HC Deb 29 November 1961 vol 650 cc442-7
The Minister of Housing and Local Government and Minister for Welsh Affairs (Dr. Charles Hill)

Mr. Speaker, with your permission, and that of the House, I should like to make a statement.

The House will recall that just over a year ago there was presented to Parliament the Report of the Royal Commission on Local Government in Greater London. I would like to take this opportunity publicly to acknowledge the Government's indebtedness to Sir Edwin Herbert and his colleagues not only for the exhaustive study which they gave to an exceedingly complicated subject, but also for the clarity and cogency of their report.

The broad lines of the Commission's proposals were twofold. They recommended that boroughs in the Greater London area should be the primary units of local government and should perform all functions except those which can only be effectively performed over the wider area of Greater London. For this purpose the Greater London area should be divided into boroughs substantially fewer than the existing boroughs and districts. Secondly, the Commission proposed the establishment of a new directly elected body to be responsible for those services which need to be administered over the whole of Greater London, notably planning, traffic and main roads.

Having considered the Royal Commission's Report and the comments made on it by local authorities and other bodies, the Government have decided to accept all save one of the main features of the local government structure proposed by the Commission. They do not think that the future administration of the education service should be divided between the proposed Greater London Council and the boroughs. They consider instead that, outside a central area, education should be wholly in the hands of the borough councils; within a central area still to be defined there should be one education authority.

The Government are inclined to the view that, bearing in mind the range of services for which they will be responsible, the new boroughs should be larger than the Commission had in mind. They will now proceed to consult local authorities on many detailed matters including the future pattern of the boroughs and the definition of the Greater London area.

As hon. Members will see from the White Paper which is now available in the Vote Office, it is the Government's aim to introduce the necessary legislation in time to enable the changes to operate from April, 1965.

Mr. M. Stewart

The right hon. Gentleman has made a very important statement and I should like to address a few questions to him about it.

First, is he aware that the recommendations of the Royal Commission which, to a large extent, he has followed in his statement, are opposed by all the county councils in the area concerned and by a very large number of the other authorities? Secondly, is he aware that if he will further consult the authorities in the area concerned he will find that it is possible to devise a plan more generally acceptable and more workable than that outlined in his statement; a plan which would deal with the special needs of the traffic and planning services without doing the great damage to the other services that is involved in following the recommendations of the Royal Commission?

Thirdly, while it is clear from the right hon Gentleman's statement that he realises how disastrous to education would have been the Royal Commission's proposals—as I think everyone who has studied the matter now agrees—can he be a little clearer about what he proposes for education? Is this one education authority within the central area to be an elected authority? Is it to be an ad hoc authority dealing with education alone? If what he is proposing is to go back to the old London School Board, does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate that that would be a retrograde step?

Since the Leader of the House is present may I put this question to him? Since the Government have decided to publish a White Paper on this matter before attempting to legislate, would not he agree that it is extremely desirable that the House should have an opportunity to debate that White Paper very fully so that before the Government frame legislation they may be informed of the views of both sides of the House?

Dr. Hill

I will take, first, the three main questions which the hon. Gentleman has directed to me.

Opinion among the counties, as among the local authorities generally, was evenly divided. There was general agreement on the need for reform, but, as could be expected, a great deal of disagreement as to the form which it should take.

The proposal which is the subject of the hon. Gentleman's second question is dealt with and rejected in the White Paper. It is that there should be superimposed on the 101 local authorities now operating in the area—which, under that proposal, would be left untouched and undisturbed—a third tier which would deal, as the hon. Gentleman says, with planning, road and traffic matters, but for the most part in an advisory capacity.

The Government believe that the body needed for the Greater London area should be concerned not only with planning, but with execution. They do not believe that the problems of London would be solved by leaving existing authorities with their boundaries and functions untouched and superimposing another body on them.

On the subject of the central area, which, as the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, is dealt with in some detail in the White Paper, and referring to his point in particular, the mode of election is left open. I am not now expressing a preference one way or the other, for it is a matter for discussion and consultation. But it could be a directly elected body. It could be a joint board of the kind which the hon. Gentleman described. It could be that those elected to the Greater London council from the central area could constitute that education authority. But that matter is left open for discussion and consultation.

On the last point raised by the hon. Gentleman, and in reply to the question which he addressed to the Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend would wish me to say that, obviously, this is a matter of great importance which, when the White Paper has been digested, the House would wish to discuss.

