§ The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. John Gummer)
With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the review of local government in England.
In my statement on 2 March, I set out my aims for the local government review. I announced my decisions for 20 counties, and I also announced that I intended to invite the Local Government Commission to carry out further reviews of a small number of individual districts.
The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) asked me to consider adding a small number of other districts to the list; he particularly pressed me to consider Norwich and The Wrekin. I have now decided to add those two districts to the list of those that I shall consider for fresh reviews.
At the time of my statement on 2 March, I was not in a position to announce the name of the new chairman of the commission. I am now pleased to say that Sir David Cooksey, currently chairman of the Audit Commission, has agreed to become chairman of the Local Government Commission for England. Sir David's appointment will be for one year initially, by which time we expect the programme of shire district structural reviews to have been completed. Sir David will take up his post in early July.
My statement on 2 March left just 12 counties on which I had not yet announced my decisions. I am pleased to be able to do so today.
I have decided to accept the commission's recommendations for the counties of Derbyshire and Staffordshire. The former county boroughs of Derby and Stoke-on-Trent will become unitary authorities; the rest of the county will, in each case, remain two tier.
Similarly, I accept the recommendation for Wiltshire, that Thamesdown—that is, Swindon—should become a unitary authority, and that the two-tier system should be retained for the rest of the county.
For East Sussex, the commission recommended a new unitary authority, to incorporate the existing boroughs of Brighton and Hove. I know that that recommendation has aroused strong local feelings—for and against. On balance, however, I agree that the combined authority is the right solution for the area. The rest of the county will retain the status quo.
I also propose to accept the commission's recommendations for Devon. The former county boroughs of Plymouth and Torbay will become unitary authorities. Elsewhere in the county, the two-tier system will be retained, except that, as I announced on 2 March, I am considering including Exeter—which is, of course, another former county borough—on the list of districts to be referred to the commission for fresh reviews.
Similarly, I accept the commission's recommendation that Nottingham should become a unitary authority and that the rest of Nottinghamshire should remain two tier, subject to possible further reviews of the districts of Broxtowe, Gedling and Rushcliffe.
For Essex, I propose to accept the recommendation that Southend should become a unitary authority.
§ Mr. Gummer
The independent view of Southend is pretty well known to the House.
146 The commission also recommended that the boundary of Southend should be extended to include Southend airport. [Interruption.] It has a large number of European services. That needs further exploration and I may want to ask the commission in due course to look at the matter again.
With regard to elsewhere in Essex, I have already announced that Thurrock and Basildon will be subject to further reviews. With that in mind, I do not intend to act on the commission's recommendation for a major boundary change involving Basildon, Brentwood and Rochford. The rest of Essex will remain two tier.
In Hereford and Worcester, I agree with the commission that the historic county of Herefordshire should be restored on its former boundaries as a single unitary authority, and that Worcestershire should be restored as a county in its own right, retaining the two-tier system throughout the county. The district of Malvern Hills, which was created at the time of the 1974 reorganisation, will be split as recommended by the commission.
For Leicestershire, I am minded to agree that the city of Leicester should be given unitary status. I am also minded to agree that the historic county of Rutland should regain its independence as a unitary authority. That is one case where the arguments based on local identity seem to me to be particularly strong.
I recognise, however, that there are likely to be particular problems with the effective and convenient delivery of local services in that area—particularly with regard to Rutland, whose population is just 33,000. Before I introduce the order to implement these decisions, therefore, I shall want to be satisfied that good practical arrangements can be made for local services. I expect that, at least for some services, some form of joint working with neighbouring authorities may be needed. I shall also want to be satisfied that that can be paid for on the same basis, and within the same financial constraints, as for other reorganised authorities, and without imposing unacceptably high costs on the people of Rutland.
I now come to three counties where I have decided to depart from the recommendations made by the commission.
For Hampshire, the commission recommended that Portsmouth, Southampton and the New Forest should become unitary authorities. I agree with the recommendations for Portsmouth and Southampton. In the case of the New Forest, however, I have concluded that the case for unitary status is not sufficiently made out in a district that has more in common with the many districts recommended to remain in a two-tier structure. I have decided therefore that in the New Forest, as in the rest of Hampshire, the two-tier structure should be retained.
Similar considerations have affected my decision for the neighbouring county of Dorset. I agree with the commission that the boroughs of Bournemouth and Poole should be given unitary status. But elsewhere in Dorset I note that the existing authorities are not enthusiastic about the commission's proposals. On balance, I have concluded that the rest of Dorset will be better served by the two-tier system.
Finally, for Berkshire the commission has recommended the replacement of the county council by a structure of five unitary authorities. I agree that the county council should be abolished. But I disagree with the commission's recommendation that the districts of Bracknell 147 Forest and Windsor and Maidenhead should be combined. I am satisfied that each of the existing districts in the county is capable of operating as a unitary authority, and I propose to modify the commission's recommendations accordingly. The county area of Berkshire will be retained together with the Lord Lieutenancy, but it will no longer have a county council.
