HC Deb 13 May 1992 vol 207 cc615-7
13. Mr. Oppenheim

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what plans he has to speed up progress towards unitary local authorities; and if he will make a statement.

17. Mrs. Currie

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will make a statement on the progress of the local government commission.

Mr. Howard

We shall set up the local government commission this summer to begin its task of reviewing local government structure in the shire counties, area by area. In each area it reviews, the commission will consider whether a unitary structure would better reflect the identities and interests of local communities and secure effective and convenient local government.

Mr. Oppenheim

May I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that reply? Is he aware that many people consider that having two major overlapping tiers of local government can lead to waste and duplication? Will he, therefore, send the commission to Derbyshire as soon as possible where it will find a surprising degree of agreement across all parties, with the single exception of the ruling Labour group on the county council, that Derbyshire should move to being a unitary local authority, based on the existing borough, district and city council boundaries as soon as possible?

Mr. Howard

I am certainly aware that the view expressed by my hon. Friend is very widely shared. I expect, as a result of the commission's activities, that there will be a substantial increase in the number of unitary authorities in this country. I hope to make an announcement about the programme of areas for review before the summer recess.

Mrs. Currie

Is the Secretary of State aware that his lovely, cuddly new Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State wrote to me yesterday stating that areas where there is a history of dissatisfaction with the existing structure will need to be high on the list of areas for review. Does the Secretary of State accept that the word "dissatisfaction" is the understatement of the year with regard to Derbyshire county council? Can I put some fire into his belly and ask him to put a match to our county council so that we have decent local authorities in Derbyshire in future?

Mr. Howard

I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that the phrase that she used is yet another aspect of Government policy with which the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State agrees. We shall certainly look very hard at the programme which I shall be announcing before long. I have no doubt that when the commission comes to consider Derbyshire, my hon. Friend will, in her quite inimitable way, put her views about the future of local government in the county to the commission.

Mr. Ashton

Will the Minister have the integrity to do what is best for local government or will he take notice of the two idiots from Derbyshire who want to carve things up again in a political way? Can we at least have a proper appeals body to consider disputes? Will the Secretary of State insist that there will be proper minimum size for the unitary authorities? Will he have that type of influence, or will we have the same old type of gerrymandering carve-up that we saw in the past?

Mr. Howard

We have never had gerrymandering carve-ups in the past. The independent commission will set about its task with complete integrity and it will make recommendations to me. I shall then decide on the recommendations that it makes and place them before the House for approval.

Mr. Barnes

The hon. Members for Amber Valley (Mr. Oppenheim) and for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) have an unhealthy and unwarranted obsession about Derbyshire county council. The only way to get rid of that obsession is for them to try to get rid of the county council. The hon. Member for Amber Valley produced a Bill in the last Parliament to do exactly that. Can we ensure that Derbyshire county council and the districts in Derbyshire are fully consulted about their fate and about what the unitary authority areas will be?

Mr. Howard

It is much more than consultation. The authorities in Derbyshire will be able to put their views directly to the local government commission as will the hon. Gentleman and hon. Members. I note that the views expressed by my hon. Friends about that and a range of other matters seem to have found a good deal of approval from their constituents at the recent general election.

Mr. Channon

When the commission has finished with Derbyshire, can my right hon. and learned Friend ensure that it then moves speedily on to Essex because there is great unanimity of view in my constituency and, I suspect, in a number of ex-county boroughs all over the country, that the best form of local government that we have had for many years was the county borough system? The sooner we return to a similar system, the better for all concerned.

Mr. Howard

I shall do my best to accommodate my right hon. Friend's views, but he will understand that the commission will be unable to look at every area at once. I shall consider carefully the views expressed by my right hon. and hon. Friends when I draw up the programme of work for the commission, which I hope to announce soon.

Mr. William O'Brien

Does the Secretary of State agree with the Association of District Councils that the programme set by the commission to report over five years is much too long? In view of the concerns expressed by his colleagues, does he agree that the number of people serving on the commission, which is now set at between five and 15, is totally inadequate? Will he agree to increase the number so that the commission can report over a two-year rather than a five-year period? That is in the best interests of local government, the people receiving the service, and the people who work in it. Can we have the process speeded up by increasing the number of people serving on the commission?

Mr. Howard

No, I do not think that the task should be rushed. It is impractical to suggest that the whole of the country could be considered in two years. Naturally, I want the commission to proceed speedily, but it must do a proper and thorough job and that will take a certain amount of time.

Mr. Barry Field

May I treat my right hon. and learned Friend to a rendition of an Isle of Wight song: 43 county councillors, 64 borough councillors, 29 parish and town councillors and more mayors than Toytown. And a local government boundary commission recommendation that we should have a unitary authority. Can we please be near the top of the list?

Mr. Howard

I note what my hon. Friend says. He has made his views clear to me on a number of occasions, including when I visited his constituency during the general election campaign. I shall take his concerns fully into account in preparing the programme for the commission.