HC Deb 02 March 1995 vol 255 cc1183-203 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. John Gummer)

With permission, I should like to make a statement about the progress of the review of local government structure in England.

My aim is a local government structure that can deliver effective services to its citizens and help build vigorous and self-sustaining communities. I believe that in many places that will involve the creation of unitary local authorities. Equally, I have long recognised that local government needs to reflect local identities, history and tradition. There is room in our system for diversity; different solutions in different areas, to meet different local circumstances. Local government does not need to be neat—it needs to be effective.

I also want to achieve stability so that local government can plan ahead with confidence; developing the concept of the enabling council, which has done so much to create a new culture in local government.

Against that background, I am pleased to be able to announce decisions on 20 of the counties where decisions are outstanding. First, I shall announce decisions on three counties where the commission has recommended change: Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Durham.

For Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire, the commission has recommended that the county councils should be abolished, and replaced by a structure of unitary authorities—three in Bedfordshire, four in Buckinghamshire.

I am sure that it is right that Luton in Bedfordshire and Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire should become unitary authorities. I am, however, not convinced by the argument for unitary local government in the rest of those counties. I have decided, therefore, to retain the existing structure of county and district councils in Bedfordshire outside Luton, and in Buckinghamshire outside Milton Keynes.

In Durham, the commission has recommended that Darlington should become an unitary authority, with the rest of the county remaining two-tier. I propose to accept that recommendation.

I have given a full explanation of the background and reasons for those decisions today, in an answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington). There are copies in the Library and the Vote Office.

I now turn to the other 17 counties, for which the commission has recommended no change in the present structure. Those are Cambridgeshire, Cheshire, Cornwall, Cumbria, Gloucestershire, Hertfordshire, Kent, Lancashire, Norfolk, Northamptonshire, Northumberland, Oxfordshire, Shropshire, Suffolk, Surrey, Warwickshire and West Sussex.

I have decided that, with two provisos, I should accept those recommendations. First, the commission has recommended the status quo for a small number of district councils which are among the largest non-metropolitan towns and cities in England. Many of those councils used to be county boroughs and so have a tradition of unitary local government. They are also often areas where there is a significant need for economic and social regeneration.

The business community, deliverers of personal social services and the voluntary sector often believe that that need can best be met by bringing all of the responsibilities of local government under one roof. There are some other councils where the commission has appeared to accept that logic. I believe that we must at least test the case for consistency in this matter.

Therefore, I intend to ask the commission to carry out fresh reviews of a short list of selected districts—I emphasise that they are districts, and not counties. The rest of the county in each case will not be subject to any further review. I also emphasise that they are fresh reviews for which we shall issue new guidance to the commission. Before we issue that new guidance, we will consult local government and other interested parties about it. I expect the new reviews to get under way in the summer.

I believe that those new reviews must be carried out by a reconstituted commission which can look at the cases afresh. I am most grateful to Sir John Banham for having offered his resignation as chairman of the commission. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Sir John for the significant contribution that he has made as chairman, particularly in the establishment of the commission, in responding to the acceleration of the review process and in delivering the structure recommendations for all areas by January this year.

I shall be consulting the Opposition parties about a successor, and I hope to announce a name shortly. I will be considering with the new chairman what other changes should be made to the commission, most of whose members' terms of office expire in June.

The areas I have in mind to be covered by the new reviews are: Blackburn, Blackpool, the Medway towns—that is, Rochester upon Medway and Gillingham—Northampton, Peterborough and Warrington. I also have it in mind to include Thurrock and Basildon in Essex, without prejudice to whatever I may decide on the commission's recommendations for the rest of the county.

A strong prima facie case has been made for a number of other districts to be considered for unitary status. Five districts almost fully covered by the Thames gateway area do not have unitary status at present. I have already said that I propose to refer three of those—Thurrock and the Medway towns—to the commission. Therefore, there is clearly a case for referring the other two—Gravesham and Dartford—as well.

Exeter and Gloucester are two long-standing county boroughs, in both of which there has been strong pressure for unitary status. The commission has recommended unitary status for the ancient counties of Hereford and Rutland. If those recommendations are accepted, it would seem right to ask the commission to consider the case of Huntingdonshire.

The commission has recommended unitary status for the city of Nottingham. There are significant built-up areas outside that city's boundaries, and that leads to the conclusion that the commission ought to look at the advisability of giving unitary status to Broxtowe, Gedling and Rushcliffe, given that there is clearly no local demand for a Greater Nottingham council. Finally, if Warrington is referred, the similarly densely populated district of Halton, which has been part of Cheshire only since 1974, may be a suitable candidate for reconsideration. [Interruption.] Many of the places concerned are interested in their future, even if Opposition Members are not.

I propose to hold further discussions with those towns and cities and their counties, and if those discussions confirm my present understandings, I shall also refer them to the commission for consideration.

It is, of course, open to me to consider further requests for unitary status, but given the need for stability, I should make it clear that it is very unlikely that I shall want to add significantly to the number of referrals to the commission.

I said that accepting the status quo recommendations was subject to two provisos. The second is this: in their response to the commission and their representations to me, many county and district councils admitted that the two-tier system can and must be improved.

Many have made explicit promises about improved co-operation and—where it is appropriate—delegation of functions. Many, indeed, have written such promises in the literature they have sent out in their areas. We are compiling a list of those for each county council. I shall be reminding each of them of the promises that they have made, and I shall be asking them to report to me on the implementation of what are, after all, their own commitments.

I am still considering the recommendations which the commission has made for change in the remaining 12 county areas. I am aware that everyone involved is anxious for the position to be clarified quickly, and I shall be making further announcements shortly.

