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Local Government (Structural Changes) (Supplementary Provision and Amendment) Order 2023

Volume 827: debated on Monday 23 January 2023

Motion to Approve

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Local Government (Structural Changes) (Supplementary Provision and Amendment) Order 2023.

My Lords, this instrument was laid before this House on 12 December 2022. If approved and made, it will complete the legislative requirements to implement the locally led proposals for unitarisation of Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset. It will make certain provisions specific to the new unitary councils of Cumberland, Westmorland and Furness, North Yorkshire, and Somerset, so that in each there is a smooth transition from the predecessor councils to the successor councils and continuing effective local government in these areas.

This order will ensure that the necessary technical arrangements are in place and ready for these councils to go live on 1 April 2023. The SI relates to issues around ceremonial matters, local pension scheme arrangements, housing revenue accounts and a number of miscellaneous provisions to ensure that, where necessary, the new unitary councils are referenced in other legislation and have appropriate representation on important regional bodies or are referred in. If this order is approved, it will be a significant step towards ensuring that people and businesses across Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset can have strong and sustainable local government delivering the high-quality local services they rightly expect and deserve.

In March 2022, following approval from Parliament, we passed the necessary secondary legislation to implement locally led proposals for local government reorganisation in Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset and to create single principal councils in these areas. The new councils will go live on 1 April 2023. The draft order we are considering this afternoon is intended to be the final statutory instrument implementing the reorganisation in the areas. It will make all the final technical arrangements for the continuation of effective local government in those areas.

The then Secretary of State was satisfied that, if implemented, the successful proposals from the three areas would be likely to improve local government and service delivery across the area of the proposal, give greater value for money, generate savings, provide stronger strategic and local leadership, and be more sustainable structures that command a good deal of local support, as assessed in the round across the whole area of the proposal. The area of each unitary authority is a credible geography, consisting of one or more existing local government areas, with an aggregate population between 300,000 and 600,000. He took the decision to implement one proposal for each area and made secondary legislation, the structural changes orders, to give effect to his decisions.

I pay tribute to all the local leaders and their officers who have worked so hard to implement this restructuring in Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset and work towards the successful launch of the new councils while faced with responding to many challenges.

The order before noble Lords today addresses a number of incidental, consequential, transitional and supplementary issues that could not be addressed in the existing regulations of generic application that enable effective implementation of all unitary authorities. These specific provisions need to be applied directly in respect to those particular authorities.

This order makes the following changes in relation to the new councils. It makes amendments to provisions relating to ceremonial matters specifically for the appointment of charter trustees as appropriate bodies in which historic rights and privileges, including city status for Carlisle, should vest for Barrow and Carlisle. This provision will preserve important historic rights for the area, which are important considerations for local leaders and their communities. It makes provision for the pension fund maintained by Cumbria County Council to vest in Westmorland and Furness Council. This will ensure clarity on who is responsible for funding existing pensions accrued and preventing exit payments arising under the regulations, which would normally be triggered when an employer leaves the scheme. The SI will also provide that no exit payments or exit credits are due in the North Yorkshire and Somerset pension funds following the exit of the district councils from their respective pension funds when they are dissolved. It further makes provision for housing revenue accounts in Westmorland and Furness, North Yorkshire and Somerset councils, which will inherit council housing stock from the predecessor councils. It will ensure that the new councils are specifically referenced in the relevant HRA regulations and calculates for each assumed debt share and share cap figures which are used in the calculation of the proportion of housing receipts that councils are required to pay to the Secretary of State. This amendment has been previously made for other areas undergoing unitarisation.

It also refers to area-specific references and other miscellaneous amendments, which include making an amendment to the North Western Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Order 2010. This is to reflect consequential local government reorganisation arrangements in Cumberland and Westmorland and Furness councils so that they appoint a member to maintain this authority’s size and each split the contribution expense. It makes amendments to the Sub-national Transport Body (Transport for the North) Regulations 2018 to replace Cumbria County Council with the new authorities of Cumberland and Westmorland and Furness and increases the size of the board by one member. It makes consequential amendments to the Workington Harbour Act 1974 to provide for Cumberland to be the harbour authority for the area post reorganisation—in addition to the Workington (Pilotage) Harbour Revision Order 1988 and the Maryport Harbour Revision Order 2007 as a result of the abolition of Cumbria County Council. It makes amendments to the National Park Authorities (England) Order 2015 (SI 2015/770) to update the membership of the Exmoor National Park Authority, the Lake District National Park Authority, the North York Moors National Park Authority and the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority to reflect the changes in local government arrangements.

