HL Deb 05 December 1991 vol 533 cc345-87

4.22 p.m.

House again in Committee on Clause 13.

Baroness Young moved Amendment No. 143: Page 11, line 19, leave out ("as respects each of those areas either") and insert ("by 31 December 1994").

The noble Baroness said: In moving this amendment I shall, for the convenience of the Committee, speak also to Amendment No. 210. The purpose; of the amendment is clear: it is to ensure that the Local Government Commission makes recommendations about the whole of England by the end of 1994. I warmly welcome the Bill and believe that Part II, providing for the establishment of the Local Government Commission, is particularly important. I am sure that, in a very complex and difficult situation, it is highly desirable that authorities should be able to put their views to the commission and that all points of view should be heard before a decision is reached.

However, it means that while the commission is undertaking its work there will be a considerable period of uncertainty when no one will know what is going to happen. That is particularly serious for the staff. My attention was drawn only last week to a chief executive who is contemplating early retirement if there is to be another change in his authority. I do not have the slightest doubt that that kind of situation is replicated throughout the country. Whatever else we may or nay not agree about, I believe that everyone accepts that a prolonged period of uncertainty is bad for any organisation. It is an unhappy situation for the individuals involved, and it certainly does not create good local government.

It is possible that 1994 is too soon or that it is the wrong date. This is a probing amendment. It would be most helpful to the Committee if my noble friend was able to give some kind of indication of what the Government think the timetable will be and how they propose to manage the intervening period. I am bound to say to my noble friend that we do not want a longer length of time than is absolutely necessary for the reasons that I have already given.

Perhaps I may speak briefly to Amendment No. 210 which, in a sense, is linked to the amendment before the Committee. Amendment No. 143 proposes that the Local Government Commission should report by 1994 and Amendment No. 210 gives the Secretary of State a maximum of a further two years to decide on implementation. I shall not repeat all the arguments that I put forward in relation to Amendment No. 143 because the same applies to the implementation. It is really setting a timetable. The amendment is modest; it is nevertheless important. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will consider the proposal seriously.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (The Viscount of Oxfuird)

Before proposing this amendment, I must advise Members of the Committee that if Amendment No. 143 is agreed to I shall not be able to call Amendment No. 144 due to pre-emption.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I should very much like to second the remarks so effectively made by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, in regard to Amendments Nos. 143 and 210. I do not think that there is very much between us on the matter. I believe that we all agree that the Local Government Commission has a large task to carry out and that it is essential that it should complete it as quickly as it can, consistent with the need to take careful account of local community views.

We are concerned that an elongated timetable may produce the fear of incremental change. The fact that some parts of the country are not included in the review, the possibility of becoming entangled in boundary problems and concern that there may not be sufficient members of the commission are all factors that could generate uncertainty and leave local people, voluntary organisations and, above all, as the noble Baroness, Lady Young, rightly said, staff, unclear and unsure of where their future lies.

Nationally, there will be serious problems in forecasting grant settlement and budget planning as well as the fact that staff will be unable to plan their futures. It will also be more difficult—this may sound a little ironic coming from this side of the Committee—for private contractors who have CCT contracts with local authorities. Their future will similarly be somewhat uncertain. That point was brought home most forcefully in the Audit Commission's response, at paragraphs 4 and 5, to the consultation paper this summer. It said: Further costs will be incurred as a result of the particular character of the recommendations in the consultative paper. These costs will apply at least in part, even if no re-adjustment in structure is forthcoming. Principally, they are the costs of uncertainty. In 1974 legislation clearly determined the parameters of reorganisation, eliminating many alternative structures. In 1991 no particular model is specified, and all current units of local government can (and probably will) lay claim to continuity, and an extended role under the new regime. Current councils must compete for their legitimacy and future … the Commission therefore welcomes the Secretary of State's statement to the effect that the Commission should complete its work quickly". It is for those reasons that I am happy to support the amendment. I hope that we shall have a speedy, though realistic, timetable. I was reassured to hear that the chairman-elect, Mr. John Banham, hopes to complete it within five years. Even that may be too extensive. The amendment would ensure that all parties know and share a common timetable. We should like it to be three years but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Young, said, the Minister may indicate that that is unreasonable and impracticable.

However, it would help if we had some indication on the matter which would help the report to come through. There is also the proposal for the additional two years for the Secretary of State. It would be most helpful if the Minister could suggest whether she is minded to encourage the Local Government Commission to publish its proposed timetable of work. That would alleviate uncertainty. With those comments, I repeat that I support the amendment.

Baroness Hamwee

I support the amendment. I do not wish to detain the Committee by repeating what has been said. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, reminded us most effectively that we are not dealing with some abstract arrangement but with something that affects people's lives. Therefore, it is clearly essential that we have not just a realistic timetable but one in which people have faith and one which will be stuck to and worked to on a reasonable basis.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

I share the view expressed by the three noble Baronesses from the different parties, that the more quickly the commission can start operations and produce its results, the better. I am bound to say that I feel that they were a little optimistic in believing that the job could be done by 31st December 1994. After all, the Bill will not become an Act until we are into 1992. It has to go through another place, and another place may wish to discuss it in some detail, as the Committee does. So it will not be law until well into 1992.

Given the enormous area of work which the commission will have to cover, it would he imposing upon it a difficult task to expect it to finish by 31st December 1994. Although one wants it to proceed as quickly as possible, it would be a mistake to hustle it. We hope that it will produce new constitutional arrangements for a large part of our local government system, and a system which will last because no one wants to be continually amending our system. We want it to be a worthy system which will operate for a good many years. I express a doubt—I shall be interested to hear what my noble friend the Minister says—as to whether the task can be done reasonably within the time proposed. That is an important point.

In considering the matter, it would help me if my noble friend would say, given the proposed strength of the commission, how many areas at a time it is expected that the commission will be tackling. As I understand it, it will tackle a number of areas simultaneously, especially on the great question of unitary or two-tier local government. That will obviously have a considerable bearing on when the whole job will be completed.

Baroness Faithfull

I support what my noble friends Lady Young and Lord Boyd-Carpenter have said. It is also important that there should be consultation at all levels with as many people as possible. There was not enough consultation with the people involved with local authorities, especially those under scrutiny, before the last reorganisation. That consultation takes time. If the reorganisation is to be successful, it must be successful for those who will work with and under local government. While I agree that we do not want to take too long over this, I hope that enough time will be given for consultation.

Baroness Blatch

The amendments would fundamentally alter the approach to reviewing the structure of local government for England for which the Bill provides.

I can appreciate that Members of the Committee wish the Local Government Commission to complete its reviews of local government structure as quickly as possible. I agree that a prolonged period of uncertainty is not desirable and we share the aim of arriving at the right answers and putting them into effect as quickly as possible.

We have made it clear that we believe that by reviewing the shire counties area by area, the commission will be able to find the best local solutions and we shall be able to move quickly in those areas where the need for change is established.

There is no question of setting a deadline in the Bill for the commission to carry out all its work or for my right honourable friend the Secretary of State to give effect to its recommendations by order. That would be unreasonable given the scale of the task. Even when its initial review of structure is complete, the commission will have a continuing role in relation to boundary and electoral changes. I cannot accept the amendments.

Perhaps I can respond to some of the points that have been made. On the programme, many of the responses to our consultation paper The Structure of Local Government in England commented upon our priorities for review. We are still considering what would be the most balanced and manageable programme for the commission.

My noble friends Lord Boyd-Carpenter and Lady Faithfull said that we must allow time for the job to be done properly. That point has been taken account of. From the Second Reading debate and what has been said today, I am seized of the fact that the more quickly this is done the better, but the balance has to be struck between that and having the job done correctly. I cannot say how long the commission will need to do its work. We do not wish to inhibit it from moving quickly where issues and resulting solutions are relatively straightforward, or from taking more time when it is appropriate.

I take the point about proper consultation made by my noble friend Lady Faithfull. We have set up the mechanisms for there to be proper consultation. We must give the Local Government Commission time to do that.

I was asked the direct question by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, about whether the Local Government Commission would publish a timetable. It will be the Secretary of State who will determine the programmes of work. So far as I am aware, although it is subject to the guidance which is out for consultation, the Secretary of State will not be time-limiting the exercise. It will be for the Local Government Commission to take the time appropriate to complete the programme.

From all we know of Mr. Banham, I believe that he will expedite where it is appropriate to do so, although we hope that he will not cut corners merely to meet what might turn out to be an artificial deadline.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I thank the Minister for giving way. Will she enlarge on that point? Is she saying that the Secretary of State will publish the programme of work—the areas in due order—to which the Local Government Commission will turn its attention, so that areas which are not due to be considered for three or four years can carry on with their local government duties?

Baroness Blatch

I cannot give a specific answer to that question now. It will he the Secretary of State who will prescribe the programme of work. At the moment I cannot say whether the whole programme will be established at the outset or whether it will be just the first one or two tranches of work. I am afraid that the noble Baroness must await that decision. Consultation resulting from the draft guidance may well give some indication and may influence the Secretary of State in those matters.

My noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter was also interested in whether one, two or even three areas would be dealt with at a time. I am afraid that I have to leave that question on the Table with the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis. The noble Baroness was also rightly interested in the transitional arrangements for matters such as budgets and contracts that had been entered into by local authorities. If one reads the guidance, one will see that the transitional arrangements will have to be properly addressed when the recommendation comes to the Secretary of State and, indeed, before Parliament. The recommendation will have to be comprehensive. It must not merely say that the authority can be a unitary authority. It must address a whole range of issues, including strategic matters, the proper functions of a local authority and the effective delivery of services. It will of course include the practical transitional arrangements necessary to achieve that.

I promise to take back all the messages that I have received as a result of discussing the amendment, and I hope that my noble friend will not press it.

Baroness Young

I thank all those Members of the Committee who have taken part in this short debate, especially the noble Baronesses, Lady Hollis and Lady Hamwee. My noble friend the Minister will recognise that there is great practical interest in all parts of the Committee as to how this matter will work out. We are all agreed that it is proper, and a good plan, to have a boundary commission.

I very much take the point of my noble friend Lady Faithful] about consultation. As I said to the Minister at the beginning, this is not a matter that I wish to press; it is a probing amendment. I was particularly pleased to hear her say that she would take back these points.

A number of detailed questions have arisen which need to be examined. To give one example, my noble friend spoke about the transitional arrangements and the point was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis. The uncertainty begins from now and that is the point. We shall have the period while the Bill goes through Parliament, the period before it becomes law; we shall then have the period of the boundary commission and then the period after the decision has been taken, before the new authority comes into being. Throughout that time, there will be uncertainty not only for individuals but in respect of the work and all the other arrangements that have to be made.

It may well be that the point of my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter about dealing with more than one area at a time should be examined. Also, perhaps we ought to consider whether to have more commissioners so that the matter can proceed more quickly. There are a number of alternatives. I hope that my noble friend will take back these points and consider them. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Young had given notice of her intention to move Amendment No. 144:

Page 11, line 20, after ("areas") insert ("or classes of local authorities").

