§ 12.17 p.m.
§ The Minister of Health (Mr. Willink)
I beg to move,That this House welcomes the intention of the Government to preserve the existing framework of the county and county borough system of local government and the proposals for the establishment of a Local Government Boundary Commission outlined in the White Paper presented to Parliament.Even in these years of war, when so large a part of our Parliamentary time has necessarily to be spent on the war itself and on measures directly related to its prosecution at home and overseas, there have been a number of occasions when matters concerned with local government have been discussed. Some of these—the Education Act of last year is perhaps the best example—have concerned legislation of first-class importance. There have also been, as hon. and right hon. Members will recall, three Agricultural Acts, and in the Debates leading up to those Acts and in relation to town and country planning, the National Health Service and the Government's employment policy, we have discussed from time to time the proper distribution of responsibility as between central and local government and the adequacy of our local government system to fulfil its very great tasks. On all these occasions, however, it has been a particular aspect of local government that we have considered, and I believe that it is timely and not unwelcome that an opportunity should have arisen for a general survey such as is given by the White Paper referred to in the Motion before the House.
We are now at a stage when reconstruction is, we may confidently say, about to become actual. The time is not far distant when White Papers and plans will require to be translated into action. The local authorities are already laying the foundations of their post-war services, and it is right that we should consider by what legislative and administrative action Parliament may give them the greatest encouragement and help.
I would stress that this Motion is essentially concerned with local government in the years immediately ahead. It refers to a White Paper whose title is "Local Government in England and Wales during the Period of Reconstruction," and I would emphasise that it is not intended by the 420 first part of the Motion to invite more than an acceptance of the view expressed in the Paper itself that it is inexpedient to contemplate drastic innovations, such as the constitution of regional bodies, in reshaping the local government system to fit post-war needs. The Government are united in this view so far as the period immediately ahead of us is concerned and I doubt whether to look beyond that period is really profitable at the moment.
It was right, I think, to wait before making this general survey until Parliament had approved the great measure for the reform of our educational system; but we are further helped by the fact that legislation dealing with such a subject as rural water supply and sewerage has now been passed and that the House has considered and approved in principle the Government's proposals in relation to the Health Services, for example, and with regard to the transfer of a substantial section of public assistance functions from the local authorities to the Assistance Board. All these matters guided us in our approach to the general question.
But, as I have said, it is now time to face the general issue. Our local democratic institutions have a long and fine tradition—with achievements for which many give them too little credit. They are undertaking, as I believe, greater responsibilities than ever before. To what extent and how best can Parliament contribute to their vigour and efficiency in these years of reconstruction?
I have a personal reason to know and to be very grateful for the close attention that has been given by very many hon. Members, and many outside, to the White Paper. It has been in the hands of the House and the public since very early in the New Year, and I shall not attempt to go through it in any detail or attempt to summarise everything that is in it. What I should like to do is to outline the considerations which have combined to suggest the proposals which the White Paper contains, because they are quite numerous.
First I should like to mention the series of schemes, very diverse in character, some of them very far-reaching, which were issued by the local government associations. These have, of course, all been most carefully considered, but I doubt whether the associations will really complain if I say that perhaps the most 421 striking characteristic of these schemes was their diversity. The second matter to which I should like to refer is what I think can be described as the general atmosphere of apprehension and suspicion that undoubtedly prevailed for a long time in local government circles. I have more than once been reminded of the Walrus and the Carpenter. The local authorities were as suspicious as the Eldest Oyster; the Government as suspect as the Walrus.O Oysters, come and walk with us!The Walrus did beseech,A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,Along the briny beach.The eldest oyster looked at him,But never a word he said:The eldest Oyster winked his eye,And shook his heavy head—Meaning to say he did not chooseTo leave the oyster-bed.The Government have no such sinister intentions.
Next, there were apparently serious fears that the system of Regional Commissioners, which has been of such great value during the war, was to be continued. I think that bogy is now finally laid. There were also fears that plans were afoot for large, new, elective regional authorities. That fear too, I think, has gone; though of course it is true, and we must face the fact, that in several of the services there is undoubtedly need for planning over areas wider than those of individual local authorities.
Then, with greater reason, there has been anxiety that the reconstruction programme will place an impossible burden on local rates. As to this I shall have something to say before I sit down.
If I turn to the particular anxieties of various types of local authorities—and this is not a mere question of vested interests or parochialism of outlook—I would say, as to the counties, that there is a very genuine anxiety that by gradual erosion, by the creation of new county boroughs and the extension of existing county borough boundaries, their administration may be fatally handicapped. To the counties, as applications for county borough status and the extension of county boroughs become imminent, I am not sure that the county boroughs are not the Walrus:Now, if you're ready, Oysters dear,We can begin to feed.That is certainly the impression I have 422 obtained from a number of letters with regard to certain proposals that have already been put forward. But the county boroughs too, and the larger non-county boroughs, are gravely concerned about the adequacy of their areas if they are to achieve their planning ideals. The minor authorities fear progressive loss of responsibility, and therefore of local interest, a fear which is all the stronger because the more experienced among their number realise that there are still very many minor authorities which, on any fair view, are too small and too weak financially to bear the responsibilities which are placed upon them.
But let me leave the apprehensions and the anxieties and make a more positive approach. I would say that we ought to have three main objectives in considering this matter. In the last resort local government will stand or fall by those whom it can attract to its service, whether as members or officers. This cannot be exaggerated. We all know that during the war the supply of public spirit on the Home Front as well as in the Forces has been inexhaustible. I am sure that many who have served in the Armed Forces, including the Home Guard, in Civil Defence, in W.V.S., and in many other organisations, have turned their minds to the possibility of becoming members of their local councils.
I think that the discussion groups, both at home and abroad, in the Forces and outside the Forces, have been an important factor in strengthening and increasing this healthy attitude. I hope that the younger generation will come forward, and that a reasonable proportion of younger men and women will be accepted by those who have influence in the choice of candidates and by the electorate.
I would say too that, in my judgment, local government provides a field in which women can give outstanding service. Very much of the work of local authorities concerns matters in which women have more natural interest, and often more expert knowledge, than men. This is certainly the case with large sections of the health services; it is certainly the case with housing and maternity and child welfare; and not least with a subject which has attracted the attention of Members of this House in recent weeks and months. the care of children who have no normal 423 home life. I hope that women, who have played such a distinguished part during the war, will carry on and offer themselves for election to the local councils.
The Government have been glad to see, from recent announcements in the Press, that a number of important commercial and industrial concerns have also got this matter in mind. They have made it known that they wish actively to encourage members of their staffs to serve on local government bodies and will give every facility for attendance at meetings without loss of pay. If we are to attract to local government work those whom we want to see engaging in it, I cannot help feeling that, both centrally and locally, there is need to make more widely known the scope, the importance, and, therefore, the human interest of the work with which our local authorities are concerned. There is need, certainly in many parts of the country, although there are exceptions, for more publicity to create a better and more widely-spread knowledge of the responsibilities that local authorities have and the way they are discharging them.
A high standard of local government officers is no less important. The House may recall that in 1934 there was a strong Departmental Committee, over which the late Sir Henry Hadow presided, which issued a report recommending, among other things, the establishment of a regular system of local government staffing, including the appointment of a central advisory committee and of local establishment committees. Work on this subject, which had begun before the outbreak of the war, was inevitably suspended, but I think it should now be made known that a body with a long name, the National Joint Council for Local Authorities' Administrative, Professional, Technical, and Clerical Services, which was reconstituted at the beginning of last year in a more representative form, but which has, or at any rate embodies, 25 years in Whitley Council work, is now taking the matter up and has under consideration a number of proposals affecting the recruitment, qualifications, training, and promotion of local government officers.
