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House of Lords Hansard
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East Suffolk (Local Government Changes) Order 2018
09 May 2018
Volume 791

East Suffolk (Modification of Boundary Change Enactments) Regulations 2018

West Suffolk (Local Government Changes) Order 2018

West Suffolk (Modification of Boundary Change Enactments) Regulations 2018

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

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That the Grand Committee do consider the East Suffolk (Local Government Changes) Order 2018, the East Suffolk (Modification of Boundary Change Enactments) Regulations 2018, the West Suffolk (Local Government Changes) Order 2018 and the West Suffolk (Modification of Boundary Change Enactments) Regulations 2018.

Relevant Document: 25th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

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My Lords, I beg to move that the draft West Suffolk (Modification of Boundary Change Enactments) Regulations 2018, the draft West Suffolk (Local Government Changes) Order 2018, the draft East Suffolk (Modification of Boundary Change Enactments) Regulations 2018 and the draft East Suffolk (Local Government Changes) Order 2018, which were laid before the House on 19 March 2018, be considered.

These instruments, if approved by Parliament and made, will on 1 April 2019 establish two new councils: East Suffolk Council and West Suffolk Council. East Suffolk Council is made up of two existing councils: Suffolk Coastal District Council and Waveney District Council. West Suffolk Council is made up of Forest Heath District Council and St Edmundsbury Borough Council.

The instruments also provide for elections to these new councils to be held in May 2019 and each fourth year thereafter. This includes providing electoral arrangements, the warding arrangements that would be used for the first elections should the Local Government Boundary Commission for England be unable to conclude in time the electoral review which is expected it will undertake. In addition, they make transitional provisions, including for a shadow authority and shadow executive to prepare for the new councils during the period from when the order is in force until April 2019.

We have brought forward these instruments in response to locally-led proposals from each of the areas concerned. All of the existing principal councils in each area support the proposals and, as statute requires, have given their formal consent to the regulations. In line with the Government’s 2017 manifesto, we are committed to consider any locally-led proposals for district mergers and, as we told Parliament in November 2017, we will assess proposals on the basis that they will improve local government and service delivery, create structures with a credible geography and command a good deal of local support.

The Government are satisfied that these two merger proposals fully meet these criteria. In the case of East Suffolk, the merger is the next logical step to the many shared arrangements which the two existing councils in the area have today. It will improve local government in the area. It will achieve greater efficiency and resilience. It will secure for the future on-going savings totalling more than £20 million since 2010, as well as yielding further savings which the council estimates as £2.2 million per year.

The area of the new combined East Suffolk Council is a coherent geography with a population of around 240,000. This area is, in fact, the same area as the old county of East Suffolk that existed from 1888 until 1974. Finally, we are satisfied that the evidence shows that there is strong local support for this proposal, with a survey suggesting that 72% of residents would support the merger.

Turning to West Suffolk, the two merging councils already operate largely as one council. The merger completes and secures this and the benefits it brings. It will therefore improve local government in the area, securing for the future on-going savings of £4 million a year as well as yielding further savings which the council estimates as £850,000 per year. As in the case of East Suffolk, the new area recreates a traditional long-established area, that of the county of West Suffolk that existed prior to 1974, but with a population today of almost 180,000. As with East Suffolk, this proposal for a new West Suffolk has strong local support.

It may assist the Committee if before concluding I say something about the processes which have been followed by the councils and the Government and which have led us to conclude that these proposals do, indeed, meet the criteria and are worthy of implementation. In each case the councils concerned submitted their proposal after undertaking what we believe was a sound and full consultation exercise involving extensive local engagement and open consultation.

In the case of East Suffolk, in formulating their proposals, East Suffolk councils undertook a programme of engagement with residents and stakeholders from September 2016 until December 2016. The programme included: an independent, proportionally representative phone poll; a media campaign including press releases and promotion on social media; information packs for town and parish councils; an open consultation via a dedicated webpage and an online survey to collect comments on the proposals; formal communication to stakeholders; presentations and talks at resident and business forums and public events; and a frequently asked questions document updated with any common questions or concerns.

