HC Deb 08 December 1949 vol 470 cc2223-32

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

10.15 p.m.

Mr. Bing (Hornchurch)

I want to ask my hon. Friend tonight to end an anomaly which primarily affects the urban districts of Harrow, Enfield and my own constituency of Hornchurch. I want to ask him to facilitate applications for non-county borough status under the Local Government Act, 1933, for all urban districts which desire it and have a population exceeding 100,000. In England and Wales there are four such authorities—Harrow, Enfield, Hornchurch and Rhondda, which I understand does not desire to apply for non-county borough status.

My proposal would only affect three out of the 572 urban districts in the country, although all urban districts will be indirectly affected, because at the moment it is the existence of the giants among urban districts—Harrow is larger than any other non-county borough and has a population of nearly 250,000—which prevents such things as real competition between urban districts as to who is to be top of the housing lists. Such organisations as the Urban District Councils Association are made far less effective, because the smaller organisations cannot help but be overshadowed by the great ones.

For example, the average rateable value for all urban districts is £90,000, whereas the rateable value of Harrow is £2,125,000. The average population of urban districts is 14,000, and even in Hornchurch, which is the smallest of the three, there is a population of over 102,000. Probably the long-term solution is to give back to urban districts their right to apply for non-county borough status when they have reached, say, the old limit of a population of 40,000. Since the average population of non-county boroughs is still only round about 30,000, that is not an unreasonable suggestion. I am not putting that forward tonight, because I do not want to argue about the standstill policy of the Government in regard to applications for charters. All I want to do is to show that these three urban districts are within the general Government policy.

That policy was put forward by the Lord President of the Council on 11th July. He said then that any urban district was at perfect liberty to petition the Privy Council for a charter, but added: I cannot hold out any hope that His Majesty would be advised to grant a charter, save in very exceptional circumstances."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th July, 1949; Vol. 467, c. 22.] In the case of the three urban districts I have mentioned, there are very remarkable circumstances. Unless by saying "very remarkable circumstances" the Lord President means no circumstances at all, these three urban districts are entitled to borough status. I hope my hon. Friend will set out clearly, for the guidance of local authorities, precisely what are the qualifications required by the Lord President.

If the House will excuse me for a moment, I will deal with the particular points which affect Hornchurch. Horn-church's claim is by no means based only on size, although a population of over 100,000 is obviously a very exceptional circumstance in regard to an urban district; it is the highest figure anyone at any time has suggested should be the qualification for a county borough. It is clearly most exceptional to have an urban district with over three times the population of the average non-county borough, with a population which exceeds almost all non-county boroughs, 14 out of the 61 administrative counties and 37 out of the 83 county boroughs. Hornchurch produces £3,250 for a penny rate, whereas the average urban district produces only £355. Here is the first exceptional circumstance.

The second very exceptional circumstance is that Hornchurch is the greater part of the only Liberty, which survived late into the 19th century and which is now not either an administrative county, a county borough or a non-county borough. Hornchurch was the capital and principal place of the old Royal Liberty of Havering, and still consists of the greater part of it in size. It is a sad thing to think that Havering, which was once as well-known as Westminster as a residence of English Kings, is now so forgotten that when a balloon carrying a man descended prematurely on the site of Edward the Confessor's Palace even its name was mis-pronounced by the B.B.C. The Old Liberty had its own quarter sessions and own county government down to 1888, and I am asking my hon. Friend to assist not so much in the granting of a new charter as in the restoration of one of the oldest corporations in this country.

In Webb's "History of Local Government" Havering is singled out as being unique in having no fewer than nine charters all of them, although contradictory, in force at the same time. Naturally, it is too late to invite the Government to undo all the results of the Norman Conquest. Except for that unhappy event, Hornchurch would have got government status equal to that of Windsor. It would have been a Royal Borough. Like Westminster Abbey, Hornchurch Church was founded by Edward the Confessor and Harold Wood, the northerly ward of the constituency, was so called because it was the hunting ground of Earl Harold, the last of the Saxon kings. Right through Saxon times until its present development Hornchurch has never had a big population, but it was renowned for its corporate spirit. For instance, early in the last century it produced, out of a population of some 3,000 or 4,000, one of the best cricketing sides in England. In 1830, the Hornchurch cricket team, all of them composed of local men, defeated an all-Essex team, playing on the ground at Woodford.

