HL Deb 21 March 1995 vol 562 cc1139-53

3.42 p.m.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, with the leave of the House I should like to repeat a Statement made in the other place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a Statement about the review of local government in England.

"In my Statement on 2nd March I set out my aims for the local government review. I announced my decisions for 20 counties, and I also announced that I intended to invite the Local Government Commission to carry out further reviews of a small number of individual districts.

"The honourable Gentleman opposite, Mr. Frank Dobson, asked me to consider adding a small number of other districts to the list; he particularly pressed me to consider Norwich and The Wrekin. I have now decided to add these two districts to the list of those which I shall consider for fresh reviews.

"At the time of my Statement on 2nd March I was not in a position to announce the name of the new chairman of the commission. I am now pleased to announce that Sir David Cooksey, currently Chairman of the Audit Commission, has agreed to become Chairman of the Local Government Commission for England. Sir David's appointment will be for one year initially, by which time we expect the programme of shire district structural reviews to have been completed. Sir David will take up his post in early July.

"My Statement on 2nd March left just 12 counties on which I had not yet announced my decisions. I am pleased to be able to do so today.

"I have decided to accept the commission's recommendations for the counties of Derbyshire and Staffordshire. The former county boroughs of Derby and Stoke-on-Trent will become unitary authorities; the rest of the county will, in each case, remain two tier.

"Similarly, I accept the recommendation for Wiltshire that Thamesdown—that is, Swindon—should become a unitary authority and that the two-tier system should be retained for the rest of the county.

"For East Sussex, the commission recommended a new unitary authority to incorporate the existing boroughs of Brighton and Hove. I know that this recommendation has aroused strong local feelings for and against. On balance, however, I agree that the combined authority is the right solution for the area. The rest of the county will retain the status quo.

"I also propose to accept the commission's recommendations for Devon. The former county boroughs of Plymouth and Torbay will become unitary authorities. Elsewhere in the county the two-tier system will be retained, except that, as I announced on 2nd March, I am considering including Exeter —which is, of course, another former county borough—on the list of districts to be referred to the commission for fresh reviews.

"Similarly, I accept the commission's recommendation that Nottingham should become a unitary authority and that the rest of Nottinghamshire should remain two tier, subject to possible further reviews of the districts of Broxtowe, Gedling and Rushcliffe.

"For Essex, I propose to accept the recommendation that Southend should become a unitary authority. The commission also recommended that the boundary of Southend should be extended to include Southend Airport. I think that this needs further exploration and I may want to ask the commission in due course to look at the matter again.

"Elsewhere in Essex I have already announced that Thurrock and Basildon will be subject to further reviews. With that in mind I do not intend to act on the commission's recommendation for a major boundary change involving Basildon, Brentwood and Rochford. The rest of Essex will remain two tier.

"In Hereford and Worcester, I agree with the commission that the historic county of Herefordshire should be restored on its former boundaries as a single unitary authority; and that Worcestershire should be restored as a county in its own right, retaining the two-tier system throughout the county. The district of Malvern Hills, which was created at the time of the 1974 reorganisation, will be split, as recommended by the commission.

"For Leicestershire, I am minded to agree that the city of Leicester should be given unitary status. I am also minded to agree that the historic county of Rutland should regain its independence as a unitary authority. This is one case where the arguments based on local identity seem to me to be particularly strong.

"I recognise, however, that there are likely to be particular problems with the effective and convenient delivery of local services in this area, particularly with regard to Rutland, whose population is just 33,000. Before I introduce the order to implement these decisions, therefore, I shall want to be satisfied that good practical arrangements can be made for local services. I expect that, at least for some services, some form of joint working with neighbouring authorities may be needed. I shall also want to be satisfied that this can be paid for on the same basis, and within the same financial constraints, as for other reorganised authorities and without imposing unacceptably high costs on the people of Rutland.

"I now turn to three counties where I have decided to depart from the recommendations made by the commission. For Hampshire, the commission recommended that Portsmouth, Southampton and the New Forest should become unitary authorities. I agree with the recommendations for Portsmouth and Southampton. In the case of the New Forest, however, I have concluded that the case for unitary status is not sufficiently made out in a district which has more in common with the many districts recommended to remain in a two-tier structure. I have decided therefore that in the New Forest, as in the rest of Hampshire, the two-tier structure should be retained.

