HC Deb 27 April 2004 vol 420 cc861-8

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

7.30 pm
Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

I am pleased to have this opportunity to discuss the future relationship between Bury metropolitan borough council and Rossendale district council. In general terms that relationship is very good; our concern is the future, following what we hope will be a successful outcome to the referendum on regional government. Relationships between Members of Parliament representing constituencies within the two local authority areas are of course good, although we do have our moments and our disagreements. The issue that I want to raise tonight concerns one such disagreement.

As you will know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the Government are committed to referendums on regional government in three of our regions, which will take place in the autumn of next year. If there is a yes vote in the referendum in the north-west, as I dearly hope there will be—my colleagues and I are confident that we will achieve such a vote—boundary changes will be necessary in parts of the region. It is the boundary change affecting parts of south-east Lancashire that concerns my local authority of Bury metropolitan borough council.

The boundary committee was charged with making initial recommendations for future boundaries, consequent on regional government. In December 2003, the committee produced its report on all the possibilities and made its initial recommendations. In terms of the area adjacent to my local authority, the committee considered four options for reorganising the south-eastern part of the current Lancashire county council area. One option was a very large unitary authority covering most of the existing area of Lancashire county council; a second option was a very large unitary incorporating Blackburn, Burnley and Rossendale; a third option was a smaller unitary incorporating the existing boroughs of Burnley, Pendle and Rossendale; and a fourth option involved amalgamating Bury metropolitan borough council and Rossendale district council.

The boundary committee recommended two of the four options. There was a further consultation period, and the committee will produce its final report at the end of May—in other words, within the next four weeks. The committee has to suggest at least two options. According to my understanding of the relevant legislation, the ballot paper must provide at least two options, but it could provide three. My intention tonight, therefore, is to argue the case for the option of a merger of Bury metropolitan borough council and part of the existing Rossendale district council.

First, we felt that the boundary committee did not fully examine the merits of the case for Bury. We were concerned that it dismissed the Bury option by basing its judgment on outdated information from the Audit Commission about the performance; of Bury local authority. The assessment of 2002 was used, which was itself based on statistical information and performance indicators from earlier years. It has now been superseded. It is important to put clearly on the record that, although the boundary committee was concerned about Bury's designation by the Audit Commission as a "weak" authority, that is no longer the case. In fact, in 2003, the Audit Commission congratulated Bury on being the fastest improving local authority in the country. Its designation was improved to "fair"; at the moment its latest designation is a matter of negotiation and discussion with the Audit Commission. Bury is confident that it will be designated a "good" authority in the very near future.

We were also concerned about the boundary committee's other options. If the option to create a very large local authority—involving Blackburn, Burnley and Rossendale—were accepted, it would be the largest unitary authority in the country. Its population would be bigger than that of any of our regional cities, other than Birmingham. That option did not seem terribly realistic or to have widespread support among the constituent communities.

As to the Burnley, Pendle and Rossendale option, it had a logic and it was important to put it before the electorate, but the boundary committee made the point that there were no natural or automatic links between all of the borough of Rossendale and Burnley and Pendle.

I want to summarise the case for Bury and urge the Government to give serious thought to it. I hope that the boundary committee will, in its final deliberations before it publishes its report at the end of May, also revisit the case for Bury. The fact is that part of the existing Bury metropolitan district council—the town of Ramsbottom, an important, beautiful and historic town in my constituency—was, prior to 1974, within the former Lancashire county council, and it is firmly located geographically within the Rossendale valley. The links between Ramsbottom at the northern end of Bury and the rest of Rossendale are good. It is quicker to drive from the centre of Rossendale to Ramsbottom than it is to Burnley or Blackburn. There is a steam rail link between Ramsbottom and Rawtenstall, and it is probably quicker to get by bus from the centre of Rossendale to the centre of Bury than it is to either Burnley or Blackburn. My first point, then, is that the geographical and transport links between most of Rossendale and Bury are good.

