HL Deb 30 March 1994 vol 553 cc1098-158

4.25 p.m.

Debate resumed.

Baroness Platt of Writtle

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cornwallis, for the terms of today's Motion and for his excellent speech. I am also grateful for the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Kingsdown. I share their predilection for the status quo. I have experience as a county councillor and a district councillor. My husband served as a parish councillor. I am no longer a councillor and therefore I have no axe to grind. However, I believe deeply in the importance of all three levels, which in my view form a bastion of democracy in our country.

In some parts of the country where there are large centres of population there may very well be good reason for change. In the debate in February 1991 my noble friend Lady Blatch said that nothing is ruled in and nothing is ruled out. More recently my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said: There is no national blueprint". I wholeheartedly share those sentiments. In 1991 I spoke in favour of three-tier local government in shire counties, and I shall not repeat myself.

The initial voice of local democracy on the basis of subsidiarity must be the parish councils, where lines of communication are easy for individual citizens. Higher councils must then pay proper regard to their viewpoint. There is undoubtedly more room for more co-operation among all levels of local government; but that: can be done within the present structure. I believe in improvement and not in wholesale and expensive reorganisation where the status quo is working reasonably well: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

In my experience, local people are not clarnouring for reorganisation in my county of Essex and in many shire counties. The appearance of the commission's local inquiry will create conflict where what we need more than anything throughout local government is cooperation to provide services for people that are most sensitive to their needs and to do so most efficiently and economically. I am glad that the process is to be speeded up so that the period of dissension is minimised; but the retention of the status quo must receive proper consideration.

Economy and efficiency in providing local services has been the driving force of our Government and of sensible local government for the past 15 years. Notable developments in the concept of enabling authorities have gathered momentum. If there is to be reorganisation, it must be seen to be more efficient, more economical and more democratic than the existing structure.

A careful survey was carried out in Essex. It showed that dividing it into four unitary authorities or fewer might save money in the long term, but it would be at the clear expense of democracy. It would halve the number of councillors to serve local people on the commission's basis of 1:4,000 representation. Above that number of unitary authorities, expense mounts up and there is no possibility of payback. If money is available, let us spend it on better services and not on reorganisation, as everyone would agree.

Essex has existed as a county for more than 1,000 years. People relate to their county and in rural areas to their village or local town. Putting a number of market towns together does not create unitary authorities. All the local communications work against that theory, creating just the unitary myth that the commission wishes to avoid. Local people will see no point in it and it will cost them money in higher rates and taxes, which they can ill afford. That goes diametrically against the present Government's policy.

Local government needs to carry out strategic functions as well as local ones. Essex is large enough to do that through the structure plan, the road system, the organisation of education, the fire brigade, the library and the archives. All those functions are efficient, well organised and widely respected. It would be a tragedy to break them up, and certainly it would not lead to greater efficiency or economy. If run by joint committees, there is no accountability, and weak compromises are arrived at. They are known not to work well and they would certainly not improve the present system.

With the principles of subsidiarity in operation in Europe, the German länder and French départements are playing a greater role and balancing more adequately the power of Brussels. Counties like Essex, Kent, Hampshire and others can provide a British point of view at the same level. Regions could not command the same local loyalty. Let us not destroy our own strengths—literally shooting ourselves in the foot—at a critical time in Europe.

I hope that the commission, in considering shire counties, will adhere to its stated policy of avoiding excessive costs and widespread joint arrangements in reorganisation and—most important—that the existing two-tier structure should be replaced only by something better.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, it may be for your Lordships' convenience to know that the debate is now due to end at 8.41, and therefore the Minister should be able to rise to reply at 8.16 p.m.

4.31 p.m.

The Earl of Carnarvon

My Lords, I have worked within local government for around 40 years and I am now chairman of SERPLAN, which includes all the London boroughs and representatives of the district councils and all the shire counties in the South East, covering a population of 17.5 million people. Interestingly enough, that is the same area as the Paris Basin region. However, today I am speaking about Hampshire.

The first question for the commission is whether any change should be made, and the first option to consider is, therefore, the maintenance and improvement of the present arrangements. The Government's preference, however, is for unitary authorities; that has been stated by Ministers on many occasions. However, it must be remembered that, apart from planning, county councils are unitary authorities. I have a feeling that this preference for smallish unitary authorities has gone too far, and the Government's enthusiasm is leading to the overriding of public opinion and to the creation of some major difficulties. We should be very careful about making changes where the public do not support change. As has already been said, restructuring is always expensive and the cost of change has to be paid for out of money which would otherwise go to the services.

A small unitary authority will find some areas of activity too difficult to deal with because they cannot be settled within its own boundaries; for example, minerals and waste disposal policies where all the easy options have been taken up. Minerals can only be obtained from where they lie and have to be exported to the places of need. Waste is a problem of major significance and is transported from Bristol to Bedfordshire, or from Newham to Mucking in Essex. I cannot agree with the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, that Portsmouth could look after its own waste. As regards the conservation of the New Forest, the management of over 10,000 acres of country parks, the river valleys and the coast and the sensitive management of the Solent waters, small unitary authorities would simply not have the resources to achieve anything except basic coast protection where engineering solutions are the norm and insufficient regard is paid to conservation issues. I am also very concerned, as is the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, as to how regional guidelines for planning and transportation would operate within a fragmented local government. Local government needs to make best use of European funding and to do that, it needs to play its part in the European initiatives.

I hope that the Commission and the Government will not lose sight of partnership with the voluntary sector referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Cornwallis. There are myriad organisations which operate on a county scale and proudly call themselves by the name of the county. I am president of the Hampshire Association for the Care of the Blind, which cares for over 4,000 partially sighted people. It looks to the county council for substantial financial support each year.

The voluntary sector as a whole in Hampshire receives £10 million each year from the county council and those funds help to unlock the skills and time of volunteers. The county council has encouraged the formation of councils of community service and has created independent trusts such as the Hampshire Buildings Preservation Trust, the Hampshire Gardens Trust and the Hampshire Museums Trust and the Hillier arboretum. These initiatives have been replicated elsewhere in the country, but it is difficult to see that these developments could have taken place without the spur of the county council.

There are some specialist functions which have been a particular feature of county councils which would be too easy to overlook and yet whose absence would be a very sad loss. Specialist support is an aspect of experience in services provided by the counties, and I would instance the specialist teams in historic buildings, architecture, information technology, library service, archives, research and so on. Hampshire leads the country in archaeological and archive services, and there must be a serious risk that these services would disappear or be sadly diminished should the county council be abolished.

My conclusions in all that are that the Government should not show impatience about the review because there is no need for haste. More attention should be given to the eventual costs of the exercise as it looks to many observers that the Government are indifferent to the likely cost.

I maintain that the strengths of the existing two-tier system should be recognised, coupled with a resolve to make improvements in this where they are necessary, so that we are not faced with an approach of change for change's sake, which I fear is an all too likely outcome.

4.36 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Sheffield

My Lords, I speak on behalf of that most endangered species, the County of Humberside. As Bishop of Sheffield, part of my diocese is in Humberside.

The attack on Humberside has gone on for five years and more now. It began with the boundary commission, whose first review told us that the county was working well as a unit and supported its survival, although it admitted that it had failed to attract loyalty. That response was rejected by Nicholas Ridley who, under some pressure, came up with the recommendation that Humberside should be split between Yorkshire and Lincolnshire.

That was overturned by the events of the 1991 review. There, of course, Humberside falls victim to the contradictions between the two aims of that review. It is difficult both to reflect the identities and interests of local communities and also to secure effective and convenient local government.

In June 1993 the review's first recommendation was that there should be no Humberside. Goole and Selby should go to a revived East Riding, and police and fire services should continue as at present on a Humberside basis. That was reversed largely in December 1993—all change. Police and fire services are to be divided between Yorkshire and Lincolnshire; the town and port of Goole was to go to the new West Riding—an extraordinary authority stretching away across the Pennines to Settle.

That bothers me because I believe that the wrong questions have been asked and, therefore, the wrong answer has been arrived at. People have been asked, "Do you think of yourself as a Yorkshireman, a Lincolnshire man or a Humbershire man?" The only answers are, "I belong to Yorkshire", or, "I am a Lincolnshire yellow belly". But that is not the right question. When a politician sees that question, it becomes dangerous because, as part of our understandable response to disliking living in a global village, we live in a period of passionately revived local loyalties. The politicians are tempted to build on that revival of local loyalties with the dire results that we have seen in Yugoslavia, Russia and now, I suspect, Italy. I beg us not to start playing that game.

It should be recognised that we are riot talking about Yorkshire and Lincolnshire but about the administration of a wide range of services over an area which has geographical and economic unity around the Humber estuary and Humber basin. We then begin to see that the answer to the question, "Do you want to be a Yorkshireman or a Lincolnshire man?", is irrelevant: For forms of government let fools contest; Whate'er is best administered is best". I go along with the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that we should stay where we are and preserve the status quo, with modest amendments. A modest amendment is the revival, as an ornamental or ceremonial unit, of the ancient county of East Riding. Let us knock the heads together of the Post Office and the like which will not allow us to write "East Riding", "Lincolnshire" or "West Riding" on our envelopes and force us to put "Humberside". It is that which has made the unit unpopular, not its performance.

If we had time, I could regale the House with the extraordinary achievements of Humberside over the past 20 years, not least—I say this with a certain bitterness—the achievement, as it is called, of turning Humberside from a North Country deprived county into a southern county, where growth and amenities are up to the level of the South. There is much else; for example, there is no criticism of what Humberside has achieved. The criticism is directed at the fact that it is not in Yorkshire or in Lincolnshire.

There is a sense of urgency in all this. For five years we have been under attack. Dr. Johnson tells us that the knowledge that one will be hanged in a fortnight concentrates the mind. The sight of the block and the executioner standing by is not good for an efficient, strategic planning authority. It is difficult for a crew when they feel that a torpedo has already struck a ship and it is doomed. What we need, above all, is a hasty decision and a decision that preserves the status quo so that the splendid work that Humberside has built up over the past 20 years is not destroyed.

4.40 p.m.

Lord Cavendish of Furness

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in welcoming this debate. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Cornwallis, on the eloquence with which he introduced it. I can understand that there may be a logic in making unitary authorities of a dozen or so of our larger cities in England. However, I concern myself this afternoon with the shire counties and especially my own county of Cumbria where for some years I served as a county councillor and where I still keep in touch and am involved in local government affairs. I ask only one thing today and that is that there be no change, either structural, boundary or electoral, to the existing two-tier framework of local government in Cumbria. I was pleased to read that I am strongly supported in this view by my noble friend and fellow Cumbrian Lord Whitelaw.

At the start of the review the chairman of the Local Government Commission, Sir John Banham, remarked, as has already been quoted, if it ain't broke, don't fix it". That seems to me a common sense view. But nevertheless my plea to leave the status quo well alone deserves an explanation. I do not defend the status quo on the basis that local government is perfect, still less that it could not and should not be made better. Plainly much can and should be done. Nor do I feel that the review has been a wasted exercise. Here I echo the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, who I see is just resuming her seat. The review has certainly changed my mind. I claim that the improvements that are needed can be achieved more easily, more cheaply and more successfully by other means.

The only consensus for change in Cumbria has been between South Lakeland District Council and Barrow Borough Council which have arrived at an admittedly well argued proposal to join forces as a unitary authority in the south of the county. While I have some sympathy with their views, they themselves acknowledge that their solution fails to meet one of the Government's key criteria in respect of "community identity". That leaves the rest of the county with no plans as viewed by those in the south of the county.

Cumbria County Council's submission argues for the status quo. It stresses, among many other things, the dangers of fragmentation, especially as it applies to strategic planning and—this is important—the region's ability to be effectively represented at a European level. That matter was discussed ably by the noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon, and others. I have placed both submissions from these councils in the Library of the House.

Of the many options looked at in Cumbria, only two showed any significant financial savings. It comes down to either creating a single county unitary authority or dividing the county into two: north and south. Neither option would command public support. Neither would meet the criteria of community identity and both would lead to reduced accountability.

There was indeed a period when some local authorities spent and otherwise acted irresponsibly, and to their credit the Government acted both to protect people from these excesses and to avoid damaging the national economy. But all of us, and all local government, had to pay for the delinquency of a minority. Now, in the four years since I left Cumbria County Council, I have seen tremendous improvements in the performance of local government at all levels. Much duplication and overlap have been and continue to be addressed. It is becoming all the time much less partisan; and every year sees an enhancement of its enabling role, especially in the matter of employment. That point was ably covered by my noble friend Lady Platt of Writtle. I believe that this trend is replicated elsewhere through the shire counties.

I wish to say a few brief words on a neglected area of local government activity; namely, its capital programmes. Central Government acknowledge the importance of investment in industry and yet mysteriously seem oblivious sometimes to the needs of infrastructure in the regions. If the Treasury sees advantages—as it seemed to do—in not being able to distinguish between revenue and capital, and therefore to have no understanding of the nature of capital, then the least it could do is unshackle local government, which does understand it—and has done so for nearly a century—and serves its communities extremely well.

It is time to end the war of attrition between central and local government. This review is centralising in its effect —it is time to decentralise. It is time to give local government some encouragement and it is time to give the men and women who serve in local government some encouragement. They are people of all parties and of none. I believe it is time to abandon this review.

4.46 p.m.

The Earl of Lytton

My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Cornwallis, for giving us an opportunity to debate this matter. I will make only general comments as far as possible. I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, was right when she implied that we were perhaps all labouring under a misapprehension as regards how the review was going forward. It seems to me that there are two fundamental principles here. One is the provision of services at retail level direct to the public and the other is what might be called the wholesale or strategic provision of services.

Having read the guidance to the Local Government Commission, I wonder whether that particular principle has been recognised. I am certainly not convinced that this distinction is understood by the general populace and that seems to be evident from the results of the various MORI polls which I have seen. I am concerned that the essential guidance to the Local Government Commission was couched in terms which perhaps favoured a particular end result. That is a matter of some regret, although I must add that it is always easy to have 20–20 vision with the benefit of hindsight. However, I believe that the guidance made an artificial distinction in its analysis between direct and indirect services.

I am afraid I could not understand that distinction because all these matters are costs which ultimately fall on the council tax payer. I do not believe there is any dispute about that. A financial model was established which was impossible to unravel, and certainly I have not been able to unravel it to my own satisfaction. Certain costs were excluded. They were referred to as transfer costs because they were assumed to be self-cancelling. However, they would only be self-cancelling if they were dealt with on a national scale. They would certainly not be self-cancelling at local level. I question whether the analysis in the guidance was correct in that that particular model was not transposable to the local level.

The creation of a unitary authority in a rural area—I live in a rural area—immediately destabilises the county model as a whole and it cannot be otherwise. We would do well to be aware of the warp and weft that holds together the two tiers which are similar in many respects to the multi-tier approach on the Continent. However, there is an essential difference between the aspirations of the metropolitan areas on the one hand and a rural district on the other. Their needs are different. It may be highly appropriate for Portsmouth, for example, to have unitary status, but it would be difficult for other rural areas competently to discharge those sort of functions. There is a difference, and I do not believe that one single model can be imposed as a solution.

I admit that there is an advantage in bringing local government nearer to the people. However, that relies on the commitment of the local populace—the man in the street. It relies on a continued strategic interrelationship and fluid interaction between authorities. I believe that there is further to go on that interaction between authorities, if for no other reason than, taking one district with another, their local plans do not agree with each other. They often have different emphasis and different priorities. We need to take that aspect as far as we can before we start a wholesale reorganisation of the present arrangements.

I was born in Somerset. I am very proud of that fact. I still have strong family and business ties in that location. The commission proposes to create three authorities in that county which will have no social or geographical meaning to me or to any of my circle of acquaintances in the area. I now live in Sussex, where my family roots go back at least 300 years. I am proud of that too. I am proud to live within the county of Sussex. I reside within the district of Horsham. Under the unitary schemes which have been proposed for other areas, the very necessary modernisation of Horsham town centre, which resulted from the assiduous pursuit by the council of commercial objectives, would not have been achieved.

I do not wish to be asked to distinguish between a county to which I relate at one level as against a district which I support at another. That is simply not a proper line of inquiry. I want both to be efficient, if necessary to compete as appropriate with one another, and to be responsive to local needs. I recognise that their different areas of concern are not always reconcilable, but I certainly do not want to pay for change unless it is absolutely necessary.

