded there by adverse weather on our way back from a visit to the Centre for Alternative Technology in Powys. None the less, we had a most pleasant evening in Shrewsbury; it is a fine town.
The hon. Member for Ludlow began by outlining the successes of local government in Shropshire. He drew attention to South Shropshire district council and said that Liberal Democrats around the country often congratulate our colleagues there—they are led by Councillor Heather Kidd—particularly on their innovative solutions to tackling the problem of housing affordability for local residents. They have had great success in providing new opportunities for affordable housing—to buy, to part-buy and to rent.
The hon. Gentleman also pointed out the successes and the good assessments made of the county council, which is Conservative led. It is crucial to remind the House that one is a Liberal Democrat-led council and the other is Conservative led, and that both have come out in favour of a bid. It is not that I advocate a unitary authority for Shropshire; I merely say that there are those in Shropshire who make such a case. It is important for us to bear that in mind.
The hon. Gentleman seemed to make a strange attack on the leader of South Shropshire district council, saying that she had no mandate to speak for people there as the Conservative party had failed to field a candidate against her at the last election. It remains to be seen whether the Conservative candidate at the next local election will be in favour of unitary authority, as is the Conservative-controlled county, or whether he will be against it, as the hon. Gentleman implied that many other Conservatives are. We will have to wait to see what happens.
The hon. Gentleman raised some understandable concerns about centralisation. In many of the debates about potential unitaries, particularly about those county bids that have gone forward throughout the country, that will understandably cause some anxiety. It is up to those who have made a bid to say how they intend meeting those concerns and whether they will provide some measure of devolution within the proposed new structure to ensure both local decision making and that the concerns of local people are borne in mind.
The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham spoke about funding councils in rural areas. He was right to say that many rural areas face a raw deal under recent Government policies. My area of Cornwall could make a similar claim. He issued a plea for the good actions of his council, Shrewsbury, to be taken into account. He also spoke of his support for European initiatives such as the Entente Florale. I know that he is interested in European issues generally.
I am sad to say that the hon. Gentleman also made some odd remarks about some sort of plot by Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors. That argument was somewhat bizarre. As we heard earlier, the Conservative-led council put forward the proposal for a unitary authority, although members of other parties supported it. It is most important to bear that in mind.
From my party’s perspective, any consideration of local government structure must be a matter for local people, through their elected representatives—and through the consultation that will doubtless have to take place under the Government’s proposals. If any proposal from Shropshire meets that first hurdle, it can move on to further consideration.
When considering how unitaries from the last round of local government reform have progressed, it is fair to say that there have been some arguments about size—whether some unitaries were the right size to deliver the services requested. Retrospectively, we could say that some of those unitaries were smaller than they might have been. That presents particular—though not necessarily insurmountable—challenges, and it certainly puts extra pressure on those councils to deliver.
The important thing is that there must be good local political leadership and engagement with people. I stress that it is all about the vision that people have for their communities and not necessarily about the structure. Whether the structures work or fail depends on the leadership provided by the locally elected members.
The unitary issue in Shropshire is a cross-party one. It is important to make that point consistently. It is unfortunate that the word “Stalinist” has been bandied around about various political parties and political figures. It has not escaped my attention that the leader of the Conservative party wrote to councillors around the country urging them to reject unitary bids, and setting that rejection as party policy. That seems a slightly odd action for a party that claims to have been persuaded to localism.
There is a clear distinction between the Conservative party and the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties. In our party, different and contrasting views have been expressed by councillors, but that is not the case for Labour and the Liberal Democrats. To a man, and to a woman, they have all been in favour of a unitary authority. Whereas there has been genuine healthy debate in our party, local debate has been Stalinist among the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for correcting me, although I understand that fairly strong pressure has been exerted by the Conservative local government team, of which he is a member, to imply that unitaries are very much not the policy of his party and therefore that councillors should not make a bid. However, some in Shropshire clearly have done so.
We will soon have the results of the bidding process and discover which bids are to move beyond that first hurdle. We then need genuine consultation and engagement, in Shropshire and elsewhere, to ensure that there is support for such a bid—that, having made an economic case, it has local support.
I must also criticise the Government over the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, which is now making its way through the House. It is not just about structure; it is also about leadership.