With the decisions I have announced today, we have covered 27 of the 39 counties. In those counties, with the exception of the small number of districts I have mentioned, people now know how their governance will be carried out. Where the two-tier system is to remain, the authorities will be able to move on to the issues that the review has brought to the forefront: closer co-operation between the tiers and greater delegation of responsibility wherever that is possible. Whether the structures are two-tier or unitary, the end result should be improved services and more effective local government.

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)

On behalf of the Labour party, I welcome much of the statement, and thank the Secretary of State for the discussions which preceded it. The overall effect of what he has announced should deliver much of what we have been calling for.

The proposals made by the Local Government Commission were inconsistent, and displayed neither rhyme nor reason. Rutland, with 33,000 people, was to get independence, while Northampton and Blackburn, both with more than 180,000 people, were not. We were seeking consistency. We were also calling for the House to be given an overall view of the likely proposals for the whole country.

Today's announcement recognises that the present shambles could not be continued. It creates a reasonable prospect of some consistency across the country, and gives a reasonable indication of the likely outcome of the review in every part of England. As that is what we were asking for, I very much welcome the Government's positive response to the points that we have been making, in public and in private.

If we take together the decision so far announced by the Secretary of State, the further recommendations for change made by the commission and the list of authorities which the Local Government Commission is to be asked to re-examine, we see that most of the former large county boroughs are likely to regain their former status, and some additional major urban councils are likely to join them.

Taken together with the list put forward by the Secretary of State, unitary status seems likely to be achieved by Blackburn, Blackpool, Bournemouth, Brighton, Basildon and Thurrock, Darlington and Derby, Exeter, Gravesham and Dartford, Gloucester, Halton, Leicester, Luton, the Medway towns, Nottingham, Northampton, Milton Keynes, Peterborough, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Reading, Slough, Southampton, Stoke-on-Trent, Thamesdown and Warrington.

However, a limited number of other councils clearly qualify for unitary status under the Secretary of State's new criteria. Therefore, I suggest to the Secretary of State that he at least consider the case for Cambridge, Ipswich, Norwich, Oxford and The Wrekin, which seem to meet his overall criteria. I hope that, in deference to other hon. Members, he will agree to consider other borderline candidates for the list of councils to be referred back to the commission.

The Secretary of State has recognised that, for this proposal to work, changes had to be made at the top of the Local Government Commission. When Sir John Banham was appointed to chair the commission, the right hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Portillo) said that he was very happy to appoint Sir John, and described him as "a distinguished public servant" with "a tremendous knowledge" of local authorities. The right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), the previous Secretary of State for the Environment, said that he was "delighted to announce" that Sir John Banham had agreed to take up the job. I bet he was not half as delighted as the present Secretary of State is to announce Sir John's departure. His conduct of the affairs of the commission has been quite deplorable. It should have been beyond reproach, but at times it has been beyond belief. Sir John's departure was required if today's proposals were to command any support or credibility across the country.

I welcome the opportunity that the Secretary of State has offered us to contribute in due course to setting out the new guidance to the commission. To advise it to use a bit of common sense would make a good start. 'The Secretary of State will understand that we would expect any new county boroughs to have reasonable and acceptable boundaries, and also we would expect the commission to make sure that the number of elected councillors truly matches the ward electorates in all the new authorities.

I hope that the Secretary of State will accept that the new situation creates a further period of uncertainty for council staff who are affected. Therefore, I hope that he will agree to meet the appropriate national officers of the main local government trade unions in an attempt to work out severance and compensation terms that are acceptable to all concerned.

The statement, welcome though it is, acknowledges that the local government review has sunk into a morass of contradiction, inconsistency, expense and litigation, which could have been avoided if the Government had laid down clearer guidelines in the first place and appointed someone better to do the job. The present Secretary of State has to accept some responsibility for the mess, but the bulk of the blame must lie with his predecessors and their principal appointee.

Mr. Gummer

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his general and generous support for what we have proposed. We should look forwards rather than backwards. No doubt all of us could think of different ways of doing many things. Let us accept that the commission has certainly produced its proposals faster than we had expected. It has given us a real opportunity to take these steps, and we should proceed from there.

I shall certainly look carefully at the other districts that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. Of course, I looked at those in trying to draw the line, but that is difficult, as the hon. Gentleman kindly recognised. There are particular examples in terms of size, and we must also bear in mind the effect on the remaining parts of counties if we take the steps that the hon. Gentleman proposes. I shall have to look carefully at the districts and I promise to look at them afresh.

The next step relates to boundaries. I do not envisage any wholesale change in boundaries as a result of what is proposed. It is important for there to be some continuity and security, especially for staff. I should have thought that matters of council wards and the like are traditionally and properly the responsibility of the commission.

Naturally, we are concerned to ensure parity of representation, and it would be proper to draw to the new commission's attention the hon. Gentleman's points. I am certainly happy to meet the representatives of staff organisations, and I recognise that this is a difficult time for all of them.

Sir Trevor Skeet (Bedfordshire, North)

Is it not anomalous to grant Luton unitary status and at the same time to deny that status to the county town of Bedford? Is my right hon. Friend aware that, in the county outside Luton, the number of people has been reduced to 360,000, with four local authorities? Is that not over-government locally?

Mr. Gummer

My hon. Friend is right to put forward a case that I know he has espoused for a long time, but perhaps my answer lies within his question. A perfectly reasonable county is left if one takes the one large town out, but if one then takes another area out, one does not have a sensible remaining county.

Although a fine and ancient town, Bedford is a district with considerable rural areas that have much in common with their neighbours. It would find the two-tier system more to its liking. I have tried to make a proper judgment. It is consistent with general policy for Luton to have its own unitary authority and for Bedford to be a proud county town in what is a fine county.

