HC Deb 10 May 1960 vol 623 cc377-86

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Colonel J. H. Harrison.]

12.22 a.m.

Mr. Leo Abse (Pontypool)

It is with regret that I find it necessary in this Adjournment debate to draw attention to the authoritarian methods employed by the Minister in making recent changes in the membership of Cwmbran Development Corporation. I certainly have no desire to add to the burdens of the new chairman and two new members whose task has already been made difficult enough by the autocratic and tactless manner in which they have been appointed, but the protests that have already been made by the Cwmbran Urban District Council echo the feeling of so many within my constituency that they should be understood by the Minister in order that the manner of future appointments will not, I trust, follow this clumsy precedent.

When well-established local authorities find a new town being placed within their area they are naturally sensitive to any possible encroachments of their powers or duties. That the pride of local councils should make them jealous of their rights and functions is a healthy symptom not to be deplored. On the contrary, it is something to be welcomed in a lively democracy.

However necessary it may be, it is a fact that a nominated, salaried, governing body like a new town corporation charged to do work normally performed by local councillors, is an administrative eccentricity. Unless great care is taken, it will be regarded by local authorities with long traditions as an alien intruder. It is, therefore, particularly necessary, if the required co-operation between local authority, residents, tenants' associations, local community leaders and the new town corporation is to be achieved, that there must be widespread local confidence in the leadership of the board of the new town corporation.

In Lord Silkin's time as Minister, before appointments were made to the Cwmbran Corporation, nominations were first invited from all local organisations. Many of those nominated were interviewed and the people who lived, or were to live, in the new town when the subsequent appointments were announced rightly felt that they had participated in those appointments. There may be valid arguments—although I do not subscribe to them—why councillors belonging to authorities actually within the designated area should not become members of the board, but there are no arguments for bringing about changes in the board, as in this case on 4th March, by the Minister peremptorily informing the elected representatives of the residents of the new town both of the changes in the board and the names of the new appointments without any previous consultation of any kind taking place.

The Minister will be aware that four years ago when the popular and able chairman of the board, a man with great experience, Mr. Huxley Turner, was suddenly replaced, the local authorities of the new town protested without avail. I know not who has been playing so purblind a Mephistopheles to the Minister's Faust; but when, following that storm, the present appointments are so awkwardly made the Minister must understand that his actions are bound to be regarded, even if they are not so intended, as provocative. When abrupt and inexplicable changes are made, suspicions of nepotism and political juggling inevitably smoulder.

In the present case, with the names presented to the local authority and already published in the Press, all the local authority was requested to do was to comment on the names. That surely is placing a council in an embarrassing and invidious position. It is not surprising that the Cwmbran Urban District Council protested that it wished to submit its own nominations and, after oral representations had been made, belatedly received that right from the Minister. The farcical character of the apparent concession of the Minister, however, has been revealed in his confirmation of the original nominations

This regrettable single-mindedness is made worse by the fact that the council indicated to the Minister that Lord Granville West might not have been unwilling originally to have accepted the chairmanship of the board provided he would be able to waive the salary of £1,500 which Rear-Admiral Mickle-thwaite is now to receive. The ignoring of this hint to the Ministry is made more lamentable by the obvious fact that a chairman with the considerable calibre and experience possessed by Lord Granville West is urgently needed by a board at present bewildered by a Ministry that will neither give it a 3rm population target nor powers to take over land in the south-west designated area so that future planning may take place. Certainly a powerful chairman of Lord Granville West's stature was needed to ensure that the Ministry do not so continue to strangle the board. Certainly more strength is needed to ensure that the pathetic total of 300 houses which is the anticipated total to be built this coming year will not be an annual feature.

This is Community Week in Cwmbran New Town. It should be the aim of all to build among those coming into the new town the same strong sense of community that is the positive blessing of other townships and villages of the Eastern Valley of Monmouthshire.

I would advise the Minister that he will make his contribution to building up that community spirit if in any future changes on the board he will first invite nominations from all local organisations and give those nominations, before any announcements are made, the weighty consideration they will deserve. I further advise him that his dismissal without any justification from the board of so valuable a member as County Alderman Hutchings has wounded the Monmouthshire County Council which was not invited to make nominations and which has been and is so generous in its contribution in educational and other fields to the new town.