I referred to three main objectives that were in my mind. The second positive objective that I would mention is that local authorities should be assured of a greater measure of stability than is the 424 case at present. The principle of a 10 years' interval between changes of area was accepted in the Local Government Act, 1929. But that applies only in the sphere of that Act: it does not operate so far as Parliamentary Bills are concerned. I believe that it is of real importance to enable local authorities to make long-term plans with reasonable certainty that they will be able to carry them out without the disturbance which is caused by alterations of their areas at uncertain dates and times.
The third, and pressing, necessity is that we should encourage, and do nothing to discourage, vigorous and confident work throughout the local authority field during this period upon which we are entering. How can the housing authorities reasonably be expected to press on with urgent plans for housing or the rural district councils with equally urgent plans for new and improved water supplies if county districts, as such, feel themselves to be in peril of extinction? The same argument applies to the negotiations which are now going on in connection with the National Health Service. These discussions necessarily assume, and can only proceed on the assumption, that the main structure of local government as it now exists will still be in existence when the National Health Service comes into operation. But perhaps the strongest argument of all may be founded on the Education Act. Could our education services possibly develop as we hope they will in the next few years if the whole future of county and county borough government were in the melting pot? I cannot think that that would be possible.
It is upon a review of all these factors that the White Paper and this Motion are based. It is upon that review that the suggestion of a Local Government Boundary Commission is made. If we are to achieve the objectives that I have mentioned, our aim must be to reform out organisation, but without disruptive change. I think it is fair to say that the proposal to establish a Boundary Commission was received well by the experienced people with whom I discussed it last September, and, although I know there are some who would like at an early date to go further, I think that even they have approved the proposal in itself, and that it has during the six weeks since the White Paper was published met with pretty general approval.
425 I need not describe to-day the faults which it is designed to remedy. They are set out in the White Paper, which describes the difficulties that arise from the piecemeal way in which local government areas come to be altered, and in which they will again be altered in future unless there is some machinery which will combine the procedure by Parliamentary Bill and the procedure by county review. There are obvious disadvantages in a system under which there is no correlation, or practically no correlation, between the action of Parliament in dealing with major changes concerning the status and boundaries of the county and county borough councils and the action of county councils and the Minister of Health with regard to the status and boundaries of county districts within the counties. I believe, and the Government believe, that those difficulties will become serious unless action is taken. And it is not only an immediate question: I believe that the work of a Commission of this kind would be not only of immediate, but of increasing, value.
The Commissioners would, of course, be most carefully chosen from persons of experience and weight in both public and local government affairs. I do not think they should be selected to represent the interests of any particular type of local authorities, and perhaps it is worth mentioning that when the proposal was discussed with leading representatives of the local government Associations in September, they unanimously expressed the view that the Associations should not be consulted in the selection of the Commissioners.
A particular point which is of importance in the immediate post-war situation is the suggestion that the Minister should be empowered to give the Commissioners directions as to the order in which they should proceed with their reviews. Such a direction would enable the Minister to discharge the undertakings that were given when the special needs of the blitzed cities and towns were discussed, at the time of the town and country planning debates.
Parliament will be specially concerned, I apprehend, to see that in a matter of this importance there are proper constitutional safeguards as to the action of a body of Commissioners, and I should like to say a word about those safeguards. There are two sorts of safeguard sug 426 gested in the White Paper. The first is that the Commissioners should be bound to act in accordance with general directions laid before Parliament and approved by affirmative Resolution. The second is that, with regard to what I may call major adjustments of areas, boundaries and status, the Commissioners' decisions should be subject to review by Parliament. I think that, with regard to general directions, it would he misleading to suggest that it would be either desirable or, indeed, possible to frame them so precisely as not to leave the Commissioners with a large measure of quasi-judicial discretion. All the same, I believe that the Government could lay down certain broad principles applicable in the case of local authorities of all types and that these general directions could indicate the sort of requirements as regards size, financial resources and so on, which ought prima facie to be met if a satisfactory unit of local government is to be established. This, of course, is a subject which I would wish to discuss with the local government Associations before framing and laying before Parliament directions on such an important matter.
§ Mr. T. J. Brooks (Rothwell)
Do I understand that the Minister is prepared to go to the local authorities with the general directions before they come before Parliament?
§ Mr. Willink
I should like to discuss the proposals informally with the local government associations, as is so frequently done in these local government matters, in order to obtain the views of people of experience. No bargains would be made, of course.
There are two particular questions with which the general directions would deal. The first is the minimum limit of population for an application for county borough status. I think it may well be, when one considers the enormously increased range of local government services, that some change should be considered. I hardly need remind the House that from 1888 to 1926 the limit was 50,000 and that in 1926 it became 75,000. If I may assume acceptance of the principle that there should be some minimum limit, views may differ on what the figure should be, but I think few to-day would put it below 100,000. Whatever figure may be adopted as the number of population which would entitle 427 a town to apply for county borough status, I think it would be wise to make it quite clear in the directions that this figure represented a right to have the case considered but not a right to the status. Indeed, one might provide that in the case of applicant boroughs whose populations did not reach a rather higher figure, such as 125,000, the burden would be upon them to show that the case was exceptional.
There is another question which is raised in the White Paper in connection with the general directions—the question of linking town and country areas within the administrative country. I think it true to say that conditions have changed a great deal since the principle was stated, just over 100 years ago, that such a union was inappropriate. In my own view, great respect should be paid to the tradition and history implied by long enjoyment of a municipal charter; but that is not to say that boroughs such as the 60 referred to in the White Paper as having populations of less than 5,000 make the most satisfactory units that can be devised. Many of our small country towns are no larger than towns now included in a rural district, and I can see real advantage in the fusion of these small townships with their surrounding countryside. When I was considering this, I found that there were a large number of cases where this principle had already been in operation for over 100 years.
May I give the House three examples of areas of this kind? Leominster, in Herefordshire, with a population of 5,700 and an area of 8,700 acres; Tiverton with less than 10,000 people and nearly 18,000 acres; and, still more striking, Welshpool with a population of 5,600 and over 20,000 acres. I believe that this principle of linking small country towns with their surrounding countryside is not at all an impossible one to operate. On the financial side it is interesting to note that, with the modern development of rural services, there is no very wide difference between the average rates, including the county rates, in non-county boroughs and in rural districts. In England the average rate for the non-county boroughs in 1943–44 was just under 13s.; in the rural districts it was just under 12s. 3d. In Wales the average rate in the rural districts was actually 428 higher than in 'the non-county boroughs. So the difficulty suggested, that there was going to be great financial injustice if we brought such areas together, has largely disappeared.
§ Dr. Russell Thomas (Southampton)
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is not giving the whole picture. Is it not a fact that the assessments are very much lower in rural areas than in the towns?
§ Mr. Marshall (Sheffield, Brightside)
Could the Minister say whether the same applies to county boroughs to include certain rural areas?
§ Mr. Willink
There is no proposal to that effect in the White Paper, which suggests that the principle should be applied within the administrative counties. With regard to the extension of county boroughs—green belts, and so on—special considerations arise which are so varied that I do not propose to deal with them to-day, as they are not dealt with in the White Paper.
The second safeguard, the provision that an Order is to be laid before Parliament and to be subject to review by Parliament, would apply to Orders affecting the status and boundaries of counties and county boroughs, including Orders that decide against a status of that kind; and the White Paper says that the precise form of the parliamentary procedure is being worked out in detail. I cannot at the moment say more than that the Parliamentary control of Orders of this type may, I think, well be the new form of procedure to which the Prime Minister referred in an answer he gave to a Question in the House on the 20th June last year, referring to Orders to be made under the legislation for the new water policy. The general purpose would be to devise a procedure which would be appropriate for dealing with objections both of principle and of detail, and to secure that objections of principle would be dealt with normally on the Floor of the House but objections of detail would go elsewhere, to be subjected to a close examination of facts and figures before a joint committee of both Houses. It is, I think we must all agree, of great importance to ensure a reduction in the very great expenditure which proceedings of this nature have hitherto always involved.