The noble Baroness said: I understand that this amendment has already been spoken to, therefore I shall not move it.

[Amendment No. 144 not moved.]

Baroness Hollis of Heigham moved Amendment No. 145:

Page 11, line 21, after ("boundary") insert ("(with the consent of the authorities affected by the changes)").

The noble Baroness said: I wish to speak to Amendment No. 145 and, with the consent of the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, also to Amendment No. 147. Both amendments relate to boundary questions and therefore this may be for the convenience of the Minister. The amendments seek to support the sensible and straightforward draft guidance in the consultative document.

Baroness Blatch

If the noble Baroness will permit me to intervene, this is the first that I have heard that these amendments are linked. They are not linked on the Marshalled List, nor in the groupings. My information was that Amendment No. 145 was to be taken separately.

4.45 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I am happy to take my amendment separately if that is what the Minister prefers. I was simply trying, in response to her concern, to group the amendments in order to proceed more swiftly. Very well, I shall just deal with Amendment No. 145.

It is clear that the commission will need to consider boundaries in the broadest sense. Some of us hope to argue later that it may wish on the one hand to reflect regional considerations and, on the other, not to create new authorities which may transgress boundaries which have clear historical identities. In moving the amendment, I wish to make three points. First, unless there is clear local support for boundary change, it is a long, acrimonious, wrangling disputatious process because it affects not only the character and identity of an authority but also more prosaic considerations like standard spending assessments, UBR and the tax base. Because it is acrimonious and wrangling, in that situation, the work of the Local Government Commission might be bogged down.

A second, perhaps obvious point but nonetheless worth making is that work with boundaries at this stage not only creates unnecessary uncertainty and upheaval, but clearly has an almost domino effect on all the adjacent authorities. This, too, will multiply the confusion and complexity which will face local government during a difficult period for voluntary groups as well as staff.

Thirdly, with the concept of enabling authorities, there is no need in any case to adjust boundaries simply to make larger authorities. Putting two sparsely populated district councils together, for example, may double the width but it does not necessarily double the quality. That argument has long gone.

The amendment seeks to suggest that where there is local support for an obvious, sensible change, the Local Government Commission has flexibility to support it during the course of its work. But without that consent we hope that any such boundary changes—the more difficult and contentious ones—will be deferred until after the Local Government Commission has completed its first tranche of work so that we do not delay its recommendations. I beg to move.

Baroness Hamwee

I wish to speak against the amendment. While I understand the concern voiced by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, I wish to put two points to the Committee. First, to suggest that the primary requirement is the consent of the authorities affected by the changes goes somewhat against the discussions that we have had over the past few hours. I do not suggest that the majority of authorities wish to go against their own communities, but on the other hand it must be accepted that there will be a certain amount of status that is felt to be at risk. There will be people who feel that they are likely to be knocked off their own local perches. To leave a veto in the hands of the authorities is not the way in which members on all sides of the Committee have been tending to approach the issue.

Secondly, it seems to me that if the question of boundary changes is left until the second stage, it may never take place. Having gone through the agonies of the review—admitting that there are provisions for the rolling review which will continue in the later phases—it must be likely that people will find it difficult to face up to the question of boundaries, having gone through the whole issue of structure as an initial exercise.

Thus, while I understand some of the concerns that underlie the amendment, I feel that we, from these Benches, could not support the amendment.

Earl Howe

The amendment would require the commission to obtain the consent of those local authorities affected by its recommendations for boundary changes. I cannot help feeling that as regards the principle of the amendment at least we have been over this course in an earlier debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has reminded us of our conclusions when the word "veto" was mentioned. It effectively gives local authorities a veto on any proposals which the commission may choose to make.

Clause 15 sets out the procedures which the commission must follow when conducting its reviews, and allows ample opportunity for those with an interest in the review to make representations to it. Under this clause, all authorities affected by proposals to alter their boundaries will have ample opportunities to put their views to the commission, which is, of course, under a duty to take such views into account when drawing up its recommendations. The commission's priority is to ensure that its recommendations for change reflect the interests and identities of local communities and secure effective and convenient local government. To do this it must rely on its own discretion in taking account of local interests.

Were all those authorities affected by the proposals to change a local government boundary required to give their consent to such an alteration it could be very difficult to implement any boundary changes. The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, mentioned that there had to be local support or else it was likely to be a long and acrimonious process. However, the process could be acrimonious and run ad infinitum if consent were required at the end of it.

There is another point here. In seeking the consent of the local authorities involved, one is inevitably preferring the views of those local authorities over and above the views of the wider public. We all agreed in this Committee the day before yesterday that it is very much the people's views that will weigh in the commission's recommendations. With that, I hope very much that the noble Baroness will be able to withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Perhaps it was my fault arising from the way in which I moved the amendment, but there may be a misunderstanding about its nature. The amendment does not seek to say that there may never be any boundary changes without the full consent of all parties concerned. It says that while the Local Government Commission is carrying out its tranche of work, in that process there will be no boundary changes unless there is the consent of all parties concerned. It seems to me that that expands, enlarges and reflects the spirit of paragraph 15 of the guidance to the Local Government Commission which states: Although some boundary changes may need to be considered during the course of the review, detailed boundary changes will normally be considered in due course after structural change has taken place". That is the view of this side of the Chamber. However, if in the course of that process there are some boundary changes which appear to be desirable and are welcomed on all sides, it would be appropriate to introduce such changes during the course of the Local Government Commission's work. That process should not necessarily be deferred until the commission's work has been completed.

It is invidious to give an example as it may not be a popular one. However, I know two urban district councils in East Anglia—I prefer not to name them—that may wish to put forward a proposal in the future to merge. It is obviously useful for the Local Government Commission to take that point on board during the course of its work and its considerations, but only if that is done with the consent of all parties concerned. If such a course of action is contentious, it is clearly right—Amendment No. 147 argues this—that it should be deferred rather than be allowed to delay the work of the Local Government Commission still further. That is the point of the amendment. It is a much more modest amendment than either the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, or the Minister seemed to suggest. Nonetheless under the circumstances I am willing to withdraw the amendment. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 146 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]

Baroness Cumberlege moved Amendment No. 147:

Page 11, line 23, at end insert ("or (iii) that he should defer any boundary or electoral changes until after a structural review has been completed.").

The noble Baroness said: This amendment is designed to speed up a process of bringing about change—it is rather similar to the previous amendment that we discussed—especially when that change is considered desirable. However, this amendment is not as prescriptive as the amendment moved by my noble friend Lady Young.

Clause 13(1) (b) of the Bill gives the Local Government Commission two options to recommend to the Secretary of State: first, that he can make structural, boundary or electoral changes or, secondly, that he can make no changes at all. This amendment seeks to give the Secretary of State a third option of greater flexibility; namely, that he should defer any boundary or electoral changes in any area until after a structural review has been completed.

On Second Reading I urged that the newly-formed Local Government Commission should work at a spanking, pace. I am heartened by the Minister's words in response to the amendment moved by my noble friend Lady Young. Uncertainty is no one's friend and if changes are to be made, they should be carried through with speed and decision. That view seemed to receive some support from all sides of the Chamber. In the meantime I have been able to discuss the question of speed Of change with local government officers and the majority seem to agree that uncertainty has disadvantages. As has already been mentioned, there is the difficulty of retaining but also of recruiting quality staff. However, other local government officers see sufficient scope in this Bill for delaying decisions on the Future structure of their patches almost indefinitely. That would be a recipe for confusion and uncertainty and would be a poor basis for negotiations between local authorities and health authorities as we are about to launch into making the community care legislation a reality.

In some areas I know that there will be no reason for altering the status quo, but that decision, too, needs to be taken. Just as no housewife makes a long-term commitment to a piece of fish without first looking at the sell-by date, so no health authority will waste its time in negotiating a complicated community care package with a local authority that is about to be disbanded.

This amendment is designed to ensure that where a case is made for structural change, boundary squabbles should not be used as a justification for doing nothing. The Secretary of State would be advised to proceed at once with the change to a unitary authority if that is the local wish, and subsequent boundary changes would follow. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham, has already commented on this matter, I do not need to remind the Committee how contentious boundaries can be, both in determining the political complexion of an authority and in determining the salary of its chief officers.

I am pleased to have support from the noble Baronesses, Lady Hollis and Lady Stedman, in determining the ground rules. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will use her considerable influence in persuading the Secretary of State and the commission that speed is of the essence. I also hope that the Secretary of State, on the advice of the commission, will not be deflected from making changes by albeit hard fought but minor boundary disputes. I beg to move.

Baroness Blatch

I wish to start by again giving my noble friend an absolute assurance that all the messages that emanate from these debates will be reported to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. The point about speed and uncertainty is well taken. However, that point does not relate to this specific amendment.

There is nothing in the Bill to prevent the Local Government Commission making recommendations about the pace of implementation. Therefore there is flexibility in the Bill to cover my noble friend's concerns. In the draft of our guidance to the Local Government Commission, which we issued for consultation to the local authority associations and others on 25th November, we set out our views about the relationship between reviews of boundaries and structure.

The draft guidance states that in undertaking its reviews of local government structure, the commission will obviously need to consider the boundaries of local government areas in broad terms. Although some boundary changes may need to be considered during the course of a review of structure, detailed boundary changes will normally be considered in due course after structural changes. I believe that is what my noble friend is asking for.

In some cases reviews of structure may take place and reviews of electoral arrangements may not be necessary immediately. In other cases electoral arrangements may need to be reviewed at the same time as structure. I believe that my noble friend fears particularly that a perfectly acceptable— and one hopes sensible—recommendation must not be held up by what may well be a minor boundary or electoral change. I must reassure her that the Bill has sufficient flexibility to avoid that situation.

Baroness Cumberlege

I am grateful to my noble friend for those assurances and for re-emphasising the guidance that has been sent out. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 148 not moved.]

5 p.m.

The Earl of Lytton moved Amendment No. 149:

Page 11, line 23, at end insert: ("( ) make recommendations in respect of changes ancillary to or consequential upon its other recommendations.").

The noble Earl said: This amendment is intended to clarify the remit of the Local Government Commission, and more particularly to clarify the Government's view on that matter and certain allied matters. I am paddling my own canoe on this amendment. That probably explains why no other Member of the Committee has added his name to it. The amendment certainly does not concern the government of the Greater London area. I shall put the Minister's mind at rest on that matter straightaway.

Part I of the Bill concerns the proper delivery of services. That matter has been referred to throughout the debates in Committee. In Part I the delivery of services is concerned primarily with financial performance, the provision of statistical information and the efficiency of delivery. The latter is principally brought about through compulsory competitive tendering.

Within the parameters of structural boundary or electoral changes, some wide powers are conferred on the commission in paragraph 4 of Schedule 2 and under the provisions of Clause 13(5) (b). Indeed, it appears that the commission has the power to do almost anything in that regard. However, the same wide powers do not seem to be applied to those matters that the commission can consider within its remit. The total absence in Part II of specific references to regulators in the context of new local government structures is, I believe, a fairly serious omission.

