I advise the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister, and also that an eight-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches will apply to this debate.
I beg to move,
That this House expresses grave concern at the manner in which unitary restructuring is being imposed on local government in Devon and Norfolk; questions the legality, motivation and financial probity of restructuring in Devon and Norfolk during this pre-election period; notes that the Permanent Secretary has had to seek a Ministerial Direction from the Secretary of State as to the value for money and feasibility of restructuring at this time; further notes that the Permanent Secretary has concerns regarding the legal vulnerability of current restructuring plans in the case of judicial review; cautions that distinguished academic research fundamentally undermines the economic case for unitary restructuring; asserts that restructuring will place an additional cost burden on council tax payers in Devon and Norfolk; regrets the ongoing uncertainty created in Suffolk over the restructuring plans; commends much wider joint working and shared service arrangements between local authorities as important ways of delivering efficiency savings; believes it is an abuse of the democratic process; and calls for the draft Statutory Instruments pertaining to restructuring to be subject to a debate on the floor of the House and then for the proposals to be withdrawn.
This is not the first time that we have raised the issue of Norfolk and Suffolk local government restructuring in the House, and we make no apology for doing so yet again. It is all the more important that we take this opportunity to raise the issue on the Floor of the House because, for reasons that I hope we will be able to set out fairly succinctly, there is an extraordinary set of circumstances, which gives rise to a couple of the most bizarre statutory instruments we have ever seen.
Indeed. It is extraordinary behaviour, and we can set out why. We make no bones about tabling a motion condemning in trenchant terms the attitude and behaviour of the Government towards restructuring in Norfolk and Devon.
It is worth reviewing a little of the background to the present situation. Hon. Members will recall that back in 2007 the then Secretary of State invited a number of local authorities to make bids for unitary status. The key point is that about 26 bids were received. It was made clear by the then Secretary of State that they were to be judged against five strict criteria, which have been the basis upon which all subsequent decisions have been taken. It was made clear that to be successful, bids would be expected to meet all five criteria. Particularly relevant to this case were the criteria of affordability and value for money.
It is perfectly reasonable to take differing views about the virtues or otherwise of unitary local government. There are unitary local authorities across the country. Some of them work well and are successful. There are two-tier areas of local government across the country—three tiers, the parish councils would want to say—in county and shire districts, and they often work well too. That is not necessarily the driving consideration, although I will come to a point where there are real grounds for concern about the methodology that the Government have adopted, through the Department for Communities and Local Government, in assessing some of the supposed benefits of the recent tranche of reorganisations, but that is not necessarily the principal consideration here.
The principal consideration is the Government’s extraordinary behaviour in departing from their own tests and well trailed standards to produce two unitary proposals that they had unequivocally rejected out of hand as unacceptable and unable to meet two of their own criteria. The intellectual—and, some might be tempted to say, political—dishonesty is the principal issue that gives rise to this debate.
The hon. Gentleman is making an exceptionally good case against the Government, but so that I can better understand the view of Her Majesty’s official Opposition, will he tell me whether he is in favour of unitary authorities in principle, or against them?
The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that we have said that we should not impose unitary local restructuring. Imposition is the real issue, because unitary authorities of all political complexions can work. That is not the point here: the point is the imposition, and the imposition by unreliable and, frankly, perverted criteria.
I was going to address that point in a moment, but it seems appropriate to do so now, because I observed a very strange thing. I was trying to work out what had happened since 2007, when the same Government —albeit with a certain change of personnel—rejected those two unitary bids on the ground that Norwich and Exeter were not capable of meeting two of the three criteria.
I am conscious of something other than the change of personnel, however. The Labour party has lost one third of its seats in those two cities. It has lost a parliamentary seat, and a certain injustice has been shown in this world, because I have not yet mentioned that there was also a proposal for Suffolk. It was thought that there should be reorganisation in Suffolk, too, but that has been shelved. The people of Suffolk are not to be treated to a partial unitary reorganisation in which an area is ripped out of the rest of the county—rather like bleeding chunks of Wagner, as Ernest Newman once described it—and separated off.
They are not going to have it, Instead, they are to be treated to an entirely new beast: a county constitutional convention. Nothing quite so grand as a national constitutional convention, mark you, but a new, municipal constitutional concept. All that demonstrates, however, is that, first, the Government have exceedingly inconsistent standards, and, secondly, there is rough justice in this Government. My hon. Friend was right to refer to the two most satisfied people, because if one is or was in the Cabinet, one gets a unitary authority, but if one is a mere Under-Secretary, all one gets is a talking shop.
My intervention follows the hon. Gentleman’s answer to the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell). The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) stated that the Conservative Opposition, if they were in government, would never impose unitary government. Did I understand that right? Is he saying that if the Conservatives were in government and any district council opposed unitary status, there would never be unitary status? Would there never be any new unitary authorities if the Conservatives were in government?
We have made it quite clear that we oppose imposed unitary local government, and I restate that. We oppose it because, first, it is a very significant distraction, and, secondly, the benefits of joint working, shared services and more effective service delivery are being achieved in two-tier areas through collaboration between district councils. I shall develop that point later. It just so happens that the three counties under consideration all have advanced and effective means of shared service working, which the Government choose to disregard and rip up. I have been pretty clear about our position.
Order. We ought to stick to Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk.
I am very happy to follow your strictures, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
I shall review what has happened since the proposals were made. The intention was that the strict criteria should be adhered to, and it was made quite clear that they had not been met. Since then, however, there has been a lengthy and protracted consultation, a number of judicial reviews, the Secretary of State sought advice from the boundary committee for England, which came up with some proposals that were clearly not palatable, and more consultation has taken place. Finally, the Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination, the right hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton), who will open for the Government in this debate, said that she and the Secretary of State would move swiftly to come to a decision and resolve uncertainty. All I can say is that the decision has not resolved uncertainty in Suffolk, although it may at least have resolved uncertainty for two parliamentary candidates elsewhere in the country.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my horror at the extraordinary amount of public money that has been committed to the process, which has resulted in the evidence being ignored? All the money that both sides have spent on lobbying and lawyers ought to have been spent on services for vulnerable people, particularly at a time when public services are under enormous strain.
I could not agree more. It is a fairly regrettable and bizarre state of affairs, and that brings me conveniently to the latest twist and turn of events.
Having said that they intended to find certainty, the Secretary of State in relation to Norfolk and the Minister of State in relation to Devon—the Secretary of State fairly set out why he should not be involved in that matter—came, amazingly, to the same conclusion. They did not go ahead with the county-wide unitary structures that had, rightly or wrongly, been the preferred view of the boundary committee for England; they did not maintain the status quo, which had been ruled out but might have been an option; and they did not look at any other option. Instead, they decided to revert, suddenly and without any warning, to the two small city unitary proposals that had been ruled out before, leaving the remaining counties on a two-tier basis. It was a wholly new approach that had not been canvassed or significantly consulted on. That behaviour, coupled with, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, the expenditure of public money, triggered another fairly unprecedented development.
I do not want to start off on bad terms, but I must say that Northumberland went through the same procedure, and we are in a right shambles—a right mess: we are supposed to be saving £80 million, and cutting £30 million. We had a referendum, and 53 per cent. of the people in Northumberland said that they did not want a single unitary authority, but the Government imposed it. So the hon. Gentleman is going down a dark alley here, because they are going to impose it on him whether he likes it or not. That is what they did with us.
There are occasions when I find myself in agreement with the hon. Gentleman, and he speaks from experience about Northumberland.
I shall return to the finances, but I want to deal with the latest developments, because the Secretary of State and the Minister, having decided on that wholly new departure, provoked a letter from the permanent secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government, in his capacity as accounting officer. He felt constrained to write to the Secretary of State, in effect seeking a direction, saying in terms that because of his concerns he required a direction from the Ministers in order to implement the proposals.
It is worth saying why the permanent secretary felt obliged to do that—the background being that the Secretary of State and the Minister of State had to concede, as was apparent to anyone who looked at the evidence, that the proposals still did not meet the five criteria. Nothing had changed in that regard, but they had a new idea that there were now compelling grounds to permit departure from the criteria. I am glad that at the fag end of a Government there is still some inventiveness left in Ministers; it is a pity that all it involves is their trying to punch their way round the rules. In any event, they invented the new concept of the two compelling criteria.
The permanent secretary had this to say:
“Whilst I understand these wider reasons, I am concerned that the approach you are currently proposing makes it difficult for me to meet the standards expected of me as Accounting Officer.
My main concern about your proposed course has to be value for money for the public purse. It would impact adversely on the financial position of the public sector as compared with the alternative courses of action open to you.”
In reference to the costings in the Secretary of State’s proposed version, he says:
“I recognise that if your proposed approach of a unitary Norwich and Exeter achieves the economic gains you envisage”—
That was one of the compelling reasons why it was thought that economic development would be better advantaged by these small city unitaries, though I note in parenthesis that the evidence submitted to the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee in the other place points out most compellingly that all the development areas and opportunities for the two cities are in fact outside the boundaries of the new unitaries. None the less, it was thought that having small unitaries would be better.
The letter continues:
“there may be off-setting benefits to the public purse from increased jobs of extra local and national tax revenues and reduced benefit payments. The evidence for such gains is mixed and representations that you have received provide no evidence to quantify such benefits. I also recognise your proposed approach may open the way for improved public services through the Total Place approach”—
that was the second compelling reason—
“but this will be dependent on the collaboration of all the councils concerned and as yet there is no clear evidence of the costs and benefits that may arise.”
Is it not the case that, as a former Prime Minister once said, advisers advise but Ministers decide? Is the hon. Gentleman saying that if he is ever a Government Minister he will do only what he is told by his officials, and never take a decision for himself?
Against that background of seeking a rational and sound evidence base, I will read out another paragraph and then give way to my hon. Friends.
The accounting officer goes on to say:
“Moreover, any departure from the criteria when taking your statutory decisions also raises feasibility, as well as value for money, concerns.”
Feasibility is one of the grounds on which an accounting officer can, and properly should, raise the issue of a direction from his Minister. He continues:
“Whilst there is no statutory basis for the criteria”—
although everyone worked on that assumption—
“there is a legitimate expectation that they will be the basis of your decisions. Your proposed approach of implementing a unitary Exeter and Norwich, and not implementing a unitary council for Suffolk would be a departure from the criteria, and whilst I recognise you could adduce your reasons for this as public policy grounds for not meeting the legitimate expectation, my clear legal advice is that the risk of decisions for a unitary Exeter and Norwich, and indeed for not taking action on Suffolk, being successfully challenged in judicial review proceedings is very high. You have been advised that there is every likelihood of such judicial review proceedings being commenced”—
and they have been.
The letter goes on:
“This poses significant risks for the feasibility of successfully delivering your currently intended approach. The probable nugatory expenditure which this would entail, particularly in the case of Exeter and Norwich, could only exacerbate the worries I have described about value for money. And it would also put pressure on departmental resources, altering priorities.”
I have deliberately read out that long passage in full, because it is utterly condemnatory of the Government’s behaviour and makes a most potent case against it.
Are we not beginning to see a theme in this? The Under-Secretary of State just described the permanent secretary as an adviser, and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), in a bizarre outburst, said:
“The selective leaking of internal correspondence has confirmed the suspicions long held in Exeter (and Norwich) that London-based civil servants have consistently been biased against Exeter and Norwich and have been firmly in the county camp.”
That suggestion was completely withdrawn by the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett), who said:
“All I can reiterate is that officials and Ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government behaved entirely properly and the letter was not leaked.”—[Official Report, 2 March 2010; Vol. 506, c. 228WH.]
Are we not seeing a complete breakdown between Government and the civil service at this point?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is a most depressing and worrying precedent when a senior Cabinet Minister apparently makes an attack on the permanent secretary of another Minister’s Department—a mere “adviser”, who is actually, of course, the accounting officer and acting perfectly properly.
