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Local Government

Volume 508: debated on Wednesday 24 March 2010

On Monday 22 March the House approved by 169 to 110 an amendment, moved by Baroness Butler-Sloss, to the motion to approve the draft Norwich and Norfolk (Structural Changes) Order 2010 (“the Norwich order”) which inserted at the end of the motion

“but this House regrets that Her Majesty’s Government have laid before Parliament the draft order, which does not comply with the Government’s published criteria with respect to affordability of the future structure, without providing more evidence on whether the course proposed is likely to achieve its declared policy objective; and calls on Her Majesty’s Government not to proceed with the draft order before conducting further consultation with the residents of Norwich and Norfolk”.

The amended motion approving the draft order was agreed by the House. A similarly amended motion approving the draft Exeter and Devon (Structural Changes) Order 2010 (“the Exeter order”) was also agreed by the House.

The Government welcome the approval by the House of the draft orders, and note that the House disagreed by 54 to 118 in the case of the Norwich order, and by 53 to 110 in the case of the Exeter order, with amendments, moved by Lord Tope, that would have resulted in the orders not being approved. However, the Government are disappointed that the House regrets the draft orders were laid before Parliament and, in the light of the very full debate on Monday, have carefully considered the request of the House not to proceed with the draft orders before conducting further consultation with the residents of the areas involved.

The Government take very seriously the concerns and requests of the House but, for the reasons set out below, have decided that it is right now to proceed and to make the orders that the House has approved.

We remain of the view, as I set out in Monday’s debate, that stakeholders and the public in the areas concerned have been consulted more than adequately. Any case for further consultation can be justified only if some who might have expected to have been consulted have not been, or those consulted have not been given sufficient information to comment on the proposals. The Government are clear that neither of these circumstances arises.

Some 50,000 responses were received by the Government in response to our consultation period March to July 2007 on 16 unitary proposals. The Boundary Committee received a further 20,000 responses during their consideration of the issue in Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk. The Government subsequently received 2,800 representations during the six weeks ending 19 January 2010, all from a mix of local people, the councils elected to represent them, other public sector organisations, businesses and third sectors. This was in addition to numerous meetings with councils in the affected areas. Moreover, during Monday’s debate we heard noble Lords relay the views of various organisations and of course of local people.

It is not the case, as Baroness Shephard of Northwold suggested, that the Government have legislated to ensure the public could not be consulted. The legislation provides for consultation with the councils affected and with such other persons as the Secretary of State considers appropriate. While the Secretary of State specifically sought views from the councils and those organisations well placed to comment on the proposals, we made clear that responses were welcome from anyone, and as I told the House, specifically asked the local councils to bring these matters to the attention of their communities.

The range of comments received demonstrates that consultees had more than sufficient information to comment fully on the proposals. Many focused their comments on the merits of the two-tier status quo arrangements, without necessarily referring to the criteria or to how particular unitary proposals matched up against those criteria. Others commented, again without necessarily referring to all or any of the criteria, about how any change to unitary structures was unnecessary as the two-tier system as modernised was delivering the same benefits as could be expected from unitary local government. Many referred to the impact of the current economic climate, some seeing this as reasons for not implementing unitary proposals, others seeing this as a reason for so doing.

Moreover, the longer-term outcomes specified by the strategic leadership and value for money services criteria are closely interconnected with questions about how the unitary structures would impact on the local economy and how the new Total Place approach could affect the delivery of local public services. Some when commenting referred to economic questions and collaborative partnership working characterised by the Total Place approach.

In short, the Government are clear that the case is not made out for further consultation, whether it is further consultation with residents or consultation with particular bodies.

As I put to noble Lords during Monday’s debate, it is important to remember that the essential issue is whether the cities of Exeter and Norwich should have unitary councils with all the benefits that brings. Evidence of such benefits was outlined by noble Lords during the debate.

My noble Friend, the Baroness Hollis of Heigham highlighted how, as a unitary borough council prior to 1974, Norwich was able to attract business investment, built an airport, the city college and established what is now the university of East Anglia. But since it became a city council, its ability to act decisively in the interests of its residents has been fettered. My noble Friend, Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, gave examples of how the needs of Exeter as a city are not being met. For example, Exeter city council wanted to set up a trust foundation for education that was supported by the university, Exeter college and everyone in Exeter; it was stopped by the education department in the county council. She likewise referred to a new waste-to-energy building being developed in Exeter without any consultation with councillors in Exeter. My noble Friend the Lord Whitty referred to an article written by the chair of the Exeter chamber of commerce indicating all the frustrations which businesses in Exeter have with the two-tier system.

My noble Friend Lord Howarth of Newport cited the European Institute for Urban Affairs which had concluded that

“where cities have been given more freedom and resources, there is evidence they have responded by being more proactive, entrepreneurial and successful”.

He reminded the House that one cannot produce evidence for something that has not yet happened. But as he said evidence from the past is that Norwich has been poorly served by Norfolk as Lady Hollis described; evidence from the present is that Norwich has been shortlisted for selection as the UK city of culture in 2013. The Baroness Murphy explained that what is good for the regional development of East Anglia and Norfolk as a whole, is what is crucial for Norwich—a centre of power to drive the local economy. The noble Lord Elystan-Morgan concluded that the communities in Exeter and Norwich “are giants with immense potential, but are shackled by the present system. It is right and proper that they should be given the opportunity to develop that potential”.

In short, while as I recognised in Monday’s debate the question whether to have unitary councils is one that is hotly debated, there is clear evidence of the benefits that unitary city councils can bring, evidence which the Government believe is sufficient for there to be confidence that the course we are proposing will achieve its declared policy objective, namely to promote the economic, social, and environmental success of the cities and surrounding county areas.

The affordability criterion provides that a change to unitary structures should have a payback period of no more than five years and that all costs incurred as a result of reorganisation are met locally without increasing council tax. The Government accept that the proposals for a unitary Exeter and a unitary Norwich do not meet this criterion to a limited degree, having payback periods a little longer than five years. There is no evidence to support the suggestion of Lord Burnett that a unitary Exeter will cost the average band D council tax payer in Devon approximately £200 a year extra. The Government also accept that the Norwich proposal, before the new Total Place approach to service delivery is taken into account, does not meet the value for money on services criterion. But, considered on their merits, the Government are clear that the risks of a slightly longer payback period are outweighed by the benefits for the local economy that unitary councils would bring, benefits the likelihood of which is supported not least by the evidence heard in Monday’s debate, and that with the new Total Place approach, Norwich will be able to shape and jointly deliver high-quality services across the whole area, with the economies that brings, but which also meet the diverse needs of urban and rural communities.

Moreover, as I explained to the House, if we proceed now the new unitary councils can be implemented in April 2011, already over four years after the original unitary proposals were made by the elected city councils for Exeter and Norwich. Any further delay now would make that date impossible, with implementation at its earliest being in April 2012.

Accordingly, for all the reasons above, the Government have concluded that it is now right to proceed. The other place has now approved the draft orders, by 251 to 163 in the case of Exeter, and by 249 to 171 in the case of Norwich. In all the circumstances, therefore, the Government now intend to make the Exeter and Norwich orders as soon as practicable.