HL Deb 30 March 1994 vol 553 cc1076-86

3 p.m.

Lord Cornwallis rose to call attention to the work of the Local Government Commission in the light of the recent High Court decision reaffirming that the status quo is an option, and to the cost of implementing any changes arising from the Commission's recommendations; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, since putting down my name to the debate, I have been inundated with paper from all parts of the British Isles. My telephone has hardly stopped ringing with offers of advice and consultation. I feel. in consequence, that I have arrived at the moment of speaking in much the same muddle and confusion as is being caused by the Local Government Commission in the review. I believe that the review was originally instituted to deal with change in three specific places, since when it seems to have spread like an epidemic of measles across the country. Was it ever intended to do that? Has it, like Topsy, just grown?

The government guidelines, before the High Court decision with regard to options, presented little opportunity to consider the status quo since this was seen to be outside the remit. It was in the light of the High Court decision making the status quo an option and what seemed to me to be increasing alarm and despondency about the whole exercise that I was prompted to put down the Motion. I believe that there would be some doubts among your Lordships as to whether the High Court ruling has made any difference at all to the attitude of the Government towards the commission. The belief that the overall objective is to bring about change for change's sake remains firmly fixed in most people's minds.

County councils were brought into existence over a hundred years ago in response to a changing society. They developed and evolved to meet the needs of local communities, providing vital services, including schools, care for the elderly and transportation planning. The system of county government is continuously evolving to meet the changing needs of its residents. One has to ask why we are contemplating the wholesale destruction of such a flexible structure that has served so well over the last century.

The previous reorganisation of local government was, and still is, seen by many as a disaster. In some cases the final re-allocation of buildings and disposal of others has only been completed in the last few years. The larger district councils created have become far more remote from those they are expected to serve, and the burden of work on individual councillors has considerably increased. Yet it would appear that the basic intention of the present review is to create larger authorities with fewer councillors, which would seem to indicate an even further removal of contact from the electors.

In my own district the embryo suggestions would mean that my local authority, in a well populated rural area, would stretch for nearly 45 miles from end to end instead of the current 20 miles, and with fewer councillors. How does that put me in closer touch with my council? Overall democratic accountability will be weakened. For example, in my own shire county it is proposed that the existing number of elected members will be reduced from 805 to 375. This is at the same time as we are witnessing an increasing number of appointed bodies. What does this change in the balance between elected and appointed bodies portend?

So who is this expensive exercise designed to benefit? It surely is not going to benefit the local taxpayer who will have to foot the bill—a bill conservatively estimated at £1.1 billion, a figure which I have not heard disputed. Many estimates of the cost believe that this figure may well in the end be doubled. Savings are supposed to accrue but I seriously doubt whether there will be any. In my own county, the transitional cost of seven new unitary authorities is estimated at £75 million, with an annual saving of £700,000. It will take 100 years to produce the recoupment and I would hazard that there will be another scheme to reorganise local government long before that. My experience tells me that costs always escalate and that savings never materialise, so that is money down the drain.

The changeover computer cost in Kent is estimated at £40 million. We now have an established system with county-wide information. No doubt that is replicated in all other shire counties across the country. Is all that to be fragmented and will the new system work as effectively? The London Ambulance Service's experience with new computers is hardly encouraging.

There may well be particular difficulty in splitting the child protection and adoption registers, with potentially fatal consequences. This must be a major concern to the NSPCC and others, and must be of deep concern to us all. Co-ordination of social services and community care will still be needed and essential, So voluntary co-ordination between the new authorities will need to be established. But, on the whole., voluntary co-operation does not work, as London boroughs have found out. So why replace a statutory working arrangement with something less reliable and effective?

Nor can it be claimed that this review is wanted by people or organisations throughout the country. Public opinion canvassed in the review areas overwhelmingly is for no change. That view is supported by many of the vital voluntary organisations which carry out such good work.

What about the problems of specialist education for the disabled? What about archives, the repository of family and local history extending over far wider boundaries than district councils? I personally have archives in Kent, Essex and Suffolk. Are those to be fragmented too? And who will look after them? There has been a huge increase in the users of archives over the past decade, due to the popularity of genealogy and the development of local studies in universities. Archives require specialist accommodation and specialist knowledge and advice. Many records were lost at the time of the 1974 reorganisation and cannot now be replaced. They require major investment in micro-filming for protection and computerisation for comprehensive information. To replicate what is currently held by the counties and their partners would be enormously expensive arid dangerously vulnerable to future financial pressures.

