[Geraint Davies in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered future governance of Christchurch Borough Council.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. Let me remind hon. Members of some important parts of the 2017 Conservative party manifesto. On page 9, it says:
“True Conservatism means a commitment to country and community…a respect for the local and national institutions that bind us together”.
On page 12, it says:
“Theresa May’s Conservatives will deliver…Prosperous towns and cities, underpinned by strong local institutions”.
On page 32, it says:
“We will support those authorities that wish to combine to serve their communities better.”
It is with those three commitments in mind that I invite my hon. Friend the Minister carefully to think again about the future governance of Christchurch Borough Council.
The most fundamental question that this debate raises is whether the future governance of Christchurch should be decided by its citizens and elected representatives or by the Government. The Government are seeking parliamentary approval to ignore the will of the people of Christchurch, its elected district councillors, county councillors and Member of Parliament. The issue was put before the people of Christchurch in a local referendum last December. They voted by 84% to 16%, on a 54% turnout, against the council’s being forced into a merger with Bournemouth and Poole to create a new unitary authority.
The Dorset (Structural Changes) (Modification of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007) Regulations 2018, laid on 29 March, are designed to make several changes to the 2007 Act and to backdate those changes so that an application for single-tier local government does not have to be made in response to an invitation from the Secretary of State. Since the laying of those regulations, I have tabled a series of parliamentary questions to my right hon. Friend, to many of which I do not think I have received a satisfactory response. I shall refer to one or two of them now.
Why has there been no specific consultation on the regulations to which I have referred? Two sets of regulations were laid on the same day. The second set of regulations were certainly the subject of consultation and discussion, but why was there no specific consultation on the first set—the ones to which I have referred? When was the need for the regulations first identified, and for what reason were they laid more than 13 months after the need for them arose? That was when the Dorset councils made the application that the regulations are designed to validate.
The chief executive of Christchurch Borough Council has told me in an email:
“There was no discussion at any point about the need for an invitation to be made. It was only when the draft Regulations were sent to each of the Councils that the matter of ‘invitation’ came to light”.
Why did the letter that my right hon. Friend sent on 27 March to me and other colleagues in Dorset state specifically that the draft regulations had been
“developed and worked up with all nine Councils”,
when that was not correct? In one of my questions, No. 136755, I asked him to explain why the retrospective effect and impact of the regulations was not set out and why he did not consult Christchurch Borough Council in making the regulations. This Minister answered that the regulations
“were shared and developed with the Chief Executives and Monitoring Officers of all nine…councils.”
It is clear from what the chief executive of Christchurch Borough Council has said that that is not correct. In a further briefing, the chief executive said:
“I don’t recall any discussion with MHCLG”—
the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government—
“about this and my first knowledge of any of the details was in a letter, sent by MHCLG in the latter part of March to each Chief Executive to ask if their Council would give its consent to the making of Orders to bring about local government reform”.
I should therefore be grateful if the Minister would now correct the answer that he gave to my question, and the assertion that the regulations had been
“developed and worked up with all nine councils”.
The Minister has also failed to explain why he believes that the regulations have no impact on the costs of business and the voluntary sector and, as a result, do not require a regulatory impact assessment to be produced. One justification for the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 was to facilitate devolution so that businesses could be more involved with local authorities in achieving regeneration. To that end, all Dorset councils and Dorset local enterprise partnership collectively made a submission for the creation of a Dorset combined authority. The submission was made in July 2016, but remains undecided by the Secretary of State. In his statement of 26 February, he said that he intended
“now to ask the leaders of the Dorset councils how they would like to proceed with their combined authority proposal”.—[Official Report, 26 February 2018; Vol. 636, c. 20WS.]
Although the Secretary of State said some time ago that he would reach a decision on the Dorset combined authority proposal at the same time as making his announcement on local government reorganisation, I understand that there has been no further communication on this even since 26 February. Why is that? How is it that the Government believe that their decisions on local government reorganisation do not impact on the costs of business?
