§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Burns.]9.34 am
§ Sir Jim Spicer (West Dorset)
Thank you, Madam Speaker, for allowing Dorset Members of Parliament this debate on the future of local government in Dorset. Before I turn to the substance of my speech, I should like to make a heartfelt plea for the future of Dorset's farming community. Just one week ago, that future looked secure and prosperous. It is amazing how much can change in a week. Over the past week, we have seen how inextricably the prosperity of our farming community is linked with the future of our county.
I therefore make a plea to every Member of this House—especially those representing Dorset—to our county, district and parish councillors, and to everyone else, to spread the word that British beef is 100 per cent. safe, and that we should all make it a point of honour to eat only British farm produce until the iniquitous and politically motivated ban on British food in Europe is lifted. My plea is directed particularly to those who have done their best in our county to spread alarm about the safety of British beef and to cast doubt on the integrity and competence of the members of the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee, who have given such splendid scientific advice to the Government—advice that we have all hitherto supported.
We want to stress our anxiety about what will happen to services and costs in what will remain of Dorset once Poole and Bournemouth depart in May 1997—although I well understand that that will not be the primary concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson). In broad-brush terms, Poole and Bournemouth contribute 45 per cent. of our population, and almost the same percentage of our finance. So, from 1 May 1997, the new truncated and much smaller Dorset will have just half the population and half the budget that we have at our disposal for 1996–97—roughly £550 million.
These are stark figures. If I were the chairman of a company about to lose half my customers and income, I would by now be imposing draconian disciplines and preparing the ground for major reconstruction and cuts in staff and services.
Over the years that I have been in Dorset, our staff at county hall have served us remarkably well, but at this moment they must be feeling insecure and extremely unhappy. They must be looking for leadership of a quality that has perhaps been lacking in the past two years. I wish that I had confidence that the Liberal-controlled 944 administration was of sufficient calibre to bite the bullet and take the necessary tough and unpopular decisions. Unfortunately, its track record to date suggests that it is not.
I offer one or two examples of what I mean. Until about three or four months before the last county council elections, leading Liberals on the county council were kept fully informed of plans for a waste disposal site at Holnest. They wholly approved of the purchase of the site, and agreed that it desperately needed to be brought into use as quickly as possible.
Then it became politically expedient for them to disapprove totally, using as an explanation for that complete about-turn the proposition that Liberalsare in the vanguard of progress and therefore support a policy of waste to energy".They indicated at that time that they were totally opposed to any future use of landfill sites, which were so terrible for the environment.
On the night after their victory—by one vote—the leader of the Liberal group, the leader of the Liberal Democrats and their supporters drank champagne at Holnest to celebrate the birth of this great new environmental dream. My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) will no doubt tell the House just what has happened since that momentous gathering; all I will say is that the whole sorry saga adds up to a lack of backbone and an unwillingness to take tough and unpopular decisions. What did the reversal of the Liberals' support cost the council taxpayers of Dorset? I would like to see that figure quantified. I have never seen it, but I have heard used the figure of approximately £1 million.
Of course, to cover their tracks, on this and all other things, the Liberals are always ready to "consult"—or at least when it suits them to do so. Just a month ago, we were informed that the BBC is to close its local radio station in Dorchester. There was no consultation with the people of Dorset, the district councils or, for that matter, anyone beyond a small group from the county council. One official who met the BBC agreed that it would be worth while, and that there was no alternative. That is not consultation.
When it suits them, however, they consult. For example, quite recently, about 55,000 glossy consultation documents were sent out, in which the people of Dorset were asked one simple question:What do you want to happen to your waste?Approximately 4,000 replies were received, and, inevitably, the vast majority were in favour of a waste-to-energy policy. Had a box been provided for the question: "Are there any other points you would wish to make?" all those people who replied would have said, "Yes. Waste-to-energy, but not anywhere near my house." What a waste of time. We all know that people want their waste disposed of in the most effective way.
§ Mrs. Diana Maddock (Christchurch)
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Government asked county councils to consult on their waste plans, and that our consultation was part of that?
§ Sir Jim Spicer
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that point. The consultation document was glossy in the extreme and implied all the way through that we were dealing with a caring council that had 945 marvellous views of its own and was committed to a waste-to-energy policy. As I said, my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset will show only too clearly what has happened to that marvellous dream of waste-to-energy in Dorset in the face of opposition.
As I have said, the BBC station in Dorchester will close on Friday. I regret that, and resent the way in which that has been done by the BBC, which did not consult me or any other Member of Parliament as far as I know—except, possibly, the hon. Member for Christchurch.
My second example comes from Sherborne, and relates to the former playing fields at the grammar school there. Before the county council elections, Liberal candidates in the Sherborne area staunchly opposed the sale of the playing fields site. The inevitable "Focus" campaign leaflet condemned it asselling off the family silver".Now, the same leading and formerly well-respected Liberals in the area are leading the charge to sell off that land for building.
I caught one leading Liberal councillor slightly off guard, and asked, "Why on earth did you ever change your mind on this?" Unbelievably from a Liberal. I got an honest answer straight away. He said, "We never thought for a moment that we would win control of the county council." That says it all as far as I am concerned, and illustrates only too clearly the way in which some Liberals on our county council have behaved over the past two or three years.
My hon. Friends and the hon. Lady will remember that, last year, we had a crucial and decisive meeting with the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment. At that meeting, the leader of the county council and his colleagues begged—I use that word advisedly—not only the Minister but all Dorset Members of Parliament to support the proposal for a rural Dorset county council as opposed to unitary authorities. They gave me—my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr. Baker) was particularly concerned about this—a total assurance that they understood only too well just what this would mean in terms of a reduced service from county hall, and as a priority promised to ensure that the cost of the retention of the smaller county council would be kept to an absolute minimum.
We asked for this debate because we are fearful that the present Liberal-controlled administration does not have the will, the stomach or, indeed, the ability to face the inevitable cuts that would result—if my hon. Friends the Members for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) and for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill), who sadly is on a Committee this morning, were here, they would disagree with me—from the departure of Bournemouth and Poole from our county, as announced by the leader of the Liberal group, who said that the Liberals totally supported that, on the night of the county council elections. That closed off the option that most people in my part of Dorset wanted: to retain our county exactly as it is. The Liberals sold the pass on that, and then had to fall back on this much smaller rural county council.