Before I give way, I will make one other point, which highlights the constitutional concerns that are raised by the behaviour of the right hon. Member for Exeter in his blog—I understand that it is called “Ben’s Brain Bubbles”—in making that assertion, which the Under-Secretary absolutely and categorically refuted. All I can say is that Ben’s brain bubble will have been well and truly burst by the end of today.
My hon. Friend has asked a question to which I do not readily have the answer. However, I am told that there have only been about nine in the whole length of time that this Government have been in office since 1997, and this is the first such direction that has been asked for by the Department for Communities and Local Government or its predecessor bodies, so it is an almost unprecedented circumstance.
It is his legal responsibility and, as my hon. Friend says, his duty to account for public money. We are familiar with the fact that Ministers in this Government are used to engaging in nugatory expenditure, but does not the fact that the Minister does not understand this indicate very clearly that their time is up?
I could not agree more about the lack of understanding. The concerns that exist about the financial basis on which Ministers have made their case in relation to this, and in relation to other unitary reorganisations, have been reinforced by Professors Chisholm and Leach in their book, “Botched Business”, which had already pretty comprehensively demolished the financial model that was used for previous unitary reorganisations, as alluded to by the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell). Writing recently in “Public Money and Management” magazine, Professor Chisholm points out that a careful analysis of the transition costs self-assessed by the new unitary authorities shows that they are £47 million out from the transition costs asserted by the Department. In all cases, they have turned out, with one or two exceptions, to be significantly higher, so the methodology adopted by the Department is demonstrated, by significant academic research, to be significantly flawed.
The hon. Gentleman makes the point that there have been many developments. Is he up to date with the latest one today, the letter from the Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination to the leaders of the councils affected? It states that
“a unitary Exeter will be able to tailor public services to the needs of its urban area ‘while still being able to achieve economies of scale that are possible under the countywide delivery of such services as adult social care and children’s services’”—
the very two services that Exeter will get from being a unitary authority. What nonsense!
I was pretty amazed when I realised that the Minister had taken time out from her doubtless busy schedule to write that letter, at the very moment when I had assumed she would be carefully crafting her eloquent, reasoned, closely argued and evidence-based response to the debate. Instead, she decided to write to the local authorities in the two counties concerned urging them to do what, ironically, they are already doing. She extols the virtue of joint working, and she and I are at one on that. The irony is that the two counties, and indeed Suffolk, which remains in some kind of municipal limbo, are all local authorities with excellent records in joint working. I shall take this opportunity to give some examples.
Norfolk has an excellent and detailed shared services agreement and its LEAPP programme—lead, engage, aspire, perform in partnership. In Devon there is the integrated Devon concept and a series of joint local strategic partnerships, joint chief executives and joint service provision—all the things that the right hon. Lady is urging them to do, they are already doing without any need to be told by her. There is a joint growth point between Exeter and East Devon councils, which is important for these purposes because of all the growth outside Exeter. In Suffolk there is a pathfinder scheme for joint working.
Those are not local authorities that require a lecture from the right hon. Lady about joint working. The letter says something about the Government’s priorities, and indeed about their timing and public relations, but I do not suppose we should expect otherwise. It demonstrates that the Government have made, in the words of one response from Norfolk that I have seen, “a perverse decision”. In the words of the Saffron Housing Trust—not a particularly political body, I suspect—it was “the least rational choice”.
Actually, I have a great deal of respect for the pride that those cities have. They have their lord mayors, and I have been pleased to see some of the civic work that they do, as do the historic counties. A sensible balancing act has to be carried out. Pride is an important consideration, but so must be proper process and consistency with the Government’s own criteria. With every respect, I do not remember pride being one of the five criteria. Perhaps when the Minister opens the Government’s defence, she will tell me that that is a third compelling reason that she has managed to think of in between writing letters to local authorities up and down the country this afternoon.
The hon. Gentleman talked about joint working and seemed to suggest that if councils had joint working arrangements, they should logically merge and cease to be separate councils. Is that the purport of what he is saying? Is he saying that every council that is in a partnership with another one should merge?
No, I was not saying that, and I am surprised that the hon. Lady could possibly interpret my comments that way. She is highly experienced in local government matters, and as Chairman of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government I honestly think she can do herself more credit, with respect. That is clearly not what I am saying—indeed, I was saying the reverse.
The twists and turns have not quite finished yet. The statutory instrument for the unitary authorities was of course laid in the Commons, but it was also laid in the Lords, and the other place has a Select Committee on the Merits of Statutory Instruments. Generally it does not make any particular report on them, but for only the third time that I recall, in this case the Merits Committee drew the special attention of the other place to the statutory instrument because of its concerns about it. The summary of the report of about 170 pages that the Committee produced states:
“The Department has proposed the creation of two unitary councils…which do not conform with all of the Department’s five published criteria. In these circumstances we would have expected the DCLG to have set out a more detailed case for the proposed course of action than the assertion of ‘compelling reasons’ with little supporting evidence. The parts of the explanatory material to which this Committee routinely looks for evidence to support a policy proposal, in particular the Impact Assessment and the outcome of consultation, do not in our view combine to make a clear, evidence-backed case for the proposal.”
The Merits Committee asked the Department to produce some evidence, but stated:
“The Department’s response…has failed to provide more robust evidence.”
It therefore concluded:
“These Orders are drawn to the special attention of the House”—
the other place—
“on the grounds that they give rise to issues of public policy likely to be of interest to the House and that they may imperfectly achieve their policy objective.”
Given the rather guarded language that is used in the other place, in our robust words down here we might say that the Merits Committee was saying that the process stinks. It is a departure from the norm and there is no evidence for it. Ministers were asked to provide more evidence, but what the Merits Committee got was simply a recycling of what had already been stated, in which contradictions abound.
It was made clear at the beginning that a proposal that did not meet the five criteria would not proceed. As their Lordships’ Merits Committee pointed out, the proposal being adopted is “contrary to previous practice.” The Committee said that it would be helpful if the DLCG would
“give a much more explicit analysis”.
Instead, it found:
“The DCLG response…simply repeats the wording of the written statement. It does not estimate any projected cost savings or efficiency gains.”
That sums it up—it was a blunt, almost insolent response to a serious piece of work by the Merits Committee of the other House.
I do not accept that contention, taken across the county, at all. The other place’s Merits Committee rightly concluded that the Government were adjusting their standards because it was unclear what they regarded cross-party support as referring to. It asked whether it referred to the cities or the counties.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, who has been very generous in giving way.
Is not the problem that the whole process was deeply flawed from the very beginning? The Boundary Commission was hog-tied before it could start, because the whole county, including the cities of Plymouth and Torquay, could not be taken into account in considering a rational basis for a unitary authority. It was confined to a very limited remit.
That is perfectly true, and having set up a questionable set of rules to start with, the Government are now trying to change those rules to get themselves off the hook.
It was interesting to see what some of the respected local government press had to say about this issue. The Municipal Journal had a headline along the lines of “Reorganisation descends into a Whitehall farce”, which is about right. A respected columnist in the Local Government Chronicle, Mark Smulian, not unreasonably invoked the ghost of Governor Elbridge Gerry, the man who gave rise to the gerrymander. I regret to say that that is ultimately what we are talking about here—a sordid little gerrymander, carried out by Ministers to advance a narrow and sectional interest. They are flying against evidence and seeking to distort it when it does not suit them. When the rules get in their way, they seek unilaterally to change them. The Secretary of State has ignored all objective criteria and pushed ahead for one reason only: the sectional interests of the Labour party are put first. That is why the permanent secretary took the unusual step of requiring a direction, and why we are now seeing a Government in a desperate situation pursuing the politics of division, and pitting town against country.
We raise this issue without any apology, and I am making it abundantly clear that we will press the matter to a Division, so that all hon. Members can stand up to be counted. The decision is not just thoroughly bad—we might disagree when a decision is 50:50 or 60:40—but utterly against the weight of all evidence. It is bad for the inhabitants of the counties and cities involved, and bad because it creates a very serious constitutional precedent indeed. For that decision to be taken in the dying days of this Parliament is close indeed to as grave an abuse of office by Ministers as I have seen in many a long day. I am sorry to have to say this, because I have always regarded the Ministers involved as decent and reasonable people even though I disagree with them, but in my judgment, the authors of that decision should be utterly ashamed of it.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:
“recognises the benefits that will accrue to the people of Exeter and Norwich, and to the surrounding areas of Devon and Norfolk, from a unitary authority in Exeter and a unitary authority in Norwich; believes that after more than three years of public debate on these issues it is now right for Parliament to consider and finally resolve them; looks forward to debating the draft structural change Orders in the very near future; notes the benefit to local people, including the substantial efficiency savings being achieved, of unitary councils established on 1 April 2009; recognises the wide support for unitary local government in Suffolk; and calls on the councils and right honourable and honourable Members for that county to work quickly together to reach a consensus on a unitary solution for that area.”.
The amendment sets out why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are very clear that the decisions we have taken are in the best interests of the people of all the areas concerned: the people of Norfolk, including the people of Norwich; the people of Devon, including the people of Exeter; and the people of Suffolk.
Before I comment in more detail on the Opposition motion, let me remind the House of the history of the process that led to those decisions. The Government issued a White Paper, “Strong and Prosperous Communities”, and an invitation to councils in England in October 2006, well over three years ago. These explained that local government in two-tier areas can face additional challenges and risks, duplication, confusion and inefficiency in the provision of services to the public. We therefore invited councils to come forward with proposals for unitary local government if they felt it was right for their area.
In January 2007, we received proposals from Exeter and Norwich city councils for unitary city councils. Following careful assessment by the Department, in July 2007, the then Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford (Hazel Blears), said that she was minded to implement the Exeter proposal and to refer the Norwich proposal to the independent boundary committee for advice. She asked for more information from Exeter council on the financial case.
Following further consideration, in December 2007, my right hon. Friend announced that we would be seeking the committee’s advice on the proposals for both Exeter and Norwich and made a formal request for advice in February 2008.
If the then Secretary of State was previously minded to proceed with Exeter’s bid, but then sought financial information before deciding instead to refer the matter the boundary committee—at the point the Minister just described—why did the Secretary of State change her mind? What financial information did she receive?
In January 2007, my right hon. Friend said that she was minded to implement the proposal, but asked for more information. On the basis of that further consideration, she said she would seek the advice of the independent boundary committee on the proposals for both Exeter and Norwich, and made a formal request in February 2008.
The committee was due to submit its advice by 31 December 2008, but it was unable to do so owing to a judicial review. The deadline for the receipt of that advice was therefore extended three times until the committee finally submitted it in December 2009. I therefore say to right hon. and hon. Members that the process was in fact anything but rushed. Some would say that it has gone on for far too long. Indeed, many Members who came to see me thought that, and my right hon. Friend the current Secretary of State has consistently made clear his intention to bring the process to as swift a conclusion as possible to minimise uncertainty in the areas concerned.
I want to refer back to Norwich. Norwich had its application for unitary status turned down on its current boundaries because it could not meet the criteria laid down by the Department. Three years on, the Minister has overruled the boundary committee and we have gone back to the proposal of a unitary Norwich on its current boundaries. Surely that is completely and utterly contradictory.
I will come to the reasons why, having looked at all the proposals before us, we took the decisions we did. The hon. Gentleman came to see me. He was opposed to all forms of unitary local government in Norfolk. The logic of his argument is that if we looked totally on cost grounds, Norfolk would revert to unitary local government. I do not understand where that argument is going, or what the Opposition are proposing.
