The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chair: Sir Henry Bellingham
† Brereton, Jack (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Con)
† Docherty, Leo (Aldershot) (Con)
† Donelan, Michelle (Chippenham) (Con)
† Elmore, Chris (Ogmore) (Lab)
† Hughes, Eddie (Walsall North) (Con)
† Jenkyns, Andrea (Morley and Outwood) (Con)
† Keegan, Gillian (Chichester) (Con)
Leslie, Mr Chris (Nottingham East) (Lab/Co-op)
† McMahon, Jim (Oldham West and Royton) (Lab/Co-op)
Malhotra, Seema (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op)
† Moore, Damien (Southport) (Con)
† Morgan, Stephen (Portsmouth South) (Lab)
† Perkins, Toby (Chesterfield) (Lab)
Shuker, Mr Gavin (Luton South) (Lab/Co-op)
† Sunak, Rishi (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government)
† Tolhurst, Kelly (Rochester and Strood) (Con)
† Zeichner, Daniel (Cambridge) (Lab)
Nina Foster, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6):
Baron, Mr John (Basildon and Billericay) (Con)
Bone, Mr Peter (Wellingborough) (Con)
Burns, Conor (Bournemouth West) (Con)
Chope, Sir Christopher (Christchurch) (Con)
Davies, Philip (Shipley) (Con)
Drax, Richard (South Dorset) (Con)
Hoare, Simon (North Dorset) (Con)
Letwin, Sir Oliver (West Dorset) (Con)
Lewer, Andrew (Northampton South) (Con)
Liddell-Grainger, Mr Ian (Bridgwater and West Somerset) (Con)
Syms, Sir Robert (Poole) (Con)
Tomlinson, Michael (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (Con)
Third Delegated Legislation Committee
Wednesday 16 May 2018
[Sir Henry Bellingham in the Chair]
Draft Dorset (Structural Changes) (Modification of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007) Regulations 2018
Is it the wish of the Committee for the statutory instruments to be debated together?
I will call the Minister to move the first statutory instrument, and debate on the second will follow. Debate on each statutory instrument may continue for up to one and a half hours. I remind the Committee that the debate should be confined to the statutory instrument being considered.
I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Dorset (Structure Changes) (Modification of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007) Regulations 2018.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I am delighted to see so many hon. Members present. The statutory instruments were laid before this House on 29 March. If approved, they will provide for the abolition of the nine existing local government areas in Dorset and their councils, and similarly affect the existing boroughs of Bournemouth and Poole, the county of Dorset and the boroughs and districts in the county of Dorset. They will also allow for the establishment of two new local government areas and two new single-tier unitary councils for the area on 1 April 2019.
The Government, as made clear in our manifesto, are committed to supporting those local authorities that wish to combine to serve their communities better. We have also announced to the House that we will consider any locally led proposals for local government restructuring that are put forward by one or more of the councils concerned and that improve local government and service delivery, create structures with a credible geography and command a good deal of local support.
The Dorset councils’ proposals would establish a single tier of local government across the whole of Dorset, replacing the nine existing local government areas and their councils with two new local government areas and councils: one to cover the areas of Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole, and a second covering the rest of Dorset.
Dorset estimates that that has the potential to generate savings of at least £108 million over the first six years. The full transformation programme, which unitarisation makes possible, offers the potential to save more than £170 million over that period. In bringing forward their proposal, the nine Dorset councils undertook extensive engagement and open consultation. That included a formal consultation from August to October 2016, comprising the following elements: an open consultation; a representative household survey; a survey of all parish and town councils; 15 lengthy deliberative workshops; nine in-depth telephone interviews with representatives of some of Dorset’s largest companies; and finally, the opportunity to submit written submissions.
Could my hon. Friend amplify two points? First, the proposal is to create two new councils, not to merge existing local authorities; secondly, the most germane point is that this has been a grassroots-up proposal, not a top-down diktat.
I thank my hon. Friend for both his points, which he made well and with which I am delighted to agree. This locally led and locally driven proposal came from the bottom up for Government to consider.
The consultation programme achieved well over 70,000 responses. There was clear support for moving to two unitary councils. In the representative household survey, 73% of residents were supportive. In general, across all the areas of Dorset, there was an emphatic preference for the proposed option, with 65% of residents in the representative household survey supporting it.
The then Local Government Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), told Parliament in February last year what criteria Government would use for assessing locally led proposals for local government restructuring, namely that the proposal is likely to improve local government in the area concerned; that it has a credible geography; and that it commands a good deal of local support.
The Minister is talking about the widespread grassroots support for the proposal. Will he also acknowledge that it enjoys my support as the Member of Parliament for Bournemouth West and the support of my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset, my hon. Friends the Members for Poole, for Mid Dorset and North Poole, for North Dorset and for South Dorset, and my right hon. Friend for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood)? Only one Member of Parliament in Dorset is in opposition to the proposal.
I am that person, but I know that the Minister believes not in the tyranny of the majority but in democracy and the undertaking given by the Government in the House of Commons in 2015 that no local authority would be abolished without its consent. May I ask him to confirm that the criteria to which he has just referred were not published until after submission of the application? They were only published in response to a parliamentary question from me.
I want to put on the record that I support the move, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West has said. Initially, I did not take part in the discussion or make a decision because I believe that it is one for local people and local councils. However, the evidence that they wanted it was overwhelming, so I back them.
I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch that I am happy to discuss the issue now, except I fear that he may want to return it in reference to the exchanges on the passing of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 and the assurances he believes he was given. He has corresponded at length with the Department on that point. Suffice to say, I think there was a misunderstanding on his part about what was said. It was clearly set out by the then Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), that the Government would not impose a top-down solution on local government but would respond to locally led and locally driven proposals. That was further clarified in the other place by Baroness Williams of Trafford, who made it explicitly clear that no one council should have a veto on restructuring proposals.
It is not only the noble baroness who has confirmed that point. In early December, during the Adjournment debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, the then Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), confirmed in response to an intervention by me that unanimity was not required.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In fact, my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton told the House that the Government’s intention was for those criteria to be assessed in the round and across the whole area subject to a reorganisation, and not to be considered individually by each existing council area.
Following on from that, on 7 November 2017 the then Secretary of State told the House in a written statement that he was “minded to” implement the proposal made by the Dorset councils. A period of representation followed, until 8 January this year, during which we received 210 representations. On the basis of the proposal, the representations and all other relevant information available, the Government are satisfied that all the criteria are met. On 26 February 2018 the Secretary of State announced his decision to implement the proposal, subject to parliamentary approval, and on 29 March laid the draft statutory instruments.
We believe that the proposed governance changes for which we are seeking parliamentary approval will benefit people across the whole of Dorset, in every district and borough. Our aim as a Government is to enable the people of Dorset to have as good a deal as possible on their local services. That is not the view of the Government alone; it is shared by 79% of all councillors across the whole of Dorset, and by other public service providers and businesses, including in particular those responsible for the provision of healthcare, and the police, fire and rescue, and rail services across Christchurch and the wider Dorset area.
As has been mentioned, on 29 November a number of my right hon. and hon. Friends with constituencies in the area wrote to the then Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), urging him to support the proposal submitted by the Dorset councils as the option that commanded strong local support and that will do the job that needs to be done. They stated 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 representative household survey, commissioned by the nine Dorset councils, estimates that 65% of residents across the whole of Dorset support the proposal. Of the nine Dorset councils, eight support the proposed change and have formally consented to the necessary secondary legislation.
Regarding the one Dorset council that does not support the proposal—Christchurch Borough Council—a third of its elected councillors do support the proposal. Those councillors wrote to my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State, stating:
“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.”
Finally, it might be helpful to say something about the statutory framework.
We have heard from many local Members about their support for the proposal. I have a letter here from the leader of Christchurch Borough Council outlining its view that Bournemouth and Poole could go together but, because 84% of residents voted against it in a referendum, Christchurch should be allowed to stay independent. Could the Minister explain why he came to the conclusion that Christchurch should be forced into it when the people seem to be saying that they are against it?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I think the poll he refers to was an open-ended one run by the borough of Christchurch, which accounts for only 6% of the population of the Dorset area. Secondly, it is not only Christchurch Borough Council that is responsible for the services provided to the residents of Christchurch. The county council provides about 80% of those services. Across the piece, in the representative household survey, which was designed to be statistically representative, there is strong support among more than 60% of Christchurch residents for this particular proposal.
I have searched, as I am sure the Minister has, all the regulations and guidance for the status of a referendum in this process, but it cannot be found. To call it a referendum is incorrect. It was a parish poll, which is not binding on the commissioning body—that is, the borough council—and it is certainly not binding on Her Majesty’s Government.
It is not my understanding that the then Secretary of State encouraged the running of that poll. Regardless of that—and my hon. Friend knows this because my right hon. Friend the previous Secretary of State told him—he did take the poll into account when considering the proposals.
To return to the statutory framework, the regulations vary the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 in its application to the case of the Dorset councils during the period from when the regulations come into force until 31 March 2020. The regulations require the consent of at least one relevant authority. In this case, Bournemouth, Poole, the county of Dorset, five of the districts within Dorset and eight of the nine councils in Dorset have consented to the regulations being made.
In conclusion, the merits of the abolition on 1 April next year of the nine existing local government—
Before the Minister finishes, will he say something about the legal action that is being taken against the Government by Christchurch Borough Council on the advice of leading counsel, the letter before action that was sent, and the implications for good local government in Christchurch if we end up with litigation that ultimately results in the regulations being quashed?
I am happy to do that. The Department has received what is called a pre-action protocol letter from Christchurch Borough Council, informing of its consideration of a judicial review. It is important to note that that is not the start of a formal legal proceeding. It is an exploratory letter, to which the Government have responded extremely robustly. We have set out in no uncertain terms why we believe—
I call Simon Hoare again.
I note the use of the word “again”, Sir Henry. Is my hon. Friend the Minister aware that in two conferences with leading counsel, which my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch has referred to and one of which he attended, leading counsel advised Christchurch Borough Council that there were no grounds for a judicial review?
I do not think we are going to make much progress in this Committee if there is such misrepresentation of the facts. Leading counsel was indeed asked by Christchurch Borough Council to look at the legal issues. It was only after the regulations were laid that the council went back to leading counsel and said that it was shocked to find that they were retrospective in effect. On going back a third time to leading counsel, they advised that the borough council had a good case for quashing the regulations and wrote a letter asking the Government to withdraw them. The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset is completely irrelevant.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset was making a point about the substance of the case. I can tell the Committee the content of the Government’s letter in reply to the pre-action protocol letter. It notes that there is a bad case on the grounds of delay and that the substance of the case is wholly without merit; the Government believe that it is not arguable at all. I have no doubt we will hear from Christchurch Borough Council in due course.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. It is important to note that there is widespread support from different parties and people from different walks of life, across the entire piece, for the regulations.
That is an important note to conclude on. This is a locally led proposal, submitted by the Dorset councils, which we believe will improve local government and service delivery in the area. It represents a credible geography and commands a good deal of local support. I have full confidence in the area to implement the unitarisation by next April, enabling the elections to the new council in May next year. On that basis, I wish the councils involved the best of luck and good speed with all the proposals they want to bring forward. I commend the regulations to the Committee.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. We find ourselves in the middle of what seems to be a rift in the Conservative party. Luckily, we have been gently eased into that sort of thing during Brexit negotiations, so we are very much used to it.
I might start before I give way, if that is okay. The principle for any merger or reorganisation ought to be that it has the consent of local people, is in the spirit of democracy and will lead to good governance and good public services being delivered. As an observation, we know that a number of members of the Committee who have voting rights support the regulations; it does not sit well that the single Member from the area who does not support the plan is not allowed to sit on the Committee with voting rights. I understand that that is about managing the process and not wanting to create division on the Government Benches, but it is not quite in the spirit of having robust debate where there is clearly a difference of opinion.