429 Two questions have been asked since the issue of the White Paper with which I should like to deal. First, how would the Commission proceed? On that I would say it would be the duty of the Commissioners to pass under review the whole of England and Wales but not necessarily to hold a local inquiry with regard to every area in the country. That would be a quite unnecessary expenditure of time and money. There are a number of counties where the county review has been energetic and successful and where it is doubtful whether further alterations are called for. I think, too, that there arc many county boroughs where no one would wish to suggest any extension or alteration of the boundaries. It is therefore suggested that the Commissioners would be compelled to hold a local inquiry only in the following circumstances: first, with regard to county borough extensions or the creation of new county boroughs, on the application of the council of the borough; second, with regard to minor adjustments—alterations of boundaries and status—within the county, on the application of the county council; third, in any type of case—including those I have mentioned and any adjustment affecting county or county borough status or boundaries—on a request from the Minister. That means that it would not be within the power of a non-county borough or an urban or rural district to compel an inquiry, though it could, of course, invite the county council or the Minister or both to do so. It is obvious that the Commission would never finish its work if every minor authority throughout the country which wanted to make some alteration in its boundaries could compel an inquiry; but I want to make it quite clear that no local authority of any type will have its status or boundaries altered against its wishes without a local inquiry. It is not the intention that there should be any exception whatever to this rule, though the White Paper has given rise to some misconception on this point.
§ General Sir George Jeffreys (Peters-field)
When the right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about a local inquiry, does he mean it would be a public inquiry?
§ Mr. Willink
Certainly. The second point I want to mention, and on which questions have been raised, is the very 430 important one whether it is right to leave the Minister with no power to reject or modify an Order made by the Commissioners. I regard this as a crucial point in the proposals; for if the power to reject or modify were there, it would imply a duty to consider representations against the Order; and that consideration of objections could be proper and effective only if the whole of the facts and the circumstances were again reviewed, with due notice to everybody who was interested. In short, there would have to be a further local inquiry. If the Commission's Orders had to be approved by the Minister, he would either have to approve them as a matter of course—in which case he would be a mere rubber stamp—or he would have to be prepared to reopen the whole matter and then what would happen to our attempt to reduce expenditure?
There is one more point with regard to the Commissioners. The White Paper contemplates an annual report to be presented to Parliament by the Commission. I believe that it would be most valuable that Parliament should be informed from year to year by a Commission of exceptional competence of the difficulties they had encountered in the course of their work, and of any difficulties in the general local government system which their inquiries disclosed. The Government attach great importance to this part of the proposals.
I can refer only inadequately to the two special problems of Middlesex and London. As to Middlesex, a county which is more urban than any other except London and one which is known, if I may say so, for the very high quality of its administration, the proposal is that the Commissioners should not be empowered to entertain applications for county borough status. In other respects it would not differ at all from the rest of the country. As regards London, it is proposed to exclude the administrative county from the operations of the Commission. It is proposed to appoint an authoritative body—I would say a small and expert body—to advise the Government on local government problems within the County of London. Now some, I know, regard this as too limited a proposal, and, of course, it is the case that there are many subjects in which a review, limited by the boundaries of the L.C.C. area, is an inadequate approach to the problem. But an inquiry such as is suggested would be 431 a long-term affair and I think everybody who is at all familiar with the county, feels that there is a more limited field which needs attention urgently. The work of the authorities within this area during the war, in the course of which they have had to meet very grievous and severe strains, is fully recognised; but I do not think that anybody is satisfied either with the present layout of the Metropolitan Boroughs or with the allocation of functions between the Metropolitan Boroughs and the London County Council. It is with these two problems that the Government would like to deal, with all possible expedition.
I promised in the earlier part of my speech to say something about local government finance but I rather fear that I am staying on my feet longer than I intended. The general Exchequer grant, commonly called the block grant, and the Government's proposals for dealing with it is a matter on which hon. Members will expect something to be said. I would recall the main features of the system, as laid down by the Local Government Act of 1929 and as it now stands. The House will remember that the block grant is based on the aggregate expenditure of all local authorities and is distributed amongst the authorities largely on the basis of their relative needs as determined by a statutory formula. It is, in fact, a form of supplementary income to local authorities, and the greater the charge upon the authority the greater its share of the income.
Under the Act of 1929, the grant for the whole country was to be fixed for a certain number of years, called the "fixed grant period." which, to start with, was three years and is now five years. The share of each local authority in the total grant is also fixed for each of the fixed grant periods. Originally the grant was distributed on the basis of compensation for loss of rates by de-rating and for the abolition of certain Exchequer grants, the remainder of the grant being distributed on the basis of the formula. The system provided that, in each of the fixed grant periods, the distribution should be determined more by reference to the formula and less by reference to loss of rates and grant. In the period beginning with 1947 distribution would be wholly on the basis of the formula, but the war has cut across all 432 these plans. The fixed grant period which should have run from 1942 to 1947 had to be postponed and, by an Act passed in 1941, the third period and the basis for distributing grants at that time were extended until Parliament should otherwise determine Even before the outbreak of the war, it had been recognised that some revision of the formula was due and provision for that revision was made by the Local Government (Financial Provisions) Act, 1937. Any revision based on that review would, but for the war, have already been completed.
Thus there are two problems. First, the formula is still unrevised; and, secondly, the fixed grant period of 1937 to 1942 has been extended. The recalculation of the total grant which should have taken place in 1943 has not, in fact, been made; and the local authorities have, in consequence, suffered a substantial loss of grant. The Government propose to deal with both these problems, and, as soon as possible, to consult the local government associations with a view to an investigation of the results of the present formula and suggestions for its revision. As the Chancellor of the Exchequer indicated in an answer given in this House, in any such revision there would be a definite bias in favour of the poorer authorities. Earlier investigations of this kind have been carried out by a joint conference of financial advisers appointed by the local government associations and of officers of the Ministry of Health, and I think that some similar arrangement seems suitable for the investigation which is now proposed.
But, while we hope that the review will begin in the near future, it cannot be completed until the necessary information is available, and this depends upon the date at which conditions become reasonably stable. Any formula must be based in the main on the distribution of population, and it would be idle to expect that, during a period of perhaps two or even three years after the end of the European War, the resettlement of the population will have progressed far enough to provide a satisfactory basis for a long-term scheme. In view of this inevitable lapse of time before a fully revised block grant can be brought into operation, the negotiating body will be asked to consider in addition whether there is a case for some 433 interim measure to deal with the second of the two problems—the fact that the fixed grant period of 1937–42 was extended and the grant stabilized. Such an interim measure, while leaving the distribution of the existing grant unaffected, might provide for the distribution of a supplementary sum based on the estimated increase in the aggregate expenditure of local authorities since 1937, and, in considering the distribution of any such supplementary sum, there would he a similar direction that the bias should be in favour of the poorer authorities.
Our local government system is complex. The discussion of any change is bound to be contentious. But I commend this Motion with confidence, because I believe that the proposals in the 'White Paper are those that are most suited to meeting the needs of to-day, and that early legislation on the lines that are suggested would be of great benefit.
§ 1.5 p.m.
§ Mr. Arthur Greenwood (Wakefield)
I find myself in some difficulty because of the actual terms of the Motion before the House. It has been the practice, in discussions on White Papers, to put down an innocuous Motion to which objection could not be taken, and, often enough, this Motion has 'been arrived at by agreement through the usual channels. This Motion, however, uses words which I and my hon. Friends find it difficult to accept. It states:That this House welcomes the intention of the Government to preserve the existing framework of the county and county borough system of local government.…These words cut across certain aspects of the policy of my party, and it would look as if the door was being closed to alterations in the structure of local government, which, I am sure, is not my right hon. and learned Friend's intention. He and I had a word about it the other morning, and, subject to its being understood that this is not intended as a statement of finality, then, of course, we can accept the Motion.
