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Local Authority Boundaries (Referendums) Bill

Volume 728: debated on Friday 24 February 2023

Second Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

As I have said in this place many times before, local representation matters. Individuals and communities need to have trust in their local authority, which is charged with acting in their best interest, regardless of which political party may be in charge at a local level. Residents need to be reassured that the framework, the model, the structure and indeed the geographical area that they are represented within has a local authority that has not only the capability, but the capacity to act in their best interest.

My Local Authority Boundaries (Referendums) Bill aims to re-empower local communities that feel completely disenfranchised and forgotten about by their local authority. I am lucky enough to be presenting this Bill to the House once again on its Second Reading, and why? I think it so very important that local people living within a community feel and know that their local authority has their best interests at heart, and residents know that through its actions and how it delivers the services it undertakes for them.

Let us not forget that local authorities have perhaps more influence on an individual’s or a family’s day-to-day life than any other level of government. We all know as MPs the weight of our postbags and the vast number of emails we all receive that strongly relate to local government issues, whether that be sorting out highways or potholes, putting in speed cameras or dealing with local planning policy, housing, schools, children’s services, adult services, bin collections, leisure centres, libraries, regeneration or driving local economic growth.

That was a powerful list of service areas that local authorities deliver for the good of all our constituents. Does my hon. Friend agree that within the spirit of what he is presenting, the boundaries question needs to go beyond local authorities and into other public sector bodies, such as integrated care boards, where our experience in Buckinghamshire, having been segregated from Milton Keynes, makes no sense whatever?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We do not live within boundaries, so to speak, we live within communities, and that is why it is important not only that the local authority is best representing the community in which one lives, but that other organisations are, too, as he mentioned.

On that point, does my hon. Friend also agree that sometimes planning applications might affect a neighbouring constituency? One of the challenges there is that those in the neighbouring constituency, while affected, might not necessarily have a say. There is an argument that local authorities should work in unison to ensure that constituents are spoken to and engaged, so that they have a say in a decision that will affect them.

That is another excellent point made by an hon. Friend. There is an illustration of it in Ilkley, where the border between West Yorkshire and North Yorkshire is literally the River Wharfe in some cases. There will be planning applications going through in North Yorkshire that have a direct impact on West Yorkshire. On that point, it is incredibly frustrating that Bradford Council does not allow the objections or comments on a planning application to be seen by the wider public. It hides them from scrutiny, which is incredibly frustrating for many of my constituents. The point that I am making is that these issues matter because they have an impact on everyone’s day-to- day life.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing his Bill this far. His plea for localism will strike a very strong chord in Christchurch. When Christchurch had its independence taken away from it, a council was created with 76 members, but as Christchurch has only 10 of those members, it effectively has no say at all in what happens in Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council.

My hon. Friend makes another excellent point. It is important that what is said by any individual who represents a body of people or a community carries weight and is heard. If a local authority is too large in terms of the number of residents it represents, or its geographical area is too great, or a single city within a local authority’s boundaries is getting all the attention from that local authority, with the outlying towns and villages being deprioritised, there is a real risk that communities will suffer. Unfortunately, that is exactly what my constituents are experiencing within the communities that I represent. Communities in Keighley, Ilkley, Silsden, Steeton, Riddlesdown, East Morton, the Worth Valley and areas within my wider constituency are full of passionate people who quite rightly are incredibly proud of where they live. They want their area to grow, thrive and prosper, but, for far too long, have felt completely unrepresented and ignored by our local authority, Bradford Council.

The Bill is all about creating smaller unitary authorities, so that a local authority is able to better focus on the needs of their local residents. I do not seek to create a further tier of government, but, simply, to make local government work for local people and local communities.

I commend my hon. Friend for introducing this Bill. As he knows, as his parliamentary neighbour, my constituency suffers exactly the same problem as his in that it is ruled by Bradford Council but without any real say. Normally, in local elections, people would be told to vote to change their council if they do not like what it is doing. However, if all of my constituents and all of his constituents voted against the local council, it would still not change the make up of the council. That means that we are completely disenfranchised when the council is merely concentrating on its Bradford city heartland. Is it not the case that this Bill, which would allow a referendum, would enable people, including those in Bradford because it would affect them as well, to have a say? Is that not a way of making sure that people can feel properly represented by their local authority?