This is an enormously important point. There are eight Members of Parliament—they happen to be Conservative Members—representing the county of Dorset, and none of us is a voting Member on this piece of legislation. We happen to be exercising our right, as any Member can, to turn up to a Delegated Legislation Committee and speak. However, when Sir Henry calls for votes, no Dorset hands will be able to go up or stay down.
The hon. Gentleman certainly is—I hope—a friend of mine, because he is listening and that is healthy. I inform him, if he does not know already, that in response to a point of order on 10 May on the business question, Mr Speaker said:
“Some people might think…that it is perhaps less than collegiate, kind or courteous on the part of the powers that be knowingly and deliberately to exclude the hon. Member for Christchurch from the Committee.”—[Official Report, 10 May 2018; Vol. 640, c. 925.]
That is noted. I was in the Chamber for that point of order and Mr Speaker’s response, so I was aware of it. There is clearly a difference of opinion, and Christchurch Council has been robust in its position. However people want to view that, the council went out to its local population and those who took part were clear that they were against reorganisation—84% were against the proposed merger. I am not saying that that in itself is reason alone to block any reorganisation or merger, but simply to put that to one side as if not important, or to try to decry such public involvement, is not the spirit in which to go about it.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which was in fact made earlier by one of his colleagues. I hope he appreciates that none of us—and, I think, none of the other councils—would have wished to force Christchurch into this position. From our point of view, it would be perfectly fine for Christchurch to be on its own, but unfortunately it is not a feasible operation. Christchurch is aware that it does not have the capacity to run all of its services, including county-level services. Therefore, the question is whether a small proportion of the population in Christchurch voting in the majority in a parish poll should be enough to derail the entire process for the whole of Dorset ex-Christchurch, including those residents of Christchurch who we believe will benefit.
I accept that point. The question is more about the spirit of the debate. We heard earlier that a third of councillors on Christchurch Council are in support, but of course two thirds are not. We need to be clear about what the regulations are and what they are not. The regulations contain a list of consenting authorities who are affected by the change. Christchurch is not in that list, but it is not made explicit that Christchurch has objected. It would helpful if that was made clear.
We want clarity about why a process of merger and reorganisation has started, and we want to be convinced about the consultations, evaluations and professional assessments that have taken place in terms of both the financial viability of local government and the role that local authorities have always had—to grow their local economies and be leaders of place rather than just leaders of councils—but are expected to do increasingly. If we get all of those lined up, even if there is dissent in some elements, and the case made is so overwhelmingly in the public interest, as lawmakers we must take that into account, because we are here to make good law, which does not always please everybody all of the time. I do understand that.
Some questions have been put to me, and I would be grateful for the Minister’s response. We have been asked to consider whether we ought to divide the Committee, and we are open-minded. Much will depend on the Government’s response as we try in a genuine way to get answers.
First, we want clarity about how the Government perceive the vote by residents in Christchurch. What weight does that carry and how can that position be reconciled in a future relationship? Many of us in metropolitan authorities have the scars of the 1974 reorganisation, which people still go on about in Oldham and still resent. It was seen as a takeover. Their local identities were cast to one side in favour of a new identity. It should have been there for administration, but incrementally tried to change the identity of a place and its people. A response on that would be helpful.
The point has been made a number of times that this secondary legislation is, in effect, retrospective. I would be grateful for a Government response on that. It would also be helpful for me to know what implications it might have for other potential mergers or reorganisations under discussion elsewhere.
We know that there are two primary routes. First, it can be initiated by invitation from the Secretary of State—we know that that process has happened in other places. The other route is local authorities coming together to apply to the Secretary of State for reorganisation and make the case for it. I would like reassurance that, when the Secretary of State initiates the consideration of reorganisation, we will not find ourselves in this situation—a local authority and local residents who do not support reorganisation are being forced to reorganise. Confirmation on those issues would be very helpful for the debate.
I will make two points. First, I will elaborate on the point that we exchanged views about in my intervention. I rather admire the persistence of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, who has fought a long-running and passionate campaign, and stirred up a great deal of passion in Christchurch. I recognise that there are concerns. Were it possible to have produced a situation in which Christchurch went, so to speak, UDI, I think we would all have been perfectly content with that in principle.
However, as the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton rightly said, it is the job of the Minister and Parliament to legislate in a way that provides for stable, viable and effective local government. I do not think that there is a solution in which Christchurch is on its own and can provide for its people any of those things. Therefore, the unenviable fact is that we are either all forced not to proceed in this way, or Christchurch has to be in one pile or another. It has ended up, in the judgment of the Secretary of State, as being in the pile that the councillors themselves proposed—namely, as part of the conurbation, which actually, geographically, it is.
That is an unfortunate fact, but it does not—this is my second point—in any way justify overturning a set of proposals that have come from the people of Dorset and Dorset County Council. It is not a matter of the democratic tyranny of the majority. Rather, it is a matter of the viability of local government and local government services in our county. That is the main point that I wanted to make.
I am not by disposition in favour or reorganising Governments. My view is that, on the whole, when people reorganise Ministries, a lot of people change their desks, there is a great discontinuity and very little is achieved at the end of the day. What the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton said about the 1974 reorganisation echoes with me. I remember very well in the early ’80s when I was working in Downing Street that we were still wrestling with problems that had arisen as a result of that top-down reorganisation.
For the record, I opposed the top-down reorganisation that created the unitaries in Bournemouth and Poole and left the two-tier structure in the rest of the county, because I did not think that it would end up being viable. As a matter of fact, I think history has shown that it has not. I am not a proponent of top-down reorganisation. I am not a proponent of reorganisation at all. While I am at it, I think the biggest mistake of the Government in which I served for six years was our attempted reorganisation of the national health service which, as it turned out, would have been better not reorganised. I just want to make it entirely clear that I am not a mad reorganisationist—I may be mad, but I am not a reorganisationist.
What drove me strongly and passionately to support this set of proposals was something else completely. In West Dorset, I have one of the highest proportions in the country of frail elderly people. I am not alone in that—many of my colleagues from other Dorset constituencies have very high proportions of frail elderly people, and of course there are many others in other parts of the country. The provision of support and care for those people is the single biggest determinant of the effective functioning of the national health service in my part of Dorset.
That is not atypical around the country, but the lack of support for those people, in particular the lack of domiciliary care to look after them when they come back out of hospital, is not only a source of unending misery for many of my constituents—not just those who are directly affected but their relatives—but a colossal strain on the entire national health service, including the A&E and the back of Dorchester Hospital alike. Unless we resolve that, we will move in the next few years from having a massive problem to having a massive crisis in my part of Dorset and many other places. The number of frail elderly people is increasing apace in Dorset, as it is in many parts of the country.
If Dorset County Council had large funds available to solve that problem, that would be one thing, but it does not. It is highly cash-strapped. It is partly to blame for that, because its children’s services department’s budget is, as all my hon. Friends from Dorset know, under extreme strain due to mismanagement. However, it is partly not to blame—even if it did not have that problem in its children’s services department, it would not have the resources to look after the increasing number of frail elderly people. I am sure that the pressure being put on the Government to liberate more funding will in due course produce more funding, but I am equally sure that that will still be insufficient to deal with the matter, just as the increase in the precept was insufficient.
This is a real-life crisis for very many real individuals. It is not a game about local government. It is not to do with sentiment about where people happen to think they are part of. It is about something very much deeper: the life condition—the wellbeing—of frail elderly people in my constituency and of other people who are queueing up to try to be treated by a hospital that is under undue pressure because it has to deal with the consequences of the insufficient care of those people. There will be no realistic or feasible cure for that under any administration in the next five, 10 or 15 years except to achieve massive efficiencies.
The efficiencies that will be engendered by this reorganisation are partly administrative. The Minister referred to them. We believe that rather more than £100 million can be saved over a number of years. There is some precedent for that. We know what happened when our fire service was amalgamated with Wiltshire’s, the same thing is happening with our police service, which is being amalgamated with Cornwall’s and Devon’s, and we have already seen in my area and those of some of my hon. Friends the power of the amalgamation of the back offices of Weymouth and Portland, North Dorset and West Dorset Councils. We are now broadly financially solvent, exclusively because of that amalgamation of effort. We know this can be done, and it is very important.
The situation that my right hon. Friend is powerfully explaining is also the situation in the conurbation—in both Bournemouth and Poole. There are enormous pressures on adult social care. Given the demographics in both the conurbation and the rural part of the county, those pressures will increase over time. He mentioned the delivery of those services to his constituents by Dorset County Council. It may be worth pointing out that that authority also delivers those services to the other districts in Dorset, including Christchurch.
That is absolutely true. The sad irony is that what I am saying is as important for the citizens of Christchurch as for the rest of us. I am sure that what my hon. Friend says about the need for accommodation is absolutely right. Bournemouth and Poole have been in the lead on the number of elderly people migrating to those parts for many decades, long before he came to occupy his distinguished position. His predecessor in that seat—I am long in the tooth, so I remember him well, as you will, Sir Henry—complained about the large number of frail, elderly people who had to be supported and the lack of money to do so. That is not a sudden development—it has just got much, much worse over the years. Finally, I will say something about the other kind of efficiency to which the Minister referred.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the courteous way in which he has dealt with these issues throughout. Would that that had been the situation with all my colleagues!
Putting that to one side, he has referred to the financial pressures. One of the consequences of what is being debated today is that Dorset County Council will no longer have the resources coming to it from Christchurch council tax payers, because Christchurch will be moved out of the county council area. That will reduce the income of the county council. From figures we have received, Dorset County Council receives more income from Christchurch than it spends on services in Christchurch. Therefore, can my right hon. Friend explain why the Government have rejected any suggestion that Christchurch could be part of a rural unitary? Can he also explain in answer to our hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West why, if both Bournemouth and Poole have those pressures, they refuse to merge together to save about £10 million a year, and insist that they will not merge unless they can also have Christchurch?
I think it would be right, in the spirit of this discussion, if I were to answer that set of points fully and then move back to the remainder of my intended speech.
In the first place, what my hon. Friend says is absolutely right. It is a matter of undeniable statistics that, although costs reduce when Christchurch moves out of the county area, so revenues reduce slightly more. That is certainly true. Those figures have been taken fully into account in the calculation of the net effect on the rural county, as it will be in the unitary form. It is true that, from our point of view in the rural county, we would have been yet better off if Christchurch had been part of that. Speaking for myself, I would have seen no objection to that whatsoever from our point of view. I do not think any of my hon. Friends representing other constituencies in what will be the rural county would have had any objection either.
While we are at it, I regret that my hon. Friend decided to pursue the fantasy of joining up with Hampshire rather than trying at an early stage to join up with the rural county with some financial settlement, which would have made this much simpler. But that is past history, alas. I cannot answer in detail why the two unitaries in the conurbation believe it so essential to have the revenues from Christchurch as part of the overall transformation, but I suspect it has a great deal to do with what my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West mentioned just a moment or two ago: that the financial pressures on the two unitaries are also very great, for similar reasons.
Anyway, we are where we are, and the options we face are to have either no reorganisation or to have the reorganisation proposed before us. None of us can deny that those are the two available alternatives, which brings me to my last point—it is an important one and I hope Opposition Members consider it. It is critical to recognise that, although this reorganisation is, very importantly, about saving money by administrative overhead-cutting, it is not just about that. When there is one chief executive instead of many, one set of directors instead of many and one set of councillors instead of many, a lot of money is saved, but it is not about just that in the long run—it is not even primarily about that.
