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Westminster Hall

Volume 459: debated on Wednesday 18 April 2007

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 18 April 2007

[Ann Winterton in the Chair]

Local Government (Lancashire)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Steve McCabe.]

I rise with trepidation to open this Adjournment debate, given the potential contentiousness of the issue in hand and the fact that it affects so many able and committed councillors in Lancashire, many of whom are personal friends. I wish first to thank friends and colleagues on Burnley borough council and Lancashire county council for their help in preparing my remarks this morning. I hope that my contribution will reflect not only my experience, but their experience. I am also grateful for the advice of my hon. Friends who represent Lancashire constituencies. They have been in this place a little longer than I have and have shared their experiences with me. I am particularly pleased to see so many of them here this morning.

I am pleased to welcome the chief executive and the leader of Burnley borough council to the Public Gallery. Their 500-mile round trip to be here today demonstrates the importance of the issue to my constituency. I am grateful to the Minister for the time that she will spend in the Chamber today and look forward to her response. It is a privilege, Lady Winterton, to have secured this Adjournment debate under your chairpersonship.

Thank you, Lady Winterton. I am grateful for the clarification.

I shall come straight to the point. It is my strong belief that the issues faced by my constituents require an end to two-tier and a return to unitary government. Having consulted widely, I know that the majority of other Members of Parliament who represent Lancashire constituencies—certainly Labour hon. Members—believe the same given experiences in their own constituencies. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House of Commons, who unfortunately cannot be here this morning, summarised his views in a note that he wrote to me yesterday. It states:

“I have long been in no doubt that the two-tier re-organisation of local government which Edward Heath forced through in 1972 (against heavy opposition, not least from the Labour Party) was and remains fundamentally flawed in conception and execution. It has progressively been abandoned by successive governments—totally within the metropolitan areas, and in part in the shire areas.

What is significant is that almost the moment an area moves to single tier local government the benefits become obvious all round, and no one argues for the restoration of the status quo ante.

You will be aware that our party has long seen the merits of unitary councils.”

My right hon. Friend speaks with authority on the matter, not least because he saw with his own eyes the effects of his constituency moving from a two-tier to a unitary system.

I shall not argue for a particular map, but rather that my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench accept the principle of what I will call a unitary solution to the Lancashire question and that they should lead a process that will resolve the issue for our generation. As for outcomes, there are many potential options, one of which is a unitary county council. Another is the abolition of the county council and its being replaced by a number of unitaries operating across the geographic county of Lancashire, either with or without alterations to existing local authority boundaries. Furthermore, we could allow a handful of the current boroughs to opt out of county and go it alone, as Burnley and Pendle, Preston and Lancaster have sought to do.

People will have strong views on the various options and no doubt we could be here for several days discussing various permutations, but that is not my aim. Instead, I sought to secure the debate to establish the principle of unitary government, something that our party has long supported. I hope that the Minister will confirm that her Department agrees with that and will offer a process on the way forward to achieve its implementation in Lancashire. It is up to the Government to propose the answers to the Lancashire question by initiating a review of the current two-tier arrangements.

The argument for unitaries is straightforward. First, as described in the local government White Paper, we need local authorities to be both strategic leaders and place shapers. It is no secret that my constituency is one of the poorest in Britain, with specific regeneration issues. To put matters in a nutshell, we have empty boarded-up houses, depopulation and massive health and infrastructure issues that need to be resolved. The far right is active and, while I do not like to mention it because it puts us on the map for all the wrong reasons, hon. Members will recall that we had violent clashes in the streets in 2001.

Cash is now flowing in from central Government as it is to other towns in the north of England: £500 million earmarked for my constituency alone in the next few years. Fragmented two-tier local government is a barrier to the strong local leadership necessary for the effective allocation of those resources. Only strong leaders with a clear vision and with all available resources at their disposal will be able to drive forward the transformation of places such as Burnley, and to create a place that my constituents want and deserve. Lancashire county council delivers services effectively but, in my view, its coverage is too wide to provide the place-shaping leadership role that my constituency requires.

Will the hon. Lady say what the people of Lancashire want? Does she agree with her right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister about local government structure and reorganisation—that people who live in counties should hold a ballot if they want a unitary authority? Does that seem fair?

I will indeed come to the point about what constituents want. As far as I am concerned, the main thing is that they find the current arrangements extremely confusing and difficult to understand. I shall also be making some points about what Opposition Members want—they have demonstrated their usual degree of flip-floppery about their intentions over the past few years.

The second argument for unitary status is that taxpayers’ money and resources are being wasted by disputes between the two tiers of local government. I can think of three immediate and high-profile examples from my local area from the last two years, all of which are a source of immense frustration, but they illustrate the point.

First, Burnley college and the university of central Lancashire, which was supported by the borough council, wanted to build a new sixth-form college, university faculty and business park on some land that was leased to the county council and which was being used for a waste depot. The issue led to considerable acrimony between the two institutions and the wasting of many hundreds of man hours in an attempt to find a non-legal resolution—all to no avail. Only when the borough had to forcibly evict the county council from the site did a solution began to appear—when there were no other options.

Secondly, while that was happening, the county council had a compulsory purchase order served on the borough council for a strip of land on which to build a new secondary school despite having outline planning permission. Thirdly, both sides have taken legal advice about the site of a second new school.

All those disputes have been pursued using taxpayers’ money and they have all helped to dwarf the otherwise positive ratings for service delivery that both institutions received from the Audit Commission—the county is currently rated as excellent and the borough as good. If there had been a unitary structure, the problems could have been solved internally and in the interests of the town, as opposed to the interests of the respective institutions.

There are democratic issues. Because Burnley has a strong local identity, my constituents automatically look to the borough council to solve their problems. My constituents’ sense of place is to Burnley and the surrounding towns and valleys, not to Lancashire as a whole. For its part, the borough council clearly sees itself as having a leadership role in bringing local partners together to address the many and varied challenges facing the town, yet the vast majority of the money my constituents pay in local taxation goes to the county council.

Two things follow from that situation. First, while the six county councillors wield most of the power, the 45 borough councillors feel the democratic pressure and get the majority of the casework. Secondly, my experience is that sometimes Lancashire officers who advise county councillors on the decisions that affect my constituents live and work many miles away and have no desire to speak to local residents, no links in the local community and no understanding of local sensitivities. Perhaps that goes some way towards answering the point made by the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), but it is a state of affairs that feels all wrong. Also, the problem is compounded by the fact that many of our talented local politicians seek career advancement by standing for the county council, for which offices they are better remunerated.

The hon. Lady seems to think that she satisfied me, but my question is straightforward: who should decide? Should it be her preferred option, that the patricians decide for the people, or should the people themselves decide?

I am grateful for the opportunity to clarify my remarks. By leading this debate, I am attempting to secure from the Government the initiation of a process by which to resolve the matter. Once we have some proposals to which the stakeholders can agree, I am comfortable for them to be put to the population as the final stage of the process, but that is not something that I wish to address today. I am making the point that the current two-tier system is in many ways anti-democratic.

As I was saying, the problems are compounded by the fact that many of our talented local politicians seek career advancement by standing for the better remunerated county council, thereby spreading their experience and expertise more thinly, as far as my constituents are concerned. It should be possible for some of our best councillors to get career satisfaction from resolving the large and well documented regeneration issues in their own communities, but the current structure of local government militates against that. The stronger our local leadership, the more effective could be our efforts to improve community cohesion, which is a key issue in my constituency.

My hon. Friend has secured a very important debate and I thank her for giving way. However, in the end, what is happening today is the raking over of the ashes of Government decisions on the future of unitary status—or the absence of such a future, in Lancashire’s case. Does my hon. Friend agree that we expect a clear message from the Minister about whether a flame will be reignited from the fire, so that Lancashire can decide? If not, let us be told that it will be 10 years before the matter can be considered. Let us have a clear message for the people of Lancashire; then we will know where we are going.

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. I have several questions for the Minister, which she will be delighted to know are only a few paragraphs away.

Absolutely. We want clear messages.

Having established the case for unitary government, I want to consider why the issue is one to consider now, which picks up on the point made by my hon. Friend. In a sense we have been here before, quite recently. When we had the prospect of elected regional assemblies, it was Government policy, rightly, that those should be accompanied by an end to two-tier authorities. A consensus-building exercise was conducted, and two options were drawn up to be put on the ballot paper, to enable people to decide alongside the referendum on a regional assembly. I remind hon. Members that the first option was a unitary Lancashire county council, and the second was the expansion of Lancashire’s existing unitary councils and the creation of three new ones, including one that would have covered Burnley and Pendle and neighbouring areas, with Rossendale. When the referendums were put on hold, so was the process for agreeing a structure for unitary government. However, by then it had acquired a certain momentum and a broad buy-in, and my argument is that we should now pick up where we left off.

Separately the result of the opportunities created by last year’s local government White Paper was that bids were received by the Government for unitary local authorities in Burnley and Pendle, Preston and Lancaster. All were turned down, but the general question of what to do about the case for a unitary solution across Lancashire as a whole was not addressed. Indeed, the Burnley and Pendle bid, which I supported, passed on every criterion, apart from the effect with regard to service delivery across Lancashire. Other bids with the same extrapolated points score were able to proceed but ours was not. My first question to the Minister is what failing in that category actually means. Does it mean that the bid cannot be supported because it would weaken the county’s ability to deliver services to the residual area of Lancashire? If so, surely the logical next step is to consider a new unitary solution for the whole county, rather than to dismiss an otherwise good bid from part of the county. Perhaps the Minister would care to respond to that point.

My main question is this: does the Department support the case for unitary government in principle? I presume that the answer is yes, or my hon. Friends on the Front Bench would not have proposed its introduction in the event of regional assemblies being accepted. Indeed, the White Paper, which was published in October, states that a move to unitary government would

“improve accountability and leadership, increase efficiency and improve outcomes for local people.”

If that is indeed the case, my third question is what the Government intend to do to explore which unitary solution is best for the geographic county of Lancashire. Will they ask the Boundary Commission for England to investigate the various options and report back? Will they use the powers in the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, once it receives Royal Assent, to direct Lancashire local authorities to state which of the various unitary solutions they would prefer, perhaps on the basis of the work done before the aborted referendum on the regional assembly? Will they meet me to discuss a way forward, with urgency? I ask the Government to tell us what they believe, and to act out of conviction.

After all, there is nothing particularly brave or radical about supporting unitary authorities. I remind the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar that Governments of all hues have done so for some time. It may be worth reminding all Opposition Members of the words of Michael Heseltine in April 1991, when he announced his forthcoming consultation paper entitled “The Structure of Local Government in England”. He said:

“First, unitary authorities are more clearly responsible for the delivery of services, and more clearly accountable for the bill local people are expected to pay. Secondly, two tiers may lead to excessive bureaucracy and duplication of effort…the present structures of local government do not win universal favour with local people”.—[Official Report, 23 April 1991; Vol. 189, c. 901.]

Perhaps Opposition Members could therefore enlighten me during the debate as to precisely what has happened between now and then to cause them to do an about-turn and oppose those Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors up and down the country who now support a move to unitary government.

Perhaps it was the Conservative party’s gut preference for unitary structures that led the then Government to ask the independent Local Government Commission to look again at the case for unitaries in Blackpool and Blackburn after it had returned a negative proposal in 1995. As a result, two new unitary governments were created in Blackburn and Blackpool, but it is worth noting the Local Government Commission’s words about Blackburn at the time. It said that Blackburn’s

“case for unitary status is strong”,

but added:

“There will be consequences for Lancashire County Council in providing services to East Lancashire, but these are not of sufficient magnitude to deter the Commission from a draft recommendation for unitary status for Blackburn.”

In summary, my argument is simple: it is time to recognise that the consequences for east Lancashire, which were set out 12 years ago, are ones that we can no longer accept. It is time to pick up where we left off during the debate on regional assemblies and to come up with a coherent view of the structure of local government in Lancashire. The Government have kicked off the process by inviting local authorities in Lancashire to express their interest, and four local authorities from all corners of the country have responded positively. That demonstrates that there is real demand, which raises all sorts of new questions that need to be resolved for the county as a whole. The strength of feeling among my hon. Friends will be demonstrated in the next hour or so, and I believe that the Government’s preference for unitary authorities was implicit in their response to those who made bids.

Let us now consider the wider questions and come up with a process that resolves the issue of unitary government in Lancashire once and for all in the interests of our constituents and the places that we represent.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Kitty Ussher) on securing this important debate. Discussion of this issue has been raging in Lancashire for some years, and certainly since well before I became the Member of Parliament for Preston. Obviously, I concur with much of what my hon. Friend said about the logic and rationale behind introducing unitary authorities in Lancashire. As Preston’s Member of Parliament, however, I should like to put things in a different perspective and particularly to give Preston’s point of view.

As many hon. Members know, Preston bid for unitary status, along with Burnley and Pendle, and Lancaster. Initially, it was meant to make a joint bid with the borough of South Ribble, and that would have proceeded quite well. Indeed, I would also have liked Chorley to be included, because the size and population of the resulting area, which would eventually have become a unitary authority, would have given it some rationale and allowed it to achieve efficiencies and economies of scale. However, Preston bravely made a bid on its own.

I was talking about what would have happened had things moved along quite quickly, and I shall come to West Lancashire a bit later.

As I said, Preston made a bid on its own, so its bid did not have the necessary gravitas to be accepted first time. We are therefore here today to map a way forward that will allow us to achieve unitary solutions across Lancashire as a whole.

Lancashire has been promised a good number of things over the years, and I look to my hon. Friend the Minister in saying that. For quite some time, both before the Labour party came into office in 1997 and afterwards, the north-west was promised regional government, but those plans have taken a back seat—possibly indefinitely. Recently, we were also promised that the Lancashire and Cumbria police forces would be merged, but again those ambitious proposals have taken a back seat. Now, with the local government White Paper, several local authorities will be granted unitary status. Unfortunately, those bids that came from Lancashire have not yet been accepted. We want that promise of unitary status to be upheld by the Government and to be realised through the review and discussion that was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley because there is still a very strong case for creating unitary authorities across Lancashire.

Preston, in particular, is working very closely with South Ribble and Chorley on issues such as the local government framework and the regional spatial strategy. There is already a good deal of horizontal co-operation between those three authorities, and in the future I can see us working more closely with West Lancashire. Therefore there is a good deal of good will, good co-operation and sharing of best practice across central Lancashire at the moment. As my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley pointed out, what is not working very well is the idea of two-tier government—the vertical relationship between the county and the districts. It is that problem that the unitary solution would address.

The logic behind unitary status is clear. As has been said, two-tier working is outdated, inefficient and bureaucratic. We want local people to have control over their own affairs through locally elected councillors who are familiar with and relate to the areas that they serve. That includes the extremities of that authority area. The idea of having somebody at one end of Lancashire making decisions that affect the other end of the county when they probably do not have much affinity with that particular area is an outdated viewpoint and one that would be addressed by unitary authorities.

The other point is that there are a good number of economic drivers in central Lancashire that make a great deal of sense. For example, shopping and the economy are very much affected by what happens in Preston. Much of the housing is provided in South Ribble, Chorley and parts of West Lancashire, but all look to Preston for economic activity and generation. Many residents of those areas will probably work in Preston, and Preston people will probably work in the outlying authorities as well. Transport and the general infrastructure are very much interrelated and interdependent. Therefore, central Lancashire as an economic unit is functioning very successfully. It is functioning as well as Manchester and Liverpool and, if I dare say so in present company, better than the rest of Lancashire. Unitary government will bring a lot to central Lancashire and its time has clearly come.

The hon. Gentleman has given a very good justification for granting unitary status, but is there any reason why he believes that having lots of small unitaries is a better way to use taxpayers’ money than having one larger unitary, perhaps countywide or even two per county?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I think that the county is too big to be a unitary. We want a local council, but one that is big enough to be able to provide services and give economies of scale to ensure value for money for the council tax payer. I think that Preston is too small to become a unitary and Lancashire county is too big. We need something in between. I believe that four or five unitaries across Lancashire offer that balance between localness and economies of scale and efficiency that local councils could provide.

As a result of the local government White Paper, all the major conurbations in Lancashire are either bidding to become unitary or, as in the case of Blackpool and Blackburn, are already unitary. In my view, if it is good enough for Blackpool and for Blackburn then it is good enough for the only city within the county boundaries, which is Preston, to become a unitary authority through a new central Lancashire authority. In solving this problem, one of the oversights by Ministers in the past—

The hon. Gentleman is speaking powerfully for the people of Preston. Will he give the Chamber an indication of how much of an additional population needs to join the Preston borough to create something that has sufficient size and sufficient weight to be able to run? What addition does he think is necessary?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and I should put the situation to him plainly. Before I represented the central Lancashire area as a Member of a Parliament—I was a Member of the European Parliament before I became a Member of the House of Commons—I served as a city councillor in Salford. That is an authority in Greater Manchester, which itself had a county council until that was abolished in the mid-1980s by the previous Conservative Government. An authority that had about 250,000 inhabitants was created in Salford. We have seen that authorities of a similar size work well in Greater Manchester, and such an authority can sustain effective, good local government. Having said that, anything between 150,000 and 300,000 people is a reasonable size for a unitary authority, and would balance localness with the efficiencies of scale that being a unitary authority would bring. In addition, there would be the efficiency of having just one tier of decision making.

As I said, all the major conurbations—Lancaster, Burnley, Pendle, Preston—have bid, and Blackpool and Blackburn are already unitary authorities. One of the oversights of Ministers when they put forward these proposals, to which authorities obviously responded, involved what would happen to the rump of what is left of Lancashire county should those bids be accepted: what should be done with the remaining authorities that did not bid to have a unitary authority and did not give an indication?

I hope that a process is now under way, partly as a result of this debate and partly because of discussions that I and my hon. Friends have had with Ministers about what to do with the remaining authorities. I understand that the remaining authorities, which have not bid, will be consulted and asked which neighbouring authorities they feel most closely associated with. I hope that leads to a process whereby the major conurbations join with a variety of other authorities to become a unitary solution for the whole of Lancashire that would fit together like a neat jigsaw. I hope that in my area, Preston, South Ribble and Chorley will come together to form a unitary authority along with either the whole or part of West Lancashire, which we would not want to be left out on a limb and subsumed into Merseyside or Greater Manchester as a whole.

These are important issues and the people of Lancashire have unfortunately been left to deal with them for many years. The time has come for the Government to make these things a reality, not just a promise. I hope that the Minister takes the views expressed in this debate back to the Department, because I think that she will find that the overwhelming number of Labour Members are fully supportive of a unitary solution for the whole of Lancashire. That does not necessarily mean a unitary solution for Lancashire county as it stands at the moment, but one where four or five authorities spread from east to west across the county.

I was about to call “Pope Gregory”, which is the name that I normally use as a joke. I call Gregory Pope.

Either way, I am grateful to be called by you to make a brief contribution in this important debate, Lady Winterton, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Kitty Ussher) for securing it.

When I was first elected to this House, I thought that two things would not be around for very long. One of them was me, because I had a very small majority—it was the same as the year of my birth—and I thought that I would be in this place for only a couple of years. I thought that the debate over the future of Lancashire would not be around for much longer either. As it turns out, 15 years on, both are still here.

The uncertainty over structures in Lancashire is unhelpful and bad for morale. If one talks to officers of almost any district, or indeed of Lancashire county council, the issue of reform dominates the conversation—it is always at or near the top of the agenda—and when one talks to councillors, the same issue is raised.

I represent the whole of the borough of Hyndburn, part of the borough of Rossendale and part of the Lancashire county council area. I want to make the point at the outset that none of my comments are meant to be criticisms of those authorities. Over the last 10 years, all those councils have improved hugely. Generally speaking, there are hard-working councillors and officers. I would like to single out, in particular, Hazel Harding at Lancashire county council, who has made a huge improvement in the time that she has been its leader. The county is much improved and is far more responsive than it was previously.

It is the structure that lets these authorities down. They cannot deliver the level of service that my constituents and I want, because the structure fails them. In short, the two-tier system imposed by the Local Government Act 1972 has proven, over time, to be a failure. As my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick) so eloquently put it, the county is simply too big and the districts are too small.

The conundrum for the Government—my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley spoke of this—is that there is a fierce pride in the towns and districts and people identify with the towns. My hon. Friend knows this better than most, because we are currently going through a health service review, part of which involves centralising accident and emergency services in Blackburn and maternity services in Burnley. The truth is that people in Burnley do not want to be patched up in Blackburn, and people in Blackburn do not want their babies to be born in Burnley. There is fierce pride in both, and whenever the two football teams meet, the pride that people have in their districts is all too evident. It sometimes seems to me that people’s pride in their districts is almost in inverse proportion to the ability of the district structurally to deliver the level of service that is needed.