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury)

The Secretary of State has told us that he intends to refer only districts to the new commission, which he will get to do his bidding as the last one did not. Does he not accept that removing the major town or city from each of the 17 counties that had expected to remain within the status quo will simply prolong for the next year or two the appalling disruption to local authorities that this shambles of a Local Government Commission has caused for the past two years?

Mr. Gummer

The House is beginning to find it extremely difficult to know what the hon. Gentleman really wants. Of all parties in the House, the Liberal party has shown itself interested only in electoral advantage in any discussion on this matter. I am finding it increasingly difficult to find any rhyme or reason in what the Liberal party wants. When we talk about inconsistency, incongruity and the lack of reasonable principles behind anything, the Liberal party sets an example unfollowed by others.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

With reference to the county of Cheshire, I naturally warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's decision to request the new commission to consider Warrington, which deserves unitary status—that has my full support. Will he accept, however, that the borough of Macclesfield, in which immense support exists for unitary status not only among individuals, but among charities, voluntary organisations and business, and which produced the best result in the whole of Cheshire in the public consultation on unitary status, should also receive further consideration from the new commission?

Mr. Gummer

Of course I shall look again at Macclesfield, but it is a town of 49,000 people. The district of Macclesfield is a mixture of town and country. It is not dissimilar to many other districts. It is a fine town, and its name is often well presented in the House. It does not, however, stand in quite the same role as, say, Warrington or Northampton, in terms either of size or of historic governance. I shall reconsider the matter, but I think that that town should fall outside the group of councils that I have decided to refer to the new commission.

Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw)

Is the Minister aware that, in his further proposals for Nottinghamshire, he has announced that district councils in suburban areas such as Broxtowe, Gedling and Rushcliffe will be considered for unitary status, but that areas such as Bassetlaw, Mansfield, Newark and Ashfield will not? The only thing wrong is that the areas that he has proposed for unitary status are Conservative, and that the areas that he has said will not be considered further are Labour. I do not want to accuse him of being politically biased—no hon. Member would want to do that—but could he not add a further request that the fresh review should consider all the district councils of Nottinghamshire? All eight of them want to be unitary authorities. That is the best way to sort the matter out; it is better than just basing proposals around the city.

Mr. Gummer

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. A very large proportion of the councils on the list that I read out are Labour councils, but one cannot make the division between Labour and Conservative councils in that way. The councils that I have suggested are part, or an extension, of the conurbation of Nottingham itself, which is at one end—the southern end—of the county. The particular districts that he mentioned would have to be considered to some extent because of the residuary council.

I know that the hon. Gentleman lives in a county council which is not greatly loved by anyone. There is no doubt that Nottinghamshire county council has been unsuccessful, and has done a number of things which have upset everyone. I shall, of course, examine the matter again, but I think that, if the hon. Gentleman reads my statement, he will find that the councils to which he referred are quite different in terms of make-up. Were I to include them, I should open the way for a wide range of differences and not achieve the coherence that I seek. However, I shall re-examine the issues, because we should try to reach a consensus if possible.

Dame Peggy Fenner (Medway)

I thank my right hon. Friend. Is he aware that the people who live in the rural areas of my constituency were not overwhelmed by the idea of unitary authority status? However, I am in fairness bound to say that the Medway towns, which I think comprise the largest conurbation in Kent and which deserve the review that he is going to grant, think that they can form a good unitary authority. I support them in that.

Mr. Gummer

I thank my hon. Friend. This is a review, not a decision, and it is for the commission to look at this again. The Thames gateway councils will be involved in seeking money for exciting new projects, arguing among themselves about where those projects should be located and searching for money from the European Union and elsewhere. That means that there is a case to be made for those who are going to affected to have the opportunity of at least equal representation. To exclude them would be wrong.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. I understand that the statement lends itself to a great deal of local flavour but many hon. Members wish to ask a question and I can call them only if they and the Minister are brisk. There is another statement and further business to come.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

Does the Secretary of State recognise that many people in Lancashire will be less inclined to remain in a Lancashire county council that no longer contains Blackburn and Blackpool? Does he accept that Burnley was an extremely successful county borough, and exactly the same size as Darlington, to which he proposes to give unitary status?

Mr. Gummer

It is curious how enthusiasm for Lancashire county council is busy waning as I offer an alternative. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will find that the balance that has been struck reflects the fact that, in their discussions with the commission, Blackpool and Blackburn showed considerable support for unitary status, which outweighed other parts of the county of Lancashire. It therefore seems right to try to reflect that fact, and I think that the general outcome was probably right.

Mr. Jim Lester (Broxtowe)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments about Nottingham. Once the decision has been made to give unitary status to the city of Nottingham, is it not important to balance that power with the review for Broxtowe, Gedling and Rushcliffe? I wish my right hon. Friend well in his attempts to get a consensus on the future of Nottingham.

Mr. Gummer

I thank my hon. Friend.

Mr. Alan Milburn (Darlington)

May I thank the Secretary of State and his ministerial team for their support for a single-tier Darlington council? He will be aware of the overwhelming popular support in the town for a return to the principles of self-government that were undermined 21 years ago in the previous local government review. When does he intend to bring an order to the House to bring into being the new Darlington council, so that we can make progress as soon as possible?

Mr. Gummer

I shall produce such an order as soon as possible, although it cannot come into being immediately.

Mr. Bob Dunn (Dartford)

I thank my right hon. Friend for taking the trouble to visit Dartford a few days ago. When he makes his recommendation to the new chairman of the commission, will he recommend that, if north-west Kent is given unitary status, that status should be given within the existing boundaries of what is now the borough of Dartford? We have no wish to be part of a Thames gateway authority stretching from Crayford to beyond Gillingham.