The independent poll commissioned to find out local residents’ views suggests that 72% of residents were in favour of the proposals to form a new single district council, with 22% raising concerns. All of the local institutional stakeholders, such as the NHS, the county council, major business groups in Suffolk and all the neighbouring authorities, are also in favour.

In the case of West Suffolk, the programme of engagement with residents and stakeholders took place from May 2017 until the end of August 2017 and included: an independent, proportionally representative phone poll; a media campaign including press releases and promotion on social media; information packs for town and parish councils; an open consultation via a dedicated webpage and an online survey to collect comments on the proposals; formal communication to 162 stakeholders; presentations and talks at resident and business forums and public events; and staff briefings for front-line employees. The opinion research commissioned to find out local residents’ views suggests that 70% of residents were in favour of the proposals to form a new single district council. As was the case in East Suffolk, 22% of residents raised concerns. All of the local institutional stakeholders, such as the NHS, the police, the county council, major business groups in Suffolk, and all the neighbouring authorities are also in favour.

In both cases, where any concerns were raised, the councils made efforts to address each of the issues, and, where contact information had been provided, responded directly to explain how the concerns would be addressed. These responses were collated and published on the councils’ dedicated webpages.

Having considered all the material submitted to us, we do not share the view of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee—much as we hold it in the greatest respect—which reported that there appeared to be inadequacies in the consultation processes which relate to the instruments. Rather, we believe that the councils carried out a considerable exercise in consultation and made every effort to obtain a good appreciation of local opinion—and, in fact, achieved this. We are reinforced in our view by the support in both areas of many of the elected representatives, including all the MPs, for this proposal. Those elected locally to represent their area are clearly in a good position to know what local people are thinking.

Once the proposals were submitted, the next step was for my right honourable friend the then Secretary of State to announce how he was minded to proceed. In both cases, he announced that he was minded to implement the proposal. There then followed a period for representations. In the case of East Suffolk, a total of 25 representations was received: 20 in favour, one neutral and four against. None of the representations that were in opposition raised points which had not been raised and addressed in the consultation undertaken by the local authorities. I would add that these representations include five received outside of the timescale and beyond the 20 received during the representation period. We refer to those received on time in the Explanatory Memorandum, which, if Parliament approves the order, will be updated to include those responses received later. In the case of West Suffolk, all seven representations received were supportive of the proposal, including the local NHS, the county council and business groups.

It was following these processes that my right honourable friend the then Secretary of State decided to bring forward the secondary legislation which we are considering today to implement these two merger proposals. For each proposal, there are two instruments before us. In each case, the regulations modify the provisions of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 in its application to the case concerned. The regulations are made under provisions of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016. These regulations modify the 2007 Act provisions to enable a locally led and supported merger proposal to be implemented without the need for a time-consuming boundary review, which can be undertaken only at the discretion of the Local Government Boundary Commission for England. I should add that the Boundary Commission sees no difficulty with the approach we are taking and is expected to undertake a full electoral review to re-ward both new areas before the elections in May 2019. In each case, there is an order to be made under the modified provisions of the 2007 Act, which provide for the new councils, their elections and transitional arrangements.

In conclusion, these instruments establish two new councils that are widely supported. I have full confidence in the local areas to implement the mergers by April 2019 and allow the good people of Suffolk to elect their new councils in May that year. On that basis, I commend the regulations and orders to the committee.

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My Lords, I rise to speak on items six and seven, pertaining to west Suffolk. I speak as a resident and ratepayer of the St Edmundsbury Borough Council. This is a rather unusual piece of legislation in that it is catching up with reality. It seems to be about turning de facto into de jure. Its roots lay in the fairly recent past. They were conceived by the leader of St Edmundsbury Borough Council, John Griffiths. The opportunity arose to sell the council offices in the middle of Bury St Edmunds for them to be converted into flats and for new offices to be built on the edge of the town. The building has more room, is better planned, is environmentally up to date and is very smart indeed. It houses the council officials of both St Edmundsbury and Forest Heath. Most of those posts are already held in common by one official. In effect, there is already a substantial shadow administration. In a way, we are officially legitimising what has already been done. In old-fashioned terms, these two authorities have been living in sin for years, and this legislation will effectively make them man and wife, as one concept.