For example, the budgets of these district councils are tiny and the councils are constrained by this. I do not have the exact figures to hand, but Hyndburn borough council’s total budget this year is something like £14 million. Burnley’s will be slightly larger than that, and Rossendale’s slightly smaller. These are tiny amounts of money, yet the burden of expectation that is placed on the districts is huge, because people identify with them far more than they do with the county council.

Why has this not changed over time? I think that it is partly because the Government have pursued the chimaera of consensus when in fact there is no consensus at all, and partly because of the fierce pride that people have in their districts. When we went through this process a few years ago in the run-up to the plan for regional government, the Accrington Observer in my constituency effortlessly compiled a huge petition against Hyndburn being merged with Blackburn. People in Hyndburn perceived that Blackburn would be a larger neighbouring authority, a big brother, which would swallow them up. I think that it is also safe to say that, at that time, Lancashire county council ran an effective, if perhaps disingenuous, campaign, which managed to muddy the waters. It was able to say that people identified strongly with Lancashire. Of course people in Lancashire identify strongly with Lancashire; that is not the same as saying that they identify strongly with Lancashire county council administratively, which has different borders from the traditional palatine county of Lancashire.

There are also powerful vested interests. There are hundreds—possibly in excess of 300—district councillors across Lancashire; there are, I think, 84 county councillors on Lancashire county council; and there must be well over 100 councillors in the unitary authorities of Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen. If we go for a unitary system, all those council seats will be abolished and replaced with far fewer seats, which will not only be more efficient for the people of the county of Lancashire but will be damaging to the careers of the councillors who serve in those wards. There are powerful vested interests against it. It sometimes seems to me that the Government look like they want this problem to go away. They give every indication that they think that, somehow, this is not solvable. It is perhaps the Schleswig-Holstein question of the 21st century.

Hon. Members will recall that Lord Palmerston said that only three people understood the Schleswig-Holstein question. One was Prince Albert, who was dead; one was a German professor, who was in a lunatic asylum; and the other was Lord Palmerston himself, who had forgotten the solution. I put it to hon. Members that in this scenario my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government is, not for the first time, Lord Palmerston, because he has forgotten the answer to the problem.

We should make it easy for the Government by saying that they should ask themselves this simple question: would unitary councils in Lancashire deliver better services than the current two-tier system? The answer is, emphatically, yes. Let us consider the boroughs that have left Lancashire recently: Blackburn with Darwen, and Blackpool. Does anyone anywhere believe that the people of those areas would be better served by those councils giving up 90 per cent. of their budgets and services and returning to a two-tier system? Nobody believes that; it is simply unthinkable.

I echo the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Preston. If it is good enough for the people of Blackburn with Darwen and of Blackpool to have quality unitary local government, I am pretty sure that it is good enough for the people of Hyndburn, Burnley, Pendle and Rossendale too—perhaps not in individual unitary authorities, but in amalgamations of authorities under the existing system.

I was going to say that it was telling that not a single Member of Parliament in the whole of Lancashire believes that the current two-tier system is that effective. I stand to be corrected, but I am fairly confident that nobody will stand up to defend the status quo. Given the length of their experience—I think that there are 12 MPs in Lancashire—that is a fairly stunning comment. Again, these are criticisms not of the hard-working councillors but of the structures.

The solution is fairly straightforward. The Government should stop dithering, bite the bullet and get on and do this. They should announce that there will be unitary local government in Lancashire. They should state at the outset that the county is too big to be considered a unitary authority and that the districts on their own are too small to be considered unitary authorities, and they should invite bids based on something in between.

Everybody I have spoken to—every MP, every councillor, every officer, everybody—knows that Lancashire can and should be split into four or five separate unitary authorities. My constituents deserve what the people of Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen already have—that is, to be covered by a unitary authority. My personal view is that it should be a unitary authority covering the whole of east Lancashire. We are the size of a city, with getting on for 500,000 people, yet we are fragmented into four or five tiny boroughs, which cannot make the difference that we all want to see. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take away from the debate the message that the representatives of the people of Lancashire want the Government to find the political will to make that happen.

I have just a few observations. I congratulate my friend next door, the Member for Burnley (Kitty Ussher), on initiating the debate, which comes at a very appropriate time. I do not want to sound a discordant note, but let me say at the outset that I do not believe that two-tier systems are necessarily anomalous. There are two-tier local government systems across the developed world and they function well.

One of the curiosities of what the Government propose is that the new unitaries that may be created will largely be county-based. Sixteen proposals have been waved through to the second stage, and of those, 10 will be county unitary authorities. My constituency is next to North Yorkshire county council, which it is proposed will be a county unitary. The idea that such a vast county that stretches from Craven, which is next door to where I am in Pendle, through Harrogate, all the way to Scarborough, should have a unitary authority is astonishing. That is not local government—such a huge county unitary is not what local government is about.

My preference is for local government that is actually local. The bigger the authority, the fewer councillors there are and the shallower the connections are with local people. I want to see local government that is local. However, I also want new ways of working. As my friend the Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope) said, the old ways of working did not reflect the new realities. People want openness, transparency, and responsiveness in their local authorities, and they want to know who is carrying the can. The leader of Lancashire county council, Hazel Harding, has made a qualitative difference, and that council is now a much better authority than it used to be. The problems that we remember with Lancashire county council in the past—the closure of care homes, difficulties with social services and so on—have been turned around. The council now trumpets that it is an excellent four star performing local authority and we should echo that.

Compared with other local authorities, Labour-controlled Lancashire does quite well. However, the transformational agenda that I have talked about must continue so that people feel comfortable and at home with the idea of a Lancashire local authority. It has just published a document on improving two-tier working between district and county councils, at the back of which are practical examples of how the two-tier system can be improved.

I remember the local government reorganisation of the 1990s. Sir John Banham, who was in charge at that time, memorably said of local government that

“any reorganisation costs more, takes longer and delivers less than any proponents of change ever thought”.

That is true. The opportunity costs of restructuring and of drawing up plans are absolutely huge—whether those costs relate to the health service or to the abortive plans to merge Cumbria and Lancashire police forces. Chief executives and leaders of councils, who have come all the way down from Burnley and Pendle, are here. The amount of time that must have gone into preparing the document, “Burnley and Pendle: reaching for new heights” is legion. It says in the document that Burnley and Pendle councils are proposing the creation of a new unitary authority, which arises out of an exciting vision that was developed and shared by their citizens, partners and elected members.

I think that that is a complete fantasy. The document was not developed and shared by citizens. I was never consulted; people in Pendle were never consulted; and of course people in Burnley were not consulted either. Yet a leading member of Pendle council, who is a friend of mine, John David—I like him although he sometimes says silly things—said to the Burnley Express that I was a disgrace for not supporting the Member for Burnley. The article stated that he

“expressed disappointment that while Burnley MP Kitty Ussher had given her backing to the bid, Pendle's Gordon Prentice had not, something he said was ‘a disgrace’”.

That is completely over the top. We had a difference of opinions. I had a difference of opinion with the previous Member for Burnley, my old friend Peter Pike, who constantly harked back to the glories of the county borough of Burnley and long believed in having a unitary authority to cover the whole of east Lancashire. He had a different view from mine, but I do not think that he is a disgrace or that my friend the Member for Burnley is a disgrace; we just have different views.

There are different views between political parties as well as within them. I wonder what the Liberal Democrats in Craven, Harrogate or Scarborough will say when those district authorities are swept away and we have this possibly huge new creation of North Yorkshire county council. While I am on the subject of the Liberal Democrats, allow me to say this—

He is a nice guy. He is also a friend, and I get on well with him. Nothing I say is ever personal.

The Liberal Democrats published their policy paper on local government less than a year ago. The ink is still wet. It stated:

“Any move from two-tier to single tier must be preceded by a local referendum, not imposed by central government”.

And yet—

I wonder whether it would help the hon. Gentleman in deploying his argument if I advised him that that policy paper was referred back by our conference, and is not yet established party policy.

It should be. It is a disgrace.

I do not want to go into this. I have lived with these changes for too long. However, if local government is to be truly local, and if people are to have a sense of place, as my friend the Member for Burnley said, they should be consulted. Sometimes, my local authority in Pendle, which is Liberal-controlled, as is the authority in Burnley, consults people. I remember getting a form—last year or perhaps the year before; I cannot remember—inviting me to give my views on a proposal to establish new parish and town councils. I thought that that was great. Pendle’s housing has now been floated off, and is no longer the direct responsibility of the district council, but the tenants were consulted. The tenants voted in favour of having the repairs done, and so on. They were persuaded, as there was a public campaign, but I do not have any problems with that, as they were consulted. The idea that we can propose these huge changes to local government just by referring to the views of stakeholders, whoever they might be, and not consulting the people is absurd.

To sum up my position, I am not persuaded that it is necessary to go through huge restructuring and upheaval to deliver the better services that people expect, and have a right to expect. I want to see the transformational agenda continue. I want to see local government providing services that are tailored to the needs of local people, and are responsive. I do not resile from that agenda. However, the dividing line is that, before these changes occur, if they do occur, local people should be consulted.

Earlier, I had discussions with councillors from Preston and officials from Lancaster. I want to welcome those who have come here today.

Order. It may help hon. Members if I make the point that it is not the custom to refer to people in the Gallery either here in Westminster Hall or in the main Chamber. It has happened twice, but I did not pull up the initiator of the debate as she is a new Member.

Thank you, Lady Winterton. I, too, am a new Member, so perhaps a bit of leeway might be given.

I thought that it might be interesting to make a point about the automatic assumption that unitary rather than two-tier is best, and perhaps echo some of the comments of the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice). He and I have one thing in common: we are both from Scotland. I represented a region in the Scottish Parliament and saw the consequences of the Conservative Government’s changes. Lord Lang, as he is now called, abolished overnight the two-tier system across the whole of Scotland. I can certainly say from experience that that did not lead de facto to better services across Scotland. It is still the case that what make for better local authority services in Scotland are the quality of the councillors and officials, and where the boundaries are drawn.

I represented Aberdeenshire, and the area that I had to cover was more than 10,000 square miles. In larger regions, the urban environment inevitably wins out over the rural. In comparison, services in urban areas are better than those that people in rural areas have to accept. We should not simply assume that two-tier is wrong. It works in other countries. Perhaps we do not have the boundaries right, and perhaps the population thresholds need to change.

I kept in touch with my local authorities, and what I found most disturbing was the process that the Government went through in deciding who should be considered and who should not. It may have led to some confusion for my colleagues in Lancashire and for councillors, as it was not clear what councils had to do to qualify and what they had to promise to deliver in order for their bid to win. That has not helped the situation.

There is a good dose of politics in all local authority reorganisation, whichever Government are doing it. It is no coincidence that the list of the 16 successful bids begins with Conservative, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Conservative, no overall control, Conservative. The vast majority happen to be Conservative, Liberal Democrat or no overall control local authorities.

I could mischievously speculate that Lancashire county council without Preston and Burnley would much more likely be a Conservative-run council. Several county councillors would be lost—they would go into the pot—and perhaps that is not desirable. As the Conservatives found in Scotland, if a Government abolish all district councils, overnight they lose party workers who worked for them in the election. At the stroke of a pen, they wipe out hundreds of Labour or Conservative councillors—they are no longer around.

It is interesting that the direction of flow in unitaries has been upwards. I am a devolutionist, which is fairly rare in the Conservative party. I do not have a problem with devolution. I believe in letting people in communities make many of the decisions about boundaries and direction, as they know what they want and how they want to be governed. I find it peculiar that the vast majority of bids in the list involve districts going up to county—they will not be closer to the people but further away. It is a cause for concern that the direction is not towards re-engaging local people but towards making authorities bigger.

The hon. Member for Pendle is absolutely right. One of my borders is with North Yorkshire. In fact, before the 1974 changes, part of my constituency was in Yorkshire. Hon. Members can imagine how many Yorkshiremen there are in my constituency who are happy that they are now in Lancashire.

Is there such a thing as a happy Yorkshireman? Perhaps we should ask ourselves that question.

I certainly think that some of the regions are too big. My experience in Aberdeenshire tells me that North Yorkshire is too big. We must determine what is the right size. In a parliamentary question, I asked for a population guide for authorities making a bid, but the Government do not have one. They certainly did not publish one or say that there was one but that it would not be used. The issue is important, and it needs to be addressed.

I represent the constituency of Lancaster and Wyre, a large part of which is the borough of Wyre. My constituency is predominantly rural. My right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) are not here, but theirs are large rural constituencies in Lancashire.

Why have the urban conurbations been quicker to queue up for the unitary system? It is because, as we all know, a lot of services in rural areas are more expensive to deliver. Such services include health care; in Cumbria, for example, historically there have been funding problems, right back to the Black report, about delivering health care at the primary and acute levels in rural settings. We know that delivering social services and school transport is more expensive in rural areas.

I am a Unionist and I worry that we get into the “every man for himself” routine when it comes to drawing up unitary boundaries—“You know, we would be much better off if we just got rid of those people along the road. We do not want them.”

The hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) seem to make continual reference to authorities elsewhere in the country, and some in other counties are not so far away. A number of Labour Members including me, would like unitary authorities to be based not necessarily only on the conurbations about which we have spoken—those that have made the bids—but on much wider and bigger ones that also encompass rural areas. There are huge rural areas in places such as West Lancashire, South Ribble and Chorley. We have nothing against rural areas. If unitary authorities are good for a conurbation such as Preston, they are good for rural areas as well. We are not being exclusive.

I have not said that I am against unitary authorities—nor, if I am not mistaken, did the hon. Member for Pendle. It is interesting that we would all be in a different position if the Government said, “You must find 300,000 or 250,000 people before you get through the front door of a unitary status bid.” That would force a lot of us in this Chamber to work together to find an applicable boundary. It would make us say, “We have to have Wyre or Ribble Valley”, or Ribble Valley might have to find somewhere else.

That would have been a good starting point, but I am afraid that we did not get it. We got a lot of warmish words and a few targets, but nothing specific. That is what I meant in saying that we should try to clear up any confusion before going along the path. There is confusion about who the stakeholders are and how they should have to consult—a local referendum? Like the hon. Member for Pendle, I did not get lots of requests and forms. I was not asked lots of questions. I was not particularly consulted. We should have had a clear consultation process as well.

How much of the issue is also about disappointment in the county delivery of services and performance?

I had hoped to have made a longer contribution in this debate. It is really important that we recognise the difficulty that constituents face because of the two-tier system and whether county or district should be responsible. In talking about bringing representation down to the local level, people have forgotten the Government’s recent decisions about parish councils. Constituencies such as mine—and, I am sure, the hon. Gentleman’s—also face the big city regions such as Liverpool, Manchester and Preston. We are not important to such areas and will not be unless we become a bigger player. We need the weight and size to be able to have a strong voice. My constituency loses out time and again.

Lady Winterton, I shall be brief, because I recognise that the summing up will have to start soon.

To answer the hon. Lady, a lot of the strategies that affect our constituents are now regionally-based anyhow. In respect of economic development, we are constantly frustrated that Manchester, Liverpool and Warrington seem to be involved and the rest of us can go hang. That is one of the problems.

In summary, unitaries should be formed on a case-by-case basis; we have to accept that. We need clearer guidance from the Government on where to go, how to qualify and what they are trying to achieve. We should not throw everything out because we think that two-tier is wrong and unitary is good. I do not accept that; my experience has not been that. The Government could have been clearer about what they were trying to achieve and about all the different points in respect of how to qualify for a bid to become accepted as a local authority. If that is so, Lancashire may come up with some solutions in future. I do not know. I hope that the Minister will indicate today that that will be so. We have to ask some questions about the delivery for the county and how much that drives people’s frustration at the moment.

This has been an interesting debate for those of us whose specialist subject is local government in Lancashire from 1970 to 2007. It has a parallel with the Schleswig-Holstein question, although I am not sure whether the Danes or the Germans will come out on top in this particular matter. I appreciate the strength of feeling in the Chamber and I am sure that that will be one of the problems that the Minister and her Department encounter in deciding what should happen and what they should do next.

The hon. Member for Burnley (Kitty Ussher) is to be congratulated on advancing a sane, calm and reasoned case on behalf of the Burnley and Pendle application and on considering her constituents. That is her right and it is proper that she should do so. She prayed in aid Lord Heseltine and she could have mentioned the Liberal Democrats, as the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) was kind enough to do, because it is true that they believe that, normally, a single tier of authorities at local government level would be appropriate. However, we have an essential, vital qualification, which is that reorganisation should be validated by clear evidence of public support locally. We in the House have to remember the damage that the impatience of rulers does, whether we take Thomas à Becket as our example of when things go wrong or more recent examples, even in respect of the current Administration. If there is not public consent and public validation, the reorganisation of representative democracy, particularly, is likely to fail.

The hon. Member for Pendle was not a million miles away from expressing my view: where there is clear local consent there should be a move towards unitaries, and where there is not there definitely should not. We are not just talking about a mechanical process for the delivery of services but a representative, democratic system, so things have to be done with popular consent.

The Minister knows that we have argued strongly in the Committee on the recent local government Bill against giving the Government continuing powers to return to this topic time and again. It is right that there should be an opportunity to discuss the proposals, but there should not be an ever-open door allowing them to rattle around. The cost and destabilisation of returning to this matter every three or four years means that that should not be attempted. Reorganisation should not be carried out lightly or repeatedly and it certainly should not be done punitively.

The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace) suggested that there might be some ulterior motives in the choices that the Government have made. I am sure that the Minister will deny that. Clearly, reorganisation should not be carried out because of expected political outcomes or as punishment for previous political outcomes. The Conservatives did that with the abolition of the Greater London council and they lived to regret their choice. It should not be done, either, on the basis of poor performances or perceived failures to meet Government targets; it should be done to reinforce and enhance democratic representation.

It is not my job as a Front-Bench spokesman to support or reject any set of options for Burnley and Pendle, but the hon. Member for Burnley made an interesting case. I understand that all three mainstream political parties in Burnley are in favour of the bid and in Pendle the Liberal Democrat and Labour members are in favour of it, although I understand that the hon. Member for Pendle is not.

Affordability was good, neighbourhood engagement was excellent and strategic vision was good too. The problem seemed if anything to be with service delivery, which, as the hon. Member for Burnley observed, was a problem for the rest of Lancashire rather than being attributable to the inability of the authority—if it comes into being—to deliver services. Will the Minister therefore carefully consider the case that has been put to her for reconsidering the Lancashire situation? If she is minded to approve or push forward any of the bids that have been submitted to her for Lancashire—not just Burnley and Pendle, but Lancaster and Preston—will she attach a strong condition that there should be clear evidence of local popular support for that measure?

As other hon. Members have mentioned, failure to do that will lead to real difficulties. I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope), and he had the impatience of rulers—writ large. Having explained how none of his constituents wanted to be born in the wrong hospital, or indeed cross over the border, he then said that he thought the real solution was an east Lancashire authority that should be imposed on people whether they liked it or not. That is absolutely the wrong approach to the problem. There should be an organic bringing together of communities that have taken decisions in common—not some shotgun marriage, imposed from Whitehall or from this building.

It will be interesting to hear the Minister’s response, and I hope that her colleague the Minister for Local Government has left her a few jottings for this morning on whether the Danes or the Germans should take control of Fylde and the Ribble under the new arrangements.

It is a great pleasure to appear before you in this important debate, Lady Winterton, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Burnley (Kitty Ussher) on successfully securing it. She started by saying that she had a degree of trepidation, but I had the opportunity of seeing her arrive in the building, and she was wearing a bright yellow, fluorescent flak jacket. I hope that that was not an indication of how things will develop. [Interruption.] I know—I was making a joke. I knew the jacket was for the hon. Lady’s bike and I was just being nice. I did not really think that she required bullet-proofing but I am grateful for the correction.

Don’t politicians just love restructuring? They find it fascinating. If it was up to me I would draw the boundaries of my own constituency. Heck, I would even do the same for the Minister, my neighbour. We like to discuss restructuring because it reminds us of canvassing and stops us getting involved in really important things such as policy, care for the elderly, education, or the problems of sheltered housing. We can spend and waste millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money trying to find the right structure for an organisation that will go into limbo for year upon year until that right structure is actually found.

I might be doing the hon. Member for Burnley an injustice. However, as far as I understand it, the hon. Lady’s justification for her position is that her constituents are confused. She believes that all the decent councillors want more money, and that rather than spend time serving the people they would disappear to the county council to get a few extra bob.