Throughout the debate reference has consistently been made to local government functions. I therefore make no apology for raising the question of functions in detail. I consider it to be an intrinsic part of the consideration of any new measures that may result from this Bill or the commission's work. I am greatly reinforced in my view by the comments of other Members of the Committee. I find it remarkable that the word "function" is not even mentioned as a consideration for the Local Government Commission under Part II of the Bill although it is a subject referred to in the draft guidance. I question how one can consider structure without giving consideration to the functions that have to be performed and, together with those functions, the efficiency and standards of local government administration. As we have heard, the end product is standards of delivery. Everything else flows from that.

The amendment is not the one that I should have liked to have tabled. It had been my intention to seek an amendment to Clause 13(1) (b) by referring to, among other things, functional and other changes, including those relating to efficient administration, standards of conduct and the protection of the public interest in the discharge of local government functions. Unfortunately, I felt that it was unwise to table such an amendment having been advised that it was outside the scope of the Bill. I felt the need to heed that advice although my own conviction and what seems to me a commonsense approach to the legislation dictate otherwise.

My main concern is that the Bill should result in workable legislation, that the operation of the Local Government Commission should not be unduly fettered and that this Committee should be free to discuss all matters of relevance to the Bill, including the extent of the commission's operational parameters. It is imperative that, however narrow the commission's brief in terms of its main recommendations to the Secretary of State, it should have the widest remit in terms of its investigation and reasoning. It should also be able to identify associated matters of relevance and issue recommendations in relation to them.

As the draft guidelines in relation to the commission refer at page 3 to functions and as the entire Bill is about the delivery of services, it is not unreasonable to invite the Minister to say why standards of conduct, avoidance of conflict of interest, the protection of the public interest and the promotion of best practice in local government affairs are considered outside the scope of the Bill. I feel that such considerations are highly relevant in the context of the new, enhanced, all-purpose and possibly unitary authority. I have in my mind's eye the prospect of consolidating in one authority all planning, land acquisition, housing, highways, police and other roles. The extent to which those are amalgamated under one body or are separate remains to be determined. However, it seems to me that we are looking at a different unit for the delivery of those various services. It is vitally important that high standards of conduct, quite apart from financial probity and economic efficiency, are considered. I believe that the Local Government Commission is the right body to do so and that the Bill is the right context in which to raise such issues.

If, however relevant those matters may be, they are considered outside the scope of the Bill I should like to invite the Minister to say what the Government propose to do about them. I respectfully venture to suggest that their absence means that the Bill lacks an important component. I wish particularly to know whether I am to take it that in regard to local government functions the commission will rely solely on central government guidelines and will have little discretion of its own in the matter. That is a question I invite the Minister to answer.

I do not believe that there is any fundamental disagreement between me and anyone else, and certainly not between me and the Minister, on the objectives of good local administration. However, I am not happy that the Local Government Commission is being given a fair chance to produce an optimum solution as opposed to one created within the ring fence established by ministerial guidelines.

If accepted, the amendment would be a very small step in improving the scope of the Local Government Commission in terms of the recommendations which it would be able to produce. It does not bind the Minister any more than the Minister is bound by the Bill unamended. However, if we are to procure full investigation and comprehensive recommendations which will lead to the improved delivery of local government services about which we have heard so much in its very widest sense, an amendment such as this is necessary.

I should like to see regulators similar to those in privatised industries set up for local government, but that is probably a matter which I cannot take further at this juncture. I should like that to be considered by the commission. It may well be that it is not appropriate for the commission's role to be extended that far. However, it is important that the commission should be free to consider all matters relevant to its main recommendations and to be able to make further recommendations to the Secretary of State on those particular points which, in the view of the commission, are of particular relevance to its core recommendations.

The amendment is probably badly drafted and no doubt can be criticised on that ground. My purpose in moving it is to elicit the Minister's considered response. I beg to move.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

In his amendment and in his speech the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, has raised a matter of some importance. The Committee is indebted to him for raising it. My only doubt—and no doubt the Minister can deal with the point—is whether the amendment is necessary. Can the Minister tell the Committee whether, without the amendment, the commission would be able to take those matters into account?

Lord Morris

I rise not only to support the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, but also to congratulate him on the clear and logical way in which he developed his argument. He stated that he had been advised that alternative amendments were outside the scope of the Bill. On a narrow interpretation, that is correct because the second part of the Long Title clearly states that the Purpose of the Bill is, to make new provision in relation to local government in England for effecting structural, boundary and electoral changes". There is no mention of functions. The means by which the Bill puts that purpose into effect is solely through the creation of a Local Government Commission to look into those matters.

The fundamental point which the noble Earl has raised is clearly illustrated by a simple question, which I ask my noble friend to be good enough to answer. Does function flow from structure, or does structure flow from function? If function flows from structure—and I should be astonished if he believed that—that is the end of the matter. However, if structure flows from function there is no question about it; it would be impossible for the commission to look intelligently into structure.

That answers the question of my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter regarding necessity. In my view it is necessary. That is why I strongly support the noble Earl, Lord Lytton. The commission must be given power to look at function because it cannot consider structure without looking at the function of local government.

Lord Feversham

I will possibly get into the canoe with the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, at the end of the debate on this amendment. No doubt he will he comforted to know that even the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, is at this stage half-in and half-out of that canoe. A whole raft of amendments to be discussed later will also deal with the question of functions. It has been raised both at Second Reading and in the present amendment, and it will come up again. I think it is almost certain that at some stage during today's proceedings we will need to have a vote about functions. I am not entirely sure at this stage whether or not I will support the amendment. I do not know how far the noble Earl is prepared to go. But I shall be very interested indeed to hear what the noble Earl the Minister has to say in reply to the amendment.

Earl Howe

I listened very carefully to the remarks of the noble Earl, Lord Lytton. I am sure that noble Lords on all sides of the Committee share his very real concerns. He has made some extremely important points, and I thank him for that. His main worry is that the remit of the Local Government Commission will not be wide enough to take into account his concerns. I hope that what I say will to some extent reassure him at least on that point.

The Committee will be aware of the consultation paper on internal management which we discussed on Monday. I think that is relevant to the issues raised by the noble Earl. We have said in the document that we would wish to consider carefully the impact of any changes in order to ensure there were adequate safeguards against the possibility of abuse. I have already given an undertaking that the Government will come forward as soon as possible with the conclusions of the review of internal management.

There are some councils who, while acting within the law, nevertheless fail in the duty to provide adequate cost-effective services. Your Lordships will no doubt have seen copies of the draft guidance for the commission which we have issued for consultation. In paragraph 14 it is said that the commission should assume that, apart from specific statutory duties laid upon it, an authority will operate in the most cost-effective way. That does not mean that the Local Government Commission will not look at the functions of authorities in the areas under review. That is an integral part of its consideration of structure.

Clause 13(5) will require the commission to have regard to effective and convenient local government. However, I should make clear that that is only in the sense that the structural changes they recommend must be with that factor in mind. The two are linked. It would not be right for the commission to reach a judgment about who are the efficient councils. That is a political judgment which I suggest needs to be exercised by the electorate through the ballot box.

Your Lordships have already considered Clauses 1 to 7 of the Bill. They introduce important changes in the information available to the electorate about the performance of their councils. Voters will be in a much better position to make judgments about the standards achieved by their councils.

I have to say I think the measures to safeguard the public interest need to be looked at on a national and not local basis. The Government will take whatever steps are necessary to ensure a continuation of the high standards we expect of our councils. Those issues are not appropriate for the local government commission. I particularly have in mind the noble Earl's remarks about financial probity. I hope that what I have said has gone some way to reassure him and other noble Lords. I hope he will agree that the amendment can be withdrawn.

The Earl of Lytton

I should like to thank the noble Earl for his reply, and also to thank other noble Lords who have spoken so eloquently and far more compellingly than I have in support of the amendment.

I pick up a couple of points made by the Minister. First, the discussion documents dealing with local authority internal matters seem to me to be the product of Part I of the Bill but not to have a mirror image in Part II. The commission's view of the way in which the functions will be discharged in the light of its recommendations is at the heart of my point; in other words, it is not just about financial reporting back but about checks and balances in the broadest sense of local government administration.

Secondly, the noble Earl made a number of points about the standards of conduct not being a matter for the commission. I have to accept that in the context of the Bill that is probably so. I am sorry to have to admit it, and I am even more sorry that the Minister has not made any suggestion as to when that area, about which I feel very strongly, may be dealt with in due course. I do not believe that it is being dealt with in legislation currently before Parliament, let alone in this House.

In moving the amendment, it was not my intention to do more than elicit a response from the Minister. I am not entirely happy about it, and I should like to reserve the right to come back to it at a later stage of the Bill. For the time being, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 149A to 151 not moved.]

5.15 p.m.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon moved Amendment No. 152:

Page 12, line 5, at end insert: ("( ) to establish local authorities which are of a sufficient size to provide a secure basis to administer the full range of services at present provided by county and district councils.").

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 152 it may be for the convenience of the Committee if I also discuss Amendment No. 153. I think I should remind the Committee that I advise NALGO although I am not at all sure they would approve of what I am about to say. I say straight away that I do not in any way depart from my view that local government units should be of a size compatible with the need to ensure that they are as close as possible to those who are being governed. The electorate must know who is governing them and from where they are being governed. Preferably, that should occur locally so they can get at their governors when they do not like what their governors are doing to them. It is most important that we have units which are recognised by the electorate as convenient to themselves, not to local government administrators. Indeed, I believe they must be small enough to be susceptible to the views of local people yet large enough to be able to administer the widest possible range of services. Generally speaking, that can be achieved by basing the new authorities on any existing districts.

Clearly, the present two-tier system is generally unsatisfactory; but in my view it must not be replaced by a mass of small local authorities, many of which will be unable to administer the whole range of services that are at present run by district and county councils. It is essential that the new local government units are all-purpose authorities and that they do not have to set up a multiplicity of joint authority arrangements—although, in my experience, in many areas joint authority arrangements have operated very satisfactorily indeed. Nevertheless, joint authorities tend to reduce rather than increase democratic accountability.

I had the honour to serve on the Association of Municipal Corporations (when it existed) as a member of the Reorganisation of Local Government Sub-Committee. It proposed a form of local government which would have been ideal had it been put into place in 1974 rather than that reorganisation which was in fact carried out. Its proposals were for all-purpose authorities of a size convenient for the area to be administered. They did not all have to be of a standard size. There was not a minimum or maximum size. The units were to be convenient for the people who were being governed. Also, although this is not suggested in this Bill, it proposed that there should be provincial councils responsible for some of the great services but which nevertheless could, in many small most-purpose authorities, administer some of the services for the smaller local authorities, albeit perhaps on a temporary basis. That would have been an excellent arrangement and I am sorry that it was not put into operation.

Clearly, that kind of arrangement does not figure in the Government's thinking at the present time. It seems to me that if the commission is given no guidance, we could end up with another hotch-potch reorganisation which would further erode the reputation and importance of local government.

