I beg to move,
That this House has considered local government reform.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. This morning I hope to start a meaningful conversation about the future of local government and its reform. Over the past year, I have prepared a report into a bunch of radical ideas about where to take local government. Some people will agree with some aspects of my report, and others will totally disagree with other aspects, but I hope that from that process a certain consensus can be formed, and that the Minister will get some idea of direction from the debate. For the record, I state my thanks to Mr Joshua Harvey, who has done a lot of research for me while putting the report together. That has led us to where we are today.
I will give a brief history of local government, which I am sure many people understand, but I want to make a couple of points in context. The 1832 Reform Act gave the franchise to a lot of people, but it was 1835 that saw the first decentralisation of government with the creation of municipal corporations. Only in 1888 was there the creation of 66 county councils, which for the first time had increased powers—over financial and political administration, roads, bridges and council buildings. County boroughs were then created, so that areas with more than 50,000 people could self-administrate, and that was the first multi-tier approach to local government. What struck me was that at the time the telephone was in its infancy and there was certainly no computer power, so how things were administered relied on that—a 19th-century approach to slimming down authorities in order to cope with the municipal areas.
In 1894, the massive introduction of parish and district councils gave that direct link between the parishes and the county councils, because they covered both urban and rural areas. Mainly, they replaced the sanitary districts. So the two tiers really started to come in about 1894, although another result was the shrinking of several other bodies, which had grown up piecemeal in local communities.
The Local Government Act 1933 was an attempt to consolidate the mass of legislation from the 1800s through into the 1900s into a single Act. As we moved on, however, a lot of the consolidated powers started to be spread out again—perhaps to corporations or central Government, with social housing, education policy, the welfare state and the NHS.
The Local Government Act 1963 enacted a major restructuring in London—London City Council powers going to the Greater London Council and the boroughs. I will not dwell too much on that, because in my paper—as I intend in the debate today—I talk not about London, but about the rest of England. The situation in London is very different and is not something I want to bring in at this stage.
The Redcliffe-Maud report of 1969 recommended the introduction of unitary authorities—this is where things start to get interesting. In the 1970 manifesto the Conservative party stated that it would adopt the Redcliffe-Maud report but in the end, basically, it did not. The Conservative Government did not feel that unitary authorities would work because they might reduce the connection between communities and local government —I will argue that that is not working today and will propose a way in which a better link between communities and local government may be formed; instead, the Conservative Government brought in six metropolitan councils and 41 non-metropolitan councils, with 333 districts.
In 1985, the metropolitan counties were abolished, most becoming unitary authorities, because the existing system was deemed wasteful and to have an unnecessary tier, and that is something that keeps coming back in consideration of local government reform—that some tiers replicate work by other tiers. The 1992 Conservative manifesto wanted to implement single tiers for all non-metropolitan councils.
The Banham commission recommended the creation of 99 unitary authorities, but only 46 were created, given the need to get the legislation through the House. Again, as with all Governments that have attempted to reform local government, the ambition of the Government came up against a barrier, so they only achieved some of it. Likewise, in 2006 the Government advocated unitary authorities throughout local government, arguing that two tiers did not accurately reflect communities’ lines and that unitary authorities would improve accountability and leadership, but by 2009 only 10 had been created. Moreover, in 2010, under the coalition Government, some of those were reversed.
In 2011, obviously, significant powers were passed down to local authorities, and I argue that those should be increased. Police and crime commissioners have also been created, and now there are Mayors on top.
In the process of preparing my report, I looked at other systems around the world. Interestingly, where there are other tiers of local government in Europe and elsewhere, often they do not sit under each other, but next to each other.
Sweden has unitary authorities with four-year terms. Germany is interesting, with the Federal Government and regional government, which then splits down into counties and municipalities—they are divided and split down to reduce the power that any one area can hold. In some areas, however, a six-year term is served, which is an interesting approach. Belgium is really interesting because it has federal, regional and community governments, all of which sit at the same level; all have independent powers that do not cross over, and have well defined areas of responsibility. They sit for six-year terms. The USA has federal and state government, and then the counties—a lot of that is due to size.
The proposal in my paper involves first looking at whether we have proper accountability between councils and their people—are councillors accountable as representatives, and do the public have the ability to make a definite change? In that process, I looked at my unitary authority in Leeds, which has three councillors per ward and the council elected in thirds. It is therefore hard for the public in any one election to say, “We want to change the council.” In fact, it is notable that the last time there was a huge change was during an all-out election in 2004. Gradual chipping away was then followed by the high-turnout elections in 2010, held at the same time as the general election, and the council changed colour again. Can the public get any change when they are only electing a third of the council? Consider which wards are safe, which are likely to change and which parties might split across, and the public probably cannot change the council.
Probably the most controversial area in my report is the proposed abolition of the two-tier system of district and borough councils. We should keep the town and parish councils because they are in the heart of the community and have the absolute, direct link to villages and towns. They can play an important role in discussing with county councils future planning policy, parks and countryside. With that I would still include the provision and maintenance of facilities, including arts and crafts, allotments, car and bicycle parking, cemeteries and crematoria, parks, village greens, playing fields, public rights of way, public toilets, signage, village halls, war memorials and so on.
With one tier of local authority, is my hon. Friend suggesting that parish and town councillors be given more powers?
An enhancement of contribution would be a better description than more powers. My constituency includes several parish councils and a town council—I would encourage two of my towns, Rothwell and Garforth, that they need a town council. Where the contribution is not taking place is between Leeds City Council and the areas that do not have a town or parish council, on the future direction of planning policy. It is not a question of passing more powers down, but of enhancing the ability of areas to take part in sensible negotiations and conversations, and reflecting that in council policies.
My hon. Friend is providing an interesting overview of local government. I served as a councillor for 12 years. On the point about parish and town councils, the direction of travel through reorganisation and changes of financing arrangements is clearly to give more responsibilities—to passport them down—to lower, possibly more accountable tiers. Does he agree that whereas district, county and borough councils now know that there is a capping regime, the occasional uncertainty from the Department about the precept and capping makes long-term financial planning not as easy as it could be for town and parish councils?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about some of what I see as the disconnect in long-term planning among different levels of council, from those at the top—the county or unitary authorities—down to the parish councils. One of the ways in which I hope to simplify local government is to give clear delineation and planning for a fixed period.
