HC Deb 14 May 1926 vol 195 cc1124-34

Order for Second Reading read.

The MINISTER of HEALTH (Mr. Neville Chamberlain)

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

This Bill, which has come to us from another place, is a short Bill of six clauses, but it is one of great importance to all those who are concerned with the administration of local government. It deals with a question which in the past has given rise to a great deal of difficulty, and that is the question of the adjustments of the boundaries between one local authority and another. The functions of local government are daily becoming more complicated, more involved, and more specialised in particular directions, and as that process continues, any change in it becomes more disturbing and gives rise to greater difficulties. But on the other hand, of course, while the functions are increasing, there are other changes taking place. There are movements of population, there are commercial and residential developments, and so there is a constant pressure upon certain authorities to amend their boundaries and to adjust their administration to the other conditions which have grown up. Since these adjustments and alteration of boundaries cannot take place except at the expense of the adjoining authorities, there is not unnaturally a considerable amount of discussion and sometimes of ill-feeling aroused by proposals of the kind.

1 P.M.

The friction engendered by these constant disputes between different local authorities and different classes of local authorities, was proving so injurious to the cause of local government as a whole that in 1922 it was decided that it was necessary to set up a Royal Commission to inquire into the whole matter. Accordingly such a Royal Commission was established. It was constituted rather differently from the way in which most Royal Commissions are brought together. It contained representatives of the county councils, of the county boroughs, of other boroughs, of urban district councils and rural district councils, together with a certain number of other gentlemen who were not directly conflicted with local government. The chairmanship was undertaken by my noble Friend, Lord Onslow, who was marked out for a position of that kind by the fact that he had great experience of local government, and was at the time the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health, and he was the possessor of other qualities which it was felt fitted him in a peculiar degree for the chairmanship of the Commission. The task was to obtain if possible a unanimous report, and a solution satisfactory to all concerned on a subject which was highly controversial, and which had aroused very strong feeling in the past.

I would like to pay my personal tribute of gratitude to Lord Onslow and his colleagues for the remarkable work which they have accomplished. They certainly cannot be accused of idleness. They began their task in February, 1923, and concluded it on the first part of their terms of reference only in August of 1925. They have produced a volume of nearly 500 pages which, I dare say, will provide some week-end reading for hon. Members. Perusal of the Report will reward them, because it does contain a most valuable epitome of information about the history, the functions and the duties of local authorities, which, I think, will make it just as valuable as a work of reference in future as it is by way of a contribution to the solution of this difficult question. There were two Members of the Commis- sion whose names I will mention in this connection, because neither of them is now with us. One was formerly a Member of this House, Sir Ryland Adkins. He was appointed originally to represent the county councils, and a very genuine tribute is paid to his memory in the Report which bears witness to his learning, his wit and powers of persuasion. Those who were colleagues of his in this House will not need to be reminded of his possession to a very eminent degree of those qualities. He died before the completion of the Report, and his place was taken by Mr. Taylor. Another Member of the Commission was Sir Walter Nicholas, who represented the urban district councils. His name will be found appended to the Report. But he has not lived to see the Report translated into legislation, and one can only announce one's appreciation of the contribution which he has made.

The Report is unanimous—a very remarkable achievement in the circumstances. It is, of course, in the nature of a compromise, but I believe that it will lie found to be entirely non-controversial in this House, as it has been in another place. I will very briefly run through the principal provisions of the Bill. Clause 1 deals with the creation of new county boroughs. In the past, a town council desiring that its borough should be made into a county borough could proceed either by provisional order or by private Bill. A provisional order was rather the cheaper course of the two and was, therefore, the one most generally pursued. But it had a disadvantage. In nearly every case the creation of a county borough was the subject of opposition, not only from the county council from whose jurisdiction the borough was to be removed but from other quarters, and it was necessary that the opposition should be given every fair chance of presenting its case before the matter was finally decided by Parliament.

Under the provisional order procedure, a local inquiry was first held by an inspector of the Ministry of Health who made a report to the Minister, upon which the Minister made his final decision whether or not he should make the order. Of course the order when made was only provisional and could only be made final by Parliament. But the argument which was put forward against that procedure by the representatives of the county councils was, first, that the inspectors of the Ministry, while their bone fides was in no way impugned, nevertheless by their training and previous record had a tendency to look at this question—I am giving the views of the county councils, not my own—too much from the point of view of the sanitary services only, and that there were wider aspects of the questions from the local Government point of view, which were not so present to the mind of the inspectors. Therefore, in the view of the county councils, their case was to a certain extent prejudiced from the beginning by the fact that the inspectors were liable to take these views. Secondly, they said that when the inspector reported in favour of the borough, the tendency of the Minister was to take his advice and if the Minister took that advice and made the provisional order then the case was weighted against the county council when it came before Parliament. It was their view that just as the Minister had a tendency to be influenced by the report of the inspector, so Parliament in its turn would have a tendency to be influenced by the fact that the Minister had already made a provisional order. I will not attempt to say how far these arguments were justified by any facts, and hon. Members can judge as well as I can how far these considerations are correct, but undoubtedly in the minds of the county councils these considerations had force. They did not feel they were getting a fair opportunity of putting their case, under the provisional order procedure, and since, in a matter of this kind, one of the first essentials is that all parties should have complete confidence in the fairness of the procedure, the Royal Commission has recommended—and we have followed strictly their recommendation in the Bill—that in the ease of the creation of new county boroughs, in the future the provisional order procedure shall be swept away and boroughs shall proceed entirely by private Bill.

