Wednesday 9th March 2022

(2 years, 4 months ago)

Grand Committee
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Considered in Grand Committee
Moved by
Lord Greenhalgh Portrait Lord Greenhalgh
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That the Grand Committee do consider the Cumbria (Structural Changes) Order 2022.

Relevant document: 29th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

Lord Greenhalgh Portrait The Minister of State, Home Office and Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities (Lord Greenhalgh) (Con)
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My Lords, this order was laid before this House on 24 January 2022. The other place approved it on 1 March. If approved by this House and made it will implement a proposal submitted by Allerdale and Copeland councils for two new unitary councils on an east/west geography, covering the entirety of Cumbria, to be known as Cumberland council, and Westmorland and Furness council, respectively.

This order will establish for the people of Cumbria two new unitary councils. Implementing this proposal and establishing these unitary authorities will enable stronger leadership and engagement, at the strategic level and with communities at the most local level. It will pave the way, as envisaged in the levelling-up White Paper, for a significant devolution deal, involving a directly elected mayor for Cumbria, if that is an option which local leaders wish to pursue.

This locally led process for reform began on 9 October 2020, when the then Secretary of State, my right honourable friend the Member for Newark, Robert Jenrick, invited the principal councils in Cumbria to put forward, if they wished, proposals for replacing the current two-tier system of local government with single-tier local government. That invitation set out the criteria for unitarisation.

Unitary authorities will be established that are likely to improve local government and service delivery across the area of the proposal, giving greater value for money, generating savings, and providing stronger strategic and local leadership, and which will be more sustainable structures. They will command a good deal of local support as assessed in the round, and where the area of each unitary authority is a credible geography consisting of one or more existing local government areas with an aggregate population which is either within the range 300,000 to 600,000, or such other figure that, having regard to the circumstances of the authority, including local identity and geography, could be considered substantial.

Four locally led proposals for local government reorganisation in Cumbria were received in December 2020—one for a single unitary and three for two unitary councils. Before deciding how to proceed, the Government consulted widely. Around 3,200 responses were received by the Government in response to their statutory consultation on the Cumbria proposals. This consultation was launched on 22 February 2021 and ended on 19 April 2021. Of these responses, some 2,400—73% of the total responses—were from residents living in the area affected.

There was a very good deal of local support for local government reorganisation across the categories of respondents, from residents, local authorities, public sector providers, parish councils and the business sector. However, across these categories, there was a spread of responses in favour of each proposal. This meant that each proposal had some support. The east/west proposal had the support of local businesses, especially in relation to supporting the diverse nature of local economies better, particularly the advanced manufacturing base and supply chain around Sellafield. There was some resident support for the east/west proposal, with those in favour considering that the new authorities would be more accessible local organisations, better able to respond to local needs. Among local government organisations, there was a view that the geography of the east/west proposal would ensure equal levels of population density across the two proposed new council areas and that this would contribute to a balanced service delivery, including addressing deprivation, and credible geography.

Based on the consultation responses, the Secretary of State considered that, if implemented, the east/west proposal would command a good deal of local support, as assessed in the round overall across the whole area of the proposal, and that the criterion had been met. In considering the locally led unitary proposals against our long-standing assessment criteria, he concluded that the north/south proposal did not meet the credible geography criterion, that the bay proposal did not meet the improving local government and service delivery and credible geography criteria, and that while the county council’s proposal for a single unitary met the three criteria, the east/west proposal was more appropriate on grounds of geography.

Noble Lords will recall that my right honourable friend the then Secretary of State announced his decisions on the proposals. A Written Ministerial Statement was made on 21 July 2021, which I repeated in this House. In reaching this decision, my right honourable friend made a balanced judgment, assessing all the proposals against the three criteria to which I have referred and which were set out in the invitation on 9 October 2020. He also had regard to all representations received, including responses to the consultation, and to all other relevant information available to him. He concluded that the east/west unitary proposal for Cumbria met all three criteria.

The Government believe that there is a powerful case for implementing this locally led proposal for change. The east/west unitary proposal will improve local government for half a million people in Cumbria by enhancing social care and safeguarding services through closer connection with related services such as housing, leisure and benefits. It will also improve local government by offering opportunities for improved strategic decision-making in such areas as housing, planning and transport. It will provide improvements to local partnership working with other public sector bodies by aligning with arrangements in existing public sector partnerships.

The proposal will generate savings estimated by the Allerdale and Copeland councils in their unitary proposal of between £19.1 million and £31.6 million per annum; this is a wide spread, and the savings actually achieved will depend on the new councils. These are savings that can be reinvested for the improvement of local services; they are not cuts in service provision. It will also deliver proposals aimed at maintaining and strengthening local community identity, and integrate local services, while reflecting the challenges of rurality in the areas of both new unitary councils. If Parliament approves this order, there will be, from 1 April 2023, two unitary councils for Cumbria delivering the improvements I have just outlined.

