Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, this order was laid before the House on 28 October. The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee published its report on 4 November. The good people of Northamptonshire then had a significant wait before yesterday’s debate on this order by the Second Delegated Legislation Committee in the House of Commons. I understand that the order was welcomed and was considered fairly swiftly.
Let me start by setting out the background to this order. Your Lordships may recall that just over two years ago my predecessor, my noble friend Lord Bourne, informed this House that the then Secretary of State had concerns about financial management at Northamptonshire County Council and whether it was failing to meet its best value duty. Your Lordships may also remember the reports in the press relating to this story. An inspector was appointed under powers given by the Local Government Act 1999.
I would like to quote directly from the report of that inspector:
“To change the culture and organisational ethos and to restore balance, would, in the judgement of the inspection team, take of the order of 5 years and require a substantial one off cash injection. Effectively, it would be a reward for failure. Even under a Directions regime, it is not considered likely that councillors and officers would have the strength of purpose to carry through such a long running programme of recovery potentially crossing two electoral cycles. In the meantime, it would be the people of the county who would suffer. A way forward with a clean sheet, leaving all the history behind, is required.”
The independent reviewer recommended that local government in Northamptonshire should be reorganised into two unitary councils, one covering the areas of Corby, East Northamptonshire, Kettering and Wellingborough and another covering Daventry, Northampton and South Northamptonshire.
The order before us today creates just this new start for local government in Northamptonshire, which has been described by the councils themselves as a
“once in a generation opportunity to develop and transform services so they are modern, financially resilient and future-proof, learning from national best practice and making informed decisions about the future.”
This order, if approved and made by Parliament, will provide for the establishment of two new local government areas. For each new area a new unitary council will be established; they are to be known as North Northamptonshire Council and West Northamptonshire Council. The order also provides important transitional arrangements, as is usual in such cases. In particular, provision is made to replace the district council elections in May 2020 with elections to the new unitary councils, which will be shadow authorities until 1 April 2021.
Turning to the detail, I will now speak of the process behind local government reorganisation. On 27 March 2018 the then Secretary of State, Sajid Javid, issued an invitation to all eight Northamptonshire councils to submit a proposal for local government restructuring. The invitation set out that the proposals should meet our long-standing criteria that restructuring, if implemented, should improve local government, be based on a credible geography, and command a good deal of local support. On 31 August 2018, seven of the eight authorities submitted a proposal for two new unitary councils. I thank all the councils for the way in which they have worked together to develop this proposal, for the significant work that has been undertaken to prepare for its implementation, and for the support that the commissioners have provided. The then Secretary of State, James Brokenshire, decided that this proposal meets our criteria for unitarisation and the additional requirements set out in the invitation.
Taking the first criteria of improving local government, a significant factor was a consideration of children’s services, particularly because they have been identified as a matter of concern. The then Secretary of State for Education commissioned a report by the Northampton- shire children’s services commissioner on how best to ensure continued improvement of children’s social care, should there be a reorganisation of local government in Northamptonshire. The commissioner recommended that there should be a children’s trust to cover the whole area. Retaining a shared children’s social care function through establishing a children’s trust will provide continuity in children’s social services across the two new counties. It will provide a stable platform to accelerate service improvement so that vulnerable children and families get the help and protection that they need and deserve. Significant progress has been made with the establishment of Children First Northamptonshire and I welcome the recent appointment of the chair, Ian Curryer.
Another vital local government service is adult social care, and the decision was also made on the basis that work continues to be taken forward to integrate adult social care and health services. I am pleased that local health and council leaders have agreed a draft plan involving the creation of community hubs.
I also want to highlight the other ways the councils expect the proposal, if implemented, to improve local government. These are by: offering more coherent geographic units for aligning infrastructure, housing and environment services to help drive growth; enabling a clear point of contact for residents at their relative councils to access all council services; delivering advantages in health and well-being by enhancing social care and safeguarding services through closer connection with related services; improving education and skills provisions; improving community safety; and finally, delivering estimated cost savings of £12 million per year as a result of the reorganisation, which will be achieved within two years of the establishment of the new councils.
Let me say a little more about the future finances of these new councils. The commissioners have ensured that the county council’s finances, while still fragile, will be a stable platform on which to establish the new councils. The councils have worked hard through the implementation process to get a firm grip on the costs and benefits associated with their unitary proposal. I understand the programme currently estimates that investment of £43.5 million is required to deliver the local government reorganisation and transformation it seeks to deliver. This investment will in part be funded by £18 million of business rates pilot funding. This investment programme is expected to yield savings of some £85.9 million annually, which will be available to invest in sustaining local services. This is a significant figure and it will be for the councils to carefully monitor and report both future financial progress and the progress that has been made towards delivering modern and sustaining local services. I am clear that the two new unitary councils have a credible geography that meets the second criterion.
