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Local Government

Volume 472: debated on Tuesday 19 February 2008

[Relevant document: The Eighth Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments of Session 2007-08, HC 38-viii.]

I beg to move,

That the draft Shropshire (Structural Change) Order 2008, which was laid before this House on 8th January, be approved.

Tonight, or rather this morning, we are to consider the draft order for the establishment of the new unitary Shropshire council. It is not prime time, but the business is important and it is right for it to be debated on the Floor of the House.

The order implements a proposal submitted to the Government by Shropshire county council, with the support of Oswestry borough council. It is a proposal presented to us by a democratically elected, locally accountable council, and drawn up for us by that council. It is a proposal that the council has presented after seeking local views, and it is the proposal that the council believes will produce the best governance in Shropshire in the coming years.

Having studied the proposal carefully and assessed it in the light of criteria that we published at the outset of this process in October 2006, we believe that its implementation would indeed establish a form of governance that would serve the people, businesses and communities of Shropshire well in the future. In reaching that view, we rigorously applied the five criteria that we had set out in our invitation to bid back in 2006. We had already set out the general case for unitaries in the White Paper that preceded it.

Our invitation and the White Paper reflected our belief that introducing unitary local government is a way of removing many of the weaknesses to be found in areas with a combination of county councils, district councils and parish councils. As we said in the White Paper, such structures often add to public confusion, and create a fragmented and sometimes complicated local leadership. They may also lead to duplication, inefficiency, difficulties with co-ordination and failures in service delivery.

The Minister says that the Government rigorously followed the five criteria. One of those criteria was the support of the local people. He will know that in Shrewsbury we had a referendum of my constituents, and on what is a very technical matter more than 18,000 of them bothered to turn up and vote against a unitary authority. That represents almost 70 per cent. of those who voted. How can the Minister say he has followed the criterion of listening to the public when my constituents have voted overwhelmingly against these measures?

Because the criterion on support is not about public support; it is about the broad cross-section of support. Let me quote from the invitation of October 2006 that I referred to. It states that the Government recognise

“that any proposal may not carry consensus from or within all sectors”

and that while no

“single council or body, or group of councils or bodies will have a veto”


“will be necessary for any proposal to have support from a range of key partners, stakeholders, and service users/citizens.”

The purpose of that is not to be able to demonstrate a majority of any particular group, including local citizens, who are in favour of a unitary council; rather, it is to allow us to make an assessment of whether support is strong and broad enough that if we decided to go ahead with implementing a proposal for a unitary council it would have a good chance of success. That was the basis on which we set out to make that judgment, and that is the basis on which we made it.

The hon. Gentleman talks about the survey that was done in his area. I recognise that his council, and two others, conducted such surveys, but I am sure that he would also recognise that the clarity of the questions and the balance and clarity of the supporting information that was provided to citizens as part of the surveys are relevant factors in assessing what weight to give to them. I could—although I do not particularly want to—quote from that supporting information, but let me simply say that an assessment of those exercises was done by Thrasher and Rallings, recognised independent academic experts in this sort of work, and we accepted their conclusion that there were reasons for treating the results of those surveys with some caution given the way in which they were framed and the context in which they were conducted.

Regrettably, I feel that that is a patronising thing for the Minister to have said, because the referendum in Shrewsbury was carried out by the Electoral Commission and was conducted under the most professional auspices imaginable, with very clear questions. Therefore, I totally dissociate myself from what the Minister said.

The Minister says that he weighed the support. My understanding is that a total of only 45 letters of support were submitted by the county council from the thousands of people who live in Shropshire. Some of those people supply the county council with goods, so they have a vested interest and some of the people—

Order. The hon. Gentleman might seek to catch my eye later in the debate, and I would not want him to use up all his ammunition.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman has plenty of ammunition and I am sure that he will use it a little later. I am looking forward to hearing what he has to say, and I will be happy to respond to it as required, with the leave of the House.

Unfortunately, the Minister does not have the benefit of having taken the legislation through Committee. I was privileged to serve on the Committee, and I asked the Minister for the Environment, as he is now, about consultation. It was made clear to us that the consultation would take into account the views of the public, because it was acknowledged that they constituted a stakeholder in the context of the invitation to bid. That concession was eventually squeezed out in Committee.

The Minister for Local Government rightly said that local ballots took place in three districts in Shropshire—two of them in my constituency—but they should have been given due weight. Although he says that some of the questions were not suitably balanced, I must tell him—

Order. There must be a distinction in this House in debate between an intervention and a speech. Interventions should be very brief, because otherwise we lose the whole sense of the debate.

Those ballots were given due weight, as the hon. Gentleman suggests they should have been. They were not given overwhelming weight. They were given weight in the context of making the judgment about whether there was a broad range of support sufficient to give us confidence that if we were to press ahead with implementing these reforms they would be likely to succeed.

The Minister makes a fundamental point about due weight, which we have rehearsed before. What is his definition of due weight? What criteria are applied in giving weight to anything? What is the basis of the balance to be decided between taking into account an element of local issues or otherwise? The fear is that this might have been a wholly subjective judgment.

I do not accept that it was wholly subjective, although I accept that it was a judgment. As I have tried to explain to the House, the judgment was about whether there was sufficient support from a broad enough range of relevant parties, including local views, although not exclusively concentrating on them, to give us confidence that if we were to proceed with the change in this proposal it would have a good chance of success.

Is it the Minister’s judgment that there was more or less support for this measure than there was for the Wiltshire measure that we discussed a few days ago?

It is a bit difficult to make direct comparisons. I am not entirely certain that doing so is relevant to the assessment that we set out to make about the proposal that we received from Shropshire. We wanted to know first whether it was a proposal that could bring a good and successful form of future governance to the people and the county. Secondly, we wanted to know whether the conditions and the sufficient degree of support were in place to give it a fair wind and a good chance of success if we were to press ahead with it. I could start listing in much detail the relevant bodies that offered support, although I do not propose to do so. Suffice it to say that the views were mixed, particularly among members of the public who contributed to the consultation. Some people expressed support but others expressed concern, and that would probably surprise nobody.

