HC Deb 10 December 1945 vol 417 cc135-42

8.39 p.m.

The Minister of Health (Mr. Aneurin Bevan)

I beg to move, '' That the Local Government (Boundary Commission) Regulations, 1945, made by the Minister of Health under the Local Government (Boundary Commission) Act, 1945, a copy of which Regulations was presented on 16th November, be approved. The House will probably recall that the Local Government Boundary Commission Act, 1945, makes provision for the establishment of the Local Boundary Commission charged with very important powers for determining the delimitation of local authorities where that is considered to be desirable. Under Section 1 (3) of the Act, the Minister of Health is empowered, after consultation with such associations of local authorities as appear to him to be concerned, to make regulations prescribing general principles for the guidance of the Commissioners. The regulations now before the House set out those general principles in detail, and I hope the House will not consider it necessary for me to go over them this evening. They have been discussed with representatives of local authorities concerned, are generally agreed and, I believe, cover all the points which were in the mind of the late Government when the Act was passed. I believe the right hon. Gentleman who preceded me as Minister of Health has looked at them, and will probably agree they are, in general, the principles which ought to guide the Commission in these matters. Under Section 3 (10) of the Act, the Commission's procedure is to be prescribed also by regulations made by the Minister of Health. If hon. Members will look at the regulations they will see that the procedure, also, is set out in considerable detail.

I am anxious that the Commission should get to work as early as possible, because very serious work lies before it. Local authorities are, naturally, anxious about their position. They wish to make use of this procedure, which is very much simpler and cheaper than that hitherto available to them, and I am quite convinced that the Commission's work will be invaluable. However, there is one point in which the local authorities are deeply interested —the question of priorities. Very large numbers of questions will fall to be determined and there are some obviously much more pressing than others. Under the Act, the Minister of Health is entitled to lay down certain directions for the Commission as to priorities, but, of course, it is not necessary to do so if the mind of the Commission coincides with that of the Government in this matter. I have been in correspondence with the Commission and, for the purpose of record and in order to make clear to local authorities this matter of priority has not in fact been overlooked, I would like to read the reply I have received from the Commission: In reply to your letter of 3rd December, I am directed by the Commission to say that they would propose to give a general priority to questions relating to boundaries of counties or county boroughs (and of any county districts which would be consequentially affected) as distinct from questions solely relating to the status or boundaries of county districts. Within this general priority the Commission would consider as having a special priority (a) county boroughs which, either in consequence of war damage or for other reasons, have in prospect large schemes of reconstruction involving development outside the existing towns; and (b) cases in which applications to Parliament for alteration of boundaries or status have been made, or have for some time been in contemplation and, but for the war, would in all probability have been already considered. The Commission think it inadvisable to attempt to lay down any exact order of priority as between these two last-named classes of case. While these priorities would govern their normal procedure, the Commission would be prepared, exceptionally, to give early consideration to any other case which appeared to them, by reason of special circumstances, to demand it, provided that the case could be dealt with as part of an ordered review of the other local government areas which might be affected. They would also regard themselves as at liberty to postpone, exceptionally, consideration of any case which appeared not to be really urgent except of course those within the two special priorities indicated above. I am to add that the Commission have had the advantage of discussing the matter with the representatives of the local government associations, and were glad to find that they concurred in the proposed procedure. In the light of that communication it would be redundant for me to attempt to give directions to the Commission as to priorities. It is rather late, and I am sure the House is anxious to rise. There are very important principles contained in the regulations which could lead to a fruitful discussion if hon. Members so wished, but it seems to me, in the circumstances, as the whole thing has been generally agreed with those concerned, that the House might agree to the Motion which I now have the honour to move.

8.46 p.m.