To take one topical example, on 6 March Bournemouth Borough Council decided to approve an investment in the construction of a hotel on the site adjacent to the Bournemouth International Centre involving some £70 million to be borrowed by the council, and
“to make consequential changes to the budget of the Council”.
I do not know whether the Minister shares my concern that that is another example of the abuse by local authorities of the preferential loan terms that they get from the Government, which enable them to make borrowings at far lower cost than the private and commercial sectors.
In a letter sent this week on behalf of other hotel proprietors in Bournemouth, it is said that
“there would be a real, adverse impact on the provision of front-line services”
“this highly speculative venture were to fail”.
The authors of the letter describe the prospect of failure as “disturbingly likely” and say that, in such a scenario, Bournemouth Council
“would be left to service a significantly increased debt, backed by an asset which…would not cover the value of the ‘investment’.”
The loan being taken out by Bournemouth Council to achieve its objective is described as
“the very antithesis of prudent borrowing”.
If the Secretary of State has his way, citizens and businesses in Christchurch will be saddled with the consequences of Bournemouth’s decision for many years to come. It is ironic that the justification that the Government give for seeking local government reorganisation is to achieve better value for money. Over recent years, my constituents have watched Bournemouth with dismay—from the safety of the other side of the River Stour—as they have seen one failed project after another: the IMAX cinema, the surf reef and the £395,000 pay-off for the last chief executive.
I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that there is a well-established and, I think, well-founded loathing by many Christchurch citizens of the way in which Bournemouth Council behaves. That is now coupled with a real fear that if Christchurch is forced to join with Bournemouth and Poole, it will result in a diminution of the quality of services and Christchurch taking on responsibility for enormous debts, which have been brought together by Bournemouth Council at a time when Christchurch Borough Council has been prudent. It is debt free. It has done the right thing. It has quite high levels of council tax. A report in The Sunday Times this week said that the highest council taxes in the country are in the Dorset area. They are not so high in Bournemouth and Poole, because for many years they decided not to increase their council taxes—as was prudently required—in order to ingratiate themselves with their electors.
Now, with a gap of more than £200 a year at band D between the council tax in Poole and that in Christchurch, the people of Christchurch are really worried that in the event of a unitary authority, they will not only take on the big capital debt risks to which I have referred, but will have to subsidise people in Bournemouth and Poole who are inherently, in many cases, better off than they are. For example, Poole has residents in Sandbanks and Canford Cliffs, who are immensely better off than those in many parts of my constituency. Why should Christchurch Borough Council be expected to subsidise those people long into the future?
The Government’s proposal raises some serious issues. Recently, the Secretary of State used his existing powers under section 2 of the 2007 Act to invite proposals for structural change in Northamptonshire. By so doing, he triggered requirements for consultation, under section 7(3) of the 2007 Act, and he enabled local authorities collectively or individually to put forward their own proposals. He has also set out guidance as to what a proposal should seek to achieve and matters that should be taken into account in formulating a proposal. None of those privileges, which the Secretary of State accords to councils and people in Northamptonshire, have been accorded to my constituents. Instead, a proposal has been brought forward over a long period of time, initially by council chief officers—with the support of many of the leaders of the councils at that time, many of whom have since been replaced—on the basis of a very dubious “consultation”, which took place as long ago as the autumn of 2016. In relation to Northamptonshire, the Secretary of State says that he would expect proposals to come forward and that they should be current, so that any business plans will relate to the current financial arrangements, rather than to historic ones, which is what is proposed in Dorset.
Harmonisation is a fraught issue. Given the gap of over £200 in the current level of council tax between Bournemouth and Poole, on the one hand, and Christchurch on the other, a new authority will need to levy a council tax that is ultimately the same across the whole of the new unitary authority area. Christchurch Borough Council has been insistent that in such a scenario harmonisation or equalisation should take place from the outset. A similar proposal has been accepted by the joint committee in the rural part of Dorset. However, in order to try to demonstrate that local government reorganisation would be good value, the consultation with the people was carried out on the basis of a harmonisation period of 20 years. Where did that figure come from? It came from a discussion that was held between section 151 officers from Dorset and departmental officials in June 2016. I have asked for notes of that meeting, but I have been told that no notes were kept. However, that meeting was really crucial, because on the basis of what was said at it, the consultation that was carried out in Dorset—designed to secure the approval of the people for a change from two-tier local government to unitary local government—was based on a 20-year harmonisation period.