I shall now remind the House how the Government took the matter forward once we received the boundary committee’s advice. First, we allowed a six-week period for representations to be made. The Secretary of State and I then had before us seven unitary proposals. We had the boundary committee’s recommended proposal for a single county unitary council for Norfolk, and Norwich city council’s original proposal for a unitary Norwich; the boundary committee’s recommended proposal for a single county unitary council for Devon, and Exeter city council’s original proposal for a unitary Exeter; and the boundary committee’s recommended proposals for a single county unitary for Suffolk, a proposal for a split two-county unitary, and Ipswich borough council’s original proposal for a unitary Ipswich.
That proposal did not come forward through the boundary committee process.
Central to our decisions was an assessment of each proposal against the five criteria: affordability; broad cross-section of support; strategic leadership; neighbourhood empowerment; and value for money services. Those criteria specified outcomes that should be delivered if the proposed changes to unitary structures were to be made and if the unitary proposals were to be implemented. Accordingly, our assessments against the criteria involved making prospective judgments as to the likelihood of future outcomes being delivered. Our assessment—contrary to the committee’s views—was that the alternative proposals for single county unitaries in Devon and Norfolk did not meet all the criteria. Having considered the original proposals for Exeter and Norwich afresh against the criteria, our assessment was the same as that of my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State in December 2007—namely, that they too did not meet all the criteria. Having made this assessment, we considered the merits of each proposal, giving careful consideration to the circumstances in which there were compelling reasons to depart from the presumption that proposals that meet all the criteria are implemented and those that do not are not implemented.
I do not understand why, in the case that the Minister is talking about, she appears not to be concerned that the proposals departed from the criteria, when the decision that the Government have taken now also departs from the criteria for reasons that, far from being compelling, appear to be utterly spurious.
I am just coming to an explanation of that. We looked at the wider consideration of the merits of each proposal. The suggestion that this is somehow a new or novel procedure is not true. In December 2007, when the then Secretary of State took her statutory decisions, she approached them in the same way. She recognised that it was in principle open to her to conclude—on the basis of the information available to her—that all the criteria were not met, but there was none the less a good reason to implement the proposal, or conversely that all the criteria were met, but the proposal should not be implemented. In the event, she decided that, having regard to all the circumstances then prevailing, it was appropriate at that time to implement the nine proposals that met the criteria and not to implement those proposals that did not meet the criteria. This conclusion was made clear in the statement by the then Minister for Local Government on 5 December 2007, in which he expressly explained that the basis for those decisions was the Secretary of State’s assessment of the proposals against the five criteria set out in the original invitation, which had the status of guidance under the 2007 Act, and to which councils should have had regard when making their proposals.
This approach to decision making was reflected in the Department’s letters of 29 June and 7 December 2009 to councils in the affected areas. These letters made it clear that an assessment against the criteria, while central to our decision making, would not be the sole determinant as to whether a proposal was implemented. In contrast to the unitary proposals that we considered in 2007, we judged that the circumstances today for Exeter and Norwich are very different, as I shall explain. We concluded, when looking at the merits of the proposals in the round, that there were reasons—which we found compelling—why the unitary proposals should, despite not meeting all five criteria, be implemented, given the circumstances.
In the case of Norwich, that was not least because when the Total Place approach is factored into consideration of service delivery, the outcomes for services in Norwich and Norfolk could be as good as, if not better than, the outcomes envisaged by the value-for-money services criteria.
Is the Minister really saying that the compelling point is that services could be as good as they are at present? What is compelling about having two directors of children’s services rather than one? What is compelling about having two directors of planning and transportation rather than one? What is compelling about having two heads of adult social services rather than one? How is that the potent economic reason that is the supposed rationale for this mess?
Oh dear, how very disappointing. Total Place is about looking about the amount of public money that goes into an area and how efficiencies could be achieved by looking at it in the round. Local government could work with health authorities or the police authority. Her party’s Front Benchers are fairly supportive of it as an approach to considering efficiencies.
When the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) came to see me, he pleaded for us to reject a unitary approach for the whole of Norfolk. He objects to Norwich having unitary status, but following his logic he should support unitary status for the whole of Norfolk. Presumably, in his argument, that would avoid any duplication, but that is not what he and his hon. Friends said when they came to see me.
That is the judgment made by the hon. Gentleman, but we have made our judgment based on our assessment of the criteria and the circumstances that we have taken into account. We have seen that there are compelling reasons for allowing Norwich and Exeter to have unitary status.
I am grateful to the Minister for explaining how Total Place came into her reasoning, and she is right to say that we support that approach. But against that background, why did the House of Lords Committee on the Merits of Statutory Instruments observe, after receiving the same explanation from the Department that she has just given to us:
“The committee remains very unclear what value unitary status is supposed to add when similar initiatives have already been set up for each area. The House may wish to seek a clearer explanation from the Minister as to why the Total Place approach is considered a compelling reason for granting each city unitary status.”
Can my right hon. Friend confirm that, in the city of Norwich at the moment, public workers work either for the county or for the city, so there are two separate human resources functions, two separate finance functions and two separate PR functions? People in planning are working entirely in parallel, and social services and social care overlap in a wide variety of ways. Despite the merit of her letter and the advantages in joint working, the reality is that such joint working is not happening today, which is why unitary status would achieve savings.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. That is exactly the approach that we need to take to this issue. Similarly, in relation to Exeter, I believe that our decision is right, not least because I judge the risks there on affordability are outweighed by the benefits for the local authority.
In the Minister’s explanation of what is meant by Total Place, she talked about local government working alongside the health service. Three years ago, when the primary care trusts in Norfolk were merged to create one primary care trust for the county, the Government lauded the fact that we now had virtually the same boundaries for health and social care. Now that will be destroyed. Where is the logic in that?
We considered all the reasons why the criteria, in nearly all the cases, were met, but we also looked at affordability, and we believe that there are good examples—this was the point of my letter today—of how we can have joint working in those circumstances. As I have said, we believe that there are compelling reasons for our decision to depart slightly from one of the criteria, and that is the best outcome.
The right hon. Lady is coming to the compelling reasons for departing from the criteria in relation to Exeter. What evidence has she received demonstrating why Exeter, as a unitary authority, is likely to be better than Exeter as part of a Devon county council at attracting inward investment and economic regeneration?
When the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues from Exeter city council came to see me, they presented a good case for why Exeter needs some of the economic advantages of having unitary status in order to take some of the necessary strategic decisions. He might like to consult his Conservative colleagues on Exeter city council about why they backed that.
It is not for me to interfere in counties such as Devon, but, listening to the Opposition, it strikes me that they are against unitary authorities in principle. The real reason they are opposed to a unitary authority at a county level is that they are opposed to regional authorities in the first place—they have always protested against them. So we have to see through their argument. They use collaboration with local authorities in general—they are doing it in the west midlands—as a substitute for regional government. That is the real Opposition coming out.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. The other point to make is that the Conservative party has never really grasped the importance of economic interventions, whether at national, regional or local level. Any idea, therefore, of the advantages that there might be for Exeter—
I am going to press on a little, but I will let the hon. Gentleman in later. However, I am aware that a lot of Members want to speak.
When we announced the decisions, I said that we would be inviting all existing councils in Devon and Norfolk to work together with the Government to develop the new service delivery models that, with the advent of unitary councils for the cities, will enable the best quality and more efficient public services to be provided to the cities and the wider county areas. That is the whole point of the letter that I wrote today. I also undertook to invite all the Suffolk councils, with their Members of Parliament, while consulting other stakeholders, to a county constitutional convention, in order to reach a consensus on a unitary solution for that area.
Under our proposals, implementing a unitary Exeter and Norwich will cost £400,000 over five years, but thereafter there will be a saving of £6.5 million a year. As I have said, my point is that we are working with all the councils involved to ensure that they are looking at not only the advantages that can be gained from Total Place, but other ways in which they can work together. When Conservative Members came to see me, they made the point over and over again about how well that working together was going. I find it extraordinary that all that is being turned on its head.
The Minister talks about criteria. Returning to Northumberland, the criterion then was to save £18 million a year in golden services, but quite the opposite happened after the first year. We have had rate rises, cuts and debt up to our necks. So I do not know where these criteria come from. Everybody should be warned. It might come from the civil service—fair enough—but they should be warned that the things being put in front of them are a pack of lies.
My hon. Friend is so robust, and it is so refreshing to hear his contribution. I thank him for that.
I turn to the representations that we received orally and in meetings with affected councils and Members of Parliament from this House and the other place.
I will come back to the hon. Gentleman.
First, let me highlight that the representations we received went beyond the question of whether the proposals would deliver the outcomes specified by the criteria. This included many issues that, in the event, we considered were material to our decisions on Exeter and Norwich. Representations were made that highlighted the wider economic benefits of city unitaries. For example, while recognising that the Exeter proposal did not meet the affordability criterion, representations were made to us that the proposal should be implemented—this goes back to my earlier point—because Exeter city council was the driving force in the area, providing coherent strategic leadership on urban needs, growth and development, and that the two-tier system did not allow urban residents’ views and political preferences to be heard at county level.
Order. Before the hon. Gentleman intervenes, may I say that time is moving on? I understand the need for debate and interventions, but a number of people who have intervened several times are also seeking to catch my eye. I hope that they appreciate that the time taken in interventions means that fewer hon. Members will have the chance to make their own points. I hope that that is understood.
The case for a Norwich unitary would be strengthened had it effectively been in care for about the past five or six years and had its accounts been qualified. Any idea—sadly—that Norwich could provide economic leadership is ludicrous. Only last year, the chair of housing had to be sacked for incompetence and what could be best described as corruption. I am afraid that the right hon. Lady’s main message about Norwich does not stack up, as the Lords Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee concluded.
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has decided to condemn the council in that way. I must say that representations in favour of a Norwich unitary said that the city’s urban needs were very different from those of the surrounding rural county, and that only a unitary city council would ensure that those specific needs important for Norwich’s growth—for example, jobs, the green knowledge economy and business growth—are recognised and addressed. Representations were also made to the Secretary of State highlighting the importance and relevance of Total Place to his decisions, as I have said.
In short, for the proposals for Exeter and Norwich, we concluded that the benefits for the local economy and how services could be delivered across the new unitaries and the wider county areas in the context of Total Place outweighed the risks of affordability. For Suffolk, we concluded that we would not now take a statutory decision on the proposals before us, but invite all the Suffolk councils, along with their Members of Parliament, consulting with other stakeholders and through a county constitutional convention, to reach a consensus on a unitary solution for that area. We reached that conclusion, because it was clear from the representations that we received that although there should be a unitary solution in some form, neither of the unitary proposals that we considered to have met the criteria was supported by all the principal councils in the county. We wanted to try to reach a solution on the basis of consensus.
I am listening carefully to what the Minister is saying, but if I have got what she has just said right, how can the Government reconcile the unaffordability of the original Norwich city bid with the decision to take it forward regardless? How does she see the affordability problems that were initially identified being overcome? If she could respond in detail for us all, I would be most grateful.
That is exactly the point that I have spent about the past 20 minutes on. We have taken our decision based on the evidence currently before us, which is why we judged that the economic benefits, combined with the Total Place approach, would give the outcome that we wanted.
I appreciate the Minister giving way, but could she explain why the Government have chosen to pilot Total Place across county boundaries, including in cities? The Total Place pilot for Coventry, Warwickshire and Solihull precisely demonstrates that the benefits accruing from the Total Place model are certainly not confined to just one city.
I do not understand the point of that intervention. If the hon. Lady is saying that there are benefits from Total Place—which she might like to tell her hon. Friend the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) about—it is obvious that they would count in that respect.
