HL Deb 28 April 1994 vol 554 cc871-80

7.7 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (The Earl of Arran) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 22nd March be approved [14th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Earl said: My Lords, this is the first structural change order to be put before the House as a result of a review by the Local Government Commission for England. In general, local government reorganisation is an area in which your Lordships have taken a keen interest, and we had a wide-ranging debate on the subject on 30th March. We must now turn our attention specifically to the Isle of Wight.

The draft order gives effect to the commission's main recommendations for structure on the Isle of Wight, contained in its report Final Recommendations on the Future Local Government of the Isle of Wight, submitted to the Secretary of State of the Environment on 23rd April 1993. After considering the commission's recommendations for the island and the representations made, the Government announced their decision on 2nd November. This order gives effect to that decision.

We believe that more effective and convenient local government on the Isle of Wight will be achieved by establishing one unitary authority for the whole island —the first of the commission's recommendations—and that that will reflect the identities and interests of local people. That recommendation has received all-party and all-tier support from the local authorities on the island. The draft order provides for the unitary Isle of Wight council to be up and running by 1st April 1995. On that date the functions and powers of the two borough councils on the island will transfer to the Isle of Wight County Council, which will then become the sole principal council for the island and be renamed the Isle of Wight Council.

To ensure a smooth transition to the new structure, the county council will be given extra powers from 3rd May this year. During this shadow period the county council will be able to make the necessary preparations, including budget setting and appointment of staff, for the assumption of borough council functions in the following April. The powers which the county council will be given are set out in the Local Government Changes for England Regulations 1994, which came into effect on 12th April.

All the other commission recommendations are given effect to, except the one for planning which has been modified. The commission recommended that the unitary authority should continue to produce separate local and structure plans. We believe, however, that planning needs on the island will be better served if the unitary authority were to prepare a unitary development plan rather than to continue with a two-tier planning system. The draft order for the Isle of Wight therefore states that, for the purposes of Part II of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, the unitary island authority shall be treated as an authority to whose area Chapter I (unitary plans) of the Act applies, rather than Chapter II.

We have undertaken to give local people on the island the opportunity to elect a new unitary council in May 1995 in order that councillors with a fresh mandate may take over responsibility for providing all local authority services. These unitary authority councillors will be elected on the basis of the new warding arrangements set out in the schedule to the draft order. Forty-eight single-member electoral divisions will replace the existing borough and county wards and electoral divisions.

I commend this order to your Lordships' House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 22nd March be approved [14th Report from the Joint Committee]. —(The Earl of Arran.)

7.11 p.m.

Lord Mottistone

My Lords, I wish deeply to thank my noble friend the Minister and his colleagues for having "got a move on" to lay this order and its parent order, Local Government Changes for England, in time to enable the preliminary work of preparing for a unitary authority to be elected and introduced in a year's time. I wish to add special thanks to my noble friend Lord Arran for his contribution in persuading his colleagues that any further delay would be harmful.

The study by the Local Government Commission was conducted with great sympathy and expertise. I have the highest regard for the way in which the commission carried out its duties. From the beginning of the study there has been a large measure of agreement in principle in the Isle of Wight to the creation of a unitary authority. However, there have been difficulties in detail. The most important of these has been the understandable wish of both the county and the boroughs not to be thought to be "taken over" by the other tier of the present local government. In passing the 1992 Act it seems that Parliament failed to spot that that situation might arise, although the department was warned of the possibility by the Isle of Wight. Sadly, that warning was dismissed. Thus, we have no proper separately elected shadow authority, which some see as not properly democratic.

In particular, the employees of all existing authorities, especially the boroughs, are worried that their interests will in some way be harmed. I have much sympathy with that, but I am confident that the county council will take immense trouble to handle employment matters fairly. I do not believe that those involved need worry that the situation would have been different had a shadow authority been elected during the past three months or so.

The appearance of a totally new authority, which the Local Government Commission recommended and the Isle of Wight in particular wanted, is achieved on paper by naming the new council the "Isle of Wight Council" and dropping the designation "county". I am full of hope that, with the orders approved and with the introduction of a new title made to meet our sensibilities, we can now get on and prepare for our new authority with it being safely elected in a year's time.

