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Buckinghamshire (Structural Changes) Order 2019

Volume 797: debated on Monday 20 May 2019

Motion to Approve

Moved by

That the draft Order laid before the House on 2 April be approved.

Relevant document: 24th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (Sub-Committee B)

My Lords, on 2 April a draft of this order was laid before this House and the other place, which approved it on 13 May. If now approved by Parliament and made, it gives effect to the decision of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State that the locally led proposal to replace the five existing Buckinghamshire councils with a new single unitary council should be implemented.

This order is a key element in the legislative process for establishing unitary local government in Buckinghamshire. It provides that on 1 April 2020 the existing five councils will be wound up and dissolved—that is, for the abolition of the county council and the district councils of Aylesbury Vale, Chiltern, South Bucks and Wycombe. It provides that in their place the new unitary Buckinghamshire Council will be established. The order also provides for appropriate transitional arrangements. These are centred on the new Buckinghamshire Council being established in shadow form once the order is in force, with that council becoming fully operational on 1 April 2020.

We have already debated and approved regulations on the Buckinghamshire proposal, which were made on 21 February 2019. As I said during the Grand Committee consideration of those regulations, they enable orders implementing unitary proposals in Buckinghamshire, such as the order we are considering today and any further order that may be necessary, to be made if Parliament approves.

There is a powerful case for implementing the locally led proposal for change submitted by the county council. Indeed, there has consistently been consensus among all five Buckinghamshire councils that local government across the county should be reorganised and that retaining the status quo is not an option.

This unitary proposal, submitted to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and which will be implemented if Parliament approves, is that there should be a single council for Buckinghamshire, with community boards enabling local councillors to take decisions on issues such as funding for community groups and local roads maintenance, and community hubs to provide access to services. The proposal envisages devolving responsibilities to those town and parish councils that have ambitions to take greater ownership for local decisions regarding the management of assets and delivery of services, so that they can tailor these to community needs.

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has assessed that the proposal meets our three criteria for unitarisation. These were set out by my honourable friend the Member for Nuneaton in the other place in February 2017. These criteria are: first, whether a unitary proposal, when assessed in the round, would if implemented be likely to improve the area’s local government; secondly, whether it commands a good deal of local support in the area; and thirdly, whether the area itself has a credible geography for the proposed new structures.

On 12 March 2018 my right honourable friend the Secretary of State announced that he was “minded to” implement the proposal for a single unitary council in Buckinghamshire and invited representations to be made to him. Having carefully considered the more than 3,000 representations he received, on 1 November 2018 my right honourable friend announced his intention to implement the proposal, if approved by Parliament.

In reaching this conclusion he was clear that the proposal met our three criteria. On the first criterion, it will improve local government by: enhancing social care and safeguarding services through closer connection with related services such as housing, leisure and benefits; offering opportunities for improved strategic decision-making in areas such as housing, planning and transport; providing improvements to local partner- ships with other public sector bodies; generating savings estimated by the county council to be £18.2 million per annum; enabling 19 community boards, each with a community hub, to be established to serve Buckinghamshire towns and villages; and providing a single point of contact so that residents, businesses and local communities will be able to access all council services from one place.

On the second criterion, it commands a good deal of support. The more than 3,000 representations we received following my right honourable friend’s “minded to” decision in March 2018 showed overwhelming support for change, with 87% of all representations supporting unitarisation in principle and 35% of all representations supporting a single unitary council, with 47% supporting two unitary councils.

The public sector service providers—the police and crime commissioner, the South Central Ambulance Service, Buckinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust and Buckinghamshire Clinical Commissioning Group—all support a single unitary council and highlight that the majority of partner organisations operate on a countywide geography; they support a shared geography with the council to improve the overall provision of services in Buckinghamshire.

The Department for Education-appointed Children’s Commissioner, in his report on Buckinghamshire children’s services, strongly supported the single unitary proposal as the option that would best safeguard children’s services if local government restructuring were to take place.

