I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
It was not possible in Question Time to address the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) directly, and I want formally to say how welcome she is to her appointment. I am sure that she will be a formidable opponent at the Dispatch Box. I noted her expressions of willingness to work with us on several issues. As we share similar views on several matters, I expect that to happen. However, if it does not work out, we will always have Paris. I just leave that hanging in the air.
The Bill simply fulfils the commitment in the coalition agreement that
“we will stop the restructuring of councils in Norfolk, Suffolk and Devon.”
It is a short Bill—indeed, the explanatory notes, the European convention on human rights certification, the contents and the front page are longer than the Bill, which has only one substantive clause. I doubt whether all the Bills that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) moved will be as short as this Bill. However, at last we know exactly what the future holds for people living in the aforementioned counties. In fact, since the Bill is so obviously a common-sense and worthwhile measure, it is worth reminding the House why it is needed.
It is quite a saga, worthy of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce in Charles Dickens’s “Bleak House”. Through the magic of Mr Dickens’s words, that case has become a byword for an interminable and pointless proceeding. So we find ourselves with the Bill. With judicial reviews, a league of lobbyists and dubious challenges on hybridity, the measure ran the risk of becoming, to misquote Dickens, “a scarecrow of a”
Bill, which would,
“in course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means.”
So let us remind ourselves of how we got into that mess.
In the dying days of the Labour Government, the then Secretary of State chose to defy common sense and overturn the decision of his Labour predecessor. He decided to ignore independent advice and unilaterally impose unitary councils in the areas that we are considering. He has moved to pastures new, leaving us with an unwanted and worthless legacy. Why was that Labour civil war necessary? Why was Labour Secretary of State pitched against Labour Secretary of State? No one really knows. In the former Secretary of State’s absence, I suppose that I will do my best to guess and help out.
Was the reason to save money? No. There were sketchy and dubious estimates that eventually the decision might save £6 million a year, but only after spending £40 million on the costs of reorganisation. A critique by Professors Michael Chisholm and Steve Leach, noted local government experts, stated:
“The Government was economical with the truth about LGR”—
local government reorganisation—
“selective and inconsistent in its use of evidence, with the result that misleading impressions have been conveyed to local authorities, the public and Parliament.”
Perhaps that was a harsh judgment, but it is difficult to argue against it. The professors also argued that
“there are cogent reasons for thinking that minsters are exaggerating the financial benefits of unitary councils”.
If the reason was not money, perhaps it was popular fervour. Perhaps the people of Norfolk, Suffolk and Devon were crying out, “What do we want?” “A unitary council!” “When do we want it?” “Now!” Sadly, we were spared that surreal spectacle. In the most recent consultation, more than half the responses in Norfolk and 85% of those in Devon showed that the people did not want any change. That is not surprising; they just wanted the councils to get on with more important matters.
Perhaps the reason was that the councils could work more effectively if they became unitaries. No. In fact, the councils did not even fulfil the Labour Government’s own criteria for becoming unitaries. The Labour Government’s assessment was that the proposal in Exeter was unaffordable, and that the proposal in Norwich was both unaffordable and poor value for money. Yet the former Secretary of State blithely disregarded that. Instead, he cited his own deep and mysterious “compelling reasons” why those councils should become unitaries, which are perhaps the same compelling reasons why a suicide of lemmings feel the need to speed to the Scandinavian seaside. However, those reasons were not sufficiently “compelling” to persuade his own civil servants.
The former permanent secretary of the Department for Communities and Local Government, as chief accounting officer, wrote to my predecessor warning that the change
“would impact adversely on the financial position of the public sector.”
He went on to say that
“the evidence for such gains is mixed and representations that you have received provide no evidence to quantify such benefits.”
He further remarked that
“there is every likelihood of such judicial review proceedings being commenced”
and asked, as is normal in such circumstances, for written instructions to implement the proposals.
The reasons were rejected in the other place, where a motion of regret expressing strong concerns was passed overwhelmingly. All that was ultimately overturned by the High Court, which found on 5 July that the decision was unlawful, because the former Secretary of State failed to consult on departing from his Government’s own criteria. I suppose that we should forgive him for getting involved in judicial reviews—it can happen to the best of us. As a result of the court case, the structural change orders were quashed, and elections have since been held for seats in Exeter and Norwich, where contests were deferred by the orders.
Hon. Members, being reasonable people, may well ask why we need this Bill at all. I have some “compelling reasons” of my own. Although the High Court has struck down the orders that would implement the proposals, the proposals themselves still theoretically exist. They are zombie proposals that have refused to lie down and die. Anyone who follows horror movies knows that the only way to kill a zombie is to sever its head from its body. I am here today, shovel in hand, ready to perform, with the help of the House, that very task. We need to remove the possibility of anyone wasting any more time on those near-dead orders. We need to release councillors in Norfolk, Devon and Suffolk from the legal limbo in which they are trapped, so that they can get on with what really matters: protecting the front line and providing the best possible local services.
This whole story of woe illustrates the consequences of the previous Government’s command-and-control approach to local government. It mattered not what local people thought or how much it cost—they simply pressed on regardless. In contrast, this Government genuinely believe that councils work best when they are freed from the interference and micro-management that were the hallmark of the previous Administration.
The measures were the last, dying attempt of a lost, dying Government to change the structure of local government. In many ways, that was the culmination of the way in which this House has traditionally dealt with local government: it tries to change structure first, and then to allow function to follow. I am much more interested in changing the function of local government. If it is necessary in future to catch up on structure, so be it, but I do not envisage that happening for some considerable time.
Will the Secretary of State clarify for the House his understanding of the implications of the Bill? Will it prevent unitary applications coming forward only from the three counties he has mentioned, or will it prevent any applications at all?
I am sure the right hon. Gentleman is an assiduous reader of the specialist press. I recall seeing an article in the Municipal Journal that said that I had in the top left-hand drawer of my office a pearl-handled revolver with which to shoot the first person to suggest a restructuring of local government. The last time I checked, the revolver was fully loaded and waiting for such a person.
I am sorry if levity got in the way of my answer, but I shall give the same basic answer now. The Bill finishes the process I outlined. It would be theoretically possible to start the process again, were someone brave enough to come through my door to suggest that we throw £40 million of council tax payers’ money away. The Bill stops the process in respect of the counties I mentioned, but it kills only one zombie—it does not mean that another zombie will not turn up in due course.
We want to make local authorities genuine leaders of their local communities, with a real say in the issues that matter to local people, such as housing, planning and the local economy, and even the NHS. Instead of making councils turn themselves inside out in response to the whims of a Secretary of State, we are giving them the freedom, the power and the responsibility to decide for themselves what they need to do.
Of course, it is only common sense that through closer collaboration and more joint working, councils can not only save money, but improve the services on offer to local people. They do not have to become unitary to do that, or to spend £40 million getting there, or to embark on a lengthy, expensive and disruptive centrally imposed process. Most councils are ready to come together and already do so by sharing chief executives, pooling back-office functions or even departments such as planning, and conducting joint procurement. I welcome that, and we know that it will make a huge difference. The Local Government Association has said that joining up services could save around £5 billion a year.
Councils are working to eliminate every trace of waste and re-examining how they work and the way in which every service is delivered. They are concentrating on becoming more effective and more productive than ever before, but they are doing so without the Secretary of State breathing down their necks, telling them exactly what to do, when to do it, and most corrosively of all, how to do it. They know that there are more effective ways to go about that than putting themselves through the lengthy and expensive rigmarole of restructuring. People want to see their councils saving money by concentrating on what really matters to them. I do not think there are many council tax payers who would put restructuring at the top of their wish list.
The proposals for local government restructuring were nothing but a wasteful and unnecessary distraction in these straitened times. The £40 million that the process would have cost is the equivalent of the entire residential care budget in Devon for a year. The money, time and effort that might have been invested in shuffling the deckchairs can now be invested in facing up to the challenges of the future. I commend the Bill to the House.
I am looking forward to a number of exchanges with the Secretary of State across the Dispatch Box in the months—but, hopefully, not too many years—ahead. Just for the record, the right hon. Gentleman and I did attend a conference in Paris, but I am pleased to say that Mrs Pickles was there, as was my husband.
Characteristically, the Secretary of State made an attempt at an entertaining speech, but in doing so, he completely ignored the views of people in Exeter and Norwich and their desire for true localism in their communities. He exercised a typically liberal relationship with some of the facts. Following yesterday’s announcement of devastating cuts to local councils, the future of local Government is on all our minds. As we highlighted during Question Time, the cuts are much worse than those faced across the board in Whitehall Departments and far deeper than is necessary to deal with the deficit—and they are cuts of his choosing, not of necessity.
Let me make it clear at the outset that Labour believes in the benefits of unitary authorities, and we support the aspirations of Norwich and Exeter to achieve unitary status. Each application must be considered on its merits and on a case-by-case basis, but in principle we believe that strong local leadership and clear accountability are harder to achieve where local government has a two-tier structure. The Conservatives used to believe that too. The last time that they were in power they created 100 new unitary authorities.
The Liberal Democrats used to believe it as well, but—like their pledge not to increase VAT and their six-point plan to scrap tuition fees—their commitment to unitary authorities in Norwich and Exeter has been thrown on to the scrap heap of abandoned promises. Their policy paper, approved at Liberal Democrat party conference, states:
“Having several tiers of government can not only lead to confusion over which tier is responsible for what, but can also mean that some councils seem very remote from the communities they serve. The Liberal Democrats therefore believe that there should be a single tier of local government.”
Let me deal with a few of the arguments advanced by the Secretary of State. He says that the decision to set up unitary authorities in Norwich and Exeter does not represent value for money. He says that it will cost £40 million. That is simply not true. What he fails to mention is that the very same document from which he got those figures—the impact assessment, produced by his Department—also shows that in the same period savings of £39.4 million would be made; and in the years after that, annual savings of £6.5 million would be made. Now, if the Secretary of State does not understand the difference between up-front costs and ongoing savings, I fear that we really are in trouble in the stormy waters ahead. As his Minister in the other place, Baroness Hanham, was forced to admit, if Norwich and Exeter were given unitary status
“there ultimately would be savings”.
That is the reality.
Granting Norwich and Exeter unitary status would save the taxpayer money. The Government’s position is voluntarily to forgo the opportunity for Norwich and Exeter to save the taxpayer £6.5 million a year. The Secretary of State is within his rights to reject the application—that is his prerogative—but let him at least do it on the basis of the facts.