Mr. Gummer

I much enjoyed my visit to Dartford. I have no intention of suggesting the establishment of such a large authority, stretching from Crayford to Hempstead and Bredhurst; I would not dream of it.

I shall suggest to the commission, in the first place, that it review the possibility of a new authority relating to Rochester upon Medway and Gillingham. I shall also suggest, if further discussions take place with the councils concerned, and the county council, that they review the possibility of a new authority covering Gravesham and Dartford—or, if they think it right, a separate authority for Gravesham. That, however, will be for them to propose. I am not making the proposition; I am offering them the opportunity to consider the matter. I doubt, however, that they would want an authority the size of the one that my hon. Friend fears, which would be out of line with anything else that we are proposing.

Mr. Mike Hall (Warrington, South)

I thank the Secretary of State for his announcement about the county of Cheshire, and welcome the reference to Warrington. May I stress that I feel that Halton borough council should also have unitary status? It fulfils all the criteria outlined by the Secretary of State in relation to popular support, a good identity and social and economic regeneration to support business and the voluntary sector.

May I echo the points made by the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton)? Macclesfield also fulfils all the criteria. I urge the Secretary of State to look again at Chester as well: it too has a complete identity. You will gather, Madam Speaker, that I believe that a unitary solution for the whole of Cheshire would be appropriate.

Mr. Gummer

I understand that there are those who would prefer the whole cake to half of it. I am trying to ensure that the widely differing views of local government are taken into account, and that we provide reasonable answers that will satisfy most people.

I accept the hon. Gentleman's views about Halton; that is why I put Halton in the second list. I shall discuss the matter more widely, and if it turns out that the hon. Gentleman's proposal seems to be more generally accepted, I shall act accordingly.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I visited the area recently—in fact, I have been there several times—and I am much impressed by the partnership between local authorities and the private sector, and by the use to which elements of the single regeneration budget have been put. I was pleased to note the changes that have taken place, and I hope that any new form of local government will enhance and increase opportunities.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his statement, and for tidying up what was a rather mucky exercise.

The county council campaign in Leicestershire has caused some anxiety and concern about whether the county of Rutland can afford county status. Will my right hon. Friend therefore allow some extra time, so that—basing its assessment on the proper costs rather than on county council propaganda—that small county can establish whether it can afford such status, and the division that has been caused can be replaced by unity?

Mr. Gummer

I thank my hon. Friend. I am sorry about some of the extreme propaganda that has been put out by some councils; I do not think that it has helped the discussion. In my statement, I tried very hard to provide an opportunity for people to secure a more sensible and permanent answer.

I shall certainly consider the possibility of extra time. I have always felt that we ought to be able to obtain the advantages of unitary authorities with more sharing. When it seems best for services to spread across two unitary authorities, I do not see why we cannot find ways in which to allow that. We shall consider ways in which we can help.

I do not want people who have long sought independence and control over their affairs, for all sorts of historic reasons, to feel that they can choose that independence and control only at huge expense—particularly if the expense has been calculated by those who do not want them to have it.

Mrs. Audrey Wise (Preston)

Will the Secretary of State explain why he has taken so little notice of the fact that the majority of citizens in Lancashire, according to the consultations, prefer the status quo; and why he has not taken account of the fact that his present solution will increase the costs of local government for all people in Lancashire? We will be paying for Blackpool achieving unitary status.

Mr. Gummer

I am proposing Blackburn as well as Blackpool, if the hon. Lady wishes to be—

Mrs. Wise

I will add Blackburn as well.

Mr. Gummer

I am glad that the hon. Lady is even-handed about this. The majority of people in Lancashire will have the status quo. I am suggesting only that the commission looks again at these two authorities, where there is evidence of very considerable support and where, in both cases, there is a large population, closely knit, which would have unitary status in other parts of the country. I merely think that it is good idea that that should be looked at carefully. I understand that I have the support of very many members of the Labour party, who live in both those areas, for this reference.

Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham)

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Medway (Dame P. Fenner), I welcome the decision to call for the new or revised commission to review the Medway towns. My right hon. Friend will know from his personal knowledge that the redevelopment of the Medway towns is absolutely critical to their future prosperity and that for planning, transportation and urban redevelopment, the Medway towns are seen as a whole.

The call will be welcomed by all the political parties, with the exception of the Gillingham Liberals, who got up to some extraordinary stunts during the consultation. Will my right hon. Friend tell me a little about the time scale that he foresees for the review, and when he thinks that there will be elections to a new county borough of the Medway towns?

Mr. Gummer

I thank my hon. Friend. I hope that we will have the guidance ready in June, when the old commission will cease and the new commission will be appointed. I hope that it will then get on with the job as quickly as possible, but it is up to its members, of course, to decide how.

I very much agree with my hon. Friend: the great and ancient towns of Chatham and Rochester joined to make a single authority—with rural areas about them, but centrally those two authorities—because they knew that it was necessary for the future of their community. In many of the regeneration areas of the Medway towns, it is difficult to draw the line between Gillingham and Rochester upon Medway.

Indeed, only those who have long lived there—it is probably why the Liberals do not understand this—know where the boundary is. Those who care about Rochester upon Medway and Gillingham are very concerned about the regeneration possibilities and the great hope that comes to that area of the country. I think that they will want at least the advantages—as well as the disadvantages, for there may be some—of unitary status to be considered.

Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin)

I join my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) in welcoming a number of the points which were made by the Secretary of State. May I have clarification on the question asked by my hon. Friend about The Wrekin, which the Secretary of State knows is one of the largest district councils which has not so far been give unitary status?