Let me now turn to the direction that the Secretary of State gave to the Department’s accounting officer on 10 February. There are two issues that I would like to deal with. First, the process of seeking a direction is a standard part of the administrative processes of government, and one that recognises that accounting officers have certain responsibilities and that Ministers’ responsibilities range more widely. In short, it was proper for the permanent secretary, as accounting officer for the Department, to draw attention to the fact that Ministers had not chosen the option that appeared to him to deliver the best value for money. However, it was equally proper for me and the Secretary of State to adopt the approach that we have, and to set out our reasons for those decisions. Of course my right hon. Friend and I gave careful consideration to the permanent secretary’s advice before taking our decisions on all the proposals, recognising that accounting officers have certain responsibilities and that Ministers’ responsibilities range more widely.
Let me turn to the accusation that now is not the right time for such important decisions to be taken because we are in some kind of pre-election period. We need to be clear about our conventions. Until an election is called, the Government of the day have both the duty and the right to pursue and implement the policies that they believe are best for the people of this country. Likewise, Parliament continues to have the duty and the right to scrutinise those policies and, where legislation provides for this, to decide whether or not to approve them. It would be wrong for us at this stage not to face up to our responsibilities and take the decisions that we have. It would be equally wrong for Parliament not now to consider them. In the meetings that right hon. and hon. Members attended, we were told over and over again, “Please take a decision quickly on this, so that there is an end to uncertainty.”
To conclude, we considered each of the unitary proposals before us on its merits. We did not accept any implication that the public interest lies with adopting the cheapest option across all three counties. We adopted the approach whereby we carefully assessed each proposal against the five criteria. In all circumstances we gave careful consideration to whether there were compelling reasons to depart from the presumption that proposals that meet the criteria are implemented and that those that do not are not.
The right hon. Lady talks about the cheapest option, but that will lead to pressure on council budgets. Representations were made to her Department that such budgetary pressures would lead to an inability to employ staff of the necessary quality, because of being unable to pay for higher grade staff that other authorities can pay for. Exeter will have exactly the same problem that other small authorities have had, in relation to having the right calibre of staff to undertake the necessary functions. This decision is not going to do Exeter a service; it will do it a disservice.
The hon. Gentleman might like to discuss this with his colleagues on Exeter city council who are, as I have said, strongly in favour of having unitary status.
We are clear that the decisions that we have taken on the unitary proposals for Devon and Norfolk are in the best interest of the people of those areas, and that there is a genuine local appetite for the measures. We believe that these decisions will give the cities of Exeter and Norwich the governance arrangements that are best suited to deliver economic, social, and environmental success for the cities and their surrounding areas. We have listened carefully to what people have said; we have considered carefully the evidence available to us; we have weighed the competing cases that we have heard; and we are confident in the judgments that we have made. I therefore urge the House to reject the motion and support the amendment in the name of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.
We find ourselves involved in the second instalment of a three-round discussion on these proposals. Thanks to the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), we had an opportunity to discuss them in Westminster Hall last week, and the order itself will be discussed in Committee within a matter of days. In Westminster Hall, however, we did not have the benefit of the Minister’s view of where we had got to. As has been pointed out, the advice that she is sending out to councils appeared in writing a few hours ago. I hope that we will hear a slightly more cogent argument—[Hon. Members: “And some evidence.”] Absolutely. We need to hear the evidence for why these proposals had to be brought forward at this juncture and rammed through before the general election. Sadly, however, I do not think that we are any further forward than we were at the conclusion of the proceedings in Westminster Hall.
As the Minister rightly said, this has been a lengthy process, but the problem is that throughout it, the goalposts have continually been moved. It started with a tight fixed time scale, and other parts of the country wished to participate in the process at that stage. Bids from those areas therefore came forward quite rapidly, but they might have been of a different nature if there had been more time to consider which proposals were most appropriate. Those areas were under the impression that that was the only game in town, however. It then transpired that that was not the case.
The next process entailed the boundary committee for England being asked to get involved, if the Government were unhappy with the bids. The boundary committee then looked at the evidence and came up with proposals for unitary counties, with which no one in the counties concerned was happy. There really was not a huge argument for unitary authorities in those areas.
The process was flawed right from the beginning. Four out of every 10 homes in the county of Devonshire were not involved in the process, because the people who live in Plymouth and Torbay were not allowed a say, even though the proposals will have an impact on them.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is the problem with the process. The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) talked about the arguments for and against unitary authorities, and he was right to say that people take different views. In my view, there is a strong case for unitary government where the boundaries make sense. However, it is ludicrous for the boundary committee—which was not involved at the start of the process; that was something that the Government hit upon halfway through—to draw lines round parts of an area and say that they should not be included.
We should look at the case of Torbay in passing, because many people would describe it as a unitary authority that was bound to fail, because it is quite small and tightly drawn. It is difficult, under any administration, for a small unitary to deliver its services effectively, for all the reasons that hon. Members will no doubt wish to talk about tonight.
If we look at Torbay or Devon, and officers working for one or the other, we see that they can work for either a small unitary authority or for a very large county authority. Which does my hon. Friend think will be able to pay the better salary and provide the better promotion prospects for anyone working for these authorities?
That reinforces a point made in an earlier intervention, and I accept that there are many factors that need to be taken into account.
Unitaries are proposed—and indeed accepted by the Government—in dubious circumstances, as already mentioned, for two parts of the counties involved, but the third county of Suffolk, which has not yet been much debated, has been offered the possibility of having a county constitutional convention. My hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) said publicly at the beginning of this process that he felt that this would be a way forward for Norfolk. If people across Norfolk had had the opportunity to make proposals with the prospect of gaining some measure of consensus, this might well have been an entirely different exercise.
The hon. Gentleman talks about attitudes to this issue and the idea of having a convention, so does he concede that the leader of the Liberal Democrat group on Norwich city council, Councillor Brian Watkins, and his colleagues, and my Lib Dem political opponent at the general election, Simon Wright—this is the 24th Lib Dem target seat in the country—both strongly support the unitary option for Norwich? Will the hon. Gentleman support them in that? When he decides what he is going to do tonight, will he support them or do something that effectively stabs them in the back in their efforts to put their views forward? [Interruption.]
I think that the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Christopher Fraser) is making a point from the Back Benches, which may be on the record.
It is clear that in all political parties, people have different views. For anyone active in opposition, in government or seeking to get there, one has to look at all the evidence relating to the case. There are preferences in certain local areas and parts of counties for particular proposals, as people feel a great loyalty to the institutions to which they are elected. That is one consideration, but far more importantly, we must judge how effective any unitary authority created within these boundaries would be. That is where the proposals before us are called into question.
My hon. Friend’s answer to the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) was perfect. The reason why I put forward the case for having a constitutional convention was that I could see a Stalinist process emerging that would completely ignore the people of Norfolk. I thought that there would no process to engage people about the future of local government for our county. I am not instinctively against unitary government at all; I think that it makes a lot of sense in many ways. The problem is that the people of Norfolk have been ignored in this process, which is why it caused outrage.
I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. Looking at Devon, for example, it is important to point out that the position already mentioned in respect of Torbay and Plymouth and the surrounding area was brought about under a Conservative Government. In those areas, the job was only half done and left hanging by the Conservative Government, whereas we should have considered proposals relating to the whole county of Devon. There was an opportunity in Devon’s case to examine the circumstances, look afresh and see what could have been done slightly better or differently. As has already been pointed out, however, that offer was not on the table.
We should have warned the hon. Gentleman before that although the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) looks cuddly, he is actually the sort of bull who brings his own china shop with him. The hon. Gentleman should sup with a long spoon, but will he acknowledge that we on the Conservative Benches are not at all surprised by what he said? As already mentioned, we are familiar with Liberal Democrats whose backsides are nailed so firmly to the fence that the iron has entered their soul, and they not only say different things in different parts of the country, but, even more commonly, say different things at opposite ends of the same street.
If the hon. Gentleman had listened to what I said earlier, he might not have risked returning to the issue of splits in his own party over these issues. Throughout our earlier debates on the creation of unitary authorities throughout the country, we heard his colleagues on the Conservative Front Bench saying that it was a terrible process without really engaging with the fact that the unitary authorities that now exist in Wiltshire and Shropshire were proposed by the Conservatives.
The point is that people should be able to come forward and present proposals for measures that will work in their areas, and the Government should be able to decide whether those proposals stack up financially. Different considerations will apply in different parts of the country. Some of the larger unitary authorities may not meet with favour locally, even if they are more financially viable.
As my hon. Friend has said, the experience of the process has been difficult for all parties. I well remember our debates on some of the unitary authorities that now exist, when there were divisions between all the parties. I think that this is a missed opportunity. If we want to engage people in politics, should we not encourage them to unite on the changes that they want rather than being fractured over those that they do not want?
As always, my hon. Friend has made a good point. We are having this debate against the background of a general election, rather than pushing the issues into a future time when they could be discussed more calmly. We are working to a timetable of the Prime Minister’s rather than the Department’s choosing.
I must respond to the outrageous goading by the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon), whom I would almost call my hon. Friend. The Conservative county group, which supported a unitary Norfolk, was opposed by Tories in district councils across the county. The Tory party in Norfolk was split completely down the middle, and the leader of the Conservative county council was deselected as a result of his support for a unitary authority. We will take no lessons from the hon. Gentleman on this issue.
My hon. Friend has confirmed what I said earlier. All the parties have understandably found themselves having an internal debate, because people in different parts of counties are bound to take different views. It would have been more helpful if, at the start of the process, everyone in the areas concerned had been allowed to discuss the issues through a constitutional convention. A constitutional convention has, in fact, been proposed in Suffolk, but more for reasons of desperation than might have been the case had it been proposed at the outset.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned division within parties. He will know that the Labour leader of Devon county council, Saxon Spence, has said that the system is unworkable in Exeter. Indeed, even some Conservative members of Exeter city council who are in favour of unitary government in principle recognise that this is not the time for it because of the changed economic circumstances, and because they see it as a party political move by the Labour party for the benefit of the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw) and no one else.
The hon. Gentleman seeks to build on a point made by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) about potential gerrymandering. I recall that Governor Gerry’s name was mentioned earlier. However, I fear that the Government’s action may be mistaken, because I do not think that it is particularly to their advantage in either case.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the Conservatives in Norfolk are united on one issue—the delivery of good services to the people of Norfolk at a sensible price? Anything that adds cost is anathema to all Conservatives, whatever the level at which they represent people in Norfolk.
The hon. Gentleman was dangerously close to saying that they were disunited on every other issue. We have had quite a debate already, and the issues that seem to be resolved are that unitary authorities on the scale proposed will have real difficulty in delivering services effectively, and that there is a huge question mark over the process that has been followed. Local people in those areas, regardless of what their views may have been at the beginning of the process, will feel that they have been served badly by that process, which has been done to them, as opposed to being one in which they have been engaged.
I should pick out one slight inconsistency in the Conservative position. The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst referred to academic research, in particular that by Professor Chisholm, showing that unitary local government and the transition to local government is problematic. A great deal of research shows that this can work effectively, so I have a problem with the motion, which in effect says that there are question marks over the whole process of transition to unitary authorities. That is not defensible.
The point that I was making was that the academic research by Professors Chisholm and Leach demonstrates that the methodology adopted by the Department for Communities and Local Government in relation to the current round of unitary restructuring is highly suspect.
That clarification is helpful—not that that dimension would have encouraged my hon. and right hon. Friends to have voted against the motion anyway, because we feel that common sense should reign, and we should have the opportunity to point out how the process has been flawed throughout. None the less, I am glad of the clarification, because unitary local government is beneficial in areas where those who create it get it right, where the boundaries are sensible, and so on.
In summary, the Liberal Democrats’ position is that although we feel that there is a case for unitary government in many parts of the county, the proposals being pressed by the Government in this unseemly way just before a general election are not helpful, and we shall therefore be happy to vote for the motion.
She’s not from Norfolk!
I note, Madam Deputy Speaker, that Conservative Members appear to be challenging your ruling in calling me, and I sure that they did not intend to do that and would wish to rephrase their sedentary comments.