"Similar considerations have affected my decision for the neighbouring county of Dorset. I agree with the commission that the boroughs of Boumemouth and Poole should be given unitary status. But elsewhere in Dorset I note that the existing authorities are not enthusiastic about the commission's proposals. On balance, I have concluded that the rest of Dorset will be better served by the two-tier system.

"Finally, for Berkshire the commission has recommended the replacement of the county council by a structure of five unitary authorities. I agree that the county council should be abolished. But I disagree with the commission's recommendation that the districts of Bracknell Forest and Windsor & Maidenhead should be combined. I am satisfied that each of the existing districts in the county is capable of operating as a unitary authority and I propose to modify the commission's recommendations accordingly. The county area of Berkshire will be retained, together with the Lord Lieutenancy, but it will no longer have a county council.

"Although my decision for Berkshire follows a different pattern from other counties, I am satisfied that the difference is well justified. I note that it has the support of all the district councils concerned; and that until recently the county council also favoured a unitary structure for the county. I have said previously that different structures may be appropriate in different areas to meet different local circumstances; Berkshire is a case in point.

"I have given a full explanation of the background and reasons for these decisions today in an Answer to the honourable Member for Eastbourne. There are copies in the Library and the Vote Office.

"My officials will now start work on drafting the orders which are needed to put these decisions into effect. The local authorities and their associations will of course be consulted. I hope that the first orders will be ready to bring to the House soon after the local elections on 4th May. In the meanwhile we shall also be consulting on draft guidance to be given to the Local Government Commission for the fresh district-based reviews.

"In my previous Statement I announced that a small number of districts will be referred to the commission for further review and that I was considering whether to refer a limited number of others. Given the need to minimise uncertainty—and for there to be a clear end to the review process—I should perhaps repeat that, apart possibly from the two districts that I mentioned at the beginning of my Statement, I am unlikely to want to add to the list.

"The decisions I have announced today reinforce the pattern which has emerged from the review. In broad terms: abolition of the unloved 'artificial' counties created in 1974, which have never commanded the loyalty of local people; creation of unitary local government in many large non-metropolitan towns and cities which will be well placed to benefit from the extra coherence and effectiveness that unitary local government can bring; and elsewhere, the two-tier system retained, but with improved co-operation between the tiers.

"With these changes I hope that the House will agree that local government will be in better shape to meet the challenges that undoubtedly lie ahead."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.52 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I am sure that we all thank the Minister for the Statement which he has just read. It completes the Government's reception of the recommendations from the outgoing Local Government Commission and a series of recommendations which, broadly, we welcome. I am not sure about my position in regard to an interest but perhaps I may make clear that I speak as a former city councillor of Norwich and a former county councillor of Norfolk, as well as vice-president of the ADC.

So far there has come before your Lordships the abolition of the three counties dating from 1974: Cleveland, Avon and Humberside. At the beginning of March the other House was given by the Secretary of State the broad statement of strategy, which was broadly welcomed from the Labour Benches. In it, the Government proposed to restructure the Local Government Commission, give it new guidelines and effectively reinvent county boroughs within a two-tier local government structure for the rest of rural England. In the process they proposed to establish a decent exit strategy from the current shambles. Thirdly, we have the Statement today on the rest of the counties so far affected by the local government review.

We all commiserate with the present Ministers on the mess which they inherited. One is reminded of the phrase from "Yes, Minister". Sir Humphrey Appleby says: "We must do something. This is clearly something, therefore, we must do it". The mess that was left behind has been a local government commission without proper guidance. I have to say that it was because the Ministers at the time refused the amendments from our Benches which would have given proper guidance to the Local Government Commission. When the Minister did give such guidance, it was promptly overturned by the courts. Secondly, not only was the Local Government Commission lacking in proper guidance, despite the Opposition's efforts to give it some; but also the Local Government Commission had a maverick chairman in Sir John Banham. In consequence, over the past two years no decision seems to have borne any relationship to any other decisions. Local authorities, councillors, staff members, local authority associations could none of them predict the outcome of any review.

We do not call for uniformity. After all, local government is about local difference. But in local government we have needed a coherence of approach, a strategy which commands consent, which is workable, which offers value for money and which offers a chance of staying power, stamina, robustness. We hope that, in the light of the strategy announced on 2nd March, today's recommendations and the subsequent smaller districts referred back for review, the forthcoming settlement of local government will meet those criteria. Of course, we wish the new chairman, Sir David Cooksey, well. The Statement means that we now have the outcome for every shire county, apart from some individual districts on the Government's "A", "B" and "C" list.