In response to an issue raised previously by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, and the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, I put on the record, categorically, for the avoidance of any scintilla of doubt, that if this order is approved and Carlisle City Council is abolished, the city status of Carlisle will be preserved. My officials are already working with the officers of Carlisle to ensure that we follow past precedents for maintaining city status. The arrangements for maintaining city status will be to establish charter trustees. The council has asked us to do this, and we have agreed.

We have prepared this order in discussion with all the councils concerned. I take this opportunity to thank everyone involved in this process, and for their work undertaken together constructively and collaboratively, notwithstanding the county council’s leader seeking a judicial review, for which the courts refused permission on 22 February.

Our discussions with the councils have included transitional and electoral arrangements. These are key to how the councils will drive forward implementation. Where there has been agreement between all the councils, we have adopted their preferred approach. Where there were different views as to the detailed way forward, the Secretary of State has considered all the differing views and reached a decision accordingly.

Turning to the detail of the order, I will highlight the key provisions. The order provides that on 1 April 2023 the districts of Allerdale, Barrow-in-Furness, Carlisle, Copeland, Eden, and South Lakeland, and the county of Cumbria, will be abolished. The councils of those districts and county will be wound up and dissolved. In their place, the functions will be transferred to the new unitary Cumberland council and Westmorland and Furness council. I add that the order ensures there is no change to the ceremonial county of Cumbria, and hence the roles and responsibilities of the lord-lieutenant and high sheriff of the county of Cumbria are unaltered.

The order also provides for appropriate transitional arrangements. These include that in May 2022 there will be elections for the new unitary councils, which will assume their full powers from 1 April 2023. These elections will be on the basis in Cumberland of a 46-member authority, with 46 single-member wards, and in Westmorland and Furness a 65-member authority with 33 wards of between one and three members. Subsequent elections to the unitary council will be in May 2027 and every four years thereafter. We expect that the Local Government Boundary Commission for England will undertake a full electoral review before the May 2027 elections. Parish council elections will remain unchanged. There will be a duty placed on all existing councils to co-operate during the transitional period until 1 April 2023.

There is also provision in the draft order relating to the establishment of a combined authority for Cumbria. I can make it clear that these are designed to be enabling powers for the shadow authorities to be able to do necessary preparatory work if they so wish. We thought that this was prudent, given that the establishment of a combined authority was mentioned in the unitary proposals. The inclusion of these provisions does not represent a requirement for the shadows to pursue arrangements for a combined authority.

If this order is approved and made, to support councils in the transitional period until 1 April 2023, we intend to use our powers under the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 to issue a direction. This direction would replace the voluntary arrangements which the Cumbria councils have already adopted about entering into contracts and the disposal of land during this transitional period. This is in line with the approach adopted in most previous unitarisations. This will ensure that the new unitary councils have appropriate oversight of the commitments that predecessor councils may enter into during the transitional period and which the new unitary councils will take on from 1 April 2023. Before issuing any such direction, we will invite councils’ views on a draft.

Finally, with sincere apologies, I must draw the Committee’s attention to the correction slip issued to correct a minor error in Part 2 of the Schedule of the draft order, which lists the existing wards that will go to make up the new wards of Westmorland and Furness council. This is to correct the name of an existing ward in the new High Furness ward, currently shown as “Dunnerdale-with-Seathwaite (Part)”. It should be shown as simply “Dunnerdale-with-Seathwaite”. We are very sorry indeed for this minor error in the original text of the draft order.

In conclusion, through this order, we are seeking to replace the existing local government structures in Cumbria, which were set up in 1974, with two new councils that will be able to deliver high-quality, sustainable local services for the people of Cumbria. These unitary councils will be able to provide stronger and more effective leadership at both the strategic and most local levels. This will open the way for a significant devolution deal if local leaders want this, as referred to in our levelling-up White Paper. I commend this order to the Committee.

Lord Henley Portrait Lord Henley (Con)
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My Lords, I start by thanking my noble friend for the fact that he is going to preserve the city status of Carlisle. I think that will be welcomed on all sides. I was born there 60-something years ago, and am very grateful that its city status shall be continued. I also declare an interest, first, as a Cumbrian, but secondly, as an active member of Penrith and The Border Conservative Association. I refer to that because the Penrith and The Border constituency is the one constituency that will straddle the two new authorities—I think that is correct, but no doubt others will correct me if it is not. I want to ask my noble friend about the electoral arrangements we will face in May because, as he made quite clear, we will be electing the shadow authority, which will then take over as the substantive authority in April 2023. At some time after that, as my noble friend made clear, the boundary commission will get into action and produce new boundaries for the various wards or divisions—I am not sure how we shall refer to them—in both authorities. But for the elections, we are going to have to deal with rather arbitrary selected wards or divisions in both authorities.

I do not know what the numbers on the two councils will be in future, once the boundary commission has done its work. Initially, and for the first five years of the two shadow authorities, the western division, which will be referred to as Cumberland, will use the existing county council divisions. Therefore, as I understand and remember it, there will be 42 councillors, one for each division, in that authority.

