My Lords, yesterday I informed the House that the Boundary Committee has provided its advice on unitary proposals for Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk. Representations can now be made to us about the committee’s proposals or the original proposals until 19 January 2010. We will carefully consider the committee's advice, all representations received and all other relevant information, before taking our statutory decisions on whether to implement any unitary proposal.
Is the noble Lord aware that the Government's proposals for restructuring these three counties are now in their third year and that the uncertainty has had a severe impact on these councils, particularly their ability to recruit new staff? Given that the Boundary Committee is operating under rules that have been set for it by the Government, under what circumstances would the Government not follow the committee’s advice?
My Lords, throughout the process we have recognised the importance of minimising the continuing period of uncertainty for the councils and the communities involved. As for the second point of the noble Baroness’s question, until we have gone through the process of receiving representations on both the original proposals and the Boundary Committee's proposals it is impossible to answer that; indeed I think it would be improper to answer it. We need to have a fair period when those representations can be made, heard and considered.
My Lords, there is no public demand for another bout of expensive, time-consuming and divisive unitary restructuring. It has cost Norfolk councils £2 million so far, and I believe that Cornwall has overspent by about £10 million. So it is the Conservative policy to revoke any such legislation, to ensure that the scarce resources are properly directed to front-line services. Is this not another example of government-botched business?
That is very much not the case, my Lords. If you want proof of that, look at the unitary authorities that were established in just April of this year and what is happening already. These councils are redesigning services to improve outcomes for local people; they are on track to achieve efficiency savings of over £150 million this year; and they are stripping out duplication and inefficiency, including removing some senior management posts, saving £22 million a year. So the proof is there that unitary authorities can work and do work. If you want the classic case of the challenges of two-tier authorities, you have waste collection at one tier of an authority and waste disposal at the other. What on earth is the sense in that?
I declare an interest both as former leader of Norwich City Council and currently as a DL of the county of Norfolk. Does my noble friend accept that the greater Norwich area is currently run by four different local authorities? It is a mess. No one knows who does what, to what standard or at what cost, whether they be council tax payer or the business community. Does he agree that focused unitary structures make best sense for cities—not necessarily for rural areas but for cities—on which so much of the counties’ and the country’s prosperity depends?
My Lords, I hope my noble friend will forgive me if I do not comment in detail on the specific proposal in the question, but I agree that these issues of leadership, accountability, transparency and duplication of services are what drove the White Paper in 2006. In all of this our priority is to ensure that the people of Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk will have the councils that are best able to play their part at the heart of providing innovative and better value public services across the counties, providing strong strategic leadership, engaging effectively with their most local communities, and delivering efficiencies and service improvement.
My Lords, it is important that we try now to make decisions as quickly as possible. In particular, we are very keen to see decisions made before the next election. If they are not and decisions are taken subsequently, it will mean another delay in implementing unitary authorities—if that is the decision after representations have been considered. If we can make decisions before the next election then we have the prospect of any unitary authorities that emerge being in place by April 2011.
My Lords, have the Government carried out any reviews of the first tranches of local government reorganisation, and if so what lessons have they learnt and what cost-benefit analysis has been done? If such reviews have been carried out, will they publish the results or did they conclude that they wished that they had never started the process?
My Lords, there are a lot of questions in that supplementary. In terms of reviews, I mentioned a moment ago what has happened to those councils that became unitary in April 2009 and the improvements that are already ensuing. Again as I said previously, what drove the process in the first place were concerns over transparency and particularly over duplication of services in two-tier authorities. It is important that we review the recommendations that come forward and the representations that are made around those proposals. We are dealing here with specific proposals for specific areas.
My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that it is essential if you are going to have first-class, independent local authorities, of whatever sort, that they should be properly financed from their own resources? In that regard, would the Government consider returning the business rate to local authorities?
My Lords, speaking also as a resident of the county of Norfolk, is it not wholly inappropriate, given the intervention of the Christmas and New Year breaks, to give such a very short time for local authorities to respond on this important issue? It is something like two to three weeks. Will he consider extending the timescale? More importantly, given the late stage of this Parliament and the very considerable widespread opposition in Norfolk to these proposals, is it not absurd to proceed with something with substantial upfront costs in the early years to be implemented in the next Parliament when it may well be reversed in that Parliament?
My Lords, the question of reversing this in the next Parliament presumes that there might be a change of Administration. Noble Lords would not expect me to accept that. Assuming that the process is completed in this Parliament, it would take primary legislation to reverse the process. In terms of the timescale, there is a requirement to have a six-week period between the Boundary Committee’s recommendations and decisions. We are extending that because there is going to be a six-week period for representations. We believe that is fair. There will be some period over Christmas where there will not necessarily be full engagement, but the six-week period is beyond that required by statute.
My Lords, the Minister has said that the next period is to be devoted to receiving representations. Can he tell the House from whom he expects to receive representations, since so far the public in these counties has been specifically excluded by the Government?
My Lords, we have written to chief executives of all the councils involved explaining the process for representations. We expect most representations to come in written form but there are arrangements whereby elected representatives, individually or collectively, can make representations directly to Ministers. I believe there is a fair process for people to be engaged.
My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of Marlesford parish council in Suffolk. Since no agreement has been reached in Suffolk on the changes that should be made, is this not the moment to apply a principle of good government—if there is no agreement on the changes needed, then rather like in the House of Lords, it is better not to make the changes?
My Lords, I will not be drawn on the noble Lord’s last point. The prospect before the Secretary of State is to accept the original proposals with possible modifications, to accept the recommendations of the Boundary Committee with modifications if that is felt to be appropriate, or to do nothing. Those are the three choices that the Secretary of State faces.