The third criterion focuses on the quality and extent of support for the proposal. I am pleased to say that the proposal has a good deal of support. Over 67% of the 5,831 respondents to an independent consultation, carried out on behalf of the councils, agreed that the number of councils should be reduced. In addition, a representative residents’ survey demonstrated that absolute majorities of all residents, across the county and within each proposed unitary area, agreed with the proposal. As noble Lords would expect there was also a statutory consultation on the proposal, which received 386 responses. Responses from businesses, members of the public, parish councils and community organisations to that consultation were more mixed. However, the consultation demonstrated that seven of the eight councils in the area, all public sector partners and the local enterprise partnership support the proposal for two unitaries. As referred to previously, local partners see this reorganisation as an opportunity to review services and ensure that they meet the needs of local communities.
This order implements the proposal and reflects local preferences. It provides for arrangements to manage the transition to the new unitary councils, including the establishment of joint committees and shadow authorities to drive the implementation. Evidence from previous unitarisations suggests that elections to a shadow authority can help establish legitimacy, effective leadership and better long-term decision-making to ensure smooth transition to the new arrangements. The Secretary of State decided to modify the proposal to delay implementation to April 2021 and establish shadow authorities, with elections to those shadow authorities in May 2020. This is to ensure that the new councils would be in the strongest possible position to deliver high-quality services to the people of Northampton- shire from the outset.
The May 2019 district council elections in Northamptonshire were previously postponed to May 2020. The order provides that those May 2020 district council elections are cancelled. This is to avoid confusion for residents in being asked to vote for councillors for the new councils and councillors for a district council that will be abolished 11 months later. District councillors will therefore remain as elected members of their district council until their council is abolished. Some will serve for six years.
Finally, I would just like to mention my personal experience. My own council will soon be the new unitary Buckinghamshire Council. I am looking forward to exercising my democratic rights on 7 May in electing councillors to that new authority. I am also most encouraged by the recent local government reorganisation in Dorset. While it is the first time that I have taken one of these debates in my newish role within the department, for my officials this is of course business as usual. I am pleased to report that the implementation phase for this reorganisation is well under way. I have full confidence in the local area implementing the unitarisation by April 2021. I therefore commend this order to the Committee and I beg to move.
I remind everybody of my entry in the register of interests, as a councillor in Kirklees in West Yorkshire—a unitary council—and as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. The order enacts decisions made in response to the financial calamity that befell local government in Northamptonshire through its county council. It was clearly imperative that action was taken; it is my understanding that change had to be made. However, I would like to comment on and perhaps challenge some of the decisions that have resulted from the decision to reorganise local government in Northamptonshire.
First, it seems that we as a country are in danger of taking the “local” out of local government. I say that as somebody who serves a very large ward—not the largest in the country, but one of the largest—at a unitary level and understands the demands on the three councillors who serve a population of 16,000. From my experience, it means that some of the very local issues become less important to councillors, who have to deal with high-level strategic decisions, but remain very important to local people. When you have a big ward, there is a tension between the strategic and the local. If we are not careful, local people often miss out. That is more so with large wards serving rural communities.
I do not know the county of Northants very well, but I guess that some of its wards will be significantly rural in nature. In my experience, this creates a potential disconnect between decision-makers and the people they serve. There is potential for the Government to give additional powers to parish and town councils, so that they can take up some of the very local responsibilities that would previously have been the remit of district councillors. That would enable a local element to be retained in local governance. I will leave it there and hope that the Minister will have some sort of response to it.
The second element is the size of the two unitary councils and the number of councillors they have. One has got 93 and the other has 78. In my experience, that is quite a large number. The Explanatory Memorandum states that there will be a boundary review for those wards before the next local elections in 2025. Are the Government thinking about reducing the number of councillors, because that is what a boundary review could achieve? On balance, having fewer councillors might improve governance but, on the other hand, it increases the size of wards and makes it more difficult for ward councillors to undertake their local responsibilities. Is that in view?
My next point is a general one about when there are 93 councillors—even 78—and only 10 of them are actual decision-makers. They are in the cabinet; they make the decisions for the council. That leaves another 83; they can do scrutiny, but they are not taking decisions, which is what local people expect them to be doing. Apart from the annual budget, the local plan and, perhaps, an annual children’s plan, there is not much that every councillor has to take decisions on. There has to be a rethink of the roles and responsibilities of councillors who are not in a cabinet. It can make councillors feel remote from decision-making. As ward size makes people feel remote, councillors feel remote if they are not in the cabinet. In my experience, remote decision-making fuels discontent and we should take note of that.