I would also point out that the boundary committee, in its report of December 2003, had some concerns about the options that it finally recommended. It states, for example: We have identified some drawbacks to a Burnley, Pendle and Rossendale unitary authority … we have reservations over the current performance of the constituent districts and their ability, when combined, to provide for a high performing unitary authority … we note that there is little conclusive evidence of a strong community of interest between Rossendale and the boroughs of Burnley and Pendle … The research in Rossendale"— research on public opinion— shows that residents are more likely to travel to neighbouring Bury". The boundary committee report went on to say: We note that the MORI research"— carried out by the opinion polling company— shows that some residents in Rossendale associate themselves with Bury and that many residents visit Bury for clothes and household goods shopping. We also note that there are good communication links between the two boroughs, which are connected via the M66. We are aware that there are some similarities between the two boroughs in terms of social, demographic and economic make up. Clearly, the boundary committee was itself a little sceptical about some of the arguments in favour of the options that it recommended. It was also very supportive of much of the case that Bury made—and it is important to have that on the record.

The main point that I want to get across in this debate is that Bury metropolitan district council has significantly raised its level of performance in recent years. The 2002 Audit Commission assessment was critical, but much has happened since. Earlier, I said that Bury was described by the Audit Commission as the fastest improving local authority in Britain last year. Its education authority was listed as the fourth most effective and successful in the country, and its social services and housing departments were awarded two stars.

In addition, Bury's libraries and recreation department has moved from the low end of the three-star designation to the high end. That is exactly as good as the achievement recorded in the highest performing unitary authority in the country. It is very important that all those very significant improvements in Bury's performance are recognised.

In social services, Bury may be the best performing authority nationally in terms of discharges from hospitals. That is a very important indicator. Bury has also increased dramatically the number of households of elderly people receiving intensive home care—one of the most important services for ordinary people.

The improvement in the efficiency of Bury's administration of housing services is shown by the fact that it has achieved a dramatic increase in the percentage of rents collected. Rent arrears have been reduced, and tenants' satisfaction has improved. The efficiency of the council's void management is demonstrated by the fact that average re-let times have been cut almost in half, while benefit processing times have fallen by about 30 per cent.

Similar improvements are evident in other areas of performance. Some years ago, the use of recycling in waste disposal was on a downward trend, but it is now at 6 per cent. and on the up: 28,000 homes in the borough now benefit from doorstep collection and a green waste scheme.

Bury's scores for general management performance are also very high. Its robust scrutiny frameworks for monitoring best value improvement plans and for the biannual monitoring of target performance indicators have been commended. Overall, there has been an 80 per cent. improvement in the past year in its performance indicators. In addition, Bury's strategy for information, communications and technology is based on an investment of £3 million in new systems from 2005.

The town has a record of innovation. Bury is one of the smallest metropolitan districts in the country, but it was the first to adopt a climate change strategy.

Although it is small, Bury is famous for its shopping centre, and its market is a great attraction, being the busiest and best in the north-west of England. The town's shopping centre is also attractive to many residents in Rossendale. As a result, a major redevelopment of the centre is being negotiated that will cost the best part of £150 million.

The boundary committee report of December 2003 did not pay sufficient attention, or do justice, to the achievements and improvement in performance of Bury council. It is a question not only of the scores currently being achieved, but of the council's ability to sustain the improvement. That is a matter of great importance to the Audit Commission. Being a county district, Rossendale does not have experience of the delivery of the major service areas of education and the social services, but Bury's capacity to sustain the improvements in those areas is also highly commended by the Audit Commission.

This is a difficult matter, about which my hon. Friends the Members for Rossendale and Darwen (Janet Anderson) and for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope), who represent the Rossendale area, do not agree with me. Rossendale borough council has taken a different view, although the new leadership will accept whatever the outcome of the final reorganisation decision, which shows great openness.

There has been criticism of the extent to which the people of Rossendale have been engaged in the debate about the council's decision. There is concern that the council made up its mind—understandably, its preferred option is the link with Burnley—and did not take on board all the opinions of all the people in Rossendale. I merely report that there has been criticism that the results or some debates in the area forums that were held were not reported back in their entirety to the full council.

There is a feeling, which my hon. Friends may confirm and which is certainly reflected in the local press, that as the months have gone by and the debate has gone on, more people in Rossendale have come round to seeing the case for Bury as a viable option and have expressed the view that they would like a vote on the matter when the time comes.

