Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, a draft of these regulations was laid before this House on 14 January. They are an enabling element in the processes for implementing the locally led proposal to replace the five existing Buckinghamshire councils with a new single unitary council. If approved by Parliament and made, the regulations will allow orders to be made under the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 to implement the Buckinghamshire proposal. In short, this is the first of two steps for these proposals.
Specifically, the regulations provide that Part 1 of the 2007 Act is varied in relation to Buckinghamshire so that: proposals may be made for the purposes of the 2007 Act by any principal authority in Buckinghamshire on its own initiative; any unitary proposal received by the Secretary of State from Buckinghamshire councils, including pre-existing proposals from before the regulations are made, may be implemented with or without modification by order; and the requirement for the Secretary of State to consult the councils and other persons affected by the proposal does not apply, reflecting the extensive consultation undertaken by the county council and the subsequent period for representations.
The regulations would expire at the end of March 2021 to allow sufficient time for all necessary orders under the 2007 Act to be made, to give full effect to the proposal. For regulations made on or before 31 March 2019, the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 requires at least one of the councils to give its consent to the making of the regulations, if the regulations are to be made. Buckinghamshire County Council has given its unconditional consent to the making of these regulations.
Alongside these regulations, in addition to the usual Explanatory Memorandum, we have also laid a report explaining the effect of the regulations and why the Secretary of State considers it appropriate to make them, as required by Section 15 of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016. The report also provides contextual information about the regulations.
Regarding the context, as that report explains, the Secretary of State considers it appropriate to make these regulations which provide for Part 1 of the 2007 Act to be varied in its application to Buckinghamshire, to reflect the initiative of Buckinghamshire County Council to make a proposal for structural change without an invitation having been received from the Secretary of State.
The context to this proposal is that there is wide consensus that the current local government arrangements in Buckinghamshire are unsustainable and inappropriate. In September 2016, the county council submitted a proposal for a new single unitary council. In January 2017, the four district councils submitted a proposal for two unitary councils. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State and his predecessor evaluated these proposals against the Government’s criteria. They concluded that both proposals met the criteria about a good deal of local support. The over 3,000 representations we received on this matter showed overwhelming support for change, with 87% of all representations supporting unitarisation in principle, 35% of all representations supporting a single unitary council, and 47% supporting the two-unitary proposal.
Public sector service providers in Buckinghamshire—the police and crime commissioner, South Central Ambulance Service, Buckinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust and Buckinghamshire CCG—expressed support for a shared geography with the council to improve the overall provision of services in Buckinghamshire and, reflecting that the majority of partner organisations operate on a county-wide basis, therefore support the creation of a single unitary council. Buckinghamshire business organisations strongly supported a single unitary council. The South East Midlands LEP supported two unitary councils and the Buckinghamshire Thames Valley LEP supported a single unitary council.
The question therefore for my right honourable friend was whether the two other criteria for local government reorganisation—namely improving local government and representing a credible geography—were satisfied. As set out in the Written Ministerial Statement I presented to the House on 1 November 2018, we concluded that the proposal for a single unitary met these other two criteria and hence should be implemented if Parliament approves. We also concluded that the two-unitary proposal did not meet those two criteria. It did not represent a credible geography, as highlighted by one of the LEPs, and it would have involved a unitary council with a population of 188,000, considerably below our recommendation that a unitary council population should be in excess of 300,000. That was in the north of the county. It also risked the fragmentation of services in Buckinghamshire, a particular concern for the Children’s Commissioner.
Looking at the next steps, these regulations pave the way for orders which, if approved by this House and the other place, and made, will implement the proposal for a new single unitary council in Buckinghamshire. We have been discussing with the five Buckinghamshire councils the detailed provisions to be included in the first of these instruments. Once we have finalised this instrument, after these discussions, we intend to lay a draft of the order before Parliament as soon as is practicable. The order will then be subject to full Parliamentary debate, both in this House and in the other place. If approved and made, it will provide for the existing five councils to be abolished on 1 April 2020 and replaced by a single new unitary council. It will also make provision for appropriate transitional arrangements.
