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House of Commons Hansard
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District Councils
15 November 2017
Volume 631

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Chris Heaton-Harris.)

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I am grateful for the opportunity to debate district council collaboration and devolution in England. As an MP representing a district area and a former member of the district council in my constituency, I am keen to champion the vital role that district councils play in delivering public services and shaping local communities.

It is a great pleasure to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) will respond to the debate on behalf of the Government, as the Minister for Local Growth. I look forward to his remarks about the role that district councils can play in supporting their local economies.

Today’s debate follows the publication of a report on collaboration between district councils and devolution to district councils, which the newly formed all-party parliamentary group for district councils undertook earlier this year. It did so to support the interests of district councils as the tier of local government with an unrivalled understanding of the local communities and economies they serve. District councils are the tier of government closest to residents, and they are anchored in the communities they serve.

The report was a significant piece of work, and I have a copy here. It was supported by the District Councils’ Network and by Professor Colin Copus and his team at the Local Governance Research Unit at De Montfort University in Leicester. I pay tribute to and thank the DCN and the LGRU for their valuable contributions to the report.

I also wish to put on record my gratitude to the 70 district authorities around England that gave written evidence and to the 15 districts represented by elected leaders and senior officers, who came along and sat before us in Select Committee style, providing evidence of the work they had done on collaboration and devolution.

I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for Witney (Robert Courts)—in west Oxfordshire—for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) and for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills), and the hon. Member for Burnley (Julie Cooper), who attended the evidence sessions. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies), who attended before her appointment as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. Our evidence sessions took place before the 2017 general election, and I thank the former Member for High Peak, who also took part. In addition, we were assisted by Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville and Baroness Pinnock.

In addition to evidence sessions with English district councils, we took information from leading local academics from across Europe, who provided fascinating insights into local government in their respective countries. They demonstrated that there is not, and cannot be, a one-size-fits-all approach, as we know is the case in England.

We learned that collaboration is clearly in the DNA of the districts; it is something they have embraced for some time. It assists the strengthening of service delivery to residents, encourages innovation and new ideas, and stimulates economic and housing growth. That is something I have seen at first hand in my constituency, where Rugby Borough Council has successfully collaborated with its neighbours. It collaborates with Daventry District Council in the provision of a crematorium serving both authorities.

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Madam Deputy Speaker, I spoke to the hon. Gentleman beforehand and sought his permission to intervene. He outlined a number of councils he had spoken to across Europe. He will be aware from our conversation that we reduced the number of councils in Northern Ireland from 26 to 11 to cut costs and to increase efficiency and responsibility. Did discussions take place at any stage with the Northern Ireland councils to see what we are doing to achieve those three goals?

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We looked specifically at what is happening in England. One of the key points for us is that these should be voluntary arrangements. These should be arrangements where councils get together and work out what is the best for them and their local communities, rather than having something imposed from the top down—from the centre. To that extent, the processes we looked at differed from those in Northern Ireland.

I was speaking about the collaboration arrangements my district council has. Rugby Borough Council works with Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council on procurement, and with Warwick District Council and Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council to create a joint building control service.

Our report came up with six recommendations, and I would like to place those on record. The first involves the role of district councils in working with local enterprise partnerships. We know these are important building blocks in developing local economies, and it is important that the level of local government that is closest to its residents should have a strong say in the LEP area. In a large LEP, the districts might come together to pick one person to represent their interests. If LEPs are to have greater involvement in delivering local industrial strategies, which I think we all endorse, it is crucial that they have greater democratic representation on their boards. A review of LEPs is under way, and I hope the Minister will look at this point to make certain we get that democratic accountability on LEPs. We also looked at the duties to collaborate. We would like to see an extension of those to provide further representation for district councils on some of these bodies.

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My hon. Friend is making a very powerful case. I declare my interest as a deputy leader of West Oxfordshire District Council until I was elected to this House. I know that I am not the only alumnus of that council in the Chamber. The Publica Group is starting work this month for Forest of Dean District Council, West Oxfordshire District Council and partner councils, with all the public sector workers working for that publicly owned company, enabling savings of over £40 million to be made by those councils together over the course of the next 10 years. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a very good example of how excellent services can be provided at a minimum cost and very good value for the taxpayer?

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I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and for his contribution to the report. He is entirely right. We identified all sorts of valuable arrangements in taking evidence, and he gives a good example. It is important to realise that the examples of collaboration that I gave from my district council are very much with authorities that are immediately adjacent, but we also discovered great working in authorities that may be some distance apart but perhaps share common issues and common problems. My hon. Friend picks those issues out very well.

Our third recommendation is that district councils should be empowered to produce a local governance framework policy to identify a shared vision of collaboration and an agreed set of priorities for public services within the district. Our fourth recommendation is that there should be no legal restrictions on districts regarding the partner organisations they choose to negotiate with. I just mentioned that they may be some distance apart geographically.