The key change that I am talking about is effectively to have unitary county councils, with one member per ward of 15,000 people. I have chosen that figure, but I am not wedded to it; it is simply the case that in my city of Leeds, we have three councillors representing wards of 15,000 to 18,000 people. One councillor representing those wards would have more of a direct link to those people, rather than the link’s being diluted among three councillors. That is by no means to disparage any councillor. My experience has been that the local councillors in my constituency all work hard and make a contribution to the community, but I have reached the conclusion that it is time for councillors’ hard work and the fact that new powers have been passed down to them to be recognised by paying them a much larger salary. That would allow people to take up the role of councillor and give it their full attention on a full-time basis. I proposed in my paper that that salary should be £37,481, which is half of a Back-Bench MP’s salary.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s opening remarks and his report, which, as he said, stimulate discussion and debate about the future. I have one issue about councillors. The Communities and Local Government Committee held an inquiry in the last Parliament in which we looked at the role of councillors. We recognised that many still work, and they lose out financially when they become a councillor. That is perhaps okay until they get a family, but then it all becomes too difficult. My concern about his proposal is not that it is intended to elevate councillors’ income to some degree, but that it will almost exclude people who have careers and want to continue with council work.
The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point, and I have tried to tackle that issue in what I have put forward. One of the reasons why I thought that it was time to move to paying councillors a considerable salary was that a lot of people are currently excluded from council work because they have a career in another area and find it hard to be a councillor alongside that. That issue is certainly evident in the make-up of some councils. I fully accept that the conundrum here is how we set a professional salary and allow people to come in from the outside world to contribute to council work, while allowing people to do that who may not necessarily be able to get the time off work. Whatever the law may state, there comes a point when people make that consideration for themselves.
It is great that we are exploring these issues. With greater devolution comes greater responsibility. We need to attract captains of industry, who are talented yet short of time. Rather than offering them £37,000 a year, we could perhaps have shorter meetings and ensure that meetings are in the evenings, so that they do not clash with daytime work.
That is a sensible suggestion, and we need to assess it in considering how best to make local councils work. I am in no way suggesting that people would be councillors and that is it. MPs do not do that. Many MPs have business interests outside the House, and that is to be encouraged, because it brings in a diverse range of people: those earning six or seven-figure salaries; those with experience in all walks of life; perhaps those who have come up through the trade union route or just from a blue-collar background; white-collar workers; business owners, and so on. That brings diversity to Parliament, and that shows through in many debates. There is a conundrum, and this area can be debated more, but the solution that I have looked at is attacking that in one way by paying a rather large salary.
My hon. Friend has mentioned the word diversity, yet he is trying to impose a new blueprint. Does he not think that one of the great strengths of local government in England is diversity? There is strength through diversity. Why does he not believe in allowing each council to decide the best structure for itself—whether it wants to meet in the evenings, what it wants to pay its councillors, and so on?
My hon. Friend makes a point about how we can run local government, and he is right that councils have been able to make many of those decisions for themselves, but our Government have forced many extras on local councils as part of the devolution deals and so on. There has been multifarious tinkering, with people saying, “This is what must be done,” and I rather worry that the system is becoming over-complicated. That creates an issue: where does the responsibility actually lie? The aim of my proposal is to clean up the system, allow people to have real power and make real decisions, and at the same time allow the public to know exactly who is responsible for issues and make more casting verdicts.
When I did my research, I looked at some of the ways in which responsibilities operate throughout Europe, but my proposal fits the state governor and state senate model of the United States. Above the council—with one elected member per ward, a cabinet system, and a leader from the largest party—there would be a county Mayor, whose day-to-day job would be to deal specifically with all transport issues, from the running of buses and rail stations, and anything that might fit under Metro in West Yorkshire, to major infrastructure projects. As prescribed, the county Mayors would regularly meet the Secretary of State, and one of their roles would be to work on linking up national infrastructure projects among counties to ensure that we really moved forward with those projects.
I would have multiples of salaries for different roles. There is one thing that I looked at but then thought, “I’m not sure this can work.” I was looking at checks and balances. I thought, “Should the opposition parties chair the scrutiny committees?” I thought, “That’s not a bad idea—but hang on a minute: there are plenty of councils around the country where there simply aren’t enough opposition councillors to chair enough of the scrutiny committees.” As I thought through some of these things, I came to the conclusion, “That might sound okay, but it’s not going to work.” That is one area that needs to be looked at.
In his consideration of there not being enough opposition parties in councils in many parts of the country, has the hon. Gentleman given any thought to introducing an electoral system such as single transferable vote, which would bring in a diversity of candidates and parties?
I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. I did look at that, and I concluded that I am trying to achieve direct accountability between elected officials and the public, and the public must have a clear and simple view when deciding whether to change things.
I have two examples. The first is the Mayor of London. Let us be honest: when the Mayor of London was established, it was generally thought that it would be almost impossible for there to be anything other than a Labour Mayor. However, for various reasons—I do not want to go into that debate now—the mayoralty changed colour, and it has changed colour again. The second example is the 1997 general election, when there was a clear mood among the public that they wanted to change the Government. They knew what they had to do, and they went to the ballot box and voted in their millions in specific constituencies to kick out 18 years of Tory Government. The Tory party went from a majority Government to 165 seats, losing seats that it never thought possible to lose. The public knew, “It’s first past the post, so we can go in there and change things.”
That is why I have always shied away from changing first past the post, because it gives ultimate power to the public, who can say, “I haven’t got to think about alternative votes; I haven’t got to think tactically. I’m just going to go in and vote for Tony Blair and that’s it. I’m not interested in any other party.” That is what happened in 1997, when we had that massive, seismic change in British politics, and what happened from that period still reverberates today. I appreciate the long-held policy of the hon. Lady’s party and where she is coming from. I hope she recognises that I am trying not just to pass down bigger powers and make one person responsible, but to say to the public, “It will be really easy for you to change who is governing you at a local level if you want that.”
Surely that is an argument strongly in favour of having all-out elections every four years. That gives the people in a locality the opportunity to kick out their council if it has not been doing the right job.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. Part of my proposal is for a five-year term, and I would have that as a mid-term between general elections. That is for two reasons. First: all out. In the space of five years, the public would go to the ballot box twice—for a general election and for all local elections—and they would be able to change a council wholesale if they wanted. One of the weaknesses in my council is that we elect by thirds. Mathematically we really cannot make a real change when electing by thirds, yet when we have had all-out elections councils have changed colours. I therefore entirely agree with his point, which is a key plank.