I do not know what motivated you, Lady Winterton, but the amount of money that I receive as a Member of Parliament is not my predominant motivation, and I can say the same about most councillors. They are not that bothered about the amount of money that they receive; civic duty and putting something back into the community motivate most people in local government. To her eternal credit, however, the hon. Lady thinks that when there has eventually been a decision on the right structure there should be some consultation with the odd member of the public.

The hon. Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick)—who I suppose is seeking expansion, as Bismarck was—is looking toward a greater or über-Preston. He thought that adding two might make up a central Lancashire city. There is a good reason why Preston was a Nobby no-mates when the application came for a unitary system: nobody else wanted to join.

I am most obliged to a redoubtable local campaigner, Mrs. Lorraine Fullbrook, who led a very successful campaign in South Ribble to persuade the council—Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat—not to join. The reason why she was so successful was that she had a clear idea of what the situation was likely to be. She said, “First of all, let’s consider the cost. The cost for the people of South Ribble is likely to be £350 per household a year for no extra teacher, no extra policeman, no extra health service and no extra paper clips”— £350 so that we politicians can be happy just for moving the process around. She then asked whether it would be an equal partnership. She read the regional and sub-regional strategy updates of the Cabinet meeting, which said that South Ribble would be used to

“drive the growth of Preston…South Ribble is seen as more ‘dynamic’ than Preston. South Ribble has an important part to play in supporting Preston’s emergence as a growth centre”.

In other words, what Preston wants is to take South Ribble into its friendship and then build all over it—to take away those bits of South Ribble that make it unique.

On a point of order, Lady Winterton. Is it in order for a Member of this House, particularly a Front-Bench Member, to publicise a Conservative parliamentary candidate during a debate of this nature?

I was speaking about the remarkably successful Lorraine Fullbrook, who will undoubtedly be a Member of this House soon. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Preston for pointing that out—no doubt the press will pick it up—but I detect his nervousness, so I shall try not to mention the name of Lorraine Fullbrook, Tory candidate, again. There were other considerations about the amount of open space and green belt threatened in South Ribble, but to spare the hon. Gentleman’s blushes I shall move on from the marvellous work of Lorraine Fullbrook, Conservative candidate.

The hon. Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope) said that when two or three officers are gathered together, they talk of little else but restructuring. I am not entirely surprised. For an officer, moving toward restructuring is better than getting a telephone call from Chris Tarrant. There is loads of money in it. We know that from The Sunday Times, whose appointments page suggested that chief executive salaries will rise by at least £30,000 if restructuring proceeds. That is a lot of money, so I am not surprised that officers are interested in the idea of restructuring, but I am pretty certain that were we to go down to the dog and duck in Hyndburn—although I do not know whether there is one—and wander across to talk to members of the public when two or three of them are gathered together, they would not want to talk about restructuring. They want to talk about council services. They want to know why their granny cannot get into an old persons’ home or get additional help through home care. They are concerned about their children’s education, not whether a particular restructuring will occur or a chief executive can at last buy the villa on the Costa del Sol that they so richly deserve.

I was surprised by the idea that people are so proud of their locality. I would like to think that no matter what area we represent, we are all proud of our locality. The great thing about British local government and constituencies is that they are not entirely an electoral quota. They tend to be made up of real communities, and real communities should have pride. Just because a real community will not vote for its extinction is no reason to deny it the vote.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace) asked whether Yorkshiremen had a sense of humour. I come from Essex, but have vague connections with Yorkshire, and like a Scotsman, one can never mistake a Yorkshireman with a grievance for a ray of sunshine. My hon. Friend was right to talk about the quality of services and to say that rural areas matter most. We know that the issue has caused enormous problems in all political parties. The last time we debated it, I quoted from Labour’s national policy forum blog in which the Prime Minister said that he was aware of the many differences between county and district, and urged us to concentrate on issues that voters care about.

We know, courtesy of the Municipal Journal, that the Cabinet was split over the proposals, and that the Environment Secretary was keen to avoid the political bloodbath that opposing bids were likely to create, but his efforts to have some of the bids removed from the shortlist caused major delays. He may well have been right, judging by what has ensued.

I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) said. The substantive point is that it does not matter whether an authority is unitary or two-tier because it is services that are important, and changing structures is so old-fashioned. It is up to us to sort out the confusion that may exist in people’s minds; it will not be sorted out by changing the structures, because of the changing reality. I have been tremendously heartened by the growth of local area agreements between districts, counties and different sorts of organisations such as health authorities and police authorities. That should be the future. We should allow local authority structures to grow naturally and organically, and see where that process goes, instead of imposing non-reality on what is happening on the ground. We will ensure in those processes that people receive better services.

In conclusion, I say to the hon. Member for Burnley that I am sure that every Member of the House would be willing to co-operate on that basis.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government
(Angela E. Smith)

I am grateful for the contributions to the debate and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Kitty Ussher) on securing it. The matter is obviously a key issue for the people of Lancashire, and I appreciate the strong feelings that are held and the passion with which she and my hon. Friends the Members for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope), for Preston (Mr. Hendrick), for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) and for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) described the issues affecting their constituents.

I have to take issue with the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles). It pains me to do so, as he is a fellow Essex MP, but I think that he is rather cynical on these issues. I hope that his comments about the motives of those who secured this debate and about officers and politicians discussing structure were tongue-in-cheek. My hon. Friend the Member for Burnley secured the debate not so that she could avoid discussing anything else that was important, as he suggested, but—this came through clearly in the contributions—because of a commitment to service delivery to constituents in her area. That seemed to be the motivating factor for all hon. Members who spoke.

I also take issue with some of the comments about the reasons for decisions. Hon. Members will be aware that 26 proposals were received from local authorities for the creation of unitary structures in their areas in response to the invitation published alongside the local government White Paper in October last year. The hon. Members for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace) and for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) suggested that the Government might have been politically motivated. The hon. Member for Hazel Grove rather ingeniously referred to similarities between that and the abolition of the GLC. It is absolutely clear that these were proposals that came through local authorities themselves, put forward because they wanted to be considered for unitary status. I am not aware that the GLC ever said, “Hey—let’s abolish ourselves”. That was imposed by the Government of the time; these are proposals whose true definition is bottom-up, with local authorities themselves making the decision to put them forward and asking the Government to consider them.

The Minister will be aware that there can be conflicting views within a county. In Shropshire, the districts were against a move upwards while the county wanted to become unitary, but on most occasions—in that example and others—the Government chose to listen to the county rather than the anti-unitaries from the districts.

We are considering that particular bid at the moment. The hon. Gentleman made a point about it being political, but Shropshire county council is a Conservative council and the districts opposing it are Conservative districts. It can hardly be a political issue if they are all of the same party, and I take issue with that point in his comments, which were totally unfair.

After careful consideration against published criteria, it has been agreed that 16 proposals will go forward to further stakeholder consultation. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley and others will understand that I am somewhat constrained in what I can say about those: we are now in the middle of a legal process and, for reasons of propriety, I cannot get into a debate about the merits of specific proposals. I know that a number of hon. Members have raised issues different from those of Lancashire, but I cannot get into a debate on them. The reasons for the judgment are set out in the decision letters that were sent out to local authorities.

However, my hon. Friends raised a number of important issues about the next steps for local authorities, following that decision in Lancashire. It is important that I set out first how we got to where we are.

Powers in the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill that is going through Parliament. The hon. Gentleman is aware of that, and it is a lawyer’s trick to ask a question to which one knows the answer.

As I said, a number of important issues must be addressed in what happens next and where Lancashire goes from here. That is the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley and her colleagues were pressing. The invitation to bid for unitary status was published in response to views expressed during the long-standing debate on the future of local governance—that existing arrangements in some two-tier areas do not deliver the governance that places need. There is no doubt that there are risks of confusion, duplication and inefficiency in a two-tier structure.

In response to some comments made, particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle, let me say that at no point have the Government said that in no cases can a two-tier structure be efficient and effective. That is a matter for local areas themselves to judge on. The White Paper made it clear that two-tier areas faced challenges, and councils within those areas could make bids for unitary status against the criteria set down where they felt that there was a case to be made.

It was put to us that, in a number of areas, accountability could be improved and that there could be stronger and more focused leadership, greater efficiency and improved outcomes for local people. Again, I take issue with the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar, who said that it was not about outcomes, when the guiding principle on restructuring and reorganisation is clearly the outcome of service delivery for local people. So we were allowing restructuring to take place where that view was held, and that was quite evident when we received 26 proposals at the time.

On 27 March, my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government announced that 16 proposals had been shortlisted to proceed to stakeholder consultation. In reaching that decision, the Government had to look at all the relevant information that was submitted. We have written to all councils that submitted proposals, setting out the reasons and the basis on which we reached our decisions. The proposals were assessed against the criteria, and it would be helpful if I said something about those criteria, because they have been mentioned and the hon. Member for Hazel Grove may have misunderstood them.

We are very clear that the proposals must be affordable. Any change in unitary structure must give local residents value for money and must be met from the council’s existing resource envelope. Proposals must also be supported by a broad cross-section of partners and stakeholders. My hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn said that there must be consensus, but it is difficult to reach absolute consensus on such things. None the less, there should be broad agreement and evidence that there has been broad consultation and involvement.

In addition to affordability and support, proposals must provide strong, effective and accountable strategic leadership across the area. They must also deliver genuine opportunities for neighbourhood flexibility and empowerment—my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle was concerned that there should be local empowerment and local engagement. Finally, they must deliver value for money and equity in public services.

After careful consideration, it was agreed that 10 proposals would not go forward and that 16 would. The judgment was that there was not a reasonable likelihood of the 10 proposals, if implemented, achieving all the outcomes specified in the five criteria. The decisions are now being consulted on, and all the information presented to Ministers will be considered during that process. When we take our final decisions, we will proceed to implementation only if we are satisfied that the proposals fully meet the criteria.

As regards our next steps, the Budget confirmed that the whole public sector will be expected to achieve 3 per cent. per annum net cashable efficiency savings, and the potential new unitaries have shown what can be achieved. We expect all councils, whatever their structure, to work together to achieve greater improvement and efficiency gains. We therefore want to see similar improvements, whatever a council’s structure—again, the focus is on outcomes, rather than just structure. We asked all the principal councils that are already committed to going for a greatly improved and innovative two-tier approach to step forward and act as pathfinders. Five county areas have come forward to be pathfinders, and their proposals are being considered.

It is clear from the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley that there is a real desire to move to more effective, efficient and accountable local government in Lancashire and to achieve value for money. At this stage, it is important that all local authorities in Lancashire reflect on how that can be achieved within the existing structure.

My hon. Friend asked some specific questions, and we want to reflect carefully on them. She wanted to know whether the Government would meet her and other hon. Members on this issue, and I can give her an assurance that we will. It will probably be the Minister for Local Government—

I was not referring to Lord Palmerston, and I am not sure whether my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government will still want to meet hon. Members when he finds out that he has been compared to him, but we shall put that to him. However, he has agreed to meet hon. Members and he will reflect on the request of my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley.

My hon. Friend asked two other specific questions. First, she wanted to know what failing actually means and to have information about the ability to deliver. The judgment on delivery was taken in the round against the five criteria that I outlined. That made it clear that account must be taken of the whole affected area and of the impact outside it. A judgment was made not about the services that the existing structures currently deliver, but about the impact of the new structures.

My hon. Friend’s second question was whether we support the case for unitary authorities in principle, and I think that I have made that clear. We are not saying that the two-tier structure is inappropriate or wrong in every case, but there are clear risks associated with it, which I have addressed.

The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar asked about referendums, should they become necessary. Traditionally, change in local government has been top-down, and I mentioned the GLC. However, we are talking about a bottom-up approach, and there must be consultation and engagement, with bids coming from local authorities themselves.

It is clear that there is a drive in Lancashire to ensure that authorities are real players and that there is greater service delivery. We must go away, reflect on the comments that have been made and offer a meeting with those hon. Members who have raised the issue. Whatever the structure, however, it is clear that there must be good service delivery, with the citizen as the focus.

Sea Cadets

Some colleagues have asked why on earth the Member for Rhondda is introducing a debate about sea cadets, as the Rhondda is landlocked and I have no personal experience of the sea cadets, nor any naval connections other than the fact that my maternal grandfather was a naval architect and that my great-grand uncle designed and built the Indomitable, which helped Britain in its endeavours in the first world war. He was described by Admiral Jackie Fisher as Britain’s greatest ever naval architect.

Rhondda, however, has a sea cadet unit, although it is difficult to ensure that the sea cadets can do everything that they would like to be able to do. The debate is unusual as there have been few debates about the sea cadets over the years, and my reason for securing it is that the sea cadets organisation is one of the most valuable, but least valued, in the United Kingdom. It was founded in 1910 as the Naval Youth Brigades, formally recognised by the Admiralty in 1919 as the Navy League Sea Cadet Corps and given a formal charter in 1947. The Navy League transformed itself into the Sea Cadet Association in 1976 and the girls’ groups which existed alongside the Sea Cadet Association were amalgamated into the sea cadets in 1992.

The Marine Society and Sea Cadets is the umbrella organisation that runs the 400 sea cadet units across the United Kingdom, which also run themselves semi-autonomously. Four national training centres provide support for the individual units around the country. It is an important point, to which I will return later, that the Marine Society and Sea Cadets is run as a charity rather differently from the other organisations that are run in association with the Ministry of Defence.

In 2005, the last year for which I have been able to find precise figures, the sea cadet corps numbered nearly 13,000 cadets, with 4,400 adult volunteers staffing the units throughout the UK. For completeness, I point out that the sea cadets are for 12 to 18 year-olds, but they also have a junior section for cadets from the age of 10. Everyone wears a uniform of some kind once they have done their initial training, which is free.

The value of the sea cadets is immense, especially in some of the poorest communities in the UK, such as the one that I represent. They provide a series of skills for young people, based on a maritime or nautical theme, including leadership, teamwork, personal discipline, individual respect, care for others and citizenship: all the things that we would want every young person to grow up with.

The core values of the sea cadets are clear. They state as their founding premise that they are there

“to encourage valuable personal attributes and high standards of conduct using a nautical theme based on the customs of the Royal Navy.”

The organisation is designed to promote personal development, social inclusion and citizenship among the country’s young people, whatever their background, race, creed or colour.

The movement tries to introduce young people to an organised, disciplined and stimulating environment where they can learn new skills, interact and collaborate with their peers, and where confidence and self-esteem can flourish while, most importantly, they have a huge amount of fun. I know that the last point is true because I visited the Rhondda sea cadets last week at TS Minerva in Llwynypia. It was a delight to meet the commanding officer, Jeremy Williams, the other eight members of staff, members of the very committed lay board, chaired by Bob Evans, and many of the kids, who were boiling over with enthusiasm about their experience of being in the sea cadets, despite some of them being away on holiday.

As one staff member put it, delightfully, the whole point is that the sea cadets start

“kids off on the right course in life—and luckily most of them don’t get seasick.”

The sadness of the Rhondda sea cadets, though, is that the amount of direct cash that they get from the national Marine Society and Sea Cadets, and therefore from the MOD, is the grand sum of £200 a year. The insurance costs that they will soon have to pay come to £1,500, a figure that has grown dramatically because of some of the work in which they are engaged. The insurance costs for youth work, and particularly for adventure youth work, are very high. They do not have to be met by the other cadet associations but they do by the sea cadets.

Fascinatingly, 33 per cent. of the youngsters involved in the Rhondda sea cadets are in foster homes or care homes. The work of the sea cadets in the Rhondda is essential to every element of what the Government would like to achieve in youth work in the valley. The Rhondda sea cadets are very proud, and I know that they would not like me to let this moment pass without pointing out that they have come in the top fifth of all unit brigades for the past 15 years. They have done extraordinarily well in a series of competitions; in particular, the band, which I have seen on many occasions, has been successful, winning best novice band, best original composition, best solo drummer and best solo bugler in recent years. I know that a lot of people in the Rhondda take particular pride in the work of the sea cadets, and I know that the cadets themselves and those who work with them take pride in their work.

It is not just the sea cadets in my constituency who have a particular set of needs. The Marine Society and Sea Cadets has looked around the country and is trying to investigate the state of the buildings in which many sea cadet units are based. It is certainly true at TS Minerva that, while they make the best they can of the building, it is pretty dilapidated, tired, does not heat well and is not very well electrically wired. There are a lot of issues to be addressed urgently, and that is true of many other units.

The Marine Society and Sea Cadets has examined its south-west region, which has 81 units and covers Wales and the south-west of England, and seen that a large number of units are in urgent need of between £75,000 and £150,000 for major refurbishment. Seventeen units have serious accommodation problems and may have to close in the near future if they cannot be addressed, and four believe that they may have to close in the next 12 months. As one staff member put it to me in Llwynypia, the trouble is that, if the building is shoddy, the youngsters will not be interested in going along to it because they cannot take pride in it. Equally importantly, if the sea cadet unit spends all its time fundraising and shaking tins on the high street, it will not have time to do the core business of the sea cadets—allowing youngsters to acquire the qualifications and skills that they should be trying to achieve.

There is an important point to be made about training. The MOD’s annual report last year stated:

“The Cadets attract some 130,000 youngsters across the UK from all walks of life. This number is steadily growing, but a shortage of adult volunteers has required serious examination of how much more growth can be sustained. We are therefore looking at how the Cadet Forces will operate in the long term. This will include the parameters that we think should govern their operations, and ensuring we retain and attract the right calibre of adult volunteer that will enable the Cadet movement to prosper.”

There are 4,400 adult volunteers working in the sea cadets, but one of the difficulties for the sea cadets that the Army and Air Force do not have is that all the training that those volunteers go through has to be paid for by the volunteers themselves. There is a hefty disincentive for many people actively to engage as adult volunteers in the sea cadets, as that can cost a significant sum. As well as the energy and commitment that we expect from those people, it is difficult to expect them also to pay for their own training. The young adult volunteer in the Rhondda, who should gain promotion to petty officer in the near future, is anxious about doing so because she knows that she will have to pay a fairly hefty sum for her training to qualify for that position.

On top of that, under statute, employers do not have to provide any time off for people engaged in the sea cadets as adult volunteers. That is another area in which the sea cadets lose out to their Army and Air Force compatriots. The MOD regularly says that it does not give so much money to the sea cadets because they are a charity and so able to raise money in other ways. I obtained a precise breakdown of national lottery money that has gone to them, not least because my local sea cadets complained that they are regularly told by various awarding bodies that they fall between two stools and therefore lose out on many grants. According to the national lottery figures, 353 sea cadet units have received £4,894,137 since 1996. Frankly, that is a drop in the ocean of their needs, which is why it is important to put the sea cadets on more of a par with the Army Cadet Force and the Air Training Corps.

The MOD’s defence statistics for 2003 show that approximately 132,800 people between the ages of 12 and 22 are involved in the cadet forces. According to the statistics for 1999, which, as far as I can see, is the last time that the MOD provided the breakdown for the different cadet forces, there were 19,900 naval cadets, 65,700 army cadets and 42,700 air cadets. That suggests that 15 per cent. of the cadet forces are in the sea cadets. They certainly do not receive 15 per cent. of the money, however. Between 2003 and 2006, the budget of the Air Training Corps increased from £19.9 million to £26.4 million; the Army Cadet Force now gets £51.5 million. The figure that I have for the sea cadets is £8.4 million, although I suspect that the Minister will give a figure of £9 million. That is not the figure that the sea cadets have given me, however. Despite having 15 per cent. of the cadets, they are getting only 11 per cent. of the funding.

It is therefore important that we put all the organisations on a similar footing, not least because numbers have fallen in the sea cadets while rising in the other cadet forces. I suspect that that is because of the lack of money for facilities and accommodation, which is provided directly by the MOD for the Army and the Air Force, but not for the sea cadets. There is also a lack of funding for training and a lack of opportunity to do things, as the sea cadets have to spend so much of their time fundraising. It is turning into a vicious circle and it is vital that we act now if we are to ensure that the sea cadets will survive as a strong and healthy force.

I have some demands. I am not the only person who is making them: 2,500 people have called for more funding for the cadet services on the No. 10 Downing street petitions website. I know that Ministers are anxious about that website. The MOD should at least pay or organise the insurance for the whole sea cadets nationally, because that would make a significant difference in the Rhondda and throughout the country. It is time that we had a major review of all the buildings and facilities that are provided for the sea cadets and of the training costs for sea cadet units and their staff. Otherwise, there is a danger that there will be a direct disincentive to be a qualified volunteer staff member in the sea cadets. The Ministry should consider whether it would be possible to require employers to provide time off for sea cadet volunteering activities.