As for the letter of instruction from the permanent secretary, let me say this. In the end, officials are there to advise. They do not take decisions and are not accountable to Parliament. Ministers must make decisions and I believe that the previous Secretary of State was right to take the decision that he did. What the permanent secretary said was that creating unitary authorities to include the entire counties of Devon and Norfolk would create greater savings. The only problem with the proposal, however, was that it was never a viable option. The only people who appear to have supported the proposal were the permanent secretary and the Boundary Commission. It had no local support whatever, either from the cities of Norwich and Exeter or indeed from the counties of Norfolk and Devon, and it would not have met the criteria laid out by the Secretary of State.
What the permanent secretary did not say, as the Secretary of State suggested, was that the existing arrangements offered better value for money than creating unitary authorities in Norwich and Exeter. How could the right hon. Gentleman say that? As we have seen, the impact assessment produced by the Department shows clearly that after the initial up-front costs—amounting to £600,000—there would be year-on-year savings of £6.5 million. The worst value-for-money option—the most expensive option—is the current arrangement, but that is the one for which the Secretary of State has opted. So much for value for money.
Let me also deal with the points made in the High Court ruling. Of course, we accept the judgment. However, this is a political issue and it is right that it should be hammered out and determined by Parliament. The provisions relating to Exeter and Norwich were not imposed by anyone. They were debated in Parliament for more than seven hours, voted on, and approved in both Houses of Parliament. In this House and in the other place, a clear majority supported creating unitary authorities in Norwich and Exeter.
Let me remind the House that Mr Justice Ouseley made no criticism whatever on the merits of creating unitary authorities in Norwich and Exeter. He was absolutely clear that the Secretary of State was entitled to make a decision on the matter, and that it was perfectly reasonable for him to take the prevailing economic circumstances into account. He simply said that the consultation process was not adequate. The Secretary of State was not able to consult more fully than he did because of the length of time that it took for the proposals to reach him. Owing to a series of judicial reviews and legal challenges, the proposals were twice postponed and took a year longer than expected to reach the Secretary of State, which substantially reduced his ability to consult more extensively.
Mr Justice Ouseley was at pains to emphasise that his ruling in no way prevented the Secretary of State from bringing forward the proposals again after a short period of consultation, but this Secretary of State has chosen not to do so. He has chosen to deny the people of Norwich and Exeter the chance to run their own cities. The fundamental point here is what is right for Norwich and Exeter.
Can the right hon. Lady remind me who set up the rules and regulations under which this process made its way to the judicial review, and can she remind me of the outcome of that review in terms of the process followed by the previous Government?
The criteria were set up by the Labour Government as guidelines to inform the Secretary of State when making decisions about this case. Every proposal, as I have said, has to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the circumstances when the applications are made and reaching the point of final decision.
I wish to make some progress and I hope to deal further with some of the points that the hon. Gentleman has raised. I will be happy to give way to him again later.
The Government’s assessment of the original bids in respect of Exeter and Norwich found that they satisfied all the criteria except for the payback period for the transition costs, which was estimated to be six years rather than five. However, given the small transition costs owing to the year-on-year savings—and given the economic circumstances at the time and the overriding priority of supporting economic growth and creating jobs—we believed that there were compelling reasons to create unitary authorities in Norwich and Exeter.
The right hon. Lady has mentioned what she called the small cost of the transition and the savings of £6.5 million to be made. However, those savings are for 2015-16 onwards. Was it the previous Government’s view that the massive upheaval and uncertainty for those counties and what is actually a large sum of money—even if she called it a small amount—was worth it in the hope that, in five years’ time, those savings would be delivered? Given how much the economy has changed in the past five years, the chances of seeing those savings seem slim.
As I have outlined, and as is clear from the impact assessment provided by the Department, the most expensive option is the status quo. I am sure that my hon. Friends will make the point that in both Exeter and Norwich the local authorities are the driving engine for jobs and economic progress in their regions—[Interruption.] Yes they are, and therefore the opportunity to enhance Norwich and Exeter as cities of importance and expand their already good track record—as the people and businesses in the areas wanted—has been lost, because the Secretary of State does not recognise the truth of the situation.
The criteria exist to help the Secretary of State decide on the merits of an application. No set of criteria, however exhaustive, can make a decision—a judgment always has to be made. The point that this Secretary of State does not seem able to grasp is that, in essence, what we are debating is what is right for the people of Norwich and Exeter, what will deliver the best services for them, and what they want for their cities. Time and again, the Secretary of State has said that the proposals were not supported by local people. As he well knows, that is simply not true. He talks as if the proposals were somehow imposed by the Labour Government, for political purposes, against the wishes of local people. Nothing could be further from the truth, and if the Secretary of State does not believe me, he should go to Norwich and Exeter for himself. The people there will tell him what they think. Indeed, they already have. The fact that Labour made gains and the Tories suffered losses in both Norwich and Exeter in what were, essentially, single-issue by-elections will surely not have escaped his notice. In fact, the original move to become a unitary authority in Norwich was made by a Liberal Democrat—the Secretary of State’s coalition partners—not by the Labour party. The proposal enjoys cross-party support on the council and in the city. Opinion poll after opinion poll has shown that local people support the principle of single-tier local government in the city by a margin of two to one.
I pay tribute to the work of my former right hon. Friend, Charles Clarke, and the noble Baroness Hollis for the tremendous leadership that they have shown for the people of Norwich. The hon. Member for Norwich South (Simon Wright), who follows in my former right hon. Friend’s footsteps and sits on the same Benches as the Secretary of State, also supports unitary status, as does his wife, a city councillor in Norwich. A few days before the election, he said:
“It is very much a positive step…I broadly welcome a unitary Norwich. I think it is a good thing in terms of the democratic voice for the people of Norwich.”
We wait to see whether that is still his view today, or whether what he said has gone the way of so many other Liberal Democrat promises.
We all know what a thing the Secretary of State has about council-funded newspapers, so I know that he will be keen to hear the views of the independent Norwich Evening News on the matter. Its editorial after the decision was announced was clear:
“Unitary decision is a wonderful opportunity”.
The same is true in Exeter, where the move to unitary status is supported by all four parties on the city council, including the Conservatives. In a vote in December 2009, the city council overwhelmingly agreed, by a margin of 31 votes to two, to support the city’s bid for unitary status, but the Secretary of State, sitting at his desk in Whitehall, thinks that he knows better than the people of Exeter.
The Secretary of State would be well advised to pay close attention to my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) when he speaks, because he has been a champion for his constituents on this and many other issues, and he knows what the people of Exeter want. Failing that, the Secretary of State should at least listen to his own party members and councillors in Exeter, because they support a unitary authority too. Let me remind the House of the words of Councillor Yolanda Henson, the leader of the Conservatives on Exeter city council. She said:
“We have always backed the Exeter unitary bid and said we would like to control our own destiny. We represent the people of Exeter and, of course, my colleagues are going against what we are going to get and they are going to lose.”
I think that she was talking about the Secretary of State.
What people in Norwich and Exeter will remember is that it was a Tory Government, in 1974, who abolished their unitary councils, after hundreds of years of self-government. They will not forget that it is a Tory Government, with Liberal Democrat cheerleaders, who have prevented them from running their own cities again. Norwich and Exeter are great, proud cities, with long histories of self-government and a desire to manage their own affairs. What this Bill really exposes is the gaping hole at the heart of the coalition’s plans to give greater powers to local authorities and local communities. The Conservatives say that they want to devolve power to local government and local people. The Secretary of State said:
“If you want to restore faith in politics…if you want people to feel connected to their communities, proud of their communities, then you give people a real say over what happens in their communities”.
He also said that he wants to
“put town halls back in charge of local affairs”—
just not in Norwich or Exeter. He says that he wants localism, but he is not happy for the people of Norwich to decide for themselves what time they turn their street lighting off, how they fund their schools, or which children’s centres should be spared the devastating cuts that the Government have imposed on them. That is his form of localism.
What does all this say about the Government’s policy on unitary authorities? The last time the Conservatives were in power, they set up nearly 100 unitary authorities across the country. Now we learn that they just do not believe in them any more. In the other place, the noble Baroness Hanham confirmed their policy, saying that
“the Government have no plans to issue further invitations for unitary authorities”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 30 June 2010; Vol. 719, c. 1832.]
So there we have it: the Government believe that two-tier systems are more efficient, more accountable, and better value for money than single-tier unitary authorities—with counties disposing of waste and districts collecting it; districts dealing with town planning and counties dealing with transport planning; districts cleaning the pavements and cutting the grass, and counties keeping the roads clear; and with all the separate back-room functions that that entails. So much for simplification, reducing duplication and cutting bureaucracy.
Like on so many things, the Secretary of State appears to be all talk and no trousers. This is a petty, vindictive and, frankly, pointless Bill. It cannot change the situation in Norwich or Exeter, as the High Court has already quashed the orders setting up unitary authorities there; nor does it reform the process for setting up unitary authorities, as part 1 of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 remains unchanged. The one thing that the Bill does effect is unnecessary, because unless the Secretary of State needs protecting from himself—which is not an entirely unreasonable suggestion—he does not need legislation to prevent himself from creating unitary authorities in Norwich and Exeter. All he has to do is not lay the orders. It is as simple as that.
At a time when local authorities are losing almost a third of their funding and communities are being denied the vital front-lines services that they rely on, creating unitary authorities in Norwich and Exeter could have saved those councils money—money that they could have used to try to mitigate the devastating cuts that this Government have imposed. Creating unitary authorities was supported by the people of those cities. The proposal would have helped to deliver more efficient and accountable services to local people, and would have spurred economic growth and created jobs when we need them most, benefiting not only those cities themselves, but the surrounding counties. Instead, the Secretary of State, who likes to vaunt his localist credentials, but so badly failed to stand up for local councils in the comprehensive spending review, has left Norwich and Exeter, like so many town halls up and down the country, high, dry and hard-up.
Let me begin by saying that I warmly support the proposal made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Let me also remind colleagues on both sides of the House that the announcements made yesterday and their effect on local government were brought about entirely by the incompetence of the last Labour Government. The cuts are due entirely to those Members who are now on the Opposition Benches, and we are going to hang that round their necks. People in Norwich and Norfolk know that only too well.
My right hon. Friend began by saying that the whole issue was like something straight out of Dickens’ Jarndyce v. Jarndyce. It has been going on for four years, and at the outset—my constituency was then called Mid-Norfolk; it is now called Broadland—I was in favour of the status quo, although I was prepared to hear the arguments. The problem that the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) has, and which Opposition Members generally have, particularly the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), is that when we look at the sorry trail of order, counter-order and disorder over the past four years—the different instructions given to the boundary committee, the contradictory instructions given by successive Secretaries of State, the amounts of money that have been wasted, and, perhaps most importantly, the original riding instructions given to the boundary committee—we see that the views of local people were specifically excluded. There was no democracy at all. Indeed, the very few opinion polls that have ever been conducted in Norwich and Norfolk—we cannot look at the unitary issue without considering the whole county—showed no advantage at all to those who wanted a unitary authority.