I know that ballots have taken place in some parts of the county, but I am not in a position to comment further as I do not know whether the questions were the same in each ballot or the extent of the turnout in each area. Clearly, there has been some expression of opinion in both directions.
Let me revert to the point that I was making. The question is not just one of county structure, it is also about how leadership is demonstrated within that structure. It is unfortunate that the Government consistently propose centralisation of power in local authorities, because it might present problems for authorities that progress toward a unitary structure if such moves are perceived as centralising.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ludlow once more on securing the debate. It is clear that a discussion is taking place in Shropshire about whether the proposals constitute a move in the right direction. I hope that hon. Members and members of local authorities across the county will ensure that all views are fairly represented in moving towards a decision after the Government’s announcement on the Shropshire bid.
It is a pleasure to appear before you, Mr. Bayley. The debate has been enjoyable, not least for the opportunity to listen to my hon. Friends the Members for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) and for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski). Their battles on behalf of their constituents have drawn admiration from all parts of the House, as have their persistence and the quality of their arguments, and today has been no exception.
Like the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), I have visited Shropshire. However, when I was walking there with my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on a sunny December day when buzzards were rising on the thermals, I would never have believed the amount of turbulence that was being caused by the restructuring of local government. It is a pleasure to see my hon. Friend in his customary place. However, what a pity that restructuring has become such a terrible distraction—that was the point that I think my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition was making to the local government conference. We have been bedevilled in local government by moves backwards and forwards between reviews, including on structure and finance. Today has seen the publication of the report by Sir Michael Lyons, which I was reading a few moments before I arrived in the Chamber. We have again been left with a timid response on what he thinks the Treasury will want him to do.
The whole question of the functioning of local government has lain in aspic for the best part of 100 years. My view is that reform of local government should be about its function, and that structure and finance should flow naturally from that. I deeply regret that the Government have rejected what I believe to be a growing consensus in local government that change should take place on the basis of reform of function. That consensus could have been extended, and an opportunity has been missed. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government was right when she said that local government should be issue-led. The outcome is the most important matter for citizens to consider.
Along with other authorities, Shropshire took part in the survey whose results were recently published by the Local Government Association. Concern was expressed about council care services. Four hundred councils took part in the survey, and 40 per cent. said that their financial situation was worse than in the previous year, while 51 per cent. believed that the financial situation with regard to care services would stay the same or get worse in the next financial year.
Lord Bruce-Lockhart said that
“there are grave financial pressures on both councils and the NHS that are starting to impact on the quality of service”
for people in care. It would make far more sense to deal with those matters than to spend an enormous amount of time worrying about unitary authorities.
I spent the best part of 11 years of my life with the fourth largest unitary authority in the country—the latter part as leader. My experience is with unitary authorities, and I had a wonderful time. However, I recognised when I moved to a more rural area than Bradford that the partnership between county and district could be a dynamic one.
I had an opportunity to go to West Sussex and ask about the model that is used there. It has been the subject of some discussion. I was interested to hear that the folks of West Sussex are surprised that other people are taking up that model, because it was produced largely on the basis of a guesstimate. My right hon. Friend from Ludlow—I beg his pardon, my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow, although no doubt he will be right honourable in due course—referred to the work of Michael Chisholm, the Cambridge university emeritus professor, who has outlined the cost of restructuring. Professor Chisholm reckons that the cost is something in the region of £121 per head, and that
“there is every prospect that on-going costs would in fact be increased. Such a bill would be equivalent to £345 per council tax-paying household.”
That strikes me as a very large sum of money indeed.
I went to listen to the Deputy Prime Minister at the time when he still had a Department and was appearing before the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. In giving evidence as to whether people would be consulted, he said:
“What we are not saying…is that we will abolish you. We are saying that we will give you an opportunity if you want to make a decision to become a unitary authority and we will leave the choice with you.”
That is what my colleagues have been proposing. The Deputy Prime Minister continued,
“we are looking at the local government structure and organisation and saying to people who live in the unitaries and the counties if you want to have a unitary then you can have a ballot, discuss it with the people, but if you want it, fine. What is wrong with that?”
The hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) was on the Select Committee panel. He asked the Deputy Prime Minister:
“If they do not want a unitary and they wish to stay the same…?”
The Deputy Prime Minister replied:
“They will vote presumably for that. If you look at the regional ballot that we had in the North East, people had the vote as to whether they should be unitary.”
I am worried that the whole thing has been pulled back from people despite clear Government statements on it. There has been tremendous turmoil, not just in Conservative authorities but in Liberal Democrat and Labour authorities. I am greatly indebted to Ann Black of the Labour party national executive committee, who has a blog on NEC meetings. She reports that, at the national policy forum on 3 February:
“John Prescott opened the meeting by warning against division and calling for vigorous but constructive debate.”
The press were asked to leave at one point, after which, she reports:
“Tony Blair fielded a wide range of questions with his usual fluency.”
According to the blog, when the Prime Minister addressed the issue with that usual fluency, he said that he was aware of differences between county and district councils on local government reorganisation, but urged people to concentrate on issues that voters cared about.
I am not entirely sure that voters at the Dog and Duck care enormously about the issue. However, the voters in Shrewsbury were consulted, and they followed the advice that was given by the Deputy Prime Minister, by the Prime Minister and by the Minister for Local Government. They cannot have their views so easily dismissed—that would be a travesty. It would make a mockery of democracy.
It is not impressive that a council has consulted 44 people and has based a policy on that consultation. When I visited Ironbridge, I saw a fish and chip shop with a queue that had more than 44 people in it. Ballots with turnouts of 46.5 per cent, 37 per cent., 41 per cent. and 40 per cent., however—they are impressive. No one can dismiss them. I understand that tomorrow the announcement will be made. I may be wrong about that, but it would be an insult to ignore the views of a substantial proportion of the people of Shropshire.
Let me explain one of the things bedevilling us. I would be grateful if the Minister responded to this; I shall put it to her as delicately as I can. There is a suggestion that the chief executive of Shrewsbury, Carolyn Downes, has some kind of special access to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and that a back-door deal is being sought to circumvent the will of the people of Shropshire. I would like the Minister to give a clear assurance that everything that will be done with regard to unitaries in Shropshire will be above board, that there will be no back-door deals and that no person has a greater say than the people of Shropshire, who have been asked a question in a ballot and have given a very clear mandate.
I thought that the comment by the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) that no one should have a greater say than anyone else was quite appropriate. It is interesting that in a debate that has ranged so widely and in which so many questions have been asked, I should get the least say when it comes to trying to answer those questions. However, I shall do my best and I apologise now to hon. Members who spoke at length if I cannot deal with the points that they raised; I would very much like to do so.
First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) on initiating the debate. This is clearly an issue about which he and the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) feel very strongly indeed. I do not think that I have responded to any other Adjournment debate—indeed, any debate in the House of Commons—in which I have had so many challenges. I have been told that I will ignore the comments at my peril and live to rue the day. I appreciate the very strong feelings that people have on the issue.
I hope that the hon. Member for Ludlow will understand that I am somewhat constrained in what I can say today. I will do my best to answer questions that have been raised, but if I was to respond to some of the questions that have been put to me, I would be commenting on the merits or otherwise of a particular proposal, and clearly I cannot do that until Ministers have had the opportunity to consider all the information that is put to them.
The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham made a comment about rumours. May I assure him that a decision will be made and there will be a written statement to the House of Commons in the appropriate way? That is how the decision will be announced.
For clarification, I take exception to the disgraceful comments from the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar about back-door deals. I can give an assurance to the hon. Gentlemen who have raised these issues already that all the information provided to Ministers will be considered in the course of the examination of the issues. I was asked specifically about the reports, including Professor Chisholm’s report. I can give an assurance that that matter will be looked at by civil servants and they will report to Ministers. We will have regard to all the information when making decisions. I hope that reassures hon. Gentlemen.
No, of course not, and the hon. Gentleman is wasting time by suggesting such a thing. There is certain information and advice to Ministers that under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 it is not open to everyone to see, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept the assurances that I have given him—or perhaps he is suggesting that my assurances have not been given in good faith. Information will be fully examined and fully considered, and all the information will be taken into account before decisions are taken. I hope that that explanation is sufficient for the hon. Gentleman to understand the process. If I have time in the few minutes available to me, I will go through the criteria against which the proposals will be examined.
