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District Councils (England)

Volume 631: debated on Tuesday 14 November 2017

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the long-term future of district councils in England.

It is delightful to be here under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I am incredibly proud to represent the smallest district council in England, now in danger of abolition if the proposals currently before the Secretary of State are approved. It would be merger most foul. I am absolutely determined to stop it. Local democracy is too valuable to lose, and I want to protect the rights of my 35,000 constituents in West Somerset to hire and fire members of their own district council: people whom they know, neighbours with knowledge and councillors who are local.

I understand why town halls want to co-operate; there are often sensible economies to be made. It is quite another matter to start demolishing democracy, which I am afraid is exactly what West Somerset’s greedy neighbour, the rotten borough of Taunton Deane, is trying to do, using the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016, which I suspect was designed to encourage local elected mayors. When the House passed the Bill, we had no idea that it would allow town hall bosses to dodge the normal scrutiny of the Boundary Commission and fix mergers on the sly. There is already an unseemly rush to use the new Act, as it sanctions local authorities to do pretty well whatever they like. As a result, the face of local government in England is gradually being changed, and there does not seem to be much that we in Parliament can do.

The hon. Gentleman is expressing a specific concern about his local area, but I would like to widen it to make a more general point about the effects of the cuts in central Government funding. Between 2010-11 and 2020-21, funds will have decreased by 51% in Labour-controlled Ashfield. This is not a party political point; Broxtowe has suffered similar cuts. He is absolutely right to say that local people with local knowledge are best placed to take many local decisions, but the impact of central Government funding cuts is making that more difficult than ever.

I do not know the hon. Lady’s local situation, but she has made her point eloquently, and I am certain that the Minister has heard it. I thank her for her intervention.

We are all being completely conned. Only last week, the Secretary of State announced that he was “minded” to accept a controversial plan for nine councils in Dorset to shrink to become one big new authority. There are other plans in East Anglia, Devon and beyond. In every case, the councils avoid holding fair referendums by saying that it would cost too much. That is a cheapskate attitude and, in my view, deplorable.

Has my hon. Friend taken into account the point that many district councils have struggled hard to put in place their five-year housing land supply, and that merging district councils into much larger councils may well result in the loss of that across the whole council?

I agree totally with my hon. Friend, with whom I have worked on many issues. The problem is that bigger is not always better; in fact, it is horses for courses, whatever part of the country might be involved. It does not matter whether the council area is controlled by Labour, the Conservatives or the Scottish National party; one size does not fit all, and that is what I think is happening subliminally.

Two years ago, Parliament passed the Trade Union Act 2016, which demands that at least half of all union members must cast a vote before any strike ballot can be valid. However, we also passed the flawed Cities and Local Government Devolution Act, which permits councils to get away with not consulting properly with anybody. To save money, councils hire pollsters to do quick telephone surveys and offer residents the chance to fill in questionnaires. Some consultations are obviously better than others. Most try to give a reasonable indication of public opinion. All consultations must be conducted before councillors make any decision—all, that is, except the one in Taunton Deane, the rotten borough, whose dismal efforts at consultation produced only 500 responses out of 120,000 residents of Taunton Deane and West Somerset. That is less than half of a measly 1%.

Most of the responses were dead against a merger, as the Minister is well aware, but everybody knew that it was a sham consultation, because councillors had approved the plan months beforehand. The No. 1 rule of best practice is to ask people what they think at a formative stage, before any decision is taken. Taunton Deane broke that rule wide open. For that reason alone, the Secretary of State should be “minded” to dispose of the proposal and stick it where the sun doesn’t shine, to put it crudely. He knows, because I have told him face to face, that there are many other reasons why the rotten borough of Taunton Deane must be avoided like the plague.

I have said it before and I will say it again: this council is bent. Its revenue department is under investigation by the district auditor; the fraud squad is waiting for a full report; the council leader, whom I should perhaps call the supreme leader, pretends that there is nothing wrong, and has ordered a multi-million pound refit of the tired old council buildings, for which my constituents will pay. He runs his administration with a cabinet of weak yes-men. Frankly, he would not be out of place in Pyongyang.

The council leader sends council orders from his email account at Wrencon, the builders, his personal company. That cannot be right. He has a passion for bricks and mortar, a far too cosy relationship with the big developer Summerfield and an ambition for—believe it or not—17,000 new houses, an absurd target greatly exceeding anything anywhere else in the country. The only advice that he takes is from an economic advisory board financed by the rotten borough, which meets in secret and never publishes agendas or minutes. That is a strange state of affairs in these days of open government.