The irony is that, to begin with, pressure was brought to bear on the boundary committee to consider expanding the boundaries of Norwich to include its outer areas, but not one individual wanted to join a unitary Norwich, as became obvious in the local government elections and from the letters and e-mails I received from the surrounding villages that would have become part of a greater Norwich. Why did they not want to enter a unitary Norwich? It was not a question of ideology or principle; unfortunately for the right Member for Don Valley, it was because Norwich city council has been incompetently run under Labour for decades. Norwich city council has had high council tax, has been unable to achieve high scores for any local government criteria, and has had a housing scandal in only the past two years. It has been an absolute disgrace, and as somebody who was born in Norwich I think it a great shame that such a fine city has had to put up with such total and utter incompetence. I suggest that the Institute for Government use the track record of the past four years as a model for how not to carry out reform in government. However, what has happened is well documented, so I will not go into it again.
There is no overall public support for the proposal. The right hon. Lady pointed out the financial consequences, but having seen different sets of figures produced by the Department for Communities and Local Government over the past four years, even the former Member for Norwich North, Dr Ian Gibson—who was deselected by the Labour party and resigned, after which there was a by-election, which was won by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith), who was re-elected in the general election—could not see the advantages. The disadvantages would be felt not just by the people of Norwich, but by the people of Norfolk. The population of Norwich is approximately 130,000, but these proposals would have affected the population of Norfolk, which is nearly 800,000. What would have been the advantage of having two directors of libraries, two police forces and two of virtually everything else? There would have been no advantage whatever.
This sorry saga has incurred a vast cost to taxpayers living in my constituency and in Norwich. I would be interested to put in a freedom of information request to see what letters, e-mails and conversations Ministers’ private secretaries received from members of the Labour party over the past four years. It has been obvious to people living in Norfolk that this has been a ramp by the Labour party intended to secure a Labour party advantage. The great irony is that, as a consequence, there are no Labour MPs left in Norfolk at all. The people of Norwich and Norfolk have recognised how incompetent this process has been and how much it has cost. The attempts by the noble Baroness Hollis to seek all kinds of judicial reviews to string things out have been regarded as a joke in Norwich—and the same could be said of Exeter.
I come back to my first point. The right hon. Member for Don Valley laid great emphasis on democratic representation and criticised my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for not letting local communities decide. Local communities did decide. They made that quite clear in a by-election and a general election, which saw Labour lose two Norwich seats and the election of my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis). The people of Norwich and Norfolk have spoken. I support the measure proposed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.
For a Government who claim to want to give more power to local communities and to devolve decision making downwards, this is a most astonishing Bill to force through Parliament as a priority today. The Secretary of State said on 8 June this year:
“I want to give an indication of my three most important priorities. These are: localism, localism and localism.”
The Conservative manifesto referred to
“Making politics more local… we want to pass power down to people”,
while the coalition agreement spoke of a
“radical devolution of power to local government and community groups”.
Someone called the “decentralisation Minister” told the local government conference on 8 July that he would
“put town halls back in charge of local affairs”.
How hollow those promises sound today, as this Government seek to drive through a Bill that will achieve exactly the opposite, depriving the people of Exeter and Norwich of their localism and their historic unitary status. They have fought for nearly four decades to regain the right to run their own affairs. The Government are not handing power down, but up to the bigger, more remote and much less accountable Devon and Norfolk county councils.
We have already heard that today’s debate involves unfinished business not of the last four years, but of the last 36 years. Before 1974, Exeter and Norwich had both enjoyed their own local government for hundreds of years—long before county councils were even thought about.
We do not need to rehearse the arguments for unitary government, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) has already expounded them. Suffice it to say that unitary government used to have all-party support for the obvious reason that it is more efficient, more transparent and more accountable. Indeed, the last Conservative Government recognised that and acknowledged the mistakes they had made in 1974, as they created a further 46 new unitary authorities after 1974, including the only other two sizeable urban areas in Devon—Plymouth and Torbay. That reorganisation under the last Conservative Government left Exeter and Norwich as the biggest cities in England without control over their own affairs. That lack of democratic accountability is felt even more acutely in those great provincial cities that are in the middle of large rural counties, where most of the services continue to be delivered and the decisions continue to be taken by rural-dominated county councils.
That is the situation that the Labour Government inherited. We quite rightly recognised the role of cities such as Norwich and Exeter as economic growth points, and the desirability of unitary government as less wasteful and more accountable. In 2006, we invited bids from anyone interested to come forward with suggestions for unitary government. Like a number of other towns and cities across England, Exeter responded enthusiastically.
Exeter’s bid enjoyed all-party support. We have already heard one quote from the leader of the Conservative group, Councillor Yolonda Henson. She wrote to my local newspaper, the Express & Echo on 10 March this year:
“In one of the greatest political statements ever spoken, Abraham Lincoln praised the virtues of a government of the people, by the people and for the people. That is precisely what the restoration of unitary local government is promising for the people of Exeter.”
I could not have put it better than the Conservative group leader on Exeter city council. I would like to pay tribute to Councillor Henson and her fellow Conservative councillors for withstanding the constant bullying and pressure from their party at the national level and from Conservative councillors at County hall. It was not only all the political parties on Exeter city council that supported our unitary bid, as every single significant stakeholder in the city supported it: Exeter university, Exeter chamber of commerce and the voluntary sector. Every single opinion poll carried out in Exeter showed that the overwhelming majority of people in the city wanted their own self-rule.
At this point, I note the comments of Lord Burnett during consideration of this Bill in the other place. He claimed that the recent general election result in Exeter was evidence of opposition to unitary status. I have to inform Lord Burnett that in Exeter Labour secured the second-lowest swing against it anywhere in the south-west. The poor Conservative candidate, caught between her local party and central office, sat so firmly on the fence on the issue that I wondered how she did not split in half. She did much worse than the Conservatives had expected, given the tens of thousands of pounds of Ashcroft money they poured into Exeter. The poor Liberal Democrat candidate, who defied his own local party and came out against unitary status, was the only Liberal Democrat in the whole of the south-west whose vote went down. As with so much of what else Lord Burnett has said on this matter, he is grossly ill informed and the facts are quite the opposite of what he claimed.
Exeter’s original bid had all-party, all-stakeholder and public support. We should not forget that it would have been perfectly possible at that time for counter bids to be made by Devon county council or Norfolk county council, but that did not happen. The then Labour Government regarded Exeter’s bid as one of the strongest, but, as we have already heard, it narrowly failed to come through on one of the criteria—the affordability criterion, as it would have taken a long time to pay back the costs.
The right hon. Gentleman refers to the failure of alternative bids—for example, from Norfolk. There was advice from the Department about what should have been considered. Surely the right hon. Gentleman would accept that this happened in Norfolk because Norfolk county council wanted the status quo and did not want to be messed about by the Government in the first place.
That might well be the case, but my point is that it would have been perfectly open to either Norfolk or Devon to make counter-unitary bids, but there was no support. I accept that there was no support in Devon or Norfolk for those initiatives and I shall come on to explain why. That is exactly why the Labour Secretary of State came to the conclusions he did.
Exeter’s bid was considered one of the strongest, but it narrowly failed on one of the criteria because there were no corresponding unitary bids from the rest of Devon. There were weaker bids at that time: there was a bid from Bedford and a bid from Chester that went through because there were corresponding unitary solutions covering the rest of those counties. That being the case, I think the Government were absolutely right to ask the boundary committee to look at possible unitary solutions covering the whole of Devon—and the same for Norfolk and Suffolk.
I have to say that describing the boundary committee process as unsatisfactory would be the understatement of the century. It took two years and it had a flawed consultation, which had to be started again. It was plagued by a series of self-serving judicial reviews from some of the district authorities that were worried about being abolished. There was a strong—and, I believe, justified—suspicion in both Exeter and Norwich that the boundary committee and Department for Communities and Local Government officials were not balanced in their approach, favouring the more powerful counties against the cities.
I should like to refer the right hon. Gentleman to the bids in 2006, when Burnley and Pendle put in a bid for a unitary authority following a visit by the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband), to Lancashire county council, who declared it a basket case under the rule of the Labour party. Burnley and Pendle put in that bid, and it was declared to be excellent, yet the then Minister, the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Mr Woolas), turned it down. Can the right hon. Gentleman explain the reasons for that, in the light of what he is now saying about Norwich and Exeter?
You will have to forgive me, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I am not an expert on the local situation in Burnley and Pendle. Perhaps one of my Front-Bench colleagues will be able to address that point when they respond to the debate later.
I was talking about the concerns that Exeter and Norwich expressed about the fairness and balance of the process. Professor Ron Johnston, the local government expert on the boundary committee and one of its more experienced members, resigned from the committee in July 2009 because he felt that its approach had been unfair to Exeter and Norwich. He wrote to the then Secretary of State in January this year, saying that
“the position of Exeter concerned me greatly throughout the 15 months of discussions...Exeter is a major economic growth point, and in my view, such an important urban area should have its own separate local government (democratically accountable to its residents) with control over economic and spatial planning”.
Following the illustration of the flawed nature of the boundary committee’s work, it ended up recommending a unitary single Devon and a unitary single Norfolk, which has already been criticised by Conservative Members. Neither solution was supported by anyone. Devon county council did not want a unitary Devon, and it was that suggestion that provoked the most opposition during the consultation process. It was certainly totally unacceptable to Exeter, just as it would have been for Norwich. There was no precedent for a city of that size or significance being subsumed into a unitary county in modern times, and it would have been totally unacceptable.
The Secretary of State therefore had a problem. It was open to him or her to accept, reject or vary the boundary committee’s recommendation. Given the strong opposition to a unitary county, the strong support in Exeter for a unitary Exeter, and the opposition around Exeter to a unitary greater Exeter—which had been one of the options early in the process—my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham) reverted to Exeter’s original bid, and he was absolutely right to do so. Given the length of time and the uncertainty involved, he was absolutely right to recognise Exeter’s right to self-determination.
Much has been made today of the affordability criterion. Indeed, that was the main plank of the Secretary of State’s reasoning. However, Professor Ron Johnston wrote in his resignation letter that
“this criterion made the creation of a viable urban authority based on Exeter and its immediate surrounding area extremely difficult, if not impossible.”
