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Local Government: Future Unitary Structures

Volume 696: debated on Wednesday 5 December 2007

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

On 25 July 2007 I announced to the House the nine unitary proposals that the Secretary of State was minded to implement, having considered all the available relevant information, if and when the necessary provisions of the then Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill were enacted. In four cases—proposals from Bedford Borough Council, Chester City Council, Exeter City Council and Ipswich Borough Council—we recognised that there were risks to their achieving the outcomes specified by the affordability criterion. We asked these councils to undertake further work and submit additional information on the financial viability of their proposals.

I also announced that the Secretary of State was minded to request the Boundary Committee of the Electoral Commission to advise on Norwich City Council’s proposal, and not to implement the remaining 16 unitary proposals that we had received in response to our invitation to councils issued on 26 October 2006.

That invitation reflected our belief that introducing unitary local government is a way of removing the weaknesses found in many existing council structures based on county, district and parish tiers. Those existing structures often add to public confusion, create fragmented and sometimes competing local leadership, and lead to duplication, inefficiency and co-ordination failures in service delivery.

Since July we have received a range of further information and representations about the unitary proposals, including in the case of the four proposals on which we sought additional financial information. The relevant provisions of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 came into effect on 1 November.

The Secretary of State is therefore now able to take her decisions as to which unitary proposals to implement under her statutory powers. The basis of these decisions is the Secretary of State’s assessment of the proposals against the five criteria set out in the original invitation, and which now have the status under the 2007 Act of guidance to which councils should have had regard when making their proposals.

These five criteria are that if change is made and new unitary structures are implemented, then that change should be affordable (first criterion); and be supported by a broad cross-section of partners and stakeholders (second criterion); and that the future structures should provide strong, effective and accountable strategic leadership (third criterion); deliver genuine opportunities for neighbourhood flexibility and empowerment (fourth criterion); and deliver value for money and equity on public services (fifth criterion).

On this basis, having considered all the information and representations now available to her, including all the additional material that she has received since July, the Secretary of State has decided to confirm her earlier “minded to” decisions in all cases, except, as explained below, for the unitary proposals from Exeter City Council and Ipswich Borough Council. In the cases of the Bedfordshire and Cheshire proposals we plan to take decisions in the near future.

Accordingly, she has decided to implement without modification the five unitary proposals listed in Table 1 below. Her judgment is that there is a reasonable likelihood that all these proposals, if implemented, will achieve the outcomes specified by the five criteria.

Table 1—Unitary proposals to be implemented

Councils submitting proposals

Proposed unitary structure

Cornwall County Council

County Unitary

Durham County Council

County Unitary

Northumberland County Council

County Unitary

Shropshire County Council

County Unitary

Wiltshire County Council

County Unitary

We believe that these proposals provide for new and innovative local governance in each of the areas concerned, combining both strong strategic councils and effective arrangements for empowering communities at the most local level. They thus take further the concept of unitary local government developed in the 1990s. They open the door to the creation of new flagship councils which can lead the way on empowering citizens and communities, promoting prosperity and modernising local service delivery to achieve both greater efficiencies and better outcomes. In the areas concerned the number of councils will be reduced from 33 to five. On the basis of councils’ current estimates, the savings from these five proposals, once implemented, will be over £75 million annually, giving councils opportunities for improved services or lower council taxes.

Further, the Secretary of State has decided to take no action on the 14 unitary proposals listed in Table 2 below which were received in response to the original invitation. Her judgment is that there is not a reasonable likelihood of these proposals, if implemented, achieving the outcomes specified by all the five criteria.

Table 2—Unitary Proposals on which no action is to be taken

Councils submitting proposals

Proposed unitary structure

Burnley BC and Pendle BC

Burnley and Pendle Unitary

Cornwall Districts

County Unitary

Cumbria Council

County Unitary

Durham Districts

County Unitary

East Riding Districts

East Riding and Selby Unitary

Ellesmere Port and Neston

3 Unitary Cheshire

Lancaster City Council

Lancaster Unitary

Mid Beds DC and South Beds DC

Unitary covering both Districts

North Yorkshire County Council

County Unitary

Northumberland Districts

2 unitary Northumberland

Oxford City Council

3 Unitary Oxfordshire

Preston City Council

Preston Unitary

Somerset County Council

County Unitary

South Somerset DC

East Somerset Unitary

In addition, the Secretary of State has decided under the 2007 Act to request the Boundary Committee of the Electoral Commission to advise on Norwich City Council’s proposal. She judges that there is not a reasonable likelihood of that proposal, based on the city’s current boundaries, if implemented, achieving all the outcomes specified by the five criteria.

In relation to the unitary proposals from Exeter City Council and Ipswich Borough Council, having regard to the additional material received since July, we judge that these proposals are not reasonably likely to achieve the outcomes specified by the affordability criterion. Accordingly, the Secretary of State’s judgment now is that there is not a reasonable likelihood of them, if implemented, achieving the outcomes specified by all the five criteria. We believe, having regard to the circumstances of Exeter and Ipswich, and the strengths of their proposals in other respects, that there could be alternative unitary proposals covering the whole or part of their wider county area which would achieve those outcomes.

The Secretary of State has thus decided under the 2007 Act to request the Boundary Committee to advise on the Exeter City Council and Ipswich Borough Council unitary proposals, along with Norwich City Council’s proposal. 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 these proposals—in each case the city or borough area and the remaining county area—there could be alternative unitary solutions, involving boundary changes, that would meet the five criteria set out in the original invitation.

Under the terms of the Act, it is open to the Boundary Committee, if it sees fit, to make alternative proposals that cross existing county boundaries. We intend our guidance under the 2007 Act to highlight the possibility of the committee making alternative proposals, which may cross the existing Norfolk/Suffolk county boundary or involve changes to the boundaries of the existing Devon unitaries—Plymouth City and Torbay Borough.

Under the Act the Boundary Committee may, in respect of unitary proposals referred to it, recommend that they are implemented or not, or make alternative unitary proposals which may cover a wider area. If it considers it appropriate to submit alternative unitary proposals, the committee has the flexibility it may need under the Act to make unitary proposals on different boundaries which are robust and sustainable and that reflect fully the communities and circumstances of the areas concerned.

In the case of the unitary proposals from Bedford Borough Council and Bedfordshire County Council, I explained to the House on 19 November that the Secretary of State was minded to implement the borough council’s proposal and that she had invited the other councils in Bedfordshire by 17 December to make a proposal for future unitary local government structures in the remainder of the county area. Once we have received and, following any appropriate consultation, assessed any responses to this further invitation, we intend to take our statutory decisions about unitary proposals for Bedfordshire. Meanwhile, on the basis of the information currently available to her, the Secretary of State remains minded to implement Bedford Borough Council’s proposal.

In the case of the unitary proposals for Cheshire, these involve particularly complex issues. There are alternative proposals for the whole area concerned which, in July as I confirmed to the House, we judged reasonably likely to achieve the outcomes specified in the five criteria. We have received a very large volume of detailed information and representations about these proposals since July. We are still considering this material, and may need to seek further clarification on certain matters including from those who have submitted the material. Accordingly, we are deferring today any decisions about these proposals, and intend to make those decisions as soon as we can.

To give effect to our decisions to implement unitary proposals, we intend shortly to lay before the House draft orders under the 2007 Act. Subject to both Houses approving the drafts, we will make the orders as soon as practicable which will provide for the establishment of new unitary local government from 1 April 2009 in the areas concerned, and for key transitional arrangements, including first elections to the new unitary councils. Following consultation with each area’s existing councils, our intention is for May 2008 elections in Durham and Northumberland, and May 2009 elections in Cornwall, Shropshire, and Wiltshire. We expect the Electoral Commission to have put in place new electoral divisions or wards prior to any 2009 elections.

We also intend, following further consultation with councils and other stakeholders, including the trade unions, to make regulations under the 2007 Act making further provision about transitional arrangements, including arrangements for staff, the transfer of assets and liabilities, and finance.

We are committed to applying the principles of the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006 (TUPE). Our intention is that all the protections that would apply under the TUPE regulations will apply, together with all that the regulations imply in relation to procedure, as if TUPE legally applied. Our aim, therefore, is that employees’ terms and conditions in the new unitary council will be no less favourable than those which would apply under their existing employer. We expect all affected councils to have early discussions with the trade unions on staffing issues arising from restructuring.

We expect that the appointment of the new unitary councils’ chief executives will be by open competition. We also expect all the new unitary councils to approach their senior appointments on the basis of creating a fresh senior management team fit to lead the new council in its new role.

Overall, through the implementation orders and proposed regulations, we intend to create a clear and robust framework for implementation. Within that framework in each area concerned it is now for all the councils—their members and employees—to work constructively and imaginatively together to deliver a new unitary council that will achieve its full potential for local residents. Local people will rightly expect nothing less than its successful delivery. This is the task now for local government.