HC Deb 07 May 1924 vol 173 cc591-600

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Parkinson.]

Marquess of HARTINGTON

May I assure the right hon. Gentleman opposite that in raising this question of the Matlocks Amalgamation Order I have no wish to embarrass or pin prick the Government, but my questions to-day were prompted by a genuine desire to know on what ground the Minister had confirmed this Order. May I give a brief account of the history of this amalgamation. Some years ago Matlock, prompted entirely by a laudable feeling of civic pride, asked to have its boundaries extended so as to include not only Matlock Bath and Cromford, but some other towns and villages in the neighbourhood. That Order was refused. They renewed their application in April, 1922, and at that time, after some inquiry, the Derbyshire County Council granted an Order. Up to that time there was very little opposition. The inhabitants of the towns to be amalgamated were not seriously alarmed, and there was no weight of opposition, but the moment the Order was granted by the County Council a great deal of opposition was aroused, and the inhabitants of two of these towns, Matlock Bath and Cromford, petitioned almost unanimously—95 per cent. of the ratepayers of Matlock Bath signed the petition—asking that the Order must not be confirmed. The inquiry was held in February, and as a result of the evidence given at the inquiry it was unanimously believed in the district that the Order would not go through. The weight of evidence against the amalgamation was absolutely overwhelming, and everyone thought that after the inquiry had been held by the Minister of Health the Order would not go through. Consequently, everyone felt happy and reassured. That, briefly, is the history of the amalgamation up to the present time.

I must make a slight digression in order to give an account of the geography of the district. One of the reasons which the Minister of Health gives in the letter to which he referred me this afternoon relates to the geography of the district. He describes Matlock Bath as making a wedge into Matlock. All these towns lie along the narrow valley of the River Derwent, one above the other, and they are entirely different in character, just as they are entirely separate in geography. Matlock exists upon its residents. There is a large number of hotels and hydros there, and Matlock makes its living by the people who go there to reside. Matlock Bath makes its living out of day visitors, and Cromford is a small place, an industrial district carrying on quarrying and cotton work. The history of the places is different, and until recently—and this is a point which the Minister does not realise—Cromford was entirely separated from Matlock by the rocks which came down the River Derwent. Only in recent years, when these rocks were blasted, was a road made between the two places. Therefore the geography of the district disposes of the Minister's argument that the districts form one homogeneous whole. They do not; they are entirely separate.

This afternoon I asked the Minister of Health for his reasons for confirming the Order in face of the very strong opposition which had been raised. In answer, he referred me to a letter, over a month old, which I had already seen, and which has been exhaustively discussed by the people concerned, who found it most unsatisfactory. They realised that they are small townships fighting against a large township and against the Ministry of Health, and they want to know why they have been sacrificed and why the Minister of Health has, in their case, decided not to follow the policy which was laid down by Sir Alfred Mond when he was Minister of Health. The right hon. Gentleman is no doubt aware that there is a Royal Commission sitting on this very question now, and that Sir Alfred Mond on the occasion of some dispute between great towns in Yorkshire, two years ago, laid it down definitely as the policy of his Ministry, that the Ministry of Health would not confirm any more amalgamation orders or any more borough extensions until the Commission had reported. The Commission have published some evidence, but have not yet reported, and the people on whose behalf I am speaking feel that a great injustice has been done to them.