Business organisations are strongly supportive of a single unitary council. Buckinghamshire Business First, with more than 10,000 members, considers that a single unitary council is the most effective and affordable proposal. The Buckinghamshire business group supports a single unitary council on the basis that it will deliver significant savings, simplification for businesses and strategic alignment with other bodies. Of the 18 individual representations, the split is about 50:50.

On the third criterion, the proposal represents a credible geography. The current county council geography has a widely accepted credibility that has been in existence for many years, as highlighted by the support for a single unitary council from public sector service providers that already operate on these shared boundaries. The Buckinghamshire Thames Valley Local Enterprise Partnership is very clear that Buckinghamshire is a functional economic area.

Since the announcement on 1 November, we have, in discussion with the councils concerned, been preparing the necessary secondary legislation to implement this proposal: the regulations which streamline the process, and which have already been approved by Parliament, and this order. Our discussions with the councils have been largely about the transitional arrangements for which provision is made in this order. This includes how the shadow authority and its executive will drive forward the implementation. Where there has been agreement between all five councils, we have adopted their preferred approach. Where there are different views on detailed provisions, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State balanced the differing views in the context of his decision to implement the proposal for a single unitary council and the need to ensure stability of key social care services, taking particular note of the recommendations of the Children’s Commissioner.

The most significant details of the transition arrangements are as follows. The shadow authority will be made up of all the members of the five existing councils, giving a total of 236 seats; although in practice the number of twin-hatters—members sitting on both the county council and one of the district councils—reduces the number of councillors to just over 200. The shadow executive, to which the transition functions are delegated from the shadow authority, will be made up of 17 members nominated by the existing councils. The leader of the shadow executive will be the leader of the county council; eight further members will be nominated by the county council and two by each of the four district councils. The executive can decide to change their leader if they wish. There will be new electoral arrangements, including the date of the first election on 7 May 2020, when 147 councillors will be elected for the first five-year term; subsequent elections, which will be held in May 2025 and every fourth year thereafter; and new warding arrangements for the May 2025 elections.

These arrangements are consistent with those in previous unitarisations, providing the leading role for the council that submitted the proposal and ensuring a good mix of experience among shadow executive members. For example, in Central Bedfordshire, the proposal was submitted by district councils, and in this instance the leader of the shadow executive was specified as the leader of one of the district councils. The shadow executive had a majority of district councillors, but representation from the county council ensured a mix of experience. Following the practice of previous unitarisations, the structural change order specifies that the functions of the shadow authority are to be exercised largely by the shadow executive.

In conclusion, we are seeking to replace the existing unsustainable local government structures in Buckinghamshire with a new council that will be able to deliver high-quality sustainable local services to the people of Buckinghamshire and provide effective leadership at both the strategic and the most local level. The inclusion in the proposal of community boards and delegation to parish and town councils, where this is wanted, will mean that the arrangements not only open the door to improved local services but shift power to communities, helping them get involved in decision-making in their local area. All the existing councils have made it clear that they share these aims and are committed to the best services for Buckinghamshire communities—for which we are most grateful. This order delivers this, and on that basis I commend it to the House. I beg to move.

My Lords, I declare an interest: I have lived in Buckinghamshire for 25 years, which is a long period of time which I am afraid is about to come to an end because I move out in about six weeks’ time. But I could not let this moment pass without drawing on that experience and sharing a little of it with your Lordships’ House. I thank the Minister for the meeting that was arranged last week at which we were able to go through some of the bigger issues that underlie this change, and I was grateful to know that he had made some adjustments to the way in which he presented the case this evening.

My remarks this evening will be brief. I draw heavily on comments made by Dame Cheryl Gillan MP in the other place when she spoke on both the orders that are now going through this House as well. I have also been given the notes that would have been read by the noble Baroness, Lady Pidding, who has an unbreakable appointment and cannot be with us. She wanted to make sure that some of her points were brought to the attention of the House.