4.52 p.m.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, I should like to take up the point made just now by the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, in his very impressive contribution, namely the distinction between the local and the strategic responsibilities of councils.

There is not the slightest doubt that on the one hand it is highly desirable that councils should be near the people in the discharge of local responsibilities. On the other hand, the smaller the council the more difficult it becomes to discharge what have been described by many noble Lords as the strategic responsibilities. The cost of making a large number of unitary bodies which would then have to combine together in voluntary arrangements to discharge their strategic functions would be substantial.

I was very interested that the noble Earl mentioned the town of Horsham, near which I also live. I find myself in the same situation as the noble Earl. I have acquired a close interest in the development of that town and in the operations of the district council. At the same time I have been able to reconcile with that the strategic activities of the West Sussex County Council. While no doubt there could be improvements in the relationship between the county and the district, having studied the possible alternatives being considered it seems to me to be far better to improve what exists than to replace it with something totally untried.

For example, there is talk of creating in West Sussex three unitary authorities. That would mean blending the town of Horsham with Crawley and mid-Sussex. Horsham would totally lose its identity. At the same time that new entity could not effectively discharge a suitable proportion of the strategic functions now being conducted in Chichester, where the county council is located.

In that particular case, as in the other cases which have been mentioned—in relation to Kent, Essex, Hampshire, Cumbria and Somerset—the approach which my noble friend Lady Hamwee mentioned at the beginning of the debate, and which has been repeated by many noble Lords during the debate, of a modified status quo seems to be the right one.

It was widely reported that in July of last year the Secretary of State for the Environment recommended that the whole process of local government reorganisation should be based on the principle of opt in. "Opt in" and "opt out" have become fashionable phrases. Underlying the principle of opt in was the notion that where there was sufficient local consensus for change, change should take place, but where there was not such a consensus, the present system should continue. That seems to me to be an eminently sensible proposition. It is regrettable that it was apparently not accepted by the Cabinet. Let us hope that in the light of this debate—and I believe that a consensus is building up, although we are only one third of the way through the debate—they will think again.

I am particularly concerned about some of the strategic operations which are now conducted at county level. Among them is the question of trading standards. During the passage of the Bill on local government reorganisation in Wales that issue was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, myself and others. Trading standards are an essential part of our life. We have to safeguard people's interests in, for example, what they buy and use. That has local implications. It also has wider strategic implications. Trading standards officers deal with large commercial organisations; they also have to cope with sophisticated systems of counterfeiting which are unfortunately becoming prevalent these days. It is difficult to see how such operations could be conducted effectively at purely local level. They need a strategic arm in which to operate. It is suggested that that problem could be overcome by voluntary arrangements on a wider basis, but such voluntary arrangements rarely survive.

Therefore, I feel that we must ask the Government to think again about the thrust of this inquiry into local government reorganisation. It must be done on a more practical basis. What is working effectively but could perhaps be improved with modification should be so improved. Where there is a consensus for major change let that change take place.

4.57 p.m.

Lord Aldington

My Lords, not for the first time, I find myself in almost full agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Ezra. In particular I join with him in saying that if one wants an improvement in local government one should try to improve what exists. The noble Lord and I joined together on another inquiry into another matter, where we came to the conclusion that one cannot improve what one has destroyed. I also agree with him about opting in and opting out.

I am the fourth noble Lord to speak about Kent. All of us in Kent are very proud of the noble Lord, Lord Cornwallis, who introduced this debate in a masterly fashion. I thank him for doing so, as I thank my noble friend—if I am allowed to call him that—Lord Kingsdown for his maiden speech. I thought it a model of all good maiden speeches; whether it was made by a central banker or a chairman of a county council does not matter.

There has been support for the existing structure, or the status quo, from Kent, Hampshire, Cumbria, Essex and from my noble friend Lord Blake. It should be remembered that the Foreign Secretary was reported in the Financial Times last week as having called for the structure of local government to be left alone in Oxfordshire. He said: I have come to the firm conclusion that the right answer is to leave things as they are". He would find, as on many issues, a number of friends among your Lordships.

I wish to concentrate on Kent. It would be costly madness to make a change from the existing structure. There would be £78 million in transitional costs. Practically no savings are anticipated in seven unitary districts other than the savings that one obtains from reducing the number of councillors in Kent by 630. If that is the form of democratic local government advocated by my noble friends on the Front Bench, I have to say that I am very surprised. Of course costs will be involved in other matters—in standards, and dispersals. Cost has already been shown in conflict, inside all three parties, between parts of the local government machine. We want to get rid of that conflict.

I should very much like to see the review abandoned. It would save a lot of money and much disruption. However, I wish to speak for a moment on the strategic point with regard to Kent raised by other noble Lords, in particular by the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth. I find myself once again wholly in agreement with him.

With far-sighted vision, Kent County Council made special links with the Nord-Pas de Calais region and with three Belgian regions to form a Euro-region. As a result, the Kent economy for important Kent projects has already gained by £37 million, with a total sum committed of £46 million. Seven unitary districts or authorities could not have achieved that, any more than they could have achieved the great advances in environmental, structural and economic planning generally throughout Kent. Joint bodies will not face up to hard decisions. They do not have democratic accountability and authority behind them. Under the seven unitary districts system no councillors would be elected to take such a decision.

The real alternative is not between county councils and joint bodies but between county councils and Whitehall—whether regional Whitehall or central Government Whitehall does not matter. If we believe in local government, as I do —and we in Kent are blessed with a good system of county council and districts—we want to keep the power and the responsibility for strategic decisions among locally elected people of Kent. Therefore I ask my noble friends on the Front Bench to convey the feeling of the House to their colleagues and to the Cabinet. The existing structure is what we want; and the sooner we stop the disruptive activities outlined in the review, the better.

5.7 p.m.

Viscount Tenby

My Lords, we are all grateful to my noble friend Lord Cornwallis for raising this topic today and for making a quite excellent speech in kicking off the debate, as did my noble friend Lord Kingsdown in his very distinguished debut. The debate is particularly timely for it takes place while there is still time to ensure that the Local Government Commission fully understands the concerns throughout the country on the question of change in local government—concerns reflected by the large number of speakers in the debate today.

I have to say that I do not understand this Government's readiness to dismember a system which has stood the test of time. I have not been aware of mobs in the street shouting, "Give us single unitary authorities". Try selling that idea in Greater London, my Lords. Nor in my locality has the main topic of conversation been the importance of local accountability. The truth is—it may be regrettable, but there it is—that people care passionately about the results of local government: what they get from it, value for money, and so on; but very little about how those ends are achieved. To reinforce that point, one needs to look no further than the local election turn-out figures for which 30 per cent. of the electorate voting is regarded as nothing out of the ordinary.

However, local government is important. That makes Government attempts fundamentally to change it for the first time in more than 100 years all the more questionable. Forget for the moment the many reasoned arguments about the immense cost of the changes for a frail economy to shoulder. Put to the back of your minds the undoubted truth that every reform costs far more than originally forecast, and that the period over which those costs will be amortised is always optimistically calculated. Ignore even the fact that some issues will be so large that they will in future only be able to be dealt with by joint arrangements between consenting authorities (if I may so call them), with all the dithering and non-accountability that that would inevitably entail.

Forget, but only for a moment, all those persuasive arguments. Perhaps I may instead concentrate on the situation as it is today, in which counties are confronted with immense demands on their expertise and experience as a direct result of new legislation introduced by this Government. I refer to care in the community, the new schools' curriculum and new arrangements for police authorities and magistrates' courts, to name but a few. Councils are only just beginning to get a grip on those problems. Is it seriously suggested that now is the right time to put all those initiatives at risk by entrusting them to new and largely inexperienced authorities?

I do not doubt that in some urban areas a case can be made for single unitary authorities. In my own area of Hart, for example, I have received an excellent presentation on the projected benefits such a change would bring to the district. But that has to be set against the overall picture in the county of Hampshire—which incidentally is a rather older unit of government than England, but we shall let that go—and where I should mention that I sit as a magistrate member on the police authority, which is a sub-committee of the county council. Let me give one brief example of how, under a county regime, all relevant services can be brought together.

In Hampshire, the chief constable is a voluntary—I stress the word "voluntary"—member of the county Chief Officer's Management Group, thereby ensuring an important police contribution to initiatives in the areas of education and social services in particular. With fragmented authorities, such an overview and contribution to interlinked planning will almost certainly be lost.

The Local Government Commission has said that it will take into account the views of the people, and that is welcome news. Indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Blake, has already said, Sir John Banham himself has recently written that, if the present system is replaced, it must be with something better. That is again welcome news. I hope, however, that the commission will do even more than that. I hope that it will use common sense in weighing up the advantages and disadvantages, many of which will have been highlighted in the debate. Above all, I hope that it will not be deflected in its purpose by any Government pressure to come up with the solution which, for whatever obscure political reasons, the Government themselves want.

5.8 p.m

Baroness David

My Lords, the review is about important questions of how our country should be governed and how powers and duties should be distributed across local government. But it has to have proper regard for how major services are organised and paid for within the local community. It has to consider cost. For education it is simply not the case that the service would be better supported by a much larger number of much smaller authorities. The original guidance to the commission said relatively little about about the organisation and delivery of services, and next to nothing about education, the biggest of all local government services.

At that time, the Government thought that GM school numbers would have increased massively by the time the commission finished its work, to the stage where LEAs would be left with a modest clutch of residual responsibilities which could be exercised effectively by small authorities, if necessary on a partnership basis. Two things have happened. The rate of opting out has slowed markedly—less than 4 per cent. of all the schools—and the Government have rapidly speeded up the review making their preferred solution of a GM system even more improbable by the time that the review's conclusions were to be implemented.

LEAs' responsibilities under current legislation are far from minimalist. Surrey, never a make-work interventionist authority, recently listed 68 statutory duties that the authority was obliged to perform. Many of these things can only be done well, and with reasonable economy, in authorities of considerable size—not necessarily an argument for the status quo, but a strong argument for authorities with substantial expertise in educational matters. Concerns are great for the future of special education in a Balkanised education service. Take the availability of specialised teachers of the deaf in Inner London after the the carve-up of ILEA There are now 13 separate London boroughs: nine employ one peripatetic teacher of the deaf; one employs two; one employs three; one employs four; and one, none. Compare this with the position in one large county which employs a specialist co-ordinator and 14 peripatetic teachers and has a number of centres providing intensive help for children with hearing difficulties. Smaller authorities will have difficulties in maintaining specialist schools for those with particular learning difficulties.

Will smaller authorities be able to provide as good quality curriculum advice, psychological services, music and arts provision, transport and libraries? The library service is very important. Will smaller authorities be able to maintain the residual adult education colleges and be able to keep their specialist teams? Counties play a leading part in European partnerships. Their break-up may put at risk the benefits of this for language teaching and European understanding.

The department now talks of joint or lead authorities. How would that model work? Would each authority be free to leave or join a consortium with a single lead authority at a time of its own choosing? Who would pay the budget? Would participation and paying a large bill be voluntary? How would participatory authorities form a view on whether the budget shares decided by the lead authority were appropriate, or being spent properly? Would each have to maintain its own in-house scrutiny arrangements for both professional and financial aspects?

If a voluntary system of lead authorities is judged impractical, might it be reasonable to suppose that participation might be compulsory? On that model, a single lead authority or a joint authority would have to have powers which bound all participants and have effective right of precept on all. Do the Government really see that as the way forward for education?

Sadly, the debate so far about the costs of reorganisation has been largely in terms of the costs of restructuring the management of local government. It has not made any attempt to address the knock-on costs arising from reduced efficiency and service delivery. Education will cost about £17 billion next year, and more than half of it is spent in county authorities. If fragmentation creates inefficiencies of even a few per cent. it would not be long before another billion pounds of avoidable expenditure has been logged up on top of the billion or so commonly mentioned as the cost of restructuring. My Lords, there are surely better ways of spending such sums on education.

5.15 p.m.

Viscount De L'Isle

My Lords, I wish, like many other Peers, to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Kingsdown, on an eloquent maiden speech and trust that we shall hear from him often in the future. Like him, and many other Peers in their seats today, my family home is in Kent. The noble Lord, Lord Cornwallis, has given us a timely opportunity to debate the local government review. Many noble Lords are far better placed than I to put the case for the many aspects of local government which must be considered. As time is short, I shall confine my remarks to the effects on the rural areas and their economies.

The recommendations which the Local Government Commission makes for individual areas must have regard to the wishes of local populations and geographic locations. I shall model my examples, as five other Members of this House from Kent have done, on the needs of Kentish Men and Men of Kent, which, of course, includes women in both cases.

Currently in Kent the county council is able to take a strategic overview to solve the problems of rural residents dependent on the rural economy. Rural areas by their nature are disadvantaged relative to the towns through isolation, inadequacy of services and vulnerability of traditional rural enterprises, such as the decline in agricultural and related employment and the phasing out of other primary sector industries such as mining, in our case in the East Kent coalfield.

The county council acts as a redistributive agency between East and West Kent through its concern to meet relative need both at the macro level of differing resource bases of east and west down to the special needs within the community of social services and education. The county council has been particularly successful in lobbying central government and the European Commission in achieving rural development status for the East Kent coalfield and Romney Marsh-South Ashford areas and Objective 5b status for Thanet, so achieving grant aid for particular needs in rural areas.

We have heard from my noble friend Lord Aldington of Kent County Council being in the vanguard in approaching other European regions in the Nord-Pas de Calais and Belgium. That has led to gaining European Union Interreg funding, a practical action, not posturing, which is so often the case.

Planning regulations in the rural parts of Kent are stifling appropriate development needed to assist the move away from the traditional industries. Personal considerations of a vociferous minority are restraining the much needed move away from the primary and related industries into the technology of tomorrow, when information will flow down data highways rather than commuters on grossly over-used roads and railway tracks, exacerbated by the Channel Tunnel links. If unitary authorities inherit local planning decisions, liaison will be necessary between authorities if we are to avoid economic strangulation.

Many noble Lords will know from military experience that there is a great difference between strategy and tactics and the consequences of trying to deal with both simultaneously in the same headquarters. For the past 100 years, we have had two tiers of local government, which has not been stagnant, but evolved to meet the needs of the communities it serves. Continuing evolution will serve the population better than radical surgery, which cuts out the strategic overview currently managed by county councils. Kent County Council is acknowledged to be doing that exceedingly well.

Right honourable and honourable Members of another place have their constituency boundaries drawn on wards and districts, so it would be no surprise for that place and Ministers to favour the abolition of county councils, taking to themselves the strategic role. However, they are too far removed from the point of delivery to make effective decisions on strategic matters and the philosophy of "Big hand small map" will prevail.

A uniform prescription from the centre either for unitary authorities or status quo will not meet local needs everywhere. There are advantages to the two-tier structure, particularly in the rural areas. If it is to be replaced, it must be with something far better. In the case of Kent, I do not believe that there is an alternative to the existing structure, which should be allowed to continue to evolve.

5.19 p.m.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for this timely debate. The number of speakers illustrates the importance of the subject.

When I had the privilege to become a Member of your Lordships' House in 1970, I took as my title, Masham of Ilton in North Riding of our County of York. When local government was reorganised, it became North Yorkshire. That was acceptable. The commission has now proposed a most crazy idea of Masham and Mashamshire being in West Riding, there also being a West Yorkshire. Can your Lordships imagine what a muddle that would cause? West Yorkshire has always been associated with industrial areas and cities famous for commerce, as has the West Riding. Our part of North Yorkshire is rural farming countryside which has totally different needs. Yorkshire is a very big area. We are in the north and we want to remain there.

Rural areas have special needs. The people who live in those areas need to be understood. Splitting North Yorkshire into three will no doubt fragment services. For example, there is now one expert who inspects the kitchens of North Yorkshire schools. With three units, there would no doubt be three such experts. That would treble the cost.

I serve on the North Yorkshire Family Health Service Authority. We are worried that the proposed changes will cause loss of coterminosity with the county council social services department. The care in the community reorganisation makes it vital that there are good working relationships between health and social services departments.

Coterminosity significantly aids the ability of health and social services authorities jointly to plan the purchase and provision of services. A county structure in North Yorkshire enables the development of strategic planning. Management costs of both health and local authorities would increase if smaller authorities were created since additional effort would be required in joint planning and commissioning with several authorities at the same time. Boundary changes could present difficulties for general practitioners, who could potentially have patients who are resident in different authority areas with different standards and procedures.

