HC Deb 12 May 1960 vol 623 cc759-70

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Brooman-White.]

10.1 p.m.

Mrs. Judith Hart (Lanark)

First, I should like to thank the House for allowing me this opportunity of raising a question of great and deep importance to many of my constituents. It is the question of how the new town in my constituency and other new towns in Scotland, which may in the course of their development approach a similar situation, may obtain burgh status, whether it be a large burgh or a small burgh, that the people decide they want and which, undoubtedly, is exercising their minds.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State will be aware that there is considerable concern in East Kilbride amongst local residents that has gone on for two years about how they are to achieve their democratic rights in the same way that residents in other communities have them.

Developments which are now taking place will increase the urgency of the problem. East Kilbride has a population of about 30,000 and the electorate stands at about 13,000. A considerable proportion of the population is children, many of them in their teens. The likelihood is that we look forward within the next five years to the population increasing to about 40,000 and the electorate becoming a much higher proportion of the population and reaching a figure of about 30,000 in 1965–66—a community of substantial size.

The Joint Under-Secretary will also be aware that the community in East Kilbride has imposed upon it the local government structure which existed before the new town was begun. It has the local government structure of a district council, or part of a district council, which was appropriate in the beginning when East Kilbride was a village of only 2,000 inhabitants, but it can no longer be held by anybody to be appropriate for a community of 30,000. East Kilbride does not even have its own district council. It elects four representatives to a district council which includes other areas. It elects two county councillors to the County Council of Lanark. In other words, it has a very small number of local representatives.

In the nature of the creation of the new town there is the problem that the development corporation which takes over so many of the functions which are normally those of the local authority has no direct representation upon it from the local community. However good a development corporation may be, inevitably it takes on the flavour of benevolent paternalism and creates among local residents a feeling of considerable frustration when they see their community growing around them without having any say in what is being done for it or for them. It is this voice that they have a right to expect to achieve by the time that the community reaches a substantial size.

When we examine the provisions that may enable them to achieve burgh status and change their local government status to go beyond that of the district council to that of either a small or large burgh, we find that the facilities which are available to them for achieving small burgh status are quite clear and are quite clearly understood. When it comes to the method by which they may be able to achieve large burgh status, there seems to be confusion, and I wish to draw the attention of the Joint Under-Secretary to the conflict which there seems to be between a letter which I received from him on 15th March and the Answer given by the Secretary of State to a Question which I put to him in the House on 12th April.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman may be able to clarify the position and to say whether I am right in believing that the Secretary of State had misunderstood the position on the second occasion. On 15th March, the Joint Under-Secretary wrote to me: In order to create a large burgh, it would, in the absence of any enabling provisions in general legislation, be necessary for the town council of a small burgh which had already been formed, or the electors, to promote a Provisional Order under the procedure prescribed in the Private Legislation Procedure (Scotland) Act, 1936. The 1956 Act is clearly the pivot for any action for large burgh status which a new town could take.

On 12th April, when I asked the Secretary of State about the possibility of a change being made in that Act, he replied: I think that the amendment the hon. Lady has in mind would have to be to the Local Government (Scotland) Act, 1947"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th April, 1960; Vol. 621, c. 1066.] So there is clearly some doubt here as a result, and I believe that the inhabitants of the new town would be very grateful to have the point clarified for them.

It may be that we should consider the kind of functions which we want to be achieved for the inhabitants of a new town such as East Kilbride. It is a very difficult matter to decide, and a very difficult decision that lies on the shoulders of the residents of East Kilbride as to whether they should go forward in an attempt to achieve small burgh status, or whether they should aim at achieving large burgh status. It may be that a conflict is not really there. It may be that they could go from the one to the other. On the other hand, it may be that, having achieved small burgh status, there might be greater difficulties in changing their status and going forward at a later stage to large burgh status.

Certainly, it is true to say that when I have consulted any of my hon. or right hon. Friends on this side of the House they have advised me that, in their view, the most appropriate status for a new town of the size of East Kilbride, would, at some point in the fairly near future, be that of a large burgh. I think that large burgh status would mean they would be able so far to extend their powers and their rights as to be able to play the effective rôle in the management of their own affairs that they want to play.

