Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 to require the Local Government Boundary Commission to respond to public representations requesting principal area boundary reviews; and for connected purposes.
We will discuss many solemn and important matters today, including Syria, and a ten-minute rule Bill perhaps sits a little oddly among them. It falls to me to add a little bathos to the day. Such is the relaxed and indifferent way in which the ten-minute rule is regarded, I could probably propose any legislative change without the House demurring much or even noticing. Were I to move the expropriation of the means of production and the institution of the dictatorship of the proletariat or the establishment of a theocracy, I think that the House might passively and unknowingly assent.
It would be foolish of me to pretend that the boundaries of principal local authorities preoccupy many people. People care about many things, but local authority boundaries are some way down their priorities. MPs, however, get somewhat nervous at talk of boundaries. We can all recall the recent debacle of the misconceived legislation on parliamentary boundaries and the panic that surrounded it. Many an MP has a love-hate relationship with his or her local council, irrespective of whether the party that controls it is of his or her persuasion. Indeed, it is sometimes better for the MP if the controlling party is not the one to which he or she belongs.
None of that should persuade us that everything in the garden is beautiful and that we should put up with the local government boundaries that we have. Boundaries are neither uncontentious nor inevitable. There has been a constant process of revision and evolution since the Redcliffe-Maud proposals ushered in the modern age. We have seen a range of things: the establishment of unitaries, the disappearance of counties and councils, the abolition of the metropolitan counties, the creation of the Greater London authority, and sundry minor tweaks.
Many of the objections to boundary reviews have disappeared. At one time, it was held that a primary local authority must be of a given size. That requirement made a fair deal of sense when the local authorities ran all the schools before the legislation on academies and the like. We now live in an age when local authorities are losing control even of social services, as social care merges with health care and presumably comes under health and wellbeing boards. We also live in an age when councils share back-office functions and chief executives; outsource many of their functions; and co-operate in city region councils that look like the old metropolitan counties. The priority now is not size or scale, but local effectiveness and responsiveness.
Where the council is not the best or most appropriate local voice, there will be demand for reconfiguration, the establishment of new councils, the reassignment of communities to neighbouring authorities or changes to the boundaries. The problem is not whether that should happen, but how it is to happen. The remit of the Local Government Boundary Commission is covered by two recent Acts: the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 and the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007. Under the current legislation, there are three ways to engineer change: the Local Authority Boundary Commission can unilaterally decide to conduct a review, although it has no responsibility for implementing any review that it deigns to recommend; a council can ask for a review; or the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government can initiate a review by asking the Local Government Boundary Commission to act.
The first two steps are unlikely. Councils do not vote for the change, just as turkeys do not vote for Christmas, and civil servants on commissions do not usually rock boats. Sadly, the Secretary of State has made what is almost a policy decision that he is not minded to recommend further reviews in this Parliament. In effect, no major boundary review of a major authority is likely to take place any time soon. I would therefore argue that the public voice is silenced, which is not in the spirit of the times.
The public have been given many new powers—to thwart council tax increases, to bid to take over council services, to decide whether they want an elected mayor and to establish parish councils. However, they have absolutely no power to contest who runs their community. My Bill would change that by obliging the Local Government Boundary Commission to respond to public petitions, on the condition that the petition passes the same threshold as is necessary to force a vote on an elected mayor, which I believe is 10% of the electoral roll. Most people would accept that as an appreciable hurdle. A further condition could be put in place that it is the clear will of 20% of the wards making up a local authority. That, too, would count as reason to get the commission to respond. The mandatory response required from the commission would normally be to initiate a review or, in rare circumstances, to give clear and compelling reasons for not doing so.
I will briefly give the example of my own local authority, Sefton, one of the Merseyside authorities, which is named after a hard-to-find little village in the middle of it. It has two very different centres of gravity and power—Bootle in the south and Southport on the Lancashire border in the north. After more than a quarter of a century of being a hung council, Sefton council passed into Labour control in 2011. Even now, the contrast between the two parts of the borough is extraordinarily stark. In the last election, in 2012, six of the seven Southport wards returned Liberal Democrats, with the Tories holding one. Southport has never elected a Labour councillor, a situation that I hope will be perpetuated. However, Sefton now has a ruling cabinet composed entirely of Bootle councillors. All the chairs of the scrutiny committees are also Labour appointments. I think we would accept that Bootle is incorrigibly Labour. It had the distinction of having the lowest amount spent by political parties per elector at the general election—it amounted to 14p per elector among all parties. It is fair to say that the floating vote sank a long time ago in Bootle.
Understandably, when the council has to make cuts, Bootle councillors look favourably on their own patch. In the recent review of library services, three libraries were closed in Southport but none in Bootle, even though demand for those services was greater in Southport. Time has made a dysfunctional local authority appear more dysfunctional, which is why my local residents’ long-standing concern requires investigation. I personally favour the division of Sefton into two local authority units.
Such scenarios are not uncommon, but in Sefton we have the advantage of having had a review in the past in response to public demand and petitioning. It was parked for a while—the Local Government Boundary Commission promised that it would reopen the issue if the council could better demonstrate that the interests and voices of the diverse communities in Sefton were not being well served. It was able to do that, but no solution is currently available, basically because the commission could not even respond to a timely reminder to return to unfinished business, no matter what the groundswell of public opinion. That problem clearly occurs in many places, but it is one with a solution, and I commend my Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That John Pugh, Annette Brooke, Sir Malcolm Bruce, Mr Frank Field, Sir Bob Russell, Andrew George, Nic Dakin, Heather Wheeler, Dr Julian Huppert and Tim Farron present the Bill.
John Pugh accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 28 February, and to be printed (Bill 165).