In November 2017, the official in charge of this, Paul Rowsell, told me that the harmonisation period of 20 years was certainly off the agenda completely; that the maximum period for harmonisation would be five years, but more likely in the range of zero and two to three years; and that up until now there had never been a situation where councils had been abolished or restructured and the harmonisation period had been longer than two years.
So what happened? This relates to the issue of governance. When Christchurch Borough Council went to the joint committee, which it has joined to try to show good faith and co-operation, it insisted that the committee should accept the fairness and equity of having everybody paying the same council tax in a new area from day one, but that committee has shown absolute contempt for the council’s representations. Of course, that is not surprising, because in a new unitary authority Christchurch would only comprise 13% of the councillors and resources of that authority. Therefore, Christchurch’s interests will be in a permanent minority. This issue of harmonisation is symptomatic of the high-handed way in which Christchurch people will be dealt with in the future, were this unitary authority to come about.
That point is also emphasised by the fact that Christchurch Borough Council has at the moment 24 councillors and there are five county councillors in Christchurch. In the proposals that are being considered, the number of councillors would fall to about 10 or 11, which would be a significant diminution of democratic representation of the people of Christchurch. That means that Christchurch people would have much less influence in the future.
The fear and loathing I have spoken about is coupled with the fact that it is well known that Bournemouth Borough Council is keen to take advantage of the fact that Christchurch has a lot of land in the green belt. Under the Government’s new relaxed arrangements, if the council as a whole were to bring forward a plan seeking to remove that land from the green belt, all the protections that the people of Christchurch thought that they had in relation to green-belt land would be swept away. That is another cause for concern.
The Government have dealt with all this in a thoroughly asymmetrical way. In Christchurch’s alternative submission to the Government, it suggested that one way out of all this would be for Bournemouth and Poole to merge together and leave Christchurch as it is. That was ruled out by the Government as not permissible under the rules, because they cannot force Bournemouth and Poole to merge together if they do not wish to do so. Amazingly, Bournemouth and Poole do not want to merge together to achieve significant savings, because both of them have a common interest in getting their hands on Christchurch and its assets. Although Christchurch cannot suggest that Bournemouth and Poole merge together, Bournemouth and Poole can not only object to their own merging together, but insist that they would like to merge with Christchurch in a new unitary authority.
According to the Government’s rules, that is perfectly hunky dory and fair, but it is certainly not fair as far as my constituents and I are concerned. I fought the general election hard on this issue. Ironically, we face the prospect that one issue on which I fought hard, namely leaving the European Union, will be delivered on 29 March next year, thereby bringing back sovereignty to the United Kingdom to the delight of myself and my constituents, but two days later, the other issue on which I fought hard, namely that Christchurch Borough Council should retain its sovereignty and independence, will not be delivered, because Christchurch will lose the sovereignty that it has had, in one form or another, since 1216 or thereabouts—a long time.
When I refer back to the Conservative party manifesto, which talked about the sense of community, I have in mind the sense of community that can come only from a strong, historic association. Christchurch was around a long time before Bournemouth was ever invented, and it resents enormously my Government’s proposals to abolish it against the clearly expressed will of the people. I recently saw in the paper that the Secretary of State has said that it would be wrong for Parliament to reject the people’s verdict in the EU referendum. Likewise, the people of Christchurch think it is totally wrong for the Government to reject their verdict, which was delivered by more than 17,000 people in their local referendum last December.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) on securing the debate and on his dedication to pursuing the cause. He is a living embodiment of the values that he quoted from the Conservative party manifesto about making a commitment to one’s community.
I approach the debate with some trepidation, not only because of my hon. Friend’s long and distinguished experience in this place, but because he held my position as a Minister with responsibility for local government, which is something I am new to. As a small boy growing up in Southampton, his was one of the first MP’s names that I knew. It is a great honour to respond to him. There is a lot to get through.
