Wednesday 9th March 2022

(2 years, 4 months ago)

Grand Committee
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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.

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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.

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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.