HC Deb 02 April 1963 vol 675 cc301-14
Sir Hugh Linstead (Putney)

I beg to move, in page 100, to leave out lines 31 to 38 and to insert:

9 The Metropolitan Borough of Lambeth and the Metropolitan Borough of Battersea. 4
10 The Metropolitan Borough of Wandsworth. 4

This Amendment duplicates an Amendment which my hon. Friend the Member for Clapham (Dr. Alan Glyn) and I moved in Committee and which my right hon. Friend the Minister was good enough to say represented a point of view which he would take further time to consider, in consultation with the borough councils concerned. We have repeated the Amendment today because, so far as we have been able to ascertain, that consultation has not led to any positive conclusion. We feel that the proposal in it merits reconsideration by the House and, I hope, by my right hon. Friend.

We have to look at the relevant entry in the Schedule to realise how drastic is the surgery proposed under the Bill as it now stands. The new London Borough No. 9 and the new London Borough No. 10 are to be composed of Lambeth and Battersea to each of which one half of the Borough of Wandsworth is to be added. The Borough of Wandsworth is the largest of the London boroughs and a vital, living organism in every way suited to be one of the new London boroughs, yet it is fated, under the Schedule as it now stands, to disappear. It is, I believe, the only one of the existing metropolitan boroughs which is to lose its identity.

I speak not only as a representative of part of the Borough of Wandsworth, but as someone who lives in the borough and has a great affection and admiration for it. I am speaking on behalf of a community which, I am sure, will deeply regret any decision that it must disappear as a community.

The proposal affecting Wandsworth is unlike any of the other proposals in Schedule 1. Under the rest of the Schedule, boroughs are amalgamated, and they will still retain their identity. Hackney will still be Hackney, Shoreditch will still be Shoreditch and Stoke Newington will still be Stoke Newington, although they are amalgamated into a new London borough. The great Borough of Wandsworth, on the other hand, is to cease to have its identity. For this reason, I feel extremely deeply about this proposed surgery which I regard as not necessary.

After we had had our discussion in Committee of the whole House, my right hon. Friend was good enough to write a letter on 14th February to each of the three borough councils concerned, Wandsworth, Battersea and Lambeth, and his letter included this passage: The possibility which the Minister wishes to explore is whether, while leaving the neighbouring groups unchanged, there is any way of creating two new London boroughs, one based substantially on the amalgamation of Battersea with Lambeth and the other based substantially on the metropolitan borough of Wandsworth, which would both be satisfactory administrative areas. He then said: The Minister assumes that the three councils will wish to discuss this matter between themselves. It is his intention to invite representatives of the three authorities to meet him art the Ministry in time to allow him to report to Parliament during the next stage of the consideration of the Bill. I have to record with regret that, so far as I am aware, that invitation from the Minister was not considered from the point of view which the Minister put to the borough councils. I understand that the borough councils did not get together to discover whether there was a method by which Battersea could be amalgamated partly with Lambeth and partly with Wandsworth, as he requested. Nor was there any discussion with the Ministry in response to his invitation to see whether this could be done.

I recognise that my right hon. Friend is put in a very difficult position here because he has the three local authorities to take into consideration. Instead of responding to his invitation, those local authorities have said that, on the whole, they prefer the solution in the Bill. But they have not responded to his invitation to try to find another solution.

Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)

Will the hon. Gentleman make clear whether the Wandsworth Borough Council supports the proposal that he is now putting?

Sir H. Linstead

I was just coming to the position of the Wandsworth Borough Council.

The Wandsworth Borough Council, after receiving my right hon. Friend's invitation—I think that this is the point the right hon. Gentleman wants to make—said that it preferred the provision in the Bill. But that same council, which is Labour-controlled, received a report on 2nd October in which it recorded its opinion in this way: The Council decided to make clear to the Minister in the strongest possible terms that the Council as now constituted was opposed to the intended reorganisation"— that was the reorganisation of London, I am sure— and to any proposal to alter the present boundaries of the Borough, and considered that the present area of the Borough of Wandsworth was an efficient unit of local government and capable of exercising any other function or service for which it might be made responsible in the future". 6.0 p.m.

