Skip to main content

Local Government Bill [HL]

Volume 721: debated on Tuesday 5 October 2010

Third Reading


Moved by

My Lords, because no amendments have been tabled at Third Reading, I hope that the House will allow one or two of us to say a few words on Bill do now pass.

For those not familiar with the Bill, John Denham, the former Secretary of State, legislated for unitary status for Norwich and Exeter in spring 2009. The Liberal Democrat party, which ran Norwich from 2002 to 2006, started our move towards unitary status with full Labour support. In Exeter, I believe that all three city parties warmly supported it. However, because the Boundary Committee, incompetently throughout its time, produced its final report six months late—in December 2009 instead of July 2009—the Secretary of State regrettably and inevitably ran out of time for further consultation.

That Bill passed and a transitional authority was put in place for both cities, which I emphasise abided by the law at every step of the way. Last May’s elections were therefore suspended. Norwich and Exeter have behaved impeccably throughout. In the general election, Mr Pickles made it clear that he would overturn the Bill immediately because Norwich belonged to Norfolk and Exeter belonged to Devon even though they were self-contained, chartered, self-governing boroughs 600 years before there was even a concept of a county council. The Bill was truncated because the courts also ruled that there was incomplete consultation because the Boundary Committee’s report came in six months late and that the city council seats left open should be filled by by-elections—these occurred this summer on 9 September—since this matter was last before your Lordships’ House on Report. I know that those noble Lords who are still here will be anxious to know the results of those by-elections and what they say about this whole story.

In Exeter the Labour Party won three seats and is now in control. Thank you, Mr Pickles. In Norwich the Labour Party increased its majority; the Liberal Democrats lost a seat, as did the leader of the Tory city group, Mr Noble, who had been the parliamentary candidate just four months before—so much for all those remarks from the opposition Benches that the proposals did not have community support. In at least three wards in Norwich the Lib Dem candidate struggled to beat the UKIP candidate for fourth and fifth places respectively. Not pretty. The party that ran Norwich from 2002 to 2006 can now meet in a phone box and may be wiped off the map in the next couple of rounds of local elections.

On those poll results, if projected, the Lib Dem local MP for Norwich South and the Tory MP for Norwich North would lose their seats. From a joint population of around 270,000, some 25 to 30 per cent of the electorate voted on a single issue—unitary status. They knew what they were voting for and made their views clear. I take no issue with the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham. I think that it is a bad Bill. She may have different views from mine on it, but she has responsibility for her department to carry it through and I well understand its obligations. But no such obligations fall on the Lib Dems. The Lib Dem council started the process towards unitary status and Lib Dem councillors have remained stalwart behind it throughout. They are decent, honourable people.

The Lib Dem MP, Simon Wright, supported it and his wife was a Liberal Democrat councillor who was very much in favour of it. Delegations to the Lib Dem leadership in London were led to believe that, given Lib Dem commitment to localism, they would have full support for becoming unitary. What was said to them in private was shamefully reversed in public. I refer to the noble Lords, Lord Tope and Lord Rennard, pressed I do not doubt by Norman Lamb in the other place, who incidentally said in Parliament that he wants to keep Norwich in the county, so that Liberal and Labour Norwich city councillors can fight the Tory county councillors locally more effectively—the very same Tories with whom he is in coalition nationally, if we can imagine such a twisted position.

Those three senior Lib Dems denied their local Lib Dem colleagues and their Norwich Lib Dem MP their support. Not only that, they ensured defeat. Local Lib Dems are appalled; they used words such as “treachery” in the press; they have made savage denouncements; and the electorate are well aware that the London Liberal Democrats have effectively destroyed the local Lib Dem party as well as, more importantly, the ability of Norwich and Exeter to generate the economic growth and jobs that this recession badly needs. Any trust that Lib Dems had in Norwich and that local Lib Dems had built up has been wiped away. The Lib Dem party has always been a party built up from local government. When the coalition segments, you may find that you have nothing left on which to rebuild your party, because this episode will not be forgiven.