What help can my hon. Friend the Minister give us and the people of Dorset to monitor the administration in county hall and to ensure that it has the determination to put in train the cuts that we all know will have to be 946 made? If the Government are not able to monitor in the way that we would want, and to force the county council to live up to the promises it gave, we all know that, on 1 May 1997, after the county council elections, the new Conservative-controlled county council will inherit the lack of will and determination that has been shown by the current Liberal administration in Dorset.
§ Sir Jim Spicer
Not again—I am so sorry. I am sure that the hon. Lady will have her opportunity in a few moments.
I make two further points. Liberals in Dorset are very much on the defensive at the moment, and rightly so. Two recent by-election results demonstrate that clearly—one in the Hamworth division of Poole, in which their majority was cut from 823 to 87, and the other in the Lodmoor division of Weymouth, in which their majority was cut from more than 900 to just 139.
We all know that the Liberals are desperate—I do not blame them for that—to retain control at county hall. I fear that, over the next financial year, they might consider upgrading the priorities for schemes that might just retain, or even gain, votes in marginal county council seats. Such a course of action would put even more pressure on what is bound to be a very restricted budget from 1997 onwards. I hope that the Liberal Democrats in Dorset will not embark on such a devious course of action. I can assure them that, if they do, it will be noted and exposed.
Equally, I hope that the Liberal Democrats will not continue to raise expectations in our schools by asking them what services they would like to have after 1997. They should warn our schools that the range of services available from county hall will almost certainly have to be curtailed, a fact that may encourage more schools to opt out and take full control of their budgets with no deductions by county hall, and then buy in whatever services they need from the best sources at the best prices.
Local politicians must spell out the education system they want. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East will know only too well, there are very good grammar schools and a number of grant-maintained schools in the Bournemouth area. Presumably, under the new unitary authority they will not only remain but be encouraged, by Liberal as well as Conservative councils. We certainly hope that that will happen.
§ Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East)
When the Liberal-controlled Bournemouth borough council took control in 1991, one of its first actions was to pass a motion seeking the abolition of grant-maintained schools. I fear that the future of grant-maintained status in Bournemouth will be in jeopardy if the Liberals retain control.
§ Sir Jim Spicer
I am very sorry to hear it. I had always thought that Bournemouth would take the lead in that regard.
We should like to know what the present county council feels about the education system that will emerge in our part of Dorset after the elections. Is it completely opposed to grammar schools? Does it see any merit in 947 grant-maintained schools? If not, is it intent on maintaining the comprehensive system? All those questions must be answered during the next few months; the size and shape of central education services at county hall will depend on the answers that are given.
Having spoken for just over 15 minutes, I want to end as I began, by saying a little about the morale and quality of staff at county hall. They are a superbly dedicated group, but, inevitably, their morale has been lowered, and many of the more senior staff have announced their intention of leaving. Decision-making from the top will be desperately needed over the next year. If we are to have a chairman and a managing director, they will have to make decisions of the kind that many of us have had to make in business over the past 10 years when our companies have been cut right back. We have had to make those decisions, and we have had to carry our staff with us. I implore the present county hall administration to cut out the politics, to do what is right for the people of Dorset, and to carry their staff with them.
I was distressed when, last Friday, the Liberals on West Dorset district council—which has been a shining light in local government—decided to turn it political. None of us in West Dorset wants that: it is entirely unnecessary. Let me end on that sad note, while expressing the hope that some of the thoughts that emerge from today's debate will strike a chord with people at county hall.
§ Mrs. Diana Maddock (Christchurch)
The debate is very well timed. It takes place just a few days after the publication of the Audit Commission's league tables for local authorities; it also gives us an opportunity to assess the progress that the county is making during the current reorganisation. Moreover, it coincides with an appeal in the House of Lords relating to a case involving the Government and Dorset county council.
The debate also gives us an opportunity to put the record straight. There has been misinformation in Dorset. The hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir J. Spicer) spoke of the need to take politics out of the county's affairs; I hope that he will do that himself, and that we Dorset Members will do our best to fight Dorset's corner here at Westminster.
The Audit Commission's figures confirm what I have always believed—that the county council is very underfunded by Government. Although its spending is at the capping limit, expenditure per head in Dorset is the lowest in the country. Because of that, services might be expected to be poor, but the Audit Commission praises the county's efficient performance. Although it is the third lowest spender on education, its GCSE results are the sixth highest in England. As for the thorny problem of waste disposal, only two counties manage to recycle more than Dorset. It ranks fifth highest among the English counties in the provision of library books and other materials.
If I had been allowed to intervene at the appropriate point, I would have asked the hon. Member for West Dorset when he last spoke to officers and councillors at Dorset county council about the progress they had made with reorganisation. As far as I know, the hon. Gentleman did not speak to officers, or even to the Conservative group leader, before today's debate—unless he has done so since yesterday morning.
§ Sir Jim Spicer
That is absolute nonsense. I speak to the leader of the Conservative group on a weekly basis, and have done so ever since last year's crucial meeting. I do not take all my information from him, but I am told about some of the council's expenditure—such as the money spent on establishing a European office, which was wasteful and unnecessary. If you look after the pennies, the pounds will look after themselves.
§ Mrs. Maddock
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman raised the question of Europe, because that is one of the issues on which there has been disinformation. Hon. Members will see that if they consult this Session's early-day motions. At a town council meeting in Verwood on Monday, I was asked why we were not receiving more money from Europe. Those who asked me that question had attended meetings in Devon and Cornwall; I explained that Dorset was slightly different. The county council had, in fact, saved money by uniting with Hampshire to try to ensure that we obtained what we could from the European Community, to which we pay a good deal of money.
§ Mrs. Maddock
No. I want to make some progress.
Let me say something about local government reorganisation. The Minister was responsible for a conference entitled "Partnership Across the Tiers". He pointed out that the districts were doing good work, and identified three issues that needed attention. One was good will.
I believe that Dorset county council has tried to generate good will between itself and members of district councils at all levels. The Minister also wanted a systematic review of all services. There is an agreed programme for that in Dorset; much of the work has been undertaken at officer level, and reports will be submitted to the county's reorganisation committee. The chairmen of policy and resources meet every fortnight to discuss reorganisation.