I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s thoughtful speech. The basis of representation is taxation, and what has bedevilled local government since it was set up is the nature of the rates changing to poll tax and then council tax and the relationship of that with business rates. One of the reasons for electing by thirds is that when the rates, poll tax or council tax are put up, people have an immediate ability to make a judgment on that taxation. I would be interested in the hon. Gentleman’s thoughts on the future of taxation in local democracy.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Perhaps controversially—this is a policy put forward in the past not by my party but by the Liberal Democrats—as much as possible I would move money-raising powers down to the local authorities. Certainly we are seeing the passing down of business rates and although I do not know the exact proportions, so I would not like to put on the record what the change is, more and more of the local government settlement is coming from within local government rather than from central Government grant.
That opens up a much wider debate than time will allow—I know several people want to speak—but the point of the drive I am making is that significant powers would be passed down to councillors with the increased salary and accountability. For example, I would give the chair of the clinical commissioning group—one CCG for the county—a cabinet position in the local authority. I was commenting earlier that Nicola Sturgeon was a very well known MSP across the UK before she was leader because she was in charge of healthcare. She made a real name for herself there. People knew exactly who was responsible for what happened, and that could work in local councils. A lot of healthcare could be passed down to the local authority, and it could have people there.
I thought about putting police and crime commissioners in the cabinet, but I did not do so. As I have said on the record several times, I favour merging West and South Yorkshire police—the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) totally disagrees with me on that—so I would keep PCCs separate from the county councils because otherwise we would remove that option. That is one area that I would not bring into the county council set-up.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way once again and I apologise to him and to you, Mr Howarth, because I probably cannot stay to the end of the debate as I have an appointment at 11 o’clock. I very much agree with his comments about moving tax-raising powers down and about bringing health and social care together. However, he proposes that a model be forced on authorities. Combined authorities work because counties come together to pool their powers. The met councils come not work because they were an imposition from the top, which districts really resented, and that created a lot of conflict. I wonder whether he has thought through that concern.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. This is a controversial proposal and I am effectively saying, “I’m going to tear up everything that exists and the Government will enforce a new pattern, which I believe is better.” That is a totally controversial policy and many people may disagree with it. However, to promote working together I propose a new model under which, instead of just having the leader of the council, there would be a county Mayor—a separate, elected person who would work together strategically with the other authorities and feed that in as a joint partnership.
I do not shy away from the fact that I am putting forward some really radical ideas and radical reform, and that there will be people who strongly disagree with them. I welcome that, because I genuinely want to start a conversation about how to move forward. I do not expect that a great many of my ideas will ever be adopted, but I think there are aspects that a lot of people can agree on, and local authorities around the country, who I am sure are listening today, may look at those aspects and think, “Actually, I don’t agree with imposition from Government on these issues, but perhaps there is an argument for having just one all-out election.”
To take the City of Leeds, it costs £1 million to run an election. If we had one all-out election, we would save £2 million—half a million pounds a year—which in tight local government budgets is a considerable sum of money.
I want to crack on, so if people will forgive me I will not take any more interventions. The Mayor would not just deal with transport issues but have the ability to declare a state of emergency. To take the example of West Yorkshire and the tragic flooding we had last boxing day, that flooding occurred across five authorities, all of which command areas of the services differently. The Mayor would be able to take control of a command post for emergency services and fundamentally, having declared a state of emergency, that could be funded through central Government. That is an important aspect to ensure that the best job can be done.
I have a couple of points to raise on costs. Funnily enough, moving to single members for each ward representing 15,000 people and paying them almost £38,000 in salary would save £30 million a year. That is a basic calculation on back-bench salaries and we would need to look at allowances paid on top, but that does show that it is possible to reward councillors more and more. I would like to give a lot more powers to local councils. I would like to give them direct accountability from an all-out election, with one member per ward, and direct, named responsibilities on areas that really affect people’s lives. I honestly think that would improve turnout at local elections.
The time has come, effectively at the start of the 21st century, to look at how we take what happened in the 19th and 20th centuries to make a system that can last for the next 100 to 150 years and give real accountability and a direct approach to the electors. I will be very interested to hear people’s contributions. Fundamentally, this is a debate for the Minister. I would like him to hear what I have said and what other people say, and see if there are aspects that can be taken forward.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) on setting the scene. I have spoken to the Minister, and I want to give a perspective that may be helpful in the debate—because we have made some changes in local government in Northern Ireland—and add some thoughts on the way forward. The issue is close to my heart, because I was a councillor for some 26 years, on Ards Borough Council. I resigned that position when I became the Member of Parliament for Strangford. That was one of my election commitments. I also stepped down from the Northern Ireland Assembly.
In the few years since I left there have been massive changes in local government in Northern Ireland, and I believe that there are lessons of merit there for the reform proposed for England and Wales, which the hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell has set out today. On 22 November 2005 Peter Hain, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, announced proposals to reduce the number of councils in Northern Ireland from 26 to seven. As I discussed with the Minister before the debate, change is by its very nature unpalatable to some, but carried out correctly it can be constructive in finding a better way forward. That was what we found when we made the changes in Northern Ireland.
The super-councils, as they were named, were to have a number of new powers in such areas as planning, local roads, regeneration—the preparation of my council area’s regeneration plans has concluded, and they are awaiting endorsement and a way forward—and the fostering of community relations. Those things are to be transferred from the existing joint boards and other bodies, which are much closer in size to the proposed local authorities. The changes were made with a purpose. A lot of thinking and ideas went into them. Legislation was to be introduced to prevent serving councillors from also being Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. I stepped down, as indeed did my parliamentary colleagues. I found it very hard to say farewell to my job as a councillor, which I enjoyed, and to the Assembly. Of all the jobs I have ever done, I enjoyed that of councillor, because the council dealt with bread-and-butter issues, which kept us in touch with our local people.
The Local Government (Boundaries) (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 was made on 9 May 2006 and provided for the appointment of a local government boundaries commissioner to recommend the boundaries and names of the seven districts, and to divide the districts into wards. An eight-week public consultation on the proposals, during which members of the public could make written submissions, ended on 5 January 2007. Public hearings conducted by assistant commissioners were held in January and February 2007.
To be fair, the old councils really just lifted the rubbish and buried the dead. The changes that came in gave the new councils extra powers, and with that came the necessity for knowledge and time to make things happen. The hearings were essential to ensure that the end result would be workable. It was found that the reduction from 26 councils to seven would mean a loss of local feelings of identity and co-operation; it was therefore announced that there would be 11 councils. That was the balance of the agreement. I love the Ards council area, and those who represented North Down love that area. Sometimes debates on small things such as names are important for us all. The end result was the name Ards and North Down Borough Council. After much deliberation by the councillors, we found a way. It was almost a shotgun wedding; maybe there was not a lot of love at the beginning, but certainly that relationship came together. Even now, two years into the process, the local councils are starting to gel and work together. It is about time and change and state of mind. That is the first lesson that needs to be learned in local government reform from the review of public administration. It is essential that there is consultation, as the hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell mentioned. I urge the Minister to ensure that there will not simply be a check-box exercise, but consultation is seen as an integral part of the process.