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My Lords, I also speak as a Suffolk resident of almost 40 years, although not of either of the areas covered today. I am a former district and county councillor in Suffolk so I have a keen interest in this.

I have always advocated unitary government for Suffolk, perhaps going back to the old, two-council days before 1974, or possibly 1973, with serious devolution to the towns and parishes which want it. I felt that way because I truly believe that service delivery would be better if we brought together planning and transport, for example, under one council. Local people would not have to sort out which council does what. As a councillor, I know that that is a significant issue. The financial savings that can be made from creating unitary councils have been well established across the country where this has been done.

Opposition to my view has always been on the grounds of saying, “Well, district councils are important because they’re small and they’re local and the wards are small. Everybody knows everyone and they’re close to the people”. I buy that; I can see that argument. However, it seems that in merging these councils—I am talking about councils as opposed to their back-office functions—big wards will be created and the council offices will, in many cases, be moved away from the area they represent. The advantages of districts are lost without the benefits of unitary government. Bins will still be emptied by one council and the waste disposed of by another, for example.

I remain concerned about that. I accept the point that Suffolk councils have been in the process of merging their back-office functions to save costs for some years now. That is entirely sensible. However, my council in mid-Suffolk, having done that with the neighbouring authority of Babergh, has now gone completely mad and moved its joint offices to the middle of Ipswich. There is no local connection there. If you are going to defend three-tier local government on the grounds of local connection, you have to show local connection.

I am worried that all this is being driven by the parlous state of local government finance in this country, rather than some sort of rational, thought-out plan. It feels as though people who live in Suffolk are somehow not being properly engaged with—I will come back to that—or brought along in the process. It was interesting that the Secondary Legislation Committee shared some of those concerns. I appreciate the trouble that the Minister has gone to to allay those. Nevertheless, there is still a lot of work to do—to be charitable—to convince people in Suffolk and in town and parish councils that the proposals will work.

To give what I think is an important piece of context, the report that went to Waveney and Suffolk Coastal District Councils on 14 March 2016 stated:

“The potential benefits and pitfalls of unitary local government have been well rehearsed previously”—

through LGR—and,

“have not been reproduced here. It is uncertain whether the new Secretary of State will be open to such discussions … Similarly, this could not be done in any format without … an impact upon Suffolk County Council. It is assumed at this stage (and without any discussion with the County Council) that this would be strongly resisted”,

by the county council. In other words, in East Suffolk at least, this was kicked off in 2016 without really knowing what the Secretary of State or the county council thought.

With regard to the support to which the Minister referred, the problem was that nobody ever had a say about the benefits of unitary councils—which I think, had it been put as an option, would have been more significant—but that did not take place because a unitary authority had been ruled out.

This continues to be a model. On 21 March this year, the leader of Suffolk County Council announced that he had commissioned a report from ResPublica to look at options for local government in Suffolk over the coming years. This afternoon, the local press are reporting that he has suspended this work, saying that it is because his opponent in a leadership bid is opposed to it. I have no idea whether the second part is true but it shows, given the importance of local government to Suffolk and the services that it delivers, that it deserves better than this.

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Before the noble Baroness sits down, would she make it plain that she is speaking primarily about East Suffolk? We in West Suffolk have been enjoying the benefits, or disbenefits, of the change now for a long while. We have been just living together and getting to like it.

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I am very pleased to put a cloak of respectability over the noble Lord and the area in which he lives. I hope that he sleeps more soundly as a result. Yes, I was citing the report that went to East Suffolk, but there is a general point. I would have preferred a much more strategic look at the whole county and how services are delivered so that we can all feel that councils are genuinely representing us. I think that that is exactly where we will be in five years’ time, but that will probably have cost us a lot of time and money.

