I beg to move,
That this House has considered a proposal for the Bay local authority in North Lancashire and South Cumbria.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher.
I called for today’s debate because I believe that the current local government reorganisation process is being carried out in the wrong way and conducted at the wrong time. It is a rushed process, which councils are responding to at a time when they are also dealing with the pandemic. The reorganisation decisions that are about to be made will have a lasting impact on the Lancaster part of my constituency and how it is governed for generations to come. After all, it is 47 years since the last major review of local government in our area, which tore up the historic county of Lancashire and, I believe, got it wrong when removing Lancashire over the sands—that is, Barrow-in-Furness—from the rest of Lancashire. It could be another 47 years before we return to this topic, so we must get it right this time, both by creating effective structures and respecting cultural identities.
I would be grateful if the Minister could explain in his response to the debate why Cumbria was invited to put forward proposals and Lancashire was not. In September 2020, Lancashire County Council submitted a request to the Government to be in tranche 1. By consulting only on Cumbria and not Lancashire, the Government have limited the opportunity to develop solutions that work across both areas, despite their repeated claims to want to enable locally-led solutions.
When the consultation opened in February, it was unclear on the consultation website whether residents in Lancaster were entitled to respond at all, because the consultation only mentioned Cumbria, despite one of the options involving Lancaster. I am grateful that, thanks to the lobbying of Councillor Lizzi Collinge, some of the wording was finally amended a few weeks ago. However, it is still unacceptable that, without those changes, Lancaster may have faced a once-in-a-generation change in governance without its inhabitants being meaningfully consulted.
The consultation website is also difficult to browse, loaded with jargon and confusing, particularly for my Lancaster constituents. I am that the Minister will tell me that the consultation meets the minimum standards required by the relevant legislation, but let us be frank: a poorly designed consultation, rushed through in a pandemic, is no way to make a decision of this magnitude, and nor is it the locally-led, bottom-up process that the Government claim it is.
In Lancaster, there is a long-held view that cross-county options for local government should be considered. As I have said, the current county boundaries were imposed in 1974 and do not reflect local geography or local identity. I support Lancaster City Council’s wish to work with neighbouring councils in Morecambe Bay to develop a proposal for a new council. I am grateful to our local councillors in Lancaster and south Cumbria and in particular to the leader of Lancaster City Council, Councillor Dr Erica Lewis, for her work to encourage people in Lancaster to engage with the consultation and consider the options.
Joint working between Lancaster, Barrow and South Lakeland is very well developed in the Morecambe Bay area, which is already recognised as the functional economic geography of the area, with a footprint for public services such as the NHS that makes sense. The Bay councils developed their proposal in record time. Despite the time constraints, they have put together a strong proposal and demonstrated strong local support for it. I hope the Government will give the Bay proposal proper consideration.
However, the approach so far from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government does not seem even-handed. The legislation, and the invitation, for local government reorganisation proposals expressly allow for a type C proposal from councils in neighbouring county areas, yet Lancaster has not been treated as a full participant in the process.
The process that the Government are following is flawed. A type C proposal is a legal proposal, yet the consultation treats Lancaster City Council, Lancaster’s residents and local organisations differently from their equivalents in other areas where proposals are being put forward. I would like the Minister to give a categorical assurance that the views of Lancaster residents will be given equal weight in this process.
The Bay offers a positive vision of investment, skills and jobs growth, tackling the climate emergency, and protecting and enhancing natural resources, infrastructure such as roads, flood defences and housing, and services that meet real need across adult and children’s services. The Bay area has 13,000 businesses, with 18,000 jobs in advanced manufacturing, 4,300 in agriculture and 25,000 in tourism and hospitality. Some 30 million people visit Lancaster and south Cumbria, contributing £2 billion to the economy. It has five major wind farms, oil and gas operations, and two major nuclear power stations. It also has two universities, both already effectively co-operating across the Bay.
The Bay has the capacity to tangibly improve people’s lives and is a place that works in the real economy. Council spending would be on the same footprint as the NHS, providing clarity and focus. The proposal addressed previously missed opportunities to create a council structure that reflects the economic, geographic and population realities of the area. This proposal will strengthen rather than undermine people’s identity and affinity with the area.
Changing administrative borders does not change people’s identity and affinities. The people of Lancaster will always be Lancastrians. Many people in Barrow, despite being administratively in Cumbria, consider themselves to be Lancastrians too—indeed, as I was born in Barrow, I very much consider myself a Lancastrian—but they are also from the Bay and from the north-west.
What will change is locally focused services, with decisions made close to where people live, and a greater, more meaningful role for communities and town and parish councils if they want it. Throughout this process, the three councils of the Bay have said that they want young people to be part of shaping what is in their community and their future. To secure a job with long-term prospects and find a home that they can afford, some young people feel that they need to move away from the Bay. I want every young person to feel that they can have the opportunities and the future that they want in Lancaster and across the Bay. Can the Minister reassure me that the views of young people will be considered in making a decision on local government reorganisation?
This should not be about party politics. The Bay proposal is based on the natural affinity of the three councils and the communities they serve. It transcends party politics locally and is based on the long-term interests of the people who live, work and invest in the Bay area, not short-term political advantage—a sentiment also reflected in the surveys conducted as part of the consultation.
I was disappointed to see the Lancashire County Council response clearly split on political lines. In weighing this as a consultation response, I hope the Government will reflect on the fact that, although Lancashire County Council is divided on these issues, there is strong cross-party support in Lancaster, Barrow and South Lakeland. Lancashire County Council Conservatives are completely wrong to claim that the Bay does not enjoy local support. The Government will see in the consultation process that there is still very strong local support. This has already been evidenced by independent polling. This is not a Labour proposal, or a Lib Dem or Conservative proposal. It has been supported by parties on all sides in all three districts, because they recognise that it is the best solution for the communities across Morecambe Bay, and it is not hard to understand why. We are a community tied by history, family, work and education.
The Bay would allow councils in the remainder of two-tier Lancashire to consider their own future, develop new authorities and move to a position where all of Lancashire has a single-tier local government. The Bay also creates an opportunity for a new north Cumbria council. With an affinity with neighbours in the north of England and southern Scotland, there is potential for enhanced borderlands working.
The Government have set out three tests for proposals. I will address each and set out why I believe the Bay meets them. On the first test, the Bay will improve local government and service delivery, and provide stronger leadership and more sustainable structures. There is a public service imperative to focus on what public services need to do to respond to today’s society and needs. The Bay proposal is about reform as much as reorganisation. Mature joint working between the three councils and alignment with health services is a strong basis for creating the new council.
On the second test, the Bay has strong local support. It is the only proposal on the table that has very clear local support from the public. It is not clear how the assessment of local support will be made by the Department. Can the Minister reassure me that he will not place the self-interested opposition of Conservative councillors from the other end of Lancashire above the wishes of local people in the Bay area?
The third test relates to population. The Bay is within the range proposed by the Government and has a credible geography. There is obviously a lot of work to do to develop the detailed plans for any new councils that are created, whether that is bringing together current district services or county services. There is also work to do with the police and fire authorities to develop arrangements. Can the Minister assure me that the Government will not put the district-led proposals, and specifically a type C proposal, at an immediate disadvantage? It would make nonsense of the invitation for a type C option if the Government were to rule it out on the alignment of police and fire authorities. There must be a pragmatic approach, and it must be recognised that there is an opportunity to work out new arrangements in the transition to a new authority. Those could be worked out locally and, indeed, the Government can intervene if they wish to.
Local government reorganisation must be about more than rearranging the deckchairs. On issues such as social care, public health, climate change and youth services, more of the same will not be good enough. The Department commissioned a research report from Cardiff University that concluded that size is not a detriment with respect to performance, and the implications for performance should be evaluated in the context of the reform proposed for each local area. The Bay is a chance to shake things up and to do things differently, on a geographic footprint that makes sense for services and local people.
Finally I want to say a word about democracy, which should be at the heart of the discussion. I agree with the Government that our current two-tier local government arrangement does not work. Routinely people do not know which council provides which services, who they should hold accountable for them, or where they should turn for help. I assist thousands of constituents with their issues each year as their MP, and I feel their pain. A change to unitary local government is welcome and in principle it has broad political support, because it would simplify services for residents and businesses. It would vastly improve the accountability of councils and councillors, and by doing so it would improve local people’s ability to understand and have a say in decisions that affect them. However, that sense of connection to local government will be realised only if the authority reflects the local identity and local patterns of living and working.
I believe that only the Bay will deliver that for Lancaster, South Lakeland and Barrow. Unlike proposals for county unitaries it operates on a scale that works, and unlike such options as greater Blackpool it represents real geography that will centre all the residents in decision making. The feeling is clear, from surveys, opinion polling and representations that have been made to me. Residents and businesses in Lancaster say that they would feel distant from a one Lancashire or greater Blackpool authority. The Bay would give leadership that local people would identify with, and enhance local democracy rather than weakening it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) on securing this hugely important debate. We strongly welcome her interest in ensuring that her constituents, the businesses, local organisations and voluntary groups, and everyone who lives and works in the area, can have a real say about the future of local government reform. It is hugely important. Of course, all the hon. Lady’s constituents can continue to contribute to the consultation, which is still open. If they have not had the opportunity to do so I certainly encourage them to join the process.
Perhaps it is right for me to begin by setting out the Government’s policy. We consider that locally led changes to the structure of local government, whether in the form of unitarisation or district mergers, can be an appropriate means of improving local service delivery, saving taxpayers money and improving local accountability. We are clear that any reform of an area’s local government is most effectively achieved through locally led proposals put forward by those who know the area best. That is the essence of localism, to which we are committed. There is no question of any top-down imposition of Government solutions in that area. That brings me to the proposals that we have received from councils in Cumbria for local government reorganisation.
On 9 October last year the Secretary of State invited all the principal councils in Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset, including the unitary councils, to submit locally led proposals for unitary local government. The councils in those three areas had been developing ideas about restructuring local government for some time, and were well advanced, which is why they were selected. We consider it right that Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset councils had the opportunity to present their local proposals for unitary reform. Late last year, on 9 December, we received four proposals from Cumbria councils: one from the county council proposing a single unitary council for the area, and three from different groups of district councils, each proposing two unitary councils.
As the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood outlined, one of the two unitary proposals is from Barrow Borough Council and South Lakeland District Council, which they have developed with Lancaster City Council. Under the current statutory process, only councils which have received an invitation can submit a proposal. However, that proposal may cover areas outside of those councils. That is the case here, where the proposals submitted by Barrow Borough Council and South Lakeland District Council include Lancaster City, an approach that the city council supports.
On 22 February this year, we launched a consultation for proposals in line with the statute, which requires that before implementing a proposal a Secretary of State must consult any council that would be affected by, but did not submit, that proposal, as well as such other persons he considers appropriate. That closes on 19 April.
I know that Lancaster City Council has been working closely with Barrow and South Lakeland on their proposal, which includes Lancaster City as an area outside Cumbria that is part of Lancashire in terms of the statute. As the hon. Lady has outlined, this is known as a type C proposal. While Lancaster City supports this proposal and has been playing a part in its development, the position under the statute is that Lancaster City is not a proposing council.
We are consulting Lancaster City Council and Lancashire County Council on all the proposals put forward by the Cumbria authorities. We are also consulting the Lancashire police and crime commissioner and fire and rescue authority, along with the PCC and fire and rescue authority for Cumbria. It is also important to stress that residents and organisations in Lancaster can comment on the proposal, just like the residents and organisations in Barrow and South Lakeland.
That is extremely important feature, and the fact that hundreds of people in Lancaster City have already commented shows that the process is working; it is open, it is available, and it remains open until 19 April. In fact, we checked this morning, and—as an example—well over four fifths of email responses alone are about the Bay proposal, and nearly two thirds of the total emails for Cumbria are from the hon. Lady’s “Back the Bay” campaign. I think it is clear that we are encouraging views from anybody who is interested, whether that is businesses, the voluntary sector, organisations, or local residents in Lancaster and elsewhere in Cumbria, Lancashire and beyond.
The hon. Lady asked for confirmation that young people’s views will be taken into account, which is absolutely right and vital, and I can certainly give her the reassurance that they are submitting to the consultation. The Secretary of State has a responsibility to weigh up all the representations he receives, including from young people, and we have specifically asked proposing councils to actively increase awareness of and access to the consultation. Clearly, that would include young people as well, and they are able to use their resources to do that. In the case of Barrow and South Lakeland, with the help of Lancaster City Council, that will no doubt include raising awareness in those groups, and among those who live and work in Lancaster.
The hon. Lady also mentioned access to the consultation through the website, and she is right to highlight that the consultation website meets the commonly applied web content accessibility guidelines to help it be more accessible to a wide range of people. If she thinks there are ways that can be improved further for future consultation, of course we will be happy to listen to that.
On the wider point of access to the consultation, we ask all councils to facilitate the widest possible awareness of the consultation. We believe it is right that the councils that know their communities best and understand the requirements of local people are best placed to generate interest from a wide range of organisations using the connections and information that they have. For example, that could include a council making both the consultation and the proposal available digitally or in other accessible formats. It is also important to put on record that people can respond in writing or by email to the consultation, and the details of that are available on the consultation website. Councils can, of course, use that to promote access to the consultation, including to the groups that the hon. Lady has highlighted.
I just want to touch on the elections. As the hon. Lady will be aware, this year’s elections to the principal councils in Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset have been rescheduled to May 2022. There is precedent for such a one-year postponement of elections where unitarisation is under consideration. For example, the same occurred in the Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire unitarisation exercises.
Rescheduling those local elections avoided creating a situation where the electorate would be asked to vote for councils a short time after being consulted on proposals that, if they are implemented, would result in the abolition of those councils. Rescheduling the elections also avoids members being elected to serve for potentially very short terms, a maximum of two years, where a shadow authority is established.
The order that postpones the elections also extends for a year the terms of office of councillors who would otherwise have retired following the May elections this year, and makes consequential provisions to ensure that by-elections to vacant seats can still take place. The order postponing the elections has been made without prejudice to any subsequent decisions on the unitary proposals that are under consideration, and does not affect the police and crime commissioner elections, the town and parish council elections or any other scheduled by-elections, which will still occur on the 6 May.
In practice, that means that elections to Lancashire County Council will go ahead in May this year, unlike elections to Cumbria County Council. That reflects the fact that, whatever Cumbria proposal may be implemented, there is no possibility of Lancashire County Council being abolished. In May of this year there are no ordinary elections to the city council.
Following the consultation, the Secretary of State will carefully consider the proposals and has a duty to take into account three criteria if the proposal were to be implemented: whether it would be likely to improve local government and service delivery in the area; whether it would command a good deal of local support; and whether it would lead to unitary councils covering a credible geography. The representations that the hon. Lady has made today and throughout the process will be taken into account as part of that.
The Secretary of State will then decide, having regard to all of the representations he has received on the proposals, including those received through the consultation exercise, and all other relevant information available to him, which proposal, if any, to implement. We envisage those decisions to be taken and announced before the summer recess.
If the Secretary of State decides that a proposal should be implemented, he will seek parliamentary approval for the necessary secondary legislation. Clearly such an order would need to be considered and approved by each House. If Parliament approves legislation implementing any proposal, the rescheduled elections in May 2022 would be cancelled. It is envisaged that they will be replaced in May 2022 by elections to either the new shadow authority or a continuing authority, which is to be the new unitary authority.
The expectation is that any new unitary authority would take on the full powers of a unitary authority from 1 April 2023. Those elected to the shadow or continuing authority in May 2022 would continue as members of the new authority, most likely serving a total five-year term, one year as members of the shadow or continuing authority and four years as members of the full unitary authority.
I am grateful we have had the chance to have this debate and to the hon. Lady for her speech and for putting on record all of the points she has made. I hope she understands that I cannot comment on the individual representations that she has made about the quality of any of the submissions, because the process is ongoing, and I encourage people to continue to take part in that until the 19th of this month.
By submitting their proposals for unitary local government, councils in these areas have an important opportunity to move forward with reforms, which can open the way to significant benefits for local people and businesses, delivering service improvements, facilitating economic growth and contributing to the levelling-up of opportunity and prosperity across the country.
Question put and agreed to.