In other words, the criterion was flawed. Even if it had not been, the increased importance of Exeter as a driver for growth—it had the third highest level of growth anywhere in England between 1998 and 2006—had rendered the criterion redundant. Indeed, that was recognised by the then Secretary of State when he said that he was justified in departing from the presumption that unitary proposals that do not meet all five criteria were not to be implemented.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley has reminded the House that in the long run, far from costing money, the unitary solutions for Exeter and Norwich would have saved money. I have here a letter from Baroness Hanham, dated 22 July 2010, which states that the
“net costs of creating a unitary Exeter during the transition period to 2014-15”
would be £2.5 million. The annual savings after that would be £2.6 million a year. In the case of Norwich, the projected savings are even greater. The net cost of creating a unitary Norwich up to 2014-15 would be £1.9 million, with annual savings thereafter of £3.9 million. It is simply wrong for the Secretary of State to say that this process would have cost money in the long run. It is also wrong of him not to recognise that the most expensive option is the status quo.
In the Bill, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government are treating the people of Exeter and Norwich, two of our great historic English cities, with complete contempt. The Government claim to support local democracy and the devolution of power down to local communities, but in their first local government Bill since the election they are doing exactly the opposite. In an act of pure political vindictiveness, they are taking away the local autonomy that Exeter and Norwich had at last regained, after nearly 40 years of waiting.
The people of Exeter and Norwich will not forget this shabby treatment by the coalition. Indeed, they have already had the opportunity to make their views plain. Thanks to the outrageous and dictatorial way in which this Government have handled the whole process, Exeter and Norwich were forced to hold unwanted local elections last month. In Exeter, the Conservatives lost three seats to Labour, and the Liberal Democrat vote did not just go down, it collapsed. The immediate result of this Government’s shabby treatment of my city is that Labour has regained control of the council, because of the anger felt by Exeter people towards the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. We are unlikely to persuade this Government of the justice of Exeter and Norwich’s claim for self rule, but those two great cities will not give up. They were proud, self-governing cities for hundreds of years before county councils were even thought of, and I am confident that, when we again have a Labour Government who are committed to localism in deeds and not just in words, their long march to recover their lost freedom will be won.
I thank the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) for his contribution. I hear what he is saying, but he and I have rather different memories of what happened at that time. He has implied that the county of Devon was in favour of the unitary proposal for Exeter, but that is certainly not my recollection. Indeed, the people of Devon were not at all in favour of such a unitary authority for a number of reasons, and that is why I rise to support the Bill.
Newton Abbot is part of Devon, and we are served by Devon county council. My hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) made a good point earlier when he said that we need to consider the impact on those we leave behind, as well as those we put into a unitary authority. What would happen to the rest of Devon if we were to carve out Exeter? Exeter has a large population, and a unitary authority would attract a lot of funding. What would happen to the remaining rump? Devon has one of the largest geographical areas in the country. Parts of it are also in the lowest quartile of economic resilience. Across the county, 20% comprises rural villages and hamlets, and it has already been noted that Torbay and Plymouth—two other large centres of population—have already been carved out of it. The remainder of Devon is a large swathe of small villages.
Devon faces challenges not only of rurality but of an above-average number of older people, as a consequence of people liking to go there to retire. Why does that matter? It matters because of the way in which public funding formulae work. For the most part, rurality and the age of the population are not taken into account. The consequence for education in Devon can be seen in the league tables for the country; Devon is now 148th out of 151. That means that our children are getting £300 less per head spent on them, which adds up to a substantial amount for a sizeable secondary school. In health, we are also below average. It is true that statistics show a figure of only 1.1%, which seems like a very small number. That completely misrepresents the position, however, because of the number of ageing people in the county. If Exeter had become a unitary authority, my constituents and those in other parts of rural Devon would have been significantly worse off.
The hon. Lady seems to be making my point for me, which is that Exeter and Norwich have been the milch cows for rural Devon and Norfolk. That was denied by Devon county council all the way through the process, but she is making the point extremely well today.
I do not accept that. They have not been milch cows. I do not deny that Exeter is an important part of the Devon community, but I believe that we need wealth to be generated throughout Devon. We cannot look only at Exeter. I do not think that that detracts from my point that the rest of Devon would simply become worse off if Exeter became a unitary authority.
There are a number of things on which my constituents and, I suspect, other Devon constituents would prefer £40 million to be spent. A challenge is presented by our railway along the coast: we need funds to make it viable, and it is crucial to the viability of tourism in my constituency. I think that my constituents would like the bypass—the A380—to be finally completed, after 50 years of battling. They would also like the flood problem to be sorted out. In Teignmouth, I am currently battling to try to ensure that the flood prevention scheme proceeds. Notwithstanding what was said about flooding earlier, Opposition Members may recall that the Labour party proposed capital cuts of 50%, but the cuts that we have proposed are considerably smaller, and I am therefore hopeful that my friends in Teignmouth will get their scheme. Our water bills are 25% higher than water bills anywhere else in the country, and some of this money could be usefully spent on rectifying an injustice that has existed for many years.
I do not think that unitary status will be in the interests of Devon or of the country as a whole, but as the money simply is not there, the question becomes inappropriate in any event. I therefore support the Bill.
This is a rather strange debate. We are discussing a Bill with which it appears to be unnecessary to proceed, and which is being defended on grounds that seem far from anything relating to the reality of what occurred with the applications for unitary status. Indeed, it is being defended by the Secretary of State on the basis of what was, in fact, a series of spurious claims about costs and various other elements. It provides for the retention on the statute book of the 1997 legislation enabling unitary status applications to be received by the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State said, in typically colourful language—clearly it was a metaphor, or he would have been arrested—that there was a pistol in his desk which he would take to anyone who dared to suggest to him that the democratic structures of local authorities might be changed in favour of local people’s wishes.
Even stranger is the Secretary of State’s argument about value for money. He suggested that one conclusion of a consultant’s analysis of local government in general might be that one of the impediments to really good value for money was the number of councillors making decisions, holding meetings and incurring expenses as a result. He implied that local government would become much more efficient in terms of value for money—if that is the sole criterion—if local councillors were abolished, along with any local concerns about their election, and councils were replaced by a series of local authorities run by commissars. I do not think that any Member present would be particularly happy with that outcome—I imagine that they would want local councillors to run local authorities—but as soon as it is decided that local councillors should run local authorities, the question arises: what kind of authorities should those be?
To say that in the light of those value-for-money considerations, the whole question of who wants what kind of local government to act in their interests in particular areas is irrelevant, is fundamentally to miss the point of what local government is about. It certainly misses the point in terms of the Conservative party’s claim that it is now the party of localism. That would be so even if the arguments about the financing of the authorities that we are discussing were not as finely balanced as they have been.
The Secretary of State’s claim that unitary status would cost £40 million ought to be withdrawn by the end of the afternoon. It is grossly misleading, and a shameful defence of the Government’s proposals. Almost all the money would be recouped within five years, and there would be savings thereafter. Even if there were a financial argument, however, it would be trumped by arguments about local accountability, and about the purpose of councillors and local democracy.
This is not the hon. Gentleman’s fault, but I do not think that he participated in any of the earlier debates on this subject. Many of them were held in Westminster Hall. I suggest that he read the evidence presented by my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon), a senior member of the Public Accounts Committee, who said that all the arguments about the savings that would be made had invariably been substantially wrong.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but my figures are from the explanatory memorandums to two statutory instruments that were presented to the House—and indeed have been confirmed by figures from the Government. I am at a loss to understand why more weight should be given to certain views on what costs might be than to cost figures that have been deposited in the House for Members to examine. I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman’s point was very telling, but even if it had been a little more telling, I do not think that it would have undermined the real question before us, which is how local government can work in the best interests of the people who elect councillors and want them to run services on their behalf.
Again using colourful language, the Secretary of State snuffed out the ambitions of Norwich, Exeter, and by implication Ipswich, to become unitary authorities in the future. That suggests—I am reminded again of the pistol analogy—an overall and enduring hostility on the part of the Secretary of State and others to the very idea of unitary authorities in the future, although the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 still provides for the possibility.
The position could have been different if that deep prejudice had not lain behind the decisions that were made. Even the judicial review was clearly based on narrow parts of the overall tests and consultation. The judge concluded that, essentially, the issue was fixable. He said
“this does not prevent them”—
“being put forward for approval after what need only be a short period of consultation.”
His judgment was based not on the grounds that the proposals were irrational, but on narrow grounds relating to the tests before the consultation, and anticipated that the proposals might be presented again. It has been made clear today that they will not be presented again, because of what the Secretary of State and the Government have decided is their view—not the people’s view, not the local authorities’ view, not councillors’ view, but the Government’s view—of how local government should be conducted in the future.
Another strange aspect of the debate is the suggestion that the proposals result from the revolutionary ideas of local authorities that are attempting to break free from counties and move into unknown territory on their own, to the detriment of those counties. In fact the whole history of local government, not just in Norwich and Exeter, but across the country shows that the opposite is the case.
It is interesting to reflect on the history of county boroughs. As has been mentioned, both Norwich and Exeter have a long history of independent self-governance as local authorities. The 1889 legislation that created the modern local government system introduced the idea of county boroughs; the large number of county boroughs reflected the wishes of people in those cities. The framers of that legislation specifically said that it would be impractical for towns and cities whose local government had previously been independent to be incorporated into counties, which was why the county boroughs were introduced. That was done to ensure that that tradition and that system continued, and residents of cities and towns could exercise unitary self-government within the cradle of the county around them. This is not a new idea that was just dreamed up by the Labour Government; it is historically the way in which local government outside metropolitan areas has been conducted.
What has happened in local government in relatively recent years is that with the overwhelming approbation of the people living in these towns and cities, there has been a move back towards what is, in essence, a local government structure of county boroughs across the country. Some 85 of the 87 unitary authorities introduced between 1889 and 1965 survived until that date; three of them then became London boroughs. In 1974, 37 of those county boroughs became metropolitan boroughs, and subsequently, particularly in the early 1990s under a Conservative Government, a large number of those became unitary authorities again. Some 24 of the 45 remaining county boroughs became unitary authorities, but 21 did not, and two of the five largest of those are Exeter and Norwich. It was largely a matter of chance that they did not become unitary authorities as a result of that process.
People with a reasonable memory of local government will recall the hanging commissions that went around the country in 1992 to determine the future of local government, county by county, across England. Commissioners were sent out within those county frameworks to produce independent reports about what the future local government structure would be, and the then Government implemented them. Those reports advanced a variety of different approaches, depending on the view of the commissioner involved.
Some commissioners produced reports saying, “The county borough is so important to the county that we cannot possibly have it excised from the county, so there must be two-tier local government.” On other occasions, the same commissioners sent out to perform the same exercise in the same county said, “The county borough is so important in the county that it must be excised from the county and given back unitary status, because that is logically the right thing to do.” In one part of the country a particular commissioner was so enthusiastic about unitary government that he abolished the whole county, and six unitary authorities were produced instead. That commissioner is familiar to many of us in a different guise—as the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope). A variety of conclusions were reached at that time, which meant, among other things, that Exeter and Norwich did not become unitary authorities because of the accident of who went out to do the report.
We have heard this afternoon that the people of Norwich and Exeter overwhelmingly support the idea that the long tradition of unitary government in those towns should be restored.
The hon. Gentleman will recall hearing earlier this afternoon about the results of various polls conducted in those local areas, the results of consultations with councillors and the information that came from various bodies within the local authorities, all of which pointed to the idea that the people in those areas strongly supported the idea that their authority should become unitary.
Perhaps I can help my hon. Friend here. The city council in Exeter commissioned an independent MORI poll—the only scientific poll conducted during this process—and it was overwhelming in favour of unitary status. I would be very surprised if a local newspaper that has its ear as close to the ground as the Norwich Evening News would have misjudged the mood of the people of Norwich by giving such strong support to Norwich’s unitary bid.
I defer to the right hon. Gentleman’s expertise on the polling in Exeter, but the comments made by the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) and others about Norwich did not give evidence of any polls; they just referred to the feeling of the people. As far as I am aware—I would be happy for the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) to show me otherwise—no clear polling was done in Norwich, other than the work done by the Local Government Boundary Commission, which showed that 85% of the people wanted the status quo, 10% wanted a county unitary authority and only 3% wanted a Norwich answer. Yet that is what the Labour Government opted for.
The hon. Gentleman has neglected to listen carefully to the points made so far in this debate, and to the idea of a variety of consultation devices to find out what people want in various areas. As has been said this afternoon, the councillors of all parties in Norwich overwhelmingly supported the aim of Norwich having unitary status. The idea that there was little or no support for this in either area is not sustainable.
However, it is true, as has been emphasised, that some members in county areas do not welcome the idea of unitary authorities in cities and towns within their county area. I cannot say that I am particularly surprised at that notion. Indeed, one issue that arose during those local government reorganisation consultations and discussions in the early 1990s was that counties, by and large, did not want those cities and towns to be removed from their overall county structure, and made strong representations to that effect. To say that some people in county areas might say that it would be nice to have their county council running a particular city or town is not surprising. That does not in any way undermine the central concern, which was reflected as long ago as 1889, that those towns and cities should have unitary status because of their particular position within those county areas, and the importance on a regional and sub-regional basis of many of those local authorities.
I speak as a former leader of a large city council when it was not a unitary authority, and I have been the MP representing that same city when it has had a unitary authority. I can say that the differences are enormous—for example, in terms of those cities having responsibility for their own services and their own arrangements and being able, among other things, to put to the people that simple arrangement that appears to have been missed in this afternoon’s debate. The Secretary of State has stated on this occasion and on other occasions that people do not particularly want to concern themselves with the structure of local government, but just want services to be provided. In a unitary authority, that is palpably the case. One authority is providing the services, looking after the city or town, and it is close to the people in that respect and accountable to the people as a result of what it does.
Does my hon. Friend also accept that the fact that Southampton’s unitary status was restored in no way impacted negatively on the performance of Hampshire? In fact, Hampshire is one of the highest performing county councils in England. We could say the same for Swindon and Wiltshire. The myth perpetrated by the Government and by the opponents of unitary status for cities—that somehow the counties suffer—is not supported by the evidence. On the contrary, they tend to do better.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. Indeed, the counties do better in many ways, because the concerns of a particular city, freestanding within a far less urban environment, are focused on that city, and the concerns of the less urban environment are focused in the county council. It is certainly true that after some slight ill feeling, and attempts to foist less up-to-date computers on the unitary authority when the equipment was divided up, the arrangements between Hampshire and Southampton have been very good. They have worked very well, and as my right hon. Friend correctly points out, the county has prospered in its way, and the city has prospered in its way, as a result of unitary status.
I know that the Secretary of State will have his way this afternoon. He ought to hang his head in shame because of the fundamental contradiction between what he says about localism and what he is proposing to do this afternoon, but he will undoubtedly have his way. My concern, among others, is that we should not, as a result of this vindictive and spiteful early legislation, lose the idea that unitary local government—particularly in cities and towns outside metropolitan areas—is palpably a good thing for those cities and towns, and ought to be pursued.
It is interesting, in terms of the historical full circle that we might come in the end, that the mechanism in the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 is essentially the same as the one introduced in the local government legislation of 1889. If a local authority wanted to make the case that it should become a unitary authority, that could be done without a huge upheaval, with the whole of local government being reorganised and commissioners going up and down the country.
Indeed, between 1889 and the present a number of local authorities became county boroughs over the years, without a crisis in local government or a series of legislative measures going through this House on local government as a whole. That was a method of securing the way in which people in those areas wished to be self-governed. That is at the heart of this subject, and that is what is being denied this afternoon. I hope that as a result of some of the corrections of the myths put forward in this afternoon’s debates, we can concentrate our attention on what is best for local government, not on what is best for particular people’s opinions on particular days about how they would like to see local government run.
I fully support the Secretary of State’s comments when he referred to this whole debacle as a horror story. It was interesting to listen to Opposition Members, particularly the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint). Whereas the Secretary of State described a horror story, their description of what happened with the unitary authorities until the formation of the coalition Government was a romantic story. Looking back at what has happened, it almost seems like a farce to me.
Over the entire period, going back to 2006—I will focus on Norfolk in particular—this has been more than a case of Norwich having a fantastic offer that everybody wanted, with this coalition Government being the first to stand in the way of that. In all that time, I have never heard a single resident, surprisingly enough—and I have knocked on doors in Great Yarmouth and in Norwich, when I was there with my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith)—ever say, “Please, will you give us a unitary authority? Will you please have local government reorganisation in Norfolk?” In fact, there was huge frustration.
The argument was not simply whether we should have a Norwich unitary authority. It started back in 2006, with people looking at different options. That created confusion in Norfolk, with people considering whether Great Yarmouth, my constituency, should be linked in with Waveney, creating Yartoft, with an east-west divide in Norfolk, or whether there should be a full unitary option. There was complete chaos, and the finance never added up.
What concerned me from the beginning, quite apart from the clunking top-down approach of, “This is what will happen; there will be unitary,” which was the clear message that authorities were being given, was the expense. One chief executive in Norfolk said to me that their estimate in 2008 was that their senior officers were spending 40% of their time talking to other officers in other authorities about plans for unitary and about all the various different plans. We should consider that in light of the number of senior officers there are across Norfolk, and consider whether they were spending anywhere near the time estimated by that chief executive.
Officer time and money are not included in the figures. Money has already been wasted over the past three or four years because it has been spent on looking at plans and organisation rather than delivering front-line services. I dread to think what the cost comes to, let alone the financial chaos that will no doubt be delivered on the people of Norwich, who have to pick up the tab for Norwich city council’s amazing decision to spend about £90,000, as advertised, on an implementation officer before it even got the go-ahead for the change. I was horrified to find out when I was on a BBC show with the leader of Norwich city council that the leader was getting an allowance of £12,000 to £15,000 on top of his leader’s allowance to chair an implementation group. I do not know what the other members of the group were getting or what that was costing, but it seems to me that an amazing amount of money has already been wasted.
To say that that would have been a good decision based on the savings of £6.5 million from 2015 onwards sums up, to me, the problems that we now have, looking at the figures and the implementation costs referred to by the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead), which are about £40 million. The savings would have started, had they been delivered, in 2015-16. We all know that the previous Government spent a lot of time spending money now in the hope that it would come later, and we have seen the economic mess that that got us into, with the deficit that we, and local government in particular, are now having to deal with because of the mess that the old Government left behind. We now have to pick up the pieces economically.
It is a clear sign of what the Labour party thinks of Norfolk that it seems to want to focus only on Norwich. As my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) rightly says, the reality is that a decision made for Norwich has an impact on the whole of Norfolk, and the whole of Norfolk had a view on this. The people of Norfolk were asked about unitary status and, as I said to the hon. Gentleman, 85% wanted the status quo, 10% wanted a county council in Norfolk and only 3% wanted a Norwich unitary authority. In my experience, people on the streets did not want a unitary authority. When the Boundary Commission referred back to it, it did not want a Norwich unitary authority. The House of Lords had concerns about it and the permanent secretary at the Department had concerns about it, yet the Secretary of State in the Labour Government at the time went ahead with it anyway. That seems to me a clear example of ignoring local views.
The view that the Labour party has of Norfolk, saying that the only thing that matters is Norwich, is probably a clear example of why there are no Labour Members left in Norfolk. Constituents and businesses in Great Yarmouth have the opportunity for economic growth because of measures in the Budget, with the outer harbour and renewable energy. I am sure that businesses throughout Norwich, in places such as Hethel, which is not in Norwich, and King’s Lynn, would take the view that they have a great economic offer to make to Norfolk.
It seems, from beginning to end, that this has already been a costly exercise, but it would be interesting to know just how much money local government has lost in Norfolk on spending time researching this matter. Quite apart from the money that has been wasted on implementation committees and officers, it does not seem appropriate to focus on Norwich, where we have a local authority that has made some dubious and questionable decisions recently about its services with Connaught, with Greyhound Opening and with housing. That does not seem to me to be a fit authority to be used as an example of what could be a perfect unitary authority. In fact, it seems the antithesis of that. The best thing that can happen to Norfolk is for this sorry saga—this horror tale of horror tales—to be put to an end once and for all. I fully support the Bill.
In cases such as this one, it is important that we come back to first principles, and those first principles strike me as being quite straightforward: do the people of Norwich and Exeter want this, is it rational that they should want it, and is it appropriate for unitary status to be conferred?
Norwich is the closest city to me of those that are under discussion. Does it want this? Yes, it does. Norwich city council currently has 34 Labour, Green and Lib Dem members, and they were in favour. Only the Tories, with five seats, were against. Earlier, the hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) claimed that the two seats of Norwich South and Norwich North changed hands at the election because the Labour Government had been pushing to try unitary status there. He should have more faith in his colleagues who represent those constituencies. They represent the new generation of MPs, and I am sure they would attribute their success to much broader reasons to do with their appeal.
Dr Gibson is no longer a Member of this House so I do not see the relevance of the question. I can, however, assure the hon. Gentleman that when I was campaigning in the elections that were forced as a result of the Secretary of State’s decision, many of the people to whom I spoke were very much in favour of the proposal.
It may help if it is explained to Members that the Norwich North constituency straddles both Norwich city and Broadland district councils, so it is not surprising that the Member for that constituency has divided loyalties. The Norwich South constituency is wholly within the city boundary, and its MPs—both the Liberal Democrat Member whom we are looking forward to hearing from shortly, and certainly the former Member—have always supported unitary status, as, of course, have the vast majority of the democratically elected councils. As they supported this, why does the Conservative party, which often extols the virtues of local democracy and representation, not trust them?
Let me explain the flaw in these arguments. What I am about to say does not necessarily apply to Exeter, but the only way in which Norwich could get unitary status and also fulfil all the economic criteria—one problem is that Secretaries of State have changed their minds about that—is to enlarge Norwich and bring in all the outer suburbs, including large parts of my constituency. They did not try to do that for the simple reason that the majority of the people there were totally against it, and they were totally against it because of the complete and utter incompetence of Labour-led Norwich city council. Therefore, even their economic criteria did not add up.
Much as I am enjoying this conversation with the hon. Gentleman, I should point out again that he claimed the only reason why the two Members were elected to the House was because of the supposed opposition to the Labour Government’s strategy for introducing unitary status. If he wants to talk about election results we should talk about those of last month: in Norwich, the Lib Dems were down one and the Tories were down one, while both the Greens and Labour were up one. If we want to draw lessons from the electorate, we could begin with those results.
That last comment is interesting, but I wanted to say that I was actually out on the streets in Norwich during a recent by-election there—[Interruption.] Yes, I was in Norfolk, out on the streets, and when I talked to people on the doorsteps I found a complete lack of interest in the elections. That was because they were frustrated about what the last Government had put them through, and pleased that that was over and done with. That was probably part of the reason for the low turnouts. We are talking about what people want, and we therefore have to refer to the only figures that have been published, which show that 85% of people want the status quo and only 3% want Norwich city to have a unitary authority.
I will leave the hon. Gentleman alone after this intervention, if I possibly can. He makes the point that it is for the Secretary of State to make a judgment and I entirely agree. Surely, therefore, the Secretary of State should take notice of the opinions of the people who said no, the local authorities who all—bar one, surprisingly—said no, the House of Lords, which showed concern, the permanent secretary, who also showed concern, and the Boundary Commission, which said no. After he has taken note, the Secretary of State should then also say no.
I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the comments of both the former and the current Norwich South MP, both of whom were in favour of the change. If we agree about local decision making and local representatives knowing their community best, we need to start with their comments. Indeed, I am looking forward to hearing the comments of the hon. Member for Norwich South (Simon Wright). I hope there will not be the screeching noise of a U-turn. I do not know what the whipping operation is like for Government Members, and I have no desire to find out, but I could imagine that, possibly, on a long train trip up to their constituencies the hon. Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith) might have put a friendly arm around the hon. Member for Norwich South and talked about this issue.
Well, we are in the era of the new politics. I am genuinely looking forward to hearing the comments of the hon. Member for Norwich South, however, for whom I have a huge amount of respect.
On a national level, we need to ask this question: why would these people want this change? Government Members were at one time very much in favour of unitary status. Lib Dem councillors in Norwich wanted this, of course, and initiated the beginnings of the change, and the Tory party initiated getting on for 100 unitary authorities in their last spell in government. We can have an argument about whether the people want this but it certainly seems that the evidence on that is not clear, yet it is clear that the elected representatives in Norwich do want it.
The second question is: is it rational? The Department’s own impact assessment showed that the most expensive option for Norwich was the status quo. Let us consider some comments made in another place—a fine place, I have heard, and one that I quite enjoy dropping into every now and again. Lord McKenzie of Luton noted that the High Court judgment had concluded that
“the Secretary of State was entitled to reach the view he did on the merits of the proposal and that it was not irrational.”
He also said:
“in an arrogant, dictatorial and brutal way”
the judgment of the Secretary of State
“shut out Exeter and Norwich from the opportunity to become unitary councils—an outcome for which there is genuine local appetite”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 30 June 2010; Vol. 719, c. 1802-05.]
We might also look at the judicial review that was initiated. We can see that the appropriate orders were quashed, but the judge said that
“this does not prevent them being put forward for approval after what need only be a short period of consultation.”
There was no wide-ranging set of criteria under which the orders were thrown out. The judge clearly considered that aspects were rational, but he chose to highlight the short period of consultation needed. As a result, the orders were quashed—but they need not be by the Secretary of State.
Should a place such as Norwich be allowed to become a unitary authority? I speak for the nearest bastion of red in the east of England, although admittedly it is about two and a half hours away, which I feel acutely when I travel throughout East Anglia—the lovely place I am from. However, Luton became a unitary authority in 1997, which is a decision from which we have clearly benefited. It is important that Luton’s people are able to elect local representatives who will stand up and speak for the areas they choose to represent, and who understand the local needs. There is a vast disparity in the Luton area between the types of areas, houses and villages, and between the feelings that people have about their area.
That is the point. Unitary authorities that are small enough to respond to the needs and views of its people will be best able and best placed to make the decisions that respond to the needs of the residents. If a place such as Luton is allowed to have that right—a right, coincidentally, that was bestowed on it under the previous Tory Government—I do not see why Norwich and Exeter should not also have the right to make their own decisions in their own ways. Norwich has a population of about 135,000; Luton is slightly larger, with about 200,000 people, but we are a mere borough. I love Luton borough council as much as the next man, but I do not understand why the great cities of Norwich and Exeter, with their shining beacon status as cities, should not be allowed to take responsibility for their own affairs. I look forward to hearing the arguments put by Government Members for why they should not.
We in Luton would, of course, like to become a city—indeed, we have a city status bid in the file—and we would like all cities to have the opportunity to put forward their cases, as they did under the previous Government, but that right has been quashed under this Secretary of State. Why can these places not have their freedoms? Why can the voices of the local people not be heard? Why can the spirit of the judicial review not be followed through? I believe that the Secretary of State is a roadblock to reform, and I stand with the people of Norwich and Exeter.
I represent a constituency in the west midlands, which is some distance from my hon. Friends in Norwich, Members might wonder why I want to contribute to this debate. I intend to be brief—although I hope not in the spirit of the brevity of the Bill itself.
This Bill deals with some important principles. The hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead), who is no longer in his place, said that he found the debate “strange”. I find it extraordinary that Opposition Members are trying to argue that they are the defenders of localism, given that their whole time in government was predicated on one of the largest centralisations of power in Whitehall and away from local government; on an obsession with regional government and structures, and with the re-organisation of local government; and on the imposition of structures. We need to get away from that if we are truly to move towards a localist future.
The restructuring that the Bill, which I support, is trying to prevent was typical of the approach of the previous Government. They were obsessed with top-down reorganisations. I think it was the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband) who kicked off this whole debate—as if we needed to have these top-down reorganisations. The requirement that parliamentary approval be sought for the restructurings was introduced during the death throes of the last Parliament in a way that was aggressive and an imposition, and these claims about potential cost savings are entirely spurious.
Rather than trying to impose top-down reorganisations on local government, which were such a feature of the previous Government, we need to embrace the diversity of local government—where county, district, town and parish councils all have a vital role to play. We need to encourage collaboration across different areas and at different levels of local government in the delivery of effective services. We need to do that because we need to achieve back-office efficiencies to reduce costs in local government; to reduce bureaucracy at the heart of local government; to re-engineer some of the processes; to share management costs so that we do not have so much duplication across local government; and to encourage local authorities to work in partnership in order to deliver services at the appropriate level. But we do not need to be obsessed with top-down reorganisations arranged from the centre.
The whole thrust of the last Government’s approach to local government policy was to be obsessed with these top-down solutions, so I welcome the Secretary of State’s introduction of this Bill. We need a completely different approach. We need a bottom-up approach that, as I said, encourages local authorities at all different levels to play an active and vital role in their local communities, because they are close to the concerns of local people. There are principles at stake here. The previous Government tried to introduce this top-down reorganisation for directly political reasons—in order to divide different areas of local government.
We need to bring an end to costly restructuring, so I welcome the introduction of the Bill; we need to focus on collaboration to achieve great efficiencies and cost-savings in local government, which are vital when we are having to make cuts in local government expenditure as a result of the previous Government’s mismanagement of the public finances; and we need to move towards much more effective and democratically accountable delivery at a local level. That is why I support the Second Reading of the Bill.
It seems that my contribution to this debate has been widely trailed by Opposition Members. I thank them for the build-up. The organisation of local government is an important debate to my constituents in Norwich. As a supporter of the principle of unitary councils, both in general terms and specifically for Norwich, I am sorry that we are where we are. I take the view that unitary government is clearer and more accountable to the public than two-tier local government, and that, in Norwich’s case, it could have enhanced localism by giving people more of a say over the services currently delivered by Norfolk county council.
The right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) quoted me as saying that I am a promoter of the democratic benefits of unitary councils. That is true. However—let me be clear about this, so that there is no mistake—the reason why we are where we are is that the process embarked on by the previous Government turned into a complete and utter shambles. While supporting unitary Norwich, I have always stated that I had concerns throughout the process. It was a process plagued throughout by legal challenges. It saw councils engage in pitched battles against one another, and sums of public money poured into public relations campaigns on all sides of the debate. It was a process that failed to engaged with the public.
Most people seemed either oblivious or apathetic to what was going on, or to the consequences of reorganisation—it was hardly localism in action. The debate was confined largely to politicians. We have heard a lot today about what the people in Norwich allegedly think, but they have never actually been formally involved in the process. The idea that people cast their vote for candidates on the basis of their views on local government reorganisation is perhaps the biggest red herring that I have heard today. However, it was a process that even the boundary committee seemed confused about.
I expressed my views because, when one gets a call from the local newspaper, it is a good idea to answer. Of course I was going to offer my support for the principle of a unitary Norwich.
None the less, as I began to say, the boundary committee seemed confused about the process, too, and that led to legal challenges over its failure to produce more than one alternative scheme in its original proposals.
In 2006, the previous Government invited councils to apply for unitary status, and Lib-Dem-controlled Norwich submitted a bid, sensing an opportunity for the city to have a greater say over its own destiny. The bid was deemed at the end of 2007 to require advice from the boundary committee, which reported back in 2008, but following a series of legal challenges by district councils and the county council in a complex chronology of events, the boundary committee finally advised in December that a single unitary council for the whole of Norfolk plus Lowestoft would deliver the outcomes specified by the Government’s criteria for reorganisation, and that the original proposal of a unitary Norwich city should not be implemented.
In February of this year, Communities and Local Government Ministers announced that they felt the boundary committee’s recommendations did not in fact meet the necessary criteria and, furthermore, that they would be going back to the original proposal of a unitary Norwich. So, with a general election coming up, the Labour Government performed a complete U-turn on its previous assessment of Norwich’s bid. That was the death-bed conversion of a dying Government. Despite being a supporter of a unitary Norwich, I feared at the time that it was a convenient political fix to satisfy Norwich’s pro-unitary Labour council in the run-up to a general election.
A quick fix is certainly not what Norwich needs for the long term. We have to be 100% convinced that a model for unitary government in Norwich not only provides the benefits of localism, but is sustainable for the city and the rest of Norfolk. The previous Government’s quick-fix solution in February would have left Norwich with its existing city council boundaries, yet evidence from the Audit Commission suggests that the most effective unitary bodies are larger in size and have more widely drawn boundaries. The Government’s models did not address the boundary issue.
Norwich city council’s bid showed evidence of efficiencies, but another problem with the process was the volume of conflicting evidence that led to different conclusions. Although some efficiency savings can be made by going unitary, their extent is questionable, as is whether many savings can be made through improved joint working and shared services under two-tier and cross-district working. Progress on the latter has perhaps suffered locally in Norfolk, because councils were so unsure of their own futures until very recently. Efficiency savings, while an important consideration, have never been the most compelling argument for unitary government.
The orders laid in February by the previous Government to implement a unitary Norwich also included a provision to delay the scheduled elections in May for Norwich city council by extending councillors’ terms of office, thereby affecting 13 council seats in the city. As we have heard, Norfolk county council issued judicial review proceedings challenging the Government’s decision, and on 5 July this year the High Court quashed the orders in their entirety, including the extension of the terms of office for councillors. Thirteen councillors, many of whom had served with great distinction and for many years in public office, were simply stripped of their positions with immediate effect through no fault of their own. They did not deserve that, and some chose not to re-stand in the subsequent by-elections—a real loss to the city of Norwich of some fine public servants.
I am sorry that Norwich will not have unitary government this time. I hope that we will be able to look again at the issue and learn from the mistakes that were made. The process that the previous Government embarked on led to divisions and disappointments, and I feel a sense of deep regret, as well as anger, at the ill-thought-out process, which involved so much money and effort, promised so much in return, but delivered so little. After so much acrimony, it is time to move on. We will put the matter on hold for now, but I hope that we can return to it.
Our very clear view is that the Bill is misguided and should never have come before the House. We heard the Secretary of State, in his customary pejorative fashion, criticise the measures to create unitary authorities in Norwich and Exeter as a “worthless legacy”. “The public want the council to get on with more important matters,” he said, and he referred to “zombie orders”, but the fact is that the Secretary of State himself, with the massive cuts that he has endorsed, is creating zombie councils. He has singularly failed to stand up for local authorities and for the people who, throughout the length and breadth of the country, rely on the services that councils provide.
The Secretary of State talked about giving councillors the power to decide matters for themselves, and we support that, but the unitary proposal had cross-party support in Norwich and Exeter, so if he genuinely believes that councillors should be given the power to decide for themselves, why on earth has he brought this Bill before the House?
The hon. Gentleman refers to cross-party support in Norwich, but for clarification I must note that he cannot be referring to the Conservative party, because Conservative members of the council were very much against the unitary proposal from the very beginning.
The members from the hon. Gentleman’s party in Norwich were pretty irrelevant, actually, to—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] They were irrelevant to the extent that they represent—[Interruption]—if the Secretary of State will allow me—a rump in that authority. Let us be clear about that.
If the hon. Gentleman regards the issue of party support and the views of councillors as the sole determining factor, can he explain why his right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears), when she was Secretary of State, rejected exactly the proposal with which we are concerned because it did not meet the required criteria?
The hon. Gentleman is not listening to me. I did not say that that was the sole determining factor at all, and he should listen a little more carefully. I know that this is one of my first appearances at the Dispatch Box, but if he listened more carefully he might learn a thing or two.
Labour Members very much support the benefits of unitary status for local authorities.
Perhaps the Conservative councillors in Norwich, who after all represent only the fourth party on the city council, did not support unitary status because, unlike the brave Conservative councillors in Exeter, they succumbed to the bullying from Conservative central office and from the Conservative county council?
In my experience, and from the anecdotal information that I have heard from Conservative colleagues, Conservative central office certainly does have a reputation for bullying, and I suspect that my right hon. Friend makes a very significant and relevant point.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), the shadow Secretary of State, set out our support for unitary authorities. We believe in the benefits of unitary councils, but so did the Conservative party, as my right hon. Friend said. The Liberal Democrats believed in them, too, so what has changed? Why the Damascene conversion? In the 1990s it was perfectly acceptable for the Conservative Government of the day to create numerous unitary authorities, yet now the Secretary of State says that there will be no more unitary councils or local government reorganisation, in spite of its ineffective elements whereby, as a result of the two-tier system, people often do not understand which local authority is responsible for what. It is a very inefficient way of delivering services.
Indeed, as in the case of Norwich and Exeter and, I suspect, other parts of the country, too, local people, councillors and businesses want a unitary authority providing the services with all the efficiency that goes with that status. Such local authorities have the ability to shape the place that they represent, to bring new inward investment and to create jobs and prosperity for the people in their area. The Secretary of State is riding roughshod over the wishes of not only the general public, but his own party’s councillors in Exeter. They have made their views very clear, but in an example of the bullying typical of the Conservative party when its members step out of line, their wishes have been disregarded, and those in other parts of the country have been sat on to keep quiet.
The Secretary of State is really scraping the barrel. If that is the best he can come up with, it demonstrates the paucity of his argument.
The hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) talked about democracy and said that there would be “no advantage”—I think those were his words—to local people of a unitary council. I wonder what planet he is living on, because clearly there is a significant benefit to local people from a unitary local authority, and it is clear that the people in Exeter and in Norwich want a unitary authority. There is a streak of gerrymandering running all the way through the Conservative party: it wants to gerrymander constituencies across the country and to gerrymander in local government. The views of local people—
I have taken a few interventions. I want to make some progress.
The other important fact that the Government are ignoring is that Exeter and Norwich are significant economic drivers—the economic powerhouses of their local areas. If they were freed and allowed to speak up for the people they represent, they would be in a far, far better position not only to improve the services they deliver, but to bring in new inward investment to create the jobs that will be desperately required as a result of the horrendous cuts that the Secretary of State has sanctioned, which we heard about only yesterday.
I want to make a little more progress and deal with another point that the hon. Gentleman made. I will give way in a moment.
The hon. Member for Broadland betrayed a lack of understanding of local government when he said that the creation of unitary authorities in Norwich and Exeter would result in two police forces in each area. Clearly, that is utter nonsense. Let us get that on the record. He said that the move was supported by the former Secretary of State because it would generate some political advantage for the Labour party. Again, that is utter nonsense. It seems to me that, in making that remark, the hon. Gentleman is being economical with the truth. If someone is economical with the truth often enough, sometimes people start to believe it.
I am thoroughly enjoying listening to the hon. Gentleman’s speech and looking at the expression on the face of his Whip. He talks about gerrymandering and various other matters. The main reason the then Secretary of State turned down Norwich’s original bid was that, with its current boundaries, it did not meet all the economic and regeneration criteria, yet, four years later, it was accepted. Can he explain why an argument that had been knocked down was accepted by a new Secretary of State four years later?
The hon. Gentleman wants to fight the battles of yesteryear. A number of changes occurred, not the least of which was that a better case was made by the authorities in question. In addition, there was a significant change in the economic conditions facing the country and, as I have pointed out, the cities are excellent economic drivers.
I do not want to give way to too many more Members, because I am conscious of the time. I will be told off by the Whips if I go over my time and it would not be fair to take all the time left.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) made an excellent speech in which he set out the case extremely well. He referred to the Secretary of State saying that he supported “localism, localism, localism”. Of course, in reality, the right hon. Gentleman’s commitment to localism is sadly lacking. If this is not about localism, I do not know what is. How on earth can the Secretary of State make such statements and claim that he is the tribune of the people and supports localism, and then deny the wishes of local people and their elected representatives? That is the very antithesis of localism. It is clear to me that, far from supporting democratic localism, the Secretary of State supports a more autocratic, top-down approach to local government.
I am sure that the House would love to listen to me speak for the next four hours, but I will not carry on that long.
The hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) let the cat out of the bag when she said that the cities are in a better position to attract grants—additional funding streams. It is clear from that statement that the current system of local government in those areas means that cities are able to bring in grants—often because they have a larger proportion of disadvantaged people living in their boundaries—but that that money is being siphoned off into other parts of the county and is not going to those who need it the most. That lets the cat out of the bag and I am sure that the Secretary of State had his head in his hands when the hon. Lady made that comment.
The hon. Lady said that she wanted the county structure to stay in place because she wanted to get funding for the A380. I do not know whether she was in the House yesterday or whether she listened to the Chancellor’s statement, but the chances of getting funding for any new road schemes are pretty minimal to say the least.
No I will not give way; I am sorry, but I want to make some progress. [Interruption.] Will hon. Members calm down and listen for a moment?
My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) absolutely demolished the Government’s arguments about value for money, because this is about no such thing. Unitary councils provide far better value for money because the unitary system avoids duplication, means that local people understand far better the provision of services and, as I have said, brings in new inward investment and is a good economic driver for the community.
The hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) spent about five minutes denying the self-evident facts about the benefits of unitary authorities—they are easier to understand, cost less and provide a better governance model.
No; I am going to carry on. [Interruption.] Hon. Members should calm down for a moment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Gavin Shuker) has first-hand experience of the benefits of the unitary council that was created by a Conservative Government back in 1997. During the recent by-election, he had the opportunity to speak to local people in Norwich and it is clear from what he said that those people had no truck with the Government’s proposals to deny their right to self-determination.
The hon. Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris) tried, in spite of the evidence, to portray the Conservatives as the defenders of localism, but that could not be further from the truth. He suggested that Labour has no business trying to claim that title, but we have demonstrated, through our period in government and our commitment to local government, that we are the party that genuinely deserves the crown when it comes to supporting localism. We have supported democratic localism: a Labour Government initiated the whole neighbourhood working and neighbourhood regeneration approach and supported local government with significant funding streams. The hon. Gentleman has the temerity to lecture us about top-down reorganisation when he is supporting the biggest ever top-down reorganisation of the national health service since it was created by the Labour party more than 60 years ago!
Finally, let me address the comments of the hon. Member for Norwich South (Simon Wright), who wants to have his cake and eat it. He said that he was sorry that we are where we are but went on to extol the virtues of unitary councils. He supports the unitary council in Norwich but he has clearly been leaned on by his Conservative masters to dance to the Tory tune—as the Liberal Democrats have done ever since they signed up to the coalition agreement. The Bill belies an underlying authoritarian streak in the Secretary of State: it is not so much localism, localism, localism as diktat, diktat, diktat.
Perhaps I should start by congratulating my opposite number, the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson), on having achieved the remarkable feat, in his first speech at the Dispatch Box in a debate of this kind—although we have addressed some previous business on a less contentious matter—of having managed to string together more clichés than I have ever heard in a single speech. He did so without any visible trace of irony whatever; that is what I find really impressive. I can see now that the route to advancement on the Opposition Front Bench is to adopt that well-known school of advocacy, “If in doubt bluster, keep your head down, bluster a bit more and wave your arms around a bit.” That is not so easy to achieve at my height, but if Members see something happening behind the Dispatch Box they will know that I have adopted it.
This has been a rather short sharp, debate, in more ways than one. I suppose it can be said that it has proved that it is possible for a dead cat bounce to have life. [Hon. Members: “Cliché!”] It takes one to know one; I am just checking that hon. Members are still awake. I agree with the hon. Member for Derby North about one thing: in some ways, it is regrettable that we need to have this debate at all. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I love coming to the Chamber, but we might have found matters to occupy our time other than having to introduce this Bill and keep hon. Members here.
It is worth looking at the history, so let me go back, as best I can, to the beginning. It was not all that long ago, although it may have seemed so to hon. Members at some points in the debate. The Bill is necessary to deal with the consequences of a nakedly political and questionable act by the Labour Government in their dying days, in ramming through a measure that they themselves had previously rejected—something that might be regarded as gerrymandering, according to any normal definition, and certainly as one of their ultimate U-turns.
Back in 2006 local authorities were invited to put forward proposals for unitary authorities. Some of those have been dealt with and have gone through the process. The purpose of the Bill is to deal with those left outstanding at the end of that process. Let me explain why they are outstanding. Exeter and Norwich submitted unitary bids on the basis of their existing boundaries. In July 2007 the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears)—she still sits on the Opposition Benches, as far as I remember—judged that there was a risk of their bids not being achieved. Indeed, she concluded that Norwich city council’s proposal was such that there was “not a reasonable likelihood” of its achieving the outcome specified by the five objective criteria that she had set, particularly the affordability criteria. She then asked for some further advice from the boundary committee.
The right hon. Lady asked Exeter city council for extra information, which arrived in December, and concluded that its proposal, if implemented, was also unlikely to meet the affordability criteria. Confronted with what might have been a vaguely partisan dilemma, she thought that she would ask the boundary committee to explore the idea of unitaries across the rest of the county, but that did not work either.
The hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) said that the public wanted those unitaries. I can speak only for Norfolk and Norwich, where in the only printed consultation the public said no. I still have not heard any Labour Member refer to clear polling other than the published polling, which showed that 85% wanted the status quo, 10% wanted a unitary Norfolk and only 3% wanted a unitary Norwich, which the then Secretary of State took forward anyway. The people said no, and the local councils, except one, said no. The House of Lords had concerns, as did the Joint Committee. The Secretary of State then went ahead. That is exactly the opposite of what the hon. Gentleman claimed: it is top-down gerrymandering, whereas this Government are moving forward with true localism and letting the people have their say.
It was pretty much in extra time, with the referee about to blow the whistle. Then there came the next stage earlier this year, when the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles had bravely walked into the outer darkness—I believe that the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) did so at much the same time, but she has returned to bask in the sunlight of the Opposition Front Bench, so clearly does not share her right hon. Friend’s opinion now. The then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham), decided that his assessment of the Exeter and Norwich proposals was the same as his predecessor’s. However, he decided to do the opposite, concluding that there were compelling reasons, which had never previously been articulated anywhere, to depart from the presumption that a proposal had to meet all five criteria. That decision was ultimately struck down by the courts. That attempt to ram through a change and shift the goalposts in the dying days of a Government is why we are in the present mess.
The hon. Member for Norwich South (Simon Wright) is right to say that we need not go into the legitimate debates that we could have about the efficacy or otherwise of unitary authorities, because we have here a classic example of how not to go about a local government reorganisation. That is why we need the Bill—to sort out that mess and put an end to the proposals that, having been struck down by the court, would otherwise have been left hanging in the air at the end of the process.
I shall say a word about two of the arguments that have been deployed this afternoon, the first of which is the need for local councils to be master in their own house and restore power to what I accept are ancient and proud cities. There is a serious flaw in that argument, which runs through all the Opposition’s arguments: the fact that they confuse structures with power. That underlines and sums up the error in their approach to local government. They believe that we should give local authorities power by changing structures, reorganising and calling an authority unitary. On the contrary, we seek to give real power back to local authorities by removing the ring-fencing of centralised grants, providing them with the power of general competence, enabling them to work together collaboratively and removing restrictions on their right and ability to represent their constituents. That difference is a classic demonstration of the Opposition’s idea that power is all about tinkering, whereas we think it is actually about giving communities real choices rather than worrying about structures.
I thank my hon. Friend for being gracious enough to find time to give way, unlike the Opposition Front Bencher.
Does my hon. Friend agree that although we have heard an awful lot of figures for savings that can be made from a change to unitary status, the real savings come from not spending money on any reorganisation at all, and instead letting local councils share services, without the on-costs that unitary status brings?
That is precisely right. I have known the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) for a long time, and I admire his record in local government. He is no longer in his place, but I hope he would not take it ill if I said that despite his historical reference back to the times of the county borough changes, things have moved on. The argument now is not about restoring county boroughs but about shared services, collaboration, joint working and driving out costs from the corporate core. Creating small unitaries, as Labour proposed, would not have achieved any of that. My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and he brings me neatly on to the next point that I wished to make.
There seems to be a misapprehension about the whole issue of value for money and costs. We have always recognised that some savings can be made through restructuring, but the information that the councils supplied in their bids—it is in the impact assessment—showed that there would be set-up costs of £40 million, and that the transition could bring savings of some £39.4 million. However, Labour Members ignore the point that we have repeatedly made, which is set out in the first paragraph of the impact assessment: there is no reason for not making the savings through joint working and shared services—they are well developed in Norfolk, where there is a good shared services agreement, and there are good collaborative arrangements in Exeter—without having to incur the up-front costs of the reorganisation. That is why it is manifestly cheaper not to go down the unitary route. Labour Members conveniently ignored that.
With all due respect to the right hon. Member for Don Valley, she fell into the fallacy of thinking that structure was the same as power. She did not seem to grasp the fact that one her of predecessors on the Front Bench caused the mess that we are tackling.
From listening to the hon. Gentleman, I got the impression that unitaries would have become compulsory under a Labour Government. We accept diversity. We believe that if a unitary would cover a small urban area, its impact on the surrounding counties must be taken into account. That aspect is left out of Labour Members’ analysis, although several of my hon. Friends raised it, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) and for Broadland (Mr Simpson), who effectively shredded the arguments of the right hon. Member for Don Valley.
I know we have. I wanted to give the Minister another chance to answer the question. Were the Conservative Government wrong to create so many unitary councils in the 1990s, particularly when many were formed in the teeth of opposition from the county councils—[Interruption.] I can hear the Secretary of State saying, “Don’t bother, don’t answer,” but I would be grateful for a response. The Minister appears to believe that it was wrong for us to try to create unitary authorities in Exeter and Norwich, so were the Conservative Government wrong to create so many in the 1990s? It is a simple question—yes or no?
I do not think that they were wrong, but although I am always interested in history, I am not a prisoner of it. Since the 1990s local government has developed mature and sophisticated means, which were much less well recognised then, of working jointly across boundaries. It is also worth remembering that several issues, which must be tackled—interestingly, they arise in the case that we are considering—require cross-boundary working. For example, the ambitions for economic growth and development in both Exeter and Norwich involve developing important sites outside the city boundaries. I have been to both cities; I have not simply telephoned. Many of the development sites, which in Exeter stretch towards the airport, involve collaboration with the district councils, which will be the planning authorities, and with the county councils, which will be the highways authorities, in those areas.
Ernest Newman described extracts from Wagner operas as bleeding chunks, removed from “Tannhäuser” or “Parsifal” to be used at a concert. Taking a city out is extracting a bleeding chunk, disconnecting it from its hinterland. The proposals that Labour Members advocate would be the worst thing for the welfare of the citizens of both cities and counties.
Because they had not realised the extent to which an incoming Conservative Government would encourage and facilitate joint working through creating local enterprise partnerships rather than remote economic development associations, and grant the power and general competence to enable local authorities to set up special purpose vehicles. We can answer the arguments very well, without incurring the costs of reorganisation, which is a distraction at a difficult time.
I shall skim briefly through the other contributions out of courtesy. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), like several other of my hon. Friends, forcefully made the point about the need to recognise links. To remove considerable elements of the tax base from the two counties and leave sparsely populated areas with a lower tax base but with, as is generally accepted, the higher costs of delivering the full range of services across rural populations, would significantly undermine their ability to deliver quality services in their areas. That is why the views of residents of the surrounding county areas must be taken into account just as much as those of the residents of the cities. The Opposition have been conveniently silent on that subject.
On a very important point, I failed to catch the eye of the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson), but he gave the impression that there was a sharp distinction between the poverty-stricken urban deprivation of Norwich and the wealthy rest of Norfolk. I do not think that he has ever been there. That, of course, is the problem. Labour has no MPs in the area: the nearest one is in Luton. The people of King’s Lynn, Great Yarmouth and Thetford would be amazed at such a caricature.
My hon. Friend, who has lived in and around the county pretty much all his life, makes a very well-founded point. I know from when I used to practise as a lawyer in parts of East Anglia that there is real deprivation and difficulty in some of those villages—a fact that seems to be ignored.
That brings me neatly to thanking the hon. Member for Luton South (Gavin Shuker) for his contribution. It was much appreciated, particularly by Government Members. He confirmed that as a Luton MP, he was the nearest Labour MP to Norwich—a mere two and half hours away—which was a wonderful and graphic illustration of the abyss into which the Labour party has fallen. Next time, so that he can strengthen his arguments about Norwich rather than rely on a telephone canvass, we will all club together and get him a day-return fare. He can go there in person, which I hope will help.
There is sometimes an argument for quitting while in front, but the truth is that the hon. Gentleman demonstrates the complete lack of touch that the Opposition have with people in that part of England, which is why they did not understand the point about rural deprivation that my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) just made.
We would rather not have brought the Bill to the House, but it is necessary to undo a mess that was created by our predecessors for reasons of the grossest party venality. That must be put right. They pursued that process for no reason other than to pay off some party debts and settle some party scores. It lacked objectivity and intellectual coherence, so now perhaps the kindest thing to do is to lay it gently to rest.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.
LOCAL GOVERNMENT BILL [LORDS] (PROGRAMME)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Local Government Bill [Lords]:
1. The Bill shall be committed to a Public Bill Committee.
Proceedings in Public Bill Committee
2. Proceedings in the Public Bill Committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion on Thursday 4 November 2010.
3. The Public Bill Committee shall have leave to sit twice on the first day on which it meets.
Consideration and Third Reading
4. Proceedings on consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour before the moment of interruption on the day on which those proceedings are commenced.
5. Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on that day.
6. Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings on consideration and Third Reading.
7. Any other proceedings on the Bill (including any proceedings on consideration of any message from the Lords) may be programmed.—(Robert Neill.)
Question agreed to.