Lord Henley debates involving the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities during the 2019 Parliament

Cumbria (Structural Changes) Order 2022

Lord Henley Excerpts
Wednesday 9th March 2022

(2 years, 3 months ago)

Grand Committee
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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.