Mr. Iremonger

May I ask my right hon. Friend to amplify that part of his statement dealing with the proposed Greater London boroughs? He said that it was the proposal that these Greater London boroughs should be enlarged slightly from what is proposed by the Royal Commission. Would he say whether this is intended to apply to all the boroughs, or whether the large homogeneous boroughs as they now exist may take their place as part of the proposal?

Dr. Hill

The Royal Commission proposed a reduction in the number of boroughs to 52. In the view of the Government, bearing in mind that outside the central area the boroughs are to be the education authorities, there is a need for larger, and so for fewer, boroughs. But the question of the pattern of amalgamation is to be the subject of the fullest consultation. There will soon be issued to local authorities some ideas for the grouping of boroughs as the starting point for such discussion.

Mr. Mellish

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the delegation of powers to the smaller authorities, the local authorities, has already been discussed by them and almost unanimously rejected, so that the right hon. Gentleman is asking them to take on something which they have no desire to do? Is he also aware that, in view of the concerted opinion against the proposals of the Royal Commission, many of us believe that had the Conservative Party won power on the London County Council last May, the right hon. Gentleman would not now be making this statement, which is the only way in which he can destroy the Labour Party in London?

Dr. Hill

There is no question of delegation to the London boroughs. It is believed that boroughs of sufficient size in London can and should assume the functions which they do not now enjoy including the function of education.

On the second point, the Royal Commission said that by the twin tests of administrative efficiency and healthy representative government, the present structure of local government in the review area is inadequate, and needs overhaul. The Government's proposals—

Mr. Mellish


Dr. Hill

—subject to the question of the education structure to which I have referred, stem from the unanimous Report of the Royal Commission.

Mr. Doughty

As the Minister said, and as is said in the White Paper, consultations will take place with local authorities in the peripheral areas. Will my right hon. Friend see that such consultations take place at the very earliest opportunity as, owing to the uncertainty, recruitment and administration in those areas is becoming daily more difficult?

Dr. Hill

Yes, Sir. I wholly agree with my hon. and learned Friend.

Mr. Pargiter

Is the Minister aware that at present there are difficulties in the matter of further education and that if he proposes to create a much larger number of authorities to deal with further education, those difficulties will be worsened?

Dr. Hill

There is a special paragraph in the Report dealing with higher education. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Education has already suggested that certain higher technical establishments should be the subject of direct grant. The question of higher education will be looked at in the light of the Report of the Robbins Committee.

Mr. Graham Page

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the decision of the Government on this matter will be greatly welcomed by the majority of the authorities concerned? Does not he think that early legislation on this matter would be preferable, and during this Session if possible, rather than to leave it in abeyance for some time?

Dr. Hill

There can be no question, and there is no question, of legislation during this Session. As will be seen by hon. Members when they read the White Paper, there is a great deal of consultation and discussion yet to take place.

Mr. Mellish

And fighting, too. I can assure the Minister of that.

Dr. Hill

It is the aim of the Government that the new Greater London authority, the new boroughs and the new central education authority shall come into being in April, 1965.

Mr. M. Stewart

When the Minister said that the county councils were evenly divided on this matter, did he realise that although they may have different views as to the exact solution that ought to be adopted, they were all united in disliking the Royal Commission's proposals? Far from being generally welcomed, as the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) suggested, these proposals will be generally unwelcome both to authorities and citizens in the area concerned. Could the right hon. Gentleman also say what is to be the distribution of housing functions under the kind of set-up he proposes?

Dr. Hill

Taking the second question first, as is made clear in the White Paper, the boroughs will be the housing authorities with certain concurrent functions in that field taken by the Greater London authority, which will be the overspill authority.

Sir G. Nicholson

While recognising the complexity of the problem and the need for reform, may I ask whether my right hon. Friend is aware that, while it is very easy to chop things up and replan them on paper, that involves the destruction of traditions of the district which have taken generations to create? I am speaking as a representative of the County of Surrey. Is he aware that anything which tended to break up the Surrey County Council would not only cause great local distress, but would militate against effective local government?

Dr. Hill

I am not blind to the fact that where it is proposed to take away part of an authority's area, or to abolish an authority, there is bound to be a high degree of opposition, but let this be faced: the London County Council area was determined as long ago as 1855 for the purpose of the Metropolitan Board of Works and, apart from one modification, that has been the area ever since. The Royal Commission reached a conclusion that it needed an overhaul. That conclusion was unanimous and the Government propose to make it.