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Bournemouth, Dorset and Poole (Structural Changes) Order 2018

Volume 791: debated on Wednesday 23 May 2018

Dorset (Structural Changes) (Modification of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007) Regulations 2018

Motions to Approve

Moved by

That the draft Order and Regulations laid before the House on 29 March be approved.

Relevant document: 26th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, these instruments will, if approved by Parliament and made, provide for the abolition of the nine existing local government areas in Dorset and their councils—the existing boroughs of Bournemouth and Poole, the county of Dorset and the boroughs and districts in the county of Dorset—and the establishment of two new local government areas with two new single-tier unitary councils for the area on 1 April 2019.

These instruments provide for elections to these new councils. Elections to the proposed Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole council will take place in May 2019 and then every fourth year thereafter. Elections to the proposed Dorset council will take place in May 2019, 2024, 2029 and every fourth year thereafter, as requested by the local area. The instruments also make transitional provisions, including for shadow authorities and shadow executives to prepare for the new councils during the period from when the order is in force until April 2019.

We have had discussions with the Local Government Boundary Commission for England and understand that, should Parliament approve and we make these instruments, the commission will carry out a full electoral review of the areas of the two new councils to ensure that all people are equally represented within the area for each council. As provided for in legislation for previous local government reorganisations, provisions are made for the warding arrangements that would be used for the first elections should the commission be unable to conclude the electoral review in time.

The Government, as made clear in our manifesto, are committed to supporting those local authorities that wish to combine to serve their communities better. We have also announced to the House that we will consider any locally led proposals for local government restructuring which are put forward by one or more of the councils concerned and which improve local government and service delivery, create structures with a credible geography and command a good deal of local support.

We have brought forward these measures in response to a locally led proposal from the area concerned. Eight of the nine councils in the area support the proposals, and eight of the nine councils in Dorset have given formal consent to the instruments being made. Statute requires the consent of at least one relevant authority—in this case, Bournemouth, Poole and, for the two-tier structure of Dorset, the county of Dorset or one of the six districts and boroughs within Dorset—for the instruments to be made.

We told Parliament in February 2017 what criteria the Government would use for assessing locally led proposals for local government restructuring—namely, that, first, the proposal is likely to improve local government in the area concerned; secondly, the proposal has a credible geography; and, thirdly, the proposal commands a good deal of local support. We also told Parliament that our intention is for these criteria to be assessed in the round across the whole area subject to reorganisation and not considered individually for each existing council area. The Government are satisfied that this proposal fully meets those criteria.

The Dorset councils proposal which we are now considering would establish two unitary councils across the whole of Dorset, replacing the nine existing local government areas and their councils in the area with two new local government areas and councils, one covering the areas of Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole, and a second covering the rest of Dorset.

Dorset estimates that this has the potential to generate savings over the first six years of at least £108 million and, if the full transformation programme, which unitarisation makes possible, takes place, there is the potential to save over £170 million over that period. Such savings and the larger size of the councils will increase financial resilience, help sustain good-quality local services and cement partnership working in the area. The new structures will also facilitate stronger strategic and local leadership across the area and enable a more strategic and holistic approach to planning and housing challenges.

Having regard to the representations received, we are also confident that there is a general consensus that the two unitary councils are structured around the natural and established sense of identity across the geography of the county. There is clear evidence that this geography aligns well with other public service provision, including health, police, and the fire and rescue service. In short, the area of each new unitary council is a credible geography.

In bringing forward their proposal, the nine Dorset councils undertook extensive engagement and open consultation, including a formal consultation from August to October 2016. The consultation programme, which included an open consultation, a representative household survey, workshops and the opportunity to submit written submissions, achieved well over 17,000 responses. There was clear support for moving to two unitary councils. Seventy-three per cent of residents were supportive in the representative household survey and, in general across all the areas of Dorset, there was an emphatic preference for the proposed option, with 65% of residents in the representative household survey supporting it. Only 15% of residents in the representative household survey opposed this option; 12% neither supported nor opposed it; and 7% did not answer or did not know.

It may assist noble Lords if I say something briefly about the processes which have been followed by government and which have led us to conclude that this proposal does indeed meet the criteria and is worthy of implementation. On 7 November 2017, the previous Secretary of State told Parliament that he was minded to implement the proposal made by the Dorset councils. There followed a period for representations until 8 January, during which we received 210 representations. On the basis of the proposal, the representations and all other relevant information available, the Secretary of State was satisfied that all of these criteria are met and that implementing this proposal would be likely to improve local government and service delivery across Dorset, represents a credible geography and commands a good deal of local support. His assessments of the Dorset proposal against these criteria were made in the round, across the whole area, subject to the proposed restructuring. On 26 February 2018, the previous Secretary of State announced his decision to implement the proposal, subject to parliamentary approval.

