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Northamptonshire (Structural Changes) (Supplementary Provision and Amendment) Order 2021

Volume 810: debated on Thursday 4 March 2021

Motion to Approve

Moved by

My Lords, if approved and made, this order will make provision in relation to the two new unitary councils in Northamptonshire, which will be fully up and running from 1 April 20201, taking on all local government functions from that date. The order will ensure that there is a smooth transition from the predecessor to successor councils.

Following approval from Parliament, we legislated in February 2020 to abolish the existing Northamptonshire County Council and the seven district councils in the area and establish the new unitary councils of North Northamptonshire and West Northamptonshire. These local government changes were locally led, having been proposed by councils in Northamptonshire. We were satisfied that, if implemented, their proposal would be likely to improve local government and service delivery in the area; that they would have a good deal of local support; and that the new councils would have a credible geography.

I must pay tribute to all the local leaders and their officers who have worked so hard to implement both this restructuring in Northamptonshire and the successful launch of the new councils, all while responding to the Covid pandemic. I also offer my thanks to our commissioners there, who have done so much to stabilise the position of the existing county council and provide a stable base for the transition to the new authorities.

The order we are considering makes the following changes in relation to the new councils. First, it makes amendments to the Lieutenancies Act 1997 and the Sheriffs Act 1887 to insert in the relevant schedules references to the new local government areas of North Northamptonshire and West Northamptonshire in relation to the positions of Lord Lieutenant and High Sheriff respectively. This will ensure the continuation of these important roles, which represent the Crown in Northamptonshire. There is no change to the boundary of the ceremonial county of Northamptonshire, and there is no change to the functions or jurisdiction of the Lord Lieutenant or High Sheriff of Northamptonshire.

Secondly, the order makes provision to ensure that the property, rights, assets and liabilities of the Northamptonshire pension fund transfer from Northamptonshire County Council to West Northamptonshire Council, which will be the new administering authority of the pension fund. This will ensure the continuation of the administration of the pension fund and avoid the crystallisation of any pension liability.

It further provides that the responsibility for assets and liabilities in the pension fund relating to the pensions of employees or former employees of the councils that are to be abolished transfers to successor councils in proportions determined by West Northamptonshire Council. This will ensure that there is clarity on who is taking over the responsibility for funding existing pensions accrued and preventing exit payments arising. In coming to a fair determination on these matters, the order provides that West Northamptonshire Council must take advice from an actuary and consult North Northamptonshire Council.

The order before noble Lords addresses two supplementary and incidental issues that could not be addressed in the existing regulations on generic application, which enable effective implementation of all unitary authorities. These specific provisions need to be applied directly with respect to these particular authorities. I assure noble Lords that we have worked closely on this order with the existing councils and shadow authorities for North Northamptonshire and West Northamptonshire, looking carefully at a number of issues raised and agreeing that the provisions of the order meet local requirements.

In conclusion, these provisions are necessary consequential changes in the light of the establishment of the new councils that Parliament has approved. They ensure a smooth transition to the new arrangements and continued effective local government in the areas. I commend this order to the House.

My Lords, I support the Minister and thank him so much for bringing this order forward. My first involvement in local government goes way back to 1968, when I had the privilege of leading the team that won Islington Borough Council, in effect winning every seat. Admittedly, Harold Wilson was rather unpopular at the time—another turnaround situation.

My first involvement with Northampton itself started 1972, when new boundaries had been agreed and Northampton South and Northampton North were looking for candidates. I put my name in and was told that Northampton South was a long shot, but I was not put off and, while I was on holiday in the south of France in the July, I got a telephone call asking if I would come back for an interview. Obviously, I did, and I was selected and flew back to what turned out to be a brilliant holiday.

The election was in February 1974. Mine was a marginal seat: my majority was 179. On the first count, it was minus 200-odd. On the second count, it was near enough level, and on the third count, I got 179—a good win. In October 1974, there was another election with a swing against my party, and I succeeded by 141; there was no personal swing against me, and the success was primarily due to tracking those who had moved from my best ward. As such, I say a huge public thank you again to the electors of Northampton South, who stuck with me through thick and thin until the disaster of 1997.

I turn to Northampton itself and the county. Northampton is a fourth-generation new town—it made a huge success of that, and I say to my noble friend on the Front Bench that we should do something similar today, though maybe on a smaller scale. I am still involved today: as president of Northamptonshire County Cricket Club, the Steelbacks, and at the University of Northampton—which is doing so well—the Saints, the rugby team, and Silverstone racing track. That involvement is still there. I pay tribute to the leadership of those days: George Pollard, John Lowther, Bill Morton, Jack Corrin, Ann Addison, Anne Goodman and the aldermanic bench. There was good liaison in those days with the MPs; indeed, I remember marching along the Embankment in the early days, seeking proper funding for Northamptonshire in toto.

