HC Deb 05 March 1929 vol 226 cc243-54

In the event of the town council of any burgh, either before the passing of this Act or within twelve months from the passing of this Act, making application for a Provisional Order to extend the boundaries of their burgh, nothing in this Act contained shall affect or prejudice or be deemed to affect or prejudice any such application, and in the event of any such Provisional Order being passed into law and the population of such extended burgh at the date of the passing of the Act confirming the said Provisional Order being twenty thousand or upwards, such extended burgh shall for the purposes of this Act be deemed to be a large burgh and be deemed to have existed at the time at which the Census of nineteen hundred and twenty-one was taken, and to have had a population within the police boundaries of such extended burgh according to that Census of twenty thousand or upwards.

For the purposes of this Section the expression "a Provisional Order to extend the boundaries of their burgh" shall be deemed to include a Provisional Order to amalgamate with any adjoining burgh or other area.—[Mr. T. Kennedy.]

Brought up, and read the First time.


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

Later on in our proceedings, I hope to move an Amendment to this Bill of a somewhat wider character than the Clause which I am now moving. This Clause is limited in its scope and I think its object will be obvious to every Member of the House. In spite of the general provisions of this Bill, adjoining burghs with common services and common interests will find it desirable and, I hope, easy and possible, in the future to amalgamate their various services. Normal burgh development means extension of burgh boundaries, and we may expect that extensions, amalgamations, and absorptions will take place in the future as has been the case in the past. When those amalgamations take place in the natural order of things, we shall have under this Bill, unless it is amended, the anomaly of an extended burgh with a population approaching perhaps 40,000 being placed in the category of a small burgh and included in the county council administration, and denied the status of a burgh in regard to its burgh services and interests. It will be regarded in a worse position than a burgh with a population of, say 20,500. That I am sure is an anomaly which no Member of this House would seek to defend.

I admit that the are not many cases in Scotland that would come within the scope of this Clause, but I have in mind a typical case of the burgh of Buckhaven and Methil in Fifeshire with a population of between 18,000 and 19,000. The ratepayers in that burgh are now, as they have been ever since this Bill was promoted, unanimously opposed to absorption into the county administration. I am sure that no Member of this House would dare to argue that, either in regard to county services or burgh services, this Bill will effect any improvement whatever in the existing situation. Here we have a burgh which has been efficiently and economically administered in the past. It has extended its services. It has, as a matter of fact, during the last four or five years incurred an expenditure on housing and on roads within its boundaries of about £500,000. It has the most efficient municipal services in the matter of health administration of any burgh in the county of Fife, and yet this burgh, placed as it is almost on the brink of qualification as a large burgh, is thrown into the general county administration and deprived of that direct control over its municipal services to which it is entitled and which the ratepayers in the burgh are anxious to retain. The present Bill will not come into operation before May, 1930. I cannot see that the administration of the county of Fife will be at all affected by the exclusion of a burgh such I have mentioned from county administration. I am perfectly certain that the burgh administration will not be improved in any sense whatever by being included in the county administration. All that I am pleading for is that burghs so placed shall have time to look round, adjust their affairs and their prospective relations with the county authorities, and that we shall leave the door open for the next 12 months for this purpose.


I beg to second the Motion.

I think we are all agreed that, where there is a possibility of a few adjoining communities coming together and co-ordinating their various functions and making one unit which will be more efficient, it is desirable to encourage that possibility. We know that when any of these amalgamations are spoken about or suggested that there are always difficulties and objections, and a great deal of energy and effort has often to be expended to secure a very desirable end. As a set-off against that, if the combined unit, the new unit, is to have an opportunity as a large burgh of carrying through its own self government, there will be a greater inducement for these amalgamations to take place. In the same way, when a burgh is considering the extension of its boundary, which would involve new responsibilities and a considerable addition to the local burdens but which might be a very desirable thing from the public point of view, it will be an inducement for it to do so if it has the advantage of status which this new Clause would give. As my hon. Friend has said, this is rather apart from the other question, which we have not yet had an opportunity of discussing properly, as to the limits of a large burgh. I hope that we shall have an opportunity of discussing that later on. Whether we leave the figure as it is now or not, at any rate, it should not be determined finally by the Bill that the status of the burghs of Scotland are to remain as they are at the passing of the Measure. One of the things for which the Bill has been commended and for which the Minister has pleaded, more than once, is elasticity. I suggest that if we stereotype the position as it is now, we shall not have the elasticity which is so desirable. I quite understand that the financial adjustments with the county council would be one of the difficulties, but this is a difficulty which it is not impossible to surmount in any particular case. The object of the new Clause is a desirable one, and I trust that the Government will see their way to accept it.