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My Lords, first, I should draw the attention of the Grand Committee to my declaration of interests: I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I am not a resident of Suffolk, although I have friends there and visit often. It is a wonderful place to spend time.

I am clear that there is local support for the order. I know that the Minister has addressed the issue raised by the Secondary Legislation Committee, and I am happy with that. I have talked generally about consultation: we must ensure that our consultation processes actually involve talking to local people to get their views; we do not always do that. I am not saying that about this case.

I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market. I think that local government in England is a little confused. If you go to one place, there is a unitary council that does everything for the whole county. In the next place, you will have four or five tiers of local government doing the same job. There is an issue there. That is not the case in other parts of the country. In some parts of the country, you can have a metro mayor and a combined authority, the PCC, a county council, a district council and the parish council, all delivering different services to you. In another place, you have just a unitary council or a unitary district. I know that the Minister will say that we like it being bespoke and everyone can do as they like, but you could equally argue that it is a bit confused and a bit of a dog’s breakfast in some parts of the country.

In principle, I am not against what is suggested here, bearing in mind the points I made.

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My Lords, I do not want to add to the comments made by anybody who knows something about Suffolk, like my noble friend Lady Scott of Needham Market. I just remind the Committee of my interests as a councillor in Yorkshire and as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. The comment I want to make is that I have attended a number of these sessions where, as a Committee, we have considered mergers or boundary reviews and, in every instance, the existing local councils involved make claims about the savings that will be made and services that will be more efficient and that residents will be happy with the general situation. My question is: do the Government or the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government do a review post hoc to test whether this is in fact the case? We always accept these claims at face value, and we have a very specific claim here about the savings that will be made. No doubt that is the intention of the councils involved, but my experience of what council officers claim and what actually happens can often diverge. If such reviews do take place, I would really like to have access to them and, if they do not, I suggest that they are undertaken, partly because the funding savings that will be made are very specific. Councils always also make claims about efficiency of service provision, which may well be the case, but does anybody ask after the event whether it is the case?

I share some of the concerns expressed earlier, among all the comments that have been made, about the confusion of local government now and whether or not we are losing the “local” from local government. The area where I am a councillor, for example, serves 450,000 residents—it is a unitary, metropolitan council—and my ward serves 13,000 electors, so some 17,000 residents. This is compared with some local authorities where the wards will be considerably smaller. We have to ask the question about whether there is a democratic deficit for people in some parts of the country. How local is local government? There is, I think, a debate to be had between getting scale and service provision and losing the local touch, which democracy requires if it is going to work well. With those comments—well, questions—I will end what I have to say.

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My Lords, I thank noble Lords very much indeed for their contributions in relation to these issues affecting Suffolk. I will deal with the contributions in the order that they were made, if I may. I turn first to my noble friend Lord Tebbit, with his personal experience of St Edmundsbury Borough Council—an excellent council in a lovely part of the country. My noble friend quite correctly said that this is de facto catching up with de jure, because this has been the position for a long while. I also remind all noble Lords that these proposals are locally led. This is not a government imposition of what we would like to see; this is something that is locally led so, in relation to the local democracy element, that is very important.

I am very happy as the Minister for Faith to be presiding over this union, this coming together, of these two parties—

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I am sorry, but somebody will have to clarify whether I can speak. I was not here at the start of the debate, so I did not know that the Committee agreed to take the instruments en bloc. I intended to get here as quickly as I could, so I thought I could at least speak on the second pair when they were reached.

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My Lords, the rules say that if a noble Lord is not present at the beginning of the debate he cannot take part in it.

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I would be very happy to see my noble friend Lord Porter afterwards, if he has particular points, and to cover those in detail, if that would be helpful.

I am very happy to preside over the union of the two parties that have been living in sin, as the noble Lord put it. It all seemed to be going well until the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, got up to object—it reminded me of a scene in Jane Eyre or possibly Far from the Madding Crowd—but happily not in relation to the one union that was very close to my noble friend’s heart. She subsequently clarified her concerns about some of the issues.