The biggest problem we face in dealing with the social care crisis in Dorset and with the interactions between social care and the health service, which is very typical in many parts of the country, is integration between social care, housing and the health service. Unless it can be so arranged that the individuals who are frail and elderly preponderantly live in places where it is affordable to look after them, rather than in far-flung distant villages where it is incredibly expensive to service them at the level of care they need and deserve, and unless absolute integration is arranged between the operations of social services and of the health service, we will not cure the underlying demographic pressures and problems for our health and social care service.
At the moment, the county council has no influence on social housing policy. It is very difficult for the health service to know with whom it is meant to be negotiating because the many different councils have different relationships with those frail and elderly people and are involved in some way or another in looking after them. Various Labour and Liberal Democrat Members and I have joined together in an effort to cure this problem eventually at a national level, by seeking to persuade Her Majesty’s Treasury to create a hypothecated national fund to look after both health and social care. That proposition was adopted by all the Select Committees of the House in the Liaison Committee, and is being considered by the Prime Minister. I very strongly hope that, as a nation, we will move in that direction, but it will not happen tomorrow.
Meanwhile, we in Dorset desperately need to be able to create that level of integration if we are to tackle at the root a problem that is causing human misery as well as great strain on those operating in both our social care and our health service system as professionals. On those grounds alone, if there were no other, if there were not large local support and if it had not been the case that this came from the bottom up, we would still need to do this. Those are enormously important supportive things.
The problem social care and we need to tackle it. The only way we will do so is by carrying through this integration, so I very much hope the Minister will have his way in doing the right thing.
It is a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset. I agree with many of the more general comments that he makes about the need to ensure that we get more rationality in the operation of services at local government level, and better integration of social services and the health service.
It was interesting that my right hon. Friend said that he was not in favour of top-down solutions, and then referred to the fact that Christchurch going in with Hampshire would be a fantasy. Christchurch was in Hampshire until 1974 when, in such a top-down proposal, it was forced out of Hampshire into Dorset.
My right hon. Friend is wrong about that. In the discussions with Christchurch, Hampshire said that it needed assurance that it would be a net beneficiary of the resources from Christchurch in Hampshire rather than in Dorset. Christchurch tried to persuade Dorset County Council to make that information publicly available so that Hampshire could be reassured that it would benefit financially from having Christchurch transferred back into Hampshire.
Unfortunately, even as we speak, Dorset County Council has not finalised the desegregation costs of splitting Christchurch at the borough council and upper tier levels from the rest of Dorset. We are told that those figures will not be available until the middle of June.
Hold on a moment! The consequence of those figures not being made available is that Hampshire, in the short window of opportunity given by the Secretary of State, was unable to sign up to the idea of entering negotiations with Christchurch on transferring Christchurch to Hampshire.
Before I give way to my hon. Friend, may I point out another problem? The Secretary of State in his announcement of 7 November changed the goalposts. Bournemouth and Poole were not willing to merge together on their own. A proposal that involved Christchurch leaving Dorset and going into Hampshire fell foul of the fact that Poole and Bournemouth in effect had a veto. My right hon. Friend’s aspiration for Christchurch to stay in Dorset was made non-viable by the Government’s insistence, in changing the rules, that Bournemouth and Poole should each have a veto over proposals that did not involve Christchurch joining Bournemouth and Poole—the very same reason. I shall now give way to my hon. Friend.
Order. I would be very grateful if that can of Coke in the front row could be put out of sight because it is appearing on the webcam.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and neighbour for giving way. Before he leaves the point about Hampshire, as he is aware, Bournemouth was also in Hampshire until Ted Heath’s changes in the 1970s. The difference between our approaches appears to be that we have come to terms with the 1970s and think it better to start from where we are today.
My hon. Friend has always been younger than me, even going back to the time when he helped me enormously as a student, when I was the Member for Southampton, Itchen. I am eternally grateful to him for his help during those campaigns in Southampton.
However, it would be much easier to sell this project to the people of Christchurch, who are manifestly opposed to it at the moment, if there were more understanding on the part of Bournemouth of how much the people of Christchurch resent the prospect, under delayed harmonisation and equalisation proposals, of them cross-subsidising the people of Bournemouth and Poole by up to £200 a year at band D for up to 20 years. That has caused an enormous amount of resistance.
The councillors in Christchurch went into a joint working party with councillors from Bournemouth and Poole, but one of the conditions for entering it was that Bournemouth and Poole should accept that in the event of a new unitary combining Bournemouth, Poole and Christchurch, it would be fair and equitable that everyone at band D should pay the same council tax from year one. That is the way to achieve general support for a new council. General support for a new council is not achieved by telling residents at band D in Grange ward in Christchurch, which includes some of the most deprived housing estates in the whole of the west of England, that they will be cross-subsidising people living in Sandbanks, and other areas in the conurbation with really smart properties, for up to 20 years. It is a pity that my hon. Friend has not been able to persuade his councillors to be more reasonable about that.
Indeed, I do not blame my hon. Friend for this, but some of his councillors, and the leader of Bournemouth council in particular, have been throwing petrol on the fire by pushing through proposals such as borrowing £70 million to buy an asset that is estimated to be worth £50 million after development. They are borrowing money when Christchurch has no borrowings—it is debt-free and has been prudent all these years. Christchurch has raised its council tax over the years in order to balance its books. Meanwhile, Bournemouth and Poole kept their council taxes artificially reduced, leading to the financial crisis they now have. They are hoping that the burghers of Christchurch will come along and bail them out, and they will be assisted in that way.
On the point of the council tax freeze, that of course was the policy of the coalition Government that the councils in Bournemouth and Poole implemented. I am not necessarily in favour of criticising Conservative councillors for following Conservative Government policy.
There is a very contentious point that worries people. On the point of the 20-year period to council tax equalisation, has my hon. Friend had any indication from a Minister that a period anywhere close to 20 years would be acceptable to them? I have not.
There was a meeting of officials from Dorset councils with the Department in June 2016, before the consultation papers were finalised. That meeting has been confirmed in answer to a parliamentary question that I tabled. I have been told that the minutes and notes of that meeting no longer exist, if they ever did. I have been told by the section 151 officer at Christchurch Borough Council, who was present at that meeting, that, in response to representations on the big council tax gap between Poole and Bournemouth, and Christchurch—more than £200 at band D—the officials said that the Government would agree to a 20-year harmonisation period. It was on the basis of that statement made by Government officials, presumably with the knowledge and support of Government Ministers, that the consultation document was drawn up, using figures based on a 20-year harmonisation period. As my hon. Friend knows, if there is a 20-year harmonisation period, that means that the figures look a lot more attractive than they do for a much shorter harmonisation period.
Indeed, I questioned council officers in Dorset about that at the time. They explained that although the shorter harmonisation period would benefit my constituents in Christchurch, it would drive a coach and horses through the financial prospectus that had been produced, because it would eliminate almost all the savings from the reorganisation. The reorganisation was presented in the consultation on the basis of net savings, but a lot of those savings were increased income from the people of Christchurch, to the benefit of those in Poole and Bournemouth. This is a long answer to my hon. Friend’s intervention, but the short answer is that the Government did know and encouraged this.
I would be interested to know whether the Government indicated any intention during that discussion to have a property revaluation for council tax purposes at any point in the transition period, because if it were taken to its 20-year extreme, the property prices would be 47 years out of date.
Exactly. I obviously was not party to the conversation, but as I understand it, nothing about potential changes to council tax or business rate valuations was discussed.
Subsequently, last October the Government indicated to council officers across Dorset that they were no longer content with a 20-year harmonisation period, and that the period would be much shorter. That was confirmed to me by the chief official at the Department—he is in the room today—when I met him on 7 November at the behest of the Secretary of State. I was told then that the Government thought that the maximum period for harmonisation would be five years, but in practice it has never been more than two years in the past, and a maximum of two or three years is likely. A harmonisation period of two or three years would completely transform projections on savings, yet there has been no update from the councils to show what the impact would be in practice.
The issue of harmonisation is fraught. The Government invited all councils in Dorset to make submissions on harmonisation in time for the 8 January deadline. I know that Christchurch did that, but not whether other councils did. Unlike with the Government’s decision to go ahead with the two unitary authorities proposal, which they announced on 26 February, they have not yet said where they stand on the fraught issue of harmonisation. Their criteria for judging the issue are so broad and vague that it gives them absolute discretion over what answer they provide. As the issue has now been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West, I hope that when the Minister responds he will say unequivocally what harmonisation and equalisation period the Government will set in the event of these orders going through.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the campaign that he has run energetically on this issue in the House of Commons. For those of us not from Dorset, am I right in thinking that the situation could be summed up in this way: what is proposed is a good deal for Poole and Bournemouth but a very bad deal for people in Christchurch, and the Government have decided to impose a bad deal on Christchurch against people’s wishes, for the benefit of people in Bournemouth and Poole? That seems to be my hon. Friend’s case. Am I right in that analysis?
That is a succinct but absolutely correct analysis, and if it was not correct, the people of Christchurch would not have voted as they did. More than 17,000 people went to a local poll to express the view that they do not want to be subject to Bournemouth and Poole control. I say “control” because in a Poole, Bournemouth and Christchurch unitary authority, Christchurch will have 13% of the councillors, which means that they would always be outvoted and in a minority. The green-belt area around Christchurch would be open to being removed at the behest of Bournemouth and Poole, so that they could land grab and so on.
I accept fully the poll that took place in Christchurch, and the information put before the electorate by my hon. Friend and others. He has made the point in a number of speeches in the House and Westminster Hall that Bournemouth has an eye on the Christchurch green belt for development, but there is no evidence for that at all, and there have been no statements to that effect by Bournemouth or Poole. What evidence can my hon. Friend provide to substantiate the allegation that he has repeatedly made about the green belt?
There is masses of evidence. Obviously it is coming not openly from councillors, but from landowners and developers who know well the council set up in Bournemouth. I know from talking to people in Christchurch that that is exactly what they have in mind. Sadly, I must point out to my hon. Friend that our Government are really giving a green light to councils to remove land from the green belt. That is a Government policy that could not be implemented at the moment in Christchurch, because Christchurch is not willing to put forward such a proposal to the Government. However, a big conurbation of Bournemouth, Poole and Christchurch combined would be able to make such an application to the Government. There would be only 10 councillors from the Christchurch constituency in the new unitary authority, compared with 33 at the moment. There would be a significant reduction in the number of councillors from Christchurch and, consequently, in their influence.
If I have understood the hon. Gentleman correctly, he says that he is aware of what the policy of this council—which does not have any policies because it does not yet exist—will be on building on the green belt. I can only imagine that he says that because he knows what kind of people will stand for election for the Conservative party. If he suggested that people voted Labour at the next general election, there might be an Administration that was against building on the green belt, which might solve his problem.
The hon. Gentleman talks about upcoming elections. I fear that if these proposals go ahead, it will be doomsday for a lot of Conservatives in Dorset. I see my hon. Friend the Member for Poole in his place. Poole Liberal Democrats and the Poole People party are dead against these proposals—they are as concerned about them as people from Christchurch. If this change is forced on the people of Christchurch, what hope will people standing in Christchurch as Conservative candidates have of getting elected?
Years ago, when the Conservative party brought in the right to buy, the Labour party lost its last representatives in Christchurch. The Christchurch Labour councillors at that time felt strongly that the right to buy was the correct policy and, because they did not like the way the Labour party opposed it, left the party. However, in so doing, they left a legacy of independents. They did not join the Conservative party; they became independents. If this shambles is allowed to develop in the way that the Government seem to want it to develop, it is likely that there will be a rise in independently minded people across the conurbation and a rise in support for the Labour party. To give the Labour party its due, it came a good second in Christchurch at the last general election. Okay, it was 25,000-plus votes behind me, but it nevertheless came a good second and made a big improvement on its previous performance.
I will go along with that, yes. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley, who is a betting man, knows exactly how to bet on two-horse races.
