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County Durham (Structural Change) Order 2008

Volume 699: debated on Thursday 21 February 2008

rose to move, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the County Durham (Structural Change) Order 2008.

The noble Baroness said: We now come to Durham. The order establishes the new unitary County Durham Council. It implements a proposal that Durham County Council submitted to us in response to our invitation to councils issued in October 2006 in parallel with our White Paper. We have judged this proposal against the same five criteria set out in our invitations to councils against which, as I discussed earlier, we assessed all 26 of the proposals that we originally received.

Again, as I informed the House on 5 December, our judgment was that if this proposal for the single unitary Durham Council were implemented, there would be a reasonable likelihood that it would achieve the outcomes specified by all five criteria in the invitation. That is, we believe that the proposal, if implemented, will achieve the outcomes on strategic leadership, neighbourhood flexibility, empowerment, delivery of value for money and efficiency in public services specified in the criteria. Equally, we believe that the change, if made, is affordable and is supported by a broad cross-section of partners and stakeholders. We also received a proposal for a unitary authority from a number of district councils. However, we judged that that proposal was not reasonably likely to meet any of the criteria.

Our judgment on affordability reflects Durham County Council’s proposal and, having regard to all the other material and representations we have received, including the advice that our independent financial experts provided on the financial viability of the proposals, the expectation is that the change in Durham will lead to savings of more than £11 million annually once the new unitary council is established. Our judgment on the support criterion reflects that there was support from public agencies including, for example, the PCT, the strategic health authority, the police and fire and rescue. There was also support from the North East Chamber of Commerce and the CBI. All those from the business sector who responded expressed broad support.

There was a mixed response from the public. Responses during the consultation were fairly evenly split between those expressing concerns and those highlighting the benefits. As with Northumberland, we were able to look at the results of the referendum held in 2004, which asked voters explicitly whether they wanted unitary authorities. In Durham, of those who voted, 50.6 per cent supported a single Durham unitary. In short, the evidence we received, in particular that which I have just described, led us to conclude that if the proposal is implemented, the expectation is that the level of support for it will be sufficient for it to be a success.

 As with the previous orders, this order is not “one size fits all”. It is a specific approach that allows local government in Durham to adopt the arrangements best suited to it. We therefore prepared this order following consultation and full discussion with the Durham County Council and all the affected authorities in the area. Like the order establishing Northumberland, this one provides that from, 1 April 2009, there will be a single tier of local government in Durham. The existing district councils will be dissolved, and the county council will be transformed into a new unitary council having both district and county functions. It makes provisions for the key transitional arrangements, in particular providing for the establishment of an implementation executive to be lead by the county council, whose membership will be drawn from the county and all the district councils. The membership and make-up of the implementation executive was discussed in detail with all the affected councils. A consensus was reached, which is reflected in the order. It provides that the county council will have the function of preparing for and facilitating the economic, effective, efficient and timely transfer of the district councils’ functions, property, rights and liabilities to the new council. The order provides that those transitional functions be discharged by the implementation executive prior to the election of the new County Durham Council in May 2008. It also provides for the creation of a team of officers in each area to provide the necessary support for implementation, again drawn from the county and all the district councils.

Like the Northumberland order, this order provides for elections in 2008, which is outside the normal county council election cycle, so it also makes consequential provision so that the following elections are in 2013. That restores Durham to the normal election cycle for county authorities. We have already discussed, in the context of the Northumberland order, the role of the Boundary Committee and Electoral Commission in determining when the new electoral arrangements should be implemented. The issues are the same for Durham.

In short, this order will establish a new unitary County Durham which, in common with the others we have been discussing today, will have the form of local governance that local people should expect and demand. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the County Durham (Structural Change) Order 2008. 6th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, 7th Report from the Merits Committee.—(Baroness Andrews.)

I hope the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, will not mind if I pick up the point that she made about the decision of the implementation committee to call itself “Durham County Council”. As an old county councillor, I am bound to say that that will lead to a great deal of confusion because it will not in fact be a county council; it will be a council for County Durham, which is quite properly made clear in the order. I am deliberately putting on the record that I think that it ought to be told quite clearly that this will lead to confusion because, although I entirely accept that there is only one council for County Durham, there are a lot of county councils. The noble Baroness is a serving member of one, I am an ex-member of another and other noble Lords here have a similar history. There is a clear distinction. It would be useful if that was explained in plain English to the implementation committee in County Durham.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for following on on that point. I shall raise the question of elections again. I hope the Committee will forgive me, but because of the length of the last debate and the interruption for the Division, if the Minister replied, I missed it. She has just said again that the order refers to elections taking place this May in order to start work next April with the next set of elections in 2013. That was certainly the understanding of the people in Durham. The county council has written to me to say that the Boundary Committee has raised the possibility of an election in 2010 and it is very concerned that the people of Durham will go to the polls in May and elect someone who will take office in April for 11 months, and that then there will be another set of elections and another a few years after that. It believes that the cost and confusion of having three sets of elections in five years is unacceptable. I would be grateful if the Minister could take that up.

That gives me the opportunity to make the more general point that I am not clear about the extent to which the Boundary Committee takes these wider considerations of governance into account when it makes its decisions and who is the final arbiter in all this. If the committee digs its heels in and insists on this happening, does Durham just have to accept it or would the Government be able to intervene if they felt that that was appropriate?

I am happy to confirm what I said earlier in response to the title of County Durham Council. We shall be writing. The noble Lord has made his views clear on the record, which is helpful.

I partially answered the noble Baroness. We were interrupted by a Division and I did not come back to the point, but I shall state it as clearly as I can because it will be helpful. The position on the elections is that we are providing for elections in Durham and Northumberland in 2008 and in 2013. After the 2008 elections, the Electoral Commission will undertake an electoral review of the wards and the electoral divisions. It is for the commission to decide—and it has the last word on these things—whether the new warding should be implemented in 2013 or whether there is a case to be made for earlier special elections in 2010.

We made it clear from last August, when we put out the consultation document, that stability is important and councils need to bed down. Although it is a longer period than usual, there are real advantages in having this time. We expect the Electoral Commission to consult fully and widely before deciding whether to have an extra 2010 election. The new council will have to make its case to the commission about the implications of that. We expect the commission to give careful consideration to all those representations that they receive and the arguments, including the case for stability.

I am grateful to the Minister. It would be ironic if, having promoted this as the way forward to more stable government and more strategic vision, the whole thing were undermined by some overzealous application of the rules with regard to boundaries.

On Question, Motion agreed to.