HC Deb 31 January 1996 vol 270 cc1100-4

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Brandreth.]

10.14 pm
Mr. Matthew Banks (Southport)

It is a great honour to be a Member of Parliament, and a particular honour to represent the delightful seaside resort of Southport. As you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, before 1974 my constituency was a unitary authority that looked to Lancashire, not to Liverpool. But since 1974, it has been swallowed up by Merseyside and lost its independence.

The Southport county borough was proudly independent and self-governing throughout most of this century, from the 1900s to 1974. During that time, Southport had some of the lowest rates in the United Kingdom, and, I am pleased to report, was controlled by an efficient Conservative council.

In 1974, when Southport was swallowed up, a new authority called Sefton metropolitan borough council was created, including the parliamentary constituencies of Crosby and Bootle. Because of the geography and the make-up of the area, I have never believed, and nor have my constituents, that the metropolitan borough council works in their interests, or in those of Southport as a whole.

From the time when I was selected as a prospective parliamentary candidate in early 1989, I pledged that, if I were elected—and, indeed, up to and including the election—I would work unceasingly to find a mechanism to ensure that the local government structure for Southport was reviewed. Not content with that pledge, I went further. I publicly promised that I would ensure that such a review would begin in the lifetime of this Parliament, not at some unspecified date in the future. It is now time for that process to commence.

I look to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State to make such a commitment at the end of the debate. Recently, in answer to yet another of my parliamentary questions, the Secretary of State said that the Local Government Commission had completed its review of the structure of local government in the shire counties, and that he was now considering the recommendations in the commission's final report, which was published on 19 December. No doubt my right hon. Friend will spend some time considering the report, but I believe that it is now time for the structure of local government in my constituency to be reviewed.

Southport county borough under the Conservatives had the among the lowest rates in the country. It was well run and efficient, and took much pride in itself and in the town. But since Merseyside swallowed up my constituency, that pride has been a little tarnished, and I am determined to reverse that trend so that Southport can be proud and independent in Lancashire again.

I place on record my thanks to the independent cross-party Southport borough campaign. With my assistance, it organised a referendum within the town, which took place over a period of one month. Before that, in one of a series of meetings that I have had over several years with the Secretary of State, the Local Government Commission and other Ministers at the Department of the Environment, I was asked whether I could demonstrate that at least 5,000 of my constituents wanted a change. I told my right hon. Friend that I could do rather better than that—and indeed, over the month of the referendum, about 23,000 of my constituents made it clear that they wanted that change. I was determined, on their behalf, that the change should come about.

Despite that large number, I do not believe that the Local Government Commission gave me the kind of response for which I would have wished. In fact, in my view the then chairman did not keep his verbal and written promise to me. Since then, I have felt very much alone in my battle with Whitehall and Westminster to ensure that the matter remains on the agenda, culminating in tonight's debate.

I would like to thank also my hon. Friends who have joined me in the House tonight. Blackpool has sought to move away from the control of Lancashire county council, and I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Elletson) is in his place, as is my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans). I am particularly pleased to see my right hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West (Mr. Hunt), as he has fought so hard for his constituency and for the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Porter).

Mr. David Hunt (Wirral, West)

Does my hon. Friend agree that there are similar strong feelings about the need for a review of the structure of local government in Wirral, and particularly in the constituencies of Wirral, West and Wirral, South? Thousands of representations have been received over a lengthy period from local people. He has our strong support, and I very much hope that we will have his.

Mr. Banks

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. He knows full well that he has my support. We have stood together in these discussions, and I very much hope that at some future date—not too far away—the Local Government Commission will, as a result of my right hon. Friend's efforts, review the structure of local government in the Wirral also.