This Bill is shameful. It is a delay, not a defeat, because it will come back. It is not a defeat except for the standing—and, frankly, if I may say so, the honour—of the Lib Dem party in local government.

My Lords, it will have been clear from all the prior stages of this Bill that we do not support it. We do not consider it to be in the best interests of Exeter or Norwich. We consider that it represents a heavy-handed, centrist approach denying those great cities the opportunity of again becoming unitary authorities—an opportunity already available to many local authorities of different political leaderships provided by both Conservative and Labour Governments —and denying them that opportunity at the very time that their potential to be at the forefront of driving growth and creating jobs is most needed.

However, at this stage of a Bill, we should offer some thanks. Our thanks go to the electors of Norwich and Exeter for turning out in their thousands in by-elections to show their support for Labour Party candidates, enabling Labour to become the largest party in Exeter and to lead the administration with plummeting Lib Dem votes and both coalition parties losing seats and, as my noble friend explained, a swing to Labour in Norwich with both coalition parties suffering losses. Those are real votes, not surveys: a clear demonstration of the anger felt in both cities directed at those who have been frustrating their legitimate unitary aspirations.

As my noble friend said, this is not the end of the matter. This remains unfinished business. We pass the baton to our colleagues in another place, confident that they will continue to press for proper answers, particularly on the legitimacy of the impact assessment. We will continue to give support and encouragement to Exeter and Norwich to pursue their future as unitary authorities.

My Lords, I shall be brief on this occasion, because it seems to me and to many of us who have witnessed these debates that just about everything that could be said on the issues has been said in earlier debates—if not repeated by everybody on each particular point. The positions of the parties and participants were clear when the orders were first debated in this House on 22 March, and I stand by the view of my party that it would have been far better for all concerned if the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Tope had been carried then. Much unnecessary debate and great uncertainty for people in Exeter, Norwich and Norfolk could have been avoided.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, referred to the recent local elections in Norwich and Exeter, but she chose not to refer at all to the general election outcome in May this year. It was very clear before the general election what was the position adopted by the Liberal Democrats and by the Conservatives, and the outcome of the general election was very clear in terms of both votes and seats in support of parties—

I thank the noble Lord for giving way. I am sure that he would not wish to mislead the House, but his candidate, Simon Wright, made it clear throughout the campaign that he supported unitary status for Norwich.

Indeed, but the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives stated categorically just before the general election that both parties were committed to not proceeding with those structural changes in the way, in the timescale and on the basis in which the Labour Government tried to introduce them in their dying days in what was a quite improper way—a way which the judges decided was illegal and improper. Other parties won those elections, and therefore decided that they would proceed in this way. We believe that it is not the right scheme and not the right time, and that this debate should be brought to a close and the Bill be allowed to pass.

My Lords, there is very little more that I should say, except that I reiterate slightly what the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, said. In the heat of the moment, we forget where all this started. It all started because the previous Government decided that Norwich and Exeter's bid did not fulfil the criteria for unitary government.

Not very much has been said on this side about Exeter. I represented a parliamentary seat around Exeter—the Tiverton and Honiton seat—for 18 years, and I was involved in quite some detail in the earlier stages of the Bill in another place. On the point that my noble friend is making, the five criteria set by the Government originally included a requirement to consult across the county of Devon. When that exercise was completed, the Government refused to publish the results, which does not stand well in terms of them listening to people. Had Exeter become a unitary—I am well aware that people in Exeter, particularly the Labour Party, wanted that to happen—the consequences for the rest of the county of Devon would have been extreme. It would have been a beggar-my-neighbour policy.

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble friend. I was not ignoring Exeter—it was of course part of the partnership that included Suffolk—for these proposals. I will return to where I was. Nobody thought that Exeter or Norwich could fulfil the five criteria. It was not until we were very close to the election that there was a sudden switch of view and a decision that they met them. The view taken by the coalition was that it was improper to go ahead on the basis that had been decided. In any event, the matter went to court. By the time we discussed this, the judge had quashed the orders and that resulted in the elections.

We have had heated debates in this House on this matter. It is now time for us to put this aspect of it to bed.

Bill passed and sent to the Commons.