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As a supporter of district councils, I am delighted by the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. Does he agree that one of the ways in which this could be helped is by freeing up some of the housing activities that district councils perform, whereby they could be part of the solution to the housing crisis?

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District councils’ housing authorities have a big role to play in bringing forward additional housing. We need district councils to work more effectively with other agencies to identify land to bring forward for development. There are many ways in which district councils can work more collaboratively, both with one another and with other agencies, many of which will be landowners.

Our fifth recommendation is that the framework of devolution should permit district councils to develop and propose devolution deals to Government at any stage. District councils have a big role to play in devolution. Our sixth recommendation is that district councils should encourage their overview and scrutiny committees to review the opportunities for collaboration. That should be happening on a proactive basis. I look forward to the Minister’s response to our recommendations.

We launched our report in Parliament some months ago, when we were delighted to be joined by the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), who committed to taking our recommendations back to the Department. I look forward to the Minister perhaps bringing us an update on where his Department stands regarding some of the recommendations that we have made.

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In the light of the response that my hon. Friend is yet to get from the Minister, does he share my disappointment that it is proposed that the partnership between East Dorset District Council and Christchurch Borough Council should be broken and that those councils should be absorbed into unitary authorities against their will? That is contrary, surely, to the principles being enunciated of voluntarism and the importance of keeping shire districts that are close to the local people.

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My hon. Friend refers to specific incidents in his area, and I am concerned about the compulsion that appears to exist. The evidence that we received shows that these arrangements are much more effective when people work collaboratively and identify the relationships that most suit them.

We think that encouraging collaboration across functional economic areas will have many benefits, and that it will help to ensure that services are delivered in ways that match how people live their lives. The sharing of services can bring substantial efficiencies and much-needed savings to the public purse. Recent studies published by the Local Government Association show that district councils have already saved more than £224 million through shared service arrangements; that is by far the highest saving made by any type of local authority.

Districts have made enthusiastic and important contributions to the devolution and transformation agenda in local government. We heard evidence at our sessions about the significant amount of time and resources being invested by senior councillors and officers, although we heard some evidence to suggest that from time to time the enthusiasm and drive can be slowed down by the Whitehall machine.

We heard some evidence that collaboration between district and other bodies such as local health services can be important, and we are keen to ensure that districts have effective representation in the sustainability and transformation plans that are currently being developed. That is why we recommended that they should involve full engagement with district councils, including statutory representation and involvement in decision making. I wonder whether the Minister might speak a little about the role of districts in the sustainability and transformation plans.

I would also like to raise with the Minister the calls being made by the District Councils’ Network for the introduction of a 2% prevention precept on the district council element of council tax, along the lines of the county councils’ 2% social care precept. We know that for every £1 spent on prevention—for example, by adapting homes to prevent falls, improving home insulation or providing recreational and leisure services—district councils can save the national health service substantial sums. The District Councils’ Network has submitted this proposal to the Chancellor ahead of the Budget, and I wonder whether the Minister might share his views on that idea.

Although the report seeks to encourage greater collaboration and devolution, we are anxious to ensure that there is accountability and transparency—that perhaps comes to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope)—and that districts maintain their unique relationship with their local community. I hope that the Minister agrees with our report that flexibility is important in devolution arrangements, and that different approaches are required in different parts of the country. To pick up my hon. Friend’s point again, devolution cannot be done using a simple mathematical equation developed here in Westminster. Does the Minister agree that, in this instance, one size does not fit all?

I hope, in conclusion, that this report from the all-party group for district councils demonstrates that the approach must be bottom up. It must come from the district councils getting together and working together to develop something that suits the particular circumstances of their locality. I look forward very much to the Minister’s response.

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Good evening, Madam Deputy Speaker. I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) on securing an important debate, and I congratulate all involved in producing the excellent report published by the all-party group for district councils. My hon. Friend chairs the group. Through the report, he has shown Government a way in which district councils can remain at the heart of our local government family for the long term.

The inquiry that my hon. Friend chaired has produced a report that recommends collaboration between local partners, ensuring transparency and scrutiny, and looking for a role in local enterprise partnerships and future devolution deals for district councils. The report is very well timed. Another notable theme flowing through the report in its entirety is the leadership running through our district councils in England. This Government are absolutely determined to put local leadership at the heart of our agenda when it comes to dealing with district councils.

On behalf of all colleagues present in the Chamber and on my behalf, and particularly on behalf of my Department, I want to put on the record our absolute thanks and gratitude to all the councillors working for communities across this country. It is often a thankless task, but those individuals across the country, both men and women, representing and being very closely connected with their communities, do fantastic work. We need to find every opportunity we can in our debates in this House to put on the record our thanks to them.

There have been some changes since the production of my hon. Friend’s report, which I want to outline before I get on to the report itself. I referred to these changes just this week in a debate in Westminster Hall, again on district councils. Madam Deputy Speaker, they are like buses: you wait for one debate on the future of district councils and how they can be at the heart of our local government family, and two come along at the same time.