As to the White Paper itself, I agree with a good deal of what my right hon. and learned Friend has said, but it is timid, I think, and it is inadequate. I realise the difficulties of the present situation. I am fully aware of the reluctance of local authorities to relinquish any 434 powers that they have hitherto enjoyed. I know something about the tussle between county boroughs, and even municipal boroughs, and county councils. I have for many years been up to the neck in it in the West Riding of Yorkshire, where a powerful county council always stands at the gate to resist any extension of boundaries of any area in the existing West Riding county; and I appreciate also what I think is really the governing factor in this situation—the new responsibilities which are now being piled upon local authorities. I can see that there is a case for not uprooting the structure of local government—if ever it could be done in this country, which seems to be doubtful, except over the dead bodies of most of the representatives of local authorities—and a case for not making fundamental alterations in that structure or filling the minds of local authorities now engaged with these new and increasingly important tasks, and increasing their anxieties while they are tackling this job of new and developing services. They would like what the Minister called an element of stability. I see that; but, on the other hand—and I am not putting this as a matter of argument or disputation—if time had permitted, which it does not, it would seem to be logical to make such changes in the system of local government as would enable the new responsibilities falling on local authorities to be properly discharged. We are, I think, having to make the best of a bad job in this business. That I do appreciate; but there is still time for further consideration of the question of areas and powers. My right hon. and learned Friend, I was glad to see, gave little countenance to the widely-expressed fears that we are to have shackled upon us for ever his Regional Commissioners.
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Herbert Morrison)
They have done a very good job.
§ Mr. Greenwood
We agree with my right hon. Friend over the Commissioners' war work, but they will become a fifth wheel to the coach in the post-war years if we try to find a place for them. Four years ago, when looking into the problem with my right hon. and learned Friend who is now the Minister of National Insurance, for some unknown reason I got tired of this regionalism. I cannot think of a worse solution for our problem than a new 435 heavy dose of regionalism, but we ought to look at the problem of the scope of regionalism. It is true, as the Minister has said, that there are certain services now which are beyond the capacity of any single local authority to handle effectively. On the other hand, we have to look at the problem also in terms of national policy. My right hon. and learned Friend's view on the Water Bill, which is to be discussed next week—I will not argue whether it is adequate or inadequate—is a recognition of the need for a national policy dealing with water. Whether that policy is effective or not, it is a recognition of the fact That certain problems have passed out of the stage of final control by local authorities. I suggest that these problems, in the intervening period before any big changes are made in the future, should be considered.
I hold a very strong view myself on the importance of keeping alive an active local interest in the affairs of the district in which people live, and that there is something in local pride and local patriotism. Some local authorities tend to a measure of overlordship, but, on the whole, I think our system of local government works as well as that in any other country in Europe or elsewhere. It stands nearer to the people, and it really is at the very heart of democracy, something which is handling human problems of everyday life of primary interest to the people. We must, therefore, even at the expense of a little efficiency, I think, keep alive the active spirit of local government life. Having said that, I would like to say that I approve my right hon. and learned Friend's proposal for a Local Government Boundary Commission. Changes there must be. Certain changes, in my view, are already overdue, and I would like to see the discussion of these questions taken outside this building and outside Private Bill Committees. I know of no body which will be charged with more responsible duties than this Boundary Commission, and therefore great care will have to be taken in choosing the members.
What I think is one of the roots of our problem, crying aloud for solution now, is the relation between national and local finance. That is why I say the White Paper is inadequate. What my right hon. and learned Friend has said about Exchequer grants—block grants—does not carry us very far. Indeed, it does 436 not touch the problem now facing our local government authorities. I remember having discussions four years ago with an old political opponent, then a colleague, the late Sir Kingsley Wood, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, a Chancellor who had a very considerable knowledge of local government as a former Minister of Health. We felt then that the nearer we approached to peace-time days, and reconstruction became the order of the day, we should be faced with what I regard as a great financial and constitutional crisis between the State and local authorities. Consider what has happened. The indebtedness of many local authorities has increased during the war. Many of them have suffered the destruction of rateable value in their own areas, although new and very heavy burdens have been imposed on them. Enemy damage is very serious in many areas, and may prove to be a crushing burden on certain local authorities. I do not want to go into that aspect of it, but I should have thought that that burden ought to remain primarily on the State, because it was due to enemy action.
Education is going to be a very heavy burden. We had some account of the annual cost of it during the discussions on the Education Bill and to that we must add the new services, school meals, and so on, and also the Burnham scales which we are to discuss on Tuesday afternoon. The health services which are being prepared will also place heavy burdens upon the local authorities. If there is to be the amount of replanning of areas which we ought to have—I know they are a long-term investment and a very fine investment for local authorities —that will be a tremendously heavy burden in the early days. Take the question of housing: five years or more now with practically no houses built; five years more of further dilapidation of old houses, many of which really ought to be dispensed with altogether; five years' development of population and five years of damage to houses in many parts of the country and a lot of the damage not yet disclosed in many of the blitzed areas. We are faced with a housing problem which dwarfs any housing problem with this House has ever had a face. We are faced with burden after burden and we are now in the region of super-astronomical figures of expenditure. With this piling- 437 up of expenditure and these difficulties which have been created during the war period, we have an inequality of burdens due to a very defective rating system, which derating and the block grant policy have done very little to remedy.
The primary need now—and I put it as high in the priorities of the Government as any other problem—is for my right hon, and learned Friend, and the Chancellor and representatives of such other Departments as are interested, to sit down with the representatives of the associations of local authorities and look at the problem of straightening out the relations between national finance and local finance. I am not one of those who want to make everybody a national charge. I think an element of financial responsibility locally is a very good thing. I said "an element." I am arguing that it is not going to be an element, but a large component. I really do think—and this is what I regard as the greatest defect in the White Paper—that this problem has not been faced as yet. It is going to be very difficult to solve. The number of factors involved in the problem are considerable, delicate and complicated, but we will never get the services to which this House has committed itself—will not solve the housing problem, will not get health services going, will not get schools built and the educational system we want—into operation for years and years. Our local government system, of which I think very highly and which is an integral and vital part of our whole life, ought to be able to stabilise itself, with the knowledge that it is equipped financially to carry the burdens imposed by Parliament. If we secure that, then there will be prospects less gloomy than they seem to be now for the years after the war. Without a solution of this problem, all our other work will be in vain.
§ 1.22 p.m.
§ Mr. David Eccles (Chippenham)
I would like to congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for the very practical and therefore conservative way in which he has tackled the knotty problem of local government. Listening to the Minister's speech and to the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood), we see what a tremendous task we set ourselves when we insist on using independent local 438 government as the vehicle for the execution of a social policy which is national in scope. It is a fact that independent local government is a buttress of freedom, but it is also seen that it may conflict with blue-printed efficiency and with the attainment of uniform standards. To reconcile those two apparent opposites of decentralisation and efficiency is our task, and it is one for which the nation is well fitted and which we shall not abandon. Looking at the White Paper and listening to my right hon. and learned Friend it would appear that the aspects of local government which demand our attention are the quality of the persons who serve local governments as councillors or officials; the duties imposed on them and the areas in which they perform them; and lastly, this question of the assistance from the Exchequer to the local authorities.
I was very glad to hear the Minister make such a point of the personnel of local government. It is easy to overlook the councillors themselves when we are thinking about administrative systems and tidying up areas, but I think every hon. Member would agree that a fine school building is very little use if the headmaster is an ass and his staff no better. It is much the same with a town hall and "Mr. Mayor," his council and his officers. How, then, can we secure that enough sensible and able people come forward to take on these important and increasing burdens of public work? Something can be done if employers will release councillors to attend meetings without financial loss or other hindrance. I was delighted to hear the Minister state precisely the same conclusion I had come to, namely, that only a big increase in the number of women employed in local government will really meet the situation. An important discovery of this war has been the national value of part-time work by women. When one considers that the health and education of children and the housing of the people are two of the main provinces of local government it is obvious that mothers and housewives are admirably fitted to advise and direct the administration which takes care of these family concerns.