I must comment in passing on the Conservatives in Rossendale—there may be only three of them, but they still represent a substantial body of opinion—by highlighting an interesting article from the Rossendale Free Press of last November, which said that the Conservatives backed the link with Bury. It says: Let's link up with Bury, say the Tories. Quite how they will reconcile their support for boundary reorganisation involving a merger with Bury with campaigning against regional government is beyond me, but that is a hopeful sign that Conservatives in the north-west will also back regional government as a prerequisite step to obtaining the local boundary change that they want.

Opinion varies among people in Rossendale. In a borough of such disparate communities, we will never find an exactly uniform voice. There will be differences between those in the north, the west, the east and the south. However, arguments in favour of Bury have been made by local people. A submission from a body of local people to the boundary committee makes the specific point that as the months have gone by there has been evidence in Rossendale of growing public interest in and support for the Bury option. That growing support is based on a number of factors, including the costs of change. Another is the fact that Bury, as a metropolitan district, is already running education and social services, which would make it easier to absorb education and social services in Rossendale without the costly and difficult problem of recruiting new staff from the former county council. The infrastructure is already there, as is the record of achievement. There is concern about minimising disruption, and the Bury option would do that.

In terms of the impact on council tax payers, Bury has historically had modest levels of council tax. It was recently praised for having the lowest council tax among metropolitan districts, and it rates highly in the national index of cost-effectiveness. A MORI telephone poll in the later part of last year indicated that Rossendale citizens as a whole identify more with Bury than with any other neighbour. There is one more important fact: of all the neighbouring boroughs with an interest in the matter, only Bury has proactively tried to market its proposals, which is appreciated by some of the body of opinion in Rossendale. Bury is enthusiastic about the potential for merger; Bury is confident about arguing its case and has put a lot of effort into putting that case before the people of Rossendale. Therefore, Bury feels aggrieved that, as matters stand, the Bury option will not be on the ballot paper.

The future of the boundaries in that part of south-east Lancashire is of great interest to many people. At the moment, two options are on the table, one of which is generally considered to be unrealistic. Therefore, the choice for the people of Rossendale is limited. The position of Bury metropolitan district council has been slightly revised since its original attempt to argue the case for a whole merger. The revised submission was sent to the boundary committee in January and further discussions were held in February. Bury council now accepts the logic of a small part of Rossendale being absorbed into neighbouring Rochdale—one of the boundary committee's recommendations. The council also accepts the logic of another part of Rossendale being absorbed into the district of Burnley. Therefore, Bury's current plea is that a revised option, under which Bury would be linked with the Rawtenstall and Haslingden parts of Rossendale, should be on the ballot paper. That would be advantageous, because that option could mean the division of Rossendale partly into Rochdale, with which it has a close community connection, and partly into Burnley to the north, with which it also has a close connection, but the remainder into Bury to the south. That option could achieve the widest consensus among people across Rossendale. Those in the north with an affinity for Burnley could vote for the link of their part of Rossendale with Burnley, those near Rochdale could vote for the link with Rochdale and those who have the strongest identification with Bury could vote for the link with Bury.

The boundary committee needs to consider carefully the revised case that Bury metropolitan district council has put forward. It is not a clear-cut issue, and all the options have pros and cons. However, I wish to ensure that the case for Bury gets a fair hearing and, when we move to the vote on boundary changes—after the successful referendum on regional government—that the people of Rossendale will have a fair choice between two or three viable options.

7.52 pm
Janet Anderson (Rossendale and Darwen) (Lab)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) for allowing me to speak in this debate for what will necessarily now be a very brief time. He has put forward an interesting proposal, but I am astonished that he has done so. I am especially surprised because my hon. Friend is no stranger to the Rossendale valley. He of all people should therefore understand that rural Rossendale and urban Bury have very little in common.

Recent research on behalf of the boundary committee found that 68 per cent. of Rossendale residents feel strongly about belonging to Rossendale. Some 71 per cent. feel strongly about belonging to the county of Lancashire and 71 per cent. have stated a preference for one of the options put forward by the boundary committee. I must also refute my hon. Friend's allegations that Rossendale borough council has not undertaken the widest possible consultation: it has. In fact, only 4 per cent. of residents expressed a preference for another option. In any case, there is no other option. The third option exists only in the fertile imagination of my hon. Friend. Our priority must be the delivery of services and effective local government for the people of Rossendale.