I should like to place on record my thanks to my former parliamentary assistant and great friend Roderick Brown, my agent, Mr. John Critten, and my parliamentary secretary here at Westminster, Jane Banks, for all their help behind the scenes in bringing this matter to a satisfactory resolution. I am pleased to see that Jane, who doubles as my wife, is here tonight. I am only sorry that, as I did not have a great deal of notice of the debate, other constituents have not been able to be present to see the debate. No hon. Member has a more supportive or politically astute spouse, and Southport is extremely lucky to have her.

May I also place on record my thanks to my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Ryder), the former Chief Whip, who had to bear the brunt of my sometimes gritty determination. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) and to my former Whip my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown), who know how hard I have had to battle behind the scenes on this issue.

I read with great interest today my local newspapers in Southport—the Advertiser, the Visiter and the Champion. I noticed a front-page article in the Southport Champion with the headline: "Town to quit Sefton? MP Banks pushes for Southport to go it alone."

Further down the front page, there were some comments from the former Member of Parliament, Councillor Ronald Fearn. I quote what he said in the article: I have campaigned for this for 20 years. I hope Mr. Gummer gets his finger out and does something. We do not want any more vague promises, we want action. That comes from a man who, in 1973, voted as a councillor to go into Merseyside in the first place and did nothing in the intervening years. In February 1992, he voted with the Labour party in each and every Division in this House against the creation of the very Local Government Commission that is our only chance of gaining independence from Merseyside.

Mr. Harold Elletson (Blackpool, North)

Is my hon. Friend aware that Councillor Fearn was in this House for four years, but did nothing to get Southport back into Lancashire? My hon. Friend has fought his campaign valiantly to get Southport back where it belongs—in the red rose county of Lancashire.

Mr. Banks

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As I mentioned, Blackpool will be gaining its independence from Lancashire county council very shortly, as will Blackburn and, I hope, other places.

The importance of the size of a particular potential unitary authority has also been brought into question. Blackpool and Blackburn have gained independence that they did not have before 1974, and a town such as Hartlepool—of a similar size to Southport—has done so also. I have no truck with those who say that Southport will not be big enough to run its own affairs. It did so before 1974, and it can, and—if I have anything to do with it—will, again.

The only issue of contention has been put about by those with a vested interest, who say that senior citizens will not be able to benefit from the generous current concessionary travel schemes. I do not believe that any successor authority would want to do other than continue to opt into the concessionary travel scheme that currently exists in Southport and the metropolitan area. Any candidate from any political party who said otherwise would not be elected.

Breaking away from Sefton and ceasing to be run by Bootle will allow the tourist industry in my constituency to develop properly. At present, Bootle councillors do not give a damn about what happens in Southport. It is nonsense for them to suggest that we might come third, behind Blackpool and St Anne's as a resort. We have our own product: it is different from Blackpool's, and we are very proud of it.

I believe that, if the Minister is prepared to give the go-ahead tonight, a review can not merely get under way in the lifetime of the present Parliament but begin in a matter of weeks. I should like the Local Government Commission to institute a referendum, so that local people can give their views, to arrange public meetings and consultation, and to take sufficient time to listen carefully to local opinion.

Such reviews take a long time. The shire review has taken at least a year, and it may well take longer than that to complete the review of Southport and Sefton. My constituents must remember that this Government, and this Conservative party, will give them the opportunity of a review and the chance of independence. Mindful of the actions of my predecessor—a Liberal Democrat—and his party's and Labour's policy for regional government, I fear that, in the unlikely event of a Labour Government, those two parties would not complete the review I seek. The interests of my constituents will best be served by the re-election of the present Government.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and to his ministerial team for the way in which, over a number of years, they have listened to the arguments that I have advanced, sometimes forcefully. Now, however, the time for debate is over, and the review should begin. We want our independence in Southport to be considered as soon as possible, and I look to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State to announce the review for which I have asked, so that, once again, my constituency can run its own affairs and get out of Sefton and Merseyside once and for all.

