Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, last year Parliament approved legislation to establish Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole—known as BCP—Council, Dorset Council, East Suffolk Council, and Somerset West and Taunton Council in place of the existing 13 councils in those areas. Today, we are considering the fourth statutory instrument consequential to that legislation to effect the practical success of those new councils. A draft of this order was laid before this House on 16 January. If approved and made, it will ensure that all the necessary technical arrangements are in place so that effective local government continues in those areas. We have worked closely on this instrument with all the councils concerned. Their officials have commented on drafts of it and have confirmed to us by email that it fully meets all the local requirements.
The order provides for the following. First, it would establish charter trustees for the unparished parts of the existing boroughs of Bournemouth, Poole and Taunton as the bodies in which the historic rights and privileges associated with those areas are to be vested. For each area, the charter trustees comprise the elected members for the wards of that area. For example, Bournemouth and Poole have the historical right to have mayors, and Poole has the right to a mayor and a sheriff. Likewise, Taunton has the right to a mayor for Taunton. All these rights will vest in the charter trustees for the area concerned. Historic regalia, such as maces, will also vest in the charter trustees.
Secondly, the order vests the market rights in Bournemouth and Poole to Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council, allowing the new council to continue to hold the rights to run charter markets. It also amends the statutory definition of the area of the ceremonial county of Dorset to be amended in the Lieutenancies Act 1997 and the Sheriffs Act 1887. The amendments simply reflect the names of the new authorities and their areas; they do not amend the boundaries.
The order makes provision to ensure that the local government pension fund maintained by Dorset County Council, along with all property rights and liabilities in respect of the fund, will vest in the new Dorset Council. This fund will be the pension fund for employees of that council and of the new Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council, as well as for employees of all other employers in the fund.
This instrument makes provisions to amend the Weymouth Port Health Authority Order 2017, so that references to the joint board made up of the abolished authorities of Weymouth and Portland Borough Council, Purbeck District Council and West Dorset District Council relate instead to Dorset Council, which will be the sole authority for the area after reorganisation. It also makes provisions for the existing social housing finance arrangements to continue for the new councils of Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole, East Suffolk, and Somerset West and Taunton.
Finally, I should mention that a further new council is being established on 1 April 2019—namely, the newly merged West Suffolk Council. This order makes no provision that council because no matters affecting it would require such provisions. We have nevertheless worked with officers in the predecessor councils of Forest Heath District Council and St Edmundsbury Borough Council, who have confirmed that no provisions for the new West Suffolk Council are required in this order.
These provisions are sensible and necessary consequential changes in the light of the establishment of the new councils Parliament has approved. They ensure a smooth transition to the new arrangements and continued effective local government in the areas. I commend the order to the Committee.
I am delighted to participate in what I am sure will be a short debate on this item. My delight is enhanced by the fact that it is the one piece of business we are considering this afternoon that has nothing whatever to do with Brexit. In fact, as a consequence of the evolution of local government in England, the larger part of it is directed from local areas and the changes in it are at their request—certainly with their active co-operation.
I am delighted that the Minister outlined some of the issues relating to mayors, sheriffs and lords-lieutenant and the role of charter trustees. At one time, I used to think of myself as something of an expert of those things; it is good to see that they have filtered through into this statutory instrument. There is always a huge amount of civic pride about and importance given to these ceremonial roles and tasks. I know that it is important to make sure that they are retained properly.
My only point of any consequence relates to the transfer of the housing debt. Clearly, there has been consultation with the relevant local authorities—and, no doubt, with the Treasury and everybody else who might want a finger in this particular pie. Housing debt for local authorities is a complex topic on which feelings can run high over whether one has got a good or a bad deal out of changes being made. I hope that the Minister can confirm that the agreement on the changes tabled today is fully consensual and that any difficulties that may have arisen during the course of these discussions have been satisfactorily resolved.
Without any detailed knowledge, I wonder whether that would be true in the case of the Somerset West district authority, which is a very small authority of limited means. On the same thread, the other side of this coin is no change being required on housing debt relating to the West Suffolk district councils coming together, presumably either because they do not have such debt or because there is some other factor that the Minister may be able to advise us on. If the Minister can satisfy the Committee on the question of housing debt figures, that would give us some extra comfort.
My Lords, I also think this will be a relatively short debate. I have a couple of questions for the Minister. As we have heard, these changes are to local government areas in three parts of the country. The Minister made a point about charter trustees and talked about areas retaining their right to appoint a mayor. The councillors in that ward would then have to appoint a mayor. What happens at the next level? They also get a mayor. We are getting more mayors, who become chairs of councils. We are creating a lot of mayors here. I just want to point that out.
The point about housing debt was well made by the noble Lord, Lord Stunell. I look forward to the Minister’s response on that. On chartered markets, it is just a case of carrying forward people’s rights.
Generally speaking, I am not against the order as it stands. The only point I would make is a more general observation that I have made it before on other issues, such as local government income. We have a strange kind of patchwork developing all over England. I am not convinced that is necessarily the right way to go. Local government in Scotland and Wales is certainly much more straightforward. When we have all sorts of tiers of local government throughout England, I am not convinced that in the longer term it will make for good government. However, I am not against the order as it stands.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Stunell and Lord Kennedy, for their helpful contributions. I very much agree about the importance of these statutory instruments on two grounds. As the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, said, it is rather marvellous to debate something that has no Brexit implications at all, which is good news in these very Brexity days in both Houses. It is also refreshing to have something which is all about the traditions of our local government in England, and the capture and retention of those historic traditions.
I was interested to find that Poole is one of only seven towns in the country to have sheriffs. These are quite separate from high sheriffs. One of the other seven is of course Nottingham—we all remember the sheriff of Nottingham—and another is Lichfield; the honourable Member for Lichfield talked about that in the House of Commons. It is great to see those historic roles retained. In the case of Poole, I understand that it retains the keys to a prison where there are no prisoners. I am not sure whether schools or possibly tourists are able to visit it but that is a great thing.
I have met many sheriffs of Nottingham in my time, as I used to work in the east Midlands. What is interesting is that the sheriff is a member of its council in Nottingham. The position is very famous, so everybody wants to meet the sheriff, but in civic terms it also has a deputy lord mayor and a lord mayor. When people move up others do not want to meet them so much; they want to meet the sheriff, who is a very important figure in the city.
I thank the noble Lord very much for that intervention. I hope people do not hiss when the sheriff walks into the room, because I am sure they are very different from the sheriff of Nottingham we all remember from legend.
That filtering through of civic pride to which the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, referred is extremely important. Let me try to pick up the two questions that were raised. First, on the transfer of housing debt, the order simply ensures that new councils are properly referenced for calculating their debt caps. I should say that all the provisions here are consensual, so all the councils concerned are happy with that provision. Secondly, the noble Lord sought specific information on West Suffolk. It has no housing revenue accounts, so there are no consequences there.
The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, asked about the number of mayors. I think precisely the same number is retained, so there are no new mayors but no fewer mayors than there used to be. That is extremely valuable, too.
It is good to see cross-party consensus on this issue. It is typical of the way we operate on these issues, so with that I commend the order to the Committee.