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Local Government in Gloucestershire

Volume 644: debated on Tuesday 3 July 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the future of local government in Gloucestershire.

I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and I welcome the Minister to his place, although everyone else is leaving—this debate might not matter to those in Scotland, but it certainly does to those in Gloucestershire. It has taken me longer than most to secure—I have put in six times for a debate on the subject—so I shall make the best of it, but I will give the Minister as much time as possible to explain how he can help us in Gloucestershire.

Gloucestershire remains the only authority in the south-west without either any unitary government in at least part of the area, or even a move towards unitary government. I have long believed that unitary authorities are the way forward in local government—I have a long track record on that—and I have been a councillor for many years. During the whole time I was twin-hatting—or triple-hatting, given that I was always a member of the parish and town council when I was a district and county councillor—I always believed that the primary authority should be the one body. That is the reason for this debate.

The one thing that has been left out of my proposed title for the debate is the question mark at the end. I know that the House authorities do not like question marks, but I deliberately included one because there is a real question mark about where we go to and where we have come from with local government in Gloucestershire.

The debate has three main parts. First, as I have intimated, every other part of the south-west, let alone other parts of the country, is now moving towards unitary local government. It is about time that Gloucestershire grasped that nettle. Secondly, the county of Gloucestershire is under financial constraint. To a greater or lesser extent, the seven different authorities have real financial burdens, which have come on the back of austerity. I shall not labour the point, but now is a crunch time so we have to consider all options. Thirdly, we need a strategic authority that speaks for those who live within the county of Gloucestershire—I shall not remove the county—because we need to recognise that local government must speak with a much more coherent and co-ordinated voice than it does now.

I shall not call for a specific reform, which is the business of a proper consultation, led by councillors. Many ideas have been suggested, such as a unitary county—not my preferred solution—east and west being split, a doughnut with Cheltenham and Gloucester in the middle and a rural authority around it, including my area of Stroud, or indeed allowing authorities such as Stroud that could go to South Gloucestershire, an existing local authority, to do so, and seeing what else might happen to the rest of the county. In reality, we have to do something, and I shall be asking the Minister to look at ways in which he can encourage and, dare I say it, cajole those who make decisions in Gloucestershire to consider how we move forward on local government reform.

Within the seven counties of the south-west, every other authority is now looking at some form of unitary arrangement. It is important that we consider it too, but we have no mechanism for doing so. The leaders and chief executives get together, but they have no authority to bring the debate to a proper conclusion, the result of which, I believe, would be local authorities choosing the unitary route, with the support of the people.

For the financial case, I obtained funding figures and compared unitary authorities with those areas, such as Gloucestershire, that still have tiers. The demarcation is obvious. At the moment the Government seem to be encouraging unitary authorities because the finances seem to follow that trend. Under a previous Secretary of State—the recently ennobled Lord Pickles—the clear view was that unitarisation was not the way forward, but I am pleased that the new Secretary of State is much more open. The Secretary of State told the Local Government Chronicle in May 2018:

“There is a clear space and scope for unitary authorities. Obviously it is seeing where there is a need for that and yes, there are proposals on the table that my predecessor had been considering and I will now be looking at.”

I take that to be a green light. I am not saying that day will necessarily follow night, but the Government’s clear view is that unitary authorities are the way forward. Also, the simple fact is that I know of no unitary authority that wishes to go back to a two-tier form—bar Torbay, due to funding issues. The direction of change is obvious.

The finances suggest a change and, in a way, impose it on us. I could moan about how Stroud District Council has had no funding through the revenue support grant this year, but I am pleased that the Government have offered Gloucestershire the opportunity of the business rates initiative, so we have moved forward. Furthermore, that has demanded a degree of collaboration among our authorities, so the Government are pushing on finance.

A final financial point that I wish to make arises from the attitude of staff working for two-tier authorities. Unison conducted a survey of its members in Stroud District Council, and the figures were stark: 80% were not confident about the future of local services under the existing arrangements; none felt that vulnerable local residents were cared for safely; 60% were not confident of the financial situation of their employer; and 53% were thinking about leaving their job for something less stressful. Indeed, sadly some very good staff—the bedrock of local government—are being laid off. They have served Stroud for generations but are being laid off, all because of the cuts and because we have the wrong local government arrangements in Gloucestershire.

To come to the strategic case, the main problem is that with seven authorities, dare I say it, there is no obvious strategy. What strategy there is results from outside pressures, rather than a clear directional movement following decision making by the county council. The county council has severe problems. It is enduring ongoing inspection of its children’s services, where were deemed inadequate last year. I was pleased to see in the last letter I received, dated 8 June, that some improvement has been noted, but the county council is still subject to ongoing investigation. Yesterday, the chief fire officer resigned. I do not know the full details, but again the county council seems to have a degree of crisis associated with it. My favourite topic is the waste incinerator, which is being built at such great expense—£500,000. I argue that the case for the incineration of waste is entirely dubious, with regard to cost, environmental impact and health implications, which I shall talk about later.

Gloucestershire needs to move forward, to see how it can address its own issues by embracing change. We almost went through that process some time ago. I remember the Widdicombe investigation back in the mid ’80s. You might do too, Sir Roger, but other Members here might not even know what the Widdicombe investigation was—the Minister’s eyes are glazing over. It was an attempt, under a Conservative Government, to look at how local government could be reframed. It was not about unitary local government per se; it was about how services could be provided differently. All I remember about the Widdicombe report is that in Gloucestershire we did not adopt any change whatever. In fact, it ended up as a bit of a bloodbath, with all councillors attacking each other because they felt that their authority was the most important in their area, and with no meeting of minds at all. I do not want to go through another Widdicombe report.

I want pressure from the Government, in the nicest possible way, to say to places such as Gloucestershire, “You have to consider the options now.” We know what has happened in Northamptonshire and what is happening more voluntarily in places such as Leicestershire, which is considering the options and what is happening elsewhere in the south-west, where there has been a clear directional shift. Councillors have been sufficiently grown up to recognise that the only way they can deal with the financial pressures is by considering some form of amalgamation, so that they can at least deal with back-office costs and pressures. In particular, it will allow them to develop a stronger strategic direction, in line with the way in which I hope the Government can see us going.

I have two questions for the Minister—I will give him an awful lot of time to answer them, but I am sure that he will not mind if I intervene occasionally to prompt him. First, without top-down demand, what is the Government’s approach to unitarisation? Are there finance and strategic service delivery pressures that the Government could bring to bear to encourage local authorities, such as Gloucestershire, that have been laggards in the whole process? Secondly, as a sequitur of the first question, if parts of the country refuse, for whatever reason, even to consider this option—not necessarily to choose it—what will central Government do? We cannot have a situation in which every other authority has looked at this and many have gone along with it, bar Oxfordshire, which I gather is still looking at some element of a unitary authority.

We still have relationships with our local enterprise partnership, which in Gloucestershire appears to be performing very well. We have a unitary police commissioner and a unitary health arrangement through the NHS, so why not local government? How do we do it? And if we do not do it, what are the Government prepared to do to help us do it?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) on securing this important debate. I very much recognise and respect his long-standing personal views on the topic, no doubt informed by his many years of service at various tiers of local Government, which I am sure he draws on today. He will have heard me say before that, when requested, the Government are committed to consider locally led proposals for unitarisations and mergers between councils. He will also know that we recently legislated to create two new unitary councils in Dorset, as well as mergers of district councils in Somerset West and Taunton, East Suffolk and West Suffolk. In each of those cases, the councils developed their proposals locally, as is currently happening in Northamptonshire, where a public consultation is underway to help inform the councils’ proposals for the Secretary of State.