The economic advisory board advised the supreme leader to build more houses and create a garden town. It also advised him to build a brand-new industrial site on the east side of the M5 at junction 25. It probably advised him that a new industrial estate wholly owned by—guess who?—Summerfield could be sneaked through the planning system with a local development order, avoiding all those annoying planning hurdles.

It is only right and proper that the Minister should get to know some of the key members of this curiously undemocratic body, because it is important. Mr Nick Engert, from the law firm Clarke Willmott, works for a number of companies and landowners. Summerfield is one of his biggest clients, and his Taunton office is on an industrial estate developed by Summerfield; what a coincidence. It would be wrong of me to fail to mention that Mr Engert is on the secretive economic advisory board only because of his membership of the Heart of the South West local enterprise partnership. Pull the other one. Mr Engert is also on the board of Taunton racecourse, alongside another director of—wait for it—Summerfield. Ching—they’re off!

I now introduce Mr Nigel Pearce, a Taunton architect and honorary president of Taunton chamber of commerce. His executive committee includes, of course, the managing director of Summerfield; how handy. Mr Andrew Maynard, a property consultant for Alder King, a large local estate agent that some may have heard of, was closely involved in Summerfield’s Westpark development at junction 26. He will undoubtedly be looking forward eagerly to helping Summerfield to find clients for Nexus 25, the new development at junction 25.

Everybody is happy, including the chairman of the economic advisory board, Jonny Clothier. He keeps himself to himself, but has made shed loads of money from Clarks, the shoemakers, and Rohan, makers of upmarket outdoor clobber. He also heads an interesting charitable trust near Street. I wonder why he put a senior surveyor from Summerfield on the charity board. There is a bit of a fuss going on about plans to build 300 houses on land owned by the trust. There could not possibly be a connection, could there?

If I sound distrustful, it is not surprising. Summerfield is in the business of making money by building houses, and is far less bothered about the impact of its projects than about the size of its profits. Summerfield wants to build houses in the lovely seaside town of Watchet in my constituency—far too many for a place like that. I am relying on the common sense of West Somerset district councillors, but I almost forgot to say that the Taunton economic advisory board wants to get rid of most of my councillors. Its members submitted a letter singing the praises of the supreme leader’s merger idea that was sent to the Secretary of State; talk about working on false evidence. They are mates with Summerfield and lapdogs of the supreme leader.

The supreme leader also attends secret advisory board meetings with his ever-faithful chief executive, on the rare occasions when she bothers to turn up. I could mention that Taunton Deane Borough Council moved its direct labour organisation to expensive new premises that were built, of course, by Summerfield. The supreme leader appears grinning with Summerfield’s top brass in so many of its publicity photos that I wonder who is working for whom. There are many dots and they all join up. It is more than suspicious; it is obvious. Even the notorious price-fixing estate agents Greenslade Taylor Hunt are happy to take Summerfield’s shilling, but at 2% a go I suspect their bill will be very much more than that.

It is unfortunate that my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) is not in her place. She is understandably an enthusiast for Taunton’s garden town status, for Nexus 25 and for everything else the supreme leader touches, yet I have heard a tape recording of a public meeting during the election campaign at Priorsfield church in which she describes Taunton as “an absolute dump”. She is spot on. The town has been allowed to fester under an incompetent, corrupt council. There are sites in the centre that have been lying derelict for 14 years. In the drive to put up ever more houses, the council has ignored vital infrastructure and has deliberately broken many of the planning rules.

The proposed new business park on the eastern side of junction 25 is a prime example. It should never be allowed. Development on that side of the motorway was meant to be impossible, until Summerfield bought 25 hectares of farmland and, completely impartially, the Taunton economic advisory board said it was a jolly good idea. Summerfield also bought up an extra 100 acres of land. I have it on the best authority that the mortgage documents are in Companies House. I am told that every single field in the area is now under an option to buy from a range of different developers. So much for the garden town: Taunton Deane Borough Council wants to concrete it over.

Greenslade “2%” and partners must be having a field day. First, Taunton Deane Borough Council breaks its own planning rules and then it tries to use local development orders to speed up the process. It is all plain wrong. LDOs were designed to get brownfield sites back in use. Developers need incentives to get them interested—we understand that—but Summerfield must be laughing all the way to the piggy bank. It bought green fields and most of the expensive planning will be paid for by the council itself—whoopee!