The proposals do not seem to bode well for the effective delivery of social services in North Yorkshire. The disruption and instability alone will destroy so much that has been achieved in recent years.

The county council supports the retention of the current two-tier arrangements. They ensure that services which are best administered and planned on a strategic basis remain at county level. What is best done locally can be promoted through the current network of district councils. Those should be clearly defined and can be improved.

It seems to me that we need a period of stability rather than continual uncertainty. The major changes in community care services, and maintaining highly specialised areas of work such as child protection, can be more difficult to deliver in a county such as North Yorkshire. With the added problem of increased rural crime, we need the county to pull together, not to fragment.

There is a growing tide of concern among many national bodies about the recommendations of the commission. I have also had representations from Cleveland county. Cleveland feels that if the area is split into four there will be a deterioration in services, especially for minority groups such as adults with disabilities and children with learning difficulties.

I have heard that the cost of implementing the proposed changes could be in excess of £1 billion nationally. In Cleveland increased administration costs could he as much as $10 million a year. Is it not better to spend people's taxes on much needed services?

5.23 p.m.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank

My Lords, if nothing else comes out of this debate, I hope that it will at least be an endorsement of the remark of the noble Lord, Lord Cavendish of Furness, that it is time to end the war of attrition between central and local government. That is a tremendously important message. It underlies so much of what has already been said in this debate.

I am deeply sceptical of all local government reform. It is rarely justified on merit. It seldom improves anything and is usually a disaster. It is always claimed that it will bring local government close to the people; that it will deliver better services; or that it will be more cost-effective; or all of those things. It turns out to be disruptive, expensive and pointless. Everything that we have learnt today about the present review confirms that this will simply be one in a most unfortunate, unhappy sequence of attempts to reform local government.

There was a warning which I think we all noticed when the review was set up and when the 39 pages of policy guidance were published in July 1992. Perhaps may remind the House —although I believe that noble Lords will be familiar with it—of the statement that the Government do not wish to impose a blueprint for reform but that they expect to see a substantial increase in the number of unitary authorities. That is quite extraordinary. It is a definition of freedom, provided that you produce the right result. I was surprised at the time, and I am surprised now, that Sir John Banham and his team were prepared to accept such extraordinary terms of reference.

There is no ideal or perfect way of organising local government. There has to be a fine balance of advantage either way. As has already been said in the course of this debate, the optimum solution depends entirely upon local circumstances. That optimum solution includes whether there should be one tier or two and which tiers they should be.

As has been acknowledged, there is a case for ad hoc change in specific cases from time to time to take account of demographic changes or the provision of services. But that is quite different from a nationwide root-and-branch review of the kind that we are having now. It is one that is based to an extraordinary extent on the outcome of opinion polls conducted by the MORI organisation.

The shortcomings of this review, which have already been referred to in specific cases, are of particular interest to me in the case of the county of Cleveland. In 1968 the borough of Teesside was created by local consent and agreement out of six existing boroughs and districts. That was a proper way to conduct reform. In six years the borough has established itself. But in 1974 it was threatened with total dismemberment unless Hartlepool joined it in a shotgun marriage. The matter was only settled when it changed its name to Cleveland—which I must say was previously associated in my mind not with the North of England but entirely with Ohio. I am sure that no noble Lords in this House have any doubt, but the public often wonder where the county of Cleveland is. That was in 1974.

Now in 1994 we have a new proposal. The Cleveland of 1974 is also threatened with total dismemberment. In its final report the commission does not explain the reasons in any way that would be recognised as having intellectual substance. There is no instinctive understanding of the nature of the place. As I said, there are no intellectual arguments underpinning the extraordinary conclusion reached in the report. Twelve out of the 17 principal pages of the report are concerned in whole or in part with the outcome of opinion polls. This is entirely a matter of change for the sake of change, or change because the Secretary of State wants it.

I hope that the Secretary of State will think long and hard before accepting what has been offered in respect of Cleveland, just as I know noble Lords want him to think long and hard about what is proposed in respect of other parts of the kingdom. I would prefer the retention of the present structure and to have no change. Alternatively, I would prefer a single Cleveland county. If neither of those options is satisfactory or acceptable to the Secretary of State, I hope that the compromise that is proposed by the county council will be accepted. Effectively it would mean a return to the 1968 boundaries which were established by consent. That solution would make good sense. It would be acceptable to Teesside and to Hartlepool; it would be cost-effective in the delivery of services; and it would involve a genuine identity that is relevant to the people.

5.29 p.m.

The Earl of Selborne

My Lords, I have been heartened by the debate so far. There has been a great deal of consensus. Perhaps I may summarise the position so far. We agree that there is no ideal format for local government. If one tries to attempt to find a solution which will embrace all areas of the country, one will fail. Secondly, we all agree that the public at large is interested above all in value for money and quality of service. Clearly, people are also concerned about local accountability and would like to see local government working in a partnership with central government. They do not want to see a constant war of attrition between central and local government. To the extent that so far the discussion has generated a sterile debate between the tiers of local government, that is seen to be extremely unfortunate. We agree about that also.

But it is not entirely fair to say that the debate has been wholly sterile. It is most important to recognise that on those who suggest that a root and branch change is required lies the onus to demonstrate firmly and clearly where the advantage lies. It will be for the commission to weigh those arguments very carefully and err on the side of caution. Speaker after speaker has quite rightly expressed a degree of caution about whether one can predict accurately the consequences of major reform.

The local government review itself said that a consensus of view must be tested against a local champion. There must be a strong body of support for any new proposal. If there is a consensus then clearly there will be that support. Where there is not a consensus, there must be a local champion who is seen to be viable and effective. The cost is critical. One hears so much about the transitional costs. The long-term costs have to be weighed up and, as the noble Baroness, Lady David, reminded the House, the cost of the diminution of services which has to be costed. Above all, will those changes stand the test of time? If those questions cannot be answered, one should not change it.

The dilemma is that if one is looking for a local champion, the more discrete and smaller the authority, the greater the sense of identification. One only has to move one district council away to get a completely different reaction. In my area of East Hampshire there is a strong wish to have a unitary authority along the boundaries of the existing East Hampshire District Council. As soon as one says, as would clearly be the case to my own mind and indeed to the Association of District Authorities, "That is not a runner. That does not work. You have to move to Winchester or to the Test Valley", people say, "That is not what we meant by local accountability". I am quite certain that in those situations the champions of unitary authorities will say, "Come back two tiers. We did not mean this".

Noble Lords may look, as I have done, with some care at the proposals which come out of the 13 district councils in Hampshire. They do not all conform, at least in their first preference, with the proposals of the Association of District Councils for Hampshire, which in any case fudges the issue by not being able to agree whether it wants five or eight bodies. So they say, "We will leave it to the local government to decide". For example, the Test Valley proposal is not compatible with eight districts. So there is a very great deal of incompatibility. Quite frankly, I feel that it is irresponsible of umbrella associations to put forward proposals which are incompatible and yet to try to claim that there is widespread support.

Anyone who has listened to this debate from the beginning will recognise without a shadow of doubt that, as one goes into the rural areas, one is bound to conclude that the case for two tiers stacks up more and more heavily. Because of the strategic issues and the need to take in a wider area than can conveniently be put into a unitary authority, where there are the specialist and personal services for which one can call on the council offices, that may well work. I have no hesitation in saying that two tiers is an option which must exist for the local government review in many and probably most cases. For the Secretary of State to try to determine the outcome of the review by suggesting that there should be a presumption for unitary authorities was quite irresponsible.

5.35 p.m.

Lord Craig of Radley

My Lords, members of the Armed Forces, and least of all this airman who is more familiar with the unbounded regions of the air than county council boundary affairs, do not want to be thought to be attempting—or too strongly attempting—to influence the geographic shape or the electoral make-up of local government. As individuals, service men and women share with the rest of the community the right to vote, but as individuals and not as formations or squadrons of Her Majesty's Armed Forces. That said, the services have a major presence in several county areas.

The services rely on good local government around them and have many links with their council neighbours. Those links have played a very important part in the life and traditions of all three services, whether it is in the raising and nurturing of a battalion which proudly carries the name of the shire from which many of its personnel are recruited; or the centuries of close bonds with naval establishments and with Her Majesty's ships which crossed the oceans bearing a name long associated with a locality; or the highly valued council support enjoyed by Royal Air Force stations and squadrons from end to end of England (and of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland too.)

I am sorry to have to inform the noble Lord, Lord Cornwallis, and the noble Lord, Lord Kingsdown, whom I must congratulate on his fine maiden speech—another noble bowman of Kent—that defence cuts seem to have been unable to provide us with an HMS "Kent". We have a very fine Type-23, HMS "Norfolk", the county where I now have my home. I know of no plans for an HMS "Mashamshire".

All those connections, so ably and enthusiastically maintained by local people, mean much to the services. They give our professional (career) Armed Forces a chance to meet and mingle with many who are unfamiliar with service life but who take an active role in local government:. The servicemen's lives are enriched by those contacts, as I know from my own experience. The friendships formed also give local councillors a unique chance to understand the traditions, values and, above all, professional competence of the soldiers, sailors and airmen whom they meet.

In war and crisis there is no shortage of media coverage of the Armed Forces. The public is well informed. But when—as we all hope—we are not at war and the only publicity may be adverse, the value of the civil-military contacts to set such issues in their true context will also help understanding.

The collapse of the Cold War has allowed civil defence to wither away. But there will still be local difficulties, disasters and tragedies which will require the closest co-operation between military and civil authorities. Help to the civil power, or assistance to the local communities in the wake of a natural disaster will continue, as will the need for planning and exercising to deal with them between the military and the civilian authorities.

The military has not been untouched by reorganisation and the trend for military districts has been toward the larger geographic solution. They must be seen to dovetail with local arrangements. Indeed, the Local Government Act of 1992 speaks of the commissioners having regard to the need: to reflect the identities and interests of local communities". The Armed Forces are a part of that local community.

The previous Secretary of State for the Environment was quoted as saying that efficiency, coupled with local sentiment and tradition, are the criteria for reform. Many in the Armed Forces will want to see those long-standing traditional values and loyalties sustained and nurtured. They will want the new local government structures to continue to give strong support to the effectiveness of their operations. I hope that the commissioners will be encouraged to take full account of all that in their work and that Her Majesty's Government will ensure that they do.

5.40 p.m.

The Earl of Winchilsea and Nottingham

My Lords, I should like to insert into this debate a plea from my own county of Somerset which joins pleas from other counties that have already been made today in your Lordships' House; doubtless there will be others after I sit down.

A lot of people were greatly encouraged by the recent High Court decision reaffirming that the status quo is an option. I start my plea with that comment because, following on from that, the Association of County Councils seems equally encouraged by the resolution overwhelmingly adopted at the recent Liberal Democrat conference in Cardiff. At the risk of detaining the House, I shall read the entire Motion. It says: Conference notes the successful result of the judicial review of the guidance issued by the Secretary of State to the Local Government Commission and observes that the Government is moving further and further away from the principle that reform should only take place where such reform is in line with the clearly expressed wish of the local community, and that overall it is undermining local democracy, increasing the democratic deficit and causing chaos and confusion in many areas. Conference therefore calls on the Government to accept and to proceed with only those reforms that have demonstrable and overwhelming support in the communities concerned". The Local Government Commission made its recommendation for Somerset on 20th December 1993, that the present Somerset County Council and district councils should be replaced by three unitary councils. The proposal for Somerset is stoutly resisted by Somerset County Council as it singularly fails to meet any of the criteria set out by the review because, first, it is not wanted by the general public; secondly, the new areas do not have any greater community identity—in fact the reverse; thirdly, it does not save money—again the reverse; and, fourthly, it does not improve service effectiveness.

With regard to the first point, the commission recruited MORI polls to conduct a survey to discover the level of public support that existed in Somerset for the commission's own recommendations. The results were conclusive and convincing; only one in five people in Somerset want it; four in five emphatically do not. In relation to the second point, there is no clear community identity in the proposals for the new areas. In fact, it would appear crystal clear that the present Somerset County Council enjoys a far stronger identity than four of the five present district councils. In addition, it is right to point out that the new areas will be made up by combinations of bits and pieces of those districts.

In relation to point three, it will cost up to £65 extra per Somerset household, or a total of between £7 million and £12 million, to set up. The commission's estimate of the running costs range from an estimated saving of £3 million per year to an extra cost of £2 million per year. I wonder how long it would take to recover those set-up costs. Indeed, would they ever be recovered? The people of the county of Somerset doubt it, as do I.

In relation to the fourth point, instead of one county authority, county services will have to be broken into three. There will be three education departments; three social services departments; and three library departments, to name but a few. No wonder the scheme is unwanted and unwelcome; it is totally daft. However, there are many things at present county level that simply cannot be split into three and those will have to be organised on a shared basis. In other words, the county will simply be reinvented to accommodate the police, the fire service and waste disposal—again to name but a few. Those services will be controlled by a committee of representatives from the three unitary authorities with no direct accountability to the electorate. Somerset County Council is quite right to point out that in Europe county government is looked on as the regional tier, the one below national government. Removing it and making the regional authorities smaller will greatly reduce their influence at European and national level to the detriment of local people.

There are many other areas of Somerset County Council responsibility which will either cease to exist altogether or would, at best, be seriously reduced if the proposals contained in the commission's recommendations are steam-rollered through and over Somerset County Council despite massive local opposition.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, it was the assertion of local rights over the central executive that gave rise to Magna Carta—a key stage in the evolution that created our present Parliament. Times change, but in one sense that relationship lies in a different way behind the work of the Local Government Commission. The results of its work will not simply shuffle the pack of administrative functions between different groups of squabbling councillors; nor will they simply redraw the administrative boundaries. Inevitably change will affect the relationship between central and local government with consequences that are likely to be both profound and unpredictable.

The commission is required to have regard to two key and conflicting criteria. First, it must pay attention to the need to reflect the identities and interests of local communities. Secondly, any change should secure effective and convenient local government. It is not required to consider the two main causes of tension between central and local government. They concern what are the proper local functions of local government and, arising from that, how the costs of those functions are to be met. In relation to those points, the work of the commission is a distraction and I am afraid that tension will continue.

What is a community? In that context we do not need to be concerned about being European or being British. We are concerned with locality. For the commission it may be possible to obtain a helpful answer in the major cities. However, in most shires, if one asks, the answer is, "I live in such-and-such a town or village in such-and-such a county". Under the terms of the commission's writ, the town or village is too small to secure effective and convenient local government. The county appears to be too big for the Government—if I can put it that way. A solution to the dilemma that results from the multiplication of the first or the division of the second has scant regard for people's sense of place and little regard for the need to secure effective local government.

We know that in future the police service will be likely to require joint arrangements for its supervision. We have devoted considerable time recently to that subject. We know that joint arrangements will be statutorily required for the fire service so that its existing structure will be maintained. Much was made of the problems faced by services such as the archive service and other specialist services like the central libraries. We know that strategic planning, particularly in the highways and transportation field, cannot be undertaken except on a wide scale. Will larger numbers of smaller authorities be able to resource the specialist services in education—the greatest of local government services in spending terms—for such things as in-service teacher training or advice to schools following an Ofsted report? Not without joint arrangements. Where is accountability if so many services—my list is not comprehensive—require an intervening structure between the local authority and the service for which it is nominally supposed to be responsible?

Finally, there is no system of local government working anywhere in this country today where all local government functions are the direct and exclusive responsibility of a single local authority. The unitary principle does not exist in practice even in the most metropolitan of areas. Sir John Banham and his commissioners deserve our sympathy. Their own opinion polling, while recognising the appeal of the unitary principle, also reveals that there is no clear majority in favour of specific changes. On the contrary; in most areas, the status quo receives most support. The commission has an impossible task. Significantly, a letter in The Times from Sir John Banham on this subject was followed by one from the leader of the London Borough of Waltham Forest. The implication of that letter was clear. The London boroughs have realised, too late, that London as a whole has lost out through not having a strategic authority. Do we really want to inflict that on the rest of the country? I fear that we will be visiting this subject again and again in the future.

5.50 p.m.

Viscount Monckton of Brenchley

My Lords, first, I thank my noble friend Lord Cornwallis for introducing this Motion and, secondly, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Kingsdown on his maiden speech. I confess also that, like him, I am a Man of Kent.