I want to end with some comments from youngsters whom I met last week, who were among the liveliest and most forthright that I have met in the Rhondda. It was hard to stop Cadet Declan Molloy talking, but one of his briefer remarks was, “Sea cadets as a whole need more funding.” Cadet Laura Morgan wanted better heating, and, to use a technical term, “better heads”. That is a particular issue at Llwynypia. Able Cadet Ben Russell said, “Sea cadets need to improve because we need to be able to compete with the Army and Air Cadets on funding.” Cadet George Kingsley said, “If we had more funds we could go away on more trips and get more qualifications.” That is a vital point. At the moment, they spend so much time fundraising that they cannot take part in the core activities of the sea cadets. Finally, Ronan Molloy, the youngest of the cadets, said, “The juniors should be able to go on more training weekends, instead of just going out on one training expedition every six months.”

I hope that the Minister will be able to meet all my demands, and I look forward to his reply.

It is a great pleasure to be here today under your chairmanship, Lady Winterton. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on securing this important debate. I know that he has already raised it in the House, that he has been an active supporter of the cadets in general—not just the sea cadets—and that he is very keen to obtain the improvements he has been talking about. I am afraid that I shall not be able to satisfy all the demands on which he wants a response, but I shall set out the history and the current state of affairs, and explain why the funding organisation for the sea cadets is in its current position. The debate is an important opportunity and I hope to cover several matters in the time available.

My hon. Friend may be aware of a previous debate on cadets obtained by my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh). As I said then, the cadet forces, with a membership of 130,000, are supported by adult volunteers, and are one of the biggest youth groups in the country. They make a huge contribution to local communities and our nation’s youth. Government youth policies are to develop strategies that encourage the personal development of all young people, with a particular focus on those who are at risk of social exclusion. That development of individual young people is central to the ethos of the cadet force, with its altruistic ideals.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda said, cadets learn many skills that are readily transferable to the workplace, college or school—or, of course, to the armed forces, if members go on to join those. Cadets are also offered opportunities to gain vocational qualifications. The activities complement the school curriculum and give many young people opportunities to gain recognised qualifications.

Perhaps I may repeat what I said in January’s debate about the structure and funding route of our cadet forces. That is a particularly important point raised by my hon. Friend today. The Sea Cadet Corps, the Army Cadet Force and the Air Training Corps are all community-based programmes, which, between them, account for 88,000 cadets and 24,000 adult volunteers, spread over 3,000 locations across the United Kingdom. Between them, they attract 89 per cent. of the funding provided by the Ministry of Defence to support cadets. In many small towns, they are the most visible defence presence. Plenty of opportunities exist for young people to join their cadet force, including in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Any boy or girl in the area who wants to become a cadet can join any of the single service cadet forces. The fourth cadet force, of course, is the Combined Cadet Force, which, with 42,000 cadets and 2,000 adult volunteers, is a school-based programme that attracts 11 per cent. of the funding. There are 253 CCF contingents based in schools, of which 52 are in state schools.

Unlike the Army and Royal Air Force cadet organisations, the Sea Cadet Corps is not directly managed by the Ministry of Defence. Each Sea Cadet unit is an independent charity under the direct management of a unit management committee. By act of affiliation with the Marine Society and Sea Cadets, affiliated units form and become the Sea Cadet Corps. The corps is owned and managed by the Marine Society and Sea Cadets, which is a charitable body legally separate from the MOD, responsible for its own procedures, processes and unit level finance.

The Marine Society and Sea Cadets is part funded by a grant in aid from the MOD, outlined in a memorandum of understanding, with the remainder of the funding coming from fundraising and charitable donations, as my hon. Friend mentioned. The memorandum of understanding has been reviewed recently and was agreed on 5 March.

The terms of the agreement between the MOD and the Marine Society and Sea Cadets make it clear that these moneys are for general administration, not costs associated with the maintenance of premises and individual units. Expenditure of this funding is limited to the charitable objectives of the Marine Society and Sea Cadets and in the main provides for a fully staffed Marine Society and Sea Cadet Corps headquarters; a national training and organisational infrastructure for the corps; expenses and allowances to the cadet force adult volunteers; and training travel costs of cadets, in a similar way to that provided for the Army and Air Cadets.

Housing each sea cadet unit, including maintenance, rent, utilities and insurance, remains the direct responsibility of the separate cadet volunteer management committees. Individual units may apply to the Marine Society and Sea Cadets for limited cash grants towards the cost of building improvements from additional funds raised by the charity.

In the financial year 2006-07, the MOD provided the Marine Society and Sea Cadets with a grant of just over £8 million, plus an additional £1 million to be spent on equipment, boats, IT infrastructure and support maintenance and £5 million was spent by the Marine Society and Sea Cadets to support the corps infrastructure, the national headquarters and national training programmes. The balance of £3 million funded Sea Cadet Corps uniformed adult allowances, the travel costs of adult volunteers and cadets undergoing training, and the expenses of Marine Society and Sea Cadet area staff who manage and supervise the cadet units at regional level.

In addition to that direct funding, the MOD, through the Defence Equipment and Support organisation, also provides afloat training equipment such as power boats, sail training craft and dinghies, and funds some of the associated maintenance. Overall, Marine Society and Sea Cadets units have over 300 powered training craft and over 1,000 sail training craft provided by the MOD. We also recognise that individual units contribute significantly to the costs of maintaining their units. Of course, that work is much appreciated.

The Sea Cadet Corps has always been an independent organisation, without the direct military links that the Army and Air Cadets have to their parent services. That is why the funding arrangements are different. Nevertheless, the Sea Cadet Corps is entitled to the same benefits as the other services’ cadets, and the way that it is funded is very effective.

Although individual units do not enjoy direct support, the Marine Society and Sea Cadets provides cadets with a wide variety of training choices and opportunities derived from MOD funding. In overall terms, the amount that the MOD spends per cadet on Sea Cadets is not very different from that spent on Royal Air Force cadets.

As my hon. Friend said, the Sea Cadet Corps has one of the longest histories of any youth organisation in the country. Today, it has almost 400 units nationwide that regularly welcome more than 15,000 cadets, supported by approximately 8,000 adult volunteers.

I know that my hon. Friend referred to some of the history of the Sea Cadet Corps, but I would like to refer to a little more of that history, for the record.

Before my hon. Friend the Minister discusses the history of the sea cadets, I would like to ask him if he will undertake to examine the issue of insurance? Insurance is one of the big bills that many units now have to face, and it does not apply in the same way for the other organisations, because they are incorporated in a different way. I wonder whether the MOD could find a way of meeting that insurance cost, either directly or by some other means.

I shall come back to the issue of buildings in a minute, if my hon. Friend does not mind.

As I was saying, the origins of the sea cadets date back to the Crimean war, when sailors returning home formed the Naval Lads Brigades to help orphans in the back streets in seaports. The success of the Naval Lads Brigades led to the formation of the Navy League, a national organisation dedicated to supporting the Royal Navy. In 1942, the then Admiralty took up sponsorship of the Sea Cadet Corps as a training vehicle to produce recruits directly for the Royal Navy. The Admiral Commanding Reserves took over the training role and His Majesty King George VI became Admiral of the Corps. The Admiralty now paid for uniforms, equipment, travel and training, while the Navy League funded sport and unit headquarters.

At the time, Sea Cadet Corps officers were appointed to the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. When the Volunteer Reserve was abolished in 1958, the active members––those with a liability to serve in the Royal Navy––were incorporated within the Royal Naval Reserve. Sea Cadet Corps officers were given the honorific title (Sea Cadet Corps) Royal Naval Reserve and the corps was afforded the status of a “service cadet force”. This remains the position today.

Sea Cadet Corps officers continue to be appointed—not commissioned—within the corps by the Commodore Sea Cadets and are only honorary members of the Royal Naval Reserve and Royal Marine Reserve. The Army Cadet Force and Air Training Corps officers are commissioned in their respective reserve forces and are subject to reserve forces call-up liabilities and conditions of service.

Although the cadet forces are not recruiting organisations, some 22 per cent. of recruits to the Royal Navy come from a uniformed youth background. The latest figures for 2006 show that of that 22 per cent., half came from a sea cadet background with the remainder coming from the Army and Air Force cadets. Figures also show that recruits from a uniformed youth background do well in training, have a lower failure rate and tend to remain longer in their chosen service.

As I said in the Adjournment debate on 25 January, cadet forces represent a success story that we intend to carry forward. In September, the reserve forces and cadets real estate will be surveyed as part of Project Alexander. The Royal Navy has provided additional resources to the Marine Society and Sea Cadets to ensure that all the sea cadet estate is comparably surveyed. That will provide a level playing field to properly understand the ongoing maintenance costs of the cadet forces and provide a basis for future policy and funding decisions.

In closing, I reiterate my appreciation and gratitude for the commitment of the dedicated adult volunteers who so ably run the cadet force units, giving freely of their time for the benefit of young people. Their contribution makes a huge difference. I know that my hon. Friend and other hon. Members will acknowledge the tremendous contribution that the sea cadets and the other cadet forces continue to make to young people, their communities, and to society itself. I continue to encourage all Members of the House to support their local units, whatever uniform they wear.

Sitting suspended until 2.30 pm.

Housing (Hertfordshire)

It is delightful to be here this afternoon under your chairmanship, Lady Winterton.

As Conservatives, we agree that there is a need for more homes that are affordable, well designed and, more importantly, environmentally sustainable. In Hertfordshire, we accept that we must provide more houses based on local need and an acceptable level of sustainable growth, reflecting what the community wants and based on a prudent assessment of our particular environmental capacity while acknowledging our infrastructure stresses and deficits. After much consideration and a degree of pressure from the Government, the original east of England plan eventually proposed 79,600 dwellings—a figure about which I still have some serious environmental concerns. On balance, however, the community was willing to try to deliver that figure.

The Government appear determined to ignore the carefully considered proposals of the local community and to ratchet up the totals. We were prepared to accept our fair share of housing, but we dispute the new and ever-escalating housing figures that are being imposed top down by the Government.

I speak for many, including my local councils that have written to the Minister only this month, when I say that I am deeply unhappy about the processes and assessments—or rather lack of assessments—that have culminated in the double whammy of an inspector’s report advocating a new higher figure of 83,000 dwellings and the Secretary of State now seeking to impose a further 10,000 units on top of that already overly high number. To have truly environmentally sustainable communities, we cannot look only at the method of construction of new buildings. Let us not confuse the difference between housing demand and housing need. Yes, we have a degree of local housing need, but we live in a prosperous high demand area that, in turn, fuels an ever-increasing spiral of house prices that encourages speculative development and a booming buy-to-let market with investors holding large property portfolios.

Developers are encouraged by the Government’s inflationary approach to housing figures. They appreciate their creative approach to the green belt boundary reviews and are egged on by pronouncements regarding future household and population growth and an increasingly benign planning system. They proceed to cut swathes through established communities, challenge historic street scenes and skylines, and market our green belt as building plots. Little consideration is given to the wishes of local people and their vision for their communities. Housing density and the Government’s targets are driving the relentless push to demolish older characterful houses, snatching up back gardens, gobbling up green spaces and targeting playing fields such as the King Harry playing fields in my constituency.

High density is being interpreted as flats and, consequently, housing choice has been diminished, not enhanced, as family homes come down and blocks of flats rise up. The result is a rapidly changing street scene, huge increases in congestion, increasing pressure on schools, hospitals and natural resources, and a loss of local community spirit. When calculating the increased totals, the Minister does not seem even to have taken into account the particular economic activity of our area and its employment opportunities. The Office for National Statistics labour force, resident and workplace survey of 2001 estimated that 68,681 people live in the area of St. Albans, yet only 51,206 people work there. That position contributes to huge numbers of people who commute daily on congested roads and on trains that are crammed in cattle-truck conditions.

According to the most recent east of England plan, the projected job growth for the whole of Hertfordshire until 2021 is 64,700, yet the Minister wishes to place 93,000 units there. According to the Office for National Statistics’ unemployment data figures, we are fortunate to have a current regional unemployment rate of 20 per cent. below the United Kingdom average unemployment rate and, in St. Albans, the current unemployment rate is 46 per cent. less than the UK average unemployment rate. We have low unemployment and a highly skilled work force that looks to London and neighbouring cities for its employment. The high house prices mean that that situation is liable to continue and that more market-led housing will only compound the current trend to buy into our county and commute.

We are therefore naturally concerned that the Government, through their lack of rigorous analysis at every level, are indeed fuelling a property-led project, thus encouraging commuting, putting strain on local transport systems and not creating balanced, sustainable communities supported by local jobs, underpinned by adequate infrastructure and sympathetic to the local environment.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent exposition of the weaknesses in the Government’s policy. Is she also aware that the loosening of green belt and the replacement of one site for another—perhaps Hertfordshire with Cambridgeshire, which Government policy now allows—is directly encouraging speculative development on green fields? Fields in my constituency are being pegged out now by speculators on the basis of the Government’s new policy. Is she aware of that and what does she think about it?

I raised that point in our last debate on this matter. We suffer in exactly the same way. Property developers are placing Government pronouncements on their websites to encourage people to hope that there is value in buying up such pieces of green land.

Unless we are going to bow down to the god of ever-increasing prosperity at the expense of ever-decreasing quality of life, we must ensure that an environmental impact of continually escalating housing targets is rigorously assessed. If we are to avoid fuelling a transport-intensive, pollution-generating commuter hell, then we must take account of local economic activity and ensure that we are not building more and more houses that are developer-led but not necessarily the type of homes that local people want or particularly need. Inevitably, it is leading to swathes of high-density, flatted developments dominating our towns and villages which are frequently snapped up by property developers. The Government and the Minister seem to draw great comfort from coupling the huge increase in building with newly introduced targets for energy consumption, recycling and water use. I am sorry to disabuse them of that environmental comfort blanket, but noting the concern and allocating the problem a target will not resolve it, and it does not address the current status quo.

In my constituency water is currently at a critical point. We have important chalk streams, which are sensitive to the increased pressures to build. Does the Minister know that the chalk streams in our area are unique in Europe? They are recognised by eminent environmentalists as the European aquatic equivalent of the rain forest. She has a chance to respond, but does not do so.

The future of the streams is already under severe threat due to drought. That more water is extracted from the Ver area of recharge than is naturally returned to its aquifer by annual rainfall is incredibly worrying and already a source of deep concern to local environmentalists, who care about the environment and have written to the Minister on that point. Therefore, irrespective of the new housing targets, the most recent Environment Agency study of the Ver since the implementation of the alleviation of low flow scheme in the early 1990s shows that the river is still falling. Despite an effort to conserve our scant water resources by having a hosepipe ban last year that lasted for 10 out of 12 months, our rivers are still falling. If those rivers fail, as they frequently do in periods of drought, even with current demands for water, the whole biodiversity and fragile ecology of the area will ultimately begin to fail. Does the Minister even begin to appreciate the ecological and environmental vandalism that the new housing target proposals will potentially wreak on the biodiversity of Hertfordshire and of my beautiful constituency?

The Minister does not address the current infrastructure and environmental deficit of the hot-spot areas, such as St. Albans, where many thousands of houses are to be built. She does not seem to recognise that simply putting in green building measures for the new homes will not solve all the attendant pollution issues of the existing housing stock and the occupants of that housing stock. It is crucial, if we are to have a degree of intergenerational environmental legacy, for us to look at the environment in which the houses are to be placed, to assess and evaluate the current environmental pressures, and to calculate the impact that those new houses and occupants will have on the established community and that environment.

That is not a cutting-edge environmental objective when considering housing totals for growth areas. Over the years we have had a long series of worthy recommendations from various committees urging us to consider the impact of rapid building on the environment. The Minister must feel that the casual coupling of “sustainable” and “community” in recent reports means that the public will rest assured that the environment is being taken seriously and implies that the relevant assessments of the environmental capacity of the projected increase have been taken into account. But that is not the case. The process for determining the housing targets appears to be totally devoid of any rigorous environmental or even strategic assessment. The complete lack of strategic assessment has led to the Government’s erroneous belief that proposed new floor figures of at least 83,000, and possibly 93,000, extra homes for Hertfordshire are environmentally sustainable.

The issue of housing targets has presented challenges for many years, particularly in the south and east, and I remind the Minister of a 1996 report from the Select Committee on the Environment which looked at the problem when considering housing need and housing targets. Crucially, that Committee noted an effort to ensure that housing targets were not being imposed in an unsustainable fashion without recognising the environmental impact, and it welcomed and encouraged the Government of the day’s intention to commission research into one important aspect, namely environmental capacity, with a view to producing good practice and guidance for future development programmes. That was a perceptive solution and a genuine attempt to ensure that any future communities were truly sustainable. Indeed, it was supported on a cross-party basis, so we might wonder how much note was made of that recommendation in light of today’s concerns about the environmental sustainability of the proposed housing targets.

In 1997, an exposition on the concept of environmental capacity entitled “Making sense of environmental capacity” was undertaken by Michael Jacobs for the Council to Protect Rural England. Mr. Jacobs may not be unknown to the Minister as he is currently advising the Government in his capacity on the council of economic advisers. Most tellingly, Mr. Jacobs pointed out then that

“if environmental capacity is taken seriously and assessed in detail, it would generate specific, quantifiable constraints in the volume and location of development.”

That is exactly why the Committee and the Government of the day recommended environmental capacity reports to ensure that housing targets were not too great or burdensome for any area. They are absolutely crucial and should be integral to this Government’s assessment of any increased housing targets for Hertfordshire.

If these studies had taken place, it would help to support any assertions from the Minister, which she made in the last debate, that the proposed changes to the draft plan represent a new benchmark in reconciling the growth need that we need with sustainability. Yet, only last week, I asked the Department for Communities and Local Government whether this Government prepare any studies on environmental capacity to accept any housing in particular areas in relation to regional spatial strategies. I was told:

“The Government does not prepare any such documents”,

and that

“the initial housing projections are based upon demographic and not environmental considerations.”

That is straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. The Government’s view is that if a number of people want to form households in that region, the housing has to be provided. It is not a case of whether the environmental capacity can endure it, but that the housing will be provided. The Department went on to say:

“The regional assembly has to take environmental factors into account in preparing the regional spatial strategy, but there is no single Government document providing guidance on how to estimate the environmental capacity of an area.”

There we have it: a new benchmark for the environment is to ignore it. If developers want to build, so be it, and our countryside can go to hell in a handcart.

How bizarrely perverse that according to the Minister’s own Department, we have a situation that when a draft regional spatial strategy has an examination in public by a planning inspector, the environmental argument underpinning the proposals may be challenged, but that would not be based on the Government’s environmental estimate, because the Government have not made one.

We accept that defining the environmental capacity of an area such as Hertfordshire is not easy. It is, after all, easy to measure the capacity of a road to accommodate traffic because we know how many cars can fit on to it, going at a certain speed with appropriate margins of safety. Helpfully, we can also measure the attendant pollution. That does not mean that we should not try to estimate and look for environmental capacity, but the Government are not even trying.

Pollution is a huge worry in my constituency and these ever-increasing housing targets are fuelling that concern. My constituents are fearful that the Government merely pay lip service to the evidence of congestion and increasing levels of local pollution. According to the RAC, the stretch of the M25 between junctions 20 and 21, which runs over my constituency, is among the most congested in Britain. It does not take the skills of a highways engineer to realise that that situation, compounded by the M1 and the A1(M), results in a toxic U-shape around St. Albans, with the M10 piercing the city, bringing much heavy congestion and pollution.

I apologise for not being here for the whole of my hon. Friend’s speech, but I was in the main Chamber on a very important matter for my constituents—pensions.

With congestion comes accidents, and with accidents come injuries. The Government do not accept that if they impose thousands and thousands of homes on Hertfordshire, particularly in the Hemel Hempstead and St. Albans area, the closing of the Hemel Hempstead acute services will put at risk the lives of the people who move into our region.

My hon. Friend may be aware, as I am, of what happened the other week when the M1 suffered a complete, three-lane failure as a result of a crane crashing across it. That led to much of the traffic on the M25 trying to pass through my constituency. Based on the congestion that day, I would have hated to have had to try to get somebody to any accident and emergency service, but particularly to those in Watford.

The people who were, sadly, injured in that crash went to the Hemel Hempstead A and E, which is about to be closed.

Unfortunately, that happens to be the A and E that served my constituency as well. I have every sympathy with my hon. Friend.

According to the RAC, the stretch of motorway to which I referred is among the most congested in the country. The situation brings pollution to the heart of my city and cars end up spilling on to the A414, which is the busiest non-motorway road in the county, so we are pretty congested. Commenting on the Government’s house building agenda and specifically the housing targets proposed for Hertfordshire, the RAC report on motoring observed that the new emphasis on building new homes puts even more pressure on the road network.