Let me return to the issue of consent. Neither my hon. Friend the Minister nor others drew the Committee’s attention to the 26th report of the House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, which was published in April. That Committee drew specific attention to these instruments—particularly the draft modification regulations, which we are discussing at the moment—and to the local advisory poll in December 2017,
“in which 84% (numbering 17,676 votes) of those taking part voted ‘no’ to the changes.”
It reports in its conclusions at paragraph 11:
“MHCLG has told us that Ministers have made clear that they will apply the criteria for local government restructuring ‘in the round’ for the area subject to reorganisation, rather than considering whether the criteria would be met in relation to each individual council area.”
It goes on:
“However, given the scale of opposition to the proposal expressed both by Christchurch BC and by its residents, we consider that these instruments give rise to issues of public policy likely to be of interest to the House.”
I hope that, in looking at this issue, hon. Members will indeed have regard to what that Committee said and to the appendix to its report.
That draws attention to the outcome of the poll. My hon. Friend the Minister said that some councillors from Christchurch had written to the Government saying that they rather fancied the idea of being councillors in a new unitary authority and thought it would be in the best interests of Christchurch residents that that should happen. When that was debated and voted on at the Christchurch Borough Council meeting in January, not a single councillor raised his hand to vote against what was proposed—in contrast to what happened a year previously. The reason was that they knew that if they did so, the electors in their wards would have been completely at a loss to understand how they could be insulted by their elected members.
Remember that at the borough council elections in Christchurch in 2015 there was no talk whatsoever of any structural change. Indeed, at that time there were plaudits all round for the savings, extending to several million pounds each year, being achieved as a result of Christchurch and East Dorset working together in partnership with one chief executive, one set of chief officers and one headquarters premises. As a consequence of what is proposed today, that partnership will be broken, with all the dis-economies of scale that will flow from that. That joint working will be undermined, and one part of the partnership will be set against the other. The Government have not faced up to that, which is another reason to be concerned about the proposals.
I would also bring the Committee’s attention to this point, which the Minister anticipated I would make. The background is that, under section 2 of the 2007 Act, the Government have the power to invite proposals for local government reorganisation from two tier to single tier. That is indeed what the Government recently did in Northamptonshire. The 2007 Act also gave the then Government the power to insist that proposals be brought forward, but that power was time-limited and has expired.
There was no power in that Act for councils to make their own proposals to the Government where there was not consent. That is where the regulations are problematic, because they say that the 2007 Act shall be changed retrospectively to operate in a way that allows councils to put submissions to the Secretary of State without their having invited such submissions. As the Minister said, the regulations being used to try to achieve that require the consent of at least one councillor in a particular category.
However, during the passage of the 2016 Act in December 2015, the Government said they would give a guarantee that powers to override the democratically expressed will of an individual council would not be used for that purpose. The background to that was a Back-Bench amendment to the Bill that was considered on Report, which is now reflected in section 15(5) to (8). I and my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), along with one or two others, expressed concern during the debate on that amendment that, if literally interpreted, the power it created could be used against a council against its will. I sought various undertakings in that debate, but the junior Minister was tied to his brief and unable to satisfy either me or my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough that the powers would not be used in the adverse way that we feared.
Then—this is relevant, because it is how this came about—my hon. Friend and I spoke to the then Secretary of State during another Division on Report and said that if he did not give a stronger undertaking on Third Reading, we would divide the House. The Secretary of State told us that he would give us the undertaking that we sought. It was on that basis that I asked the Secretary of State this specific question on Third Reading:
“Will my right hon. Friend give the House an assurance that amendment 56”—
the one that changed what is now section 15(5) to (8)—
“will not be used by the Government to force change on any local authority?”
The Secretary of State replied:
“I will indeed.”—[Official Report, 7 December 2015; Vol. 603, c. 822.]
My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough then pressed the point, citing his fear that the power would be used to impose changes in Lincolnshire that he and his people did not want. The Secretary of State went further and said that the powers were designed to bring councils together into discussion and not to impose the will of the Government on one council, as compared with another, against its consent.
I have since spoken to our former colleague, the junior Minister at the time, who told me of his horror when he heard what the Secretary of State said in response to the questions that I and my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough put to him on Third Reading. Our erstwhile hon. Friend, who sadly was defeated at the general election, took the view that what was being said was thoroughly misleading—that is what he says. What we have is a situation where I and my hon. Friend, and the House, were misled by the Government—I am not saying deliberately—and made to believe that the Government would not introduce changes against the will of elected councillors.
I, too, seek clarity on this matter, because there is a difference between the Secretary of State devising a scheme and then effectively forcing councils to accept it. That is not what is on the Order Paper today. During the discussions that took place, was there any conversation that would effectively give any component council a right of veto?
If the hon. Gentleman looks at the whole context of this debate and the whole Hansard report, I think that he will reach the conclusion that a clear undertaking was given by the Government.
Perhaps I can pray in aid the written opinion—it was referred to earlier—from Nathalie Lieven QC at Blackstone Chambers in response to a request from Christchurch Borough Council. In it, she says:
“I was shown…various passages from the Hansard debates where the Minister appeared to assure Sir Christopher and another concerned MP, Edward Leigh, that the power would be used to persuade Councils to have a conversation about merger rather than to force them to merge against their will.”
Nathalie Lieven QC goes on to say:
“Debates in Parliament are only admissible”—
that is, in a court of law—
“where the meaning of the statute is unclear and ambiguous. In this case s.15 is perfectly clear on its face, so what the Minister said is not admissible to seek to prevent him from acting under s.15. The correct forum for holding the Minister to account, for arguably giving an assurance that he is now reneging on, is in Parliament itself. The courts will not enforce an assurance given to Parliament, and will be clear that this is a matter which should be raised in Parliament. On the face of it there does seem to be an inconsistency between what the junior Minister was telling Parliament”—
that was in November last year—
“and the decision of the SoS in this case, but this is a matter…to raise politically, rather than giving rise to a legal argument.”
So we have a situation where leading counsel takes the same view as I take, and took, and indeed relied upon during the consultation period in the autumn of 2016.
I think my hon. Friend’s answer to the Opposition spokesman was a very long way of saying no. I want to get it on the record that the rest of us—I think I speak for all my other colleagues in Dorset—do not see this whole process in the way that my hon. Friend does.
First of all, as my hon. Friend has just quoted his own legal counsel as saying, the Act is perfectly clear in the powers that it gives the Secretary of State. Secondly, there is a world of difference, as the Opposition spokesman said, between this situation and the Government getting through Parliament a top-down reorganisation that is resisted by the people and local governments in an area. That may or may not be a good thing to do in some cases; it is not what is going on here.
The assurance that my hon. Friend hopes he got from the Secretary of State, but which the Secretary of State never gave, was that Christchurch would have a veto on the whole reorganisation, even though the reorganisation is earnestly desired by and desperately needed by the rest of the county. It is perfectly proper that the Act should give the Secretary of State the power, as my hon. Friend’s legal counsel admits it manifestly does, to accept a plea from almost all—94%—of the people of Dorset for reorganisation, even if 6% of them, or the majority of 6% of them, do not like it.
My right hon. Friend has made a long intervention, but he misunderstands my point about leading counsel. Leading counsel is saying that it seems quite clear that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and I were given an assurance that has now been reneged upon by the Government, and that redress is to be had not through the courts, but politically. That is why I am raising the matter in this Committee. There may be quite a lot of people in this Committee who regard it as very poor form for the Government to go back on their word in terms of an assurance that has been given to Parliament. Indeed, I raised the issue with Mr Speaker on a point of order in March 2017. Mr Speaker said it was not right to think that just because there had been a change of Minister or Government, the word given to the House could be reneged upon.
The first time I had any inkling that the Government were minded to renege on that undertaking was in March 2017. That is when I raised the point of order on the Floor of the House. I also wrote to the Prime Minister expressing my concern. As a result of that letter, she intervened. In the end, although it was expected that the Government would announce a “minded to” decision on the application in March 2017, they did not do so. There was then a period of purdah, as my right hon. Friend will remember, for the local elections. That was then closely followed by the general election, which amazingly was only just short of one year ago.
After the general election, all the Conservative councillors who had been re-elected in my constituency wrote to the Prime Minister asking her to intervene in this matter to ensure that Christchurch Borough Council was not abolished against the consent of the people. The Prime Minister wrote back in October 2017. In her letter of 9 October, she said:
“I understand that conversations are now continuing between the affected councils and interested parties to see if, and how, an agreement can be reached that is supported by all of the councils.”
The clear implication of that was that the Prime Minister accepted that there had been an undertaking that all councils should reach an agreement, with the emphasis on the need for councils reasonably to participate in this rather than just saying, “We are not talking to you.” That was the concern expressed in that debate. If a council had an absolute veto, it could say, “I am not prepared to parley with you. I am not prepared to have any discussion.” The Government perfectly reasonably said, “We want to encourage councils to enter into discussions and debate to try to move forward with consensus or consent.”
Before the hon. Member for Christchurch gives way, I remind him that the Minister needs five minutes to wind up. There will be further debate on the second order, as the motions are being taken separately. I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman were to bear that in mind and perhaps trouble the House for no more than one more minute.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and to you, Sir Henry. For the benefit of the Committee, it is my understanding that Christchurch Borough Council is now fully participating in the joint working and preparations for the implementation of the new authority.
Christchurch Borough Council was doing that under duress in the spirit of co-operation, but specifically on the basis that it had not withdrawn its objections; that there would be no period of harmonisation; and that in the event of there being a new unitary authority, all band D taxpayers would pay the same from day one.
I take your point, Sir Henry. I had not realised that we are now approaching 4 o’clock and we started at half-past 2, so we have only got five more minutes. I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton for objecting to our dealing with the two statutory instruments together. That has enabled us to have a proper debate on this very important matter, which covers retrospection. I have not yet really got into retrospection, but the letter before action from Christchurch Borough Council draws attention to the fact that it is important for Committees to look at retrospection before the matter goes to the courts, with all the problems that flow from that.
It is with some trepidation that I attempt to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, not only because he held this brief a long time ago and is a distinguished Member of this House, but because when I was a small boy growing up in Southampton, his was perhaps the first local MP’s name that I knew. I put on the record my respect and admiration for his persistence in pursuing this course. It is right that we have a proper thorough, detailed debate on the issues he has raised, which we will no doubt continue to discuss after we consider this statutory instrument and move on to the next.
I would also like to thank my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset and my hon. Friends the Members for North Dorset and for South Dorset for their contributions. I also note the presence of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) and my hon. Friends the Members for Poole and for Mid Dorset and North Poole, who I am sure we will hear from later.
We have covered so many issues. In the short time I have to respond, I will summarise and pick up in detail in the next part. In short, I echo the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset. He put it very well: ultimately, what we are discussing today is about people. Often frail and elderly, they are the people whom we as MPs or councillors across Dorset have the privilege to represent. Those representatives have thought long and hard about how best to serve those people, and how best to provide the public services that their constituents rely on in the financial climate and changing demographics they face.
Those councillors and people in the local area, who know their constituents best, have put forward the proposals we are considering. As I opened, I will close: these are locally led proposals, which have been developed and supported extensively across Dorset. We have heard a lot about polls, retrospection, invitations and reorganisations but we should leave with this point in our heads: across the entire area, including in Christchurch, there is a good deal of support for these proposals. They will improve local government in the area, as we heard so eloquently from my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset. They will improve local government for the people who live in those places. The geographies we are considering make logical sense. As the Committee considers these undoubtedly complex and difficult matters, I leave them with that in mind. This is not a top-down, imposed reorganisation.
The Government have responded constructively and diligently to the proposals that were put forward. It has taken an incredible amount of time, care and patience to consider those proposals carefully. That has included engaging with my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and others on many occasions on the points he has consistently raised. I am fully confident that the proposals in front of the Committee deserve our support and will benefit the good people of Dorset in the years to come. I commend the regulations to the Committee.
Question put, That the Committee has considered the draft Dorset (Structural Changes) (Modification of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007) Regulations 2018.
That is invalid.
Question agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Dorset (Structural Changes) (Modification of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007) Regulations 2018.
Draft Bournemouth, Dorset and Poole (Structural Changes) Order 2018
I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Bournemouth, Dorset and Poole (Structural Changes) Order 2018.
It is a pleasure to commence debate on the second order. The order, which is made under section 7 of the 2007 Act, has several provisions. First, it will introduce a single tier of local government for a new local government area, comprising the existing boroughs of Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole, and a single tier of local government for a new local government area covering the remainder of the county of Dorset. It will wind up and dissolve the counties and boroughs of Bournemouth and Poole, and the county of Dorset and its districts, and it will provide appropriate transitional arrangements, a shadow authority and a shadow executive for each new unitary area. Finally, it will establish, in agreement with the councils, new electoral arrangements. The order provides contingency warding arrangements for the May 2019 elections, but it is important to note that we expect the Local Government Boundary Commission for England to undertake a full electoral review of the area in time for those elections.
The order gives practical force to our debate and the restructuring that we have already considered. This is a locally led proposal submitted by the Dorset councils, which if implemented will, we believe, improve local government and service delivery in the area. It represents a credible geography, and commands a good deal of local support. I have full confidence in the local area to implement unitarisation by next April, enabling elections for the new councils in May next year. On that basis, I commend the order to the Committee.
The bulk of the assessment undertaken by the local authorities and PricewaterhouseCoopers, which underpins the argument for this reorganisation, is compelling. It points to local authorities that will be more financially sustainable, and mentions efficiencies that can be achieved. When budget reductions are placed on local authorities, it is incumbent on all local councils to consider where they can save money on administration and processes and so protect front-line services.
Let us be clear: this is a condition of the Government’s making. Some local authorities are having to think the unthinkable—we have heard some of the objections to this suggestion today—and in many local authorities the neighbourhood services they deliver are being completely undermined and diminished. There is increased demand for adult social care and children’s safeguarding, but no resources to follow through, meet that demand, and achieve the type of society to which we aspire. Those are the results of a political choice. There is not enough money in the local government system properly to fund local authorities in the future, and that is what underpins this reorganisation. This is not about community identity or a sense of belonging and place; it is about how we balance the books when the money is running out.
In 2010, the central Government grant made up 46% of the local government funding base, but by 2019, that will have fallen to 8%. Today, that grant is at its lowest level as a proportion of our GDP since 1979, and by 2020 it will be at its lowest level since 1948. By that time we will have a £5 billion funding gap, and we as a nation will not be able to afford to meet the demands of older people who are living longer and needing social care.
When we debate social care, we often think about old people who need care in their home, who are forced into hospital when they should not be there, or who are in hospital because they need to be there but are unable to go home at the appropriate time because of the lack of community services to support them. However, the bulk of social care spending in this country is not on people over the age of 65, but on people under 65; it is spending on mental health services, support for physical disabilities, and the range of support we give to our community. The Government are genuinely considering how we can fund public services in the future. There has been talk of some kind of new tax that might bridge the gap between social care and health, but if all that does is address social care for over-65s, but not the broader spectrum of social care that local authorities deliver, it will fall short of balancing many councils’ books and meeting local community demand.
We know that any reorganisation requires a lot of time, organisational discipline and skills such as project management and building new teams, even before addressing matters such as estates, computer systems, holding of data, and the myriad different arrangements and contracts that local authorities have in place, with systems that do not talk to each other. That is not funny. It is for the Members of Parliament for those areas, for Government, for the councillors and for the professional support in those local authorities to ensure that the transition is carried out, but even hon. Members who support these proposals because they see how money is being taken away and demand is going through the roof ought to recognise that, even with reorganisation, a multimillion-pound funding gap will remain.
The official Opposition have tried our best at every corner, in every debate and in every campaign to raise the profile of the financial pressure of adult social care and children’s safeguarding. I know that some people in government do understand this, but I do not believe the Treasury understands it at all—if it does, it certainly has not prioritised it. The Treasury has not come up with an answer to a system that is increasingly under strain and will break.
I make this plea to Conservative Members: the fundamental reason why we are here is to provide sustainable public services in the future, but even if we let the SI before us go through, we know the situation is just not sustainable. That case has to be taken to the Chancellor and to the Treasurer. It is incumbent on every Conservative Member to ensure that in the next Budget there is sufficient funding to address the chronic underfunding of local government.
One normally says that it is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, but as I am not serving on the Committee, it is nice to be in your presence, Sir Henry. I am grateful to you for calling me to speak before my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch resumes his remarks. That guarantees that I might get in and get a few things on the record.
This is a rare occasion that every Member of Parliament for Dorset is gathered together in the same room. That should demonstrate to our electorates the seriousness with which we all approach the orders that are before the Committee this afternoon. I am pleased to see my right hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Bournemouth East has come back from his Ministry to join us in solidarity.
I also make the important point that the proposals that have come from local councillors are made in full knowledge that there will be fewer local councillors in Bournemouth, Poole, Christchurch and the rest of rural Dorset. Local councillors will be many of the biggest losers. That is because many of them feel passionately about protecting local services.
My hon. Friend and neighbour is absolutely correct. There are many people who will be making a sacrifice when these changes come into being; there are also many, I assume, who do not think it will be them and are supporting the proposals for those reasons.
My hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Christchurch has fought a doughty, determined, vigorous and principled campaign. I pay tribute to him for standing up for what he believes to be the interests of his constituency and community in Christchurch. He pointed out that I helped him a little bit in his campaign for re-election in Southampton, Itchen in 1992. I first met him some 27 years ago this October, when I enrolled at Southampton University. I suppose I had a little part to play in him now being a Member of Parliament for Christchurch and standing up for his constituents, because we were unsuccessful in the campaign that I participated in, so he was liberated from Southampton and able to seek the nomination for Christchurch, which he won back for us in 1997.
I pay tribute to the Minister and his predecessors. This process has been going on for a long time, through two general elections, three Secretaries of State, and countless Ministers for Local Government. On behalf of the chief executives and the leaders of Bournemouth and Poole councils, I also pay tribute to the officials in the Department, who have been incredibly professional in working through the proposals. In particular, I pay tribute to Paul Rowsell, who has been involved throughout and who our people in Bournemouth and Poole could not speak more highly of. I thank him for what he has done.
My right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset spoke movingly about adult social care. I want to bear out what he said earlier. When the process began, he was far from converted to the cause of local government reorganisation, but he moved over time as we explored it. He has always been analytical and facts-driven in his approach to politics—there should be more like him—and the numbers ultimately persuaded him that it was the right course of action for councils across Dorset, including Bournemouth and Poole.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch had an exchange on council tax equalisation, on which I would like some clarity from the Minister. If we faced a position where council tax equalisation took place over 20 years, I would join my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch in opposing the proposals—although it would make no difference because I do not have a vote. We do not need anything like 20 years. It should be done in no more than six years, possibly with equalisation in year seven or maybe in a slightly shorter timeframe.
I will address that point a little later. My hon. Friend will acknowledge that it will require substantial council tax increases for my constituents in Bournemouth and Poole—I am the only one who represents both Bournemouth and Poole. They will need to raise their council tax to come up to the level in Christchurch.
Christchurch may wish to do other things in the new arrangements to protect its identity that may require some claim on the council tax. I will come on to that in a moment.
I would like to inject a note of positivity. It is not all about frail, vulnerable old people, although it is massively about that. It is an enormous opportunity. It is a fantastic fresh start for the conurbation, part of which I serve. If the Committee endorses this instrument, the new authority of Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole will have a population of more than 400,000 people. It will be the 16th-largest urban area in the United Kingdom. The ability that that will give the authority to punch above its weight and argue for its case to be considered by central Government and internationally is why it is supported by the local enterprise partnership and by Dorset’s two world-class universities—Bournemouth University and the Arts University Bournemouth—which play an incredibly powerful role in getting our local area recognised as the fastest-growing digital economy in the United Kingdom. It is also supported by our internationally renowned and recognised football club, which is safe again in the premiership for another season.
We have an enormous opportunity. Our conurbation is recognised internationally. Many students come to Bournemouth to study at the universities or to learn English at the language schools, and go away imbued with a love of the area that we are proud to serve. We can go out there now and argue our case for infrastructure. Tomorrow I will go down to Bournemouth to the official opening of the Pier Approach, funded by money that I argued for from the coastal communities fund. The strength that we will have with all the Members of Parliament from the conurbation coming together to make our case to central Government will be incredible. That does something else as well. It recognises the difference that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch alluded to when he talked about the fact that Bournemouth and Christchurch used to be in Hampshire. One can drive all the way through my Bournemouth West constituency and eventually come to County Gates, the historic border between Dorset and Hampshire. Bournemouth and Poole have a different identity, with Christchurch, to the rest of rural Dorset. That allows the two new councils to forge the right vision for themselves.
I end on the point about identity that my hon. Friend talked about. I will fight any attempts to change the mayoralties and civic functions of the existing councils, because they are very important for local dignity and pride and people feel a sense of belonging to them. But there will be an opportunity in the new arrangements for different areas to have their own town and parish councils that can further entrench and protect a sense of identity. There will be an opportunity for people in Christchurch to seize and they will have our support. This is not a takeover, as it has been presented as so often. It is about us coming together and forging something new, where every voice will carry weight and every opinion will matter. There will not be x number of councillors from Christchurch, y from Bournemouth and z from Poole. There will be a total number of new councillors for one authority and each one will matter and each opinion will count.
I beg the indulgence of my colleagues and the Opposition. I pay tribute to the shadow Minister who has approached this matter in a balanced and calm way, and I warmly welcome that. The matter is too important for the future of our county for us to play politics. Every Dorset Member of Parliament and every councillor who has put themselves forward for election in Dorset has one thing in common: the desire to serve and do the best we can for the communities that have trusted us to elected office. I urge my colleagues on both sides of the Committee to give us the chance to do even better for the communities we care about.
I, too, admire my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch. He is a dogged parliamentarian and we all admire his contributions to this House even when we disagree with him, as we do on this matter. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset, I am a sceptic about reorganisation in general. However, I have to come to terms with the fact that the local councillors and officers in Poole take the view that a combination will mean a much better strategic direction and will make savings, which will better protect local services.
We are not terribly well funded in Dorset. We could punch more above our weight if we combine. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West says, Poole, Bournemouth and Christchurch are a natural fit as an area. We all prosper because of the businesses and services within the conurbation. Many people in Poole work in Bournemouth. Many people in Bournemouth work in Poole. In every general election I have ever fought, I have always ended up canvassing somebody in Bournemouth by mistake, and I think probably my hon. Friend will have done the same in Poole because there are roads that are split between both of the current local authorities.
Poole has a long and glorious history and its own identity, but we have to look to the future and be mindful of local services, which is why I have come to the reluctant decision to support the changes. I suspect and I hope that the Committee will come to that view as well.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry, or at least to appear before you with you in the Chair, and a pleasure to see such great interest in Dorset in the House of Commons. It is also a pleasure to follow my hon. Friends. I agree entirely with my hon. Friends the Members for Poole and for Bournemouth West and my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset. I, too, pay tribute to my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch; I well remember him campaigning alongside me on the streets of Wimborne for the one vision that we had for the Conservative party, and also for Dorset locally. I pay tribute to his campaign and I am sorry that we are on different sides of this argument.
My constituency is unique for many reasons, but it is also unique—in Dorset at least, I believe—in that four local authorities serve it. They are Dorset County Council, the Borough of Poole, East Dorset District Council and Purbeck District Council, and all four have worked hard to deliver high-quality services to residents while recognising the budgetary pressures that affect all local authorities.
