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Unitary Status (East Anglia)

Volume 472: debated on Tuesday 26 February 2008

8. When she next expects to meet representatives of local authorities in East Anglia to discuss Government plans for unitary status. (188691)

Ministers have no plans to meet local authorities in East Anglia at this stage in the boundary committee’s work. I have asked the boundary committee to advise whether it would recommend unitary arrangements for the area in future, but at present it is best that local authorities speak to, meet and deal with the boundary committee, which they are doing.

Is the Minister aware that I have not yet met a social worker, teacher, fire officer, police officer, planning official or highways engineer who is in favour of the proposals? The only people I have met who are in favour are the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) and a few senior local government officials who are eyeing up large redundancy payments. Why does not the Minister listen to the public, who believe that the proposals will not make any difference to the delivery of efficient local government in East Anglia? Will he listen to the public and scrap those ideas?

The case for unitary rather than multi-tier local government is very strong, and we set it out a couple of years ago. Just to be clear to the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends, let me repeat that there are no proposals for unitary reorganisation in East Anglia at present. That is precisely what I have asked the boundary committee to look at; after discussing the matter in detail with local authorities and others in the area, it will judge whether to recommend to Ministers that there is a good unitary solution for the area in the future. When or if it does that, I will consider it.

I hope that the Minister knows that no local authority, parish council or organisation of any kind, except the Waveney Labour party, is in favour of this abortion called Yartoft, which tries to link Yarmouth and Lowestoft. May I have his absolute undertaking that his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will not accept any proposition that is so wholly against the views of every single elected authority concerned?

I will send the right hon. Gentleman a copy of the guidance that we have given to the boundary committee, because that also sets out the way in which we will consider, and the criteria against which we will consider, any proposals that the boundary committee may make to us at the end of the work it has been asked to do. If he and his hon. Friends want to meet me about that at the appropriate stage, of course I will do so.

Does the Minister accept that any restructuring of local government in Norfolk will divert time and money away from improving front-line public services, and that ultimately it will be the hard-pressed taxpayer who has to pay for the privilege?

It is true that any proposal for restructuring local government inevitably raises fierce feelings. It usually raises resistance, particularly from those councils that may not have a future under any arrangements. I will send the hon. Gentleman a copy of the guidance, too, because it makes it clear that at this stage of the work it is for the boundary committee to formulate a draft alternative proposal, and that

“Any dialogue with, or request for information from, a local authority should not involve the authority having to incur significant expenditure.”

I hope that that is of some reassurance to him and his local authorities.