Let us say that we listen to the Minister’s siren calls for ever higher housing targets and accept the new household projection figure of 508,000 proposed by her and combine them with car ownership data based on the average car ownership figure of 1.34 cars for Hertfordshire, as published in the 2001 census. I sincerely hope that the Minister has done the maths, because I have. I suspect that she may not, but let me help her. We are talking about an extra 680,000 cars on our already congested roads. That is madness and a pollution nightmare. Can she try to imagine the impact of nearly three quarters of a million extra cars in our area? If so, can she imagine the grossly damaging effect that that would have on the environment?

The Minister may wish to ponder the sobering fact that according to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in 2004, out of 47 Government office areas, St. Albans has the fourth highest combined road and domestic carbon dioxide emissions, and the situation is set to deteriorate even further under the proposals.

The environment is multifaceted, with often strong but complex links between constituent parts. Fortunately for Hertfordshire, we have valuable swathes of green belt, which are the lungs of our county. However, a landscape is a reflection of many factors, including the underlying geology, and there are worrying trends in the landscape in Hertfordshire. Water supply is under great strain. Three Valleys Water recognises that housing growth on the scale proposed by the Government will pose significant challenges. Challenges of water supply, as I have already identified, face the River Ver, but there are additional challenges on water supply.

However, the Government persist in ignoring all the committees that have pointed out the flawed approach to housing proposals in the growth areas. In 2000, the Government’s response to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution’s 21st report stated:

“In the past, the risks of damage to the environment have too often been overlooked or given too little weight when pursuing economic and social policies”.

No change there then, is there?

A report by the Environmental Audit Committee in 2005, “Housing: Building a Sustainable Future”, examining the Government’s housing projection totals, slammed the Government’s complacency on the environmental impact of the housing targets. It said:

“It is astounding that despite the clear need for an assessment of the environmental impacts of the proposals for the Growth Areas as a whole, nothing has been done to date by the ODPM”—

the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister—

“or DEFRA to address this issue.”

The same report went on to say:

“The Government agrees with the Committee that assessments of the environmental impacts of a step change in housing supply are important. That is why every element of the Growth Areas proposals will be subject to a Sustainability Appraisal”.

What the Government do not mention is that that is not their sustainability appraisal; they will be asking people outside to do their own appraisals.

Let me remind the Minister yet again of the remarks from her Department. It said that the Government view is that if a number of people want to form households in that region, the houses will be built. I totally disagree with that approach and I dispute the Minister’s new housing figures and the process by which they were arrived at.

I know that other hon. Members want to speak, and I shall conclude my remarks soon, but before I do so I want to draw the Minister’s attention to early-day motion 1288, signed by some of my colleagues here today, and urge her to abandon the new totals, with all the environmental implications, and formally request that the Government reinstate the conclusions reached in July 2006 by the panel in the final draft of the plan and thus accept the lower total that we believe we can deliver in Hertfordshire.

I congratulate my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing the debate and on her very cogent and powerful speech in defence of the environment in Hertfordshire in general and in St. Albans in particular. One of her most potent arguments related to the fact that the Government have not carried out environmental capacity studies, despite the fact that they were advised to do so by the Environment Committee and by their advisers, and despite the fact that they have accepted that as necessary in the past. I hope that the Minister will respond explicitly to that point, and explain why the Government have not done so. In the meantime, I endorse my hon. Friend’s call for the Government to abandon the latest increased targets for house building in Hertfordshire until such studies have been carried out, to assess whether there is the environmental capacity to take this extra house building.

We also know that the Government have not agreed to finance the additional infrastructure that this house building would require. I remind the Minister that Hertfordshire is already the most densely populated county outside London. Its roads are the most overcrowded and busy in any county, because they bear not only the traffic generated by this dense population but more traffic passing through the county than that faced by any other. The secondary schools, certainly in my area, are all already oversubscribed. The hospitals face closures, including ward closures and the downgrading of half the major general hospitals in Hertfordshire, and yet more need and more demand for them would arise, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) pointed out.

We know already that the water services face immense pressure, and my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans pointed out the problems that will be faced if extra housing is built. We also have a shortage of green space. That green space has been preserved and protected by the green belt, and the Government propose to lift that protection, to move the boundaries of the green belt further north and to expand it to compensate for the loss of green belt in Hertfordshire, by designating some land under no serious pressure somewhere north of King’s Lynn.

Finally, as I intend to be brief, we need to know the reasons for this additional housing. There are two reasons why extra housing would be needed: one is an increase in population, and the other is a decline in household size so that the same number of people need more houses. As I understand it, the Government are saying that virtually all the extra houses are the result of a projected decline in household size. It is quite true that more houses are needed if you have an unchanged population and a declining household size. However, such extra houses will not impose the same infrastructure requirements as the house building that is required to house additional people. The same number of people are living in smaller households. They do not need so much extra water, schools or, we would hope, hospitals.

I find it interesting that the Government have also done no real assessment of the unit size of houses that are being built, so that is developer-led. Lots of flats are being built, which is not necessarily what communities want. In Hertfordshire, we have an ageing population in many places, and older people do not want to live in high-rise blocks of flats; they often want low-rise accommodation, possibly bungalows. We also have a shortage of accommodation for people with disabilities. I feel that all we are doing is bowing down—on the Government’s targets and the relaxation of planning regulations—and having the homes and properties that developers wish to give us. They fulfil housing target densities, but do not deliver the mixed communities that we all want to see our residents living in.

I agree entirely. We need to know the causes of the extra housing targets because they will influence the nature of that housing and the size of the units that we need to build, and therefore the nature of the communities created. It is important that we get an answer, finally, from the Government as to why the housing targets are constantly rising. Are they expecting an accelerating decline in household size? Is that the sole factor lying behind house building or is it, as most of the public assume, because more people are expected to be coming to live in Hertfordshire?

It is my belief, and I have said this before, that the housing growth in Hertfordshire—perhaps a third of the total growth—is largely due to an increase in the population. That increase is not because the birth rate exceeds the death rate in the area, but because more people are moving into it. They are moving in not from the rest of the United Kingdom—from the north, Scotland and Wales—but from London. The increase is not the direct consequence of immigration from abroad—relatively few immigrants move direct into Hertfordshire—but the indirect consequence. Very large numbers of people come to live in London. The substantial bulk of the flow from abroad comes to live in London, and then Londoners of all ethnicities move out to the home counties. That is the pressure that we are facing. If that is the case, that has different consequences for the number, the size and nature of houses that we need to build. The Government should come clean on whether that is what they envisage happening.

I share the right hon. Gentleman’s analysis up to a point, and there is a significant out-migration issue from London, but is there any academic verification for his assertion that immigration is to blame? The only reference I can find is from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which said that out-migration was largely due to natural household growth, growth in the existing population, and older and more affluent households moving out to the urban fringe, and not due to immigration.

On the contrary, if the hon. Gentleman looks at the Joseph Rowntree study and the source of that information—the principal demographers in this country are based in East Anglia and Cambridge—he will find that the pressure of immigration from abroad is leading to the net outflow from London to the home counties. I refer him to a pamphlet, written by myself, that lucidly explains all that. It is called “Too Much of a Good Thing?” It is available for £15 from the Centre for Policy Studies or free on my website. I show the original figures, which have been updated, and they suggest that for the country as a whole, a quarter of all new households—the Government put it at a third—are likely to be due to net immigration from abroad.

As I said before, that is not net immigration direct into Hertfordshire. It is into London and then out. We need to know those figures if we are to understand the nature of the problem and cope with it accordingly. I am afraid that we have had 17 statements from Housing Ministers over the years, and not one of them has even mentioned the issue. I only return to it because of course every time I do, they try to shut me up. As often as they try to shut me up, I will return to the subject. I hope that as a result we shall get more information out of this debate than we have out of previous debates on the subject.

May I add my commendations to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) not only for securing this timely debate—we had one in January but this comes after the conclusion of the formal consultation—but for her excellent identification of another one of the failings of the approach that the Government have taken to the whole issue.

When we consider local housing targets, it is important to remember one of the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), that Hertfordshire is already one of the most densely populated shires in England—I think that it shares that title with Surrey. Given that it has a million people or so, it is no surprise that the Government’s target of up to 93,200 more houses by 2021 has caused the gravest concern. In practice, that would mean 200,000 additional people, which is another 20 per cent., in just 15 years. It is an unprecedented scale of development, and following my right hon. Friend’s remarks, I must say that it is completely out of step with local need.

Ministers love to claim that in Hertfordshire we are against all new development and housing—that we oppose every last brick being placed on another. They are completely wrong. We recognise the need for more homes. Our local authorities have consistently ensured that homes have been built to meet local need. During the past 20 years, East Hertfordshire district council in my constituency has enabled more homes to be built than any neighbouring authority. Since 2001, some 2,140 homes have been built in my district, unlike in neighbouring Harlow in Essex, for example, where just 810 were constructed. We will take no lectures from Ministers on that particular subject. We build while they talk.

We believe, however, that development must be sustainable. It must be underpinned by funded infrastructure, and it must be planned democratically. Sadly, the changes to the panel’s recommendations proposed by the Secretary of State and made to the east of England plan failed on all three counts. Take sustainability, for example. Clearly, a key objective in any natural housing proposal would be for housing and employment targets to equate, yet the Secretary of State wants housing for over 17,000 more people than there will be jobs for.

Take the vital issue of water and sewerage. The panel’s experts made it clear that local development in our area must be delayed because of serious capacity problems, yet as my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans pointed out, the Minister has simply ignored them, saying that the problem could be “overcome with time”. I look forward to seeing the water engineer who can use time to overcome water problems involving piping arrangements and so on. It will be a masterful exercise.

The truth is that the Government have no plan to address existing water problems. They are making no attempt to realise the fundamental obstacle that those problems will create for any new development, never mind one that meets the Minister’s higher targets. If they had come forward and said, “We recognise the issue, we recognise the problem and we will invest money to sort out”—for example—“the Rye Meads sewage works,” we might have considered it and tried to help. But no—instead, we get platitudes such as “overcome with time”.

When I was at the east of England plan, I was told that the water issue was a logistical one, because there was a statutory obligation to supply water. That—just piping—does not address the impact of the abstraction of the water on the fragile ecosystem. The Government seem to have refused to address that point, looking simply at the engineering issues surrounding water supply.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I cannot understand why Ministers are being so foolish. They could make their own jobs easier if they dealt with such matters and analysed them in a professional way. Instead, we get platitudinous nonsense that does not solve the problem for any of us. We wish to be co-operative in this matter, but are unable to do so when we receive that kind of advice.

That is not the only issue on which we feel that the Government have failed. There is the question of Harlow North. The Secretary of State proposes that that speculative development should proceed, and that instead of the original idea of 10,000 houses on the site—which, I should add, is 3,000 acres of green fields—there should now be up to 20,000 houses. Given that the scheme has been rejected twice by the planning process and was completely removed by the Minister’s own panel, why does she now believe that Harlow North should proceed?

Then there is infrastructure. When presented with the initial list of key projects, which included improvements to the roads and railways that we have heard are so congested, the Chancellor refused to fund more than 75 per cent. even of those initial schemes. In other words, the Government would like us to have 200,000 more people in Hertfordshire, but they are prepared to pay for infrastructure for only 50,000. That is just the basic capital project. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden and my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) mentioned, our schools, hospitals and essential services are not being improved. They are being squeezed and in some cases closed.

If the substance of the Government’s housing plans is poor, the way that they have been imposed is even worse. Frankly, it is a tale of incompetence and political chicanery. I wish principally to focus my remarks on how that plan and the housing targets in it were set. We have heard about the failure to provide an appropriate environmental capacity study, but that was not the only failing. First, the consultation process was fundamentally flawed. The East of England regional assembly failed to print and distribute sufficient copies of the plan on which it was supposedly consulting. The result was the nonsense whereby in Bishop’s Stortford, for example, a town of 35,000 people, we were provided with—

No, they were generous. We got two copies of the plan in the library, which caused something of a challenge. It was a 300-page document and people had to queue to see a document that was meant to be publicly available, until some of us shouted and screamed sufficiently loudly. We were told, “Well, this is fine, it’s available on the internet.” Does that mean that people who are not on the internet are not entitled to be consulted? It was a failure of process that was repeated in Hertford, Ware, evidently in St. Albans, and across the region. The regional assembly then withdrew its support for the plan after Ministers’ promises to fund the infrastructure proved to be false. Yet the Government pressed ahead, and the result was the legal nonsense of a plan that was not supported by the body responsible for producing it.

Perhaps the worst example of the shoddy way in which the plan was railroaded through was the episode of the Housing Minister and Harlow North. When the Government-appointed panel of inspectors considered the plan last year, it recognised all the problems of the speculative scheme. Those experts strongly and expressly recommended on 19 June that the new town should not be included in the regional plan. Some people disagreed; the hon. Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell) said that it was unfair and that he wanted to put an alternative to the Government. Of course, as my hon. Friends know, the Government’s own planning rules preclude that. Planning policy statement 11 states that in the period between the panel reporting and the Government responding, any representations would

“undermine the whole examination process and be prejudicial to other participants”.

Thus, until the Government publish their changes, Ministers should receive no representations. Fair enough. Regrettably, the Housing Minister apparently breached that rule, as on 13 July she met the hon. Member for Harlow specifically to discuss housing. In December the Government overturned their own inspectors’ recommendations and reinstated the new town in the plan.

I have raised the issue in the House on several occasions, and all the way through the Government have defended themselves by saying that the junior Minister, who is with us today, is responsible for making the decisions, not the Housing Minister. That defence was meant to distract me from two crucial points. First, the rules do not refer to who makes the decision. They say that no representation should be received by the Government. The Minister for Housing and Planning meeting a local Member of Parliament to discuss housing between the panel’s decision and the Secretary of State’s announcement is clearly a representation. The fact that that Minister will not publish her papers from that meeting, despite requests from constituents under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, on the grounds that she was “engaged in making policy”, only confirms the pertinence of the meeting.

The second point shows Ministers in a worse light. The junior Minister tells us that she is responsible for the east of England plan. Note the present tense—she is responsible for it now. But was she the responsible Minister last July when that crucial meeting took place? To find out, I tabled named day questions for answer on 3 March. Three weeks later—silence from the Department. With the help of the Leader of the House, on the day on which the House rose for Easter, I was finally able to force an answer from the Department. The junior Minister was put in charge of the east of England plan in October—three months after the Housing Minister discussed housing with the Member of Parliament for Harlow. No wonder they did not want to answer my questions.

The housing targets set out in the plan are of great concern to my constituents. Imagine, Lady Winterton, that in your constituency you were to have a new town forced on you, with 25,000 houses on 3,000 acres of green fields, opposed by every parish, town, district and county councillor, which 25,000 people opposed in the consultation. Some 5,000 people in this consultation have said no, yet the Government seek to railroad the plan through by bending and twisting the rules.

My constituents firmly believe that the meeting last July breached the planning rules and in doing so undermined the examination process. That prejudicial action, along with the failure to consult adequately, the absence, as we heard, of an environmental capacity study and the resulting decision to designate a specific development, is grounds for saying that the plan and the housing targets that it includes are fundamentally flawed. If people now challenge the plan, it will be because they wish to see due process, open and transparent governance, and sustainable and deliverable housing targets. On all those counts, the Government, and particularly the group of Ministers that I mentioned, have failed, and they should be held to account.

I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing a debate on this important subject. As a fellow member of the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister—now the DCLG—I know that she understands well the frustrations and challenges of this sensitive area of policy. The issues raised by a debate on housing in Hertfordshire have implications for counties such as my own of Gloucestershire and, indeed, for the whole country.

The background to the issue is that we face multiple crises, including a crisis in housing affordability and an impending environmental disaster. On housing affordability, the situation is worst for those on low incomes and new home buyers, and it is acute for those in otherwise prosperous areas such as Hertfordshire and Gloucestershire. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation study suggests that housing costs in the south of England now take up 40 per cent. of the average earnings of first-time buyers, compared with only 25 per cent. in Scotland. It also suggests that 50 per cent. of younger working households cannot afford to buy a first home in the south of England.

The environmental crisis is also acute, and reference must be made to that, too. The implications of climate change are well known, and I shall not rehearse them today, but the problem in the UK is that emissions are still rising. CO2 emissions have increased by 2.5 per cent. since the Government came to power, adding to the 6 per cent. of global cumulative greenhouse gas emissions that the UK has already produced and the 14 per cent. of current emissions for which the EU is collectively responsible. These days, people often seem to think that we can escape our responsibilities simply by pointing to the emissions of countries such as China and India, but I am afraid that this country’s collective and historic responsibility is still great.

As the Select Committee knows, the Government’s response to the housing crisis has been distinctly one dimensional. Increasingly, it relies overwhelmingly on simply expanding the supply of housing in areas of predicted and current high demand, such as Hertfordshire and Gloucestershire—the so-called predict and provide strategy. Obviously, that delights many commercial developers, for whom building urban extensions around affluent towns such as St. Albans and Cheltenham is more profitable than regenerating inner cities, providing struggling rural communities with small developments that might benefit them as they try to keep their schools and shops open, or providing more housing in lower-income counties such as Cornwall, where an acute affordability crisis is being fuelled by second homes.

In its report last June, the Select Committee touched on issues such as second homes and other factors beyond the basic supply of housing. For instance, we commented on affordability in rural areas, saying:

“The level of demand for private housing in some rural areas fuelled by migration from elsewhere in the UK and the desire for second homes exceeds the potential supply to the extent that any increase in house-building would be unlikely to affect affordability. The provision of social rented and affordable housing is therefore particularly important in these areas. We recommend that the Government increases its allocation to the Housing Corporation for rural areas.”

I should be grateful if the Minister could confirm whether that has yet happened.

Those comments point to several factors beyond the basic supply of houses, including the balance between social and market housing. They raise the issue of migration, which the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) mentioned. They also touch on the desire for second homes.

On the balance between social and market housing, there has been a dramatic shift since the 1970s, when only 50 per cent. of the population were home owners. Today, that figure is 70 per cent.

Obviously, the Conservative policy of right to buy, I am afraid, contributed to that shift, which has undermined the social housing sector. However, the change has not just taken place under the Conservatives. Since 1998, 408,000 social housing units have been sold off and only 180,000 built. Therefore, the right to buy has not been balanced, as it needs to be, with building and buying of new social housing. Also, as credit has been extended ever more unrealistically by mortgage lenders, house prices have continued to rise. It is critical that, as well as examining issues of supply, the Government address issues on the demand side, in particular reinvigorating the social housing sector and examining the mix of tenures.

Migration is also a factor. I will not dwell on that issue much, as the right hon. Gentleman has already discussed it at length. However, I repeat my disagreement with his view that the original cause is international immigration. In fact, I think that household growth, population growth from within the existing population and the flight of older, more affluent households are the key factors.

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that people who come here from abroad do not live in houses, or do not form households? Roughly 200,000 more people come to live here every year than return abroad or emigrate. If they live in households that are bigger in size than the average—say, three people per household rather than two and a quarter—he will be able to work out that that requires 67,000 houses a year.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Of course, I am not saying what he suggests that I am saying. The critical issue is this: why are the people who are moving to counties such as Hertfordshire and other south-eastern counties moving out of London? He suggests that it is because of immigration. I have never seen convincing evidence that that is the case. I suppose that, if the immigration were not happening, one would see more supply—perhaps empty housing—in large urban areas, as one does in the north of England, where the immigration may not be happening to the same extent. The question is not whether the immigration is happening, but why do people move? I do not see any evidence that it is immigration that is causing them to move.

We have already briefly touched on the issue of second homes. They are certainly a factor in some areas. The Liberal Democrat proposal is to examine both planning permission and including second homes in the business rate to discourage their proliferation and the perverse effect that they have on some local housing markets.

I am intrigued by the hon. Gentleman’s proposals on second homes. We all appreciate the particular problems that are faced by individuals and local authorities in certain parts of the world, not least Cornwall. However, can he tell me precisely how a planning regime would designate a second home? What would happen if someone wished to change the registration of their primary residence and their secondary residence? Who would be responsible for monitoring that change of use? Also, what appropriate planning regime would restrict development in such areas, and what impact would that have on the tourist economy?

Given that the subject of the debate is housing in Hertfordshire, I will not get distracted into that subject. I will happily send the hon. Gentleman a copy of the Liberal Democrat White Paper when we get into government and seek to implement the policy in that much detail.

