HL Deb 28 March 1995 vol 562 cc1500-2

3.4 p.m.

Lord Aldingtonasked Her Majesty's Government:

Why they have announced a further consultation for the county of Kent on a local government structure which has been rejected by the Local Government Commission after consultation with all concerned; and whether they have taken full account of the cost in money and efficiency of continuing the consultation for a further year.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Viscount Ullswater)

My Lords, while we have decided against wholesale change in Kent, we intend to ask the Local Government Commission to undertake fresh reviews of Gillingham, Rochester upon Medway and, possibly, Dartford and Gravesham. Our decision takes account of the characteristics of these districts, the representations we have received, and the need for consistency, coherence and stability in the future structure of local government. Since the reviews will be focused on districts, the cost and the impact on the rest of the county should be minimised.

Lord Aldington

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer which is rather fuller than the one he was able to give on the last occasion the matter was raised. However, is he aware that the Local Government Commission's report covered all the points to which he has referred? The commission went out to consultation on Option One which is exactly the proposal that my noble friend says the Secretary of State is referring back. The answer to that consultation was that around 70 per cent. of the people in the county were against the option and in favour of the two-tier existing structure. A slightly higher percentage was against the option in the four districts to which the Minister has referred. Why are the Government flouting the expression of local opinion? What good does that do?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, the review, and for that matter the re-review, is more than just an opinion poll. It involves securing effective and convenient local government which reflects local needs and identities. After the final report from the Local Government Commission was published, Ministers received strong representations in favour of unitary status from north-west Kent and the Medway area. Written representations were received from Dartford, Gillingham and Rochester councils and from the Medway Chamber of Commerce. All four local MPs from Gillingham, Medway, Dartford and Gravesham met Ministers and argued in favour of unitary status for their areas. I believe that my right honourable friend was quite in order to consider that those re-reviews should take place.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the primary legislation under which such consultation takes place, as tested in the courts by Derbyshire County Council and by Lancashire County Council, in which I declare an interest as a member, requires that the first question to be put in the consultation must be whether there is a case for change supported by the local community?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, the criteria set out in the Local Government Act 1992—namely, the need to secure effective and convenient local government and to reflect the identities and interests of local communities—still apply. However, as I indicated on a previous occasion, we shall be consulting on new guidance to the Local Government Commission in April or May.

Lord Rochester

My Lords, what reason is there to suppose that as regards Warrington in Cheshire, where I live, a reconstituted commission will reach a different conclusion from that of its predecessor? In four separate surveys the people of the district have expressed the view that there should be no change in the structure of local government there.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I am sure that that is an interesting question to the noble Lord, Lord Rochester. However, I believe that Warrington is rather a long way, both physically and metaphorically, from the Question on the Order Paper.

Lord Annan

My Lords, is this a case like the Newbury by-pass on which the Minister is unable to make up his mind for fear of criticism?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, no, I do not believe that to be the case. I have indicated that this is about reflecting convenient local government. The Government took account of local opinion and the case for unitary authorities in north-west Kent. The concept of a coherent community, identity and interest, the markedly different characteristics from the rest of Kent, and the community of interest in economic development, gave my right honourable friend considerable backing to ask the Local Government Commission, when reconstituted, to review those specific areas.

Lord Aldington

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the representations made by the four MPs and others to his right honourable friend were also made to the Local Government Commission several times? The representations were bandied about in the press. Everyone has been aware of all the points. The commission found that 70 per cent. of the people consulted —a high percentage, and even more important than Members in the other House—were against the proposal. The Minister says that coherence is important. Does he not recollect that his noble friend Lady Blatch and the Secretary of State in the other place, as well as letters from Ministers including the Prime Minister, have constantly emphasised that the Government were not in favour of a national blueprint? Why is the Minister now suddenly saying that the Government have changed their mind?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I believe that there is a world of difference between forcing local government to conform to a rigid blueprint—as my noble friend suggested—and asking the commission to look again at a small number of districts to ensure that the pattern which emerges from the review has an internal logic which will give it long-term stability.