I have only two points to make, which I am sure will be a relief to your Lordships. The first concerns youth organisations, for which I have worked voluntarily for 30 years and which without the county youth service would not really work. The second concerns archaeology. For the past 50 years I have been working in Kent. Again, although we have two units in Kent, a county council archaeological unit and a rescue service, both of which are doing very well, there is no doubt that eventually, in all counties, archaeology should rest with the county.

I said that I would be brief. I have taken up not even a minute. But am I the only one who wonders what the hell we are doing here when we all think exactly alike and we want only one word from the Government—stet?

5.51 p.m.

Lord Digby

My Lords, I am afraid that I shall repeat my message of three years ago when your Lordships last debated this issue. My message was to reorganise the finances, which has been done through the council tax, but to leave the structure alone. Judging from this debate I am no longer alone in this view. Can we not learn the lesson of 1974, when the cost of local government shot up—not only the transitional costs but also the basic long-term costs?

Governments have always underestimated the cost of change. They are doing so again. That cost is already beginning to show in the loss of trust and confidence between councils. People in Whitehall and those who read the press may think that councils are always in disagreement, but that is not the case. The co-operation and trust between, say, counties and districts has been very real and constructive. However, that is endangered now as each is having to fight its own corner, and constructive co-operation is a thing of the past. I have been assured of this deterioration from many sides.

Why then are the Government hell bent on reorganisation? I suggest that it is because of pressure from the old county boroughs which lost many of their powers in 1974. I certainly sympathise with them and think it was a mistake. But hard cases make bad laws. Counties and boroughs have learnt to live together and, until the present uncertainty arrived, co-operation was producing a good service.

Having made it quite clear that I believe the status quo should be maintained, I should like to turn to the position of the counties. Should county councils be abolished in favour of smaller unitary authorities? One of the complaints of the old county boroughs was that they had no control of their approaches. Counties can and do provide the strategic highway planning. In the sphere of social services and education the county provides several specialist services and staff. For instance, my county council has a child protection team which does a vital and difficult job. Not only would three unitary authorities be unable to fund a team each, but such a team works in close liaison with the police specialist child protection teams, which are undoubtedly organised on a county-wide basis. The same applies to liaison with health authorities, the probation service and the voluntary sectors. Practically all organise on a county basis.

It is also important that the geographical counties should be maintained, even if they have no county councils. Most voluntary organisations, the police, magistrates' courts and many other bodies are organised on a county basis. It is vital that that should be maintained even though their funding would be obtained from several unitary authorities. The confusion that would result from tinkering with county boundaries would be catastrophic. Perhaps I may give an example. We have taken five years to organise Dorset magistrates' courts on a county-wide basis. The system is now running smoothly. Should Bournemouth become a unitary authority and be returned to geographical Hampshire, my committee would be quite unviable and five years' work would be wasted. Counties are not just entities that can be discarded without cost.

5.55 p.m.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, I cannot claim to be a Man of Kent although I lived there for a few years. I have lived most of my life in Reading. Noble Lords will know that Reading is in Berkshire. We have a very interesting situation in Berkshire. There has been a joint submission to the Local Government Commission by Berkshire County Council and six of the seven principal councils for the abolition of Berkshire County Council and the establishment instead of unitary authorities based on major towns and centres of population. Here we have a county council that is prepared, because it believes in unitary authorities, to abolish itself.

What are its reasons? First, unitary authorities are the best way to deliver services in Berkshire; secondly, the two-tier system has caused confusion since 1974; thirdly, there is support from the community; and, fourthly, unitary authorities will be closer and more accountable to the communities they serve. I support this initiative because it accords with my own view and indeed with my own experience, which is based on having served as a member of the Reading County Borough Council for 18 years and as leader of the council for some years. I know the benefits of administering an all-purpose authority; the benefit of administering all local services; of administering housing as well as children's matters—the two are tied together. People knew where to go. They knew who to go to see. What is more, when things went wrong, they knew who to blame. He was their neighbour. They would see him in the street. They would go up to him and say, "What's this all about? Let's have some action on this matter". Councillors are known to the people in the area.

I am sorry that my noble friend Lady David is not present because she might be interested to know that in Reading we ran a first-class education system for 125,000 people. We pioneered the teaching of the deaf. People moved to Reading in order that their deaf children could be taught. That did not happen in the county. The idea that one needs 500,000 people to administer an education service is quite wrong and indeed it led to the disaster of the 1974 reorganisation.

We have noticed a big change from county borough status to the two-tier system. It has become extremely difficult, first, to get things done and, what is more important, to get to the people who make the decisions even, if like me and Members of Parliament in Berkshire, one knows one's way around. That is altogether unfortunate.

I was also the Member of Parliament for Swindon which was not a county borough. At first it was an excepted district but after 1974, it was an unexcepted district. We had the situation of this large area known as Thamesdown providing 30 per cent. of the population and 40 per cent. of the finance, but having to follow policies which it believed to be inimical to the best interests of the people it served within the district. It was also subject to delays and frustration in service and planning. I hope that the Local Government Commission will, as it surely must, give Thamesdown unitary authority the status which it deserves and which it should have had years ago.

Finally, the successful future of local government depends on going back to the old partnership which used to exist between the local authorities and government before so many services were centralised under what I call "undemocratic centralism". There is a need to return powers to the local authorities. Above all, there is a need to give to authorities, whatever they may be, the opportunity to finance themselves properly. That means giving them new sources of finance, including the return of the business rates and allowing them to spend their own capital receipts without let or hindrance from central government.

6.1 p.m.

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, I too should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Cornwallis, for introducing the debate in such an excellent manner. I make no apologies whatsoever for concentrating my remarks on North Yorkshire. It is very difficult to read the commission's recommendations on the reviews and in any way to read the letter of Sir John Banham to The Times—which was largely quoted by my noble friend Lord Blake—and think that it could be the same person speaking. In his letter to The Times he completely contradicts all the recommendations which he makes as far as North Yorkshire is concerned.

North Yorkshire County Council is efficient and popular. Perhaps I should declare an interest because I was on it for a number of years, but that has nothing to do with either its efficiency or its popularity. Sadly, it is now a hung council three ways, so the leadership from the members has not been forthcoming in quite the way one would have hoped they would have reacted to the recommendations.

As far as North Yorkshire is concerned, the recommendations are highly artificial and contrived. There is some travesty in trying to reintroduce the Ridings for tiny parts of North Yorkshire—calling them the Ridings, I suppose, to try to gain popular support for what are otherwise pretty unworkable suggestions.

One good thing which comes out of the report is that for the first time in 20 years in your Lordships' House I have been able to agree wholeheartedly with my noble kinswoman Lady Masham. I do not believe that that has ever happened before. I support what she said about Masham, which is a small place. Before the reorganisation in 1974 it was in fact the smallest and one of the cheapest rural district councils in the country. For its entire history it has been either in North Riding or North Yorkshire. We look on the West Riding rather as Lancastrians look on Yorkshiremen or Yorkshiremen look on Lancastrians. The idea of putting Masham in the West Riding defies belief.

The most worrying thing which comes out of the recommendations is Recommendation 14 which states: There should he joint authorities established for each of the police and fire services, covering (1) the new unitary authorities of East Riding, West Riding (Dales and Vale), North Riding and the Cities and Counties of York and Kingston upon Hull". What an amazing police force! To take the great port and city of Kingston upon Hull and put it in with vast rural areas which are some 150 miles away is quite extraordinary. But this recommendation was made without the commission consulting the chief constables of North Yorkshire or Humberside, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary or the two police authorities. Surely any changes to a complex organisation such as policing should be made on the basis of operational requirements, and that the commission simply has not done. The police authorities have enough uncertainty under the current Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill which has had a somewhat chequered career here. Surely there is no need for more uncertainty caused by this report.

The fire services also come under this. For instance, the training of firefighters in North Yorkshire is currently under review. It must be unwise at least to contemplate major capital expenditure if such restructuring is in prospect.

I hope and suspect that the Secretary of State will reject the recommendations of the boundary commission as far as North Yorkshire is concerned. I am sorry that my noble friend Lord Arran is not in his place. But I am sure that the noble Viscount will make notes. I do not expect him to give an answer today because this matter is not in his department, although he speaks for the Government. I sincerely hope that he will discuss with his noble friends and right honourable colleagues this very strange proposal. If it could be dismissed as soon as possible in order to remove the uncertainty hanging over the police and fire services in our part of Yorkshire, that would be extremely helpful.

6.6 p.m.

Lady Kinloss

My Lords, I have never been a parish, district or county councillor and I have always sat on the Cross Benches, so, as they say, I have no axe to grind. All the same I am very concerned for the future of local government in the beautiful county of North Yorkshire where I have lived for many years.

The work of the Local Government Commission which we are discussing today is a difficult and emotive subject. No matter what the commission recommends or suggests should be done, it will be wrong in the eyes of some. At the same time, the commission seems to have been quite curiously blinkered.

At public meetings held in North Yorkshire the commission made it clear that the views of the district council and county council members and officials carried little weight and were seen as tainted by self-interest. Members of parish councils also felt themselves lumped together with the rest and their views regarded as of lesser importance than those of the general public. It would seem to be particularly unfair to parish councillors, who receive neither pay nor allowances, with the exception of the parish clerk, who receives a small honorarium.

I realise that the parish councils are not being altered, but all the same they are an important link between local communities and local authorities. In our village parish councillors attend meetings assiduously and give an account of their proceedings every month in the village news. They are democratically elected. Their interest in the structure of local government is only so far as it is likely to affect the quality of services in their area. They know what the people are thinking, they differ from the general public only in having a much better insight into the processes of local government. Far from being lightly dismissed, their views seem to me to be particularly important.

The Yorkshire local councils associations report that, with the exception of two parishes, they have heard no one say anything other than that they wish to see the present system retained. Everything that is being said at present to the associations indicates that the proposals are out of touch with public opinion, for the concern of ordinary people, including councillors, is with services and costs and whatever works best.

At no time did the commission show that a unitary system would be better, more cost-effective or provide better services. This was also the view of the county treasurers. A similar view is held by the Audit Commission, which stated: The actual transitional costs may well exceed the predictions of the Local Government Commission's model". I attach great weight to the Audit Commission's opinions as well as to those of the county treasurers.

The Ridings issue seems to me to be a smokescreen, just using the names for the proposed authorities. They are not truly similar to the old Ridings geographically. The idea that they should be separate for ceremonial purposes no doubt appeals to traditionalists but cannot have any reality in modern-day local government.

As for the beautiful and historic City of York, I fully understand that a city that probably had its first charter in the reign of Henry I in the 12th century would wish to regain the same identity that it enjoyed before the 1972 Act.

I can find little comfort in the commission's publications on specific and voluntary services. Education for people with special needs, family support facilities and community care in general are services which need a large population base to justify them financially. The county council has a wide range of facilities, but several new authorities would necessitate splitting them up. None, it is thought, could have a full set of services, nor enough clients in their area for those they had. Consequently, they would have to agree to make each other's services available to each other's clients. Joint agreements, assessment and transfer would be cumbersome, bureaucracy would inflate costs and could even put some services at risk because there would be no overall plan.

The North Yorkshire Education Service has a very good reputation. It spends a good deal above its standing spending assessment in order to support the large number of small schools in what is the largest rural county in England. I note that the reason for keeping the status quo in Lincolnshire was that, like North Yorkshire, it has a pattern of small market towns and villages and is very rural. Some people are puzzled why, if Lincolnshire is to have a two-tier system on such grounds, the commission should find that the same is not suitable for North Yorkshire. The county council has an excellent relationship with its voluntary sector and the health authority in its planning for community care which should not be upset.

In 66AD Petronius wrote: We need to meet any new situation by re-organising, and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress, while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralisation". In view of the fact that the final recommendations on the future of local government in North Yorkshire, Hurnberside and Lincolnshire were published in January of this year and the new policy guidelines in February of this year, would the Minister ask his right honourable. friend the Secretary of State for the Environment to refer the recommendations back to the commission for reconsideration?

6.11 p.m.

Lord Willoughby de Broke

My Lords, the commission already seems to be limping rather badly. Its timescale was drastically reduced last year, while this year one of its central guidelines was knocked away by the recent High Court decision. Listening to noble Lords' speeches, it seems that it is your Lordships' wish that this lame duck should be put out of its misery as quickly as possible.

The central issue is whether the commission's recommendations will lead to improved quality in local government, improved accountability, less bureaucracy and lower costs. The unitary option, which is much touted in the report, is, after all, a bit of a myth. As the commission acknowledges, there would have to be joint arrangements for fire, police, planning, waste and various other services, not to mention for the special services. I am thinking of, for example, county libraries. I do not know how a county library could be chopped up into three, four or more different unitary authorities and which would get which books. That could cause quite a lot of dispute. Any so-called "unitary solution" would have to be two-tier. It could not be otherwise.

The unitary structure would produce less democracy because, as my noble friend Lord Aldington pointed out, there would be fewer councillors serving many more constituents. I wonder how many of the "broadly representative individuals" for whom the commission calls would be available and willing to serve given that they would be required to devote very much more time to serving a greater number of constituents. Given those demands on their time, I think that it is unlikely that enough people would come forward.

I believe that most people identify with their village or neighbourhood and then, as has been pointed out particularly by the Men of Kent, with their county. I yield not to the Men of Kent; I am a man from Warwickshire. I am very proud of coming from Warwickshire. Surely that two-tier feeling should be reflected in the structure of local government.

The commission's report emphasises that there should be change only with general agreement and when local communities are convinced of the need for change. It then notes rather plaintively that so far there seems inadequate support for the unitary solution. Its own poll shows that most people are in favour of retaining the status quo. Indeed, paragraph 119 states: There are advantages to the … two-tier structure. If it is to be replaced, it must be with something better". There is nothing to show that the unitary option will offer anything better, while, as many noble Lords have pointed out, the costs of change will be considerable. In the case of Warwickshire, they are estimated at over £10 million. Why should local people and businesses be saddled with the costs of some sort of reorganisation, the benefits of which are at best questionable, and which the polls show that people do not want?

The way forward must be improvement in the existing system. Local government should address this as a priority and make people aware of who is responsible for doing what. That is always one of the complaints about local government. Local government should also improve access and accountability and sort out the maddening and confusing overlaps in responsibility. That can be done by district and county councils between them. They are matters of organisation and of having the will to carry out that organisation. We do not need a wholesale restructuring process.

I believe that the commission will have played its part if it spurs on the county councils and district councils to concentrate their minds on what they should be providing for their electorates. As many noble Lords have said, the existing local government arrangements are not perfect, but the will to improve is there—certainly in Warwickshire. We should not throw out the baby with the bathwater and change to expensive, uncertain and unwanted alternatives.

6.15 p.m.

Lord Rochester

My Lords, I have lived in the county of Cheshire for nearly 50 years and, in my opinion, it would be deplorable if Cheshire County Council were to go out of existence.

In my industrial experience, administrative problems are not generally solved by tampering with organisation. It is usually much better to build on what is already there and to seek to improve it. If being radical means seeking solutions to problems by for ever tearing things up by the roots and starting again, I have long since concluded that I cannot be a radical. In any case, I am not convinced that there is a problem to be solved in Cheshire. Local government is working well there and is capable of further improvement under the existing structure.

There are conflicting estimates of the cost of introducing unitary authorities in the county. For my part, I am satisfied that the transitional costs would be considerable and that even long-term savings are, to say the least, highly doubtful and may be non-existent. What cannot be doubted is that change would bring disruption to services which, in my view, cannot be justified. Indeed, preoccupation with the effects of the possible change must already be impeding the efficient delivery of certain services.

It is widely acknowledged that for many years Cheshire has had one of the best education authorities in the land. The authority has certainly been helpful to me on a number of occasions. As a member of your Lordships' Select Committee which considered unemployment years ago under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lady Seear, I recall that it was to the director of education for Cheshire that we looked for advice when framing some of our recommendations concerning long-term supply-side remedies. With the best will in the world, I do not think that the unitary authorities which might replace Cheshire County Council would be able to administer the function of education nearly so effectively, particularly if in doing so they had to rely on confusing and undemocratic arrangements such as joint boards or committees.

Much the same considerations apply, in my view, to the need for strategic planning in a number of areas, particularly with regard to the provision of social services. The Government have given social service authorities substantial additional responsibilities for community care just at the time when those authorities are threatened with reorganisation. Given all the other ways in which the Government have recently brought trouble on themselves, I find it almost incredible that they have not clearly established the role and the function of local government before getting enmeshed in this structural review.

