I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
This is a timely debate because Christchurch Borough Council is this very day sending out voting papers for a local referendum to ask every local elector in Christchurch whether he or she consents to the abolition of Christchurch Borough Council and its forced merger with Bournemouth and Poole into a unitary council. The electors will have two weeks in which to give their response.
The Bill, which I hope has the support of the Government, would make it absolutely clear that principal local authorities, including district councils, are on a par with parish and town councils, and could not be abolished without their consent. Unfortunately, the current law does not seem to make that absolutely clear. It has been suggested that it would be possible for a group of councils to get together and effectively bully another group of councils and force them to be abolished against their will.
There have been, however, words of encouragement from the Secretary of State who, in his statement of 7 November, greatly emphasised the need for consent, and said that that had not yet been demonstrated in the local government reorganisation in Dorset. During the Adjournment debate of 15 November that was secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey), the chair of the all-party group on district councils, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), said:
“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.”—[Official Report, 15 November 2017; Vol. 631, c. 549-50.]
There is therefore quite a lot of encouragement from some of the obiter dicta of the Government on this issue.
The Bill would put it beyond doubt that councils could not be abolished without their consent. In January last year, Christchurch councillors voted, by a majority, against the abolition of their council, as did Purbeck and East Dorset councillors. Despite that, much energy and many months have been wasted by local government officials trying to engineer a situation that, in my view, is designed in their own best interests, because a merger will mean that they either receive substantial pay-offs, or become part of a larger organisation with enhanced salary bands. The Bill would make it clear that it is for elected councillors to decide these issues. It would be only if they supported such a proposal that a local referendum could be called.
Parliament approved measures that provide that if councils wish to increase their council tax by more than 2%, they have to get the consent of local people in a local referendum, paid for by local people. However, if people want to take over a council—in the case of Christchurch, an ancient borough with no debts but assets in excess of £50 million—can that really be done without local people having the final say? There seems to be a certain inconsistency to the Government’s approach.
That is the essence of the Bill. If it were already on the statute book, Christchurch Borough Council would not have to spend money on a local referendum, because the matter would have been closed last year when the district council voted against abolition.
My hon. Friend, as usual, is introducing a very important Bill. In Northamptonshire, everyone seems to agree that there should be reorganisation, but the individual councils cannot agree what form that should take. How would the Bill help in that regard?
It would put a lot more pressure on councils to agree. It would mean that no individual council or group of councils could impose a majority opinion on the minority. We are talking about the essence of local democracy. There is nothing more local than a local district council that is accountable to its own electors. From time to time, the Government have suggested that it would be appropriate to abolish that level of local democracy, but I think that is anathema. It should not be done unless there is full-hearted local consent from elected councillors and local people.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not, actually, because I have only one more minute to go.
This is analogous to the EU referendum. We wished to take back control over our national democracy, so why should we wish to take away from local people and their local councils the right to decide their own future and therefore potentially force them to surrender valuable assets and control over vital services such as planning, the allocation of housing and so on? During the Adjournment debate to which I referred, the Minister said that those were very important matters.
I will not be able to finish my speech today, but I hope that there will be an opportunity for the debate to be adjourned until a time when, with any luck, the need for it will have evaporated.
The Speaker interrupted the business (Standing Order No. 11(2)).
Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 11 May 2018.