In conclusion, we are responding to a locally led proposal to replace the existing unsustainable local government structures in Buckinghamshire with a new council that will be able to deliver high-quality sustainable local services to the people of Buckinghamshire, and provide for effective leadership at both the strategic and the most local level. All the existing councils have made clear their commitment to delivering the very best services for Buckinghamshire communities. These regulations open the door to delivering this and, on that basis, I recommend these regulations to the Committee. I beg to move.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a long-term resident of Buckinghamshire, although I am not directly involved in any of the bodies listed by the Minister. I have been aware of the debates and discussions that have been ongoing in Buckinghamshire for some time, and am slightly surprised that I am alone in this place as anybody who has direct knowledge of what is happening there. The House is full of Buckinghamshire residents, I am happy to say, many of whom serve in the Government, and I would have thought that one or two of them might have been present to represent their views on this interesting proposition.
If I follow the Minister correctly, there are three columns under which the Government intend to make their decision—first and primarily on whether there is voter engagement and confidence in sufficient support across the population of Buckinghamshire. That is, whether the bodies representative of activity in that county—the LEPs and various other bodies mentioned by the Minister—have supported the issues, particularly those directly funded by and operated through one or more of the councils. There is this rather wonderful phrase “credible geography”, which supports the decisions that are likely to be made.
The Minister has done a very fair job in trying to represent the confusion in this process. He was right to point out—it is worth looking at the Explanatory Memorandum in some detail on this—that there is a great deal of support for unitarisation in Buckinghamshire. I do not dispute that, but there is rather less agreement on what form it should take. He mentioned that the district councils were primarily concerned about there being two unitary councils in Buckinghamshire. I am delighted to see that another resident of that county, the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, has emerged from the dark recesses of your Lordships’ House. He will no doubt support me later—or he may not.
The variety of responses took the same sort of approach—that 87% of representations support unitarisation in principle—but the options were split again. Although it saw more support for single unitary operations, the public sector provider similarly highlights a lot of the difficulties that will arise when unitarisation takes place. On this first leg, I wonder whether there will be any opportunity to reflect further on this. Yes, all the right processes have been gone through, but the results are so disparate in how they line up to solutions that it is difficult to see how the Government can make the decision on the basis of that set of responses.
The second point concerns the process of employment in other involved bodies. I have touched on this slightly in my response to the Government’s first column. The business community—various issues are raised in paragraphs 10.9, 10.10 and 10.11 of the Explanatory Memorandum on this—is not universally in favour of a single unitary structure. I wonder how the Government have drawn that conclusion.
My final point is on the credible geography. The dog that has not barked in this debate is the question of Milton Keynes. In northern Buckinghamshire, Milton Keynes is a burgeoning separate institution with its own governance and practice; with no real logic in a longer-term perspective, it is constantly differentiated from the rest of Buckinghamshire. The town is growing. Under the circumstances in which it was set up, it is an efficient and well-run operation. It has plans for expansion, and has been picked out on many occasions by the Government for sustainable development in the creation of more houses and better communications, particularly as a link on the corridor between Oxford and Cambridge. Despite that, it is completely ignored in this reorganised structure. Would the Minister like to comment on that?
It seems extraordinary that, with such focus on its future growth, such a concentration of people and economic activity is ignored in the structure of the county in which it operates. As for credible geography, it seems absurd to have a county that is long and thin. Journeys from north to south in Buckinghamshire are extraordinarily difficult; I made one this morning and it took me almost an hour and a half to get to the north of the county from where I live in the south. We are talking about ignoring one of the biggest economic operators within it. One need only look at a map with an uncritical eye to see that the south of the county points more towards Windsor and the London fringes. All the communication lines that people use for commuting—it is a commuter area—are centred on and work into the area. Yet the north looks to the Midlands and gets around Milton Keynes in a way that is antipathetic to the way that local government structures will be working.
The Government have obviously decided that they want to take this forward. As the Minister said, there will be a chance to discuss the draft before a final decision is made; perhaps that will be the more appropriate moment at which to look at it. But will there be another opportunity, between now and when this appears in the Chamber, for him to reflect on whether other issues need to be brought into this equation? Is he confident that the earlier pillars of voter engagement and user experience have not been slightly undervalued in the discussions so far, particularly in light of the credible geography issue?