Bearing in mind especially the further education Bill which is before the Chamber at the present time, there is in fact a real fear that the Government's hidden agenda is to remove all the large and important services from the control of local government. For example, many people believe that the control of primary and secondary education will be removed from local government and put under a national schools council, or that trunk roads might be removed from local government and given to a trunk roads authority. It may very well be considered that even the social services may be better administered directly by the Department of Social Security or indirectly through a social services commission.

The noble Baroness will say that that is nonsense, but bearing in mind the Government's record so far, people have fears about the removal of those services. I hope that I shall receive an assurance from her that the Government do not have that in mind. I am sure she will say that those fears are far-fetched, but the fact is that since 1979 a succession of Conservative Governments have shown that they are bureaucratic centralists, by removing large tranches of power, including power over money raising policies, from the local authorities. We must be sure that any reforms do not fail and give central government the further excuse to remove services from democratic local control and pass them to faceless bureaucrats who are not answerable in any way to the electorate.

I turn briefly to Amendment No. 153. In my view the new local authorities must be financially strong and have a taxing base which is sound, progressive, sustainable and under the control of the local authorities themselves. I have already spoken about fears that the Government intend to remove from local government the great services such as education, roads and social services. One of the excuses could be that at present central government finance 85 per cent. of local government expenditure. That has occurred because the Government removed that form of finance from local government through the combined business rate. That removal undermined to a large extent its independent financial base.

For that reason, I believe that it is right to demand the return of the business rate to local authorities for them to administer and have as their own form of finance. After all, it always was theirs. The Government have removed it and, by heaven, particularly in the south of England local businesses are sorry that it has been removed. It is quite true that local businesses pressed for the combined business rate to be taken away from local authorities. They did not realise the mistake they were making. They certainly recognise it now. Many of them are saying, "For heaven's sake, let us return the business rate once again to local government".

In my view—I speak for myself and not for my colleagues on the Front Bench—there are other new areas of local government finance which should be considered. For example, there is nothing wrong with a sales tax and it is possible to introduce it. Frankly, the arguments against a sales tax can be overcome. Or, for example, why should not local government have a share of VAT and Excise revenues from the sale of petrol and diesel oil in its area. Those would give local government a strong financial base of its own. Since I believe very much in local government, I support these arrangements.

When we return after the Christmas Recess, the Chamber will consider the Local Government Finance Bill. The Bill restricts local government finance raising powers to a narrow undynamic base which will make new and small units of local government difficult to sustain. I should find that reprehensible since, although on the one hand it is the Government's declared aim to create smaller and more accountable units of local government, on the other hand their policy is to refuse a proper basis of independent finance which will make that possible and at the same time give local government the independence which is so vital to a truly vibrant local government system.

I hope that I may receive some views on what I have just said. I shall welcome very much the Minister's comments. I beg to move.

5.30 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I certainly do not wish to oppose these amendments, particularly Amendment No. 152. I am certainly heartened and entirely support the remarks made by my noble friend Lord Stoddart about his wish to see unitary government based on the existing districts with a sound, strong independent basis of finance. However, I should like to register a slight unease about the repeated phrase "of sufficient size". The issue of size threads through both the amendments, and I hope that my noble friend can reassure us when he comes to wind up.

I want to make a couple of points about size. It is partly one of those concerns which will arise in many other amendments, whether we discuss joint authorities or lead authorities and the like. It may be appropriate to say something at this point.

First, I wish to emphasise yet again—as some of us tried to do at Second Reading—that there is no evidence that efficiency and cost-effectiveness increase with size. The Audit Commission has made that entirely clear. I am delighted to have the support of the Minister.

I am sure that the Minister is aware of the response of the Audit Commission to the consultation paper. Paragraph 3 states: It is worth noting … that Commission studies have rarely found economies of scale to be the systematic or decisive influence on relative performance levels". Qualities of effectiveness and value for money are found in small and large authorities—Labour, Conservative, Liberal, balanced and hung authorities. I tried to do some research on education in the 1970s. I found that effectiveness related to the political will and competence of members and officers to provide a quality effective service. That political will was often found in cities, not because of their size but because of the commitment to and interest in the education service.

Secondly, as we tried to argue at Second Reading, size does not necessarily produce increased effectiveness or increased economy. It may do the reverse. It may produce diseconomies of distance and of scale.

The travelling, co-ordinating and liaising that is needed in more sparsely populated, rural areas involve a very real cost. By definition it costs more to produce fewer services. The larger the rural area, the more it costs to provide less as the landscape stretches. To bring in additional populations means that one has to provide more expensive services without the population base to sustain them. The response to that is clearly rectification through rate support grant, local committees and—perhaps I may depart from the views of my noble friend Lord Stoddart—joint and lead arrangements. Those are flexible and constructive ways forward.

The Association of County Councils funded the Coopers & Lybrand report on the enabling authority. That report, funded for the ACC, conceded that case entirely. Only in purchasing was there any clear evidence of the virtues of size and numbers. Purchasing is indeed one area through which one can respond to economy by consortia arrangements.

Perhaps I may quote from the report. It states: Within larger unitary authorities, it will be necessary specifically to secure effective local input to ensure that local needs and preferences were identified". The Coopers & Lybrand report for the ACC refers to parallel, political, decision-making structures and area committees. In other words, in larger unitary authorities the report concedes that one has to re-invent a lower second tier but that the second tier would relate to district administration and not to district accountability.

Thirdly—I hope that this is a view shared by the Minister —the concept of the enabling authority should take the issue of size off the political agenda. Discussion on size was the language of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The concept of an enabling authority allows us to dispense with such phrases as "of sufficient size". That issue is less salient. We do not advocate 500 or 700 small authorities. However, I suggest that the best way to improve value for money services is to ensure active scrutiny by the local taxpayer. That is best done when the authorities are "get-attable". My fear is that such phrases as "of sufficient size" may lead to larger authorities, with no guarantee of improved or effective services. On the contrary, there may be diseconomies of distance and scale. They may become remote. There may be a lack of the control that local electors should have over the representatives.

While many of us wish to support the noble Lord in his anxiety about a strong and independent base for local government finance, and a strong, independent local government as a source of services, we should not relate that desire simply to size.

Lord Skelmersdale

It will come as no surprise to those noble Lords who followed the Second Reading debate that I support the general thrust of the noble Lord's amendment. However, I do not agree with all the examples of potential chaos with which he followed up his original arguments. For example, I should not have thought that opted out schools or self-governing hospitals were the result of policy of a government who believe in attracting more power into their hands.

Having said that, we all know that all change is unsettling while it occurs. The noble Lord and the noble Baroness have given examples of the fears of existing local authorities during this period of uncertainty. I hope that my noble friend Lady Blatch will take this opportunity to assure us that services will not be touched by the Bill. In other words, any service that local authorities already provide will be kept until or unless there is another Bill to change them. We all know that local authority services have grown piecemeal over the years.

It is a constant complaint from the Benches opposite that this Government have loaded more on to local authorities without providing the finance. Whether or not that is true, all governments put more work on to the usually very capable shoulders of local authorities. However, they do so usually through a Bill for that specific purpose, whether the service involves waste management, police, fire or whatever. I hope my noble friend will tell us that that will continue.

In the authorities' role as enabling authorities, will they be able to buy in services? They can buy in services, as in social services, for example, from the private sector, from waste management firms and so on. But will the authorities be able to buy in services from each other? With the situation such as pertains in Rutland and Leicester, it might be sensible for the smaller county council to provide the social services for Rutland. I believe that many people will be interested to know whether that will be permitted under the regime that the Government anticipate.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

I agree with almost every word spoken by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis. I should like to go a little further. I do not like the amendment. I do not find acceptable the idea of introducing such a phrase as "of sufficient size". The Government have been wise—I do not always say that —in adopting a listening posture by setting up the commission. I hope that they will put as few fetters as possible on the commission in the exercise of the discretion that it is being given.

It is somewhat embarrassing for me to recall it, but an earlier Conservative Government made a mess of affairs in Somerset and Avon. What can be done to put that right is not for me to say. However, it is an added reason behind my plea that the Government should give the commission absolute freedom with the minimum of fetters. There should simply be a requirement for the commission to listen before it makes up its mind. I hope that my noble friend will advise the Committee to reject the amendment.

Baroness Blatch

On what I had considered a relatively simple amendment, the discussion has ranged far and wide. Perhaps I may rise to the bait of the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart. He is about two months ahead in his discussions about finance. I am pleased to record in this debate some of the things that he said. In advocating no limits on local government spending—which of course is the party policy—the noble Lord referred to a licence to raise funds from petrol or any other local commodity. Perhaps I may suggest that licence to raise funds with absolutely no limits would also he licence to spend.

The noble Lord spoke about transferring business rates from national to local level. I believe that he confused valuation with the system that now exists. The business community can now rest assured that increases year on year which are not related to valuation will not be greater than the rate of inflation. That provision is positively enshrined in law.

If business communities are to be revalued from time to time —I have no doubt that that intention will he contained in the Opposition's Manifesto—the noble Lord is advocating the return of business rates to the mercy and vagaries of local authorities. When that was the case we recorded horrendous increases in rates to business and commerce. If it is not coupled with a licence on the spending limit the proposition for business is not good.

I suggest that the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, was rather fanciful in his imagination about what we were likely to do with social services, education and other services. His imagination worked overtime and he appeared to go over the top in his assumption. The noble Lord specifically mentioned primary and secondary schools. The one thing that we have done is to push down the control of those schools to where it properly belongs; that is to parents, teachers and governors. I was a member of a county council and vice-chairman of an education authority. As a councillor I attended many meetings, read my papers and was on top of all the agenda items. I believe and shall continue to say that schools are better schools if they are staffed well, have good head teachers, responsive parents and children who are prepared to learn. That is what makes a good school and not the local education authority. I say that only as a counter to what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart. I make no suggestion as regards the structure of local government because education will remain a responsibility for local authorities.

The commission's terms of reference in the clause are brief. The issues are dealt with in the guidance to the commission which is intended to expand them. The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, was right in saying that if there is not detailed guidance there will he real problems. I promise him that there will be guidance and that it will address many of the points of anxiety raised by Members of the Committee in the debate. The guidance states that the commission should seek to recommend the structure of local government which enables individual unitary authorities to have responsibility for all local government functions unless there are clear reasons for different arrangements. The significance of establishing local authorities which match communities will be lost if those authorities do not have such direct responsibility. Similarly, the guidance also states that the commission should take into account the need for authorities to have an adequate tax and grant base, such that they have financial stability.

I agree with my noble friend Lord Peyton about minimum size. The Government have made clear the fact that it would not be appropriate to proscribe size limits for unitary authorities as that would limit the commission's ability to recommend the best local government structure for each area. The move to enabling authorities calls into question the idea that there is a right size of authority for effective service delivery. I agreed with all the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis.

