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Cornwall (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 Cornwall (Structural Change) Order 2008.

The noble Baroness said: The order establishes the new unitary Cornwall Council. It implements a proposal which Cornwall 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 their proposal against the same five criteria set out in our invitations to councils against which, as I discussed earlier, we assessed all 26 proposals that we originally received.

On 5 December, I informed the House that our judgment was that if the proposal for a single-unitary Cornwall were to be implemented, there was 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 and empowerment and delivery of value for money and efficiency in public services specified in the criteria. Equally, we believe that the change is also affordable and 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 there was not a reasonable likelihood that the proposal, if implemented, would achieve the outcomes specified by each criterion and hence should not proceed to stakeholder consultation.

On the basis of the proposal that we received from Cornwall County Council, having regard to all the other material and representations that we have received, including the advice which our independent financial experts provided on the financial viability of the proposals, the expectation is that the change in Cornwall will lead to savings of more than £15 million annually once the new unitary is established. On the basis of the criteria which we have already discussed, we judge that the proposal meets the affordability criterion. As I have said, it is our judgment that the proposal meets the support criterion, which we have also discussed earlier in this debate.

However, as in other instances, the consultation last spring revealed both support and concern. The district councils had already put in their own bid for a unitary solution. They were clearly opposed to the solution proposed by the county. They commissioned polls which appeared to support their position. However, there was a wide range of public sector support, including from the South West Strategic Health Authority, the Cornwall Partnership NHS Trust, the Royal Cornwall Hospitals Trust, and the police authority. There was support, too, from across the business and enterprise communities, including Connexions Cornwall and Devon, the Cornwall Commercial Tourism Federation and some local but important businesses such as St Austell Brewery.

The majority of responses that we received directly from the public were opposed, but they came from only a small proportion of the overall population. A poll of 1,750 people out of a population of 500,000 cannot be seen to represent a majority of people hostile to the proposal. There was an interesting exchange in the other place during the debate on the Cornwall order. It was pointed out that 700 people, which is half that number polled, protested against a proposal for a supermarket in Saltash. The Cornwall districts polls, which again were postal and therefore, as I pointed out earlier, not subject to the same degree of protection and scrutiny as national postal voting, were described in the same debate as “deficient … and partial”. The case was made by a Member of Parliament not just about the Cornwall poll, but about the way in which postal polls are conducted generally. The majority of parish and town councils that responded also expressed concerns, but others such as Newquay expressed support. However, overall, we concluded that there was a reasonable likelihood of the proposal achieving the outcomes specified by this criterion.

As with all the orders being discussed today, we have prepared this order following consultation and full discussion with the councils concerned. Like the other orders, it provides that, from 1 April 2009, there will be a single tier of local government for Cornwall. It provides that the existing district councils will be dissolved, and that 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. It provides for the establishment of an implementation executive, to be led by the county council and 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 and a consensus was reached. It is this consensus that is reflected in the order.

The order 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. It requires that these transitional functions be discharged by the implementation executive until April 2009, and provides for the creation of a team of officers, again drawn from the county and all the district councils, to provide the necessary support to the implementation executive. In evidence heard in the recent debate in another place, Julia Goldsworthy paid tribute to the fact that, despite the difficulties that had been faced, 

“there is real cross-party work to make the best of the situation … reflected in the make-up of the  implementation executive and its work”.—[Official Report, Commons, Eighth Delegated Legislation Committee, 7/2/08; col. 13.]

Where the order differs from those for Northumberland and Durham is that, in Cornwall, as in Shropshire and Wiltshire, elections to the new unitary council will take place in line with the usual county cycle in May 2009. As we have discussed previously, that will allow the Electoral Commission to undertake an electoral review and put in place electoral arrangements. This order, together with that for Shropshire, which we shall come to finally, also differs from the others in that it provides for the cancellation of district council elections that would otherwise take place in May 2008 in any district council that elects in thirds. In Cornwall that applies to Penwith only.