Mr. Skinnard (Harrow, East)

By how many wickets?

Mr. Bing

By a considerable number of wickets. Even in that constituency there can be remarkably surprising results of contests. The Hornchurch team used to play the M.C.C. regularly, and those who have read "Rodney Stone" will remember the fight between Mendoza and Jackson which took place in Hornchurch. It is only fair to say of Harrow that probably the Battle of Waterloo would have been won on the Harrow playing fields had it not been that that unfortunate school, situated in that urban district, had expelled the brother of the Duke of Wellington.

However, modern wars are not won on playing fields. It was from the Hornchurch aerodrome that a great part of the Battle of Britain was fought. It is so long since we have had any fighting on British soil that it is sometimes forgotten that, in the past, towns received their charters of incorporation very often as a reward for services in war. The last case was that of Newark, in 1660. If war service is still to be considered one of the things to be counted in granting a charter, Hornchurch was an aerodrome, situated on the Thames, which was one of the enemy targets. As the town also suffered 28,000 "incidents" which caused damage to dwelling-houses, Hornchurch is at least entitled to consideration on that ground.

Finally, perhaps the most important exceptional circumstance is that the grant of borough powers is in the case of Hornchurch absolutely essential to that sense of community of which my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health spoke so feelingly when discussing the Local Government Bill. In the late 19th century a change came over Hornchurch, which was remarkably foreshadowed by the "Daily Telegraph." They wrote in October, 1883: Hornchurch is still one of the quaintest towns one could wish to see, with its two straggling streets, its church bearing the insignia of its name, its gabled houses placed anywhere and everywhere the owners pleased, supremely indifferent to architectural continuity, and its general disregard for the amenities of locomotion. Those who wish to see it as it is, and as it has been for centuries, must visit it soon, for yesterday there was cut at Upminster the first turf of a railway which will bring the place within half an hour of London, and open up a new field for the speculative contractor. The "Daily Telegraph" rather over-estimated the speed of the train, but not of the contractor.

Hornchurch has, since that date, absorbed people from all other parts of Britain. The population has almost doubled since 1934, and something is needed to give the newcomers, who are the great majority of the population, the feeling that they are not living in a dormitory suburb but that they have a part in an ancient and distinguished town. There is no question that Hornchurch is not a proper administrative unit. At the local government review of 1934 the neighbouring boroughs and the county all wanted to lop off parts of the district, but after hearing all the evidence the Ministry of Health decided not only that this town should not be diminished but that its size should be increased. It thus contains not only Hornchurch but the ancient Norman village of Rainham-Upminster, which like Hornchurch originally was part of the property of the Saxon Kings, and Cran- ham where lived and died General Oglethorpe, the founder of Georgia. When one meets American visitors from Georgia they never can understand how their founder has still no home town. General Oglethorpe was the only man who both founded an American State and lived to see it independent.

Hornchurch was the home of Thomas Witherings, who died there in 1651, of whom Bennett in his "History of the Post Office" said, speaking of those who made the British Post Office, First of all in time and distinction was Witherings … he made the Post Office a paying concern. He created the Post Office as we know it today. Yet the Post Office thinks so little of the home of this most distinguished figure that half the constituency is given the postal designation of "Romford." Horn-church is already a Parliamentary borough. It has all the municipal machinery necessary for a non-county borough.

Let me give just one test of efficiency which will appeal to my hon. Friend who is going to reply. Hornchurch has been for a number of years top of the urban districts in the number of houses it has built, even beating Harrow with twice the population. In the latest figures issued by the Ministry, Hornchurch is top. not only of that league, but of the other league, top of all the non-county boroughs as well, and for that reason alone it is entitled to move into the next division. I shall not take any more time for hon. Members from other urban districts wish to speak, but I hope my hon. Friend will consider the matter with some seriousness.