In addition to the questions of whether there was a broad range of public support and whether the proposal was affordable within the quite strict limits and criteria we set down, the three other important criteria for us were about whether this proposal would produce a council and a form of governance that was fit for the future and better for the people in Shropshire. We wanted to know whether it would give the strategic leadership required, whether it would create genuine opportunities for empowerment, influence and flexibility at neighbourhood level, and whether it would deliver good value for money and good efficiency in the future delivery of public services.

Many people in Shropshire are concerned that they, as taxpayers, and the county will be penalised for any efficiency savings that arise from the reconfiguration. Can the Minister assure the House, my constituents and other residents of Shropshire that any efficiency savings will not be top-sliced off any subsequent revenue support grant in 2009, if the order is passed tonight?

Yes, if that is the hon. Gentleman’s concern I can say that over the next three years—a period for which we have made decisions about the distribution of the core grant from central Government to local authorities—efficiency savings, which we expect from all councils, will be entirely available to those councils that make them. Nothing will be clawed back to the centre and there will be no penalty incurred in any reduction of the core revenue support grant for councils that make efficiency savings. Those savings will be available for councils to use to improve services or to keep council tax pressures down.

I would not want the Minister to misunderstand my point, although perhaps I did not communicate it as well as I could have done. I am not referring to efficiency savings in council services from within existing council budgets. I am referring to efficiency savings that arise from the reconfiguration into unitary status. Will there be any penalty applied to the revenue support grant as a result of unitary status?

Let me be clear: no, there will be no such penalty. I shall go further. Part of the decision is a judgment about the affordability of the proposal. As in all such circumstances, various configurations of the figures are offered. We have recruited independent experts through the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, who have given me an independent assessment and advice on the financial case and how strong it is. They have looked at all the figures submitted by all the interested parties. Those experts judge that the affordability criteria are low risk. They confirm that, based on the figures submitted by the county, the expectation is that once the changes are made, the reforms will result in annual efficiency savings of some £9 million a year. It may be of interest to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents to know that that equates to a saving of some £93 per household in every band D council tax property. I hope that that is helpful.

Can the Minister confirm two points? First, can he confirm that the figures that he mentioned, in relation to CIPFA and the other controls that have been put in place, are those that are already in the public domain? If not, will he ensure that they are? Secondly, if it is suggested that significant savings are to be made, on what criteria will they be assessed? We have some concern already about the criteria in relation to councils’ current expenditure and benchmark allocations. Can the Minister ensure that nothing is double counted? The concern is that many of the implementation savings are double counted already.

That was the purpose of getting the independent financial experts to go over the figures to ensure that the assumptions that were being made were proven, that there was no question of double counting and that there were no areas where likely incurred costs had been overlooked. Based on that, I have the confidence to say that the proposal, if it goes ahead, will meet our affordability criterion, as it will meet the other four criteria. Let me make a final point on affordability. Not only are the annual savings likely more than to offset the transitional costs, but the payback period is well within the five years that we set at the outset.

I have dealt with the question of support, so let me turn now to the order. We prepared it following detailed discussions and consultation with all the councils that will be affected in the area. The main provisions are as follows: from 1 April 2009, there will be a single tier of local government in Shropshire; from that point, the district councils will be dissolved; and the county council will then be transformed into a new unitary council that will adopt the current district and county functions.

Let me make it clear to the House that this is not in any way a county council takeover. It is not just the county council carrying on in operation, whatever some might like to argue. We are creating a new start for an authority for which we will set wholly different expectations. It is possible that there will be new members of that authority—there will certainly be a refreshed senior management team.

I am listening carefully to the Minister, and I hear his assurance about it not being a county council takeover and his reference to a refreshed senior management team. Will he kindly confirm to the House in which grades of senior management the roles will be subject to open competition and where there will not be automatic reappointment of a county council officer?

I expect to be able to confirm that formally shortly, but my intention would be to see the appointment to every chief executive post subject to open competition. I would expect to be able to make that a requirement. It is right that we should set the expectation that other of the most senior officer posts will be open to re-recruitment and competition. In some councils, however, there may be good reasons why they may want to keep particular postholders in post. I also intend to set out arrangements for that shortly.

Will the Minister be a little more specific about the terms and manner in which that requirement will be set out? Will it be in regulations, a guidance note or whatever else? We have a slight concern that, particularly in a place such as Shropshire, we will have a number of very small district councils in competition with one county council that is rather large by comparison. Many people would say that that is a pretty uneven contest. How will we ensure that the officers from the district councils have a fair crack of the whip? There must be an enormous suspicion that it will not work out that way.

I quite understand that concern. The arrangements that we put in place need to deal with those concerns and to cater for the counter argument—in some places, and in some posts, blanket open competition might create difficulties. That is precisely the balance of factors that I am weighing up at the moment. I quite understand the interest in ensuring that the final decision is set out soon and in a clear manner. That is imperative, because councils will want to try to hold on to the best of their officers to get through the period of transition and implementation.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again. He is being very generous indeed, but the problem goes beyond senior managers: it is also about the dedicated and hard-working staff at all levels in all the councils whose jobs will disappear as a result of the proposals. This is a Government initiative, so will the Minister assure the House that there will be no compulsory redundancies among Shropshire’s hard- working council staff?

I recognise that employees in the affected authorities face a period of unsettled uncertainty, but the hon. Gentleman will surely accept that the detailed arrangements are for the local councils—the employers—to consider. The Government’s job is to put in place a framework that ensures that staff are treated fairly. We have made it clear that all staff employed immediately before 1 April 2009 by the authorities that are to be abolished will become employees of the new unitary authority, and that they will be protected according to the principles set out in the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006, as if those regulations applied.