If have explained this particular difficulty to your Lordships at some length—and it is not the only one —because I believe that it might be a helpful lesson to my noble friend and his colleagues. Although the establishment of a unitary authority for my island has been relatively simple, there is much evidence that on mainland England there are many difficulties even where people welcome, as many do, a simpler local administration than is currently in use with two tiers. It is not clear, for example. how any changes will affect some Lord Lieutenants. It is not clear whether districts that were split from neighbours 20 years ago can go back to their old friends. It is not clear whether the countryfolk are to be bossed around by the "townies" of large cities.

As I have shown in relation to the Isle of Wight, it might be helpful to make some amendments to the 1992 Act so as to make it more flexible with regard to matters of description and status, which are sometimes of pressing, even passionate, importance to people in a local community but which seem minor matters of detail to officials of a great government department. To its credit, the Local Government Commission has never suffered from that failing so far as we islanders are concerned.

Having pressed for a more sympathetic approach in managing the welcome introduction of more simple local administration, I conclude by again thanking my noble friend for introducing this order and by inviting your Lordships to accept it. Someone suggested to me that the title of the order—the Isle of Wight (Structural Change) Order—was not necessary because the structure of the island (and the coastline below my house) is changing at the rate of one yard per year and has been for the past 150 years. Our structural change happens naturally and does not require an order, but I do not believe that my noble friend uses the phrase in that way.

7.17 p.m.

Baroness David

My Lords, I am speaking not as a resident of the Isle of Wight, although some time ago I sailed into one of its harbours, but as someone very interested in local government and in this particular reorganisation. Everyone agrees that the proposal for one unitary authority on the island is sensible. But what is causing considerable concern is that the new authority, established exactly on the boundaries of an existing authority, will not be elected anew. The noble, Lord, Lord Mottistone, spoke of that.

In the opinion of the Association of County Councils —and I agree with it—it is wrong in principle to set up a new authority in shadow form without a democratic mandate. I am aware that there will be elections in May 1995. What is very important is that the staff of the existing councils must fear that they will not be treated in a fair manner. That seems to me a very reasonable fear.

The Government argue that due to the drafting of the 1992 Act wholly new unitary authorities can be established only where the authority is not based on the same boundaries as an existing district or county. But this sets a precedent for future review areas which will be detrimental to the good working of local government, both in the approach to reorganisation and thereafter.

In other possible reorganisations—for instance, Cleveland —the boot would be on the other foot because the district council as the unitary authority could be the continuing authority. In these cases, it is possible that authorities with responsibility for less than one-fifth of local government expenditure could assume the power to plan single-handedly for the whole range of local government functions in the new authorities. Both the ACC and the ADC agreed to take part in the review on the basis that any unitary authority resulting from it —even those with exactly the same boundaries as an existing authority—would be new authorities with new members, new officers, new policies and so on. The associations received encouragement in this view from the Department of the Environment. The Minister, Mr. David Curry, wrote to the chairman of the ACC on 4th August last year stating: In those cases where a district or a county takes over the functions of the other tier, without any significant boundary change … the inheritor authority could not be considered as a new authority". This seems to be a complete reversal of policy and is not acceptable.

I remind your Lordships that at the time of the last big reorganisation of local government in 1973–74, the new council started completely afresh. As shadow vice-chairman of the Education Committee of Cambridgeshire County Council, I recall—and I may say that we took hours and hours about it—that we appointed the officers, the heads and the deputy heads of schools, and that was right. People felt that they had been treated fairly. Unless the new councils are, to start afresh, there will inevitably be the feeling that it is unfair and an injustice to the staff of councils that are to be abolished—and, to a lesser extent, perhaps, to the members.

The order before the House is the first to be proposed; so it deserves wide attention. Further reorganisation proposals are likely to be highly controversial. Will the Minister give an assurance that there will be adequate time given to debate future orders on the Floor of the House? He must realise that, if people are to have confidence in the new councils, they must be based on a proper democratic mandate.