Paragraph 7.6 of the Explanatory Memorandum, which the Minister referred to, outlines the benefits of the new structure:
“aligning infrastructure; housing and environment services to help deliver growth; advantages in … health and wellbeing; improved education and skills provision”,
though I have to say that the responsibilities of local councils regarding education are very limited these days. The levers that they have to change anything are minimal, so I would not have referred to education in that way. Does the Minister agree that there could be an alternative to achieving that aim, which I think will come up in the next few months in a number of ways? A constructive collaboration, formalised between districts and the county, could achieve the same aims without the upheaval of a structural reorganisation. This would be an upheaval, and it takes a long time—several years—for councils to get on their feet and begin delivering strategically, not operationally, the services that they should.
The second point I want to make about the benefits of the reorganisation is on the projected savings of £12 million per annum. Such figures are always produced by the protagonists of the reorganisation. My knowledge of reorganisations tells me that that saving might not be the case. The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee highlighted that it hoped the House would,
“seek a commitment from the Minister to review whether the benefits and savings have been met.”
I hope the Minister will be able to commit to such a review, because it will inform future changes, which is important.
Another point I would make about the changes is about the children’s trust, which I understand will be set up for a very good reason: so that there is continuity in children’s services in the whole county of Northamptonshire. I have had one experience of a children’s trust and it was not particularly helpful or positive. It becomes dominated by children’s services officers and the accountability factor of local governance, as exemplified by local councillors, gets lost. I would like the Minister to give some thought to that, although maybe not to respond today.
The consultation was interesting. It seems that people were saying, “We’ve got failure. We need to change. This’ll do.” That is how it came out when I read it. They were accepting a fait accompli, really.
Change was, of course, inevitable. We had to have a fresh start, given the financial failure of the large council in the area. We have had a review, but I wonder whether anybody has ever reflected on how that failure happened. Someone somewhere must have known; surely action should have been taken at that stage, before failure happened. It is no good for local people who rely on services. Where was some intervention? There seemed to be a failure somewhere in local governance.
Finally, I would point out that England has the fewest elected representatives of all the major European countries, and when compared to the United States of America. The direction of travel is to reduce them here. I worry that we are reducing the number of elected representatives to the detriment of local democracy. Again, I think that will fuel discontent. If people do not feel that they know who is taking the decisions, and where, it does not help anyone; it makes people cynical about local government. Having been a representative in local government for a large number of years, that is the last thing I would want to happen. However, I understand the need for the order, and I support what is going on.
My Lords, I query the process. Having been the Secretary of State responsible for local government reorganisation, I find this process extremely peculiar. The Secretary of State asked the principal councils in Northamptonshire to decide how they wanted the future to be, but he said that Northamptonshire could not be a single unitary and if it were going to be three unitaries, they had to find some extremely good reasons for it. What we have here is a series of commissioners proposing a particular answer and the Secretary of State thanking the commissioners for all their work and presenting local people with a choice that is not a choice. I am not happy with that as a procedure.
Then we discover that we are supposed to think that the local people will be thrilled about it because there were 300-odd responses to a statutory consultation from a population of something like 700,000. We also had a number of businesses and others who thought it was a frightfully good idea. One of the questions that was asked—this is fascinating—which was thought to be a very good argument, was about whether there should be fewer councils. That is not the issue. The issue is why should we have two councils rather than three or one. That is the first question. I find the process very peculiar.
The second thing that seems odd about it is the decision that the historic county of Northamptonshire should be treated differently from the historic county of Cornwall. I am not suggesting that either is the right answer, but it seems that you have to have a reason for it. When I had to deal with Sir John Banham’s report, one of the things I found very difficult was that a number of the proposals did not seem to tie up with other proposals; it was therefore quite difficult to present them to the House of Commons because the other place, quite naturally, asked why it was that the proposals for this place were based on these arguments and the arguments were overturned in the proposals for some other place.
That leads me to question whether we have any idea about what we are trying to do. What is the Government’s view of local authorities? If we are going to do them piecemeal because of a disaster, I understand that we have to do it quickly—I will not hold up the proceedings any longer than I have to in asking these fundamental questions; I certainly will not suggest that one is not content with this—but it does not seem to be very good business. It does not seem to be a sensible way to proceed.
That leads me to my third point, which is simply this: we have had some quite successful changes in local government. If I remember rightly, the original changes in 1974, which were Conservative ones, were largely bad because they were based on the principle of having a whole lot of councils, many of which were not viable. For example, in my county of Suffolk, we should have had two unitary authorities: the old county council of east Suffolk and the old county council of west Suffolk. That would have been sensible. Instead, we had eight district councils and a county council. It is a very large area, much bigger than Northamptonshire, and it was not a sensible thing. Ever since, there have been attempts for councils to work together. That is now happening. East Suffolk Council is an amalgamation of two district councils. It is true of Mid Suffolk District Council and Babergh District Council and of the western district councils, which are now working together because that is the only way in which they can provide proper services at a proper price.