When listening to the peroration of the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), I felt that he had lost his knowledge of what had happened in the past on local government reorganisation. I simply point out to him the experience that many of us had of the Banham reorganisation under the previous Conservative Government. Although it is true that criteria were used then, the point is that the criteria were simply different as the commission progressed around the country and it was never terribly clear which set of criteria the Banham commission was using when it came to the area in question.
I had direct experience of that as the then leader of the Labour-controlled Oxford city council. The council came to an agreeable arrangement with the four Tory-controlled district councils in the rest of the county. A very civilised discussion was held and we reached an agreement, which we presented to the Banham commission, on a proposal for three new unitary authorities. We understand that although we made an excellent case—each of us had the support of all the parties within each council and of a very large proportion of the population in each council area—at the last minute the proposal was rejected largely because of the principled, or unprincipled, intervention of the then Member for Witney.
Other cities across the country had their own experience of the Banham reorganisation, when similar political considerations were considerably more powerful than the stated criteria against which everybody was operating. All the strictures given by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst about the process ring rather hollow given that, frankly, ’twas always thus and ’twill always be so. There will always be political considerations and it ill behoves Conservative Members to pretend that it happens only under Labour Governments and never happened under Conservative Governments. I also point out that it was under the previous Conservative Government that unitary authorities were imposed on Scotland and Wales without so much as a by your leave or any semblance of consultation. Pots and kettles come to mind.
I found the peroration of the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst very strange when set against the Conservative party’s avowed commitment to localism, which appears to have a completely different meaning when it is applied to the desire of Exeter and Norwich to be unitary authorities and seems to stretch to the whole of a county. That is not normally what people out there believe to be localism.
The overriding priority for the Opposition, it would appear, is the cost of the arrangements. There is no consideration for democracy. I am sure that if we scrubbed every local authority in the country and, indeed, this Parliament and just had a dictatorship, it would be immensely cost-effective and hugely cheaper than the democratic system that we operate in this country, but nobody—not even the Conservatives, presumably—would pursue cost-effectiveness to that level. There is a balance to be struck between democracy, localism and community identity, and cost. To simply say that the only thing that matters is cost-effectiveness seems to me not to run with the avowed commitment of the Conservative party to localism. It rather suggests that localism, as far as the Conservatives are concerned, is only about planning and stopping housing and not much about anything else.
Let me turn to the issue of Exeter, as I know that at least one of the Members of Parliament for Norwich will doubtless speak about Norwich, if called. Opposition Members were suggesting, I think, that the Conservative councillors in Exeter were perhaps not as committed to the unitary status for their city as they had been before. I have a letter dated 2 March, which is not very long ago, signed by the leader of the Conservative group and the Conservative chairman of scrutiny resources of Exeter city council. It makes it quite clear:
“An independent Exeter, with its own government, elected by and in touch with its own people, can make such decisions much more successfully. The city’s voters will enjoy a much clearer idea of where responsibility lies and who to go to for help and advice.
A single-tier authority will cost less in the longer run…and enable the new council to focus on generating the prosperity which will benefit both Exeter and the surrounding county of Devon.”
That is the view of local Conservative councillors on Exeter city council. It is also the view of the other groups on Exeter city council and I am surprised that Opposition Members have been laughing at that and belittling the views of their colleagues in the Conservative party, who are standing up for their city of Exeter.
I think that we know slightly better than the Chairman of the Select Committee what our councillors in Exeter are thinking, and most of them think that this is entirely party political and that it is not the right time, economically, to waste vast amounts of money. Is she aware of what the leader of the Labour group of councillors on Devon county council thinks about Exeter going unitary at this point?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman can tell me, but I am talking about Exeter. He is talking about a county council that is seeking to impose its views on the city. He is belittling the views, published in the local newspaper in Exeter, of two Conservative Members of Exeter city council. He is in danger of suggesting that those Conservative councillors are writing one thing in their local paper and saying another in private to other Conservative members.
On unitary authorities in general, I have always been a supporter of unitary authorities, including when I was the leader of Oxford city council. I am even more strongly in favour of them now that I am a Member of Parliament for Milton Keynes because I have seen the huge difference that it has made to Milton Keynes to have a unitary authority and not be part of Buckinghamshire, which never looked after the interests of Milton Keynes, which has a wholly different population from the rest of Buckinghamshire with a wholly different culture.
Cost considerations are important, but the huge benefits to Milton Keynes and other unitary cities of having councils that focus singly on the issues of those urban areas, that are clearly accountable to the populations of those areas and that work with other service providers in those areas override mere cost considerations. I absolutely understand why councillors in Exeter and the majority of councillors in Norwich want unitary status. Unlike Conservative Members, I believe that those cities would benefit enormously from that focus if they were to get unitary status, and I do not think that the surrounding counties would be impoverished at all. Buckinghamshire is much happier without Milton Keynes, just as we are happier not to be part of it, and I think that the same would be the case in Exeter, Devon, Norwich and Norfolk.
I want to speak on behalf of my constituents in my constituency, which wraps around the northern outskirts of Norwich. I have spoken on this issue in three separate debates in Westminster Hall and I am obliged to make a few points on it now.
I must say to the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) that this is not just about cost and money. It is about democratic deficit, as my constituents were never asked their views. The Bill by which the unitary authority is being established specifically excludes constituents. Stakeholders, business groups and all kinds of quangos—but not our constituents—may be consulted. The only test that we have ever had, although I accept that it was not objective, showed that, if anything, the overwhelming majority of people in Norwich and the rest of Norfolk preferred the status quo.
The hon. Lady is absolutely correct.
If the change goes ahead, certainly in Norwich—I shall not comment on Exeter—it will have an impact on my constituents and, I suspect, on constituents in other parts of Norfolk. First, there will be disruption and many services will be duplicated. Also, the financial criteria do not seem to add up. The fact that the House of Lords Merits Committee attempted to get further details and that the Department was unable to provide them stacks that up. The process has been a disgrace from the very beginning, and Ministers have finally produced the orders in desperation, but it is wrong to go ahead with them just before a general election. The Government have no manifesto claim on this issue at all. I suspect that the majority of people in Norfolk will judge the change on whether it delivers better quality services and whether their council tax goes up.
In an intervention on the Minister, which she kindly took, I said that the argument for a unitary Norwich would be strengthened if it were a five-star council—if it were Norfolk county council—but, sadly for the people of Norwich, it is not. It has always struggled. It has had poor leadership, it has not been able to manage its accounts and it has had all kinds of major problems. I honestly cannot see that a Norfolk unitary authority will be the engine to drive forward any form of future economic expansion for Norfolk. If anything, in fact, past criteria show that it will be a sheet anchor and that it will have an immediate impact on my constituents.
I shall make one final point, as I know that other hon. Members wish to speak. The Minister and her colleagues have made great play of the fact that the permanent secretary is there only as an adviser but, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) said, he is actually the accounting officer. There is ministerial responsibility to consider. The whole issue should be referred to the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee, and Ministers should be held responsible—both personally and financially—for these decisions. What has happened has been shown, by both the permanent secretary and the Merits Committee, to have got close to breaking the law. I hope that Ministers will be held personally responsible. I also hope, in the event of a change of Government, that future Ministers will look into this matter and make certain that those people are held responsible.
I am delighted that this debate is taking place. First of all, and following the remarks of the Chair of the Select Committee, it is important to say that it directly affects the constituents of just three constituencies—my constituency of Norwich, South, and the constituencies of Norwich, North and of Exeter.
There may be indirect effects on other constituencies, and the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) has suggested that his might be one, but I do not believe that the argument has been made. In the case of Norfolk, the Opposition have to make the case that the services provided by a new Norfolk county council that is 85 per cent. the size of the current authority would be significantly less good and represent less value for constituents than now. I do not believe that that argument has been made.
In the Westminster Hall debate on this subject, the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon), in trying to answer that question, said that he thought there might be some future land grab. I say that that is a matter for the future, and that if his party were fortunate enough to be in office it could see the problem off at any time. In all seriousness, I believe that the case for damage being done elsewhere has not been strongly made.
The Conservatives have argued the case for unitary authorities since 1986, when the Conservative Government abolished the Greater London Council, the Inner London Education Authority and the six metropolitan county councils, and created 68 new urban unitaries. In 1994, the Conservatives did the same thing again in Scotland and Wales, and then in England the Banham commissioners —to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) referred—broke down counties such as Avon, Humberside, Hereford and Worcester, and Berkshire into smaller unitaries. I am glad to say that, from 2008, this Government have taken the process forward.
In all those cases, the key point that is not accepted by the Opposition is that new authorities were created, with new councillors and officers to deal with the new situation. That was the moment for improvement. Of course, there were historic issues, and by no stretch of the imagination do I seek to defend all that happened, but that new situation is what we are debating this evening. As a result of the changes, many unitary authorities were created that were significantly smaller than Norwich—I will not list them all now, but they include Hartlepool, Darlington and Bracknell Forest—and that leads me to believe that it would be entirely possible to establish an effective new authority for Norwich.
In summary, for 20 years there has been a strong and continuing tide towards unitary local government. The quality has been good, and the move has been supported by the Conservative as well as the Labour party. Of course there have been many local issues—some of them bitter—as private power bases have been dismantled and uncomfortable, but necessary efficiency changes driven through.
I was interested in the remarks by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) in that regard. I do not want to misinterpret him, but he made it very clear that, if he were in office, he would propose no new unitaries if they had to be imposed against the wishes of other people. I take that to be a commitment that a future Conservative Government would never put in place a unitary Norfolk county council if there were opposition from districts in Norfolk. I also noted that he made no commitment to overturn in future any decision that had been made.
For three reasons. First, as I said, it will be a new council—that is important—all-out elected in 2011, with new chief officers and a new situation. Secondly, I believe that there will be genuine economies in various areas as a result of a unitary authority with services working together. Thirdly, the performance of the city council over recent years has been improving significantly from a very bad position, as the hon. Gentleman and others have rightly identified. The case for unitaries is powerful.
In endeavouring to be helpful, I did not want to inadvertently mislead the right hon. Gentleman. I must confess that I omitted something. I should have stated what I have stated so many times before elsewhere: of course, in office, we on the Conservative Benches will reverse this ill-considered decision.
I am glad the hon. Gentleman has made that clear. I thought that with great subtlety he had ducked the point and not carried it through. I thought there had been a shift of policy, so I am glad he has clarified that.
The reason for unitary local government is that it is much more efficient than two-tier government. It is far more effectively co-ordinated and coherent. The value for money that it offers is far higher, the costs are lower, and the decisions taken by unitary local government are more transparent and much closer to the citizen. We can see the reason for that in Norwich today with the decisions being taken by the county council. The desire for unitary status has been massively increased, even in recent months, by a number of bad and irresponsible decisions taken by the newly elected Tory county council in 2009.
First, the county council has decided to close two important social facilities for the elderly, the Essex rooms and the Silver rooms. It has no idea what commitment to give to support the frightened users of those services or what to do with the facilities. It is in an absurd position, which is so serious that the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Chloe Smith) says that she opposes the council’s proposals—she has said that publicly—because those proposals come from people who know nothing whatsoever about Norwich.
Secondly, the county council has decided to reduce the amount of money that it gives to urban schools, including in Norwich, which do not fit in with its county-wide priorities, because it is not concerned. Thirdly, unbelievably, the council has decided to turn off the street lights throughout my constituency between midnight and 5 am, on the grounds that what is all right for small rural villages is also okay for major urban centres. It is a ludicrous decision. It is no surprise that the decision is spreading fear across my constituency. Even my Tory opponent, Councillor Anthony Little, has started distributing leaflets expressing his concern, as he misleadingly implies that that has been a decision of the Labour city council rather than of the Conservative county council, because it is such a bad decision.