The arguments advanced by the hon. Gentleman in favour of this new Clause may seem at first sight, perhaps, to have a certain amount of force, but I think that on investigation the House will realise that the Clause would produce a very difficult position. Indeed, the position, if this Clause as it stands were passed, would be seriously prejudiced for the whole future of the new authorities—the new county councils of combined county and burgh authorities which it is the object of the Bill to set up. I note, in the first place, that it would be almost impossible for this provision only to operate in one way. It has been suggested by the two hon. Members that elasticity is desired, but I am sure that both of them would agree that what they probably have in mind is only elasticity in one direction. What about the case where the population of a burgh happens to fall under 20,000? It would obviously be most injudicious to advance a line of argument which might mean, for instance, that a town, because of a fall in population by some 200, might lapse from the position it held at present, and find itself merged in a county authority.

It is desirable that we should determine the position of the burghs and the county authorities in Scotland and lay it down with a certain degree of definiteness. The financial adjustments necessary would be far-reaching and extensive. The proposal that for 12 months after the passing of this Act it should still be possible for a burgh to apply for a Provisional Order might easily mean that the Provisional Order would be made or refused late in 1930. Now the new grants are payable in two monthly instalments as early as 16th May of that year. It is quite right that a certain amount of margin should be given, and, indeed, a certain amount of margin is provided in the Bill. If any amalgamation takes place during the passage of the Bill through this House or through another place, it would still be possible to add the name of another burgh to the Schedule and make it clear that it was not to come within the scope of the new county authority. The hon. Gentleman who moved this Clause will see that the Bill provides an extension of time up to one month after the passing of the Act, and that the object he has in view may thus be secured. Twelve months is altogether an unreasonable extension of time.

In the first place, the number of units to which this proposal applies are very small indeed. In fact, in one of the cases brought forward it has been proved that the time given is quite adequate, because Dumfries and Maxwelltown have already taken the necessary steps, and they will no doubt find it possible to bring themselves within the ambit of this Bill. Another case which is germane to this question is the case of Musselburgh. Certainly, when Musselburgh desires to unite with the adjacent city of Edinburgh it will have no difficulty. The combination of the two will certainly bring Musselburgh outside the scope of the Bill. That brings me down to the single example of Buckhaven and Methil. The hon. Member said that Buckhaven and Methil had about 18,000 inhabitants, and is on the verge of carrying through some amalgamation which will enable it to have a greater population than 20,000. I am informed that a plebiscite has been taken in the other burgh with which it is proposed the amalgamation should take place. With all the advantages of the proposal in its mind and the proposals of this Bill clearly in view, the other burgh voted almost unanimously against the proposed amalgamation. Only 126 of the electorate were found to register their votes in favour of it.


Only about 16 per cent. of the ratepayers voted. The whole arrangements for the plebiscite were so inadequate that we cannot take that result as at all convincing.


Seven hundred electors found it sufficiently adequate to vote against the proposal, and only 126 found it sufficiently adequate to vote in favour of it. The onus rests upon those desiring the change rather than upon those opposing the change. It would be impossible to allow the whole arrangements of all the new authorities to be held up for the next vital 12 months, while possible amalgamations were being discussed and re-discussed or voted upon and possibly re-voted upon under the proposals made by the hon. Member. He said that no Member of this House could contemplate the possibility that a unit of well over 20,000 might be within the county for major purposes, while units of barely 20,000 were outside. The hon. Member was speaking without his book. More than one hon. Member of this House has examined precisely that possibility, and more than one hon. Member of his own party has examined that possibility. My predecessor in office, the hon. Member for St. Rollox (Mr. Stewart), who has as great a claim to knowledge of local government as any hon. Member sitting on these benches, has specifically examined this proposal and has specifically reported to the Board of Health upon it. This is what he said in the report which he signed: We encountered much difficulty in considering what burghs are capable of being independent units in health administration. The population limit is, admittedly, not always the true criterion of what should be an ideal unit, but it is the best that can be suggested. We have come to the conclusion that only those burghs with a population of 50,000 and over are in a position to administer the services that will be brought under the control of the unified health authorities. The hon. Member for St. Rollox went further. He and the hon. Member for Bothwell (Mr. Sullivan) considered even a unit which transcended that population limit. They decided that it should not by any means be automatic that a unit which transcended even the limit of 50,000 should not thereby automatically pass from the category of a small burgh to that of a large burgh. They said: A burgh which was included in a county unit and whose population subsequently increased beyond the 50,000 limit should not thereby become automatically an independent unit. Their final recommendation was that: A burgh of over 50,000 population may be required by the Department to be included in a county unit, and burghs which, once having been included, have a population of over 50,000 should become independent units only with the sanction of the Department, granted after full inquiry into all the circumstances. Therefore, the very emergency which the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Mr. T. Kennedy) mentions has been examined and scrutinised carefully by an authoritative committee, which has reported in a sense adverse to that which he desires to convince the House this afternoon. That report was signed by two of the most representative members of his own party. In view of all these circumstances, I hope that the hon. Member will not think it necessary to press his new Clause.