This is relevant to me because, like all political parties, we have to go through the process of selecting candidates, and we want to get that done as soon as possible. We have started on it, because we had some idea of what the boundaries would be. It is relatively easy in the western division, which is using the existing county council divisions. We have made progress in the northern half of Penrith and The Border, where we have identified our candidates and will soon be in a place whereby they can put themselves forward and go through the various due processes to stand in those elections.
In the eastern authority, which will be referred to as Westmorland and Furness, a different process has been adopted. The new authority will not have the 38 county councillors who originally covered that area, but some 65 councillors. There is obviously no way to get 65 out of 38; the sums do not add up. The district wards have therefore been used to create the various boundaries for the new authorities, which are laid out in the schedule to this order. As I understand, that has meant consultation between the department and the three districts involved—Eden, South Lakeland and Barrow—to produce 65 seats with one, two or three members covering each ward in that area. There were problems because some of the district council wards of those three areas had one, some had two and some had three members. The whole thing has had to be done by putting odd things together, following consultations with the local authorities. I do not believe there has been consultation more widely than that.
I ask my noble friend why this figure of 65 was picked. How was it decided to put together which wards to make either one-member or two-member seats for the authority? Could that not have been done earlier? I just mentioned the practical problem of finding candidates and going through a legitimate selection process, within every political party, to make sure that members are allowed to take part, before you put them before the election. Technically, these wards do not come into existence until the passage of this structural changes order and we have elections coming in May.
My simple question is: why this process? How did it come about? What consultations took place beyond those with the individual local authorities of Eden, South Lakeland and Barrow? Why was a similar process not followed to that used for the western half, which will be Cumberland? Will Cumberland itself now have too few councillors, as it is being reduced to 42, which is the number of the existing county council seats? I see the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, nodding. There has been a degree of confusion about this process and I would like further elucidation from my noble friend, if he can give me that in due course.
Lord Liddle Portrait Lord Liddle (Lab)
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My Lords, I declare my interests in this matter. I was born in Carlisle and attended Carlisle Grammar School. I live in Cumbria now and have an interest on the present county council, as the councillor for Wigton.

I have three things to say at the start. First, I am delighted by what the Minister said about maintaining Carlisle’s city status. It means a lot to me. I remember, as a little boy in 1958, attending the 800th anniversary of the foundation of the city.

Secondly, I am glad to know that the lord-lieutenancy for Cumbria is being maintained; my wife, as deputy lord-lieutenant, will be very pleased by that. Thirdly, it is very good to have as a Minister someone with the great experience and success in local government of the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, dealing with these questions. I hope he might listen carefully to what I have to say about the proposal, which I would oppose as it stands, but I know that is not the way the House proceeds and I shall obviously not do that. But I will make the case for why the Government should take the remaining opportunity to pause and think a bit about what they are doing in the case of Cumbria.

My starting point is simple. I am a passionate supporter of unitary authorities, and have been for a long time, but the proposal for Cumbria, splitting it in two, does two things. First, it removes the strategic role that the county council presently plays; secondly, it divides in two the services that the county council currently provides. These services are vast by comparison with what the districts provide. The county council’s net revenue budget, excluding the schools grant, is of the order of £400 million a year. The six district councils all together are little tiddlers: their spending together is less than £100 million. The order is, in effect, cutting in two the most effective bit of local government in Cumbria.

The justification that this makes for more local government does not stand up to serious examination. The new unitary authority of Westmorland and Furness embraces both the Barrow shipyard and the remote Pennine communities 60 or 70 miles to the north of it. They are as different as heaven and hell. I shall not say which I think is which, but they are totally different. As for the new county of Cumberland, Penrith, to which the noble Lord, Lord Henley, referred, is torn out of the historic county of Cumberland. I always remember Willie Whitelaw affectionately describing his constituency of Penrith as being a place of slumbering calm—we probably need more of that in our lives. That is removed, and for Cumberland, there is my home city of Carlisle, together with what is largely post-industrial west Cumbria. My forecast is that that will be a rather uneasy partnership. Cumbria is a county of great diversity: great beauty mixed with shocking deprivation; a very proud history, with all the problems of modernity.

What I and the majority of my colleagues on the county council think the Government should have done was to go for a single, strategic authority but then allow for maximum devolution to towns, with their rural hinterlands, for local access to services and the capacity for genuinely local decision-making over genuinely local matters. My town council in Wigton should certainly have been expanded and given a greater role.

Given the decision taken, the county council—rightly, in my view—sought to challenge the Government’s plan through a judicial review. After a very detailed consideration in a judgment that took Mr Justice Fordham, who is very eminent in this field, an hour and three-quarters to deliver, he refused leave for a judicial review. It is important to emphasise, however, that this is not an endorsement of the Government’s plan; it is only a legal judgment that the Minister had not overstepped his powers in ignoring his own criteria in deciding on the current plan.