Mr. Willink (Croydon, North)

If I, too, am brief tonight it will not, I am sure, be thought, either here or outside, that it is because we in this House consider these regulations to be unimportant. The drafting and submission to Parliament and, in the first place, to this House of these general directions on which this most important Commission is to act was a main feature of the proposals made. If our discussion is brief it is only because—as I think will turn out to be the case—the House finds itself exceedingly well satisfied with the regulations which have been placed before it. But none the less, this is an important stage in a very important matter, and I venture to say it is to the credit of the right hon. Gentleman's Department and of himself that, in spite of the changes and chances of 1945, this matter has proceeded smoothly and swiftly and with the general concurrence of the associations of local authorities. It is satisfactory to find this working out of a wise policy initiated by the Coalition Government, with an Act of Parliament put into law by the intervening Government, and, finally, these regulations submitted by the right hon. Gentleman, all within the space of 10 months. It was anticipated in the Debate on the White Paper and on the Bill when it was before the House that the framing of these regulations was going to be a difficult and controversial matter. It was said the Debate on the regulations would be very much more important and prolonged than the Debate on the Bill. But the Minister has told us that there have been the consultations expressly provided for by an Amendment to the Bill as originally presented and, for my part, I find the result very satisfactory indeed.

Most satisfactory of all I find the fact that the Minister accepts wholeheartedly this step as the proper one to take with regard to the immediate reform of certain aspects of our local government system, in spite of the fact that it was described by the Lord Privy Seal when introduced as "timid and inadequate," and described by the present Minister of Town and Country Planning in curiously similar words. I think he called it "Poor, timid and inadequate." I always felt, as I gather the right hon. Gentleman feels, that the setting up of this Commission with directions of this kind was a most important and valuable step, likely to result in very great benefit to the whole of our local government system. That view was taken by myself at a time when there was undoubtedly great restiveness and suspicion throughout local authorities, of all political views, as the result of activities of certain right hon. Gentlemen whom I am not going to name. I find, and I am sure the right hon. Gentleman has also found, the associations of local authorities most helpful and constructive in these matters. It is not that they are unaware of faults and defects in their present set-up. I believe the Commission will find the same attitude when they set about their task, and I would like to say that this awareness of the need for reform, in a good many directions, is shared quite as strongly by those who speak for rural districts—which arc sometimes quite wrongly suggested to be behind-hand in these matters—as by others.

In passing, I would like to congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on the strength of the Commission, the composition of which he was able to submit to His Majesty for appointment. Of the five members, I have the privilege of knowing well three, and I am certain that the whole-time service of Sir John Maude, who until recently was Secretary of the Ministry of Health, will give very great confidence through the local government world. Not only was he head of the department primarily concerned, but his devotion to and knowledge of local government in this country are, I am sure, unsurpassed. Secondly, I feel that the appointment of Sir George Etherton to this Commission is a most wise step. A gentleman who has been town clerk of two great cities, and clerk of a most important county, the county of Lancashire, is another example of a first-class appointment. So far as the chairman, Sir Malcolm Trustram Eve, is concerned, I am certain that no better chairman could have been found. I have not the privilege of knowing the other two members but I have no reason to doubt that their appointment is equally suitable.

The regulations fall under two heads, the general principles and the procedural regulations. I would like to say one or two words only under each of those heads. In the first place, with regard to the general principles, there has been some criticism that they are vague and indefinite. I would not for one moment join in that criticism I think it is essential not to be doctrinaire or rigid in drawing regulations for the guidance of a Commission of this kind. The circumstances of this country of ours are infinitely varied, and if there had been any attempt to make the regulations rigid, basing the size of local government areas on population in any strict manner, I feel sure that would have been harmful. In particular, I would mention, too, that I think the provision that there should be no prejudice one way or the other as to the blending together of urban and rural districts is very wise indeed, and the facts ought to be looked at in each particular case. I would also commend in the second Regulation, the careful phrasing that sets out in alphabetical order and not in order of priority something like 10 different factors which are among those to be considered by the Commission. I read this morning that it was to be hoped that Parliament would give a clear indication of the order in which these factors should be rated and valued. I do not believe that is possible. The rating of the various factors will vary from place to place, and I am glad the regulations have been drafted in this way.

Turning to the procedural provisions, it is worth calling attention to one in- novation which I am sure will result in the saving of expense and of time, namely, the provision that the Commission, if they like at any of their inquiries, can say to all the parties, '' You are each of you to address us in the first place before we enter on the hearing of evidence so that we may discover what are really the points at issue, and frame the issues and then restrict the evidence to those points."