Only a few counties are working with all districts: that was the Minister's verdict. Dorset is one of those counties. Its chairman of policy and resources has written to the district councils assuring them of its good will. The door is open: members of district councils have been invited to attend and speak at meetings of the county council. I hope that the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) will give credit where it is due. County council officers have given every help to Bournemouth and Poole in the run-up to unitary status.
The hon. Member for West Dorset drew attention to the serious problem of funding during reorganisation. Dorset's budget could be reduced by up to 45 per cent. However, Bournemouth's budget will increase by 600 per cent. I know that it is taking on new powers, but even so, that is a large amount. Poole's budget will go up by about 700 per cent. Obviously, we will need to monitor with great care the massive transfer of staff and budgets and services.
There will be a drastic reduction in chief officer posts in the county departments, and a reduction in the committee structure. There is a root-and-branch examination of staffing and the funding of county services. There are detailed discussions on specialist services, and discussions 949 are starting to ensure joint administration where possible, so that we do not duplicate what is happening in the two tiers. We also want meaningful dialogue between district, town and parish councils.
I spoke about the meeting that I attended in Verwood on Monday. I knew that there would be a local government Minister in this debate, so I promised to raise the concern of the people at that meeting about funding. When the uniform business rate was introduced, part of their funding disappeared, and I should be grateful if the Minister could say whether he sees any other way of returning finance to the town and parish councils which do so much good work at local level.
As we speak, an appeal is taking place in the House of Lords involving the county council and the Government. The Government have asked county councils to try to make sure that, where possible, services are put out to the private sector. Dorset has done that for residential homes for elderly people who need care. That has cost the council money, but the Government are not prepared to reimburse it. There was one appeal which the county won, but the Government are appealing against it; that is not the best way to support our county when it is going forward, and in view of its good record on providing services for the elderly. It has followed the Government's advice.
Hon. Members have spoken about education and about what should be happening in Dorset. Over the years that I have been in this place, it has become clear that Dorset does not get a fair deal. That has also become clear to the local electorate. That is why, in the May elections, despite the points that were made by the hon. Member for West Dorset, the Liberals made an enormous number of gains and the Conservatives lost many seats. We gained 21, and the Conservatives lost somewhat fewer seats than that.
Over some years, the verdict on the Liberal Democrats is that they like what they do. People are pleased that we consult them and listen to what they say. The hon. Member for West Dorset spoke about leadership. Leadership is also about working with people for the benefit of the community and listening to them. That is what Liberal Democrats have done in Dorset, and that is why they have been rewarded with votes.
It is for the Government to look at why Dorset is the lowest spender and how they can help us. Rising numbers of children are entering our schools, and increasing numbers of elderly people need care, but we are not being given the grants to keep pace with those rising demands. It is up to the Government to recognise that Dorset is not the same as some of the counties in the south-west. They give extra help to counties in the south-east in recognition of the costs of providing services, and anyone who crosses the border from Hampshire to Dorset will see that the amount plummets.
There is as much as £100 a head difference on each child in a school, and in the average first school that means an extra teacher. Some children in Highcliffe cannot get into the school, because there is not enough space and there are not enough teachers. If those children lived two or three miles down the road in Hampshire, there would be enough money to fund a teacher, and they would be able to attend school there.
950 The Government should reward Dorset for its increased good stewardship, but that has not been done. Dorset Members should unite. I ask Conservative Members to stop fighting the Westminster corner in Dorset, and join me in fighting Dorset's corner in Westminster for a fair deal. People in Dorset recognise that they are not getting a fair deal, and that is why they have voted for those who have spoken up for them.
I am pleased to note that the hon. Member for West Dorset agrees that we need to encourage all those in county hall, and that we need to do our best. I ask him to join me in ensuring that we stop the knockabout and fight for a fair deal for Dorset.
§ 10.5 am
§ Mr. Nicholas Baker (North Dorset)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir J. Spicer) on securing this debate on local government in Dorset. The debate is timely and urgent. I associate myself with his remarks about BSE and its effect. I endorse his wish to restore confidence to people in Dorset, who eat beef, I am glad to say, and to the farming community. His remarks were timely and they have my complete support. The ban on beef in schools and its extension to Dorset county schools is not the way to address the scientific evidence or to restore confidence in that excellent product, British beef.
The history of Dorset county council until 1993 under Conservative control was of a low-spending, low-charging authority that was free from borrowing. It was managed on sound and clear lines and had councillors who were good at listening, were free from party politics and worked for the benefit of Dorset people. Examples were the continued, responsible financial management of the county's affairs, a resistance to borrowing and steady improvements.
Capital spending in the schools programme was noteworthy, and additional spending on, for example, the education of children with special needs was a substantial achievement. The roads programme was responsibly managed, and, thanks to good capital management, road maintenance and new road schemes were implemented. All those areas are currently under threat.
I agree with my hon. Friend that Dorset county council has been blessed with high-quality officers and staff, to whom I pay tribute. They have followed their instructions and have done the best they could within them for the county. Any criticism in my speech is directed not at them but at their political masters.
I return to the point succinctly made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset. The local government review will have a substantial impact on Dorset, and I make no secret of the fact that the plans that are being implemented to allow Bournemouth and Poole to go their own way, for reasons that I understand, while the remainder of the county remains a one-county unit, were not my favoured solution. However, it was clearly agreed that, if that plan were decided by the Secretary of State, the county council would make strong endeavours to reduce the cost and administrative expenses in the county that remained, so that, after reorganisation, the level of services and charges, apart from reorganisation costs for my constituents, would be unaffected.
County council leaders clearly recognised that that would involve a reduction in administration and the severing of offices between the county and the urban 951 authorities in Poole and Bournemouth, and that maximum co-operation would be ensured between elected representatives in Dorset at all necessary levels to achieve the necessary economies, contractions in administration and preservation of services.
§ Mrs. Maddock
When was the last time the hon. Gentleman had discussions with the county council and with councillors? What progress has been made in the direction that he has mentioned?
§ Mr. Baker
The answer to the hon. Lady's suggestion that I have not been in touch with the chief executive is that I received a written report from him in the past week. She has anticipated the next part of my speech.