I have some points and comments to make. First, I hope that the Secretary of State will now move quickly, that he will lay the statutory instruments for the 13 counties not affected by the individual district reviews. Secondly, as to the recommendations, we support the Minister in pursuing the strategy of county boroughs within a two-tier framework. We are glad to see that Derby City will have unitary status and that the Government are not going for a political fix in the rest of Derbyshire. We support the recommendations for Hampshire, Portsmouth and Southampton, but anxieties will remain about the New Forest. With a population of 165,000, it remains the largest of the districts not to be included in the review.

As to Wiltshire, I am sure it will be of considerable pleasure to my noble friend Lord Stoddart to hear the results for Swindon, which we support. We also welcome a unitary state for Hertfordshire. We endorse the strategy for Berkshire. Despite the petition today, I believe that we all accept that so far there has been no strong support for Berkshire County Council and until recently the council itself sided with and supported its own demise. If one pulls out Slough and Reading, let alone Newbury, one cannot justify a two-tier octopus-shaped county for the rest of Berkshire.

It is worth reminding ourselves that Essex will probably remain problematic. I am not sure that the Government have yet got it right. Needless to say, we are delighted that Norwich and The Wrekin have, as a result of representations made to Ministers, been included in the areas for further consideration.

Given that we have an outcome similar to what we on these Benches called for in the late 1970s as an organic change, perhaps we may have some assurances from the Minister. The first problem is that some districts not named by the Minister ought, by any criterion, to be considered for further review. We welcome the decision on Norwich and The Wrekin, but what about Oxford and Ipswich? Most of the authorities in the Minister's "C" list are larger, older and more used to self-government than the districts which will go for review. How can one defend reviewing Gloucester with a population of 92,000—a decision which we support—but not Oxford, with a population of 128,000? How can one support re-reviewing Exeter, with a population of 103,000—which we support—but not Ipswich, with a population of 114,000? How do we justify the inclusion of Rushcliffe—a decision which we certainly support—with a population of 103,000? Of course, it does have the charm of being represented by the current Chancellor of the Exchequer.

It would be helpful, first, if the Minister could give an assurance that, so far as possible, some of the outstanding historic county boroughs of a decent size and with strong traditions of self-government should continue to be included in the list, in order that we have an acceptable exit strategy. Secondly, can the Minister tell us whether this is correct? I believe that an additional 3½ million people are now coming into unitary government. Can the Minister say what the total population of England will be within unitary government, including the existing metropolitan districts and the new ones coming in?

Thirdly, can he give us additional assurances about staffing matters? It has rightly been a major concern on all sides of the House throughout the local government review. Will the Minister reassure us that the existing arrangements so far achieved for Avon, Humberside and Cleveland on staff transfers, redundancy, retirement issues and no-detriment packages will be furthered for the forthcoming reviews? Local authority services are about staff; they are about teachers, home helps and road engineers. The shambles that we have seen over the past two to three years has, sadly, affected local authority services.

Finally, we hope that with the proposals today, within the framework of the strategic settlement that was outlined by the Minister earlier, we shall see a new settlement for local government that will have some stamina and robustness. It would then be helpful if the Minister could say that, in addition to the new structural settlement, local government could enjoy a new financial and constitutional settlement as well. Now that we have, as it were, the physical shape of local government established, it is time for the Minister to settle the rest of the issues associated with local government. That means reviewing the standard spending assessments. It means returning the business rate to local communities. It means the end of capping, and allowing local people—not the Secretary of State—to determine what represents value for money each and every time that they vote (unlike the Secretary of State).

Now is the time to encourage public and private enterprise through municipal schemes. Now is surely the time to rebuild a strong, confident people-focused local government which enhances, as we would all wish, a pluralistic democracy in England today.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, I too thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. As this is primarily an opportunity for questions, I shall refrain from commenting in detail on the content of the Statement as it applies to particular areas. I also feel quite strongly, and perhaps this is the moment to say so, that comment and responses from the remoteness of Westminster—which is how it must appear to those outside this building—are often difficult for people to stomach. Despite all the attempts at local consultation, there must have been quite a feeling among people on the ground that they were being imposed on, indeed dumped on in some cases.