Will the Secretary of State confirm that his answer suggested that The Wrekin will be reconsidered, and will he bear in mind the fact that, with a population of 145,000, it is larger than many authorities which have already been granted unitary status? Will he give some indication of when, after the review process starts in June, he expects it to be completed?

Mr. Gummer

I have recently been to The Wrekin. I understand the hon. Gentleman's comments, and thank him for his support. It is, I think that he will agree, a rather different area from most in the country. That is in the nature of that new town, with its ancient heart and the connections which have been very successfully built. I shall certainly, as I have said, look at it again and consider whether it ought, like the others, to be referred to the commission.

I cannot say when the commission will finish its work, but I hope to press it to finish its work as rapidly as is consistent with sensible and consistent decisions.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Blackpool, South)

I thank my right hon. Friend on behalf of the people of Blackpool who voted in such substantial numbers for the unitary status option. May I also thank my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration for taking such care in listening to the representations made to him by members of all political parties when he visited Blackpool shortly before Christmas?

In particular, while recognising that Blackpool, as an historic county borough, has now to make its case to the reconstituted commission, will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Councillor Maxine Callow, the Conservative leader, for her hard work on Blackpool council? Will he also confirm that one reason why there was such a substantial vote in Blackpool for unitary status was because of the appalling way in which the socialist-controlled Lancashire county council misused council tax payers' money in an appalling propaganda campaign—and even then it lost in Blackpool and Blackburn?

Mr. Gummer

In my unaccustomed role of extreme reticence on party political matters, I will miss out that last but obviously heartfelt comment. I hope very much that Blackpool will have the opportunity to present its case, and the commission will no doubt then consider it very carefully. I noted the very successful campaign which showed that Blackpool felt strongly about recovering its ancient status. We shall have to see what the commission thinks about that.

Mr. John Evans (St. Helens, North)

Is the Secretary of State aware that 21 years ago today I was elected for the then parliamentary constituency of Newton which included an enormous part of the borough of Warrington? Is he aware that the mid-Mersey belt of north-west England is dominated by the three great towns of St. Helens, Wigan and Warrington, and that a Warrington borough, as a unitary authority working in conjunction with the metropolitan districts of St. Helens and Wigan, would have an enormous impact on improving the quality of life and the regeneration of the north-west?

Mr. Gummer

Although I do not know the area anything like as well as the hon. Gentleman, I know it well enough to see that there is a seeming inconsistency with the kind of structure that has been recommended by the boundary commission. That is why I think it would be a good idea if we considered the matter in the way the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

May I thank my right hon. Friend for recognising the significance of the Thames gateway, the rail link and the Ebbsfleet station announcement, all three of which will bring about massive change in north-west Kent? It is quite clear that, by making that a coherent planning whole, it would be very much better carried out by one council than by three.

Mr. Gummer

I was much impressed by the problems that Gravesham would have if it did not have pretty direct control over the way in which planning operates in that part of north Kent. I am also very impressed by the argument that, with the coherence of neighbouring unitary authorities, both Gravesham and Dartford would find themselves less able to deal with the issues that beset them. After I have discussed the matter with the councils and the county council, the commission may well want to recommend something different.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

The Secretary of State will agree that it is important that the proposals gather the most widespread bipartisan support. Against that background, and while I welcome the statement regarding Warrington and Halton—incidentally, half of Halton has been part of Cheshire all its life—will the Secretary of State ensure that the whole of Cheshire is reconsidered in the light of his comments about Halton and Warrington, so that that important bipartisan element is maintained?

Mr. Gummer

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point, and I respect the way in which he put it. The difficulty with the bipartisan element is that it is not one which has to be maintained simply in his area. It must be maintained very much more widely.

Therefore, in seeking the right answer, I have tried to take into account the views that I have received from all parts of the House. Sometimes, that is difficult, because one has heard contrary views from neighbouring areas, not just across the boundaries, but within parties. I have tried very hard to get the balance right. I think that I have it right in this respect, but no doubt the hon. Gentleman will write to me to ensure that I do not miss another opportunity to consider the matter.

Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North)

Bearing in mind what my right hon. Friend has said about Norfolk, does he recall that, throughout Norfolk, there was a clear majority for the status quo, in response to the commission, both in local polls and in MORI polls? That was also true in Norwich. Therefore, if my right hon. Friend, at a later stage, looks again at the city of Norwich, will he make sure that there really is a clear majority of people within that city who are in favour of any variation?

Mr. Gummer

If I considered Norwich—I have promised my hon. Friend that I will look at the list he gave me—and if I presented it to the commission, I have no doubt that the commission would want to make sure that there was local support, and that local government would be improved by anything that it proposed. I should certainly draw to its attention all the relevant details I have, and that would obviously include any reference that my hon. Friend would like to give me.

Mr. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood)

Does the Secretary of State accept that the Local Government Commission was a creature of his own Department's making, and that today's announcement will create further uncertainty? Will he try to remedy matters by ensuring that there is a quick timetable to resolve issues? Staff will be concerned about the matter; they have had a rough deal. Will the right hon. Gentleman increase redundancy terms for affected staff?

Mr. Gummer

I have done my best throughout the discussions to show that I wanted as speedy an answer as possible. I speeded up the matter, and I now propose that we should act as quickly as possible. The hon. Gentleman speaks less than fairly about what is a complicated matter to try to find the next stage on in local government, which is a continuing, evolving system, and I want to get the best answer. The hon. Gentleman speaks with a certain sourness, because the county council of which he was a member is without doubt one of the least popular county councils in Britain.