I requested a report on the current situation of the local government review. I was glad to receive the reply, but it was less than satisfactory. Necessary progress in achieving economies and reduction in bureaucracy and administration has not yet materialised, although the officers are, of course, doing what they can. They are doing an excellent job, as they always have done, but a funding shortfall of 5 per cent. to provide current standards of service will not do. There must be some political will and co-operation, which was agreed in my original discussions, to ensure that services for my constituents and all our rural constituents are preserved.
Dorset county council must do a great deal—of course, there is a great deal that the district councils and district councillors must do as well—to reassure the people of Dorset that services will be maintained.
§ Mr. Ian Bruce
Does my hon. Friend recall that the reports we were originally given by the district councils and the county council ruled out the current suggested reorganisation in Dorset, because it was financially unviable, as no savings were coming from unitary authorities for the rump of the county? Are we not criticising this county for deciding at the last minute to change its negotiating tactics, and providing something to Dorset taxpayers that will never be paid for?
§ Mr. Baker
Yes; my hon. Friend is, of course, quite right. I think that it was explained to the county that, if it changed its mind in that way, there would be very severe financial implications for the administration and bureaucracy, which had to be attacked. We received an assurance that they would be attacked, because of the point that my hon. Friend rightly made.
§ Mr. Baker
No; I am sorry, but I have given way once, and I have other things to say.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset described the Liberal Democrats' U-turn—supporting the landfill site at Holnest and then abandoning it when it proved unpopular, which unseated a distinguished and respected Conservative councillor—to achieve control of the county council at the election. That they abandoned the alternative of incineration when it proved unpopular was a disgraceful episode, and it has done nothing to improve the standing of politicians, particularly the standing of Liberal Democrats, in Dorset. I hope that such episodes will not be repeated.
952 In order to secure votes in the election, Liberal Democrats gave commitments to support capital expenditure on schools. Speaking as an outsider and one whose constituency was not affected by those commitments, I must say that the urgency of the commitments was questionable. They achieved power with the assistance of promises on school capital spending, but they found that they had so skewed the budget that vital revenue expenditure on education had to be cut.
Instead of providing, for example, for part of the easily anticipated teachers' pay settlement—as the previous Conservative administration had done—at a time, I accept, of a very tight financial settlement, they failed to provide sufficiently for the settlement and simply passed on the costs and the problem to schools, urging them to deal with the matter and saying that it was all the Government's fault.
The well-worn and substantially misplaced complaint that everything that is inconvenient or difficult is the fault of central Government may have fooled some of the people on that occasion, but it is increasingly failing to fool all of the people all of the time. The frequency with which the Government are blamed for facts of life such as budget constraints, awkward choices and other decisions that are local government's responsibility—which responsible local government should be willing to exercise—is not only wearing thin in Dorset but is eroding local responsibility for local matters.
Dorset county council has grievously disappointed those of us who support the extension of nursery schools. It rejected the opportunity to act as a pilot for the nursery school voucher scheme, which would have benefited many parents in Dorset. Some courage, some leadership, and a decision that was not entirely easy to make were required to grasp that opportunity.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset, vigilant as ever, and others of us arranged for a visit to Dorchester by the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, so that we could explain the scheme and extend the time in which Dorset county council might have joined in. That visit was to no avail. The minds of council leaders were made up on the matter, and—on party political and doctrinal grounds—the parents of Dorset were denied that opportunity.
As an hon. Member has already said, I hope that the county council will respond positively to applications for grant-maintained status where schools and parents wish it. I should like to add a bouquet here. There have, hitherto, been no grant-maintained schools in my constituency, but I am very pleased to say that Beaucroft school, in Colehill, which is doing a first-class job of educating children with special needs, has been granted that status. I am sure that the county council joins me in wishing it well on its independent status, which I have no doubt will be to the benefit of all its students.
One of the county council's responsibilities is, of course, social services and therefore implementation of care in the community, which has had the support of all political parties and everyone involved in social services. The total amount available to spend on social services through the special transitional grant and standard spending assessment is £93.8 million in 1996–97, which is an increase of £7.285 million—or 8.4 per cent. in cash terms—on 1995–96. Budget cuts below that provided for through the SSA by central Government grant have been a major setback for Dorset social services.
953 The very large hike in charges for non-residential care has also given rise to substantial concern among disabled people and others affected. I have the greatest sympathy with the social services department, which is gamely trying to provide a service against the financial background provided by its political masters, but the way in which this matter has been handled has surely called into question responsibility for care in the community, and whether it would not be better handled by the Department of Health and general practitioners. I know that my hon. Friends may have more to say on that matter.
As I said earlier, I am concerned about the future of highway maintenance in the county. Many of us take the view that the days of large-scale road construction in Britain are over, and that the traffic schemes we have must increasingly be sensitively handled and justified in terms of cost. Part of our approach to roads in future has to be a much greater analysis of how each road is used, and how—by controlling traffic flows, using traffic calming measures and in other ways—the use of each square foot of road can be maximised without the expense of new road construction. It makes no sense, however, to downgrade road maintenance in a way that threatens road transport in the county, which only serves to defer the financial bill, as some of us have already had to point out.
I am glad that we have played some part in persuading the county council to consider traffic calming measures and a more sophisticated use of roads. I hope that those measures are developed in the future. I pay tribute to the county surveyor and his staff for their continuing dedicated work.
I have mentioned the perennial wail of Liberal Democrats at county hall about Dorset county council's budget and its standard spending assessment. I know that the Minister will address that point in his reply, but I must say that—in the years in which the Government have rightly reigned back on their own and on local governments' expenditure—Dorset has, with one exception, been treated fairly.
The SSA settlement for the current year was increased by 2.9 per cent., and the education component was increased by 4.8 per cent. I will not be alone in Dorset, certainly among hon. Members, in saying that I regard education expenditure as a very important priority.
The exception, to which I referred a moment ago, is the way in which Dorset is affected as a result of the area cost adjustment factor in the SSA. The hon. Lady also referred to that. Although Dorset and adjoining counties to the west are excluded from any beneficial treatment, it is true that Hampshire to the east has benefited under the formula in a way that can hardly be justified in comparison with Dorset. I am glad that the Secretary of State for the Environment has asked for that factor to be investigated, and that the relevant team is due to report in June. I hope that some adjustment to the formula will result, and we anxiously await the outcome of that investigation.
