The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chair: Ms Karen Buck
Ali, Rushanara (Bethnal Green and Bow) (Lab)
† Bacon, Mr Richard (South Norfolk) (Con)
† Creasy, Stella (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op)
† Elmore, Chris (Ogmore) (Lab)
† Fovargue, Yvonne (Makerfield) (Lab)
† Francois, Mr Mark (Rayleigh and Wickford) (Con)
† Harper, Mr Mark (Forest of Dean) (Con)
† Hayes, Mr John (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con)
† Hoey, Kate (Vauxhall) (Lab)
† Jenkyns, Andrea (Morley and Outwood) (Con)
† Morgan, Stephen (Portsmouth South) (Lab)
Stevens, Jo (Cardiff Central) (Lab)
† Stevenson, John (Carlisle) (Con)
† Sunak, Rishi (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government)
† Tolhurst, Kelly (Rochester and Strood) (Con)
† Watling, Giles (Clacton) (Con)
Williamson, Chris (Derby North) (Lab)
Jack Dent, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(2):
Chope, Sir Christopher (Christchurch) (Con)
Liddell-Grainger, Mr Ian (Bridgwater and West Somerset) (Con)
Eighth Delegated Legislation Committee
Wednesday 16 May 2018
[Ms Karen Buck in the Chair]
Draft Somerset West and Taunton (Modification of Boundary Change Enactments) Regulations 2018
I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Somerset West and Taunton (Modification of Boundary Change Enactments) Regulations 2018.
With this it will be convenient to consider the draft Somerset West and Taunton (Local Government Changes) Order 2018.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. I thank the other members of the Committee for joining us here early in the morning. The statutory instruments were laid before the House on 29 March. If approved and made, they will provide for the abolition on 1 April 2019 of Taunton Deane borough and West Somerset district, together with their councils. They will also provide for the establishment of a new Somerset West and Taunton district covering the same geographic area, together with a new council for that district.
The Government, as our manifesto made clear, are committed to supporting local authorities that wish to combine in order to serve their communities better. The Government have announced to the House that we will consider any locally-led proposals for district mergers that are put forward by the councils concerned and that meet three criteria—namely, that the proposals will improve local government and service delivery, create structures with a credible geography, and command a good deal of local support.
Let me turn to the proposal that these two district councils developed and submitted to us for the creation of a new district of Somerset West and Taunton. The councils have a history of shared service partnerships. They are clear that the savings in that respect will be safeguarded by implementing the merger and that the merger itself will secure savings of some £3.1 million per annum. That includes safeguarding the £2.6 million of savings already secured through partnership working, and saving an additional £500,000.
In bringing forward their proposal to merge, the two councils have undertaken an engagement programme, actively engaging with residents and stakeholders from December 2016 until February 2017. The programme included an independent, demographically representative phone poll; a dedicated website with background information and an online questionnaire; a series of eight public roadshow events throughout the area; a series of nine consultation events involving groups of parish and town councillors and representatives of community groups; and various meetings with key stakeholders—businesses, partners and other local bodies. The independent phone poll was undertaken to assess local residents’ awareness of West Somerset’s financial position and of the merger proposal. By the end of the consultation period, more than 60% of the population of the two areas were aware of both.
Following their period of engagement, the two councils submitted their joint proposal to merge to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on 27 March 2017. On 30 November, the then Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), told the House that he was minded to implement the proposal made by West Somerset Council and Taunton Deane Borough Council.
There followed a period for representations until 19 January 2018. The Secretary of State received a number of representations, of which 114 supported the proposal, 14 were neutral and 123 were opposed. On 22 March, the Secretary of State announced that he was satisfied that the previously announced merger criteria had been met and that he intended to implement the proposed merger and to lay before Parliament the necessary secondary legislation. That was not just the Secretary of State’s view. It was shared by the two district councils and the county council; a significant majority of councillors in the area; all public bodies that made representations to the Secretary of State—all were either supportive or neutral—the local enterprise partnership and a majority of the businesses and voluntary sector organisations that made representations; and a majority of the town and parish councils that made representations. In addition, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) remains supportive of the proposal. Of course, that view is not shared by all, and I am sure that we will hear later from my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset.
