Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, there are two elements under these two orders and I wonder whether I might deal with them both together. The first is the Gateshead and Northumberland (Boundary Change) Order 2013, and the other is the East Hertfordshire and Stevenage (Boundary Change) Order 2013. I will talk to them both if that is acceptable to your Lordships.
The Boundary Commission invited local authorities across the country to tell it whether there were any boundary anomalies that councils believed should be investigated. The Boundary Commission was prepared to undertake reviews only where both the affected local authorities agreed. In essence, only three cases came out of that request, and these are the final two.
These orders are very straightforward; they transfer small areas of land, and in the case of East Hertfordshire and Stevenage a few houses, from one local authority to another. The transfer between Northumberland and Gateshead is basically a case of the transfer of one house, which ratifies the position on the ground. The property and its residents are already registered with Northumberland, although at present they are not in the county. The first order simply puts that right. In both cases, the councils concerned agreed that a change is necessary and supported a boundary change.
It might help if I explained the statutory framework that allows change and the context within which boundary change is now being considered. On the statutory framework, this is the second use of the powers in the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act for boundary change. Under the legislation, a boundary change can take place between two local authorities only on the recommendation of the Boundary Commission, whose responsibility is to give advice to the Secretary of State. In doing so, it: gathers evidence, for example from the councils involved and local people; publishes and consults on draft recommendations based on this evidence; and, once it has considered the representations, makes final recommendations to the Secretary of State. When considering whether a change is desirable, the boundary commissioners bear in mind the statutory criteria that change should lead to effective and convenient local government and reflect community identities and interests.
Secondly, the context within which boundary change is being considered must ensure that local government boundaries reflect communities and that councils can deliver effective and efficient services. This has been described as,
“a keystone of effective democratic local government”.
A boundary that cuts through a property or an estate is unlikely to be convenient to the property owners, who may have to have dealings with two separate local authorities: for example for council tax, refuse collection or planning purposes. While local government will in practice generally put in place informal arrangements—or indeed make formal agreements to deal with such situations, as they have done in the case of Northumberland and Gateshead—the very fact that they need to do so can be wasteful of resources and not conducive to effective and convenient local government.
It is recognised that moving a boundary and changing the area of a local authority is a fairly large step to take, particularly when the number of residents affected is small. We would expect councils to work together to alleviate the impact of such boundaries. However, we recognise that, especially in cases where local people do not feel an affiliation to the area of their local authority, to reflect the concerns of local people it is best to take that further step and amend the boundary.
The Gateshead and Northumberland boundary review concerns a property—a bungalow and associated grounds—part of which is in Gateshead and another part of which is in Northumberland. The order realigns the boundary so that the property is transferred from the metropolitan borough of Gateshead into the county of Northumberland, as is the entirety of the gardens and grounds of it and neighbouring properties. Not unsurprisingly, very few representations were made, but the county council, the local councillor and the parish concerned are supportive.
On the East Hertfordshire and Stevenage (Boundary Change) Order 2013, as a result of the current boundary position 19 properties within three culs-de-sac are represented by East Hertfordshire District Council, while 15 are represented by Stevenage Borough Council. However, the existing boundary means that the access for all the East Hertfordshire residents in the affected properties is via Stevenage Borough. This order realigns the boundary so that all the affected properties are in Stevenage.
The commission received 20 submissions on its draft recommendations from East Hertfordshire District Council, Stevenage Borough Council, three district and county councillors, 12 residents directly affected by the boundary change, two members of the public and one other. All those who responded were unanimous in their support of the proposed boundary change. It is clear that local people consider the current boundary arrangements to be anomalous and that residents clearly relate to a Stevenage community identity.
The Boundary Commission has confirmed that the changes will provide for effective and convenient local government. In its view, there is no adverse impact on the local authority’s ability to deliver value for money. In short, the orders implement small boundary changes, and I commend them to the House.
My Lords, I support both these simple proposals, which reflect common sense. However, I am puzzled by one matter: why it has taken so long. The final recommendations were published in May 2012, based on the consultation a year ago. Why has it taken nine months for the matter to arrive now, in February of the following year? There may be explanations that I have not understood, but it strikes me as a long time when the consultation occurred almost a year ago. Any guidance or further details on the procedure being followed and the timetable to which those involved should keep would be helpful to know.
My Lords, we have no objection to the orders, which are clearly not of the greatest significance for the nation. Indeed, when I read them—and in this position one surely has to try to speak for at least two or three minutes—I thought I had been reduced to reading extracts from the Oxford English Dictionary. I feel even more that way since the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, has taken away about 90% of my contribution.
I will raise one or two points for clarification as much as anything. Paragraph 7.3 of the Explanatory Memorandum states that, from its establishment, the Boundary Commission,
“has compiled and maintained a list of boundary anomalies that have been notified to it”.
It goes on to say that the Boundary Commission,
“has sought the views of the local authorities concerned on all these anomalies”.
It says further:
“In three cases there was local agreement”.