The right hon. Gentleman may be aware that the county council is not doing as he has just suggested. As my hon. Friends have mentioned, that is rather more a spiel than a point. The decision on street lights was delegated to the director of transportation planning, as the right hon. Gentleman well knows.
I beg your pardon. The Tory county council has decided to ask the director of planning, Mike Jackson, to take the decisions because it wants to run away from the responsibilities. It is extraordinary.
My final point is that Norwich is already among the top five shopping centres in the country, and we want to achieve even better shopping centres, so the decision is taken—recommended by that same officer, by the way—to pedestrianise the Westlegate area in my constituency, which five Tory county councillors from out in the sticks have said they want to block.
I cite these four examples not just because they are bad decisions, which they are, but because each of them is a decision which should properly be taken by the city council, by people who are accountable to the electors there, rather than by people who live as much as 50 miles away from Norwich and have absolutely no idea of the condition of life in the city that is Norwich. It is a ludicrous state of affairs. [Interruption.] That is why there is support across the whole of the city for the proposals that are being made. It is not just the Labour party—[Interruption.] It is the Liberal Democrats, the Greens—
I put a simple challenge to the Opposition parties. Let us add up the votes cast on general election day for the candidates in Norwich, South and Norwich, North, according to their attitude on unitary status. I predict we will find that the overwhelming majority of votes have been cast for candidates who support unitary status in Norwich. I hope that will be honoured. That is a central point in the debate.
Under the current arrangements, which the Opposition support and want to maintain, those decisions will continue to be taken by a county council covering an area—the county of Norfolk—with 85 per cent. of the population size of Birmingham. It is large enough to contain the whole of Greater London twice, parts of the county are more than 50 miles from Norwich and it stretches 75 miles from one end to the other.
We are talking not about a tiny, coherent, local community, but about a state of affairs in which people do not have a purchase on the key decisions in their life. Increasingly, the county council, which was elected in 2009, takes decisions that take not the slightest account of the needs of my constituents. For the judicial review, it has even retained solicitors based in Tunbridge Wells, rather than the excellent solicitors based in Norwich, so much does it care about building the legal system in Norwich.
I have strived and supported unitary local government throughout the county; I have favoured a unitary Norwich that is based on boundaries that reflect the actual built- up area of the city, because the divergence with Norwich is greater than that of any council in the country; I have opposed a unitary Norfolk on the ground that it is far too big to be properly responsive to local communities; and I had hoped and expected that the boundary committee would emerge with a proposal that commanded general support, as I believed was possible.
It was an incompetent process that left the Secretary of State with an invidious choice between a unitary Norfolk, which even the Conservative county council formally opposed, the status quo and a unitary Norwich on current boundaries. He has taken the right decision, which should be supported in the Lobby tonight and when orders are put before Parliament later on.
It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), but as he rightly pointed out the whole process has been a complete shambles. There has been relentless political involvement and interference in the process throughout, and that is a disgrace. The role of the boundary committee is one of a quasi-judicial body, and we should be very concerned about such political interference in its workings.
The restructuring is a political fix, at the fag end of a Parliament, to try to save the constituencies of one Cabinet Minister and one former Cabinet Minister, and depressingly, as the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) outlined in an intervention, the cost of the process has been huge. The cost in terms of the paralysis in decision making, the diversion of management time and the judicial challenges involves money that could have been spent on local services—on the very services that the right hon. Member for Norwich, South mentioned. They are under pressure because of this Government’s woeful mismanagement of the economy, and that money could have been spent helping our constituents.
One thing that has really struck me over the past two years is the extent to which decisions, even in the west of the county, have been put off or delayed because of uncertainty, and the Government knew that that would happen. Norwich city council is still dysfunctional; it is financially incontinent, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) pointed out; its accounts have not been properly signed off; and it has not had a clean bill of health from the Audit Commission. The right hon. Gentleman said that the council has improved enormously, but only a year ago there was a very serious housing scandal, so for him to say that the council has improved so much that it is ready to go unitary beggars belief.
Of all the councils in the country, Norwich city council is the one that should not be given unitary status. It has never been pro-enterprise, pro-jobs or pro-initiative, and for the Minister to say that something has dramatically changed since the original boundary committee report, and now she is absolutely convinced that this is the one council that can drive the jobs and enterprise agenda, is absolutely staggering. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) pointed out, the Department’s permanent secretary, who after all is the accounting officer as well, clearly made the point that the argument in terms of jobs and the enterprise initiative is sparse and hollow.
Looking at it from the point of view of someone who sits for a constituency in the west of the county, I have to say that people in my constituency want the status quo. They want a county council that is able to deliver top-quality services. This is a beacon council—one of the very best in the country—that is delivering top-quality services in conjunction with the two-tier system. I also have a top-quality borough council in King’s Lynn in west Norfolk. The status quo is working well, although it can work better, of course, through more partnerships and joint enterprises between councils.
Hon. Members might have seen that the Electoral Commission was extremely sceptical and scathing about the postponement of the elections. I fear that if these changes are forced through in the fag end of this Parliament, we will be faced with a county council that will lose part of its council tax-raising base, and services will suffer in my constituency and in other constituencies. This is a complete farce and a disgrace, and it has to be stopped; we have an opportunity tonight to go into the right Lobby and stop it.
I am 100 per cent. behind unitary authorities. Indeed, I am envious of the position that Norwich finds itself in of being offered the opportunity to have unitary status. My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) and I were fully supportive of a unitary authority for Great Yarmouth and Waveney, but that was not to be the case. We held that position some 13 or 14 years ago, when my hon. Friend and I were leaders of those respective councils and we were told, under the Conservative Administration, to look positively towards a unitary authority in which both those authorities would come together. We have been actively seeking the opportunity to take that forward, but have been prevented from doing so.
I accept that in the three years that have passed with the matter going backwards and forwards in the boundary committee, the situation has been flawed in many respects. However, we were let down very badly on the question of why Great Yarmouth and Waveney were unacceptable as a unitary authority. The boundary committee said that both local authorities were weak in political leadership and financial management. Opposition Members have claimed that that is so in Norwich, South. I ask the Minister to respond on the opportunities that there may well be to open up the matter again following the election of a Labour Government at the next election.
Opposition Members, including the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Christopher Fraser), have said that Norfolk county council is delivering good services. However, the history in Great Yarmouth means that I differ from that point of view. Five or six years ago, the council closed village libraries in my constituency, despite opposition from the public and Conservatives on the local authority. It is trying to downgrade Gorleston fire station by taking away the retained firemen and replacing them with a crew from Yarmouth fire station. That is an absolute disgrace. Political opponents are trying to make out that it is a plan by the Labour Government, yet it is down to the fire committee of Norfolk county council.
I do not think that the rest of the county has put its views forward on that, and the hon. Gentleman is not justified in saying that there will be such extra costs.
I am looking forward to somebody promoting and supporting the concept of unitary authorities. I live in hope that one day in the very near future Yarmouth and Waveney can join together in a unitary authority and bring value for money and decent services to my constituents in Great Yarmouth and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney in Lowestoft.
Does my hon. Friend accept that the point that Opposition Members have made both to him and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke)—that the formation of a unitary authority in Norwich would somehow cost everybody else in the county much more money—can only really be true if the county council is taking considerably more income out of Norwich to subsidise services in the rest of the county than it is spending on services in Norwich?
My hon. Friend makes a valuable point about value for money. I do not believe that the situation that she describes is the case. I have a fear for the future, which is that a Norfolk without Norwich will leave us somewhat devoid of democratic accountability. I am concerned that we will be left with the two-tier system in the rest of the county council area, which will still fail to deliver services in my area. That said, I firmly believe in the concept of unitary authorities as the way forward.
The switching off of lighting after midnight has been mentioned, and it is happening at a time when safety is of paramount importance. Crime levels have reduced extremely fast in my constituency, and the change will put that in jeopardy. Where was the consultation with my constituents before the decision was taken? There was none whatsoever.
It is time to move on. Previous Conservative Administrations have accepted the concept of unitary authorities, and we should push ahead with this one. I accept that the boundary committee has taken decisions that could be questioned. I have suggested to it on several occasions that a unitary authority in my constituency would have worked extremely well, but we have to move on from that. I support the concept that Norwich deserves unitary status, and I believe that the rest of Norfolk should move on and work towards unitary authorities in the rest of the county.
The Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination said that the Secretary of State had concluded that it is in the best interests of the people of Norfolk to go with this proposal. I regard that as high-handed arrogance of the worst sort, particularly as the people of Norfolk have had no opportunity at all to express our view through the entire process.
To take up the point made by the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), I acknowledge that there are strongly held views on both sides and that some people genuinely argue with some passion for a unitary Norwich. I have no objection to the principle of unitary local government, although I have to correct one thing that the right hon. Gentleman and the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey), said. They argued that there is overwhelming evidence that unitary local government always produces good results; it does not. The Audit Commission tells us that the evidence is mixed. Some unitary authorities have worked very well and others have not, and the most important factor is the size of the local authority, whether it is unitary or two-tier. Larger local authorities tend to perform better than smaller ones, which is the concern in the case of Norwich.
I profoundly disagree with the decision that the Government have taken, and I will do what I can to oppose and block it. It is an outrage that deserves to be dumped as quickly as possible. The process that has led to this point has been scandalous, and it has been the most appalling waste of public money. That is partly because of the evidence-building exercise by a body that the Government created to conduct the process, but we must also take into account the money spent on lobbyists by councils on both sides of the debate and on lawyers in legal actions and judicial reviews. All that money—millions of pounds—should have been spent on delivering services to vulnerable people in Norfolk at a time when services in local government are under intense strain because of the state of public finances. It is a disgrace, and the Government should be condemned for it.
The hon. Gentleman has said that he will use his powers to block the proposal in whatever way he can. Does he accept that in so doing, he will be explicitly going against the positions of the Liberal Democrat candidate in Norwich, South and the leader of the Liberal Democrat group on Norwich city council?
One does what one believes in. I have a strongly held view that the decision is wrong and that it is not based on evidence. It would therefore be utterly irresponsible for me, as a parliamentarian, to support the proposal, and I have no hesitation in opposing it.
I argued at the beginning not that we should sit on the fence, as the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) outrageously suggested, but that we should build an agreed way forward for the future of local government, and there is a genuine case for people and civic society in Norfolk contributing to the process in a proper way over a reasonable period. However, the Government were not interested in that. The process that they have pursued is designed to impose change from on high. I appreciate that decisions must be reached, but the process did not involve people locally at all. Excluding the public from the process is utterly outrageous.
A constitutional convention is now proposed as a way forward for Suffolk because—we are told—there is no consensus, but that is also true in Norfolk. Only 3 per cent. of respondents to the consultation supported the case for a unitary Norwich, and two thirds of voluntary organisations opposed the original proposals for a unitary Norwich, which came from Norwich city council, as did the majority of businesses, a substantial number of town and parish councils, most members of the public, and seven out of eight councils in Norfolk. There is no consensus in support of the proposal.
Contrary to what the right hon. Member for Norwich, South said, the proposals have profound implications for the rest of Norfolk. The hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) made the point that we are creating a council that would mean one-party rule for the rest of Norfolk for ever and a day. Whichever party that is, that is not good for local government or democracy; it is an outrage.
As I have said, the process should be condemned by everyone. The Government rejected the original proposal for a unitary Norwich on the current boundaries, and yet now, following that lengthy process, we get to the point at which they accept it. How crazy is that?
My key criticism, as the Liberal Democrat health spokesman, is that three years ago, the Government lauded the fact that they were amalgamating primary care trusts so that we had close to coterminosity between health, social care and children’s services. That was a good thing, and it meant better joint working between social services and the NHS. Three years later, as so often happens with this Government, we are moving on again, destroying the arrangement that had been established and creating two organisations to deliver adult social care in Norfolk and two to deliver children’s services.