Although my decision for Berkshire follows a different pattern from other counties, I am satisfied that the difference is justified. I note that it has the support of all the district councils concerned, and that until recently the county council also favoured a unitary structure for the county. I have said before that different structures may be appropriate in different areas to meet different local circumstances; Berkshire is a case in point.
I have given a full explanation of the background and reasons for the decisions today, in a written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson). There are copies in the Library and the Vote Office.
My officials will now start work on drafting the orders that are needed to put the decisions into effect. The local authorities and their associations will of course be consulted. I hope that the first orders will be ready to bring to the House soon after the local elections on 4 May; in the meantime, we shall also be consulting on draft guidance to be given to the Local Government Commission for the fresh district-based reviews.
In my previous statement, I announced that a small number of districts would be referred to the commission for further review, and that I was considering whether to refer a limited number of others. Given the need to minimise uncertainty—and for there to be a clear end to the review process—I should perhaps repeat that, apart possibly from the two districts that I mentioned at the beginning of my statement, I am unlikely to want to add to the list.
The decisions that I have announced today reinforce the pattern that has emerged from the review. In broad terms, it constitutes abolition of the unloved "artificial" counties created in 1974, which have never commanded the loyalty of local people; creation of unitary local government in many large non-metropolitan towns and cities that will be well placed to benefit from the extra coherence and effectiveness that unitary local government can bring; and, elsewhere, the two-tier system retained, but with improved co-operation between the tiers.
I remind the House that I made it clear in my earlier statement that I would hold the counties to their promises of better co-ordination, greater subsidiarity and keenness to listen to the attitudes of local people in both parish and district councils in achieving the kind of government whose retention they sought.
I hope the House will agree that, with those changes, local government will be in better shape to meet the challenges that undoubtedly lie ahead.
§ Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)
I welcome the statement, as far as it goes. It has the singular merit of being in line with the principles that the Secretary of State set out in his statement of 2 March, which we welcomed. What it boils down to is a recreation of county boroughs that should never have lost their county borough status in the first place. I especially welcome the decision to give county borough status to Derby, and to retain two-tier local government in the rest of Derbyshire. I hope 148 that that means that the Government and their supporters will now abandon their continuing mean-minded attacks on the county.
The Government's proposition rights the glaring anomalies that arose from the review. I refer in particular to the recommendation of independence for Rutland, which contains 33,000 people, but not for places containing 180,000. Apparently, even the Secretary of State now has some doubts about the Rutland decision; but we shall see what happens about that.
I welcome the Secretary of State's acceptance of the inclusion of The Wrekin and Norwich in the list of districts to be, as it were, reconsidered for reconsideration, but I was serious in regard to the other councils that I mentioned when we last discussed the matter. Since then, other districts have submitted themselves for consideration. I realise that the Secretary of State must draw the line somewhere, but I hope that he will not automatically rule out the districts that neither he nor I mentioned on the previous occasion. I do not think that we should proceed on the basis that the Department of the Environment is the fount of all wisdom in this regard. The right hon. Gentleman should acknowledge that it should be open to other districts to put themselves forward for independence if they can make a rational case.
I expect that the new Local Government Commission will make what may be described as a more structured, consistent and sensible approach to the task that it has been given than its predecessor did, that the criteria that it applies will be applied to each district and that there will be proper and consistent consideration of people's views. Also, if polling is to be done, I hope that it makes propositions clear, so that people know on what they are voting.
County boroughs and the districts that have been named will have the opportunity to demonstrate to the commission that they are entitled to independence, that their independence will be workable and popular and that they will be able to provide decent services for local people. That is to be welcomed because a council that can draw on civic pride and a sense of place is more likely to be able to provide decent services.
I welcome the appointment of Sir David Cooksey to chair the commission and I look forward to him conducting an orderly, sensible and consistent review. I welcome the undertaking from the Secretary of State that we shall be consulted about the remaining membership of the commission and the guidelines.
Although it may seem churlish, I must confess that I am, from time to time, a churl. I therefore remind the House that this whole review started with a statement from the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), the then Secretary of State for the Environment, who said:most local authorities want unitary status and we believe that such status will provide a better structure for the future in most areas."—[Official Report, 20 January 1992; Vol. 202, c. 37.]As a result of that, we have had a protracted, ill-considered, expensive and acrimonious review of local government across England, during which large numbers of staff in counties and districts have been deployed to present arguments for or against change, and in some areas, for two or three years, vast amounts of resources have been used and money has been paid out in court action. The review has simply distracted attention and 149 diverted resources from the councils' proper job of providing local services. It has been very unsettling for the staff.
In the new circumstances, I hope that the Secretary of State will acknowledge that what is proposed in some areas prolongs uncertainty. In other areas, the staff will have to go through the process of change. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will recognise that they are entitled to some protection and help over compensation, transfer, detriment and the implementation of compulsory competitive tendering. I am glad that in his previous statement he accepted my suggestion that he should meet the unions. I know that that meeting has now been arranged. I hope that he will find it possible to accept some improvement because the changes are not the fault of the staff—they have been forced on them by the Government.