I would say a word about the local government officers. I cannot help thinking that local authorities should regard the next few years as an emergency period, and that they should imitate 439 what the central Civil Service did when dealing with the emergency period of the war. They should be willing to co-opt from outside men and women who have had experience of a particular kind, such as architects, into their numbers as temporary local civil servants. I doubt very much whether the housing problem can be solved without a transfusion of blood into the ranks of local government such as we have had in the Ministry of Aircraft Production and the Ministry of Supply. Speaking as a once-temporary civil servant myself I know that permanent civil servants treat the co-opted members very well, and I believe that the same would happen in the local authorities.
Turning now to the problem of the areas, the Minister was right when he said that town and country are becoming mixed up, but the differences are still important. The speed of the horse and cart laid down these boundaries, and the lorry and the bus are beginning to rob them of their importance, but, none the less, the traditions and habits of the horse age are respectable and strong, and it will be much easier to manage the evolution from the horse age to the motor transport age by negotiation and not by compulsion. I was glad to hear that non-county boroughs and rural district councils will not have their boundaries altered against their wishes without the right to a local inquiry, and I suggest that when those local inquiries are held, so swiftly does modern transport interlock the interests of one area within a county and another, that all the local authorities in a county area should be represented at any local inquiry within their area.
The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield has said, and many competent critics believe, that the White Paper is too optimistic about the ability of the existing system to bear the financial burdens of extended social services that will shortly be put upon local authorities. On the other hand, I rather take the view that the White Paper's optimism is justified, but it is very difficult to allay the fears of those who are familiar with the finances of the poor areas after the last war. I refer especially to the rural areas, where the de-rating of agricultural land left the basis of taxation too narrow for those authorities to raise the new money which was necessary for long-term im- 440 provements. I am not competent to speak about the finances of blitzed areas, but I hope that the burden caused by the enemy will be borne by. the State. War, in any case, disturbs the equilibrium of local government finance by adding to expenditure and by holding down revenue. In the first place, the cost of the pre-war services is increased by the general rise in prices which always occurs in a war, and to that is added the cost of new or extended social services at the end of the war. War always blows the dust off old things and fans into flame innumerable sparks of reform, but these reforms cost money and the House can see how the two pincers of expenditure are closing in on the resources of local authorities, by recalling the Financial Memorandum which accompanied the Education Bill. In that Memorandum estimates—I thought and said at the time, and still think, that they were underestimates—were given of the cost of prewar education at post-war prices, and the cost of the new services. The two increases together are formidable and the real difficulty comes from the fact that local authorities cannot easily expand their revenue even to meet the increased costs due to the rise in prices.
As hon. Members will know, those difficulties are largely not of the creation of local authorities but are due to Acts of Parliament. I refer to rent restriction. War causes a housing shortage, and this war has added destruction of property to the usual effects of the stopping of new building. There inevitably follows a demand which it is impossible to refuse on social grounds for the control of rents, and as valuations for rates are tied up with the actual rents paid, it becomes impossible for local authorities to mark up their property values in step with the rise in the money value of the property due to the increase in prices. At the very moment when local government revenue ought to be expanding, we find it is held down by rent restrictions, and the rating system, which never recovered from these effects after the last war, is now in even worse disorder.
It is knowledge of these difficulties which prompts, to a large degree, the demand for larger and larger grants from the Exchequer. Even those eminent students and champions of the rating system, Professor and Mrs. Hicks, say that the public would prefer the cost of the 441 new social services to be borne by the taxes rather than by the rates. If the public are thinking on those lines, and in respect of the total cost of the new services, then a word of warning is very necessary because, as the White Paper says, the wholesale shifting of burdens from the ratepayer to the taxpayer is no solution. Such a transfer would destroy the responsible character of local government. I think it might come about in this way. It is a melancholy fact that all elected assemblies contain a certain number of cranks and, in local councils, these cranks, by their enthusiasm and importunity, would persuade their fellow committee men to spend the ratepayers' money badly if they could point to the fact that the Treasury was contributing, say, 19s. in the pound, and the financial responsibility of such an authority would be undermined. Unless the independent and responsible character of local government is preserved, then the centralisers and the efficiency-mongers will be able to overturn the system, and unless a serious proportion of the expenditure of any local authority is raised by that local authority, its independent and responsible character will go.
That being the case, local authorities are faced with a crisis in their finances. They cannot mark up the property values in their areas to match the rise in prices. There is, therefore, nothing they can do but to increase the poundages—the number of shillings in the pound collected on any given valuation. Now, for some psychological reason, it is undoubtedly true that ratepayers fancy themselves on the verge of ruin when rates go up several shillings, and especially if that mystical figure of 20s. in the pound is in sight. What matters, however, is the proportion of the income of the ratepayer which is being taken from him in local taxation, and it would not be difficult to show that if all the poundages in the Kingdom were raised by the amount by which the general level of prices will have increased by the end of the war, say by one-third, the ratepayers of the country would be paying less of their income than they were before.
§ Mr. Hugh Lawson (Skipton)
Does the hon. Gentleman mean less in proportion or less in actual money?
§ Mr. Eccles
Less in proportion; more in money, naturally, because the poundage will have gone up on the same valuation.
442 Local authorities which are anxious to preserve their integrity and their independence ought to set about explaining to the ratepayers that the dustman wants more wages, that school repairs cost more, and that coke to heat the town hall costs nearly double, and so on, and that therefore it is not unreasonable to ask them to contribute at least the same proportion of their income as they did before the war. In my submission, only when that has been done is it right for the Exchequer to come along and give larger grants.
The Minister said that the formula would have to be revised. That is undoubtedly true but I think if one examines the working of the formula, the astonishing thing is how well it has been used to offset the hotch-potch in valuations which we have had for so many years. The reason for that is that the difference in the valuation of property between one area and another, which is so well known, counts for so very little in the determination of the grant. However, we need a new formula, and I must say that I was not quite satisfied, if I heard my right hon. and learned Friend aright, about the principle on which he suggested the new formula should be based. I understood him to say that the new formula should be based on population. Surely the real principle is the income per head in the area, the proportion of that income which is paid in rent, and the relation between the rates paid and that proportion. I am afraid that is a rather complicated principle, but I believe it will be found to be the only true one. I have nothing more to say on this question of finance, except to hope that some hon. Member will examine the fascinating subject of the relation between the rates and the rise in poundages that must come about and the new housing programme. There must be a very definite effect on new building if the rates go up and that, I believe, requires most careful examination.
In conclusion I would remind the House that the concentration of power in any one place is an enemy to liberty, and local government is our way of distributing the increased volume of power which has to be placed in the hands of the Executive in a modern society. It often happens in political affairs that the object and the instrument of policy are seen to be interchangeable. The House 443 may remember, that Julius Caesar said that with money we can get men, and with men we can get money. I would say this afternoon that, with freedom, we can get independent local government, and with independent local government we can get freedom.
§ 1.41 p.m.
§ Mr. Clement Davies (Montgomery)
The speech delivered by the Minister was along the lines that I expected, but the first part of the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) rather surprised me. The complacent way in which the leader of the Socialist Party looks upon this question at the present moment is certainly rather startling. Perhaps his association with the Coalition has rather weakened what used to be regarded by all of us as a very bold spirit.