The legal framework for the creation of the 11 new councils was put in place by the Local Government (Boundaries) Act (Northern Ireland) 2008, passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly. In England and Wales there are nearly 500 fewer councillors than there were in 2010, according to Local Government Chronicle analysis of data shared exclusively by the Local Government Boundary Commission for England. The 111 boundary reviews completed in the past six years have resulted in the number of members being cut at 69 councils, and a net fall of 491 councillors. There will be more to come if the changes happen at the same level as in Northern Ireland, where what the media called a golden handshake was offered to long-serving councillors with more than 12 years’ service. Those were up to an amount of £35,000, amounting to £1.8 million.
There may also be something to be learned there. It is good to have fresh blood in a council, but experience should not be overlooked and forgotten. Having spoken with experienced or older councillors in the new council, I think it is clear that experience is often what is needed. I urge the Minister not to throw out the grey-haired babies with the bathwater. Their experience is crucial and critical alongside the new developments and the new way forward, and we sometimes need those with experience to continue to be involved. There must always be an adequate number of councillors for each aspect of council work, and there must be accountability to the public. My fear is that in allowing a reduction in some areas, we may find ourselves with a healthier short-term bank balance and a not-so-healthy council chamber. I know that the Minister and the shadow Minister will talk about that.
I could continue to draw comparisons between the Northern Ireland perspective and the plans for England and Wales, but time does not allow me to do so at any length, so I have made just a few comments. However, I want to underline the fact that a council is not a business; it is a service provider. The hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell and other hon. Members are right to say that there must be a wage that encourages people to be councillors. In Northern Ireland the wage for a councillor is a minimum wage, which is more than there was before, but along with that comes a mileage allowance for going to meetings. Meetings are held with the agreement of councillors, whether during the day or at night. Most are probably at night, because most of the councillors on the Ards and North Down Borough Council have other jobs to keep, and they have to fit meetings into their employment. That issue cannot be ignored.
A council is legally obliged to provide a service for the constituents it serves. Financial responsibility is one of the greatest issues that a council faces—how do we keep costs down while preserving the quality of service? Any reform must be based on that question, and any successful reform will involve consultation and adaptability to change. A councillor’s responsibilities may go far beyond their remuneration, which is something that should be dealt with. As a former long-serving councillor I am often bemused by the way our new council runs things, and I wonder why changes have to happen in the way they do. However, as a ratepayer living in the Ards and North Down Borough Council area, my interest is to ensure that my rate bill, and that of my constituents, is acceptable, and that the quality of the service is of an appropriate standard. That is all that people throughout England and Wales want as well. I urge the Minister to take the time to hear about and take on board the changes that we have made in Northern Ireland and the sensible proposals made here and in other forums. The changes involved much deliberation, thought and discussion, and I think they can help in the debate that the hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell has initiated. They can help us ensure that the people get what they want and, more importantly, what they need from their local government body.
I apologise, Mr Howarth, to you, the Minister and the shadow Minister, that I must leave at a quarter to 11, because I have a meeting of the Select Committee on Defence.
Order. Three more Members have indicated a wish to speak, and I propose to call the Front-Bench speakers at 10.30 am. I do not propose to impose a time limit on speeches, but I ask hon. Members to be mindful of the fact that if all three of them are to get in they will need to be relatively brief.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I apologise for not having turned my mobile phone to silent earlier in the debate. It was actually the leader of the council on the phone, who was no doubt going to tell me. “Don’t say that, under any circumstances.”
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) on initiating the debate. I was going to say that it is timely, but it is one of those subjects that we debate about every six months, coming to similar conclusions and perhaps not advancing as much as we would like. We ought to congratulate the Minister, and both the present Government and the coalition that preceded them, on advancing the localism and decentralisation that those of us who have served on councils have encouraged. In my 26 years as a councillor, whatever Government were in power, there was more and more centralisation, and we railed against it to no effect. We have now got a reversal of that, and we should congratulate the Secretary of State and his predecessor for the work they have done on that.
If the Government believe, as they clearly do, in the process of devolution—and to some extent in elected mayors, though they do wobble on that occasionally—they have to grasp the nettle and move forward. I have some sympathy with what my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell said when he spoke about having a county mayor. The problem, of course, is that counties such as Yorkshire and my own county of Lincolnshire are somewhat large. Lincolnshire is 75 miles from north to south, and the connection between, say, Gainsborough in the north and Spalding in the south is somewhat tenuous, both in their local economy and in the fact that, in all honesty, people in Gainsborough rarely, if ever, go to Spalding, and vice versa, nice though those towns are.
My preference is for unitary authorities across the board. Personally, I would have them headed by elected mayors. We should not be frightened of the elected mayor process, as other Members have said. It is a form of direct election in which, as with the referendum and so on, the voters give a clear answer; it is black and white. I think that is to be encouraged. I know people will draw comparisons with the police commissioners and say that we should look at the terrible turnouts, and that nobody really knows who the commissioners are and so on, but it is early days yet. I genuinely think that the police commissioners have a role to play, though I would not be opposed to transferring their powers to an elected mayor.
There are problems with that, of course. My own county of Lincolnshire is actually served by two police forces. Unfortunately, those of us in the north of the county still have the relics of the County Humberside scheme—we have Humberside fire and Humberside police and so on, but that could be corrected relatively easily. I think we should move forward on that. We are moving forward in the sense that we have the Greater Lincolnshire devolution deal, which the local authorities have signed up to, although there are reservations about the role of an elected mayor. As I said, I am personally very much in favour of an elected mayor, and I hope the Government do not wobble on that. One or two of the authorities are wobbling, mainly because the consultation came out with more or less a 50:50 decision.
The reality, of course, is that such consultations are pretty meaningless. How many real voters actually took part in the consultations? Yes, there was the chamber of commerce and the institute of this, that and the other, but the reality is that they do not engage the average voter. Why should they? The man and woman in the street want the bins emptying, the streetlights going on and the potholes filling. They want an efficient local authority. The structure of the authorities is completely irrelevant to them, though of course they want to be able to influence the outcome, particularly in relation to the setting of council tax.
