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Local Government: Cheshire

Volume 699: debated on Thursday 28 February 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether, in accordance with paragraph 11 of the consultation document on local government reorganisation in Cheshire, they will publish the remaining 600 responses of interested parties and the subsequent papers received by the Secretary of State before the decision was taken on 18 December 2007.

My Lords, we received 55,000 responses to the consultation on restructuring proposals. It is simply not viable to publish them all, so we have published a summary. In addition, any person, including my noble friend, can view any of these responses on request. On 25 January this year, officers from Crewe and Nantwich Borough Council were given access to view the Cheshire representations. Which representations they chose to copy was a matter for them.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend not only for that Answer but also for her work behind the scenes to bring clarity to this perilous, parlous and precipitate decision to chop Cheshire in half. But, in the spirit of glasnost, will she publish for the people of Cheshire the 906 responses received, a sample of which she has already mentioned demonstrate 80 per cent in favour of a single unitary Cheshire and only 5 per cent against? Further, in the spirit of glasnost, will she publish the CIPFA report, which undermines the district council’s financial guesses at what will be the consequences for Cheshire if this bifurcation takes place?

My Lords, it would be my great pleasure to welcome my noble friend to my office at the Department for Communities and Local Government to look at the 600 representations he wants to see. The independent financial analysis which we commissioned from CIPFA to look at the affordability of the proposals has not been disclosed because it falls under the exemptions in Section 35(1)(a) and (b) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. That of course relates to the formulation of the development of policy and ministerial communications, which is consistent with what we have done on other similar FOI requests about unitary proposals. But we have made this information available for the purpose of legal proceedings.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm what the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, has said—that these proposals have very few friends in Cheshire? Will she accept from one who has participated in previous consultations about local government in Cheshire that the public interest is served by the greatest possible transparency?

My Lords, I certainly agree with the noble Lord’s last point but I do not agree that the proposals have very few friends. When you consider that the search for unitary solutions in Cheshire goes back a long way, we are in a unique position because we had two opposing proposals—one for a unitary authority and one for two unitaries. Absolutely predictably, opinion has been deeply divided. Our conclusion was that there was sufficient broad support to make the proposal which we accepted for two unitaries workable in the long-term interests and success of the region.

My Lords, why are the Government insisting on tackling this in such a rush? It is just 63 days until the first elections for these new authorities, yet these orders do not come to your Lordships’ House until next week. Given the number of years that have passed since this was first discussed, why are the Government rushing this so much?

My Lords, I do not think that it is a question of rush. As we have approached this process we have been driven entirely by what local authorities say that they want and can manage. There was a very clear indication from Cheshire that it wanted as little delay as possible. It did not want this to drag on, because it has been an unhappy process for many people. That was made clear when it presented evidence to the Merits Committee. Earlier this week, in another place, local Members of Parliament, some of whom did not agree with the conclusion, have said that this must be made to work and that we must go forward as fast and as safely as possible, which I believe we are doing.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that there is widespread support for the unitary authority so that citizens and business alike know who does what? Does she also agree that whereas she has said that in Cheshire’s case there are irreconcilable differences between authorities, it is understandable that those who support the proposals, as half the authorities do, believe that they will have abundant time to deliver a successful reorganisation? Inevitably, those who opposed the proposals are calling for more time and more delay; that is understandable but it is not necessarily the wise path to follow.

My Lords, that is absolutely right. What is very impressive is that despite the fact that people do not agree, the implementation process is really going ahead; people are fully engaged and work teams have been set up to look at the future structure of services and new commissioning processes. Our job is to support those committed local authority officers and politicians who are now determined to make it work.

My Lords, it is a matter of regret that the Government’s reputation has been somewhat stained by what is perceived as the selective use of statistics. I accept that there is a difficulty for the Government in this respect because they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. As it seems highly likely that we will face this situation again, will the noble Baroness give some consideration to how they are going to overcome that very particular difficulty? At the moment, what has happened is not perceived as being based on the sorts of returns that have been published, which makes it very difficult for ordinary people.

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a serious point. In our debates on these issues on various occasions over the past two weeks, we have talked about the nature of polling, the validity of the results and the fact that the Electoral Commission has been involved, but not as it would be when normal voting in a national election takes place. Given that, we would like to give serious consideration to these questions, should the opportunity arise to do so in the future. Transparency in the process is vital if people are going to commit to making a success of the decision.

My Lords, has the noble Baroness received, as I have, a letter signed by all the head teachers of Cheshire schools expressing their great concern about the effects of these changes on the high quality of education in Cheshire? What comfort can she give them?

My Lords, I have not received a copy of the letter, but I know that the Cheshire Schools Forum has joined the debate in, as I understand it, a productive way. I am sure that it wants the best outcomes in the decision that has been taken. We have an opportunity to debate this, at length if necessary, next Tuesday, and I shall certainly try to get more information about it by then.