Mr. George Walden (Buckingham)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, although it is true that Aylesbury Vale district council put up a not unreasonable case for unitary status, we needed the disruption involved in the demolition of Buckinghamshire county council like a hole in the head? Is he aware also that many of us are greatly relieved to be released from between the nutcracker of the county council and the district council?

Mr. Gummer

I hope that I have done the best for Buckinghamshire—I have tried hard to do that. It is a fine and ancient county, and I hope that we will now have stability there and that all hon. Members from Buckinghamshire will find it possible to support what is inevitably not entirely to everyone's liking.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Has the two-year journey been wasted? Does the Secretary of State agree that, when all transitional costs are taken into account, it will cost more than £1 billion? It is no use blaming the commission, Banham and all the rest. The truth is that the Secretary of State and his mates have changed the rules and told the commission to review and to review again.

How many people will get the sack as a result of the new venture? How many workers will be made redundant? Would it not have been better to use that £1 billion in local government in order to reduce class sizes, instead of spending it on administration?

Why has the right hon. Gentleman not mentioned Derbyshire? Is it because he will get involved in another political carve-up there? Before he tells me about Derbyshire county council, let me tell him that the councillors have been elected with big majorities ever since 1981. The people liked them and voted for them.

Mr. Gummer

The hon. Gentleman has a characteristic of consistency, which is rare in such local government discussions. He is always opposed to anything that I say or any Conservative Member says, whether he has thought about it or not. The hon. Gentleman is wrong about his figures, wrong about his assessment, and wrong about the views that I have put forward. Local government is too important to be based upon the conservatism of the Member of Parliament for Bolsover.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

Will my right hon. Friend please add Spelthorne to the list that he will review again? It meets all the requirements that he has listed this afternoon. For reasons of brevity today, I will write to my right hon. Friend, setting out all the justifications, and I hope that he will respond favourably.

Mr. Gummer

I look forward very much to my hon. Friend's letter.

Mr. Colin Pickthall (Lancashire, West)

After two years of turmoil in Lancashire, and, it has to be said, much demoralisation among all councils in Lancashire, is not the referral back of Blackburn and Blackpool for further consideration simply a recipe for extending that turmoil and demoralisation?

Furthermore, is it not an invitation to boroughs such as Burnley and Preston, which have a logical case in view of what the right hon. Gentleman has decided today, to press him to extend what he is saying to them? Even worse from the right hon. Gentleman's point of view, he might get demands from Lancaster as well.

Mr. Gummer

I have not noticed any demoralisation in the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) and I did not notice any demoralisation in my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Hawkins), who has already spoken. I have not noticed, either, that the proposal could be demoralising to the people who specifically sought their own unitary authorities in those two places.

However sympathetic we may be to those who work in local government—and I am very sympathetic to them—in the end they work there because of the citizens they serve. If those citizens feel strongly that they would be better served by unitary authorities, at least that idea should be considered. It would be odd to demand that it should not be considered.

I know that the hon. Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Pickthall) is one of the rare strong supporters of Lancashire county council, so it is odd that he asks, "What about unitaries elsewhere?" I think that I have got the balance about right, and I hope that we shall be able to go forward together on that basis.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (Norfolk, North-West)

Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson), is my right hon. Friend aware that most people in Norfolk were in favour of the status quo, and will be pleased? But will he also congratulate the borough of King's Lynn in west Norfolk on its excellent campaign for unitary status, which received considerable support in the town? The people there were pleased to meet the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration the other day.

Mr. Gummer

My hon. Friend the Minister of State made a point of telling me that King's Lynn council's presentation seeking unitary status was one of the most excellent that we saw. It was extremely well put forward, and my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham) is fortunate in his local council. I hope that, now that the future is clear, Norfolk county council will carry out its stated desire to give much more local preference to the other local authorities in Norfolk.

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)

My right hon. Friend has not mentioned Devon as such, but he has mentioned Plymouth, which is in Devon. Will he bear in mind the fact that the commission's original recommendation for Devon, with the exception of Exeter, to remain the same appeared to have obtained general approval? The second recommendation, which means that my right hon. Friend is now considering Exeter, may not really abide by the general view of the people of Devon, and we should like a reply about Devon as soon as possible.

Mr. Gummer

I promise my right hon. Friend as quick a reply as possible on Devon. In the light of what the recommendations of the commission were, it is not proper for me to refer in this statement to an area wider than Exeter, but I shall continue to consider the proposals for Devon carefully, and I shall make a statement as soon as I can.

Mr. Harold Elletson (Blackpool, North)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his acceptance of Sir John Banham's recommendation that, after 100 years of service to the people of Lancashire, Lancashire county council should continue in existence.

I accept what he says about the historic status of Blackpool as a county borough, but there will be considerable concern that my right hon. Friend appears to have ignored many of the points that Sir John made in his report about additional transitional costs and about the effect on the ability to deliver services both to the people of Blackpool and throughout Lancashire. I hope that, when the fresh review is constituted, my right hon. Friend will urge Sir John's successor to consider those factors carefully. Can he tell us how long he expects the present period of uncertainty to continue?

Mr. Gummer

There is no uncertainty for the rest of Lancashire, but we shall get this period over as rapidly as possible. I have made no statement about the validity of the Banham remarks about Blackpool. All I have said is that I am offering the opportunity for a newly constituted commission to reconsider Blackpool. No doubt it will take into account all that my hon. Friend has said. It would be wrong to deny to the many people in Blackpool who have sought unitary status the opportunity to have their case considered in the present context rather than in another.