I join issue at once with the Minister. He said that it was inexpedient to make any change now; that it was right for us to wait to see what burdens would be put on by this House in respect of education, water, health services. If ever there was a case of putting the cart before the horse, this is a most striking example. Just think. New rates will be added to the cart. Along will come the Minister of Education and put a burden of about £10,000,000 into the cart. Along will come the Minister of Health—I do not know what is the situation in regard to housing, whether that is a matter for the Ministry of Health or one of the numerous new Ministries which have been created—and put still another burden into the cart. All the time, the cart is being loaded up, no attention is being paid to the power of the horse. The cart is the same size, although the horse may be a huge shire animal, or a little Welsh mountain pony. Then we are invited to say that that is the right way to approach this question, and that it is perfectly expedient.
If there is one question that should have received first consideration by this House, it is the question of local government administration. Parliament can only lay down general principles, but the administration of the law and the day-to-day burdens and the day-to-day contact with the people are a matter for local authorities. Since these authorities were created between 1885 and 1894 Parlia- 444 ment has continued to add to their burdens, and at the present moment we are threatening to add even more to them than the duties mentioned by the right hon. and learned Gentleman. There has been a great deal of talk—I am sorry it is only talk so far—with regard to the re-allocation of industry. There has been a great deal of talk in a White Paper and in a Report about the conquest of unemployment and the achievement of full employment. As part and parcel of that there will be further expenditure by the local authorities, who, I should have thought, would have been the very first to question who are the persons who will be called upon to carry out these duties, what is to be their financial power, and whether they are capable of undertaking them adequately.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman drew cheers from the House—and he was supported again by the right hon. Member for Wakefield—in talking about tradition—a sort of nostalgia with regard to the past and the Middle Ages. There ought to be only one test with regard to all Governments, and certainly with regard to local governments, and that is, What is best capable of carrying out the wishes of the people? What is the form of local government which is best capable of rendering to the people the benefits that Parliament desires to give? What of these councils? They were created by Acts of Parliament from 1885 to 1894, at the end of one of the worst periods in history so far as the well-being of our people was concerned. They were created towards the end of the Victorian era, a great era of the expansion of industry, when factories and houses were placed wherever a person decided to put them, without any regard whatsoever to the welfare of the people, their families, or future generations. [An HON. MEMBER: "The railways."] I will come to those in a moment.
These Acts were passed at a time when the highest regard was being paid to individuals who built up their wealth by marching to their goal over the graves of their fellowmen. They were the heroes of the Victorian era. Heavy is the debt that we to-day have to pay for the slums which they were allowed to build, and the chaos they were allowed to introduce into the land. These Acts were passed at a time when fields and villages were growing into towns, and towns into districts like the 445 Black Country, South Wales, Midlothian, parts of Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire, where no one, except an official with a map in his hand, can tell where one town ends and another begins. That is the period when those Acts were passed. It was at a time when there had been practically no change in methods of transport or communication from time immemorial.
An hon. Member referred just now to railways, but the railways, which came into existence some 40 or 50 years before, are stabilised. They do not help very much in the administration or coverage of an area. If these Acts had been passed at the time of King Alfred, they might have worked well. The area capable of being administered depended on the distance the official could walk or ride in discharging his duties. If he wanted information it could only be obtained by personal contact, by walking to see someone else, or sending another person to get it for him. I have often regretted that these Acts were passed at that time. I wish the Conservatives of the day had had their way, because they bitterly opposed them. If only we had waited until 1906 or 'gm, when two things happened which made a world of difference—the coming into being of the motor car and the telephone—the whole structure would have been different. To-day we can communicate with people in very wide areas and, if necessary, officials can go to their work or inspection by car. In my own county, until 35 years ago, one certainly could not go from one end of it to the other in the same day. It took three days. To-day one can cover the whole of the county in a very short time. Therefore, I see no reason for this nostalgic appeal on behalf of these ancient councils.
What is the structure we are asked to approve? The Motion says:That this House welcomes the intention of the Government to preserve the existing framework of the county and county borough system. …Before I come actually to the councils themselves let me make some admissions at once. Any suggestion of a change of system will meet with the most violent opposition from every councillor in the land. That can be seen in the reports which have been issued already by the various associations. I am not doing it a great injustice if I say that the County Councils' Association Report comes to 446 this: "We are doing our work extraordinarily well, and we cannot see that much change is needed. If there is any fault at all it lies with the urban and rural councils."
§ Mr. Davies
The municipal councils, on the other hand, say: "We are in no difficulty, it is only the other councils." All this is only natural. There are many councillors who are conscientious, and who are doing excellent work and devoting time, which they can ill spare, to work on behalf of their fellowmen. But, let us be honest, there are many councillors who think that to become a member of a council is to receive a well-deserved honour for services rendered in the past. What do the Government say about this problem?There is no general desire in local government circles for a disruption of the present system.Naturally, one would not expect anybody to be enthusiastic about committing suicide. One would not ask them to be enthusiastic about that, and that is used as an excuse for doing nothing. The next point is that it is impossible to make any radical change without inquiry. I entirely agree. Many of us had been asking for that inquiry long before the war started. Perhaps I may be allowed to make a personal reference to myself. At the request of the Minister's predecessor I carried out a very long inquiry in my own country, in Wales. I went through every part of it; I thought I knew it well. I probably knew it better when the inquiry started than almost anybody else, and I thought I could give a true description of my country. But so far as I can see there is no difference between administration there and any part of England or Scotland. After I had made the inquiry, and heard evidence of over 100 doctors, official after official, and saw things for myself, I could scarcely describe my own horror of the words I penned in the report of that inquiry. I am certain that if I went into Scotland, Lancashire, Yorkshire, or any part of the land, I would find much the same kind of thing. Is it, then, to be said that these people must always be praised?
After that inquiry, in which my colleague and I dwelt upon the difficulties 447 of the authorities, geographically and otherwise, and their poverty, we wrote:While we are well aware of these difficulties, and give them due weight, we are, nevertheless, of the opinion that the authorities have fallen far short of their duties and their obligations. We find that they have had insufficient regard for their powers or their duties, or the advice tendered them by their officers. In fact, they have failed in their trusteeship as guardians of the health and welfare of the people who elected them.I have no doubt that I would find the same conditions in any other part of the land. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Well, I challenge those Members to conduct an inquiry as I conducted that inquiry, with an eminent doctor sitting alongside who had held an important position under the Government. Let hon. Members go through the land as I did—
§ Sir J. Lamb
Is there nothing good in Wales, or in any other part of the country? There are good and bad in every district.
§ Mr. Davies
I have said nothing of the kind. I say that there should be no distinction in the carrying out of the duties, that benefits to be given to the people should be the same wherever they may be. May I put it in a sentence? Privileges given to one and denied to another are obnoxious in themselves, but when privileges are given to one out of public money and denied to another the position becomes intolerable. That is why I point out that these failures and neglects do exist. To a large extent it is due to the fact that the authorities are small, and cover large areas in which there arc small populations. Therefore, they have a very small amount of money to come from a penny rate. The White Paper itself has given the figures with regard to those with populations of under 2,500. It states that in England and Wales there are 21 non-county boroughs and 49 urban districts with populations of less than 2,500; that there are 39 non-county boroughs and 108 urban districts with populations of between 2,500 and 5,000. The product of their penny rate is so small that they cannot possibly carry out, as we would like to see them carry out, the duties we are continually thrusting upon them.
448 I gave the figures also with regard to each one of them in Wales. I can well understand some defence being put forward for the old charter boroughs which unfortunately, owing to a change in circumstances, have lost a large number of their old people. But, while I can understand those, which are small enough, I cannot possibly understand how urban district councils came to be created under the Act of 1894 with the small populations that they possess. I could give three instances from Wales of urban district council areas with populations respectively of 672, 782 and 807, in which a 1d. rate brings in £16, £22 and £12. It is sheer absurd nonsense.