One of the new features, which is worth reflecting on in relation to the nature of the debate with district councils in Cornwall and between Members of Parliament, is that the new unitary will bring a far closer connection across this large and dispersed area because there will be new opportunities for local connections, based not on artificial district boundaries, such as Restormel, but on real places.  It is encouraging to see that the proposal envisages 16 community networks as the single forum for each area. They will include other public sector partners, local people and the VCS. They will be multipurpose bodies with some devolved powers to influence service delivery and to monitor performance. They will be a basis for gathering intelligence at local level and a public consultation forum. The proposal also envisages community access points—one-stop shops—to enable greater public access to council services. They will involve local parish and town councils, with delegation of responsibilities where appropriate and where wanted and access to shared community network architecture. The proposal is to parish unparished areas to provide consistency across the county through a new local council charter. That is excellent.

I shall not reiterate what I said about the argument for cancelling the elections; it is powerful and widely recognised locally. I explained that we reflected on the JCSI report in that context.

In short, this order will establish a new unitary Cornwall Council that will have the form of local governance to which local people can look forward. It will deliver a clearer strategy and better, higher quality services. It will have more appropriate local connections, which will be helpful to local communities. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Cornwall (Structural Change) Order 2008. 8th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, 7th Report from the Merits Committee.—(Baroness Andrews.)

I shall intervene only briefly because I am surrounded by the massed battalions of Cornwall, who will go into some detail on this. Most of the points I wanted to make were covered in our initial debate. When listening to the Minister talking about the consultation process, it struck me that the extent to which one can judge this has been a recurrent theme in these orders. It is an odd thing for someone from my Benches to say, but it strikes me that in future rounds the Government may need to be a little more directive about how councils collect information about public opinion. Perhaps a little more guidance on that would have saved much of the accusation and counter-accusation that we have had. After all, these things do not come cheap. If one has to disregard the outcome because it is not seen as statistically valid, money is spent to no good purpose. I put that forward as a helpful suggestion because on that one occasion I would not make the usual cry about too much central direction. It would be needed.

In common with other Members of the Committee, I ought to give my credentials. I was elected to a county council in 1964. It was to my considerable surprise and to the even greater surprise of my Conservative opponent because I was just eligible; I was 21, which was then the age of consent, as it were. Professionally and as a representative, I have lived through so many reorganisations that I hope I come to this one with that experience in the bag.

In Cornwall, there is real recognition that we are rather special. We have a special identity. To illustrate that, when my noble friend Lord Teverson and I cross the Tamar we have a more distinct boundary with the rest of England than the Welsh or the Scots or than Northern Ireland has with the Republic. It is the Tamar, which almost goes up into the Irish Sea. Indeed, at the time of the millennium there was a proposal that we should get a large JCB and complete the process, and join up with Ireland where we would perhaps get better treatment from the EU than we would from London.

In this context, it is extremely important—my noble friend has already referred to this—that we see these orders not just as little piecemeal operations but hopefully as part of a general proposal that we should be looking at for greater decentralisation in this country. Where an identifiable area can take on greater responsibility, devolution rather than greater centralisation should be the order of the day. If we saw these orders simply as rearranging centralised government in this country, we would be missing an opportunity.

I pay tribute to the Minister’s colleague in another place, who made specific reference to that in the extensive debate—a much better debate on this order compared with the others—in the Delegated Legislation Committee on Thursday 7 February. The Minister for Local Government, John Healey, said, apropos Cornwall in particular, that the new authority will,

“increasingly be able to draw down some of the responsibilities that currently sit at regional level, and increasingly we will be looking to devolve more from the centre as well, where there is a good case for doing so. I think that this would be the argument of the hon. Member for North Cornwall: Cornwall should be well placed in the future with the order in place and the restructuring that it proposes”.—[Official Report, Commons, Eighth Delegated Legislation Committee, 7/2/08; cols. 5-6.]

In that context, I am sure that my noble friend and I would agree that this order could be a real step forward for greater self-determination—home rule, if you like; a good Liberal principle—for Cornwall. However, if it is not going to be considered in that context but, instead, there is to be a simple moving around of the proverbial deckchairs on the “Titanic” for an ever-increasing centralisation of government, that would be extremely unfortunate. This is not the first time that we have been here. There have been proposals in the past and, regretfully, the Conservative Government never sought the opportunity to give Cornwall greater authority and autonomy over its own affairs.