I turn to the consultation on guidance for the re-review. I raised this matter with the Minister who told us on the occasion of the North Yorkshire and Humberside orders that the consultation would take place during April. I ask again whether he feels that that is an appropriate time at which to consult given that councillors and, by definition, local electors will be involved in the district elections in May. How do the Government intend to ensure that the consultation is effective given the distractions that the consultees will be suffering during that period.

Have the Government considered what explanation they will give to those areas where decisions are delayed because of reconsideration in neighbouring areas? What reassurances will they give as to the process? I take as an example the comment in the Statement that the Secretary of State does not intend to act on the commission's recommendation for a major boundary change in the Basildon area of Essex because decisions in neighbouring areas are still to be taken. The Statement differs a little from the response to the honourable Member for Eastbourne, to which reference was made. It is important that, where a decision has been put on ice, those involved should understand why, in order to avoid a lot of energy being spent on the promotion of options which may not in fact be on the table.

I cannot forbear but to comment on the proposals for Rutland. Hansard will not have recorded the murmur that went round the House in response to the proposal that Rutland should become a unitary authority. It may he a matter of very considerable nostalgia, and that may he all right in its place, though there are some who say that nostalgia is not what it used to be. I look forward to the amendments that the noble Lord, Lord Bancroft, may put forward to the order for Rutland to deal with the very thorny issue of joint working, in regard both to working with neighbouring authorities and to payment for it. I hope that the Minister can give some reassurance as to the consultation that there will be as to how strategic services will be dealt with. These are not merely a matter of strategic planning, which has featured particularly in the orders we have seen. They relate to trading standards and services for children, to take but two which I know are of interest to noble Lords.

The Minister referred to the drafting of orders to put the decisions into effect. I welcome the fact that the local authorities and the associations will be consulted. I have raised with the Minister, as has the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, and other noble Lords, a number of technical details arising out of the orders that have already gone through Parliament. The Minister will he aware of particular concerns. I accept that he answered a number of quite difficult points that I put to him on the occasion of the last order. But he will be aware that the local authority associations remain concerned about a number of transitional matters which they feel have not been properly addressed. I look forward to his reassurance on that point.

The reaction that many people give to the whole issue of the review relates particularly to the cost of it. I wonder whether the Government will shortly be in a position to assess the total costs of what, I have to say, I find a very sad and sorry exercise. Whether the money has been top-sliced from the settlement for the local authorities is not by any means the whole of the issue. That money has come from somewhere and has to be paid.

The Statement concludes with a reference to the challenges that undoubtedly lie ahead. I hope that that is not as ominous a point as it at first appears. I would have welcomed the Government expressing real confidence in local government and commenting that they felt, following the review, that they would be able to work far more in partnership with local government, regarding it as their agent and administrator. I would be grateful for any reassurances from the Minister on that basis.

Finally, I, too, wish Sir David Cooksey and his colleagues well. Again I take the opportunity of thanking the councillors and the staff in those authorities which will cease to exist in their current form. It must be an extremely tough time for all of them.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I am of course grateful to hear from the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, that she broadly welcomes this Statement, as indeed she indicated that she broadly welcomed the Statement that was made on 2nd March. I am also grateful to hear from both noble Baronesses the welcome and the good wishes to Sir David Cooksey, who will take over the very important job of looking at the new districts from 1st July.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, gave, I believe, a measure of support to what my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has announced in the last two Statements. However, she did comment that the Local Government Commission had not been given proper guidance and that when it did get proper guidance it was overturned in the courts. I am not prepared to comment on that but I believe that what I have been able to indicate to the House today and was indicated previously by my right honourable friend meets with broad agreement on all sides of the House. The noble Baroness indicated that, now that that is out of the way, it is important that the Secretary of State should move quickly. We hope to consult on the draft orders for change in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Durham very shortly. We shall not be laying the draft orders before Parliament until after the local elections in May. Any change in those counties will take place in 1997, elections taking place in May 1996. We hope shortly to consult on those particular draft orders.

We hope that some reorganisations resulting from the new reviews will take place in 1997. But, realistically, some will not take place until 1998, elections having taken place the previous May. The noble Baroness wanted confirmation of the timetable.

The noble Baroness indicated her support for Berkshire. Obviously that is a very difficult decision and one which the Secretary of State was very concerned should be got right. I am glad that basically she endorses that decision.