I make it clear that I am not against unitarisation of local authority services. In some senses, the proposal put forward today has many justifying points, which the Minister drew attention to when he spoke. But the arguments that have been made and the process behind it are not sufficient for what is a very major change in the way in which our county is being organised. The criteria that the Minister mentioned and were used by the Secretary of State were to improve the area’s local government, to make sure that there is strong local support and to ensure that at the end there is credible geography. My judgment is that on all three counts the proposal does not satisfy those aspirations.

As the Minister explained, the proposal that has been accepted was made by the county council and not by any of the district councils—four district councils, which are doing an excellent job, were against the proposal for a single unitary authority—and 70% of parish councils were similarly against, so it is very hard to see exactly where the local support is coming from. The figures mentioned during the consultation on the actual proposal were also significant numbers—47% of those who submitted a response were in favour of retaining a unitary but bicameral or two-county solution to the issues.

One main concern that has not been touched on by the Minister but which is behind the proposal is that the county council has suffered from a considerable reduction in finances recently. There have been pressures on social services, education, road maintenance and many other issues. That needs to be addressed if this proposal is to be successful. Irrespective of the form it finally takes, if the money is not there, there will not be a satisfactory solution for local people in terms of local services.

At the end of the day, what we are being asked to accept is not credible in terms of geography. It is a very large, long and thin county and it has very poor north-south communications. Also, it is an area that will be affected by a major development—the Oxford-Cambridge arc of prosperity—which will go right through the top end of the county. In the process of doing this, we are ignoring the significant impact of all the activity that goes along with Milton Keynes. So this is an odd and unbalanced approach to what could have been a reformation of the sorts of services that are required. In many senses, Bucks looks closer to Oxford and they share many services, particularly in education. It looks to the north through Milton Keynes to Northampton and to the east to Luton and the surrounding areas. In the process of trying to reorganise within Buckinghamshire, the ultimate solution may be suboptimal whether it is a single unitary or double unitary authority.

I have three minor points that the Minister mentioned but it would be helpful if he could pick them up when he comes to respond. There is a feeling in Buckinghamshire that the winner of this reorganisation is the county council. It dominates the shadow authority. It is chaired by the current leader of Buckinghamshire County Council, as we have been told. It is also composed of nine members from the county council, with only two from each of the district councils, which comes to eight, so there is an inbuilt majority. It is fair to point out that, once established, there will be a chance for change, but getting it set up, with all that is involved with processing and preparing the arrangements, there will be domination by the county council.

The Minister mentioned community boards and a possible role for town councils and other groups in making sure that local interests are brought forward. As he was saying that, it felt a little like the effective retention of a two or even three-tier system. One hopes that that will operate in a way that will not clog up the credibility of the new structures. I will be grateful if he will comment on the role of the community board in practice and on whether there will be any dialogue with parish councils. The rural nature of Buckinghamshire is such that parish councils play a very large and important role, and it would be entirely wrong if that work were to be in any way disturbed.

Finally, it seems odd to read in the statutory instrument that there is no intention to review the new arrangements that are being put forward. Given what I have just said about the difficulties in setting this structure up and the very large changes that are going to come from HS2 driving straight through the county, the new roads that are going to join Oxford and Cambridge and the development of large areas of new housing around Aylesbury and further north, how is it possible to think of this not just in terms of Bucks itself but in relationship to the emerging plans from Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Hertfordshire and other areas, which will have an impact? Increasingly the south end of the county is a commuter belt for London and the changes in Slough and other areas are not taken into account here. I think an attempt is being made to try to re-establish an old vision of what Bucks should be that is not credible in terms of what Bucks will be in future.