In referring to Kent, I have not touched on the European dimension, which is of considerable significance. But I am sure that other speakers will refer to that aspect of Kent County Council's activities and their regional development across the Channel.

Of course, there is room for improvement in the present two-tier system. There is always room for improvement and development. But there is no way in which I can be convinced that there is a case for wholesale destruction. It is my understanding that the Local Government Commission is independent. Yet the Government seem determined to deny that independence by refusing to support its recommendations. Why are the Government so determined to force through change—change which, if Sir John Banham's recent letter to The Times is anything to go by, the chairman of the commission is by no means convinced is necessary? Refusal by the Government to accept the commission's recommendations for Derbyshire, Durham and Gloucestershire can only lead one to believe that they will only accept recommendations that coincide with their own pre-conceived wishes.

But why? Are they determined that they shall have only one tier of local government with which to deal? Do they believe that new councils will be more amenable or less powerful than the present structure? Have they a hidden agenda, hoping that the change will bring about ineffective local government which they can sweep away at some future date in favour of appointed regional councils staffed and/or run by Whitehall? What is the objective? It cannot be economy. It cannot be democracy because representation is reduced. It is change for the sake of change—additional change to that to which county councils continually respond.

Many noble Lords whose names are down to speak have far wider experience of local government than I. I hope therefore that we shall have a wide-ranging, interesting and informative debate. Before I sit down I must ask one question which has a bearing on this subject even if it is not strictly relevant to it. Have this Government and Europe become legislation mad? We may no longer be men and women, we have to be persons. We may no longer encourage people to buy British or, so far as I can see, to be British. This whole exercise seems to cause a crisis of identity. Have the Government seriously considered the implications of this legislation for the wider well-being of the country? People have long-standing historical allegiance, pride and loyalties to their county and its organisations. Are those too to be destroyed in favour of becoming a rootless, faceless, footless European "person"? I am prepared to bet that there are no European persons in France. My loyalties are to my immediate neighbourhood and my county, not to the district council. I am a Man of Kent, not a man of Tunbridge Wells—although at the moment I may well qualify to be that much quoted person "Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells". Are we to be told that the county society must be "persons of Kent" and "Kentish persons"? Will "fair maids of Kent" be a matter of sex discrimination? Are we to lose all colour to our lives and the basic, fundamental structure of the country that makes the nation tick?

Yes, there may be a need for change in some places. But is that need for change so immense anywhere that it requires wholesale destruction of the existing systems? My plea is to let those areas where change is genuinely needed apply to the commission and consult with it as to how best change can be introduced. But otherwise, let us please drop the whole unnecessary, expensive upheaval. We have the foundations of good local government. Let us build upon them and develop from them. I repeat: let us build on the foundations that we have and develop from them. People want to keep their local pride and loyalties. My Lords, I beg to move.

3.15 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, I must take a moment of my five minutes to thank the noble Lord, Lord Cornwallis, for instigating this important debate. There must be many noble Lords who wish, as I do, that we were not "starting from here" in the embarrassing game of ping-pong that the local government review has become. Perhaps I may remind noble Lords that the original statutory criteria were that it should reflect the identities and interests of local communities and secure effective and convenient local government. At the time of the passage of the Local Government Act many of us had in our minds models of what local government might be. Perhaps those models were too idealistic and too unrealistic. I believe that it is defensible for us to learn from the experience of the review. If we do not learn from that experience, what is consultation all about?

By definition, if the recommendations of the commission are challenged by court proceedings they have not fulfilled the statutory criteria. Yet out of 10 of the areas that were reviewed, three await judicial review, and all the others on which the Government have decided, save one, have been referred back to the commission.

The public are not making a clear call for change. The outcome of the MORI polls is that the public want to see unitary authorities but in practice they cannot agree on the boundaries. They do not want the cost of change. They want the money to be spent on services. For instance, the £1 billion plus that was estimated by Sir John Banham compares quite neatly with the £1 billion that we learn may be needed to give us universal nursery education in this country.

We cannot have truly local government unless we also have an appropriate strategic tier. If that fails, the result must at best be an uneasy compromise. One outcome of the review is the increasing recognition of the value of regional government. I hope that the Government will respond to that as a positive move. Regional government will come to us whether we like it or not because of Europe. Europe is a Europe of the regions. If we resist that, we shall lose out. The Government may say that they recognise that fact in the setting up of new integrated regional offices. I welcome those offices. But to integrate a number (not all) of Whitehall departments is a very poor substitute for democratic government. Indeed, the new bureaucracy could be very dangerous in blurring what is a gaping hole.