As I have said, the evidence is that smaller councils do not deliver good-quality services, and my fear is for children’s services and services that deliver care for older people if we have a small unitary Norwich alongside the rest of the county. Splitting the two is a wrong decision, and it should be opposed.
As the Liberal health spokesman, the hon. Gentleman will know that every report resulting from the brutal death of a child invariably says that one of the most important factors was the duplication of services and nobody taking responsibility. That is what we fear.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. We must ensure that children’s services are robust, and that they are of a scale that enables them to recruit quality officers with the necessary specialisms. To destroy that in the county of Norfolk will put children at risk, which is a disgrace. For all the reasons that I have expressed, I will strongly support the motion tonight, and I will do everything that I can to stop this outrageous decision being implemented.
I wish to home in on the two compelling reasons about which we have heard so much in the debate on this important issue, although the Government have not disclosed what evidence lies behind those compelling reasons. The reason why Ministers felt able to depart from the criteria—[Interruption.] It is very appropriate that as I am about to speak about the situation in Exeter, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw) should grace us with his presence.
The first reason given by the Minister of State is economic regeneration, because, she claims, a unitary Exeter would be a far more potent force for delivering positive outcomes, both for the city and more widely, than the status quo two-tier local government. What is the evidence for that? I asked the Minister that question in an intervention, and she said that when the Exeter city councillors came to see her, they made a very good presentation. But that is not evidence to support the proposition that a unitary Exeter would be better at attracting inward investment and economic regeneration than the situation that has prevailed for many years and has been astonishingly successful over the last few years—the two-tier system of Devon county council and district councils working alongside it.
I have some experience in this area, because much of the future development land for Exeter lies outside the city boundaries, and in my constituency there is a place called Langage, which is a significant growth point for Plymouth. It is currently virgin land, but it is intended that factories and commercial buildings will be built, creating many thousands of jobs and employing many of my constituents. That site is within Devon county council’s area and on South Hams district council land, but it is a growth point for Plymouth. I have attended many meetings with the regional development agency, someone from South Hams, someone from Devon and someone from Plymouth, all trying to reach agreement on the development of that land. As it is intended to be the site for much of Plymouth’s growth, it would be better if that land were inside Plymouth city’s boundary. My point is that it is much easier to try to make decisions when fewer local authorities are involved.
The Minister proposes that Exeter should have not two authorities—the county and Exeter district—making decisions, but three local authorities, just as we have on the outskirts of Plymouth. Those will be the unitary Exeter council, Devon county council and whichever district council covers the area. How can that be a more potent force in attracting inward investment and economic regeneration? It simply does not make sense, and it is definitely not a compelling reason. Instead, it is a blind leap of faith.
We have also heard much about the second so-called compelling reason. The Minister has told us that a unitary Exeter could open the way to improvements in the quality of public services, and she places great store on the whole concept of Total Place. As we understand it, Total Place is all about different agencies and Departments—health, police and local authorities—working together to deliver services to the local community. It is about joined-up thinking, joined-up Government and joined-up delivery of services.
However, the Minister is now claiming that that can be better achieved by a unitary council, which seems to defeat the purpose of Total Place. If the police, the health authority, councils and other agencies can work together, so can a county council and a district council. It is all part of joined-up thinking and the delivery of services. Citing Total Place as another reason why this decision has been taken in the face of the five prevailing criteria does not make sense. The Minister has gone against the independent boundary committee, against her predecessor’s judgment and against the advice of her permanent secretary.
No wonder the permanent secretary has written such a strong letter, which was read out earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill). It is couched in civil service-speak, but those of us who have been Ministers know exactly what the permanent secretary is saying to the Secretary of State. He is saying, “Are you out of your mind? Do not do this, because it will be a disaster. If you proceed, you must instruct me in writing so that I have a get-out when it goes belly up, which it will.” He is saying, “Don’t do this. You’re making a huge mistake.” We have asked about the evidence, but answer came there none.
It is instructive and useful to look at what has happened in the rest of Devon and Cornwall in the transition to unitary authority government. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) made a few comments the other day, and in part she is right: it has taken time for Plymouth to settle down as a unitary authority—possibly five years. During those five years, a lot of taxpayers’ money was wasted. It is fair to say that it has now settled down as a unitary authority, and is improving and giving good value for money. Torbay is also improving, but it has had its challenges. One reason why it has not really prospered is that, for a unitary authority, it is very much on the small side. Yet Torbay is larger than Exeter, and there is no guarantee that Exeter can deliver the services. Cornwall has recently become a unitary authority, but it is taking a great deal of time to settle down, and the cost was far higher than was ever anticipated.
I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett), in her winding-up speech, will address a point that the Minister did not mention earlier. It is commonly accepted that the transition to a unitary authority in Exeter, if it goes ahead, will cost £25 million. Where will that money come from? It is certainly not in the current coffers of Exeter city council. The proposal is not viable, and flies in the face of common sense.
Then we come to another point. This decision will not just affect the people of Exeter; it will profoundly affect the people of the rest of Devon. I cannot imagine a Devon county council without its county town—it is like ripping the beating heart out of a living body. It is difficult to anticipate how it will continue to function, and Devon county council estimates that it will cost every council tax payer in Devon £200 per annum more—simply to appease the Government’s strange desire to bring about this outcome. It will affect not only the people of Exeter but the people of Devon.
The Minister might say, “You all came to see us to say that you don’t want unitary authorities in Devon. Okay, but what is the right way forward?” The right way forward is staring us all in the face: co-operation between Devon county council and the district councils, enhanced two-tier status, the sharing of services, the reduction of overheads and working together in partnership, which is happening more and more every year. Devon is becoming an exemplar of how councils can operate together. The Government would have been well advised to leave this all alone. I hope that this proposal will be rejected in another place—and if it is not, I hope that the law courts will throw it out.
I think that I find myself in a unique position in the House, in that at the forthcoming election I will be fighting a new seat, and if I am successful, I will have Exeter city council, East Devon district council and Devon county council to look after—and I am perfectly satisfied with that, because they work extremely well together.
I wish that we were concentrating on making life better for the people of our county. The right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), who is here today, knows as well as anyone about the problems facing Bicton college, in my constituency, and Exeter college, in his, and the fiasco over the attempt by the Learning and Skills Council to change the conditions for the hard-earned merger of those two colleges at the last minute. That is a vital issue for East Devon. We should be working together on such matters, rather than mucking around at the 11th hour trying to change and gerrymander boundaries. Nobody wants that.
In the Prime Minister’s amendment, the Government talk about recognising
“the benefits that will accrue to the people of Exeter and Norwich, and to the surrounding areas of Devon and Norfolk”,
but as we have heard during this debate, at no stage has any Minister or, indeed, anyone speaking from the Government Benches, even attempted to outline the methodology, to identify the compelling reasons for change or to show any evidence or business plan—anything that would stand up as evidence in any business situation—to justify the proposed changes.
In the extraordinary letter that we received from the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett) this afternoon, headed “The Future of Local Service Provision in Devon”, she kindly offered to appoint a senior official to act as a champion in Whitehall for all the Devon councils. One can only hope that that would be the old friend of the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), the permanent secretary Mr. Peter Housden, who is so cynical and nervous—and on the record publicly as such—about the entire series of changes.
We do not think that people in Devon need champions in Whitehall: they have Members of Parliament who are championing them right now, and those seem to be mainly on the Conservative side of the House. At no stage has a Minister accepted that the enhanced two-tier system is working; and, because it does not suit their naked political purposes, at no stage have Ministers said that for East Devon, which is about to share a chief executive and other officers with South Somerset council, the winner in all this will be the East Devon taxpayer. Instead, through political gerrymandering, the Government are trying to appease an existing Cabinet Minister and a past Cabinet Minister—the only two members of the Labour party who are satisfied with what is proposed.
When we speak about Exeter expanding, I would be grateful if the Under-Secretary of State could share with the House her views on where Exeter is going to expand. Perhaps she could have a quick word with her colleague on her left to identify some areas. If she or any of her colleagues take the trouble to find out, they will find that all the significant growth in the Devon structure plan is outside the city—that is, outside the city today, and outside it even if unitary proposals go ahead for Exeter. The growth is planned to the east of the M5 in my constituency, in Cranbook, a new community of at least 3,000 dwellings, which will include a 30-hectare business park—Skypark—a 25-hectare science park, an inter-modal freight terminal, the expansion of Exeter international airport and a further 500 dwellings in East Devon, an area that covers 315 square miles, and not in Exeter, a city covering 18.5 square miles.
We are talking about the economic benefits to our city, but it is our county city. I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) that to strip out our county city from our county is at best a dereliction of duty, at worst political vandalism. However, to strip out Exeter from the county will not benefit the people of Exeter at this time, and it will manifestly not benefit the rest of the people of Devon either, because as we have heard, there is no provision for additional funding for any restructuring costs incurred by the rest of the county. It will fall to the council tax payers to make up the deficit, and I suspect that a deficit will indeed be incurred in setting up Exeter as a unitary.
Hon. Members should not take just my word for that. They could perhaps take the words of the leader of the Labour party on Devon county council, who was closely involved for many years with Exeter city council. Councillor Saxon Spence has said in evidence that there is effectively no way that Exeter can be set up as a unitary without central Government support. If the money is available to set up an Exeter unitary, and if we accept that central Government support will be needed, that means, ergo, that there is Government money around somewhere. As a Devon Member of Parliament who is satisfied with the status quo, please may I bid for that money, for my hard-pressed social services, for the survival of Bicton college, the only land-based agricultural college in the south-west, for the potholes in our roads, so that people can get about, or for capping council tax, which our hard-pressed pensioners are finding it increasingly difficult to pay?
That is not just my view: if Ministers talked to anybody representing a constituency in Devon, from any party other than the Government party, or to any Member of Parliament representing a Norfolk seat, I suspect that they would say the same. However, because this Government have squandered the golden economic legacy that they inherited—[Laughter.] The right hon. Member for Exeter laughs, but it is true. Otherwise, why are we in the worst recession that any of us has ever seen or is ever likely to see in our lifetime? At the moment, there is no money to waste on Government schemes to shore up the political careers of two Ministers—or rather, one ex-Minister and one soon-to-be ex-Minister. This proposal should have no place. The Government have run out of time, and it will be a disgrace if they force it through. I pray that when the election eventually comes, the people of Devon will recognise it for what it is.
My constituency straddles the boundary of the proposed new Norwich unitary authority and the remainder of Norfolk, covering wards of Norwich city council and Broadland district council. I believe that I have the joy to be part of what the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) has referred to as the trio of affected constituencies.
I, and about 40 per cent. of my constituents, live in the city of Norwich and, in answer to the point about civic pride made by the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), I am very proud to do so. That, however, has zero to do with my stance on the political, financial and ethical aspects of what we are debating. I part company with my city comrade, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South, on his point that only he and I, and the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), have the right to comment on the proposals. Opposition Members have laid out in detail, many times in many different places, the economic, financial, social and political effects of the proposal on the remainder of the county. I suspect that that is as true for Devon as it is for Norfolk.
Following the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire), I do not hesitate to note the effect of the proposal on the remainder of the country as well. I strongly believe that the proposal on the table in Norwich will be costly and unnecessary, at a time of staggering national budget deficit. When the interest payments on the national debt are greater than the schools budget, it is utterly beyond me to understand why anyone would spend cash on something as unnecessary, unwanted and unreasonable as these proposals.