I hope that the Under-Secretary will pay as much attention to the reports signed by the Noble Lady the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Education (Duchess of Atholl), in so far as she deals with Scottish local government, as he has asked us to pay to reports signed by my two hon. Friends, whose remarkable report he is continually quoting. There is not very much in the particular point raised by the new Clause, which simply asks that for a period of 12 months local authorities may combine to get outside county council control. Could we have any indication from the Under-Secretary or from the Secretary of State for Scotland that they are prepared to consider favourably the Amendment on page 804 dealing with the same point, but not specifically limited to twelve months. In page 2, line 19, at the end to insert the words: Provided also that where a burgh is not a large burgh at the commencement of this Act but becomes a large burgh at any time thereafter by reason of an increase in population, such burgh shall, on application being made to the Secretary of State and with his approval, be deemed to be a large burgh for the purposes of this Act. We ask in that Amendment that provision shall be made for application to the Secretary of State and that in future local authorities which become large burghs, shall not be debarred from the privileges granted to large burghs. If we could have an indication that the right hon. Gentleman would be prepared to consider favourably something on those lines, there would be very little point in our pressing for a precise period of 12 months; but if the right hon. Gentleman is not prepared to accept some such Amendment, may I draw his attention to the strange anomalies which will arise in Scotland? We shall have in many counties in Scotland large burghs of, perhaps, 20,000, 30,000 or 40,000 thousand inhabitants, which will come under the control of the county council, while in neighbouring counties there will be burghs whose population has shrunk maybe to 18,000 or 16,000, who will retain an independent existence. Unless the right hon. Gentleman is prepared to make provision for some kind of elasticity in this respect, and unless he is prepared to say that he will retain powers under the provisions of the Act whereby small burghs on attaining the population limit of 20,000 shall have the privileges which have been granted to the other burghs of 20,000, he will land himself and his Measure in additional anomalies and more troubles than all the huge mountains of them which surround the Bill at the present time.

Lieut.-Colonel MOORE

I find myself, strongly against my will, giving some little sympathy to the new Clause. We in Scotland, in spite of the present political representation, are strongly Conservative by instinct, and there is some difficulty in removing ourselves from historical associations. I am now referring to the question of amalgamations. It will take some time for certain burghs to break away from the individuality which the old tradition inspires, and I do think that the 12 months period which has been suggested might well be granted to burghs which are at present nibbling at the idea of amalgamation. It will take some time to swallow the whole bite. In that time they might forget the historical associations of their particular burgh and, in the interests of the general community, come together and make a success of their combines and remove themselves from the scope of this part of the Bill.

Take the case of a burgh which wishes to extend, and will be forced to extend, its boundaries. I have in my mind the Burgh of Troon. Many hon. Members of this House and many people outside will remember the Burgh of Troon. They have probably gained health and fresh stimulus from the Troon golf course, and they will have got many new ideas about politics and other things from its invigorating sea breezes. In addition to these advantages, Troon has benefited owing to the beneficence of one of its old inhabitants, who has provided for the building of a large college, the Marr Institute. Mr. Marr left the money with the idea of giving the children of Troon and the future children of Troon a cheap, if not an entirely free, education, which would take them right up to the University stage, with bursarships and so on to enable them to complete their education. The result is that this large institute is being built just outside Troon, and already many families from various parts of Scotland are being allured to Troon. That means building developments in Troon, and growth of population. It may well mean that before the expiration of 12 months, Troon will have come within the scope of the 20,000 population limit, or soon after the 12 months. It all depends upon the publicity which is given to the offer of cheap education at Troon. For these reasons, and speaking personally as the representative of my own constituency, I feel that there is much to be said for the extension of the period during which amalgamations or extensions may take place.


I beg to support the new Clause, and I hope that the Government will listen to the views of one of their own followers. If other hon. Members on the Government side took part in the Debate they would say pretty much what has been said by the hon. and gallant Member for Ayr Burghs (Lieut.-Colonel Moore). As the Bill stands at the moment, the Government are not allowing sufficient time for the feeling against the Bill, which has arisen within the burghs, to die down. I do not need to remind the Secretary of State, the Lord Advocate or the Under-Secretary of the hostility which has been shown by the burghs of Scotland against the whole Measure.

Commander COCHRANE

Not by Leven.