I am one of the great majority of Cheshire people who have said that they are proud to live in the county. I do not believe that a sufficiently strong case has been made out to justify changing the existing structure of local government in Cheshire. I urge the commission, and the Secretary of State when the time for decision comes, to leave well alone.

6.20 p.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Cornwallis, as has often been said during the debate, has earned the gratitude of your Lordships. If he wishes to add to that gratitude, he might send special copies of the report of the debate to each member of the commission, and might also go so far as to arrange special readings for them.

It was some time ago that the Government conceived as a suitable target the evolution of a system of local government which was both effective and convenient. I have long thought how nice it would be if we had a central government who set those two adjectives up as targets to aim at for themselves and for their own organisation and left other people alone for a bit. The Government set up a commission. They gave it a fairly powerful nudge in the direction of unitary authorities, which they wanted the commission to take. Later that nudge, which obviously had not been detected sufficiently clearly by members of the commission, acquired something of a greater imperative and they were told firmly that it was the Government's earnest hope that two-tier authorities would be the exception in the future.

Well, as is well known, the courts intervened, called the Government to order and said that they had done wrong. But the fact remains that the Government have spoken, the commission has heard and, to a certain extent, the commission has obeyed. So it is difficult for the slate to be wiped effectively clean. I realise that the Government must be nervous of all the rather silly accusations which governments face when they make sensible changes of mind: that they have done a U-turn; they have been inconsistent. They might also be accused of being ungrateful to the commission for having so far conducted itself in an obedient fashion. Those accusations will be as nothing compared with the other much more dire charge—that they had destroyed things of immense and lasting value.

I have a good deal of respect for Sir John Banham. I supported his view entirely when he suggested that for Cornwall there should be a single unitary authority (the county council) because otherwise a county such as Cornwall would be unable to punch its weight. I agree with that. I also agreed with Sir John Banham, incidentally, when he called, as he did recently, for the abolition of the Treasury. What a noble work that would be But I felt it right to part company with him when he allowed members of his commission to recommend the dismemberment of Somerset, which is very much on all fours with Cornwall.

It seems to have been a bit of a lottery as to who one received from the commission. In the case of Somerset there was a senior and respected civil servant who lives in suburban Surrey and a lady councillor from Lambeth who has the reputation—deserved or not, I do not know —of being an ardent supporter of small unitary authorities. Somerset will now be saddled with three of them. The sad thing is that the three bits of what was Somerset will have no meaning for anyone, save for a few people who look for a career in local government or the Government themselves who might find small authorities easier to handle.

The report claims, quite wrongly, that there is evidence that the people of Somerset have shown a decisive preference for what has been recommended. That is rubbish. The evidence is that at least 80 per cent. of the people in Somerset wish to retain a county tier. There is no time to expand on this, but what on earth will happen to the quality of services offered in respect of education, social services, libraries and so forth? If the Government feel that they are doing a wise thing in allowing that recommendation to go through and sweeping away yet one more symbol that people find understandable and attractive and one to which they can owe their loyalty, they will be making a cardinal error which they will not be allowed to forget for many years.

6.25 p.m.

Lord Bancroft

My Lords, like many other speakers, I shall concentrate on two issues. The first is the purpose of the commission; and, the second, its costs. First, the purpose: we are bound to ask why the Government embarked on this rather curious exercise when there was no demand for it and no need for it, and when they had no idea of what the costs and benefits (if any) of an alternative structure would be.

The existing two-tier system in the shire counties was established just two days short of 20 years ago by the then Conservative Government—and not without controversy, as some of us remember. It has proved, on the whole, to be workable and adaptable, give or take two or three ministerial whimsicalities such as the creation of Avon and Humberside, which were redundant, and which could easily be removed. Cleveland, on the other hand has proved to be successful in giving identity and clout to Teesside. I know that from personal experience. Its projected dismemberment would be cruelly retrograde as the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, and others have implied.

It is pointless to reorganise the structure without allowing for some redistribution of functions. Yet the commission is not allowed to consider that, except for strategic planning. A sensible course which noble Lords have advocated would have been to retain the two-tier system but to allow county functions to he transferred to those districts that were competent to take them on, and perhaps to allow unitary status (that is, county boroughs) for the largest cities, as some noble Lords have suggested.

The commission has been given ambiguous terms of reference, and no clear or consistent guidance. Professor John Delafons has applied Walter Bagehot's definition of the Lords and Commons to the least worst outcome of the reorganisation. The counties would be the dignified part of local government and the districts the efficient part. One doubts though whether the counties would be satisfied with the former and whether some districts would be capable of the latter. In practice, Professor Delafons concludes that the result could be an arbitrary patchwork of counties in some areas and unitary authorities in others, dictated by nothing more than ephemeral local alliances between self-interested districts or by self-induced failure to agree on any solution.

I turn to costs on three levels. First, relating to the commission; how much has the operation cost to date? What is likely to be the final cost? How much are its operations costing local authorities? Judging by the amount of glossy material that has reached me, the answer is, "an awful lot". Secondly, what will be the implementation costs to local government? We have all heard figures of upwards of £1 billion. Thirdly, what will be the ongoing cost and all benefits? After all, it is an open secret that at least twice the Government have considered abandoning the review. Why not stop it now?

Failure to act decisively will result in two more years of conflict, controversy and confusion. That is debilitating for local government. Furthermore. healthy and effective government is a necessary part of our democracy and is not to be meddled with capriciously. It is an essential counter balance to a wilful and over powerful central government. I do not necessarily agree, but the late Lord Acton nearly said: Power tends to corrupt, and indefinite power corrupts indefinitely".

6.31 p.m.

Lord Montagu of Beaulieu

My Lords, unitary authorities may well be very appropriate, in particular in urban areas. However, as a former chairman of English Heritage and as former president of the Museums Association, I am concerned with the effect that the breaking up of traditional rural counties will have on heritage conservation, not forgetting libraries, museums, archives and support for the arts. I hope that there will not be too many groans around the House, especially in view of the fact that my noble friend Lord Ashburton will speak next, but I intend to refer to Hampshire. I take my own county as an example because what pertains to Hampshire can be repeated throughout England.

Hampshire is a very large county with extensive prehistoric remains. There are more than 600 scheduled monuments, numerous defence works on the coast, 10,000 listed buildings and numerous conservation areas from thatched cottages to historic defence complexes. One must not forget the historic cities of Winchester, Southampton and Portsmouth. I agree that the latter two have a good case for unitary authorities. With its Historic Buildings Bureau, the Hampshire Buildings Preservation Trust and the Hampshire Gardens Trust, Hampshire County Council shows such high standards of excellence in conservation and archaeology that it is probably fair to say that it is pre-eminent in this respect among existing county councils. It enjoys the commitment of a highly qualified and experienced professional staff, matched with appropriate funding and policies. They all work closely with English Heritage in all respects.

With the Countryside Commission and English Nature, it promotes an integrated strategy for countryside conservation and management. It maintains the Country Sites and Monuments Record and, unusually, a Marine Sites and Monuments Record. Recently, a splendid new archive centre was opened in Winchester, perhaps in the nick of time. In no way would a unitary authority have conceived or built that building.

The county has a number of significant heritage properties from Danebury Hill Forts and Basing House to the Solent Forts. It gives great support to tourism and to the arts and theatres on a county basis. As regards the future, it is essential that the size and structure of any new authority is adequate to provide for all those services to continue.

Fundamentally, I feel that each local authority must have formalised and effective access to advice on conservation planning, tourism and the arts from suitably qualified and experienced staff who should, where possible, be brigaded in multi-disciplinary teams which can cover a range of specialist topics.

As the review is progressing, there are some areas of special concern; in particular, the danger that the abolition of county authorities will lead to the loss or disintegration of a range of vital heritage services caused by the consequent loss of the critical mass required to sustain expert teams. Expertise is vital but expensive, even if available, and will sometimes be beyond the means of smaller authorities. Joint arrangements for the latter could be shared or bought in, but they would be vulnerable to cuts and the ability of smaller authorities to sustain major historic property portfolios must be in doubt. As regards tourism, I well know as president of the Southern Tourist Board how difficult it is to get agreement and co-operation from the existing number of local authorities we have to deal with. If that number is doubled, how much more difficult it will be.

In the break-up of county councils, it is difficult to believe that the Government's aim of improving the co-ordination and quality of services can properly be met. I am certainly not encouraged either by some of the final reports, which have already been produced, or by some of the submissions that I have seen from various local authorities. As regards heritage, these reports and submissions proved disappointing with minimal or no reference to either conservation generally and its role in the planning process or for the arts and tourism. Most references have been passing ones; for instance in relation to archives and other heritage services they have stressed the need to maintain county-wide services, if possible without reliance on joint arrangements. That is almost an encouragement to people not to have joint arrangements.

The advice of English Heritage appears to have been ignored. Therefore, I anticipate the outcome of future reviews with trepidation. If unitary authorities are set up, it is vital that appropriate safeguards for the heritage, arts and tourism are put in place at the outset. That might, for example, include a new statutory requirement on all authorities to provide certain basic services in those areas; for example, a sites and monuments record supplemented by the use of a current provision to empower the Secretary of State to require district level councils to submit to him their arrangements, either in-house or bought in, for obtaining specialist advice on their statutory control and enforcement work in connection with listed buildings and conservation areas but extended to cover archaeological advice. Those could be monitored by English Heritage. Similar undertakings should be made on behalf of archives, museums, libraries, support of the arts and tourism. In my mind, there is no doubt that giving more authorities responsibility in these areas will not only cost more but will be less effective.

6.36 p.m.

Lord Ashburton

My Lords, I wish to begin by tipping my hat—if that is a suitable parliamentary expression—to the noble Lord, Lord Kingsdown, by saying how nice it was to hear his maiden speech today. I have heard him debating for more than 52 years. I am conscious of the fact that in seeking to speak to your Lordships' House today, I am in a sense a lay person; perhaps a "lay Lord". I have never been involved in local government either in an elected or official capacity. My experiences, both good and bad, have therefore been as a member of the public.

When one finds oneself in broad agreement with the consensus that has developed, there is a temptation not to speak but to let the message be carried by others. However, it is important that we should all lay our brick in the wall that is being built and therefore I have decided to continue but to shorten my remarks. I hope that your Lordships will forgive the rhetorical imperfection that will flow from the reconstruction of my remarks.

Reorganisation is an extremely disturbing process and an extremely expensive one in terms not only of physical change but also of time and disruption to the participants. Fundamental reorganisation should only be inflicted on people who work for any local or national institution, or indeed any business, as rarely as possible —and then only when the benefits to be gained are incontrovertible and outweigh the inevitable costs and disruptions.

Though the questions of cost and effectiveness are of vital importance, the perceived democratic legitimacy of whatever layer or layers of local government there may be in any given area of the country is a sine qua non of its suitability. Without a local sense of belonging, of influencing, of some measure of control, of the ability to exercise one's vote on who should represent one on matters of local interest, that layer of government will suffer from a reduced legitimacy.

Of course, the question of adequacy of scale of a local authority is a necessary component of its ability to operate effectively. Without scale, which I suppose implies both size of electorate and geographical area, there is no way in which that authority can deliver the services it provides in a cost-effective way. There is every chance that the legitimate local interest of its electors will not be effectively upheld against the demands of more powerful measures. Nor is it likely to be able to take a sufficiently broad view of issues to carry weight nationally.

Those three factors need to be kept in mind in deciding upon the desirability or otherwise of change in the structure of local government in any given area: perceived legitimacy, scale and cost-effectiveness. I should not wish to spend much time disputing their order of importance, although I should put the legitimacy point first.

Since the present review of local government appeared over the horizon and I realised the implications that it might have for me, I have been fascinated by some of the papers that I have been sent and have had the opportunity to read. Perhaps the first and most striking thing which emerged is that it is clearly possible for any two people to proceed from an objectively identical set of facts to completely opposite conclusions. The facts of geographical size, population, housing, industrial growth, schools, transport and roads and a host of other factors cannot really be disputed; but the conclusions drawn are remarkably diverse.

Now there has to be a quantity of assertion and emotion involved to explain those divergent conclusions. It is not altogether a surprise to realise how difficult it is to be objective. I may well not appear to be as objective as I should be.

The second point that is clear, which is much to be welcomed, is that most people, including Sir John Banham, accept that a diversity of solutions is right for a diversity of different areas. That is surely sensible: horses for courses.

I live and have lived for over 60 years in rural Hampshire. At the moment, the men of Hampshire seem to be catching up with the Men of Kent. I am not here to argue that local government in general or in Hampshire is perfect, because it certainly is not. It cannot he. If one wanted to put the matter cynically, one could say that what we should be interested in is the achievement of what is the least imperfect.

I believe that Hampshire is a county which the electors happily identify as their first allegiance. That was shown in the public opinion survey undertaken in the preparatory stages of the local government review. Its geographical size and population is undoubtedly large enough for its county council to exert the influence and authority which seems to me important. It is sufficiently diversified for it to take a larger view of strategic issues than a smaller and perhaps more undiversified authority would be able to. And I have no fundamental quarrel with the cost of the services delivered.

Other noble Lords have already quoted an appropriate and pithy way of expressing my feelings: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. I do not believe that Hampshire is in need of fixing. I hope that the Local Government Commission and Her Majesty's Government will recommend the retention of the county council as the top tier of local government and will not try to cobble together a unitary system which would not in my view be a reliably better alternative.

6.43 p.m.

Lord Crathorne

My Lords, I am going to talk about the commission's recommendations for Cleveland. Cleveland has not had nearly such a good run as Kent or Hampshire, and the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, who spoke about it was 16 speakers ago. Therefore, perhaps I may be forgiven for repeating some of what he said.

I live on the Cleveland-North Yorkshire border and perhaps I should declare an interest as I am a deputy-lieutenant for the County of Cleveland. So far the recommendations of the Local Government Commission have been accepted only for the Isle of Wight and Cleveland. Cleveland County Council has obtained a judicial review of the commission's recommendations and the Secretary of State's decision. That review is to take place at the end of May which provides a breathing space for a reconsideration of the decision as regards Cleveland.

This debate has given us a welcome opportunity to discuss the work of the Local Government Commission; to highlight the threats that the recommendations pose for many vital services; and the costs which will be involved.

The commission puts great emphasis on the concept of "community" and where people identify with; but certainly in the case of Cleveland, it has ignored evidence about how people behave in their everyday lives: their patterns of movement to work and leisure; their shopping and business preferences and so on.

There have been numerous shortcomings in the commission's report on Cleveland. There have been extremely uncertain costings with very wide bands. The options that people were given in the consultation exercise excluded the retention of the status quo and excluded having a single unitary authority. There has definitely been inadequate consideration of how key services—for example, education and child care—will be protected. I do not believe that any individual unitary authority could afford to retain staff of the required calibre and it is improbable that any workable form of co-operation will emerge from the districts to create a regional team to provide today's level of service.

The view that the commission's proposals for Cleveland have commanded widespread support is mistaken. We have heard that also about other areas. The MORI poll for the commission showed that the most popular choice, even though it was not one of the commission's options, was the status quo. Indeed I believe that almost every speaker today has demonstrated that he would prefer the status quo above all else.

When one looks at responses sent directly to the commission, over half of Teesside respondents favoured a single unitary authority for Teesside. That fact was not included in the commission's final report. Certainly, a single unitary authority for Teesside would be infinitely more acceptable than the present proposals.

There has been opposition to the commission's recommendations from many sectors of Cleveland opinion, such as employers and industrialists of the area, the chamber of commerce, the regional CBI, the Teesside Small Business Club and the major local evening paper. None of those sectors is a natural political ally of the county council's administration, but all sectors fear the fragmentation which will follow the implementation of the commission's proposals for four districts in this small conurbation. All the health authorities, many health professionals and voluntary organisations in the area have also expressed serious anxieties about the commission's preferred option.

At this point, I should mention that my noble friend Lord Gisborough is particularly sorry that he cannot be here today because he has similar views about the commission. However, as Lord Lieutenant of the County of Cleveland, he is escorting the Prince of Wales, who is visiting Cleveland today.

My noble friend was good enough to show me letters that he had received— and I have a whole batch of them here—from some of the bodies that I mentioned, and many others too. They all express anxieties about the commission's findings and they all wish to retain Cleveland or, if the name is changed, Teesside as the focus for the area.