I hope that the new commission will get on with its job and carry out the task in a proper and sensible way, and that this time it will do a decent, consistent job. All this could have been done two to two and a half years ago, and the county boroughs could have been recreated two years ago if the Government had recognised common sense from the start.
All these changes are being proposed to councils that were set up and had their boundaries established by a previous Tory Government. They are changes to things that the Tories got wrong in the past and I hope to God that they will not get things wrong again.
§ Mr. Gummer
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the part of his comments that supported what we are doing. I am sorry for his lapse into churlishness, and I shall return to that. I was also surprised that he should start by suggesting that there were those who were mean minded about Derbyshire. The county of Derbyshire could have done with a little more meanness itself and then it would not have been one of the most disliked local authorities in the history of mankind. The fact of the matter is that Derbyshire, both under Mr. Bookbinder and with Mr. Bookbinder still in the wings, did not and does not set an example of county government that most of us would like to follow. That is why I have some sympathy with those of my hon. Friends who wish that we could have gone further with unitary authorities in Derbyshire.
As for the other matters that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras raised, I too am concerned for the staff. That is one of the reasons why I want to restrict the number of councils being considered. The period is significantly shorter than the period originally announced, because I shortened it myself from the six to seven years that looked likely at first. None the less, staff will still be uncertain during that shorter period, and I should like to reach solutions as quickly as possible.
However, the staff are the servants of the local authorities, and if in the end we want to achieve the best local authorities that we can, there are bound to be difficulties occasionally. We must accept the fact that in private business most people have to cope with change all the time, so I am not quite so enthusiastic about suggesting that every local authority member of staff should have the kind of protection that is not available to everybody else who has to deal with difficulties such as making a profit, selling goods, providing services and being directly at the behest of customers and the public.
150 I was also a little concerned by the hon. Gentleman's attack on the fact that the process had led to so many court actions. He should ask the Labour members of the former Cleveland county council what they were doing when they spent all that money on such court actions. They lost every one, as almost everyone could have told them in the first place that they would. Nevertheless they were prepared, as Labour councils always are, to spend other people's money in the defence of their particular—I was about to say "dogma", but I shall not.
The same is true of Lancashire; I shall watch carefully to see whether that county council carries through its considerable promises to the districts and parishes of Lancashire as to how it will operate in future.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman said that we were changing structures set up by a previous Conservative Government. I remind him that the original changes were made 20 years ago. If he really thinks that local authorities stay in the same place and are absolutely perfect after 20 years, he has a curious view of the pace of change, and little grasp of the fact that we no longer have local authorities that think that they should run everything. We now have enabling local authorities, with a different view of how they should operate.
§ Madam Speaker
Order. I seek to call as many Back Benchers as possible, but I shall not be able to call many unless questions and answers are brisk. This is a day not for votes of thanks, but for one question, and one only, to the Minister and for a brisk reply.
§ Mr. Paul Channon (Southend, West)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that, as so frequently in the affairs of Southend, all respectable Conservative opinion will be thrilled and delighted by the decision that he has announced, which will restore to Southend the unitary status that it had for more than 50 years, with which it governed its affairs with remarkable success? Is he further aware that the only people who, for some mysterious reason, will oppose the decision are the Liberal and Labour members of the town council? For the sake of clarity, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the elections will take place in 1996 and the new authority will start in 1997?
§ Mr. Gummer
There will be elections next year and the new council thereafter. I thank my right hon. Friend for what he said. I would have expected nothing else from the Liberals and the Labour party in Southend—especially the Liberals, who find it difficult to maintain the same view for two days running.
§ Mr. David Rendel (Newbury)
What does the Secretary of State mean by consultation? Although I welcome the appointment of Sir David Cooksey, I remember that during his previous announcement the right hon. Gentleman said that he would consult the Opposition before making the appointment, whereas in fact he simply told me whom he had asked to do the job, without any consultation whatever. What does he mean by consultation in the case of Berkshire, which he has announced will be given six unitary authorities—a solution proposed by nobody, and on which no consultation whatever has taken place? What does he mean by consultation when he announces that Rutland, which will be a small unitary authority, gets through on a 151 60 per cent. popular vote while New Forest, which also achieved a 60 per cent. popular vote, has been refused the same status although it would be much larger?
§ Mr. Gummer
The hon. Gentleman sat in my office for 10 minutes and was asked to give his opinion on what should happen in Berkshire. At every moment, he refused to give his opinion and the councillors who were present became more embarrassed and got redder because he would not give his opinion. The Liberal Democrat party gives an opinion only when it has decided that it will get one extra vote by going one way rather than the other. The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) is worse than most Liberals in that way, and I must say that consulting the hon. Gentleman is almost impossible.
I consulted the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras about the person who was to be appointed, and I am perfectly happy to consult widely, as I have done in the past, about the members of the commission. I hope that that can also be done on the guidelines. The hon. Member for Newbury was given every chance to speak about his own county, and he could not manage it.