7.22 p.m.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, as a resident of the Isle of Wight I should like warmly to welcome the order before the House tonight. I join my noble friend the Governor and Lord Lieutenant for the Isle of Wight, Lord Mottistone, in thanking the Minister for his timely production of the order. For some time I have felt that, with a population of just over 126,000, the Isle of Wight has been rather over-governed with two district councils and a county council. I should point out that a population of 126,000 is less than half that of the next smallest county and under one-tenth the size of some of the largest counties. I believe that it is about the average size of a district council. I should stress that such figures relate only to England. Moreover, in terms of area, it is the smallest county in England comprising an area of some 38,000 hectares; indeed, there is only one other with an area below 100,000 hectares. For all those reasons, it is a good idea that there should be a unitary authority for the island.

However, I also believe that it will be good for democratic accountability. At present, I do not know —nor, I am sure, do many residents of the Isle of Wight —who is responsible for what; in other words, whether it is the district council or the country council. Therefore, people do not know who to blame when something goes wrong or, similarly, who to praise when something goes right. In particular, when the council tax bills come round, I believe that one has to pay through the district council for the county council. Again, I believe that the district council receives the blame if the country council is charging too much and, perhaps, praise if it is charging too little. For all those reasons, I warmly welcome the order. Although I have not examined the transitional arrangements, I hope that the transitional period to which the noble Baroness referred will be a great success.

7.24 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, tonight is one of the occasions when my noble friend the late Lord Ross of Newport is sorely missed. I am sure that he would have joined in the debate and made some very pertinent comments. I speak as someone who is not a resident of the Isle of Wight and who has not even visited it in the rather glamorous way described by the noble Baroness, Lady David. I have sailed into the Isle of Wight, but I did so on a commercial ferry. I have not sailed into an island seeking refuge from a storm or in the circumstances experienced by the noble Baroness, whatever they were.

It is clearly appropriate that the island should be governed by one tier of government, subject, as everyone agrees, to any parish arrangements. The question of praise, blame and understanding—although, perhaps, transparency is the most significant—is very important. I shall not take up time by taking issue with the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, as to whether praise or blame for the level of council tax is a matter that should be laid at the door of a county council, a district council or at the door of central government, given the grant structure which underlies it.

However, as has already been said, bluntly by the noble Baroness, Lady David, and both tactfully and sensitively by the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, I have to say that it is a pity that, in proposing the order now before us, the Government have managed to get it wrong even where there is a consensus as to the structure of government for the island in the future. I refer to the issue of a continuing authority.

I turn now to the lack of democracy. The electorate is strong-minded and knows its own mind. It may decide some time between the start of the functioning of a shadow authority and the reorganisation date that it would like a different party to control the island's government. Some noble Lords will appreciate that that is an argument which I may be making against my own party; but things do change. I am perfectly happy to use arguments against my party, not suggesting that they will change, but simply to highlight the absurdity of the situation.

This is not a joking matter. I am quite serious about the undemocratic way in which the change is being approached. The county council and the new island council will have different functions. However, it seems to me that that fact is barely recognised in the explanatory note to the order which says that, the Isle of Wight County Council is renamed the Isle of Wight Council, and takes on the functions of the two abolished councils as well as continuing with its existing county council functions". I believe that the position is a good deal more complicated than is explained in that note. The practicalities of moving from the functions of a county council to the more varied functions of an island council will require a great deal of work which should properly be done by those who have the responsibility in the period immediately following the reorganisation. The points made by the noble Baroness, Lady David, as regards practical experience are most important.

So far as concerns the staff, one would expect that the county would take great care to ensure that staff at all levels are properly looked after and that decisions are made in a proper manner. However, it is stretching credibility to expect either the staff or the public to believe that decisions have not somehow been skewed. The staff commission is there to advise the Government. Perhaps it needs more powers of intervention. I remember many fine words being spoken during the course of the Local Government Bill as to understanding the problems of staff involved in reorganisation. I should tell the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, that it is not just a matter of something being done properly; indeed, there are many occasions when something needs to be seen to be done properly.

As has been said, while it is an issue for the Isle of Wight, it is and will be far more of an issue where a county tier will go and there will be unitary authorities at a district or, at any rate, a sub-county level. Moving functions in that direction will be extremely complicated. I join with the noble Baroness in asking for assurances from the Government that they will not replicate the complications, difficulties and concerns that have been roused by the proposals in the order.