Mr. James Pawsey (Rugby and Kenilworth)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that what he said about Warwickshire will be widely welcomed within the shire county? The status quo was desired, and I am grateful to him for agreeing with that. However, he will understand that funding is critical for local authorities. To use his own phrase, the "delegation of responsibility" applies especially to local authorities. Can he therefore say when the cap might be lifted, so that true accountability might be restored to local government?

Mr. Gummer

I fear that this is neither the occasion nor the opportunity so to do.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

The hon. Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) said that the majority of people in Lancashire preferred the status quo, but only 5 per cent. voted in favour of that. Since the county council employs no fewer than 47,000 persons, that disposes of most of that 5 per cent.

May I congratulate Blackburn and Blackpool on their good fortune, as they will in all probability escape from the profligacy and inefficiency of Lancashire county council? I much regret that, up to now, liberalisation has not come to Lancaster, which is a historic city, an academic and business centre, a thoroughly composite place and the gateway to the lake district. May I ask my right hon. Friend to reconsider that most lamentable decision?

Mr. Gummer

There are many cities in this country which could well do with the earnest advocacy which my hon. Friend gives to Lancaster. I do not think that anyone in Lancaster could possibly not know that she speaks for the city whenever the opportunity occurs.

My hon. Friend knows the terms under which I sought to produce the list, and she must understand that—following my careful study of the terms—the great city of Lancaster has neither the size nor the nature which would lead it to be in the same sector as the others to which she referred. [HON. MEMBERS: "Just say no."] I will not—as Opposition Members would like—dismiss what my hon. Friend has put forward, and I will look again at the terms. I ought not to give her a huge hope, as hers is a rather different case from others.

Mr. Alan Howarth (Stratford-on-Avon)

While welcoming my right hon. Friend's decision to accept the commission's recommendation in respect of Warwickshire, may I ask whether he agrees that, after 20 years of Treasury rule, local government is not in all respects flourishing as he would wish?

In the reference in his statement to the desirability of self-sustaining communities, was my right hon. Friend in effect saying that, in future, the democratic principle would be better expressed through subsidiarity and local accountability? Does he agree that sauce for the goose must be sauce for gander, and that, just as we insist on subsidiarity between the European Union and the national Government, so we should pursue subsidiarity between the national Government and local authorities—and, moreover, between local authorities and their own communities?

Mr. Gummer

I have always believed in subsidiarity, and it is important that it is applied not just as far as the United Kingdom in the European Union is concerned, but to local authorities. I wish that those authorities which most demand subsidiarity would remember their need to give subsidiarity to schools and all other organisations which are perfectly capable of running themselves, instead of being bossed about by town halls.

Sir David Madel (Bedfordshire, South-West)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there will be great relief in my constituency that it has finally been confirmed that Dunstable, Leighton Buzzard and the villages will not be pushed into a Greater Luton, and that mid-Bedfordshire will not be pushed into a Greater Bedford? Can he confirm that elections for the reconstituted Bedfordshire county council—which we hope will be successful—will be in May 1997?

Mr. Gummer

The elections will be held as planned in May 1997.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (Surrey, East)

May I particularly welcome what my right hon. Friend has said about keeping those local authorities such as Surrey, which made commitments in the heat of consultation about devolving and sharing power, up to the mark?

My hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration, who kindly visited my constituency only yesterday, will know that parish councils command wide popular support. Will my right hon. Friend consider putting back into his recommendations what the commission unaccountably left out—a recommendation for new parish councils in Tandridge district?

Mr. Gummer

I agree with my hon. Friend that Tandridge district is a good example of a well-run local authority. Local authorities are all looking carefully at what the county councils have promised them. I must say that a number of county councils which hitherto had shown precious little regard for subsidiarity, co-operation or delegation became extremely keen on it when there was any possibility of them being abolished. I have a list of all those clear statements, and I intend to ensure that, as those county councils made the statements, they shall carry them out.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

While I welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement about the chairmanship and future membership of the commission, may I express my concern at the time that he is taking to decide on the future of Derbyshire? Some Conservative Members find it difficult to understand how a Local Government Commission can recommend unitary status for Rutland, at 33,000, and ignore every other district that wants the same sort of status. We ought to consider the view that the commission has reported and its consistency, and we should follow the Rutland experiment and give unitary status to districts.

Mr. Gummer

Although I have great sympathy with my hon. Friend's view, my colleagues and I have met a large number of delegations so that we can make those decisions properly. I am sure that he would be the first to be concerned if we had not met the many delegations from every county who wanted to see us. My hon. Friend the Minister of State saw the delegation from High Peak only yesterday, as, like the rest of us, he has been busy listening to people and reading the papers concerned. I will produce an answer as rapidly as possible, but it must be based on an understanding of the issues, and not one rushed through on some ideological basis.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

Having listened to the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin), may I presume that I do not need to urge my right hon. Friend to tread carefully on the sensitivities of the people of Leicestershire?

Mr. Gummer

I realise how sensitive are the people of Leicestershire, and I shall tread most delicately. I hope that I will produce an answer that my hon. Friend will like.

Dr. Keith Hampson (Leeds, North-West)

If we are going to be truly consistent in trying to reflect national identity, may I suggest that now is the time to consider the powers of the huge unitary authorities in the metropolitan areas, to find out whether those heavy-handed authorities can devolve powers to the diverse communities that they embrace, such as the Otleys, the Wetherbys and the Pudseys in highly centralised Leeds?

Mr. Gummer

Our commitment to devolution runs across local government. Subsidiarity is crucial, and should be pushed right down to the bottom. That is why I am so deeply opposed to regional government, which merely puts another row of persons between people and power. That is a very dangerous thing. We need much more devolution. My hon. Friend is right to say that in some of the larger unitary authorities, there is too little concern about what people in neighbourhoods, groups and historic parts think. I hope that we can help that extension.