Turning to the specifics, there is little purpose going over what went wrong. Frankly, it is exceedingly embarrassing to see my county in such a difficult situation. To the outsider, it seems to have been a combination of poor leadership, not putting the council tax up to a realistic level, installing a corporate structure that was not suited and, I am afraid, the top councillors clearly not keeping their eye on the ball.

I must now, quite rightly, focus on the future. It is a wonderful, dynamic part of England—right in the middle, with wonderful connections. I wondered about the break-up of the unitaries, because I live in Bedfordshire, which has three—two big towns and the middle bit where I live—but having looked at the details of Northamptonshire, which has five significant towns and a middle bit straddling quite a long way, I think the proposal for west Northamptonshire and north Northamptonshire strikes the correct balance.

The split is there. It seems appropriate, although it is sad that the eight district councils have had to be wound up. That is pretty dramatic; I thank all the councillors on them who have given up so much time. After all the trials and tribulations, it was disappointing that we did not have some elections in 2020 to get going again, but now they are to go ahead in a few months’ time.

I have studied the order in some depth, as my noble friend on the Front Bench will understand. I see at paragraph 7.3 of the Explanatory Memorandum, as he has referred to, that there are amendments to the Lieutenancies Act 1997 and the Sheriffs Act 1887. I thank my noble friend for ensuring that, in other words, there is to be no change to the boundary of the ceremonial county of Northamptonshire or to the functions of the Lord-Lieutenant or the High Sheriff of Northamptonshire. I admire both present incumbents and many other previous ones.

I looked at the pension fund in some depth—I declare an interest as a trustee of the Parliamentary Contributory Pension Fund—and seek reassurance that this will be closely and properly audited before it is formally handed over. I am sure there is nothing wrong there; nevertheless, given that the county council’s financial situation got into such a mess, I and, I am sure, the people of Northamptonshire wish to be reassured that what is being handed over is in proper order and that the pension fund is solvent to deal with and look after our pensions.

I formally pay my thanks to the senior inspector, Max Caller CBE, for the careful work he did on analysing the situation, recognising that there was no way of carrying on as a county council and that we had to move forward.

I will now look at the future in a little more depth. It is a proud county, and there will still be many organisations county-wide. I have mentioned Northamptonshire County Cricket Club, in which I declare an interest as president, a really well-run club that is succeeding well. Equally well run are the Saints; both have good structures, with strong chairmen and active boards. We have a university that came out of a further education college and a teacher training college, today ranking close to the top of the second division of universities. I pay great tribute to the vice-chancellor and his team for what they have done there. There will also be other county things such as the arts world and music, so we can all hold our heads up proudly that the geographical dimension of Northamptonshire is still very much there.

I cannot resist a brief word about the Battle of Naseby, on 14 June 1645, where Fairfax and Cromwell defeated the King and, in effect, led our country to meaningful parliamentary government—hence why I took the name, with the blessing, I emphasise, of Naseby Parish Council. I am still deeply involved in many parts of the county. Mentioning the battle again, there is a wonderful trail with viewing platforms for those who are interested.

Every unitary council today, after Covid, faces a huge challenge, none more so than the two newer ones. Northamptonshire people and businesses have dynamism and respected companies, with names that are well-known worldwide: Church’s shoes, British Timken, Barclaycard, Silverstone itself—with wonderful companies such as Cosworth and all the others—to mention a few.

But there is an immediate challenge for the two new councils: the new wave of cash grants for hospitality and high street firms. Those councils will be in charge of the distribution and I know that others elsewhere have not been too good at that. I look to the two new unitary authorities to be in the vanguard, so that when the distribution has been done, my noble friend the Minister will be able to stand up and say, “They’ve done a good job.” I look to the two new Northamptonshire unitaries to be in that vanguard and I say to them publicly that I am available to help in any way possible, as I imagine all the Members of Parliament for the county are too.

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, with his charming recollections of Northamptonshire and his evident commitment to the area that he represented for 24 years in Parliament and has continued to care about since he joined this House. That was a most impressive speech.

My interest in this subject, which I declare, is as a member of Cumbria County Council. I shall not comment on specific Northamptonshire issues, but I would like to engage the Government, if they are willing, in a debate about the general principles of their approach to local government reorganisation.

This May it will be half a century since I was first elected as a local councillor, in the then Oxford County Borough, which became Oxford District Council. For four years I was a member of Lambeth Council in the 1980s, where I led the SDP opposition to Ted Knight—someone who was as far away from the founding principles of the Labour Party as could possibly be imagined. For the last eight years I have been a Labour councillor in Cumbria.

