§ 4.6 pm
§ The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. David Hunt)
With permission, Mr.Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the future of local government in Wales.
When I first met the Welsh local authority associations just over a year ago in January 1991 to discuss my review, they impressed upon me the widespread consensus throughout Wales for the establishment of unitary authorities in the Principality. Last June I published a consultation paper, in which I said that unitary authorities represented the best way forward for local government in Wales to meet the challenges of the future. I called for an extensive and wide-ranging debate. The Welsh local government associations and thousands of members of the public joined that debate, together, of course, with Members from all parts of the House. This has been a productive and an instructive exercise in consultation.
I now put before the House the conclusions that I have reached. The local government system which should emerge from this review should permit local people to understand the role of local government, enable them to identify with it, and provide them in a responsive way with high quality services efficiently and economically. I therefore reaffirm that there should be a single tier of unitary authorities throughout Wales, to replace the present two-tier structure.
I propose to replace the present eight county councils and 37 district councils with 23 unitary authorities. I am placing in the Library and in the Vote Office copies of a map illustrating these proposals. In preparing this plan, I have observed the district building-block approach set out in my consultation paper, as likely to produce the least possible disruption to Welsh local government, but I am inviting further views on whether that approach should be modified in particular cases.
My approach in identifying these 23 authorities has been as follows. First, I want to restore to the largest centres of population—Cardiff, Swansea, Newport and also to Wrexham—full control over their own affairs.
Secondly, in the rural areas I want to see local government based on the traditional counties, such as Penbrokeshire, Montgomeryshire, Cardiganshire and Anglesey and, of course, we recognise the position of Meirionnyddshire and Carmarthenshire. I shall consult further on whether to extend that approach to separate authorities for Radnorshire and Brecknock.
Thirdly in the south Wales valleys I want as far as possible to take account of the intense local loyalties that are such a feature of the area. Taking account of demographic and other factors, however, I also consider it necessary for some of the present district councils in the valleys to come together to form new unitary authorities.
These are detailed proposals, to which the House will wish to give careful consideration. Let me make it clear that, once the new authorities that I have proposed are in place, I will wish the Local Government Boundary Commission to examine their boundaries to ensure that any minor anomalies can be dealt with as quickly as possible. That is a most important part of the process.
Let me now turn to the delivery of services under the structure that I have proposed. I have made clear my commitment to increased efficiency and cost-effectiveness 172 and my determination that the real administrative cost of service delivery should not be greater than under the existing structure. My proposals reflect that approach.
I repeat that I am looking for the efficient, effective and economical delivery of high-quality services. I do not want a proliferation of joint-board arrangements to deliver the present county services. I should remind the House, however, that the delivery of the law and order and fire services requires special consideration in that respect. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor—in relation to magistrates courts—will be undertaking their own consultations with respect to those services.
In general, though, I shall be looking to the new unitary authorities to provide the full range of local government services that are now provided by county and district councils, as I set out in the consultation paper. The rapid development of the enabling role of local government, and voluntary co-operation between authorities—including agency agreements—mean that services can be delivered efficiently and economically, without the need for excessive and centralised bureaucracy in large and remote units of local government. I have already had detailed discussions about that with the local authority associations, and I shall wish to consult further about putting in place appropriate arrangements for individual services.
Let me make it absolutely clear that the reorganisation that I propose must not lead to an increase in the cost of local government; that is quite unnecessary. I am satisfied that the structure that I have announced today should cost no more than the present system, and, indeed, should be capable of producing some savings. I shall be looking to ensure that that happens.
One matter on which there has been many responses in consultation is the future role of community councils. My consultation paper made clear the importance that I attach to them, especially in their role as the voice of their communities. It has, however, been put to me that the role and place of community councils in Welsh local government is of sufficient importance to merit a separate consultation exercise. I agree, and I intend to publish a further consultation paper on the subject in due course.
The House will, of course, wish to know about my plans to implement the proposals. Following the further round of consultation, I intend to publish, later this year, a White Paper setting out my final decisions. I shall then present a Bill as soon as possible. I propose to take powers to establish a residuary body to wind up existing authorities' affairs, and a staff commission to protect the interests of local government staff during the transition.