There seems to be some confusion about why this matter was brought before councils in the first place. Perhaps it will help hon. Gentlemen if I say that there is no political conspiracy. I was not aware of the degree to which hon. Gentlemen thought that it was a party political issue; indeed, I had not seen it as such at all. Representations were made to Governments over many years, showing that there was considerable concern about different structures in different areas and asking whether there would be an opportunity for some councils to make proposals for a unitary authority. The invitation was issued with that in mind, not because of anything to do with funding. Incidentally, the figures given by the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham on funding are completely inaccurate. In respect of the funding for his council, I think that the increase was 2.9 per cent. on a like-for-like basis. This is not about funding.
Will the hon. Gentleman let me address the points that he has raised in debate? I do not want to leave questions unanswered in the debate and I am doing my best to address all the points that he and his hon. Friends have put to me.
This issue had nothing to do with regional government; it had nothing at all to do with funding. It was about putting the citizen at the heart of service delivery and asking in each area what is the best way to achieve service delivery. If councils in an area want to make a bid for a unitary authority in the interests of a better service to constituents, it is open to them to do that, but I take the point that we cannot have ongoing confusion and change in local government. There was a window of opportunity. People can find the two-tier system quite confusing and inefficient in many ways, and the opportunity has to be there.
The hon. Member for Ludlow asked about the status quo not being an option. Our goal is more efficient services for the public. The White Paper referred to the
“risks of confusion, duplication and inefficiency between tiers”.
The councils themselves will find the best ways of addressing that confusion, duplication and inefficiency. Shropshire county council and others in that area have come forward with a proposal for a unitary authority, but authorities may want to, as the pathfinders will, enhance two-tier working. Both of those are options that are open to local authorities, but in this case the bone of contention for the hon. Gentleman is that Shropshire county council has not wanted to put forward a two-tier model.
I was slightly amused—I know that the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham will forgive me—when he reported that the county councillors, who I assume had a fairly lengthy debate on the issue, did not know what they were voting for until he told them, but all members of the public who voted had examined the issue in detail. I assume that if there is confusion, it has gone across the board and it is not just councillors who may have been confused.
We in government have to look at the information that is presented to us, and all the information will be taken into account. Each of the 26 proposals has been carefully considered over the past eight weeks against the clear criteria set out in the invitation. Once a decision has been taken on which proposals can go forward, a full decision letter will be sent to the authorities, setting out the reasons for the decision, whether that is to move forward with the proposal and go out to consultation or not. It might be helpful if I explain to hon. Gentlemen the criteria that we take into account.
First, the proposals must be affordable. The change to a unitary structure must represent value for money and must be met from councils’ existing resources. Proposals must be supported by a broad cross-section of partners and stakeholders. In addition to affordability and support, we also need to check whether proposals provide strong, effective and accountable strategic leadership in an area, deliver genuine opportunities for neighbourhood flexibility and empowerment, and deliver value for money and equity on public services.
The hon. Member for Ludlow raised the issue of the local polls held by some councils across Shropshire and how we take those into account. Of course, we have to have regard to any poll that is held in an area for which a proposal has been put forward to us. That will not be the only factor that is taken into account. Clearly, there is other information as well. A poll will be one of many factors that we take into account in assessing proposals.
The hon. Gentleman used the phrase “set aside”. Clearly, information will not be set aside; it will be considered. He also suggested that I would ignore the poll at my peril. I think that that is a misrepresentation. He might want to reconsider his remarks on that. All the information is considered in the process. Ministers have regard to all the information that comes through. I can give him that assurance, but we need to take into account how accurately the poll reflected public opinion. If the hon. Gentleman asked his constituents, “Do you want to be governed by a remote local authority?” clearly a poll couched in those terms would be regarded slightly differently. The wording of the question is important. We want to have a true assessment and accurately judge public opinion.
We are talking about the devolutionary principle. It is not top down from Government; it is bottom up. That is why an invitation was issued for local authorities that wanted to bid for a unitary authority to do so. The Government are obliged to consider and will fully consider the bid from Shropshire county council and others, and we will take into account all factors that have been presented to us.