Let me turn briefly to the statutory framework. The Somerset West and Taunton (Modification of Boundary Change Enactments) Regulations 2018 vary the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 in its application to West Somerset and Taunton Deane councils during the period from when the regulations come into force until 31 March 2020. Section 15(4) and (5) of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 provide that such regulations,
“may be made only with the consent of the local authorities to whom the regulations apply”.
In this case, both councils have consented to the regulations.
The Somerset West and Taunton (Local Government Changes) Order 2018, if approved, will be made under section 10 of the 2007 Act and makes provision for various items: abolishing the existing local government areas for West Somerset and Taunton Deane; establishing a new district coterminous with the previous areas of West Somerset and Taunton Deane, named Somerset West and Taunton; winding up and dissolving the district councils of West Somerset and Taunton Deane and establishing a new council, Somerset West and Taunton District Council; providing appropriate transitional arrangements, such as a shadow authority and shadow executive; and establishing, in agreement with the councils, any necessary electoral arrangements. We expect the Local Government Boundary Commission for England to be able to undertake a full electoral review of the new area before the elections in May 2019.
In conclusion, in considering the two draft instruments, we are assessing the merits of merging the West Somerset and Taunton Deane districts and councils to become Somerset West and Taunton, with a new district council. In this instance, it is clear that the two councils have come together to work on a locally-led proposal that, if implemented, will improve local government and service delivery in the area and command a good deal of local support. The council area also represents a credible geography. The proposed new council of Somerset West and Taunton has wide support, and both councils have consented to the making of the regulations. I have confidence that the local area will implement the district council merger by next April, to allow the good people of Somerset West and Taunton to elect their new council in May next year. On that basis, I commend the regulations and the order to the Committee.
This is a contentious merger. It was voted through very narrowly by the two Conservative councils and, as I am sure the Minister is aware, a judicial review has started that challenges his assertion that it meets the three-tier test.
The first tier is whether the proposal will improve the local area’s governance. The two areas are very different in character. One is rural and geographically large—its largest town has only about 12,000 inhabitants—and the other has one large central town. I ask the Minister: how will a divided focus will be prevented? How many councillors will there be for each area? Will there be a large reduction in West Somerset? The hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset is on record saying that there will be a democratic deficit. How will that be prevented? Where will the headquarters be? Will it not be remote for half the population? How will it lead to better service delivery? The business plan said it would, but were the assertions made in the business plan sufficiently challenged that we can be sure that they have a robust basis, or were they just taken at face value?
The savings are about £500,000 in the first year alone. How many redundancies will that mean? Services are already joined up. There is certainly a feeling that West Somerset has been failing for some time; indeed, it is probably more than a feeling. Its Tory leader has stated that all councils are suffering with severe reductions in Government funding. Is this not just another way of stopping another council going bankrupt? The projections of the financial benefits to both councils have been described as “jam tomorrow” by the Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, and the residents of Taunton Deane have asserted on a number of occasions that they are “bailing out” an ailing council at little benefit to themselves.
The second tier is that the proposal must command a good deal of local support, which is clearly not the case here; the Minister was very careful to say that it was certainly nowhere near unanimous. The Lords Committee said that there were inadequacies in the consultation process and the largest number of responses to the open consultation, which was carried out over the Christmas period in 2016, opposed the proposal for reasons that the Minister described as misconceptions. Surely, if the consultation was so flawed that it led to a number of misconceptions, it should have been rerun to provide the opportunity to correct the misconceptions and measure the support again.
The geography is the third tier. As I have said, the areas do not feel any local links, so will the Minister say why there is the rush to merge? Why not postpone the merger? There are alternative proposals from the county council for a county-wide unitary authority. Have those proposals been considered and, if so, why were they dismissed? Is there another reason for the merger besides the desire to bail out a failing council? Is there political expediency in creating a council that is more likely to remain Conservative? I hope that is not the case, because, as the Government’s own document states, mergers should happen to improve governance and deliver better services, and they should command the support of local people and have due regard to geography.
In this case, it is clear that the Minister has a way to go to reassure local politicians and residents that those tests have been met, and that this merger is not simply gerrymandering.
It does not give me great pleasure to stand before my colleagues to say what I have to say, but I am grateful to the hon. Member for Makerfield, who spoke for Labour, because she hit a lot of nails on the head.
I found the Minister’s opening statement to be almost Cinderella-like, as so much of it is not correct, and unfortunately this Committee is dealing with two statutory instruments that could affect my constituency—indeed, they will affect my constituency—very badly indeed.
The amalgamation of West Somerset Council with Taunton Deane Borough Council, its urban neighbour, will mean the loss of more than half our councillors; we will go from having 28 councillors to probably 12, and the same is true of Taunton Deane. There is a massive deficit. This is an area that Greater London could easily be fitted into that has 35,000 people. It is a huge geographical area. We do not think the price will be worth paying in respect of democracy. We will literally have people covering areas the size of half of Greater London.
West Somerset is sparsely populated and contains more than its fair share of retired folk. I believe that we have the second highest number of retired folk in Britain; my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch probably has slightly more than I do, but not by many. West Somerset is a very old area. We do not have very good phone signals; we do not even really have very good internet. We are an area that is still catching up and we have a long way to go.
To merge our area with Taunton—the county town, which has roughly 120,000 people, when we have only 35,000 people—does not make any sense whatsoever. This is a shotgun marriage that will lock us into a future of playing second fiddle to Taunton’s tune. We just would not have enough councillors to change anything. It does not matter what colour or persuasion those councillors will be; that will be irrelevant. They will never be able to stop Taunton from doing anything it wants.
I have good reasons to oppose both the draft instruments. First, they contain significant errors. The local government changes order refers to Taunton Deane as a district council. In fact, Taunton Deane is a borough council; it was granted borough status 43 years ago. The order also reproduces a schedule of wards and the number of new councillors to be elected in the future. Some of the names of these wards are displayed incorrectly and the number of new councillors is out of line with what we have been led to believe will be the case.
I understand that these things may seem trivial to some people, but I suggest to the Committee that we have a solemn duty in this House to pass legislation that is accurate in all its details. If this was a classroom and you, Ms Buck, were the teacher, I think that we would hear the words from you, “Not good enough. Take it away and do it again.
The Somerset West and Taunton (Modification of Boundary Change Enactments) Regulations 2018 are accompanied by a written report that the Secretary of State was legally obliged to supply. Without that report, the draft statutory instrument would be unlawful. However, the report itself contains material inaccuracies and deliberate omissions, which I feel obliged to point out this morning.
I hope that all the members of the Committee have that document. It runs to six pages. I will begin on page 4, section 4, in which the Secretary of State describes the process of consultation; quite rightly, the Minister referred to consultation as well. There is no dispute that the two councils conducted a consultation exercise of sorts. It was done very late in the day, several months after both councils had voted on the proposals and it was not—I repeat, not—a referendum. My argument is that the consultation has been deliberately misrepresented by the authors of the report that is before the Committee.
We are dealing with some other dismal mistakes. Paragraph 4.5 is about responses to an online survey organised by the two councils, and says there were
“76 written and 528 questionnaire responses that displayed a good level of support”.
The numbers may be spot on, but I am sorry to say that the Government’s explanation is completely false. The large majority of the 528 people who filled in the questionnaire clearly said that they did not like the plans. That happens to be a matter of fact.
The next paragraph, paragraph 4.6, states that
“some town and parish councils…expressed support for the proposal.”
Is that true? No. That is another deliberate effort to spin a yarn. I have revisited all the documentation—it has been going on so long. In direct response to the consultation, 25 towns and parishes submitted written opinions. Of those, 17—well over half—were dead against or expressed serious reservations. I am therefore curious to learn how the consultation demonstrated a “good level of support”. That assertion is nonsense.
Last November, when the Secretary of State announced that he was minded to approve the proposals, which the Minister was again quite right in putting forward, there was another chance to lobby him. The report catalogues 114 representations in favour and mentions, almost as an afterthought, that there were 123 against, including those of 15 councillors. Once again, that does not represent a “good level of support”.
The thrust of the Government’s argument seems to be that those who opposed the plans were ill-informed and did not fully understand what they were talking about—it almost sounds like the Brexit debate. Paragraph 4.7 states that
“it was made clear in the joint business case submitted to the Secretary of State that both councils stand to make savings and improve their financial sustainability through the merger.”
Of course, that would be the very detailed business case prepared by Taunton Deane and West Somerset and published in July 2016. It set out, without any proof, the kind of savings that might be achieved if they invested almost £7 million in a new IT system, cut staff by 30% and then amalgamated. It was the stuff of dreams—fairy gold at the end of the rainbow.
In September 2016, the two councils trooped to London to see the Minister’s predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones). I got an invitation at the last moment, which was somewhat galling to say the least. They outlined their ideas and had the cheek to ask for money in the meeting. I assure hon. Members that the then Minister sent them away empty-handed and said, “No. You’ve got to be joking. You have come up here to say this is a good idea and you want money. Something doesn’t smell right.”
The councils outlined their ideas, but by the time they got round to submitting formal merger plans last year, their business case was 12 months old and woefully out of date. The price of transformation, as it is called, had shot up. The promised savings had tumbled. The whole scheme was running way behind schedule, and it still is. However, like a lot of people, the Government did not read the small print.
The House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee came to precisely that conclusion when it examined the two draft statutory instruments. Its report said:
“Projections of the financial benefits…of the proposed merger are ‘jam tomorrow’”.
I could not have put it better myself, and I do not think anybody else could. That report from the other place also had a big dose of criticism for the public consultation, stating:
“If a consultation exercise is to carry credibility, those who organise it must be open-minded about its results.”
We are dealing with the fag end of a deeply flawed legal process. Frankly, we should not be here at all. This is not what this House, or this Delegated Legislation Committee, should be about.
The Department deliberately encouraged Taunton Deane and West Somerset councils to submit plans under the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016, which was passed to create mayors, not to fast-track little local mergers. It bypasses the long-established scrutiny of the Local Government Boundary Commission and turns a blind eye to shoddy consultation. In short, the Act is being misused.
As the Minister will be acutely aware, the danger of all this is scrutiny. The final section of the report shows where the Government got their information from to judge the merger’s value. Most of it—guess what—came directly from the councils. If the Department did any analysis, it took it straight from Taunton at face value. It did not look carefully enough at the business case and ask the right questions, even when the councils updated their financial information. The Government assumed that all the projected savings would be unchanged. This is what a court would call negligence. By any token, it is an incredibly stupid way of dealing with things. I will lay down some proof of that before the Committee.
Last month, the House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee asked for hard evidence of cost savings. The Government replied, as they always do:
“The business case, submitted jointly by both councils, details that becoming a single council will secure on-going savings of £3.1 million per annum”.
That is ridiculous. All the promised savings have already shrunk because of updated financial information supplied by the councils themselves. In any case, the savings of £3.1 million were never per annum. Perhaps officials failed—dare I say it—to read the documents properly. If I was paying for their advice, I would want my money back.
It comes as little surprise to discover that the Government face the prospect of a judicial review by disgruntled local people. I warned the Minister and the former Secretary of State, before he shifted, that that might happen. I suggested that it would be sensible to postpone this sitting while we sort this out, but he said, “No, the juggernaut of badly drafted statutory instruments must roll on.” I hope the Committee is getting a flavour of my disgust at the position I find myself and my constituents in.
If there is going to be a judicial review, and if its outcome is that the courts strike down these instruments, will that not create absolute chaos in the area? Is that not a good reason in itself for the merger to be postponed?
My hon. Friend is going through exactly the same situation that I am, for exactly the same reasons: tin-pot people decided that they had a better idea of how to run things. I have absolutely no doubt, having looked at what we have submitted, that we have a very good chance of—dare I say it—undermining the Government, of which I am a member. However, that does not mean that we should not do it. My hon. Friend has quite rightly put in his own papers.
This proposal has to be reviewed. The Government cannot ride roughshod over local government all the time. We have only to look at what is happening around the country. I believe there have been challenges in Norfolk, Northampton and other areas. Either local government means something or it does not. If it does not, get rid of it. If it does, it is worth fighting to save it. I strongly believe that, unless people like myself, as a constituency MP, stand up and make these points, we will just not be listened to. The Government have to wake up.
Taunton Deane Borough Council—not a district council, remember; it is just a borough—is led by, I am sorry to say, an appalling bully with a very dodgy business background and a very nasty and cavalier attitude to planning, which is now becoming rather obvious. He promoted this merger at the expense of honesty and common sense, and I am afraid that the reputation of his regime as tin-pot is now beginning to stick. I will give a flavour of how my constituents will suffer. I hope the Minister is listening.
That council is going to borrow £11 million pounds to tart up its HQ in Taunton, which will be worth—based on figures from reputable local estate agents—less than half of that. My constituents will be paying for a tarted up HQ that is worth 50% of what was spent on it. The leader of the council also wants to borrow £16 million to build a hotel. A district council is borrowing £16 million to build a hotel in Taunton that has no end user and will take 16 years to pay back. Again, my constituents will lose out. I think that I would trust Basil Fawlty rather than these characters, I really do.
The leader of the council’s burning ambition is to concrete over everything in sight and allow developers to put up 17,000 new houses in Taunton Deane. I represent an area in west Somerset that includes the Quantocks, Exmoor, a stunningly beautiful coastline and—believe it or not, coming from Somerset—quite a lot floodplains. We therefore cannot afford, in an area like ours, with literally one road in and one road out, to have more housing. However, the council next door—I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) is not here—is building 17,000 new houses in a tiny area. The leader of the council makes his living as—guess what—a builder. He now fancies branching out into west Somerset. The draft instruments are allowing him to do that. I invite the Committee to reflect on that.
I would like to address a couple of other points mentioned by the hon. Member for Makerfield. One in three jobs will go. There will be massive redundancies between the two councils. We do not have a figure yet, because they have not done the work. The IT system alone will cost £7 million. The democratic deficit and the jobs deficit—in an area that has stubbornly high unemployment, unfortunately, because work is very seasonal—will continue. I find it even more difficult to understand why a Government that pride themselves on enterprise, championing small and medium-sized enterprises, and standing up for the little business are now saying that we should have not only a political deficit, but a jobs deficit in an area like ours. I just do not get it. I am sorry to say that I find their entire argument spurious.
Taunton is not precepted—it never has been. It has a mayor, but it is not precepted. The mayor has been Labour, Liberal and Conservative, therefore it does it properly, but it wants to be precepted. Why on earth should my constituents be paying for a mayor in Taunton? We are miles from Taunton. Taunton, even from where I live, is half an hour away. From Minehead it is an hour away. It is not next door. We will be paying to have a mayor that we do not have. This whole thing, therefore, shows a completely cavalier attitude from the Government.
I ask the Committee to be brave and to stand up for local government and the little person, because at the moment that is not happening.
I apologise for not being here at the beginning of the Minister’s remarks, but I heard a great deal of what he said and all of what has been said since. I do not really know much about Taunton or Somerset, although I did visit there a lot in my youth, when my sister lived in Dunster. These days, I deliberately never go west of Nottingham, because I spend my life in Lincolnshire and Westminster. I holiday in Whitby and Northumberland. That is good enough for me.
I do, however, want to make these observations based on what has been said so far. First, local government is not an accident. It is not the creation of some mandarin—I do not mean to be rude to mandarins, by the way, in case anyone thought I did—with a whiteboard in London. It has to reflect communitive interest. For local government to have political legitimacy, it has to reflect a general feeling of local affinity. I accept that not all areas are homogeneous, but it does have to reflect that affinity. That is highly relevant to the order. All of what I say is directly pertinent, Ms Buck, just in case you were worrying.
A flicker of anxiety has crossed my face.
I could see that you were looking at me in a kindly, but stern way—if that is not contradictory.
That seems to me to be at the heart of all the considerations on this kind of change. Will the result be a genuine reflection of a local communitive interest?
Secondly, the relationship between local and national Government, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset said, has always been a matter of debate and periodically, as local government has been reorganised, it has been a matter of contention. I think of the Local Government Act 1972—one of Edward Heath’s many disasters—which created all kinds of peculiar local authorities, which luckily enough were fairly short lived, such as Humberside and Avon. One thinks back on them now as distant, sad memories.
I urge the right hon. Gentleman to firmly locate his remarks in the statutory requirements.
In that context, the 1972 Act created a new authority in Somerset. It was very short-lived, so it is important in the debate about local and national relationships that national Government do not simply reorganise local government without reference to some of the imperatives that I have mentioned.
My third point is that this is a question to ask of all Governments. None of the comments that I am making is about this Minister particularly or this Government; they are bigger points. The Government have to be clear about the ramifications of devolution. If the Government and members of the Committee believe that power is best exercised closest to its effect, which seems to me to be the essence of why devolution is desirable, that principle has to be seen through in any structural changes to local government of the kind that we are debating today.
I have articulated a few broad thoughts. I will not comment further on the specifics of this proposal, because as I said at the outset, I am not well enough informed to do so. It seems to me that the Government need fairly speedily to understand those broader principles, rather than introducing a series of what might be perceived by some, and certainly by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset, as haphazard or inconsistent changes.
I have just a short comment to make. My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset, in his excellent remarks, has highlighted the fact that the Government invited this proposal for a merger. That contrasts with the behaviour of the Government in relation to Dorset, where they are seeking retrospectively to change the rules, so—
Order. I ask the hon. Gentleman to concentrate his remarks on these particular statutory instruments and not on Dorset or other areas. We are tending to drift away into a wider discussion.
Exactly. I am just trying to make a comparison between the situation in this case, in which, if I understood my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset correctly, the Government invited the proposal, having received some informal representations from the councils concerned, and the situation in other cases in which, despite having been in contact with councils, the Government have not actually gone through the invitation process and are relying instead on changing the rules after the event.
I just want to find out from my hon. Friend the Minister, when he responds to the debate, what the explanation is as to why in the case of these two councils the Government invited representations, pursuant to section 2 of the 2007 Act, whereas in other cases in which councils have been in contact with the Government, the Government have not invited representations. Has that anything to do with the fact that, under section 2, if they invite representations and they are not supported by all councils, the Government are under an obligation to consult? Is that the reason why, in this case, they went along with it—because they thought that there would not be any need to consult—whereas in other cases, in which there would be a need to consult, they ducked away from that?
It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to respond to the comments made by the hon. Member for Makerfield, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings, and my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch. I hope that I can address all the points that they raised and, of course, those of my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset, whom I fully respect for representing his constituents in the way that he sees fit.
I shall start with the misconception, which ran through comments from hon. Members on both sides of the Committee, that in some way central Government are, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset said, riding roughshod over local government. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings referred to a delicate relationship between central and local government, and I agree with him. It is important that central Government do not ride roughshod over or dictate to local government, which is why the Government have been exceptionally clear that we want to see locally-driven proposals and will consider locally-driven, locally-originated proposals against a set of criteria, which the previous Secretary of State reiterated in the House. That speaks to the very nature of what we are talking about here. I want to remind hon. Members on both sides of the Committee that this was a locally-driven process. The Government received a proposal that had been generated, researched, engaged with and consulted on by the local councils in question, both of which have consented to the making of the statutory instruments.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch talked about an invitation. There was no invitation from central Government to the councils to put the proposal forward. It was entirely a result of their own work.
The hon. Member for Makerfield talked about the narrow council majority. I think it would be helpful for hon. Members to know the results of the council votes that were held in both areas. When the proposal was considered in Taunton Deane, 32 councillors were in favour and 16 against, with two abstentions. That is a majority of more than 64%. When West Somerset Council voted on the matter in December, 20 councillors were in favour and just three against, with one abstention. That is an 83% vote in favour. In aggregate, that combines to 70%. I will leave hon. Members to make up their own minds as to whether that it is a significant or a narrow majority.
Not only are local councillors in support, but the local area is too, including the county council, all public bodies, businesses, the voluntary sector and a majority of the parishes.
I gently say to the Minister that that is not the case. I represent one of the areas, although I admit that I do not represent the other. When I talked to the local enterprise partnership, it had been asked whether it thought it was a good idea. Well, if people are asked whether they like blueberry pie, they tend to say yes. It was not given any facts; it was just asked whether it was a good idea. One of the reasons that it said so was that Hinkley Point C nuclear power station is in west Somerset. A lot of it has been predicated on that. I therefore say to the Minister that I am not sure that is correct.
It is not just the local enterprise partnership. On my understanding, all businesses, voluntary organisations and public bodies that submitted formal representations were in support or not against the proposals, so I do not think what my hon. Friend says is accurate in that sense. Obviously, he is against the proposals, but my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), who represents the other area, is firmly in favour of them.
The key point is about respecting the views of local government and the local area. As I hope I have adequately demonstrated, not only did central Government not impose anything; we did not initiate anything. We responded to a proposal that was put forward and strongly supported by the local councillors and local councils involved.
We have also heard about the so-called democratic deficit and whether people of both districts would have an adequate voice in the new electoral arrangements. As hon. Members have said, that is a misperception in the minds of the constituents who wrote in about that. Again, I will give hon. Members the facts and leave them to make up their own mind. There will be a reduction in the number of councillors across the entire area from 83 to 58, but the number of electors per councillor for the new council is 1,927. To put that in context, the average for the country for two-tier district areas is 1,925. I would argue that that lies squarely in the average for the rest of England in terms of democratic accountability and representation for ordinary people. People should be assured by that.
I was asked about service delivery, the reasons for the merger and the financial savings. In the first instance, it is important to note that the merger will safeguard the existing savings that are in place between the two councils, which are in excess of £2 million. Financially, West Somerset Council is not in the best of shape. That is not my view, but the view of the council’s leadership, the statutory section 151 officer, the independent auditor and the county council. They all make the point that if West Somerset Council finds itself in further financial straits, that would jeopardise the entire shared partnership structure in place between the two councils, which generates savings and saves people money on their council tax bill. Therefore, in the first instance, the merger safeguards an existing way of working and an existing amount of savings.
I am sorry to be so boring about this. The Minister covers a very rural area as well. He just said, “If West Somerset has a problem,” but it does not. It has balanced its books for this year, next year and the year after. It is doing well, but yet again we are being told that that is not the case.
I tell my hon. Friend that that is not just my view, but the view of his own council and the statutory section 151 officer, who believes that without this merger, the future of West Somerset Council is “not viable”. It is also the view of the independent auditor in the comments they have made and of the county council. I know that my hon. Friend has corresponded with the Department over several months. We remain of the view that the opinion of all the people locally involved with the council believe that this merger will safeguard the savings and that without the merger the financial situation will be extremely difficult.
On the future relationship and service transformation, I was asked about employees. That will obviously be a matter for the new council but it is worth pointing out that the two councils already operate a relatively deep shared partnership structure and use common employees in a single area. It is unlikely that there would be significant changes but that will be a matter for them.
That has come from the councils themselves. The unions have done a lot of work on this. It is one in three jobs; that is where the savings are coming from—by getting rid of people. It is not a real saving; it is imaginary because it is necessary to get rid of people to make the saving.
It is important to note that when we talk about savings of £3.1 million, only £0.5 million comes from the merger we are considering today. The remainder is already in place through the joint working and will be safeguarded by the merger. In terms of the incremental change, £0.5 million as a percentage of £3.1 million is relatively small. We are talking about safeguarding the existing joint working between these two councils, where there is not enormous duplication of staff, because in most instances there is already one set of staff delivering for both councils.
More broadly, the larger district council will be better at joined-up proposals for growth, whether it is Hinkley or developing a new university. It feels it will better execute its function as a strategic housing authority and dealing with stakeholders, all of whom prefer the efficiency and productivity of dealing with one entity. It also believes it will strengthen its hand when applying for various types of funding.
Turning to a couple of specific points raised about a unitary proposal, the Department has not received any formal unitary proposal for Somerset. Of course, should one emerge—
Could I help the Minister again? I feel I am being too helpful. On the reason the county wants a unitary body, the leader of the county council came to see me and I will quote him next week in Westminster Hall. He said, “I’m going bust and want to take over the districts to balance my books.” Minister, we have a problem; let us not be cavalier.
Far from being cavalier, the Government believe in doing things properly by due process. Should a proposal emerge from the county, of course we will consider it alongside the criteria that the previous Secretary of State laid out in Parliament. As I reiterated at the beginning, central Government will, as committed to do in our manifesto, support local areas that bring forward locally-driven proposals and consider them fairly and appropriately.
The salient point is that the Minister has persuasively made the case that this proposal has emanated from the locality. If the locality, with the communitive interest I described at its heart, has requested that the Government consider these matters, then the Government are doing entirely the right thing in doing so. If the Minister is right—it seems from his evidence that he must be—he has satisfied my concern that these things must be driven by local people and local interests.
I thank my right hon. Friend on one of the rare occasions that someone has changed their mind during a debate. I agree with him that not only have proposals been driven by the local area but they have been formally consented to by the two councils involved.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset made a detailed point about the definitions in the regulations and order we are considering. Of course, Taunton Deane is a district with borough status. That is very clear in the interpretation section of the order, which defines district councils for the purposes of the order. The definition is:
“‘the District Councils’ means West Somerset District Council and Taunton Deane Borough Council”.
I hope I have assured him that that was not missed.
Lastly, unfortunately my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset has raised some very personal allegations against the leader of another council, as he has in the past.
Indeed. It is fair to raise those things if that is what my hon. Friend wants to do, but he has been told multiple times by the former Secretary of State, the Minister responsible for local growth, my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), and the Prime Minister that if he has serious allegations of any criminal or fraudulent activity, he should bring those to the police. He was told that as early as November last year, and also before that. Six months later, no one has received anything. I again urge him that if he has evidence, the appropriate course is to take it to the police.
In conclusion, I thank all Members for their spirited contributions this morning. At this point, we should wish the councils in West Somerset and Taunton Deane all the best as they embark on a new, bright future together as a new entity—Godspeed.
That the Committee has considered the draft Somerset West and Taunton (Modification of Boundary Change Enactments) Regulations 2018.
Draft Somerset West and Taunton (Local Government Changes) Order 2018
That the Committee has considered the draft Somerset West and Taunton (Local Government Changes) Order 2018.—(Rishi Sunak.)