One of the dangers in the review—one to which the noble Lord, Lord Cornwallis, referred—is that of the democratic deficit. Relying on joint working, as must be anticipated, will not solve that problem. Voluntary partnerships are to be welcomed, but not shotgun marriages, nor reluctant partnerships with partners who want to spend as little time as possible in each other's company.

I do not believe that strategic matters can easily be dealt with by joint arrangements. I am most familiar with strategic planning. I know that it cannot be separated from other matters such as transport, economic development or minerals working. I know that joint working depends on the good will of the individuals concerned. Personality is important in every realm of life. It oils the wheels. But it is too fragile to support a democratic structure.

The joint committees will contribute to the democratic deficit. If one objective of unitary local government is to improve accountability, it will be undermined if major responsibilities are carried out by only indirectly elected representatives. They will be as strong as their weakest link and may well sink to the lowest common denominator.

Some people may say that if the Government wanted to continue a programme of centralisation in Westminster and Whitehall they could hardly have found a better way. I hope that that is not the motive of the review. It could certainly be a possible outcome, whereby services are not easily accountable and are transferred to yet another quango.

My time in the debate is already beginning to run out, but I must point to the short-termism that inevitably affects those who are the subject of review. Just when long-term perspectives are needed, those who should be thinking long term for our services—for instance, community care, linking local government, health and the voluntary sectors—now have councillors and staff who are demoralised and who think, "Why should we bother if we have seen the future and we know that it will not work?"

My final and major point, which I make in all sincerity to the Government, is that this review has not been entirely negative. The Government could hold back now without feeling that all had been in vain. Many areas are calling for what might be a contradiction in terms; namely, a modified status quo. The review has forced councils at every tier to talk to one another, to see how they can iron out overlaps, devolve functions and so on. If the review were to stop tomorrow, the review and the Government would have achieved perhaps truly voluntary joint working, better communications and better services. If the Minister halts the review, the councils themselves might well show that they can sort out the confusion voluntarily without wholesale reorganisation and without creating new structures which many noble Lords fear will not stand the test of time.

3.20 p.m.

Lord Jacques

My Lords, the 1972 legislation was based upon a minority report of the Royal Commission. Unfortunately, that legislation included the merger of substantial county boroughs with the shire counties. It merged Portsmouth and Southampton with the shire county of Hampshire. The needs of Portsmouth and Southampton are quite different from the needs of the rural county of Hampshire. Furthermore, it was obvious from the beginning that there would be some overlapping and in the end a great deal of dissatisfaction.

A recent MORI poll in Portsmouth showed that 74 per cent. of the population thought that the city should manage its own affairs. In particular, the people were of the opinion that as the city raised the council tax, it should be responsible to the electorate for spending that tax. It should not have to remit most of it to Winchester.

The poll also found that many matters were not understood by the population. For example, the city is responsible for the collection of waste. But if a site is required in the city for the disposal of waste, that is not the responsibility of the city but of the county and the decision is not made in Portsmouth but in Winchester. That is not acceptable.

It is true that the cost of conversion is considerable. But that is the price that we are paying for the mistakes that were made in 1972. The sooner that we put right those mistakes the better. It should also be remembered that, although the cost will be considerable, there will also be substantial savings. I believe that those are real savings. Certainly that is true in the case of Portsmouth and Southampton. In the case of Portsmouth, in the document that we are submitting to the commission, we give the figures for what the cost and the savings are likely to be. The cost will be absorbed in approximately three-and-a-half years. I believe that that is a reliable estimate.

The city of Portsmouth is unique in that professional management manages the city's affairs. We have a city manager who is responsible to the council for the conduct of the city's affairs. We have the lowest council tax in the county.

We do not ask for any extension of our boundaries. We ask only that within our boundaries we should he allowed to manage our own affairs and be responsible to our electorate for what we do. So long as the present position continues, we shall agitate for that freedom. We shall ask the commission to give us that freedom on our 800th birthday. This year is the 800th anniversary of our city. We want a birthday gift from the commission in the form of freedom.

3.25 p.m.

Lord Blake

My Lords, I shall say something that is rather eccentric for a member of the modern Conservative Party. It will be almost heretical. I am in favour of the status quo. I agreed with almost every word that the noble Lord, Lord Cornwallis, said in opening the debate. Two-tier government seems to me to have worked reasonably well. No doubt it has its defects and the system is not perfect. But what system is or ever could be perfect?