The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) made a point about having more regular elections. Personally, I have always been in favour of election by thirds. I recognise that does mean that there cannot be a clean sweep and people cannot make a sudden change, but in the past one of my arguments has always been that having elections every year is actually good for local political parties. Across the political spectrum, we struggle to maintain interest in local elections and local parties. The local parties are a vital part of the structure of our democracy, and I do not think we should lose sight of that.
Is that not a party political argument rather than a local government argument? Is the problem of electing on thirds not that, a couple of months after an election, people are immediately looking to the next election, and long-term strategic decisions that may be controversial at the start but have a long-term effect do not get taken?
That is certainly true, but the opposite of that is that local authorities are constantly looking over their shoulders at the electorate—and so they should. That is the whole point of accountability. The one thing that perhaps weakens the argument about the importance of keeping local parties involved is that we now have more elections, because we have police commissioners, and under my system we would also have elected mayors, so there is a constant move toward elections. Personally, I think we should give local authorities the option of having elections not by thirds but by halves every year or two years. That might be a sensible way forward.
Mindful of your comments of wanting to get other speakers in, Mr Howarth, I will not dwell on the matter too much further. I like the idea that my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell put forward of having the chairman or chief executive of a clinical commissioning group as some part of the structure. I also draw attention to the role of local enterprise partnerships. Yes, they have grown and are playing an important part, but they suffer from a lack of accountability. If we had cross-border unitary authorities, it would be useful to transfer some if not all powers from the LEP to the unitary authority.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) on securing the debate and on his paper.
I believe we need reform, and I welcome this debate, but there are a couple of proposals with which I disagree. First, I do not believe that the role of councillor should be a full-time position with a full-time wage. On the Isle of Wight there is an all-purpose council. There are currently 40 seats, and the council is led by an independent group with a small majority. The basic allowance for a councillor on the Isle of Wight is £7,700 a year. Last year, the average received by 39 councillors—not the leader—was £10,800. Under my hon. Friend’s proposal a council leader would earn £74,000 and the basic salary would be £37,000. I fear that would create a purely economic incentive to stand for the council, and in my view we should not lose the long tradition of the incentive to become a councillor being someone’s dedication to the community they serve.
Secondly, I disagree that one councillor should represent 15,000 residents. That reform would bring down the number of councillors on the island from 40 to seven. One person would represent the entire western area of the island and a ward in the south. For those unfamiliar with our geography, that is a physically large area for one councillor to cover. Having one councillor who represents 15,000 people might be appropriate for an urban situation, but I do not believe it would work well in rural areas. The benefit of having smaller wards is that constituents feel closer to their representative. Many know him or her personally, so their councillor is better positioned to represent them. That is especially important for under-represented groups. An example of that is a ward that is generally one of two represented by the Labour party. I believe that reducing the number of councillors and paying higher wages would disconnect councillors from constituents, and I fear that the effect of my hon. Friend’s proposal would be to turn well-known, devoted, grassroots politicians into more remote and distant figures.
Thirdly, in difficult economic times some proposals that would never be considered in other circumstances might seem tempting, but when looking at reform we must look beyond the short term and find sensible plans that will work long into the future. We are, in fact, already facing local government reforms through the devolution agenda. The Isle of Wight Council—a small local authority with unique challenges—is in a very difficult financial position. Unsurprisingly, a proposal for a mayoral combined authority, with promises of more funding, has tempted the ruling group on the Isle of Wight, but the council leader has told me that he feels we are being pushed into the Solent deal by the Government.
The Isle of Wight now faces the possibility of being combined with Southampton and Portsmouth in a Solent authority. The line being peddled is that the Solent authority would join the councils together, when in fact it would separate them. The situation and needs of the two cities and the island are disparate. The suggestion is that spending plans for the new authority would require unanimity, but what would happen if they could not reach unanimity? I fear that the views of the island council would be overruled and the island would lose out.
Surely the Government have assured us that if individual councils do not go along with a consensus, they effectively have a veto. Indeed, hon. Members of Parliament do as well.
Well, so they say, but the council has been advised that if unanimity fails, two out of three will do. That is what I am told on the Isle of Wight.
I would welcome clarification from the Minister on stories that have been circulated over the summer about the change in Government thinking on directly elected mayors, which may make other, more suitable options possible. I also ask for a commitment to sit down with the Isle of Wight Council to look at how the underlying problems might be resolved until a fairer funding formula is in place, together with an assurance that it will not be pushed hell for leather into a structure that will not suit the long-term interests of the Isle of Wight.
Many cities that decided they did not want a Mayor in 2012 now face one being imposed. There is no single clearcut answer to what form local government should take, but I am sure of one thing: we should not rationalise by making local government bigger, but we should deliver what the people want.
May I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) on securing this important debate? I applaud him for the serious work he has done on this issue.
In my brief remarks, I would like to take this opportunity to reiterate my call for Warwickshire County Council to become a unitary authority. I know that the Minister is quite familiar with Warwickshire. I have taken the opportunity to write to all the county councillors, district councillors and town and parish councillors who are elected representatives in my constituency. I have not stepped over to other constituencies, but I wanted to test the view of local representatives in Warwick and Leamington. To my great delight, the response I received was very favourable indeed, which I think is based on two factors.
The first is the financial factor. Early estimates are that something in the region of £17 million a year could be saved if there was a unitary authority. By unitary, I mean not abolishing the districts, the boroughs or the county, but merging the two tiers, because £17 million is money that we well need. At the moment we have something in the region of 240 councillors across Warwickshire. That could be reduced to 100. We have a number of chief executives across the county and a number of assets for both our districts and our county. Those could be reduced, and the money could be either saved or used elsewhere.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) spoke very well about the practical considerations, such as the efficiencies, the doubling up of work, the number of CCGs we have, the different procurement officers and the different commissioning officers. My view is that when my highly educated and engaged population think of their local representation, they think they have one council already. That should continue. To have a single point of contact could be nothing but favourable to our local residents’ ears. It would make it much easier for people to relate to their local representatives when wondering who to speak to about housing or if they want double yellow lines.
My concern is when I see on the front page of my local paper, The Courier, the headline, “Grave concern over potential cuts to disabled services in county” and read underneath in the article that “difficult decisions” need to be made. I appreciate that difficult decisions need to be made, but perhaps the most straightforward decision of all would be for our counties and districts to work together to pursue the unitary agenda, not least because in Warwickshire we have local county elections coming towards us in 2017. I hope that across the different authorities, a great deal more work will be put into fleshing out the proposals. I am sure they will be looking eagerly at the paper written by my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell.