We are now put in a very difficult position in Cumbria as a result of this split. The Minister referred to savings estimated by Allerdale and Copeland— goodness how they could calculate them, because they know nothing about the main services—of between £19 million and £30 million a year. We were expecting much bigger savings from having a unitary authority—as much as £40 million or £50 million a year. The truth is that we need those savings to reinvest in what are badly overstretched services, and we now will not be able to do that. That overstretch is apparent in all the main services one looks at. Our children’s services are under great pressure. For the last few years, they have overspent their budget every year. For social care, we were forced to put in an extra £10 million last autumn simply to keep a creaking system going so that the hospitals in Cumbria would not be completely clogged up with people who could not be given care in the community. Of course, the consequence of that would have been even longer waiting lists for patients.

People complain about highway maintenance in Cumbria—potholes are a big issue; I am always lobbied about them—but we have no extra money to spend on that. Indeed, the Government have this year cut the highway maintenance grant by some £10 million.

The situation is serious. At the same time, whereas the creation of a single unitary authority would have been a relatively simple matter, splitting the services in two is highly complex. The existing councils, and I hope that the people who support this scheme are prepared to defend this, have already had to put aside some £18 million to spend on management consultants to work out how the new authority will work. I suggest that the Minister inquires about this; a lot of money is being spent on trying to work out how to divide the services we have.

Supporters of the plan argue that we are being ridiculously pessimistic. They say that the two new authorities can form a mayoral combined authority that will deal with strategic planning, can negotiate a growth deal with the Government and could run county-wide services that it does not make sense to split—that is the argument. However, the truth is that the Government currently do not, as I understand it, have any power to force a mayoral combined authority on Cumbria. It all depends on the decision of the new authorities as to whether they want one. From what I know and from what I gather, particularly from my Liberal Democrat friends in Westmorland and Furness, there is no enthusiasm for establishing such a combined authority. Therefore, I think this is a bit of a fantasy.

However, in the House of Commons, when John Stevenson, the Conservative MP for Carlisle, whom I like a lot, asked Secretary of State Gove what the position was, the Secretary of State implied that the Government could force a mayoral combined authority on the new councils. Can the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, clarify that very important point for us? I can send him chapter and verse on what was said in the House of Commons, and I would like to know what he thinks about what his boss said on that occasion.

The Minister probably understands the risks involved in splitting services. In fact, he wrote to the leader of my council, Stewart Young, in autumn last year expressing grave concern about the splitting of the fire service in Cumbria and saying that it had to be kept together. There is the option of putting it under the police and crime commissioner, which might be quite sensible, but it demonstrates that there are difficulties in spitting services in two.
One of the answers people are talking about at home to deal with this situation is that one of the new authorities might take statutory responsibility for delivering a whole service across the area of the two authorities, but that simply will not work. I am sure that, as an experienced local government man, the Minister recognises the problems in that. If a budget for a service is overspent, who pays? If the authority that is not the statutory authority thinks its services are being cut because of budgetary constraints, what right of redress does it have? These are complicated matters. Of course the Minister is right that, in an ideal world—particularly, for instance, when dealing with troubled families—we need a unitary authority that brings together housing, children’s services, care and all of that.
I think that we are entering a period of massive uncertainty about how public services in Cumbria will be delivered, and we have a very rushed timetable for implementation of this reorganisation. The order we are discussing will not come into effect until the end of this month, yet the new authorities are supposed to be in a position to be up and running by April 2023—less than 13 months from now. I tell noble Lords, on the basis of my knowledge, that there are no plans in the cupboard as to how this split will be carried out.
Of course, the Government could always think about this. I am sorry if I am going on too long, but these are very important matters.
Lord Greenhalgh Portrait Lord Greenhalgh (Con)
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No, you are landing them—keep going.

Lord Liddle Portrait Lord Liddle (Lab)
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Okay. I am trying to explain that there are serious risks in what is now planned. A pause could well be necessary. I do not see any problem with the Government revising their plans. What will happen if it becomes clear that the current timetable is not workable? The Government need to form a judgment on this quite quickly. I am not advocating this for any personal reason, but they could keep the county council going for longer than another year so that there would be more time to plan for the division of services, which would then have some prospect of stability.

In the light of their Levelling Up White Paper, which came after this proposal was made, the Government could think about keeping a single unitary authority in Cumbria but doing a deal with that council that it will have an elected mayor. I am not against elected mayors in principle; I am actually rather in favour of them. I think they have worked quite well in metropolitan areas. In the Levelling Up White Paper, if you are going to get maximum devolution of power, you have to have an elected mayor to achieve that. Why not put that proposal to Cumberland, to a united Cumbria, and see whether it would be acceptable?

I am very worried about what is happening, not from a party-political point of view, but simply from the point of view of how all this is going to work in practice. I hope that the Minister might take away what I have said and have a think about it.

Lord Jopling Portrait Lord Jopling (Con)
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My Lords, there are good many issues on which I have sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Liddle. I am bound to say, however, that I have played no part whatever in the evolution of this scheme and was intrigued to see the decision the Minister has come to. Like the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, I have always been an enthusiast for unitary authorities, and I am glad to see that that is coming to Cumbria.