My hon. Friend and neighbour makes a valid point. He has been working tirelessly with me on this Bill, which creates a framework and a model that would enable us to unlock the potential of our communities so that they are better represented. The reality is that we are dealing with a local authority—as in Bradford Council—that is just too big, and I will come on to that point further in my speech.

I fear that there will not be time for me to make a speech, so I will make my point more succinctly in an intervention. I know my hon. Friend’s feelings well, because, in Newcastle-under-Lyme, we, too, have a town to our east—with due apologies to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon). There was an attempt in this House in 1930 to extend Stoke-on-Trent to amalgamate Newcastle-under-Lyme and Wolstanton completely against the wishes of the people of Newcastle. I am happy to brief my hon. Friend further on it, because I know that it was a long time ago. He might note that a postcard poll taken at the time showed that residents opposed that extension Bill by a majority of 97.4%. It was their Lordships who took the unusual step of refusing to send the Bill to Committee on Second Reading. That is not a great analogy, because we were avoiding a shotgun marriage; he wants a divorce. But if he gets that local number in a referendum, that would really do him some good with his cause.

Both of my hon. Friends have picked up on the size of a local authority. My area has one of the largest unitary authorities: Bradford District Council currently has a population of around 550,000 people. When we compare that with neighbouring Calderdale Council with a population of just under 200,000, or Gateshead Council with a similar number, or even Hartlepool Council with a population of 85,000, we can see that an effective, efficient, smaller unitary authority can work and is able to deliver the services that their residents need. I will get on to the mechanics of the legislation, Mr Deputy Speaker, but it is important to use this time to outline why the Bill is so important to me and my constituents. The root cause of many of our problems is that my constituents feel that they are being used as a cash cow for Bradford and getting very little back in return.

Council tax and business rates are all sent from my constituency to Bradford city hall, while nowhere near the equivalent amount of funds are being reinvested back into our area. The Keighley and Ilkley and Shipley constituencies generate the highest tax revenues for Bradford Council through our council tax and business rates payments. Data released by the council illustrates that wards such as Ilkley, Wharfedale and Craven pay the highest proportion of council tax, with very little coming back into our areas.

Does my hon. Friend agree that part of the problem is that there are too many examples of Labour-led authorities that have put politics before delivering for residents? Ipswich Borough Council has been one of the worst performing councils in the region, despite being awarded £25 million from the Government’s towns fund.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. For a lot of our residents, all they care about is the delivery of basic services. They are not necessarily bothered about the political make-up of a council; they just want to get what they are paying for through their council tax.

I come to a clear illustration of where decisions by Bradford Council are not made in tune with local priorities. It was only last week that Labour-run Bradford Council was forced into a screeching U-turn on its decision to close the Keighley tip, a household waste and recycling centre that is heavily utilised by many of my constituents and businesses. Had the council ploughed on with its decision to close the tip, it would have forced residents to take their waste to other sites, causing congestion at busy locations where tips are provided. They might have had to go into the clean air zone tax area to get rid of their waste, so they would have been doubly charged for a very basic level of service. Had it not been for the fantastic local community champions Laura Kelly and Martin Crangle getting together a petition, which received well in excess of 7,300 signatures—a petition that I presented to the House—Labour-run Bradford Council would not have changed its decision and we would now be without a local tip.

I want to follow up on my hon. Friend’s point about how much some of the wards in his constituency and mine are billed for council tax, and how little they get back. Not only are they billed for huge amounts of money; they actually pay it. About 99.9% of the council tax asked for in our wards is paid, yet the council tax receipts for Labour wards in Bradford—such as City ward, where the council collects only roughly 60% of the council tax that is billed—are lamentable. Not only are we paying so much more and getting very little back, but we are actually subsidising the lack of collection of council tax in other wards in Bradford.

My hon. Friend makes a point that I suspect is deeply infuriating not only to my constituents, but to the constituents of many hon. Members of this House. It is about fairness: if an individual is paying council tax or a business is paying business rates, they expect all others to be paying the same contribution for the level of service they receive. That is a big frustration for many of my constituents in Keighley and Ilkley.