My proposals represent a fundamental change in Welsh local government. I believe that they are bold, challenging and realistic; and they build on a wide consensus in Wales that the time for unitary authorities is now. The local government structure that I have outlined today will, I believe, serve Wales well as we move into the 21st century, and I commend the proposals to the House.
§ Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside)
Is not the Secretary of State aware that his consultation process has been completely inadequate and that the imminent general election should not be the reason for this botched statement made on the back of a Tory central office envelope? Are not the Government seeking to divide and rule, seeking to divide the Welsh district councils from the Welsh county councils on the eve of a general election?
173 Does the Secretary of State understand that we also accept that community councils are important units of local government?
Have not some of the proposed council boundaries been drawn more with an eye on the electoral process than on best forms of local government? In other words, it smacks of gerrymandering, and the statement is also an attempt to divert the attention of the people of Wales from the worrying state of the economy, the national health service, the education service and homelessness in Wales, as well as from the impact of the poll tax in Wales. The objective behind the timing of the statement is to throw dust into the eyes of the people of Wales to prevent them seeing the real issues at this time.
Has not the Labour party set the agenda for unitary authorities in Wales? Is it not the case that our detailed proposals have been on the table for two years? Was not the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor—the right hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker)—responsible for the previous mistakes in local government reorganisation? Has not the 1973–74 reform cost millions and millions of pounds which have been wasted? It was a ruinously expensive failure by the Conservatives.
On the numbers of local authorities to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, does he not recognise that his proposals for 23 unitary authorities will not necessarily create the efficient and effective structures of local government which the people of Wales require? Does the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that we have proposed unitary authorities in the upper twenties and that we shall now scrutinise everything most carefully? We are not convinced that the proposals will necessarily lead to the most efficient and effective delivery of local services.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Government have undermined local democracy by taking away powers through the poll tax, and that if that undermining of local government continues, the structure of local government is academic? Would not a fourth Tory term of office—no matter what the structures—mean centralisation, diktat from Whitehall and an end to local democracy?
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, if the new authorities are to survive the test of time, they must be linked to the communities that they represent? Artificial and made-up authorities for merely political purposes will not be good enough. I note the link of, for example, Wrexham and Deeside with incredulity. I have previously advised the right hon. Gentleman not to be so silly. Should he not acknowledge that the north is very complicated? Is it not the case that, as a Secretary of State with an English constituency, he frequently misjudges and overlooks the passionate commitment to community in the valleys, in our steel towns and also in the quarry towns in the north? If he ignores local traditions—wherever they may be—he does so at his peril.
Why has the right hon. Gentleman ignored the consensus on an assembly for Wales? Why is he dragging his feet? Why has he failed even to refer to his tame nominated economic forum? Is it because, as The Daily Telegraph said last week, the Cabinet has thrown it out on the Prime Minister's instructions? Has not the right hon. Gentleman been made to back-track on even the first hesitant step to decentralisation? Is it not a complete waste of money to reorganise local government and not to plan for an assembly?
174 The statement seeks to divide and rule. It is based on insufficient consultation. It is constructed and timed with the general election in mind. It fails to propose an assembly. There is the whiff of gerrymandering. Above all, it seeks to divert attention from the state of the economy, from unemployment in Wales, from homelessness, from crumbling schools and from the Government's attitude to the national health service. It is a missed opportunity, and at the general election it will be rejected.
§ Mr. Hunt
There were 10 points there, and the hon. Gentleman helpfully summarised them in his conclusion. The first point was inadequate consultation. I have already made the House aware that I first announced the review to local authority associations in January 1991. I then published a consultation paper in June 1991. So much for the back-of-the-envelope consultations and design. On 24 September, I had a meeting of the Welsh Consultative Council on Local Government, a further meeting on 6 November, a further meeting on 2 December, a further meeting on 16 December and a further meeting on 27 January, with meetings of the structures group, the statistical sub-group and the finance sub-group. Inadequate consultation? There has been extensive consultation.
§ Mr. Hunt
The hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) shouts out that I ignored it all. The point is either that there was inadequate consultation or that there was adequate consultation but I did not listen to the hon. Gentleman's points.
The second point made by the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) was that the proposals were gerrymandering I have pointed out, and pointed out again to the House today, that I am using the existing building blocks of district councils. I am asking the local government boundary commission to look at boundaries, but I have not sought to change the boundaries. I have built on the existing blocks.