Are there in fact lots of cases that the Boundary Commission is looking at in which there is no agreement? Obviously, one inference can be drawn from that. If there is no agreement, are we to assume, as paragraph 7.2 rather implies, that the Boundary Commission would not put any recommendations in front of the Secretary of State? In the two cases that we are considering, I think the Minister has probably already answered the question in her opening comments, but who actually initiated these two? Was it one or more of the four local authorities concerned? Was it the Boundary Commission’s own initiative? I can hardly imagine it was at the request of the Secretary of State, which is the other basis on which a review might be undertaken.
I will make exactly the same point that the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, so eloquently made as to what exactly has been going on over what appears to be the past 11 months since the consultation ended—on draft recommendations on which, we are told, there has been no significant disagreement. It would certainly be of interest to know why there has been this delay.
A further point that I should like to pursue—I am not seeking to suggest that it is a major point because clearly it is not—is that paragraph 8.1 of the Explanatory Memorandum states that the normal minimum period of consultation is six weeks. In the case of Gateshead and Northumberland it was less than six weeks. In fact, it appears to have been about four weeks, the argument being the small scale of the change. One might have some sympathy with that argument, but what exactly has been achieved by reducing the consultation from the normal minimum of six weeks to somewhere around four weeks? Looking at the timescale, I cannot see that anything at all has been achieved. I appreciate that it was a Boundary Commission decision, but does the Minister know why it was done if it has not speeded things up, or has the Secretary of State perhaps asked the Boundary Commission why it thought it necessary to reduce the period of consultation when it does not appear to have been done in order to speed up the process?
In her comments on the Gateshead and Northumberland order, the noble Baroness referred to those who had responded. However, can she be a bit more specific about how many people responded to the draft recommendations? No figures are given, but figures, including a breakdown by category, are given for the East Hertfordshire and Stevenage order. Paragraph 7.8 of the Explanatory Memorandum says that the Gateshead and Northumberland order will affect only two electors. Are the residents of Ravenside Farm, who were not exactly supportive, the two electors in Northumberland referred to in paragraph 7.8? If they are, they are apparently the only ones affected by the Gateshead and Northumberland order. They did not appear to support it and if they are the two concerned, I suppose you could say somewhat facetiously that there was 100% rejection by the electors affected. I do not want to turn this into a major point, but it would be interesting to know.
My final point is very minor. Indeed, some might think that it is more nitpicking than anything else. Paragraph 7.3 says:
“In three cases there was local agreement that the anomalies should be addressed”.
The two in front of us are two of those three. However, paragraph 8.3 indicates a measure of disagreement from the residents of Ravenside Farm, which would appear to contradict what is said in paragraph 7.3. The reply may be that there is a distinction between agreement that the anomalies be addressed, and agreement over the recommendations and how they should be addressed.
I hope the noble Baroness will be able to respond to those points. I reiterate that we support the orders. I do not wish to suggest that the points that I have raised are of fundamental importance, although it is interesting that both the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, and I are extremely interested in why it has taken so long to bring these instruments forward.
My Lords, I am lost in admiration that the noble Lords managed to find so much to raise on these rather small orders. However, I do not deny that they are more than reasonable questions, and I am very happy to try to deal with them.
The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, asked about the delay between the consultation ending and the orders being brought forward. Once the Boundary Commission had undertaken its inquiries, it then had to deliver its results to the department. The issue has been with the department since June and has been waiting for, first, the necessary parliamentary time and, secondly, the time of the officials to deal with it. That, I think, is the straightforward answer to the noble Lord’s question, although I agree that this is not a matter that should require an awful lot of effort.
The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked about the number of applications that have been made to the Boundary Commission. I said in my notes that the Boundary Commission sought applications widely and that there were only three in total. We have dealt with one and we are now dealing with these two. It is not anticipated that there will be any more. Given the size of this nation, the fact that there are only three tweaks probably means that the Boundary Commission gets it right most of the time.
This may sound like nitpicking, but that is not the spirit in which I am saying it. Paragraph 7.3 of the Explanatory Memorandum states that the Boundary Commission,
“has sought the views of the local authorities concerned on all these anomalies. In three cases there was local agreement”,
the inference being that there were more than three.
Yes. I hope that is correct. The noble Lord also asked about representations for East Hertfordshire. The responses came from three councillors, the local authorities and 14 residents, and they supported the boundary amendments. As for Gateshead and Northumberland, where there was only one property, two electors, one in the Ravenside bungalow and one in the parish, responded. The one from the Ravenside farmhouse wondered why the boundary had to be changed, and the residents of the Ravenside bungalow would live within one county boundary, with all the land they owned being within another. They had no objection, but they put forward some reasons; they were mostly complaining about the glossy brochure and the cost of this tweak.
The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, also asked about the period of consultation. It is entirely a matter for the Boundary Commission, which carries out consultations as it wishes. It has completed them now and the order means that the changes have to take place from 1 April.
The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked who initiated the reviews. Again, they are initiated by the Boundary Commission. As I said in my remarks, it carried out a countrywide search and come up with the list, but there was no agreement from the local authorities except from these three. I gather that there are no further reviews in the pipeline. If I have missed answering anything that either noble Lord has asked, I shall respond in writing.