I gave that commitment when I made the announcements on 5 December last year. It means that all staff transferred to a new unitary authority will remain under their current terms and conditions. It will then be for the new unitary councils to decide their new staffing structure, in accordance with TUPE and with the provisions of our employment legislation. That is the proper role for central Government to play: by putting in place that framework, we are giving people a degree of certainty and assurance that they will be treated fairly, but decisions about staffing arrangements will quite properly be left to the new unitary authorities that will be their employers. Those authorities will also set the terms on which they wish to employ—or cease to employ—people after 1 April 2009.

Again, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I know that he wants to be seen to be generous, but he has just set out the Government’s legal responsibility. Therefore, I return to my central point: if any council workers in Shropshire suffer compulsory redundancies, the fault will lie entirely at the door of No. 10 and this Government. The Minister should not try to shift the blame onto the local authorities that will have to work out the details.

I admire the hon. Gentleman’s determination to press his debating point again, but I am not setting out to be generous. My aim is to be fair, and to ensure that the framework that we expect and require the councils to adopt is in place so that employees are treated properly. That is what we shall do.

The order under consideration will also establish the implementation executive, which we discussed in detail with all the affected councils. That executive will be led by the county council and its membership will be drawn from the county council and all the district councils. The prescription that the Government have arrived at is based on the consensus that was reached, and we have reflected that consensus in the detail of the order before the House.

The Minister says that there is a consensus. For the record, can he state that no communication was sent by his Department to Labour councillors on the county council or borough council directing them to vote for a unitary authority?

I do not see every communication that goes out of the Department, so I cannot give him that absolute assurance without checking, but I would find it highly remarkable if my Department sent out specific communications to Labour members of councils urging them to take a particular course of action or a position. If my assumption is wrong, I will certainly tell the hon. Gentleman, but that is my initial strong response to the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion, which seems to me rather left-field and ridiculous.

The first election to Shropshire council will be in May 2009, and that will be in keeping with the normal electoral cycle. Once again, the relevant provision within the order reflects a broad consensus between the county and the districts that elections should be in May 2009 rather than in 2008. By that time, of course, we expect and understand that the Electoral Commission will have been able to undertake an electoral review and to put in place new electoral arrangements that reflect the new unitary authority and better reflect the new communities and neighbourhoods that it covers.

Can the Minister help us with the time scale in which he thinks that those announcements might be made? We all know the importance of getting sensible candidates in place, and making sure that publicity is available across the piece, particularly in rural areas, where it is perhaps more difficult to make sure that people who represent the whole community are readily available to stand for election.

The hon. Gentleman is right to make that particular point about an area such as Shropshire. The time scale will be a matter for the Electoral Commission, but I know that it has in mind the clear aim to complete the work in good time to enable candidates to be selected for any new ward boundaries, as appropriate. I know that it wishes to make sure that it has completed that work by around February next year.

The order also provides for the cancellation of district council elections that would otherwise have taken place in May 2008—that is to say in any district that elects in thirds. In Shropshire, that applies only to Shrewsbury and Atcham, where one third of the members would normally become due for re-election in May this year. As the House will know, the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments has concluded that if the order was approved and made, there might be a doubt about whether its provisions cancelling the district council elections in 2008 would be intra vires. In our view, there is a powerful policy case for cancelling the district council elections. There are also powers under the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 that will allow us to do that. I have set that argument out in detail and explained it in our memorandum to the JCSI.

Our approach, as captured and set out in the order, provides for an effective transition that does its best to avoid disruption to services during that period, gives a good deal to the citizens and users of those services, is fair to council staff and puts in place the arrangements to create a council that will give the people, the communities and the businesses of Shropshire the local governance that they require for the future. I commend the order to the House.

I genuinely thank the Minister for the care and courtesy that he always shows the House when he presents statements. We are on the fourth or fifth of these orders, which form part of what is to be a rolling programme, but the repetition of the arguments does not entirely make up for the lack of substance on some issues. Shropshire raises particular problems: there is the nature of the county, its geographic diversity, and the fact that to me—a mere outsider from London—it seems that it has no natural centres. There is also a lack of one of the things that the Minister regarded as a prime mover—a groundswell of opinion behind the proposal. There is a lack of support, and that is fundamental.

I would not have an issue with a genuinely localist proposal, but I do not see any evidence to suggest that change in Shropshire is localist or driven by the people. The issue may be of considerable import to the county council, for which we have great respect, and which delivers well, but that is not to say that the proposal represents the views of all the people in the county.

There is an issue that the Minister may have to consider for the future. I shall not go into it in detail now, but if we go down the route of putting in place unitary authorities in large rural areas, what do we place beneath them? How do we make sure that there is proper representation locally, as well as at county level? That is largely unaddressed in the process that the Government are undertaking, because the change is being made piecemeal. They are picking off areas that may be advantageous—dare I say it, almost for political reasons. Mischievous is the word, I think. I took a night off and went to see “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Royal Opera House the other night. The Minister occasionally behaves a bit like Puck, although he might not think of himself in those terms. He likes to sprinkle a little bit of mischievous dust on the local government spectrum and see what happens. What happens is not always what is intended, as we all know from the programme, the opera and the play.

Our local government structures frequently represent entrenched concerns and identities—that is particularly true in the counties, outside London, which is my part of the world—and that is precisely why we should be particularly careful about interfering with them. The Minister will have heard me say before that a very high standard of proof must always be required, and that the burden of proof must always fall on those who propose change. I do not think that the standard or the burden are met in this case. That is the issue for the Opposition. We do not want to be obstructive about good government—we are in favour of it—but the case for the proposal has not been made.

The Minister talks of the opinion-forming views that were taken, but he knows full well that the majority of the districts in Shropshire do not support the proposal. At least three or four of them have conducted well-researched polls, carefully constructed and controlled by the Electoral Reform Society. In our internal elections, that is good enough for his party, as it is for mine. The polls show that overwhelming majorities are against the proposal. We are not talking about a marginal majority, but about compelling evidence that points the other way; that is the point. As the Minister is a reasonable man, I might allow him a bit of subjective judgment where the situation is 50:50, but the evidence is overwhelmingly against making the change. I urge him to think about whether the measure will really help in Shropshire.