I have a good deal of experience of Cumbria. I went to school there and represented Westmorland and then Westmorland and Lonsdale for 33 years, and like the noble Lord’s wife—perhaps she is not former—I am a former deputy lieutenant of Cumbria. Therefore, I believe I have some locus to speak in this debate.

I am bound to say that if we are going to split Cumbria in two, having a compartmentalisation of east and west seems logical. In the west of the county, the barrier from the coast to Dunmail Raise and Shap Fell is a very real barrier with the mountains. I can see the logic of that. The eastern part of Cumbria as it is now, with the M6 motorway, is much more accessible than the western part, therefore I can see the logic of an east/west divide.

What I really wanted to say is that I am delighted to see the proposal to reintroduce the name of Westmorland. I can remember my dismay when the county of Westmorland disappeared following the 1972 Act. In fact, one of the few things of Westmorland that continued was because of something that happened immediately after the 1972 Act. A celebrated historian from Appleby approached me and said: “Don’t you think that the tragedy of losing the name Westmorland could be revived by renaming Appleby as Appleby-in-Westmorland?” I remember putting an Early Day Motion down in another place and gathering a great many signatures around the bars and restaurants at the other end of this building. In the end, Peter Walker, who was then the Secretary of State, agreed that we should rename the ancient capital of Westmorland as it is now well known.

I have one or two queries over this. When he introduced this provision, the Minister said that there would be no change with regard to the lord-lieutenant. If we are going to have two county councils, and if it should become desirable to have two lords-lieutenant—and I cannot see why it should not—what is the procedure to create new lords-lieutenants? Can he tell us? He may not have it, although I see that he has just been handed a piece of paper. Clearly, Her Majesty has to come into this but, at the moment, there has been an informal convention in Cumbria, or there was one in my time, that the lieutenancy tended to alternate between north and south of Shap Fell. As the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, said, there is great diversity in Cumbria, and I have always noticed the diversity between those who live north and those who live south of Shap Fell. They are very different communities in all sorts of ways. Perhaps the Minister cannot tell me immediately what the procedure would be for allowing there to be a lord-lieutenant for each of the new counties.

Finally, I want to ask another question. When Peter Walker introduced the 1972 Act, which did away with the historic county of Westmorland, which was exactly what my old constituency used to be, there was a threat to some of the old traditions. I am thinking particularly of the mayoralty of Kendal, a historic borough with a mayor, historic connections to Catherine Parr and Henry VIII, a whole regalia and a number of things that surround the mayoralty. That was threatened and, again, a number of us who represented areas similar to the one that I had in Kendal formed up to Peter Walker and insisted that those old historic traditions would continue. I hope that the Minister can tell us that there will be no change whatever with regard to the mayoralty of Kendal. Of course, Kendal has been part of South Lakeland District Council for all those years, and that was really the way we got around it.

As I say, I have played no part in the arguments over the creation of these two new authorities, and I wish them well.

Lord Shipley Portrait Lord Shipley (LD)
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It has been very interesting to listen to the noble Lords, Lord Henley, Lord Liddle and Lord Jopling, giving to the Committee the benefit of their personal experience and opinion on what should happen. I shall try to avoid taking a perspective about Cumbria from my vantage point on the east of the Pennines. It suspect is a complicated matter. Cumbria is a very large county, geographically, and has a substantial population, and it has a diversity to which I think the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, referred, which is extremely important. I hope that when he replies, the Minister will give specific answers to the points raised by those noble Lords who reside in the county of Cumbria or have represented it and know it, and others will be following to talk about that.