My Lords, it is fairly clear that there are two views in Buckinghamshire on how to establish a unitary structure. It is not for me to support one view or another; that is a matter for the people of Buckinghamshire.
The debate we are about to have will be helpful, but I would first like to pick up a comment made by the Minister when introducing the proposal. It relates to the population figure that should apply for a unitary council. As I recall, he said that if there were two, one would have a population of only 188,000, whereas, normally, a unitary council would be over 300,000. I can think of quite a number of unitary councils that are well under 300,000 and hover around the 180,000 to 200,000 mark. Will he comment on that? Is a new government standard being applied? There is a certain logic to it: 188,000 is a lot of people and may well be deemed a sufficient number.
I noted two things in the Explanatory Memorandum. One is a comment in paragraph 10.11 by the commissioner for children’s services in Buckinghamshire, who,
“indicated a preference for a single unitary as opposed to two unitary councils; and was strongly opposed to ‘any … [local government reorganisation] proposal which would break-up (disaggregate) the existing children’s services structures in Buckinghamshire’”.
That is clearly a professional view of the best structure for that area. There may well be other similar professional views. If so, can the Minister draw our attention to them? We have comments from a number of public services and businesses, but there will be others beyond those.
I also have a concern about the comments made by councillors from town and parish councils. They are,
“particularly concerned about their capacity to take on additional devolved activity in a single unitary arrangement”.
This matters greatly. One thing we have learned from unitarisation in other parts of England is that, when it happens, you need strong town and parish councils to undertake the work that inevitably is devolved from the single unitary authority. These things are not directly to do with me or your Lordships’ House, but, when talking with the town and parish councils in Buckinghamshire, I hope the Government will listen very carefully to all that is said and respond in a way that assists those councillors to do their job in the future.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of a local authority with a population of 280,000. I am also an honorary vice-president of the Local Government Association.
We are in the paradoxical position of passing regulations which effectively bypass the wishes of four district councils in Buckinghamshire and of the 47% of respondents to the consultation on the proposal to abolish these councils and merge them with the county council. As we have heard, they voted for two unitary authorities to be created from the four districts. Slough, which is geographically in Buckinghamshire, is already a unitary authority, and so is Milton Keynes. Their views were backed by the chair of the District Councils’ Network, who blamed the decision on what he described as “ill-conceived legislation”; namely, the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act. This includes a sunset clause expiring—curiously enough—in March, which permits the Secretary of State to fast-track changes with the consent of only one local authority; in this case, the county council.
Even the Secretary of State, who bears the uncannily appropriate name of Brokenshire, acknowledges the concern that a single unitary authority might weaken democratic engagement at the most local level. Incidentally, he said he would consult on whether this year’s local elections should be delayed to avoid councillors being elected for only one year. Can the Minister say what has been decided in respect of this matter?
The public consultation produced only a 35% response in favour of the proposals. How can the Government justify proceeding with such a slender measure of support? I understand that Chiltern and Wycombe District Councils—neither of them, I regret to say, yet Labour-controlled—wrote to the Secretary of State with notice of intention to institute a legal challenge. Joined by South Bucks, they are now seeking judicial review. Can the Minister indicate when the case is likely to be heard? Would it not be more seemly to defer any decision on the regulations until the legal proceedings are concluded?
In the debate on the draft regulations in the Third Delegated Legislation Committee, Dame Cheryl Gillan, the Member of Parliament for Chesham and Amersham, launched a blistering attack on the proposals. Among much else, she quoted the previous Under-Secretary of State, James Wharton, who, during the passage of the then Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, stated that it was the Government’s intention to build consensus, saying:
“We are not going to impose change on areas that do not want it”.—[Official Report, Commons, 7/12/15; col.772.]
Given that four of the five authorities involved—that is all the district councils affected—oppose the proposals, how can the Government square their decision with that emphatic commitment? In addition to the unanimous view of the district councils, 70% of parish councils in the area support the proposal for two unitary authorities, as do local businesses and other stakeholders.
