HL Deb 20 July 1994 vol 557 cc231-4

2.55 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether it is still their intention to increase the area of the United Kingdom in which local government is organised on a single-tier basis, and what progress has been achieved in this respect.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, in England, the Local Government Commission is due to complete its review of the shire counties by the end of 1994. We have so far accepted the commission's proposals for the creation of unitary authorities in the Isle of Wight and Cleveland. In Scotland and Wales unitary authorities will be established by primary legislation. In Wales there will be 22 unitary authorities from 1st April 1996. A Bill for Scotland is currently before this House.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that comprehensive Answer. However, is he aware that many of us feel that there is far too much reorganisation of local government in the areas where there are two tiers operating; and will the Government exercise their influence to bring about the economy in administrative costs which follows as widely as possible where there is a single-tier authority?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, as regards cost, this is part of the point of the whole exercise in having a look again at local government. I believe that my noble friend would agree that after 20 years of one particular structure it is only sensible and justifiable to take a very close look at local government in order to see that it gives good value to those whom it serves.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, will the noble Earl agree that there are large cities where it is necessary to have not merely a borough type of organisation for the various parts of that city but also another tier over and above it, so that the interests of the city as a whole can be represented? Is it not the case that that is sadly missed in London? While they are looking at this matter, will the Government reconsider the possibility of recreating a body to take the place of the late lamented Greater London Council?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, it was some time ago (back in 1986) when the Greater London Council expanded. The noble Lord raises a point; but what I am saying is, very simply, that each particular county is being looked at extremely carefully to see that the considerations that are given are appropriate to that particular county.

Lord Pym

My Lords, is there any reason why counties where the electorate and the inhabitants prefer the existing two-tier arrangement rather than any of the alternatives that are proposed should not continue as they are?

The Earl of Arran

No, my Lords, I want to make it quite clear to my noble friend that there is no national blueprint; and that may well be the case in some counties.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, can we have an absolute assurance from the noble Earl that the Government are still committed to the unitary authority system, since it is quite clearly the most democratic system of local government, being nearest to the people, responsive to their wishes, and far more economical?

The Earl of Arran

Yes, my Lords. Of course the Government are committed to the unitary authority system. But they are having a very good look at each particular case to see how many unitary authorities might be necessary.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, will my noble friend remind his superiors elsewhere of the views expressed in this House in a debate not very long ago and of the anxiety that was then expressed that the commission did not listen quite as carefully as it might have done to local views and local preferences?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I hope very much that the commission did consult widely and indeed listen very carefully. On the first point that my noble friend mentioned, I am aware of the strength of opinions and views on this matter among many of your Lordships. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State is also well aware of that.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the dissatisfaction in Scotland is not with local government but with his government?

The Earl of Arran

No, I am not aware of it, my Lords. Furthermore, I totally dispute it.

Lord Renton

My Lords, in regard to the question of my noble friend Lord Pym and the reply given to him, where local people find that a unitary authority is proposed and they have expressed their wishes in favour of it, does my noble friend Lord Arran agree that their wishes should be observed?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, that is the whole point of the consultation exercise; namely, that the views of local people should be taken into account and widely known.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, under the present system, in Wales there are eight education authorities, eight directors of education and so on; but under the new system there will be 22 education authorities and 22 directors? Does he believe that that is an improvement?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, that is for the people concerned to decide. I understand that most of the existing authorities are already co-operating in the transition process.

Lord Kimball

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in the case of Leicestershire and the boundary commission's welcome proposals for the restoration of the historic county of Rutland, unfortunately the consultation process is seriously flawed? Will he accept that whole villages have not received the consultation paper and houses in multi-occupation in Leicestershire have received only one form? Will he look at that situation? Does he agree that it is also important that the consultation process should include a section giving people the option to vote for the status quo?

The Earl of Arran

Yes, my Lords, the status quo is certainly an option, as my noble friend said. With regard to the flawed consultation to which he referred, I shall pass that information on to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, does the Minister accept that we on these Benches support the unitary principle wherever possible so that local people know who does what and who is to be held accountable? Does he fully appreciate that our continued support of the review process - support which he may come to need—is entirely conditional on two matters? The first is that all elections to shadow authorities should be all-out; in other words, the Cleveland fiasco should not be repeated. The second is that there should be satisfactory and civilised arrangements for the transfer of staff. Will the Minister give us proper assurances on both those points?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I am certainly aware of the conditions which, according to the noble Baroness, we shall have to observe in order to have the support of her party. I feel that that may perhaps be a kind of blackmail or something of a threat, so to speak. But perhaps not—let us take it in the lightest possible way. It is certainly something of which the Government are aware and at which they are looking extremely closely as the process continues.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank

My Lords, is the Minister aware that it is clear from all sides in the other place today that there is widespread dissatisfaction with the outcome of the review? He has made clear that it is the Government's intention to pursue it, however mistaken that may be. He referred to the Government having made a decision in respect of Cleveland. Will he accept that, although the judicial review found nothing to set aside, it made a number of pertinent criticisms of the way in which the commission was operating? In those circumstances and in view of the strong local feeling in favour of the re-creation of the Borough of Teesside, will he think again and accept further consultation to that end?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, there is the possibility that as regards Cleveland there may be a wish to appeal. I gather that they have until the end of July to appeal.