I hope that the present regime at county hall will carefully consider its planning responsibilities. As part of those responsibilities, I am aware that it is conducting a consultation on Dorset's structure plan, and that it has said, as a regional guidance figure, that about 63,000 more homes will be built in Dorset by the year 2016. It is quite 954 clear that that figure has been found as a result of a mechanical extrapolation of existing trends. It is far too high.
§ Mr. Baker
I am sorry, but I cannot give way. I must not shut out other hon. Friends, or I shall be lynched.
The Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration has made it clear that he would like a debate to be held on the precise needs of each county, as well as an examination of the capability of each county to absorb increased development. I am pleased that he has also stated the aim that half of new developments should take place on existing developed land. I hope that that could be regarded as a minimum requirement in many parts of the country.
I hope that the county council will try to assess properly the needs of the county, rather than swallow wholesale a figure arrived at mechanically, and then simply pass on responsibility for it to the Government. I expect, however, that it will do that. The greater say in local planning matters for which I and a number of my colleagues argued strongly in the past was not achieved in order to allow the county council to abandon responsibility for such housing figures. The people of Dorset do not want over-development of the county. They expect our precious environment to be respected and conserved, and so do I.
It would be fair to summarise by saying that the current delivery of local government services in Dorset is a matter of concern to me and my constituents. One day, Dorset county will again have an excellent Conservative administration, as it enjoyed in the past, but until then I hope that hon. Members and county councillors of all parties can work together. I renew that wish, despite the criticisms I felt it right to make today.
I hope that the Liberal Democrats who control Dorset county council will abandon partisan party politics for its own sake; consider the best interests of the people of Dorset; and have the courage to take the difficult decisions which are necessary to preserve the services that the people of Dorset deserve.
§ Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East)
I, too, welcome this timely opportunity to discuss local government in Dorset. As the House knows, the borough of my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill), together with the borough of my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Ward), who is present, are looking forward to becoming unitary authorities next year, to which elections will take place on 2 May.
In our constituencies, there is near-universal acclamation at the prospect, now certain, of ending our direct relationship with county hall. We can then become responsible for our own destiny. The achievement of that break during the lifetime of this Parliament was one of the principal aims I set myself at the general election. That aim will now be delivered, despite the opposition of the Dorset county Labour party. Our constituents will applaud this Government for making it possible.
In Bournemouth's case, the change represents a reversal of the injustice imposed in 1974 when it ceased to be a county borough council. We also lost our county, 955 Hampshire, and were moved into Dorset to underpin—that is, to subsidise—a predominantly rural economy. I am still receiving letters addressed to "Bournemouth, Hants", either as a result of continuing ignorance or in continuing protest.
Even though Bournemouth did not choose to have its major services run by Dorset, I believe that it made every effort to make the new arrangements work. As we come to the end of our 23-year relationship with county hall, I hope that due tribute will be paid, as I pay it today, to all those who have represented Bournemouth and Poole for their contributions to the county of Dorset.
Despite those contributions, however,it must have soon become clear that it would prove impossible to assimilate adequately the provision of services to the predominantly urban and expanding conurbations of Bournemouth and Poole with those of the predominantly rural county; and so it has proved. It has, however, only become apparent in more recent years that that credibility gap between county and district has widened, and certainly so following the election of a Liberal-controlled council in 1993, for the first time in the county's history.
This winter is the first for three years that I, and I suspect all my Dorset colleagues, have not received waves of orchestrated letters from angry parents of primary school children complaining about overcrowded classrooms. They had every right to complain, as I saw for myself when I visited all the primary schools in my constituency in response to their letters. Of course we all pursued those concerns with Ministers, whose replies acknowledged the problem, but fairly pointed out that Dorset's SSA for education increased by 30 per cent. between 1991 and 1995—well above inflation. What has been the problem? My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West, with great assiduity, has exposed the fact that the cost of the provision of central services from county hall is at the heart of the problem. Dorset is spending £660 per pupil per year on county bureaucracy—far more than other shire counties.
What cannot be challenged is that overcrowded classes in our primary schools represent a failure by the strategic authority—the county council—to match the provision of education with those planning permissions it has allowed, which has led to the increase in classroom populations. Yet it was the same county council which, 10 years before, closed down a much-loved school in my constituency, Beaufort, because it was surplus to requirements. Much of its site was sold for redevelopment.
Another cause for concern that my hon. Friends the Members for Bournemouth, West and for Poole have asked me to raise is the continuing lack of speech therapy provision in Dorset's special schools, notably Winchelsea. I accept, of course, that the Health Commission is the providing authority. It seems that the local education authority and the Health Commission blame each other. It is hoped that the forthcoming reorganisation will produce a new determination to resolve that problem once and for all.
§ Mr. Atkinson
No. I do not have much time, and I want to hear from other hon. Friends, the Opposition spokeswoman and the Minister.
956 In addition to primary school education, growing dissatisfaction has been expressed about the county-run library services in Bournemouth, because of reduced opening hours and threats to close down local libraries such as Springbourne and Strouden Park in my constituency.
As my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr. Baker) has said, undoubted dissatisfaction is felt at the dramatic increase in home help charges to the elderly and the housebound, particularly when it is realised that the county does not even spend its SSA-related grant for personal social services. There is also growing awareness of the dire consequences of the county's abandonment of the route that would have completed the link between our superb inner-urban highway, called Wessex way, from the east, with the equally good Dorset way, which leads to the west. I hope that the two new unitary authorities of Bournemouth and Poole will be able to rescue that completion as soon as possible.
In the light of those experiences of a Liberal-run county council, it would be the greatest tragedy if, having once again become our own masters in Bournemouth, the Liberals were to be elected to run the new unitary authority in May. In that event, one would expect Bournemouth council, with a Liberal majority, to follow the official Liberal party policy. It is not awfully clear what that policy is, but I understand that the Liberals remain committed to a local income tax. That would mean that income tax payers would be taxed not once but twice, and someone at the town hall—it might be one's neighbour—would know all about our tax returns.
The Liberals are also committed to higher income tax, so income tax payers would be not only paying twice, but paying more. That should come as no surprise, because, this year, Liberal-controlled councils have, on average, charged 20 per cent. more in council tax than Conservative-controlled councils. That is equivalent to an extra £112 on a band C house. The Liberals also want to get rid of the capping regime, so that they could spend even more than the Government allow them to spend at the moment.