Although the Minister may not think so, I have spoken with what is moderation on these matters for someone with my temperament, for I do not desire to inflame further the exacerbation caused between local district councils and the new town corporation by these appointments. I trust, however, that the Ministry will take care never so to tinker further with the board that the county authority, apart from the district council, might not feel that it has a close and intimate relationship with the board. If the already tenuous connection between the corporation and the county council were snapped, considerable harm would ensue.

If the Minister could say that in future a more democratic procedure will be adopted and if the new chairman and new members speedily show their sensibility to the needs of residents of the new town, to the necessity of good relations and the rights of the urban council, it may well be that this unhappy episode will not retard the achievement which I am sure all of us here are confident the new town will enjoy.

12.29 a.m.

The Minister of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Henry Brooke)

I recognise that the hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) has spoken with moderation. Having read some of the sentiments he is said by the newspapers to have expressed, I thought that he might have been much more violent this evening and that I should be cast for the rôle of Mephistopheles and not only for that of Faust.

His raising the subject tonight enables me, and, I think, obliges me, to tell the House what was the procedure which has been followed by my predecessors since the original formation of the corporations, when, I grant, it was different. Although I may take up a few minutes, I should like to do so.

Responsibility is placed directly by the 1946 Act on the Minister to appoint the board, and the Minister, according to that Act, shall make the appointment after consultation with such local authorities as appear to him to be concerned with the development of the new town.

Naturally, the appointments are subject to review from time to time, and I have made it my business since I have been Minister to carry out that review every two years. That is the system. It imposes on the Minister a duty which I certainly take very seriously. Like my predecessors, I have thought it right that from time to time there should be changes in the composition of the corporations. Cwmbran is not unique in that. Changes have been made elsewhere.

It stands to reason that the progress made in the development of a town from the beginning to the later stages will itself demand changes in the kind of experience and ability that should be required in the corporation which is the governing body. However good a team may be it needs, from time to time, new blood. I suggest that is more important in the building of a new town than perhaps in any other enterprise. I trust that there will be no difference of opinion in the House about the desirability of making occasional changes in any body. That is a view taken by the selection committee of the Welsh Rugby Union, if I may make a local comparison.

I agree that it would be unwise to make changes too frequently or on such a scale as to destroy continuity, because continuity is extremely important in building up a new town. When changes take place it means that some existing member or members stand aside, and that is the only way in which new people can be given the opportunity of making their contributions to the new town.

If at any time I feel unable to continue the appointment of some member of a development corporation of a new town it does not mean to say by any means, or in any sense, that his membership has not been satisfactory. It simply means that, in the Minister's view, from time to time there should be some new people joining the board —and they can do that only when there are vacancies

The story of recent events—and I should like them to be put on the record—is that Lady Rhys-Williams, the former chairman, in discussion informed me that she felt she should resign. She realised that the building of the town was likely to entail several years more work and that she would be unable to see it to its end. I am glad to take this opportunity in the House of paying tribute to the service rendered to the new town by Lady Rhys-Williams. She brought great vigour and experience to the appointment and Cwmbran will always have cause to be grateful to her, as I am.

Two other members of long standing left the board—Mr. Percy Jones and Alderman Hutchins—and I also express my gratitude to both of them for their long and devoted service to the town. In replacing these three retiring members, I proposed to appoint Admiral Micklethwait to the vacant chairmanship and Mr. Duncan Alexander and Mrs. Rees as members of the corporation. I should have thought that the mere names of those three people would alone have sufficed to silence any of the rumours of nepotism or political juggling to which the hon. Member referred.

As the hon. Member said, the Cwmbran Urban District Council, when I fulfilled my statutory duty of consulting it, indicating the people I had it in mind to appoint and inviting its comments, said that it would like a discussion. Members came to see officers of my Department and explained that they thought that they could make better suggestions. I considered carefully what they said and every name which they put forward, but I decided, not lightly but after due thought, that no grounas had been advanced on which I ought to change my preliminary view and withdraw the proposals which I had made. As the hon. Member knows, all these three new appointments have been made during the past few weeks.

The hon. Member concentrated his speech, I realise, not on personalities— which I do not think any of us wish to discuss in the House—but on the issue of consultation with local authorities. I still think that what I did, in line with what my predecessors have done, is the most effective and satisfactory method of consultation. The Statute requires consultation, but it does not prescribe any method of consulting local authorities.