I am a bit puzzled about timing now. The noble Lord, Lord Liddle, reminded us about the elections to the shadow councils, so in his reply can the Minister tell us when they will be? It seems we do not have a lot of time. There are a lot of operational issues that need to be right. Of course, we are at the end of the consideration in parliamentary terms and it may be everybody is already prepared for what is about to happen, but I think the Minister should make absolutely clear that everything can be done in the timescales that have been set out.
This order makes substantial changes to local government in Cumbria. I recall the establishment, almost 50 years ago, of the current structure out of Cumberland, Westmorland, parts of north Lancashire and a small part of west Yorkshire. We should all pay tribute to the councillors and officers who, over those years, have contributed to the success of local government across Cumbria at all levels.
I accept that times change, and here is a set of structural changes that seems to have some local support, but not from everyone as the consultation has shown. As I said earlier, it is not for me to question local views in Cumbria or to express a preference, but I agree with the Government’s approach, which has been to say that the creation of unitary councils must be locally led and not imposed by central government.
In this case, the east/west proposal was proposed locally, but it has to be agreed by central government. There were other possible outcomes and the wide range of responses to them, as part of the consultation, was extremely important, so when I look at the support for other proposals, I begin to wonder whether all the consultation has been adequately considered.
I read the Explanatory Memorandum very carefully and think its assertion that the two new unitary councils will provide “greater value for money” and “stronger strategic … leadership” could prove to be true. I am less certain about its assertion that local leadership will be strengthened. It may well be, and it can be, but the Government and the two unitaries will need to ensure that the parish and town council tiers, which represent very local areas, have the powers, resources and support they need to be effective.
The words “credible geography” feature several times in the Explanatory Memorandum to the order. From my knowledge of Cumbria, there is no perfect answer to this. I am sure the Minister will agree that mountain ranges can be a serious barrier to effective working, as paragraph 10.11 suggests in relation to the north/south proposal, but scale is a big issue as well. With all that said, in my view, the east/west proposal can be made to work, as long as there is a strong tier below the unitary level.
I have some doubts around the proposals on fire and rescue. They will need close attention over the coming months because of the pressures of distance across Cumbria and the limited resources that will apply, given the cuts that have been made to local government budgets. The Government have spelled out the options to consider and, whatever choice is made, it must command local consent. I would prefer to see a joint board arrangement between the two councils, rather than simply enhancing the power of the police and crime commissioner, but that is for the people of Cumbria to decide.
Joint working between the two unitaries and the joint committees being proposed to make sure the unitaries are in place on time are very important. That is why I also think it a good thing that in the order there is a clearly defined duty on the existing councils to co-operate.
I hope the Minister will be able to say more about the proposal for a single unitary council for the whole of the county, why the Government rejected it and how the preference for the east/west proposal emerged. It seems to me that a single unitary is very big and it is difficult to deliver local leadership with a single unitary council. The scale and diversity of Cumbria has to be understood in the proposals being made.
Finally, I take very seriously the points that have been made by all noble Lords and, in particular, those made by the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, on the mayoral combined authority. It would be distinctly unwise to pursue a mayoral combined authority. It centralises power so much in a very large geographical area that I cannot see it working. Unless the powers and resources of town and parish councils are significantly enhanced, I fear the model will not work. I hope the Minister will tell us that this is not on the Government’s agenda. Can all this be done in the timescales the Government have set if this order is progressed quickly? I think the Minister needs to bear in mind that there are still a very large number of open-ended questions that have not been resolved.
Baroness Hayman of Ullock Portrait Baroness Hayman of Ullock (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing this statutory instrument, which is the first of three instruments on structural changes that we will discuss today. I have a particular interest in this instrument as it is about changes to the council structure in Cumbria, which is where I live. In fact, I live in the west, so I can vouch for its complete inaccessibility, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Jopling. It is another issue that we should return to another day. I was a member of Cumbria County Council alongside my noble friend Lord Liddle.

I am sure that the Minister is aware that the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee marked this and the two other draft statutory instruments we are going to discuss as instruments of interest, because some questions remain on the criteria for the approval of unitarisation. The Explanatory Memoranda set out the feedback received during consultation on the different proposals. The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, noted that according to the Government this should be locally led and command a good deal of local support. The Explanatory Memoranda show that not all chosen proposals received majority support from local residents during consultation. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, mentioned his concerns about the consultation on these proposals. Can the Minister confirm that the Government are properly applying the criteria when making decisions on new unitary authorities?

The area where concern has been expressed is about local support for the proposals. I am not particularly convinced that there has been genuine public enthusiasm for the proposals in Cumbria. My noble friend Lord Liddle eloquently expressed, in great detail, the concerns about splitting the county in two and the impact it will have on critical services such as education, social care, children’s services and highways, all of which are in need of greatly improved resources and support.

In his introduction, the Minister reminded noble Lords that the Government were presented with four proposals and eventually went with the east/west proposal we have been discussing, which creates two unitary authorities, one in the east and one in the west of the county. He also said that the east/west proposal received “some support”. But it did not receive support from the majority of respondents to the local consultation; only the proposal for the Bay did that. We have heard what that would do so I will not go into the details.

Basically, the residents did not believe that the east/west proposal offered a reasonable geography, which is one of the criteria for the creation of a unitary authority set out by the Government. The Government’s criteria also state that successful proposals need to deliver good public services and improve local governance, yet the residents who were consulted did not all believe that this was the right proposal for Cumbria in that regard. My noble friend Lord Liddle talked about the concerns around delivering public services well in Cumbria, after dividing the county into two unitaries.

The parish and town councils were also more in favour of the proposal for the Bay than others, with 28% saying that it would improve services. Even among local businesses that proposal was more highly favoured than the east/west proposal, because it was felt that it had the most credibility when it came to geography— another criterion that the Secretary of State looked at. So I ask the Minister: why was an option chosen that received less support and was not felt by a majority of local people to fulfil the Government’s criteria?

My noble friend Lord Liddle mentioned the fire service. This is particularly important when it comes to Cumbria because, unlike in most areas, fire and rescue services are still delivered by the county council. The Fire Brigades Union is particularly concerned about how this will affect the responsibilities of the fire and rescue service, and about funding pressures and the potential cuts the service might face due to restructuring, as it might have to be divided between the two new unitary authorities.