Just last week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced a decision to merge two district councils in Suffolk to form a large single district council. In his announcement, he set out the criteria that he will use for assessing proposals for mergers for district councils across England. The first is whether the proposal would be likely to improve the area’s local government. Every proposal must have at its heart the delivery of best value for the taxpayer and the improvement of service delivery. I think that is exemplified in the work our existing district councils do on behalf of the people they represent.

The second test is whether any proposal commands a good deal of local support in the area. We will in particular look for any proposal to go through a full council meeting of each of the councils involved, and look at finding good evidence of local support out in the communities. Finally, when looking at district councils that may wish to merge—there will be no compulsion to do so—we will ask them whether it would create a credible geography for the proposed new structure. We do not want the creation of a patchwork quilt across the country; we are looking for good proposals that have value for the taxpayer and service delivery at their heart to be brought forward by adjacent local authorities.

My hon. Friend made the point that his own council shares services, but some district councils—not Rugby—are looking to go further. They are looking at how they can make sure there is a long-term and sustainable economic future for the district council by coming together with others as one entity. Many of them see this as the next logical step in the joint working exemplified across our existing councils.

I want to make it absolutely clear that the Government do not want to get in to a top-down reorganisation of local government. We want proposals from district councils—in fact, from any councils—for mergers to be locally led and to have local support.

I now turn to specific elements of the report, some of which I will attempt to address. My hon. Friend correctly pointed out that the Government are currently talking about our forthcoming industrial strategy White Paper. The White Paper will set out how LEPs must make a step change in their ability to drive local growth in their areas. One of the interesting parts of the report is about how we can ensure that district councils are part of that conversation about delivering local growth. As the report says and my hon. Friend commented, district councils are of course the nearest tier of government to the people they represent, and we must ensure that their voice is heard when it comes to developing their local economy.

In addition, as my hon. Friend said, we have just launched a review of our LEPs. The review will look to strengthen them by finding a way for the public and private sectors to work in partnership to drive their local economies. We want to ensure that LEPs have the right governance structure, accountability and capability to take a leading role in driving economic growth, and that all local partners, including district councils, have a voice. That work will build on the recent review of LEP governance and transparency that was published in October. I hope we will find an opportunity to engage district councils in that review and to talk to them about the role that they can play in their LEP.

Finally, and importantly, I want to ensure that, following the review, the LEP boards accurately reflect the diverse business community and local government family that they seek to represent, by having more women and people from the black, Asian and minority ethnic community on their boards. I hope that the LEP review will be a good opportunity for us to drive forward that very important agenda.

Recommendation 5 of my hon. Friend’s APPG report mentions devolution and the role that district councils can play in it. We have moved beyond the first stage of the devolution revolution, whereby devolution took place in our large metropolitan boroughs. We are moving to devo 2, or even devo 2.1. We have made it absolutely clear that devolution must be locally led. We are seeking agreement between local partners, and where such agreement exists—whether it is district councils, unitaries or county councils—the Government are happy to meet local partners to discuss their ambition, through devolution, to boost growth and productivity. We hope shortly to be able to provide clarity on how district councils and other councils can best take forward their devolution ambitions. The Government are going to set out a clear framework as they develop the next stage of their industrial strategy. As I have said, district councils should be at the heart of devolution, and we will ensure that they are.

On sustainable transformation plans, we agree that local authorities should be fully engaged wherever they find themselves in the local government family, but I will pass on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State the specific points made in this debate.

Turning to other matters raised by my hon. Friend, I welcome the opportunity to expand broadly on the precept and where it should go in relation to district councils. However, given that the Budget is next week and that I would quite like to still be in my job before we complete this debate, I think I will leave such discussions for the Chancellor when he comes to this House to make his Budget statement.

In conclusion, these are clearly challenging times for local authorities and public servants across the country, but at the same time there is also an unprecedented opportunity for district councils to be involved and drive forward their local economy. They are absolutely at the forefront of navigating the landscape, and I thank my hon. Friend for this opportunity to pay tribute to district councils, the District Councils Network, his APPG and all people who work in our local government family, including every civil servant in town halls across our country.

The role of district councils has never been more important in delivering growth across our country, and we need them to be fully engaged with our industrial strategy. We want them to build the homes we need and deliver services that work for everyone, as part of a country that works for everyone.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that devolution and the improvement of local government cannot be achieved through a simple top-down, one-size-fits-all equation that we come up with in Westminster. As a Member of Parliament with a district council in Lancashire, I know that we in Lancashire know far better than anyone in London what we would like devolution to look like in Lancashire. I am sure that the argument is exactly the same in Oxfordshire, Rugby and across our country.

Across Government we are making huge strides towards rebalancing our economy and empowering local governments. Through decentralisation and reform, this Government will continue to back the local leaders leading our district councils and delivering services and growth for their communities.

I will finish as I started: by thanking my hon. Friend and his APPG for their hugely important report. The Government will continue to fully engage with him and the APPG and will respond over the coming weeks and months to the specific issues raised in the report.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.