The third point was that the proposals were a diversion —an attempt to make people in Wales forget about the economic bad news. I have news for the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside. If he carefully scrutinises the newspapers in Wales, he will see that there is a consensus that Wales is coming out of recession. I quote the headline of one article yesterday: "Wales set to lead UK upturn". The hon. Gentleman is losing so far.
The hon. Gentleman then said that Labour's agenda for local government had been in place for two years. I have news for the hon. Gentleman. I have read carefully through Labour's proposals. As I understand it, the first proposal, some two and a half years ago, was that all the country and district councilsshould be abolished and replaced with a single tier of between 17 and 25 most-purpose local authorities in Wales for all local government functions.There was then some discontent in the Labour party about the proposals. There was then a rethink—not proposals that were two years in place, but a rethink.
The latest idea is that there is to be a Welsh assembly, although the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) has thrown further doubt on that—
§ Mr. Hunt
On the proposals for local authorities, although conference—I quote from the document—agreed in 1989 thatthe number should be between 17 and 25, we have now decided that the view should be changed and that we should have between 25 and 30 most-purpose local authorities.That is hardly an agenda that has been in place for two years.
The fifth point is that I am undermining local government. If the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside looks at his proposals, he will see that he proposes a Welsh assembly which would look after, for example, special education, housing, health and community care, and planning and development control. It is also proposed that most-purpose authorities would look after schools, housing, health and community care, and local planning and development control. That is a recipe for utter confusion. I have said that local government responsibilities will continue as before, as outlined in the consultation paper.
The hon. Member then said that I had made a mistake in failing to recognise the unitary authority of Alyn and Deeside. The hon. Gentleman wrote to me suggesting that, and I replied that I would find it helpful if I could see how he envisaged the future of Alyn and Deeside as a unitary authority set against all the other unitary authorities in Wales. I invited him to let me have this proposals—on a map—for local authorities in Wales. I have yet to receive a reply.
The hon. Gentleman's seventh point was that I ignored local traditions at my peril. In fact, I have sought to recognise and strengthen local communities.
The hon. Gentleman's eighth point was that I had ignored the consensus for a Welsh assembly. I do not believe that there is such a consensus. I would merely refer the hon. Gentleman to the referendum, which established by a 4:1 majority that the people of Wales were not in favour of a Welsh assembly. Moreover, that proposal does not sit easily with the hon. Gentleman's notion of local authority control. I believe that his proposals for an assembly would take power and money from local authorities and the communities they serve, and that the systemwould be even more centralised than the present system.Those are not my words but the words of the Leader of the Opposition. quoted on 27 February 1979 in the South Wales Argus. The hon. Gentleman's ninth point was that I had dropped the idea of an economic forum. I must tell him that I am still considering a proposal to that effect from the Council of Welsh Districts.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman said that I had produced the proposals with the general election in mind. I hope that people in Wales recognise that these are ideas from a Government who intend to remain in office. I do not intend to stand idly by and allow Wales to return to the failed policies that the hon. Gentleman stood for when he was last in office. I want it to move forward with the progressive pragmatic policies of this Government.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I remind the House that it is unusual to have two statements on a day on which the main business is subject to a timetable motion. I will allow questions on the statement to continue until 10 minutes to 176 5; then we will move on to the ten-minute Bill. We must be on the main business by 5 o'clock. May I ask for brief questions—and also, please, for brief answers?
§ Mr. Ian Grist (Cardiff, Central)
Does my right hon. Friend understand that his statement will be warmly welcomed throughout Wales and particularly in the capital city of Cardiff, which never really appreciated or understood the two-tier system? Will he undertake to consider seriously the proposal that Cardiff should expand beyond its present boundaries and incorporate the bulk —if not necessarily the whole—of the present county of South Glamorgan? Will he also say something—
§ Mr. Hunt
I thank my hon. Friend for welcoming the proposals. I believe that the proposal for a single tier of unitary authorities represents a bold step forward. I welcome and share my hon. Friend's recognition of the importance of Cardiff of the capital city of Wales. Further consultations will be initiated with a view to defining the northern and western boundaries of the new authority.