Today, there is a meeting of Taunton Deane Borough Council’s community scrutiny committee. Its members will discover that Summerfield has offered £40,000 to ensure the local development order goes its way. I cannot think anything other than that this is bribery. The total cost will reach almost a quarter of a million pounds and the bulk will come out of council funds—that is documented.

In order to be successful, Nexus 25 needs excellent road access, but there is a huge problem. Highways England announced yesterday that it will re-run all its consultations on improvements to the A358—I wonder why. It originally suggested a bad route and then made a pig’s ear of the consultations. Where have we heard that before? Now Highways England must start all over again but sensibly, for once, it has said it will not do so until the new year. Unfortunately, delays cost money, and the price of a decent road will go way over Highways England’s budget. I would not place a bet, not even a shiny Greenslade 2%, on that scheme happening any time soon, which leaves Nexus 25 looking like a stranded whale—a mammoth scheme deprived of essential infrastructure.

Taunton has quite a few such schemes. The latest is a giant extension at Staplegrove, where 1,600 new houses are supposed to be part of the green town dream. It squeaked through the planning process, but has left a foul stench. Public opinion was openly ignored and councillors say that they were bullied to support it. Taunton now needs a relief road to take all the extra traffic, but guess what? The council is already begging for money and trying to extract grants from the Government from the housing infrastructure fund. That is rich coming from a council that has spent £11 million to tart up its HQ and plans to borrow millions more to buy redundant business sites. It has £3 million sitting in its new homes bonus account doing nothing and it could raise at least £10 million more from the community infrastructure levy when the new Staplegrove houses are completed.

I appeal to the Minister and his colleagues to see these crooks for what they are and, for God’s sake, not to give them a penny. They have already received £725,000 in grants to produce more artists’ impressions of their blessed garden town. They have become addicted to public money. The supreme leader is a funding junkie, a bent builder and a bully. I repeat the exact words of my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane: the town is “an absolute dump”. I gave a clear warning to the Secretary of State personally and promised that he will live to regret taking Taunton seriously. He knows that I will go on to expose more. If he backs their mad plan to take over West Somerset Council, he risks losing not just my support, but that of a lot of people in my area. I understand that the Minister is quite serious: he said that I had to talk to my councillors. I agree. Unfortunately, bullying is a very nasty thing, as hon. Members discussed in the previous debate. Secretary of State, do what the anti- drugs campaigners always recommend: “Just say no”.

It is the first time I have had the opportunity to appear under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) for calling this important debate. He may be aware that there is another debate tomorrow on district councils. It is a bit like buses—he waits an entire parliamentary career for a debate, and two come along at the same time. On behalf of my Department and all hon. Members, I also thank councillors on all the different kinds of district councils. Theirs is often a thankless task, but they are a deeply committed group of men and women who go out to serve their community every day. We cannot find enough occasions to thank them for the enormous amount of work they do and the huge support that they give to their communities, regardless of the political party they represent or where they are located.

I will start by setting out the different types of district councils, of which there are effectively three. First, there are metropolitan district councils, including Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham. They are single-tier large authorities that are normally formed around a large urban area. They have the full gamut of powers delegated to local authorities, including social care, transport, housing, planning, waste collection and licensing. Secondly, below those, there are unitary district councils. I have the privilege of representing the Blackburn with Darwen Council. Bedford and Cheshire East are two other examples. They have the same powers as other large unitary single-tier authorities such as the metropolitan districts. Thirdly, there are the shire district councils that my hon. Friend spoke about today in places such as Lancashire, Somerset, Cambridgeshire and Hampshire. They deliver key local services such as planning, waste collection and council tax collection, but have an upper-tier county authority that is often responsible for social care and transport.

The different types of local authorities show the wide nature of our local government family in the UK. For example, Oxford has a population of about 160,000 covering 3,500 square kilometres, while West Somerset, the constituency of my hon. Friend, has a population of just 35,000 covering a mere 725 square kilometres—although I am sure that every square kilometre is important. Given those great differences in the local authority family, it is not surprising that many of them are looking at their governance structures to see how they can deliver services more effectively.