The right hon. Member for Norwich, South seems to believe that the debate will be an election winner for him. In case anyone missed his contribution, I must tell them that his dividing lines are probably visible with the naked eye from space. The great majority of my constituents in Norwich, North oppose the proposal. I have barely heard a single positive case being made for it in the street by a citizen of either Norwich city or the Broadland areas that I represent. That is probably on the ground of cost, as well as on the serious grounds of the capability of Norwich city council—of which more in a second—and the lack of democratic consultation on the changes. I agree with the comments made by many hon. Members on that.
I will limit myself to two points. I shall make a swift point about the double-think surrounding the lack of regard for local people’s views during the Government’s shambles of a journey to get to this stage. Secondly, I shall examine in slightly more depth the capability of the existing city council to act as a preparing authority and a future guardian for education, social services, and the many other services that others have highlighted.
On consultation, the Government have ignored the Department for Communities and Local Government’s accounting officer. They have also ignored the boundary committee. They have ignored the people, because only 3 per cent. of those who took part in the only consultation available want this proposal for a unitary authority for Norwich on the existing boundaries. They have also ignored hon. Members in this House and in the other place. The point is, however, that they believe that they have consulted and gained support.
I shall give the House one example of that before I move on to my second point. From the Secretary of State’s answer to my question at oral questions this afternoon, I learned that the Government have “an indication of support in key places”. What is that based on? According to the Secretary of State, it is based on the support of three out of four political parties on Norwich city council, the ambitious authority itself. That is not a broad cross-section of support. As Norwich city council would like to suggest, the proposal has “a strong broad cross-section of support”, but that is not the same thing.
The truth is that this Government have failed to hold any kind of individual consultation on the orders for Norwich. The one to which they have had access, conducted by the boundary committee, shows a tiny 3 per cent. in favour of the proposed decision, with 85 per cent. in favour of retaining the status quo—and my constituents agree with that. The huge majority of those constituents who have expressed a view to me have very little faith in the proposed changes delivering anything other than a political fix.
On the capability of Norwich city council, I share my constituents’ delight and pride in living in a fine city. Like them, I hope that we shall soon walk away with the UK city of culture prize. I put it on the record that I congratulate the city council on its work with its partners in getting us this far in the process. I do not slate the council for everything it does, but I do slate it for its record on the delivery of public services so far as my constituents and I, as a resident, are concerned, as there is more at stake than the arts.
Constituents living in the four wards of Norwich city council that I represent who come to my surgeries with housing problems and wanting to reduce antisocial behaviour, to remove rubbish and to cope with so many other problems, both small and large, have very little faith in the city council’s ability—past, present and future—to provide services of a decent quality.
I thank my hon. Friend for that. The city council is on top of its ability to leave bins full and, as already mentioned, is well known for the failure of its housing department, which led to the “Greyhound Opening” scandal in 2008-09, in which a senior employee and other staff were allowed to move into decommissioned sheltered housing and rent at social housing rates.
No, I am afraid not, as I want to make some progress.
The Audit Commission’s report after that scandal awarded the city’s services a zero rating and the council is undergoing challenging improvement requirements. This year is the first for five years in which the council’s accounts have been officially approved. The city now wishes the new council to focus on
“priorities that will maximise the future economic and social development of the city”—
all well and good—including economic development, co-ordinated growth strategy, educational attainment and aspiration, health improvement, climate change and sustainability, and waste collection and recycling. Those are all laudable, but I note that the competent provision of social housing is explicitly not on that list. For a city authority with a 33 per cent. proportion of social housing, an improvement order and a rock-bottom reputation to overcome, I am concerned.
Residents of the city area, myself included, do not want new “strategy, people and place”. They want housing that has no damp climbing the kitchen walls; they want a cashier at city hall who takes honest rent money from honest social tenants, not one who will force people into direct debits, which are very difficult for some people on low incomes to manage, as my constituents have told me; they want a council that answers the phone; and they want low council tax, not a bill for costly reorganisation.
Put simply, current public services from this city, which wishes to be the preparing authority, is not good enough, and we do not believe that this process will make it better. Why should it have control of the vital areas of education and social services—make-or-break services for the most vulnerable in my constituency—because Labour in Norwich and Whitehall want to expand their political empire?
I wrap up by observing that much has been made of the “democratic deficit” by the Labour party in Norwich. It feels in some sense that it is engaged in a David and Goliath struggle against the county council. There is no democratic deficit apart from the one created by this Government and their cronies. There is a deficit because people are ignored. There is a deficit in our national Budget. There is a deficit here in poor public services. That is my concern.
As we have heard, the history of changing the boundaries and structures of local authorities is long and intricate, but the restructuring in Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk began life back in 2007. As events and tonight’s debate have shown, the Government’s handling of these proposals has been utterly shambolic and disingenuous.
We have all heard how councils were asked to make proposals for the formation of unitary government, subject to five criteria that Ministers themselves set. By 2007, the Secretary of State had expressed the view that the unitary proposals for Norwich, Exeter and Ipswich were unlikely to meet all those criteria, but that alternative unitary proposals might. At that point, proposals were referred to the boundary committee. Following legal challenges and delays, as we heard, the boundary committee finally ruled at the end of last year that the city unitary proposals should not be implemented.
That was not good enough, and Ministers nevertheless chose to press ahead with their city unitary proposals, totally ignoring the boundary committee and what it had said about Norwich and Exeter. Ministers even admit that the city unitary proposals failed to meet the established criteria that they themselves had set for granting unitary status.
Ministers have argued that additional economic benefits and public service improvements through Total Place would result from the unitary status that they wanted Norwich and Exeter to have. I shall deal with the credibility of those claims shortly, but the simple fact is that Ministers changed the rules governing their own criteria halfway through their game. They may claim that those criteria were not legal requirements set in stone, but they were certainly widely perceived as the basis on which unitary decisions would be made.
As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), the Department’s permanent secretary said in his letter to the Secretary of State:
“Whilst there is no statutory basis for the criteria, there is a legitimate expectation that they will be the basis of your decisions.”
The Government ignored that. They are now also subject to legal challenges to the proposals from the county councils involved, and the permanent secretary believes that there is a “very high” chance that judicial review proceedings would be successful. As we have heard, the Government’s handling of the process has been appalling. An additional question is whether there was any valid case for unitary proposals for Exeter and Norwich, and there is overwhelming evidence that that was never the case.
Did the proposals represent value for money? As my hon. Friend pointed out, the Department’s permanent secretary did not think so. He had to write to the Secretary of State requesting a direct instruction to undertake proposals that he considered to be unjustifiable. Commenting on the Secretary of State’s view that the economic benefits of city unitaries would offset any additional council running costs, he said:
“The evidence for such gains is mixed and representations that you have received provide no evidence to quantify such benefits.”
The permanent secretary was not alone in expressing concern. The House of Lords Merits Committee was doubtful about Ministers’ claims, while Devon and Norfolk county councils criticised the claims about value-for-money savings, also citing a lack of evidence. The money spent on this process could have been channelled into front-line services for the communities affected. It seems that everyone apart from Ministers is unconvinced of the existence of any value-for-money benefits from the unitary proposals for Norwich and Exeter.
Tonight hon. Members in all parts of the House have repeatedly expressed concern about the proposals and made clear that they are desperately keen for them to be dropped. A future Conservative Government would ensure that that happened. My hon. Friends the Members for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) and for East Devon (Mr. Swire) and the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) all said that the proposals should be ditched, as indeed they should be.
Interested parties have been equally scathing about the Government’s claim that unitary structures would lead to public service improvements. Both the permanent secretary and the House of Lords Merits Committee felt that there was a distinct lack of evidence for that claim. As we heard from Members representing seats in Norfolk and Norwich, communities there are fundamentally worried about what will happen to their local services if the plan goes ahead. We heard an excellent speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Chloe Smith). She has not been in the House for many months, but she did a fantastic job in representing her constituents this evening.
It is bad enough that the Government fudged and then ditched their own criteria, and that they failed to make the case for the new imagined benefits from unitary councils in Norwich and Exeter, but the proposals could have even more damaging effects. As we have heard, they could lead to a rise in council tax across the county of Devon, and we need to see them dropped.
Once again, however, we have heard from the Minister that she will press ahead with these deeply unpopular measures on the eve of a general election. This decision is born of Ministers’ ignorance of everyone. They have ignored the boundary committee, they have ignored the House of Lords Merits Committee, they have ignored their own criteria, they have ignored their own permanent secretary, they have ignored Members of this House, and, most of all, they have ignored members of the public. That is a totally unacceptable way of going about the business of government. The Minister talked about the duty and rights of government, but this Prime Minister has no mandate. It is time for us to vote against this undemocratic measure.
This has been a lively and occasionally passionate debate, with feelings running high in all parts of the House. Feelings are running equally high on the ground in Exeter and Devon, in Norwich and Norfolk, and in Suffolk. The proposals have a Marmite-like quality: people either love them or hate them. Tonight we have heard a great deal from those who “hate that black fudge kind of stuff.”
We have heard some thoughtful contributions, but most have completely ignored the fact that the proposals have had huge cross-party support in both Norwich and Exeter. People in those proud and ancient cities want, and have wanted for almost half a century, the right to control their own affairs. These proposals are localism carried to its logical conclusion, and I am sorry that Opposition Members cannot see that. Many seem to feel that there is an element of force in the proposals. The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) referred to their being rammed through, thus completely ignoring the fact that the boundary committee only reported to the Secretary of State on 23 December, two years after the process had started in 2007. He also ignored the fact that the delay has not been caused by the Government but by expensive and lengthy litigation on the ground, which has led to the timing of the Secretary of State’s decision.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) gave an outline of that expensive and lengthy process, and its background, in a contribution that was both forceful and clear. The hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) flatly contradicted my right hon. Friend’s assertion that this was something the people in the area want, feeling that the people of Norfolk had been ignored. As someone who saw the extent of this consultation and who knows that it received 2,800 representations, I simply cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman. Nor can I agree with the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) that the creation of a unitary Norwich would not benefit Norfolk. As my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) pointed out in her incisive contribution, Buckinghamshire has certainly benefited from the creation of Milton Keynes.
The hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) illustrated the non-party-political nature of these decisions. He is against a unitary Exeter, despite the fact that his Conservative colleagues in Exeter are for it and that I saw them. He ignored the fact that until 1974 Exeter was independent of the county council and had been so for 800 years until the Conservatives changed it. We heard from the Opposition that the Labour leader of Devon county council is opposed to unitary change. In Norwich, the unitary proposal is supported by a coalition of Liberal Democrats, the Green party and Labour. In Suffolk, the Conservative leader of the county council strongly supports a unitary county.
The issues are not simple and it is the task of Government to weigh these matters carefully, to balance competing arguments, to take a wider view in assessing the evidence and differing claims and, finally, to reach a judgment on the best way forward for all concerned. That is exactly what my right hon. Friends in the ministerial team have done and they have done it in the knowledge that before any unitary structure is created, these issues must be fully debated in this House and by another place. They must be agreed here. In the representations today, we have heard graphically from Exeter and Norwich just how the existing system has failed them.
claimed to move the closure (Standing Order No. 36).
Question put forthwith, That the Question be now put.
Question agreed to.
Question put accordingly (Standing Order No. 31(2)), That the original words stand part of the Question.
Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 31(2)), That the proposed words be there added.
The Deputy Speaker declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to (Standing Order No. 31 (2)).
That this House recognises the benefits that will accrue to the people of Exeter and Norwich, and to the surrounding areas of Devon and Norfolk, from a unitary authority in Exeter and a unitary authority in Norwich; believes that after more than three years of public debate on these issues it is now right for Parliament to consider and finally resolve them; looks forward to debating the draft structural change Orders in the very near future; notes the benefit to local people, including the substantial efficiency savings being achieved, of unitary councils established on 1 April 2009; recognises the wide support for unitary local government in Suffolk; and calls on the councils and right honourable and honourable Members for that county to work quickly together to reach a consensus on a unitary solution for that area.