That is the effect of the first sub-section of Clause 1. The second sub-section provides that it shall not be lawful for the council of any borough to promote a Bill for the purpose of constituting the borough into a county borough, unless the population of the borough for the time being is 75,000 or upwards. The Commission said that that was one of the most difficult points which they had to decide and I would ask the House to observe, that the fact that the population of a borough reached a certain figure, whether it be 75,000 or any other, is not by this Clause or under this Bill to be an unchallengeable right to be made into a county borough. It is merely a condition which must be satisfied before any application can be lawfully made for that purpose. The question as to whether or not it is desirable that the borough should he turned into a county borough will remain to be decided by Parliament, irrespective of the question of population. But it is an essential condition that no borough with less than 75,000 can apply to be made into a county borough. The limit at present is much lower, being 50,000, and the figure in the Bill represents a compromise. I believe the figure suggested by the county councils was 150,000 hot the conclusion unanimously arrived at by the representatives of the various interests concerned on the Royal Commission was that 75,000 is the correct figure, and I venture to say the House would do well to accept that which has found acceptance among those who are most concerned. Clause 2 deals not with the creation but the extension of county boroughs, and there, too, it is provided that in future county boroughs shall only be extended by provisional order if there is no opposition to the extension. Where there is opposition they have to adopt the same procedure, namely private Bill procedure, as that prescribed in the case of the creation of new county boroughs.


Does that include the opposition of adjacent authorities?


It applies not merely to the county councils but to all local authorities who are adjacent, and who often oppose in these cases. Clause 3 deals with the procedure by private Bill—where the purpose of the Bill is either to constitute a new county borough or extend an old one—and it removes the necessity for referring the matter to a public meeting of electors which may be followed, if it is demanded, by a poll. Anyone who has had experience of these public meetings of electors to consider private Bills knows how unsatisfactory they are. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear hear"] I am glad to see that I meet with general acceptance in making that statement. Obviously it is impossible to have a public meeting of 75,000 persons in any hall which exists in this country and we all know that the only people who come to meetings of this kind are those who have some private interest to serve by opposing the provisions of a Bill, who may turn up in sufficient numbers to defeat it and who frequently put the community to unnecessary expense. For my part, I think the Councillors are elected by the people to represent the people's interests, and if the electors think those interests are not properly represented, they have their remedy at the next election. We have heard it said that it is foolish to keep a dog and bark yourself and that the electors, having elected people to conduct their local affairs, should then come in to upset the work of elected representatives seems to be a grotesque and unfortunate proceeding. While not going into the question of removing that procedure altogether from the Statute Book, Clause 3 removes it so far as this particular matter is concerned.

The only other provision I need mention is that in Clause 5 which deals with compensation to county councils for loss of area. I am aware that in using that phrase I am technically inaccurate. It is not a question of compensation for loss of rateable value, which, I believe, is not recognised to exist at all, but really this comes to very much the same thing. The county council objection in the past to the extension of county boroughs has been largely based on the fact that it has necessitated the taking away from them of a valuable rateable area. In effect, if they get an increased compensation for the additional burden placed upon them in the maintenance of main roads, they need not bother about the loss of rateable value which is involved. Under the present arrangement they are now allowed a maximum of 15 years' purchase, if one may use that term, of the increased annual burden. Under the Bill, on the unanimous Report of the Royal Commission, that 15 is increased to 21. It is really a concession to the county councils, and it is a concession recognised as reasonable by the municipal corporations, and agreed to by them, and, therefore, probably no- one in this House will feel it necessary to raise any objection to it. Those are really the main provisions in this Bill It is the putting into legislative form of such of the recommendations of the Royal Commission in their first Report as require legislation, and I hope it will have unanimous acceptance on the part of this House.


I am sure the House is indebted to the Minister of Health for his very lucid explanation of the provisions of the Bill. We have been indebted to him for such explanations on other occasions, and while we often seriously disagree with the policy which he defends, we do appreciate the kind of explanation which he gives to a Bill when he brings it before this House. So far as we on this side are concerned, we do not propose to oppose this Bill. It is quite clear, from the recommendations of the Royal Commission, to which the Minister has referred, that some legislation is required to clear the position and make things more workable in future, and anyone who has had experience of county councils, say, in the last 30 years, during a time when they have had many and increased duties placed upon them by Parliament, will know that so much of their valuable areas has been taken from them as to make it more and more difficult for them to exercise their powers. It follows that they must feel very sore on many occasions at it being apparently so easy, through procedure by Provisional Order, after inquiry and report, and then upon the presumptive favourable decision of the Ministry to lose some of their area, and still to have to carry on the services which they are asked to do by Parliament from time to time.