I know that DLUHC has said that further secondary legislation will be brought forward once a decision has been made on this. The Government have said that they intend to maintain the fire service on a county-wide basis, subject to local consultation. It would be really helpful if the Minister could expand on this and provide an update. If he does not have that now, it would be good if we could all be kept in touch with that as those proposals go forward. As noble Lords have said, there is not a lot of time. We are on a fairly tight timescale.

Before I talk briefly about the issue I discussed with the Minister earlier today, I say that I am particularly interested to hear his response to the different concerns raised by my noble friend Lord Liddle.

Finally, I discussed with the Minister earlier—and I thank him for his time and attention in this matter—the concerns that there is a significant omission in the order, in that it would mean that Carlisle would lose its city status. A similar order has been laid that abolishes the district and county councils in North Yorkshire and establishes the North Yorkshire unitary authority. My concern is that these have been set up differently. The former MP for Carlisle, Eric Martlew, drew this to our attention, and I thank him for that.

Carlisle has a rich history and has enjoyed the title of city since 1133. Its original charter was lost in 1292, when much of the city was destroyed by fire, but a new royal charter was granted in 1352 by Edward III. I am sure noble Lords can appreciate Carlisle’s rich history but, because it is an unparished area, there is no parish or town council for Carlisle’s charter to pass to when this legislation comes into force. So the options open to Carlisle are to either form a town council or create charter trustees, so that the city charter can pass to them and it does not lose that status.

I thank the Minister for confirming that charter trustees will be appointed and that Carlisle will not lose its city status. My concern with this, which I raised with the Minister earlier, is that where this issue arose with regard to the change order for North Yorkshire, and the rights and privileges held by Harrogate and Scarborough, to ensure that their charters remained, the structural changes order for North Yorkshire, which we will debate next, makes specific provision for charter trustees in the unparished areas of Harrogate and Scarborough, thereby ensuring that

“any historic rights and privileges associated with those local government areas which will be abolished can be maintained and vest in the Charter Trustees for the relevant area where there is no parish or town council.”

Again, I thank the Minister for his attention. Is the reason why they are different just an admin error? I am interested to know why they have been set up differently. I planned to ask for this statutory instrument to be withdrawn until this was corrected, but I am happy to take the Minister’s assurances at the Dispatch Box that Carlisle will not lose city status, which were extremely helpful. Can he also confirm that a confirmation order will be laid to set up the charter trustees, as he explained to me earlier? It is important that the historic rights and privileges of the city of Carlisle are maintained when the city council is abolished.

Lord Greenhalgh Portrait Lord Greenhalgh (Con)
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My Lords, I am ashamed to say that in my time on this earth, I have not set foot in glorious Cumbria, so I have learned an awful lot. One thing that I will take away is that I must visit the place. I understand that it is very rural. It is quite interesting to note how the geography is such that there are natural divisions too. That was set out incredibly helpfully by my noble friend Lord Jopling.

I always enjoy the experiences that noble Lords bring to bear. I listened very carefully to the speech from the noble Lord, Lord Liddle. However, I am calculating, at 59 minutes and 38 seconds, and having had quite a late night the night before, when we are likely to finish these three statutory instruments. However, I will do my best to respond.

My understanding of the point around preserving the city status of Carlisle is that Cumbria simply did not ask for it, whereas North Yorkshire did. It is just a process of responding to the customer, rather than an intention not to do it. Therefore, the assurance is very sincere. We will produce whatever orders that we must. It has been written out, so we have that assurance that the process will go ahead irrespective of what we have set out in the order. It does not have to be done in the same way to get to the same end point. Noble Lords have had my assurance at the Dispatch Box. It is clear that the councils want that, so it is not a problem.

I have some experience in delivering council services, so I will respond directly to the central point made by the noble Lord, Lord Liddle. Philosophically I agree with him that where possible you build bridges rather than walls, and that with services such as adult social care, which is typically about a third of a council’s budget, you had better not split the overhead of commissioning the service, but it is very possible. For instance, when I was the leader of the council in Hammersmith and Fulham we had a voluntary arrangement with neighbouring councils to bring together the commissioning of adult social care across three London boroughs, but we had very different entry criteria into the social care system. You could save on the overhead by collaborating with other councils but have very different criteria. I am very proud that my council had the best entry criteria into the social care system, extending right through to people in greater moderate need, which is very rare in local government these days, particularly with the increasingly ageing population. Therefore, you can do both if you want to. That requires local leadership, above all, but there is nothing in this structure, east/west, that would stop that sort of arrangement taking place as a possible outcome, where you can create two different entry points but share the overhead of the delivery of the service.

