HC Deb 20 October 1993 vol 230 cc259-61
1. Mr. David Atkinson

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on progress of the work of the Local Government Commission.

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. John Selwyn Gummer)

We announced on 30 September that the commission's programme was to be speeded up so that all the remaining shire reviews could be completed by the end of 1994. We also issued some proposed amendments to the commission's guidance on policy and procedures. We are consulting the commission and the local authority associations on the implications of the new timetable and guidance.

Mr. Atkinson

I welcome my right hon. Friend's decision to speed up the work of the commission. Can he say whether he expects the elections to the new unitary authorities to take place in 1995? Does he agree that one of the sad lessons of the last local government reorganisation was that the smaller unitary authorities, such as the former county borough councils, including Bournemouth, proved to be much more beautiful and efficient?

Mr. Gummer

As the legislation has to complete its passage through the House, I would not like to be too definite about the number that would be possible. I agree with my hon. Friend that people in many parts of the country are looking for local government that is closer to the people but large enough to have the necessary powers.

Mr. Clelland

Is the Secretary of State aware that the democratic deficit of the country has now reached such an extent that we are the least represented democracy in the modern world, and that the work of the commission, by reducing the numbers of councils and councillors, will further aggravate that situation? Does he agree that the Government should arrange for the election of democratically elected regional government, instead of further extending the unelected state by the appointment of seven regional commissars who are responsible only to the doctrines and dictates of Whitehall?

Mr. Gummer

I find it difficult to understand that a spokesman from a party whose democratic deficit has never been properly addressed can make such a comment at all. The Labour party's policy and representatives are largely dictated by people who have never liked elections of any kind. Many of them are elected for life in a way that, until the rules were changed, was reminiscent of Haiti. I am certainly not learning anything from the hon. Gentleman about that. Our purpose is to make us more democratic and have a democratic system much closer to the people.

Mr. Barry Field

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the concern in the Isle of Wight at the announcement made during the recess. This morning, the Select Committee on the Environment took evidence from Sir John Banham and we were surprised to learn that the next tranche has been frozen, so far as the commission is concerned. That includes Hampshire and has implications for the administration of the Isle of Wiġht.

When my right hon. Friend was Minister for local government, he was a great gladiator for every community making its own decisions. Can he reassure my constituents this afternoon, and other Conservative Members who believe in unitary government—small being beautiful—that the whole thing is not becoming murkier and opaque by the minute?

Mr. Gummer

I am sure that the most important thing is for local government to be as close as possible to those who elect it, so that the people know why the decisions are made and know to whom those decisions are to be accounted for. My hon. Friend has particular difficulties, as I am aware, with the Isle of Wight, and we are trying to address some of them. I hope that he will be able to put those points more clearly in the Adjournment debate which I understand that he will have. I assure him that we want this to be as transparent as possible.

Mrs. Helen Jackson

In view of the astonishment expressed this morning by the chairman of the Local Government Commission at being directed yesterday to cease all work on the second tranche of reorganisation of local authorities, does the Secretary of State not now agree that the whole process and programme of reorganisation on which they have embarked is in an utter shambles? It does not have the backing of public support.

Mr. Gummer

I find that an odd question, if I may say so. The fact is that the commission is concerned to listen closely to what the public wants. The hon. Lady must see that clearly, not only from the commission's actions but from its guidance. The reason why the direction was issued was simply that it is much more clear if future decisions are made under the new guidance, which cannot be officially promoted until the proper time after the consultation has taken place. If the hon. Lady does not understand that, I wish that she would go back and read the documents.

Mr. Thomason

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he sees the best possible outcome normally to be the creation of unitary authorities, arising from the Local Government Commission review? Will he also encourage the Local Government Commission to listen to that view? Some of us who listened, with concern, to the evidence given this morning to the Select Committee gained the impression that there might be some lack of enthusiasm among certain senior members of the commission for the introduction of unitary local government.

Mr. Gummer

There is no doubt from the guidance that we would expect the norm of local government to be unitary authorities, but we are first concerned that it should be local government that the population see as the best form for their area. Therefore, we are perfectly well aware that there may be a variety of ways to conduct local government. Many of us regret the loss of variety. We hope that unitary local government will seek to delegate its powers, wherever suitable, to parish and town councils, for example. At the same time, we point to the importance of unitary local government because it ensures that people know whom to hold to account when decisions are made. In two-tier local government, there is often a grave difficulty with that.

Mr. Straw

Will the Secretary of State make a clear statement about how the costs of the reorganisation are to be borne? Does he understand that the whole exercise is necessary only because the Conservatives made such a botch of reorganisation in 1972? In those circumstances, it would be outrageous if the local people of the areas concerned were forced to pay all the costs of reorganisation by an alleged £100 surcharge on every council tax bill. If there is to be a surcharge, should it not be paid by the Ministers and Conservative Members of Parliament, such as the Secretary of State, who drove the 1972 reorganisation through the House of Commons despite the Labour party's consistent warnings that it would be an expensive and wasteful failure?

Mr. Gummer

I rather suspect that the Labour party at the time wanted an entirely different system, one that would have been extremely bad, as is usually the case. The reorganisation is intended to end with a simpler system of local government, which will cost less. I hope that the savings will be given to the council tax payers for whom they are made. I see no need to expect this to cost very much, simply because there will be considerable savings and we are not necessarily extending or increasing bureaucracy. The hon. Gentleman's worries are entirely unfounded.