I do not particularly like neatness. It is the enemy of civilisation. I do not like the concept of being neat for the sake of it, but I do like rationality, and my problem here is that I see no rationality behind this. It looks to me as if there was a failing county council, it was a disaster, we put in some people to hold the place together and now let us get some answer, which we will have, but let us not be too careful about whether we have a philosophy behind it. What sort of numbers should we be dealing with in the historic county of Northamptonshire? Somebody should have said, “What about a unitary authority?” That is one answer. I am not suggesting that it is necessarily right, but should it not have been a question that was asked? Would it have been significantly more expensive? Then you would not have had to have a children’s trust. I am a bit worried about the need for a children’s trust but nobody thinks that you have to have any other, countywide, for what is not an enormous county and one that is quite a reasonable shape.
I have stayed behind because I want to know what the Government’s philosophy is. I know a number of the Minister’s civil servants from my own history—they have been around for quite some time—and I always want to know why we decide on a particular answer. This decision is not based on a “why”; this decision says that we are doing it because it is the easiest, quickest, simplest way—and pray to God it works. I am not sure that that is government.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a county councillor in Cumbria, and some of my remarks are going to relate to Cumbria in the context of what the Government have decided on Northampton- shire. I agree with many of the general points that the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, and the noble Lord, Lord Deben, have made, but I am rather concerned that the Northamptonshire model is being seized on by Ministers as something that they can go around the country imposing on people, whatever they think. The cause of that suspicion is that Mr Jake Berry, the Minister for the Northern Powerhouse, summoned the leaders of the councils of Cumbria to see him and basically told them that the only option for the way forward was two unitary authorities in Cumbria—a county of some 500,000 people but obviously a vast geographical area—and that that was basically the Government’s intention. I realise that the noble Viscount, Lord Younger, may not be in a position to answer my questions, but I would be very grateful if he would commit to send me a letter in answer to the points I am about to make.
First, what is the current position on ministerial powers in relation to local government reorganisation? As I understand it, there was a provision in the Local Government Act to allow the department to impose schemes on areas but these powers have now lapsed. I am not sure whether I am right about that, so I want to know what the statutory power is at present and whether the Government are considering—because I know that there is talk of a devolution White Paper later in the year—taking on the power to reorganise local government even if there is not unanimous agreement? I rather gathered from what the Minister said that although seven of the eight authorities said they would accept the two-unitary structure in Northamptonshire, it was not necessarily unanimous of all the authorities. I do not know what the position is there. So, the first question is: where do we currently stand on ministerial powers and on the Government’s intentions for the future, given the Prime Minister’s laudable desire to make local government work better as he sees it and to devolve power?
Secondly, do the Government have rules about what they regard as the minimum size of a unitary authority? Again, there is talk of the normal rule being a population of 300,000, but is that a rule or is it just a thought when people are looking at these questions?
This is particularly relevant in the case of Cumbria. I am a supporter of unitary authorities. Local government in Cumbria would be a lot better if we did not have this confusing duplication with the county council and six district councils and the national park. I tell you this as someone who represents Wigton in Cumbria: I get people coming to me all the time with particular issues and they do not have a clue about who is responsible for what. That is very bad for democracy. I am a strong supporter of the idea that, if we want a more vital local democracy, unitaries are the way forward.
In the case of Cumbria, there could be two unitary authorities—a northern one and a southern one—but the geographical logic of the southern authority would include Lancaster and Morecambe to create a Morecambe Bay authority, which was considered 50 years ago. It would stretch from the city of Lancaster—I declare an interest as the pro-chancellor of Lancaster University—round the bay, including the South Lakeland area, Kendal and Barrow-in-Furness. The problem is that Mr Berry apparently told our local government leaders that this was ruled out completely and that the Government could not possibly consider something that crossed a county boundary. That is an illogical rule for Ministers to adopt in trying to create a logical local government structure.
Thirdly, I have some reservations about the idea of a trust to deal with children’s services. The Minister mentioned adult social care as well, but it was not clear to me whether the two unitaries would be responsible for adult social care or whether, again, it would be removed from the council’s responsibilities and put in some independent hands. I do not know how a trust would work. There are lots of issues to do with children’s services that require democratic accountability and debate. I am concerned about what some people will call the privatisation of these services; I do not believe that it would be privatisation unless the Government imposed that, but it is not a democratically satisfactory arrangement to have an independent body on matters of such sensitivity.