On the transitional costs and the long-term savings, neither of us have gone into the issue in great detail, but the Minister knows that academic experts have raised questions about how robust the county council’s costing methodology is. It may be right, or it may be wrong, but it has not been tested. No objective, independent values have been applied at all. I will give way to the Minister if he wants to intervene on me on that point. A series of subjective judgments have been made, one after the other. That is the picture for all the issues.

Professor Chisholm is one of the people who has done a great deal of work across the piece. No doubt the Minister will deal with that in his closing speech. Viewed in the context of all the other evidence, it is clear that the Department is making assertions with nothing to back them up, and that Professor Chisholm is more objective than people might think and is backed up by local evidence produced by local people. That is the key aspect. I would have more sympathy with the Minister on all the reorganisations if I thought that the Department was using some objective measure as a benchmark, but we have already discovered that there is no objective measure.

Does my hon. Friend share my disgust at Government sham consultations? We are hearing about one this evening, we heard about the Wiltshire one a few days ago, and we hear it constantly about Government consultation on the national health service. It hardly encourages public engagement with policy. People are rightly becoming cynical about the whole thing.

I have huge sympathy with my hon. Friend. He knows what happened in the past. In my constituency we have had what I consider to be sham consultations over post offices and hospitals. That is the part that the Minister does not seem to get. Ministers do not understand that local people want to have their views listened to. They do not want to be dictated to. The Government claim that their proposals are bottom-up, but they are not. They are produced from a skewed set of criteria and nobody has much faith in that.

It will not have escaped my hon. Friend’s notice that the Act that allows the orders to be put in place is, by supreme irony, the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007. Part of the Act tries to encourage the public to participate by becoming members of foundation trusts and so on, to engage the public with the public sector. In respect of the part of the Act dealing with local government, the Government blithely ignore the consultations that they have undertaken.

My hon. Friend makes the point well. I know how much he has fought for his constituency in Ludlow, just as my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) has taken a great interest and fought valiantly for local interests.

If we are to have successful local government—I am not dogmatic about the form it should take—it must go with local consent. That has been missing. My two hon. Friends who represent Shropshire seats have fought for local consent. My hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) has done the same in relation to Wiltshire.

A note of irritation creeps into my voice on behalf of my hon. Friends when a Government Department goes down a route blindly because that is set out in some sort of mantra. The Minister, who is a decent man, knows better than that. I ask him to reflect on whether we are pushing some centralised diktat that he may have inherited from some of his predecessors just a touch too far.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the will of the people—the will of my constituents—is far more important than a few letters of support that the Minister may have received from organisations? I think there were a total of 47. With all respect, I do not think the Minister knows what those organisations are or their size or influence in my community. He should have paid far more attention to my constituents’ views than to the 47 letters.

I am grateful, as ever, to my hon. Friend, who has made a valiant point. That is as good a note to end on as anything else, as other Members want to speak.

Of all the measures so far, this seems to have the least groundswell of support and opinion behind it. I hope that the Minister will listen to my hon. Friend, who represents his county and will speak shortly, and see that it is not necessary to go down this rather dirigiste route, which ill becomes him and his Department. He should think again.

This is the fourth debate that we have had on this issue, and a common theme has emerged. The Conservatives’ opposition is described as being one of principle, but it seems to me that a lot of the difficulties that we describe on all these occasions turn out to be practical ones. The Conservatives speak of principles in this place, but they seem reluctant to point out that their councillors do not often all agree with those principles.

There are a lot of fair points to be made about this matter being entirely a game for which the Government are setting the rules. However, it is a mistake to suggest that it is being forced on local government; clearly, there is support from the county council for the bid. It had to respond to the invitation and is leading on the issue. District councils may well be opposed, but it is not fair to say that the issue is being entirely forced at a local level.

The hon. Lady says that the Government have not tried to force the measure on the people of Shropshire; she even implies that they have not tried to push the issue either way. I have to tell her that when the current Foreign Secretary was responsible for such issues as a Minister at the Department for Communities and Local Government, he came to Shropshire. He spent the day in Shrewsbury and tried very strongly to convince the county council to go ahead with the proposals. I have been the MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham for three years and can say that we hardly ever see Labour Ministers in Shropshire. I do not think that I have ever seen any, apart from the current Foreign Secretary. He was determined from the start to force the issue through; otherwise, why did he come to Shrewsbury?

Even if the right hon. Gentleman had forced Labour councillors to support the measure, it would not have gone through without the support of other parties at county council level. That is my understanding.

As a principle, the Liberal Democrats have no objections to any authorities that want to explore whether it is possible to create a more efficient and transparent, less complicated, effective local government structure. I speak as one who represents a rural area with a strong identity and a dispersed population. For many people, the reality of local government is that it is very confusing, and confusions often arise from efforts to make processes more efficient.

I always refer to one example, in which pots of money travel from the county councils to the district councils and the parish councils in an effort to ensure that services are more responsive. However, when there is a problem, that often makes it more difficult to find out who is in charge of delivery. In principle, there is nothing wrong in councils presenting ways in which the issue could be simplified. It should be up to local councils to decide what shape the changes should take. Furthermore, local communities should have a strong say in how services should be shaped; ultimately, if they do not have a say, they will be just as unlikely to understand the new structure as they are the existing ones.

I agree that local communities should have a say; that was precisely what was offered to the local community in my constituency, which has two districts. A ballot was undertaken for South Shropshire district council, and a majority—56 per cent.—of people were opposed to going unitary. The then leader of the district council, a Liberal Democrat, decided that that had been an example of the community voting with its heart and not its head, and tried to deny the validity of the ballot. Does the hon. Lady agree with that assessment?

My understanding of what I have read about the polls undertaken in some of these council areas is that they were not referendums. The series of orders that we are discussing reveal a variety of degrees of warming to the principle of whether this could offer improvements at a local level, but we are seeing common themes in terms of practicalities. The Government should be doing certain things to try to improve the process.