I must point out to my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale that the Bill has nothing to do with taking functions away from local government. That issue was raised by several Members of the Committee. I assure my noble friend that, as is now the case, unitary authorities will be able to draw on each other for services on an agency basis.

The Bill sets up a Local Government Commission which has some detailed guidance referring to all the issues that worry noble Lords. For instance, it ensures that strategic functions arc not lost and that individual services are not lost in terms of determining structure for delivering efficient and effective services. The last thing that we wish to do is to tie the hands of the Local Government Commission before it even sets out on that task. It is important to get local government as close to people as possible and to ensure that the unit of authority makes sense as set out in the guidance. I hope that the noble Lord will not press the amendment.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

I am obliged to all Members of the Committee who have taken part in the debate. The Minister said that the debate had run wider than she had expected. That was exactly my intention in tabling the amendments. They were framed in such a way as to obtain the best possible reaction to their proposals. Indeed, I have received that reaction. The debate has been most useful not only to me but to others.

I agree with my noble friend Lady Hollis that efficiency does not necessarily depend on size. We need effectiveness which can be better achieved by smaller rather than larger units. It is achieved also by good political direction and excellent administration. After all, the authority which I had the honour to serve for 18 years and to lead for seven of those years was 125,000 strong. I thought that was a most convenient size and we ran an excellent education service. Later the Department of Education wrongly said that councils such as Reading could not possibly run a decent education authority because it did not have a population of 500,000. I thought that was absurd. Unfortunately, it led to the 1974 reorganisation which we all know was a failure.

Throughout time local authorities, large or small, have been the real experimenters. Central government have not brought new ideas into education and other services; the local authorities have done so. Therefore, I am happy to agree with my noble friend that large is not necessarily beautiful. I hope that at Maastricht next week the Prime Minister will take the same view. I got that in, did I not?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Yes, skilfully!

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

I am also glad that my noble friend Lady Hollis is not advocating 500 small local authorities because that would be just as bad. I am pleased to have her assurance that that is Labour Party policy. I was also glad to have the support of the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, for the retention of existing services, because that is important. The noble Lord, Lord Peyton, did not like the amendment because it referred to "a sufficient size". I hope that I have reassured the noble Lord that we are not that far apart, irrespective of the wording of the amendment.

The Minister gave some valuable reassurances, in particular about services. I was encouraged by her assurance that the structure will not only reflect the need for authorities to administer and reflect the people in the local area and the local area itself but will also have a satisfactory financial base. The Institute of Directors is in favour of returning the combined business rate to the administration of local authorities. I am sorry that the Minister considered that most local authorities up and down the country did not always discharge their duty in a responsible and proper manner. In my view, they did. If local government is to be responsible, if it is to be treated as responsible, there is no reason—

Baroness Blatch

Does the noble Lord believe that the business community would like to go back to being rated by local authorities and forfeit the protection in law that it should not receive a rate increase greater than the rate of inflation? Would it forfeit that protection?

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

I do not know. I only tell the Minister what has been said. Many employers' institutions would prefer to return to the system of local authority rating. I believe that they are right in that. Obviously there must be regular revaluations. There always have been and there will be in future. They have no greater guarantee that central government will not change their policy. It may be enshrined in law at present but our constitution is such that one Parliament cannot bind its successors. Therefore, there is no greater guarantee of protection under central government control than there is under the control of local government, which would administer the local rates in accordance with the needs of that area, including the needs of business. That is one of the problems of the combined business rate: it cannot allow a local authority to take into account the needs of businesses in local authority areas.

However, I have no doubt that we can have a much longer argument on this subject at some future date. I am grateful for the discussion which has taken place on the amendments. Having heard from my noble friends, other Members of the Committee and the Minister, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 153 not moved.]

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 154:

Page 12, line 5, at end insert: ("(c) to promote accountable, responsive and accessible local government;").

The noble Baroness said: In this amendment I shall refer to the other amendments grouped with it. I hope that Members of the Committee will believe that Amendment No. 154 encompasses the spirit as well as some of the words of Amendments Nos. 156 and 161.

The amendment aims to provide that in recommending changes, the commission should have regard to the need to promote accountable, responsive and accessible local government.

I considered the words "effective and convenient" in paragraph (b) for some time before deciding that they do not go far enough. They suggest a top-down approach whereas many Members of the Committee have effectively described the bottom-up approach of good local government, reflecting its responsiveness to its own local community.

It is important that people believe that they have access to their representatives and above all that they understand the structure, the methods and arrangements in place locally. It is only if they understand that they can begin to be a part of the process. I should like to refer to a recent study commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Trust on attitudes to local government—a report of a survey of electors. It said that there was general support for the role of local councils and local democracy. People support the idea of local government running most services and are opposed to central government control of local councils. Most people continue to believe in the benefits of local elections and feel more able to influence local affairs than those at central government level.

That is important because it is saying that local councils are able to speak more intelligibly and comprehensively to local electors than is sometimes achieved by others.

The report continues in its conclusions that there has been something of a polarisation of opinion over the past five years suggesting that attitudes to local autonomy may have been affected by increasing party politicisation of issues affecting local government. That also spells out a message that the course which local government is taking is rather worrying. I do not suggest that local government should not have regard to party political affiliations, but for many of us those are not the primary considerations: our own local loyalties, and not party loyalties, come first.

The report states that the other worry for local government is that people have become more cynical about local elections over the past 25 years. While most people still believe in their value, they are more inclined to believe that councillors forget their election promises or that local elections do not affect the way people live.

We should take very much to heart the conclusions of that report when considering what the commission should have in mind.

Perhaps I may report a short anecdote which I have already discussed with the Minister. I know that she shared my attitude to what happened. I was working at home one morning last week with my word processor and fax switched on, looking at the amendments to the Bill. My telephone rang. It was the bank manager of the bank with which my firm banks. I say that because he is not a person who has a great deal of time on his hands but obviously he thought it important to make the 'phone call. He lives in my ward. He said, "Sally, can you help me? Who should I contact? There are a couple of very important street lights which are not working". That brought me right down to earth and gave me the right context for what we are considering today.

I am sure that other Members of the Committee also believe that we should keep our feet on the ground. We should be doing what matters to the people who are being served.

While I am speaking to this amendment, mention briefly Amendment No. 164 which refers to reflecting the overall objective of replacing two principal tiers with a single tier. I am rather sorry that that amendment is grouped with the other amendments because I am not sure that it is on the same subject. That amendment makes me wonder about consultation and hearing what we are told rather than making assumptions as to where we should start. It also raises the question referred to already by the noble Lord, Lord Morris, as to the place of functions in the process. However, I should not wish the commission to begin its work with any kind of notional blueprint.

I am sure that I have not covered all the ground which will be covered by the movers of Amendments Nos. 156 and 161. However, we are moving in very much the same direction. I hope that having heard comments on the group of amendments, the Minister will be able to assure us that the words in the Bill mean what vie want them to mean. We must spell them out clearly. I beg to move.

Baroness Young

It may be for the convenience of the Committee if I speak to Amendments Nos. 156 and 161. Amendment No. 156 is in the name of my noble friend Lady Oppenheim-Barnes who cannot be here this evening. I listened with great interest to what the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said. I agree with almost everything that she said. Amendments Nos. 156 and 201 almost cover the same point. I do not wish to take up the time of the Committee by repeating the many arguments. However, I wish to make two points.

In the Citizen's Charter, which we shall no doubt debate on various occasions, the Government have rightly stressed the need to make local government more accountable both to citizens and consumers. The principle of accountability is one of the utmost importance.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, mentioned the Joseph Rowntree Report. Research carried out recently by MORI showed that there is now considerable confusion in the mind of the public regarding which tier of local government is responsible for which service. For example, an average of 55 per cent. of residents believe that refuse collections are a county council responsibility and 52 per cent. believe that education is carried out by district councils. That illustrates the point.

The Government appear to show interest in the matter. Paragraph 5 of the guidance to the Local Government Commission states: Unitary authorities are not only most able to reflect community interests, but also offer the benefit of clarifying accountability and responsibility".

My second point is that the London boroughs have clearly demonstrated that the link between a local authority and, in this case, the community charge—although it will apply just as much to a council tax or rating system—is much clearer when a single authority is accountable for all services. Therefore, the amendments which draw attention to the significance of accountability are important not only to avoid confusion of functions but also to make clear the link between costs and services. It may be that my noble friend feels that enough has been said in the guidelines. I shall listen with interest to her reply.

As regards Amendment No. 64, I share the doubts expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. It may be correct that the two principal tiers of local government in any non-metropolitan area can be replaced by a single tier. However, that is a matter for the Local Government Commission and not a Committee of this House. Therefore I do not support it. My amendments are probing amendments, and I look forward to hearing my noble friend's response.

6 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I support Amendments Nos. 154, 156 and 161 and speak also to Amendment No. 164 that stands in my name. I hope I may be forgiven for first posing the question of what the purpose of local government is. There can surely be little disagreement between us that it is partly about extending democratic rights and the pluralism of power and partly about building citizenship and participation in the exercise of power and making that power accountable and transparent. It is therefore about democratic rights. It is also about services—the fiscal infrastructure, the social wage, or the generation of wealth. And it is also about communities. At the heart of local government is the assumption that, for example, a southern historic cathedral city is different from a declining manufacturing town, a rural sea coast district or an inner London borough. Local government is about that difference and the need to respond to diversity of needs.

I hope to persuade the Committee that all three of those functions of local government—the building up of democratic rights and citizenship and the sharing of power, the provision of value for money services and the definition of a community in its distinctive needs and aspirations—are best met in unitary authorities and can only be met by local authorities; that is, district councils which are closer to the people they serve. That is why Amendment No. 164 is within the spirit of the preceding amendments.

Why should that be? Let us ask the people. Both the noble Baronesses, Lady Hamwee and Lady Young, quoted the Rowntree Report which found that 80 per cent. of the people who lived in single tier authority areas knew what the local government did while barely 40 per cent. of those in two tier structures had similar knowledge. The Rowntree Report argued that without that knowledge, democratic local government was not in a healthy state.

As between districts and counties, people identified district councils as their natural local authorities. From that the Rowntree Report—an independent report—drew the conclusion that the local tier of local government should be the basis of a unitary local government system.

Portsmouth, until recently Conservative controlled, now hung but always well led, asked MORI to run a similar poll two months ago and found the same response. Nearly 80 per cent. of the population wanted a single tier authority; and 83 per cent. wanted it to be Portsmouth rather than Hampshire. The reasons were that it delivered better services, offered greater financial effectiveness and, crucially, was "get-at-able". Indeed, after 15 years, large numbers of Portsmouth people still thought the city council was running social and library services even though in 1974 they passed to Hampshire.

More people vote in district rather than council elections; more than three times as many know the names of district councillors rather than county councillors; many find their county councils remote; and most want services delivered by a town hall. That is why, if one follows the thrust of the guidance to the Local Government Commission, which I support, the presumption should be in favour of unitary authorities. Only if there are positive reasons for not going along that line should one depart. The issue should be linked, I suggest, to accessibility, accountability and responsiveness. All the research evidence illustrates that a new structure of local government must be single tier if it is to be efficient and effective, and local if it is to be accountable, accessible and responsive.