§ Sir Timothy Sainsbury (Hove)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that one of the main reasons why many of my constituents expressed opposition to a merger of Hove with Brighton was their understandable fear at the thought of their well-run Conservative council being joined with a borough whose socialist council is notorious for its inefficiency and extravagance? My right hon. Friend mentioned the incorporation of Southend airport in the borough of my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon). Is he aware that the western boundary proposed for my local unitary authority is unsatisfactory both economically and geographically, and that it divides the port of Shoreham? Can he assure me that he will look at the earliest possible moment at that boundary, which ought to be extended to the River Adur?
§ Mr. Gummer
I am happy to assure my right hon. Friend that when we come to look at the boundaries, which will not be immediately, I shall make sure that that particular boundary is carefully looked at early on. One of the real objections that I have heard widely in Brighton and Hove is the fear that the present Brighton town council would become dominant in the new authority. That council is so forgetful of the interests of its ratepayers and is so rude to incoming conferences that it forces the conferences to choose other towns to go to. That is because of the inability of Brighton council to keep its extremist left-wing views to itself. The answer is for the citizens of Hove to continue to vote Conservative and to make sure that the new borough is run by sensible people.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
Now that we have had three Etonians in a row, could I ask the Minister whether he thinks he has come to the hard part now? The Government have gone back to the 1974 regime of Derby city and two-tier status for the rest of the county. Does he understand that one of the problems in local government—apart from the boundaries—is the fact that this Government have withdrawn £50 billion in grants over the past years? What local government really needs is the money to provide work, to do the jobs and to reduce the class sizes—to the same as those at Eton if 152 necessary—and to get more teachers. The Government must stop the rate capping of local authorities and let local democracy thrive.
§ Mr. Gummer
Year in, year out the Government have provided more money to local authorities, and year in, year out Derbyshire has wasted large sums of money, both from this Government and from its own ratepayers. Derbyshire has an appalling record, and the fact that the hon. Gentleman should still be defending it shows just how appalling his judgment is.
§ Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)
Will my right hon. Friend explain to me how it is that last week he called Derbyshire county council incompetent and the chairman of the Conservative party called it corrupt, but that today he has brought forward proposals that will re-establish a Labour majority in that area for many years to come? How does he expect me to support the proposal?
§ Mr. Gummer
I fear that I must say to my hon. Friend that I have to distinguish between the council and the councillors. The only answer in Derbyshire is to get rid of those who are at the moment mis-running the local authority and replace them with people who can run it. I understand my hon. Friend's frustration, but he must accept that—however bad the councillors may be—it would be quite wrong for me to make a judgment for all future generations. I have to judge on the basis of the councils.
§ Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin)
While I join my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) in welcoming some of the points that the Secretary of State has made today, may I press him on the timetable? He says that he is minded to add The Wrekin to the list. When does he expect to reach a decision on that? If he decides to add The Wrekin to the list, what will be the time scale within which the commission will work?
§ Mr. Gummer
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. Between now and July, when the new commission will come into operation under the new chairmanship, I intend to hold discussions with the county councils, district councils, parish councils and other people who are involved to decide whether it seems sensible to offer The Wrekin as one of the names on the list to be considered. If I decided that it was, it would be for the incoming commission to make its timetable, but I hope that the matter would be considered as soon as possible after July.
§ Mr. David Martin (Portsmouth, South)
May I welcome my right hon. Friend's decision about Portsmouth? Will he and his Department do everything possible to persuade the Liberal Democrat-led Hampshire county council to co-operate from now on with the new arrangements? That would be in stark contrast to the expense and wasted time of the abortive attempt to keep the Liberal Democrats' county empire as intact as possible.
§ Mr. Gummer
I shall certainly seek to do that. The order will insist that the county council take on its shoulders the responsibility for proceeding as rapidly and conveniently as possible. I agree with my hon. Friend that, 153 as in other parts of the country, no one whom I have known has been so assiduous in tending their own interests as Liberal Democrat-dominated county councils.
§ Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw)
Is the Minister aware that he has now left north Nottinghamshire in limbo-land? While he has announced unitary authorities for the four districts in the south, he has not made any announcement as yet about the four districts in the north. Is he aware that all eight district councils wanted unitary status and that the only fair solution is to grant it to all of them? Will he have a look at what he now proposes to do for the north?
§ Mr. Gummer
I have the problem that the commission retreated from its original views. I do not have the powers to denominate any of the extra authorities—certainly not the three plus the four. I have said that I shall consider whether the three authorities that I mentioned ought to be looked at again by the commission.
I have a problem with the decision on Nottingham city. I maintain my view that Nottingham city should become a unitary authority, although I find it particularly difficult as I read today in the Daily Mirror that Nottingham city council has banned the use of the words "ladies and gentlemen" in any of its properties. People will not be able to say, "My lords, ladies and gentlemen" at the beginning of a dinner in any property owned by Nottingham district council because that is thought to be in some way sexist.
§ Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)
Is my right hon. Friend aware of the profound disappointment that his statement will cause in my constituency? Will he look again at Eastbourne's former county borough status and its profound local identity, which even the Local Government Commission managed to spot, and send it for further review under the newly constituted Banham-free commission?