The question is not whether two-tier government has its imperfections. It is rather whether the defects are so bad and so grave that the entire system needs to be revamped. For let us make no mistake about it, reconstruction is bound to be expensive, time-consuming and disruptive. We are told that the transitional costs of setting up a new system will be cancelled out by the savings made when the new system comes into being. All that I say is, tell that to that allegedly credulous body, the marines. I believe that change is justified only if the present system has glaring, scandalous defects which cry out for reform.

A marginal preference for unitary government expressed in a MORI poll is not a sufficient reason for embarking on drastic change. For that reason I welcome the decision by Mr. Justice Jowitt, who decided in the case of the Derbyshire and Lancashire County Councils to rule as ultra vires the Government's attempt to add a third statutory criterion to the requirements of the committee, stating the expectation that a recommendation in favour of the status quo ought to be exceptional.

I also welcomed Sir John Banham's letter to The Times on 22nd March (which has already been referred to), in which he declared that the status quo of two-tier government was a valid option. I believe that what he said bears verbatim repetition: In my experience, administrative change in the public service invariably takes longer, costs more and delivers less than enthusiastic proponents of the change ever anticipate … It will be most unwise to press ahead with changes to create unitary authorities unless there is clear local support for change and there are local champions for particular local situations. There are advantages to the existing two-tier structure [particularly in rural areas]. If it is to be replaced, it must be with something better". Those are not mere idle words. Among the 10 county areas so far reviewed, the Commission has recommended the status quo for two of them—namely, Gloucestershire and Lincolnshire —and partial two-tier government for two others, Derbyshire and Durham. Of course, the Government may not accept that recommendation, but that remains to be seen.

Lord Melbourne, who was not a Conservative, was wont to say, when some bright young radical spark in the Cabinet suggested reforming this or that institution, "Why not leave it alone?" Well, why not leave local government alone, or as much of it as one possibly can?

3.30 p.m.

Lord Kingsdown

Ten years in a central bank, my Lords, may not seem to provide much in the way of credentials for speaking on local government and its reorganisation, and I feel that I may have to ask for more than your Lordships' normal measure of patience and tolerance for this maiden speech on that account. But I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Cornwallis for initiating this debate. Like him, I am a Man of Kent and it would be dissembling if I did not declare that I share his anxiety about the future administration of our ancient and, in some important ways, unique county.

I was closely involved in the reorganisation of 1972 to 1974, since I was then chairman of our county council. At least then we were concerned with reorganising a pattern of local government which had grown up over a period of 90 years and which was in many ways out of date due to population growths and economic change; now we are undertaking exactly the same exercise after an interval of only 20 years. I find it fascinating to observe that the questions and issues are just the same now as then, and a single ideal pattern of local government is just as elusive, particularly if there are aspirations for uniform councils.

The nub of the matter, in my view, is that the range of services nowadays committed to local government is so broad that it will only be in special circumstances than one council can be large enough to fulfil all the functions, and especially the broader strategic functions, without seeming too large and remote in its administration of the more personal services. It is interesting, indeed significant, that our predecessors over the past century—no doubt driven by pragmatism—have not found it easy to install with conviction a pattern of unitary authorities except where a large city or conurbation is clearly at the centre of a region into which its influence and resources naturally reach and operate. Such an authority has obvious attractions: natural recognition as the heart of the regional area, ease of identity as the source of all functions, and simplicity.

But that simplicity is at the mercy of local geography and local loyalties. Many councils of more than medium size could manage most functions, but it is in the upper range—by that I mean strategic planning, transport infrastructure and economic development—that most is required in terms of resources and expertise. If local government is to be worthy of the name and not rolled over by central government, it must at some level have the scale to perform that strategic role effectively; and scale involves geographic size, population numbers and resources of finance and expert personnel.

I know that resort has been had to joint bodies to deal with such strategic matters reaching beyond normal council boundaries. But I do not believe that the experience of such bodies has always been satisfactory. Moreover, resorting to them cuts into the principle of direct responsibility and it hardly supports the unitary principle.

In conclusion, perhaps I may return to my native county. Kent has had a good record of resisting invaders from across the Channel, at least since Roman times. However, it has not been so successful in guarding its North-West Frontier against the intrusions of Greater London at the hands of local government reorganisation. That may have been inevitable. But I hope that now, for Kent and indeed for the whole country, this local government review will be seen to have been sympathetic rather than intrusive—sympathetic to local history and local loyalties, prudent in its financial implications and soundly enough based to endure undisturbed and unreorganised for many years.

