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This speech was given as part of an Adjournment Debate in Westminster Hall on 24 February 2009.
Watch Mr Bacon's speech in Westminster Hall

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate, to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on securing it and to endorse the last comments of my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring). He said that it is a mistake to think that big is necessarily better. That speaks directly to the points made by my constituency neighbour, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), when he adduced arguments of both cost and coherence. At least he had the grace to admit that there would be an up-front cost and that there was a discussion to be had about the payback period. That point was made by several of us in the previous debate on this issue.

Indeed, I endorse the comments by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk about this feeling like a trip down memory lane. It reminds me of Yogi Berra, the baseball star of the New York Yankees, who said, “This is like déjà vu all over again”, not just because the subject of the debate is local government, but because of the Minister who is responding to it. The first time that I came across him was in this Chamber, when he was again trying to defend the indefensible—the actions of another Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), in relation to an adult training scheme. It seems to be his lot in life to have to go round picking up the pieces after various Ministers above him have made a complete mess of things. That was one of those cases of “Never mind the quality, feel the width.” Someone—perhaps it was even me—quoted Stalin, saying that quantity has its own quality. The headline in that case was that the 1 millionth individual learning account holder had been secured, never mind that there was fraud all over the place.

In this case, I have my doubts about the argument of the right hon. Member for Norwich, South about size. After all, when he was trying to push through the police constabulary changes, it became apparent that one of the best constabularies was also one of the smallest—Gloucestershire. It had some of the best indicators in terms of value for money, but also in the degree of compliance with its key performance indicators and acceptance by the public.

Mr. Charles Clarke: Will the hon. Gentleman accept that in my intervention earlier I did not mention size? I think that there are arguments about size to be had, but I did not make the case about size. I made the case, as he said, about coherence and cost. I do not in general believe that bigger is best; I do in general believe that to have one authority providing all the services in a locality is better than to have two or three different authorities doing that.

Mr. Bacon: I accept that the right hon. Gentleman did not mention size, although he did refer to Greater Norwich, and Greater Norwich would of course be bigger than the present Norwich and would involve quite a lot of parishes in the north of my constituency going into Greater Norwich. They do not want to be part of Greater Norwich. They do not want to be part of Norwich city council, not least because their council tax would probably go up by about 50 per cent. from the already considerable level that it has reached in recent years after many years of Liberal Democrat control of the district council, but also because it is not clear to anyone that Norwich city council knows how to run a bath. Until that becomes clear, no one—no one with any sense, at any rate—seems to think that it should be given responsibilities additional to those that it already has.

I do not want to take up much more time, but I want to make two final points. One concerns the relationship between the Department for Communities and Local Government and the boundary committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk mentioned that the committee did not seem to realise that it could have come up with other options than the one that it did, which speaks to an extraordinary lack of communication between the Department and the boundary committee.

That was made even more manifest in a letter that the Minister wrote on 9 February 2009, which is worth quoting at length. In it, he says that

“the Secretary of State made the request for advice, accompanied with Guidance to the Boundary Committee on 6 February 2008”—

just over a year ago. He goes on to say:

“We included the term ‘in aggregate’ in the request to make clear that any alternative proposals for unitary local government must have the capacity to meet the five criteria across the specified area. The February 2008 request for advice was quite clear in its terms. If the Secretary of State had intended that each part of the proposal had to meet the criteria independently, then she would not have needed to specify that the proposal in aggregate had to meet the criteria as well. If each part of the proposal met the five criteria it would follow that the proposals for the county area as a whole would too. I set this out clearly to the Chair of the Boundary Committee in correspondence I copied to him in March 2008.”

This is the extraordinary part. The letter continues:

“We then had no indication that the Boundary Committee might be taking a different approach until we saw the financial information published by the Boundary Committee on 21 November 2008. Having considered that information”—

this goes back to my point about the unfortunate Minister having to clear up after various Secretaries of State—

“it was not clear to the Secretary of State that the Committee was approaching the assessment of alternative proposals on the basis she had envisaged.”

We are supposed to believe that from February or at least March 2008 right up until 21 November, the boundary committee thought that it was doing one thing and the Secretary of State thought that it was doing another, so for eight or nine months she had not realised that it was not doing what she thought it was doing. It is no good the Minister saying—if he does respond by making this point—that the boundary committee is independent. Of course it is independent. The Electoral Commission is independent. That does not mean that it does not have constant discussion with political parties. The National Audit Office is independent. That does not mean that it does not have constant discussion with the various Departments and Executive agencies that it is auditing; it is in dialogue with them all the time. It is extraordinary that that miscommunication could have been allowed to sit there for nine months. Such confusion between the Secretary of State and the boundary committee is inexcusable. I hope that the Minister does not try to defend it; it is indefensible. The best thing that he could do is simply apologise.

My final point is about the financial condition of this country. We have just heard that the Treasury tax revenues for the month of January are £7 billion below where they were expected to be, compared with last year. Of course, that will have an impact on local government. It can hardly not, when 75 per cent. of the revenues for local government come from the centre. Local government itself has considerable financial problems. I sat down with the chief officers of South Norfolk district council only a few weeks ago, and it was evident that on any number of fronts, the income stream of the district council was being adversely affected. I am sure that the same applies throughout the country. Planning fees are down. Goodness knows council tax income will probably be lower as more people are unemployed and claiming council tax benefit. There are any number of ways in which local government, through its own income, will be suffering financially.

Even if the right hon. Member for Norwich, South is right about the proposal—I doubt that he is—he at least acknowledged that there was a discussion to be had about the payback. We so often hear about proposals for restructuring and for churning local government and, indeed, central Government structures as though it is the structure and the change itself that produces the benefit. Sir Michael Barber, in his book on the Prime Minister’s delivery unit, “Instruction to Deliver”, says that what matters most is not the structure, but routines and good working relationships, and that is exactly what we have with joint working. My hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk was right to say that that could be extended. It is being extended, and it is working quite well. It could work better. Relationships between planning and transportation at county level and district council planning departments are getting better. They know each other; they know their responsibilities; they know how they interact. That can certainly be developed without a huge up-front cost, for which the payback will potentially be over many years.

The best thing that the Minister could do, after this Horlicks that has been going on for several years now, is gracefully withdraw and acknowledge that now is not the right time to be pushing forward these proposals.



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