§ Mr. Gummer
I understand the particular difficulties with Eastbourne. As my hon. Friend says, it was historically a county borough. It is not one of those areas that naturally fit the suggestions that I have made. I do not think that it appeared in my original list. There has not been pressure from outside, but I understand my hon. Friend's point. I shall, of course, look at it again.
§ Mr. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood)
Does the Minister accept that the decision to give Nottingham unitary status, which I welcome, cannot move forward positively until decisions have been made on the surrounding unitaries—Gedling, Broxtowe and Rushcliffe? Clearly, that creates uncertainty. Can the Minister give me an idea of the timetable that he and the commission have in mind to resolve that problem?
§ Mr. Gummer
That does not need to hold things up. The elections could not take place in any case for a further year. In the course of that year, I am sure that we shall come to an understanding about the other authorities. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman should have found unsatisfactory the comment that I made about Nottingham city council. The reason why I made it is, first, simply that it is true. I have checked with the city council that it is true. Secondly, it reminds us that unitary authorities 154 have a responsibility to act in the interests of everyone and not to press the particular ideas of political correctness that are damaging and downright silly.
§ Dr. Michael Clark (Rochford)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that Southend airport, to which he referred, used to be RAF Rochford and is within the Rochford district council area? Does he know that it is a large piece of undeveloped land that separates urban Southend from semi-rural Rochford? Does he agree that, if the airport is included in a unitary Southend with its own planning authority, it is likely, should the airport fail, that that land will be built up, to the great detriment of both Southend and Rochford?
§ Mr. Gummer
That is precisely why I felt that it would not be proper to take the commission's recommendation on board, but that the matter should be considered further in the future.
§ Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)
I am sure that the Minister is aware that there will be great disappointment in my constituency of Carlisle, a fine historic city, that he has not designated it for unitary status today. Will he explain the reasons briefly? Does his statement mean that he has closed his mind to giving Carlisle unitary authority status?
§ Mr. Gummer
The district of Carlisle contains significant rural parts that were not in the original county borough of Carlisle. I have considered Carlisle carefully; it is unlikely that I would want to add it to the list as it fits none of the reasonable proposals and it would stand out rather surprisingly if did.
§ Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar)
My right hon. Friend's announcement that he would not accept the Local Government Commission's recommendation on the boundaries between Brentwood and Basildon is welcome. He will be aware of correspondence between us about the funding of the proposed merger, but he will not be aware of a recent statement by Liberal Democrats in Brentwood that, somehow, they could make a profit from such a merger. Does he agree that local government reorganisation on that basis would be ludicrous and that the best thing would be to base it on a locality? Does he further agree that Brentwood council should now look for civic pride for the people whom it represents in Brentwood, not for empire building elsewhere?
§ Mr. Gummer
We shall certainly look at all the figures that have been put forward, but, on the surface, the argument put forward by the Liberal Democrats seems pretty specious. It is important that Brentwood and places like it should seek to increase the civic pride that arises from people's sense of place.
§ Mr. Mike Hall (Warrington, South)
Will the Secretary of State confirm that Halton borough council is now on his list for review and that, when Halton and Warrington are reviewed, there will be strict guidelines on what county councils can spend on the campaign because, during the previous review, Cheshire county council threw its cheque book away, which was a waste of ratepayers' money?
§ Mr. Gummer
I remain of the opinion that Halton should be considered for a possible review. I shall look at 155 it in the way that I have said to others and decide before July whether it should be reviewed. A good case has been put forward, so it is worth looking into it carefully.
§ Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North)
On Norwich, given that my right hon. Friend appeared to restate the assurance that he gave the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) earlier this month, will he consider carefully the following points when he refers the matter for further consideration? More than 70 per cent. of people in Norwich rejected unitary status in a MORI poll; any change would cost the taxpayer millions of pounds; and proper consultations must be undertaken with the county council and the other district councils in Norfolk, which have strong views on the matter. Will he bear all those concerns in mind?
§ Mr. Gummer
I did not immediately suggest that the commission should consider a range of local authorities, precisely because I want time to look into them, in the way that my hon. Friend suggests. It is clearly necessary to establish that, even where a town—in this case, a city—fits the general criteria that we sought to use, there is local support for the proposition of a unitary authority. It would be wrong to deny people the opportunity to give that local support, but it is necessary to try to gauge it in some way, and I shall certainly talk to all the authorities to which my hon. Friend referred.
§ Mr. Jamie Cann (Ipswich)
Does the Minister accept that there are many similarities between Norwich and Ipswich, not only our ability to prop up the rest of the Premier league, along with Leicester—
§ Mr. Cann
Does the Minister also accept that we are both towns of about 120,000 people in rural counties of 600,000 or 700,000 people, which had county borough status for hundreds of years and ruled their own lives for hundreds of years? Yet the Minister proposes, against the wishes of people in Norwich—as I understand it from the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson)—to give unitary status back to Norwich, but to deny it to Ipswich. I am sure that he cannot possibly mean that, and I hope that he can assure me that he will review the matter.