Then I gave a list of some 15 urban district council areas with populations under 2,000, a penny rate bringing in £14 in the smallest and in the largest £36. How can we expect them to deal with housing and water problems and the multifarious duties which we ask them to carry out? I put before the right hon. and learned Gentleman the case of the little borough where I was brought up, where a penny rate produces £18. They have now to go in for a water scheme for themselves alone, the initial cost of which will be something like £6,000. It is no good getting a water scheme unless it is accompanied by a proper sewage scheme, and the total cost will amount to something like £13,000. The truth of the matter is that it is a fiddle-de-dee scheme. We ought to have had a bigger scheme covering the region, so that water could be sent down the valley to the other villages, but with the present local government structure that little borough has to provide for itself.
My second objection is overlapping. The powers of the county councils are strictly limited. How often do we find that the people are suffering because of some state of things and the county council say it is not their duty to attend to it, and the rural district council say it is not their duty, and in the meantime the people suffer? In my own county there are villages which suffer from periodical flooding. I cannot imagine anything more distressing to the housewife. It has been happening year after year. Ask one council to put it right and they say it is not their duty. It is for another council. What causes most anger in me is that each council within the county has its own medical officer of 449 health. Doubtless he has reported on a certain state of things which he says is very obnoxious, but the council has done nothing with regard to it. The county council has its own medical officer of health, but, if he sees anything wrong, he cannot do anything himself. He can only direct the attention of the doctor of the district council, who can either write a polite letter back or ignore him altogether. I have felt throughout that the county borough council is far and away the most efficient, with its officials under it, responsible for everything within its boundaries. I do not say that it is going to be the solution for the whole country but it prevents overlapping and directs attention to duties which have to be performed and, if there is a complaint, you know where to make it.
Now may I pass to finance? The time has really come when we should make up our minds what is to be the burden on the State and what on the ratepayers. I have always been against the rates. They are an anachronism. It seems an extraordinary state of things that a man who makes improvements which will benefit the health of his own family and of the neighbourhood is taxed, whereas if he allows his house to go to rack and ruin and become a nuisance, his rates are lowered. But, apart from that, the time has obviously come when we must consider what burden can be borne by the ratepayer. Much has been said about education, housing and water, but there is one burden which I have not yet heard mentioned—roads. In respect of second-class roads no direct grant is made to these councils. In a rural area, the second-class road is as vital and important as the first-class. Often it is an artery of supply. It is different from the by-roads in a town, which only see an occasional coal cart or milk van. To-day heavy milk lorries come along and knock the road about. The House will be startled at these figures. It is estimated that for next year, making allowance for every penny of the grant that we get from the Treasury, our roads alone are going to cost us 8s. 9d. in the pound. The average for England is 4s., for England and Wales 4s. 4d., and for Wales alone 5s. 6d.
Is not that an illustration of the fact that the time has come for a readjustment of these matters? Long ago there should have been a Royal Commission of the 450 strongest kind that we could devise to inquire into the whole system and structure of local government. May I incidentally mention the method of election? If there is one place where Proportional Representation ought to be considered, it is in local government, The Minister and others have referred to the desirability of more women going on to local authorities. I have been asking for it for years. They are, and ought to be, more interested in these things. It is the local authority which deals with the everyday life of the household and the school. But so often, unless she belongs to a particular party in a particular place, a woman has no chance of being elected. It is obvious now that we cannot have any radical change in the immediate future. The Government has made up its mind that we have to go on with the old system, patching it up as best we can. It would take a long time to get a real adjustment between local and national expenditure by means of a Royal Commission. All I would ask is that further grants should be made here and now from the Treasury to help these people who, because of their poverty, have suffered in the past and who are so anxious to give their people the benefits which they see enjoyed by those in wealthier areas. If the Government do that, they will render a great service.
§ 2.13 p.m.
§ Mr. Colegate (The Wrekin)
I fully sympathise with the hon. and learned Gentleman as to the need for quick consideration of questions of finance, but I must protest most strongly against the wholesale and sweeping charges that he brought against the people who carry on the different systems of local government. It is definitely not true that rural, urban and county councils do not carry out their work on the whole with efficiency and with great public service. There are, of course, failures, but so there are in Government Departments. Pick out the largest authority you can and you will find that at times it makes mistakes. But, by and large, we have had 50 years' experience of the present system and on the whole it has worked with very great effectiveness. Professor Trevelyan gives a most remarkable picture of improvements that have taken place, particularly in the sphere of local government, in the last 50 years, and not to emphasise that point is to do a grave injustice to a large 451 body of public-spirited men and women who have given years of unpaid service to these questions. I mention that point, not so much to put myself in opposition to my hon. and learned Friend, but because it goes right to the root of this White Paper.
One of the main objects of the Paper is to reassure the local authorities that they are not to be interfered with, and are not, in the main, to be abolished, although adjustments are bound to be made, as it is right they should be. Speaking in general, the system is to go on. It is essential, as the Minister pointed out, that when we are putting new burdens on local authorities they should have some assurance of stability, and the power of attracting to their service the men and women whom we want to go and work on them. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister referred in that wonderful speech not long ago to the reservoir of talent, energy and ability that we hope to draw on to refresh this House after the war. There are only 615 seats in this House—about 630 under the new arrangement—but there are thousands of seats on the county councils, county borough councils, urban district councils, municipalities and the rural district councils. We who speak on behalf of the rural district councils want to draw on that reservoir of men and women to come to aid us in the great tasks which Parliament is putting upon them. My hon. and learned Friend who preceded me was in favour of large areas. I did not follow his argument, for at one time it appeared as if he was recommending county boroughs for the hillsides of Wales.
§ Mr. C. Davies
What I said was that the county borough which has all the powers of a county council and a local council, was the best form of council, but I agreed that it could not be applied generally.
§ Mr. Colegate
At any rate, it is no solution of the question of the rural districts. Let us be clear what we mean when we talk about large areas, because the ideas of planners, especially those without knowledge of this subject, have created a definite feeling of apprehension in the minds of local authorities. It is true that with the motor car and the telephone we can administer large areas with greater ease than that with which we could administer areas of half or less than half 452 the size 50 years ago. We must not, however, look at this matter purely from the point of view of mechanism. We must take the living organism into account. The great attraction to me, in our method of local government to-day, is that it is a form of democracy which we do not get in our Parliamentary institutions.
There were two forms of democracy. There was the old classical form as practised in ancient Athens, where there was no representative government, but where the people met and discussed the questions of the day with their leaders. That is going on to-day in the local authorities. The people of each parish know their man and they discuss things with him outside the council. This is a form of democracy which we cannot get in our Parliamentary institutions. We have, as no other country in the world has done, produced the most perfect systems of democracy in each department of life. Do let us be careful that, in this local democracy, the close contact betweeen the people who are carrying out the various programmes, and the actual inhabitants of the locality, is not broken down and substituted by the nexus of telephone and motor-car. I want the personal touch. We cannot have it in our Parliamentary institutions, which must remain of a purely representative character. Parliament is a very long way from the village green and all the doings there, but in our system of local government, about which I am glad we have the reasurrances of the Minister and the White Paper, we have a system which enables the local man to keep in touch with the local inhabitants in a way that no other system can provide.
§ Mr. C. Davies
Would the hon. Member carry what he is saying to its logical conclusion, and say that all powers should he given to the parish council and all other councils be abolished?
§ Mr. Colegate
I am not a theoretician; I am a practical person and, therefore, I am accustomed to compromise. The question of practical importance is to choose some reasonably sized unit, so that the people can have intimate local contact with their representatives on the local authority.