My earliest political experience was living through local government reorganisation, when the county borough in Oxford became a district. Now I am living through it again, because on 22 February the Government formally announced that they were consulting on proposals to reorganise local government in Cumbria. I know that the Minister will not be able to comment on that in detail, but I would like to make some general points, which I hope he may be able to respond to in a letter.

I am a strong supporter of the unitary model. As I said, I was first elected to a county borough, but the problem with a county borough is that it did not reach beyond its hinterland. I believe that unitaries are the best model. The public do not understand two-tier local government: they talk about “the council” and do not know which council they are talking to. Two tiers also create artificial barriers to efficiency. It is nonsense to have local planning and housing issues decided at one level and highways and traffic at another. It is nonsense to separate housing from social services, where a lot of the preventive efforts relate to the housing service.

In the Covid emergency we have seen a split between public health, which is a county responsibility, and environmental health, which is a district responsibility. None of that makes sense and it involves a lot of duplication. In Cumbria we have far too many councillors —possibly including me. We have 350 of them. When we know—as we do from the Budget yesterday—that there will be no cornucopia of provision for local government in the next few years, it is important to make efficiency savings where we can.

People on the other side of the argument say that big unitary authorities mean a lack of democratic accountability. The answer to that, in my view, is to strengthen town and parish councils at the very local level. In the town I represent, Wigton, there is a very active town council and I would like to see its role extended. That would give very local accountability for very local decisions.

Moving to unitary authorities has my general support. The Government have so far adopted a mixed approach. In some places, such as Cornwall and Buckinghamshire, they have created a single unitary for the county. Why did they not adopt that approach in Northamptonshire? This clearly cannot be simply a question of geography and population size, because Cornwall and Buckinghamshire are very big areas.

There is also an issue about whether government policy and plans for local government reorganisation allow county boundaries to be crossed. Has that happened so far? In Cumbria there is now a proposal to create a Morecambe Bay authority—but the only snag with that is that it would deprive Lancashire County Council of its county town. What is the Government’s view in principle of proposals that cross county boundaries? For instance, in the case of Northampton, was the idea of creating an urban-based authority consisting of Northampton, Bedford and Milton Keynes ever considered? That would be logical if we were prepared to cross old county boundaries. What is the Government’s attitude to that?

In Northamptonshire the reorganisation has clearly involved breaking up services that were provided on a county basis. We know that that has been avoided for the lord lieutenancy and the pension scheme, but what has been the experience with children’s services? Has the trust model worked? Do the Government think that a children’s services trust can be held accountable when things go wrong? What are the lessons that they have drawn?

What reorganisation should definitely not be based on is political pressure from Members of Parliament who basically just want to hang on to existing structures. A lot of that is because they see district councillors as their grass-roots organisation. I do not think that should be regarded as a principle to prevent sensible reorganisation.

What criteria will the Government use in looking at all these different proposals for reorganisation? In Cumbria we have four proposals—one for a single unitary, which I support, and three different versions with two unitaries. That is a confusing situation and some order must be given to its consideration.

These are difficult questions and I am not expecting a clear answer from the Minister. I apologise for taking up the time of the House on these issues, but the Government have been rather slow and rather reluctant to show a bit of leg—if I might put it that way—in the reasoning behind local government reorganisation, which in principle I support. I believe in local government, as I know the Minister does. I have a passion for it, and I want to see a reorganisation carried out on a sensible basis, which can last for generations.

My Lords, I draw the attention of the House to my relevant registered interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I am happy to support the order before the House. As we have heard, it makes a number of changes and provides for the smooth transition to the new unitary councils that are to replace the old two-tier system in Northamptonshire. It also confirms that, for ceremonial purposes, the county of Northamptonshire remains in place; it is just the governance arrangements that will be different.

I thank all the councillors from all parties and no party, and all the staff, from all the local authorities, who have worked hard for the benefit of residents in Northamptonshire. I join the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, in his tribute. In particular, I pay tribute to, and thank, Councillor Tom Beattie for his leadership of Corby Borough Council over many years.

I lived and worked in the East Midlands for a long time. It is a wonderful place. Northamptonshire is a wonderful county, which the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, served with distinction for many years as one of its MPs. I agree with the noble Lord about what a wonderful, dynamic place Northamptonshire is. There is beautiful countryside, great businesses, such as Dr Martens in Wellingborough, Weetabix in Burton Latimer and Carlsberg in Northampton, world-class rugby with Northampton Saints, motor racing at Silverstone and Corby’s steel heritage and connections with Scotland. One of my dear friends was Mr Bob Wood, a leading figure in the Corby and East Northamptonshire Labour Party. Bob often told me of travelling down from Aberdeen with his family to get a job in the steel works. He remained at the steel works until they closed in 1979. That historic connection between Scotland and Corby is still there today. I remember taking Donald Dewar to Corby many times. He would have a lovely time there because he met people and families he knew from Glasgow because they had moved down to Corby.