10.26 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir Paul Beresford)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. Banks) on stepping into the breach on an urgent basis. I note that he has the heavy brigade behind him in the form of my hon. Friends the Members for Blackpool, North (Mr. Elletson) and for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans)—and, of course, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West (Mr. Hunt), who is pushing a similar case to which we must give consideration. I am delighted to respond to the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Southport has made so emphatically. Unusually but effectively, his wife has supported him, campaigning vigorously.

Since 1974, when the change came about, people in Southport have objected to being part of Merseyside. It is not just being in Merseyside rather than Lancashire that is unpopular; given Southport's former status as an independent county borough, people also dislike being part of the larger metropolitan borough of Sefton, along with Bootle and Crosby. My hon. Friend's wish for Southport to be returned to Lancashire is long-standing: he spoke of it on the first occasion he spoke in the House, and he has continued to speak of it ever since.

The Local Government Commission's remit covers structural, electoral and boundary changes. When it was set up in 1992, its first priority was the structural review of the English shire counties; however, in September 1993, we made it clear that the commission would be able to review the metropolitan areas when the shire reviews were completed, where there was pressure for change. There has certainly been strong pressure in Southport, perhaps to a unique degree—aided, abetted and pushed by my hon. Friend.

In September 1993, the Local Government Commission received the results of the ballot carried out in Southport. Of 35,000 ballot papers delivered, an extraordinary 23,000 were returned in favour of a review and less than 1,000 against. That was a positive response rate. From an area with an electorate of 72,000, it must be taken as a dramatic indication of local opinion.

The commission has concluded the shire structure reviews, including the further district reviews in counties such as Lancashire. Its main priority now is the periodic electoral reviews. It is bound by statute to undertake those and, as far as practicable, within no more than 15 years since the previous review. Those are becoming increasingly urgent in a number of places, and that work should take precedence. However, there will be room in its programme to carry out a few other reviews.

My hon. Friend met my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State before Christmas, and he knows that we are aware of the strength of feeling in Southport. I can confirm to him that one of the commission's additional reviews will be that of Southport.

Any review, except for a periodic electoral review, needs a direction to the commission from the Secretary of State. We are considering whether the direction will tell the commission to consider Southport or the whole of Sefton. It is important, however, that it is clear that the commission is not being directed towards a particular outcome.

It will also be necessary, as with the individual district reviews, which have just been completed, for the commission to consider the viability of the remnant authority that might result. That is not to say that it will not know what pressures led to any particular review. I suspect that my hon. Friend will not allow it to forget.

The basic procedures that the commission has to follow in any review are set down in the Local Government Act 1992. There must be two intervals for consultation and representations—before and after it produces its draft recommendations. Although guidance can expand on that procedure, the detail of how it conducts a review should be left to the commission to decide. That would include how it might measure the attitude of the general public. My hon. Friend might like to approach the commission directly to find out what methods it would like to use for the boundary review.

The recommendations at the end of any review are, of course, a matter entirely for the commission. In the case of a review of a metropolitan area, however, some constraints arise from the Act. For example, it defines a structural change only as a change from a two-tier system of local government to a one-tier system; there cannot be a change in the opposite direction.

In addition, a unitary authority cannot be part of two-tier county area. In other words, a unitary Southport self-evidently could not be part of a two-tier Lancashire under Lancashire county council, although the two could be deemed to be joined for ceremonial purposes, such as the lord lieutenancy. It is therefore helpful that the shire structure reviews are now complete—subject to my right hon. Friend's decisions on the commission's final reports on the district reviews—so that the context is clear.

I said that there is room in the commission's programme for a few boundary or parishing reviews and that one of those will be of Sefton. We hope to be able to announce soon what the others will be. That will be when the commission announces its programme of periodic electoral reviews. We are working on the direction and guidance to the commission. We will also be discussing with it what would be an appropriate length of time for the review, given the issues that have to be addressed in metropolitan areas.

Once again, I congratulate my hon. Friend on the force and energy that he has put into this subject, in the face of the failure of his predecessor, and on his success in ensuring that local government in Southport will be considered by the commission.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes to Eleven o'clock.