Monday, April 19, 2010

Unitary Exeter and the Laws of the Medes and the Persians

Not much has happened since last this blog reported on the Unitary Exeter plan. Despite opposition from various Devon and Norfolk politicians, the Parliamentary Order has passed in the House of Commons and House of Lords. Consequently, Exeter's scheduled 6 May local elections have been cancelled and the Implementation Executive has been constituted. However, the legal challenge by the county councils will be heard in the High Court on 28 and 29 April. Moreover, even if that challenge fails, the formation of a new government after the General Election on 6 May might result in a repeal, or a delay, to the Order.

In this post I simply wanted to draw attention to the debate in the House of Lords, which highlighted a number of useful arguments (for and against) in a calm and reasonable manner. One contribution in particular is worthy of repeating. It was by the Welsh politician Elystan Morgan:

My Lords, it is with considerable trepidation that I intervene in the debate: what possible contribution can a Welshman - from West Wales - have in relation to matters in Devon and Norfolk? I suppose one can put the other side of the coin and say that one is so far removed geographically from such places that one is able to look on the situation with total objectivity and complete neutrality. I shall speak for only a few minutes in what has been a fascinating, passionate debate with powerful arguments advanced. I do so because I have believed strongly for many years in unitary authorities.

I well remember attending the debates in the House of Commons in the early 1970s with regard to local government reorganisation. The late John Silkin made a speech arguing that one should reduce to the smallest number possible the tiers involved in any part of England and Wales. I remember him mercilessly using the words of Mark Antony:

"If you have tears, prepare to shed them now".

He was speaking a great and universal truth, one that we in Wales have exploited. We have 22 county authorities. Many are small, extremely poor and - I am sure that persons who have dealings with Wales would agree - hardly in a position to carry out their basic statutory functions. The answer is not unification of boundaries, but the unification and sharing of functions. It is in that spirit that I look on this situation.

The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, put very powerfully the arguments relating to the five criteria. If these criteria constitute the laws of the Medes and Persians in this matter, and if they relate to the shorter rather than longer term, then her argument succeeds. However, these matters are not the laws of the Medes and Persians. When one is dealing with the prospect of whether a city should be a unitary authority, one is dealing with imponderables. It is of course right that you should have guidelines at your elbow when making that decision-but they are guidelines. How can you calculate how the energies of a great city-for example, Norwich-would be released by having reinstated the authority that it had for many centuries, up to 1974? Norwich is the biggest city in England and Wales that is not a unitary authority. How can you calculate, over the relatively short span of a few years, whether that will be in the best interests of the community?

The right reverend Prelate [The Bishop of Norwich] referred to communities. Parliament can do many things. It used to be said that Parliament could do anything except make a man a woman or a woman a man, but I am not sure whether that is a restriction any longer. However, one thing that it cannot do is create communities. It is people who create communities-by their outlooks, their fears, their hopes, their aspirations, and very often their deeds. There is a community in Norwich, Norfolk, and Exeter in Devon. They are giants with immense potential, but are shackled by the present system. It is right and proper that they should be given the opportunity to develop that potential.
Original source: Hansard