I do not wish to take up time unnecessarily, because I am most anxious to hear what my right hon. Friend has to say, but I must add that there is establishing itself in the Borough of Wandsworth very strong local opinion supporting the view expressed by the Socialist borough council in October and opposing the view expressed by the Socialist borough council in February and March. [HON. MEMBERS: "What was the view of the Conservative Party?"] The view of the previous Conservative council coincided with the view of the Socialist borough council in October. It was that the Borough of Wandsworth was perfectly capable of functioning as a local government unit under the new scheme.

The fact that local opinion is building up is indicated by the response which there has been to a petition being circulated in the borough. Those organising the petition have had only a fortnight in which to get signatures, but already there are over 10,000 signatures, and they are snowballing very substantially.

Mr. Jay

Would the bon. Gentleman agree that those signatures are against the Bill as a whole and are not in favour of the proposal which he is now putting forward?

Sir H. Linstead

These are signatures to a request that the Borough of Wandsworth should be allowed to remain a London borough, and they are directed to no other end.

Mr. Mellish

We also presented a petition to which there were even more signatures, but the Minister took no notice of it. Why should he take any notice of the petition to which the hon. Gentleman has just referred?

Sir H. Linstead

For the very substantial reason which I have already indicated, namely, that this is a local government unit which is being bisected and which will disappear, whereas the other case concerned amalgamation and the community will remain as a community. That is the distinction. However, I must not be drawn into strong advocacy.

I draw my right hon. Friend's attention, first, to the fact that the borough council has expressed divided views. Secondly, I draw his attention to the fact that extremely strong local opinion is developing and ask him to give time to allow that opinion still further to develop. The three councils concerned have not yet done what he requested them to try to do. In those circumstances, I ask him to extend his patience a little further—that is a virtue which certainly he has exercised so far—and to see whether, through his own good offices, he can find a way by which these three councils can consider the question which he put to them in the hope that it is still possible to do what was originally hoped, namely, to retain the greater part of Wandsworth as a viable, local government unit.

It is with that hope that I propose the Amendment, which is not to be voted on. Its purpose is to obtain a statement from my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

I must, to some extent, commend the efforts made by the hon. Member for Putney (Sir H. Linstead), supported by the hon. Member for Clapham (Dr. Alan Glyn), to save the Borough of Wandsworth—not the Wandsworth Borough Council—from the proposals embodied in the Bill. Although the Minister of Housing and Local Government, earlier today, spoke rather harshly of me, may I say that I think that if he stands fast on the proposals in the Bill he will be doing the right thing.

The only effective way in which we can measure local opinion on any subject is through the local authority, the local borough council. It is no use arguing that the Wandsworth Borough Council does not represent the people of Wandsworth. It is even less use arguing that the Lambeth Borough Council, of which my constituency forms part, and the Battersea Borough Council do not represent the views of the local population. What guide can the Minister and the Government possibly follow other than to accept as the democratic expression of local opinion the views of the locally and quite recently elected borough councils in those three cases?

Mr. Frederic Harris (Croydon, North-West)

If the hon. Gentleman continues with that argument, Croydon would have been left out of the Bill from the start. Croydon has been completely against its inclusion in the Greater London area.

Mr. Lipton

The L.C.C. has been against it. If the hon. Gentleman wants to carry the argument to its logical conclusion, the Bill must be scrapped completely. We must not be so selective in our approach. It is a case of all or nothing. If the hon. Gentleman is prepared to agree on that, I am at one with him. If he wishes to vote against the Bill on Third Reading, I will certainly not prevent him from doing so.

Mr. F. Harris

May I encourage the hon. Gentleman by saying that I shall be voting against the Bill?

Mr. Lipton

I hope that the hon. Member's very good example will be followed by many other hon. Members opposite, because otherwise we shall be bogged down for a long time in trying to give effect to this wretched Bill.