I want to ask the Minister the following questions. Does he agree with the proposals to create efficiencies and savings? Does he agree that it is better to first cut the cost of politics, rather than cut what I consider to be vital services? Thirdly, and perhaps slightly bravely, will he follow my lead in Warwick and Leamington and discuss with his councillors, as a constituency MP, the value, savings and next steps forward for his local representatives in Nuneaton?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I have found the debate very interesting, and I am glad that the hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) secured it. I commend him for producing this report, because it makes a useful contribution. He made an interesting presentation about the background of local government in England, which I find particularly fascinating because it is so complex. In Scotland, we have 32 unitary local authorities, which is pretty simple. It is not perfect by any manner of means, and there is a lot of diversity. We have huge city councils such as Glasgow, with a population of 600,000, and very small councils such as Clackmannanshire, with a population of around 50,000. Glasgow has 79 councillors and Clackmannanshire has 18. There is a great deal of diversity.
When considering local government, we cannot make one size fit all, because we have to be aware of the local circumstances and what local communities need. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) made that point very well when he talked about having one council ward per 15,000 residents and the impact that would have in his area. We need to be very careful as to how that works. The most stark example in Scotland is the Western Isles, which has a total population of around 25,000—the size of some council wards in Glasgow. They have looked at those circumstances and said, “Well, that would be impractical for the Western Isles and needs to be looked at more carefully.”
For clarity, my paper focuses on England. I take the point that the hon. Lady makes, but my paper is about England.
I do not want to misrepresent this at all. When looking at different island communities or very rural communities, we need to consider exactly how we set the limits, and there needs to be flexibility around that and the size of council wards.
As I alluded to in the intervention I made earlier, in Scotland we have the single transferable vote and multi-member wards of three or four councillors. That has opened up democracy in Scotland hugely, and it ought to considered when looking at a review. I would welcome the Minister’s thoughts as to whether he wants to do that. The Electoral Reform Society has done a great deal of work on this and has said that moving to a system such as STV would start to challenge rotten boroughs, where we have one-party states in many parts of the country and very little scrutiny. As the hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell mentioned, there are not enough councillors to chair scrutiny committees because there is not enough opposition, but we need that diversity of voices in local councils. That will make them truly representative of the communities they serve.
After STV was brought in in Scotland in 2007, the Electoral Reform Society did some work on that. It spoke to all the different local authorities in Scotland and said, “What has been the change here?” There was a telling quote from Glasgow City Council, which said, “It felt like we got our council back.” That was from one of the council officers. Previously, decisions would be taken by councillors behind the scenes and there was never that public debate or public scrutiny. That change has been extremely healthy for councils in Scotland.
STV does not mean that there has not been change in local authorities. We can come to an election and still see change under STV. There were changes in 2007 and 2012. We hope in Glasgow that there will be changes in the elections next year. It has been a Labour council for many years, but under STV we have chipped away at that. That has been quite good for the Scottish National party, too, because we have not taken over the council dramatically, suddenly, with very little experience, but have been able to build up experience over the past two council terms. We hope to be in a position next year to take the council in Glasgow. That has been about engaging with the public, building up trust and letting people get to know their local representatives. We have had to work very hard in Glasgow. I was a Glasgow city councillor for eight years before coming here. That has actually been quite good and quite interesting.
STV has also given local communities a choice of councillors. In a one-member ward, even if people think that their local councillor is lousy, they are stuck with that councillor; there is nothing they can do. A three or four-member ward gives people options and means that they can go to different councillors. If people have a local campaign, they can get their three or four local councillors behind it. It can be a very powerful thing in a council to allow for lobbying—it allows communities to have their voice. Three or four councillors working together, as happens in many council wards, on a cross-party basis can be very powerful and useful in those communities.
I agree with some of the things that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said. He mentioned that he was a councillor for 26 years and he referred to councils lifting the rubbish and burying the dead. I think that we also need to have a debate about the diversity of services that councils now provide. Councils provide a huge range of services, which people do not always see. As long as their rubbish gets lifted on the right day, they do not really care about the rest of it. In the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, whose Chair, the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), is present, we are currently conducting an inquiry into public parks and the impact of austerity on park services. Those services are very valued, but we do not really talk about them when we talk about local government. We need to think about the huge diversity in local government and the services that it provides.
I want to say a little about salaries and the impact that there might be in that respect. It is fair that local councillors are paid a wage. In Scotland, when we moved to STV, we moved from an allowance-based system to basic annual pay, which currently stands at £16,893. That is not a huge salary, and some people in councils in Scotland do still work. Depending on what the council looks like, it may meet in the evening; it may meet during the day. Glasgow and, I think, Edinburgh—the bigger councils—generally meet during the day. We have to think about the kind of people that we want to come into our council and the impact that the wages have on them. If someone is a parent or carer and would have difficulty in coming to meetings in the evenings, they will not stand for council. If they look at the council and see all those meetings in the evening, they will say, “I need to be at home; I have responsibilities at home to attend to,” and will not stand for council.
The phrase “captains of industry” was mentioned. At the moment, captains of industry are largely male. Councils in this country are hugely male. We need to think about exactly how we bring women in and encourage women into councils. That may have to do with wages, but it also has to do with how councils run their business and the practices that they have. That is also an important debate.
There was a lot of talk by various hon. Members about the different complexities of local government and the understanding of local government. The hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White) mentioned the need for simplification and efficiencies. Looking at the local government structures in England, I, as a Scottish MP, would not want to impose these structures on anyone, either. There needs to be a sensible look in the round at local government in England. Which responsibilities are held where? Are they in the right place? I am not certain that bringing in things such as mayors on top of already complex structures will help that. If people want to know who is responsible for this service or that service and they do not know who to go to, that will be very disempowering for those individuals.
This morning’s debate perhaps has not concentrated enough on what people want to see from their local authorities. Things absolutely must be done in consultation with local people. The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) questioned how many people would want to talk about the structure of local government—how many people would want to engage in that debate—but it is actually quite important. People need to know who their local councillor is. They need to have a person they can go to and they need to know what they do and why they do it. That is vital. Keeping a local link is also important, as the hon. Member for Strangford mentioned. He talked about the importance of local identity. Some of that is getting a bit lost in local authorities in England. I hear again and again in debates in the main Chamber and here that the local authority does not really fit with what people understand to be their local area. Perhaps it would be useful to start with that issue.