I do not wish to be too unkind so late at night, or early in the morning, but this also exposes the variety of Liberal Democrat policies. It is rather surprising that the hon. Lady is supporting the position of a Minister, yet in other parts of the country the Liberal Democrats are talking about localism and devolved powers.

Perhaps because it is so late at night the hon. Gentleman was not listening to what I said earlier—that we do not have a dogmatic approach. Looking back to the debate on Northumberland, it is clear that the community held different views about what would serve them best. Instead of standing at a Dispatch Box and saying that one approach should govern everything and that we should oppose every single proposal to reorganise local government, we should listen to what people in the community are saying. If there is a problem with the way in which the Government have responded to worrying evidence from the polls, it is that they should have challenged that head on and undertaken a proper referendum of the whole area that was consistent and balanced and would have allowed people in the community to express that decision, as happened in other areas.

On the basis that we have not yet been given a referendum by the Government, does the hon. Lady think that the evidence presented by the district council and everybody else in Shropshire shows pretty clearly that the local communities do not want this? What else would she like to happen?

I can only refer back to what I have seen of the way in which the polls were conducted, which indicates that they were not consistent and therefore, in themselves, not valid. They may well be a cause for further exploration, but if there are questions about their validity and consistency—

I have been listening to the debate on television. In Herefordshire, where Conservatives supported a unitary authority without there being any referendum or ballot, and where we have a Conservative-controlled council that is spending £75,000 on bottled mineral water—

I think that my hon. Friend has made his point.

I am not saying that we should ignore the evidence of those polls but that it at least makes clear the need for much more rigorous and comprehensive testing.

I understand the hon. Lady’s point about dogmatic rigidity, but it is important that we deliver a degree of consistency when we are making public policy decisions of this kind. Consistent themes run through all these examples, the most fundamental of which is that local people’s views should be of paramount importance in respect of the shape of local government, and that is about not only its utility but its capacity to deliver a sense of allegiance, for it can have no political legitimacy if it cannot provide that.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. As I have said repeatedly, it is essential that there is community support and that it is demonstrated. If the county council wishes to pursue that, it has to confront these challenges head on, not try to argue its way out of them. That is not happening at the moment. As the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) and the Minister will know, this has been a common theme in the orders we have debated during the past few weeks.

Another commonly expressed fear is that the changes are in danger of being perceived as a county takeover. Again, we return to the fact that perception is important; it influences people’s allegiance to any change. It was important that the Minister emphasised clearly that there will not be a county council takeover. The problem is, however, that the order does not abolish the county council, but it does abolish the district and borough councils. The orders do not provide clarity. The Minister can explain the need not to abolish all of the authorities and create a new one, but the view of the matter from the ground will not be positive.

I shall give way very briefly to my hon. Friend. I am aware that other Members are waiting to speak.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I note the comments from the Conservative Benches suggesting that she should not have given way, despite the fact that she gave way so generously to them.

Does my hon. Friend not think it rather ripe that the Conservatives keep intervening on her to suggest that democracy will not be served by this change, when it was the Conservative party of the 1980s that did the most to remove democracy from the UK?

My hon. Friend makes a valid point, but I do not want to detain the House any longer because I want to ensure that all hon. Members get the opportunity to speak.

The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst raised the issue of whether it was credible that the proposed unitary authority would be able to deliver the criteria against which the Government assessed their plan. It is important to ask how credible the plan is, but the key question for the Minister is what the Government are doing to assess the new authority’s delivery with regard to that plan. Of the five criteria, the key one that strikes me is neighbourhood empowerment. If we are to engage local communities, convince people that the change is not a county takeover and ensure that it has public support, what happens at neighbourhood level is important. The need for communities at neighbourhood level to understand what is going on is very important. What action will the Minister take if he is concerned that the new authority does not seem to be delivering against the plan it has been given? What steps will he take to respond to and deal with those concerns?

On the implementation executive, despite the serious reservations that have been raised, all parties are working to make the best of what they may consider, to varying degrees, to be a bad job. The Minister owes it to them to be prepared to be as flexible as they are in ensuring that the end result is the best one for the people in Shropshire.

When the Minister opened this debate, he stated that there was no pressure from the Government on Shropshire either way and that they would listen to the people. I must state that the Foreign Secretary, when he was the Minister of Communities and Local Government, came to Shrewsbury and cleverly tried to court Shropshire county council to encourage it to try to put in a bid, which I alluded to earlier. This Government had their fingers burnt in the regional referendum in the north-east, so they came up with a very good ruse, which is to pitch one council against another, and to get one council to put in a submission. They can then say, “Oh well, it is you that have bid for this,” when that is simply not the case.

I asked the Prime Minister his very first question in the House of Commons, and it was about this issue. You always remember the first time that you do something, Madam Deputy Speaker, whether it is your first kiss, or the first time you get elected to Parliament. I very much hope that the Prime Minister will remember the first ever question that he took at Prime Minister’s Question Time. I asked him whether he would meet me to discuss my concerns about the conduct of the Government in this matter. He assured me in this House, at his first Prime Minister’s questions, that he would do that, and that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government would also take the opportunity to do so. Despite numerous written requests, I have not been allowed to have that meeting with the Prime Minister or the Secretary of State. That is different from the former Prime Minister. When I asked to see Mr. Blair, the meeting was arranged straight away and there was some accountability. To where have we descended when the Prime Minister promises to discuss a Member’s concerns about such an important issue, which will fundamentally affect my county, then reneges on the promise, and the Secretary of State repeatedly refuses, despite my written requests, to see me to talk about the matter? That is disgraceful.

The hon. Gentleman may be disappointed that he has not had his first kiss with the Prime Minister. Will the hon. Gentleman say—whether he wanted the first kiss or not—whether—

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I was not discussing kissing the Prime Minister; I certainly would not want to do that. The hon. Gentleman’s comment was rather flippant, but I was making a serious point.