§ Mr. Gummer
If I may dare say so to the hon. Gentleman, it is a pleasure to see him dealing with his own constituency rather than with matters that relate to other people's constituencies, as is usually his wont. I am his neighbour, and I say that because, over Bentwaters, he is busy dealing with a matter that is no business of his and is causing my constituents considerable trouble as a result.
§ Mr. Gummer
No, I will not give way. I am answering the question. The hon. Gentleman must have some courtesy. He has given me the opportunity to answer his question and he has also given me an opportunity that the rules of the House do not usually give me, because I am not able to have an Adjournment debate on a matter of that type.
The hon. Gentleman may wish to know that I have read the local newspaper carefully and I found that the Labour party is extremely reticent about whether it wants Ipswich to be a unitary authority. I have detected no widespread 156 feeling that Ipswich should be a unitary authority. It is not the same as Norwich. As a matter of fact, it is a smaller town, and it has a declining population. There are reasons to believe, therefore, that perhaps the same condition does not apply. However, I shall consider the points that the hon. Gentleman brings me, should he wish to.
§ Mr. Simon Coombs (Swindon)
Is my right hon. Friend aware of the fact that the people of Swindon will be pleased and proud at the first opportunity ever to be wholly responsible for their affairs? However, will he and his hon. Friends continue to hold a watching brief on the relationship that will now begin to develop between the unitary authority in Swindon and the rest of Wiltshire, to ensure that there is a co-operative spirit between the two new sets of authorities?
§ Mr. Terry Lewis (Worsley)
Will the Secretary of State sweep away the hideous title, Greater Manchester council, restore the ancient Lancashire boundaries and put the city of Salford, the borough of Wigan and the borough of Bolton—all three standard authorities—back into the title of Lancashire?
§ Mr. Gummer
There will be boundary reviews of the mets when there is a big demand but, in the meantime, no.
§ Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)
The county of Rutland is, as it were, at the starting gate. If it can show itself to be a runner and a safe bet, my right hon. Friend will fire the starting gun. Does he accept that nothing could be fairer than that, and does he accept the gratitude of those who live there for the way in which he has handled that matter? Will he further confirm that the city of Leicester will not be allowed to continue to expand its boundaries?
§ Mr. Gummer
That is not a matter of boundary review at the moment. I cannot control whatever may happen in future, but at present it is a matter of deciding which areas should have unitary authorities, and I very much hope that Rutland will rise to the challenge.
§ Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)
The Secretary of State referred three times, I think, in his statement to questions of history. Against that background, and given the fact that that opinion is supported by the Labour party, the Conservative party and the chamber of commerce, will he review his decision in respect of Chester and, if he is prepared to do that, the consequential effects elsewhere in Cheshire?
§ Mr. Gummer
I have looked at Cheshire generally and Chester specifically, and I do not think that Chester meets the requirements so that we could reasonably envisage it as a unitary authority. I think that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that, in terms of size and other matters, it would probably be better if it remained part of a two-tier system. I do not at the moment intend to review that opinion.
§ Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)
As the great majority of people in Southend-on-Sea, including my family, will be delighted that the Secretary of State has decided to restore local government independence to Southend-on-Sea, will he seek, after that excellent decision, to advise his Cabinet colleagues that there is huge merit in avoiding the centralisation of decision 157 making, and that one cannot obtain more efficiency and better value other than by having decisions made locally and democratically?
§ Mr. Gummer
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The great advantage of subsidiarity is that one does at the lowest level that which is best done there. The other part of subsidiarity, however, means that one does at other levels where things can be done what can be done only there. I am happy to say that Britain takes that view. We do at Westminster what is best done here and we do at European Union level the things that otherwise we would not be able to do at all. That is why subsidiarity is such a sensible idea.
§ Sir Jim Spicer (Dorset, West)
My right hon. Friend has made it absolutely clear that he expects county councils to live up to the promises that they have given to him. His ministerial team will know that Dorset has been extremely forthcoming in saying that it would accept an external audit—tough auditing—of its functions and expenditure. Who will carry out that function? Will my right hon. Friend appoint someone with the authority to carry out that audit on a six-monthly basis to make certain that Dorset is making the right progress?
§ Mr. Gummer
The Audit Commission has that particular role. I shall certainly draw to its attention the point that my hon. Friend made. I should also mention to him another serious matter. The proposals that were made by county councils in regard to their intention to change their methods of operation will be codified and brought together. They promised to be more co-operative and to be more full of the spirit of subsidiarity, which my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir. T. Taylor) rightly raised in the House. Those lists of promises will be passed on to every parish council and district council in each county area, so they will know precisely what has been promised. I hope that, perhaps after a year or so, we shall then be able to review whether those promises have been met.
§ Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)
Does my right hon. Friend accept that, when he looks at the borders of the new unitary authority of Brighton and Hove, he should not expand them eastwards, as there is no desire among people in my constituency suddenly to find themselves within that unitary authority? When he reconsiders that boundary, in the light of his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson), will he be able to give the reassurance that many people have requested, about funding of county council services once Brighton and Hove have been extracted from the county?
§ Mr. Gummer
I very much hope that we shall be able to see a sensible use of money in the remaining county once Brighton and Hove are removed from it. I also hope that Brighton and Hove will be able to run themselves effectively and efficiently, particularly if they make the political decisions that I suggested earlier. I believe that the people of Telscombe will be able to rest easy in their beds, because there is no intention to change the boundaries. I promised my right hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Sir. T. Sainsbury) that when the boundary commission considers boundaries—some boundaries need to be looked at—his question about the division of 158 Shoreham harbour will be considered. That is all that I have promised and I certainly do not intend to look for any wholesale change.
§ Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that prima facie evidence exists to cast doubt upon the ability of Leicester city council to manage its affairs impartially in the interests not only of its own citizens but of those in the wider county of Leicestershire? Will my right hon. Friend do nothing to alter the present system of local government throughout the area currently run by Leicestershire county council until a full judicial inquiry has been held into the evidence to which I referred?
§ Mr. Gummer
One has to make such decisions irrespective of the activity or the action of a particular council in a particular town at any one time. Otherwise, one would have to say about a number of places that we are considering, that the efficiency of the council is such that one must question whether a particular group can be trusted. One must accept that it is necessary to try to look at matters impartially and not deal with the people who happen to be in charge at the time. If my hon. Friend feels that there are matters relating to Leicester city council that should be given a wider airing, he will have the time to present that evidence. I do not believe that the decisions that I have announced today will be formed in law for a little time, because we need to leave Rutland with the chance to discover how it will proceed.
§ Sir Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that there will be satisfaction and relief in Staffordshire as a result of his decision? However, will he clarify the position regarding elections next year? I understand that there will obviously have to be an election for the new county authority, but must elections be repeated next year in the areas where boundaries remain the same and where elections will be held this year?
§ Mr. Gummer
My hon. Friend raises an important point. The elections will be conducted exactly as one would expect; they will not be repeated. The only difference will be in Stoke, where a shadow authority will be elected.
§ Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams)
Under the new arrangements, South Hams in Devon will be wedged between the unitary authority of Plymouth in the west and that of Torbay in the east—both of which have well-known territorial ambitions for expansion. When my right hon. Friend meets the Conservative leaders of South Hams district council tomorrow, will he consider seriously referring back to the commission the issue of unitary authority status for South Hams? In the recent referendum, more people voted in favour of making South Hams a unitary authority than voted in favour of unitary authorities in any other part of the country where referendums were held. Will he consider that matter very seriously?
§ Mr. Gummer
Of course I take the matter seriously. I acknowledge what my hon. Friend said; he has been assiduous in pressing the case on behalf of both South Hams district council and, as usual, his constituents. It is one of the smallest authorities in the country.
§ Mr. Gummer
Indeed, it is a very well-run authority. However, if we were undertaking reorganisation entirely 159 on the basis of well-run authorities, we would not even consider the case of Norwich, for example. That is a different issue altogether.
With regard to my hon. Friend's district, I shall listen very carefully to the views of council leaders. However, I think that it is fair to say that, given the enormous strength of Devon county council, if it were better run—I have high hopes that that will happen very soon—it could assist South Hams in resisting territorial pressure from its neighbours. I do not wish to see it become another Danzig corridor.
§ Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)
Despite the fact that my right hon. Friend's decision will come as a disappointment to Salisbury district council, will he take it from me that we shall do our best to work with the new unitary authority? However, does he agree that it is not helpful to imply or to state that the reorganisation will mean no change for the rest of the county outside Swindon? When a third of the population is removed from any county, those who are left in the old county must face completely new challenges and perform new tasks.
§ Mr. Gummer
My hon. Friend is entirely correct. I apologise if I gave the impression that there is not a great deal of work to be done in counties whose composition has changed.
The reorganisation presents an opportunity to run the show much more effectively, efficiently and co-operatively than has occurred until now. For example, county social services departments must work more closely with district council housing authorities. Their operations can be conducted jointly. In my hon. Friend's case, I have looked very carefully at the points that the county council made in fighting for its cause and I shall expect it to carry them through to the letter and in the spirit that it suggested to both my hon. Friend's district council and the parish councils.
§ Mr. Peter Luff (Worcester)
I believe that I speak also for my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South (Mr. Spicer), when I ask my right hon. Friend whether he is aware that the recreation of the historic counties of Herefordshire and Worcestershire will be very welcome in Worcestershire. However, we are disappointed that my right hon. Friend has not gone one step further and implemented the original recommendations of the Local Government Commission for two unitary authorities in Worcestershire.
§ Mr. Gummer
Unfortunately, that was not the commission's final recommendation and I have limited powers as to what I may or may not modify. I have some real sympathy for my hon. Friend's point, but he must accept that I am restricted by the terms decided upon by the House. I have done my best within those restrictions.
§ Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)
My right hon. Friend will know that there was a fierce argument in rural Dorset outside Bournemouth and Poole as to whether there should he one council or two. The county council said that it would be much more expensive to have two. My right hon. Friend has chosen the county's second option of establishing seven councils in that area. How much extra will my constituents have to pay for those councils, or will additional Government grants pay for them?