There were in my mind two questions which I wanted to ask, the first of which has been answered by the right hon. Gentleman, and that was the question whether he was going to give any directions as to priorities under Section 3 of the Act. The letter from the War Damage Commission which he read is, I think, a very wise letter and a first instalment of what I am sure will be very valuable work, but I would be glad if we might have some information on another most important point. Hon. Members will be aware that of this Commission of five, only one is a whole time Commissioner. I think it is right and wise that the bulk of the Commission should be part time and should not be wholly devoted to this task, but should bring the wider vision which may result from carrying on some other valuable occupation. But the consequence of that is that it is most important that this Commission should be adequately provided with staff, and the staffing of this Commission in these days is not an easy matter, I imagine. Anyone conducting an inquiry into the areas of county boroughs or counties needs the assistance of a number of people with experience in finance, public health and education. He will have to gather opinions, and expert opinions, from many quarters, and I think the Commission will need a very high level staff with which I fancy they may well be finding it difficult to provide themselves. They will not be able to get on with their work effectively or to do it in the time in which we want to see it done, unless they have an adequate staff. I indicated that I would be brief, and I hope my own feeling that these regulations are satisfactory is shared generally by the House at large. I conclude by wishing this Commission well in their most important task.

8.56 p.m.

Mr. Medland (Plymouth, Drake)

I have listened with very great interest to the Minister of Health, but unfortunately I was unable to follow very closely the letter which he read with regard to the Commission. I did understand that the main point of the letter was that the first priority will be given to the relations between county boroughs and county councils. If that is so, I would like to ask him whether any further intimation has been given, because a large number of county boroughs require a general survey of their position in relation to the county councils, but more particularly does this apply to the towns which have been very badly devastated and blitzed as the result of enemy action. I would like to obtain from the Minister some sort of promise that blitzed and devastated towns will receive special and very early consideration. If that can be done, a great weight will be lifted from localities such as my own where it is absolutely essential before we can go on with our town and country planning—and, if I may say so, I think this Bill arose from the discussion of the Town and Country Planning Bill—that we should know whether we are going to have very early consideration.

The other point I would like to make is that it ought to be made very clear to us that Government Departments will give evidence before the Commission. A local authority which is asking for a revision of its boundaries has to revise its educational programme, its public health programme, its social services programme, so that it may know beforehand whether the views it is expressing in its proposals for replanning the area meet with general Government approval, and whether the Commission will be in a position to co-ordinate all its activities. Before I sit down I would like to say how grateful we in the devastated areas are to the Minister for bringing forward these directions. We have all had our discussions with the Municipal Corporations Association and with our local officers, and we are assured by them that these directions have been well and carefully devised and will meet the position and be the first step towards a real consideration of future local government areas.

9.0 p.m.

Mr. Bevan

I can speak again only with the consent of the House. I would say in reply to the right hon. Gentleman that I have already given consideration to the question of staffing and entirely agree with him. I have discussed it with the Chairman of the Commission, and we are agreed that he must get appropriate staff for this very important work. We all understand how difficult it will be to recruit them just now, but we shall do our best. We do not want the work of the Commission to be scamped in any way by the absence of sufficient high-level staff. With regard to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for the Drake division (Mr. Medland) I did read the reply to the question which he put, because I thought the House would be interested in it, and if it is suitable I will read it again —not all the letter, but just that passage. The Commission say: County boroughs which either in consequence of war damage or for other reasons have in prospect large. schemes of reconstruction and involving development outside the existing towns, and cases in which applications to Parliament for alteration to boundaries or status have been made or have for some time been in contemplation and but for the war would in all probability have been already considered. Those are the two priorities which the Commission will consider. With regard to the third question, I am not certain about the locus of the Commission in that matter. Local authorities do not always want Government Departments to give evidence. However, I will consider it.

Mr. Sparks (Acton)

May I ask whether the general principles in these Statutory Rules and Orders will apply to London and the Greater London area?

Mr. Bevan

The whole area.

Mr. Willink

Will not the position be that all these regulations will apply to the whole of England and Wales except the Administrative County of London?

Mr. Bevan

There is a special Commission for the London area.

Mr. Sparks

And that would include Greater London?

Mr. Bevan

No, the special Commission is for the London area, but this applies to the whole of England and Wales.

Resolved: That the Local Government (Boundary Commission) Regulations, 1945, made by the Minister of Health under the Local Government (Boundary Commission) Act, 1945, a copy of which Regulations was presented on 16th November, be approved.