A Liberal-controlled council would be expected to follow official Liberal policy to abolish Bournemouth's grant-maintained schools—Bournemouth school for boys, Bournemouth school for girls, Avonbourne and St. Peter's in my constituency alone. They were good grammar and secondary modern schools before, but, as the league tables show, they have excelled since being free of bureaucratic LEA control.
That, however, should come as no surprise, because, as I told my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir J. Spicer), when Bournemouth council fell under Liberal control in 1991, one of its first actions was to pass a resolution committing itself to end grant-maintained status for schools. Its policy was to end the assisted places scheme for children from poor backgrounds to obtain places in independent schools, about which the vicar of St. John's, Boscombe recently wrote to me to thank me on behalf of his daughter, who goes to Talbot Woods independent school.
After our experience with Liberal-controlled Dorset county council, any prospect of Liberal councillors, supported by Labour colleagues, taking control of our new authority, whose budget will rise fivefold up to 957 £150 million, and of our good schools, social services, libraries and highways, horrifies me. It should horrify my constituents.
The voters of Bournemouth will want to know the Conservative alternative for our borough's future. Having read our draft manifesto, they will not be disappointed. It represents a clear strategy for the future that will carry the support of residents and businesses. It emphasises that Bournemouth's future success, like that of its past, lies in the promotion of the quality and value for money of its attractions and services.
My constituents will welcome the 10-point plan to make Bournemouth safer from crime and from the criminal, including more security cameras, crime prevention initiatives and an increase in the police presence on our streets. We know that, following the Prime Minister's announcement of 5,000 more police nationwide, Dorset will receive 66 extra police, on top of the 128 extra officers that it has had since 1979, but there is no reason why our chief constable cannot add to those. He now no longer needs Home Office approval. He will have more money to do so—there will be an increase of £4.1 million, or 6.2 per cent., next year—and he has scope to replace deskbound police with civilian staff.
We all welcome the recent announcement that, thanks to our persistent representations, council tax payers will no longer contribute to the cost of securing party conferences in Bournemouth. All that is different from what is suggested by the Liberal Democrats in their current propaganda campaign. I quote from the so-called "Parliamentary Spokesman for Bournemouth East"—obviously the Liberal Democrats' candidate to challenge me at the next election, but I can understand why he does not want to say so. He says:For years the government refused to allow Dorset Police any extra officers.We know that that is not true. He goes on:Recorded crime is rising in Dorset according to Home Office figures.I hope that he will withdraw that statement in the light of yesterday's figures that, last year, recorded crime fell in Dorset as well as in the rest of the country.
My constituents will welcome our Conservative manifesto commitment to improve standards in bedsits and hostels, the so-called houses in multiple occupation. I commend the Government on going further than they were originally prepared to go in the Housing Bill, which is before the House, to give town halls the powers they need to deal with the problems, which, if left unchecked, would have destroyed tourism in our town and, ultimately, the town itself.
That will require, however, a council with the will and determination to use the new powers to their fullest extent to hold to account the seedy landlords and their organisations, so that it may remove this cancer from our midst. Only a Conservative council will do that. Our voters will respond to that message in particular.
It will, I hope, be clear to my constituents that the outcome of the elections on 2 May will be crucial to Bournemouth's future. It was Conservative councillors who laid the foundations and built the Bournemouth of which we were proud. The past five years of Liberal 958 leadership, with Labour in support, have proved no better and, in many ways, much worse, as last week's Audit Commission report has shown. As our relationship with Dorset county council becomes history, I hope that our voters will have the good sense to return a Conservative council again, to take Bournemouth into the 21st century.
§ Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)
I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir H. Spicer) on securing this timely debate. I especially welcome the opportunity to nail once and for all the biggest lie in Dorset. That lie has been mentioned by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock). It is that Members of Parliament for Dorset and the previous administration in county hall have not fought Dorset's corner. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I cast no aspersions on other people's ability to fight for Dorset, but any Member of Parliament who comes to this place knows that they represent their constituents, and that no one else will fight for a better share of national resources for Dorset. I therefore become angry when I read headlines trying to steal the thunder of Members of Parliament, all of whom have been in this place much longer than me and have done an extremely good job, constantly bringing to Ministers' attention what we need for our Dorset constituents.
That should never remove from our minds the way in which we correctly use money in Dorset, and the fact that. throughout the decades, our officers have been extremely skilful in dealing with the low resources coming to Dorset. The hon. Member for Christchurch mentioned what good education we achieve with virtually the lowest spending on education. That must be reflected at the beginning of all our remarks. We must be proud of teachers in Dorset and of how they achieve value for money. Many people could learn front what we do in Dorset. We are proud of everything we do in our national health service and other such organisations. I hope that any robust comments I make should not reflect on the abilities of the people who work in those organisations.
At our first meeting with the new administration, the leader of the Liberal Democrats and the new chairman of the policies and resources committee came to see us in a spirit of co-operation. We had what seemed to be an extremely positive and sensible exchange of views. I did not agree with Councillor Trevor Jones's view that we would be wasting our time if we continued to press the Government on several issues. That was annoying.
One of the issues was the area cost adjustment. Councillor Jones said that we had been banging on about it for many years, and that the Government simply would not listen. To a certain extent, we were becoming worried that that was true.
Another issue was the funding of the police. At the meeting, he specifically said—I have noted it down; I was a little surprised—that we should concentrate on increasing the standard spending assessment for education and on other sectors, arid remove from our campaigning tactics the area cost adjustment and the funding of the Conservative conference for the police force. Councillors agreed, however, that we should still bang on about those issues and press the Government.
The Government have now said—belatedly, but it is to be welcomed—that they are considering the area cost adjustment, and that a report will be published this 959 summer. I hope that the inequities of the policy will at long last be clear to everyone. It will be shown that area cost adjustments were a fiddle factor for high-spending inner-city authorities, and that the Labour party could not have continued such high spending if the authorities, especially those in London, had received only their fair share. It shows that the south-east has been receiving far too much of the national cake.
Given what has happened, it has been difficult to get at the facts and figures of the low SSA, as newspaper headlines on the latest settlement have shown. The Government will know that Dorset has just received the best settlement ever. One only has to read Councillor Trevor Jones's speech to discover that that is exactly what he thinks. One headline said, however, that there would be £4.7 million-worth of cuts. The council came to that wonderful figure simply because it decided that it would like to increase its budgets across the board by 7 per cent., and when it received only an increase of 6 per cent., the difference was £4.7 million.