The noble Baroness also said that she was interested in knowing whether there was a possibility of more districts being put forward for the list that my right honourable friend had already indicated. She mentioned particularly Oxford and Ipswich and gave the numbers which led her to believe that those districts should be put forward for re-review. My right honourable friend has indicated that, if other districts believe that they have a case, they can make their views known. However, we intend to ask the commission to carry out fresh reviews of a short list of districts, which would reflect the views around the House. Given the need for stability, it is very unlikely that my right honourable friend would wish to give further directions to the commission for the foreseeable future.

The noble Baroness asked about the total population in unitary districts. I am afraid that I do not have that figure in my brief but I shall write to her with the answer. Quite rightly, she was interested and concerned about the staffing arrangements. We are committed to treating the staff fairly. As the noble Baroness knows, there is an independent staff commission set up in England to advise the Secretary of State on reorganisation staffing issues. The staff commission has issued guidance to local authorities about staff transfers and recruitment. We estimate that at least 90 per cent. of staff will simply be employed by successor authorities, including all direct service providers such as teachers, care workers, fire fighters and road menders—road engineers, I stand corrected.

The noble Baroness said that now was the time to review the financial proposals for the funding of local authorities. I believe that to be a completely different subject. I understand her concerns and her wish that we should look at the SSAs; but there may be a better time to go into that and perhaps we can debate it at another time.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, rather surprised me by saying that she did not want to make a comment from Westminster, as though somehow Westminster was not here, with the rest of us. I certainly would like to indicate that I believe that most noble Lords in the House welcome the Statement I have been able to make.

The noble Baroness asked again about the date of the consultation on the new guidance. I can only repeat what I indicated on a previous occasion; namely, that we hope to consult on the new guidance in April and May. I understand her concerns. I have indicated them to my right honourable friend. I understand the distraction of the local elections. But I hope that we would direct the commission in June or July to carry out the new district reviews. It is essential that we should get on with the business rather than delay the matter. Again, I note her comments.

I hope that the noble Baroness understands about Essex and in particular the concern in Basildon. My right honourable friend indicated on 2nd March that he intended to ask the Local Government Commission to re-review Thurrock and Basildon on their existing boundaries. He noted what the commission was saying about looking at the boundaries of Basildon and would leave that for the time being so that there should not be any problem with Essex. Essex should know exactly where it stands, apart from those two areas of Thurrock and Basildon.

I understand the problems of Rutland. In indicating that he is concerned also with the difficulties of dealing with a district having a population of only 33,000, my right honourable friend wants to be persuaded. The Statement indicates that he is "minded" to agree, which in my terms certainly shows that he has not agreed yet but is minded to agree so long as he can be satisfied that the arrangements about which the noble Baroness is concerned on matters of planning and financing of services can be done in an effective way and would not put too much cost on people living in Rutland. There is some concern about that.

Finally, perhaps I may touch on the total cost. That will be affected by the decisions that the local authorities take in every individual case. The Government believe that there will be a transitional cost which will affect local areas. The £50 million I mentioned in reply to a question earlier today is not top-sliced. It is additional money which the Government have put forward. But local authorities will have to recover the transitional costs from future savings. In some cases there will be some additional costs for unitary authorities in the long run but it very much depends on how the local authorities themselves decide how they will arrange their affairs.

I believe that we should make certain that what is produced at the end of the exercise is effective government, given to local people at the best possible value for money.

4.18 p.m.

The Earl of Carnarvon

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for the Statement and in principle support what has been said. I should declare an interest to the extent that, like the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, I am vice-president of the Association of County Councils and an ex-chairman of Hampshire County Council. I am delighted with the news that New Forest is to remain in Hampshire.

I feel it right to take this opportunity to wish the great cities of Portsmouth and Southampton well, together with all their officers and members. In 1974 I was asked to stay on in local government to bring those two cities into Hampshire. It is sad to see them now, 20 years or so later, disappear once more into county boroughs. I do not always agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, regarding local government. But in this particular situation I agree with her, two to one. The "one" with which I disagree concerns the New Forest. But I am heartily in support of allowing those local authorities which are now free to do so to get on with their business and their chief officers to do their job without spending 50 per cent. of their time looking at reorganisation.

The other matter with which I agree with the noble Baroness —though I accept, as the noble Viscount said, that it is for another day—is that the Government must consider giving the uniform business rate back to local government.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I am pleased to hear what the noble Earl said in relation to Hampshire. I am glad that he approves of the stand taken by my right honourable friend that Portsmouth and Southampton should be returned to county borough status, as he put it; unitary authority status as it will be in the future.