§ Mr. Geraint Howells (Ceredigion and Pembroke, North)
May I congratulate the Secretary of State? We have waited a long time for these sensible proposals, and the people of mid-Wales in particular are indebted to him for introducing them. We have all been pressing for unitary authorities in Wales for a decade or more. I should like to make one plea to the Secretary of State, however: will he consider once again leaving the people of Radnorshire and Brecknockshire, who are proud of their identities and counties, separate? I hope that he will do just that. Finally, will the Secretary of State reaffirm his intention to consult people on community councils?
§ Mr. Hunt
Yes. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the welcome that he has given for the proposals. He will know of the part played by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State—for example, in ensuring the restoration of the historic counties of Pembrokeshire and Cardiganshire. I am proposing working names, and I very much look forward to representations about what those names should be.
With regard to Brecon and Radnor, when the hon. Gentleman scrutinises the map, he will see that I have placed a dotted line between the old counties of Radnor and Brecknock, and I will be consulting further on that.
Of course I will consult widely on the community councils. For example, I will be consulting on whether we should maintain the existing law, which requires the abolition of community councils if there is a local vote in favour of that.
§ Mr. Gwilym Jones (Cardiff, North)
The abolition of the artificial tier will be very warmly welcomed in Wales, as that it real devolution, taking decision making to the closest level, especially in my city, where it will mean that Cardiff will again be a real capital of Wales. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that that process will be implemented as speedily as possible and that any review of Cardiff's boundaries will be most minor and rapidly accomplished?
§ Mr. Hunt
I thank my hon. Friend for his warm welcome for the proposals, and I invite the Labour party to publish its proposals in full. I am told that they have existed for two years and I have shown that I do not think 177 that they have. Will the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside now publish his proposals so that we can scrutinise them? I hope that they will endorse what my hon. Friend has said—that any proposals must recognise the important position of our capital city.
§ Mr. John Morris (Aberavon)
Will the Secretary of State accept that there will be great disappointment in my constituency, as Port Talbot and Neath have a long tradition of serving both their communities well? Are not the proposed authorities too big for some purposes and too small for others? Will there be 23 directors of education in Wales?
§ Mr. Hunt
Yes. I have already pointed out to the hon. and learned Gentleman in my statement that certain authorities are better off seeing the future ahead in combination. My proposals set out that Neath and Port Talbot should work together as a unitary authority in future. The hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain) has said that I should consider the northern boundary of Neath. If there are any detailed representations of that kind as we proceed, I shall be perfectly happy to consider them.
With regard to the 23 directors of education, it was clear that the counties wanted eight unitary authorities, and they made a presentation to me detailing that. The districts wanted 27. I believe that my proposals today represent the right way forward.
§ Mr. Keith Raffan (Delyn)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the 23 unitary authorities that he proposes make an all-Wales co-ordinating authority all the more necessary to discuss and decide upon major strategic planning, infrastructure and transport issues? Will he further agree that the savings that he envisages from a move to unitary authorities would more than cover the cost of running such an all-Wales authority?
§ Mr. Hunt
I recognise my hon. Friend's strong feelings on that issue. However, I have announced today a very positive step in the direction of returning greater local decision-making to local communities. I would not at the same time want to see any move to snatch back that local decision-making by imposing a bureaucratic assembly running Wales from Cardiff.
§ Mr. Ray Powell (Ogmore)
I know that we are limited in respect of time, but I am surprised that we are trying to ask the Secretary of State questions about a document which, if he wants consultation, he could have produced earlier so that Opposition Members could have seen the boundaries. The Secretary of State has referred to dotted lines and to a map which I have not seen and which, in all probability, no other Opposition Member has seen.
If we are talking about the reorganisation of local government, could some of those boundaries eventually form parliamentary seats in Wales? It is gerrymandering of the Secretary of State in the fag end of the Government t introduce such proposals knowing that, on 16 March, we will perhaps lose you, Mr. Speaker, as the Speaker of this place and that there will be a new Government on 9 April. The proposals will not be accepted by the Labour party, and a Labour Government will undertake further consultations after 9 April. Why waste the time of the House now?
§ Mr. Hunt
That was not a very helpful contribution. If the hon. Gentleman looks carefully at the consultation 178 paper which I produced, he will see that I have set out very clearly the boundaries of the authorities under a number of solutions. I have come forward to the House with my proposals. They are set out very clearly. I have received strong representations in certain parts of Wales that the existing boundaries between district authorities should be looked at again. I had hoped that it would be warmly welcomed that I was prepared to undertake a furtherr consultation process in those areas where the dotted lines are shown.
§ Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)
Does the Secretary of State accept that the consensus to which he referred was based on there being an all-Wales elected body and that, in bringing forward that model, he has left a strategic vacuum in Wales, with units that may be too small for strategic purposes? Would not the sensible way forward now be for him to set up an all-Wales elected Parliament and give it as its first remit the review of local government in Wales, taking this along with other proposals as a starting point?
§ Mr. Hunt
I suppose that I could respond to the hon. Gentleman by saying that that is a premise that could be accepted only if it were intended to snatch back from the new unitary authorities some of the existing functions of counties and districts. I have made it absolutely clear that I believe that the way ahead in Wales is to return closer to local communities more power to the people. The ideas that the hon. Gentleman is putting forward would fly in the face of that.
§ Mr. Wilshire
I anticipated that, but I am sure that my right hon. Friend will confirm that I have taken a close interest in this matter from the very beginning, and I would think it unfortunate for the people of Wales if Opposition Members were not prepared to listen to the lessons from elsewhere. Will my right hon. Friend take on board two points from the English experience? First, when he seeks to consult further on his local communities—
§ Mr. Wilshire
First, when my right hon. Friend thinks further about local communities, will he give as much weight to the importance of the views of local people as he gives to the views of local councillors and local authority associations? Secondly, when thinking about whether 23 new authorities means 23 of this and that—[Interruption.]
§ Mr. Hunt
I realise that my hon. Friend holds differing views from my own, and I am rather grateful to the Opposition for seeking to shield me from my hon. Friend's questions. My proposals represent the right way ahead —taking power, authority and decision-making closer to local people. I have very carefully considered—my hon. Friend has made representations to me—setting up a commission in England to determine the number of authorities, but within Wales we have never had a commission, and I believe that the proposal that I have put forward today for 23 unitary authorities represents the right way forward.
§ Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)
I welcome the Secretary of State's recognition of the need to restore unitary status to Swansea and to include the Lliw valley in that authority. Will the right hon. Gentleman address the question that was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones), because it may also predetermine the shape of the outcome of the parliamentary boundary commission that is due to report in about two years? Would it be the right hon. Gentleman's intention, if re-elected, for that boundary commission to be confined within the district boundaries that he has outlined today, or would it be able to cross those boundaries? It is crucial to know what the decision would be.
§ Mr. Hunt
Parliamentary boundaries are not an issue that I am addressing. I recognise, as the right hon. Gentleman points out, that there may be consequential changes as a result of the proposals that I am putting forward, but those were not and are not considerations. I greatly welcome his enthusiastic support for the recognition of the city of Swansea's importance within the boundaries that I have proposed.
§ Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney)
The Secretary of State said in his statement that he was putting the proposals before the Welsh people for their endorsement. What percentage of the vote at the next election would he consider to be a mandate for his proposals?
§ Mr. Martyn Jones (Clwyd, South-West)
Why has the Secretary of State used the building blocks of the districts which were created in 1974? In the area of Clwyd, they enshrine all the problems that we have had since 1974. A Vale of Clwyd tier of authority will be created. It will have tremendous problems, because it is a disparate area and it will have no resources. As the Secretary of State has not proposed any regional government solutions, how will he possibly deal with all the services which are handled on a wider scale?
§ Mr. Hunt
If the hon. Gentleman looks at the map which I have published this afternoon, he will see that there are dotted lines around his constituency. The local authority of Glyndwr and people from various parts of Glyndwr have told me that some areas may seek to join other authorities. I want to consider that. That is why I have not reached a final conclusion on those aspects.
§ Mr. Denzil Davies (Llanelli)
Will the Secretary of State confirm that in his proposals he has wiped out Llanelli completely? On the map which is attached to the statement, Llanelli's name is completely erased. How does he reconcile that with his professed desire that the proposals should reflect intense local loyalties?
§ Mr. Hunt
If the right hon. Gentleman will allow me, I will explain.
Today I have introduced a new element into my proposals. First, my proposal restores the much-loved and historic county of Carmarthenshire. However, I recognise that, despite Llanelli's cultural and administrative links of long standing with the rest of Carmarthenshire, it is an industrialised area with a strong sense of community. Therefore, with a dotted line I have delineated the present area of Llanelli. I would welcome the opportunity to consult further about the future status of the existing borough. Hence the broken line on the map.
