HC Deb 01 December 1993 vol 233 cc1028-31
6. Mr. David Nicholson

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the process of local government reorganisation in England.

The Minister for Local Government and Planning (Mr. David Curry)

The process for reviews of local government structure in England is set out in the revised guidance to the commission which was published on 22 November.

Mr. Nicholson

I hope that none of the threatened reorganisations will impede local authorities in pursuing the opportunities for energy conservation, as indicated in the Secretary of State's earlier reply. Apart from the abolition of Avon, which I think we all welcome, is my hon. Friend aware that my constituents in Somerset have a low level of interest in, and commitment to, revolution in administration in local government, apart from certain contrived write-ins? Will he therefore be cautious in pursuing that matter and listen carefully to the views that hon. Members in the areas affected make to him in due course?

Mr. Curry

I will certainly listen to the views of hon. Members. The fact that people have a low interest in something does not mean that it is not important to them. Local government spends £40 billion or £60 billion of taxpayers' money a year, whichever way one defines it, and is the form of government most in contact with people where delivery of service is concerned. It matters to people that they get local government which is effective, can be identified and is organised as rationally as possible. We seek to achieve that by the changes.

Mr. Milburn

Is the Minister aware of the anger in Darlington at his decision to overturn the Local Government Commission's recommendation for a unitary tier authority in the town? Does he realise that his decision rides roughshod over the overwhelming public consensus in Darlington, which backs the commission? Why did he not exempt Darlington from any further review, particularly as the commission's recommendation is in line with his new ministerial policy guidelines? Will he agree at least to meet an all-party delegation from Darlington to hear the concerns of local residents and to act on them?

Mr. Curry

If the recommendation is in line with the new guidance, I have no doubt that when the commission puts forward its revised proposal, it is likely to come up with something suitable for Darlington. That would be a sensible solution. I will meet anybody to discuss the matter, so long as people recognise that the commission's job is to make proposals, which we must then judge. I will not sit down and draw lines on a map, because that is not my job.

Mr. Dover

Does my hon. Friend accept that in Lancashire we see no need to start carving up existing boroughs and districts? Is it not in order for two or three to group together to share services?

Mr. Curry

We have made it clear that we do not think that existing districts will become unitary councils on their own boundaries unless there are circumstances that make that common sense. We are looking for building blocks that will create effective and convenient local government, and district councils are clearly one of those building blocks. I have been speaking to district and county councils, and one of my arguments is that they should get to work locally and spend a littlé energy on making schemes that they think will work and be effective and that can be the starting point of the commission's deliberations. That is a sensible point from which to start.

Mr. Skinner

Does the Minister accept that there is something fishy going on with this local government review? He has set up this commission, apparently to give independent advice. In Derbyshire, it makes proposals; some Tory Members of Parliament do not like them, so they are changed. Most of the population want the status quo. Banham makes further proposals and now Ministers, including the Secretary of State, are telling him to have a third go. They keep changing the goalposts in Derbyshire just because they cannot get the right political result. The Minister wants those commissioners to act as Tory political apparatchiks. They should resign and show up the Minister, because he will not.

Mr. Curry

Although I am an optimist, the idea that the unitary authority created in Derbyshire from the three Labour authorities would be likely to fall imminently to the Conservatives is more than optimistic. Any idea that this is political gerrymandering is rubbish. We sent back the proposals because we had received many 'representations, which Sir John Banham had reported to us. Because the guidance had changed, the authorities wished to have their future considered in the light of the same guidance as will be used with every other authority. We have done that. If the commission wishes to come back and make a similar recommendation, it is at liberty to do so.

Mr. Cash

Will my hon. Friend accept that many people in Staffordshire are deeply worried about the way in which the Local Government Commission has been operating in the light of the Derbyshire decision? I congratulate him on referring the matter back, for sound reasons. Because the Under-Secretary who replied to Question 2 did not answer the point about car boot sales in relation to the division of functions within local authorities, will my hon. Friend accept that there is deep disquiet about car boot sales, for health and safety reasons and because there are worries about criminal activities?

Mr. Curry

I note what my hon. Friend says. As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said in his answer, the Government are examining whether it makes sense to remove what most people regard as an archaic rule. The point of having a consultation is to hear what people say, and we are conscious that there is widespread concern about car boot sales. We are looking hard to see what protection local authorities have and what initiatives they can take. If we conclude that that is not adequate, we shall have to change it or look carefully at proposals. I can give my hon. Friend that assurance.

Mr. Rendel

Is the Minister happy with the current arrangements for public consultation, given that those arrangements seem to vary from place to place?

Mr. Curry

The commission's job is to produce proposals that will achieve effective and convenient local government. How the commission chooses to judge public opinion is something for it to decide, as is the internal management of the process.

The hon. Gentleman will be wise enough to know that often the answer to a question is the question one puts to begin with. In some circumstances, people fell back on a two-tier system because they did not like the first option they were given. We have asked local authorities and other people in the communities to get together to provide sensible schemes. By doing so, we want to create the circumstances in which there is a good starting point for the commission to come up with a scheme that reflects local opinion and delivers effective local government. All hon. Members have an interest in that.

Mr. Cormack

Will my hon. Friend give a cast-iron guarantee that no district council will be forced into a merger against its will and against the will of the people? Will he also confirm that there is no absolute minimum size for a unitary authority?

Mr. Curry

The Government have never said that there is a minimum or a maximum size for the new shape of local government. Flexibility must be retained by looking at local circumstances. Therefore, it would be perfectly silly to issue an arbitrary guideline which might not be sensible in the light of the particular conditions which prevail.

Mr. Straw

Is it not the truth that what could and should have been a judicious and impartial review of local government is being undermined by a series of inconsistent proposals from Sir John Banham and by incompetence and meddling by Ministers? Does not the Minister understand that having not one, not two but three reviews in Derbyshire and Durham has wasted the time and the money of local communities? Does he accept that that has also—quite unreasonably—destablised the staffs who were affected?

The review was only necessary to put right the effects of the 1972 reorganisation, for which the Secretary of State personally voted and which the Labour party correctly opposed. Will the Minister now confirm that the full cost of the review will be borne by the Exchequer and that local communities will not be forced to pay twice over for Conservative party mistakes and for the mess?

Mr. Curry

The hon. Gentleman has characteristically got hold of the wrong end of the stick. There have not been three reviews. The preliminary guidance clearly stated that the commission was to come up with preliminary conclusions, and later it was to come up with final conclusions; the Government then had the responsibility to accept the proposals, modify them or refer them back to commission. We have done nothing that was not spelled out clearly in the rules at the beginning of the procedure.

We have asked the commission to consider the matter again, partly because Sir John Banham suggested it and partly because people in the communities who saw that the guidelines had changed had said that there should be coherence across the whole review. We are seeking to achieve that.

Mrs. Gillan

Is my hon. Friend aware that my local county council of Buckinghamshire is anxious about the abbreviation of one week in the review period which has been made? The county council and the local district councils are working towards an agreed solution, which is preferable in all cases, and they are anxious that the time has been taken out arbitrarily. Even at this late stage, will my hon. Friend examine the timetable and perhaps bring some influence to bear on it to reinstate the four-week period?

Mr. Curry

We accelerated the programme because everyone asked us to do so. People wished to have the uncertainty concluded.

I know that Buckinghamshire is a sensible part of world. If local people set about the task with a will, and if they are able to come up with the basics for a scheme, the commission will take a great deal of notice. The Government did what people wanted, but I have no doubt that sensible representations from Buckinghamshire to the commission would meet with an understanding reply.