I assure noble Lords that we have worked closely on the development and drafting of this order with local leaders and senior officers in the shadow authorities of Cumberland, Westmorland and Furness, North Yorkshire and Somerset, looking carefully at issues raised and agreeing that the provisions of the order meet local requirements. In conclusion, these provisions are necessary consequential changes in the light of the establishment of the new councils. They ensure a smooth transition to the new arrangements and continued effective local government in the areas. I commend this order to the House.

My Lords, I start by reminding the Committee of my interests in the register: I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association and a serving councillor on Kirklees Council. I thank the Minister for her opening remarks explaining this statutory instrument. As she explained, these are consequential changes from the creation of the new unitary local authorities of Somerset, North Yorkshire, Cumberland, and Westmorland and Furness.

The key issues that I want to ask a few questions about relate to pension funds and housing capital finance. Of course, the changes proposed have to be made to ensure an equitable division of liabilities for pension funds and capital finance debt. My questions relate to the way in which these decisions are being made. Will they be transparent? Are the external auditors of the existing local authorities involved and, if not, why not? External auditors can often make independent assessments, particularly of pension liabilities, and are able to advise councils. I think that their advice would be helpful.

I have a further question on the creation of the two local authorities in Cumbria and the manner in which the transfer of their pension funds will be agreed. The Minister explained that it has been agreed that Westmorland and Furness council will administer pension funds on behalf of the two new councils. According to the Explanatory Memorandum, this council will determine the proportions of transferred pension fund assets and liabilities. My understanding is that Westmorland and Furness must take advice from the other new unitary council, Cumberland, but I would like more information about that, because nothing creates more of an argument between councils than questions of who has to take on liabilities.

The two councils may be able to make an amicable agreement, but what if they are not able to do so? The Explanatory Memorandum says,

“In coming to a fair determination on these matters, the Order provides that Westmorland and Furness must take advice from an actuary”—

that is good—

“and consult Cumberland Council.”

If I were a member of Cumberland council, I would want a bit more than being consulted. I would want to be sure that there was proper agreement between the two councils and not just consultation.

Can the Minister say whether there is an opportunity in this process for, in this instance, Cumberland council to appeal to the Government if there is no agreement on the way in which pension fund liabilities are divided between the two authorities? As the Minister is aware, pension fund values can fluctuate significantly across even a few years, and liabilities can suddenly become very large if there is a new actuarial assessment, so budgetary provision for pension funds can make a significant call on a councils’ funding arrangements. This is why I am raising these points, and I hope the Minister can give me reassurance on them.

There is a similar argument in relation to how the debt finance from housing capital funds is to be passed on from, in this case, the existing district councils to the new unitary council and across all four of these new councils. The Explanatory Memorandum is not clear that debt allocations will be in relation to previous activity, rather than there being a simple pro rata division, which would not be fair on some of the council tax payers. For example, there will be councils—I know of one in Somerset—that no longer have any housing capital finance debt. Will they be asked to pick up a share of other district councils’ debt? If so, is that fair? Those are my questions. I am sure that the civil servants will have looked into this and will be able to give me an answer, but I would like it on record.

With those comments and questions, I look forward to the noble Baroness giving me an answer. If she cannot, I am quite happy to have a written response.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a serving councillor in one of the finest counties in the country, Lancashire, contrary to what the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, might think. I apologise: I have a cough, so bear with me. I blame all of the departmental SIs that they keep bringing out; they affect my throat pretty badly.

The Minister spoke in depth about this technical legislation, which takes minor steps to help to create new councils in Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset. The instrument includes provision in relation to ceremonial matters, the transfer of pensions, exit payments, fisheries and conservation—technical and important areas. It is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, who has a wealth of experience. She asked many of the questions that I wanted to ask, but I have a few more. Although we will not oppose this, we on these Benches want to see what happens in the Commons—I am trying to work it out, but I think it has not been there yet. When does the Minister foresee this happening?