The Government have a positive growth agenda and want to drive inward investment into our areas, but it is incredibly frustrating when our local authority is not getting on with the jobs that we want to see delivered. Bradford Council has still not delivered the Silsden to Steeton pedestrian bridge, despite the fact that the money has been allocated by our Conservative Government. Bradford Council has dithered and delayed on the project, and now says it will not be delivered until 2026. This is a project that has continued to cost more and more as Bradford Council dithers and delays.

In the centre of Keighley we have a much-loved green space on North Street. Bradford Council recently decided to ignore a decisive public referendum in which 61% of people voted at polling stations to keep the green space. Again, it was a campaign fought tirelessly by Laura Kelly. Despite the fantastic result, Bradford Council is determined to plough on regardless, in direct contrast to the views clearly expressed by the residents of Keighley.

Does my hon. Friend see similarities between Bradford Council ignoring the wishes of local people in his area, as he has so eloquently explained, and what Labour’s Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has consistently done in not only increasing his tax share to around 57% since he became Mayor, but in ignoring the wishes of those in outer London, approximately 80% of whom opposed his ultra low emission tax raid, and the wishes of those in the home counties, who had no say whatsoever? That is a clear example of taxation without representation.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The issue comes down to local voices being heard by those representing them. It is incredibly frustrating to hear that the Mayor of London is not listening to the likes of my hon. Friend’s constituents on issues such as the ULEZ tax. That is directly linked to the clean air zone tax that we are having imposed on us by Labour-run Bradford Council across Bradford district. That is having a direct impact on many businesses locally.

Is this excellent Bill going to be supported by the Government? As my hon. Friend puts his arguments to the Government, I draw his attention to the fact that years ago we persuaded the Conservative Government under Margaret Thatcher to abolish the Greater London Council and the Inner London Education Authority, using the very rationale that he has put forward—namely, that we wanted local people to have control over local education and local services.

That is exactly what we need to do: make sure that local voices are heard. Smaller unitary authorities, rather than the two-tiered approach, are an excellent way of enabling those in positions of representation to be heard and to get direct responses and services back to their constituents. My hon. Friend makes a very good point.

As was mentioned in the context of the Mayor of London’s decision on ULEZ, we live in a democracy. Does my hon. Friend agree that when such decisions affect people who cannot vote against them but whose pockets are affected—it will cost £12.50 to go across the border of the ULEZ extension—that just seems wrong?

My hon. Friend picks up on a point that I was about to get to. We are experiencing such a situation with the clean air zone tax, which has impacted on my constituents and been imposed on us by Labour-run Bradford Council. It is unfair when a tax is imposed on the hard-working constituents we represent when we do not want that to happen, particularly given the cost of living challenges that all households and families are experiencing.

The Bill enables local representation to be much better felt at a local level. Perhaps I should get on to how its mechanics will operate. A petitioning system will be created to enable local electors within any constituency area to indicate their support for a referendum about the creation of a new local authority. If 10% or more of the people in that area give that support, a vote will be able to be held for the electors of those communities and constituency areas. After a referendum is held, if a majority have signalled their support for a new council to better represent them, the mechanics of setting up a new local authority will be triggered.

Of course, as part of the process it would be necessary to present a strong indication that the new and residual local authorities would be organisationally and financially viable and capable of delivering services to local residents. As I have said, I actually think that would work best for the whole of the Bradford district: with two unitary authorities, Bradford city could have its own unitary authority and its residents would be much better served.

My hon. Friend has made a compelling case in respect of Bradford Council, and all of us who take an interest in these matters know what a dreadful council that is, given how it treats my hon. Friend’s constituency. But this problem exists throughout the country. I, the proud MP for Bury North, am originally from Huddersfield. Kirklees Council is split in exactly the same way. Does he agree that the Bill could be amended to allow Bury a referendum to leave the kingdom of Greater Manchester and go back where it belongs—in Lancashire?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Larger unitary authorities do not always serve us best. I hope that the Bill will make local representation happen.