Dame Cheryl also drew attention to the Government’s effective imposition of the county council leader as the initial leader of the new authority, with a majority of county councillors on the executive and the potential appointment of the county chief executive as “implementation leader”. This looks uncannily like a county council takeover—a sort of Amersham Anschluss.
In his reply to the debate in the Commons, Minister Rishi Sunak said:
“It is time for a fresh start for Buckinghamshire. It is time for people to forget about what has happened in the past, leave aside the tags of district and county, and come together to work for the benefit of residents”.—[Official Report, Commons, Third Delegated Legislation Committee, 4/2/19; col. 18.]
This is all very well, but the people are being given no voice and no vote on the issue.
This is yet another example of government practice since 2010. Then, some councils were compelled to hold ballots on whether to move to elected mayors. Although many, including Newcastle, voted not to do so, the Government’s reaction over time was to require elected mayors as a condition of the establishment of combined authorities. Their contempt for local government was further exemplified by the abolition of regional offices of government—originally established by an earlier Conservative Administration—which had proved a successful way of building constructive relationships between the two tiers of government.
I trust that the Minister will not emulate his colleague in the Commons, who concluded the debate on the regulations by declaring that he was,
“confident that, before too long, we will have a happy resolution to all outstanding matters, and that the people of Buckinghamshire can look forward to a bright future”.—[Official Report, Commons, Third Delegated Legislation Committee, 4/2/19; col. 18.]
This is the utterance of a political Candide, believing that all is for the best in the best of all possible local government worlds.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have participated in the debate on the proposals for unitarisation in Buckinghamshire. I remind noble Lords that a locally led proposal is the background to this—as it should be, as the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, rightly said. The provisions will run out on 31 March this year, when we will revert to the previous procedures and to legislation brought in under Tony Blair, if I am not mistaken. That would require an invitation from the Secretary of State to amend local government procedures, unless there is unanimity among local authorities, in which case it would not be necessary.
The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, made a point about Milton Keynes. He is right that it is a dog that has not barked and was not part of the locally led proposal. I recognise that Milton Keynes is significant in that area but it was not part of the process. He also made a point about viable geography and the size of a unitary authority. I think this issue has been addressed; indeed, my honourable friend the Minister for Local Government dealt with this issue in the other place and followed it up with a letter that talked about the process. I will make sure that the relevant letter is sent to noble Lords.
Originally, we imagined a population range of between 400,000 and 600,000 people, but subsequently found that this was too high. I am not saying that no ranges are above that figure, but the norm is somewhere around the 300,000 mark I referred to. It is not a hard-and-fast rule, but it is a guiding principle. The size has an effect on the nature and the split of services; indeed, the children’s commissioner gave the view that one unitary authority would be more beneficial than two. That view was reflected in the consultation—not exclusively, I accept, but getting 100% support for proposals is always pretty unlikely in a consultation. There was certainly discontent from the authorities, all of which were not content with the status quo. We have not had representations from local parties saying that the proposals are untenable.
The choice facing my right honourable friend the Secretary of State was between progressing with one unitary authority for the four district authorities or with two. Obviously, a judgment of Solomon must be made. With respect, all the authorities are Conservative-led, so there can be no idea of this move being for political gain; that was not suggested but I want to make the point. The Minister acted in this way after looking at the viable geography and representations made, and trying to work out which proposal presented the best option for local government in the area. He thought that a single unitary authority was that best option.
I do not pretend that this will please everyone; clearly it will not. For example, it will not please the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, which I suggest will not change after I finish speaking and after the regulations have, I hope, been agreed to. As I say, we must look at the considerations I presented, the provision of services and the size of the entity. All are important but there was certainly little or no support for the status quo: 87% of people felt that the status quo was not viable, so the suggestion that this will upset everybody in the area is somewhat far-fetched. The noble Lord also mentioned the deferral of elections. They are being deferred for a year, in line with what all the authorities—district and county councils—asked for.
If I have missed any other points made by noble Lords, as I almost certainly have, I will pick up on them in a letter. Echoing the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, noble Lords will get another bite of the cherry when the order comes forward and we look at some of its provisions in more detail. With that, I commend the regulations to the Committee.