Referring to the letter of the Minister of Health which contain his reasons for confirming the Order or, at any rate, he said that it contained his reasons, I may say that I can find no reasons. He says that he has given full weight to the opposition of these towns, but the only real reason he gives is, that he believes it will be far better from the point of view of local government that both Matlock and Matlock Bath should be united in one common authority. He does not give one shadow of evidence showing why he feels justified in overriding the petition of these towns. There is one further reason he gives, and it is a reason which surprises me very much coming from the Minister of Health, and which I welcome very heartily. He says: With regard to Cromford's objection to the amalgamation on the ground of expense, it has to be borne in mind that the estate, which practically covered the whole area of the parish, is being sold, and is passing into separate ownerships, so that, even if the parish remained administratively a part of the rural district, heavy expense, chargeable on the parish alone, would be necessary in the near future to provide services which have hitherto been provided at the private expense of the landowners. I am surprised at that statement coming from such a source. I welcome very heartily indeed this new recognition of a sound Conservative doctrine, that heavy taxation of landowners, forcing them to sell their properties, does inflict heavy expense chargeable on the ratepayers of the district; and I hope very much, Mr. Speaker, that you will not rule me out of order on the ground that what I say is hypothetical when I express the hope that, in the event of the present Government remaining in office and bringing in next year's Budget, the right hon. Gentleman will use his influence with his colleague, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to make heavy remissions of taxation, in view of the disastrous effect which the taxation of the landed interest is having. I was dealing with the objections of these people, and I said that they objected, almost unanimously, to the confirmation of this Order. They have done so on various grounds. One is that their interests are different. Matlock and Matlock Bath have this in common: they make their living by attracting visitors, and therefore expenditure on public amenities, pleasure grounds, and side shows of various kinds, are well worth while. Cromford is entirely different. It does not expect to attract visitors of that kind, and its people, naturally, very strongly object to being asked to carry the burden of expenditure which would undoubtedly, and quite rightly, be incurred by the town council of Matlock. Another very valid objection is that the town of Matlock is already very heavily in debt, being within £2,000 of its total borrowing powers. Cromford, owing, perhaps, to the beneficial operation of the private landlord, to whom the Minister of Health referred in such generous terms, has a total debt of only £600. Cromford, therefore, very reasonably objects to carrying the burden of the debt of Matlock.

The right hon. Gentleman said that arrangements have been made to get over that injustice by differential rating. These arrangements are to extend over eight years. It is obvious and inevitable that Cromford, which has now practically no public debt, will ultimately have to carry a large share of the public debt of Matlock. That is a very great injustice. This is a matter of vital importance to the people concerned, though perhaps, not of enormous interest to the House; but the matter vitally concerns this House as the liberty of the people is concerned, and the protection of the liberties of the people is the main and greatest function of this House. If all I have said was untrue, the objections of these people to this Order would still be valid. Rightly or wrongly, they prefer to govern themselves in their own way. In the answer of the Minister of Health there is not one shadow of a suggestion that the government of these small town ships is not absolutely efficient and properly carried on. Even if they were misgoverning themselves, I maintain that, so long as they are not causing either injury or discomfort to their neighbours—

Notice taken that 40 Members were, not present; Houses counted; and 40 Members being present


On a point of Order. As an attack has been made on the liberty of speech by the Labour party, will the time lost in the Count be allowed to the Noble Lord?


I think that I remember occasions on which the hon. Member himself has called attention to the state of the House.


This is a question in which the liberties of the people are involved. Even if they were not efficiently governed, they prefer to govern themselves in their own small way. They are satisfied with their parish councils and with their town councils. They have a right to govern themselves in their own way. The Ministry of Health has made out no case that they are inflicting harm on the neighbourhood or on themselves. It is a question of the individual liberty of these people. I regret that there is no opportunity of taking a vote on this question because I believe that Members on all sides, and more especially on the benches opposite, would resent the way in which the Ministry of Health is acting in riding rough-shod over the liberties of these small communities.


I differ entirely from the views expressed by the Noble Lord. I have seen a great many things happen in this House. Reference has been made to the Yorkshire schemes. I do not agree altogether with the statements which have been made. Sir Alfred Mond recommended the schemes of the Yorkshire towns, and they were interfered with by this House, and were thrown out without going into the merits. I was present during the Debate. I had something to do with the initiation of one of these schemes. When one considers that there are 24,000 local authorities in this country, one realises that there are thousands too many of them. There is the question of watersheds, and there is the question of the services which small towns neither can nor will supply. They have not the money, and if they have they will not spend it. They do not employ the men to carry out the necessary services and deal with them adequately. I could speak for a week on this question. I differ so strongly from the Noble Lord who has just spoken that I would fight him to tie last gasp. It must be remembered that the differential rating for a short time makes a difference in favour of those who are brought in. We have had experience of bringing thousands of people into the City of Leeds, and there has been no complaint in a single instance that they have lost by the transaction. I hope that the Minister of Health will stand to his guns and see that his recommendations are carried out.


