Ah yes, the joys of Local Government Review in Devon and Norfolk, where the outgoing Government behaved with such utter disregard for the criteria they themselves had established that the Orders creating unitary authorities for Exeter and Norwich were quashed at judicial review...
Anyway, here's what Ros had to say yesterday...
Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, when I retrieved the notes that I had written for the original Second Reading debate in this House, I saw that they start by saying, "Congratulate Baroness Hanham". I had intended at the time to congratulate her on her new job, but time has moved on, so perhaps I should congratulate her on getting so far with the Bill.
I was the party's Front-Bench spokesman when the Government of the day brought out their White Paper introducing this round of unitary government. At the time, I was prepared to give the Government a fair wind because I am someone who was and remains quite open to the idea of unitary authorities. I can see their benefits in many cases, but only if it is a matter of well informed local choice and following clear processes.
As we moved through the first tranches of authorities to go through this process, I became increasingly concerned about a lack of clarity on the desired outcome, particularly on how the five tests would be assessed and measured. It became clear that there was an absence of impartial information to the public in the areas affected and that there was no objective method for determining the state of local public opinion. All these defects led to protracted processes, many going as far as judicial review, and we ended up with Parliament taking decisions close to electoral deadlines, along with all the uncertainty that that brought with it. Despite that, I did not oppose any of those orders because I believed that the Government were acting in good faith.
By the time that we came to this tranche of orders, relating to Norfolk and Devon-and, in parentheses, my home county of Suffolk-I had lost all faith in a process that by then had taken three years, during which time the Government had constantly moved the goalposts. Not only has that led to the problem of uncertainty for staff, highlighted by my noble friend Lord Rennard, but it has made recruitment difficult, it has undermined partnerships between the local authorities and other bodies and it has had a hugely detrimental effect on good governance for all the councils concerned.
The counties of Norfolk, Suffolk and Devon are similar in character, yet they were treated very differently by the Labour Government. In Norfolk and Devon, the county towns were to be given unitary status. As we heard from the noble Baroness, there may be good reasons why this is desirable, but the supporters of this option have never given me a clear understanding of how we will deal with the impact on the rest of these counties, which will have the heart ripped out of their governance when the county town is taken away.
Concerns about the financial case led to a direction from the Permanent Secretary. The noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, has highlighted what an unusual step that is, although we find now that there was a rash of these in the dying days of the previous Government.
If you understood the rules that the previous Government were working by, you would have known why Norwich and Exeter were to be given unitary status and therefore you would have assumed that, using the same criteria, Ipswich, too, would have been given unitary status. However, it was not: Suffolk was told to go away, have a citizens' convention and then report back. That could have been done three years ago, which would have saved everyone time and money. In fact, local authorities in Suffolk are now working well together and sharing services-in some cases, they are sharing chief executives, while two district councils are looking at merging all their shared functions.
There is only one reason why Ipswich was treated differently. It was in the Labour Party's direct political interests to have unitary councils in Norwich and in Exeter, but Labour did not care about Ipswich because it had lost so much ground there. The decision was pushed through in the dying days of the previous Parliament for purely political reasons. We hear today from the Benches opposite that the coalition Government have no mandate to do this, that the Permanent Secretary was wrong, that the Boundary Committee was wrong and that the High Court was wrong. Indeed, the report of the Merits Committee and the vote in this House have been glossed over. It would appear to the Benches opposite that everyone is wrong except them.
People in these counties deserve the right to have clarity about the way forward. To keep going in this way is grossly irresponsible of the Members opposite. It is time to get behind the people of all these counties, to support them in the services that they want and to leave behind these divisive, unpleasant and, in many cases, outdated arguments. I have heard arguments from the Benches opposite that are 20 years old. Councils and counties have moved on-they are no longer backwaters-so, please, let us get on, get the Bill through and give the people in these areas the certainty that they deserve in their local government.