The Government’s aim is to enable the people of Christchurch to have as good a deal as possible with their local services. Those services are mainly the responsibility of Dorset County Council, but Christchurch Borough Council is responsible for about 20% of them. Those services are important to the local people.
Although I agree with my hon. Friend and share his joy that we will be leaving the European Union, a difference between him and the Government may lie in our belief that the proposed governance changes, for which we are seeking parliamentary approval, will benefit people across the whole of Dorset, including the residents of Christchurch borough.
With respect, it is important to note that that is not only the Government’s view, in contrast to what was just said. It is a view shared by many other people and organisations across Dorset, including Dorset County Council, which has major service responsibilities in Christchurch, as I have said; approximately 79% of councillors across Dorset; and major public service providers and businesses, particularly those with responsibilities for health, police, fire and rescue, and rail services across Christchurch and the wider Dorset area.
A number of my right hon. and hon. Friends with constituencies in the area share that view. On 29 November, they wrote to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and urged him to support the proposal that the Dorset councils have submitted, because it is the option that commands strong local support and does the job that needs to be done. They state that
“the further savings required to be made, if our councils are to continue delivering quality public services, can only be done through a reorganisation of their structures”.
The view is also shared by a third of the elected councillors to Christchurch Borough Council, who wrote to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and stated:
“We are acutely aware of the constraints on local government funding and the financial pressure that upper tier services are facing. We therefore consider it our duty to respond to these challenges by supporting the restructuring of local government in Dorset”
The representative household survey commissioned by the nine Dorset councils estimated that 65% of residents across the whole of Dorset support the proposal. Of those nine councils, eight support the proposed change and have formally consented to the necessary secondary legislation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch raised a number of specific points, which I shall do my best to deal with. The Secretary of State has had careful regard to the local advisory poll and its results, but as a poll of only 6% of the whole area’s population, we do not see it as casting doubt on his conclusion that there is a good deal of local support across the area.
On council tax harmonisation, as the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), told the House in a written answer on 18 December, it has consistently been
“for those implementing any unitary proposal to put to the Secretary of State their proposals”
for council tax harmonisation. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch that it is for the Secretary of State to specify in secondary legislation the maximum period for harmonisation.
Although a maximum period of five years has been specified in previous restructuring, the Government have made no such specification to date. We intend to introduce secondary legislation on council tax harmonisation in June or July. In deciding the maximum period to specify, we will have regard to local preference, the impact on individual council tax bills across the areas concerned and the financial implications for the authorities.
I have highlighted the considerable support for the proposals by business. On the specific question about the timing for the combined authority, the Government have written to the various local authorities about their proposals for a combined authority. We await a response to those questions to take that proposal forward or not, as local authorities see fit.
My hon. Friend asked about the timing for laying the regulations before the House. Of course, it would not have been appropriate to lay them 13 months ago, as he said, because it was not clear exactly what proposals would emerge from the locally driven process. As I am sure he is aware, the regulations are specific to the proposals that have emerged, so they could only have been laid after the proposals were finalised. On consulting, all council executives were shown copies of the regulations and asked for their opinions.
On the comparison with Northamptonshire, it is important to note that the situations are markedly different. In Northamptonshire, the proposals for restructuring are the result of a best-value inspection, whereas in Dorset, they have come bottom-up from councils themselves. In both cases, there has been extensive consultation. The year-long development of proposals in Dorset means that there has been considerable and adequate engagement of local communities in that process.
In conclusion, if Parliament approves the draft legislation that we have laid before it, it will provide the people of Christchurch with more sustainable local governance and safeguard the delivery of local services. I accept that my hon. Friend does not share that view, and there will be an opportunity for it to be considered and debated by Parliament when considering the secondary legislation, which I look forward to doing with him and others in the coming weeks. I will close as I started, by commending my hon. Friend’s dedication to his local community in pursuing the matter with such verve.
Question put and agreed to.