Eighteen thousand of my constituents came to the ballot box in the referendum to vote against a unitary authority. It is sometimes difficult to get members of the public interested in and participating in what can be rather technical matters. Yet 18,000 men and women in my constituency turned up and voted. They did not want a unitary authority in Shropshire. Nearly 70 per cent. of those who voted voted against.

The Minister has received letters of support and he says that the Government have taken people’s views on board. As I tried to say earlier, some of the organisations that wrote the 47 letters of support are companies that supply the county council with services and goods and therefore have a vested interest. It is fascinating to read some of those letters of support. One said, “Well, we’ll have to work with whatever happens and whatever is the status quo.” Yet that counts as a letter of support. It is breathtaking. Some organisations—I do not want to embarrass them by mentioning them in the House—have told me that they regret submitting letters of support. Some were put under a certain amount of pressure to do that.

I passionately believe in local accountability. My accountability to my constituents drives me on a daily basis. That is why, when I was elected to Parliament, I decided to move to the village of Shawbury in Shropshire, which is only a few miles from my constituency office. People can hold me to account when I am in the local supermarket, walking down the street or in my office. That is part and parcel of local accountability.

We have some marvellous councillors in Shrewsbury, such as Mrs. Judith Williams, who has been a local borough councillor since 1982. Those councillors know every flagstone of every pavement in their ward. They are local Shrewsbury men and women, who know the town, feel passionately about it and are accountable to their constituents. They have done an excellent job in running the borough council. They are accountable because they live in their wards, so they are close to their constituents. Most importantly, they are accountable through the ballot box to the people of Shrewsbury.

I do not want to disparage other areas, but if we have a unitary authority, councillors—from Ludlow, which is 30 or 40 miles away, Whitchurch and places long distances away from Shrewsbury will make decisions on specific parochial issues that affect Shrewsbury. That is a tremendous threat to local democracy.

Let me give an example of a controversial issue. We recently considered the possibility of congestion charging in Shrewsbury. Voting for congestion charging in Shrewsbury is very easy for someone who lives 40 miles away and is not accountable to the people of Shrewsbury. Why? Because someone in that position can vote for something controversial for Shrewsbury knowing full well that their constituents 40 miles away do not really care and will not vote them out in an election. That bond and that accountability will be broken.

We face another important issue: the co-location of the sixth-form college with SCAT—Shrewsbury college of arts and technology—which is a major college. Again, I want local councillors in Shrewsbury, who understand transport issues and some of the infrastructure problems in Shrewsbury, and who are accountable to my constituents, to make those decisions, not people who live so far away from my community.

I want to give another example of why I feel so strongly about the issue. Over the past three years, I have said to many organisations in my constituency that I will give £100 to anybody who can name me the seven Members of the European Parliament who represent us in Brussels, but so far I have not lost a penny. Not a single constituent of mine can name all seven Members of the European Parliament. They are important people, and the Conservative ones are very good—[Interruption.] But the Liberal one is terrible.

The reason why I make that point is that none of the MEPs lives in Shropshire and none of them works there. They work in Brussels, so nobody knows who they are, yet they make important decisions, on a daily basis, on issues affecting Shrewsbury and Shropshire. The reason why there are such low turnouts in elections to the European Parliament is that nobody really knows those people and they are not directly accountable to constituents. I fear that that will happen with a unitary authority. People will become disfranchised and uninterested in local politics, because they do not have that proximity to their elected officials.

I am a great believer in the saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Shrewsbury and Atcham borough council has been rated as excellent. The Minister will know the extraordinary achievements of the council. He will know of the many times that my council has come to the House of Commons to receive various national awards. All those things have been achieved despite the fact that my council receives £80 less per household than neighbouring Telford and Wrekin council. Despite that, we still provide tremendous services, yet the Minister wants to abolish my excellent-rated borough council and amalgamate it with all the others. As a result of the Minister’s moves, we have lost our chief executive, Mr. Robin Hooper, an extraordinarily professional and dedicated man, who achieved an amazing amount for Shrewsbury and its infrastructure. However, he has left as a result of the Government’s push for a unitary authority.

What worries me now—I want to hear from the Minister about this—is the next 12 months. They will be critical, because many people are working hard at the borough council to provide good services, but they know that it is going to be abolished by April next year. There will obviously be a certain amount of tension among managers, as some of them look for other jobs, perhaps in the private sector. We are therefore in a difficult position. I do not want services in Shrewsbury to suffer as a result of the coming 12-month interregnum.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government have failed to recognise the many years of dedicated service to local government that the council workers to whom he has referred have given Shropshire? Is not the clear message from this rushing through of the order that Labour has turned its back on local government officers throughout England?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend on that point.

I want to make a few very brief final points, as I want to give my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) a chance to speak. In Shropshire, the rural areas already have very large wards, because of the nature of rural villages. In the new unitary authority, the wards will be immense—they will often be much larger than whole geographical constituencies in parts of London—and it will be more difficult for the councillors to represent them. In my estimation, the work of the leader and cabinet members of the unitary authority will become full-time jobs, given the nature and power of the authority. The leader of my borough council is a local businessman, Mr. Peter Nutting, who is also a highly respected member of the local community. How is he going to be able to run a business if he has the equivalent of a full-time job on the council? How are we going to encourage young professionals and people with families, the very people whom we want to come into local government, to participate if we turn the positions into full-time posts?

This should not have been a political matter, but every single Labour borough and county councillor voted in favour of this measure, against the wishes of my constituents. Almost every Conservative councillor voted against it. I very much regret that it has become a political matter, but the fact remains that every single Labour borough and county councillor rejected the views of my constituents and supported the Government in ramming through this unitary authority. That is an important point, and I wanted to place it on the record. My constituents have urged me to raise it. The county council has said that it will limit any council tax increase to 3.5 per cent. if we have a unitary authority. I look forward to seeing the rates capped at 3.5 per cent., and if they are not, I shall be asking why.