We should not forget that there are two Members other than the hon. Members for Putney and Clapham who, in a Parliamentary fashion, represent the Borough of Wandsworth, and they occupy a very important position in the Government. I hope that they, too, have been persuaded by the arguments of the hon. Members for Putney and Clapham into voting against the Third Reading of the Bill simply because the Borough of Wandsworth to which they attach great importance, will be carved up.

The hon. Member for Putney referred to a circular letter which the Minister, quite rightly, in accordance with the pledge which he gave, said he would submit to the three local authorities concerned. This was in response to the request of the hon. Members for Putney and Clapham. He carried out his pledge. He wrote a very reasonable letter to the three councils concerned. Unfortunately, the hon. Member for Putney did not quote all of it. May I therefore quote one sentence of it. It outlines various possibilities which the Minister wished to explore and then says: If such an alternative grouping appeared feasible, the Minister would wish to have the views of the three Councils as to the relative merits of this alternative and the grouping provided for in the Bill". It was simply because the alternative grouping did not appear feasible to any of the three councils concerned that they decided to reject the very courteous invitation extended to them by the Minister, and they informed him accordingly.

It is not fair to say that the Minister's letter, in endeavouring to carry out the pledge which he gave to the hon. Members for Putney and Clapham, was not fully and carefully considered by all three councils to which it was addressed. The fact that they decided not to accept the invitation to meet the Minister does not mean that the letter was not very carefully considered by them.

I have with me a report of the General Purposes Committee of the Lambeth Borough Council which deals at length with the letter which had been received from the Minister of Housing and Local Government following the discussion in Committee on the proposed London Boroughs Nos. 9 and 10. After a fair and full summary of the letter, the conclusion that was arrived at by the Lambeth Borough Council—as well as, apparently, by the other two local authorities concerned in the matter—was as follows, as approved by the council meeting held on 13th March: That, having regard to the redistribution pattern proposed by Her Majesty's Government for the metropolitan boroughs, the Lambeth Council rejects as suite inconsistent with those proposals the suggestion that all possible steps should be taken to avoid dividing the Borough of Wandsworth. It further rejects the proposal that the Borough of Battersea or any part thereof be amalgamated with Lambeth. Having thus stated its view, the Lambeth Council is of the opinion that no useful purpose would be served by either conferring with the Wandsworth Council or the Battersea Council or by meeting the Minister. If, however, such a meeting is nevertheless convened by the Minister, the Lambeth Council would wish to be represented thereat so that its opposition to any such proposal can then be reaffirmed. In those circumstances, knowing the Minister to be what he is, I do not see how he could possibly surrender to the plaintive cries of his two hon. Friends. I hope that in the light of the views expressed by these three important local authorities in the metropolitan area, he will announce firmly and decisively, and not hold out any more carrots to his hon. Friends, that the Amendment cannot possibly be considered or accepted.

Dr. Alan Glyn

I shall not enter into the merits of breaking up the London County Council, but will deal shortly and specifically with the proposals which are now before us, so that my right hon. Friend the Minister has time to reply. In Committee of the whole House, my hon. Friends and I deployed our case and all the relevant facts were considered. We advanced the views of the local bodies, including voluntary organisations, Rotary, the ratepayers and the chambers of commerce.

As a result, my right hon. Friend kindly undertook to reconsider the matter on the understanding and principally on the ground that a local authority which had existed for many years should not be broken up if there were alternative solutions. That is the premise on which we start this discussion.

The object of our exercise in Committee was that we had an authority which was functioning efficiently and which we saw no reason for breaking up. I know what is in the mind of the hon. Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton), who would say the same for the London County Council, but I shall confine my remarks to the Amendment. The substance of what was said in Committee was that there could be a possibility of other borough groupings which could achieve a solution which would not necessitate the breaking up of this local authority.

That was how we left the matter in Committee, when my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Sir H. Linstead) and I had time to deploy our case. As a result of that, my right hon. Friend the Minister wrote to the three councils concerned and asked them to reconsider the matter in the light of what he had said and, as the hon. Member for Brixton has said, in the light of the terms of the letter which he sent to all three authorities.

6.15 p.m.