From that point of view, I think the Bill is good. It is, however, quite possible that the Minister will get some opposition to Sub-section (2) of Clause 1 in Committee. I do not think it advisable to debate that at length to-day, but it is likely that representatives in this House who are interested in particular municipal authorities may have something to say on that point in Committee. Members on this side who have followed the proceedings of the Royal Commission support the Minister in all that he said concerning the work of the Chairman and certain Members of it. The matter is a very technical and detailed one, and I hope it is not because of the arduous nature of the task of the Commission that one or two of its Members, to whom a tribute has been paid by the Minister, have passed away from us during the period of the sitting of the Commission. We support what the Minister said in regard to their labours, and we are grateful to them for the work that they did. We hope that the Bill will get favourable consideration, and, subject to one or two small points to be raised in Committee, we hope it will lead to a better understanding between the county councils and the boroughs and county boroughs, and to that end we do not propose to divide against it.

Lieut.-Colonel FREMANTLE

I think it is as well to voice the view of the county authorities in supporting this Bill. I do so without any authority, but because I have been in close touch with county council government, both in London and the provinces, and, inasmuch as I represent a county area, I should like to express my own feeling that this, as a compromise, is one which most of those who think with me on this subject may well support. It is, however, appropriate to emphasise one's general feeling that this is only a provisional Measure, and no final solution of the problem of the inter-relation between town and country. In fact, things are pointing in the other direction. It is quite true that some 50 years ago it seemed natural, when life was more concentrated on certain centres, that those centres should be independent when they got to a sufficient size, but we have, during the last 25 years, seen a radical change in life, a change of which we are still only at the beginning, owing to the introduction of the internal-combustion engine and the development of motor-cars and road transport. The result is that towns are seeking life in the country and country facilities in the towns, and it is entirely arbitrary and unnatural, and in many ways uneconomic and impracticable, to separate the government of town and country.

In my own county of Hertfordshire, we have fortunately up to the present preserved intact the county unity, although one town, Watford, has approached the 50,000 mark, but as I look to the future, however large the towns grow, I believe it will be to the advantage of the towns as well as of the country to combine for very many purposes. At present it is not simply that certain services are removed from the ambit of the local Government. You have to have a standing joint committee to run the police, and the road services obviously are common in many ways in their use between town and country, but people are moving out and living in the country, and to a certain extent escaping the rates that they would have to pay if they still lived in the towns. In regard to education, although you have separate elementary education authorities, at the same time, for secondary and higher education, obviously town and county must be as one. You have your separate health services, but when it comes to the larger and more specialised services, they must be combined. So, for every one of the services you are getting greater combination in life between town and country. I do not want to enlarge on this but you cannot get any solution of these problems by creating county boroughs, and in many ways you are adding obstacles to them with every county borough that is created. As regards extension, there is no logic in the extension of a county borough that does not apply equally against the intension if you are looking to the future and to the larger movements which we of this generation are witnessing.

I hope that this small obstacle that is placed in the way of the separation of the larger towns by raising the population from 50,000 to 75,000 will, by moral and logical consent, become generally adopted The large urban districts and municipal boroughs will, I hope, think 50 times before separating themselves from the county areas, which may be developed with so much advantage to themselves if they remain under an integral, common authority. I hope in the future there will be very few county boroughs created, but that while creating and extending the powers of large urban districts in these matters that appertain purely and solely to the locality, they still will retain their combination in the county authority for the great advantage not only of the county, but also of the people themselves in the towns, who, obviously, have everything to gain by making the utmost use of the county surrounding them. In that spirit, I support the Second Reading of this Measure, as a compromise under the present conditions.


May I ask the Minister whether the Bill will in any way affect the Poor Law administration? Will it confer any extra powers upon the county borough councils while extending the areas for poor law administration, which are now included in the Parliamentary boundary? To make the question clear, in my own division three out of the four wards for the Poor Law are under the administration of Newcastle. The fourth is under the Tyne-mouth Union. Will the Bill confer any power upon the Newcastle City Council to acquire full control of the Poor Law administration within its Parliamentary boundaries?


Not at all. It clues not touch that.


I wish to say one word with regard to the position which is felt by many non-county boroughs, and to support the Second Reading of this Bill, reserving any rights we may have to discuss in Committee questions which I think affect the position of those boroughs. After all, it has to be remembered it is now some three years since an embargo has been put on non-county boroughs by the Ministry of Health, and we must remember the very difficult position in which those boroughs are which would have qualified under the old population basis, but who have been barred during that period from exercising these rights, and are now to be disqualified from getting those powers on the new basis. I think this matter is of serious consideration, particularly in view of the fact that many non-county boroughs in services such as health and education which they do control, are very much more go-ahead than the County Councils. In almost every Bill that comes before this House dealing with social questions, this question always comes up as to what authority is to administer it. We had a case a little while ago of a Bill, on which a compromise was found, to safeguard the rights of the non-county boroughs, and I think if this is to be definitely established in Legislation which does come before this House, some consideration should be given to those boroughs who cannot qualify for County Borough powers, or whose Bills may not be carried in future, who are efficiently carrying out services, and who very much resent the curtailment of their powers in respect of those services or the withdrawing of those services from such authorities.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee.