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Local Government: Future Unitary Structures

Volume 694: debated on Wednesday 25 July 2007

My honourable friend the Minister for Local Government (John Healey) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

On 27 March 2007, my honourable friend the then Minister for Local Government announced that 16 of the 26 proposals from local authorities for the creation of unitary local government would proceed to stakeholder consultation. These proposals were in response to our invitation to councils issued on 26 October 2006.

The stakeholder consultation ended on 22 June. Since then, we have reassessed the 16 proposals against the five criteria in our original invitation, having regard to all the further material and representations received as a result of that consultation and to all other currently available relevant information.

These five criteria are that change to future unitary structures must be affordable, and be supported by a broad cross-section of partners and stakeholders; and that the future structures must provide strong, effective and accountable strategic leadership, deliver genuine opportunities for neighbourhood flexibility and empowerment, and deliver value for money and equity on public services.

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has now decided to proceed as follows.

She is minded to implement the nine unitary proposals listed in Table 1 below, if and when the necessary legislative provisions in the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, which passed this House on 22 May and is currently being considered in the other place, are enacted.

Her judgment is that there is a reasonable likelihood that all these proposals, if implemented, would achieve the outcomes specified by the five criteria, and we believe that we can afford to implement them all. We do not therefore need to prioritise these proposals in order to decide which ones to implement, as explained in the Written Statement on 27 March.

These new unitaries, as they move towards implementation, will need to take into account our developing agenda for empowering citizens and communities and for stronger economic leadership, as set out in the Government’s Green Paper Governance of Britain, published on 3 July, and in the Review of Sub-national Economic Development and Regeneration, published on 17 July. Implementation will also need to take into account the recommendations of our Councillors Commission when it reports in November.

We recognise on the basis of the available information that in four cases—the proposals from Bedford Borough Council, Chester City Council, Exeter City Council, and Ipswich Borough Council—there are risks to their achieving the outcomes specified by the affordability criterion. Accordingly, we are asking these councils to undertake further work and submit additional information on the financial viability of their proposals. We will have regard to this information along with all other relevant available information before taking final decisions, if and when the Bill is enacted.

Implementing Bedford Borough Council’s proposal means that we must consider the future local government structures for the remaining county area. We are satisfied that this area needs unitary local government and we intend formally to invite all the other councils in Bedfordshire to propose a unitary solution that would meet our five criteria for that remaining area.

Once implemented, these nine proposals, on the basis of councils’ current estimates, will save over £150 million annually, giving councils opportunities for improved services and lower council taxes. The proposals open the door to creating new flagship councils that can lead the way on meeting today’s challenges of promoting prosperity, empowering citizens and communities, and modernising local service delivery.

Table 1—Proposals that we are minded to implement

Councils submitting proposals

Proposed unitary structure

Bedford Borough Council

Bedford Unitary

Chester City Council

2 Unitary Cheshire

Cornwall County Council

County Unitary

Durham County Council

County Unitary

Exeter City Council

Exeter Unitary

Ipswich Borough Council

Ipswich Unitary

Northumberland County Council

County Unitary

Shropshire County Council

County Unitary

Wiltshire County Council

County Unitary

In addition, the Secretary of State is minded to request the Boundary Committee of the Electoral Commission to advise on Norwich City Council’s proposal, if and when the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill is enacted. She intends to specify in her request that the matters on which the committee’s advice is sought include whether for the areas affected by this proposal—Norwich city and the remaining Norfolk area—there could be alternative unitary solutions involving boundary changes that would meet the five criteria set out in the original invitation.

She judges that there is not a reasonable likelihood of Norwich City Council’s proposal, based on the city’s current boundaries, if it were to be implemented, achieving all the outcomes specified by the five criteria, particularly the affordability criterion. We believe, having regard to the circumstances of Norwich, that alternative proposals based on revised city boundaries would achieve these outcomes.

Further, the Secretary of State is minded not to implement the six unitary proposals that were subject to stakeholder consultation and are listed in Table 2 below.

Table 2—Proposals that we are not minded to implement

Councils submitting proposals

Proposed unitary structure

Bedfordshire County Council

County Unitary

Cheshire County Council

County Unitary

Cumbria Council

County Unitary

Northumberland Districts

2 Unitary Northumberland

North Yorkshire County Council

County Unitary

Somerset County Council

County Unitary

For two of these proposals—from Bedfordshire County Council and Cheshire County Council—we judge that there is a reasonable likelihood that, if implemented, they would achieve the outcomes specified by the five criteria. However, these proposals are alternatives to unitary proposals that the Secretary of State is minded to implement as we believe that these latter proposals are likely to deliver to a greater extent the outcomes on leadership, neighbourhood empowerment and public services than the proposals from the county councils. For the remaining four proposals, we judge that there is not a reasonable likelihood of them, if implemented, achieving the outcomes specified by all the five criteria.

I also confirm that we remain minded not to implement the 10 proposals that my honourable friend announced in March would not proceed to stakeholder consultation.

In all cases where unitary proposals are not proceeding, all the councils involved now need to put in place new collaborative ways of working together to promote the prosperity of their local areas, empower their citizens and communities, and modernise local service delivery. In such areas, we will look to the councils together to achieve the same level of outcomes and efficiency gains as the highest-performing unitary councils.

The five pathfinder proposals from councils in Buckinghamshire, Dorset, Hertfordshire, Lincolnshire, and Suffolk should, as they are taken forward and develop, lead the way for all councils in remaining two-tier areas to deliver better services and achieve efficiency gains.

Accordingly, I am today informing the pathfinder councils that we wish to work with them with a view to their pioneering new and innovative models of two-tier working as explained in our White Paper Strong and Prosperous Communities: The Local Government White Paper (Cm 6939-1). As indicated in the White Paper, we intend these pathfinders to be subject to independent long-term evaluation. This evaluation, reporting at regular intervals, will look both at the processes of changing to new governance models and at the results that the new models are delivering.