It is a question whether the three borough councils have responded to that inquiry in a way which the Minister considers complete and fit, or whether they have failed to regard the terms of his letter to them. It is true that these matters were considered in all three councils, but what is much more important is whether those considerations took into account what the Minister invited the councils to consider.

In my view, the considerations which my right hon. Friend asked them to consider were not taken into consideration. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] That is true; I have read the report. All three borough councils did, in fact, respond. They did not offer to send a deputation to the Minister. The hon. Member for Brixton has read to us the Lambeth decision. None of the boroughs, however, got together in an effort to find a solution. Each borough rejected any suggestion of a compromise solution. In my view, they did not do what my right hon. Friend the Minister invited them to do.

The result is that my right hon. Friend has one of two alternatives. Either he has to say that the councils have not adhered to the terms of reference which he gave them and he should ask them once again to abide by those terms of reference, or he can decide what he considers to be the right course. This is entirely a matter for my right hon. Friend to decide, and I hope that he will decide one way or the other today.

It is true that we have had the views of the three borough councils concerned, but there is a mounting body of opinion in the borough, among the ratepayers and those who dwell there, which is opposed to the idea of splitting up Wandsworth. As my hon. Friend the Member for Putney has said, a petition is in course of preparation. It is not for me to judge what will be the response to it. All I can say is that it bears the signatures of 10,000 people. Hon. Members might reasonably say that that is a small proportion of the entire electorate of the Borough of Wandsworth, and that is true, but—I am not organising the petition; I have had nothing to do with it—the petitioners have had only a short time in which to acquire signatures. All hon. Members know that the organising of a petition of this magnitude requires a great deal of work and effort. To the best of my knowledge, however, 10,000 signatures have already been obtained within a very short time.

Mr. Lipton

Is the petition supported by all four hon. Members who represent the four Parliamentary constituencies which are included within the Borough of Wandsworth?

Dr. Glyn

The hon. Gentleman has been a Member long enough to know that, since two of my colleagues are members of the Government, it would be quite improper for me to give their views to the House. All I can say is that my hon. Friend the Member for Putney and I are at one on this matter, but I am not in a position to speak for hon. Friends who are members of the Government.

I hope that I have given my right hon. Friend sufficient time to come to a decision on this matter, which is of considerable importance to the future government of London. I hope that the Borough of Wandsworth will remain substantially the same, not only as a model for the future but in itself as a borough of the right size.

Mr. Jay

I intervene only to say that the view of the Battersea Borough Council, supported by all parties, is emphatically the same as that of Lambeth Borough Council—that this proposal is quite unacceptable and impractical.

Mr. E. Partridge (Battersea, South)

It is right that I should speak again on this matter as I have spoken before. I have not changed my views. I am sorry that my hon. Friends the Member for Clapham (Dr. Alan Glyn) and the Member for Putney (Sir H. Linstead) should have come here today with this story. According to them we are to discuss the better government of London, we are to see sacrifices by many interests throughout the area, but Wandworth is to be allowed simply to say, "Get on with your local government. We have nothing to contribute, so leave us alone."

This is an attitude which I find difficult to understand. I go further and say that this is not the view of the citizens of Wandsworth as I know them. It may be the view of 10,000 of them, but it is not the view of many more of them. The people of Wandsworth require good local government. That is what we are seaching for. I ask my right hon. Friends not to take any notice of these blandishments. The people most concerned have been getting together over the last weeks making such arrangements as will be necessary for the new districts. They have gone far in their consultations and plans.

If this seems to be a word of criticism of my right hon. Friend, I am sorry, for I do not mean it to be. But as a result of what he said when we were in Committee on the Floor of the House, there has been a good deal of confusion. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear".] There has been a good deal of disappointment at the position that has obtained as a result. Let us get rid of this uncertainty now. Let us have a new Borough No. 10, composed of Battersea and part of Wandsworth, which will make a good workable borough. Let the other plan for Lambeth and part of Wandsworth also come into operation as a good, viable borough.