Specifically on the point about the different options put before the Government as a result of the bid process, it would be fair to say that there was considerable confusion. At one stage, as the Minister will recognise, there was even a suggestion that there should be two unitary authorities in Cornwall, splitting the great Royal Duchy of Cornwall down the middle. Frankly, that did not go down particularly well with my colleagues and fellow residents in the county. We are proud of the unity of Cornwall. The slogan—it is more than a slogan—used in recent months of “Cornwall united” has some meaning here, when it is perhaps not so evident in a number of the other areas that the Committee has been discussing today.

As my noble friend did earlier in relation to all these orders, I welcome the Government’s emphasis on the fact that this is not just a county council rebuilt. These are new councils, and I am delighted to see that that is in the order. There is constant reference to “the Cornwall Council”. That is helpful, and it emphasises all the more that this is a new beginning for the county and not simply the county council in a different format with existing powers. That, again, relates to the issue I referred to just now. If the Government simply seize this new council as a vehicle for exercising county council responsibilities and concerns, it will be an opportunity lost and will not meet the strategic objectives to which the Minister has already referred. The Explanatory Memorandum is specific, as the Minister has said this afternoon. If she can refer to it again in her wind-up in a moment, that will be helpful. The more we say that this is a new way to bring together existing powers and potentially add new responsibilities to a distinct area, the better.

There is one area where there is still a bit of doubt, about which I am anxious. This was very much reflected in the Delegated Legislation Committee on 7 February by all my honourable friends, who are naturally persuasive on this issue, being Liberal Democrats. We all believe that it is extremely important that the whole new framework—the new unitary authority and the network to which the Minster has just referred—is in place at the same time. To delay the parish and town council elections until 2013 is, frankly, flying in the face of local democracy. It would mean that those local councils would be left behind in these changes. The so-called neighbourhood networks—I think the reference is in the Explanatory Notes on Cornwall—will be ineffective and will not have real democratic legitimacy if they are not linked in with town and parish councils.

Annexe B of the Explanatory Memorandum sets out the reasons for the Secretary of State’s decision, and the situation under “Neighbourhood empowerment” will be gravely weakened if new members are not in place on the town and parish councils in the county. References have been made on previous occasions to the difficulty in getting people to serve on those councils. If they are left behind in this important change to the governance of Cornwall, if they are not in place on the same date as the new Cornwall authority in 2009, I think it will be a grave mistake.

In the legislative committee on 7 February, the Minister for Local Government made a specific promise. He said:

“I am perfectly willing to consult the implementation executive, and if there appears to be a widespread sense that we should have parish council elections in 2009 we could bring forward an amending order to make that change”.—[Official Report, Commons, Eighth Delegated Legislation Committee, 7/2/08; col. 27.]

It would be very helpful if the Minister made that specific commitment and gave us that assurance this afternoon: that the order as it stands in Article 13(2)(c) can effectively be overruled by a subsequent order to that effect. I recognise that the implementation process should be involved in that. We would not want a number of individuals here in either House to say that this must happen, but I believe that there is a very strong move now in Cornwall for the whole democratic structure to be in place at the same time. Frankly, there will, quite rightly, be new responsibilities at that level. Those of us who have argued for a unitary authority for many years have always said that this is an opportunity for double-devolution: devolution from central government, from the regional agencies of central government to Cornwall, but also from the centre of Cornwall to local neighbourhoods.

I believe that like so many orders, this is like the curate’s egg. Members of the Committee will recall that, when asked by the visiting bishop, the curate said that parts of it were excellent. I believe that parts of the order are excellent and it is better to have some breakfast rather than none.

I apologise to the noble Baroness for arriving slightly after she started to explain this order. I identify myself with the points made by my noble friend Lord Tyler. An order not being dealt with this afternoon is for Exeter and a unitary authority in Devon. I congratulate the Government on rethinking and hesitating on the solution for Devon and Exeter because the one that came out initially was not the right one. I believe that Devon County Council itself welcomes the full review that is now taking place. That is a much better way forward than was originally discussed on the eastern side of the Tamar.

