Unitary Councils

Return to Homepage

Commons Hansard
22 Jan 2007

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I have a simple question: does the hon. Lady support the Conservative leader of Cumbria county council in wanting a unitary authority for that county?

Mrs. Spelman: If one is a serious localist, one should support the view of democratically elected local councillors. They, in turn, need the evidence of local opinion. Given the Government's time scale, however, with two days remaining until the deadline, how is it practically possible, in places such as Durham, to establish that view?


5.51 p.m.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): I am pleased to follow the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry). His speech was wide-ranging, but mine will be parochial. However, I agree with him that unitary authorities should be relatively small.

I welcome much of the Bill, but the time scale for putting forward proposals is very short, and it concerns me that there is a narrow window of opportunity. The date for proposals is 25 January. Cumbria has one county council and six district councils, and in areas such as Cumbria it will be difficult for the district councils to come forward with a proposal. Therefore, I think that the time scale is too short - although there are those who will say that if district councils were to have a year in which to come forward with a proposal they would find it difficult to do so.

Let me go into the history of Cumbria. It was created in 1974 by a Tory Government. There was no logic behind its formation. It took in Cumberland, Westmorland, the county borough of Carlisle, the Furness part of Lancashire including Barrow, and a little bit of Yorkshire. The intention behind the formation of that county was to create an authority that would not be controlled by the Labour party. It would not have been possible to create it without the M6; it is, in fact, a motorway county. It can take two hours or more to drive from one side of the county to the other, even on the motorway.

Cumbria was never the right solution. The right solution might have been to create Cumberland with the county borough of Carlisle inside it. If we look at the mountain ranges in Cumbria, we can see that that is why Cumberland was formed. We have an affinity with the North-East. Westmorland and the Furness area, which have an affinity with the north-west, should have formed another authority that looked towards the north-west.

I am now going to bore Members by talking about my personal local government history. Before reorganisation, I served on the Carlisle borough council - I know I do not look old enough to have done so, but I did - and I was also a member of Cumbria county council and of the Cumbrian health authority. I chaired both the county council and the health authority, so I know the problems that they face at first hand, and one of the problems is the county's size.

There is no overall media coverage or local newspaper for the county - although there are about six or seven local newspapers. The ITV station for the area covers only half the county. The BBC splits coverage; programmes for the southern half of the county come from Manchester and those in the north come from Newcastle. It tried to put them together in the '80s, but it had to return to how things were before because nobody watched. People will say, "We have Radio Cumbria," but those who can remember will remind them that we used to have Radio Furness as well but that that was done away with for economic reasons only.

There is no real affinity. The Minister's constituency of Oldham, East and Saddleworth is as near to Barrow as Carlisle is to Barrow, and there is more affinity between Barrow and Oldham because they were both part of Lancashire at one time. Therefore, Cumbria is vast, and it is not a county, but a sub-region. A look at the map reveals that it comprises 48 per cent. of the north-west region.

The majority of the population of Cumbria lives on the periphery because of the mountains. We have six district councils, because it was deemed necessary to have six of them to represent the various communities. There are also five distinct accents in Cumbria, of which I have one. It is a very big area.

Because of its size, Cumbria county council has never been particularly successful. I used to be its chairman and a couple of years ago I had an Adjournment debate because the council was so bad. I asked the Government to take back and look after children in social services. Recently - until this week - three secondary schools in my constituency were failing; fortunately, the Roman Catholic school, Newman, has just succeeded in coming out of special measures.

The county council has put forward a proposal to become a unitary authority. It was interesting that the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) did not endorse the leader of the county council, who is a Conservative, in terms of that proposal. I am in a cleft stick because I believe that we need to have unitary authorities. A case can be made for Carlisle to be a unitary authority, but the city council has decided not to follow that path. If any of the districts could become a unitary authority, it is Carlisle. It has a population of about 110,000, and the population in its central urban area is about 80,000.

We have had only one proposal. I can give two options. In 2004, the boundary committee for England recommended that the county be split north and south. That is similar to the boundary proposal that the districts of Allerdale, Copeland, Carlisle and Eden form one unitary authority, and that Barrow-in-Furness and South Lakeland - and I would prefer Lancashire and Morecambe to be included, too - form a southern one. That is one option that we should look at. The other option is for there to be a unitary Cumbria with beefed-up area councils.

The current proposal is to run Cumbria with the same number of councillors as Sheffield is run with - this matter is mentioned in the White Paper and the Government did not do justice to Cumbria by doing so. They intend that Cumbria should be run with 84 councillors. The Government talk about front-line councillors. In fact, what they are really talking about in Cumbria - and, I am afraid, in a lot of other places - is full-time councillors. Given that it takes perhaps two hours to drive to a council meeting and two hours to drive back again, young people with children will not be able to become Cumbria county councillors. All those years ago, young people like me were able to get time off from their careers, bring some expertise to the council and give something back to the local community; however, that will not be possible. I know what the public think, but councillors are not well paid and they do not get good allowances. All that a unitary county council the size of Cumbria will get is retired people. Only they will be able to take part in such a council, which will have the functions not only of the existing county council, but of the districts.

Daniel Kawczynski: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Martlew: In a moment. The idea is to increase the number of area councillors to four - one for west Cumbria, one for Carlisle, one for Eden and South Lakes and one for Barrow and Furness - and to delegate massive powers to them while the centre sets the precept and plays a strategic role, thereby providing all the savings that a local authority would provide. However, the problem is that Cumbria county council did not consult anybody; it simply decided that that was the option and that such a council would be run with the same number of councillors. I suspect that they will run it as well as it ran the county council.

So although I am in favour of unitary authorities I cannot support a Cumbria unitary authority, which would be an absolute disaster. In fact, I would prefer the current two-tier local government arrangement. If I have read the Bill right, although the Government are saying that there is only a narrow window of opportunity, the reality is that the powers in the Bill will enable this or another Secretary of State to alter local government boundaries, or to have unitary authorities at a later stage. Before the Minister goes ahead and gives the okay for a unitary Cumbria, will he talk to the county and district councils and bang their heads together? Will he talk to the local MPs and see whether he can come up with a sensible solution that will give us local democracy and save the council tax payer money? That is essential. As I said, I prefer the current option to a unitary Cumbria.

6.2 p.m.


Mr. Martlew: I have great admiration for the hon. Gentleman, but when he was an MP for Bury, did he vote in favour of the poll tax?

Alistair Burt: The poll tax and history! How many years is that going to be tried on? Does the hon. Gentleman use it in every debate? History has moved on. It is not the poll tax that will be the deciding issue at the next general election, but this Government's deceit, the way in which they control and centralise power, how they have let people down on health, education and the police, and the way in which they will turn off the tap. That is what people will judge by at the next election. Enough is enough.

Return to Homepage | House of Commons Contents

On behalf of Eric Martlew, 3 Chatsworth Square Carlisle Cumbria CA1 1HB