I have some sympathy with the Noble Lord in standing up for the liberties of the people; but, put in that way, it seems to me that his statement raises rather a bigger question. The proposed amalgamation is not on normal lines, because it proposes to take in two parishes which are now out off by intervening authorities from the rural district council, of which they are a part. That is clearly an unsatisfactory arrangement, and sooner or later it would have to be remedied. It is proposed to add to the existing Matlock Urban District Matlock Bath with about 1,300 inhabitants or some fantastically small number for an urban district, and two parishes which are now part of a rural district council a few miles away. One of these parishes has offered no objection to the proposed amalgamation; the other parish has—it desires to retain its liberty. But there was, in the so- called Birkenhead decision, to which the Noble Lord referred, a phrase about the public advantages, and that seems to be the deciding factor. The estate to which reference has been made is now being broken up, and the services will have to be provided in some other way. They will have to be provided at considerable expense. It seems to me that that situation having been created, the development of these public services had better, from the start, be undertaken in connection with the services already existing in the larger urban district of which this forms a part. As regards Matlock Bath, it may be true that it has different characteristics from Matlock urban district, but I believe it is also true that some time ago Matlock Bath itself proposed that part of Matlock should be added to it, so that it seems to me that Matlock is simply making a proposal on a somewhat larger scale than that which Matlock Bath itself made.

I think the Noble Lord should realise the position of the Ministry of Health in this matter. An order was made by the county council, which has authority to make such an order. The county council of Derbyshire is clearly much better informed of all the local circumstances in their wider aspects than the individual units; and it is much more informed of the detailed aspects than the Ministry of Health. I am sure that the Noble Lord will agree that the Ministry of Health would require to have very strong considerations put before it if it were to propose to over-ride the order of the supreme local authority, the county council. In our view no case sufficiently strong has been made out. The decision was made in the last resort on grounds of public advantage. We believe that this new unit will be a more effective unit of local government than the existing two urban districts and two rural parishes separated from their rural districts, that you will get more efficient local administration, and on the whole get it more economically. Because of that the Department has decided to confirm the order and has notified that fact. The Noble Lord referred to a decision of a previous Minister of Health with regard to amalgamation of areas and borough extensions. I think he must have had in mind primarily the acute controversy between the county boroughs and the large boroughs of which the hon. Member for Central Leeds (Sir C. Wilson) is one of the leaders, and the county areas. He had not so much in mind the smaller re-adjustments of territory, and so long as our duty is as it is it was necessary either to confirm or reject the Order. To reject it we should have had to receive much stronger grounds than we appear to have received already. There is no desire on the part of the Minister to interfere unnecessarily with the autonomy of local areas, but past experience has shown that once the difficulties are surmounted and amalgamation achieved the difficulties disappear, and you get new unite of a more efficient kind.


I wish to protest strongly against what I understand to have been the implication of the Parliamentary Secretary, that the investigations that are now being pursued by the Onslow Commission have reference exclusively to the question of bigger amalgamations.


I should be sorry if the Noble Lord got that impression. I said I thought what Sir Alfred Mond had in mind primarily was the controversy between the large boroughs and the counties.


Whatever Sir Alfred Mond may have had in his mind is more or less an historic question. The point is this: That the Onslow Commission has considered this whole question of the arrangements under which alterations in local government areas are to be brought about. It was always understood in the Ministry of Health when I had anything to do with it that such questions of re-arrangement should be more or less left in abeyance until the Onslow Commission had time to report.


May I point out that I believe the Noble Lord occupied my place at the time this inquiry was made by the Ministry of Health?


There may have been any number of inquiries, but that the final Order should have been made before the Report of the Onslow Commission was received is, I believe, quite contrary to right policy, and if the hon. Member tells me that something contrary to right policy was done during the time I occupied his place, I can only say I am very sorry, and I think it is quite possible. Many things contrary to right policy happen in all Government Departments, whatever Ministry is in power. The point is that at the present moment it is most important that we should receive the Report of the Commission before any re-arrangements of local government areas are made, such as has been made in the instance given toy my Noble Friend behind me, and I wish to ask the Ministry of Health to reconsider very seriously whether such re-arrangements should be made on the authority of the county council, a body which is not always respectfully viewed by the smaller local authorities, and I cannot accept the statement that the opinion of the county council is enough for the Ministry to go upon. It is on that very point the Onslow Commission is sitting, and I think it is deplorable that the right hon. Gentleman should have made an Order of this kind pending the Report of that Commission.

It being Half-past Eleven of the Clock, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.