Hon. Members will see that the theme running through the examples that I have briefly outlined is that if a unitary authority becomes too large, it forgets what is important to local people and cannot deliver on their local priorities. In summary, the Bill would put in place new measures to ensure that local people have a say on who represents them and on the very nature of the council and the geographical area in which services will be delivered. It is only right, if a majority of people in specific constituencies are in favour of forming a new unitary authority, that they have the opportunity to do so. Not only would that benefit constituents in Keighley and Ilkley, and in Shipley, but it would be very much welcomed by other Members in this place.

Some may say that the Bill is divisive, but I say that it is not. It is simply about standing up for the community that I represent and putting in place a plan enabling communities to be better represented at local level, with the sole purpose of delivering local priorities. Unfortunately, that is something that my constituents, under the shackles of Bradford Council, have not benefited from for far too long.

I may refer to it as the Bradford breakaway Bill, but my Local Authority Boundaries (Referendums) Bill provides the mechanics for smaller, nimbler, and more targeted, effective and efficient local authorities to be created, to deliver local services and priorities at speed with a much better sense of public duty to their residents.

In the politest terms, this is a bizarre piece of legislation. We of course share the view that local representation matters. Indeed, when Labour was last in power, we funded local authorities 60% more than the current Government do, precisely because we know the importance of that representation.

It is a shame that the hon. Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) uses his opportunity to speak in this House about local government by advocating for unneeded changes to boundaries rather than calling for existing councils to be adequately supported. Like all our constituents, his are affected by rising bills, food shortages—unless they are massive fans of turnips—increased rents and unaffordable mortgages. Keighley residents will be struggling with bills, food, rent and mortgages—keeping a roof above their heads—all because of a Tory Government crashing the economy. Yet what we have heard from their MP is a focus on a narrow reorganisation, and we have no idea whether the Treasury would fund it anyway.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned a decline in council services, but like many in this country, councils are labouring under 13 oppressive years of Tory rule and cuts to their budgets.

Actually, no—I have only two minutes.

I ask the Minister whether her Conservative colleague is mis-selling the solution when he tells his constituents that the answer to all their woes and daily challenges is to create a unitary authority for their constituency. If things are so bad—they already have a Tory MP and a Tory Government—the possibility of a Tory-run local authority probably is not going to help the situation.

Why does the hon. Member for Keighley believe that a unitary authority would be necessary for such smaller numbers of residents? Where does he propose that the money would come from for a referendum and to implement this administrative and logistical farce? Perhaps the Minister would be able to share her thoughts. The practical implications of enforcing the hon. Member’s suggestions would be significant for time and Government resources, all at a time when local authorities are already working with shoestring budgets within the Treasury’s ever-tightening grip. Would the move outlined in his Bill even have the backing of his own Treasury?

What is behind the legislation is a lack of ambition for the hon. Member’s community and constituents, and for his party to beat the Labour party in Bradford. That is where his efforts should be targeted—winning power through democratic means in his own area—but it seems that he has already given up on that, and wants instead to legislate his way out of a hole. Although his party is not entrusted with leadership in Bradford, he and local colleagues should be working together with the council to deliver for their constituents. That is what we all do in this place. As we mentioned in previous debates on the armed forces, co-ops and flexible working, we were able to find political consensus because we are grown-ups, and that is what decent representatives do.

As we have explained, we cannot win in Bradford because our areas are not big enough and the whole of Bradford is too big. The hon. Lady’s comments are very helpful and we will use them extensively in our election literature in the run-up to the local elections. Is she absolutely adamant that the Labour party’s official position is that it wants to deny my Shipley constituents, and my hon. Friend’s Keighley and Ilkley constituents, the opportunity to decide where their local authority is? Is that her stated position?

My stated position is that the constituents the hon. Gentleman represents and the constituents we all represent should be able to put food on the table, pay their bills and have their local authorities funded fairly. For the past 13 years, under a Conservative Government, that has failed to happen.

For the avoidance of doubt, may I ask the Minister to write to me—because there will be no time for her to reply now—and tell me whether even the Tory-led Local Government Association—

The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2)).

Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 24 March.