On Cornwall, I congratulate the Government on giving the proposal from the county the opportunity to move forward. This will be a huge improvement. Cornwall is now far more self-assured and can move forward over the next decades. This is a very exciting period and the Government’s work with Cornwall now gives it those opportunities. Having said that, the course has been bumpy, but it has not all been on the Government’s side; the way in which much of this has been communicated locally has not been satisfactory, and I regret that. However, I am very sure that residents of Cornwall looking backwards and those who will go through this issue will welcome the solution in this order.

The order is very much concerned with the future. Generally, in Cornwall we see this as a very important step, but it is only a first step towards bringing other powers and responsibilities down to the Cornwall Council once it has shown itself to be a responsible, effective and successful authority: powers relating to the economy, social issues and perhaps even health issues. That would be a very valuable way forward which we would welcome. I understand that we have to prove ourselves before we get to that situation. As my noble friend said, there will be an important duty on the new Cornwall authority to ensure that it fully devolves its own powers locally as much as possible.

Reading through the instruments and the explanations, I understand entirely why the new council is, in effect, a rebranded county council in terms of legal aspects, but I am unclear—I apologise if I missed this in the Minister’s opening remarks—what the council will be called when it is established and comes into force in 2009, given that legally it is the county council at the moment. Reflecting the remarks of my noble friend Lord Tyler, for us this is a new start. I understand that legally it might not be quite that, but in every other way it needs to be so.

I am extremely pleased that noble Lords with such powerful local connections and authenticity welcome the order. It is very good for the Government to be able to have that reflection on their judgments. I have a soft spot for Cornwall because I feel that we Celts are very special and usually do things effectively when we are left to get on with it.

I also welcome what the noble Baroness said about the nature of local democracy. It is something that we should reflect on in terms of public opinion in these situations. It is very difficult; democracy is extremely untidy. It was part of the devolutionary principle that we would not dictate to local areas how they went about gathering the voices in those areas. We live with the consequences of that.

The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, spoke passionately and eloquently. I am very happy to repeat what my right honourable friend said in the other place. This is very much at the leading edge of our devolution proposals; it has not been a series of one-off considerations but part of a movement to demonstrate that we really do want to take the next step and the one after, from devolution to double-devolution, not least in terms of neighbourhoods and local areas. He made it very clear that Cornwall in this position can speak with one voice, so it is in a very strong position to make the most of every other opportunity that comes along. He specifically referred to the sub-national economic review. That is work in progress, but it will be bound to look for ways in which we can put control into the hands of the sub-region as a way of generating its own intelligence and action about the labour market, local skills and business and all the other things that will deliver for Cornwall in future. With that coherence, it is extremely well placed to envisage what it wants to do and deliver on it.

Could the Minister give us some indication of when she expects that review to be completed? It would be very helpful if it coincided with the institution of the new council, so that it is seen from the outset to have a particular role in those development responsibilities.

I cannot give a precise date, but I sense that it will not be too far off, because we have been looking at the matter for some time.

In terms of the title of the council, we have always made it clear that we were creating a new animal, with a new set of responsibilities and a new profile. The title of the council will be the Cornwall Council, as specified in the order. We could either have made it a completely new legal entity, and gone through all the complications of creating a shadow council with elections and so on, or have done what we thought was best for local people and used the technical opportunity open to us to make it a continuing council for that purpose to reduce the disruption and bureaucratic intervention. We did the latter.

The noble Lord asked about the timing of elections for parish councils. I am happy to reiterate what the Minister said in another place. We are trying to achieve some consistency between the dates of elections for various councils, but, as the Minister and others said in the other place, we are perfectly willing to consult the implementation executive. If there appears to be a widespread sense that we should have parish council elections for 2009, we could bring forward an amending order to make that change.

I think that I have addressed the key points that the noble Lord made. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, for explaining where we are with Devon and Exeter, because it is important, too.

On Question, Motion agreed to.