If I can move on, housing supply is obviously a major factor, but it is not the only factor. Therefore, a massive increase of supply should not dominate Government policy in the way that it does. I will give way for the last time.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has the same problem in Cheltenham that we have in St. Albans, which is that people buy many homes. We cannot just say that we will have a tax on second homes. Some people that I know have portfolios of eight, nine or 10 homes. For example, if there are three or four people in a family household, there is nothing to say—we know because we have explored this in the Select Committee—that each of those household members could not be registered for each of those homes. It is a little disingenuous just to say that a tax on a second home would work. In St. Albans, it would not solve the problem, because the property market is so lucrative that people buy property portfolios and keep properties to rent them out on the highly lucrative buy-to-let market.

Before I call Mr. Horwood again, perhaps Members would note that interventions should be relatively brief and not speeches in themselves.

I am very grateful, Lady Winterton. However, just in reply to the hon. Lady, I think that she is slightly confusing buy-to-let with second homes. In counties such as Cornwall, second homes lie vacant for large parts of the year. That was the issue that I was seeking to address.

As I was saying, housing supply is obviously a major factor, but not the only one. I do not think that it should dominate Government policy to the extent that it does, not least because it might not work. That is another point that we emphasised in our Select Committee report last year. The Select Committee concluded that:

“A simple supply and demand model cannot be applied uncritically to the behaviour of the housing market and house prices. The particular nature of the housing market makes it very difficult to be certain about the effect which a certain level of increase in supply will have on prices and thereby affordability…

It is unclear what impact the Government’s objective to increase house building to 200,000 by 2016 would have on affordability.”

We concluded:

“There are many factors, other than supply, which affect the affordability of housing. The Government needs to examine a range of strategies which might influence demand such as interest rates, the availability of credit and taxation, as possible approaches to stemming price rises and improving affordability.”

My point is that it is one thing to say that we need more housing, but it is quite another to continue to rely arbitrarily on a massive increase in supply as the only, or dominant, policy tool in addressing the issues of affordability, especially when, as hon. Members have pointed out, the policy also has grave implications for the environment, sustainability and infrastructure.

Another obvious demand factor is regeneration—in other words, trying to rebalance the scales between areas of high demand, like St. Albans and others in Hertfordshire, and areas which are less well off. I have to acknowledge that the Government have made serious efforts on that front, including the recent announcement in Gloucestershire of significant regeneration money for Gloucester city, which I hope will rebalance the local housing market there. However, the Government risk undermining that with the market-led approach to house building.

One of the most interesting pieces of evidence that the Select Committee received when considering its report was from the West Midlands regional assembly, which said:

“The West Midlands is seeking to halt the out migration of households from the conurbation. The proposed approach by ODPM is market led with the potential for increased development on Greenfield sites in areas of high demand.”

It went on to say that it feared that

“ODPM proposals will undermine developer confidence in the growth of the Major Urban Areas and lead to demands for an ever increasing rural residential land release and further out migration to the Shire Counties. This approach would be highly unsustainable and wholly against the principles of the West Midlands RSS.”

I find it strange that I am arguing with a Labour Minister that the Government are too slavishly in hock to market forces, but that seems to be the case.

I rise simply because I want to commend the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. I will be brief, Lady Winterton. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, in my constituency, the Government’s proposal is to build a new town, supposedly with the aim of regenerating part of Essex, which is across the border in another district? The argument that he has just made is exactly parallel to that. Does he agree that it is nonsense to argue, as the Government do, that building a new town in one county will somehow regenerate another town in another county?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I was not aware of that and I agree with him. The emphasis on building new houses has a particular environmental impact, because it takes the equivalent of some 25 tonnes of carbon to build a new house as opposed to 1 tonne or 2 tonnes to refurbish an existing one. All other things being equal, it is environmentally a much better idea to refurbish and re-use rather than to build new.

The other supply-side issue that I was going to mention is the scandalous number of empty homes. The latest figures that I could find were for October 2005, where the estimate was that there are 723,000 empty homes. Why, therefore, have the Government not taken more policy initiatives on that front? Why have VAT rates, for example, for greenfield developments, for which the rate currently stands at 0 per cent, not been harmonised with those for the repair, modernisation and conversion of existing properties, where work currently attracts VAT at 17.5 per cent.? That would at least encourage some developers to look at bringing more rundown empty houses back into the market.

The environmental impact of all that is clear. Hon. Members have referred to the impact on the water table and the local rivers in Hertfordshire. I understand that the River Ver is under great pressure and that other local rivers quite often run dry as a result of over-extraction. I have also referred the carbon cost of new build as opposed to the re-use of existing housing. There is also the issue of the impact on environmentally friendly forms of transport. I understand from local campaigners that First Capital Connect trains are already full to bursting and that, as the hon. Member for St. Albans pointed out, the A414 is often severely congested. Transport, congestion and pollution are obviously serious environmental threats and I share her alarm regarding those issues.

We are facing such an onslaught because the Government’s instincts are always to overrule from the centre, not to listen to local people, and scarcely to listen to environmental arguments. The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) has offered a forensic analysis of the flaws in the process by which the numbers were arrived at, but the bald facts are that the East of England regional assembly said that it would propose 478,000 new houses—an enormous number—for the east of England. That figure has been more or less arbitrarily increased to 508,000, which may bring the total for Hertfordshire itself to perhaps as high as 100,000 new houses on top of a total existing housing stock of only 500,000. As the hon. Gentleman said, that is a 20 per cent. increase in a relatively short time.

Hon. Members who have spoken so far were right to reject the accusation of nimbyism. I have always considered nimby a childish playground taunt that is used to attack people who are defending their quality of life. Let no one accuse the Liberal Democrats of nimbyism. The Liberal Democrats in Hertfordshire support at least 70,000 new houses in the county—just like I have supported 8,500 new houses in my constituency. I accept that such housing will inevitably be at a higher density than existing housing, but when the Government constantly ratchet up those numbers, we move from development to overdevelopment, which often means overflowing into the green belt. However, this is not just a green belt against non-green belt issue. I am all for an intelligent review of the green belt and there may be areas of the green belt that can be looked at. I do not have an example that is local to Hertfordshire, but in Gloucestershire I strongly support the inclusion of valued green land such as the so-called Leckhampton “white land” into green belt to provide more permanent protection from predatory developers. However, I fully recognise that that cannot always be a one-way process.

I was delighted to receive a letter from Cheltenham race course this morning, which said that a large area of one of its car parks is green belt land that could be usefully surrendered. It would probably be appropriate to use that particular land for a hotel rather than housing, but it shows that green belt land can be intelligently reviewed and that within existing green belt designation, significant brownfield sites that would be appropriate for housing can be found.

Unless a designated brownfield site has been specifically ring-fenced within a green belt, it is part of the green belt and it does not matter whether it is scruffy or unattractive as it performs the useful purpose of stopping coalescence. I caution against advocating building on parts of such land.

The hon. Lady is right up to a point in that an important role for green belt is preventing coalescence, but she is utterly unrealistic in saying that we must have a blanket policy of never building on anything in the green belt. That is hopelessly unrealistic in the current circumstances. I was not at all advocating abandoning the green belt as I strongly support the principles of the green belt and perhaps even a net increase in it. I was saying that an intelligent approach must be taken and that green belt should not be swept aside on the arbitrary whim of the Secretary of State and the Government, who are in pursuit of an unsustainable, unpopular and fundamentally unnecessary policy of overdevelopment.

Order. Before the hon. Gentleman moves on, I wish to point out that we have half an hour left for the other two Front-Bench speakers and it would perhaps be helpful and fair to them if he brought his remarks to a conclusion in a moment.

Thank you for that guidance, Lady Winterton. I was bringing my remarks to a conclusion, but I have had to deal with a large number of interventions.

In conclusion, the Liberal Democrats support and applaud cross-party campaigns run by local campaigners and politicians who oppose overdevelopment in Hertfordshire. We support the “No Way to 10K” campaign in Welwyn Hatfield, which was initiated by the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps). I know that he too has signed the “Hands off Herts” online petition that is on the Prime Minister’s website. The petition was initiated by my good friend, Sandy Walkington, who is a passionate and well informed local campaigner in St. Albans. That online petition is one of the top petitions by number on the Prime Minister’s website and we, too, support it. I urge all local residents to log on and to sign up, including the hon. Member for St. Albans, who, I think, has not yet signed. I hope that she will confirm that she will do so today.

As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Lady Winterton, and it is delightful to see you in the chair. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on initiating the debate; notwithstanding the closing comments of the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), I do not think that anyone could doubt my hon. Friend’s commitment and passion in defending the interests of her constituents and of the county of Hertfordshire in matters of housing and development. It is not through signing petitions, wherever those may be, but through passionate and coherent argument in this place and on doorsteps that a difference can be made. In the two years in which my hon. Friend has served as a Member of Parliament she has made a formidable difference.

I am happy to applaud many of the positive campaigns that the hon. Member for St. Albans has run. I was merely inviting her to sign the very popular local “Hands off Herts” petition, as the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield has done. Perhaps the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) would endorse that from the Conservative Front Bench now.

I am very careful not to stray beyond Surrey Heath when it comes to signing petitions, but I am always anxious to recognise effective campaigning work, and in that context in Hertfordshire there is no one better equipped than my hon. Friends the Members for St. Albans and for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) to teach us all about defending the interests of our constituents.

It is perhaps appropriate that we are debating housing in Hertfordshire this week and that we should note briefly the passing of Robert Jones, the former Member for Hertfordshire, West who was a Member of this House from 1979 to 1997 and served latterly for three years as a Minister in the Department of the Environment with specific responsibility for housing, planning and the environment. One of the themes of the debate has been the way in which those three issues are interconnected. Robert Jones was a model Member of the House, passionately committed to extending the free market principles on which his party had been elected, and at the same time defending the environment of the country that he loved. I know that many hon. Members will want to take the opportunity to attend his funeral, or indeed to write to his widow, and I am sure that we all want to pay tribute to the contribution that he made to his constituents, and the causes that he believed in.

All the speeches in the debate so far have been of very high quality. I mentioned the campaigning skill of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans. In her speech she passionately and effectively made the case for improved local democracy, and for taking account of quality-of-life considerations as well as economic ones when making housing and planning decisions. She also drew to the Minister’s attention very effectively the two key quality-of-life problems that her constituents face—the way in which flatted developments are eroding the historic character of St. Albans, which makes it such a cherishable place to live in, and crucially, the way in which environmental considerations do not have the status that they should have in the Government’s deliberations on housing and planning. That theme was picked up by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley). He rammed home the point that the Government have failed, in the matter of conducting suitable environmental capacity studies, to ensure that their plans for housing are genuinely sustainable.

That is not an argument that is restricted to Conservative Members. A former Minister for Housing and Planning, the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), recently wrote something called “Blueprints for Green Homes: a Housing and Energy Policy for the 21st Century”. In it he asked what guiding principles should be the foundations of a progressive Labour housing policy. By asking that question he implied that the current housing policy was far from progressive. How did he answer it? He said:

“We should never again allow preoccupation with numbers to override issues of quality. Housing policy does not exist in a vacuum but must be developed together with wider economic, environmental and social policies to secure sustainability.”

That is at the heart of the case that my right hon. and hon. Friends have made. I know that it is fashionable on the Labour Benches to characterise Conservative Members of Parliament as nimbys, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) pointed out, in Hertfordshire a significant level of house building has been embraced—positively welcomed—by Conservative members and delivered by Conservative local authorities. As my hon. Friend—who, as a chartered surveyor, has a passionate commitment to the built environment—pointed out, it is Conservatives who build, whereas the Labour party prefers simply to condemn. We can see from the historical record that in every year in which the Conservatives were in power, more social and affordable housing was built than in any year in which Labour was in power. Only in the last two years has the level of market housing under this Labour Government come anywhere near the lowest level under the previous Conservative Government.

The hon. Member for Cheltenham has a sincere and long-standing commitment, which predates his entry into the House, to environmental matters, and those parts of his speech that touched on the environment were the most impressive. I welcome his sentiments, although not all the policy recommendations in his speech, and I am grateful for the way in which he acknowledged the campaigning energy that Conservatives in Hertfordshire have devoted to this cause.

Uniting all the comments from Liberal Democrat and Conservative Members so far in this debate has been scepticism about the way in which the Government seek to balance our genuine need for new housing with other criteria, specifically environmental, but more broadly quality-of-life issues. The Government tend to blame local authorities for the failure to meet housing targets and they argue that the only way in which to meet those targets is by ramping up the numbers that they lay down through their regional spatial strategies and other means. However, as I pointed out with reference to the number of houses built under this Labour Government relative to the number built under the previous Conservative Government, that centralised, statist and, with respect to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Stalinist approach simply has not worked. We know that it has been deleterious to the quality of life in areas such as Hertfordshire, but we also know that it has not brought on stream throughout the country the level of new housing development that we need. That is because our planning system at the moment is broken, overly bureaucratic and insensitive to both democratic and environmental needs.

Those are not my observations, although I passionately believe them; they are the observations of Kate Barker, who was commissioned by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to examine the planning system. She pointed out that under this Government planning has become hugely bureaucratic. The planning encyclopaedia is composed of 12,000 pages—eight volumes—backed up by 201 statutory instrument. That brings costs, not only for those who are attempting to navigate the planning system to defend their local environment, but for taxpayers. In one year, 2004-05, Departments, local government and other public bodies spent almost £100 million simply on planning consultants to negotiate the maze of red tape erected by this Government. No one benefits from that system.

I am quite surprised to hear the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman endorsing the views of Kate Barker. Does he also agree with her that

“It is not the role of local planning authorities to turn down development where they consider there to be a lack of market demand or need for the proposal. Investors who are risking their capital and whose business it is to assess likely customer demand are better placed than local authorities to determine the nature and scale of demand”?

As the hon. Gentleman spoke, I could hear the sounds of an elephant trap being constructed for me, and I shall not on this occasion blunder into it. I believe that Kate Barker is a very effective analyst of many of the problems in the planning system, but I disagree with her prescriptions for some of the things that she thinks we should do. I have raised those in a previous debate, and am happy to discuss them outside this Chamber.

One key point that the Government should acknowledge is that the whole plan-making process is uniquely centralised, and while the citizens and residents of Hertfordshire must live with those decisions, the power rests with the Secretary of State. The Government tend to blame local authorities and Conservative MPs as though the power rested in their hands, but Kate Barker says:

“England has a highly centralised system of land use regulation. There is extensive national policy on issues ranging from density levels to greenfield land targets. Plan-making processes and content are heavily regulated. The Secretary of State also has broad powers to make decisions on planning applications.”

Responsibility rests centrally, and it rests heavily on the Minister to ensure that environmental and quality-of-life considerations weigh with other social and economic factors. My hon. Friends have made a series of points to draw attention to the way in which Hertfordshire is suffering environmentally, and those considerations need to be rapidly brought back into balance.

I said that my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford used to be a chartered surveyor, but I suspect that he missed his true profession. Having listened to him setting out the sorry tale of contact between the Minister for Housing and Planning and the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning, the hon. Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), I have concluded that he should really have been a prosecuting barrister. I, and the whole House, would be very interested to hear the Minister’s explanation of what seems to the Opposition to be a prima facie breach of good practice—or, in the terms used by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans, a stitch-up. Can she unstitch that now?

I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on obtaining the debate. The right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) is here. In January he secured a debate on housing targets in Hertfordshire, and we have continued that debate today. It is a little unfortunate that some of the myths that were expounded then and to which I responded have nevertheless entered this debate, but I shall endeavour to respond to as many points as possible. I hope that hon. Members will bear with me as I set out the necessary explanations, as I did on the last occasion. I shall take interventions towards the end of my contribution if there are issues that I have not dealt with.

Someone with a house that overlooks the countryside might have a different set of priorities from someone whose aspirations for a home have not yet been met. One of the Government’s central dilemmas in dealing with housing is that building houses is unpopular and meets enormous resistance.

I ask hon. Members to consider the following:

“Whenever plans are submitted, or housing allocations in the home counties or further afield are published, there is resistance because people genuinely feel that there is a cost to be paid in terms of land being taken. The answer must be to build on the so-called brown-field sites, but to say that every element of housing need can be satisfied in that way is not only extremely prescriptive but puts more housing on those sites than they can sustain.” —[Official Report, 18 July 1996; Vol. 281, c. 1387.]

Those are not my words, but those of the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) a little more than 10 years ago, which he used in response to the Environment Committee, itself the subject of comments by the hon. Lady. It demonstrates that housing issues and dilemmas have not greatly changed.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) is an experienced speaker who makes his points well, but one gets the impression that prior to 1997 everything was well in the housing world. The Government inherited a £19 billion backlog of repairs for social housing; 2 million houses had failings in basic decency standards; more than 1,800 people were sleeping rough; and families were living in bed and breakfast accommodation. Tackling those problems has been enormously important and a great deal of progress has been made.

On specific issues relating to Hertfordshire, consultation on the Government’s proposed changes to the draft plan ended in March. For reasons of propriety, I cannot engage in a debate about potential further changes before Ministers have carefully considered all the views that were expressed. However, I shall reiterate the rationale for the level of growth not just in Hertfordshire but in all parts of the region and nationally. I also want to put the record straight on the situation in Hertfordshire.

In the winter of 2005-06, an independent panel held an examination in public to test the soundness of the draft east of England plan, which the regional assembly had produced after wide consultation. The panel endorsed the basic thrust of the draft plan, and the Secretary of State’s proposed changes build on that draft. However, the panel made a number of recommendations to improve the plan. It concluded that the case for higher growth had been made, based on population increase, housing needs, affordability and employment needs, and that growth must and could be reconciled with sustainability principles and environmental constraints.

Ministers accepted almost all of the panel’s detailed advice, including its housing proposals for all but one of the 47 districts. I accept that the panel’s recommendations for Hertfordshire are controversial, but it found that the draft housing proposals were unbalanced, and the figures for Hertfordshire in particular were too low.

What are the main reasons for higher growth? I outlined them in January, but they bear repetition. Government policy is to ensure that everyone has the opportunity of living in a decent home that they can afford. Kate Barker’s review of housing supply concluded that the housing market had not responded sufficiently to meet the needs of the country’s ageing and growing population. The Government’s response set a challenging ambition to increase the supply of new housing to at least 200,000 houses per annum by 2016.

The new 2004-based household projections, which indicate that household formation will average 223,000 annually to 2026, underline the urgent need to pursue our ambition and build more homes for this and future generations. Although good progress has been made—from a low of around 130,000 new homes in 2001-02, housing supply has increased to more than 180,000 in 2005-06—we clearly must maintain momentum.

The right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden questioned the basis on which the figures have been put together. I will give a little more detail about the basis of the household projections from the 2004 study. About 8,000 of the 14,000 increase in annual household growth is attributable to an assumed increase in migration. The remaining 6,000 results from increases to the population due to higher life expectancy, changing age structure and higher household formation. Migration counts for about 33 per cent. of the household growth in the 2004-based projection.

House building needs to be increased in all regions. There is already an urban renaissance in northern and midland cities where full use is being made of brownfield land to support jobs and housing growth. For Hertfordshire, the latest forecast of future housing needs is at least 30 per cent. higher than the scale of development most of the local authorities will accept.

Will the Minister try to answer my point? This is not simply about the absolute numbers of houses. There are still more dwellings than households in this country, according to her Department’s statistics. It is about patterns of supply and demand. What other policies, apart from building more houses, is her Department producing?

There is a great deal going on in relation to that. I should be delighted to answer the hon. Gentleman in more detail in a debate on that subject, but the hon. Member for St. Albans has initiated a debate on housing figures in Hertfordshire and I want to concentrate on that specific issue.

No. I need to try to answer the questions that have been asked.

The issue is not just about numbers, but affordability. Housing affordability problems are acute in the south where, as elsewhere, the majority of households want to own their own home. Increasing numbers cannot afford to do so, including many key workers and families. In Hertfordshire, the ratio of average house prices to lower quartile household earnings is about 12:1, making it the most unaffordable county in the east of England. Many more homes are needed if local people are to find decent homes. Not building enough—a mix of rented housing, equity share, and homes for the majority who want to buy—will just make affordability problems worse.

What about the environment? As the panel pointed out, growth and living within environmental limits are not alternatives, but joint imperatives. The proposed changes to the draft plan represent that new benchmark in reconciling growth with sustainability. We have taken the panel’s recommendations one step further and propose to set in place stronger policies and clear targets to reduce water consumption, improve energy efficiency and drive up recycling of waste.

I am grateful to the Minister for rereading the report that I quoted earlier, but it does not explain the environmental capacity studies that need to be done and which the Government have obviously failed to address and do themselves.