I am afraid that the result of the plebiscite is not the opinion of Leven. I believe that if the position could be clearly explained to Leven, that district would be willing to consider amalgamation with the Burgh of Buckhaven, rather than be absorbed in the county scheme. There has been so much hostility created within the burghs in Scotland that it will take some little time before they begin to settle down. If the Government will agree to the new Clause, and give them 12 months to make up their minds whether they are going to extend their boundaries and come within the scope of a large burgh, or to amalgamate burghs, the position would be more satisfactory. There are burghs where an amalgamation could take place satisfactorily, and where if the burghs had a little time in which to consider the matter they would probably be willing to carry on their existence in a large burgh, rather than be absorbed in a county scheme. I suggest to the Secretary of State that he might give more favourable consideration to the proposal that 12 months should be given to those burghs to make up their minds whether or not they will come within the scope of large burghs.

Supposing financial adjustments require to be made and supposing that grants are given to the small burghs and the landward areas of counties before amalgamations take place. There is nothing new in financial adjustments having to take place between a county council and a burgh authority. That has been going on continuously under previous Acts of Parliament. Burghs are always asking for additional territory and they are always opposed by the county council. Whenever a burgh wishes to extend its boundaries it is opposed by a county council, either for good or bad reasons. A county council, naturally, does not wish to lose any rating area, and it opposes such applications. We have had these adjustments in past years, and there is no reason why we cannot adjust all the financial difficulties that are likely to arise if the right hon. Gentleman concedes the claim that an additional 12 months should be allowed to these burghs to make up their minds whether they are going into the county scheme or whether they wish for amalgamation in order to become large burghs within the meaning of the Bill.

Question, "That the Clause be read a Second time," put, and negatived.


The new Clause—(Increase of house-owners' rates)—standing in the name of the hon. Member for Camlachie (Mr. Stephen) is not in order, as it is outside the scope of the Bill.


May I point out that Clause 20 of the Bill does practically the same thing. This Amendment will only take from property owners a certain amount of the rating relief which they already get under the 1920 Act.


This particular new Clause is to amend the Increase of Rent and Mortgage Restrictions Act, 1920, and we cannot amend that Act under this Bill.


We passed an Amendment during the Committee stage to amend the House Letting and Rating (Scotland) Act, 1911, and I submit that if it was in order for such an Amendment to be passed during the Committee stage it should be in order for this new Clause to be considered now.


The proposed new Clause is not covered by the Title of the Bill.


May I draw your attention to Clause 20 of the Bill which provides for certain Amendments to the House Letting and Rating (Scotland) Act, 1911. Having regard to the Amendments which have been accepted relating to that Act, surely this proposal is now in order?


I do not think this Bill has anything to do with the Increase of Rent and Mortgage Restrictions Act, 1920.


May I put this point. What we cannot quite follow is while the Government are allowed to amend the 1911 Act and we are not allowed to amend the 1920 Act. Both deal with the question of rates; the same issue is raised. We are not asking for any alteration in rents. We only seek to alter rates, and we cannot quite follow why there should be this differentiation and that we are unable to move an Amendment to the 1920 Act while the Government are able to alter the 1911 Act. That is what we cannot quite understand. We are not asking for any alteration in rents, but only an alteration in the matter of rating, and, having granted the Government the right to alter the 1911 Act, we cannot quite see why we should not be granted the same privilege in regard to the 1920 Act.

The LORD ADVOCATE (Mr. William Watson)

The question which arose under under the 1920 Act was one of rents, not of rates. This suggested new Clause would take away the right and power of landlords to increase rents in order to recoup themselves in respect of a rise in rates. That is purely a question of rent. Clause 20 of the Bill deals with the commission on the collection of rates for local authorities. That is quite a different matter, and comes under the Title of the Bill. It is the amount of the commission which a local authority has to pay to landlords for collecting occupiers' rates. That is purely a question of the collection of rates.


The Lord Advocate has not stated the position quite accurately. The Act of 1920 did not deal with rent at all. It is definite and specific, and it allows 40 per cent., with 7½ per cent. extra, for an increase of rates in rent; and it has never been held to be rent. We say that we should be allowed to alter the relationship of rates in rent.


This new Clause suggests the deletion of a Sub-section in the Act of 1920 which allows owners' rates over a certain period to be transferred from the owner to the tenant. That is the purpose of the Sub-section in the 1920 Act, and we propose that the rates which the owner is allowed to transfer to the tenant should be re-imposed on the owner in view of the general alteration of the rating system under this Bill.


I am not convinced that this new Clause comes within the scope of the Bill. It relates to rent. I do not know whether this point was raised during the Committee stage or not.


May I point out to yon that owing to the fact that we were discussing the Bill under the Guillotine Motion we were not able to consider this particular Clause, and we did not get any ruling from the Chairman during the Committee stage.


In my opinion this new Clause does not come within the scope of the Bill.