§ Mr. Alan W. Williams (Carmarthen)
Do I understand from the map that has been published with the plan that the proposal to split Dinefwr so that the northern half joins Carmarthen and the southern half joins Llanelli has been decisively rejected?
§ Mr. Hunt
The hon. Gentleman can see the proposals as I have set them out. I should have thought that he would welcome my recognition of the historic entity of Carmarthenshire. The views expressed in the Llanelli area have convinced me that there may be a need for further consultation before final decisions are taken about its future. As for a proposal about joining Llanelli with the Lliw valley, I decided that I did not want to cross a boundary of enormous historical significance.
§ Dr. Kim Howells (Pontypridd)
Does the Secretary of State recognise that the two-tier system set up by the Tories means that there are not abstract notions about local authorities in Wales and that some county authorities have good departments which provide good services? Similarly, some district authorities provide good services. However, both district and county authorities provide indifferent services in other parts of Wales. Who will decide which personnel and which teams should have responsibility for crucial matters in Wales such as the building of roads, planning and so on? Will it be the Secretary of State or the people of Wales?
§ Mr. Hunt
The hon. Gentleman highlights one of the paradoxes. There are differing standards throughout Wales, but it is important that the proposals that I have made this afternoon are seen in the context of seeking the formula that produces the highest quality of services. Of course, it will be for the new authorities that I have delineated today to work together to establish the right staffing arrangements and future arrangements for delivery of services in their area. Of course, it will be for the Secretary of State, in the positive partnership that we have in Wales, to ensure that the highest-quality services are delivered.
§ Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)
The Secretary of State will know that Newport will warmly welcome the 181 return to the unitary authority that we had before 1973. But people will be puzzled that, although the reorganisation that took place as a result of a decision by a Conservative Government—I served on both authorities at that time—was ruinously disruptive and very expensive, the Secretary of State has come to the House without a peccavi or a mea culpa to say that he is returning to the previous system. Will he apologise for that?
§ Mr. Hunt
It is not the same system as that which existed before 1974. I forget the exact number, but there were more than 180 authorities in Wales then. I welcome the hon. Gentleman's recognition that the proposals underpin the historic status of the town and former county borough of Newport. I welcome what he said about that. But he should not belittle the achievements of the existing authorities, such as the county council of Gwent and the existing authorities. I do not regard my proposals today as a victory or a defeat for any one type of authority but rather as the way ahead for the new unitary authorities.
§ Dr. John Marek (Wrexham)
The Secretary of State must know that there is no local enthusiasm for joining up Wrexham with Alyn and Deeside. Will he publish the representations that he has received in favour of that scheme, or at least tell us how many representations were made? If and when he establishes a staff commission, I hope that he will ensure that no grossly large salaries and no golden handshakes are paid as a result of any reorganisation. Senior staff in particular should be relocated and given good jobs at fair rates of pay, not rates of over £70,000 per annum, as are paid at present in Clwyd.
§ Mr. Hunt
I would have hoped that the hon. Gentleman would accept that my proposals recognise the special place of Wrexham in the context of not only north Wales but Wales as a whole. Historically, the cities of Cardiff and Swansea and the town of Newport were the three main areas of population in Wales. I am anxious to see Wrexham grow in strength and influence in the coming years. I had thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome my proposals on Wrexham.
The hon. Gentleman referred to a staff commission. When I published the consultation paper, there were nonsense stories in the press about thousands of redundancies. I hope that the establishment of the staff commission will reassure everyone who works in local government.
§ Mr. Roy Hughes
Does the Secretary of State appreciate that Newport's county borough status should not have been taken away in the first place, because the authority has the resources to provide a full range of local government services? Does he recognise that the 1972 reorganisation of local government was carried out by a Conservative Government? It cost the earth, and in the end we had a worse formula for local government. Does the Secretary of State recognise, as I am sure the House does, that he is merely going through the motions, and that the real reorganisation of local government will be carried out by a Labour Government with my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) as Secretary of State?
§ Mr. Hunt
I was waiting to see whether there was any approval for that notion. The hon. Gentleman's criticisms of Gwent are ill-placed. The county council has done 182 extremely well in maintaining the highest quality of services. Today is not a day on which any one type of authority is defeated. Nor is it, indeed, a victory for any other type of authority. I have sought to place clearly on record in the House the way ahead for unitary authorities which brings together the best of the existing counties and the best of the existing districts.
§ Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda)
May I thank the Secretary of State for one of his last acts as Secretary of State for Wales? Far from delineating authorities in Wales, the map, with all those dashes, will mean that he will no longer be known as "Dai Poll Tax" but as "Dai Dots". That is how he will go down in history in the valleys.
My last homily to the Secretary of State is that local government is all about providing services to people. Some of our valley communities are immensely poor. The Secretary of State can shuffle the structures as he will, as can any other Government, but unless resources are put there so that services can be provided, it is nothing other than a paper, and perhaps a dotty exercise.
§ Mr. Hunt
The hon. Gentleman has a bit of dash about him, but I hope that he does not view this as merely a dotty exercise. I listened carefully to the points that he raised with me about the need for a unitary authority in Rhondda. If he recalls, the initial proposal for 20 unitary authorities included a large authority for the Glamorgan valleys. I recognised the validity of his arguments. I hope that he will welcome my recognition of his constituency as a community with a long and a special tradition.
I am confident that my decision to merge Rhondda with areas to the south will not diminish that tradition. I am sure that communities throughout the new authority will be strengthened through the association, and I look forward to publishing the White Paper underlining that point after the general election.
§ Mr. Michael
Does the Secretary of State accept that the inadequate answers which he has given in this exchange show that he has rushed out this dotty statement, without dealing with the real issues, simply to give himself and the Conservative party an inadequate fig leaf for the general election?
The boundaries of Cardiff and the vale of Glamorgan are more than a mere detail. So are many of the other issues that he has left vague and ill-defined. He has dragged Conservative party politics into arrangements that should be neutral. Has he not followed the usual central office diktat to misquote shadow Ministers and to misrepresent Labour documents? He has rushed consultation, and he did not listen to what he was told. In contrast, the Labour party has consulted and listened to the people who know their areas and communities.
The Secretary of State says that he will restore one-tier decision-making to Cardiff, Newport and Swansea. Was it not the Conservative party which destroyed the previous unitary authorities? So will he apologise? Was it not the Conservative party that did away with the traditional counties? Will he apologise?
In his statement, the Secretary of State claims to have a commitment to increased efficiency and cost-effectiveness. He pretends to be interested in efficiency. Is not the reality that he intends to continue to expect local authorities to do the impossible with inadequate cash from central Government?
183 Will the right hon. Gentleman not admit that, when he talks of the rapid development of the enabling role of local government, he is signalling the Conservative party's intention—if. God forbid, they form the next Government —to kill local government in Wales and to reduce our councils to emasculated, contract-placing bodies? He still has not answered basic questions about the functions that he would give to local authorities.
The people of Wales should suspend judgment on this document. The general election will sweep away this Government and then my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones), as a Labour Secretary of State, will do a proper job, in partnership with councillors and communities, which he and Labour Members understand.
§ Mr. Hunt
I would have more confidence in the hon. Gentleman's response if it had not been so carefully written in advance. I hope that he studies the pre-1974 position, when there were indeed 13 counties, four county boroughs, 32 non-county boroughs, 73 urban districts, and 58 rural districts, which makes 180 councils altogether.
In the reorganisation, eight county councils were created and 37 district authorities. The county councils suggested to me that they wanted eight unitary authorities. The districts told me that they wanted 27 unitary authorities. I believe that I have found the right way forward by endorsing 23 unitary authorities.
On the hon. Gentleman's other point about my misunderstanding the Labour party's approach, I was not criticising it for consultation. I was criticising his hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside for having said that the plans were clear and laid before the people for two years. I am merely pointing out that the Labour party has changed its mind. It may well change it again. I challenge the Labour party to publish its proposals in a clear form, so that the people of Wales can judge.
To find Labour's plan for the future of the Welsh assembly, one has to look at a document called "A Statement on the Future of Local and Regional Government in Wales". Labour's proposals would create the most tremendous confusion with such a regional assembly, and between its new unitary authorities. It proposes that similar functions should be exercised by both. I hope that Labour will rethink its proposals, and will come round to the view that what I have presented to the House is a valid way forward and will receive endorsement from the people of Wales.