If the hon. Lady will bear with me, I am just coming to that. I was paying attention to her speech. We take the environmental pressures of our house building programmes very seriously. Indeed, one of the benefits of the sustainable communities plan and growth areas is that housing growth can be handled strategically. That allows us to focus more on environmental implications. There is a well-established process for appraising the sustainability of housing plans, which is to prepare sustainability appraisals of regional and local plans. Those are tested thoroughly through the examination process, with inspectors making recommendations that take account of the sustainability—

On a point of order, Lady Winterton. Is it appropriate for the Minister simply to read out a report verbatim when hon. Members have asked specific questions? She is making no attempt to address the matters that have been raised.

Hon. Members have put a range of questions. They have asked about environmental assessments and I am responding to that.

If the hon. Gentleman would contain himself and listen, I might be able to make progress and he might get some of the answers that he seeks.

There is a well-established process for appraising the sustainability of housing plans. Those are tested thoroughly through the examination process, and inspectors make recommendations that take account of sustainability and other issues that are raised during the process. The Government’s response to the Barker review of housing supply was accompanied by a research report on the sustainability of additional housing scenarios in England. That covered the environmental impacts of things such as land take, construction materials, waste, energy and water, as well as wider sustainability issues such as the impact on local economies and communities.

The response to Barker was accompanied by a number of environmental measures, such as the announcement that 10 per cent. of growth in the newer growth areas would be devoted to green spaces, with plans for the newer growth points to be developed in conjunction with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Environment Agency. Since then, we have been working on ways of ensuring that the environmental impacts of housing development are managed carefully—for example, by consulting on a timetable to zero carbon housing development by 2016; using areas of housing growth, such as Northstowe in Cambridgeshire, as environment exemplars; and announcing that the Government would consider proposals for new eco-towns.

It is not surprising that the issue of water has been raised. I understand concerns about water resources, especially as the east of England is our driest region, and I acknowledge the particular problem of low river flows in parts of Hertfordshire. However, it is people who use water, not houses. The Government, the water regulators, the water companies and communities working together have a shared responsibility to steward water resources and avoid waste to ensure that occupiers of existing and new housing have sufficient water supplies now and in future.

At national level, the Government have consulted on options for regulating for minimum standards of water efficiency in new homes and commercial buildings. Proposals for higher water standards are being taken forward through the new code for sustainable homes. The Environment Agency and water companies, as statutory consultees—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

The Environment Agency and water companies, as statutory consultees for both the regional spatial strategy and the local development frameworks, play an important role in informing planning authorities and independent inquiries at key stages of the plan-making process. Water companies have 25-year, forward-looking water-resource plans, which they review every five years and which are reviewed annually by the agency. The plans take into account the supply-and-demand balance for a specific area, and include new household growth and population changes as part of the planning process.

Referring specifically to the east of England, the Environment Agency’s technical work has indicated that sufficient water resources will be available to support the proposed level of growth, provided that significant water savings are achieved and planned new water infrastructure is put in place. The Government have proposed new regional targets on reducing per-capita water consumption and policies to ensure the timely provision of additional water infrastructure and a co-ordinated approach. That will include a programme of water-cycle and river-cycle studies to address water supply and waste-water treatment issues in different parts of the region.

We have heard a great deal about the lack of assessment and everything being centrally dictated. Nothing could be further from the truth. The regional assembly put together the proposals and undertook a sustainability appraisal, which was subject to consultation. The proposed changes were also subject to a sustainability appraisal, which showed the plan moving towards sustainability. The plan was particularly positive about the approach to carbon emissions and water.

Before the Minister moves off carbon emissions, which nearly slipped through, will she comment on my specific points about the M25 junctions 20 to 21, the M1, the A1(M), the A414 and the M10, all of which have significant pollution levels that are already considered to be unsustainable?

On transport and infrastructure generally, of course there are important issues about providing additional infrastructure support. We have already made substantial commitment to investment in the region through sources such as the growth area fund support for local delivery vehicles and the transport innovation fund. Those issues are clearly important and will be dealt with by the plans as we go forward.

The Government are committed to the principle of the green belt and propose no fundamental changes to policy, as I said last time we debated this. The green belt performs a vital role in containing urban sprawl, supporting urban regeneration, protecting the openness of the countryside and preventing coalescence between nearby towns. Any proposals to alter green belt boundaries must be pursued through the plan-making process and are subject to public consultation and inquiry, such as the recent examination in public into the draft east of England plan. Boundaries can only be changed in exceptional circumstances.

The Government are committed to minimising any loss of green belt to development. Policy remains to make best use of brownfield development opportunities before considering whether exceptional circumstances justify any release of green belt.

The proposal for Harlow North, which the Minister made in her changes to the draft plan, is based on using 1,500 acres of green belt. Are those exceptional circumstances?

The hon. Gentleman knows that for propriety reasons I am not able to comment on the proposals at the moment. I am setting out the general policy framework.

The hon. Gentleman can laugh about this, but it is an important issue. He has raised many questions about propriety and it is very clear that, as I said at the outset, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the proposed changes at this stage. He has raised many issues and we have responded.

No, I need to continue.

The Government are committed to minimising any loss of the green belt to development. Hertfordshire local authorities are to be commended for the way in which they have sought out and made best use of any opportunities to justify exceptional circumstances, but they know better than most the limits before problems of “town cramming” start to impinge on the quality of urban life. The pressing need for more housing coupled with the regeneration and wider sustainability benefits of expanding the new towns provides the exceptional circumstances that justify amending green belt boundaries in a small number of locations in Hertfordshire and Essex where major growth is to be concentrated.

Will Hertfordshire’s green belt be concreted over? As I said before, absolutely not. Only about 3 per cent. of Hertfordshire’s existing green belt will need to be built on to provide sufficient development land for the long term. The rest, some 97 per cent., will remain, and we are putting in place a stronger framework to make it greener and more accessible for recreation. There should be no question of towns merging together and losing their identity. National policy continues to be that green belts must prevent coalescence between nearby towns, and local decisions on green belt boundaries in Hertfordshire must respect that principle.

The Government’s targets for each English region are to maintain or increase the area designated as green belt. Since 1997, the amount of green belt land across the country has increased by 26,000 hectares. In Hertfordshire, the proposal is to extend the green belt by designating about three times the area that is proposed to be removed. Green belt is not being added for the sake of it, but to achieve sound planning objectives, to set clear long-term limits to development and to protect the surrounding areas from inappropriate development pressures.

Hon. Members asked about infrastructure. Central to our vision for sustainable communities is that development must be supported by the full range of infrastructure. We are proud of our track record of support for growth in the region, and we want to ensure that future investment is adequate, within the constraints of public expenditure.

In Hertfordshire, as elsewhere, the Government are working to achieve genuinely sustainable development to meet real housing and other development needs while respecting environmental limits.

Broomhill Bank Special Needs School

It is a great pleasure to serve for the first time under your chairmanship, Lady Winterton, and I am delighted to do so. I am also delighted to have an opportunity to talk about a school that is extremely important to my constituents and those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) and my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon), both of whom share my interest in this very special special school. I am delighted that they are here today.

I shall briefly lay out the bald facts about the school. Broomhill Bank is a girls’ school. It educates girls with moderate learning difficulties. It is designated to take 92 pupils, of which 66 are residential pupils. Currently, the school has 83 pupils, including 29 in the 16-plus unit. I mention that unit because I shall go on to talk about it in a little more detail. Of the 29 pupils in the 16-plus unit, 20 are in residential accommodation at the school, and half of them are accounted for by Kent county council and half by other local authorities.

Those are the bald facts about the school. The reality of the contribution that it makes is apparent as soon as one walks through the door. The moment one enters the school, one senses an atmosphere of support, gentleness and great enthusiasm for learning. Broomhill Bank is an inspirational place to visit, and Members who have visited the school will have experienced that clearly. To enter a classroom is to see girls who have many challenging difficulties to overcome making huge progress. The care that teachers and other members of staff take over their education dispels all doubts about whether Broomhill Bank is a most valuable place for them to receive an education. There is a real joy in learning, and it is a measure of the support that the school enjoys in the community that so many people have risen up to support it in recent weeks. I am delighted to say that a large number of supporters—members of staff and the governing body, parents and pupils—have travelled to Westminster today to be part of this day and this debate.

The facts on the performance of the school are, equally, not in doubt. We only have to look at the recent Ofsted inspection results. Ofsted visited the school in 2006 and said that it was an outstanding school, with

“many outstanding features that justify its high reputation as both a day and a residential school.”

In particular, its residential and 16-plus units were described as excellent and outstanding. Ofsted commented:

“Pupils are very well prepared for the future by the many opportunities provided to develop their independence and teach them how to succeed in life after school.”

The county council’s officer has admitted that Broomhill Bank is a quite outstanding school. The Commission for Social Care Inspection, the body that inspects the organisations that care for people in a residential setting, has given Broomhill Bank easily the highest rating of any special residential school in Kent. There can be no doubt that this school enjoys conspicuous success and is a real jewel in the crown of Kent’s education system.

What is the reason for this debate today and for the great public concern about what is being proposed for the school? There is a review of the status of Broomhill Bank school that contains five proposals. The first is that the designation of the school as one catering for pupils with moderate learning difficulties should change so that it caters for those with communications and interaction difficulties. I shall talk a little bit about that. The second proposal is that the school should no longer be a girls’ school, but should become co-educational. The third is that the valuable 16-plus unit should be abolished. The fourth is that the residential status of the school should be abolished, too. The fifth, which is a concomitant of these changes, is that the authorised number of pupils in the school should fall from 92 to 56 on site, with provision for another 24 as an outreach service. We need to be clear that that would destroy the ethos of Broomhill Bank school and this successful school would no longer be a recognisable version of the one that we see today. That is a short-sighted measure. I also fear that this might be the beginning of the end for the school, because to reduce it to 56 pupils on site—almost half the current authorised number—and to remove the residential accommodation calls into question the viability of a school that size. It is important that we resist this set of proposals.

Some hon. Members would like to speak, so I shall confine my remarks to two aspects of the proposals. First, the 16-plus unit of the school is a beacon of excellence in our county. What are the consequences of removing it? Doing so will force girls at the age of 16 into colleges of further education that cater for adults, not just children. Let us think about the consequences. I am sure that we have all visited colleges of further education in our constituencies. I have done so. They tend to be rather intimidating, chaotic places—although that is not to disparage them at all—full of young adults rushing from one place to another, with a bewildering myriad of courses on offer. They do not offer the nurturing familiarity and sense of structure and routine that a school offers. To remove children struggling with disadvantages from a caring environment into an alien environment is not just foolish, but damaging to their self-confidence.

Let us consider girls in the mainstream education system. Most secondary schools in Kent have sixth forms, because we recognise that between 16 and 18 the continuity of education, care and the familiarity that the teachers have with their charges is beneficial to them. Why is that approach good enough for pupils who do not suffer the learning difficulties that the pupils of Broomhill Bank do, and why should it be good enough for grammar school pupils to benefit from a sixth form while girls with moderate learning difficulties who struggle to cope are denied that choice and are forced to go into adult further education? That is an injustice.

We should be aware of the difficulties that some of these girls face. Having talked to the recent headmaster of the school, I am conscious of the fact that when some girls first come to Broomhill Bank their communication difficulties are so extreme that they find it difficult even to communicate directly with members of staff. The excellent recent headmaster, Mr. Barnett, described to me the case of one girl. She has now blossomed into a self-confident young woman but when she first came to Broomhill Bank she communicated with staff through the device of her pet toy cat. Girls who struggle to communicate need special help, and to send them into an adult further education college is an act of cruelty.

The second thing on which I want to concentrate is the residential aspect of the school. The majority of 16-plus students have a residential place at the school, so it is no great surprise that it is the 16-plus unit that is coming under attack. There is an orthodoxy that deprecates residential provision at all costs, which is unfortunate because a diversity of provision is important. When we think about residential provision of education, it is important to consider what that means at a school such as Broomhill Bank. It does not mean Dickensian dormitories that are a relic of the 19th century—far from it.

Such provision means 24-hour education and girls spending four nights a week with their colleagues, not in a dormitory but, in effect, in a flat, in which they help each other to live: they make friends and deepen friendships; they look after each other; they are responsible for their own cooking; and they help to do their own laundry. They are learning the skills that they will need to live in the wider world, which they soon enter. Let us get rid of the idea that this is in any sense an old-fashioned way of offering education—far from it; it is bang up to date and is helping young people to develop the confidence and skills that they need to succeed and prosper in the outside world.

I should like to raise three particular issues in connection with this residential provision. First, as I have mentioned, half the residential places are taken by other local education authorities. Sometimes the county council regards that as a negative thing, but I regard it as entirely positive because it shows that other LEAs are choosing the benefits of this school for their own pupils. I hope that the Minister will agree that it is entirely consistent with the Government’s approach of providing a more regional view of special schools, so that one county is not expected to maintain all of the provision in its own area. This school is used widely by other local authorities, and we should celebrate that. There is certainly not a charge on the Kent council tax payer for the places that are taken up by other authorities.

Secondly, in evaluating the cost-effectiveness of interventions such as residential accommodation, we should examine the quality of outcomes. It could well be that any money saved by forcing pupils into day provision and mainstream provision against their will and that of their parents is a false economy, not only in financial terms but in terms of outcomes and achievements. I am concerned that nowhere in the consultation document is there an adequate assessment of the comparative value of residential education for these girls who have been statemented as being able to benefit from it versus the use of other schools in the mainstream.

There is an inspiring example of a former pupil at the school, whose name I shall change to Carrie. When she was first considered for admission to Broomhill Bank, she had been excluded from two primary schools and was, in effect, in a pupil referral unit for secondary school pupils. When the head teacher approached her to see whether she would like to be considered for inclusion at Broomhill Bank, she said, “You won’t want me. My behaviour is too nutty.” I have been told that the girl went on to manage her behaviour and attained a maths GSCE at the school as well as an A-level in maths. She is now working extremely successfully as a financial adviser at Barclays bank. There are many more inspiring tales about the school and it is important that we keep hold of such stories and recognise that such matters cannot just be reduced to numbers, but that we must look at the unimpeachable outcomes.

I shall highlight what is a painful issue for many people. Certain pupils at the school who benefit from the residential unit have troubled home lives. In some cases, their learning, emotional and behavioural difficulties are connected with their life at home. Having the opportunity to spend four nights a week outside of the family home, but in a supportive, caring educational environment, can be the difference between their needing foster care or even permanent local authority care and being able to continue their lives with their families. We all know the devastating emotional consequences and the poor national record in respect of children in care, so an investment that allows them to be well educated and to stay in touch with their families is extremely important. I regret that nowhere in the consultation proposals does that feature, which is one of the reasons why I very much hope that the proposals will be shelved so that they can be looked at properly.

I said that I would not take up too much time so that other colleagues who wish to contribute to the debate can do so, but I wish to conclude by drawing attention to the point we are at in the consultation process. The proposals have been laid before the public. Last month, a public meeting was held at which people could comment on the proposals. Such was the level of passion and the contribution that people wanted to make to the discussion that it started at 7 o’clock in the evening and went on until midnight. I have been told that, as at 28 March, 984 written responses had been made to the consultation process. Of those responses, three were in favour; 981 were against.

If, as I hope, the consultation process is genuine and its purpose is to consider the views of parents, members of staff and pupils, no serious person could conclude from the evidence that has been presented anything other than that the school is admired widely educationally, loved by its pupils, cherished by their parents and valued very highly by the local community.

Kent county council is excellent. I criticise it only with great reluctance and the fact that the consultation has not been properly conducted in respect of the evidence and information that it has received will, I hope, lead it to live up to its high standards and reflect the views not only of myself, parents and other supporters, but of the local county councillor, John Davies, who is firmly in support of my proposals. I am grateful for his support.

The school is very special. We want to keep it a very special school. I hope when the Minister responds that he will feel able to support our ambitions for Broomhill Bank and our ambitions for it to continue to have the ability to offer the type of education that it has offered successfully to so many girls over the years.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), my constituency neighbour, for allowing me to make a brief contribution to his debate. I support the extremely compelling case that he has made for the retention of the present status of Broomhill Bank school with illustrations from two constituents of mine who have daughters at the school and who have given me permission to quote from their letters to me.

Mr. Henry Street from Penshurst wrote:

“Our 11 year old daughter has moderate learning difficulties/speech and language delay, and is lucky enough to attend Broomhill Bank School in Rusthall, Kent…Since joining Broomhill Bank our daughter has thrived in its unique and special environment. Her confidence and self esteem have blossomed and we have seen a dramatic improvement in her academic ability since joining from her Primary School….The 16+ unit prepares girls for adult life within the community far better than a mainstream day college ever could.”

Helen, the daughter of my constituent Mr. Adrian Belither, has Down’s syndrome and is at Broomhill Bank. He writes:

“Our daughter's time at Broomhill Bank has been a revelation. She has blossomed from a shy young girl in to a confident and resourceful young woman and her progress will only be enhanced by her time in the 16+ Unit in to which she will enrol in September this year. Although her place is assured for the time the unit remains in existence, this re-designation removes the opportunity for all the girls following her and for that I feel dreadfully sad.”

I also feel dreadfully sad. Broomhill Bank is an outstanding school doing an outstanding job by the girls attending it. Like my hon. Friend, I earnestly hope that Kent county council will reconsider the proposal and withdraw it.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) on securing this debate and the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) on his contribution to it.

Our responsibility in government is to ensure that children and young people with special educational needs are well served. Regrettably, some recent news coverage has contained fundamental misunderstandings about our policies in respect of special provision. I shall clear those up at the start. For the record, we have no policy to close down special schools, although I appreciate that that has not been said during the course of this debate. Nor do we have a policy to force pupils into mainstream schools without regard for their individual situations. Since the publication in 2004 of our long-term strategy for special educational needs, the overriding aim has been to build capacity across the whole education system by giving local authorities the power to determine the most appropriate range of provision for local children.

Special schools have an important role to play in meeting the particular needs of some children. I want to make it clear that we value special schools extremely highly. Before I turn to Broomhill Bank, I shall explain the process involved in making changes to a special school. As has always been the case, changes will continue to be made to individual schools—special and mainstream—in the light of local needs and demands. Openings, closures and redesignations of schools are not matters on which central Government decide; they are, as the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling made clear, local matters for local consideration. When a local authority proposes a change to a school, it first conducts a local consultation exercise. Only when that is complete will the authority decide whether it will publish a formal statutory notice. I understand that that is the position of the Kent local authority and Broomhill Bank at present.

Broomhill Bank is a good school that is popular with the parents of the children who attend it. Nevertheless, it may be necessary to keep pace with local change. I understand that Kent has a £105 million special school capital investment plan, which is already under way to adapt schools to meet children’s changing needs. That considers Broomhill Bank to be a part of that wider jigsaw of local provision. As the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells said, the school is designated to take up to 92 girls and has up to 66 residential places. However, I understand that currently there are only about 28 residential pupils, more than half of whom, as he said, are placed at the school by local authorities other than Kent.

In recent years, the pupil profile of the school has changed and the school has already begun to accommodate a number of pupils with more complex needs. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned that Kent county council is consulting on a proposal to change the school from being girls-only to being co-ed, expand the range of special educational needs that it caters for, discontinue residential provision and change the age range from seven to 19, to five to 16.

Kent county council’s consultation proposes that Broomhill Bank school will provide for boys and girls aged five to 16 with autistic spectrum disorders and/or specific language disorders. The school will act as a centre of expertise for communication and interaction in the west Kent area. There are already special schools in the mid and east Kent areas that similarly provide for children with communication and interaction difficulties.

The consultation period ends next week, and responses to the consultation will be reported to a meeting of Kent’s school organisation advisory board on 16 May. That meeting will be open to the public and to the press and only then will a decision be made whether to bring forward a formal proposal.

I recognise—I can see it myself—that the future of the school has attracted much local interest. Two hundred people attended a public meeting on the proposals on 7 March and it would be unusual if such an alteration to a school, especially a good school, did not cause consternation, but we would all agree that these changes are not taken lightly by the local authority. Nor are they to be decided unilaterally. Kent has used the normal consultation process and has consulted local schools, governors and parents. If it decides to proceed with the proposals, everyone, whether or not they have been involved in the consultation process thus far, will have the opportunity to put forward their objections, or to make comments following publication of the proposals, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will do so.

The consultation has not quite closed, as the Minister said. If the final tally of objectors versus supporters is consistent with the present pattern, which, as I said, is 981 against and three in favour, what will he conclude from it?

I will come in a moment to the role of Ministers and the local authority in the process. Obviously, the consultation is not an opinion poll, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware. I will happily come on to the role of the Department in a moment.

If there are objections during the formal objection period, the matter may then be referred to the independent schools adjudicator, whose decision will be final.