I want to run through one or two points in the White Paper which concern the 453 rural districts. We accept the assurance that is given, and I hope that there will be no modification by any Department of that assurance. I am a little nervous about the reference on page 5 to the transfer of functions and about the footnote, in which there appears to be a loophole in the assurance. I hope that the right hon. lady the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to reassure us that it is not a hole out of which much will be able to slip, but that it is rather a safety valve for peculiar and special circumstances. The next point concerns local government finance. In the White Paper there is a considerable over-simplification of the financial system. I will not attempt to deal with the block grant system. It is very complicated. I understand it perfectly for one hour after it has been explained to me by experts, but at the end of the day, it begins to fade away. It must be completely overhauled. We had the Chancellor's assurance in October last that there was to be a general overhaul, but I am in agreement with other speakers, who press for an interim solution, to enable work to be carried on quickly with housing, water supply and other urgent matters. On page 8 of the Paper it is said, in connection with finance, that modifications can only be introduced when the material factors become known. The main material factor is known now. It is that the local authorities cannot afford to raise the money by the present rating system to enable them to provide for the various schemes of education and other services.
I would like to refer to page 12. I think that this Local Government Boundary Commission is an excellent device. I agree that the associations of local authorities should not be consulted or should not attempt to nominate any of the Commission. It is essential, however, that when the Commissioners are chosen there should be at least one who is thoroughly acquainted with rural problems. I do not think anybody would disagree about that. He must be thoroughly informed of rural matters, and know the state of feeling, and the sort of problems which are to be met with in the rural areas. In regard to the general directions to the Commission—which are largely the heart of this document, because until we see what the directions are we cannot come to any final decision—I hope the associations of local authorities 454 will be consulted. If I interpreted my right hon. and learned Friend rightly, he gave us an assurance that they were to be consulted before these formal documents are laid before Parliament.
The next question that I would like to mention is that of linking town and country. We ought to take a broad view of that question. At the same time, I must sound a note of warning. The case that has been presented is rather like this. Here is a rural area, in the middle of which is a small town to which the local farmer goes on market days and in which he makes his purchases. The seed merchant lives there, and he buys his fertilisers there; the shops are mainly for the agricultural population, and, although a town, it is truly the centre of the agricultural district. Many towns are being designed, however, and some are actually being erected, which are nothing like that. I have in my own area a town of 5,000 people which has no connection whatever with agriculture. It is a new satellite town. Many private firms, to my knowledge, and some Government Departments are considering the establishment of satellite towns in the country. I have no wish to oppose that, for I think it is a very good thing, but what I want to point out is that if a satellite town is combined with a rural area the agricultural and rural interest should not be allowed to be swamped by people who have got an industrial mentality.
§ Mr. Mack (Newcastle-under-Lyme)
Do I take it that people with an industrial mentality are less efficient than those with a rural mentality, and might vitiate them?
§ Mr. Colegate
Not at all. I am glad the hon. Member asked that question because it shows he has completely misunderstood the point. The point in the White Paper is that we might combine a small country town with its rural district round it because their interests are the same, and, therefore, the councillors of the combined authority would take the same point of view and deal with the interests in a similar manner. My point is that if you got an industrial mentality, which might be very much more efficient, it could not possibly have the knowledge or experience to deal with rural problems, which are the particular concern of the rural inhabitants.
§ Mr. Arthur Jenkins (Pontypool)
I would like to get this point clear. I understood the hon. Gentleman to say he wad in favour of satellite towns and that he wants to segregate the industrial populations who live in them from the agricultural populations. As I understood the Minister, he thought that it would be to the advantage of both if they lived more together than they have done during the last century.
§ Mr. Colegate
The hon. Gentleman has rather missed the point. I have discussed this with the Minister, and the point is that where the town and country are so similar, it would be to the mutual advantage of both probably to combine. All I am pointing out is that, when the Commissioners consider linking up town and country, they must make a great distinction between what I would call the normal country market town and the satellite industrial town. They will be no more segregated than they are at present.
I want to deal with another point on the procedure before the Boundary Commission. I think that the county districts should have the same right as anybody else to request that a local inquiry be held. The Minister indicated in his speech that he could not agree to that point of view. I very seriously hope that he will reconsider the matter. I do not believe that in a very great many cases it would arise, but it will arise in some cases and it would give a feeling of confidence to the local district that they were not being put in a position in any way inferior to other parties to such inquiry.
I conclude as I began by referring to what I think as, next to finance, the most important problem of all. That is, the problem of so maintaining the prestige and status of local authorities that we shall get on these councils the new blood which we want. The programme before the councils is tremendous. As everybody has pointed out, particularly in housing, it is essential that we should get really good people, and especially in the rural districts people with knowledge of rural conditions. We have seen some astounding things done in the past by Government Departments. They have come down into the country and, with the greatest ignorance, have put up factories and aerodromes at places where anybody with local knowledge could have told them that they would have troubles with 456 draining. It has been brought home to the people of the country that the administration of the country districts must and shall remain in the hands of the people who live there.
§ 2.31 p.m.
§ Mr. Marshall (Sheffield, Brightside)
I am glad to have an opportunity of saying a few words in this very important Debate. We have listened to some very interesting speeches. I was interested in the one delivered by the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. C. Davies). I was hoping all the time he spoke that he would arrive at some conclusions, but at the end of his speech it seemed that the only conclusion he had arrived at was that we ought to have a thoroughgoing inquiry into the structure of local government. I think we should agree on that with the hon. and learned Member, but that is not a solution to the problems. At the beginning, the hon. and learned Member said that the Government had been adding to the burden of the local authorities for a very long time, but he drew no conclusions from that fact.
§ Mr. C. Davies
Perhaps the hon. Member will forgive me for interrupting, but I said I did not think we should make any radical change in the structure of local government without having an inquiry, and I did urge that the burdens which had been added to them for about 50 years should be inquired into.
§ Mr. Marshall
If the hon. and learned Member was using those facts in order to prove that an inquiry was necessary, I do not think we should disagree. He went on to give some very interesting facts about the creation of the present local authorities, and said that if the telephone and the railway had been invented before the local authorities were created, quite a different structure would have been chosen. I am not so sure about that. The local authorities celebrated their centenary a few years ago. They were created, as the hon. and learned Member said, in order to wipe up the mess of the industrial revolution which had involved the creation of slums all over the country, especially in the new industrial towns. The telephone and the railway could have had very little effect in that respect. There are, certainly, a number of anomalies in Wales, and we all know that anomalies in local government exist all 457 over the country, but I do not think the hon. and learned Member put forward any remedy for it. He made a very tentative suggestion, with which I played in my own mind for some time, for the creation of a system of county boroughs all over the country. I wish that were a solution of the problem. I suppose he would agree that those county boroughs should comprise within their boundaries great rural areas. I wish that were a solution, but, unfortunately, I am afraid it is not. I believe that the county borough in this country is the most perfect machine of democracy that has ever been created in this or in any other land, but owing to the inequalities and the different merits in each case, I am afraid that that is not a solution.
As I have said, we are dealing with an exceedingly important matter and I shall confine my remarks to the structure of local authorities. I know that finance is important. I welcome the statement that the Minister will consult local authorities about the revision of the block grant. Perhaps he will prepare some kind of interim proposal in order that the very heavy burdens that are to be placed on local authorities can be borne. What is the problem before us? It is not that local authorities have failed. As a matter of fact, they have immense achievements to their credit. The White Paper is right in paying tribute to those achievements. During the last 30 to 50 years, local government services have extended greatly and public opinion is in favour of the people of the country receiving those services. There is the shadow of the great new duties and functions that will be imposed upon the local authorities during the reconstruction period, and it is, therefore, necessary that we should hold that structure up to examination to see whether it can bear the stress and strain of those new duties or whether it requires some modification, or whether the time has come for a whole-hog, thorough, fundamental reconstruction of the local government machine. I have already said that I am a county borough man. I shall look at the problem to some extent from that aspect.
One speaker has pointed out the intimate connection there is between the local government elector and the man who is elected. It is a fact. This is one of the most valuable elements of local government to-day. The councillor is dealing 458 with matters not very far removed from his own doorstep, matters upon which he can impress his own personality. He is never very far away from the salutary influence of the electorate and of course he has his finger on the pulse of the community.