Turning to Gloucestershire, there is currently the county council and the six district and borough councils, and adjacent to the administrative county there is also the unitary council of South Gloucestershire. It is important to state for the record that the Department has received no proposals from the county council or any of the district councils for local government reorganisation in Gloucestershire. I am not aware of any other plans in development that are to be presented to me imminently. The Government’s stated policy is to consider any locally led proposals that are submitted.

To answer the hon. Gentleman’s first question, it might be helpful for me to talk a little about the processes for unitarisation. There are two legislative processes that can be used. First, the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 allows a process to proceed if at least one affected authority consents. This process was used recently for the creation of the two unitary councils in Dorset. Secondly, we can use the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007, as we are currently doing for Northamptonshire. Regardless of the legislative process used, the Government have been clear on what our criteria for unitisation are and how the Secretary of State will assess any proposal.

I want to spend a moment outlining the three main criteria. First, the proposal has to be likely to improve local government in the area, by improving service delivery, giving greater value for money, yielding cost savings, providing stronger strategic and local leadership, delivering more sustainable structures and avoiding fragmentation of major services. Secondly, the proposed structure has to be for a credible geography, consisting of one or more existing local government areas, and the population of any unitary authority must be substantial.

So many authorities are under significant financial pressure, as the Minister described. The majority of those named are smaller, more rural authorities. In that light, is it not appropriate to go through this exercise as a matter of course, to explore what sort of cost savings could be made? In Warwickshire that would enable us to understand what sort of savings and efficiency improvements in the services delivered could be made.

We are here to talk about Gloucestershire today and not Warwickshire, but I will address the hon. Gentleman’s underlying question about the Government’s role in this process when I answer the second question from the hon. Member for Stroud.

The third criterion for judging a proposal is that it commands local support. In particular, the structure must be proposed by one or more existing councils in the area and there is evidence of a good deal of local support, including from business, the voluntary sector, public bodies and local communities.

To that end, rather than just getting anecdotal support from businesses and other organisations, would the Minister support going to the public with that at the time of an election or through a referendum?

The hon. Gentleman anticipates what I was about to say, so let me elaborate on what the Government mean by a good deal of local support. The Government would like that to be assessed across the area from business, the voluntary sectors, public bodies and local communities. That does not mean unanimous agreement from all councils, stakeholders and residents, but it is vital that any proposals to change structures in local government are truly locally led. That is why we feel that a public consultation is so important.

That has been the experience of recent proposals, where the councils involved have used opinion services or consultants to engage extensively with the public through discourse, surveys and events, to ensure that they have captured the state of public opinion on the proposals they are due to submit to the Department. Having received those proposals, following an invitation, the Secretary of State must consult all affected local authorities that are not signed up to the proposal, and any other persons he considers appropriate, before reaching a decision, judged against the three criteria I outlined. The extent of any consultation would depend on the extent of the consultation that those making the proposal have already carried out.

It is essential that those making a proposal carry out an effective consultation before submitting their proposal, not least to provide evidence about the level of local support. The Secretary of State may then implement the proposal by order, with or without modification, or decide to take no action. Such an order is subject to the affirmative resolution procedure but does not require the consent of any council.

Let me turn to the question from the hon. Member for Stroud about the Government’s role. He will hopefully have seen as I have been outlining the process that our role is to receive proposals developed locally in a particular area; it is not to enforce or dictate from on high the organisation of any local area’s affairs. It is for local councils and local people to develop those proposals. However, as he said in alluding to the new Secretary of State’s remarks, the Government remain open and willing to engage with areas that want to embark on this journey and will willingly receive proposals and adjudicate on them in due course.

For Northamptonshire—thankfully, we are not quite in that situation—the Government came up with solutions, seemingly with the support of Northamptonshire’s MPs. Whatever the Minister means by “receiving” a particular idea, when do the Government intervene to say, “This is right and proper, and we need to get on with it”?