As we have heard, of the nine local authorities that we are discussing, eight support the plans for reorganisation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West said, this issue has been going on for some time. Last year, the Borough of Poole and Dorset County Council strongly supported the initial submissions, alongside Bournemouth, West Dorset, Weymouth and Portland and North Dorset. Following the former Secretary of State’s letter in which he said that he was minded to support the proposal, East Dorset and Purbeck followed suit. The changes have the support of the vast majority of councillors, councils and, as you have heard, Sir Henry, Members of Parliament. They are also backed by the Dorset local enterprise partnership; I do not think that point has been mentioned, but if it has, forgive me, because I missed it. Nearly 90% of local businesses recognise the opportunities that this reorganisation and joined-up local government can bring.
This is a key moment for Dorset, as other hon. Members have said. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Poole, my constituency neighbour, that historically we have not been as successful when bidding for larger-scale projects as we might have been, yet there is a clear need for greater infrastructure. I am thinking particularly of roads—north, south, east and west. Councils will, I believe, benefit significantly from speaking with fewer but stronger voices.
I have received very few emails or letters from residents about local government reorganisation. I have received significantly more about the need to protect services for residents, and I believe that these proposals provide the opportunity to do just that. In my view, the biggest risk is any further delay in this process. Councils up and down the country are coming together with the aim of working to secure services, reduce costs and better serve their communities. Dorset has been proactive and should be congratulated and encouraged. Now is the time to get on with it.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole. I echo many of the comments made about the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton, who leads for the Opposition on these matters, and the very careful way he has dealt with the issue. He and I served for some little time on the Local Government Association resources panel when we were both councillors. He was the very respected leader of Oldham Council, and it is nice to see him in his place today.
These debates could be characterised as or could come under the heading of 101 things that you wanted to know about Dorset local government but were too afraid to ask. I notice that the Labour Whips, on their Twitter feed, have promoted this afternoon’s joust:
“If anyone wants to watch the Tories having a fight about local government—there’s live entertainment going on in Committee room 9 now.”
It must be a salutary lesson for colleagues on both sides of the House when the Whips come and tap them on the shoulder and say, “Would you mind serving for a few minutes on a Delegated Legislation Committee? It won’t take that long,” and in fact they have to rearrange their diaries. But anyone who now wants to enter the pub quizzes in their constituency with all sorts of questions about Dorset will come top of the class.
Let us remind ourselves of why we have got to this point. The Minister has been absolutely right, as have other colleagues, in saying that this has been a grassroots movement from the bottom up. This is not an impost, a diktat or some Act of Parliament forcing us to do it from central Government, but council officers, councillors, statutory consultees, the public and other groups coming together to say, “What have we done? What are the issues? And where can we go?” It is not as if we are starting from a position whereby nine councils in the county and unitary areas of Bournemouth and Poole have been working in splendid isolation. They have frankly screwed the maximum amount of savings and efficiencies from collaborative working, be that in Christchurch and East Dorset, North Dorset, West Dorset, Weymouth and Portland, or be it in Bournemouth and Poole.
My hon. Friend mentions south Dorset and Weymouth, so may I pay tribute to our chief executive, Matt Prosser, who is the leader of our tri-councillors and a superb chief executive? As I think colleagues have mentioned, this move will see a lot of people lose their jobs.
My hon. Friend is right, and I too pay tribute to Matt Prosser, and to the leaders of councils that cover my constituency—Councillor Graham Carr-Jones is the leader of North Dorset District Council, and Councillor Spencer Flower leads East Dorset District Council. Councillor Rebecca Knox is leader of the county council. They came together—this has been a salutary lesson for us all, and I firmly believe that that was one of the lead motivators for seven of the eight Members of Parliament representing constituencies in the county to support them. They have tried all those efficiency savings and had some signal success.
My right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset is right. I have been in post for just three years, but in that time I have noticed—as has my caseworker, Diana Mogg, who served my predecessor for 18 years—an absolute peak in people contacting us, and coming to advice surgeries with questions about children’s services, special educational needs and statementing, rural transport, and the provision of adult services. There has been a spike, and the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton was right to point out the indisputable fact that local government has shouldered a heavy burden as we try to get the national finances back to some semblance of normality. Colleagues, irrespective of where we stand on these proposals, have argued with previous Secretaries of State and with the Treasury to get a better funding settlement for our county.
Although austerity has bitten and every Department was expected to take some responsibility, the burden has fallen disproportionately on local government. As it stands, the local government workforce is at its lowest since comparable records began, and the central Government workforce is at its highest.
The hon. Gentleman is right, and in the seven years that I was cabinet member for resources on West Oxfordshire District Council, we faced such issues, just as he will have done as a former leader of Oldham Council. He is right to point out that the local government family has shouldered the largest burden.
It cannot be a coincidence that the proposals submitted to the Government command such comprehensive support. Colleagues speaking in support of the proposal have listed some of that support, and my checklist includes the local enterprise partnership, our town and parish council association, the clinical commissioning group, Dorset chamber of commerce, the Port of Poole, the two universities, the police, seven of the eight Members of Parliament, and eight of the nine councils.
Let me pause for a moment, because it is important to put on the record that until some months ago, six councils in Dorset supported the reorganisation and three did not—Purbeck and East Dorset District Councils have been on a journey. They have forensically examined the proposals, and after a period of time and reflection, they came to the clear perception that this is really the only song on the hymn sheet that will do the job that is needed. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch said that the proposal could mean “doomsday for a lot of Conservatives in Dorset.” He might be right—I believe that he will be wrong—but, in a way, it does not actually matter. It ill behoves us to suggest that the motivation of public service rests entirely on being tested against the balance of party political advantage. Public service should trump everything. As a number of colleagues have pointed out, it is not that we Members of Parliament are turkeys voting for Christmas; but that our councillors, having exhaustively explored and delivered savings over three, four or five years now, realise that this is the next inexorable step that has to be taken.
I say with as much respect as I can muster that although those of us supporting the proposals in the political arena were described by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch as ignorant and predators on these matters—allegations to which I take exception and that I would certainly refute; although perhaps we could be called those things, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset could never be referred to as ignorant—we have come to the judgment that this is right for public service.
When we ask our constituents—often the most vulnerable in the county who are reliant on the locally provided public services—whether they think that it is right to reduce the number of councils and councillors and, in so doing, continue to provide quality public services, or simply to manage provision that is declining quantitatively and qualitatively while saying, “By golly, do not worry, we have preserved x officers, x buildings and x councillors”, I would say from my experience of 12 years as a district councillor, three years as a county councillor and two years as a parish councillor that most of our constituents are pretty normal people and they could not really give a toss, Sir Henry—
Order. Will the hon. Gentleman withdraw that last remark?
Perhaps this will help the hon. Gentleman to regain his composure. Does he accept that although the public absolutely want to see more efficient public service, local identity is really important? No reorganisation should try to redesign local identity that people feel strongly about.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. In my part of the county, we are incredibly well served by hands-on, proactive and locally engaged town and parish councils. Just last Friday, I met the clerk and senior leadership of Blandford Forum Town Council, who are 100% behind the proposals and are egging them on, because they see an enormous opportunity in a slimmed down and more efficient local government geography within the county to make even closer ties with the communities they serve.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West alluded to the fact—I must confess that I am not a geographer in these matters—that one can start from the boundary of Poole, Christchurch or Bournemouth and drive, walk or cycle through all three, and apart from some rather nicely designed signs saying welcome to one or thank you for visiting the other, one frankly does not know where one is.
I am very grateful. My hon. Friend was giving us his definition of public service, and I just wondered whether he would include a Member of Parliament who speaks up for what 84% of local residents vote for in a poll. Would he call that public service, too?
Rather like red wine—and even claret, Sir Henry—there is good ordinary and premier cru. I will leave it to the Committee to work out which I think might be which.
My hon. Friend invites me to comment on the public support for this proposal, and it has been there. The councils were at great pains to ensure that the company that they commissioned had a proven track record, to set beyond peradventure the results that it derived. As my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset and my hon. Friend the Minister suggested, that provided a level of support for option 2b, which is what we have been discussing this afternoon, across all geographies in the county, including within Christchurch—scientifically based and properly analysed.
In echoing the thanks that my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West gave to the officials at the then DCLG, which is now the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, I also pay tribute to the huge professionalism of Paul Rowsell—who, I believe I am right in saying, is a resident of Christchurch and steward of the priory and who has a huge knowledge of the county—and the clear and sensible way that he has dealt with these matters.
We know the poll result in Christchurch and we understand the divisions within the council and the population of Christchurch, so does my hon. Friend agree that if the new local authority is forged, there will be a special responsibility on all of us in the rest of the conurbation to work incredibly hard to allay the fears that have been built up in getting to this point?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. “Magnanimous in victory and gracious in defeat”, I think is the old phrase—I forget the order; it may be the other way around. That is the test. We have been convinced of the merits. Rather like my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset, I am not known for my radical tendencies. I am not a great thrower-up of all the balls into the air to see how they will come down.
This has been a forensic exercise and the case has been made to the vast majority of us who have the great privilege of representing communities in Dorset. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch is absolutely right that local identity matters, so whether it is a mace or gown, a tricorn or bicorn hat, or a town’s ancient ritual—I see the mace bearer in Blandford and the clerk, who wears her black gown and her legal wig, on civic occasions—these are important things for communities. They are what defines us as English—I think I can just about say that, as a Welshman—and British.
My hon. Friend is making a wonderful speech, as have other colleagues. To pick up on an earlier point, I entirely concur with what my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley said: I have the highest respect for our hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, and yes, he has stood up for his constituents. He has done all he possibly could, and any other MP in that seat would have done the same. I pay tribute to him; we all do. But when we have all voted, when this has been forensically looked at and when the evidence is there, bearing in mind all the facts that we have to take into account, surely there comes a point when a decision has to be made for the benefit of us all, and at that point I think an MP has to stand down.
My hon. Friend—who is, dare I say it, the epitome of Englishness—is absolutely right. We need to convince our friends and colleagues who reside in the Christchurch constituency or within the boundaries of the Christchurch borough that this is the right thing to do. It is the right thing to do for public service, the right thing for good, sensible, conservative, prudent financial management and the right thing to guarantee the future of local government in our county.
I thank my hon. Friend. On that note, does he think it would be wise to look to the neighbouring authority of Wiltshire, where we have not lost our identity by amalgamating, but have gained economies of scale? Our unitary council has not closed one library.
My hon. Friend strikes to the heart of the matter. It is not about constructs: it is about delivery of service. It is not as if Dorset is treading a virgin path. Bedfordshire, Shropshire and Cornwall have done the same thing, and, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, Wiltshire has done it too.
I should be prepared to wager a small amount of money with my hon. Friend or any member of the Committee that if we were to knock on a door in Wiltshire today and ask the person who answered whether they would have preferred the library to remain open, or to have 300 councillors all drawing their stipend, most—unless, possibly, they were one of the councillors—would say they preferred the library. Why? Because the library is a good thing. It is a community asset. It encourages children to read. It is a social and community hub. That is why the protection of those things is important.
Certainly, Baroness Scott, the leader of Wiltshire Council, has been a trailblazer in ensuring—particularly in a rural area—that such issues are taken into account to preserve, conserve and promote local identity. I am perfectly prepared to give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch if I have got my local government history wrong, but I think Christchurch became a borough council only in 1974. Prior to that, it was a town council in Hampshire. I shall work on the assumption that that might be correct.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but let us look at the word “independent”, because he has used it on a number of occasions in the House. I think, actually, he has deployed the phrase “sovereign and independent”, which suggests something like the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, or Liechtenstein. He was, of course, a councillor in Wandsworth—effectively a unitary, but Members present who have had experience in a two-tier council will know that the room for manoeuvre, whether in a borough or a district council, is tiny.
Housing numbers are effectively shaped and dictated by central Government, and freedom to raise council tax is curtailed by a capping regime. According to the estimates I have heard about services delivered in a two-tier authority, between 80% and 90% of the services delivered to Christchurch, Stourbridge, Sturminster Newton, Sturminster Marshall, Blandford Forum, Gillingham and Shaftesbury, which is in my constituency, would be provided by Dorset County Council. By definition, the larger voting number would not come from one specific geography, so I perceive real opportunities from the new council.
That is an important point. The change is not a merger—hostile or friendly—and it is not a takeover; it is the creation of two new councils. Certainly in Dorset rural—the existing county minus the borough of Christchurch—we are reviewing our boundaries. We are not calling them divisions; we are going to call them wards, because it feels more granular. If you talk to most people, they refer to their ward councillor, not their divisional member. That boundary review will allow new wards to be created straddling existing north-west or south and mid-Dorset boundaries.
My hon. Friend is talking about lines on maps. We are talking in Christchurch about a community with a long history and a great, strong local identity. Although he was not in the Christchurch constituency, he intervened in the Christchurch referendum to try to persuade people to vote in favour of Christchurch restructuring. Can he explain why he thinks he so manifestly failed to persuade the people of Christchurch that he was right and I was wrong?
I am not entirely sure that four tweets from a Back-Bench Conservative Member of Parliament could be described as an intervention. This is hardly a Russian-sponsored cyber-attack of some form. I do not have that many followers. My hon. Friend gilds me with powers that I would not even presume to aggrandise with myself.
My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the fact that 17,000 people took part in the parish poll. It was a postal poll, so people did not actually have to turn up to polling stations. I think people could bring in their form to the borough council headquarters if they wished. As a percentage of those who are eligible to vote within the parliamentary constituency, 17,000 is a number, but it is no more than that. That point strikes at the heart of this argument. Nobody can doubt the passion that has been deployed on either side. The split between Dorchester and Sherborne—that historical divide of the civil war—is a vicar’s tea party in comparison with some of the blood pressure increases that we have seen as the process has gone forward.
I take the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West made. Irrespective of where the public were on this issue two years ago or a year ago, or even where they are now, they should have no doubt—I would hope that they had some considerable pride—that we have all engaged passionately in this debate not out of narrow party interest or narrow self-interest, but because of what we believe, in our hearts and our souls, to be good for those who send us here.
The key point is that unanimity is not required in the legislation, because it would make a nonsense of the law, but it is desirable. Let us be frank: if not, we would not have taken up so much of your time, Sir Henry, or that of those colleagues who have had the enormous good fortune to be drawn in the Whips’ Office raffle to sit on this Delegated Legislation Committee.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I think that unanimity would be deeply worrying. It would almost suggest a “couldn’t care less” attitude, where something is done down the line of least resistance. As my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham knows, not all constituent parts of Wiltshire wanted the change to happen. The intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole inexorably provides me with the key test. The logical step is to go and ask anyone, “Would you want to go back to having two-tier local government in Wiltshire? Would you want to go back to having two-tier local government in Shropshire? Would you want to go back to having two-tier local government in Cornwall?” I think the answer uniformly, and probably definitely, would be no.
The direction of travel is clear. What we are trying to do in Dorset is not eccentric or perverse; it is not in any way weird. It is a democratic response, underpinned by intellectual and academic argument to deliver on that principal propulsion of public service. That is what this is about. We can see the situation evolving in Northamptonshire, in Oxfordshire—[Interruption.] Look—people are fighting to come in. The bouncers are asking for ID. People are being asked to turn up with their grandparents and sometimes great-grandparents in order to get a seat in this marvellous Delegated Legislation Committee. As I was saying, it is happening in Northamptonshire. I understand that neighbours in Somerset are looking at it, and that Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire have proposals that are either with the Secretary of State or shortly to come before him.
Two-tier local government will be a bizarre construct to the Opposition spokesman, having come from the metropolitan borough of Oldham, but he will know of the speedy and more efficient decisions that can be taken by single-tier government.
It is important to say that a lot of government is in constant evolution and change. Although local government appears to be a single unit, we have parish councils in some areas, town councils in others, and the emergence and growth of the combined authority.
That just goes to show how right it is that the proposal has not been in response to an impost, a diktat, or a Secretary of State’s fiat: “This is what is going to happen.” One size does not fit all. [Interruption.] Well done, sir—you have been able to get a ticket to come into this great event. You might have fought to come in, but you will be fighting to get out in a moment.
I have always thought that we in Dorset have been phenomenally lucky that we have been so readily and easily cleaved into two parts. I have always used the titles—working titles, I admit—“Dorset rural” and “Dorset urban” for new councils, able to respond to new initiatives, new endeavours and new demands reflecting specific local concerns and requirements. That is why, unlike some of my colleagues, I was never persuaded of the merits of having one unitary council covering the whole of the county of Dorset. My anxiety, as a rural Member, was that rural concerns and imperatives—the need to scope, sculpt and deliver services in a bespoke way in a rural community—may well have been trumped by the louder siren voices of Christchurch, Bournemouth and Poole.
I am delighted to intervene on my hon. Friend with my not-too siren voice. Does he understand that exactly the opposite fears were felt at the urban end of the county—that our service sector and tech economy would not be understood by a rurally led county council covering the whole county from Dorchester?
My hon. Friend is right. It depends from which end of the telescope one looks at this, which just goes to show the compelling validity and veracity of the proposal that colleagues in local government across the county submitted for ministerial decision. They looked at a number of options with officials in London, officers in their relevant jurisdictions, and their councillors. Clearly, the proposal addresses the conundrum that I posed from the rural end of the telescope, and which my hon. Friend has posed from the urban end. One could describe it as a win-win situation.
If hon. Members will allow me to purloin a phrase, it will allow councillors within the conurbation, and councillors in the rural area, to take back control. [Interruption.] The Labour Whip very kindly chortles at my observation—chortles, perhaps, to the point of expiration. This is an important point, because it will allow people with the most granular knowledge of their geographies to deliver in a way that their constituents and voters want. After the savings have been made, the money will allow them to provide the services that our local residents most need.
As public servants, we often talk about hard-to-reach communities. Very often, the people who are the most dependent upon our public sector services are the least likely to engage in this progress. Why? Because, frankly, they are just too damn busy getting on with the daily grind of life and trying to make ends meet, trying to keep a roof over their head or trying to get the council to sort something out—the free school meals, the bus pass, the school place, whatever it happens to be. That is a really important point. In this process, we will ensure that rural services are delivered in rural areas, and conurbation services are delivered in conurbations.
My hon. Friend strikes a very telling point, which he, I and my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset have made to organisations such as the Dorset Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Dorset local enterprise partnership. Dorset’s economy does not end halfway up Wimborne high street. It is in our former milking parlours, our little industrial units, our small starter units in Sturminster Newton or Blandford Forum, in our hubs and hives of enterprise, job creation and innovation, wherever they happen to be.
Just last Friday, I visited a business in Blandford that operates over a two-storey floor space that I would suggest is no larger than this room, but has just signed a £10.5 million export deal with Nigeria to provide LED lighting. That strong contract was cited by the Minister for Trade Policy in departmental press releases during the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. Little Blandford Forum—such a hub of innovation!
The complexity—the confusing mosaic; the fit-inducing kaleidoscope—of the geography of local government that we have at the moment has allowed larger bodies to concentrate their attention unduly on the conurbation, almost allowing one side to be played off against the other. In this new regime, that cannot be the case. In my assessment, the economies of the whole of the county will benefit.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful argument. Will he please comment on my brief intervention, in which I mentioned our joint campaign on infrastructure on north-south routes? Does he believe that this order will help bids to be put in to secure more infrastructure investment in Dorset?
Without a shadow of a doubt, my hon. Friend is right. He and I have sat with the former Minister, our hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), and the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, our hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), and of course we will be sitting down and discussing these issues with the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole is absolutely right that a unified voice from one local authority will be able to make a case for that strategic investment. We have seen it happen. My hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham is more than welcome to chip in—if you will forgive the pun, Sir Henry—at this point. Certainly, there has been a far greater level of investment in the A350 corridor since Wiltshire became unitary than when there was a county council and districts. The proof of the pudding is very often in the eating, and that trail of investment—that opportunity to make a cohesive and cogent submission to Whitehall—is far more likely to be efficacious under a unitary approach than in the “let’s play one off against the other” two-tier system.
I think my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole would concur with this statement: that when the proposition—the tantalising prize—of reorganisation within the county has been put before other decision makers, interest that has existed has become more alert and acute when they have realised that there is likely to be a slimming-down in the relationship of dialogue that is needed to take decisions.
Perhaps my hon. Friend could throw one last thing into this matrix as well. When Members of Parliament across the country also speak with one voice—as he and I do on this project, as well as our hon. Friend the Member for Poole; the A350 starts near the port of Poole—that also lends greater weight.
Absolutely right, and the work that our hon. Friend the Member for Poole does on behalf of his constituents should not be neglected in these matters.
I will go back briefly to one issue, because I am conscious that I did not deal with it with the weight and attention that I believe my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West as an individual both requires and deserves. The local identity is hugely important. No Conservative likes the big and the monolithic. We quite like the quirky, the different and the local—it is what makes up, I think, part of our Conservative DNA. I have always gone into this process with the firm and clear caveat that local Mayors—whether it is the Mayor of Shaftesbury, the Mayor of Blandford Forum or the Mayor of Verwood Town Council—can continue in office and have a role. I actually think that role would be augmented and enhanced when they are no longer the junior tier of local government, with the district or the borough sandwiched somewhere in between, but instead have a more direct link up to the unitary council and down.
There is also Weymouth to consider. I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset shares my view and I am sure that he, like I, welcomed this change; it falls within his bailiwick. My support for it, and indeed anything else, is absolutely ancillary to the case that Weymouth makes, but what a marvellous initiative of Weymouth to work towards the creation of a town council, because that will ensure that granular, democratic accountability.
I take entirely the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch made, because—frankly—anybody who has listened to him for more than two minutes could not fail to have noticed the most enormous pride that residents and public servants of Christchurch have—rightly—in the history of their part of the county, which was once in Hampshire and is now in Dorset. But that is the point, I say to the Minister: it makes no difference where they are; it is what they are that is important. It is how they feel that motivates them and makes them tick.
Blandford Forum would be Blandford Forum if it were in North or West Yorkshire, or in Wiltshire, because it would still be Blandford Forum. And Christchurch has been Christchurch whether it has resided within the county boundary of Hampshire or the county boundary of Dorset. Why? Because it is Christchurch. And should the good burghers of that borough seek the creation of a town council, I think it would be the most phenomenal success.
My hon. Friend talks about Christchurch, but before he did so he mentioned Weymouth and its town council. Perhaps he could say something more about the opportunities for town and parish councils to have a beefed-up role if this particular order is passed, and about where he sees the opportunities for our parish and town councils as well.
My hon. Friend is right to point to that opportunity.
I pay tribute at this point to Councillor Simon Tong, a former headteacher who will certainly be known to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole. At the first opportunity that Councillor Tong had to vote on this proposal as a member of East Dorset District Council, he voted against it. One of his reasons—in fact, his principal reason—for voting against it was the very germane and specific concern that my hon. Friend raised: the potential for a disconnect and for a subversion of town and parish councils.
It was one of those odd situations where one would be damned if one did and damned if one did not. If one had gone into all the minutiae of precisely who would be procuring the pencils, the highlighters, the ring binders, the desks, the table lamps or any other office stationery, or who was going to commission the painter of the livery on the side of the van, one might quite legitimately have been said to be putting the cart before the horse. However, it was then realised pretty quickly—I believe this was one of the concerns expressed by Purbeck and by Weymouth and Portland—that there was a question about the role, scope and vision for town and parish councils. I think that is now starting to emerge. This cannot be done top-down; it has to be done in collaboration.
So says my hon. Friend. If I may pinch a phrase from more auspicious colleagues, one of my red lines has been the role of the town and parish councils—making sure that there are local voices and that that relationship is forged with ward members. Gillingham will end up with three councillors, and Blandford will end up with two; part of the skill set that we will be looking for, certainly in our candidate, is a very firm commitment to close liaison with those town and parish councils.
In Wiltshire, the town councils are extremely important, and we have a process of devolution—devolving powers down to those town councils. However, it is important to remember that this is not something that is going to be forced on people; it is the unitary councils’ responsibility to shape this with the will of local people. It is a process that is happening bottom up.
My hon. Friend is right. I suggest—this may put the fear of God into her—that we may be beating a path to her door and to that of her senior council leadership, because we do not want to reinvent the wheel. We want to find out where some of the pitfalls have been and what the success stories have been. We want to emulate and gild the success and not to repeat any errors that Wiltshire, Cornwall, Shropshire and so on have made. That is the clear path to making this a success.
Likewise—my hon. Friend alluded to this incredibly important point in her intervention—it will be crucial for our two new councils to be member-led. When we have member-led authorities that are responsive to and reflective of the concerns, fears and aspirations of the electorate, as expressed on the doorstep, at surgeries and through the ballot box, we are more likely to have a specific, bespoke level of services authored from the membership up.
This is going to require strong political elbows in a joint endeavour. I draw huge comfort from the fact that, in terms of the main parties of the county—when I say the main parties, I mean the Labour party and the Conservative party, because they are the two main parties as far as the last general election is concerned—we have the support of the Dorset Labour party in this initiative, because it, too, is committed to this level of public service.
It is encouraging that the debate is now moving on beyond the process to what we hope to achieve by having gone through the process. I am also encouraged by the degree to which there is now a conversation about how we bring people back together and put new structures in place that are right for the local communities within the new larger authorities. I would point out there is of course only 20 mins to go.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole, in some uncharacteristically cheap sedentary chunter, says, “Shut up and sit down!” I note the ironic “Hear, hears!” from members of the Committee. I view that as an invitation to move on to volume 3, but I shall not. Let me draw my remarks to a close—
Tantalising though the hon. Gentleman’s invitation is, I hope he will not hold it against me if I do not avail myself of his invitation at the current time, but I reserve the right to return to it at a later stage.
Let me close as I opened. I want—and I hope that all of us, as practitioners of party politics, will want—all our constituents, whether they voted for us or not, whether they think we are the best thing since sliced bread or the worst thing since the bubonic plague, to have confidence in this one unassailable truth: that we have locked horns and engaged in strong, heartfelt, passionate debate. That debate is now drawing to a close. Something tells me that there is very little this afternoon that will reconcile the viewpoint of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West and myself on this issue.
The one thing that will ally us all is a strong affection and admiration for our former Prime Minister, Baroness Thatcher. We all remember that scene—often now parodied as a pastiche, but heartfelt at the time—when the new Prime Minister on the steps of Downing Street prayed in aid the words of St Francis of Assisi. It was a very heartfelt, moving, spiritual prayer. Let me close with the words of St Paul: we have fought the fight to the finish; we have the run the race to the end. We have now got to the end. Let us now roll up our sleeves and make this damn thing work.
I call Sir Christopher Chope. I remind the hon. Gentleman that I am very keen to give the Minister five minutes at the end, which gives him just under 10 minutes.
Thank you, Sir Henry. We are not at the end, and the reason is that there is a legal challenge to all this. We have had the letter before action and I understand that another letter before action has been issued by a resident in my constituency against the Government. It is interesting that, with the full knowledge of the legal opinions that have been floating around and the correspondence between the council in Christchurch and the Government, very little attention has been paid to that this afternoon.
We are talking about a constructive solution. I hope that my hon. Friends will ensure that nothing is done that will make for a complete shambles if and when the courts decide that these orders are ultra vires and are quashed, if they are indeed passed by both Houses before then. I would like the Minister to comment on the practicalities of all that, and on how easy it will be for those decisions to be rowed back on, if that is the will of the courts.
I have looked at the Government’s response to the letter before action from Christchurch Borough Council, which is centred around the use of retrospective legislation, and the main arguments put forward seem to be that Christchurch is a bit late in the day in raising that point, despite the regulations being laid only on 29 March. The first two or three pages of the response centre around that point—“You missed your chance and it’s all too late.”
The second part says that the presumption against retrospectivity is not engaged. The argument is not that retrospectivity is not engaged—of course, Christchurch Borough Council believes it is—but that the presumption against it is not engaged. There seems to be a recognition that retrospectivity is engaged. In the light of that, and of quite a lot of the decided cases, it seems that there is every prospect that, far from this being resolved this afternoon, as some of my right hon. and hon. Friends think it will, this will continue—and quite right too. We are a rules-based democracy and at the heart of all this is local democracy and localism.
What is the point of introducing proposals to abolish Christchurch Borough Council and replicate it with a new parish council that will effectively be a new bureaucracy with fewer powers? In other parts of Dorset, there are already parish and town councils, but not in Christchurch.
I was encouraged by some of the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West, who seems to speak in a rather different way from the leader of his council. The leader of his council is on record as saying that he is against the creation of any town or parish councils within the new urban authority.
This afternoon, the leader of Christchurch Borough Council, the immediate past mayor of Christchurch Borough Council, the president of the Christchurch and East Dorset Conservative association, another Dorset county councillor and a prominent younger Conservative from Christchurch have sat and listened to this long debate. I do not think that they will have been impressed by the talk of wanting all this to have been sorted out, of local democracy being overridden, or of bottom-up processes.
Paragraph 8.7 of the Government’s explanatory memorandum says:
“During the period of representation”—
following the then Secretary of State’s “minded to” announcement in November—
“210 representations were received from members of the public, local councillors, businesses and community organisations. Submissions from members of the public”—
in other words, the real bottom-up submissions—
“were more likely to be opposed to the proposal”.
That is right across the whole of Dorset—we are not just talking about within Christchurch. Right across Dorset, more people were opposed to what the Government announced in November than were in support of it, yet some of my hon. Friends have the gall to suggest that that is not correct and that there is general support for all this.
I hope the Minister will tell us in his response how people in Christchurch, for example, can be protected against new borrowing being taken out by Bournemouth and Poole. I referred earlier to the £70 million of borrowing. Why should the people of Christchurch want to go along with that, when they have been prudent and run a debt-free council?
I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset accepts the decision of the joint committee that there should be an immediate move, on the creation of the new rural unitary, to equalisation and harmonisation. Why should there not be a similar move within the urban area? Surely actions speak louder than words. What action could be stronger than for everybody to accept that from day one they should all pay the same council tax, rather than people in the most rundown part of Christchurch having to subsidise the people in Sandbanks?
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s passion and to the way he is representing the views of his constituency. I agree with him on the majority of the points he has raised, but there are elements I disagree with. His point about equalisation is very important. The statutory instrument says not that the councils will merge, but that the existing councils will be abolished and new councils will be created. At the point when new councils are created, surely it makes sense that all households in the new area are treated equally.
Absolutely. I hope that the Minister will agree with the hon. Gentleman. What better way of setting up a new council, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West was saying, than by having a new culture, a new agenda, new vision and all the rest of it? It is very difficult to achieve that if we do not start off with everybody paying the same council tax at band D. I hope the Government will come off the fence and declare their hand, because I think behind their hand is hidden a proposal to introduce a notional council tax system, which would presume that the council tax in Poole, for example, had been raised by more than the threshold that triggers a referendum. I think that that will happen over a period of time, rather than immediately. I share the hon. Gentleman’s vision that if there is to be a new unitary authority, everybody should pay the same.
I will not because I only have two more minutes. My hon. Friend made a number of good points and I want to respond to another of them.
On severance payments, there is a lot of resentment that this exercise will result in council officers across Dorset receiving substantial payoffs and handouts. The Government have pleaded with the officers of the district councils, the county council and the urban unitaries that no exit payments should exceed £95,000. Exit payments include not just severance, but contributions to pensions. They have not had that guarantee and, up until now, there has not been support from councillors for such a policy, but it certainly strikes a strong chord with members of the public.
How does the Minister think the shadow authority will be able to take over within 14 days of the coming into force of the order? The order will come into force on the day that it is passed. When does he expect that to be, and how will the 14 days fit in with the forthcoming holiday period?
Will the Minister comment further on what the Government’s attitude will be if indeed the judicial review proceeds, as most people expect it to, to a successful conclusion? What then for good local government in and around Dorset? In that event, Christchurch will hopefully continue to thrive as an independent sovereign borough, in tune with the wishes and the will of its local people, having, alone among all the councils in Dorset, invited the local people to express their views in a local poll—something that all the other councils ran away from doing.
It is a pleasure to wind up this spirited and thoughtful debate. I echo my hon. Friends in thanking the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton for the typically constructive attitude he has brought to our proceedings. I look forward to many more discussions with him in the months to come. I join my hon. Friends in paying tribute to Mr Rowsell, who we have heard a bit about. He and his team have worked tirelessly over the past few years to ensure that we arrive in this debate having gone through thorough diligence and due process. He is a sidesman of the 11th century priory in Christchurch, which I believe has one of the longest naves in England.
I am corrected by my hon. Friend; it is the longest. Mr Rowsell follows his father in that role, and I thank him and his team for all the work they have done on this project.
I will briefly touch on some of the substantive issues raised. All the contributions from Members of Parliament from Dorset have been thoughtful and passionate, and they have demonstrated clearly that they take seriously their duty to represent their constituents, to disagree respectfully and to ensure that all voices are heard. I thank them for the way they have approached proceedings.
We have heard a lot about the parish poll in Christchurch and what it meant or did not mean. Not only did the Secretary of State consider that poll in the round with all the other representations, but he also received representations that were highly critical of the conduct of that poll, with many suggesting that it should have little validity at all. It is worth bearing in mind that the properly representative sample survey that was done as part of the formal consultation shows that 63% of residents in Christchurch supported the principle of two unitaries and 64% supported the specific proposal that we are considering.
It is the Government’s view that there is nothing retrospective about what we are doing here. That is similarly the view of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, which has not commented particularly on this matter. These statutory instruments modify existing legislation, so that in the future certain acts can take place. According to most people’s common understanding, retrospectivity means changing the legality of an act that has already happened. In this case no act has happened. We are talking about things that are to happen.
I will not, because there is lots to cover, and my hon. Friend and I have discussed this topic a great deal.
Let me turn to the questions raised about council tax and savings. On council tax, it is right that people are expecting a view, and I can set out for the Committee the position, not just in this case but in previous cases. There is a joint committee in place at the moment involving the councils in both proposed unitaries. It will produce proposals for the Government setting out its plans for council tax harmonisation. The Government’s job is to bring legislation to the House—which we will before the summer—that sets in place the maximum number of years over which equalisation can take place. It is then for the local authorities to decide on the exact path. It is worth bearing in mind that in the previous round of unitarisations in 2009, the period envisaged in the legislation was five years. That is something that hon. Members can work with, and soon enough we will come to a view. In the meantime, we are happy to take representations from colleagues and anyone else on that important matter. As my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch pointed out, there are specific criteria with which those will be judged.
I will conclude by paying tribute—
Order. Minister, I am afraid we have to put the question now.
Question put, That the Committee has considered the draft Bournemouth, Dorset and Poole (Structural Changes) Order 2018.
That is invalid.
Question agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Bournemouth, Dorset and Poole (Structural Changes) Order 2018.