3.35 p.m.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, it is a particularly personal pleasure for me to have the duty of congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Kingsdown, on his maiden speech. It was an excellent maiden speech on a subject of which he has unsurpassed knowledge since he had distinguished service on the Kent County Council for 16 years and was the chairman for many years. It is not the only field in which he is a distinguished expert and we look forward to future speeches on wider national, financial and economic matters.

For my part I wish to concentrate on one specific aspect of the case for preserving the status quo in Kent. Improbably enough, like the noble Lord, Lord Kingsdown, I too am a Man of Kent in these days and have been for a number of years. I want to concentrate on the strategic case—I believe it to be an extremely strong one—for retaining Kent County Council in its present role.

Kent has a special geography; it is a peninsula pointing directly to the narrowest route across to mainland Europe. Therefore the preservation of a single strategic authority is of vital interest not only for the people of Kent but also for the rest of the country. Kent has 5,000 miles of road, with traffic flows that are twice the national average carrying goods through Kent from the Channel ports to the rest of Britain. That traffic will increase markedly with the opening of the Channel Tunnel. Without the Kent County Council there would be no democratic means of conducting a coherent campaign for the high speed railway with adequate environmental protection, and piecemeal planning of what are transport issues of national importance would be disastrous.

Kent County Council has played a leading part in making the most of British membership of the European Union. The noble Lord, Lord Cornwallis, whom we thank for initiating this debate, said that others may mention that aspect, and it is on that that I shall concentrate my remarks.

Round about £36 million has been secured by the Kent County Council from European sources over the past seven years for important Kent projects. That includes help for young people, the long-term unemployed and people with disabilities. Together with Nord pas de Calais, Kent forms the Transmanche region. My noble friend Lady Hamwee mentioned the importance of regions in the European Union. There is also a wider grouping known as the "Euro-region" which, in addition, brings in the three regions of Belgium. Those links have proved invaluable financially and also in terms of greater mutual understanding.

Kent's French and Belgian partners suggested that they would not be interested in links with smaller unitary authorities, and the European Commission also expressed its preference for dealing with larger local authorities. Kent County Council keeps an office in Brussels to influence European Community policy and to guide bids for funds through the right channels. Those are important considerations in the special circumstances of Kent. They are distinctive reasons for maintaining a county-wide council in this part of South-East England.

But one final more general thought perhaps echoes what the noble Lord, Lord Blake, said. For this Government the slogan "Status quo is not an option" seems to have become their theme song. It has a certain lilt about it and one can imagine Mr. John Selwyn Gummer singing it heartily. But a wiser slogan for any government, Conservative or otherwise, would be, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it", if an existing structure, like the Kent County Council, with its partnership with the district councils, has been tried and tested over the years. No doubt it can be improved, and my noble friend Lady Hamwee was right to say that one of the results of the review has been to make the various local authorities discuss these matters together, with an increase in mutual understanding about how matters may be improved. However, I think it would be folly to engage in change simply for change's sake arid to destroy, in this case, a shire council that has served its region of South-East England well.

3.40 p.m.

Lord Bottomley

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Thomson. We worked together on Commonwealth matters for many years and now we are dealing with local government.

When, towards the end of the year, the Local Government Commission recommended local government reorganisation for Cleveland I warmly supported the proposition. The commission recommended a four-district solution, which means that Middlesbrough will return to something like its old status as a county borough. Nothing that has been written or said in the: many intervening months has changed my opinion. In fact the capacity of Middlesbrough and its neighbours to deliver the full range of local services and the support of local people for their own borough councils have become clearer as time has passed.

Middlesbrough, which I have known through a long association, particularly as a Member of Parliament for the district, makes a contribution to the industry and the economy of this country. In the recent past it has undergone many changes. Huge improvements in the fabric and environment of the town have been made, but it has suffered grievously from unemployment. In many respects the town is at a crossroads. I believe that its future prosperity and the welfare of all its citizens will rely heavily on their having a local authority which speaks clearly and vocally for them and which operates at the community level.

The reorganisation has provided the opportunity to establish such a council. For the sake of all the people of Middlesbrough it should not be missed. The case for unitary or all-purpose borough councils has been clearly made out. They can provide the framework of local democracy for the foreseeable future.