I am glad too that the noble Earl is delighted with the news in relation to the New Forest. That is of particular concern being, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, indicated, the district with the largest population which has not been accorded unitary status. However, it does not have the tradition of unitary local government; it is a largely rural area and it is right to leave it as part of Hampshire. I take note of what the noble Earl said about the UBR. But that is part of another debate which I suspect we shall have on more than one occasion in the future.

Baroness David

My Lords, perhaps I may ask a question for clarification. Cambridgeshire was not mentioned in the Statement. However, in the Statement of the Secretary of State on 2nd March he said that he was minded to look at Peterborough, among other cities, as a possible unitary authority, and also at Huntingdonshire. Is that still the position or, as they were not mentioned today, has there been a change?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I am happy to indicate that that is exactly the position, as was outlined on 2nd March.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, perhaps I may ask my noble friend about Cleveland, which was mentioned by those opposite if not by the Minister. As I understand it, the county council is to be abolished and we are to go to four district councils. But there will remain the Cleveland police, the fire brigade, the probation service, child care and so forth, along with all the charities operating in the area. As far as I know, it has not been decided whether the county will remain as a geographical county without a county council. Can my noble friend say when that will be announced? There is also the question of the lieutenancy and so forth, in which I am obviously interested.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I am not sure that I shall be able to answer all my noble friend's questions. The order has passed and I confess that I cannot remember all the details of it. However, the police authorities are now independent of local government and will have their own authority area. The fire brigade is relatively the same and the lieutenancy of Cleveland will remain.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for the calm and deliberate way in which he repeated the Statement, but it is worth pointing out to the House why we are in the middle of reorganising local government, The story goes back some 10 years or more to when in local elections the metropolitan county councils were all won for the Labour Party; the Tory Government could not stomach that and had to abolish them. We pointed out at the time that when the shire counties made the same sort of decision the Government would come after them; and they have done. They have either torn the heart out of some of the counties in our fair land or dismembered them.

Although we can sometimes understand local people wanting to obtain more control over their services, in large measure local people have lessened their control over local services, particularly in relation to the police, the fire brigade and other county-wide services which will no longer come under direct effective locally elected control.

While we understand those issues, some of which are more important than others, I am concerned—following 10 years of attack by this Government on the education system—that one of the effects of these further announcements will be to bring further turmoil and problems for the local education authorities. In answering earlier questions the Minister said that these matters are not for debate this afternoon. But I hope that the Government recognise that tearing the heart out of some county councils and dismembering others will have a major effect on one of the prime services provided by county councils—education. I implore the Government to recognise the effect on the education services. I ask them to take steps, particularly by providing extra financial support to the local education authorities in those areas, to ensure that the education of our children does not suffer.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, the noble Lord appears to be more conservative than most people in this House, who recognise that there is room for diversity and that decisions should be based on the most appropriate structure for each area. The noble Lord appeared to indicate that he wanted no change at all. History, traditions and local preferences are all relevant. The Government's aim remains to create a local government structure that can deliver effective services and help build vigorous self-sustaining communities.

I understand the noble Lord's point in regard to education. However, he should reflect on the amount of money that the Government have injected into the education system over the past three years. Everybody recognises that this year's is a tough settlement, but most authorities have been able to provide the same level of service and education as they provided previously. Much of what the noble Lord said has a rather tangential bearing on my Statement, and we shall have an opportunity of discussing his points in more detail at another time.

Lord Aldington

My Lords, did I detect in my noble friend's interesting Statement a slight switch of policy in that the Government have decided to go for, in the case of the shire counties, a national blueprint of two-tier authorities in the major part of the counties, but in the large towns, particularly those which have been county boroughs, to have unitary authorities? If so, does that not depart from what we were told on the Second Reading of the Bill and from what we have been told in letters from the Prime Minister and Statements by Ministers?

Does not my noble friend realise that that departure affects particularly my county of Kent? There were no county boroughs before, but there has been a reference back—I refer to the Statement of 2nd March—regarding two possible unitary authorities in the north-west of Kent. Exactly the same proposal was put to the citizens of Kent by the commission as a first option and rejected by 70 per cent. of them. Is the Government's new policy designed to impose that blueprint somehow or other without taking any account of local wishes? Will he give us an assurance that under the new guidance local people will have to be consulted and their opinions taken account of?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, my noble friend indicates that the Government have listened to local opinion. He mentioned the debates which we had when the Local Government Act was being passed when a blueprint was considered. Now he indicates that we have returned more to a two-tier system. That was recommended by the Local Government Commission, whose duty it was to listen to local views. That is why my right honourable friend has made the decisions that he has made. He wanted to indicate that there should be some coherence in the decisions.