7.28 p.m.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the Minister for introducing the order. As other speakers have said, this is a happy occasion where, on the whole, we all agree with one another that the order before us is welcome. It is certainly welcomed from this Bench. We have consistently said for the past 20 years that we support unitary authorities. I believe that it was said very clearly by my noble friend Lady Hollis in the recent debate on the Local Government Commission that that is still our attitude. As the order is the first to be laid under the Act, I think it might be useful to your Lordships if I set out one or two principles on how we will wish to deal with the orders as they come through—which, presumably, will come through in rather large numbers as we move forward.

My first point—and I hope that the noble Earl and the Government business managers will accept this—is that I believe orders of this nature (as indeed most orders are) should be debated in another place before being debated here. I say that because they do have electoral implications and boundary implications, and I would much rather be standing at this Dispatch Box with the knowledge that another place has had its view on a particular boundary, or a particular change in a boundary, rather than get up de novo—if I may use that expression—and try to express a view that may be overturned by any right honourable Member or Member of another place. So I hope very much that the Government business managers take on board the fact that we would prefer these orders to be introduced first of all in another place.

Having said that, there are a number of other points that I would like to make. As my noble friend Lady Hollis said, we do support the Local Government Commission and its review and the emphasis on unitary authorities but we will examine each order as it comes on its merits. I cannot give the noble Earl any commitment at all that we will approve each order as it comes automatically in the way that I am about to approve the order on the Isle of Wight. There are certain conditions that we would like to see observed and I will enumerate them as follows. First of all, that the review, and the orders that come out of the review, will be thorough and genuinely cover the country as a whole, not what is called cherry-picking of areas such as Cleveland, Humberside, Derbyshire or Avon; that the review will be completed and the Government will not abandon it halfway through; that the recommendations will be acted upon; and that consistent principles will be adopted throughout. It seems to me that that is an important element in supporting this first order and subsequent orders that may come.

Secondly—I hope I do not have to say this in front of your Lordships but sometimes one has to say these rather brutal things—there should be no gerrymandering of specific boundaries for party political advantage. I hope the noble Earl and I are at one on that and I hope all your Lordships agree that that is undesirable; but it is a condition that we wish to see properly observed as these orders come forward.

Thirdly, we believe that in shadow authorities—I shall come back to the question of the shadow authority —there should be all-out elections from day one. As my noble friend Lady David said, it is very important that there should be a democratic authority for the shadow authority from the first day that it is set up.

Fourthly, we believe that in subsequent years a third of the unitary authorities that are being set up should be up for election annually. Now that may be contrary to what the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, would like to see and perhaps that is in favour of her party or against her party; I am not entirely certain whether she was arguing in favour of her party or against her party Nevertheless, I think that the principle should be observed that a third of the authority should be up for election annually. Fifthly, the Government should meet any reasonable representation made to them by the Staff Commission about the way staff are treated when jobs have been changed as part of the reorganisation under any order produced as a result of the commission's review.

Having laid down a certain number of rather broad principles about how we will handle the orders when they come before your Lordships in the future, I now welcome the Isle of Wight order and rejoice, if I may say so, with the Governor and Lord Lieutenant for the Isle of Wight, the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, and indeed the Deputy Lieutenant for the Isle of Wight, the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara.

There are only two slightly niggling points that I would like to make. One is to support my noble friend Lady David when she—and indeed the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee—said it was really quite absurd that the Government, in the first order under the 1992 Act, had got it wrong and we could not have a shadow authority because the Act did say that where the new unitary authority was in the boundaries of the existing authority there could not be a shadow authority. That arouses, as the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, and others have said, all sorts of fears about take overs and all sorts of difficulties. If the noble Earl were to come to the Dispatch Box and say, "Well, we respect the views of all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate and we are prepared to bring forward a one line Bill to change the Act", I can assure him that from this Front Bench there would be no problem about that whatsoever. We would help them in the way that we have helped the Government on other occasions in introducing amendments to legislation where the primary legislation was defective.

There is an importance in this beyond, of course, the Isle of Wight. It is that this is the first order, and Cleveland may come next and others will come after, and it is therefore essential in our view that shadow authorities should be set up and should have elections so that the whole process can start oil with a proper democratically supported base.

There is one lesser but still important point about town and country planning that I wish to make. There are two paragraphs in the order (6 and '7), which will mean that the island changes from its present system of a structure plan —as I think the noble Earl pointed out —obviously setting out the strategic policies for the whole island, and detailed local plans for each of the two districts, to a single combined unitary plan similar indeed to those which exist in the London boroughs. In the relatively unique context of the Isle of Wight we believe that this will probably work, but I would be very worried if this were taken as a precedent for future different areas of the country because it may well not work in other areas other than the Isle of Wight. I think it will work in the Isle of Wight but I would just issue a small warning to the Government that we may wish to look rather more carefully at the town and country planning arrangements in future orders.

So while welcoming the order and congratulating the Lord Lieutenant, the Deputy Lieutenant, and others, resident or non-resident, or those who have sailed into various harbours in the Isle of Wight, on this order, I would just issue what I call a yellow light to the Government. Because we approve of this order, do not think that we are not going to issue a red light on others as they come forward.

7.38 p.m.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed in an authoritative way to the debate this evening. Before I go on to answer some of the points that have been raised I would add that other shire areas of the country would do well to mirror the dedication and co-operation of people on the Isle of Wight in reaching agreement on the structure which best serves their local communities. The commission does not have an easy task in reviewing the structure of shire England but it has been much aided by all those on the Isle of Wight. I know that my noble friends Lord Mottistone, the Governor, and Lord Brabazon, the Deputy Lieutenant, will appreciate the points that I make.

There was some discussion by my noble friend Lord Mottistone, by the noble Baronesses, Lady David and Lady Hamwee, and certainly by the noble Lord, Lord Williams, on the new and continuing authorities. The unitary authority will be the technical continuation of the county council after reorganisation. The terms of the Local Government Act 1992 will not permit any other alternative. The terms of the Act mean that we cannot create a wholly new authority where an existing council takes on the functions of the other tier without a substantial boundary change. There is no realistic prospect of amending primary legislation, which would be very complex. But we do not see this as a serious problem for areas where that happens. We have ensured a fresh start for the island unitary authority with elections in May 1995. It will then be up to the new elected representatives to take the initiative and press forward with innovative ideas.

We have also sought to encourage consultation with the two borough councils during the period of forward planning preceding reorganisation so that there can be fresh thinking about the way in which the unitary authority should be structured. We want fair treatment for all staff. We issued the Staff Commission revised guidance clarifying the original guidance in cases where district or county authorities continue after restructuring as a unitary authority.

The noble Baroness, Lady David, asked whether we would continue to have adequate time for debate when future orders come before your Lordships' House. Of course that will be the case. I can reassure her on that point.

My noble friend Lord Mottistone asked particularly about the future standing of Lords Lieutenant. All Lord Lieutenants will be consulted by the Local Government Commission on the draft recommendations for their counties. County areas will remain even where a county council is abolished unless there are changes to county boundaries. We shall not make changes which would affect the jurisdiction of Lords Lieutenant, whether by the creation of a new county or the alteration or disappearance of an existing county without full consultation with all interested parties.

I suppose that we have to be grateful for small mercies in that the noble Lord, Lord Williams, has given his approval to the first order introduced so far. He made the point about his wish for future orders to be debated in another place first. As the noble Lord, Lord Williams, knows full well, orders are laid down at the same time in both Houses. As he said, it is then up to the business managers as to which House comes first. It is normally another place which comes first.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams, rightly asked about staffing. As part of realising the savings, we expect that the Isle of Wight County Council during the shadow period will wish to take a completely fresh look at its existing organisational structure and staffing in planning for unitary status, in consultation with the borough councils.

The Government intend that the vast majority of South Wight and Medina employees providing a service direct to the public, such as housing officers, will be transferred to the Isle of Wight Council on 1st April 1995 on existing contractual terms and conditions through the mechanism of statutory transfer orders. The Staff Commission for England will be providing guidance on this in due course. For those staff who do not transfer by transfer order it will be for the Isle of Wight County Council, in consultation with South Wight and Medina borough councils, to decide whether any of them will nevertheless transfer on 1st April 1995 under existing employment legislation. Again, the Staff Commission will be available to offer advice to the island authorities and their staff on the subject.

I hope that I have gone into some detail on many of your Lordships' questions this evening. I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8.5 p.m.

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

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.44 to 8.5 p.m.]