§ Mrs. Maddock
Conservative Members seem to be afraid of facing the facts. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that at the end of Trevor Jones's excellent budget speech—I understand that Mr. Jones is yet to receive a reply from the hon. Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) to questions on some of the points that the hon. Gentleman has raised in the press that appear not to be quite right—all his Conservative colleagues said that, although the proposed budget was excellent, they were not prepared to vote for it, which is pretty poor, and that they sat on their hands? They did not propose another budget. I have yet to hear how Conservative Members think that all the wonderful services that they think are necessary should be paid for.
§ Mr. Bruce
My hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir J. Spicer) suggests that it would be a good idea if I got on with my speech and did not give way. It clearly would have been wise not to allow the hon. Lady her to make a fool of herself over that issue.
We all know—I am glad that the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock) emphasised it—that this year Dorset county council received its best ever settlement. Despite that, it issued press releases saying that it was losing £4.7 million, and my constituents believed that all their services would be cut. Yet the truth is that budgets will increase by 6 per cent., which most councils would have been amazed to receive from the Government in such a tight spending round.
§ Mr. Bruce
If the hon. Lady can contain herself a little more, I shall try to explain exactly why it was so difficult to get to the truth about the county's financial arrangements.
When Dorset received what we all agree was its worst settlement, we had great difficulty in understanding why, when the Government allocated only half the cost of the increase in teachers' salaries, the Liberal Democrat-controlled county council decided not to allocate even that amount to schools. It gave the schools zero per pupil from that amount. The newspapers then of course reported how terrible that was and advised people to write to all their lousy Conservative Members of Parliament about it.
960 At the end of that year, when we were looking for about £5 million to give to schools, we found that the county council had been able to put away, apparently in its back pocket, £10 million. Some people have been rather upset about my use of the word "filched" concerning that money, and I withdrew it in December in a letter to the chief executive.
I should explain to hon. Members exactly what happened. I had the greatest difficulty understanding the reports on the county's funding. Although it said that it had been able to put £5.5 million in one year into its balances, I could not find the other £4.5 million that it claimed it had underspent. I wrote to the chief executive and received a rather interesting reply. Rather than what I had expected him to say—that the money was to be found in this fund or that—I was told:The cost centre underspends in 1994–95 are not included in the general balances; as explained they are earmarked for spending in the current year and are playing a vital contribution to maintaining existing services.In other words, one can look as hard as one wants at the county's accounts and one will not find that money. How can councillors, Members of Parliament and head teachers put a case for funding to the county when money is hidden so well?
I should like to turn to local government reorganisation, where I am afraid that again we find the Liberal Democrats' sleight of hand, at which they seem to be so adept. It is interesting that, when the county council suddenly changed its policy on the way in which the county should be divided, a campaign, financed at county hall, was launched to keep the county as one body, and resulted in the distribution of petitions, posters and all sorts of literature, which were so misleading it was unbelievable. The official line was in fact that the county should be split into three and that all the district councils should be retained.
The House will be pleased to know that the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Geoffrey Tapper, wrote to me when I made allegations about that campaign and passed them to the district auditor. He said on 29 April:I shall not lie awake at nights worrying about the district auditor checking out your allegations.I hate to tell Geoffrey Tapper, but I spoke to the district auditor this morning and discovered that he will be having a meeting on 3 April with the county council's chief executive. That will give the council the chance to comment on the district auditor's report. I think that Geoffrey Tapper ought to start having a few sleepless nights.
The allegations have been levelled not only by the Labour mayor of Dorchester and myself, but by many others. I discovered them at a dinner party where a lady arrived late because she had to load into her car all the material that was being produced and photocopied in county hall in order to spend the first few hours of the following morning passing the stuff out to all the education institutions. When I challenged the county council about whether such a practice was a proper use of council funds—I assumed that it must have voted on it—I was told that the cost had been absorbed in the budget. Which budget? It was of course the education budget, the one that was under such pressure that all the allocation could not be spent. We ought to find out what is going on.
The hon. Member for Christchurch wanted to jump to her feet to challenge the fact that there have been fewer police officers recently, which is right. The reason for 961 that, however, is that, when the council became Liberal Democrat-controlled, it got rid in a by-election of Chips Selby-Bennett. who had been the biggest campaigner among the Conservatives for more bobbies on the beat.
The Liberal Democrats attacked him on the premise that the Conservatives were not doing enough for the police, yet the first thing they did was pass an emergency budget to cut police spending. The proposal was sent off to the police committee, which was not Liberal Democrat-controlled and included magistrates and all sorts of other representatives. The committee of course threw out the proposal, and forced the council to think again and retain the Conservative commitment to spend an extra £2 million every year on policing.
When the Government decided that policing should be funded separately, the county could still have allocated that £2 million to the police force if it had wanted to and if it had believed its own propaganda that was being sent out week after week. Of course it did not. It said that the funding was separate, and it was therefore able to dump it without being blamed. Press releases then said that the council had to get rid of some of its police officers. That is the sort of lie that we shall nail in this debate.
We have heard a little about the European office. Does it cost £50,000? Does it cost £100,000? Direct costs may be about £50,000, but we would like to know all about the indirect costs of having officers in this country.
The hon. Member for Christchurch talked about a parish council asking, "Where can we get help?" Well, when I asked councillors from Weymouth and Portland council, which is not controlled by my party, how much help they got from the county council's spending on the office in Europe, they replied, "Nothing." They do not even know where it is, and have never had a report from it. Nor has any Member of Parliament. We have never heard anything from that office.
I have told councils time and time again that we are allowed at least one free visit to Europe every year, and that we have an excellent Member of the European Parliament in Bryan Cassidy, who knows everybody. "Please use him," I say. Of course they do not, because that would not give them the headlines, or allow councillors to go and open offices and have freebies in Europe.
Another forthcoming report suggests that we join yet another such organisation. That would be fine if it saved us money or got us more money, but if it does not, we must find out what is happening.