I end by drawing attention to the fact that Dame Cheryl Gillan in the other place made many similar points but said at the end, and I agree with her, that this is the time not to break up the proposal but to get behind it and support it. If the noble Baroness, Lady Pidding, were in her place she would say that although there have been some difficulties and considerable arguments within the authorities, she too supports it and hopes that it will do well once it has been established.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to contribute to this short debate on this statutory instrument. I thank the Minister for his introduction, which sketched out the framework very clearly. I think he perhaps oversold the consensus nature of the situation, which the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, highlighted in his contribution. There were court cases, a very anxious local MP and a good deal of controversy in many quarters about the alternative ways of changing the structure in the Buckinghamshire county area. Nevertheless, I think the Secretary of State has produced a sensible compromise between the views put forward by the district councils about how things should be organised in a unitary Buckinghamshire and the proposals that the county council put on the table.

I particularly welcome the choice of three members per ward and a body of 147 members, rather than two per ward as the county council preferred. That is a good decision and I welcome it. What does the Minister envisage will be the total number of councillors for the authority after 2025? He talked about re-warding the county structure as the 2025 elections approach. I have a general concern that every time we do local government reorganisation, one of the underlying consequences is that there are fewer elected representatives serving their community. Even accepting the number provided by the Minister—because of double-hatting, there are perhaps 200 individuals who currently serve on district and county councils at the moment—that will be reduced to 147, which is a 25% reduction in the number of elected representatives. I hope that he will be able to give your Lordships a steer that he is looking for that large council of 147 not to be dramatically shrunk in 2025 to make yet another step backwards in representation. By the way, it is a county whose population is already growing rapidly and, as the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, made very clear, is set to grow even more rapidly with infrastructure developments over the next decade or so.

That brings me to my second point, which is the role of parish councils in all this. Parish councils in Buckinghamshire feel quite bruised by how things have gone. Seventy-one per cent of parish councillors are reported in the Government’s Explanatory Memorandum as opposing the single authority solution. Therefore, it is important that we have reassurance from the Minister that nothing in this statutory instrument will disadvantage town and parish councils when fulfilling their role as local community champions.

In respect of that, can he say something more about the 19 community boards that are to be set up? Paragraph 7.4 of the Explanatory Memorandum refers to,

“the establishment of nineteen community boards, each with a community hub, enabling local councillors to take decisions on issues such as funding for community groups and local roads maintenance; and providing a single point of contact”.

That is an excellent concept. It is one that Liberal Democrats, when running local authorities, have always felt to be very important. However, it is internal devolution of the budgets and power of the local authority, and much will depend on how those community boards work with or relate to the parishes within their areas and how they develop their external relations with them. What reassurance can the Minister give to those who worry that community boards might be more of a barrier to communities exercising real power and that they will stand between the communities and the decision-makers, rather than turning out to be a conduit for making sure that powers and decisions go down to the local community level?

Notwithstanding the concerns about some of the detail, we will not oppose this statutory instrument this evening. However, we certainly believe that it is important to see that democratic accountability and links with the local community are not worsened by this proposal and that, in fact, the opportunity is taken to improve those links and communications in the future.

My Lords, first, I draw the attention of the House to my registered interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. Like other noble Lords, I shall not oppose the order. I very much endorse the comments of my noble friend Lord Stevenson of Balmacara—who, as a local resident, knows the area very well—and those of the noble Lord, Lord Stunell.

I shall come at this from a slightly different angle. The Minister will not be surprised to hear my views as I have expressed them a number of times before. I just feel that the Government have no real strategy for dealing with local government in terms of its framework and how it is delivered in England. The Government’s general policy can be described as incoherent, confused and muddled. We are creating a bizarre patchwork in England outside London. In one place you could have a unitary authority and next door there might be parish councils, district councils, a county council, a combined authority and a metro mayor. There is no clear explanation of why any one area has one form of local government, yet it can be completely different in the neighbouring county.

This proposal and the neighbouring areas illustrate that point precisely. The proposal is to create a unitary authority for the area covered by Buckinghamshire County Council, but north of Buckinghamshire is Northamptonshire, which appears to be going down the route of two unitary councils. But then we have Bedfordshire, to the east of Buckinghamshire, where there are three unitary authorities: Bedford, Central Bedfordshire and Luton.

Cambridgeshire, the next county along, has the full suite: parish councils, district councils, a county council, a combined authority and a metro mayor. It has the whole lot. Below that we have Hertfordshire, which has the more traditional two-tier local government structures. Many noble Lords, I am sure, will know these areas quite well. They are all very close together and not one has the same local government structures as another. That is not a good way to run things. It is confusing for residents and does not help anybody. It leaves lots of challenges. It is pick-and-mix local government, and that belongs on the sweet counter at Woolworths. It is a really bad way to do things.

There is a vacuum here that is not filled by Ministers. We have policy drift, and that is how we end up where we are today. I have never yet heard the Government set out their vision for local government in England outside London. It is bad value for the taxpayer. The order suggests there will be a saving. Before the Minister was in his job, the previous incumbents would tell me, “We are not going down the reorganisation route because it costs money”. But here we are told it will save us money. Part of me wants to say that he cannot have his cake and eat it.

Regarding the consultation, it would be generous to say that, at best, opinion is mixed locally, with the non-responders winning by a mile. There were a total of 3,044 responders out of a population of well over half a million, and 35% of those responders backed the proposal we have before us; that is 1,065 people out of a population of over half a million. It is hardly a ringing endorsement of what is being put forward today.

I am not opposing the order, but I feel there is something not quite right about how local government is evolving in England. It is not clear; it does not give certainty or value for money, either for the taxpayer or for the council tax payer; and it is no way to deliver services. Reorganisations will not get the Government off the hook with the crisis we have in local government, which is a result of the nearly £8 billion funding gap that local authorities face no matter what structures we have. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have participated in this debate. I will do my best to answer the valid points that have been raised.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, I appreciated the meeting we had which, as he said, was also attended by the noble Baroness, Lady Pidding, who is not in her place at present. I found it a useful discussion. In that meeting and again today, the noble Lord made some very valid points. He indicated that the message on support is ambiguous. I accept that overall, in terms of personal interventions, there was more support for two unitary authorities than one. But the point I was making, which I think unanswerable, is that there was an overwhelming response in favour of change—in favour of unitarisation. I see that the noble Lord accepts that.

I turn to a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, about democracy in general. He and I have had this discussion previously. As a councillor of great and long standing, he knows very well that in a democracy one has to respond to the people who respond, whether through surveys or votes. He and I would both like more people to participate, as I am sure would all noble Lords in the Chamber.

The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, also raised an issue about the changes that are undoubtedly happening in the country at large, such as with HS2 and housing. Those are certainly important developments but they affect many councils, not only Buckinghamshire. I was not quite sure at one stage whether the noble Lord wanted us to look at this in terms of a larger unit or a smaller one. The support that he seemed to be getting behind was in favour of having two unitary authorities but, looking at it more broadly, some of the housing issues on the Oxford-Cambridge arc would indicate the need for a larger authority.

I am sorry if I did not make myself clear. What I was trying to argue for was a review in the not too distant future. The statutory instrument says that there will be no review, because once this unitary council is established local democracy will take care of any changes, but I think that that misses the point that he has just made: there are substantial changes on the horizon, some of which are happening even today, and it would be sensible to have in mind the thought of thinking again about the overall structure.

I am grateful for that. The noble Lord did indeed make that point. I was going to come on to look at the issue of the review. I think he has indicated now, although perhaps not as strongly as earlier, that we are looking at the electoral response in terms of a review of arrangements. As he has indicated previously, most of these changes affect other council areas as well as Buckinghamshire, which is the subject of the debate at the moment.

During the course of his very useful contribution, he referred to winners and losers. That is not how we are looking at this. I accept that the breakdown will see nine representatives on the executive from the county council area and eight from elsewhere, but I do not think that that is domination; it is a narrow majority. As I have indicated, there will be an opportunity to replace the leader if there is a desire to do so—so that is there as well.

All the council leaders have indicated—and I am very grateful for this—their strong support for the new arrangements and their desire to get behind them, which, in all fairness, the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, also indicated. That is the way we have to look at this. It is not with unanimous support, but with local government reorganisations it would be strange if it were. It seeks to represent the fact that we need a compromise. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, for indicating his support for the Secretary of State and the sensible compromise. We are trying to work towards a consensus with the three-member wards and the 147 members.

The re-warding that will happen after 2025 will be led by the Boundary Commission. It would be unwise for me to opine on that at this stage, but obviously it will be guided by experience. I share with the noble Lord the general desire that we do not want too few members. We perhaps have to recognise that there is a real job of work to be done here. I have to say that 147 sounds reasonable to me—but, as I say, this will be guided by experience and by the Boundary Commission. Obviously there will be a chance to look at this as things develop.

The noble Lord, Lord Stunell, made some very useful comments. I thank him for them and for his broad support for the measure. I agree with him on the need, as I say, to have a generous number of members—not too few—to represent democracy. I also agree about the important role of the parish councils. I have sought to find out, during the course of the discussions we have had, what is proposed. This will be led by the new authority, of course, but they have indicated that they want community hubs for the 19 areas, and the intention is that they should be represented by community boards for those areas to serve Buckinghamshire towns and villages and enable local councillors to take decisions on very local issues such as funding for community groups, local road maintenance and things that would apply to those particular communities. That is the intention. For example, residents in communities such as Buckingham and Beaconsfield at different ends of the county and in the surrounding areas would be able to look to decisions on local matters being made closer to those communities. The intention is to work closely with public sector providers in those areas as well to try to ensure that there is a genuinely local feel to the way that decisions are reached there.

I turn to the contribution by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. Again, I thank him for his general support for what we are doing—or at least for the fact that he will not oppose it, as I think he phrased it. He made some very fair points about the strategy. He was concerned that we had something more like a detailed blueprint. That is not the way in which we have been seeking to do this. Things are different in different areas, and the consistent theme running through this is democracy. It would be hard to see some sort of metro mayor operation in Buckinghamshire, for example, although I think it is appropriate for Cambridge and Peterborough. I think the noble Lord would accept that different rules apply to different parts of the country.

He talked—perhaps this is an indication of Labour being somewhat rooted in the past—about the sweet counter at Woolworths. I have news for the noble Lord: that has long since gone. But I accept his general point that there is perhaps a need for a more consistent theme. He will know that we will be making a Statement on devolution in England; we are committed to doing that. That will perhaps be in relation to the metro mayor position. I hope that the noble Lord will take comfort from that.

To come back to democracy, it is worth noting that this proposal came from the area; it did not come from the Government. Obviously we have had a hand in shaping it, but the initial proposal came from the councils of the area itself.

I listened to the Minister explain the position and I am picking up on what my noble friend Lord Kennedy said. Does the Minister accept that we have an area that has perhaps grown up with a particular style of government, and where there has not been much change over the last 30 years or so? There is a danger that by listening to only that voice and considering the representation from only one of the five councils, one is playing to a particular style and approach, and not thinking about the wider context of metropolitan-type counties near London, many of which will have similar problems. The point my noble friend was making was that there is probably a level of perspective above that, which suggests that we need a better template for all that, to make sure those particularities do not dominate a more general case.

I certainly accept that there is a need to listen to a broad range of opinions. In fairness to local representatives, MPs and councils, I think we have done that in Buckinghamshire. There is not unanimity of opinion; that is a perfectly valid point. I also accept, and this will be reflected when we look at devolution arrangements for England, that there is a need to look at a broad feel for the country and how matters are governed. That is fair, but we also have to recognise that a uniform, monochrome blueprint—I have mixed my metaphors—for councils is undesirable. There is perhaps a way around this that accommodates both.

I am really grateful for the contributions made. I am sure we will take account of these comments. I will seek to update noble Lords on any points I have missed in this very useful debate. I thank them for their contributions and their general support.

Motion agreed.

House adjourned at 8.27 pm.