The research findings and the fact that all the county councils of which I am aware have had to develop sub-county structures to deliver local services illustrate that such councils are too large for personal services and too small for strategic planning services. If that is the case, if we want local government to be accessible and responsive to local people, and if we believe in single tier authorities, then the presumption must be in favour of district councils being the main body of local government authorities that result from the Local Government Commission.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

Some experience of legislation has left me profoundly cynical as to whether putting high-minded and well-intentioned amendments into statutes has any practical effect. There are a number of examples which bear out the desirability of treating that thought with reserve.

Having said that, I find the intentions, particularly those of Amendments Nos. 161 and 164, on the whole sensible. One of the great improvements one hopes will arise out of the Bill is the abolition of two-tiered local government wherever it can possibly be abolished and its replacement by a unitary system.

On Second Reading I mentioned an experience from my home in Hampshire. We are in a remote country district and pay substantial local taxes to the borough of Basingstoke, a considerable number of miles away. The borough of Basingstoke levies those taxes upon us with the classic statement that five-sixths of the amount is not for its services but is demanded on behalf of Hampshire County Council located at Winchester at the other end of the county.

That kind of system makes local government seem remote from the ordinary citizen. It has the further disadvantage that those councillors who decide local authority expenditure do so in the happy knowledge that they will not have to answer personally and directly for levying the necessary funds.

Therefore, there is almost every argument in favour of going, wherever it is physically possible, into a unitary system. My understanding of what was said at Second Reading and what has been said by Ministers since, is that it is the intention that one of the major effects of this measure will be the abolition very widely of the two-tier system and its replacement by a unitary one. Therefore, although I will be very happy to see those well-intentioned observations to that effect and which are embodied in the amendments, put into the Bill, I do not know whether there is very much practical importance to be attached to that. At any rate, I believe that abolition will happen, but I should be grateful if the Minister would tell me so.

Baroness Blatch

I will not be drawn, and I do not want to be drawn, down the road of pre-empting the work of the Local Government Commission. I would be sad if the Committee did that by tying the hands of the commission. We have made it very clear that throughout this exercise there is a presumption in favour of unitary authorities. The noble Baroness pressed me to confirm that if two-tier authorities are to remain anywhere the country it must be for positive reasons and not simply to leave well alone. All kinds of things have to be considered in the balance: the cost of transition, the cost benefits of setting up the new structure and matters of that kind.

These amendments are really about effective and accountable local government. I can say with some confidence that almost everything that the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has asked of the amendments and also my noble friend Lady Young is already either somewhere on the face of the Bill or in guidance to which the Local Government Commission will be directed to have regard. All these matters are there in different forms.

My noble friend Lady Young referred to the appropriate passage in the guidance which I believe addresses some of the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. I am absolutely convinced that if the Local Government Commission follows the guidance both procedurally, which it will have to do, and in the way in which it works, we shall get effective local government. Local government will he closer to the people and it will make sense to them.

We believe that the commission's term of reference will achieve the objectives which the amendments have in mind. Clause 13 of the Bill requires the Local Government Commission to have regard to the need to reflect the identities and interests of local communities as well as the need to secure effective and convenient local government in carrying out its reviews. A unitary structure of local government will certainly be more easily understood than the present two-tier structure where many local people do not know which council is responsible for particular services. That has been well illustrated by a number of speakers.

The recent survey Attitudes to Local Government published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and referred to by a number of noble Lords, indicated that people living in single-tier local authorities knew more about their local authority's responsibilities than those living in areas with two tiers. Other surveys have confirmed and strengthened that message. Unitary authorities based on local communities will be stronger local authorities, more accountable to their electorates, better able to respond to local needs and more accessible to local people. All those factors were requested by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. I urge the Committee to accept my assurance that the commission will certainly be looking for accountable, responsible and accessible local government, and these amendments are therefore not necessary.

The purpose of Amendment No. 164 seems to be to test out the Government's commitment to the idea of unitary authorities and it may be helpful if once more I set this on the record. As our draft guidance to the Local Government Commission sets out clearly, we believe that local authorities should be based on communities. Clause 13 requires the Local Government Commission to have regard to the need to reflect the identities and interests of local communities. We believe that the Local Government Commission's assessment of communities will suggest that unitary authorities could be the most beneficial structure for local government in most areas. Unitary author ties are not only most able to reflect community interests, but also offer the benefit of clarifying accountability and responsibility. The draft guidance therefore specifies that the commission should look for structures consisting of unitary authorities, unless, as I said before, there are clear reasons for different arrangements.

The guidance adds, however, that in some areas the commission may wish to recommend the retention of the existing two-tier structure. We are anxious above all that the local government structure should reflect local communities. We do not believe it would be right to rule out, as the amendment suggests, that in some cases a two-tier structure may be appropriate. With those assurances I hope that all noble Lords will withdraw their amendments.

6.15 p.m.

Lord Wade of Chorlton

Perhaps I may add something to the debate. I am concerned that everyone seems to accept that county councils do not play any role in these matters at all and that it is time that they went. I am concerned with the implication that we shall end up with a great many small local authorities to deal with the specific issues which are part of the daily concerns of the people involved and that the next level is either central or regional government. It seems that we shall end up with many of the very important decisions and strategic matters which concern local people being decided by people a long way from the problem.

I do not accept the amendments that suggest that we should go speedily for unitary authorities which, even listening to the noble Baroness opposite, should not be very large. There will be many instances throughout the rural areas where we shall end up with a two-tier system, or where if there is a unitary system it will be quite a large one and not a small local authority. I can see very considerable difficulties with local communities which are run very much in their own local interests. The wider decisions will he taken by people a long way away; regional government would include the views of the party opposite and the national government. Both those situations frighten me.

At present there are plenty of examples which indicate that the Government cannot make proper decisions on a regional basis because they are out of touch. They invariably make wrong decisions. Similarly, we do not want wider decisions made by very local people who are not influenced by what is best for the area because they are concerned about their own particular views which can be against the mass of interest. It is important that if we go for unitary authorities they should be of such a size and balance to enable them to take proper views within that context. We do not want to end up with a great many little councils involved with very local issues, but leaving to a national government the main issues which will affect so many people.

Baroness Blatch

Perhaps I may quickly respond. My noble friend illustrates very well that we should not be pre-empting or prescribing the work of the commission. Those cases are properly put to the commission as and when it is appropriate. We have not prescribed size or referred to sufficient size. It will be important that any recommendation that comes forward from the Local Government Commission is made in such a way that it is capable of effective delivery of services with a good tax and financial base and that it makes sense to local people. We shall have to put our cases to the Local Government Commission when it does its work.

Lord Burton

After many years on local government I have found that there seems to be a general deterioration in the standard of councillor. I believe that a great deal of the cause is attributable to the enormous amount of time-wasting which now takes place on councils. There is playing to the media and far too much party politics. I was delighted to hear those sentiments coming from the Liberal Benches. On my council we have a non-aligned group in order to try to deal with the socialist group which seems to spend a great deal of our time playing politics instead of getting on with our local government.

One hears about decisions made by democratically elected representatives. All too often the electorate does not get much choice of candidate. I believe the reason for that is that unless one is retired there can be very few working people who can find the time to sit through hours of discussion. I am finding exactly the same situation myself after many years. I am getting very bored with sitting on our council. Anyone who is prepared to serve the community should not have to sit through hours of unnecessary talk. It is also a terrible waste of the officials' time. Any legislation, particularly about the size of the authorities, must take account of how much voluntary time can be expected of the administrators of the authorities and, as the amendment says, promote accountable, responsive and accessible local government such as ensuring that the street lights are working.

Baroness Hamwee

I thank noble Lords for their comments on this amendment and the other amendments grouped with it. In the first instance I shall take up the point which has just been made about the place of politics in local government. I do not suggest that politics has no place. Perhaps the reputation that has been created is because of the antics of a few, rather than the good work of many.

I believe that my words "accountable, responsive" —and I believe the Minister used the word "responsible" which I think was a slip of the tongue, it should have been "responsive"—and "accessible" are no different in type from "effective" and "convenient". I thought about them long and hard. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter. I would not suggest that extra words should be written in just for the sake of it. I think they are words that have a meaning in this context.

I shall pick up a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Wade, and the dilemma between strategic considerations and local considerations. That is a dilemma which exercises me and other noble Lords very much. It is something to which we shall be returning later this evening. In agreeing that it is a matter for the Local Government Commission to consider the end result of this work, this place is probably the most remote and least appropriate to prescribe what that result should be.

I have listened with great interest to the words of all noble Lords and particularly those of the Minister. I do not wish to press the amendment at this time. I should like to consider what she has said. It may be something to which we shall return. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Norrie moved Amendment No. 155:

Page 12, line 5, at end insert: ("(c) to secure consistent arrangements in and between National Parks.").

The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 236. I speak as a recently appointed vice-president of the Council for National Parks, so I do declare an interest in achieving a satisfactory outcome on their behalf.

It goes without saying that our national parks encompass expanses of the most beautiful countryside in England and Wales and are enjoyed by about 100 million visitors each year. They are also places where people live and work, and both nationally and internationally they have become important as test beds for sustainable development in which priority is given to caring for the environment.

Of conservation assets, Ministers have frequently referred to national parks as the jewels in our crown. The proposal to reform local government risks inadvertently damaging those jewels, and that is a very deep worry.

The future of local government is inextricably linked with the future of national parks. Yet this Bill makes no provision for dealing with them. It is important to remember that the structure of national parks administration is set out in the Local Government Act 1972. That is an Act for which this Bill has major implications.

Our national parks are administered by national park authorities whose responsibilities include planning functions. Two-thirds of the membership of a national park committee, or board, are drawn from the membership of those county councils and district councils whose boundaries extend into or fall within a park. Over the past 40 years the park authorities have been severely disadvantaged by reluctance to delegate to them adequate local government functions. Arrangements have varied enormously from authority to authority resulting in confusion and inefficiency.

Recently there has been great progress. The Government have made clear their commitment to national parks in their support for the general thrust of the Report of the National Parks Review. This was undertaken by a highly respected panel set up under the aegis of the Countryside Commission.

The announcement in September that the Government intend that each national park should be administered by an independent authority is particularly welcome. Currently only the Peak District and the Lake District are administered in this way. As my right honourable friend the Minister for the Environment and Countryside said in a press release issued by the Department of the Environment on 20th September: This Government's acceptance of the Countryside Commission's and Countryside Council for Wales's recommendations for independent status for all the parks is a strong public indication of our commitment to their protection and the importance with which we regard them". The many voluntary organisations which are involved in the Council for National Parks consider the establishment of independent authorities to be the most important change that can be introduced to make the parks more effective in meeting the expectations that society places upon them. That is why my Amendment No. 155 is so important, because it would ensure that the parks are not adversely affected by changes to local government structure, and that the Government's intention to establish independent authorities can be fulfilled.