I know that I am rapidly running out of time, but I must say something about waste disposal. In my constituency there is a site at Crossways, and I worked with local people who were upset about the life of that tip being extended. I also worked closely with the Liberal Democrats—they were in the Social Democratic party then—and the campaign was successful. It was fought on the planning issues, and the application was turned down, so we thought that there would be no tip there.
Then the county spent a lot of money—about £1 million, I think—deciding on Holnest, which my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset has mentioned. It spent that money producing a scheme that had the total support of all the political parties—until election time came round. Then 962 the Liberal Democrats went out and campaigned with other people, many of whom were Conservative supporters, against a tip at Holnest. They promised to dump the idea straight away and choose another type of waste removal.
The council then decided on an incinerator, and even negotiated a contract with a company, which must have spent tens of thousands of pounds getting it organised, with details of the pricing for the incinerator and everything else. But of course, when a decision had to be made on the siting—the choice was between two sites in my constituency—the local people would not have it. Indeed, the local Liberal Democrats would not have it, either, and they campaigned against it. So that idea was knocked on the head. We are now back to Crossways.
I know about the difficulties of waste disposal, and the county's problems. None the less, the Liberal Democrats cannot keep marching their troops up to the top of the hill, spending millions of pounds on plans and then, as soon as there is some resistance, saying, "Sorry, officers. Rip all that up and do something else." That is Liberal Democrats through and through. They are not willing to take difficult decisions; they just want to moan and tell people that it is somebody else who is stopping them spending the money.
We were also told that, if the council were allowed a higher cap, it would not spend all the money. But needless to say, as soon as it was given a higher cap, it spent right up to the limit. I hope that we shall get some good news for Dorset from the Minister. He can rest assured that Conservative Members will ensure that any money is spent correctly.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir Paul Beresford)
Like everybody else, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir J. Spicer) on securing the debate. I congratulate, too, my hon. Friends on having joined in, and, of course, the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock).
Today, a number of markers have been put down for local authorities, especially Dorset county council, which will be called upon to meet those targets—targets which in many ways it has set for itself. The hon. Member for Christchurch was to some extent trying to defend the indefensible—but we shall wait and see; the results will come forward.
In defence of the council, the hon. Lady mentioned the Audit Commission report. I do not think that I have ever seen an Audit Commission report on a council that could not be called a curate's egg, so obviously she can pick out some of the nice bits and leave some of the more distasteful bits for other Members to ponder upon. I hope that they will do so.
The hon. Lady also made comparisons of costs with other counties. That is difficult to do. As she will be aware, one must consider standard spending assessments and other factors, and also the nature of the other members of the family. Those factors alone are enough to suggest that savings would be available.
The hon. Lady made the standard complaint about expenditure vis-a-vis Government expenditure. We must recognise that, as has been said, the SSA for the county increased by 2.9 per cent, its SSA for education rose by 4.9 per cent., that for the fire service by 9 per cent., and 963 the capping limit by 3.3 per cent. Those figures are not targets but ceilings, and I am sure that the county council could spend well within and below them.
The other predominant factor in the debate was the result of the recommendations of the Local Government Commission. As has been said, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State considered the commission's report and the representations that he had received, and on 21 March last year he announced his decision. He accepted the recommendation that there should be unitary authorities for Bournemouth and Poole, but decided that the rest of the county should remain with two-tier local government.
As my hon. Friends have pointed out, that hybrid solution was promoted by the county council itself.
§ Sir Paul Beresford
I have only about five minutes, and I have already cut my speech considerably. I shall just run through a few points.
§ Mrs. Maddock
I realise that time is short, but to blame Dorset county council for what happened over local government reorganisation is amazing. It was a Government-inspired operation, and there was no agreement in Dorset among anyone—county council, district councils or Members of Parliament—about what should happen. In the end, we have all had to suffer a hybrid position that very few people wanted.
§ Sir Paul Beresford
If the hon. Lady is having some problems with private grief over her own disabilities and so on, I shall leave her to struggle with it. The fact is that the hybrid solution was ultimately promoted by the county council. To my mind, that means that the county council must make it work.
The order to make Bournemouth and Poole unitary was made on 11 July last year. All-out elections to those authorities will be held in May this year, and reorganisation will take effect on 1 April 1997.
The county council has said that it is committed to carrying out a fundamental review of the division of functions and finances between the two tiers. As part of that service review, it proposes to delegate decision making and service delivery where appropriate, and carry out service audits jointly with the districts. It is committed to streamlining service provision in collaboration with the district and other councils. It also proposes sharing principles and objectives with the districts—for example, for trading standards and for libraries.
964 During the local government review, many local authorities made such undertakings. We made it plain that we expected local authorities not only to make such undertakings but to put them into practice.
As the hon. Member for Christchurch said, I was at a conference on Monday at which the Local Government Management Board launched a report analysing the commitments given to the Local Government Commission during the review. The report shows that some authorities are putting their words into action and introducing many innovative improvements.
On the other hand, it is clear that progress across England has been patchy. That is true not only of the nature and scale of improvements, but also of the range of people involved. Dorset was not one of the areas used as a case study, but there is some evidence of intentions, and we expect those intentions to be fulfilled.
Mention has been made of costings, expenditure and the anticipated standard spending assessments of the authorities affected by reorganisation. The methodology for each service will be the same as it is now. Indicative 1996–97 SSAs will be available in May. That gives a short but physically possible time in which authorities can organise themselves.
Of course, Government offices will be keeping watch over progress towards reorganisation date; their interest will be directed towards particular local authority services in which they have a special interest. However, it would be fair to say that we shall not see clearly how things are developing until after the elections to the unitary authorities in May. Indeed, the regulations placing powers and duties on authorities to prepare for reorganisation reserve much of the power to make policy decisions to the councillors who will be elected then.
Apart from the Government office, the Audit Commission and the district auditors are in a unique position to see what is happening in each authority, and the Audit Commission has a statutory duty to promote efficient, effective and economic local government. Preparation for reorganisation and developing co-ordination and co-operation across the tiers form a part of the agenda.
As authorities consider their performance, external auditors will be able to help councils assess how successfully they are working with each other and will suggest areas where improvements can be made. It is fairly obvious that my hon. Friends will also do exactly that. I encourage them to do so, because it will help decide whether their constituents are successfully served by their county councils or not. I hope that my hon. Friends will continue to put pressure on authorities, as they have done this morning.