Rossendale council gives the highest priority to the improvement of its delivery of services. The September 2002 corporate governance report found that the council delivered unacceptably poor services at high cost. That has been followed up by the recent comprehensive performance assessment process, which has identified Rossendale borough council as poor, although it is now making significant improvements. However, Bury council, as my hon. Friend has stated, has recently moved up from "weak" to "fair" in the comprehensive performance assessment. He can argue that that a "fair" assessment is unfair, but that is the assessment at the moment. By contrast, both Pendle and Burnley are already rated as "good". We consider that these ratings and the sustained quality of service that they represent form a sound basis for the delivery of high performance in a new unitary authority of Rossendale, Burnley and Pendle. That is why the controlling Labour group on the council has been unanimous for a Burnley, Pendle and Rossendale authority, and that is why the majority of councillors of all parties support that option. My hon. Friend referred to Conservative support, but only three Conservative councillors gave that support.

I urge the Minister to listen to the people of Rossendale and to consign this madcap fantasy to the dustbin where it rightly belongs.

7.55 pm
Mr. Greg Pope (Hyndburn) (Lab)

I shall be very brief. If we wanted evidence for what a madcap scheme merging Bury with Rossendale would be, it is provided by the fact that the idea is supported by three Rossendale Conservative councillors.

There is a compelling case for unitary local government in east Lancashire, and I hope that the Minister will take on board the good case for decoupling it from regional government. Unitary authorities are a good idea or they are not—I think that they are. There is a strong case for a unitary east Lancashire authority, but I take the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) that such an authority may be too large. In that case, there is a compelling case for a unitary authority of Burnley, Pendle and Rossendale.

The people I represent in Haslingden do not want to be run from Bury. I do not think that my hon. Friend has made a case and, as time is short, I shall leave it at that. However, I hope that the Minister and the boundary committee will take note of the fact that the people of Haslingden do not want to be run from Bury.

7.56 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Phil Hope)

In the short time allowed to me to reply, I shall congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) on securing the debate and on enabling my hon. Friends the Members for Rossendale and Darwen (Janet Anderson) and for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope) to participate, however briefly.

The Government are committed to offering the people of the north-west the choice of establishing an elected regional assembly, and we have had many debates in the House on the benefits that such an assembly would bring. We have made it clear that elected regional assemblies will draw most of their powers from central Government, their agencies and quangos, and not from local government. However, there will be implications for local government. If a region establishes an elected assembly, it will also move towards wholly unitary local government. If we left things as they are, elected assemblies would add a third tier of elected government below the national level. That would be a tier too many.

I have listened carefully to the arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North and to those made by hon. Members in favour of alternatives. The boundary committee has been charged with recommending the options that can be put to voters in any local government referendum. The Secretary of State cannot add "options" that are not recommended. The only power that the Secretary of State has is to accept, reject or modify the committee's recommendations. Much will depend on the recommendations put to us, but in most circumstances the scope for modification is limited. A modification cannot materially alter the essence of the recommendation.

Once the Secretary of State has received the committee's final recommendations, which may include options different from the draft recommendations that are currently being considered, there will be a further opportunity for interested parties to make representations to the Secretary of State for a period of up to six weeks. I can therefore assure my hon. Friend and all colleagues in the House that any comments that they wish to make at that stage will be considered, along with any other representations received, before any order stating this local government options to be included in the referendum is made.

I emphasise that the judgments as to what options can be brought forward are judgments to be made by the boundary committee, having regard both to the need to reflect the identities and interests of local communities and to secure effective and convenient local government. The judgments must also conform to the guidance issued by the Secretary of State. While the boundary committee undertakes the reviews, the Government play no part in the process. Clearly it would not be appropriate for me to comment until the boundary committee's final recommendations are made. The Government will take no view of any prospective scheme for reorganisation until we receive the final recommendations from the boundary committee in May.

Although I have not be able to tell my hon. Friend the Government's posit ion on any of the proposals that are being discussed, he and other hon. Members will have the opportunity to make representations once the boundary committee brings forward its recommendations

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Eight o'clock.