I am very much afraid that as the Bill stands it risks, unintentionally, causing the national parks to be caught up in the area by area deliberations of the Local Government Commission. My noble friend is well aware that this is why I believe that the Government should introduce legislation in this Bill giving effect to their intention that each national park should have board rather than committee status. Much uncertainty and disruption could be avoided if this were done before the Local Government Commission sets about its business.

I hope that in responding to these amendments, my noble friend can reassure me of the Government's good intentions for national parks. In particular, I hope the Minister will give very serious consideration to the merits of providing for independent authorities in national parks in this Bill. I beg to move.

Lord Hunt

I am very happy to say a few words, having put my name down in support of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, by way of emphasising and putting a slightly different slant on what he so clearly said.

I too am most anxious that the opportunity provided by this Bill should not be missed to remove an anomaly, and in terms of the amendment, an inconsistency, which has persisted ever since the national parks or the Broads were created at different times during the 1950s by which two of the parks —the Lake District and the Peak District—are run and administered by boards having full planning powers and being independent of the local authorities in whose territory they lie on the one hand, and on the other the remaining eight parks being run by committees of the county council.

During my six years as the first president of the Council for National Parks—I may say that I am so delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, is now the vice-president—I was constantly struck by the contrast between the powers and effectiveness of the two boards on the one hand, and the committees on the other. I received a letter from a former chief officer of one of those boards—the Peak Board—who was in post for 16½ years which bears on this point and makes it very well. I shall read a brief extract from what that former chief officer said: It became very clear in my time there that the achievements of the hoard were only made possible … because of [its i independent status] … in particular in pioneering new ways to reconcile conservation, recreation and a concern for local livelihood".

He went on to say: The county committees … had much greater difficulties with remote county [councils] which often did not seem to understand the National Park task or to give it sufficient support". In that connection it is quite interesting that the Countryside Commission, in a submission to the Department of the Environment and to the Welsh Secretary about reform of local government in England and Wales, which resulted in the 1972 Act way back in 1971, concluded that for all-round performance the Peak District is in a class by itself with the other national board, the Lake District, closely behind. That comes close to saying that, as a result of those contrasting management systems, there are two classes of national park; a first class park in two cases, the remainder being second class parks. That was far from the intention of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. All were supposed to be equal in value, and indeed they should be.

I have two points to make about the Bill. As it stands, it would appear to require the Local Government Commission for England to review structural and boundary arrangements and make recommendations for changes without taking account of' the existing boundaries and the existing management systems of the national parks. As it stands, the commission is enjoined in Clause 13(5), to reflect the identities and interests of local communities", without regard to the national identities and national interests, which are such a fundamental feature of the national parks, as defined by the 1949 Act. I therefore hope that the Minister will either accept the amendment or, as I understand this to be really a probing amendment, to agree to consider bringing forward a government amendment at Report Stage to upgrade the status and secure the boundaries of the national parks.

6.30 p.m.

Baroness Nicol

We too support the purpose of the amendment. The Labour Party strongly supports the concept of national parks, which were established, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, said, under our National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, though at that time the full potential of their ideal was not realised because of the change of government in 1951. Since then, however, there have been great changes in the national parks.

There has been a greater realisation of the need to protect the diversity of our eco—systems. There have been enormous changes in agriculture, particularly its intensification. The postwar growth in prosperity made mass car ownership possible, fuelled demand for second homes and put new pressures on the countryside. We are concerned that much unnecessary damage has been done to conservation over the past decade and we are determined to put it right where possible. We are committed to putting into effect the proposals of the Common Land Forum and to increasing protection for national parks. We wish to consult on the creation of new parks, which we hope will include the New Forest. However, I re-emphasise the view we put forward in our environmental policy statement An Earthly Chance that although some sites such as national parks and areas of natural beauty are special and deserve extra protection, this can never be a substitute for careful management and conservation of the whole countryside. But having said that, we give broad support to the call of the National Parks Review Panel for independent park authorities. We accept that each park should have its own authority whose sole purpose is the protection of the park. The illustrations given by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, show clearly the difference of achievement when the authority is independent and is concentrating solely on the park.

However, we would wish to ensure that a good proportion of the members of the new authority have some form of electoral legitimacy. At the moment there is strong local authority representation. We think something of that kind must continue. We should also like to see the users of national parks represented on the authority as well as the various types of expertise which will of course be needed. We are convinced that to establish a suitable membership for the new authorities consultation will be needed. The new authorities will need to embrace regional as well as local interests since the parks are, as others have said, a regional resource. It will require careful and thorough examination to get it right and to see that potential clashes with strategic management are avoided.

The amendment is necessary because piecemeal changes to the present system could cause chaos in those parks which at present do not enjoy an independent authority. The noble Lord, Lord Norrie, mentioned the Peaks and the Lakes, but we also have the Broads, which has its own special independent authority. I am sure that my noble friend Lady Hollis can vouch for that as she has been closely involved with the Broads and is aware of the great success that has come from that arrangement. Without the amendment the remaining eight parks would face a period of administrative muddle which could be very damaging. We were unable to find out earlier today how long the noble Baroness envisages this whole process taking. But if it were stretched over a long period, one does not need very much imagination to see what a disastrous effect it could have on those parks that are presently an amalgamation of various authorities.

In their 1987 manifesto the Conservatives promised to implement the proposals of the Common Land Forum and to legislate to protect national parks. Neither of those promises has so far been fulfilled. This amendment offers a last ditch chance to redeem at least one of them. I hope that the Government will seize it.

Lord Moran

I was glad to put my name to the amendment. It is an open and shut case. It would be illogical and silly for the Local Government Commission to come up with different arrangements for national parks in different parts of England and Wales. That is why the first amendment calls for consistency. If we have consistency we should obviously follow the best practice.

This has been looked at carefully by the National Parks Review Panel under the chairmanship of Professor Ron Edwards. The case for and against independent status for national parks is discussed fully at pages 97 to 100 of its report. The review panel came down firmly in favour of independent status for national parks, a status enjoyed already, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, pointed out, by the Peak District and Lake District national parks and also by the Broads Authority. If that is the best practice, it is sensible to carry it out.

We were greatly encouraged that Ministers announced on 20th September that they favour the appointment of independent authorities in national parks. It would seem sensible therefore to include a clause in the Bill to give effect to that proposal and so prevent national parks being damaged in a long and messy process of reorganisation. I hope very much that the Minister will be able to say whether the Government agree.

Baroness White

I strongly support the proposals put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, and those who have spoken. I do so particularly because of my Welsh connections. Three of the national parks in the United Kingdom—or, at least, in England and Wales, as Scotland does not have them—are in the Principality. We are undergoing a quite different exercise in local government reorganisation, to which I may refer later on in regard to another amendment.

It would be most undesirable if there were not consistency between the administrative arrangements for the three parks in Wales and the others in England —the eight parks, the Broads, and the New Forest, should that come about. It would be extremely confusing for all concerned and it would be highly undesirable in itself. The conclusions of the review body were clear and logical in the matter. I hope that we shall receive an assurance from the Minister that not only the recommendations of the review body but also the pledges given by Ministers of the Department of the Environment and of the Welsh Office, that such arrangements will be made and will be honoured for the national parks both in England and in Wales, have been taken on hoard by those who are organising the English local government pattern under the Bill.

I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Norrie—on this occasion at least, he is a noble friend—and my other noble friends on both sides of the Committee are all at one on this issue. It would be perfectly absurd if we did not receive an assurance today that the pledges given by the Department of the Environment and the Welsh Office will be honoured in the procedure which the Minister is advocating to the Committee.

Baroness Blatch

Perhaps I may say, first, that I am sure the Committee recognises the work carried out by my noble friend Lord Norrie; that is, not just his work in countryside matters generally but especially his work for national parks. I agree with all speakers in the debate thus far that they are indeed very special areas of land which require special status. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, was right to remind the Committee of the two parks run by the boards independently and the eight that are committees of the county council as a result of the 1949 Act. I can tell the noble Lord, and repeat the assurance and commitment which has already been given, that they shall have independent status and shall be separate authorities. However, that commitment was made in advance of the full review and all the impact of the review being considered in its detail. When these parks are established, it is important to set them up in a comprehensive way so that the detail can be properly addressed at the time.

I can also tell my noble friend Lord Norrie, the noble Lords, Lord Hunt and Lord Moran and the noble Baronesses, Lady Nicol and Lady White, that the work of the Local Government Commission will not do anything other than recognise the independent status of the parks; in other words, the department has said straight off that the parks shall be independent. Therefore, in any review which takes place in an area where there is a national park, it will have to be taken as read by the commission—and this is one area where prescription will apply—that that particular area of the national park will indeed be an independent authority as and when the Government put the legislation before Parliament.

I understand the wish for the early establishment of such independent authorities. Following the submission of the National Parks Review Panel Report, we have already announced our intention to establish independent authorities for all the national parks in England and Wales. I hope that Members of the Committee will agree that it would be desirable to look at the establishment of independent authorities in conjunction with the rest of the review report. It is my appeal to all Members of the Committee who have spoken in the debate to accept that to put something quick in here which is not properly thought out as regards the detail of the review, would not be the most sensible way forward. But the guarantee of independence is indeed made.

The Government hope to publish their full response by the end of this year which, as we all know, is looming very shortly. Members of the Committee will appreciate that there are likely to be other matters which may require legislation. We would prefer a comprehensive approach to securing the future of the parks.

I hope that in the light of what I have said my noble friend will accept the assurances and that he will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

6.45 p.m.

Baroness White

Can the Minister turn her mind to the possible difference in time-scale between arrangements in England and Wales? It would be most unfortunate if we did not have consistency in the park arrangements. I say that because Wales is on a different time-scale altogether with its local government reorganisation, compared with what I understand is likely to be the English time-scale. I very much hope that the Government will recognise that, if they a re going to have these very desirable arrangements in the national parks, the two sets of parks should, so to speak, keep in step.

Baroness Blatch

I take note of the point made by the noble Baroness. However, a criticism frequently levelled at the Government is that they do not think legislation through. In this situation, I have to stress that I have given an assurance that the Government's response will be published shortly. It will be important for people to read that response. I am also conscious of the point that the noble Baroness made about timing, with the emphasis that the parks should be treated the same. Independence will be independence for all of them.

Lord Norrie

I should like to thank my noble friend the Minister for her full and helpful reply. As both she and I know, the Government's response to the National Parks Review Panel Report is eagerly awaited. I am sure that she will still understand my belief that this Bill is the ideal vehicle for establishing once-and-for-all independent national parks authorities. Once the Government's response is published, which my noble friend said will be at the end of the year, we can return to this question for further debate, be it in this Chamber or in another place. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 156 not moved.]

Lord Norrie moved Amendment No. 157:

Page 12, line 5, at end insert: ("(c) to safeguard the special requirements of the planning system in accordance with Part II of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, including the preparation of separate Structure and Local Plans.").

The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment I shall, with the leave of the Committee, speak also to Amendment No. 158. These amendments seek to ensure that the Local Government Commission will be required to pay special attention to certain local government functions when considering structural changes. I welcome the importance attached to the interests of local communities in Clause 13. but I believe that there is a danger of underplaying the importance of local government functions.

Amendment No. 157 concerns land use planning. That is arguably the most important environmental function performed by local authorities. During the Second Reading debate I described what I saw as the vital role of the two-tier planning system. The two-tier system is able to reconcile effective and accountable strategic planning at county level, with detailed local planning and development control by the districts. I was delighted when the Government recently confirmed their support for two-tier planning in the Planning and Compensation Act 1991.

I was particularly heartened by the comments made by my noble friend Lady Blatch towards the end of our consideration of that Act. She said: The planning system and the measures in the [Planning and Compensation] Bill will remain central in the Government's thinking as they work towards local government reform". On Second Reading I asked my noble friend how the Government would ensure that the two-tier planning system was safeguarded during the reform of local government. These amendments seek to probe further on that crucial question. Therefore, Amendment No. 157 would require the Local Government Commission to have regard to the special requirements of the planning system.

Amendment No. 158 is related to the former but is more general. Its purpose is to draw attention to all the strategic services carried out by local authorities. I was very encouraged by the support expressed during Second Reading for the strategic role performed by local government, especially at county level.

For me, these amendments highlight an area where the Bill is seriously lacking. I fear the effect of local government reform which results in the creation of small unitary authorities. Small unitary authorities, based on existing districts, will be incapable of performing strategic planning and other strategic services. I do not believe that we can expect these functions to be performed effectively under joint arrangements. The comments made during Second Reading by my noble friend Lady Cumberlege and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, which I understand are based on considerable experience, confirmed my fears in this regard. I shall return to the inadequacies of joint authorities when we consider Clause 21.

My honourable friend the Minister for Housing and Planning, in a recent speech to the Association of County Councils, said: We are committed to local government. But we are committed to efficient and effective local government. And to achieve that there must be more strategic thinking".

He went on to say: Before any unitary authorities are established, it will have to be shown that issues of strategic planning, as well as local planning and development control, are satisfactorily covered".

But there is nothing on the face of the Bill to ensure that that is the case. Unless the commission is required to have regard to strategic concerns, there is a real danger that the review of local government will underplay those important considerations. The amendments seek to ensure that strategic concerns, especially strategic planning, are properly addressed by the commission. I hope that the Government will respond positively to the amendments. I beg to move.

Baroness Cumberlege

I second Amendment No. 158 moved by my noble friend Lord Norrie. In doing so, I should like to stress a view that was put forward on Second Reading and again during the course of today's debate. There is a consistent worry that in the Bill there is a lack of clear guidelines for making strategic plans and for implementing strategic decisions. The CPRE, the Association of County Councils, the Institute of Trading Standards Administration, the RSPB and others have expressed to me their real and valid concerns. The ACC cites 20 different services which have a strategic dimension. The RSPB cites the problem of competing neighbouring authorities, all wishing to develop their section of waterfront, thus destroying the habitat and altering the character of the whole estuary, with no one looking after the wider interest and holding the ring.

I could give many other examples, but I shall resist the temptation. I shall give just one. I know that no one wins elections by voting for a municipal tip. Local emotions run high, but in the wider public interest a tip has to be sited somewhere. To break the impasse there needs to be a wider strategic view distanced from the hurly-burly of the local areas involved.

It is important that clear guidelines should he incorporated in the Bill. During the debate, many Members of the Committee have stressed that there is an issue regarding the intimacy of local government; that it should be local and reflect local communities. Some of us fear that by ignoring the strategic dimension more and more will be done in Whitehall, and that local dimension will be eroded.

My noble friend the Minister has already stressed that the purpose of the Bill is not to diminish the role of local government, and many of us will rejoice in that. Of course I accept her assurance, but I fear that as more and more power devolves to Brussels there is a temptation for the Civil Service to do more, when our intention should be to decentralise to where people understand local needs and issues and are accountable to their electorate.

The amendment is designed to concentrate the mind of the Secretary of State to devise a sensible scheme for making strategic decisions on issues larger than can be covered by the proposed unitary authorities. I strongly support my noble friend on this amendment.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

I shall speak to Amendment No. 157. No one in the Chamber can doubt the need for a strategic framework for local decision making, especially, as the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, said, in terms of major land use policy, transportation and toxic waste. The difference between us may be the appropriate framework in which that strategic planning and decision making can occur. There is nothing strategic about county councils. They are not relevant to many environmental issues. For example, the Broads were cited by my noble friend Lady Nicol just now. They straddle Norfolk and Suffolk.

The region is a far more rational basis—this point will be explored on a later amendment—for true strategic guidance. It is within that context that we should be thinking—I hope with regional assemblies in due course—about the discussion of strategic decisions. I am sure that it is a more appropriate forum for co-ordinating the work of local government with English Nature, English Heritage, the national parks, and the water authorities which have a major implication for recreational facilities. They are all more comfortably calibrated with local government at regional level than they would be with county councils.

Below regions, it is of course unitary districts that matter for development plans and development control. The 1991 Act which occupied this place recently, accepted the primacy of district local plans. I believe that I am right in saying that the Government's original planning policy guidance proposed that county structure plans should become non-statutory guidance, and retained the separate identity of statutory guidance partly because we were aware that local government reform was on the agenda. The Government, wisely, did not want to pre-empt the final recommendations.

It is district local plans, not county structure plans, which contain the detailed landscape policies which are site-specific. Above districts, there are clusters of districts in joint arrangements which are now producing effective local co-ordinating policies, whether they be green belt policies, managing the bids of superstores in out-of-town developments, or countryside management projects along river valleys and the like. In other words, the bases of planning now are the building blocks of districts. Two or three districts may unite over certain green issues; four of them may come together for a tourism strategy; a dozen of them may be involved in a major transportation development; but in all those, the county councils as such are marginal—too large for detailed planning; too small for strategic planning.

If we were to accept Amendment No. 157, my understanding is that it would unacceptably narrow the scope of the Local Government Commission because it would mean that we would have to keep county councils for one function only—structure plans—or alternatively we would have to go for statutory joint arrangements, in which case a county council is not necessarily an appropriate body. Neither of those options provide a particularly fruitful way forward. I hope that the Committee will reject the formality of the amendment; that is, that we look to the counties for strategic planning. We should think instead to where the strategic issue should now truly be explored, which is at regional level.

Lord Wade of Chorlton

I support those who say that the commission should have a responsibility to be aware of the strategic implications of the structures it creates,. I do not accept that strategic matters need to be looked at at a higher level—by a regional authority or at national level. It is national level which worries me the most. Even if decisions were made at regional level, and I do not agree with them being made there, at least the local authorities, whether they be unitary or any other size, should be aware of the strategic plans of which they are part.

I am worried that if the authorities are set up merely to look at a range of local issues, which are their main responsibility, and it is left to some other outside authority to decide on strategic issues with which they are involved, the local people will not consider the strategic issues and the wider issues in which they will all he involved. What is important is that even if there is a system whereby government have to be involved in strategic decisions, at least the local people should have a view of them and have a forum in which they can express that view. The final strategic authority that makes the decision should know their views.

I agree with my noble friend Lady Cumberlege that there is great anxiety that if nothing is included about the strategic responsibilities of the structures that the commission creates, it will be left to national government to take the important decisions, and they are the last people to decide what any local area or community wants. The commission's responsibilities should include a need for them to be aware of and create structures that have that strategic responsibility.

Baroness Hamwee

I have considerable sympathy with the anxieties expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, and the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, but this is not the place to express them. Subsection (5) deals with specific considerations of a different kind to which the Local Government Commission is to have regard. I have already expressed my wish to extend those in a different way and I do not believe that it would be right to be as prescriptive as the amendment suggests The wording in subsection (5), having regard to the need … to secure effective and convenient local government", covers and puts firmly into the arena of the Local Government Commission the considerations of the strategic services referred to in the amendment. I do not by any measure underestimate the importance of strategic services, but this is not the right place to provide for them.

7 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

The Government fully appreciate the importance of the planning system and the role which local government plays on environmental issues. We have made it clear that before any unitary authorities are established, it will have to be shown that the issues of strategic and local planning, and of other services, including those which protect the environment, are satisfactorily covered.

I am sure that the noble Lord has been reassured by the draft guidance to the Local Government Commission, which we have issued to the local authority associations and others for consultation. The guidance says that the commission should have regard to the need to establish authorities which cover areas such that they can carry out all their functions effectively, and do so in ways which reflect community interests. The guidance goes on to say that the commission should look for a structure to achieve the most effective exercise of functions and delivery of services consistent with community interests.

As has just been mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, it should consider convenience to local people and, in the case of strategic functions, the wider public interest. I know that that is an issue which concerns my noble friends Lord Wade and Lady Cumberlege.

The draft guidance also sets out more detailed advice specific to land use planning and environmental issues. We must keep repeating the status of guidance. It will be for the Secretary of State to instruct the commission to have regard to the guidance. In other words, it will be no good coming forward to Parliament with a recommendation for some structural change which has not addressed the whole issue of strategic and planning issues.

The importance of the planning system as a framework for ensuring that decisions about development take full account of the impact on the environment is emphasised. The guidance says that the commission should consider the need for better environmental protection in looking at proposals for change to local government structure.

Our commitment to ensuring proper arrangements for these important local government functions which are the subject of these amendments is clear. We have also made it clear that it would be inappropriate to prescribe arrangements for particular functions in advance of the commission's work. This would inevitably limit the commission's ability to recommend the best local government structure for each area.

The first of the noble Lord's amendments is therefore not acceptable on these grounds, and I hope he will not press it.

However, we do not wish to weaken the provision of strategic functions. We have made it clear that before any unitary authorities are established, it will have to be shown that strategic functions are satisfactorily covered. The draft guidance to the Local Government Commission states that the commission should be satisfied that functions for which a transfer of responsibility would take place can be performed in a way which is cost effective, more responsive to consumer needs and conforms with the statute and national policy requirements. It should consider convenience to local people; and, in the case of strategic functions, the wider public interest.

On the second amendment, I have spoken about the need to avoid prescribing arrangements for particular functions in advance of the commission's work. Equally, we do not want particular arrangements to be ruled out. In some areas, it may be appropriate for planning responsibilities to be exercised by unitary authorities through the preparation of unitary development plans, like those currently prepared by London boroughs and the metropolitan district council. We are considering the drafting of Part II of the Bill in light of this need to keep options open.

Finally, I must repeat that in order to allay fears, strategic functions—for example, land-use planning, environmental considerations, environmental obligations, community care arrangements and the like—will not be lost or in any way diminished as a result of the Bill. I hope these amendments can be withdrawn.

Lord Norrie

I am grateful to the Minister for giving me such a full explanation. As a result, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 158 not moved.]

Viscount Astor

I beg to move that the House be now resumed. In moving this Motion, I suggest that the Committee stage begin again at five minutes past eight.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.