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Unitary Local Government

Volume 553: debated on Monday 12 November 2012

I have to tell the Secretary of State that my constituents in Exeter will be very disappointed by his reply, not least because one of his first acts in government was to take away their council’s hard-won unitary status. Given that both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have described Lord Heseltine’s report as excellent, why does he have such a problem with this particular part of it?

It is indeed an excellent report, but I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the former permanent secretary to the Department, as its accounting officer, washed his hands of the unitary restructuring in Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk, demanding that Labour Ministers direct him to continue. He warned that it would

“impact adversely on the financial position of the public sector”.

He said:

“the evidence for such gains is mixed and representations that you have received provide no evidence to quantify such benefits”.

He also said:

“There is every likelihood of such judicial review proceedings being commenced.”

The system was a complete Horlicks, and that is why we abolished it.

My right hon. Friend is right: the diversity of local government in England is very important, and there is no “one size fits all” solution. Does he accept, however, that it was the last Conservative Government who introduced unitary authorities in the first place, and that Wiltshire has been praised by my noble Friend Lord Heseltine for getting rid of five dual-tier district authorities and replacing them with one, thereby saving an enormous amount of money, keeping the council tax frozen, and getting rid of large layers of bureaucracy in the process?

I am glad to hear that my hon. Friend is at one with his local council. Of course I am not opposed to unitary authorities; what I am opposed to is the imposition on local authorities, from the centre, of costly reorganisations I am urging authorities, particularly small district authorities, to start to work together, to merge not just back-office but front-office functions, and to provide a much better deal for their people.

What is the Secretary of State’s problem? Fewer politicians, fewer chief executives, fewer local government press officers—why does he not just get on with it, and actually make some savings that the public will enjoy?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is not at one with his local council. I understand his frustration, but all the improvements that he wants—fewer press officers, fewer officials, lower costs—can be achieved by sensible local authorities that merge their front-office and back-office functions, and I for one would very much welcome that.

Notwithstanding the Secretary of State’s answer to the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), will he think again about some of the smaller unitary authorities, which experience real difficulties when demands are placed on them in respect of, for example, social care? If just one child requires 24-hour care, that can throw the entire budget out. Will he consider the need for larger unitary authorities?

My hon. Friend makes my point far more eloquently than I could. The problem was that the restructured authorities—one of which would have been Exeter—were too small. They lacked critical mass, and there was a risk that they would be unable to take the necessary steps. It makes much more sense for larger local authorities to deal with matters in a more strategic way, and to work together closely. The days when an authority could rely on having its own chief executive, its own director of social services and its own education director are long gone. Authorities must now look towards merging their functions.