I believe that these two units can work. What will not work is merely a combination of Battersea and Lambeth, which are as far apart proportionately as my two hands. They are only joined by a small neck a quarter of a mile long. I say to my right hon. Friend, "Let us finish with it. Let us do what the Government knew was right in the first instance and what we know is right now."

Mr. F. Harris

My hon. Friend's attitude is, "Down with Purley, down with Croydon, down with Wandsworth. Up with the Minister."

Mr. Partridge

That is not my view, but if my right hon. Friend wants my support he can have it now and always.

Sir K. Joseph

The duty of the Government to advise the House when there is conflict between merits is invidious, particularly when, on one side or another, public opinion is more or less solidly ranged. I do not know to what extent it is solidly ranged in Wandsworth, but the position there is very different from the position in Epsom and Ewell and Coulsdon and Purley.

In those places, the public opinion of the local inhabitants, as expressed through their Members of Parliament, came up against a major obstacle—the fact that the Government were determined to legislate in this way for the continuous town of Greater London. Against the facts represented by that obligation, public opinion had to be given second place in those cases.

But in the case of Wandsworth, without doing damage to the principles of the Bill, it is true that, in relation to the neighbouring boroughs of Battersea and Lambeth, it is possible, within the aggregate, to construct two London boroughs in more than one way. The Bill chooses the way which bisects Wandsworth, and that was the way recommended by the Town Clerk, on the merits.

The Government did not accept the recommendations of the three Town Clerks simply and solely because they were recommendations objectively arrived at. Had any recommendation been obviously repugnant to common sense, we would obviously not have accepted it. But I say to my hon. Friends the Members for Clapham (Dr. Alan Glyn) and Putney (Sir H. Linstead) that the Government believe that the recommendations of the town clerks in general are right and that in the particular case of the division of Wandsworth, which they so much regret, the recommendation was also right.

There are arguments on the merits into which there is no time to go in detail, but, broadly, they are that the principle that the communications leading out of the centre of London—which are the communications most used because of the travel to and from work—make it more sensible in the case of the Wandsworth-Battersea-Lambeth group to divide the boroughs on a radial basis.

Of course, I am not saying that there are not some good and in some cases less good lateral communications between the boroughs to the east and Wandsworth. I have taken great care to consider the routes—both roads and underground—and to have these factors analysed. I do not think that my hon. Friends will disagree, however, that the radial communications predominate. These are very important for the viability of the boroughs as living communities.

I went previously into the reasons why this was so. On the other hand, my hon. Friends are right in saying that it is the main principle of the Government that wherever possible existing local authorities shall not be bisected. Here we have a conflict. On the one hand, we have the desire to preserve an existing local authority which, ironically, is very close in size to the proposed size of the new boroughs. On the other hand, we have the probability—I would say the almost certain advantage—that if we create the new boroughs in the way suggested they will be more workable than any solution which would tie Battersea with Lambeth while preserving Wandsworth.

Nevertheless, the Government are not willing to bisect a borough without looking as carefully as possible at the alternatives. On the other hand, it would be very wrong—and my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Partridge) was absolutely right in this—to delay the inevitable work that has to be done longer than is absolutely necessary.

As the hon. Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton) said, I have had answers from the three boroughs to whom I wrote in compliance with my previous undertaking. The answers are courteous and I am sure that if I discuss the problem with them I shall have their serious consideration. What I propose to do, therefore, is to set a time limit to the consideration the Government are giving to this problem. I have made it plain that on the merits I think that the Bill is right. On the other hand, there is the very strong desire of the Government not to bisect existing local authorities within the Greater London area if it is possible to avoid doing so.

I propose, therefore, as soon as possible—at any rate, not later than a few days after the end of the Easter Recess—to invite the local authorities concerned to meet me for a discussion, after which the Government will make their final decision. I hope that my hon. Friends will accept that a conclusion must be reached before long and that they will also accept my view, which is the Government's view of the merits. In these circumstances, I hope that they will be willing to withdraw the Amendment.

Sir H. Linstead

In view of the helpful attitude my right hon. Friend is still adopting, in difficult circumstances for him, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.