10.29 p.m.

Mr. Norman Bower (Harrow, West)

I do not wish to switch the limelight from Hornchurch, but I can support the hon. Gentleman the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing) in the eloquent and enterprising plea he made on behalf of his constituency. However, I want to say a word or two on behalf of Harrow, which I represent together with the hon. Member for East Harrow (Mr. Skinnard). If possessing a famous cricket team is a reason for granting borough status, then Harrow has for many years provided a team which has played cricket at Lord's, the headquarters of cricket, a thing I believe Hornchurch has never done.

Harrow is by far the largest urban district in the country. Its population is very nearly 220,000. Before the war there was a move to secure borough status, but at that time there was a considerable divergence of opinion in the area as to whether borough status was desirable or not. As a result those who opposed it organised a petition against it, effectively preventing, anything from being done. Since then there has been a complete change of heart on the part of most of those who organised the petition and I think it is safe to say that today a large majority of the people in the area are in favour of borough status being accorded. It certainly seems anomalous and undignified that a place of the size, importance and population of Harrow should still only be an urban district. Therefore, if anything is going to be done in this direction, I hope that the claims of Harrow will not be overlooked.

10.31 p.m.

Mr. Skinnard (Harrow, East)

I shall be short because I feel that the claims of Enfield, though admirably put by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing), should more properly be voiced by the burgess of Enfield—I believe burgess is not the correct term to use, though I hope he may have that title as a result of this Debate. I should like to reinforce the general plea. A halt has been called to incorporation. One of the most precious heritages of the people of this country is civic pride, some of the ancient roots of which have been indicated by the hon. Member for Hornchurch.

Harrow has never had pretensions to be a borough at any time in the remote past, though its claims to be one now are incontrovertible, I think. There is always a falling away if there is any feeling of frustration, and what the hon. Member for Hornchurch did not fully bring out is the way in which the people of an urban district tend to fall behind their neighbours who are citizens of a newly-created borough. In Harrow we suffer from the proximity of Wembley, which got in first when we had rather unfortunate second thoughts. If only secondary education had been as advanced then as it is now, I believe that Harrow would have enjoyed borough status since some years before the war.

If there is any point in the argument adduced by the hon. Member for Horn-church for his own area, I think that Harrow can claim at least an equality. It is strange that there should be some affinity between the two areas. We in Harrow claim to breed the finest Essex pigs in the world, having taken that role no doubt from the old area of Harrwy. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will give us some hope of incorporation.

10.33 p.m.

Mr. Ernest Davies (Enfield)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing) for bracketing the case of Enfield with that of his own constituency and Harrow. The luck of the ballot has enabled him to do so. My hon. Friend who is to reply will remember that in the Debate on the Bill for the dissolution of the Boundary Commission, I raised this matter, but unfortunately his right hon. Friend the Minister of Health did not deign to refer in his reply to this question of raising the status of urban districts to that of non-county boroughs. My hon. Friend has had nearly 15 minutes in which to sing the praises of Hornchurch and tell us the interesting historic events that took place there, in his own inimitable manner. I cannot vie with him in singing the praises of Enfield in two minutes, but even in Enfield there are royal associations. Queen Elizabeth slept there.

Mr. Bing

Not a unique privilege!

Mr. Davies

We had a royal hunting ground, and Henry VIII hunted there. I do not know whether he hunted the same objects as King Harold did in Hornchurch. I want to plead with my right hon. Friend that in changing the status of urban districts to that of non-county boroughs, there is, in effect, no change of functions and there is not necessarily any change of area. In the case of Enfield, to facilitate the granting of a petition to be presented would simply mean that the area would remain the same, the boundaries would not be altered, and the functions of the local authority would not, in effect, be changed. Therefore I cannot see that the argument put forward by his right hon. Friend, that it would be undesirable to change the status of urban districts at this time when the whole reform of local government is contemplated, is valid.