There was some debate about the cost of politics generally. I will just reiterate the point that is often made in these debates: politics and democracy do not come cheap. We need to think about that, whatever the structures are.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I am standing in for my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris), who is very disappointed that he cannot be here today. I thank the hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) for initiating this important debate and for his thought-provoking report—I would expect nothing less than thought provocation from the hon. Gentleman.
With the recent unprecedented cuts to local authority funding, reform and the new wave of devolution, the future of local government is a matter that we now need to look at, and all hon. Members and their constituents share an interest in it. I would welcome any changes to local government that bring about a greater accountability and connection between local people and those who are elected to represent them. The decisions made on their behalf affect them every day—they affect their town, their village, their street—and quite often local people do not know how those decisions are made or who is making them. Often they will ring our offices, thinking that it was us, when in fact it was not us at all. We need to make that connection.
This has been a measured and very well informed conversation. It is interesting that we have heard contributions from many different constituencies, such as Strangford, Cleethorpes, the Isle of Wight, North Warwickshire and Glasgow. That shows that one size does not fit all and that decisions should be made locally, because across our country communities are very different.
The hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell spoke about his report, in which he made a number of recommendations. He said that many of them are radical, and they are, but a radical shake-up is needed. We needed to start this conversation, and I am very glad that we are doing so. Any report on the future of local government is welcome, but there are many questions, and I hope that the Minister will be able to share his thoughts on some of the concerns that have been raised and some of my concerns.
On council structures, the report makes a recommendation that a uniform system of unitary councils be introduced. I would be interested to know the Minister’s estimate of the sort of impact that that would have on local services. Does he agree that local government should be invited to determine local structures, rather than something being imposed from the centre? If reforms such as that were pursued, how would our cities and elected mayors fit into that model?
The proposal features a separately elected mayor who would sit above the council and have powers including approval of the budget. Would that not simply reintroduce a second tier? Does the Minister agree that vesting powers in an executive county mayor would add another layer of government, which would be expensive and sometimes prolong decision making? Should not local people be in the driving seat in terms of determining localised policy, rather than a potentially remote county mayor?
On council funding, the hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell recommends powers to generate income through council tax, income tax and business levies. I hope that the Minister accepts that council services have been decimated in some areas as a consequence of cuts. We need to look at new ways of funding, but I fear that if the proposed model were pursued, it would create a greater imbalance between local authorities and there could be a postcode lottery. What effect would that model have on individual residents’ finances if they were asked to pay income tax both nationally and locally? Does the Minister agree that devolving powers without a clear way to increase finance would simply be to devolve cuts, and the blame for those cuts, to local government?
The final question I would like to ask came to mind after the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), raised the issue of salaries. One of the things that concerns me, and I would be grateful if the Minister looked at it again, is pensions for local councillors. Many local councillors give years of service. Sometimes that means they have to forgo career progression; sometimes it means they have to give their careers up altogether for a period of time.
A colleague of mine was a headmaster of a local school and he could not possibly do that while running a local council, so he had to give to give up that career and consequently about 15 years of his pension, I think. If we are going to encourage people with ability into local government, we need to understand that they are giving a lot of themselves. Where we are trying to encourage the whole nation into auto-enrolment, we should really look at what is a fair return for the years that local councillors give.
I reiterate my thanks to the hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell for bringing forward this important debate. Any debate on the future of local government is welcome, particularly in this period of uncertainty, when the old ways of doing things do not work any more and we need to look at new ways. In the wake of the outcome of the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, we have seen calls for a readjustment of our constitution, from reform of the House of Lords to reform of local government, and I am sure that this debate will be just the start of a coming conversation on local government reform. Local government faces new and varied challenges and requires new, and maybe radical, solutions. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) for securing this important debate and note his report on local government reform. I certainly welcome the opportunity to discuss this matter. My hon. Friend said that he wanted to trigger a debate on how local authorities are governed, and he certainly has triggered debate in this Chamber. There have been many, varied views from hon. Members and colleagues who have considerable experience in local government, including my hon. Friend.
Local authorities play a vital part in all our lives. They deliver local services, from collecting our bins to caring for some of the most vulnerable citizens in our society. At a time of wider public sector fiscal constraint, and as demand for many of the services increases, the best of local government has shown itself to be agile and enterprising. Government too are focused on ensuring that wherever people may live, they benefit from effective and efficient services. We committed to that in our manifesto and we will continue to set the right conditions for that to happen. We have committed to giving councils greater flexibility and control over their budgets, introducing the ability to retain 100% of business rates in their areas, giving them greater certainty through offering guaranteed funding across this Parliament, rather than annual budgets, and offering the ability to use capital receipts from sales to fund innovation and reform of local authority services.
I share my hon. Friend’s desire for local government to be efficient, effective and accountable. As I know many councils believe, more can be done to improve local government and service delivery, and to provide accountable and stronger local leadership. However, I do not believe that change should be centrally mandated. The right approach is bottom-up, where the initiative is taken locally. When I come to mention my hon. Friend’s comments in more detail, I will elaborate on that.
That is the approach underpinning the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016. It is the approach that we are following for devolution and bringing about governance changes, whether as part of a devolution package, in anticipation of a devolution package, or free-standing to give local people and taxpayers a better deal. Government enacted the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act to enable us to take proposals forward and to implement them where we, and Parliament, are satisfied that they will deliver the better local governance that an area is seeking. There must be a good deal of local consensus. Any new structures must be sustainable and facilitate public service delivery, including effective partnerships with other public agencies, and they must also avoid any unnecessary fragmentation of local services.
Our manifesto set out the need to
“devolve far-reaching powers over economic development, transport and social care to large cities which choose to have elected mayors.”
We have already achieved significant success with 10 devolution deals agreed, nine of which either have established or will establish mayoral combined authorities, covering 30% of England’s population. We remain open to discussing credible proposals from other areas. I will go on to clarify some of the points raised, in particular by my hon. Friends the Members for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) and for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers).
The deals that we are talking about are to give local leaders the power to drive growth in their areas, but I would reiterate a comment that I have made many times before: there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Devolution is not just about our largest cities; it is for the whole country—cities, towns and rural areas of all sizes. I have also said many times before that each deal will be negotiated to meet the needs of the area in question. However, devolution must include effective, efficient and accountable governance arrangements commensurate with the size and scope of the powers to be exercised. In some areas, that might mean that local areas may wish to look again at their governance structures.
The report by hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell also recommends changes to local election arrangements, including moving to whole council elections and single member wards. This is generally for the Local Government Boundary Commission to consider, but that does not mean councils cannot approach the commission to request a review of their electoral arrangements, should they wish to. My hon. Friend’s comments today may well stimulate significant debate in that regard.