Today is a dark day for democracy in Shropshire. According to the Government, Shropshire has an excellent council. It has just had its four-star rating confirmed for the second year running, and it is improving strongly. I do not know how it can do that if it is already top-rated, but apparently it can. I regret to say that this change is being proposed for no other reason than to put into effect a party political plan to reduce the number of Conservative councillors and, potentially, Lib Dem councillors—Opposition councillors—in Shropshire.

At present, the two-tier system provides representation close to the people. With one county council and five district councils, we have a total of 244 councillors in Shropshire. That will be reduced to 75 under the proposals. We shall go from having one county councillor representing approximately 4,000 people, and one or two district councillors representing between 1,000 and just over 2,000 people, to one unitary councillor representing 3,000 people. So most people will lose the opportunity to be represented by at least two—in some cases, three—councillors, and will instead be represented by only one.

My constituency, the eighth largest geographical constituency in England, will change from having 58 district councillors and 15 county councillors—a total of 73—to having about 20, depending on what comes out of the boundary committee proposals. Inevitably, by definition, there will be less local knowledge available to those councillors and therefore less local representation. That point was made forcefully by my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski). The decisions will be taken remotely. The base for the new council will be in Shrewsbury, which is some distance from my constituency. Some people will have to travel for more than an hour just to attend a council meeting—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) suggests that that is already happening in Herefordshire, and I take it that he is not particularly happy about that.

I have taken a position against unitary councils primarily because of the lack of democratic accountability, and not for any other reason. I am not opposing them simply for opposition’s sake. I believe that it is fundamentally wrong to remove decision making from a location close to the people and, to a degree, to centralise it in the county.

I have been encouraged in my position of principle by the response to the ballots across Shropshire. The Minister made the point that some independent assessment was made of the quality of questions and responses to the ballots. The ballots were on questions agreed with the Electoral Commission. The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) tried to argue that there was an unfairness in the way in which the questions were presented. South Shropshire district council, which was then Liberal Democrat-controlled, put out a 16-page booklet, “South Shropshire Matters”, along with the ballot paper. The council was in favour of unitary, so the opponents were given a total of two and a half pages to make their case, while the proponents—as it happens, the Liberal Democrat proponents—had 13 and a half pages. Where is the fairness in that? Despite the overwhelming information bias in favour of unitary, the people who bothered to vote—it was a high turnout of 57 per cent. rather than the 56 per cent. I mentioned earlier—voted against unitary. That makes me feel that I am in touch with what people in my constituency want.

The greatest support, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) mentioned earlier, has come from stakeholders. The stakeholders obliged to be included in the consultation were by and large public sector bodies paid for out of the public purse, so it is no surprise that they came up with the answer that the Government wanted—they are paid to do so. The whole consultation exercise has been a complete sham.

As to democratic accountability, one of the arguments in favour of removing a tier of local government was that it would be more transparent, simple and clear for the people to understand to whom they should be talking about what. Yet under the proposals Shropshire is moving from a two-tier authority in some areas to a four-tier authority. Let me explain that to the Minister in case he has not understood how that will happen.

The unitary council will be at the top. The councils have decided that it will not be practical to run some of the committees on a unitary basis, particularly regulatory committees for planning and licensing, so they are going to set up three areas—north, central and south—underneath the unitary tier. As part of their submission, they had to say that there would be local area committees underneath that. We are to have 27 of those; we are to move from five district councils, which managed the regulatory function and everything else in the past, to the new system of three tiers in the unitary authority. In addition, because some areas with significant populations—Shrewsbury and Atcham is a case in point—did not have a town council, a new town council will be established underneath the three tiers of the unitary. Where is the simplicity in that? It fails that basic test of the Government’s own making.

I want to touch on some of the practical implications of what the Minister is proposing. He said that he understood the imperative—I think that that was the word he used—of setting out clear orders in respect of which officers’ jobs will be subject to open competition and that he would publish that shortly. I am afraid to say that here we have yet another example of the Government’s difficulties in introducing this legislation, which have arisen ever since the parent Act was first published.

I have already referred to the public involvement in health clauses, which were tacked on as an afterthought; they had nothing at all to do with local government reorganisation. That characterised the passage of the Bill. This has been a second-rate piece of legislation pushed through at the back end of all the other bits of legislation, partly because the Ministers responsible have been chopped and changed every six months—I think that we are on the third Secretary of State from the Department responsible. That is causing considerable concern among the very officers who, as the Minister rightly pointed out, need some clarity about their position. They have no knowledge from one week to the next of when the orders will be made.

The legislation was originally to be concluded before the election that never was—that pushed it back into the latter part of last year. Then it was pushed into the early part of this year. We were supposed to be debating these measures on 4 February and here we are on 19 February. The boundary committee has told the authorities in Shropshire that if the passage of the measures is not concluded by the end of this month, it will not be able to introduce the boundary changes in time for the elections in May 2009. It is saying—and the Government have endorsed this—that the unitary authority may have to be established on existing county council boundaries, with a doubling up of councillors, because that would be the easiest way to proceed. What a way to set about reorganising local government. It is completely shambolic, and it is a direct result of the way in which the legislation has been handled. The lack of clarity is causing considerable frustration among the officers who must deal with this.

I hope the hon. Gentleman will excuse me if I do not. My time is very limited.

I want to raise again the point about officers’ grades being open to competition. I look forward to reading the proposals that the Minister will publish shortly. I understand his argument about the need for fairness to individuals and his view that the TUPE regulations should apply, but this is not unique territory. In the corporate world companies take over other companies of both similar and differing sizes, and TUPE applies in those cases, but in those cases the best person for the job gets it. In some cases none of the incumbents gets the job, and a replacement is recruited from outside. I see no reason why that should not apply to the most senior grades in this instance. The directors of each major service area, in particular, should undergo an open process, so that the population at large can feel that it is not just a stitch-up by the county council—which, I am afraid, is the impression that they have had.