Babergh and Mid-Suffolk were very close to an agreement in relation to a locally led proposal. It was not to happen, but that was a local matter, and as a department or a Government we have quite rightly not attempted to impose anything on them. So these are locally led proposals. On the unitisation issue, I shall not get sucked into Suffolk politics and matters pertaining to that great county as I do not know all the issues. Once again, however, it is open to authorities within Suffolk to come forward with locally led proposals if that is what they want.

I was not up to speed with the latest development on the review of the county council. I know the county council initiated it of its own volition without the involvement of the other areas, but if something were to come forward at a future juncture, of course we would look at it.

In relation to East Suffolk as well as West Suffolk, from the evidence we have of the consultation, these proposals are strongly supported by residents. All the districts concerned, including Waveney and Suffolk Coastal in the case of East Suffolk, are strongly in support of these proposals, which comes back to the locally led point.

That brings me to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. He and I have at the very least a nuance of difference in our approach here. Despite his very respectable Labour pedigree, the noble Lord has a slight Stalinist tendency to favour a standard approach for every council in the country, which is not necessarily what local councils want. These are locally led proposals. The same is true on a different canvas in relation to the mayoralties. They are not necessarily the same, but they are locally supported and bespoke.

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Does the Minister accept that one of the problems, the one we are all grappling with, is that these proposals do not have any sense of originating from the people, so when people show support or do not do so they are showing support or otherwise for something that has been handed to them? It is the same now with many of the other structures of local government. We all share a deep commitment to local government structures and we want to be confident that they enjoy public support. This is not a political point. It is about local democracy.

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I do not dissent from the general point that leadership means that proposals have to come from somewhere. I am keen to make the point, and perhaps to restate the point to overstate the point, that these are locally led proposals from local leaders. Of course they are not going to come from individual residents, but the evidence we have from the consultation, which the Secretary of State will have borne in mind when looking at these proposals, was that there was strong local support for them.

I take the point that there has to be a government policy, but the Government, of whom I am proud to be a part, are keen for there to be diversity and bespoke deals. The noble Lord probably takes a different view of this, but it is not a view that the Government subscribe to. We have a broad policy of saying these things have got to be locally led. We will look at them and scrutinise them to ensure that they are locally supported and represent value and so on, but local democracy is the key point.

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I take the Minister’s point. I am conscious that in other parts of England there are other places where there are differences among what councils want. Oxfordshire is an example where there are very different views about what is wanted in the future. Do I take it from what the Minister said that if councils do not want things to happen, they will not happen?

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That is essentially true. These have to be locally led. If they have not got local support, they will not happen: that is absolutely the essence of what I am saying. That does not mean that there has to be 100% support—

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Well, for district mergers, there has to be 100% support from the councils. What I am saying is that there does not necessarily have to be 100% support from the local MPs, for example, and that has not been the case. I am sure the noble Lord will appreciate—

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Excuse me, but I am conscious that, in Oxfordshire, there may well be a view that they want a unitary authority. But Oxford City Council does not want that and is very clear about it.

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I am making the point in relation to district councils, as it is district councils we are looking at. There are other considerations in relation to unitary authorities but, in relation to district councils, there has to be unanimous support from the authorities concerned, as there was in these cases. It happens that, in these cases, they have support also from the surrounding authorities, not all of which are in Suffolk itself.

Lastly, I will turn, if I may, to the point made by the noble Baroness, who also has great experience of local government. We are looking at Suffolk, but she will understand from the point of view of Kirklees the need for that local dimension. We have the local dimension here, as demonstrated by the feelings of the people in the area. That is the point I wish to emphasise.

In both cases, it is about recognising—once again I will adopt the words of my noble friend Lord Tebbit—a move from the de facto to the de jure. In both cases, there has been close co-operation. In both cases, for understandable reasons, it is intended that branch offices will be kept open while headquarters will be, in one case, in Bury St Edmunds, and, in the other case, in Melton, on the outskirts of Woodbridge. So there will be no change in that regard, but it is moving very sensibly from the de facto to the de jure, which is what they want. With that, I commend the regulations and the orders to the Committee.

Motions agreed.