At the risk of being accused of being party-political again, I think it is worth putting on record that this reorganisation has come about not through the coming together of local authorities, nor through the realisation by local authorities that unitarisation is the best way forward—though I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, that it is—but through the financial mismanagement and near collapse of Northamptonshire County Council. We discussed those matters before the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, was a Minister and before he was in the House. I have great respect for the noble Lord, but I think I need to run through some of those episodes.

Here is one illustration of the shambles we have had in Northamptonshire. On 12 October 2017, the £53 million, bright, shiny, brand new county HQ, One Angel Square, was opened by the right honourable Member for Bromsgrove, Mr Sajid Javid, who was the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. The Secretary of State told the assembled guests that it was a wonderful building, the headquarters of a bright, modern, forward-facing county council. The video of that opening is still online; I watched it again last night, and the Secretary of State praises the council and the work it does. I must say that I always liked the old county council building; I do not think there was anything wrong with that at all.

Jump forward six months to 27 March 2018, and Mr Sajid Javid stands up in the House of Commons and announces that he is minded to send in commissioners to run the county council, following the publication of Northampton County Council Best Value Inspection which said that the council had

“failed to comply with its duty … to provide best value in the delivery of its services”

and should be scrapped, and that commissioners should take control of the authority’s finances and governance from day one. On 10 May 2018, the new the Secretary of State, Mr James Brokenshire, announces they have decided to send in commissioners to run the county council.

It is not good. It is financial mismanagement at its worst. It is letting down those you are elected to serve. It is letting down those least able to defend themselves. It is not good enough. Taken with the serious failures of governance at Northampton Borough Council, resulting in the loss of £10 million of taxpayers’ money in the Northampton Town loan scandal, it is a complete and utter disgrace. Now, to be clear, where Labour councils or councillors have failed to uphold high standards, I expect action to be taken by my party. I believe nobody should stand for election to North Northamptonshire Council or West Northamptonshire Council if they have played a leading role in any of these scandals. The Government should think about that carefully because we have let residents and the council taxpayers down.

It was important to put that on the record. Having said that, I support the order. I wish the new councils and councillors well, but there have been serious problems they have to deal with. Something has gone seriously wrong in this county over many years.

My Lords, we have had an interesting and brief debate this afternoon. I am grateful for the insightful and helpful contributions noble Lords have made. I would like to provide some further detail on some of the points that have been raised.

My noble friend Lord Naseby was clear about his considerable local government pedigree and distinguished parliamentary career representing Northampton South. He clearly has that close bond with the historic county of Northamptonshire, and I recognise his support for the proposed split into two unitaries. I give my noble friend assurance that there is an annual audit of the pension fund and that there has been a clear apportionment of the pension assets and liabilities to ensure it happens fairly and that the pension fund can continue to operate unaffected.

The noble Lord, Lord Liddle, was very passionate about the advantages of unitarisation, and I would point out that the devolution proposals are locally-led. The split followed the recommendation of an independent review of Northamptonshire County Council by Max Caller. It was supported by local leaders, and a significant consultation exercise was carried out. I can also assure the noble Lord that the Secretary of State will clearly evaluate the criteria for unitarisation and the results of the consultation against those criteria before making any decision. He will have regard for all the information that has been provided to him.

I point out to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, that it is important that we root out those few councils that let people down. It is the residents of the area that suffer. I am sure he would agree there are examples of Labour councils that have run up huge levels of debt. The most obvious is Croydon Council, which ran up a debt of £1.5 billion and did not have the reserves to be able to continue financing even basic services. So we need to make sure there is a framework in place and that local leaders who have taken those poor decisions do not have a future in the leadership of local government. I agree with him on that.

In conclusion, this order makes a significant contribution to support and empower local government to deliver public services to the people of Northamptonshire in an efficient and effective way. This order completes the legislative requirements necessary to implement a locally-led proposal for unitarisation in Northamptonshire. It ensures that necessary technical arrangements around ceremonial matters and local government pension scheme arrangements are in place so that there continues to be effective local government in Northamptonshire.

The new local authorities undergoing reorganisation are making excellent progress towards their go-live date, and I am confident the new councils, West Northamptonshire Council and North Northamptonshire Council, will be successfully launched on 1 April 2021, bringing about the improved local government and service delivery that the people of Northamptonshire need and deserve. I commend this order to the House.

Motion agreed.

We are just going to swap the speakers, and we are waiting for the Minister, so, rather than adjourn the House, we are going to take one minute, then move straight on.

Sitting suspended.