To differentiate, there was a statutory intervention in Northamptonshire because of the situation that council found itself in. A statutory inspection was carried out and, after careful consideration, the Secretary of State appointed commissioners to go into the authority. However, Max Caller, who carried out the inspection, recommended that unitarisation might be part of the solution, which prompted the Secretary of State to issue an invitation. It is important to note that those proposals are being developed locally by the authorities in Northamptonshire. That remains a fundamental point: proposals come directly from councils, in consultation with local people. The process in Northamptonshire originated from a situation that no one would want to see in Gloucestershire—no one is suggesting that it is close to that, as the hon. Gentleman said. In that sense, the two counties are not directly comparable.

Turning to Gloucestershire, all councils should plan for and embrace the future and ensure that they can provide for their communities. I was heartened to see “Gloucestershire 2050 vision”, the extensive consultative exercise on which the county is embarking. The hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) alluded to the need for councils to consult the public, and that is what Gloucestershire County Council is doing. More than 600 members of the public and 30 exhibitors attended the “big conversation”, the launch of the exercise in February at Cheltenham racecourse, where the council discussed its plans for the future to ensure that Gloucestershire remains a vibrant place to live, raise a family, grow old and, indeed, work and start a business.

The Minister is being most generous in giving way. Of course, one of the proposals was for unitary local government, but sadly that was not one of the preferred solutions to Gloucestershire’s future needs. Will the Minister at least look at the earlier proposal and see that as a trigger for a proper discussion in Gloucestershire?

The hon. Gentleman keeps tempting me, but I will keep saying that it is not for me to dictate to the people of Gloucestershire the appropriate way for them to organise government in their area. It is for the people, the councillors and all those involved locally to develop such proposals. Indeed, many ideas will be debated as part of that conversation, such as those I saw for a new cyber-park, a “super city”, a regional area of natural beauty and a water park to attract tourism. It may be that not everyone agrees on them, but the point of the exercise is to think about the best way to serve the people of Gloucestershire and ensure that their area remains a vibrant, prosperous, safe and healthy place to live. I am delighted to see Gloucestershire carrying out that exercise and wish it every success.

The hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington touched on the financial situation, and it would be remiss of me not to respond. I pay tribute to councils up and down the country, which have done an extraordinary job of maintaining a high level of public services in the face of a difficult financial climate in the past few years as the Government embraced the difficult task of ensuring that the country lives within its means again. I am pleased to say that, in both this financial year and the next, the county of Gloucestershire will see a significant real-terms increase in core spending power, which is the total amount of money available to spend on its residents.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stroud for alluding to the fact that Gloucestershire is one of the 10 or so 100% business rates retention pilot areas. That programme, which will ensure that many millions of pounds in extra revenue will flow to Gloucestershire this year, was not available to everyone, and I know that the county is delighted to have access to it. Although there have been challenges in children’s services—it is right that those receive urgent attention—I am pleased to see a strong performance in social care in reducing delayed transfers of care. The latest statistics show that Gloucestershire reduced delayed transfers by 58%, considerably exceeding the national average of 35%. Indeed, its performance is now 20% better than the national average. I pay tribute to the county council for that excellent performance in tackling a difficult social care challenge.

First and foremost, it is imperative that the councils of Gloucestershire and those elsewhere in the country consider how best they might serve their residents, deliver high-quality services and ensure financial sustainability. Of course, the creation of unitary councils can lead to service improvements for residents and achieve savings, which may be of interest to residents. However, it is ultimately for the councils and people of Gloucestershire to decide, having informed views locally. If they so choose, it is for them to submit a proposal to the Government, which we will consider.

I commend the hon. Member for Stroud once again for securing the debate on an issue that he has thought about long and hard. I wish Gloucestershire County Council well with its 2050 vision and hope that the conversations it has with its residents prove fruitful, ensuring a bright and prosperous future for its people.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.