§ Mr. Gummer
My hon. Friend is discussing a county much of which is retaining the system that we have had 160 up to now, although not the status quo, as my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) would remark. The change provides the opportunity for the Liberal-dominated county council to begin to run the council properly, and that will mean a good deal of change from its present activities. The county council can perfectly easily make it a cheaper alternative if it is prepared to ensure that the county council services are run in conjunction and in co-operation with the district councils concerned. I very much hope that my hon. Friend will look carefully at the promises that were made. We shall certainly do so, and perhaps together we can get even the Liberals to realise that efficiency provides money that can be used more effectively or that can reduce council tax bills. The difficulty for the Liberals in my hon. Friend's part of the world is that they promised everything and have suddenly discovered that they have to pay for it.
§ Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Hastings and Rye)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that eastern and East Sussex have a low tax base and will find it difficult to sustain two tiers of government? Is he considering any change to the standard spending assessment for Hastings and Rother, or will the council tax go up?
§ Mr. Gummer
I see no reason why either of those things should happen if local authorities improve their services. It will be necessary for officers to recognise that it is not a process of defending their particular empires, but one of ensuring that they are able to operate much more effectively in conjunction with the district councils, to provide better services at a lower price. My hon. Friend mentions another county council that has not had a good reputation in recent years and I shall be looking carefully to see that it provides services at the lowest possible price, with decent services provided for the people and not for the empire-building propensities of some departments.
§ Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the changes that were proposed in the original commission's document for Basildon, Brentwood and Rochford were extremely popular with people in my constituency? In view of his remarks today, will he assure them that Sir David Cooksey and possibly one of his ministerial colleagues will meet some of my constituents, so that they can explain the reasons for their decision, which were that my constituency is geographically contiguous with Rochford and Brentwood, but is separated from Basildon by a major roadway? They also face the possible prospect of being tied in with a new unitary authority, two councils in which are notorious for their high rates in the past.
§ Mr. Gummer
I can assure the hon. Lady that we shall of course make sure that every opportunity is given to her constituents and those in neighbouring authorities to put their points to Ministers and to the commission. As I hope she has been pleased to hear, I have already promised that those areas will be referred to the commission again. I hope that in the course of that, a solution will be found that will be beneficial to her constituents and those of her neighbours.
§ Mr. Gyles Brandreth (City of Chester)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that while many in Chester and Cheshire will be relieved that the continuing uncertainty about the future of local government is coming an end, others in the unique city of Chester are dismayed that our district is not to be included in the review? Does he 161 understand their disappointment at not being able to press their case, and does he agree that it is incumbent on all those who continue in two-tier systems to make those two-tier systems work more effectively, to deliver better-quality services more cost-effectively and efficiently?
§ Mr. Gummer
My hon. Friend has honourably put forward the fact that in Chester and some parts of Cheshire, there have been significant differences of opinion on how best to proceed, but he must also be right that the purpose must now be to complete the review as rapidly as possible and to ensure that the authorities that are set up and those that remain carry forward the main purpose, which is to provide the best possible services at the most cost-effective price.
§ Mr. Matthew Banks (Southport)
My right hon. Friend read a list of fine historic former county boroughs, but omitted one of the finest—Southport, which as a result of a little local difficulty in 1974 was swallowed up by the metropolitan area of Merseyside. My right hon. Friend and his Ministers have been particularly helpful to me and to my constituents. In the light of his statement, I ask him to give me one further assurance this afternoon. When the Local Government Commission reviews the shire counties, will it take the opportunity to examine metropolitan areas where a strong desire has been expressed for change, so that my constituents can put their case to the commission and that once and for all, we can get out of Merseyside and back into Lancashire—where my constituency rightly belongs?
§ Mr. Gummer
My hon. Friend will have noted that there were cries of "Greater Bootle" from Opposition Members. Perhaps my hon. Friend will make sure that his constituents recognise that in him, they have the only real bulwark against such a concept. I cannot widen my promise as he wishes, but I repeat my earlier promise to him that when the review is complete, Southport will be the first authority to be examined by the commission, so that the clear indications that he and his constituents have given may be given due weight in establishing whether Southport ought to be differently governed in future.
§ Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest)
While I cautiously welcome confirmation of the status quo for Worcestershire, how does my right hon. Friend propose to ensure that the new Worcestershire county council, in working closely—one hopes—with district councils, slims down its operations consistent with its lessened responsibilities under the reorganisation?
§ Mr. Gummer
My hon. Friend knows that SSAs will be reworked according to the new characteristics. We shall monitor the activities of county councils and measure them against their own promises. We shall seek to ensure that we get the best value for money, and I shall endeavour to encourage the professional organisations to recognise that it is not a satisfactory way of maintaining particular old forms, not only to insist on empire growing, but not to empire prune. In my view, there is a great need among county councils to reassess the traditional structure, to ascertain whether there are ways of improving it now that county councils are obviously meant to be enabling authorities—rather than constantly seeing themselves as doing authorities. A distinction must be drawn between policing and providing services in many areas, which county councils often forget.