We believe that the proposed governance changes for which we are seeking parliamentary approval will benefit people across the whole of Dorset, in every district and borough. Our aim as a Government is to enable the people of Dorset to have as good a deal as possible on their local services. This is not just our view, but a view shared by 65% of residents across the whole of Dorset, 79% of all councillors across the whole of Dorset, and other public service providers and businesses, particularly those responsible for the provision of healthcare, police, fire and rescue, and rail services across the wider Dorset area. It is supported also by a number of my right honourable and honourable friends with constituencies in the area, who, on 29 November 2017, wrote to my right honourable friend the previous Secretary of State urging him to support the proposal. They state that,

“the further savings required to be made, if our councils are to continue delivering quality public services, can only be done through a reorganisation of their structures”.

Eight of the nine councils in Dorset support the proposed change and have formally consented to the necessary secondary legislation.

Regarding the one Dorset council that does not support the proposal—Christchurch Borough Council—a third of its elected councillors do support this proposal. These councillors wrote to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State stating:

“We are acutely aware of the constraints on local government funding and the financial pressure that upper tier services are facing. We therefore consider it our duty to respond to these challenges by supporting the restructuring of local government in Dorset”.

I believe we are delivering the commitment that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister made in December last year, when she told Parliament that we would seek,

“to ensure that the best result is achieved for the people of Dorset”.—[Official Report, Commons, 20/12/17; col. 1060.]

It may have come to the attention of noble Lords that Christchurch Borough Council has launched a judicial review challenging the Secretary of State’s decision to implement the proposal. However, we are instructing counsel to robustly resist this challenge and are clear that this has no impact on today’s debate.

I am sure noble Lords will be aware that the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee has brought these instruments to the attention of the House for reasons of public policy, namely the level of support in Christchurch from both the residents and the council. In particular, the committee asked how the Secretary of State can deem that the proposal meets the criteria that there is a good deal of local support for the proposal, and the justification for proceeding with a proposal which is opposed by one of the councils affected. The committee also asked about the process taken and why an invitation was not issued to these councils.

Government policy is to,

“consider unitarisation and mergers between councils where requested”.

Accordingly, the Government’s approach to Dorset is that the proposals should be locally led at the initiative of councils in the area, rather than in response to a government invitation. The Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 provides the statutory mechanism for taking forward such an approach. It is this mechanism we are using by bringing forward the regulations and the order we are considering today.

Turning to the consideration of local support, I have already outlined the level of support from residents, businesses, key public sector partners and elected representatives across Dorset. The Secretary of State has had careful regard to the results of the Christchurch local advisory poll, the representations received about the poll and all other information available to him when making his decision. However, as a poll of only 6% of the whole area’s population, we do not see it casting doubt on the evidence that, in the round, across the whole area of Dorset there is a good deal of local support.

During the passage of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill through this House in 2016, my noble friend Lady Williams of Trafford explained that it was not the intention of the legislation that one council could block a reorganisation proposal that the rest of the councils in an area had proposed. We have also been clear that our intention is for the proposal to be assessed against the criteria in the round, across the whole area subject to reorganisation, and not to be considered individually for each existing council area.

As rightly noted by my right honourable friend the Member for West Dorset, Sir Oliver Letwin, during the committee debate in the other place to consider these SIs,

“it is the job of the Minister and Parliament to legislate in a way that provides for stable, viable and effective local government”.

He went on to say that this opposition from Christchurch should not,

“in any way justify overturning a set of proposals that have come from the people of Dorset and Dorset County Council. It is not a matter of the democratic tyranny of the majority. Rather, it is a matter of the viability of local government and local government services in our county”.—[Official Report, Commons, Third Delegated Legislation Committee, 16/5/18; col. 11.]

In conclusion, in considering the two draft instruments we are assessing the merits of the abolition on 1 April 2019 of the nine existing Dorset local government areas and councils and the establishment of two new local government areas and unitary councils for the area. The proposal is widely supported across Dorset by councils, councillors, MPs, local businesses, town and parish councils, voluntary organisations, public sector bodies and members of the public. The potential to generate savings are considerable—£108 million over the first six years and even more if Dorset councils implement the full transformation programme that unitarisation makes possible.

My honourable friend the Member for North Dorset rightly said in the other place last week:

“The direction of travel is clear. What we are trying to do in Dorset is not eccentric or perverse; it is not in any way weird. It is a democratic response, underpinned by intellectual and academic argument to deliver on that principal propulsion of public service”.—[Official Report, Commons, Third Delegated Legislation Committee, 16/5/18; col. 38.]

I have full confidence in the local area to implement the unitarisation by next April, enabling elections to the new councils in May next year. On that basis, I commend these regulations and the order to the House.

In speaking to these instruments, I declare an interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. However, I have another interest in that, from 1993 to 1997, I was the Member of Parliament for Christchurch. I had lived in the area for a long time. I had been to school in Brockenhurst—indeed, that was when Christchurch was in Hampshire and I had friends who came to the school from there.

The present Member of Parliament for Christchurch, Sir Christopher Chope, was elected when I lost the seat in 1997. We have over the years been political foes, particularly since our time in Southampton, but life has a funny way of taking you by surprise. In trying to help his constituents, who do not want the borough of Christchurch to be abolished or to become part of a very big council area, he asked them to write to me in the House of Lords. As someone who has been there before, with the reorganisation of Northumberland, on which local views were completely ignored, and as a former member of the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee, I was happy to look into what had happened. It is rather a sorry tale, I fear.

Christchurch folk have never really identified with their much larger neighbours, Bournemouth and Poole. Road connection to the conurbation is always a bottleneck, particularly over Tuckton Bridge. There are no high-rise blocks in Christchurch, as there are all along the western side of Bournemouth bay. As was pointed out in debates in another place, Christchurch has been an independent borough since 1215 and, unlike its neighbouring councils, is debt free and financially strong.

Proceedings in the Commons show that the Government’s dealings with Christchurch and the consultation process have not been smooth or satisfactory. The noble Lord mentioned the 26th report of the Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, published on 26 April. The report drew the attention of Members to the lack of consent and to the Government’s decision to ignore the clear and democratically expressed wishes of the people of Christchurch, and to choose instead to judge opinion across the whole of Dorset in the round. The people of Christchurch and their MP are rightly devastated by the decision to proceed without local consent, particularly so because the Member for Christchurch had twice received in the other place undertakings by the Secretary of State during the passage of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill 2015 that Clause 15 of the Bill would not be used to abolish any individual council without consent.

As the Minister said, a consultation across all the local councils in Dorset was held between September and November 2016. It is thought that the questions were put in such a way that the consultation went in the direction most of the councils wanted it to go—there was a view that the questions were biased—and it appears that the survey methodology was seriously flawed. The Government relied on a sample survey that purported to show 64% support among Christchurch residents, rather than on another referendum held by the council in December 2017. In that referendum, the people of Christchurch were asked a much clearer question than in the other consultation, which was: do you support the current proposal for a single council covering Christchurch, Bournemouth and Poole? There was a 54% turnout and the vote was 84% no.

After the 2016 public consultation, there were debates in all the councils concerned. At that time, three districts did not support the proposals. However, the existing unitary areas went ahead with an application to the Secretary of State in February 2017, as we have heard. At this stage, where there was no local agreement, Christchurch expected fresh discussions to try to reach an agreement. However, on 7 November, the Secretary of State announced that he was minded to approve the proposals subject to the need for further local consent. As I have said, Christchurch had held a further referendum but this seemed to be ignored by the Secretary of State when he announced his final decision on 26 February 2018 and asserted that the criteria of local government consent had been satisfied. He maintained that Christchurch was only a small proportion of the total population in Dorset, as the Minister said today. However, if that was the case, why was Christchurch encouraged to have a local referendum?

Christchurch had also asked for time to put forward an alternative proposal of returning to Hampshire, where it had been in 1974. This was refused. At that point the Government suggested it hold the referendum to which I have referred, in which 84% of people were against doing it. In the absence of time for the Hampshire proposal, Christchurch borough submitted an alternative of keeping the status quo in the rest of Dorset with the Bournemouth and Poole unitary. The submission was made within the time limits but it was rejected by the Secretary of State on the grounds that he did not have the power to force Bournemouth and Poole to merge together—but he seems to have the power to force Christchurch not to join them.

Changing the goalposts has led to Christchurch feeling extremely aggrieved. Other rules changed in the process, particularly in relation to council tax. The harmonisation period was reduced from 20 years to five years and this dramatically changes the financial viability of the proposals in the first consultation. In addition, the process has been undertaken retrospectively. The Secretary of State had already decided to approve the application in his statement of 26 February 2018, despite the regulations permitting it not yet having been approved by Parliament. Is it any wonder that Christchurch Borough Council, on the advice of a leading QC that the legislation is ultra vires, has instigated proceedings for judicial review?

It seems that whenever we look at council reorganisation, everybody looks at process and finance above all; democracy and local democratic accountability and involvement seem to be last on the list. I believe passionately in local government and I have watched it be undermined by successive Governments. Is it any wonder that fewer people want to stand as councillors? Turnout in local elections is very low; in local by-elections, it is appallingly low.

The honourable Member for Christchurch and I are rarely on the same side, politically, but on this occasion I am with him all the way. For all the reasons I have set out, I do not support the regulations. The Government should think again and respect both the judicial proceedings that are under way and the strongly held views of the people of Christchurch. I know that my noble friend who presented the order is a very honourable person. I hope he will realise that, whatever its rights or wrongs, this has not been a very nice tale for the people who live in Christchurch.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

The order and regulations before the House bring into effect proposals to create two new unitary authorities covering Dorset, Bournemouth and Poole. Generally, I am in favour of the establishment of unitary local government in England. I think that the local government structures in Scotland and Wales are generally more fit for purpose than the patchwork that we have developed in England. In those countries the two-tier approach was abolished at the end of the John Major Government, with 32 unitary authorities in Scotland and 22 unitary authorities in Wales.

On numerous occasions I have raised in this House the issue of how local government reform is evolving in England. Generally, it is confused, with little clarity on the objective, the purpose and how it is right to have four tiers of local government in one area while in a neighbouring county the view is that a unitary authority is best. This lack of clarity does not strike me as very strategic, nor mindful of the council tax payer or the delivery of efficient services.

There is also the issue of consent. Clearly, Christchurch Borough Council has not consented. It has gone further and held a referendum on the issue, where 84% of the borough’s residents—on a 54% turnout—rejected what is being proposed here today. The matter went before the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, which highlighted that Ministers will apply the criteria in the round rather than considering whether the criteria should be met in relation to each individual council area. This is all very strange. Perhaps the Minister can clarify what happened during Third Reading of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill in the other place. Did the Secretary of State provide assurance that the council would not be abolished without its consent? I do not know the answer, so perhaps he can tell me.

On 9 May, in Grand Committee in the Moses Room, we discussed local government changes in Suffolk. Having at first been quite complimentary about me, the Minister’s noble friend Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth went on to suggest that I was a Stalinist when all I asked for was clarity, certainty and value for money for the council tax payer. He said:

“We have a broad policy of saying these things have got to be locally led … local democracy is the key point”.

I then moved on to Oxfordshire. I was well aware that certain councils there are pushing for a unitary Oxfordshire, which Oxford City Council is opposed to—as I believe are the majority of the citizens who live in that area. I asked the noble Lord, Lord Bourne:

“Do I take it from what the Minister said that if councils do not want things to happen, they will not happen?”

His response was:

“That is essentially true. These have to be locally led. If they have not got local support, they will not happen … That does not mean that there has to be 100% support”.

He then clarified further:

“Well, for district mergers, there has to be 100% support from the councils. What I am saying is that there does not necessarily have to be 100% support from the local MPs, for example, and that has not been the case”.—[Official Report, 9/5/18; cols. GC 22-23.]

I think that the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, and his department are in some difficulty on this one. His noble friend Lord Bourne made it clear in Grand Committee on 9 May that there has to be 100% support from district councils for mergers to go ahead. Christchurch Borough Council does not agree. Furthermore, it held a referendum and, as I told the House, 84% of the residents of the borough, on a very respectable 54% turnout, did not agree either.

Then we have the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee of your Lordships’ House advising us that Ministers decide these things “in the round”, which it is at complete odds with what the Minister’s noble friend Lord Bourne told us on 9 May. As the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, is well aware and has told the House, the Conservative leader of Christchurch Borough Council, Councillor David Flagg, has begun a judicial review of the actions of the Secretary of State and his department. I think that there are fairly good questions that have to be answered before a judge, because this seems to be a little confused. I respectfully suggest that this is a mess, and the wisest option for the noble Lord’s department would be to withdraw these two statutory instruments, sort it out and get the lines clear in the department to avoid a possible court battle and a waste of public money.

I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. I commend the persistence of my former colleague Sir Christopher Chope in garnering support from unlikely quarters to continue his campaign against this merger. I recognise the locus in the area of the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock. Indeed, I remember taking part in the campaign to ensure that she was not elected in the by-election—a campaign in which I and others failed.

Perhaps I may deal with the important issues which the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, raised. She mentioned that Christchurch was debt free—which it is, as are a number of the other local authorities. However, that is only part of the story, because many services provided to Christchurch are provided by the county council, which does have debt. So the people of Christchurch pay council tax on local authority debt, which is at the level of more than £500 per head.

I have just had news from the front. There was a deferred Division in the other place on these statutory instruments. Had the votes gone the other way, I am not sure that there would have been a lot of purpose in continuing our discussions, but I am happy to say that the ayes were 293 against 19 and 294 against 19 on the other instrument, so we can proceed, the other place having done its duty.

On council tax levels, I think that I am right in saying that Christchurch benefits from harmonisation, as its average level of council tax is higher. Therefore, with harmonisation that level will come down.

I say in response to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, that there is a difference between the rules for mergers and those for unitarisation. He is quite right that, where we are talking about a merger, there has to be agreement from the councils being merged. But this is not a merger; it is unitarisation, and the rules for unitarisation are different. I read them out. Proposals have to be judged in the round as commanding a good deal of local support in the area. I quoted from what my noble friend Lady Williams said when the relevant legislation was being debated, which made it clear that there was not a right of veto of any one particular council within the proposed unitary; we had to look at the issues in the round.

The noble Baroness mentioned the poll conducted in Christchurch. There have been some criticisms of the conduct of that poll. Dorset County Council referred in its representations to,

“misleading and inaccurate information being circulated, not validated by the County Council or indeed Christchurch Borough Council. This was both before and while the poll was open and must introduce the question of bias in the process and undermine the validity of the findings”.

Poole Borough Council in its representation stated that the advisory poll in Christchurch,

“was supported by privately promoted information which was factually inaccurate and misleading”.

The borough council asserted that in its view the poll was “wholly unreliable” and asked the Secretary of State to “disregard” it.

None the less, we did have careful regard to the poll and its circumstances—but it did involve only 6% of the population of the whole area and we do not see this poll, for all these reasons, as casting doubt on the evidence that, in the round, across the whole area, the proposition has support. This proposal was locally led, developed and consulted on, and submitted jointly by the Dorset councils. The evidence is that nearly 80% of councillors across the whole area are in favour of the proposal, businesses and key public sector partners overwhelmingly support it, and the representative household survey showed that 65% of the public support it. Seven local Members of Parliament also support the proposal.

I have listened to the objections of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. I hope that I have addressed them and also dealt with some of the points raised by the noble Baroness.

That was a very helpful explanation and I thank the Minister, but will he explain a bit further why it is that if you merge two or three district councils, one council can object and veto it, whereas when you have a bigger reorganisation involving the unitarisation of a county, no one has a veto? Potentially, that involves many more services, a bigger area and bigger budgets, yet apparently no one has to be involved in that. Will he explain further, please?

We made it quite clear that where an area wants to move from where it is now two-tier to unitary, we want to look at the proposal as a whole, and we do not believe it is right for any one component to have a veto. That is different from where two local authorities, as we are about to debate in a moment, want to get together and merge. We think that where they are going to merge—in other words, there is not going to be a wholesale reorganisation—it would be wrong to compel people to merge if they do not want to.

So, locally led proposals for district council mergers are to be assessed against criteria which we announced to Parliament on 7 November 2017, which include both the criterion that to be implemented a proposal should command a good deal of local support in the area and the criterion that the merger is proposed by all the councils to be merged. Locally led proposals for unitarisation are to be assessed against different criteria, announced to the Commons on 28 February 2017, which include the criterion that to be implemented a proposal for an area should, when judged in the round, be assessed as commanding a good deal of local support in the area.

Unlike in the case of mergers, unitarising an area does not need to be proposed by all the councils involved, since that area necessarily includes two tiers of councils, so that even if some councils in the area do not support the proposal, the area of those that do may cover the whole area. I may not have convinced the noble Lord—in fact, I can see that I have not convinced him—but he asked me what the criteria were and I have explained them.

I appreciate that, and I thank the noble Lord for it. I am not convinced, but I will leave it there. All I will say is that, as I have said many times before, I think that the local government reorganisation in England is confused, and I respectfully suggest that the noble Lord’s explanation highlights that.

Does the noble Lord have any comment on the idea that one way out of this would have been to allow Christchurch to look at going into Hampshire? The Government were less than helpful when Christchurch wanted to do that.

That would have involved a much wider proposal. Basically, what we are interested in are locally led proposals. I am not aware that Hampshire or the other authorities were party to that proposition, whereas the proposition before the House this afternoon is supported by the area as a whole, with a notable exception. Had Hampshire and Christchurch come to us with a proposition which commanded general support, we would of course have looked at it. But they did not.

Motions agreed.