John Stevenson: I am grateful for the opportunity to say a few words about amendment 50, which I tabled. I will be interested to hear what the Minister says, but it is not my intention to press it to a vote.
As the Minister is well aware, I fully support the Government’s overall aims and intentions. It is sensible that this is an enabling Bill and that it allows the maximum possible flexibility. I think that it will lead to innovation and fresh thinking not just at the national level, but at the local level. Indeed over the past few years, local authorities have demonstrated that they are innovative and that they can change.
I appreciate that the Government want to reform local government with the support of local government. The Bill gives local government the opportunity to step up to the plate and embrace these opportunities. It gives local authorities the chance to take responsibility, to take on more powers and to achieve an awful lot more for their communities. I understand that the Government do not want to impose things on local authorities, but to discuss and negotiate with them in order to come to a deal that is beneficial for central and local government.
A key part of this change is not only about powers, but about governance and structure. There has been an extensive discussion about elected mayors, of which I am an enthusiastic supporter. Indeed, I believe that elected mayors should be the default position for all councils throughout the country. I will continue to support and encourage that idea. However, I accept that the Government want local areas to come up with their own solutions and ideas for change on both governance and structure. I understand the thinking behind that.
I do, however, have some concerns. If I may take this opportunity to be rather parochial, I would like to talk a little about Cumbria. I suspect that other areas face similar circumstances, but I will just discuss my own county. Cumbria has been described as a county that is over-governed and under-led. We have more than 380 councillors and seven councils, yet we have only half a million people. That system was created in 1974 and is now clearly not fit for purpose. It is recognised by everybody locally, including all the political parties, industry, business, the health service and local people, that it has to change, and that it has to do so soon if it is to be part of the devolutionary changes that are happening and to take the opportunities that are available to local government.
However, there is a potential problem. That is why I tabled amendment 50. I believe that it is wrong in a two-tier area for one authority effectively to have a veto
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over any change, even if it is a sensible and well-supported proposal made by the rest of the county and all the other districts. That allows one authority to stop popular and vital reforms going ahead. Anyone who understands Cumbrian politics will know that that is a distinct possibility.
Amendment 50 is not about allowing central Government to impose their will over what happens in Cumbria—I want to emphasise that. It is about stopping one authority denying progressive change that is in the interests of people throughout Cumbria. Cumbria is an obvious example of this problem because six of its authorities could be prevented from bringing about badly needed and well-supported reform by one maverick authority.
Mr Rees-Mogg: I am very interested in the point that my hon. Friend is making, but concerned that his proposal would undermine one of the principles behind what the Government are doing, which is to ensure that there is consent for the proposals. Does he feel that if what he is describing were to happen, it would be right to have a referendum to ensure that people were not having decisions made for them wrongly by the hierarchy above them?
John Stevenson: I do not feel that a referendum would be necessary, because the councillors on the various councils are the elected representatives of the people. My concern is that one authority might dig its heels in and prevent change that is in the beneficial interests of the rest of the council and all the other districts, particularly given that sacrifices will be made by those districts and the county council.
I ask the Minister to give serious consideration to what I consider to be a modest and sensible amendment. I look forward to him accepting it on Report.
Mr Betts: I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) said about the need for a wider constitutional settlement. That was apposite, and at some point we will have to address those issues. I agree with his points about subsidiarity and taking that below the level of an individual local authority, and about encouraging the process down.
Fiscal devolution is a challenge, and Members have reflected different perspectives from different parts of the country. It is a challenge, but not one that we should duck. I am Chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee, which the hon. Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) sat on in the previous Parliament. He made important and valuable contributions to our report. We found a way to take on board proposals from the London Finance Commission about the wider devolution of property taxes, while recognising the need to protect areas that will perhaps struggle to raise business rates and other property taxes easily, or to get back money from areas that simply watch property prices rise and receive enormous windfalls. We must have balance in the system.
The Committee has begun an inquiry into the workings of devolution and the Bill, but since then the Chancellor has made his announcement about the full localisation of business rates. The Committee will want to come back and look at how that will be done. I think most Members would support the principle behind such a move, but how will we implement it to ensure protection
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for poorer areas? How will we devolve more powers to local government to take account of the extra money made available as part of that process?