I really appreciated the point made by my noble friend Lord Jopling. The reality is that the units of local government, if we think strategically, become awfully large. A stat that is not in my speaking notes but which really interests me is that the average unit of local government in Switzerland is 3,733. In the United States it is 8,333. In Germany, it is 7,454. In the United Kingdom, it is 155,000. Therefore, I have great sympathy with the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, that we must ensure that we do not forget the tiers, the town and parish councils, and their contributions to their local areas, particularly more rural areas as opposed to cities. There is no intention of changing that structure from this order. I give that reassurance. It is about ensuring that the funding flows down through local government to the lowest tier. Sometimes it does, sometimes it does not, but we are not changing that structure in this order. I note the important contribution that parish and town councillors make to their local area.

I will respond directly to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, who speaks with great experience of Cumbria—I have admitted my own failings in that regard. I understand that the criterion is not about a majority: it is whether there is a good level of support. In this case, two proposals had a good level of support. It is not a referendum, where you win if you get more votes. That is essentially the answer to that question. In the round, there are three criteria and then you form a judgment. I tried to set that out as best I could in my speech. Any Government will take those three points and form a view. There are pluses and minuses for different routes, and the Secretary of State took a decision in the round on the three criteria that I set out in my speech.

I was worried by some of the comments about elections, but I assure noble Lords—and the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, in particular—that elections to the new unitary authorities will take place as scheduled in May 2022. The councils will be in shadow form until they take on their new, full powers on 1 April 2023, and they will serve until May 2027. We are on track to deliver that. In response to my noble friend Lord Henley and the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, the order provides for the returning officers for the May 2022 elections, so we can be confident about the administration of those elections. The May elections will go ahead; we are on track for that. That is very important, given that, presumably, candidates are out there pounding the streets already.

My noble friend Lord Henley asked why 65 and why the wards are as they are. The warding arrangements are a local choice, and councils in both areas made their choices. It has been very much a bottom-up process. These arrangements are for the 2022 elections only. As I know from my experience in local authorities, the Electoral Commission will review ward boundaries and so forth, and then there will be representations, but this has been very much a bottom-up process.

I now have a series of attempts to respond to the very many points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Liddle. Candidly, I am unlikely to succeed in answering every question. If he wants to approach me afterwards, I will do my best to get a full response.

I have addressed the central issue, which is that you can split into two councils but not necessarily split services. It is also fair to say that many of the services are area-based and they may be a smaller part of the budget. Sometimes it is better to recognise that fact. Universal services are often organised on area lines, and so forth; it depends on the service areas of the council.

The noble Lord, Lord Liddle, invited me to comment on something said in the other place by my current boss, rather than my previous one. We do not have that interpretation when he said the word “yes”, which has been interpreted as there being great support for a particular person, as opposed to imposing mayors on a particular place. It is all down to interpretation. Of course, you cannot impose a mayor on a particular area, but yes, there is support for a particular candidate—if there were a mayor.

Lord Liddle Portrait Lord Liddle (Lab)
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Since this has caused quite a lot of local confusion, I ask that the Minister writes a letter to that effect explaining what Secretary of State Gove meant.

Lord Greenhalgh Portrait Lord Greenhalgh (Con)
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I think I have my “get out of jail free” card. I will write a very careful note responding to the point raised on the debate in the other place and ensure that I lay a copy in the Library.

I move on to a topic that I know a little bit better. I have spent just up to two years as Fire Minister now, which is actually quite a long time to survive as a Fire Minister for England, which includes Cumbria. We are about to launch a White Paper looking at reforming fire and rescue services. I assure people that we have thought very carefully about governance models that enable a move from the scrutiny-based arrangements we have typically seen to a more executive-based arrangement. That provides a county council model, as well as a PCC and mayoral model where appropriate. You can get single-person leadership and accountability through different governance models.

The PCC is currently consulting on fire going to the PCC. He needs to consult. Local people will have their say on that. Time will tell where we end up there, but that is the status at this time. We recognise the need to continue investing in our fire and rescue services to ensure that response times are effective and that we continue to see the downward trend in fires, as well as investment in capability, because they do so much more than that as a fire and rescue service, dealing with flooding and other events of considerable concern to the people of Cumbria.

I move on to the ceremonial points raised by my noble friend Lord Jopling. Everyone seems to have a special interest in the lord-lieutenancy, or the deputy lord-lieutenancy, whether current or past. We leave that alone with this order, so the current arrangements remain as they are. It is a matter for the Crown if it wishes to change the arrangements to reflect the new east/west divide. I am delighted that one of the benefits is to reinstate the proud status of Westmorland, as my noble friend raised. That is a matter for the Crown rather than the state, if you like, but it could come to pass. This order does not push that one way or the other.

Just for completeness—this will be my last point—in response to my noble friend Lord Jopling, the Kendal mayor is the mayor of Kendal Town Council. There will be no change to this town council or any other existing town council, as I said in response to the noble Lord, Lord Shipley.

This order seeks to respond to the local area. I say to people of clear Cumbrian heritage, who have served the people of Cumbria, that in essence the order will largely restore a structure that local people will recognise, which will provide much benefit and, I hope, stand the test of time.

Motion agreed.