The Secretary of State indicated that he wishes to see the Cleveland proposal implemented in April 1995. The task of the commission is to create a structure of local government for the next several decades. Even if we accept the commission's changes, why is there such haste? April 1995 is only one year away and is an impractical if not impossible deadline. If imposed, it will cause chaos with the major services which must be dismantled and reassembled.

Fresh elections will be impossible so that district councils elected on platforms relating to a narrow band of services will be determining service structures that are, in expenditure terms, five or six times the size of their present responsibilities. Members and officers with little or no experience in crucial areas such as education and social services will inherit those services. I do not believe that that is right. Whatever the outcome of the judicial review of the Cleveland case, more time must be allowed to permit elections and a rational process of reorganisation.

My final point is to urge the Secretary of State to reflect again on the whole process. Few would argue that local government cannot be improved. But it has had to assimilate massive and almost continuous change throughout the past decades. In my part of the country, "Teesside" was created in 1968 from parts of North Yorkshire and County Durham. In 1974, the somewhat larger Cleveland came into being. A period of stability is required, not more change. Only a year or so before the current review was first mooted, the Secretary of State at the time stated firmly that a restructuring was needed: like a hole in the head". My Lords, he was absolutely right.

6.50 p.m.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

My Lords, not all of us in your Lordships' House are in favour of the status quo. I believe the reason for that derives, partly, from where we are based. I come from what was a county borough area prior to the local government reorganisation in 1974. I come from the City of Leeds which had a unitary authority which was extremely competent and managed its own affairs and services. It also had high quality staff. It is because of that experience and because of the way in which that authority was able to provide services for its electorate that I believe the best structure for local government is that of unitary authorities and devolved regional government. While I appreciate that there have been many changes in the functions of local government since that time, I have not changed my view that unitary authorities are essential to provide strong, vibrant, self-confident local government which can respond quickly and efficiently to the requests and demands of the local community.

The separation of local services and the overlapping of services between the different tiers is still not understood and continues to cause confusion to the recipients. As my noble friend Lord Jacques said earlier, this confusion is a result of the 1974 local government changes which I felt at the time were disastrous. I still believe those changes have caused problems which have never been resolved.

Unitary authorities are in a better position to develop new roles for local authorities, such as improving access and accountability, community leadership, developing partnerships both locally and with government, monitoring public bodies and being advocates for the local area. They are in a better position to offer customer contracts covering the whole range of council functions, to set and publicise quality standards and targets and to co-ordinate environmental initiatives and management.

The Labour Party has had a consistent policy since the early 1970s in favour of unitary authorities. Its 1992 general election manifesto stated: To simplify local government in England, we will establish 'most purpose' authorities generally based on district councils. In some areas a county-wide authority or the amalgamation of districts may be appropriate". Our subsequent document Opportunity, Quality, Accountability recognised that although we were aiming for a unitary structure, we should approach local government reorganisation in a "spirit of flexibility", understanding that councils covering largely rural areas such as Cornwall would inevitably function rather differently from those governing a major city. I believe that that is absolutely the right approach. The document further recognised that it would be appropriate to transfer functions of a strategic or regulatory nature from counties to a tier of regional government which would draw its main powers and functions from a devolved and decentralised central government.

There is a fair amount of consensus between the Government and the Labour Party on this issue, but we believe there have been a number of flaws in the way in which the Government have approached the review. We believe that the Government have acted on a politically partisan basis. They have failed to define the role and functions of local government and— as is their usual reaction to local government— they have dealt with the review on a piecemeal basis. The timing of the review has been flawed. There should have been a shorter timescale with a proper starting date, so reducing upheaval and stemming the tide of uncertainty, particularly for the staff. There has also been a failure on the part of the commissioners to lay down at the commencement of the process any basic ground rules for parliamentary boundary changes, such as population size and the maintenance of historic connections and traditions.

A point which has not so far been mentioned in this debate but which is of concern is that the earlier presumption in favour of all-out elections for all new authorities has been overturned, with a government Minister able to determine when elections will be held for successor authorities. That is an unusual and unhealthy degree of discretion which could be misinterpreted. All new unitary authorities should be subject to a fresh and full mandate, whether or not they are successor authorities. This should be followed by annual elections as a key ingredient for the democratic renewal in local government ensuring regular accountability, especially in respect of the council budget.

The Local Government Commission has had a difficult job but it s essential that councils are small enough to relate to people's sense of community but large enough to deliver key services directly. In my view this can be achieved only by most-purpose unitary authorities across the country with annual elections so that the views of the electorate can be regularly heard. In that way we will have strong local government which is a precondition for a properly functioning modern democracy.

6.55 p.m.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, I, too, wish to thank the noble Lord, Lord Cornwallis, for introducing this debate. I wish to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Kingsdown, on his splendid maiden speech. I join with the noble Lord, Lord Bancroft, in asking my noble friend the Minister why this commission was set up. I do not think any of us really know why it was set up and it would be helpful to know that. I hope that Sir John Banham will not take this amiss but I believe that it would be a good thing if he and his commission were quietly, gently and without fuss put to rest.

I wish to take up the point of the county councils such as Somerset, Cleveland and Humberside and consider why it is thought that they should be done away with and small district unitary authorities set up. I believe that that would be a retrograde step. For instance, under the proposed system instead of having one director of social services in an area there would need to be four and that would be expensive. The various different authorities, particularly in the realm of social services, have to set up costly projects run by highly skilled people for those vulnerable people who are in need of help. That would mean that no one, small, unitary district authority would be able to afford such provision. All the various authorities would have to co-ordinate with one another to decide which one of them would set up various different projects. I believe that that process would be expensive and would lead to a lot of time being spent in co-ordinating committees as between the four authorities.

I believe that no one has referred to my next point. I am quite sure that it would be turned down hurriedly. If the Banham commission is quietly put to rest, what will happen? I speak now as someone who has been a local government chief officer for 18 years and who has served in both the Ministry of Health and the Home Office. I believe that the time has come for a Royal Commission to be set up to look into not only local government itself but all the local government services such as the fire service, the police, magistrates and the courts. At the moment those services overlap. If one is a chief officer, one must often get in touch with several health authorities, for example, rather than just one and one sometimes has to get in touch with several police forces rather than just one. I believe we need to set up a Royal Commission to consider the whole of local government— not just local government itself but all the other services that are provided on a local basis.

If such a Royal Commission were to be set up, it should also consider the relationship between central and local government. Many of us are saddened by the fact that local government has been greatly diminished in past years. That is not a natural state of affairs. It is natural for local people to want to be involved with their local government. I suggest that such a commission should be set up to look at the total picture of local government with all its ancillary services and also the relationship between central and local government and the way in which financial arrangements are made. I know that that suggestion will not be accepted, but I put it to the House.

6.59 p.m.

Lord Cobbold

My Lords, perhaps I may begin by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Kingsdown, on his maiden speech and on leading the Men of Kent today. I am the first person from Hertfordshire to speak in the debate, but the noble Lord, Lord Brocket, will speak shortly.

I live in the village of Knebworth, but if I am asked by a stranger where I come from I would normally answer that I come from Hertfordshire. I believe that that is a fairly common reaction. Except for those who live in large cities, loyalties to counties are strong—and not merely for cricketers. There is no such loyalty or affinity with districts.

As my noble kinsman Lord Lytton pointed out, the problems and needs of towns and rural areas differ and different solutions are appropriate for local government at each level and in each environment. Diversity at that level seems to be wholly desirable. But the interests of both rural and town communities come together at the strategic level, and the concept of tiered government is therefore both logical and human and not at all necessarily inefficient. The Government subscribe to the doctrine of subsidiarity at the European level and should, I believe, apply it also at the national and local level.

At the strategic level the counties have served us well and have a long and proud tradition. In Hertfordshire we are fortunate in having one of the most efficient and effective county councils in the country. It is most famous for its education department. The Hertfordshire County Council delivers 85 per cent. of all local authority services in the county. Its budget is £ 600 million a year compared with £ 10 million each for the districts and boroughs. Its administrative overheads are about 6 per cent. of its total budget compared with an average of 16 per cent. for the districts and boroughs. That is not, I suggest, a good advertisement for unitary authorities at the district level.

The prospect of splitting up those 85 per cent. of local services provided by the county between groupings of district councils is a nightmare of unnecessary cost, increased bureaucracy and reduced quality of service and reduced democracy.

Some of the less obvious services must not be forgotten. I should like to cite in particular the case of the voluntary bodies, many of which are organised on county lines. Those bodies are very anxious about the level and quality of service and support that they would receive from enlarged district councils. I should also like to cite the heritage services mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Montagu, and in particular the library services and the county record offices. Those are all examples of services which could not easily be split.

Where there is an efficient service it is a great pity, as many noble Lords have said, to tamper with it. The counties are large enough to take a strategic view. They have long histories and can punch their weight at national and European level. Indeed, Hertfordshire has recently received special assistance from Brussels to support redundant aerospace employees.

At the district level rural areas are often disadvantaged by the changes which were made in the last reorganisation. My own former rural district council in Hertfordshire now includes three largish towns— Hitchin, Letchworth and Royston. To double its size into a new unitary authority would make it even more remote from the people, particularly those living in rural areas. It would also have no cultural identity, no geographical history and nothing to which people could feel attached.

Therefore, I urge the Government to respect the status quo in Hertfordshire. If a unitary authority has to come about, it should be based on the existing county council, with perhaps a strengthening of town and parish councils at the grass roots level.

7.4 p.m.

Lord Teviot

My Lords, this has been a very enjoyable and informative debate. I shall reserve my comments for two small areas and shall then draw some more general points which I believe must not be overlooked in the debate about the future of local government.

I shall begin by making some comments about archives, which have been mentioned by various noble Lords. This House recently considered the proposals for local government reform in Wales. My noble and learned friend the Lord Advocate acknowledged the deeply-felt anxieties about the proper future provision for the care of archives and undertook to draw the matter to the attention of the Secretary of State for Wales. In the event, the Government accepted the principle of an amendment moved in this House and are to introduce a similar amendment in the other place. I very much hope that the Secretary of State for the Environment will think it appropriate to make the same provision in relation to England.

Record offices are specialised institutions, most of which provide a direct public service at county level. Recently new highly technical and purpose-built record offices have been built in Chichester, Northampton, Nottingham and Winchester. There may be others.

It would not be an answer to suggest that record offices could somehow be linked to libraries or museums in order to save costs. The disciplines and the needs of the users are very different, as I can testify from considerable personal experience. I have also heard recently that one of the proposed unitary authorities wishes to grab its own archives for the area and is suggesting that the archives could be fitted into a room just off the library. That would be totally unacceptable.

In the East Sussex Record Office, which I know well, it has been calculated that over one-third in bulk of the archive holdings relates to the entire area of the present county and is physically, as well as morally, indivisible. Major groups of records relate to past systems of local government and to the local agencies of national government. They cannot be split up, any more than the unified records of the central government of this country could be split up in the event that some enlightened decentralising administration of the future were to decide to revert to the kingdoms of the old Anglo-Saxon heptarchy.

That is one example of what would be damaged or inadequately resourced if a series of unitary councils were to replace counties.

My involvement in the second of my case studies was in connection with strategic issues on transportation in Sussex. We pressed the case for improved road and rail links along the south coast in association with the coming of the Channel Tunnel. That was not only in the interests of the counties concerned but also in the regional and national interest because, if a significant proportion of tunnel traffic could be diverted on to east-west corridors to the south of the main links via London, that would relieve some of the capacity problems on those routes and thereby benefit London and regions north of the Thames. I am glad to say that a number of Government schemes either originated from that campaign or at least were brought forward because of it. The programme published today is a case in point.

That demonstrates the crucial point that one or two counties working together can take the wider strategic view necessary to make a case for testing proposed government action with enough weight to be heard. Equally important is the fact that those views are firmly founded in the local democratic process via elected county councillors rather than the regional offices which the Government are setting up.

The Council for the Protection of Rural England has backed the county scale of local government as the right scale of operation to strike the important balance between strategic thinking and over-parochial concerns. It says: Without the strong strategic planning functions carried out by the counties, the Government would be left with a huge gulf between the district councils and the Secretary of State, into which he will be dragged with increasing frequency to resolve controversial planning problems". Rushing to set up the so-called unitary councils is no panacea, as the very proximity of major issues to the location of decision making is a real inhibitor of strategic thinking. I shall mention a well documented example. Just after the abolition of the Greater Manchester County Council the metropolitan districts—which I suppose we should call unitary districts for the purpose of this debate—were faced with a multiplicity of applications for a large out-of-town shopping development. All 10 districts in Greater Manchester agreed to commission a joint shopping study from a firm of consultants. Their report concluded that there was scope for one large centre in the area. But when it came to deciding where that centre should be, agreement broke down and districts fought each other at a public inquiry. Similar problems over waste disposal ended in deadlock, resolved finally by the Department of Environment which imposed a joint board on the area.

The message from those observations on my two practical examples is clear. We must ensure that local government has the right scale of operation to deal locally and democratically with its own dirty washing and with matters which require a larger scale perspective. It will therefore be no surprise for your Lordships to hear that I believe the High Court to have been absolutely correct in ensuring that the two-tier arrangement of local government must remain a serious contender in the review, possibly with some improvements. It represents the best way forward in most areas.

7.10 p.m.

Lord Alport

My Lords, over the past 20 or 30 years, each time we have set out to reform local government the ensuing legislation has contained two features: the first comprises measures to rectify the mistakes made as a result of the previous efforts at reform; and the second is to make a series of new errors of judgment which will require another spasm of legislation to put it right at a later date.

There is no reason to suppose that the forthcoming results of the present local government review will be any different. The only hope is that the able judgment of Mr. Justice Jowitt will help to prevent too many anomalies arising from the effort at reform which is now being undertaken. There are two passages in that judgment which struck me particularly. He said that the commission was required to answer the question: Does the need to reflect the identities and interests of local communities and to secure effective and convenient local government make it appear to the Commission desirable to recommend a particular change in order to satisfy those needs or some or any of them". Later he said: A very large area, such as most counties is unlikely to provide a suitable basis for a unitary authority because of the problem of remoteness". That means that in making its recommendations the Local Government Commission should not be hound by some ideological Treasury prejudice in favour of unitary authorities but have regard to the importance of ensuring that each local authority is designed to meet the needs and character of the community which it administers, and, further, is as local as possible in the proper sense of that word.

My noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith, for many years a distinguished chairman of Essex County Council, and my noble friend Lady Platt of Writtle, a former vice-chairman, have given their opinions from the point of view of the county council.

It is natural that the views we give to your Lordships today should derive from our local knowledge of the communities in which we live. I am concerned with the Essex district councils, and the borough of Colchester in particular. Essex is a very large county. In 1991 it had a population of 1,500,000. As many noble Lords will know, it stretches from the edge of suburban outer London, into which part of the county was incorporated in 1974, to the estuaries and saltings of the East Anglian coast and north to the pleasant towns and villages on the Cambridge and Suffolk borders. Its different areas have little in common with each other.

There is today a strong majority among the 14 district councils that they wish to become unitary authorities and that those unitary authorities in Essex should number either eight or nine. That would not mean that the historic county of Essex would disappear from the map. The Essex county cricket team would still win the county championship— not with regularity, in some cases— and the lieutenancy would continue to exercise its historic functions. The archives would remain in Chelmsford at the Essex Record Office.

What it would mean is that local government in Essex would become truly local. For the services we receive, and in order to register any complaints we wish to make, we would look to one council and one councillor, not two. The demarcation between the responsibilities of county and district are not easy at present for ordinary people to understand.

The financial consequences of the change to unitary authorities in Essex would partly be met by the disposal of the redundant county assets and party by ongoing savings over the present system. But, most importantly, in the spirit of Mr. Justice Jowitt's judgment, local government in Essex would become really local.

I have been a non-playing member of the Colchester Corporation for nearly 30 years, serving with mayors and councils of all parties. I have the utmost confidence that if Colchester became a unitary authority with its present boundaries, it would provide for its 150,000 inhabitants an administration not only closer to the people but more responsive and efficient than the present dyarchy.

I am sure that the same would apply to the nine other districts of Essex which have voted to become unitary authorities. Perhaps then on this occasion—as distinct from the past—we would not need another reorganisation of local government in Essex for many years to come.

7.18 p.m.

Lord Brocket

My Lords, I believe that the principle of unitary authorities is based upon a mistaken idea of what most people want, and on the almost naive economic view that one organisation must be cheaper than two because of savings. That is not reality. It is not what happens.