I cannot see why the citizens of Enfield, who have been striving to obtain borough status for the last 13 years, should now be deprived of this possibility because in some distant future we are to have a complete reform of local government. I ask my hon. Friend not to deprive any longer the citizens of Enfield of the civic dignity they seek and which they rightly deserve. Enfield is a town of 110,000. It compares, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, very favourably in rateable value and population with a large number of non-county boroughs and even county boroughs and counties. I beg him to consult with his right hon. Friend and to consider whether a change cannot be made in their policy at present and an exception made in the exceptional circumstances to which the Lord President referred.

10.37 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health (Mr. Blenkinsop)

We were much delighted by the way in which the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing) raised this subject and, indeed, with the way other hon. Members have given to it their general support, although thinking of their own particular constituencies, which was natural. We have all been very much delighted by the interesting historical survey which we have heard. We are only sorry that we have not been able to hear some more detailed excerpts of this kind.

The case which has been put forward is, of course, only an example of the many anomalies in regard to local government status and boundaries which we have to face in this field. It has been our general argument that it would be far better if we could deal comprehensively with the whole problem of local government status and boundaries rather than take out these individual instances and deal with them separately. My hon. Friend the hon. Member for Hornchurch pointed out that reference had been made to exceptional circumstances in which we might possibly be able to give consideration either to a change of status or to a change of boundaries.

I would remind him that in introducing the Local Government Boundary Com- mission (Dissolution) Bill into this House, a short while ago, I pointed out that it was the desire of the Government to. avoid any changes, either in status or boundaries, while general consideration was being given to this whole problem, but that we would be prepared to make exceptions where it was clear that without some minor changes some of the great services which are provided, for example housing, would be seriously held up and prevented from developing normally. That exception, of course, stands.

But I think we must say that in the cases which have been put this evening, although we appreciate to the full the very strong case which has been put forward, we cannot really suggest—and I do not really think my hon. Friend puts this forward—that the change for which he is asking is essential so that necessary services shall be carried on, so that housing shall be developed, or for other reasons of that nature. Indeed, my hon. Friend is saying that we should carry out this change because it is a modest change which does not affect seriously the powers of the local authority. He is making that claim very properly on the ground of general status, but I feel that this is not one of the exceptional cases which we would be prepared to consider at this time.

I put this further point to him and to other of my hon. Friends who are interested in this matter. It is quite clear that if changes of this nature were to be made and if then, within I hope not too long a period, the proposals of the Government were to be made known for a general reform of local government and its boundaries, it might well mean a further reconsideration of the position. That would be most unfortunate. I plead with my hon. Friend who has raised this matter tonight and with those who have taken part in the subsequent Debate, to put it to their local authorities, and others concerned, that we must ask them for a little more patience in this matter, although I am fully aware of the very long time this matter has been before them and the patience they have already shown. It is our view that this would be the wrong way of tackling this matter at the present time. Let us deal with the matter in a full and comprehensive manner and then we shall be sure that the claim made by my hon. Friend and by others will be given full and proper consideration.

Mr. Bing

I do not quite follow my hon. Friend on this point. There is no real change of status; a great many alterations of ward boundaries and so on are necessary to make it possible to administer the area. But how can he say that this prejudices any subsequent change? There is no change from a one-tier to a two-tier government; and furthermore, may I ask him how long are we to wait?

Mr. Blenkinsop

I do not think my hon. Friend really expects me tonight to be able to give him any time-table; and I do not say it prejudices the changes that may be under consideration. I am merely saying that obviously it would be undesirable to approve a change today and then possibly within a comparatively short period to make another change. We think it more desirable to deal with the whole of this question of local government boundaries and status together and to be able to present to the House some comprehensive programme.

Mr. Skinnard

Is the Minister indicating that there is somewhere at the back of his mind an idea that even these units which we have been discussing are not big enough, and that we might be merged into something much bigger than the urban district we have been discussing?

Adjourned accordingly at Seventeen Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.