It is true, as I have said and as the hon. Member has said, that when the development corporation was first set up the Minister of the day invited the local authorities to put forward names of candidates for appointment, but when it is not a question of finding a complete new corporation but of filling vacancies in the existing body, the situation is rather different, and since that early stage of establishing a new corporation the invariable practice has been for the Minister of the day to put his own proposals to the local authorities and to ask for their comments. I assure the hon. Member that I was creating no precedent in what I did but was following the general practice, established long before I became the responsible Minister.

There is good reason for this practice, because in any consultation of this sort somebody has to begin by thinking of names and by putting proposals on paper, and it seems to me that when it is a case of filling vacancies that task is best done by the Minister who is ultimately responsible to Parliament for the appointments and for the management and development of the town. When it is only a question of filling vacancies it must be the Minister who is in a better position than the local authority concerned to know what type of qualification or qualifications the Board needs at any time, what are its strengths and what are its weaknesses; and he is answerable to Parliament. It seems common sense that when there are vacancies the Minister should say what kind of experience he wants to secure.

The hon. Member said quite truthfully that Cwmbran Urban District Council felt that it had better ideas. It thought that a larger representation of its own body should be considered and it made various other suggestions. It is the case that the representation of the local council at Cwmbran is larger than on any other development corporation; indeed, it is generally found—and I am responsible for twelve new towns—that to be a member of the local district council and also a member of a development corporation involves a certain tension, through a possible conflict of loyalties. Anyone who has served on a local authority, as I have, must be conscious of that possibility.

I am very grateful to those members of local authorities who have served or are serving on the development corporations of one new town or another, but the tasks which face local authorities, as elected bodies answerable to their own ratepayers, and those which face the development corporations, as bodies appointed by me and answerable to me, through Parliament, are often different, and the interests of the two can diverge.

I do not want to make too great a point of this. I would only say that it is something of which I have become aware. I recognise from my experience of many local councils that there will often be found abilities and experience which can be of great value to development corporations, and yet I hope that I carry the House with me when I say that in view of the possible divergencies of interest it would be a mistake to have too many representatives of one local council serving on a particular corporation. On the Cwmbran Development Corporation, as now constituted, there are two members of the urban district council and three members of local authorities, and that seems to me to give proper weight to the need for contact between the local government and the development corporation.

I will not go into the individual qualifications of the members who are being appointed. The hon. Member did not pursue that point. The persons are well known in their own spheres. I would just like to say that it seemed to me to be of considerable importance to secure that there should be at least one woman on the corporation, and from my knowledge of the lady whom I appointed, and from what I was aware of her public and voluntary service in the county and her personal devotion to the new town, I felt sure that she would be a suitable and valuable member of the corporation.

I think the hon. Member knows that I took seriously the names put forward by the urban district council; indeed, one of those people I would have been ready to appoint had circumstances allowed. It was circumstances beyond my control that caused me reluctantly to come to the conclusion that it would be impossible for me to appoint that individual. Again, unless the hon. Member presses me, I will not go into details in public, but I would like to say that had circumstances outside my control allowed me to do so I should have been very glad to add to the Board one of those people whom the urban district council recommended.

I have been Minister for more than three years, and have long been aware that when decisions of this sort have to be taken no Minister can reasonably expect to produce a solution which pleases everybody. Having listened to all the advice available to him all he can hope to do is to seek to achieve the result that he believes to be best in the public interest, as he sees it. That is what I have tried honestly to do in the case of these appointments, for which Parliament has made me responsible.

The hon. Member has described me as tactless, autocratic and authoritarian. He is at liberty to voice his own view of me. Parliament knows me, too, and I have to defend myself in Parliament, as I am seeking to do, just as the hon. Member has been exercising his Parliamentary rights to voice his own feelings here.

I am confident that all the members of the development corporation, new and old, will work together successfully for the good of the town and the people of Cwmbran. After all, the well-being of Cwmbran and the citizens of Cwmbran far outweighs any difference of opinion between him and me. We are puny things in comparison with the new town which is growing up there.

I sincerely hope that, having expressed his view and put it on the record, the hon. Member will exercise his considerable influence as Member of Parliament for much of Cwmbran in support of the efforts of the development corporation to make Cwmbran an even better town than it already promises to be.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes to One o'clock.