In some areas, local authorities have decided that they want to move to a single-tier large unitary authority. They tell the Government that two-tier authorities can be confusing for residents, who often struggle to understand which services are provided by the two councils that cover them. In other areas, that approach has not won local support and two, three or four district councils are contemplating merging to create a super district council that will keep the two-tier structure, or to become a combined authority to deliver services more effectively. District councils have worked for many years on transformational programmes to share their top teams and co-commission the services they deliver. They are always looking to achieve greater sustainability and efficiency for the taxpayer; those programmes have already delivered large savings. They believe that merging, or finding new ways of working may be the next natural step in their sustainability programme.

My supreme leader—the supreme leader of my Department—my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government announced last week two initial decisions to merge councils. He announced the merger of district councils in Suffolk to form a large district; he is also looking to implement a scheme that will create two unitary councils in Dorset. It is particularly helpful for this debate that, in those “minded to” decisions, the Secretary of State set out a road map for local authorities to follow if they wanted to merge local authorities to deliver more efficiency, wherever they find themselves in the local government family.

The road map has a three-tier test. First, are the changes likely to improve the local area’s governance? That must always have better service delivery and value for money for the council taxpayer at its heart. Secondly, do the proposals command a good deal of local support? In particular, the proposal must have gone through full council meetings in the local authorities and have successfully passed that hurdle—that is a red line. Thirdly, does the geography of the new structure make sense? We do not want any local authority reorganisation to create a patchwork quilt, with local authorities coming together perhaps on political lines rather than focusing on service delivery. We need adjacent councils to come together and merge to create a larger authority, if that is what they desire.

The motivations behind the mergers proposed to Government are different. Some councils wish to improve financial resilience, but all have set out a programme to increase efficiency and deliver services better for the people that they serve. Some shire district councils already share many services and look at becoming a single-tier entity because that is the next natural step in joint working.

Is it not true—it is certainly my experience—that where district councils have merged, they have struggled with the democratic deficit that has arisen? What we have seen replacing them has effectively been the same as district councils, with local areas in which local people can hold councillors to account.

I started off by putting my thanks to local councillors on record, which I am sure is a reflection of everyone’s views, although it is unfortunate that there is no one here from the Opposition to put their thanks on record; I will do it on their behalf. Local councillors are a fantastic link with the community. Whether we have all-out elections or yearly elections, we get our opportunity to fire them if they stop doing a good job. Regardless of the size of the local authority—metropolitan borough, unitary or district—we must ensure that we do not break the link between the local community and the local councillor, because it is their job to be the voice not just of the borough but very specifically of the ward, the street and the area they represent in that local council. As long as proposals retain that strong local link for councillors to go out there and be champions for the local area, that should be considered, if it is widely supported.

I note that my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset referred in a previous debate to a “merger most foul” rather than a “murder most foul”. In relation to his very specific allegations, if he believes there is evidence of any criminal activity whatever, he must make those allegations to the police. I know he has talked openly and widely about them in the House today, but any criminal behaviour is intolerable in public service and in local authorities and I would urge him to report the allegations to the police as quickly as possible so that those people who have committed criminal offences can feel the long arm of the law reach for them, rather than the long arm of this place talk about it.

The Secretary of State is currently considering the proposal for Taunton Deane Borough Council to merge with West Somerset District Council. The councils have let the Department know that they wish to merge and become a large district council. The Secretary of State is carefully considering the proposal, together with representations made to him by all parties, including those made by my hon. Friend, and the further representations he has made in today’s debate. I will draw the Secretary of State’s attention to the content of today’s debate in his considerations. What I can say is that the auditor for the area has made it clear in his report about the merger that it forms an important element of West Somerset’s future financial viability.

I want to set out the next steps in the process. First, the Secretary of State will make an initial decision, as soon as practicable, when he has had the opportunity to consider all the representations. After that decision, whether it is a “minded to implement” decision or not, there will be a period of representation, during which my hon. Friend and all members of his community, including the local authority, can make representations to the Secretary of State about whether the proposed merger is appropriate. Once the Secretary of State has considered all those representations, he will make a final decision. If that final decision is to implement the proposals, we are then required to come to the House of Commons to seek the permission of Parliament to pass secondary legislation.

In conclusion, I repeat that local areas owe a responsibility to the people they represent to find as many ways as possible to deliver value to the taxpayer and improve services. Their priority, in all areas of the country, must be to ensure that local government is effective, efficient and financially sustainable. They have a duty and an obligation to deliver core services. I know that those councillors we have referred to today have the wellbeing of their residents at heart and must continue to hold their local authority to account to ensure that those services are delivered to the residents they represent.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.