Although it is ultimately a local decision, I want to say a few words about the future process of school reorganisation involving children with special educational needs. The availability of alternative provision is one of the most important considerations when a local authority proposes changes to school provision which would result in pupils being displaced. That is why we are introducing a special educational needs improvement test and setting it out in guidance. It means that, when a local authority is proposing any reorganisation of SEN provision, the authority will have to demonstrate how the proposed alternative arrangements are likely to lead to improvements in the standard, quality and range of SEN provision. We have recently completed consultation on the guidance and after analysing the responses we expect to issue the guidance later this year.

As many will be aware, the proposed changes at Broomhill Bank are part of Kent’s 2002 special school review, which led to the county plan for special schools. The plan identified a need to provide more places for children with autism, behavioural, emotional, social and/or complex medical needs. Kent is addressing the shortfall in places for certain types of need and seeking to reduce the travelling times to schools, especially for primary-age pupils.

Broomhill Bank is the last of the special schools to face proposed changes. In this instance, children should not be displaced as a result of the planned alterations. I understand that pupils who are already at Broomhill would continue to attend the school until they finish their schooling, even if that takes them up to their 19th year. Should the proposals go ahead, the implementation date will be a year from now, as the school buildings will require significant refurbishment, including the development of a new multi-agency service space for use by therapists and other professionals.

Although I understand the concerns that the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells has represented about making changes to what Ofsted has described—I agree—as a good school, changes to schools must be local matters born of local insight and knowledge. As Kent is carrying out a proper consultation process, it would not be right for me as a Minister to make any comment that might influence that decision. I am sure that that is the answer that the hon. Gentleman was expecting as well.

I need to make a bit of progress, because a couple of contributions have curtailed the time and I want to come to some of the points about post-16 provision if I can. There is a shortage of specialist autism provision. In general, the Government welcome the development of provision to meet that shortage. It will benefit the children in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, I am sure.

We cannot dictate from Whitehall, and I do not think that anyone would want us to. To improve outcomes for children with special educational needs takes the insight and sensitivity of those familiar with the local situation and local issues. It is clear that Kent has thought long and hard about how to provide the best possible education for special needs children in the authority, and that it has ambitious plans to use capital investment —£105 million of it—to achieve its vision. I hope that the concerns of local parents and constituents can be addressed fully, and that through open dialogue, a consensus benefiting all local children can be achieved.

The hon. Gentleman also made some points about post-16 provision. Were Kent to proceed with the proposal, girls with moderate learning difficulty who might previously have attended the school would be able, for example, to attend other local schools.

Local Government (Cornwall)

It is a pleasure to be under your chairmanship, Lady Winterton, as we discuss what I know you also believe is an important subject—local government reform. It is extremely important to the whole of Cornwall. I hope to speak for only a few minutes, to allow other hon. Members to participate as well. It is important to everybody in the county.

It might be helpful to provide some context. I shall take the past 20 years as a convenient period, because it straddles 10 years of Conservative rule and 10 years of Labour Administration. For the first 10 years I was a councillor, and for the last 10 years I have of course been the MP for South-East Cornwall.

The first 10 years were an interesting time. We suffered the poll tax and then the interim tax known as council tax, which many of my constituents still suffer. We endured the sell-off of our council housing, so that we now have virtually none available in the county for those who require it. We experienced water privatisation, which has given us the highest water bills in the whole country—some £200 a year more than anybody else. Our agricultural industry grappled with the BSE fiasco. Some schools had a preponderance of outside toilets, as well as classrooms that were not weatherproof. Cancelled road schemes caused major congestion for our tourist industry. Threats of hospital closures brought thousands on to the streets, and the deregulation of our buses has left us with virtually no public bus transport in the county.

When we were told 10 years ago that things could only get better, we had no doubt that that was the case. But now we see no change in council tax, which is still going up. We are still enduring water charges, despite many petitions, debates, letters and meetings with Ministers. Thankfully, we have not had BSE, but we had foot and mouth, and the latest fiasco, the single farm payment, has hardly assisted our agricultural industry. Our hospitals remain threatened, and even today we are concerned about whether they will continue. Our public transport remains decimated. I must acknowledge that we have had some school building, that two valuable road schemes are in progress and that we have had some very modest progress on social housing, but now, of course, we have the spectre of no NHS dentistry.

One might therefore imagine that the people of Cornwall are not exactly best pleased with how they find themselves, after 20 years of overriding centralisation by two Administrations. The greatest feature of that has been the central diktat and the centralisation of decision making, controlled by endless rounds of debilitating bidding for almost everything under the sun, targets that have skewed performance and wasted billions of pounds, and bureaucracy in every public service so that we are paying more and more for less and less.

Plans for the reform of local government therefore have a hollow ring for many people who just want central Government to butt out and restore real local government. We need 21st-century administration, a modernised funding structure and a new relationship between central and local government built on understanding, respect and trust, with a recognition that each has a distinctive role but neither has a monopoly on wisdom. The task is not to be underestimated, and only radical, fundamental change will do.

To endure the upheaval, change and additional work required in any reform process, the reward must be substantial. Its essence must be devolution; a devolution of responsibilities and above all of resources and decision making. That must happen from the very top to the bottom, with powers devolved down from central and regional government, regional quangos and the counties to the lower tiers. It clearly cannot be achieved overnight but there must be agreement that it is the direction in which we must travel, and some sort of milestones or timetables must be established.

It would be premature and inappropriate to go into great detail about how that can be achieved, and in any case it must be tackled by those who will be affected locally by any change. Change must not just be imposed on them once again by an overbearing central Administration on a “we know what’s best,” one-size-fits-all basis. I wish at this stage merely to emphasise that only a proper return to locally elected, accountable bodies will satisfy the people of Cornwall. I have tried to indicate in the past 20 years how they have been affected and how they have suffered, and I hope that the Minister appreciates that the decision to be taken in the next few months is extremely important.

We have for 20 years endured interference, maladministration, the decline of services, increasing tax and charges and excessive bureaucracy. Frankly, the people of Cornwall have had enough. We want a strong, accountable strategic authority for Cornwall responsible for dealing with our economic regeneration; inadequate public transport system; dearth of affordable housing, local health care services, local schools, post offices and shops; underfunded community facilities and much more. The existing structures are simply inappropriate. They are wasteful and have too much duplication and overlapping. There are many examples of that, such as in the waste services, whereby the district councils are responsible for collection and the county council for disposal, and in parking, which is in conflict on and off-street.

There are too many quangos with no elected representation. Current problems with our primary care trusts and health services are a supreme example. It has become too time-consuming to do things; there is too much consultation between inefficient bodies, so it takes far too long to achieve anything. Most of the time, the services are not directly responsible for what local people want and pay for.

Cornwall is distinctive. Its history, culture, geography and well defined community mean that Trelawney’s army has in every sense had to march on many occasions more recent than a few hundred years ago. People have been out on the streets to protest against the poll tax, to save threatened hospitals, to oppose rail service cuts, to restore bus services and to save their post offices and small schools. Yes, they have also come all the way up here to invade Twickenham and support Cornish rugby—and at this stage we all ought to congratulate the Pirates for their victory on Sunday.

The Government have a real opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to localism, which we hear about all the time—not by some anaemic, sterile, bog-standard unitary authority but a full-blooded devolution of powers and responsibilities to forge a new partnership between central and local government. That will benefit both parties, but above all it will provide a real response to the people of Cornwall who have suffered for too long from external and remote decision making that has caused so much misery.

It is an enormous pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed), whose remarks I thoroughly endorse. I fully appreciate that the Minister will be constrained by law as to what she can say in response to the points and questions raised through today’s debate. She also has the pleasure, as I think if it, of having the box set—the full parliamentary team for Cornwall—here to listen to her words in a moment.

The underlying theme of what we wish to convey to the Minister and the Government today is that we do not want to see simply the delivery or imposition of a Government agenda in Cornwall as a result of this great opportunity. We should be working with Ministers to ensure that Cornwall is enabled to provide a Cornish solution to our problems. That may mean having a different solution from those that may apply in different parts of the country, and I hope that the Minister will be reasonable and flexible where that is concerned. I have in fact recently written to her colleague, the Minister for Local Government, to seek a meeting between ourselves, the county council and other councils in Cornwall who are supporting the bid in order to take some of these issues a stage further forward. I hope that the Minister will encourage her colleague to accede to that request.

The key issues that we need to have addressed are currently threefold. First, because pain inevitably comes with reorganisation—and there will be a great deal, particularly for those councils that are abolished, and the jobs and democratically elected positions that will be lost as a result of that reorganisation—there is enormous anxiety and a tremendous and, I would argue, a gathering opposition to the proposal in Cornwall at the moment. We must listen to that and take great account of it, but it is critical that we ensure that that pain is balanced with significant gain along the lines that my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cornwall has just explained. In other words, we need a demonstration that the Government are prepared to devolve strategic decision-making powers to Cornwall in the fields of health, economic development, planning, police and other services.

Unless there is at least some indication that the Government will meet that ambition—and be prepared to talk with us about those issues, so that those ambitions can be taken forward in future negotiations—I fear that this process will stall very quickly in Cornwall. As I am sure the Minister fully appreciates, we have strong ambitions for the future of Cornwall. In fact, we believe that the city region agenda should apply to Cornwall. We are in fact the rural equivalent of a city region, and we hope that chapter 4 of the White Paper will apply to Cornwall.

Secondly, the current bid has plenty of opportunity for disagreement, and that is currently being fully exploited by its opponents, particularly on subordinate matters about the numbers of members, where the boundaries of community networks may apply and so on. My real point for the Minister is: some of those subordinate issues—about numbers and boundaries, and the devolution within Cornwall to community networks, parish councils and others—are ones on which we could so easily be tripped up, given the opposition to them, that it is important that the Minister gives us real clarity and that flexibility can be applied. It would be helpful to receive clear advice on the extent to which the Government are prepared to allow flexibility in the bid document that was lodged by Cornwall county council. The council would like to explore the extent to which the proposals in the document might change in the coming months without invalidating the bid.

My third point relates to the 12-week time period. I share the concerns of some district councils that are gathering in opposition to the bid, which argue that there should be a longer period of consultation. There is good reason for optimism, but I fear that a short consultation period will give opponents of the reorganisation of devolution and local government in Cornwall more grist to the mill and a greater chance of success in generating strong opposition to the bid, as we will not have the opportunity to explore the flexible, alternative solutions that are required to enable us to make a positive bid for Cornwall. I hope that the Minister will indicate whether there is any flexibility in the consultation period.

I shall speak briefly as the Minister needs time to respond. I thank her for agreeing to allow flexibility in the timings. I passionately believe that Cornwall has a great future and that the people of Cornwall are better able to determine their future on the many issues that they face than people elsewhere. Many of the issues are unique to the county due to its geography, its isolation from London and its high poverty levels.

I welcome the fact that the White Paper has provided the opportunity to change the way that Cornwall is governed. It is great news that that has happened and that the Government have begun to recognise that local solutions and local strength of decision making are important. I suspect that Ministers agree that there has been too much movement over the years in the opposite direction towards centralisation. The Minister should understand that there is excitement about this move. There is willingness in the county to grasp the opportunity and we want to see the process move forward. There is huge support for that.

I want to stress strongly that Cornwall’s proposals are built on a notion of natural communities. They are communities of interest in which people come together; they understand the community in which they live and work and they understand its shared interests. Double devolution, which is proposed by the Cornwall bid, is a significant part of that process. The first level of devolution is to provide Cornwall with a stronger voice in its affairs and with those who govern it at national and regional level. In the county, there is no sense of a shared community interest in the artificial bureaucratic construct—it was originally Conservative, more recently it has been Labour—of the wider, south-west region. Bluntly, telling anybody in a street in my constituency that they share an agenda with people in Swindon will ring no bells whatever.

The first part of the bid is to say, let us have a greater say in our future, with our particular identity and interest and our relative isolation from London. We want to devolve down some of the powers that are held at regional level, the best example of which is the arcane, bureaucratic, objective 1 process, now the convergence funding process, that we have to go through for agreement on European funding. Half a dozen Departments and the region can all have a say in decisions on relatively small amounts of expenditure that are specifically allocated to the community of Cornwall. The process has not had a good track record; there have been some good projects that were supported in Cornwall, but some pretty dodgy deals, not supported in Cornwall, have slipped through the net, blown up in the faces of the region and Departments and caused huge embarrassment. I could point to other examples, such as the strategic housing agenda on which I have commented today, where willingness on the part of central and regional government to let go and allow the process to take place would make sense. That process would be based on the natural community of interest in Cornwall.

However, there is a second natural community of interest, in the more local community in which people live—in the villages and towns of Cornwall. Here we have to go back to another major Conservative mistake. The 1974 changes to local government boundaries merged, by placing together different towns in single districts, communities that in practice operate relatively separately. Within Cornwall, yes, but there is no reason why Newquay should have been put together with St. Austell in a borough council, or Truro with Falmouth in a borough council, and the same applies to the other main towns.

The bid that we are discussing, which is probably unique in the country, is not only about creating a unitary authority; it is about devolving down to local communities as well. Much as the district councils may argue that it is centralisation, the truth is that it is to go below the district councils, so that local services are delivered at a more local level and are more answerable to the local community. I am referring to some 16 major towns and the surrounding rural communities across Cornwall. This is not just about a unitary authority bid for Cornwall; it is also about handing power down from county hall and the district offices to the local communities across Cornwall. That is why I am so excited about the bid. It is why I think that it is very different from many of the other bids around the country and why I hope that the Government will warm to what I hope will in future be a model not only for Cornwall, but for other parts of the country.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government
(Angela E. Smith)

I congratulate the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) on securing the debate. He put his case in a very reasoned manner. There is no doubt from the contributions that he and his colleagues have made that a passionate debate is taking place in Cornwall and that there is great commitment from hon. Members to the unitary structure.

I take issue with the hon. Gentleman on one point. He said that there had been no change in his area in the past 10 years. He perhaps contradicted himself, because he went on to list the areas of investment by the Government, which no doubt have made a difference to his constituents. I take issue with the idea that there have been no improvements in health. If he looks at health outcomes throughout the country and in Cornwall, and the additional investment and staff in the health sector, he will find that his constituents have benefited from that.

That aside, I want to use the debate to set out how we have reached the current position and how we intend to make our assessments, and then respond to the comments about the truly devolutionary nature of what we are doing. I welcome the comments that have been made. The hon. Gentleman made the point that things should not be dictated from on high. However, this has been the only opportunity that I can remember within a local government reorganisation for the bids to come from councils themselves. The Government issued an invitation to bid, and local authorities came forward if they wished to bid to make their areas unitary and to have a different structure. That is truly devolutionary and follows the principles in the White Paper. The hon. Members for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor) and for St. Ives (Andrew George) raised that point.

This is very important. When we talk about leaders of councils now, we do not in fact talk about the leader of the council. Under the White Paper and the legislation going through the House, they become the leader of the place. Their powers, responsibilities and influences are significantly greater. We are looking for much stronger strategic leadership across the authorities. I welcome Opposition Members’ comments on and support for that approach.

Hon. Members will be aware that, acting under our wide prerogative powers, we published alongside the local government White Paper last October an invitation to local authorities to make proposals for unitary local government. We are now holding a stakeholder consultation on 16 of the 26 proposals that we received. In due course, and subject to the will of Parliament, the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill will provide us with the powers to implement any of the 16 proposals that, having regard to the outcome of consultation, we decide meet the criteria set out in the invitation. Clause 21 allows us to implement, after Royal Assent, any proposal received before that date.

I am grateful for the Minister’s generous comments about the genuine wish in Cornwall for change and progress on a better form of local governance. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor) was trying to get across what we see as the different nature of the bid from Cornwall, in that we hope that it will be not just a bid on a par with existing unitaries and the aspirations of other parts of the country to have unitaries, but a bid for a new form of local strategic authority. I would welcome anything that the Minister could say about meeting local government leaders, Members of Parliament and representatives of other organisations from Cornwall to take forward that agenda of something slightly different and greater than a unitary authority.

The hon. Gentleman pre-empts my comments. I will come on to that point later. First, let me make it clear that I am always happy to meet to discuss those issues. Either I or the Minister for Local Government will be happy to meet the hon. Gentlemen and the county council representatives on the issue. However, I am somewhat constrained in what I can say today because we are in a legal process. For reasons of propriety I cannot debate the merits of specific proposals. I hope that that is understood. I am not being evasive at all. Bids have gone forward in the decision letters and we are now in that consultation period in which decisions have to be taken, so I have to be careful about what I say.

In the debate, I was asked whether there was flexibility around the bid. Any council that made a proposal during the consultation period can develop that proposal further. We have also made it clear that council chief executives can meet our officials during the consultation period to discuss their bid. Therefore, there is flexibility. The important thing is that we discuss the bid and ensure that we get the right bid and that it works well for that area.

The hon. Member for St. Ives asked whether there could be flexibility in the length of time. As much as I like to be flexible, there are some things that I cannot be flexible on. I cannot be flexible on the time limit. Final decisions have to be taken within the agreed time frame. The consultation ends on 22 June in time for implementation by the end of July. Having heard the arguments from the hon. Gentlemen so far, I do not think that they need any extra time to put the points that they have made.

I am reassured to hear that there will be a degree of flexibility. Some of the proposals include flexibility around Departments that are not directly under the control of the Minister’s own Department, such as the Department of Health and the Department of Trade and Industry through the regional development agencies. Will the Minister include in her comments details about what is going on between other Departments to allow for that flexibility to extend beyond the Department for Communities and Local Government?

I hope that the hon. Lady will forgive me, but I think I made it clear that I was not able to discuss specific instances within the bids. I think that her question goes into that particular area. If we look at the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, we will find that there is far greater co-operation between Departments under that Bill than there ever has been in any other local government Bill that I have seen before the House. As a former councillor and former local government officer, I very much welcome the Bill. It seems to me that it extends the remit far more.

Going back to the specific bid, chief executives can meet with my officials and Ministers are happy to meet with Members and councillors as well. It is better that those discussions take place under that remit because we are constrained in what we can say now, as I made clear earlier.

We published the invitation in response to the views that we received about the future of local government. It became clear that in many cases the two-tier system has the capacity to be confusing, inefficient and involve additional costs. There are additional risks and challenges in a two-tier system that also cause duplication and inefficiency.

There was, and still is, as evidenced by the number of bids that we received, a real drive to say that we can do things better and differently. We can be more focused, stronger and more strategic. We can look across the piece and not just at narrow interests to improve outcomes for local people. Allowing restructuring was our response to that, and that was made clear by the number of bids that we received. In reaching decisions, we had to take into account all the relevant information—the submitted proposals, any supplementary material submitted by the proposers themselves and other available relevant information.

We have written to all councils that submitted bids, setting out the reasons and the basis on which decisions were reached. All 26 proposals were carefully assessed against the five criteria that we set out in our invitation. The judgment we had to make was which councils were most likely to meet the specified criteria. In the light of the comments made by hon. Members earlier, I think that it would be helpful to say what those criteria are. The proposals have to be affordable, and that is very clear in the invitation document. The change to a unitary structure must represent value for money and must be met from councils’ existing resources. The proposals must also be supported by a broad range of partners and stakeholders.

In addition to affordability and support, the proposals must provide strong, effective, accountable and strategic leadership. They also should deliver genuine opportunities for neighbourhood flexibility and empowerment. The point was made strongly by hon. Members that the council must be at the heart of the community and involve local people in decision making.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming:—

I think that, before we were interrupted, I was talking about the devolutionary principle. This process is not top-down from the Government; it is very much bottom-up. That is why the invitations were issued and why we are consulting. We never sought to impose changes.

The emphasis is on local authorities, and good local authorities really want to effect change in their area and to make life better for their citizens. I was particularly pleased to hear from the hon. Members for St. Ives and for Truro and St. Austell about the ambitions that they have for their areas. What I can say to them, which I think may help, is that unitary councils can help to fulfil those ambitions. One of the issues that they raised with me is that consideration on all these matters must be across Government and that it is a Government decision. The decisions have to cover all local services.

Generally, the White Paper has opened the door for a new devolutionary approach and the key to that approach is getting the right authorities and the right bodies in place so that, if new powers are to be devolved, those structures and bodies, showing strong leadership, are in place to ensure that that can be done effectively. That discussion is taking place in terms of civic cities. I must say that there are no specific proposals at present, but the unitary strategy for Cornwall might well enable that door to be opened and that discussion to happen. That is a discussion that Opposition Members will be having with officials. I appreciate their longer-term objectives in that area, but this is a truly devolutionary measure that is going forward.

I hope that, with no further interruptions, I have addressed the comments and the issues raised by Opposition Members.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes to Six o’clock.