Mr. Rupert Allason (Torbay)

Will my right hon. Friend clarify his remarks about Exeter, and confirm that there is no question of the city being the subject of a review by the newly constituted Local Government Commission, but that he is simply acknowledging the fact that he has had firm recommendations that Exeter should have unitary status?

Mr. Gummer

I have received a recommendation for Devon, and am still considering what my response should be. The recommendation covers my hon. Friend's constituency of Torbay and also Plymouth, but does not refer to Exeter. In my statement I said that, if one was considering places where there was considerable local desire for unitary authority status and, historically, a county borough, it might be reasonable to consider Exeter and to refer it to the commission.

In the context of the decisions that I have to make, having consulted the county council and the area, Exeter is one of the places that I might wish to refer to the commission. The reason that I put it like that is that it seems right to make that statement to the House now for the sake of completeness, but the full completeness can be achieved only after I have decided on the Devon proposals. I will then say whether I think it right to refer Exeter to the new commission.

Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the people of Essex want less expensive, more effective and more accountable local government services, and that the best way to deliver those is via a unitary authority status organisation, with about seven unitary authorities? Does he deplore the campaign run by Essex county council, at a cost of about £1 million on propaganda, and the way in which Essex county council dragooned its employees into voting on that matter? Will he add Essex to his list of authorities that have made promises to district councils?

Mr. Gummer

Essex county council does not appear to be exactly good at handling its financing. I understand that it has had considerable difficulties this week in trying to meet its proper obligations. Those who suggest that it would be better off under Labour control might like to know that the Labour-led council has fallen apart because of the incompetent way in which it was run.

I condemn councils that have spent unnecessarily on these discussions, whatever party controls them. In this case, Essex county council has set a bad example. But I have on my list some clear commitments about how it will deal with the smaller bodies within it, and I shall keep it to those.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

Will the Secretary of State confirm that, in Derbyshire, two MORI polls—there have been two investigations—have shown that people feel that Derby should have a unitary authority and the rest of the county should be a two-tier structure? Should not the Secretary of State make that the overwhelming consideration in coming to a decision on that matter?

Mr. Gummer

I have not decided about Derbyshire yet, as I pointed out earlier to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). Once I have made those decisions, I shall obviously communicate them to the House. I shall look carefully at what is said, and take into account all that is said. However, my view about MORI polls is coloured by the fact that the numbers voting and the nature of the number of people employed by extremely heavy employers like Derbyshire county council might have some effect on what is revealed. I note that the hon. Member for Bolsover was more interested in the employment of people by the local council than in the services that it provided.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Stretford)

If the Secretary of State is to avoid the same criticism as his predecessor genuinely deserves for the waste of both time and resources, he must give clear, consistent and transparent principles under which the newly constructed commission will operate. It would be helpful to the whole House if he would give an idea of the time scale, both in terms of the 12 outstanding authorities—the papers on those are still on his desk—and when he expects to clear up the uncertainties on that matter; as well as the time scale for the general review process, so that the uncertainty surrounding it may be brought to an end.

I welcome the Secretary of State's decision to meet relevant trade unions, which will reassure staff. Will he look clearly at the view that the present settlement has been unsatisfactory? Does he accept that, although the list he gave contains many of the authorities that need looking at again, it should be supplemented with those mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson)—particularly The Wrekin and Norwich, where there is a strong case for unitary status?

Mr. Gummer

I thank the hon. Gentleman for most of those comments. I do not agree with his earlier comments. This is a contentious issue that divides hon. Members within parties, not just across the Floor of the House. In many cases, the commission found itself with a problem whereby not many people had a view about how local government should be structured, although all people had a view about the price they should pay and the services that they wanted. The connection between those and the organisation is sometimes difficult for people to make.

The commission was also hampered by the fact that large numbers of authorities—many more than I would have hoped—ran campaigns that were little short of scandalous in the statements that they made and their attempts to frighten people. Many local councillors will have good reason to look back on this period with considerable sadness. It did local government no good when some councils made threats to school governors, such as suggesting that there would be no education if they were made into unity authorities.

The commission had a difficult job to do, and it has carried it out much more quickly than was originally supposed. I wanted to ensure that it was done with that speed, because I understand the problems that beset people who work for local authorities, and I wanted to try to meet them.

Now that we have reached this stage, we have a sensible way of producing the answers we want. Those answers are the answers of decent local government, providing a proper service, with an enabling council able to ensure that people have the services they need at a reasonable price. I hope that I can deliver that. I hope, too, that the commission will be able to consider those councils that I have mentioned. I will carefully consider the councils that the hon. Members for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) and for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) have suggested.

On the time scale, the new commission will be in place in June. During the period till then, we shall be producing the guidelines. I accept that the concepts that might have been taken for granted in the past must be clearly expressed in the guidelines. I shall certainly ensure that I do that, and that will be subject to consultation, not only with Opposition Members, but more widely, with local authorities.

I hope that then the new commission will be able to start its work in July, and I expect that it would try to fulfil that as quickly as it could, but it is not for me to tell it how quickly to do it. I merely assure the House that I will provide the commission with the resources it needs to do so in a reasonable time.

There are no announcements sitting on my desk about those remaining counties, waiting for me to read them. Those counties are subject to considerable consultation, and a great deal of work has been done listening to delegations from the various parts of the counties. I have now almost completed that. I hope very much to be able to complete the work on them myself with my colleagues, and I would expect to be able to make a further statement to the House about those in the very near future. I have to try to do so as soon as possible, not least because it is necessary for the proper and conventional gap between that and the forthcoming local county council elections.