It is interesting to note, and I think that it is very relevant, that no real examination of this question has been made by anyone. Reference was made to local government in the future of the new towns in the second interim Report of the New Towns Committee under Lord Reith, in 1945, in which it said that in the case of English new towns, when the population of the new town readied the level of 5,000, it would be advisable that, whatever the original local government structure there had been, an urban district council should be created. No mention was made whatever of a corresponding provision that could be made in the case of Scottish new towns, with our separate Scottish local government procedure and machinery. If we take that as a basis from which to work, the recommendation made in those early days, when the working of the new towns was being considered, and when a population of 5,000 inhabitants should lead to the creation of an urban district council, we get some idea of the responsibilities which the Reith Committee thought a new town should have when it reached a certain size. The functions of an urban district council are in themselves considerably greater than and go far beyond those of a Scottish district council of which East Kilbride has only part at the end of many years' growth of population beyond 5,000 to 30,000.

It seems to me that there are very good grounds for believing that it is necessary to examine the present status of new towns in Scotland and to examine the opportunities which at present exist to enable the residents of them to achieve a change of status. The method open to a new town of achieving large burgh status under the private legislation procedure, as the Joint Under-Secretary pointed out to me in his letter, and as I have conveyed, to the best of my ability, to the residents of East Kilbride, could involve an expenditure of anything up to £5,000, depending upon the degree of opposition to the order which came from other bodies.

One does not know what opposition there might be, but it is reasonable, I think, to suppose that Lanark County Council might have good ground for opposing the creation of a large burgh in East Kilbride. The County Council is very much affected; it has spent a good deal of money in East Kilbride. It draws in a good deal from rates from the new town, but would probably take the view that what it draws in has been spent and more than spent in the last few years on schools it has had to build, and roads, and so forth. Therefore, one could assume that an order would be opposed, and one should take that as a basis for one's thinking that the likelihood would be that the new town would have to spend up to £5,000.

This is a very large amount of money. It is not easy for a community to collect from amongst its residents a sum of that nature. It is not, I think, likely that they would easily be able to do it within even a matter of years. Therefore, it seems to me that one ought to be prepared to consider enabling new towns to make some sort of short cut to the kind of burgh status which would be most appropriate.

I do not know what this might involve. I know that I have to tread very carefully and avoid making any suggestion which I may have in mind on this question, but what I should like to put to the Joint Under-Secretary is that it would be right if he and the Government were to assume the responsibility, which is theirs, of considering the status of new towns as a matter which arises from the fact that the Government have created these new towns, and have, therefore, in a sense, created the problem of local democracy which is now presented to new town residents; and that the Government should, therefore, consider whether other methods of achieving large burgh status might be opened to new towns by, possibly, the amending of legislation.

I hope that the Joint Under-Secretary will be fully aware of the real problem of democracy which arises here. It would not be right if any community were to be deprived of its normal rights of citizenship, of its normal rights of expressing its points of view on matters which concern it and of exercising some powers, as well as having duties, in relation to its own citizens. This is, indeed, what is happening now in East Kilbride.

I am quite certain that my hon. Friend the Member for Dunbartonshire, East (Mr. Bence) would agree with me that Cumbernauld is likely to come into the same category in the future. It is not so certain in the case of Glenrothes, but I am not asking for consideration for one community only; I am asking for consideration to be given to the local government of all those who now, or in the future, fall into the category of residents in new towns. I am asking only that a gap in thinking should be filled, and I hope that the Joint Undersecretary will be able to give me an assurance tonight that the Government will look very carefully at this problem.

I have presented it in as rational and objective a way as I can. It is not in any sense a party problem. It is not a party political question. It is a question of democratic rights. I believe that the Joint Under-Secretary will have a great deal of sympathy for the inhabitants of East Kilbride. I am sure that he will be anxious to say that the Government are as concerned as my hon. and right hon. Friends on this side of the House to ensure that the rights of these people are respected and that an inquiry should be made to ensure the best possible method of seeing that the most suitable local Government structure for these people is created at the most suitable time.

10.15 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. T. G. D. Galbraith)

I can understand the concern of the hon. Lady the Member for Lanark (Mrs. Hart) for Scotland's rapidly growing new towns. I am sure that all Scottish Members are anxious that whatever would contribute to the good of these developing communities should be done. The Government are naturally anxious to do everything possible to encourage a sense of community responsibility in the new towns which, as the hon. Lady pointed out, have come into existence not naturally but as the result of Government action. To this extent, therefore, the hon. Lady and I are agreed.

The only question between us is whether for the purpose of encouraging a sense of community responsibility any change is necessary in the procedure for the acquisition by these new towns of a new status within the Scottish local government structure. The procedure whereby an area can change its local government status is fairly complicated and the hon. Lady invited me to explain the apparent difference between my letter to her and my right hon. Friend's Answer in the House. I will endeavour to do that, but before doing so I should like to explain the present position in the new towns in relation to local government.

At present the local government business of the areas comprising East Kil-bride—the oldest "new town"—and Glenrothes and Cumbernauld is administered by the county councils and district councils of the areas in which the new towns lie. The development corporation for a new town has no responsibility for local government services. Thus the position of a development corporation would not be affected by the creation of a burgh. It would have neither more nor less to do. I think that some people, including the hon. Lady, at least judging from some of the words she let drop from her lips, are inclined to regard a development corporation as if it were some sort of highly specialised local government authority with the drawback that it is not democratically elected.

Mrs. Hart

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree that the development corporation, as a quasi-local authority, exercises some of the functions normally exercised by the county council, for example, that of planning.

Mr. Galbraith

I am sorry to disagree with the hon. Lady, but planning is the responsibility of the county council and not of the development corporation. In fact, the corporation is rather in the nature of a large-scale property development organisation. Therefore, if a burgh were created in a new town area it would no more automatically take over the physical assets of the development corporation in the way of houses, shops, factories and so on than it would if these assets had been created by some private enterprise venture.

As the development corporation therefore is not a part of local government nor a substitute for it, the creation of a burgh would make little or no difference to the building of a new town which would continue to be developed in accordance with Government policy and to be paid for by Government money. In carrying out this development, the corporation naturally works in close association with the local authorities concerned, but it may well be, as the hon. Lady suggested, that the citizens in the new town feel that the existing forms of local government do not meet their need, either because the functions of the local district council are in their opinion too restricted or because they feel that the county council is too remote.

I can understand this attitude and the feeling that the creation of a burgh would stimulate a sense of civic unity and might possibly improve the physical and social characteristics of the town in the many ways which are open to an active town council. But if this is what some of the residents in East Kilbride feel, there is nothing to prevent their taking action to achieve their desire, for there are two roads open to them if they wish to change their local government status.

First, there is the Scottish Local Government Act, 1947, which lays down the procedure for the creation of a new burgh. This is that any twelve or more persons, being local government electors for the "populous place" concerned, may apply to the sheriff who, after due advertisement and inquiry, may fix the boundaries of the proposed burgh. A meeting of the local government electors within the proposed boundaries is then held to consider whether the area so defined should be formed into a burgh. If the meeting decides to proceed with the proposal the sheriff then issues a deliverance declaring the area to be a burgh from a specified date.

The hon. Lady will notice that there are two important stages in this procedure. First, there is the determination by the sheriff of the question whether an area is suitable for burghal status, and secondly, and most important from a democratic point of view, the decision by the electors themselves whether the step of forming that area into a burgh should actually be taken. Thus the whole initiative for deciding whether to seek burgh status and—after the sheriff's decision has been made known—whether the step of forming the area into a burgh should actually be taken, rests fairly and squarely on the shoulders of these local people.

This seems to me to be an eminently satisfactory and democratic way of allowing a locality to grow up into burghal status. The hon. Lady suggested that the people who are living in this area were being deprived of something. They are not being deprived of anything. The procedure is there. It has been tried recently and has proved to be effective. It was used by Stevenston in 1952 and by Bearsden in 1958, and I see from Press reports that at this moment some of the inhabitants of Strathaven, which is not far from East Kilbride, have an application before the sheriff under the 1947 Act.

None of these areas, of course, has a population anything like the size of East Kilbride as it stands today, and because of this it may be that the hon. Lady considers that it should be possible for a new town which is not already a small burgh to become a large burgh by a procedure similar to that which I have just described, whereby a "populous place" may become a small burgh. But "large burghs," as I am sure the hon. Lady is aware, were the creation of the Local Government Act, 1929, and that Act contained no provision for the creation of other large burghs. That is why my right hon. Friend referred to the need for legislation in respect of that Act.

It follows that the status of large burgh can be acquired only by special legislation. This is, I think, what the hon. Lady objects to, but is it so unreasonable? Hon. Members will recollect that the 1947 Act was based on the Report of the Jeffrey Committee. The Committee considered a suggestion —which is the same as the hon. Lady has just made—that the omission from the existing local government law of any provision for changing a small burgh into a large burgh ought to be remedied, but it decided that The questions which must arise in connection with a proposal to add to the number of largh burghs will be so complicated and so important that it would not be appropriate to include provision on the subject in our draft Bill. The matter is one which can be dealt with satisfactorily only by special legislation. The Committee thought that similar complicated and important questions would arise if a "populous place" wished to become a large burgh. Accordingly, the Jeffrey Committee recommended that the granting of the status of a "large burgh" should be a matter for special legislation and should not be dealt with by an extension of the provisions for creating a "small burgh".

I must admit that this seems to me to be sound common sense. It is usually a good thing to proceed one step at a time. Nevertheless, for residents in a particular area who wish for a change of status and who consider that the creation of a "small burgh" would not adequately meet their case the door is not closed. As the law stands today it is open to any ad hoc committee of residents within the area of a new town to promote a provisional order which would give the area the status of a "large burgh". This committee would, of course, have to depend on voluntary contributions for meeting the cost of this action under the Private Legislation Procedure Act, 1936, whereas, if such an order were promoted by a town council, once the new town had established itself as a small burgh, the cost of the order would fall on all the ratepayers.

Because of my right hon. Friend's statutory functions under the Private Legislation Procedure Act, it would be improper for me to express any view on the merits of such an order. But I think it only right to point out that practical difficulties would be experienced in promoting it and dealing with any opposition to it, by movers, who might be entirely inexperienced in burghal administration and who were not supported by a team of qualified officials. This difficulty the hon. Lady may consider a reason for changing the law. Alterations in local government status, are, however, an important matter and it is one which should not be lightly undertaken or granted without the full scrutiny and safeguards which special legislation provides.

The hon. Lady seemed to suggest that new towns were worse off in Scotland than in England. Comparisons are always odious, particularly where the structure of local government differs, as it does between England and Scotland. Nevertheless, taking these differences into account, I do not think that the road to civic independence is any harder in Scotland than in England. Today only two new towns in England have, as such, achieved independent status comparable to that of a small burgh in Scotland.

If I may say so, I think that the hon. Lady trod very delicately and with great skill in an attempt to remain within the rules of order by not making a request for legislation—which I suspect is what she really wants—and as an alternative she suggested that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State might consider an inquiry into the status of new towns.

For the present, at any rate, my right hon. Friend would not wish to arrange for such an inquiry. He is not of the opinion that the procedures whereby the area of a new town might acquire small burgh or large burgh status are other than satisfactory. Furthermore, even if it were shown to him that some new procedures were required, my right hon. Friend does not think it advisable that this matter should be considered in isolation. If, for instance, there were to be an inquiry into the structure of local government in Scotland within the next few years, it might be that this matter of the status of new towns could be considered then. The position therefore is that I must refuse the hon. Lady's request for a special inquiry, but I do not think that either she or those she represents should be unduly downcast about this.

As I have explained, full scope exists in the procedures which are at present available for the wishes of the electors to be made known and to be given effect to. As I have said, I am fully sympathetic to the desires of those living in new towns like East Kilbride who think that they should have greater independence in local government. But I am not convinced that the present law is not fully adequate to enable them to achieve this, if they like to make the necessary effort.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.