I note what my noble friend says about referring the Medway towns in Kent for re-review by the newly constituted commission, with its new chairman and new guidance. Whatever guidance the commission is given, it is independent and it will certainly take note of local opinion.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. He mentioned Herefordshire and Worcestershire. Those proud counties will be delighted with the Minister's decision to separate them again. He also made an announcement about the Malvern Hills. However, I did not quite gather what will happen with regard to the organisation of the hills. The Minister will know that conservators are appointed for about three years to look after the considerable amount of acreage of the Malvern Hills. Will that be continued or will another organisation have the custody of the very gracious and beautiful hills?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I did indeed indicate that Herefordshire would be returned to its old county boundary, including part of the Malvern Hills district which was part of Herefordshire in 1974. So the unitary authority area of Herefordshire would be as it was. I shall have to take advice on the organisation of the conservators now that that decision has been taken because it effectively means that there is a split in the Malvern Hills district between Worcestershire and Herefordshire. If I may, I shall write to my noble friend with the answer.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, perhaps I may raise one or two points with regard to Wiltshire and Berkshire. The Minister's statement about Thamesdown—that is, Swindon—was very welcome to me because this is an opportune moment for the people of that area to consider naming the unitary authority Swindon rather than Thamesdown. Everyone would then know exactly where it was. Is the noble Viscount aware that the people in Swindon will welcome the Statement with the greatest of pleasure? They have been waiting for nearly 25 years to have unitary status. They represent 30 per cent. of the population and provide 40 per cent. of the finance of Wiltshire County Council. I had the honour to represent Swindon for 13 years. I can assure the Minister that I very much welcome the Statement and I feel sure that the people of Swindon, Thamesdown or whatever one likes to call it will also do so.

In the case of Berkshire, I support what the Secretary of State has done in accepting that Berkshire is not a viable unit in itself and that there are six viable unitary authorities there. What is proposed will be welcomed by most people in Berkshire, and it will work. Has he had an indication from the county council, which advocated its own abolition on the basis that the county would be better governed by unitary authorities, that it will now accept the Secretary of State's decision, although it is perhaps a little early as it has only just received it?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I am delighted to reply to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart. I remember from my early days spent in Wiltshire not far from Swindon that the noble Lord represented that proud town for such a long time. I am glad that he welcomes the Statement. It would certainly give me a little more indication of where Thamesdown is if it reverted to the name of Swindon. But that is my personal opinion. I am certain that Wiltshire will also be pleased with the decision.

I am glad that the noble Lord accepts my right honourable friend's decision about Berkshire. I know that he had a long connection with Reading and that he would indicate that a unitary authority in Reading would be the right thing.

During the course of this long-running affair the county council has changed its stance. It would be a question of changing it again if it were really going to welcome the change. Perhaps it is a little early, as it has only just heard the news, for the county council to indicate where it stands. The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, indicated that at an earlier stage the county council supported the division into unitary authorities. On that basis there is hope that it may now also support the decision taken by my right honourable friend.

Lord Jenkin of Roding

My Lords, perhaps I may direct my noble friend's attention once again to Essex. Whereas most people accepted that Southend should have unitary government, it seems slightly bizarre that the Government should want to reopen the issue surrounding Basildon and Thurrock when 69 per cent. of the people in the area voted for a two-tier system. My noble friend Lord Aldington raised a similar point with regard to Kent. Would it not be even more bizarre if we ended up with Basildon and Thurrock being a unitary authority while a proud and historic city like Colchester would be part of a two-tier system? How is it possible to distinguish in this matter? There is a widespread feeling in Essex that the argument has gone on long enough and that Southend should have unitary government and the rest should be left as a two-tier system. That would be a very fair solution.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I take note of what my noble friend has said. I shall report to my right honourable friend all the comments that have been made about the reaction to the Statement today. There is concern and there was concern in the mind of the Local Government Commission when it was considering Basildon and its boundaries. The commission will re-review Basildon and Thurrock to see whether they should have unitary status, although it will be reviewing them only on their existing boundaries. There is a good case for both. My right honourable friend has indicated that those are areas with high populations and that the Local Government Commission should be given the task of looking at them once again. As I said to my noble friend Lord Aldington, the commission will take note of public opinion.