I am from Hertfordshire, as the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, said. We probably have the best record of any county in this country as regards the cost of the services that we provide. If the unitary scheme goes ahead, perhaps I may point out a few problems which will arise in Hertfordshire.

First, the estimated cost in Hertfordshire of carrying out the proposal would be £37 million. There would be even higher running costs. That is not the end of the story. The question which has not been answered is this. How will those costs be repaid? They will have to be repaid. The subject seems to have been brushed under the carpet.

A recent Ernst & Young report concluded that if more than two unitary authorities were set up, the cost would be greater than the present two-tier system in Hertfordshire.

As my noble friend Lord Cobbold said, there is no scheme in law to make the unitary authority responsible for supporting the voluntary sector. As each authority will be looking after its own patch, I do not believe that the voluntary sector would receive the proper support.

At present in Hertfordshire there is one councillor per 1,800 population. Under the unitary proposals there would be approximately one councillor per 4,000 population. The councillors would have a greater workload. If one talks to councillors, they have enough on their plates already— and they would have more. Community care would undoubtedly suffer.

At present, only 20 out of 500 schools in Hertfordshire have opted out. That is a vote of confidence for the local education authority in Hertfordshire.

Business Link, of which I am chairman, is the only one-stop shop south of Birmingham to receive DTI support. That would not have occurred under a unitary system.

I believe that the consistency of enforcement of regulatory standards would be much in doubt. The present system has simplified the tendering at all levels. There is normally one contract at county level. However, under the unitary authority bidding companies would have to take contracts out with five or six different authorities. That adds to a difficult situation.

Lastly, people do not want such a system. I was completely amazed when I read some of the earlier MORI polls because the trick was in the question. The question asked, "Which would you prefer? One authority or two?" What a ridiculous question. The answer is, "One". However, if you ask the question, "Would you like one authority or two?—and here are the costs of changing to just one authority", indicating some of the pitfalls, one would receive a totally different answer. The question was unfair.

I am disappointed that the Government's attitude seems to smack slightly of "nanny knows best". I say that for two reasons: first, their brief to the commission I thought frankly was disgraceful— and that is almost not too strong a word. It is like saying: "We would like an unbiased report; but this is what you will say". Thankfully, the courts have addressed that. Secondly, there is the reaction that has taken place to the 10 recommendations which have already been made. The Government looked at half of them and sent them back to the umpire, saying basically: "These are insufficiently unitary". Teacher is saying that she does not like the answer in the exam paper because it does not suit her view of whatever the subject is. So she says, "Try again and then we will see whether the answer is right".

It must also be borne in mind that Hertfordshire is a big county, our population is 1 million. It is worth noting that our future is to be decided by a commission that is headed by a parish councillor from—and I have to get Kent in somewhere here!—Womenswold in Kent, which has the enormous population of 319. Curiously, I notice that he is assisted by Mr. Alan Dick. The commission does not fill our county council with great confidence.

It is clear in my mind that there are good cases for unitary authorities; the Isle of Wight is one, and some other conurbations should undoubtedly be unitary authorities. I fully see the sense of that, and perhaps we should reinstate a strategic authority for London so that we have a sensible strategy and direction on infrastructure and services. It might also get the West London Air Terminal sign removed from the Cromwell Road which has been there for a good few years.

In summary, I believe that people's general reaction should be a warning to Government that if they ignore common sense, reality and the will of the people, if they persist in blindly pursuing this dogma— and if we are honest, it is driven by the excesses of a few authorities — the minor result will be that the Government will pay dearly. However, the major and much more important result will be that local people will suffer in a serious way. I do not think that this is the time to experiment with people's lives.

7.22 p.m.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, this seems to be a time when everyone declares their loyalties. First, I live on the borders of Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire and it appears to be the Men of Kent and the men and women of Hertfordshire who are involved. I appreciate that. Secondly, both Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire have made tremendous efforts over the past few years to consult widely. They are both democratic counties which have gone out of their way to ask the opinions of their citizens on a wide range of matters: transport, planning, education and much else. In many ways, they are excellent examples of just how good local government can be.

Before I start on the details of the debate, I have always been impressed since I joined this distinguished House that from time to time, regardless of party and local connections, the House of Lords finds a common voice. On this occasion and in this debate, out of 41 speakers, 36 have found that common voice and said that they do not believe that we want or need the widespread review of local government. Instead, noble Lords in all parts of the House have said that there may be a case in particular instances for change. I echo what the noble Lord, Lord Brocket, said about the possibility that some conurbations might well be unitary authorities. But, with almost no exceptions, noble Lords have made it plain that they do not believe that there should be an attempt to impose uniform unitary authorities in a widespread way on England and, for that matter, on those who would suffer from the imposition.

One other point before I turn to the detail relates to what the noble Lady, Lady Kinloss, said about the issue of consultation, which was echoed by the noble Lord, Lord Brocket. Consultation based upon carefully carpentered questions is not true consultation at all. The noble Lady said that the views of parish councillors—the people closest of all to local opinion—were given little shrift by the review committee. She also pointed out that there was little attempt to try to find out what was the opinion of local people. So one can say with regard to consultation that, first, we see emerging more and more clearly a mood of rejecting the proposals made so far.

The second point I wish to make concerns costs to which many noble Lords have already referred. It seems to me that a cost ranging between £1 billion (Sir John Banham's estimate) and as much as £1.5 billion (the estimate of the Association of County Councils) is an incredible figure for us to consider throwing away on local government reorganisation at a time when the country is crying out for such things as nursery schools, better transport and efforts to provide more training for our young people. It beggars imagination that we should consider it possible to spend such a sum for this essentially frivolous purpose.

The third point I wish to make is that the services that are most affected—and several noble Lords have already referred to this—are not likely in a single instance to be improved by the changes. The noble Baroness, Lady David, referred to the excellent record of some county councils. I make it plain that I differ considerably from the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, who has yet to speak, on the appropriate size for an education authority. However, I very much doubt whether it is as low as 125,000 people, which the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, mentioned in the case of Reading. That is borne out by the fact that the Secondary Heads Association as well as the association of chief education officers plainly say that in their view it would be both inefficient and much less likely to produce a high quality of education if local authorities went down to a unitary level of 100,000 or 150,000. If one looks at the need for special education, special provision for gifted children, those with handicaps and learning difficulties, and children with language problems where the mother tongue is not English, it is ludicrous to try to destroy county councils which are endeavouring to raise the standards of education.

I turn briefly to community care and its relationship to the National Health Service. At the very moment when the National Health Service authorities are trying to draw themselves into a relationship of close harmony with the county councils, a change on this scale would put at risk the whole of the Government's own policies of care in the community. We have the evidence of the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, and others to that effect.

A third area was referred to by the noble Earl, Lord Swinton. I found it not only amazing but appalling that it should be possible to impose local government reorganisation without even consulting the people at the heart of the battle against crime: namely, chief constables and senior police officers. I could not help asking myself whether the great efforts made in this House to try to retain the local responsibility for policing in England were being lost at the back door, having been won through the front door. I wondered whether we were seeing the likelihood of the destruction of police authorities as a result of the work of the Local Government Commission.

Lastly, I turn to the issue raised by a number of noble Lords—the noble Lord, Lord Kingsdown, particularly, in a remarkable maiden speech, and the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, and others—about the strategic role of regional and county authorities. I wish to make two points about that. First, we had an illustration in the House earlier today of a total failure to consider the strategic needs of counties. The Minister who kindly repeated the Statement on the roads programme was unable to say that there had been full consultation with those affected: namely, the county councils. I very much doubt whether it is right or proper to go ahead with major transport plans without full consultation with those most likely to be affected.

Secondly, as the noble Earl, Lord Winchilsea, and others said, the county council level and, in Europe, the regional level are increasingly becoming centres of the most exciting economic regeneration of all. I have just returned from a meeting at the OECD in Paris. That organisation is, of course, not the European Community, but the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. A whole programme, the so-called local initiatives programme, has been mounted in order to help local government directly at regional level to regenerate local economies, to start all over again, especially with old industrial areas like the Pas de Calais and parts of Italy and Belgium and, for that matter, many parts of the United Kingdom.

It seems to me absolutely tragic that, at the moment when more and more structures of government, investment and financial assistance are moving to the regional level, we in Great Britain should be talking about moving in the opposite direction to a level of local government where the thought of strategic economic development may just as well simply go out of the window.

I had the impression that there was a very wide consensus of support in this House for the idea that we were not against all change but we believed that there was a test to be passed before change should be instituted. That test was the test of strong local opinion in favour of change. It is a basic talisman of democracy. It is what underlies the Motion that was read out by the noble Earl, Lord Winchilsea and, in an eloquent speech, emphasised by my noble friend Lady Hamwee.

I believe that the local government review body now faces something of a crisis of credibility. We know that there had been strong indications from the Government that its findings should be of a certain form, or, to put it bluntly, that its conclusions need not have too much relationship to the evidence that it had considered. The chairman of that review, Sir John Banham, is a public servant of high standing, great credibility and very considerable status in our society. I simply want him and members of the review body to consider very carefully whether their independent advice should not be weighed most carefully in the balance; and whether, when issues are referred back to them, as in the case of Gloucestershire, Durham and Derbyshire, when they have reached a conclusion which is then rejected by the Government, they ought not very seriously to consider their own position.

7.32 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Cornwallis, and Kent County Council for the wide-ranging, topical and fascinating debate that we have had today on the structure of local government. We much appreciated the wise and stylish maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Kingsdown.

Some noble Lords have argued that we should first determine what local government does, and only then decide what structures would best fit it. Functions and tasks come—for example, economic development; arts and tourism; conservation; and care in the community —and others go: for example, health; water; and further education. Functions come and go, but communities endure. That is why the 1972 reorganisation, as the noble Lord, Lord Cornwallis, accepted, has proved so disastrous. It fractured the connection between local communities and local government by imposing a two-tier structure across shire England which has warped services, diluted local accountability and undermined our sense of place.

In 1972, some services—planning, leisure, arts and recreation, economic development—were made concurrent. They were to be carried out by both tiers. That caused the bureaucracy to double. It doubled the delay and gave rise to additional cost and much confusion. Other services which should be brought together were, however, splintered between districts and counties. Youth services were separated from community services, although they both operated out of the same community centre. Planning was separated from highways. Environmental health was separated from trading standards. And housing was separated from social services.

As a result of those changes, if a pork pie is mouldy and underweight, you take it first to the district environmental health services because it is mouldy; then you take it 25 miles across county to the trading officers at county hall because it is underweight. County trading officers are responsible for animals at the market, but district health officers are responsible for those same cattle as they come to the abattoir. As a highways authority, Wiltshire County Council was responsible for cutting the first three feet or so of the grass verges along its highways on grounds of road safety. Thamesdown District Council then cut the next six feet of grass on grounds of amenity.

Above all, housing was severed from social services. The elderly found that their bungalows were built and staffed by the district council, while their home helps and day care came from the county council. Those who are least able to cope with the problems of care in the community—namely, the elderly, the vulnerable and the handicapped—are precisely the people who are least able to cope with the splintered structures that we set up in 1972 to help them.

As the noble Lord, Lord Alport, so rightly wondered how can the ratepayer know who to turn to for help in a two-tier structure? How can ratepayers tell whether they are getting value for money? Whom do they hold to account if things go wrong? What do local government and local democracy mean if you do not know who does what, at what cost, to what standard and under what accountability?

We need unitary authorities. But we also need authorities to be as close to their communities as possible. The second wretched mistake of 1972 was the belief that "big is beautiful". Yet, from Redcliffe-Maud in 1972 to the Audit Commission today, there is no evidence at all, even in education—the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, notwithstanding—that bigger is either better or cheaper. Indeed, in counties which are 40 miles by 70 miles in size there are real diseconomies of scale. As a county councillor, I closed schools that I had not visited, put yellow lines on roads that I could not name and adjusted the tariffs for car parks that I did not use. And I called it local government. I might just as well have been sitting in Whitehall.

So much officer time is spent travelling and liaising that most counties wisely accepted that they were too large and county hall was too remote to deliver personal services. What did they do? They set up district local offices for education and social services, thus conceding the need to bring services down to district level— without, however, giving the districts any democratically elected accountability for them and leaving the public still further confused.

One consequence—as my noble friends Lord Stoddart of Swindon, Lord Jacques and Lord Bottomley said very eloquently—was that within such large county authorities the distinctive needs of the local communities got lost. Everything became homogenised. Historic cities, as I know, found that their services were levelled down. And as the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, rightly said, rural communities did not gain the peripatetic services that they needed. Yet the countryside is not simply "thinned out town"; it is different. Towns are dense. They manage traffic. Rural communities are sparse. They need transport. After all, if communities were all alike, we would not need local government at all.

That is why the Local Government Act of 1992 that was passed by this House so rightly insisted that the new framework of local government should for the most part be unitary, and should be built on local communities. That reform of local government had the support of both Houses and all parties. As my noble friend Lady Gould said, the position of the Labour Party has been consistent and principled over some 15 years, through some five party conferences and several party manifestos. Indeed, the Labour team led by Mr. Blunkett in the other place pressed the Government to include the requirement for unitary authorities in the Bill. The Government must now bitterly regret rejecting that amendment since it would have obviated any High Court reviews.

We supported, and support, the Local Government Commission, although, as my noble friend Lady Gould said, we are critical of some of the ways in which the process has been handled. We have also pressed for the democratic agenda, annual elections, all-out elections to shadow authorities and enough councillors to do the job so that they may remain part-time and integrated into their local communities. We have also argued for no mechanical minimum size for the new authorities, something which the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, himself urged on the Government at Committee stage of the relevant Bill.

We also insisted that if this was to be a reorganisation that would survive, have staying power and take us into the next century, there must be no cherry picking and no political gerrymandering of boundaries. But we believed—at this point we departed from the views of the Government, as did the Liberal Benches—that elected regional authorities were essential. They were necessary not as a prerequisite but as being complementary to local government reform. They are essential for the strategic planning for which counties are now too small, as we enter a Europe of regions; to accompany devolution for Scotland and Wales; and, above all, to corral the quangos which now far outspend local government, thus democratising the regional government that we already have in this country. We on these Benches believe that regions, together with unitary districts, ate the way forward.

What then are the fears and arguments about such a structure of local government that have been expressed this evening? First, there is the damage that it is feared may be done to specialist services, such as museums and conservation bodies, mentioned by the noble Lords, Lord Teviot and Lord Montagu. That is not so. After 1996 the county borough towns, where reference libraries, museums and archives are sited, will be lead authorities, as many of them were before. 1972. Their archives, antiquities, artefacts and expertise will not be scattered but will be lovingly cherished. After all, the towns and cities, not the counties, led the way in so much of our conservation.

The second argument that we have heard, particularly from the noble Lord, Lord Aldington, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, is that districts are too small and will require so many joint authorities that accountability will be blurred. There are two points to make here. Norfolk County Council produced a fearsome list—I have it with me—of 107 such functions which would need joint arrangements. I studied that list. It includes items such as bridge design. One every seven years, would you say? What about aerial photography for museums? How many flights, do you think'? There is special education for travellers' children—all 30 of them. I doubt whether, on my calculation, those joint functions would represent 5 per cent. of the budget. The other 95 per cent., as the county council itself said—for schools and generic social services (which are not my words but the words of the county council)—can fully be provided by districts.

The second point about joint arrangements is that most of those 107 services, despite the speeches of noble Lords this evening, would not be run by joint committees. Those days have gone. Items such as music education would be bought from lead authorities. As the Audit Commission reminded us, buying a service from another authority is no different from buying it from a private provider, which is what compulsory competitive tendering requires all local authorities now to do. Let me quote from the Audit Commission itself: Accountability in the case of one authority purchasing a service from another need be no different from the authority purchasing the service from a private sector provider". That is what we are now all under the obligation to do. Compare that with the blurring of accountability between two tiers. It would have been interesting if we had heard more of that. Over the past live years local government has become an enabling and contracting local government, well fitted to take on such responsibilities.

The third worry that has been addressed by noble Lords this evening is that of cost. It was mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and the noble Lords, Lord Bancroft and Lord Ashburton, among many others. Some of the literature that I have seen put out by some authorities when talking about cost moves from the merely fallacious to the downright mendacious. Most reputable estimates suggest that there will be about 14 million per county in one-off costs, offset by capital receipts of some £10 million and respectable revenue savings.

Let me again quote the Audit Commission—not me, nor the ADC, nor the district councils. The Audit Commission was required to comment on the financial implications of the first tranche options. Speaking about the Cleveland reorganisation it said that cost differences did not provide: a sufficiently robust basis for decision … The structure … which best fits community realities and creates the most favourable conditions for effective management is likely to perform best in terms of the three Es". Quite so, my Lords.

The fourth argument that we have heard tonight is that we should have and respect a proper attachment to historic counties. Like all the other Lords Lieutenants and Deputy Lieutenants who have spoken tonight, I also, as a Deputy Lieutenant, share that view. One of my complaints is that only 12 of our administrative county councils now have boundaries that are coterminous with their historic county areas. I want to restore the historic identity of Yorkshire and, with the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, the old boundaries of Somerset. But that does not mean that they should be administrative units for local government as we go into the 21st century. Administrative county councils are now too large for personal services and, as the noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon, recognised, simply too small for strategic planning.

The next argument voiced by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, and many noble Lords on the Liberal Benches is that there should be no change unless there is overwhelming local consensus for it. I know that we are all now experts on qualified majority voting, but I have to ask: what does that mean? Does it mean that five out of eight districts could press forward a review? Or, what happens if all the districts agree but the county council does not agree? Nor, given the strength of vested interests, can we cherry pick. Let us take Essex as an example. If we take out the cities and the former county boroughs in Essex pressing for unitary status, we are left with a two-tier county in which some of the districts, such as Tendring, would not even share a common boundary with any other district within the county jurisdiction.

The final argument tonight has been that instead we should go down the path of a modified change to the status quo. That argument was pressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. Does that mean that we keep districts and county councils and—which I understand the Liberal Benches rightly support—parishes and community councils below them; and in addition, which we also support, a regional tier above them? Are we offering to the people of this county a four-tier structure of parishes, districts, counties and regions? If so, we shall be the most over-governed country in Europe.

In conclusion, the problems of local government and local government structure will not go away, precisely because they are inherent in the 1972 Act. Derail that commission and one merely elongates the confusion. This country needs a new settlement for local government, as the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, and the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, were absolutely right to say, so that communities may again define and meet their needs in a democratic and pluralist way. But for that to happen structures must matter. They determine our perceptions of what we can do. The policies that flow from that shape our sense of place, our community and our local commonwealth in which we first learned the meaning of citizenship and which so many of us went into local government to serve in the first place.

7.50 p.m.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, this has been an extremely long debate, not devoid of considerable frankness and I am, as always, grateful to all those who have spoken and put their views so cogently and succinctly. While it has been a long debate, it is now the turn of the Government to speak equally frankly and equally honestly. I want to state very clearly our policy and the reasons for it and I should like to take up many of the points raised in your Lordships' House over the past five hours.

Much of the criticism made today clearly stems from a belief that there is no good reason for the Government to be reviewing local government at all. So what are we doing and why? A great chorus of questioning on that subject hit the roof of your Lordships' House. But let me quote from an announcement made in another place by Michael Heseltine on 21st March 1991, when he said: There is, therefore, now an opportunity to think afresh about the structure of local authorities. But the Government do not see this as an opportunity to impose a new pattern of local authorities according to a national prescription. Nor do we believe that it is necessary to have a uniform pattern of authorities in every part of the country. Local people should have an important role in determining what structure of local government best reflects their community loyalties. That does not mean, therefore, the wholesale abolition of either county councils or district councils, nor even unitary authorities everywhere. It means arriving at the right solution for each community. We intend to adopt a practical approach in response to local views and local conditions, but it seems likely that we shall move to a larger number of unitary authorities".—[Official Report, Commons, 21/3/91; col. 401.] I can say to my noble friend Lady Faithfull that that is the nub; that is the kernel of that which we are attempting to do. The Government's position has not altered since then. We have not asked the commission to draw up a national blueprint for change—a point well recognised by my noble friend Lady Platt. The Government have consistently stated since that time that local government structure in the shire counties is for the commission to consider and that it is open to the commission to recommend status quo, two-tier or unitary authorities. Surely my noble friends Lord Blake and Lord Selborne agree that the Government's position must be clear by now.

The current structure of local government has existed for 20 years. It is not enshrined in ancient history. What is enshrined in ancient history is the division of England into counties, and we are not proposing to abolish counties. On the contrary, we intend to listen to local people's views on their loyalty to traditional counties and to see whether new structures can be more in tune with those loyalties—a point emphasised so eloquently in his maiden speech by the noble Lord, Lord Kingsdown.

Since the reorganisation in 1974 the role and nature of local government has changed. I can say to my noble friend Lord Willoughby de Broke that key changes have, we believe, strengthened rather than weakened local democracy; for example, the new emphasis on partnership with other local organisations—commented upon by the noble Baroness, Lady Gould—both the voluntary sector and the private sector, and the constructive results that can ensue which the noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon, mentioned.

The move from direct service provision to a role as enablers has freed local government from business management issues best left to practitioners and given them a clearer role in setting standards and monitoring performance. Those changes are profound and it is only common sense to reconsider local government structure in the light of them. If we were starting a local government system from scratch we would be asking searching questions about the appropriate size for strategic planning. transport and European issues. We would also be looking for a system which decentralised personal services. The need to look at those issues does not go away just because we are not starting from scratch. The existence of the current system is a crucial factor because the benefits of change will need to outweigh the costs of disruption. But that equation is precisely the one on which the Government is asking the Local Government Commission to make a judgment.

Despite the clear message that the Government are not looking to impose change everywhere, there is clearly a widespread feeling that in many areas of shire England it is unnecessary even to consider change to local government structure. We disagree. We believe the potential benefits of change are such that it would be wrong not to ask the Local Government Commission to look at them. What are those potential benefits and why do we need to consider them now? In headline terms they are better use of resources, more local involvement, improvement of services, a clearer focus for local interests and clearer accountability.

First, in relation to better use of resources, clearly if one can do a job with one layer of central support services rather than two, one will be able to concentrate more on the front line. Local government money will go further. Secondly, with regard to more local involvement in council activities, if people identify with their council they will be more interested in what it is doing. A key theme of reorganisation is getting the right area for a local authority—an area which "feels right" in terms of history, geography, working and travelling.

Then there is the improvement of services to consider. If all services are under one roof there is considerable scope for co-ordinating them from the consumer standpoint. We could bring together housing and social services issues so that the person who has needs which cross the two functions does not get shunted from one set of officials to another. We could co-ordinate development control and transport issues much better from the citizen's point of view.

Fourthly, with regard to providing a focus for local interests, again, getting the right council area which brings together interests naturally is the key to having credible local leadership. Finally, there is the need for clear accountability. People need to know who is responsible for what.. That makes the ballot box much more effective: when services are delivered well—or indeed if they are delivered badly—then the voters' message will be clearer if there can be no confusion as to which tier of local government was responsible.

There has this evening been much anxiety expressed about costs. We expect local government reorganisation to be worthwhile and cost-effective over time. We are expecting substantial savings in the long term to follow from the commission's reviews, in spite of the doubts of the noble Lord, Lord Comwallis. Estimates of costs and savings for the changes agreed so far—Cleveland and the Isle of Wight —look good. Council taxes for 1994–95 in both areas include nothing for transitional costs. But of course there will need to be some investment to secure future savings. For example, in Cleveland the authorities estimate that £2 million on redundancies will secure savings of £1.5 million a year thereafter. No change would indeed mean no transitional costs; but it would also mean no long-term savings. The actual costs in any area will, of course, depend on the nature of reorganisation in the area and the incidence of costs between years.

We anticipate that, in general, savings from reorganisation in any area will meet a significant part of transitional costs. Capital receipts generated by the disposal of surplus assets will meet the remainder. There may, of course, be a mismatch in any year between costs and savings. We intend therefore to issue supplementary credit approvals, up to a limit, to allow authorities to borrow to meet transitional costs until sufficient savings and receipts are available.

I have already stated that the Government do not want a national blueprint. But there has nevertheless been speculation about the size and shape of new authorities. Let me state clearly the Government's position: there is no maximum or minimum size for an efficient enabling local authority. Having said that, we do not intend that there should be a host of small unitary authorities. Of course there might be some, because in some areas local history or population distribution or some other factor is likely to point in that direction. But if local government is to retain credibility in exercising strategic functions, then authorities must be of sufficient size to tackle strategic issues effectively without the need for statutory joint authorities which would undo many of the benefits of unitary authorities, a point I make to my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith. Of course local authorities will not work in isolation, and in looking at options the commission will take full account of proposals for voluntary arrangements between authorities—not only to ensure the most effective approach to strategic functions but also to pool expertise and avoid the break up of centres of excellence.

Our message to local authorities has been to talk to other authorities in their area; to discuss individual services and overall local community patterns; to come up with several ideas that are imaginative; and not to fall back on the status quo just because it is the least upsetting. We have told local authorities that if their area has special features which mean that the benefits of retaining two tiers outweigh the benefits of unitary authorities, they should spell them out so that the commission can look at them.

I shall now spend a few minutes on the many points which noble Lords have raised this evening. I lost track of those who mentioned the county of Kent. Among them were my noble friend Lord Aldington, the noble Viscounts, Lord De L'Isle and Lord Monckton of Brenchley, and the noble Lord, Lord Thomson. After a time I began to feel rather sorry for those counties that were not mentioned in the debate this evening. As regards Kent, it would be wrong for me, as your Lordships would expect, to comment on a desirable local government structure for Kent while the Local Government Commission is conducting an independent review of the county. The important factors which your Lordships have referred to this evening—the county's vital links with Europe, the county's economic development needs, strategic and local planning, the appropriate number of councillors to serve the community and the historic loyalties of the men and women of Kent to the county—will all be looked at carefully by the commission in framing its recommendations.

Many speakers, including Lord Cornwallis, Lady Hamwee, Lord Kingsdown, Lady Platt, Lord Carnarvon, Lord Lytton, Lord Dixon-Smith, Lady Masham, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and Lord Rochester brought up the subject of county-wide functions. Our advice on functions to the Local Government Commission is set out in our policy guidance. We have drawn the attention of the commission to the fact that strategic, regulatory and enforcement functions will often be promoting the welfare of the wider public. We have also said that special consideration should be given to the maintenance of teams of experts, such as child care workers, and specialist assets, such as archives. But we have also reminded the commission that one of the benefits of unitary authorities will be the greater scope for bringing related functions together and clearer accountability. Both of those benefits would be diluted by statutory joint authorities for specific functions other than the law and order services and fire. We are encouraging authorities to develop voluntary arrangements for dealing with functions. Statutory joint authorities would be very much a last resort.

The noble Lord, Lord Cornwallis, and many other noble Lords brought up the subject of costs. We do not accept the Association of County Councils' estimate of £1.1 billion. The Local Government Commission will assess the costs and benefits of its proposals case by case. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, spoke on the need for regional offices. We do not accept the need for another layer of bureaucracy. We believe that voluntary arrangements do work and do not weaken accountability. Accountability in voluntary arrangements remains clearly with each individual directly elected local authority.

The noble Lord, Lord Thomson, spoke on Kent and Europe. I very much appreciate the work done by Kent County Council to secure European funds. I appreciate, too, the key position of Kent in relation to Europe. But there is no reason why the authorities would not co-operate to achieve equally good results. I make the same point to my noble friend Lord Cavendish of Furness.

I entirely agree with my noble friend Lady Platt on the need for co-operation between authorities and the need to minimise uncertainty by keeping up the momentum of the review. However, up comes the noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon, to disagree. He said that there was no need to be hasty and to rush too much. The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, referred to the costs model. But the model was developed especially for local government spending and has since been adapted by the Local Government Commission itself. It includes provision for specific local items as well as the general model.

My noble friend Lord Aldington commented on the statement of my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary. I have to point out that my right honourable friend was speaking about Oxford as a local Member of Parliament, and not about the review generally.

Lord Aldington

My Lords, he might still have been speaking the truth.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I have pointed out to my noble friend precisely what happened there.

The noble Baroness, Lady David, referred to education and special needs. We are still considering with the Department for Education and local authorities implementation details. There will be a mixture of local authority and joint arrangements. We hope and expect authorities to co-operate.

The noble Baroness, Lady Masham, commented on the North Yorkshire proposal. We are very conscious of the noble Baroness's concerns. We received a substantial number of representations on this set of recommendations from the commission. We cannot comment, but my right honourable friend the Secretary of State is still considering the commission's report.

The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, and my noble friend Lord Crathorne spoke about Cleveland. As they know, my right honourable friend has announced his decision on Cleveland—the abolition of the county and the establishment of four unitary districts. Implementation must await the outcome of the judicial review.

The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, made an important point about the need to maintain the relationship between the services and local authorities. I can tell him that the commission takes that into account in its consideration. If it will reassure the noble and gallant Lord, I shall reinforce that position by passing on his comments to Sir John Banham.

My noble friend Lord Swinton and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, brought up the subject of future police and fire services. The police authorities must be consulted by the commission. It is statutorily required to do that in its draft proposals.

The noble Lord, Lord Bancroft, referred to a patchwork of unitary authorities. We regard this as a strength rather than a weakness of a process which is intended to produce structures which meet local circumstances and local needs.

I am certain that there are many other points which I have not addressed.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, my noble friend is making an interesting and quite lengthy speech but he is giving the impression that he has not digested during the whole of the afternoon and evening the message of profound anxiety which many of us wish to communicate to him and which we would now ask him to communicate to his colleagues.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, of course I understand precisely what my noble friend is saying about the message which has been conveyed by your Lordships this afternoon from, I believe it is reasonable to say, all sides of your Lordships' House. My noble friend can certainly have the assurance that I will pass on his comments and those of other noble Lords to my right honourable friend as soon as I can. I close by saying that it is important to appreciate and understand that, as the Government, we are firmly committed to structures which meet local needs. Our aim remains to give local people a structure of local government which meets their needs and wishes and one that can use its resources with good sense and sound reason.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, before the noble Earl sits down, perhaps I may say to him that it is a great pity that he cannot give any more assurance to local people living in North Yorkshire because nothing could be less local than a West Riding, which has now been named "The Banana Republic", which goes down as far as Hull.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, perhaps I may respond to the noble Baroness by writing to her on that point. She will realise that every consideration has been taken into account.

8.11 p.m.

Lord Cornwallis

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Kingsdown—I have great difficulty in getting his name right—on his maiden speech. It was very kind of him to support me on this occasion. I also congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, on her summing up, with which I agree in almost every word. I believe that she set the scene perfectly and has saved me from attempting to do any such thing. I thank her very much indeed.

I was totally mystified by the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis. I do not see that there is any difference between a two-tier government with regional authority or a two-tier government with county authority. They both seem to me to be two-tier government. If we are going to play a part in Europe —which we seem to be endlessly and constantly reminded is our prime duty these days—I cannot believe that the regions in Europe, or for that matter the European Commission, are going to mess about dealing with the unitary authorities which will be set up under this scheme. It is simply pie in the sky and I believe that pie to be half-baked into the bargain.

If one asks someone to look for change, change will be provided. That is what they have been asked to do, and that is an absolute certainty. I do not believe that any speaker in the debate today has said that no change is necessary. If they have, then I have not heard them. They have all said that there may be circumstances and places where there should be change. So why cannot we let those people who believe that there is cause for change make their representations to the commission and leave the rest of us who do not want change alone? I do not see why we cannot have an opt-in as opposed to the current situation.

I hope that the Government are not going to carry this matter through on the basis of support from a preview of the Labour manifesto which we have heard of this evening. Until then we had had a debate in which no politics had arisen. I thought that this was a great expression of local people putting forward their views about local problems and trying to convince the Government that their concern was real and that this should be looked at carefully again.

I am afraid that the noble Earl's speech was a good deal of governmentspeak and not too much of what we were perhaps hoping to hear from him. If he and the Government will not listen to the noble Lords who have supported me today, perhaps they might listen to the noble Lord, Lord Bancroft, who was a permanent secretary at the Department of the Environment. If nothing else, let us look at what I said at the end of my opening speech. We have a good foundation for local government. Please let us look at building on that. Let us have change where change is necessary, but not change for change's sake.

If there is one thing that we have achieved today which is positive, it is that we have managed to produce unanimity in the House of Swinton. I again thank all those who have taken part in this debate and who have contributed so splendidly. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.