This has been debated at some length, as the Minister mentioned, so I will not go through the arguments again, but I will add some probing questions of my own to those of the noble Baroness. Will the Government bring forward any further legislation to enable the establishment of these new councils? Have the Government consulted trade unions on the provisions relating to pensions and exit payments? On the noble Baroness’s point about the independent auditors, what is the specific nature of the consultation that the Minister had with them? Did they speak about any concerns or pitfalls?

Have the Government done further research on previous experience of this anywhere in the country, or is this the first of a set of new councils? These councils are very different, geographically and culturally. Councillors in local district councils will tell you that we all have our own identities, ways of working and cultures, so I want to see the feedback that we received from those councils.

Lastly, what will happen in terms of reviews and monitoring to keep an eye on this? In the current economic climate, the markets are all over the show, given the famous Budget a few months ago. What is the plan B, particularly for pension funds, which were mentioned, if things deteriorate?

My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for their interest in this debate. First, to answer the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, and the noble Lord, Lord Khan, who asked about pension funds, provision is made under the order to ensure that the properties, rights, assets and liabilities of the Cumbria Pension Fund transfer to Westmorland and Furness Council, because it is the new administering authority of the pension fund for the new councils of Cumberland and of Westmorland and Furness and the other employers which participate in the Cumbria Pension Fund.

The order will also provide that the pension assets and liabilities relating to the former district and county councils of Cumbria that are to be abolished transfer to the new unitary councils in proportions determined by Westmorland and Furness Council. This is to ensure that, as the noble Baroness quite rightly challenged, there is clarity on who is taking over the responsibility for funding existing pensions accrued and preventing exit payments arising under the regulations which would normally be triggered where an employer leaves the scheme. The key to all this is the advice of the actuary dealing with the transfers. Cumberland engaged its own actuary, and the provisions in the order were agreed by both shadow councils. The shadow councils did not want any further information; they were quite content with what came from the actuaries. That is important. This is about local leadership. There is no provision for an appeal on that.

As far as debt is concerned, the new councils will take on the debt of the predecessors and the order will set out how the technical details will be calculated. That will all be in the order, and we are happy to make sure that the noble Baroness sees that order so that she can see how that has happened. The consultations for this order involved very detailed discussions with the councils over a period of time. That is how we came to those agreements.

These provisions follow very closely the provisions made in previous reorganisations. To come back to the views of the noble Lord, Lord Khan, I was leader of one of the first larger county unitaries, and I know we all learned from each other. Further councils to go through this all came back to us—we who had done it in that early group—to get our advice and for us to help them through. There is certainly a local government family that will support and help, which is important. The Local Government Association also learns from that, as does the department and the team leading it. There is a senior officer here who was a senior officer who held my hand through Wiltshire negotiations in 2009. There is a lot of knowledge, both in local government and in the department, for dealing with this, and that certainly makes this whole process a lot easier than when I went through it.

The noble Lord, Lord Khan, asked when it is going to the Commons. We do not have a date yet, but it will hopefully be very soon. On whether we will bring any further legislation, the answer is no; this should be the end of it. Once this goes through the Commons, it should make sure that these authorities can start. The date for that is 1 April, which is coming up pretty quickly.

As for consultation with trade unions, I think that it is up to those local councils to do that with their shadow administrations.

I think that I have answered everything, but I will look to see if there are any further details that I can give.

In conclusion, the order will make a significant contribution to supporting and empowering local government to deliver public services to the local people of Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset in an efficient and effective way. This order completes the legislative requirements necessary to implement a locally led proposal for unitarisation in Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset. It ensures that necessary technical arrangements are in place around ceremonial matters, local pension scheme arrangements, housing revenue accounts and miscellaneous provisions including fisheries and conservation, Transport for the North, Workington harbour and the national park authorities.

The new local authorities undergoing reorganisation are making excellent progress towards their “go live” date, and I am confident that the new councils of Cumberland, Westmorland and Furness, North Yorkshire and Somerset will be successfully launched on 1 April 2023, bringing about improved local government and service delivery that the people of these areas need and deserve. As I finish, I wish those four councils all the very best for the future. I commend this order to the Committee.

Motion agreed.

Committee adjourned at 5.51 pm.