The role of a councillor has been discussed, but I would certainly say that a councillor is a community champion, and that the role is a vocation and not necessarily a profession. That is not to say that councillors do not bring significant professionalism to their roles; they make complex decisions that impact on the lives of tens of thousands of people in their areas. They do that repeatedly and successfully and, in my experience, the vast majority of councillors do it in an extremely professional way. In keeping with that vocational role, councillors receive not a salary but an allowance to ensure that they are not left out of pocket as a result of performing their public duty. Standardising a scheme of allowances, as my hon. Friend mentioned, would go against the principles of localism and devolving power to local authorities. We should trust councillors to ensure that the scheme of allowances they set is fair and proportionate.
Certainly, having a full-time job and being a councillor can be a challenge. I know that a number of hon. Members in this room have experienced the challenge of juggling different roles. My experience is that I was the leader of a district council, I had a full-time job and, latterly in that role, I was also the parliamentary candidate. I did feel as though I was spinning lots of plates and trying to run from one end to the other to keep those plates in the air. I do think there are benefits, as one or two hon. Members have mentioned, in having councillors that can bring their employment experiences to the council chamber. There are also benefits to people being able to take their experiences of the council chamber and the council back to their workplaces. That can benefit businesses and the roles that they undertake in their private capacity.
At this stage, let me pick up a few points that have been made. My hon. Friend gave us a very eloquent run-down of the history of local government. This Government have used that history to learn significantly from what has happened, which is why we have gone for a bottom-up, rather than a top-down, approach.
My hon. Friend mentioned the importance of parish councils and town councils, and the Government recognise that. He said that one or two areas in his constituency may benefit from having a town council, and I would direct him to have a look at Sutton Coldfield Town Council, one of the latest town councils to come into being. It is in a district of Birmingham, which is the largest local authority in the country, so he may want to look at that example.
My hon. Friend made an important point about how we conduct local government elections. He and I are absolutely on the same page, as are the Government, on retaining first-past-the-post elections as the best way to hold elected representatives to account.
The Minister mentioned town and parish councils. Clearly, with devolution there is a flow down to a more granular level, and we all welcome that. May I invite him to give some departmental thinking time to the codes of conduct and standards? They are very clear on the lines of communication at a county, district or borough level, but are less so at lower levels of local government. As they are going to be handling more money and be more involved in the delivery of often complex local infrastructure and facilities, we need to have a little think about that, because there is a lot of confusion about which rules cover town and parish councils and which do not.
As ever, my hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Parish and town councils are there to serve local people; they should have transparent arrangements and be accountable to local people. That can obviously be done through the ballot box and through parish polls. Generally, when there is an issue of standards, the person with that issue can seek redress through the monitoring officer of that local authority, which is usually the principal council for that area. That said, my hon. Friend makes an important point and the arrangements in that regard are something that we constantly look at. We will continue to do so.
Let me mention an issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes, who welcomed the devolution agenda and having a strong and accountable elected mayor. I reassure him that there is no change in policy in that regard. The choice about whether a local area wants an elected mayor is very much one for that area, but when significant and ambitious powers are to be devolved from Whitehall and from Secretaries of State, who are currently accountable in the Chamber to Members of this House as the local representatives, we— understandably, in my view—require a strong figure who would be locally elected and locally accountable.
I welcome the Minister’s comments. Does he agree that if a combined authority for a county is created without an elected mayor, the meetings of the combined authority will lack the necessary coherence? Individual council leaders go to those meetings with a mandate to look after their area; supporting a road improvement scheme 50 miles down the road rather than one of their own is very difficult, unless somebody is overseeing the whole project.
Consideration needs to be given to that role, as it does to adequate scrutiny arrangements in that regard. Any combined authority consists of constituent members who will be there not only to provide advice and support to the mayor, but to scrutinise their work. Ultimately, however, the mayor would be accountable to the people, which is the most direct form of democracy.
I turn to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight; we have had many discussions about the situation on the island, which is unique compared with many of the places elsewhere in England. I certainly undertake to have another meeting with my hon. Friend’s councillors. It is important that we retain a dialogue about what happens going forward on the island, but I reassure him that this Government do not mandate devolution deals for areas. We listen to what local areas put forward and then consider whether that is an acceptable proposition for the Government to undertake. I say to my hon. Friend that we should keep that dialogue going. I know that the Isle of Wight is speaking to the other local authorities in the Solent area, but it is a choice for the Isle of Wight whether they want to—
Order. I remind the Minister that it is customary to leave some time for the mover of the motion to wrap up.
Thank you, Mr Howarth; I will conclude my comments in a moment or two.
I will pick up on the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White), who tempted me to go down a path that, as a Minister, it may not be too wise to go down, but I understand what he said. I say to him that we agree that unitary authorities can bring many benefits, but this has to be done with local consensus. A number of tests need to be met and I will write to him in that regard.
Given what you said, Mr Howarth, I will give my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell the floor for the last three minutes of the debate.
I am delighted with the way the debate has gone today, because we have had a range of opinions from different parts of the country, including from my hon. Friends the Members for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White), for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner), and for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), among other Members. I thank the SNP and Labour Front Benchers for their contributions, and, of course, the Minister.
I said from the outset that I wanted to start a debate. I am sure that people will look at this debate with interest—some will look at it with anger, some feeling that this is the way forward and some with incredulity. However, one thing for certain is that we have started a discussion about where local government needs to look over the next century, compared with where it has come from over the last 150 years.
The Minister made an important point about history showing that many Governments have introduced the idea of a top-down organisation to unitary authorities. I do not hide away from the fact that that is exactly what my report says should happen. He is right, but as history shows, the conclusion is always that Governments do not get there, and it does not happen. However, I think councils around the country will take a closer look at some things that have been said today.
If I had a priority starting point, I would hope that many councils really take a look at going for an all-out election, because I believe that it gives people a real opportunity to change their council in one hit. I listened to what my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes said and I see his argument, but as I said when intervening on him, I am not sure that having an election every year allows councils to take the real decisions they need to take. In terms of savings, in Leeds I think it costs £1 million to run an election, so that would be £0.5 million a year over a four-year period. That could be invested back into police community support officers and would not actually change the organisation of the council.
Thank you, Mr Howarth, for chairing the debate, and for the responses from everybody who took part. I hope that this really will spark a conversation that leads to some reform brought up from the bottom.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered local government reform.