Finally, again in relation to Northamptonshire and Cumbria, why did Mr Berry tell our leaders that a condition of this was that we had an elected mayor? What is the Government’s policy on having an elected mayor for the whole county—that is, not having one for each authority, but having an elected mayor to cover the two unitary authorities? Where has this idea come from? What is the logic of it? Why is that thought to be an essential part of effective local government reorganisation? I should say again that I am not against elected mayors. Having an elected mayor has done London enormous good. Mr Street in Birmingham and Mr Burnham in Manchester are playing a good role. I am not against elected mayors in principle, but I do not see why they have automatically to be part of a scheme to revitalise local democracy and have a more sensible local government structure. I am asking for the principles that led to the Northamptonshire reorganisation to be more clearly stated and for the Government to be a little clearer about whether they see these principles to be of general relevance and how they would apply in the Cumbria case. I would be grateful for an explanation of those points by letter from the Minister.
My Lords, I apologise for being slightly late. I was stuck in a committee. I declare an interest as a vice-chairman of the Local Government Association and president of the National Association of Local Councils. Probably more importantly, I am a member of Wiltshire Council. For 10 years, I led a unitary authority and for the six years before that I led a county council, leading it and its four districts in to a unitary authority. So I know quite a lot about unitary authorities. I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Lord, Lord Deben, that this is a mess. For many years, since I started in local government about 25 years ago, I have hoped that government would grasp hold of this and look at the reorganisation of local government so that we were more similar and sensible and would therefore have a stronger voice with central government because we would not be so complex in the way we do business.
I know a little bit about Northamptonshire, and I wish it well in the future. I think this is the right thing for that county, although personally I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Deben: I would have had one single unitary authority. Northamptonshire is about the same size as Wiltshire—about 500,000 people—which, in my experience, is about right, although I always said that if somebody gave me another 200,000 to 300,000 people, I would take them. I would have become much more efficient and been just as local. The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, and I have talked about this in the Chamber a number of times. There is no reason for a unitary authority to become divorced from its communities. People in Wiltshire will tell you that Wiltshire Council is now much closer to its communities. It takes work, planning and a system to do that, but it can be done. It can also work much better with its parish and town councils and start to look at devolution downwards. We talk a lot about devolution from central government to local government, but we forget the people on the ground. The people to deliver playgrounds, parks and gardens, swimming pools and things like that are towns and parishes. They do not cost the central taxpayer any money, because that is local precepting. It is easy for a town or parish to have a scheme, ask local people for the money, and be challenged on whether it has delivered it with the money it has got from local communities. I do not worry about size.
The other issue about size is that county councils now deliver more than 85% of the services across the county area. We are probably talking about 13% to 15% of the services, so why are we not thinking about a million? It would not worry me, providing that each of the unitary authorities is big and strategic but looks at how it can be local as well. That is possible. Cornwall and Wiltshire are doing this very successfully. They are also saving the money. I am sorry to say to the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, that it does not take long. In Wiltshire I was bothered, as every leader who changes a local government system must be, that local services would take a dip. I assure the Committee that every performance indicator in Wiltshire got better when we went to unitary and did so straight away. It did not dip. Not only that, we expected to make the savings in two years; we made them in 18 months. This is not a bad news story; it is a good news story. That is why I would support Northamptonshire all the way.
I would be concerned about children’s trusts. What Mr Berry said recently about Cumbria is concerning. It concerns me because if we take children’s services and adult care services out of local government, what is left? In local government over the past 10 years, we have shown how efficient and effective we can be. Just because there might be one difficult apple—not a bad apple, but experiencing difficulties—it does not mean that the system has to change. In both children’s and adults’ services, it is important that there is democratic accountability locally. We have seen what happens in the health service when there is not democratic accountability. Please do not do that to us for children’s and adult care services.
I could go on a great deal, but I will not. Northamptonshire has been through a very difficult time, and this is its chance to step up to the mark and deliver the services that its people deserve. I wish it all the best.
My Lords, I refer to my relevant interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I thank the Minister for explaining the order. I agree with many of the points made by every Member here. Like my noble friend, I am generally a supporter of unitary authorities. I think they are the way to go, generally speaking. However, this is quite a sad day in some ways. We are not here because councils have come together and decided that this is what they need to do for their county. They have not had discussions and worked out that this is the best way forward. We are here because of complete incompetence and bad management at Northamptonshire County Council. This unitary authority decision has then been imposed on people. As we have heard, they could not have one unitary council—I do not know why, but they could not—and they could not have three. It had to be two. That is very disappointing.
I know the area really well. I lived and worked in the east Midlands for a very long time. I like Northamptonshire a lot. The town of Northampton got its charter in 1189. It has a beautiful town hall. The town was incorporated in 1835. The county itself is wonderful. As has already been said, it has a very compact shape and great road and rail links. There are great businesses there. Dr. Martens is in Wellingborough. The county also has Weetabix, Barclaycard and Carlsberg —all really good businesses. It is the home of the motor industry, with Silverstone and the Rockingham Motor Speedway. These are Premier League businesses with a Sunday league county council working for them. It is dreadful that we are where we are today.
Corby is another great town, with a great history in the steel industry. We may not all remember, but it was 40 years ago that the steelworks closed. Some 10,000 people lost their jobs in one fell swoop. However, the local community, the local authority and the councils came together, and they reinvented themselves.
I am also disappointed in the names of these two councils: North Northamptonshire and West Northamptonshire. They are terrible, dreadful names. Where have the historical county names gone? I mean names such as Northamptonshire, Kettering, Wellingborough, Corby and Daventry. We must also remember that we can have all the new names and structures and we can dismantle what has gone before, but unless the structure is sound, the funding is stable and the officers and members understand the challenge before them, this will solve nothing at all and we will back here again in a few months or a few years’ time.
Northamptonshire County Council failed the communities of Northamptonshire completely. A lot of good people tried to deliver, but a failure of political leadership was at the centre of this disaster. I thank the staff and the people who worked hard in the councils. In particular, I pay tribute to Councillor Tom Beattie, the long-serving leader of Corby Borough Council. Corby was very much against this reorganisation. If Tom had been the leader of the county council it would not have opened a brand-new, glitzy county council office—with Sajid Javid opening it—for it to go bust only a matter of weeks later. It was absolutely ridiculous. He would never have got us into this mess in the first place.
Having said that, the order creates two new local authorities. I wish them well as they progress from shadow authority status in May to taking over full responsibility for all services in April 2021, but we need to take a serious look at what happened. There was a complete failure of leadership, which we must try to avoid in other councils. As other noble Lords asked, why can there not be one unitary county council? We seem to have been forced into this as the only option, which is not a good way to do it. I believe in devolution and unitary authorities, and I believe that local people should have some status in that. I will leave my remarks there. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
I thank the noble Lords who took part in the debate, which has been not only interesting but informed. It has also been somewhat philosophical, particularly in the remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock.
The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, and my noble friend Lady Scott referred to the children’s trust. I absolutely take note of their comments. All I can say is that I will take these concerns back as I am not in a position to answer them; perhaps these views are of a more philosophical sort.
In the same breath, let me say in response to the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, that a letter will be delivered to all noble Lords who took part in the debate, perhaps to put a little more meat on the bones of that particular comment relating to the children’s trust, but also to answer his questions. In fact, I will attempt to answer some of those questions during my closing remarks, but I suspect that I will not answer them in full.
Perhaps this is me being a bit philosophical, but this subject leads to endless debate. Everybody has their own view on how local services are best met and how local authorities and local councils come together best. I understand that. I have my own views; obviously, they are the views of the Government.
I start by setting out our high-level policy: what are we trying to do in local government reorganisation? I hope to allay some fears. The Government are open to innovative, locally led proposals that will improve services, enhance accountability and deliver financial sustainability. Any proposal considered under the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act process will require unanimous consent from all councils. Alternatively, the Secretary of State may issue a formal invitation for proposals.
Two circumstances will be considered in issuing such an invitation. The first is where the following two conditions are met: there is a local request for an invitation, and that request demonstrates that local opinion is coalescing around a single option that is reasonably likely to meet the existing publicly announced criteria for unitarisation. The second circumstance is where it is considered that this action would be appropriate given the specific circumstances of the area, including the long-term sustainability of local services. We are clear that any change to council structure should not be dreamed up or imposed by Whitehall, but led by councils and local people. Councils are much better placed to develop proposals that suit the unique needs of their residents and businesses. That is the overarching policy, which noble Lords have no doubt heard before.
I am sorry to press my noble friend on this, but this proposal does not meet any of those things. First, it was not unanimously accepted by the local councils. Secondly, it was the Secretary of State who said what they could and could not agree to. There was no opportunity for innovative proposals; indeed, they were told precisely that there could not be innovative proposals. It is that that worries me. It is not that there is not a philosophy; it is that in no single case have I found that philosophy being followed. My noble friend, the former leader of Wiltshire Council, pointed out that Wilshire works perfectly well and so does Cornwall. Why was Northamptonshire not given the choice to have a single unitary authority? It is that that worries one. We are not keeping to what we said was our policy; I therefore wonder whether we really have a policy.
I hear what my noble friend says, but I do not agree with him on this. There are several reasons for that. Of course he will expect me to say that; I will say it. We see a fresh start for the people of Northamptonshire. It will provide new councils in which local people can have confidence, providing effective, modern and sustainable services. Like the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, I thank the leaders of the eight—not seven—Northamptonshire councils and the commissioners for the leadership that they have shown to take us to this point.
On the lack of unanimity and there being one council —Corby—that was not entirely on board, it has consistently shown great strength of purpose in nearly supporting things, so when we say that it is not entirely unanimous, Corby was behind many of the issues. Perhaps a letter is required to give a little more information on that.
One of the most important things in this process is consultation. The local consultation described the majorities in favour as overwhelming, with 74% support overall and 77% and 70% in West Northamptonshire and North Northamptonshire respectively. I do not want to be drawn in on the names—I do not think that I can comment on that—but I take the noble Lord’s point on the names that were given.
Where are West Northamptonshire and North Northamptonshire? They are dreadful, dreadful names. The Government could certainly have done something about that. Northampton got its charter in 1189. They are dreadful, dreadful names. Something much better should have been done.
I think that I heard “dreadful” at least four times. I say, perhaps as a reassurance—although I do not think that it will wash with the noble Lord—that the names have been chosen locally. Admittedly there was no competition, but they were chosen locally rather than being imposed on them.
I shall go further on the consultation. The Northamptonshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust and Healthwatch Northamptonshire support a reduction in the number of councils. They both welcome the closer integration possible as a result of having to engage with fewer authorities, and agree that this is a positive opportunity for change to secure a sustainable future. The Northamptonshire police and crime commissioner is supportive and stated that the
“creation of unitary authorities would bring about clarity for the public and present opportunities for greater co-ordination, realisation of efficiencies and simpler partnership working.”
Finally, the Northamptonshire County Association of Local Councils reported that an overwhelming majority of town and parish councillors supported the principle of unitary authorities being established. We should not dismiss the opinions of local people in this respect. This allows me to pick up a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, about taking “local” out of “local government”. I point out to her that the new parish and town councils are in the process of being established, including in Kettering, Northampton and Wellingborough—note those names. I welcome and encourage this as an important way to strengthen local democracy and enable decisions to be taken to reflect the needs of local communities. I do not agree entirely with the noble Baroness that the local is being taken out the process. In my view, we still have some very robust local democracy.
I will pick up another point made by the noble Baroness about the role of councillors in the cabinet system. I think her point was that only 10 were making decisions, as opposed to the other 93—sorry, 89; my maths is bad. It will be for the new councils to determine the role of councillors and to ensure that all councillors can take a full role in representing their residents and ensuring an effective local democracy.
Furthermore, as to the size of wards, for the election in May 2020, each ward, which are county electoral divisions, will have three members. For the next election in May 2025, we expect the independent boundary commission to undertake a full electoral review. It is for the commission to decide the number of councillors and the size of wards. Experience shows that the new unitary councils establish strong and effective arrangements at parish and community levels, to add a little more to what I said. We would expect the new Northamptonshire councils to follow best practice—as, for example, in the unitary Wiltshire Council, led by my noble friend Lady Scott, if I may spare her blushes.
The noble Lord, Lord Deben, spoke and expressed concerns about process. My guess is that a letter will better satisfy him, but the start of the process was the independent inspector. The proposal made follows exactly the inspector’s recommendation. The consideration behind the inspector’s recommendation was that a new start was needed, with two new councils. In the inspector’s view, two unitaries best met this aim and the criteria for unitary local government: improving local government; a credible geography with a population substantially in excess of 300,000; and a good deal of support. That penultimate figure perhaps answers the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Liddle. To clarify, the figure is substantially in excess of 300,000. A unitary county would risk being seen as replicating and rewarding a failing county.
The noble Lord, Lord Liddle, spoke about Cumbria with great passion, for obvious reasons. The position in Cumbria is all about a devolution deal. It is for Cumbria to decide whether it wishes to have a devolution deal; initial discussions are continuing. Major deals have involved a mayoral combined authority. If Cumbria wished to have a mayor deal with a mayoral combined authority, it would point to a simplification of current local government structures: establishing unitary councils. We know that there are different local views about unitary structures for Cumbria. As I am sure the noble Lord will tell me, discussions are continuing. We will want to hear more from the local area in this respect.
The noble Lord made points about the elected mayors. The idea of elected mayors arises in major devolution deals where substantial powers and budgets are devolved over a functional economic area. An elected mayor is seen as providing a strong single point of accountability for the exercise of those powers and for managing those budgets. That elected mayor can be a combined authority mayor if there is more than one authority in the functional economic area, or if that area comprises a single unitary council or an elected mayor of that council.
I would take that point if the elected mayor had substantial powers and there was a substantial devolution of the budget. As I understand it, in my county—I could be wrong and I am quite happy to be corrected by the noble Lord’s officials—Mr Berry is talking about a devolution deal that might give Cumbria £10 million a year. That is a very small amount of money compared with the county council’s revenue and capital budgets, never mind the other district councils. I think that our net revenue budget is more than £400 million; the districts must have another £80 million. We have a LEP, of course, which is already in place and deals with economic development. I do not quite understand whether the Government are saying that, if there is a reorganisation in areas such as Cumbria, the mayor will replace the LEP. I was against the abolition of regional development agencies—it was a mistake for the coalition to do that—but the emphasis then was put on local enterprise partnerships. Are we now, hardly a decade later, shifting on to mayors as something completely different?
That just proves that there are different views; the noble Lord will have his views and other noble Lords will have theirs. Setting up mayoral authorities is not a case of one system fits all—it comes down to the ongoing discussions that are taking place. My understanding is that the mayors would not replace the LEPs, but I do not want to prejudge the negotiations. There are going to be different setups. As the noble Lord will know, there are already different setups in existing mayoral authorities. Regarding the figures that have been mentioned, a substantial deal would be one on the size and scale of that for Greater Manchester or the West Midlands.
I used to keep saying these things when the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, was the Minister: the idea is that these things just evolve, but it always looks like a confused mess to me. Local government looks like a real mess in England outside of London. It is all over the place and I really do not think this is good. I know it is not the Minister’s fault, but the department is not clear on what it is trying to achieve. I remember discussions with the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, who lives in Cambridge. He described all the tiers of government in his county—and next door, there was just one tier. It is just shambolic.
I cannot agree with the noble Lord. Surely, he would agree that there is good sense in talking to the locals to work through the issues and to get their buy-in to what they want, within the parameters I have set out. I cannot see the problem with that. Already, a format is evolving: that this is the wish of local people all around the country, particularly up north, where 37% of people are under the aegis of mayoral authorities; that this is actually what local people want.
This is not so much a philosophical thing, but as the noble Lord will know, we have announced the devolution White Paper. This is an opportunity to reflect and review. I do not know what is going to be in it or what will come out of it, but we are going to look at all aspects of local government in the White Paper, which will be produced in due course. I hope it will help to allay the noble Lord’s fears. It might answer the question of my noble friend Lord Deben as to why Northamptonshire is treated differently from Cornwall. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. For example, discussions are going on in North Yorkshire about York being a unitary. Cornwall, as we know, is treated differently. It is important to come back to the point that this has got to be driven by local people deciding what they wish.
Again, I would agree with that statement, but the problem is that it is not the case. The Minister says that local people can decide, but they are given only one or two options. The Government are not letting them decide; they are narrowing down the options to a specific number and ruling things out before people get the chance to decide. They are setting a rigid framework and saying, “You can have that or nothing at all”. That is not letting local people decide, and that is the basic problem.
I take note of what the noble Lord has said. Actually, it falls in line with what I said at the beginning, which is that a letter is due. I will do my best to set out our approach in more detail, because there is sense in what we are doing. This is not a scattergun approach and nor is it chaotic.
I want to answer a question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, concerning Northamptonshire and the new arrangements. He asked: why not one or three unitaries, rather than two? The inspector recommended that a two-unitary solution was best because a one-unitary council was perceived as replicating and rewarding the failing county council, and three was seen as not meeting the criteria on credible geography with councils of adequate size.
I urge the Government to look again at the issue of consulting. I fully agree that it is about consulting local communities, local people. I have a problem when we take too much notice of those district and county authorities that are still there. With the greatest respect, they are trying to protect themselves, their officers—which is understandable —their members and their authority. Their views are sometimes challenged by that. It should be local communities that make the decision, not the local authorities within them.
I promise that this will be my last comment. The argument that we could not have a unitary authority for the whole county because it would be seen as rewarding the county council that has failed is rather weak. There was a failure of political leadership. The way to deal with that is to remove the people and not let them stand again. Not going forward with the one-council option because it could be seen as a replica of the failed county council is a weak reason.
I pledge to write on that point and to tie it in with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. I have not addressed the review of savings made. In my letter, I will attempt to give the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, a response on that matter and address the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, on the position of ministerial powers. That comes down to giving a coherent view of how ministerial powers juxtapose with local ones.
I hope that that is helpful and that I have addressed the many points raised. As I said, a letter will be coming that fully addresses the points that were made. Once again, I thank noble Lords for their contributions.
Committee adjourned at 6.38 pm.