The council will continue to face challenges when it becomes unitary. It has been argued that this proposal is about financial resources and efficiency savings. Over the past 10 years, the Government have allocated funds to match their own priorities. As a result, the allocation of funds to areas such as education which are the responsibility of a unitary authority, and organisations such as the police which are funded through council tax, has been heavily skewed towards inner-city urban areas, which, by coincidence, happen by and large to be represented by Labour Members of Parliament. Such allocations have been justified by a plethora of data to do with deprivation, crime, social needs, health inequalities and so on. With much of that I have no argument—I think it appropriate to take such matters into account—but a degree of balance is needed.

Operating services in rural areas costs money. In those areas, it costs more to deliver many of the services for which local authorities are responsible than it does in urban areas. Waste collection, for example, is relatively straightforward if populations live within a few miles of each other, while school transport is obviously more expensive when people are having to be bussed long distances—many more of them, because fewer are able to walk.

The provision of elderly care is much more expensive in rural areas, particularly when efforts are being made to move care closer to the community—which I support—and to establish a network of district or other specialist nurses to provide services in people’s homes. That is much easier to do in an urban environment. Not only is it easier to recruit people to do the work, but they can use their time much more effectively if they can walk or drive short distances from one patient to the next. In some areas in my constituency, a district nurse can deal with only five appointments a day, because so much of her time is spent travelling from one person to the next. If the Government had taken those issues into account, much of the justification for the unitary proposal would not have been necessary.

Let me give the Minister a couple of examples of the splendid work done by councillors in my area who are fighting for their local communities. Many of them may well not wish to become councillors in a unitary authority, because of the time commitment that that would involve. I want to single out Joe Meredith, currently serving his third term as chairman of South Shropshire district council. He is fighting for the post office that is under threat in his village of Ashford Carbonnel, and for two schools that are under threat of amalgamation. His deputy leader, Councillor Jackie Williams of the Kemp Valley ward, is doing a valiant job while her chairman is indisposed, fighting for her post office and school at North Lydbury, which are threatened with closure.

Those stories could be repeated right across my constituency, and in other parts of Shropshire. Many of these valiant, public-spirited people might not continue their lives in public service because they do not wish to do so within a unitary environment, which would be a great loss to the fabric of public life in this country.

This has been a sharply argued and useful debate, and I would like to respond to a number of points that were made.

The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) made a speech in favour of the status quo that was worthy of a true Conservative. However, sometimes the potential gains oblige us to consider and take decisions that might be difficult and which change established arrangements. That is precisely the case with this order for Shropshire, but the measures it contains are based on proposals submitted from Shropshire by Shropshire county council, supported by one of the district councils and a number of other bodies and interests in the county; they are not a prescription produced or imposed by the centre.

Well, let me move on to my second point. Purely in financial terms, after checking the figures, the quantifiable gains to the council tax payers of Shropshire will be about £9 million each year.

The hon. Gentleman confirmed at one point that he was talking about Professor Chisholm. Professor Chisholm’s modelling of the potential financial impact of this restructuring was based on the 1990s model of restructuring, which was entirely different as it was about breaking up large areas such as Humberside, Cleveland and Avon into smaller units. We are doing something different and the potential efficiency gains—for the council tax payers and the services that support them—are much greater and more significant.

The hon. Gentleman made an extraordinary argument, accusing me of running a dirigiste process, imposed from the centre. The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) was absolutely right: this is not being forced on councils. A minority of councils in England submitted proposals under this process, and the proposal we are discussing was submitted by a Conservative-led county council supported by a Conservative-led district council. A minority of councils submitted proposals as a result of the invitation we issued, and a minority of those that were submitted were accepted for implementation.

There was an interesting observation about the courtship of the county by the then Local Government Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (David Miliband), now the Foreign Secretary. Far from unitary solutions being forced on Shropshire, councils, business and some public service providers and users told him on his visit that the two-tier arrangement was not working and needed to be changed.

I am short of time; I shall give way to the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), but not to the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch).

To put it politely, the Minister’s last remarks were at best disingenuous. The fact is that his Government have set their face against the current district council two-tier arrangement in Shropshire—and in other counties throughout England—and I hope that he will clarify his position.

We are not setting our face against that arrangement, but we set out in the White Paper and in the context of the invitation why in many instances there were problems with the two-tier arrangements. My point is that we are not forcing solutions. In his former role, my right hon. Friend had similar discussions in Gloucestershire, East Sussex, Lincolnshire and Lancashire, and none of those authorities produced proposals for unitary status.

May I say to the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) that he cannot argue that the arrangements will take decisions out of people’s reach and then criticise the detailed proposals for the area partnerships and the joint local committees, which are designed precisely to put decisions and budgets closer to the neighbourhoods and within reach of local people. I hope that he and his hon. Friends will work to strengthen those arrangements over the next year, because they are the basis for a sensible and important reform of the way in which local people can be involved in decisions.

No. I am going to come on to the hon. Gentleman’s point about the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister told him in response to a question:

“Of course we will listen…the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government or I will be pleased to meet him after that action”

—the judicial action that his council is pursuing—

to discuss the next step forward.”—[Official Report, 4 July 2007; Vol. 462, c. 950.]

Of course, the hon. Gentleman’s local authority spent heavily in the courts and lost in the High Court. The appeal was heard at the end of January and we await that judgment. My right hon. Friend has not broken any of the commitments that he gave to the hon. Gentleman.

The Electoral Commission will examine the issue of large wards during the review before the May 2009 elections. I say to the hon. Member for Ludlow that if this were about simply reducing the number of Conservative councillors, why is this proposal being put forward by a Conservative-led council?

I will certainly not give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Conservative Members are right to press their arguments hard in debate, but if and when the order is passed, I hope that they will accept the decision that has been taken. I hope that they will accept that it has been properly approved by Parliament, and I hope that they will lend their weight to the efforts of those implementing it.

It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, Madam Deputy Speaker put the Question, pursuant to Standing Order No.16 (Proceedings under an Act or on European Documents).


Division deferred till Wednesday 20 February, pursuant to Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions).