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Local Authorities (Cumbria)

Volume 548: debated on Wednesday 11 July 2012

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I appreciate this opportunity to debate local government in Cumbria in the Chamber. Before specifically discussing Cumbria, I would like to make a few comments on local government generally. I believe that there is a growing acknowledgement that local government is more important to the success of this country than many previously thought or accepted. I commend the Government for their interest in local governance and for their pursuit of the localism agenda, which is greatly welcome.

However, there is more work to be done. I am delighted that there is a growing cross-party view promoted by many different MPs, councillors and think-tanks that local government matters. However, it is in need of reform. I fully accept that the Government have other priorities—primarily the economy—and it is right that that should be the case. Nevertheless, reform should not be put off or delayed. Indeed, local government reform could be a vital weapon in the Government’s battle to improve the economy and they could carry out those reforms relatively simply.

The Government could call for a commission to review local government. I am aware that Select Committees are already looking at a possible settlement between local and central Government. That commission could look at two key reform issues, namely restructuring local government—in my view, moving towards unitary local governance up and down the country—and furthering the localism agenda that has already been initiated by the Government in respect of passing further powers, particularly tax raising, to local authorities.

May I first put on the record the apologies of the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), who would have been here but is giving evidence to a Select Committee? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that whatever decision comes out of this, it must have the ownership of the people of Cumbria? Whatever way we divide up Cumbria—whether we have one, two or three unitaries—there has to be the fullest and broadest consultation with the people of Cumbria, so that they feel a definite ownership of the final decision.

I will come specifically to that point later in my speech, but, as a general observation, yes I have sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman is saying.

The commission could report in due course and the Government and Parliament could consider its views. The advantage of that is that it would not distract the Government from their current business of policy implementation and it would avoid distracting Ministers from their priorities. I have digressed somewhat, but it is important to state that, although the debate is about Cumbria, I and many others believe it is important to address wider issues.

I have had the good fortune to live in Cumbria for 20 years and I was a councillor on Carlisle district council for 11 years before my election to this place in 2010. Over that time, I have become all too familiar with the structure of Cumbrian authorities, as well as with their politics. Back in 1974, when local government was last comprehensively reorganised, Cumbria county council was created along with six district councils within the county council boundaries.

Arguably, that was the most sensible approach at that time: it suited the nature of local government and the needs of the different parts of Cumbria in the 1970s. However, life has moved on. We live in a different world, and government at all levels has increased and become far more complex. It is also true that the role of councillors has changed dramatically. Since 1974, there have been attempts to modernise and improve the arrangements, structures and roles within local government. Yet, I question whether the role of local government has truly modernised and kept up with the times. That is especially true of Cumbria.

A report on governance in Cumbria that was published a few years ago said:

“Cumbria is a county which is over-governed and under-led”.

It was true then and it still applies today. In Cumbria, we have seven councils—eight if the Lake District national park, which has considerable authority, is included—and there are nearly 400 councillors, with seven chief executives and seven senior management teams. In the county, six authorities are responsible for collecting council tax, at a total cost of more than £4.2 million. There are six different departments for planning, environmental and property issues. All that administration serves a total population of around 500,000 people.

The structure of Cumbrian local government needs to be reformed for two reasons. First, any substantial restructure, if done properly, would lead to considerable savings for the county. When the possibility of a unitary in Cumbria was discussed a few years ago, the county council believed that it would make substantial savings running into millions. That point is even more important and relevant given the economic backdrop against which we are having this debate. Any savings, particularly from amalgamating senior management teams, unifying departments and reducing the number of councillors, could ensure that front-line services that are vital to the everyday lives of the people of Cumbria are safeguarded and, in some cases, even enhanced.

The hon. Gentleman is making a very concise and overdue case for looking again at the structure of local government in Cumbria. I am grateful to him for securing the debate. He talks about the cost savings, which is an important point to recognise, but do we not also need to look at and be very mindful of the effectiveness of local government? A current problem—whether with education, health care or roads—in my constituency and I am sure in many others, including that of the hon. Gentleman, is not only saving money from the front line but the effectiveness of local government doing what it is supposed to do.

I 100% agree with the hon. Gentleman and, funnily enough, that is what I am about to come on to. I take his point—he is absolutely right—and that is the second most important part of a reformed structure in Cumbria.

However, the second issue, better governance, is the most important in many respects. The reform of local government in Cumbria would in itself lead to better government, and the benefit for our county is potentially enormous. Currently, people often have no idea which council is responsible for the services that they need; they do not know the difference between the roles of the district and county councils; and the political parties on one council are often fighting the parties on another. Indeed, too often, we have the absurd situation of councillors of the same party but different councils battling each other. That can extend to the officer corps of the councils, with the officials of each feeling the need to defend their council’s position rather than pursuing policies that are in the interests of the local population. However, the ultimate absurdity is with individuals who are councillors on both councils. They might vote a particular way on policy in one council, but then go the other council and vote a different way in exactly the same policy debate—that takes place across the political divide, occurring among Conservative, Labour and Liberal councillors.

All that does nothing for the reputation of politicians in Cumbria, of councils or of political parties and, most importantly, it does nothing for the people of Cumbria. Over time in Cumbria, there has been a growing consensus in the political and business worlds, in local communities and among council employees and other organisations that a change is needed. Many organisations are utterly frustrated by the lack of decision making and consensus within the various councils. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor said that if are to pursue successful growth in the British economy, we need to remove the obstacles to growth. Worryingly, in Cumbria the business community sees the current structure of local government as an obstacle to growth. It is imperative, therefore, to remove the obstacle so that we can see a better performing economy in Cumbria.

One problem I acknowledge is that while everyone—I like to think—agrees that change is needed and that something must be done to streamline and improve the current arrangements, many say that a consensus on how reform should go ahead is impossible. The solution, in my view, is relatively simple: Cumbria should move towards a unitary system of government. My personal preference is for two unitary authorities in the county. The simplest way to achieve that is to ask central Government to request the Boundary Commission to come in, review the arrangements and produce a proposal. Such a proposal could go out to consultation before a final decision.

I take on board the comments of the hon. Member for Workington (Sir Tony Cunningham) that we must ensure a consensus in Cumbria. Whatever structure that the Boundary Commission came up with should have support in our different communities. I take that on board fully.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept, given that the Boundary Commission came up with whatever it came up with on the parliamentary seats proposals, that there ought to be a way to input into the process and to change the proposals, if necessary? The way in which the commission dealt with the parliamentary boundaries has been ludicrous.

If the Boundary Commission were to agree new boundaries in Cumbria, I like to think that it would come to Cumbria, go around the place physically to see what it is all about, meet the communities, MPs and councillors, and then come up with proposals, rather than what happened with the parliamentary boundaries.

The advantage is that the politics would be taken out of the issue—at least, primarily, at the beginning—and the unnecessary squabbles that would inevitably arise if a decision had to be made by the various parties in Cumbria would be avoided. I therefore ask the Government to accept that there is a need for change in Cumbria, to acknowledge that the current arrangements are an obstacle to growth and to ask the Boundary Commission to come up with proposals for restructuring Cumbrian local government with a view to introducing unitary councils.

I am fully aware that there is general reluctance in Government to get involved in local government changes, and I understand the reasons for that. I fully support Government policy to give greater control to local authorities. I ask this: if there is sufficient support for reform in Cumbria, from local politicians of all colours, local organisations and the local population, will the Government consider exercising their powers under the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 to initiate a review into the local government of Cumbria? If the Government agree, it will simply be up to Cumbrians to request such a review, and I hope that MPs across the county would support it.

The legacy of a reformed structure in Cumbria would be huge. It would lead to better local government, better management, better services, and, I like to think, a more vibrant economy. Instead of being over-governed and under-led, we would be a county properly governed and effectively led. The businesses, communities and even councillors of Cumbria are asking for the removal of unnecessary layers of bureaucracy and the streamlining of a currently cumbersome system. I hope that the Government are willing to give them, and us, the tools we need to see proper government in Cumbria.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) on securing the debate and on giving us the opportunity to debate local government structure in Cumbria. I am grateful to the hon. Members for Copeland (Mr Reed) and for Workington (Sir Tony Cunningham), who intervened during his speech.

I very much sympathise with many of the sentiments and views expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle. Like him, my background is in local government. I spent some 16 years as a councillor in a London borough and another eight or more on what we would regard as a top-tier authority, so I understand the point that he makes. The Government recognise the importance of effective local government and how it can significantly contribute to economic growth in the local economy. I recognise the importance not only of delivering local services in the most effective and efficient way, but of effective local leadership—both officer and member leadership. Sweeping away the unnecessary bureaucratic controls, regulations and processes that could lead to over-government and stifle initiative and growth is also important.

I part company with my hon. Friend on the belief that changing the structure is the answer. Having looked at, and on one occasion lived with, local government reform and restructuring in London, I do not believe that the cost, disruption and delay, which attended past attempts at enforced unitary reorganisation, are justified. It is not the right means to deal with the problem that he identifies.

Although I have sympathy with the case made by the hon. Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson), I agree that now is not the time for local government reorganisation in Cumbria, given the huge costs necessarily involved at a time of financial distress for local government, not only in Cumbria, but across the country.

I would like the Minister to take on board the fact that, when the previous Government tried to address local government reorganisation in Cumbria last time, the proposal failed due to the national strategic interests in Cumbria, principally those surrounding the nuclear industry in west Cumbria and my constituency. That needs to be addressed. There were doubts about what might happen to the nuclear industry under a unitary Cumbrian authority. I ask him to bear those considerations in mind.

I am happy to do so. It is a perfectly fair point; we cannot look purely at narrow structural issues in isolation from the impact that a local authority has on the wider community and economy or the national and sub-national considerations that flow from it. I therefore agree with that proposition.

The Government do not intend to instigate centrally imposed local government reorganisation, but reform and change are necessary. We should concentrate on how local government works and delivers the services that residents need. That is where we could fruitfully apply our minds and our time, and it can best be delivered in today’s circumstances of dealing with economic growth, with the financial constraints facing us and with the pressure on public finances. That points clearly to councils working closely together when that makes sense, as it often does. I accept that the boundaries may often be somewhat artificial when looked at in the economic context or in terms of the practical geography of delivery for some types of service. It is not necessary to change the boundaries and the names on the map to achieve such aims.

We should encourage local authorities to work more and more together, to pool and share their staff and their buildings and to discharge their functions jointly with other councils and other public service providers. Much work has already been done on community budget pilots and how a multi-agency approach can deliver better public services for us.

I understand the Minister’s argument, and I sympathise with it. If councils work together, savings can undoubtedly be made and local government can be more efficient, but what happens when councils do not agree and are unwilling to co-operate?

First, increasingly that culture is changing. Secondly, the Government have made it clear that, when we look at how we finance local government in future, innovative councils will benefit because those that seek to attract economic growth to their areas and to make homes provision and so on will benefit through business rates retention and the new homes bonus. Often, it makes good sense to work jointly together. There is an obligation on councils to work together to prepare their planning policies under the duty to co-operate, so there are specific levers to give a firm nudge to local authorities to co-operate.

In most parts of the country, electors will be able to see authorities not far away and sometimes of different political persuasions working jointly together. My Conservative-controlled London borough had some joint working with the Labour-controlled council in Lewisham. Party politics need not get in the way. It is the mindset that is important, and we must all work to change that. That is the way forward, and separate chief executives, separate legal payrolls and so on are not necessary.

An example close to here is Westminster council, Kensington and Chelsea council and Hammersmith and Fulham council, which have pioneered a radical approach whereby they share all their services. They still have individual councillors with democratic accountability, but all their services are effectively now being shared and are delivering efficiencies of about £100 million every year. It is called the tri-borough approach, and it can be, and is being, adapted in rural areas. I suggest that that model is the way forward.

Since March 2010, East Devon district council has been sharing a chief executive with South Somerset district council, and they are looking to expand that sharing process. Significantly, that collaboration is across a county boundary. An enforced unitary arrangement in the county would not have helped their situation and would have been needlessly constraining. It indicates that where there is a will for authorities to collaborate, they can achieve real savings. We are seeing that in many places. Sharing senior staff, as well as back-office staff, shows that more can be done for less, and such an approach can work with the business community, which is important. That is why it is important to ensure that local economic partnerships work effectively and efficiently. We must continue to ensure that that is delivered.

Such innovation does not need permission from central Government. It does not have to wait for us to say so. Given the new general power of competence under the Localism Act 2011, councils have the ability to do that without reference to central Government. I agree with the point made by the hon. Members for Workington and for Copeland that, whatever the form of the arrangements, they should be locally developed and locally owned to meet the specific needs of local areas. The right way forward is for councils to consider what is best for their residents, rather than preserving the current means of doing things and the institutional interest in any area.

The Minister is being very patient and accommodating with his time. On the point that he raised earlier, will he undertake to write to me about the prospects of business rates from the nuclear industry going to my local authority?

The hon. Member for Carlisle mentioned the effectiveness of local government. The system that we have in Cumbria severely impinges on the effectiveness of our local government structure, and whatever our political persuasion, we would all like to make that work better now, in advance of any future reorganisation. How can the Government help us to ensure that local government is more effective, particularly, as I said, in education?

We will consult on further technical details about the operation of the business rates retention scheme in the summer, and I will, of course, write to the hon. Gentleman. Improving ways of working together does not always require a central Government intervention. The Local Government Association has done a lot of pioneering peer-improvement work within the sector, and there are many examples, including in other parts of the north-west, of experienced members and chief officers going in to mentor and encourage joint working.

I hope that the authorities in Cumbria will look at the opportunities that are open to them and that people are benefiting from elsewhere. That will require a cultural change in the way of thinking, and that is sometimes the biggest challenge to get over. I think that there is a way to achieve that objective without the up-front costs and potential disruption of enforced reorganisation. There are also opportunities where councils come together and form a joint authority that is responsible for certain services. The obvious example, although in a more urban context, is Greater Manchester, which deals with transport and related issues. It is a combined authority that has voluntarily pooled a measure of sovereignty. It is driven from the bottom up and locally owned, and that is its advantage.

I accept that there can be arguments for the merger of districts within a two-tier system, but again we would regard anything in that direction as having to be locally driven. If local authorities—this has been mooted in some parts of the country—want to come together voluntarily, that would be a different consideration from our imposing it from above, provided that there was clear evidence of public support and that it could demonstrate that it represents value for money and would result in better services for local people.

There are ways in which we can deal with the situation as it is. Reference was made to the number of councillors, and I will touch on that issue by saying that local government electoral arrangements, which include the number of councillors on a council, are the responsibility of the Local Government Boundary Commission and are not something that the House has decided should be in the Government’s hands. The commission is responsible directly to Parliament for its work. There are circumstances in which local authorities can request a review of their arrangements, and the Local Government Boundary Commission, which is well staffed and expert in these matters, is always willing to talk to local authorities in such situations.

Having looked at everything in the round, I hope that our arrangements will enable the legitimate objectives, which my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle rightly seeks to achieve, to be met without the consequences that flow from an imposed top-down approach that is not consistent with the spirit of localism. I submit that he and I were both elected on that issue in our manifestos, and I hope that localism is generally accepted as the right approach across the House.

Sitting suspended.